Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Members will be aware that our colleague, David Taylor, died suddenly over the Christmas period. David was not only a member of the Chairmen's Panel who chaired Westminster Hall, but an assiduous contributor to debates in this Chamber, so before we begin the first debate, I ask you all to stand for a moment of silence in his memory.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I would like to add my own comments on the tragic death of David Taylor. He was not only a great member of our party, but a great socialist and a personal friend, whom I shall miss greatly.
Leaving that sadness to one side, may I say how much I enjoy serving under your chairmanship again, Mr. Olner, and wish you and everyone else a happy new year? It will obviously be an interesting year politically, and it is a novel experience to make the first speech of the new year in this Chamber.
I welcome the opportunity to initiate the debate and would like to make several important points that I believe need to be highlighted and acted upon. What I will say is intended to reflect and support the campaign mounted by the TUC and Unison on the issue-hon. Members might be aware that I am a joint co-ordinator of the Unison parliamentary group. I acknowledge that since I requested the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister has accepted in full the recommendations made by Sir Roger Singleton. However, it is necessary to note that the scope of the Singleton report was specific. The review covered only those who volunteer with children, but of course the current definition of frequency applies to both children and vulnerable adults, whom, as I am sure that the Minister will agree, should be equally protected.
I must place it on record that the trade unions and other professional bodies involved in protecting vulnerable adults and children strongly endorse the principle of public protection. The terrible events at Soham and other cases in recent years have demonstrated that case to be unquestionable. However, several issues raised by the creation of the Independent Safeguarding Authority and its impact on working people need careful consideration.
The Minister will be fully aware, as we all are, that the public debate has understandably been dominated by high-profile media coverage-perhaps rather populist in tone-of the impact of the ISA scheme on voluntary groups such as scouts and local football clubs. Although those groups play a valuable-or even essential role-and are vital to society and local communities, much less
coverage has been given to the impact of the scheme on the caring professions and public services, and the many thousands who entered their vocations in those professions and services to protect and assist the vulnerable and children, especially. It is that specific dimension of the debate that I wish to address today.
I am sure that hon. Members agree that the public will be best protected by a system that is risk-based and proportionate, and that addressing such issues intelligently will have a positive impact. I wish to highlight substantive concerns relating to ISA that trade unions and other professional bodies have raised.
Several concerns have been brought to my attention by the TUC coalition, which has been working to develop a constructive response to the ISA scheme. I understand that a productive meeting took place with my hon. Friend the Minister early in November, which was attended by, among others, Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison. Three key issues were raised at the meeting, the first of which was the cost of registration and the impact that it might have on low-paid or part-time staff, particularly women.
The second concern was about the duplication of registration for a number of individuals who are already on a professional register, such as nurses, midwives, doctors, social workers and teachers, all of whom are required to maintain a professional registration as a condition of their employment.
The final issue raised was the lack of an appeals process under the current legislation. Although individuals can appeal to the Care Standards Tribunal, as things stand that can be done only on a point of law or fact. The tribunal is not allowed to hear evidence on appropriateness, which can be challenged only by judicial review.
I shall address each of those points in turn. To appoint someone to a post that allows them to work with or have access to vulnerable adults or children, an employer, organisation or individual must first ensure that they meet the knowledge requirements and possess the skills for the post. People are also subject to a criminal record check for all relevant employment posts. Unison and the TUC are calling for the costs of registration to be borne by the employer as part of its recruitment costs. The Home Office has indicated that that is, in any case, a one-off cost, as monitoring will then be ongoing for all employees. That being the case, it is reasonable and appropriate that employers fund the associated registration costs. If an employer is securing the services of an individual, surely ensuring their safety and suitability to be in that working environment should be included within its recruitment costs.
All the trade union organisations have expressed concern about registration fees' impact on individuals. In particular, Unison has questioned why a school meals cook or catering assistant working a few shifts a week should pay the same registration fee as a head teacher. That is surely unfair and inequitable by any standards. It is too early to assess the future impact on services, but we could, for example, face the spectacle of an individual having to pay to register so that they may serve school children their meals, but not facing such requirements in a local supermarket canteen. In those circumstances, an individual might choose to work in a supermarket and not apply to work in schools, to the detriment of the school meals service and contrary to the individual's initial preferences.
Robust arguments have been put to me by the TUC coalition and Unison about the impact on those who are already on a professional register yet will have to register with both ISA and their professional regulator. With the current proposals, under the definition of "harm", the professional regulators could spend more time referring cases to ISA than investigating them and taking professional decisions on whether a person should remain on the register. I understand that several regulators have expressed similar concerns about the impact that the ISA process will have on their fitness-to-practise processes.
