House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2008 - 09
Publications on the internet
Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Martlew
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Carswell, Mr. Douglas (Harwich) (Con)
Clarke, Mr. Tom (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab)
Gerrard, Mr. Neil (Walthamstow) (Lab)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Horam, Mr. John (Orpington) (Con)
Kelly, Ruth (Bolton, West) (Lab)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
Mates, Mr. Michael (East Hampshire) (Con)
Miller, Mrs. Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)
Prentice, Mr. Gordon (Pendle) (Lab)
Wicks, Malcolm (Croydon, North) (Lab)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Wright, Mr. Iain (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 14 July 2009

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Draft Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 (Regulated Activity, Miscellaneous and Transitional Provisions and Commencement No. 5) Order 2009
10.30 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 (Regulated Activity, Miscellaneous and Transitional Provisions and Commencement No. 5) Order 2009.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew. It is not the first time that I have served under your chairmanship. We seem to follow each other about quite a bit. It is good to see you.
The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 reforms arrangements for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults from harm or the risk of harm by employees whose work gives them significant access to such people. The new arrangements replace those provided under previous legislation, such as the Protection of Children Act 1999, the Care Standards Act 2000, the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 and the Education Act 2002. The provisions under discussion today support the introduction of the full range of barring under the new scheme and the repeal of existing barring schemes. They amend some details of the scope of regulated activity to improve the practical working of the vetting and barring scheme. Regulated activity covers a range of specified activities that provide an opportunity for close contact with children or vulnerable adults. Taken together, the provisions create an important next step in the transition to the new scheme.
The provisions are needed so that the Independent Safeguarding Authority can start the full range of barring under the new scheme as agreed on 12 October 2009. I shall set out briefly the main changes that will be brought in by the legislation and the purpose behind them. Article 25 of the order slightly narrows the scope of the definition of relevant child care premises to make it consistent with the general intention of the Act not to impose requirements on people in their own homes. An amendment is made to bring childminding premises in Wales within the definition. The order also enables the Secretary of State to refer unfinished List 99 cases to the ISA, thereby closing in a timely fashion part of the transitional process.
Articles 26 and 27 add certain named categories of people to the list of office holders under schedule 4 to the Act, such as a chief executive of a local authority that has social services or education functions; clerks to governing bodies; associate members of governing bodies, owners and managers of fostering and adoption agencies, and directors of children’s services in Wales. The order brings into effect provisions that are inserted into the Police Act 1997 relating to the information that must be provided to employers who check whether a person is on an ISA barred list.
The order also modifies provisions so that information about any person on the barred list can still be disclosed on a Criminal Records Bureau disclosure prepared for prospective employers of, for example, teachers or care staff. The last step is an essential part of managing a safe transition from the current scheme to the new scheme. A CRB disclosure must still hold and show the barred status of any individual who is still on the current barred list after 12 October 2009.
The order re-enacts some provisions from the current transitional period to ensure that the present safeguards remain in place for as long as necessary. That is essential if we are to make sure that no one falls through the net as the old system gives way to the new. Permanent replacement provisions will then come into force during the next year. The order forms a key part of the transition to the new vetting and barring scheme, which is an essential element in our work to protect children and other vulnerable groups from harm. I look forward to our debate today, and I commend the order to the Committee.
10.34 am
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. It is also a pleasure to welcome the Minister. As he and other members of the Committee know, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill was originally introduced to the House of Commons two years ago on 19 June 2006 by the then Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes). I would like to take the opportunity to welcome the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West, who was instrumental in the background development of the Bill and is a member of the Committee today.
The new Minister is the fifth Minister that we have had since the Bill was introduced. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) made a brief appearance, then we had the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), and now we have the hon. Member for Hartlepool, so he is following in illustrious footsteps. I hope that he has had the opportunity to review the extensive debate that we have had on the Bill over the past two years.
I am sure that the Minister has had ample time to study the debates and that there is no link between the rapid change in Minister and the delay that has recently been announced in the implementation of the legislation—a notice that was put out by a Home Office Minister on 19 March. Perhaps the delay is more closely linked with the recent court case, Wright v. Secretary of State for Health. The Minister will be fully aware that his colleague, the hon. Member for Gloucester, gave an undertaking that the Bill is fully compliant with human rights legislation. The Minister might want to take the opportunity of today’s debate to reassure the Committee that the Government’s position has not changed as a result of the court ruling.
