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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

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords]

Clause 11

Regulated activity provider: failure to check
1 pm
Amendment made: No. 148, in page¬ 7,¬ line¬ 9,¬ at end insert—
‘( ) A person does not commit an offence under subsection (1) if B has not attained the age of 16.’.—[Mr. Dhanda.]
Amendment proposed: No. 149, in¬ page¬ 7,¬ leave out lines 15 to 18 and insert—
‘(5A) Subsection (6) applies if—
(a) B engages in an activity which is a regulated activity, and
(b) he does so with the permission of two (or more) regulated activity providers.
(6) A regulated activity provider does not commit an offence under subsection (1) if, before the permission takes effect, he obtains written confirmation from the other regulated activity provider (or one of them) (C)—’.—[Mr. Dhanda.]
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 150 to 153 and 171.
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I want to take this opportunity to raise a couple of points with the Minister. Although these are technical amendments, they raise some issues that are worthy of a little more substantive debate. Regulated activity providers are sanctioned if they do not check that an individual is monitored when taking him into employment. Obviously, the penalty is onerous. The clause also permits employers to employ individuals without checks on an occasional basis; we have had that debate and we may have it again so I will not delay the Committee by raising the issue now.
However, there is another provision whereby an employer can take an individual on, and that is if he obtains written confirmation from another regulatory provider who employs the individual in a regulated activity. Basically, the first employer provides an underwriting of the fact that that individual is monitored and is eligible for employment. I am not at all clear why amendment No. 149 has been tabled. It seems to produce an additional complication in terms of the employment structure of an individual who may be taken into a monitored environment where a particular employer has not made a check against his barred status. Could the Minister take the opportunity to look at that?
My second point relates to another complex issue in the clause. Obviously we are looking to create a workable system, but the clause is very complex. As I said, an existing employer can endorse an employee’s suitability for another employer. Could any further detail be added in this part of the Bill about when the initial employer’s liability ends in terms of the reference that he has given that employee to go into another working situation where he has not been checked for monitoring or barred status?
It is not entirely clear from the Bill what happens when, for instance, an individual is barred after an initial reference has been given. Would the original employer have a duty to inform the second employer of the change in barred status? I can entirely understand why it would be necessary to give employers the ability to give these types of reference, but given that people’s barred status can change, can the Minister clarify whether there will be an obligation on employers who have given such undertakings to ensure that other individuals are kept up to date with any changes that occur?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): May I take that last point first? It will not be incumbent on the employer to do so. The Independent Barring Board and the Criminal Records Bureau will inform future employers. As we discussed on Tuesday, it is the role of the employer to refer information to the IBB if that person has been sacked for inappropriate behaviour, for example involving a child.
The hon. Lady requested a little more information on amendments Nos. 149 and 150, which ensure that the intended policy on the requirement to check is correctly drafted in the Bill when a person can be regarded as engaging in a regulated activity for two different regulated activity providers: for example, a builder on a school site who may be there with the permission of both the school and the construction company. The hon. Lady was alluding to the overlap between the two.
One of the regulated activity providers must be able to rely on a written confirmation from the other that a check has been made on the person instead of having to make his or her own check. Amendment No. 149 is a drafting change to remove a perceived ambiguity from the previous provision. Amendment No. 150 makes it an offence for the other regulated activity provider to give a false written confirmation, thus closing a loophole in the Bill, which is common sense. Amendment No. 151 removes an unnecessary reference to a clause, which happens to be clause 11(6)(a), in clause 11(9).
On amendments Nos. 152, 153 and 171, it may help if I explain some of the Bill’s provisions. Clause 11 requires an employer to obtain relevant information within the meaning of schedule 4 either through an enhanced disclosure or by making a check under schedule 4. Clause 39 currently allows the Secretary of State to prescribe sectors where the ability to make a schedule 4 check is removed and the regulated activity provider is required to have obtained an enhanced disclosure before employment can begin.
Mrs. Miller: I know that this issue is terribly complex and I do not want to detain the Committee, but why is amendment No. 149 necessary? I do not understand why it has been proposed.