To illustrate that point, I shall refer to a relevant case, which has been provided to me by Unison, of a nurse working in a mental health trust who, in restraining a service user, used a control and restraint technique that caused bruising. The service user complained and stated that the use of the technique breached their human rights and caused them harm. They also made a written complaint to the regulator, the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Having investigated and referred the case to a fitness-to-practise hearing, the panel concluded that although the use of control was appropriate, the nurse did not use the correct technique as their training was not current. The panel therefore decided to issue the nurse with a one-year caution and recommended updating their control and restraint training.
As the examples and definition of harm issued by ISA are so broad, however, that case would now also have to be referred to the authority. ISA would then consider all the information and might write to the person indicating its intention to place them on the banned list. The nurse would then have eight weeks to submit a statement to put forward their case. Their only opportunity to challenge appropriateness at that stage would be via judicial review. However, if the allegation was more serious, a judicial review at that stage would prevent ISA from concluding its decision, thus placing the individual concerned on the banned list.
In seeking to find a viable solution to the potential dilemma, Unison and the TUC have suggested a slight change to the appeal process that would enable the Care Standards Tribunal to hear all the evidence, including that relating to appropriateness. That would not cause delay to the ISA decision-making process, but ensure that any person whose livelihood would be taken away from them had the opportunity to seek redress and challenge and examine all the evidence. Indeed, Unison and the TUC have also suggested that any person who was on a professional register should have their case heard and concluded by the relevant professional regulator first. Each of the regulators would jointly agree with ISA a protocol for referring relevant cases. That would avoid the current duplication, enable the case to be heard and all the material facts to be considered and taken into account, and allow decisions to be made and conclusions reached more quickly and efficiently.
The Royal College of Nursing, in particular, has added its own emphasis to the need for a right to a fair hearing for individuals. Currently, appeals and hearings can be only paper-based and, as I said earlier, made only on a point of fact or law. The RCN believes that that breaches the European convention on human rights. It also emphasises the unnecessary duplication of
registration that I referred to earlier, and is concerned that there is a lack of clarity surrounding how ISA will work alongside professional regulators such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council. The RCN believes that that could lead to conflicting decisions being made by the two bodies.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, the TUC coalition and all its constituent organisations support the principle of public protection. However, several requirements proposed by the legislation might have a negative impact if regulators become weighed down with a 20-page referral form and are unable to meet their statutory obligation of public protection. The public can best be protected by a risk-based and proportionate system, and addressing these issues will have a positive impact and measurably improve statutory requirements and the safeguarding system, which, in other respects, are both necessary and appropriate. I look forward to hearing the comments of other hon. Members and what I hope will be a positive response from my hon. Friend the Minister.
Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing this important debate-although I am sure he was not hoping that it would be the first debate of the day, at 9.30 on our first day back. It is an important debate, and there has already been a great deal of discussion about the scheme.
Inevitably, after the Soham murders, everyone supports the principle of safe and effective public protection and welcomes the steps being taken by the Government to improve safeguarding and to protect children and vulnerable adults. That support is still very strong, but as people have had the opportunity to look at the details of the vetting and barring scheme, concerns have inevitably come to the fore, particularly among those people who work with such issues every day.
I am pleased that the Government have already acted to make the scheme less burdensome and more proportionate. For instance, it makes absolute sense to exempt children's authors, sportspeople and, in my constituency, ceramic artists who go into schools to work with children and inspire them; they should not be subject to burdensome regulations under the scheme. I am pleased that 16 to 18-year-olds who help out in schools or sports organisations will also be exempt. That makes absolute sense, because we do not want to do anything that would deny those young people the great opportunity of sharing their skills with younger pupils or other people. Good sense has also prevailed in respect of parents making private arrangements to care for each other's children. It was crazy to have a situation in which a police officer was told that looking after another police officer's children was somehow breaking the rules. Clearly, that makes no sense at all, and such people will not be affected in the future.
However, there is a group of parents-the 40,000 parents who home educate their children-who are up in arms about the extra checks that they will face in the future under the Badman report. That issue does not come directly within the scope of this debate, but it is part of what is, perhaps, the over-protection of children, and part of the difficult process of striking the right
balance in keeping children safe without being unduly burdensome, bureaucratic or invasive. Many of those parents, who are doing a fantastic job educating their children at home, feel that the hand of the law on their shoulder suggesting that perhaps their own children are at risk is not acceptable, and I agree with them. We have to get the balance right.
Volunteers and the voluntary sector play an important and increasing role in our communities, so I am delighted that volunteers will not have to pay the ISA registration fee. I am a volunteer myself, with a fantastic charity called Rudyard Sailability. We work with disabled children and adults, and I am delighted that that charity will not have the extra burden of having to pay the fee. However, I remember that the process of having my Criminal Records Bureau check done was very bureaucratic. It put a great burden on the gentleman who dealt with that on behalf of the charity, and I would be worried if this check created such burdens for voluntary sector organisations, whether they be disabled sailing charities such as mine, sports clubs or churches.
