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5 Jan 2010 : Column 7WH—continued

9.55 am

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): I support my parliamentary colleagues in their attempt to get clarity on the implementation of the Independent Safeguarding Authority. None of us is here to do it down or to create difficulties where we do not think that there are any, and most of us are supportive. A group of organisations has come together on this matter, and I am glad to say that Unison is taking a lead in that. I say that as a lifetime working member of Unison who was part of the creation of the Confederation of Health Service Employees and moved into Unison in the nursing profession. These proposals and changes are sensible and proportionate. As a listening Minister, my hon. Friend will be keen to hear those concerns, although I know that she has had a series of meetings with those with particular issues to discuss.

The last thing that we need is for people to be deterred from going into the caring professions, which are not well paid for millions of people, particularly women. It is important that we ensure that those professions are welcoming, and we are keen to ensure that new people come into the caring professions to revive them and do extremely difficult jobs. People do not do it for the money: it is difficult. I have worked alongside all sorts of carers for 25 years and it is obvious that people are coming into the profession because they want to and because they know that they can make a difference.

It would be easy to say, "Well, people are getting upset about the new overarching authority, because if you've something in your background, you'd be afraid to disclose that." That is untrue. The reality is that, overwhelmingly, the people working in the caring professions with vulnerable young people, children and babies are straight as a die and honest. The last thing that we want to do is to put them off and turn them out into another profession. It is important that, whatever we do with the implementation of the authority, it is proportionate and understandable.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I want to ask the hon. Lady about the important point that she has raised. She says that those who go into the caring professions have nothing to worry about if they have a clean bill of health in respect of their backgrounds. However, there is a worrying increase in the number of people who are given cautions for sexual offences-it has been increasing year on year-and many may not understand that, by accepting a caution, they could be ruling themselves out of all those jobs in future. Has she talked to her contacts about that?

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Laura Moffatt: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue. All of us as Members of Parliament have had issues brought to us by our constituents. However, one major issue is not the offence but disclosure and ensuring that people understand at the time that, if they accept a caution, it may affect their future. Education and information for people at that stage are crucial to the whole process. I agree that the new way of dealing with offences and the changes have implications for people, but although it is proportionate-a major offence should not be dealt with in that way-they need information, so that they know about the effect that that will have on them.

There are many people whom we believe will be ideal for the profession, and the last thing that we should do is set up a host of hurdles for those who are willing, particularly younger people who are looking at the caring professions. The economic climate has changed, and a lot of younger people are now looking to the public sector for their future vocation. For many people, it is a vocation to be a midwife or a nurse or to work in a school. Therefore, there will be increased demand, but let me reiterate that many of those people will be relatively low paid. There appears to be no mechanism to take account of that-it might be a head teacher who applies, as was mentioned earlier, or a dinner lady-and we need to give that issue some attention.

My hon. Friends have said, quite rightly, that ensuring that the employer pays the initial fee for joining the register would take away many of those obstacles. It would make people feel that, if they entered a profession, the commitment from the employer would be there. Having checked with local trusts in my constituency, I accept that many employers will be prepared to do that, but there is no mandatory fixture for them to say that they will pay. I believe that good employers would pay that fee, but that might not happen in some organisations. We need everybody to be certain that the issue will be dealt with in that way.

My hon. Friends raised the issue of volunteering. We are greatly relieved that volunteers will not only be dealt with proportionately through the changes already made, but that they will not have to foot the bill for any of the work that they do. Many of us know of local organisations where people dedicate their time and energy to making lives better for our constituents. Nevertheless, we should consider one issue: it is good that volunteers will not be asked to pay, but that is based on the principle that 11 million people in work will contribute in some way, either through the employer or personally, to allow the system to function properly. Once again, is it fair to allow the dinner lady to subsidise volunteering? Pleased as we are that volunteers will not pay, is it right and proportionate that those on lower incomes will contribute?

Those are just some of the issues. I completely support the principle and the notion behind the authority, as does the impressive coalition of good, sound organisations that have come together to consider the matters in detail and provide a sense of proportionality about what is needed to protect our professions. None of us wants the authority to fail or to be ineffective-it flows from the Bichard inquiry, which was set up after the Soham murders. If we could have prevented those murders by having a more effective register, we would have wanted to do so. Therefore, it is in a spirit of support and of
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wanting the authority to function that we appeal to the Minister this morning to look at these matters in detail and to respond as positively as she can.

10.4 am

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I start by wishing you, Mr. Olner, and all those present a very happy new year. On behalf of my party, I also wish to put on record our sadness at the news of the loss of David Taylor, and our appreciation of the work that he did, not only on the Chairman's Panel, but through the passionate way in which he made his case on the Floor of the House. He was a Member for whom there was genuinely a great deal of respect and admiration across parties, and he will be greatly missed, not only by Labour Members, but by hon. Members on the other side of the House.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing the debate, which, as he mentioned, is the first of this important political year. We are debating an extremely important topic, and I commend him for setting out his case with extraordinary brevity and in such a straightforward way. He did not take up a huge amount of time, which has allowed a number of hon. Members to contribute, and permits us to touch on not only some of the points that he raised, but some of the other issues arising from last year's Singleton review. This is probably our first parliamentary opportunity to debate that review and the important amendments that have been made to the previous proposals for the Independent Safeguarding Authority.