Mr. Dhanda: I thought I had explained. It is to ensure that the intended policy on the requirement to check is correctly set out in the Bill, because it was not in the first instance. That is obviously not clear enough for the hon. Lady, but I am happy to go back and have another look at amendment No. 149 if she feels that it need not be there at all. I believe that it should, but I will happily take another look at it before Report.
The amendments will allow the vetting and barring scheme to continue existing provisions such as the “POVA First” check, which are used to minimise recruitment difficulties in sectors where enhanced disclosures are currently mandatory. I therefore ask hon. Members to accept the Government amendments.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made: No. 150, in page¬ 7,¬ line¬ 29,¬ at end insert—
‘(8A) C commits an offence if—
(a) he provides the written confirmation mentioned in subsection (6), and
(b) the condition in subsection (8B) or (8C) is satisfied in relation to him.
(8B) The condition is that C has not made an appropriate check.
(8C) The condition is that—
(a) C has made an appropriate check, and
(b) before he gives the written confirmation he has reason to believe that B has become barred or is no longer subject to monitoring.’.
No. 151, in page¬ 7,¬ line¬ 30,¬ leave out ‘and (6)(a)’.
No. 152, in page¬ 7,¬ line¬ 37,¬ leave out ‘(a)’.—[Mr. Dhanda.]
Clause 11, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

personnel supliers and regulated activity
Amendment made: No. 153, in¬ page¬ 8,¬ line¬ 39,¬ leave out ‘(a)’.—[Mr. Dhanda.]
Clause 13, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

Exception to requirement to make monitoring check
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I beg to move amendmentNo. 58, in page¬ 9,¬ line¬ 15,¬ leave out paragraph (a).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 59, in page 9, line 16, leave out paragraph (b).
No. 60, in¬ page¬ 9,¬ line¬ 19,¬ leave out paragraph (c).
No. 138, in page¬ 9,¬ line¬ 25,¬ leave out ‘the control or management of’.
Government amendments Nos. 155, 156 and 175.
I call Mr. Dhanda.
Mr. Lewis: If only it were Mr. Dhanda—but I am here instead. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) says that that is not the right attitude; I hope that, by the time I have finished, he will still hold that view. I am delighted to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew. I shall speak first to the Government amendments. The Opposition can then speak to their amendments, and I shall respond.
Clause 14 lists the regulated activity providers exempted from the obligation of making a vetting and barring check under clause 11 and from ensuring that those engaged in regulated activity are subject to monitoring. Committee members will appreciate it if I outline the clause’s importance. It is crucial that the new scheme should offer flexibility, especially in sectors for which the concept of central vetting will be new, as is the case with many of the sectors exempted under clause 14. Our original intention was to give those sectors the opportunity to phase in checks, as appropriate to their individual services, and give them the freedom to decide internally which members of staff should be vetted. That is why we made provisions under clause 14 to remove exemptions, via delegated legislation, in relation to those groups listed in clause 14(4). That would allow time for the scheme to bed down and enable us to extend mandatory vetting in response to service requirements. However, following debate in another place, we are seeking to make our intentions in that regard clearer in the Bill. I expect that will be welcomed by Committee members.
Amendment No. 155 introduces a sunset clause in respect of paragraphs (d) to (g) of clause 14(1). The paragraphs cover organisations providing recreational, social, sporting or education activities, educational courses, the management of housing and housing-related support services. The effect of the clause will be that those paragraphs will no longer have effect once a period of three years, from the date on which the provisions are brought into force, has elapsed. Once that happens, clauses 10 and 11 will apply to the regulated activity providers with the result that they will commit an offence if they do not carry out a scheme status check and ensure that those whom they employ to carry out regulated activity are subject to monitoring. Individuals who carry out this work will be committing an offence if they are not subject to monitoring as set out in clause 8.
As a safeguard, an order-making power has been included in amendment No. 175. It is there in case there was a problem that resulted in the requirement to check having serious operational consequences for service delivery, and if the exemption needed to be extended for an extra period.
