Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Dhanda: I can say with a degree of confidence that the issue is complex. There is no easy answer, and I think that we can all understand the reasons why. Before I comment on the amendment, I should mention something that we shall come to with schedule 4. Areas of activity such as the one that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned might not fall under the category of regulated activity, but instant online checks for such activities could provide us with new solutions. Where a group want to make checks, even though an individual might not be seen as a frequent supervisor or visitor, online checks offer a way of doing so properly.
Mrs. Miller: I understand the Minister’s point about online checks but, to take the example of the summer camp that my children are attending, I have no way of knowing the names of the people who will be looking after them. As a mother, I assume that the organisation has checked the people who will be looking after my children for five days this week, albeit for only two and a half hours each day. There is no way that I would know the names of those people to them check online. Surely that will be a potential problem.
Mr. Dhanda: I will not go down that line until schedule 4. I was using a different example, in which a group that has an arrangement with somebody under which it employs them infrequently wants to be sure that they are checked. However, there is no one-size-fits-all policy, so perhaps I should not have opened the issue up for debate. We could discuss a million different examples, but I am sure that we will return to the issue in greater detail on schedule 4, as the online register opens up real opportunities.
Amendments Nos. 112 and 125 to 127 focus on a key element of the Bill—the definition of “regulated activity”, which underpins the effective functioning of the new vetting and barring scheme. It is important that we get the definition right, and I welcome the opportunity that the amendment affords us to debate the issue. The group of amendments focuses on a central element of the definition of regulated activity, namely the frequency test.
The intention behind the group of amendments is to disapply the test in a range of circumstances, so that specified activities in relation to children and vulnerable adults are classified as regulated activities, regardless of whether they are carried out frequently. For example, certain activities that bring an individual into close contact with children and vulnerable adults—such as teaching, caring, advising and supervising—have to be carried out frequently to be defined as a regulated activity.
An individual who was not engaged in those specific types of activity but who still worked in a specified setting—for example, a care home or a school that gave them access to children or vulnerable adults—would also have to be carrying out their duties frequently for that to be classified as a regulated activity. The amendments have major implications for the circumstances in which a barred individual may engage in regulated activity during which they are subject to monitoring and the employer has to check their status in the scheme.
6.15 pm
On the frequency test and the scope of the bar, I recognise the concerns of hon. Members that if an activity—for instance, teaching children, caring for a vulnerable adult or rebuilding a school history block while having access to pupils—is carried out on an occasional basis, it might fall outside the definition of regulated activity. I recognise also that risks are associated with a barred individual working with children or vulnerable adults, even on a one-off basis.
I should like to reassure hon. Members that protecting children and vulnerable adults from those who work with them is the most important consideration of the scheme. However, it is important also that we do not place unreasonable burdens on employers, managers and employees, as well as on volunteers—the latter are important. We should not make the lives of individuals impossible. We want the scheme to be proportionate.
I have some examples: should an aerobics teacher on the children’s barred list be charged with an offence if a 16-year-old turns up occasionally for their class, which is otherwise made up of adults? Should a TV producer on the barred list be charged with an offence if they instruct a school group that comes to the TV studios to learn how TV is produced? Should a nurse in a care home barred from working with children be charged with an offence if they treat in an emergency a child visitor who has fallen over in the care home? I am sure that hon. Members will agree that those are not easy questions with which to grapple.
Mrs. Miller: May we return to the example of the TV producer and the visit to the studios by a school group? That is not a controlled setting. Will the Minister help me: would the regulations apply in those circumstances? Presumably, they would if the teacher was going to the school, but as we have discussed, methods could be put in place to allow that to happen on an occasional basis.
Mr. Dhanda: The point that I was trying to make to the hon. Lady was that teachers going to a school and contact with children in a studio are both issues tobe debated in relation to prescribing regulated or controlled activities because, either way, children could be put in a vulnerable position. Placing severe or absolute restrictions on barred individuals criminalises them even though they did not seek to work with children or vulnerable adults.
It is clear, however, that determining the scope of the bar in relation to the frequency with which an activity is carried out is a complex issue, and we shall continue to listen to the concerns of hon. Members in forums such as this one. We shall continue also to work with key stakeholders. I am not pretending that there are easy answers.
I should like also to consider the amendments in the context of their effects on the requirements on individuals to be subject to monitoring and on employers to carry out appropriate checks. We need to consider carefully the requirements that we impose on employers and managers to make checks, and on employees to go through the scheme.
