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5 Jan 2010 : Column 13WH—continued

Mrs. Miller: Among the most troubling issues that our communities face is the implication that we can eliminate risk from the lives of children or vulnerable adults, with the result that we break down the trust that exists in our communities. Although those are much
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broader issues, and there probably is not enough time to debate them today, we should ensure in all our deliberations that we do not try to create a feeling that society is devoid of risk. We should ensure that employers and voluntary organisations take responsibility for such issues in how they operate.

It is unsurprising that there has been widespread concern about the role and remit of the ISA, given that the organisation's scope has evolved so much under secondary legislation over the past four years. That is perhaps another reason why the Government should have included in the original legislation more of the detail of how the new vetting procedure would work. Many feel that we have moved away from the original intentions outlined in Sir Michael Bichard's report; indeed, there are indications that he himself feels that.

The Secretary of State's most recent guidance on the Singleton review simply serves to underline the fact that the new ISA legislation lacks a clear statement of the principles guiding the vetting process, so perhaps the Minister can take the opportunity afforded by the debate to clarify the issue. As we have heard from today's contributions, there is a real lack of clarity even about who has to be vetted. There is no coherent rationale, and the catch-all approach that formed our starting point seems to have evolved into a catch-all with significant caveats, which have been inserted by the Secretary of State in an attempt to prevent the whole organisation from being derailed. We need a much clearer articulation of the principles guiding the ISA, as well as a recognition that no system can guarantee the safety of children and vulnerable adults and that police checks are simply a record of the past, not a substitute for every organisation taking ultimate responsibility for those who work in them.

The most important part of the debate is the Minister's response, so I will outline only briefly some of the other issues that she may want to talk about. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) rightly said that the Singleton report covered a number of concerns, but there is still a lack of clarity about exactly who must be monitored and vetted. Given that the principles must be implemented by employers, employees and voluntary organisations, the most important point is surely that we have a simple set of rules that everybody can understand, rather than the complexity that we have now.

Although we originally expected a Minister from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to respond, the Minister is from the Home Office, so she might like to give us a quick update on how the police are getting on with their new database. Is it as up-to-date as it needs to be? Is it working in the way that she hoped it would? Are there are any concerns or reviews that we should be aware of? Those issues are outside my departmental responsibilities, so I would appreciate an update.

Another issue that the Minister could usefully mention is the clear ineptitude that has been demonstrated in communications on the new way of vetting. There have been several misconceptions about who should be vetted, some of which hon. Members have echoed today. The original legislation was never intended to touch on private understandings, but they are widely thought to be covered. Indeed, in his letter to Roger Singleton on 14 December, the Secretary of State says:

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Is that an admission that the Government have failed properly to communicate the details of the scheme? What has been learned from those mistakes? How exactly will the Minister communicate with employers and employees about how the ISA will work? We discussed those issues extensively in Committee, and I feel rather disappointed that the Government took no heed of what the Opposition said.

Another issue was raised directly with me in a round-table seminar with a wide range of experts that I hosted just before the Christmas break-the uncertainty about whether children's attendance with organisations as, say, part of their year 10 work experience would trigger a monitoring requirement for the organisation's employees, since a week's placement could satisfy the intensity test. If so, has the Minister taken into account the numbers who would be vetted? That is a matter that particularly concerns schools and organisations that are trying to set up such placements. A parallel issue is internships. We welcome the clarification to the effect that vetting would not be required of 16, 17 or 18-year-olds working with children or vulnerable adults as part of their school or college training. However, many university students may have short or long-term work experience placements. Why would they not be exempt too? Surely that would be an important part of their academic studies.

It is unclear why overseas visitors looking after their own children have a three-month exemption from registering. They will come into contact with children from this country on a frequent or intensive basis-say at a scouts' jamboree camp. Perhaps the Minister will explain the choice of the three-month period, which seems somewhat arbitrary, and why there is a shorter period before having to register-I think it is about 28 days-for parents in the UK who come into contact with children from overseas through exchange visits.

The portability of the new system is to be welcomed and I think that many of my constituents see it as an asset of the scheme, but will the Minister clarify whether employers will still be required to seek an enhanced disclosure for people in certain jobs once they are ISA-registered? The ministerial response to the Singleton review seems to be to advise employers that all the information needed to check the suitability of a candidate will be held by the ISA and that thus an enhanced disclosure will not be needed. There is a lack of understanding and clarity about that among voluntary organisations, and it would be a good thing if the Minister were to clarify it today.