A number of hon. Members referred to the background of the establishment of the Independent Safeguarding Authority and to some of the concerns that led to it being set up. We want to place on record our recognition of the importance of this issue, and our concerns about the deficiencies of the previous regime that led to this body being set up, with all its associated costs and controversies. Previously, a lot of the information that was available about some individuals regarding whom there were safeguarding concerns was not consolidated in a way that allowed children to be properly protected. An undesirably political element to the protection regime has been swept away as part of the reforms-we think that that demise is sensible.

The measures implemented by the Government should be proportionate and realistic, and they should not place unreasonable costs on individuals or particular bodies. Over the past few months, there have been considerable concerns not only in the education world, but in all those areas where the protection of children and vulnerable adults is an issue, about whether the legislation and regulations were out of control, and whether they were imposing unreasonable costs and duties that could be counter-productive and might drive many law-abiding citizens away from being involved in the support of children and vulnerable adults, particularly in a voluntary capacity.

There were genuine concerns that the measures being introduced would have unintended consequences. Outside the education world, we got to a situation in which even the police were being required to register their own staff members, who were obviously already going through other vetting procedures. At a time when budgets were beginning to be tight, there were concerns that the
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police would need to make large financial provision to put a high proportion of their own staff through this new procedure at £64 a head. I was astonished when I heard the costs that were going to fall on the Avon and Somerset constabulary in my area as a consequence of those vetting and barring procedures. We are therefore pleased that the Government have looked again at some of those matters as a consequence of the Singleton review, and that some of the deficiencies to which hon. Members have referred have been dealt with. However, we still have some concerns about the proposals of Sir Roger Singleton's committee, which I will return to in a moment.

The hon. Members for Luton, North, for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) and for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) made extremely important points, some of which involved issues that have been of public concern and reported in the media. Other issues have remained under the surface, and while they are of concern to particular employees and employer groups, they have not become part of the wider public debate. All those matters are important and I would like to touch on them today.

I understand that the hon. Member for Luton, North is concerned about three issues: first, who should pay these costs and, in the case of low-paid employees, whether that cost should be picked up by the employer; and, secondly, whether the available appeals processes are sufficiently robust, and how rapidly they will take effect. Importantly-I think that this was also raised by the hon. Members for Staffordshire, Moorlands and for Crawley-the third issue is whether the principles in the Singleton report relating to police exemptions should be extended to other professional groups. I hope that the Government will consider that seriously, because if credible vetting procedures are in place for professional groups, we should not try to replicate them. We were particularly concerned about the situation relating to the police. Some of the other professional groups were not raised with us, so today's debate is an interesting opportunity to discuss some of those issues.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very helpful comments. We are concerned about the wider question of duplication with other professional bodies not just in relation to the police, but in all cases in which professional bodies and regulators do checks beforehand.

Mr. Laws: I am grateful for that clarification. I hope that the Minister will respond to the hon. Gentleman's important point.

Let me go through some of these areas and several of the other issues that are still outstanding in relation to the legislation and regulations under discussion. When the matter was first debated in the House, both Opposition parties expressed a great deal of concern about many of the loose ends, the limited time to deal with a very detailed subject and the potential unintended consequences. We have seen from the Singleton review the justification for those concerns and the need for us to look again at the regulations to see whether they could be implemented more sensibly. We are not convinced that all the proposals that will be in place by next year are quite right yet, although we accept that the Singleton report and the Government's acceptance of it represent a significant move forward.

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Let me first raise one important concern about the Singleton recommendations. I think that the hon. Member for Luton, North, quite deliberately, did not seek to touch on it, but it is, for us, an important residual point that comes out of the recommendations, which were published in December. It relates to recommendation 3, on "Frequent and intensive contact", and the associated recommendation 4 on "Visits to different settings". In some ways, both recommendations seek to take into account the concerns expressed about whether the regulations would be excessively burdensome. In recommendation 3, Sir Roger seeks to redefine the frequent and intensive contact tests so that they would essentially come into place if people were going into schools and coming into contact with vulnerable individuals once a week or more regularly. The intensive contact test is defined in terms of four contacts a month.

Our concern is not that that is not a small move in the right direction, but that it does not really deal with the question of what individuals are doing when they are in the particular settings and whether they are really likely to pose a risk. In other words, we think that it is framed too much in terms of frequency of contact and does not consider in sufficient detail what the contact constitutes. Many people would regard it as obvious that when an individual comes into contact with children or vulnerable adults in an environment in which they are the only adult present, or when they are in a particularly vulnerable setting-perhaps involving an overnight stay, or sports or some such activity-there are reasons for ensuring that the safeguards in place are very secure. However, many other people who go into educational establishments or who come into contact with vulnerable children and adults might be doing so with a much lower risk characteristic, particularly when those individuals are coming into schools or other settings where there is another adult who might already be the approved and vetted adult present.