To extend the requirements on an occasional basis to individuals who teach, care for or engage in other activities mentioned in paragraphs 2(1), 5(1), 1(3) and 5(4) of schedule 3 would place unreasonable burdens and bureaucracy on employers and managers, and might create a barrier to the effective provision of services. For example, an adult gym might not be able to include a child attending with their parent because their staff have not been through the scheme, and hence checked. However, under schedule 4 employers will be able to check an individual’s status if they are considering whether to permit an individual to teach, care for children or vulnerable adults or otherwise engage in an activity mentioned in paragraphs 2(1) and 5(1) or an activity on an occasional basis caught by parts of schedule 3.
In the light of those considerations, I hope that hon. Members will see fit to withdraw the amendments, which do not answer the question either.
Mrs. Miller: The Minister rightly said that it is not our desire ever to put unreasonable burdens on employers, but implied that the amendments would put such burdens on them. I put the contrary argument: simplifying the system would ensure that employers knew exactly where they stood in respect of the need to monitor individuals.
I am thinking particularly of schools; it has been widely reported that schools are finding it, or have found it, difficult to understand who should be CRB-checked and who should not, given the current requirement for those regularly in contact with children. Surely the opposite of what the Minister is talking about could happen; instead of the burden being unreasonable, things might be simplified for employers.
Mr. Dhanda: We could say that, but if the frequency test had been removed and a parent visited the school to give a one-off lecture on her career as a lawyer, she would fall foul of the process and have to be cleared by the scheme. That would be an added problem for the school; that parent would have to go through the vetting and barring scheme.
Annette Brooke: All the examples given by the Minister have been about a one-off occasion rather than the examples on which I was concentrating. My concern is about what happens when consecutive days stack up within a week, and I should like the Minister to address my examples. He gave the example of the online check. However, the hon. Member for Basingstoke is right; if the organiser does not do an online check, the parents or relations of anybody involved in the activity would have no knowledge of that.
Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Lady makes a fair point, and I do not disagree. We could stipulate an activity that happens three times a week or three days a month. We have said that, typically, more than one day a month and a contract of more than a week defines frequency. Equally, the hon. Lady could argue for an intermittent period of less than a week. That becomes apparent when we take a closer look at the issue, and I am happy to do that.
However, I say to her that removing the frequency test would place a burden on schools, which, for example, would have to check everybody who turned up on the one-off basis that I described. I do not believe that the removal of the frequency test is the way forward.
Mrs. Miller: If the Minister is considering the issue again, may I remind him of my amendment No. 128, which I was not able to discuss today? It reads as follows:
“Based on an assessment made in reference to guidance issued by the Secretary of State the employer will clearly set out what constitutes occasional activity for which monitoring is not necessary in relation to that specific setting.”
The Chairman: I am afraid that the hon. Lady is out of order; her amendment was not selected.
Mr. Dhanda: Thank you, Mr. Martlew; I was about to start probing an amendment that had not been selected. I do not want to digress down that path, but if it were down to employers to set the level of frequency, we—[Interruption.] Perhaps we should enter into correspondence. I am quite happy to consider what the hon. Lady was saying.
I return to the earlier point about the TV producer. If the producer were barred and the frequency test removed, the producer could not instruct children either in school or elsewhere. That is another example of how things would work if we did away with the test.
I turn to Government amendments Nos. 146 to 148, which also deal with the definition of regulated activity. They are intended to ensure that an individual under the age of 16 engaging in regulated activity is not required to be monitored and that those permitting or supplying such individuals to engage in regulated activity are not required to check. That will ensure that 15-year-olds who go on two weeks’ work experience at a primary school, for example, will not be required to go through the scheme and that the school will not be required to check.
Given the importance of clarifying the definition of regulated activity, I commend the amendments to the Committee. I hope that hon. Members will consider this useful debate as well as my desire to reconsider the issue and hold further discussions with stakeholders before Report, and will withdraw their amendments.
Annette Brooke: I am afraid that I am going to disappoint the Minister. I shall press the amendment to a Division simply because I feel that it is so important. I welcome his statement that he will reconsider it, but a Division on the issue will give further force to the concerns of Opposition Members about the loophole that we are convinced exists in the Bill.
I know that the Minister said that we could reconsider the issue in different forums, but I must point out that there is only Report. We will only have one more go at this, and that is why I shall press amendment No. 112 to a Division.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.
Division No. 1]
Brooke, Annette
Loughton, Tim
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Teather, Sarah
Wilson, Mr. Rob
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Creagh, Mary
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
McIsaac, Shona
Mallaber, Judy
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Mountford, Kali
Russell, Christine
Ryan, Joan
Question accordingly negatived.
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