We are all aware that the Bill is a big step forward for the protection of vulnerable adults, bringing about a significantly larger and more diverse work force than ever before. However, as the order-making power is subject to affirmative resolution, the Government and Parliament would need to consider the impact on those receiving such services and make a carefully balanced decision that reflected the risks associated with not imposing a mandatory requirement, and the risks of loneliness and isolation that may be experienced by those whose services were withdrawn. Again, I hope that that will reassure Committee members. I stress, however, that such a power would not be exercised lightly, given the important context in which we are working.
Amendment No. 58 further refines clause 14 by removing the exemption for complementary and alternative therapists, whom we recognise have the opportunity for intimate and personal contact with vulnerable adults. That should be welcomed by hon. Members of both Opposition parties, because they have tabled the same amendment. [Hon. Members: “First!”] They say they did it first, and I am happy to give them that credit. However, I think they knewour intention, given that we had reflected on representations from the other place and organisations outside the House. With that, I urge the Committee to accept the Government’s amendments as being common sense and which offer a sensible way forward and reflect appropriately the debate that was held in another place.
1.15 pm
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. Martlew. We certainly welcome the amendment, not least because the Minister admitted that it was ours. As is always frustrating, the way parliamentary procedure works is that the Government hijack good ideas from the Opposition—in this case blatantly—by inserting their name, which automatically goes ahead of the Opposition Members who have done all the work in the first place. However, we are happy that the Government have done so.
The subject came up in another place, where there was widespread agreement that the complementary or alternative therapy get-out could cause a problem for a lot of vulnerable people. The Minister has mentioned massages, but there is also aromatherapy, for example, which is increasingly available for mental health patients. Many types of vulnerable people will have increasing access to complementary or alternative therapy providers. It therefore seemed appropriate that they should be covered by the checks and balances in the legislation and not made exempt, as subsection (1)(a) would have done, so we certainly support the amendment.
Amendments Nos. 59, 60 and 138 are probing amendments. The issue that they address was extensively debated in another place, where the Opposition queried the need for the clause at all. Subsection (1) contains a lengthy list of exemptions, of which only one will now be knocked out. Many noble Lords took the view that we should include as many people as possible, subject to the vetting and barring procedures, and if there was then a problem with trying to include too many people in one go, the system could be phased in, so that we could see at a later stage who should be exempted, rather than the other way round. Why should so many different classes of people, many of whom will be dealing with vulnerable people, be exempted?
We are concerned about the judicial processes, and about the prison and probation services in particular. We do not understand why subsections (1)(b) and (1)(c) should deal with them in a special way. Paragraph (b) seeks to exempt those involved in the control or management of persons detained in lawful custody and paragraph (c) seeks to exempt people in the probation service. However, as my noble Friend Baroness Buscombe said when similar amendments were debated in another place:
“Why, for example, are young offenders’ institutions so different from other residential institutions such as boarding schools or care homes? Of course the rules will be different, but the proximity between those in authority and their residents is quite similar, in which case I find it difficult to accept that we are talking about unique services.”
In response to those amendments in another place and the point about including the Prison Service and the probation service, Baroness Royall spoke in rather general terms:
“A blanket approach to vetting arrangements would not sit comfortably within either service’s operating arrangements.”
Why not? It would be interesting if the Minister could elaborate on that, because his noble colleague failed to in another place.
Baroness Royall went on to say:
“The vast majority of staff working in close contact with vulnerable adults in both the prison and probation services will be checked”—
but again, not everybody. How vast is the vast majority? She went on to say that
“staff providing support to prisoners in a group setting may not be checked.”
When is a group big enough that they should be exempt from being checked because, presumably, enough people are watching out? What about when those groups become smaller groups, which become pairs under the control of that person? Again, the provision is fraught with potential problems. Despite all the reassuring words of the Minister in the other place, we have not really had the assurances on paper.
In the conclusion to the debate on the amendments, Baroness Royall said that she acknowledged:
“This is a matter of discussion among government departments”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 May 2006; Vol. 682, c. 879-884.]
and that she very much hoped that the Government would be able to find an acceptable solution on Report. From what I can see, that did not happen. We still have an elaborate list of exemptions in clause 14.