All of the matters that we are discussing here today are dependent on the Government delivering another of their famous IT programmes—in fact, two or perhaps even three IT programmes: the ISA’s IT programme for the database to be set up; and, importantly, linked to that, the IMPACT and PLX police information systems. Can the Minister reassure the Committee today that all of those projects are on time and on budget? Without the police systems, the ISA will not have the information required to do the job. Is IMPACT up and running in every single police force in the country? What progress has been made on the correct storage and weeding of soft information and intelligence? When will IMPACT be fully operational throughout the country, if it is not already in place? Have the courts been able to give undertakings to the Minister that they will be able to put new offences on to the database in an accurate and timely manner? Again, that is an incredibly important part of the new process.
The regulation of overseas workers remains a concern and was something that my noble Friend Baroness Verma raised last week when the statutory instrument was debated in the other place. The Government stated in 2006 that they were developing protocols with 21 countries to ensure the flow of relevant information about those who seek to work with children and vulnerable adults in the UK. Some three years on we heard from the noble Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, who speaks for the Government on such matters in the other place, that there are agreements with just three countries, Australia, France and Ireland, which are not the countries to provide the lion’s share of overseas workers in these important sectors. When will the other 18 protocols be worked through, and what percentage of the overseas work force will be covered then? Given the slow progress, will the Minister consider my amendments to the Bill in Committee, which would have flagged to potential employers that an individual’s ISA check was incomplete if they had worked overseas? That would have been flagged as part of the system and would also apply to British workers who had worked abroad. It remains a glaring hole in the new system, which the Minister in his new job might want to focus on.
The regulations put forward today will be nothing if there is not a clear understanding by employers and employees of the radical changes that have been brought in through the ISA and the new vetting and barring system. Does the Minister share my concern that just 42 responses were received from local authorities, one of the major employers affected, to a consultation sent out by his Department to 326 authorities? His own Department suggested, in its report on the responses, that the poor response could result from local authorities not feeling informed enough about the new scheme. The Act received Royal Assent back in 2006, and we are just a few months away from full implementation, yet one of the critical partners—local authorities—still feel ill informed.
In the consultation that the Minister’s Department held in autumn 2007, we were promised stakeholder events in 2007 and 2008. What happened? Were they put on to inform people who will be affected of exactly what the new scheme will entail, or were they cancelled? Alternatively, did the Department simply fail to tell the right people what was planned? He must share my concern that local authorities feel that they are not informed enough about the process to take part in an important consultation on how the scheme will affect a great deal of the work that they do.
Will the Minister set out how he is monitoring whether people know that there is a new system and how it works? How does he plan to communicate with so many people in the short space of time between now and when the system is fully activated? I remind him that the need for clear and timely communication was debated at length in Committee, and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and I pressed hard for that with some of his many predecessors. He might want to have another look at the amendments and the debate in some detail, and give us some assurances on what has happened.
Turning to some of the detail, will the Minister give a guarantee to the Committee that the provisions in the statutory instrument acknowledging the delay in fully implementing the ISA will not lead to mistakes being made? In his opening comments he drew attention to the importance of getting that right. However, from now until next July, rather than October of this year, the ISA and the CRB will be required to work differently from how they will work after the full implementation of the new scheme. Is the Minister confident that implementing different and parallel work practices will not create possible room for error? Under the statutory instrument, particularly article 9, which modifies schedule 3 of the Act regarding automatic barring for people who have committed the most serious offences, changes are to be put in place that will require the system to work differently. An interim solution will be set up until the full legislation comes into force. How will the Government ensure that that interim solution works and is monitored so that no mistakes are made?
Article 11 modifies section 113BA of the Police Act 1997 to change the information on criminal records certificates, to show whether a person is eligible to work with children or vulnerable adults, or whether they are being considered for barring. Who will monitor whether that change in the system is properly implemented? It is a vital part of the process, and any error in an untried procedure will be totally unacceptable. Will the Minister say how many cases will be determined under the transitional arrangements? How will he ensure that no errors are made?
Full implementation has been delayed from October 2009 to July 2010—at least I think it has. There was a statement from a Home Office Minister on 19 March to that effect. However, in his opening remarks, the Minister indicated that there was to be full implementation of the legislation in October this year. Perhaps he can clarify that, because such details are vital for people trying to make this work in practice on the ground.
The reason given by the Home Office for the delay was the need for “robust testing” to maximise safety. Was that not already part of the plan for such an important and pivotal change? I am sure that the right hon. Member for Bolton, West will remember the many exchanges across the Dispatch Box about some of the issues that led to the development of the legislation.