Concerns were expressed in the round-table seminar that I mentioned about the decision-making powers of ISA caseworkers. They have the opportunity to change someone's life: it is fundamental. Will the Minister explain the training that they will receive, the prerequisite qualifications and experience for the job, the management structure of the ISA and to whom caseworkers will be accountable? Perhaps she will also clarify the type of information that caseworkers will observe, and the information that they will be able to pass on to employers. Concerns have been raised with me that information about third parties living in the house of a potential
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employee or volunteer might be passed to voluntary organisations, which might put the individual receiving it in an extremely difficult position. What safeguards are there to ensure that caseworkers do not misuse the information given to them?

An important group of people affected by the measures is ex-offenders. The St. Giles Trust has raised concerns about how the scheme could prevent them from re-entering the labour market. Sir Roger Singleton noted:

The ISA is apparently engaged in discussions with rehabilitative organisations, and perhaps the Minister will explain what action the Department is taking to encourage ex-offenders, and to educate employers, to ensure that the ISA will not have the negative impact that so many fear it will.

The hon. Members for Luton, North and for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) have already discussed the costs of registration, so I shall not do so further, other than to say that I share the hon. Lady's concern that they may disproportionately affect female workers and those who choose to enter the caring professions, perhaps after having a family.

The issue of overseas workers, although tangential to the points raised by the hon. Member for Luton, North, is probably of concern to trade union members. I have raised it with the Government in the past four years, and it has still not been fully addressed. In June 2006 the then Minister of State said that the Government were developing protocols with 21 different countries about how to deal with information about overseas workers who put themselves forward to be registered under the new system. Three years later, the Government have made initial agreements with Australia, France and Ireland-three countries. That is well short of the original objective. That was confirmed recently in a debate in the other place, when the Government spokesman Baroness Morgan said:

Considering the substantial number of individuals from overseas who now work in many areas that will be covered by the new registration process and about whose background and records there will be no information on the database, there seems to be a continuing glaring hole in the process. The Government have resisted any system of flagging the fact that someone has been working overseas, to give employers a heads-up on the fact that their ISA check is incomplete. Perhaps union members will be interested in that, because it means that there are two sets of rules for people applying for jobs. It is important that, if records are incomplete, that should be flagged up to employers and voluntary organisations.

It is clear from the debate today, and the debate that has been going on outside Parliament, that there are big questions about how workable the new system will be. We are trying to create a system that will be implemented by employers, employees and voluntary organisations. If those of us who have been involved in the debate for four years find it difficult to unpick the Government's
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intentions, the Minister would do best to tell the House that some fundamental reviews are being undertaken, beyond what has been done by Singleton; otherwise, she is storing up significant problems for the future.

10.37 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I share the sadness that has been expressed about the death of my friend and colleague David Taylor, who was a fellow Co-operative MP and, as you said, a very active Member in Westminster Hall. It is fitting that we should remember him today.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) for obtaining the debate. The issue is of great importance, and I am glad of the opportunity to clarify some of the matters that he raised and those raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) and for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) and the hon. Members for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) and for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller).

It is worth my giving an overview of the scheme, but I want to move quickly on to deal with the many points that have been raised. It is worth reiterating a fact on which I am glad that we have the support of hon. Members from all parties: we want a scheme that will ensure that we do our best to prevent the risk of harm involving those working with children and, just as importantly, vulnerable adults. I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Basingstoke about where risk lies. Whatever the Government do, they can never eliminate all risk, and it is important that the system that we are debating should be seen as part of the armoury of information that an employer can have in making a decision about whether it is safe for someone to work in a particular environment.

The scheme provides a simple, one-off registration that is-to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North-free for volunteers and allows an organisation placing volunteers to verify the information quickly and free of charge, without requiring the disclosure of sensitive criminal records data. As hon. Members know, the scheme comes out of the terrible events in Soham. We have made quite a lot of progress. The hon. Member for Basingstoke called for fundamental reviews, but given the fact that the scheme was launched in October and will, as I shall outline, progress rapidly this year, a fundamental review at this stage would mean that we would have no scheme. Four years on, that would be a foolish step. I shall explain, and respond to hon. Members' points about, some of the matters that we are considering, because I am ever aware of the need to ensure that what we establish is proportionate and not over-bureaucratic and that it does what it is supposed to do. I shall set that out clearly.

The scheme was launched on 12 October last year. It was the first stage of the process, under which the three existing barring lists-the protection of vulnerable aduits and Protection of Children Act lists and list 99-were replaced by the two ISA barred lists, the lists of those barred from working with children or vulnerable adults. Some people would appear on both lists, and some on one or the other.

