Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords]

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Annette Brooke: Although I might be enjoying the political sparring as a spectator, I think that it is important to sort out the meaning of the words “frequently” and “occasional”. I hope that, come what may, the Minister will look at this issue closely. The new clause might not be quite the right solution for all circumstances, but there might be some merit in it in respect of large employers. I emphasise that this aspect of the Bill is so important. At present there are serious loopholes in the Bill. It is incumbent on all Committee members to sort out the issues involving “occasional” and “frequently”.
Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Lady makes her point well. I do not disagree that these are important issues. However, I remind the Committee that, as we discussed on Tuesday, it is important to consider the consequences of the definitions we decide on and that we come up with the right balance. Our intention is that, subject to the circumstances of a particular job, anything happening less than once a month and any contract shorter than a week can be regarded as occurring occasionally. Some hon. Members do not like that, which is fine. I am pleased to hear some alternative policies being fleshed out, so we can start to consider them.
We intend that parents who help children with reading in primary schools should not have to be subject to monitoring and schools should not have to check their status if they help only once, or help once a term during a school year. That is not unreasonable. However, as I said on Tuesday, we are currently keeping the definition of “frequently” under consideration and we will return to it on Report.
Anne Main: Will the Minister give way?
Anne Main: I should like further clarification. Does the Minister think that there is a greater difference between someone popping in for a few hours once a week and somebody who has sole control of a child for 24 hours a day for a festival lasting four or fivedays? Such a situation would provide significant opportunities for abuse to take place, whereas one hour a week in a classroom may not. That is not a fair comparison.
Mr. Dhanda: I was hoping for the second part of that intervention, but it never came. The hon. Lady makes a fair point about people who have close contact with children. However, the Bill has to be proportionate. Is she saying that any person who has 24-hour contact with a child once a year should be part of the scheme?
Anne Main: No.
Mr. Dhanda: She is not saying that. These matters need to be fleshed out. We have the early parts of a policy developing from Basingstoke and Hampshire and I should be delighted to hear the view fromSt. Albans.
Anne Main: I did not say 24-hour-a-day contact happening once. I was talking about a significant period of four or five days, which might be a whole camping, eisteddfod or festival period, which could give rise to opportunities. I want to be sure that the Minister has given such instances real consideration—that he has not just dismissed them lightly but thoroughly examined the issue and concluded that there is no real loophole.
Mr. Dhanda: I am not ignoring it, and I will consider it—and all other cases. If the hon. Lady is making representations to me about those who are involved in festivals and the relevant groupings around the country—and if she is also telling them—that that is what we should do, I welcome her saying so. However, I think that she will find that there are consequences. Through guidance, therefore, we shall give employers and employees a measure of clarity about the circumstances in which the exemptions will apply. Our extensive work with stakeholders has led us to expect that employers and individuals will take account of the guidance, so that putting a duty on employers to act accordingly would add little. Given the existence of criminal offences in this context it is highly likely that the type of consideration set out in the new clause would happen in any event, without the need for a potentially burdensome duty on employers. With all that in mind, I ask the hon. Member for Basingstoke to withdraw the motion.
Mrs. Miller: The Minister will know, from reading all the briefing documents on the Bill, that this issue is its Achilles heel. Perhaps some of his reactions to the new clause are due to his realising that he needs to think more about the topic. The stakeholders to whom he has referred have clearly identified issues such as frequency, what is meant by “occasional”, and the lack of definition. My hon. Friends and Liberal Democrat Members have time and again pointed out those issues, which the Government choose to brush aside. That is a shame.
The Minister has contradicted himself several times. The Health Minister has talked about allowing front-line professionals their judgment; if the Minister cares to refer to Hansard he will see that in Tuesday’s debate he talked about the problems of the issue of frequency and the fact that there is a need to look further at the issue. I am heartened by his saying that he will return to the matter on Report. I will hold him to that promise, because the Government are being more than a little vague. In the interest of time, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Dhanda: On a point of order, Mr. Martlew. The least I can do is to congratulate you on the excellent job that you have done in chairing your first Committee. I also congratulate Opposition Members for the probing job that they have done, even if they have been slightly irritable at times during the week. I also thank Mr. Conway for his contributions, as well as the police and those involved from the House authorities. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Under-Secretaries of State for the Home Department and for Health, for their steadfast support, and to Back Benchers on both sides of the Committee, who have contributed to a week of healthy debate. It would be rude of me, Mr. Martlew, not to mention also the excellent work of the two Whips who ensured that we finished our consideration and used our time to the full.
Mrs. Miller: Further to that point of order, Mr. Martlew, I add my thanks and those of my hon. Friends. You did an excellent job in your first chairmanship of a complex Bill. I also thank Mr. Conway for his chairmanship. I should clarify for the Minister that he should get used to the fact that Conservatives feel deeply about these issues; that is not irritability but a probing spirit and a desire to ensure that we get such Bills right.
Annette Brooke: Further to that point of order, Mr. Martlew. May I quickly add my thanks to you and Mr. Conway for chairing the proceedings? It makes a nice change for us to complete consideration of a Bill, and that is pleasing. I thank the Minister for the answers that we have had, and look forward to future exchanges. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) who has made some interesting interventions, and all other members of the Committee.
The Chairman: I thank the Committee for the comments on my chairmanship.
Bill, as amended, to be reported.
Committee rose at Four o’clock.
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