The Committee will note that the new vetting and barring system will now not be in place until after the last possible date of the next general election. That is quite surprising, given the urgency of the matters that we are dealing with. The delays were clearly not foreseen, because some statutory instruments passed a few months ago now have to be re-enacted in articles 16 to 23 of this statutory instrument to cover the delays. Again, is it the IT systems, the court case or the turnover of Ministers that caused the delay? I find it difficult to believe that it is the need for robust testing, because I presume that was already factored into the timing that the Department had put in place.
We all know that the Department’s staff have worked diligently on the Act over the past two years to ensure that the legislation is accurate and robust and worthy of such important matters, but five Ministers in two years does not aid consistency in that work. I am concerned that the order under consideration and on which we are to vote contains provisions to make good no fewer than four errors in the legislation. Part 6 sets out changes to the automatic barring to rectify two omissions. Article 25 makes changes to ensure that the situation in Wales is made consistent with the situation in England. We would have expected that to have been dealt with during the initial discussions of the Bill in relation to the regulation of activity to do with child minders. Article 27 rectifies an error that left out independent schools inspectors, and article 28 rectifies an error regarding the role of the Welsh Minister. Why so many errors in a Bill that has taken two years to come through the House and that was devoid of so much detail when it was initially discussed on the Floor of the House?
It is important that the Committee looks at the provisions in this statutory instrument with regard to the definition of regulated roles. I have heard of mission creep but we now have definition creep. The legislation, which was put forward and agreed by the House as an important measure to protect children and vulnerable adults, risks significant change as a result of our discussions today. In 2006, the hon. Member for Gloucester defined regulated activity, saying:
“Regulated activity is a key term in the Bill. It is activity that will be prohibited for an individual on a barred list. Broadly speaking, it represents work involving close contact with children or vulnerable adults.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 11 July 2006; c. 75.]
Indeed, when the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston introduced the Bill, she set out the principles and talked about the importance of ensuring that reform is proportionate in its response to the problems and threats that we face. Yet articles 26 and 27 significantly expand the type and number of roles that will be subject to the legislation well beyond the definition set out by the hon. Member for Gloucester. It includes office holders such as clerks, governing bodies, associate members of governing bodies and chief executives of local authorities that discharge an education or social services function. That is not consistent with the intention of the original Bill and I give notice to the Minister that we do not accept that part of the statutory instrument. These are important people with critical roles, but not individuals who can be said to work in close contact with children or vulnerable adults.
The Government have kept open the option for the ISA to revise the definition of regulated activity, which was made clear by the noble Lord Adonis who was the then Minister in the Lords in May 2006. I have seen no evidence from the ISA to make the case for extending the type of role that should be regulated. What evidence does the Minister have for such an important change?
There has been a consultation with local authorities—I referred to the paucity of response earlier—but I am concerned that the intention behind the Act was not made clear as part of that consultation. Half of the respondents thought that every elected member of a local authority should be registered, regardless of whether they have contact with children. Clearly, that was never the objective of the Act, and not at all a proportionate response to the issue that we are dealing with.
Will the Minister give an undertaking to the Committee to rethink this section of the statutory instrument to ensure that there is a sound set of strategic principles governing which groups need to be monitored under the legislation? That is not present at this point. Clear strategic thinking on what the Act is trying to achieve is needed; to be proportionate and not take a blanket approach. Without clarity on who should be registered, there will be confusion, and perhaps further definition creep in the future. I urge the Minister to return to the original intention set out clearly by the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston and the hon. Member for Gloucester, and not risk stoking opposition to the new system by its appearing to be a catch-all.
The explanatory memorandum was incredibly helpful in setting out the ways in which the legislation will affect different groups, particularly small businesses. Will the Minister clarify the statement in paragraph 11.2, which states:
“Employees of such businesses will have to register with the ISA in order to engage in regulated activity, and employers will be strongly encouraged to register their interest in such staff”?
That is when we are talking about jobs that would be regulated activity. Will the Minister explain what is meant by “strongly encouraged”? Surely, to be informed of any change in the status of their employees, employers will have to register an interest in a member of staff undertaking regulated activity, whether or not it is a small business. Again, it is a point of detail, but in the Act, it is the detail that matters.
I look forward to the Minister’s responses. I hope he can take the opportunity to provide the House with an important update on the legislation and indicate that he will have a change of heart on expanding the type of roles that will require regulation.
10.52 am
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew, possibly for the first time. I also welcome the new Minister. The hon. Member for Basingstoke and I are wondering what we have done to have such a rapid turnover of Ministers while addressing the Act.
I welcome any move to improve the practical work of the vetting and barring scheme. When I say “improve the practical work”, I mean reducing its complexities. Narrowing the scope of the definition of “relevant child care premises” to exclude a child’s home, for example, as given in the explanatory notes, is welcome.
Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 15 July 2009