I hope that the ISA process will not overburden such organisations. They would much rather spend their energies dealing with their client groups and giving them the good time that they want to give them, rather than filling in forms. It is important that we get this right and do not alienate volunteers. They will not have to pay the charge, but obviously they give their time freely, and if that time is taken up with form-filling, it will not be as attractive an option as working with vulnerable client groups.
I, too, am a member of the public sector union Unison. I should like to discuss some of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North addressed. I believe that many MPs have come across cases of people who could not fully take up employment because their CRB check had not been done. That is worrying, particularly for someone in their first job. They want to start off well, but they are prevented from taking up their post because the CRB check has not come through, perhaps for a purely bureaucratic reason-the papers might have been lost. It has nothing to do with the individual applicant, but if the CRB check takes a long time to come through, it begins to reflect on the applicant. I do not want the same thing to happen with the ISA checks.
Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend talks about delays in CRB checks, and I am sure that other hon. Members have come across that problem in other circumstances. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will find ways of ensuring that CRB checks are undertaken quickly, and that explanations are given if there are delays.
Charlotte Atkins: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although the CRB check is a totally independent process, people get worried if there is a delay, and it appears to reflect on the individual. Clearly, it does not, but people who are starting a new job want to make a good impression, so it is important that the process is properly carried out. I do not expect the Minister to tell me at this point how long she expects the ISA checks to take, but it is vital that they are done quickly; otherwise, we will create a huge bureaucratic merry-go-round, which we do not want.
Many individuals are already subject to professional registration, and it seems over the top for people who have had to go through that process also to have to go
through the ISA scheme. I understand that the new ISA scheme will duplicate the existing regulation of public protection for almost 4 million workers-a huge proportion of the estimated 11 million who will be covered under that scheme. Surely, this does not make any sense.
I turn now to the cost of registration to the individual. Individuals in paid employment will effectively be subsidising the voluntary sector. I am in favour of that, but I am worried because the fee in England and Wales will be £64, which in anyone's book is a substantial sum-it will be £58 in Northern Ireland-that is hugely higher than the original estimate of just £20. That is a huge burden for a low-paid part-time cook, for instance. The school cooks in my local schools do a fantastic job. I do not want to see their skills diluted in any way.
Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for emphasising this important point about costs, which will have a differential effect on people from different social classes. In a constituency such as mine with a number of people on low incomes, the cost will act as a disincentive to volunteering, whereas it will mean little in a more affluent town where £64 is pocket money and pocket change. My hon. Friend has emphasised this point correctly.
Charlotte Atkins: There are school cooks in my area, in Leek and Biddulph, who have worked for the service for decades, have served youngsters and their parents too and are a valued institution. Those school cooks have really taken through the healthy foods initiative in schools and encouraged youngsters to try different foods, and they have had to struggle with menus that have been difficult to sell to young people. They are the people who encourage children to eat healthily. They do not just cook and serve the food; they engage with the children. I do not want any of those excellent ladies-and some gentlemen-who are doing a marvellous job, to find that the £64 is too much for them to bear. Why should they have to bear that cost? It makes no sense. They are public servants who are doing a fantastic job.
Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again and I apologise for intervening so frequently. A long report on the radio yesterday mentioned the impact of healthy meals on children's performance at schools and the massive contribution made by school cooks and catering workers to that. The more we can encourage children to eat healthy school meals, the better they will perform and the better they will be as citizens in the future.
Charlotte Atkins: I, too, heard that report, which denied the myth that the healthy school food initiative had been a failure and demonstrated that school catering teams had done a fantastic job throughout the country introducing healthy food. We do not want to see that work put at risk.
The registration cost makes no sense. Trading standards' fees for a small local delicatessen are different from those for a major company such as Tesco. We obviously should have a graduated fee system that would ensure that there was a proportionate response, because we want it to be proportionate and we do not want to lose public sector workers to the private sector and thereby lose their expertise and skills. It is vital that we ensure that we maintain those people within the schools.
All those risks could be avoided if the employer was required to pay the registration fee. That would be the best way forward, because the one-off fee could be incorporated in the recruitment costs of those excellent staff, rather than introducing any of the negative implications or unforeseen effects of the fee on low-paid staff. That is important.
Given that we have time to look at some of the details of the ISA, I hope that those issues are taken seriously by the Minister and thoroughly considered, because although the scheme is important it is also important that we get it absolutely right and that it works effectively. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to some of those points.
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