A crucial point is worth stressing, as we have not talked enough about vulnerable adults in our four years
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of debate. Employers have had a legal duty imposed on them to refer to the ISA information about an individual who may pose a risk to children or vulnerable adults. That is critical. As a carer of a particularly vulnerable adult, I have seen over the years what can happen in some care settings-both professionally and personally. For example, an agency worker or a member of staff who is under investigation may choose to leave that employment. The employer does not need to take further action, because he no longer employs that person. Indeed, his investigation may not have progressed that far. On the same day, the individual can register with another employer or agency, sometimes working in the same care setting. From now on, if there is even a question mark or if an investigation has been started, that individual has to leave that employer and has a legal duty to provide that information. We will see some significant step changes in tackling the few-I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley-bad apples who may pose a risk to vulnerable adults. That will be an important step.

There are also new criminal penalties for barred individuals who work or apply to work with vulnerable groups. Applying to work will itself be a criminal offence if one has been barred. Criminal penalties were introduced to deal with employers who knowingly take on people with a poor record.

About 15,000 people are on the ISA list of barred adults and 19,200 people are on the children's list, but as I said, some appear on both lists. The reasons for inclusion in the lists include physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, drug offences, neglect and emotional abuse. Paedophilia is only one reason why the scheme is essential. It is important to see things in the round. It is important to note that the majority of those on the current lists were moved from the previous barred lists, which is why so many have been added in such a short time.

From July 2010, all new employees and volunteers who regularly come into contact with children or vulnerable people can be ISA-registered before starting work. Individuals will be able to apply for ISA registration and an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check on one application form. I shall talk about fees in a moment, but the bureaucratic procedure is similar to going through a CRB check. For the individual, it will involve much the same process.

The crucial aspect of the new scheme compared with existing and previous regimes is that people will be continuously monitored and their status reassessed whenever new information is received. There will be automatic triggers to ensure that such information is provided to the ISA. The employer will be able to register an interest in an individual with that person's consent. For example, were I to apply to for a job in a care home, I would be able to give my registration details to the employer, who would then be able to check that I was free and able to work.

From November 2010, all new employees and volunteers who regularly come into contact with children or vulnerable people must be ISA-registered before starting work. It will become a legal requirement for employers and voluntary organisations to check the ISA status of new and current employees. As I explained earlier, it is not over-bureaucratic; it should be a swift and straightforward process.

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By July 2015, all employees and volunteers who work regularly with vulnerable people, including current employees, must be ISA-registered. It may seem a long time, but it is important that we get it right and that we do things proportionately. I recognise, however, that the checks and normal precautions that employers and voluntary groups should be taking have indeed been taking place.

Many points have been raised this morning, so I may skip through certain matters that I think less important; I shall make a judgment on that. The hon. Member for Yeovil asked about Sir Roger Singleton's check. The scheme has received much publicity over the summer. I remember being on maternity leave and sometimes wanting to throw things at the radio when hearing the myths that abounded about who might be included. I was therefore delighted that my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families agreed to ask Sir Roger to check whether what was being done was proportionate. I am glad that we are having this debate today, as it will lay to rest some of those myths.

As a result of public concern, Sir Roger was asked to check whether the scheme had drawn the line in the right place for definitions of frequency and intensity of contact with children and vulnerable adults. His recommendations have been accepted; I believe that they improve the overall balance. They remove some 2 million people from the need for registration and ensure that the definitions of frequent and intensive activities are clear and understood.

It is essential to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are properly safeguarded and that we do all that we reasonably can to protect them from those who seek to do them harm. However, to be effective, the system must be balanced and proportionate. It is no good making it so tight and difficult that is hard for people to understand. I am grateful to Sir Roger for the clear way in which he communicated his thoughts on how things should be done, and as I said, the Government have accepted them in full.

Mr. Laws: Will someone who goes into a school on a voluntary basis to talk to the same class each week for between six and eight weeks, but always in the presence of the teacher, have to go through the procedure?

Meg Hillier: I shall touch on a number of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. It will depend on frequency, but I shall not pick up on one point. It would depend also on what the school felt was appropriate if that person had regular contact outside school. For example, schools in small towns may have more contact with that individual than with someone who comes from another geographical area. In essence, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, frequency may be defined as three times a month. However, recommendations 3 and 4 essentially need to work together. It will be a matter of judgment for the school on how it should work and what the timings should be. It is therefore difficult to comment on an example thrown at me in the Chamber.

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