Many of us can think of occasions on which individuals come from outside school settings to talk to children, sometimes quite regularly, but those contacts take place wholly with one of the existing members of the teaching staff in place. That seems not to be properly taken into account in the recommendations and in the Government's plans, so we have a situation that is framed too much around frequency and not enough around the actual risk inherent in any particular situation.

That concern was raised by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) when this matter was first debated.

She said that there would be activities that did not need to be monitored, but that equally there would be circumstances, such as those outlined on that day, in which there would be concerns. I should like to know whether the Government have given, or will give, more consideration to whether the nature of the contact and the risks inherent in that should be considered more seriously and whether, therefore, more flexibility could be built into the procedures, but obviously not in relation to contacts that would be particularly high risk.

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I should also like clarification of the linked proposal-recommendation 4, which relates to visits to different settings. My understanding of that is that Sir Roger has concluded that if an individual comes into contact with a vulnerable adult or a child on a regular basis, there is cause for concern that some sort of abusive relationship might develop in unusual circumstances and that therefore protection is needed. However, Sir Roger seems to have decided that if an individual comes into contact with a range of young people or vulnerable adults, but not the same young people or vulnerable adults, the potential for an abusive relationship to develop would be much lower and therefore the toleration of contact with those different individuals should be much higher.

I can understand the argument that if an individual comes into contact frequently with vulnerable adults or with the same children, there is the potential for a relationship to develop that could be abused, but I can also see an apparent irrationality. My understanding is that if, for example, an individual was coming into a secondary school from the outside but was having contact with children in different classes, they would essentially have an exemption from some of the other proposals in relation to frequency and intensity of contact. It seems bizarre that those individuals might be able to come into contact with individuals in a potentially exposed setting quite frequently, but provided that it was with different individuals, they would be exempt from the frequent and intensive contact proposals. I wonder whether that is sensible, particularly given that those individuals, even if they are coming into contact with different classes or individuals formally in the classroom, might still be able to meet up with children or vulnerable adults whom they had met in another formal setting as they worked their way around the institution.

I therefore have yet to be persuaded that recommendations 3 and 4 deal sensibly and pragmatically with this particularly crucial issue. I think that, in some senses, recommendation 4 leaves some scope for abuse and child protection concerns, but recommendation 3 does not go nearly far enough in allowing exemptions for the large number of adults who come into contact with young people and vulnerable adults but do so in a setting where the risks are extraordinarily low and, in particular, where another adult who has been vetted is already in the setting. I invite the Minister to comment on that and let us know whether the Government will look at the matter again.

I should like to pick up the point that the hon. Member for Luton, North made about other professional groups and whether the exemptions that have now been extended to the police, following the Singleton report and the Home Secretary's response to it, could be extended to other groups on the basis of the checks that already have to take place. Even after Sir Roger's proposals, the new regulations will still relate to between 9 million and 9.5 million people, and possibly many more over time. If it is possible to work within the framework of the current checks, rather than introducing new bureaucracy, I hope that we can pursue that.

Will the Minister comment on a number of other issues that have been left hanging in the air as a consequence of the Secretary of State's statement at the end of last year? First, Sir Roger recommended further work on three of the proposals at the end of his report. Under what time scale can we expect the Government to
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complete that work and bring recommendations to the House? Is it likely to be before the spring or will it be well into the future? Secondly, when will there be a new impact assessment of the proposals as amended by Singleton? Will it include an assessment of their benefits in terms of reducing the potential for abuse?

I want to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Luton, North. I have concerns about whether the appeals process can be strengthened and about the time taken to process checks. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there is a lot of evidence to show that the processing is taking far too long. If people believe that processing will take a long time, organisations, employees and volunteers may be deterred from entering into arrangements, which could have a damaging impact.

Finally, we heard about the cost of processing. In some cases, particularly those of a more voluntary nature, the expectation is that the individual, sadly, will have to bear the cost. However, a legitimate point can be made, particularly in the case of low-paid individuals, about whether the employer should pick up the cost. Although £64 might seem a relatively small amount for somebody on a high income, it is a lot for somebody on a low income, particularly if they have been out of employment for a long time. People who go back into employment often face transport and other costs, which can be quite large and which can act as a genuine disincentive to taking up work. I therefore have some sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Luton, North and his hon. Friends, and I hope that the Government will respond positively.

10.22 am

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in the first debate of the new year, Mr. Olner. I echo the sentiments that you expressed about the sad loss of David Taylor. I am sure that all our thoughts are with his wife and family at this sad time.

On a lighter note, I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing the debate and on setting out so clearly some of the real concerns that remain about the Independent Safeguarding Authority. It is important that we do that, because the organisation was conceived to help some of the most vulnerable people in our communities-those with whom we perhaps deal most as constituency Members of Parliament-and to ensure that they are appropriately protected. As we have heard from several hon. Members, various organisations, including trade unions, have concerns about the impact of the legislation on their workers and particularly on the lowest-paid.

The Government's approach to the new vetting system, which has evolved over more than four years, and the creation of the ISA reflect some of the more troubling issues-[Interruption.]

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. I must remind officials that they cannot pass notes to members of the public at the back of the room. I would appreciate it if they would refrain from doing that.

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