Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords]


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Sarah Teather: The Minister asked me after I sat down whether I felt that the Bill’s appeals process was adequate. He will realise that the appeals process allows only those included on the list to appeal against it; it does not allow someone who has referred a complaint and feels that it has not been satisfied to have that decision reviewed. That is the point that we are trying to make. He might have misunderstood it.
Mr. Dhanda: I take the point, but I must disagree. Those making the referral will have the right to know whether the person has been barred, but the reasons why they have or have not been barred will not be shared with the referrer for understandable reasons. Some referrals could be vexatious. The evidence might be flimsy. There might be a range of circumstances. We are discussing individuals who have lives to lead. After the IBB has made a decision and expertly weighed up all the evidence, those who made the referral will not necessarily need to pry into it, although I agree with the hon. Lady that it would be best to let them know what the IBB’s decision is, and we intend to do that.
The IBB will have internal administrative procedures to ensure quality and consistency in its decisions. For example, I would expect it to have procedures governing the collection of all the information needed to make a decision and to ensure that the necessary expertise is brought to bear on decision making. IBB members and senior management will establish systems for monitoring and quality control before rather than after notification of decisions.
The Government envisage that the IBB will engage actively with employers on the referral process, so that they know what is required of them and in what circumstances they should refer information. That will be an important part of the IBB’s role in ensuring the effective functioning of the scheme. I hope that I have assured the hon. Lady that the scheme will work well without the amendment.
I turn to amendment No. 119, which would ensure that any changes to the definition of regulated activity are made through regulations subject to the affirmative procedure. I reassure hon. Members that the amendment is not necessary, because clause 46(3) already provides for that. I hope that I have provided the clarification required, and I ask hon. Members to withdraw their amendments.
Annette Brooke: The Liberal Democrats are still not convinced that we have conveyed what we mean by the amendment. I am sure that that is due to its wording rather than anything else. We envisage that a referral from an organisation or individual that does not result in a barring decision should have a right of review involving different people making the decision. That would ensure consistency in decision making. There will inevitably be a lot of people making delegated decisions, internally rather than in a rigid appeal process. There must be checks and balances in the system so that somebody does not fall through the net simply because a particular group did not act. We envisage that the person or organisation concerned would have to prove in some way that they had deep concern.
5.30 pm
Mr. Dhanda: I think I am getting a slightly better understanding of what the amendment refers to. The internal processes of the IBB will be a matter for itself, as it will be independent. Although the hon. Lady’s point is fair, I cannot comment on the internal processes of the IBB. It is important that we have an independent body, making expert decisions. I am sure that there will be a process whereby those who have made a referral can send supporting information to the IBB.
Annette Brooke: I thank the Minister. We are beginning to get on the same wavelength. I have a genuine concern that something could be overlooked, because there is a lot of information and some vital pieces of it might not picked up by a small panel of people. I hope that the Minister, although he cannot dictate the board’s internal procedures, will give guidance—not written guidance—that he expects a review process and a test of the consistency of the board’s decisions.
Tim Loughton: I heard what the Minister said, which did not surprise me. He used phrases that are common when Ministers are resisting the putting of more detail in a Bill, particularly on tying down the Secretary of State’s ability to exercise the considerable powers of regulation that he is given.
We are in no way trying to limit, as the Minister put it, the IBB’s discretion to carry out its functions. We support the idea of the board and therefore its power to get on with the job that we are tasking it to do. Nowhere in the amendments do we seek to limit the IBB’s discretion. We seek to limit the discretion of the Secretary of State, whose role should be subject to ongoing scrutiny by the House. At every appropriate juncture when he makes and changes regulations, they should be subject to affirmative scrutiny. That is the case in clause 5, which amendment No. 119 has usefully probed.
I remind the Minister that the Secretary of State is being given powers to make regulations that, the Minister says, will be published after Royal Assent. I do not argue about that; it is the case with all Bills. It would be desirable if a Standing Committee could look at the regulations in tandem with the Bill that gives them effect. That rarely happens, and in this case it was even less likely to happen because of the necessary speed with which the Bill was introduced after the Government had been rather dilatory in responding to the Bichard recommendations.
The point that I am trying to make is that in those circumstances—less so than those with other Bills that have been on the back burner for many years—it would not be reasonable to expect all the regulations to have been done and dusted and thought through. That is why it is important to tease out some of the Government’s thinking, to give us an indication of whether we think that they are going far enough and will achieve the right balance between protection and the civil rights of individuals who are in the frame.
Nothing we are suggesting limits the flexibility of the board to do its job when it is up and running. We are purely asking for checks and balances on the Secretary of State in what is currently a grey area. Secretaries of State might find it inconvenient to have to appear before regulation Committees occasionally. However, it is preferable that they are put on the spot to justify why various regulations are being fashioned in the way that the Government propose than to let those regulations go through without the proper scrutiny that they require.
