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Standing Committee Debates
Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords]

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords]

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Derek Conway, Mr. Eric Martlew
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills)
Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
Lewis, Mr. Ivan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health)
Loughton, Tim (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
McIsaac, Shona (Cleethorpes) (Lab)
Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
Mallaber, Judy (Amber Valley) (Lab)
Miller, Mrs. Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Mountford, Kali (Colne Valley) (Lab)
Russell, Christine (City of Chester) (Lab)
Ryan, Joan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Teather, Sarah (Brent, East) (LD)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Geoffrey Farrar, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Standing Committee B

Thursday 13 July 2006


[Derek Conway in the Chair]

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords]

9 am

Schedule 3

Regulated Activity
Question proposed, That this schedule, as amended, be the Third schedule to the Bill.
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I want briefly to explore paragraph 2(1)(e), on regulated activities, with the Minister. It is aimed primarily at regulating those who moderate chat rooms or online discussions forums and is very welcome. However, it refers to
“moderating a public electronic interactive communication service which is likely to be children.”
Before amendments have to be tabled on Report, will the Minister consider whether that provision could apply to electronic interactive communication services that are used to locate children and thus interact with them?
I raised this issue on Second Reading, because an increasing and frightening range of electronic services are being used to track children. Allegedly, such services are meant to promote safety, but there are huge dangers of potential abuse, despite the current voluntary code on who should have access to services and other items. The code is inadequate, and there are too many examples of it not having been followed. I have called for a licensing system for the industry in a Bill that happens to have been sponsored by three members of the Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). I have also had support from within the industry.
Under the code, someone who is being tracked is meant to give their consent. In that sense, the system is interactive, as set out in paragraph 2(1)(e). Often, however, the electronic interaction is with the child and it might occur with or without their knowledge. That might be in a situation in which they can be put in danger, but it is extremely odd to think of a four-year-old, for example, giving informed consent. That raises the issue of how we can be sure who is doing the tracking and how it is done. We therefore need a regulatory system.
Will the Minister consider whether the issue can be covered by paragraph 2(1)(e)? If not, can we table an amendment to secure at least one element of the regulatory system and the protection that we need from a mushrooming, scary industry that is using the latest electronic communications technology and which falls right within the scope of our efforts in the Bill to protect vulnerable children? I am happy to talk further to the Minister about this issue before Report, but I ask him now to see whether it could be covered. If not, perhaps we could discuss whether an amendment might be appropriate.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I support the comments of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), but I wonder whether I could take a few points a bit further by writing to the Minister over the recess. I am a member of the Home Secretary’s task force on child protection on the internet, and various concerns were raised at our meeting about 10 days ago. However, it was far too difficult to table amendments on the issue, so I should just like to ask the Minister whether he will be receptive and provide me with some reassurance that the protection that we need is in the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): It is good to have you back in the Chair, Mr. Conway. I appreciate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, who raised this issue on Second Reading, and I thank her for giving me advance notice of this debate and a copy of her ten-minute Bill, which made for interesting reading.
I should be happy to read the letter from the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. I should also be happy to meet my hon. Friend, who rightly suggests that this area has seen a great deal of change over a short time. Before making any changes to the Bill, I would like to satisfy myself on the level of interaction. The Bill tackles situations in which there is activity, correspondence and a strong level of interaction between a child and another child or someone who could be posing as one. I would want to take a closer look at the issue, but I should be happy to meet her and have that discussion between now and the Report stage, and even to read correspondence over the recess.
We have had a thorough debate on schedule 3, so I hope that it can be accepted.
Question put and agreed to.
Schedule 3, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 6