We need some more convincing from the Minister on, first, why all the exemptions in the clause are absolutely essential and, secondly, why paragraphs (b) and (c), which deal with vulnerable people in the prison and probation service, should be specifically included. That is why we have tabled amendments Nos. 59 and 60 to strike out those two paragraphs. Given that they have shown willing with paragraph (a) on complementary therapy, perhaps the Government could apply the same logic to the prison and probation services.
One also must bear in mind the high incidence of mental illness among prisoners. It has been estimated in various studies that some three quarters of prisoners in our prisons suffer from some form of mental illness. Those are more vulnerable people than the rest of the population, in the unusual surroundings of prison, which in many cases is unfamiliar. We need the checks and safeguards to apply to them, too. The Minister must justify why the exemptions should be included.
Amendment No. 138 deals with paragraph (f). At the moment, somebody who is
“responsible for the control or management of the provision of housing (including sheltered housing)”
will be exempted. There is a distinction to be made within that qualification. Clearly, it would not be appropriate to include people on the board of a social housing trust, or councillors on a housing committee responsible for council housing stock, who make decisions about the provision of housing and what sort of people can go into that housing, but who do not come into contact with those people at all, or certainly not regularly. One would not want to include such people, quite rightly. That is why we would retain the reference to those who are responsible for the general provision of housing.
I cannot see why there should be an exemption for those who would be covered by the phrase “the control or management” of housing. We could be talking about a warden of a sheltered housing project—the paragraph specifically uses the phrase “including sheltered housing”. Again, we are considering vulnerable, in this case predominantly elderly, people in sheltered housing accommodation, for whom a resident warden is in a responsible position. That warden has a great deal of control and influence over the vulnerable people living in that sheltered accommodation, will have access to their flats, and a master key to get into those flats. In many cases, the warden will be the person responsible for responding to any alarm buzzers that are installed.
Unless my reading of the paragraph is wrong—I would be delighted to be corrected; it is a probing amendment—we are talking about exempting people in positions of responsibility who have day-to-day contact with vulnerable, elderly, frail people, who are able to gain access to their private accommodation and who are privy to much private information about them.
We still need to be convinced that the clause is necessary, and specifically why the three categories of people in paragraphs (b), (c) and (f) should be included. It strikes me that those people will have more access than many others to the sort of vulnerable people, both children and the elderly, whom the Bill seeks to protect.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): We strongly support Government amendment No. 58. We, too, took account of much of the debate in the other place. I understand that extra meetings were arranged to discuss the issue, and that it truly wasa cross-party discussion. I am pleased at the Government’s responsiveness, as a number of organisations were most concerned, particularly given the range of therapies that can be involved. I share the concerns raised by the Conservative party. Indeed, I question the requirement for the clause, or at least subsection (1). I should be grateful if the Minister said again why it is so important.
I have questions about some of the categories. Paragraph (b) refers to people who are “detained in lawful custody”. I imagine that, one way or another, checks would be made on the full-time staff. Some time ago, I visited Feltham prison, and I was impressed with the number of volunteers who, for example, were helping inmates with their reading skills. Close contact was obviously important.
I recall that one inmate could write only in capital letters, and the support that he was given by one volunteer was certainly frequent—it was at least once a week. Although I was impressed with what I saw, I am worried about those who could get that sort of position. Should there not be some monitoring or checking up on volunteers who go to such institutions so frequently? I shall not repeat what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said about that.
On paragraph (c), I was thinking about the management of community sentences. Again, it may not be full-time probation staff who are involved in the projects. What is the Minister’s response to that example? The more one looks at it, the more one can pick examples that cause concern.
I would be grateful if the Minister explained exactly what is meant by paragraph (e). What is a “prescribed description”? It sounds as if it should be a monitored activity, where it applies wholly or mainly to vulnerable adults, but there may be an explanation. I concur with the concerns about sheltered housing. The provision may need narrowing, particularly in respect of sheltered housing. I share the concerns about that. Again, the Bill is quite stringent, with all those criminal penalties at one end of the scale. However, if there are loopholes, we have to wonder what we are doing here. Therefore, I hope that the Minister can reassure us on those points.
 
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Prepared 17 July 2006