This is pioneering territory. The board is a new body. We welcome it, but it is particularly important that we get it right. We are not just talking about the initial regulations that the Secretary of State will fashion after the Bill receives Royal Assent; the Bill will also give him powers to change those initial regulations. He can change the regulations for the procedures to be followed, the terms of reference on which certain people are referred to the board and subsequently barred, and the timescale over which they may be barred. He is being given the powers to change an awful lot of things even after he first sets them out in regulations after Royal Assent.
It is important that, where possible, the Secretary of State should ensure that those regulations and subsequent changes to those regulations are subject to full and proper timely scrutiny by the House. That is what the amendments are all about, and that is a point worth making. The Minister is quite understandably trying to give us reassurances about when those regulations would be proposed, but that is entirely irrelevant, given the various points that I have just made. I want to put that on record.
I know that we will not get anywhere if we seek a vote on the amendment, but it is important. These are enormous powers, the manifestations of which both ourselves and the Minister are unclear about at this stage, because the provision has not been completed. That is why we need to make sure that they are scrutinised properly. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedule 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Barred Persons
Question proposed, That the clause stand part ofthe Bill.
Tim Loughton: A few clauses are coming up for which no amendments have been tabled. However, there are items of clarification that it would be useful for the Committee to seek and for the Minister to give.
Clause 3 is short. It deals with barred persons. In paragraphs 3(2) and (3):
“A person is barred from regulated activity relating to children if he is—
(a) included in the children’s barred list;”
which we understand and—
“(b) included in a list maintained under the law of Scotland or Northern Ireland which the Secretary of State specifies by order as corresponding to the children’s barred list.”
Again, we do not know what that will amount to. We do not know what type of list may exist or are intended by, for example, the Scottish Parliament, which has competence in those areas. I ask the Minister for his comments on the Scottish system.
The development of IMPACT—the computer database—is essential to the process of collating and sharing information. That system will, we hope, successfully identify individuals who should not be working with children or vulnerable adults, so that the required information can be given to the IBB, which will do something about it.
The Opposition are concerned that IMPACT is behind schedule and over budget, which is a common theme when the Government handle computer projects. Originally, it was proposed that the IMPACT scheme would be available by 2007. Soon after, the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) announced that, in fact, it would be ready in 2008.
Subsequently, on 21 April, the Minister without Portfolio, as a Home Office Minister, confirmed what many of us had understood to be the case from Police Information Technology Organisation documents: the full computer system would not be up and running properly until 2010, at the latest—a four-year gap between the Bill and a computer system that will effectively enable it to happen. That is a big worry. What is going to happen in the next four years?
On the Floor of the House, we have just debated concerns over recent revelations about the treatment of people with learning disabilities, particularly the scandals in Cornwall. Problems are happening as we speak. That computer system needs to be able to deal with such instances to ensure that they do not happen in the first place or that such people, when identified, are dealt with appropriately.
I understand that Scotland is steps ahead of us—in many things it is; in others, it is not, including football. The Scottish intelligence database computer system is up and running already, and rather effectively, I gather. Apparently, that system was offered to English police forces as at least a stop-gap measure before IMPACT comes into effect.
The cost of IMPACT, as estimated in the comprehensive spending review, was some £160 million. I think that that figure will be revisited and will accelerate considerably. The cost of transferring or extending the SID system to England and Wales was put at £55 million, and it could be rolled out over 18 months. That roll-out could have started some time ago and been considerably cheaper and quicker.
I have a query about clause 3: what discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the Scottish Parliament and colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office about the structures operating in those two parts of the United Kingdom? Has he learned any lessons from sharing intelligence and about the systems already in place to bring that about? Are the list systems, and the information feeding into those systems, in Scotland and Northern Ireland superior or lacking compared with the English and Welsh system that we are looking to put in place under the Bill?
5.45 pm
It is vital that we have a system that will work across the United Kingdom. There have been many cases of abusers of one description or another easily flitting across borders. There is a problem at the moment with abusers flitting across county authority borders. Let us take the example of foster carers taken on by a local authority in, say, Newcastle. The foster carers fall foul of the local authority because of a degree of abuse that may not quite have warranted a prosecution, or in respect of which there was insufficient intelligence to prosecute, but which should certainly have flagged up serious question marks as to the carers’ suitability to deal with children. They then leave Newcastle and turn up in, say, my neck of the woods, on the south coast in Brighton, and present themselves as willing foster carers to the local authority, which would have no knowledge of their previous background and which may engage their services. That might turn out to be completely inappropriate.
People who abuse vulnerable people—be it children or adults—tend to be quite devious and clever in getting round the system, which is why it is essential that we have a proper and appropriate sharing of information between authorities in our own country and around all the different parts of the United Kingdom as well. It also makes it essential that when the legislation comes into force it is compatible with the measures that are already up and running in Scotland and Northern Ireland, or that are intended to be up and running there. That is particularly the case for Scotland, with the information-sharing system that the police already have in place, which as things stand today is superior to ours. Will the Minister comment on the United Kingdom dimension?
 
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Prepared 13 July 2006