Regulated activity providers
Annette Brooke: I beg to move amendment No. 105, in clause 6, page 3, line 23, after ‘services’, insert
‘or through provision of direct payment or individual budgets.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 106, in clause 11, page 7, line 3, after ‘check’, insert ‘, or
(b) he makes arrangements through direct payments or individual budgets for another person (P) to permit an individual (B) to engage in a regulated activity and does not—
(i) notify the individual (P) of the existence of the barred lists, and
(ii) offer to undertake an appropriate check on behalf of (P).’.
No. 107, in clause 16, page 10, line 34, after ‘body’, insert—
‘(4) If an offence under sections 9, 10 or 11 is committed by an individual acting on behalf of a body administering the provision of direct payments or individual budgets and is proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance of, or to be attributable to, neglect on the part of a designated responsible officer of the body, he (as well as the body) commits an offence.’.
Annette Brooke: I appreciate that the Minister might find some technical fault with the amendments, so I shall concentrate on the sentiment behind them, which is all-important. The core amendment is amendment No. 106, which has the support of the Parkinson’s Disease Society. It would require a regulated activity provider to inform direct payment recipients about the vetting and barring system, to increase awareness and to offer to undertake an appropriate check on the individual’s behalf.
I shall backtrack and explain how the issue was dealt with in debates in the other place, where I understand it was one of the most controversial issues. My noble Friends argued that people who arranged services for vulnerable recipients of direct payments should be classed as regulated activity providers and wanted everybody involved to be vetted and barred. Probably quite rightly, the Government did not accept that argument taken to its extreme, because it would have placed a huge burden on some 2 million carers in the UK, many of whom are family or friends, perhaps in informal arrangements.
The introduction of the direct payments scheme has brought additional bureaucracy, which has destabilised some long-term caring arrangements with extra requirements. The last thing that amendment No. 106 is attempting to do is destabilise arrangements or make already difficult situations even more difficult; rather, it says that the local authority, which is likely to be the instigator of the direct payments, should tell the recipient that the vetting and barring scheme exists.
We have all acknowledged how complicated the system is, and the recipients of direct payments will not have much time or inclination to work their way through the complexities of the legislation. Amendment No. 106 is intended to say that the local authority should say to the recipient of the direct payments, “This system exists—would like assistance to do any checking on the carers you’re going to use? If you’re quite satisfied, because you’ve known them for 20-odd years, we needn’t take it any further.” In other words, amendment No. 106 is permissive. However, taken together, the amendments would place a duty on the local authority or whomever to alert the recipient to the fact that the new system exists and to give assistance.
If the Minister cannot accept the wording, I hope that he will accept the idea as a compromise that would meet the many concerns that have been raised. The direct payments scheme is becoming a bigger and bigger way to provide care. It is a good way to give people choice, but we want a bit of a safety net when that choice is exercised.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. Conway. I shall say a few words in support of the amendments. They are sensible. As she has said, it is an area of care for vulnerable people that will grow. The Government rightly support direct payments, and many authorities throughout the country have pushed them.
The amendments also fit in with the Government policy, which we share, of encouraging as many people as possible to stay at home for as long as possible, but only where due and appropriate support is available. It should not be done by continually raising the threshold qualifying them for residential care without providing sufficient support to ensure that they, particularly elderly people, can stay at home without harm or injury.
An increasing number of people will use the direct payments scheme to engage the services of complete strangers to help clean their homes, do their shopping and provide other health-related and personal services. Such people will be put into a strong position of trust and will be able to take advantage of vulnerable people should they be so minded. I am sure that a few people will get into the system in order to take advantage of vulnerable people. Although the vast majority of people offering services through direct payments will not, the Bill is about weeding out bad apples.
It would be an excessive obligation to require every person offering such services to be vetted. It could cause enormous delay for people trying to exercise direct payments, and could lead to a diminution of choice for those trying to engage the services of somebody about whom they might know very little. It is eminently sensible and not too onerous a new obligation on local authorities simply to inform a vulnerable person or their carer—if there is a part-time carer, somebody with a power of attorney or an appropriate person—about the availability of the vetting system, and that they might like to avail themselves of it before taking a firm decision about whom their direct payments will go to.
The amendments would enhance the Bill by providing an extra safeguard for the growing part of the population that belongs to one of the vulnerable groups that we are discussing. The amendments would achieve that without being unduly onerous on local authorities, which after all will be responsible for organising direct payments. A reminder of the service’s availability would therefore not be too great an additional requirement.
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Prepared 14 July 2006