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5 Jan 2010 : Column 19WH—continued

The hon. Gentleman usefully laid out the flaws of the previous system and reminded us all of the need for
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change. I shall now pick up on some general points, but I may come back to the point that he raised a moment ago.

The question was asked whether police officers should register under the scheme. I and ministerial colleagues from the Departments of Health and for Children, Schools and Families have been alert to the need to ensure that the scheme is proportionate. The cost of police going through their own check, which is essentially the same, seemed over-bureaucratic. It has therefore been decided that police officers, for whom rigorous vetting arrangements are already in place, and who are uniquely placed to access all the relevant criminality and intelligence information on the police national computer, do not need to be ISA-registered. Some officers have regular contact with children, but that is a slightly different issue.

Mrs. Maria Miller: I return to the intervention by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws). If the Minister finds it difficult to give an answer to his question, surely school governors in our constituencies will find it difficult to assess whether or not an individual needs to be police checked and will therefore err on the side of caution. The lack of clarity-and perhaps the Minister's inability to answer that question-shows the scale of the problem.

Meg Hillier: I shall take the rare step of being candid. I have been up three times in the night with a young baby and I have a cold. I was worried that I might have misheard what the hon. Gentleman said and did not want to commit myself, in Hansard, to something that I may have had to correct. However, I shall address the point that he raised in more general terms. Forgive me, Mr. Olner, for being personal, but that is the reality.

We believe that removing the police is a proportionate decision that will reduce bureaucracy. Voluntary sector support is high. Bodies such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Volunteering England support the inclusion of volunteers in the scheme. It is right. I have volunteered for groups in which my children have been involved. I am a mother of three. For example, I would sometimes turn up at a Cub Scouts camp. In those days, I needed a CRB check as there were other children. I recently turned up to make paper flowers with the Brownies, but I did not need a CRB check because, at all times, Brown Owl was present. We have to recognise that the balance is right for volunteers.

As a number of hon. Members stressed, we also need to communicate clearly to those who are asked to undergo CRB checks or ISA registration which people need to be checked. It is important to get right the frequent contact test that was raised by Sir Roger Singleton. The hon. Member for Yeovil asked whether the test takes into account the nature of the contact. I hope that my story about the Brownies and the paper flowers has reassured him on that. Of more concern is the overnight stay on residential trips with children. I welcome the opportunity to make clear that difference.

The CRB check gives information about a person, but it is left to the employer's discretion to decide whether it is relevant to the person having contact with a child. For example, someone who is not barred may have additional information on their CRB check, and it
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would be up to the employer to judge whether it was relevant to the job. If someone was to apply to be a minibus driver for a youth club, the fact that they had a criminal record may not be an issue, but if they had a record around children it may be. If they were to apply for a job in which they were handling money, a criminal record on a financial matter might be an issue. If they were providing children with counselling and the financial issue was a concern, the employer might use that as a reason not to employ them. That is the normal process for a CRB check. I am slightly digressing here. As I am anxious about time, I will have to rattle on a bit.

As for children's authors, the Government accepts Sir Roger's analysis that in cases in which someone is working frequently with children but only in different schools and returns to the same school only infrequently, if at all, there is no opportunity to develop and abuse trust. If I understood the hon. Member for Yeovil correctly, he was talking about someone having fairly regular contact with the same group of children, in which case there would be a requirement for registration. The key issue is about the ability to develop a relationship. Schools can still choose to ask anyone for an up-to-date CRB check even if they are not barred from working with children. There may be information in the CRB check that is not relevant to the ISA. The impact assessment that was mentioned is being produced, but I cannot give a definite time scale on its production at the moment.

Let me pick up on some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North, because he initiated the debate. He and other hon. Members touched on the issue of cost. The cost of the first registration is £64. It is worth stressing that the cost was never £20. I am not clear where that figure comes from. In the consultation carried out by Government, only 5 per cent. of respondents considered that £20 was an appropriate cost. The cost for the ISA part of the check is £28. At the same time, the scheme requires an enhanced CRB disclosure, which costs £36. Therefore, in total, the cost is £64, but the ISA registration is only £28, which is a reasonable amount. Good and responsible employers may well choose to take on such a scheme, and it would be right for them to consider it and, arguably, it would make them competitive in attracting employees.

We must recognise from where the funding comes. If we provide the checks for free, the money will come from tax funds. If we charge a fee, the scheme will be paid for from that. Therefore, we have two payment options because the money has to come from somewhere. It is not for the Home Office to direct employers what to do, but other Departments-the Departments of Health and for Children, Schools and Families-may choose to have discussions with some of those who require people to have checks.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am listening to my hon. Friend with interest, but I am sure that it requires only a simple adjustment to the legislation to make it statutory for employers to pay the costs.

Meg Hillier: There is no time for legislation on such a basis even if it were in the Government's mind. However, I hope that most employers will take up the scheme. Once employees register, the scheme is portable. There
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is a one-off registration. The scheme is similar to the security checks at airports in which employees can be required to contribute.

I do not have the time to go into the issues around CRB performance, but let me reassure hon. Members that it is not as bad as it has been painted. We are regularly on target to achieve a turnaround within 28 days. For the ISA registration, there will be a seven-working-day turnaround to get the information back, and only if there is the trigger of information being sent to the ISA will the ISA have to go through its process, so that is much faster. I have already mentioned that volunteers do not have to pay anything at all, which addresses some points of concern.

The concern about duplication of regulatory provisions is important, and I have had constructive discussions with Unison and other TUC members, and their arguments convinced me to consider the matter again. The work is ongoing, so I cannot reveal anything to hon. Members now, but I am grateful to the trade unions and professional bodies for their constructive and detailed input to the discussions. Intense work is still going on behind the scenes.

I want to stress that the roles for regulators are different from those of the ISA, which must ensure that unsuitable persons are barred from work with children or vulnerable adults. It considers risk and not professional competence, which is the role of the regulators. It is important that we recognise the difference. Nevertheless, the ISA works with Unison and keepers of registers to develop clear and consistent guidelines on what information should be referred to the ISA and when. The ISA chief executive has held discussions with some bodies, including the General Social Care Council, the General Medical Council and Unison, and will be meeting Unison again later this month to take matters further forward. An operational workshop involving a number of stakeholders will take place later this month to work through the practical issues involved in the referral process. That came about as a result of a meeting that I had with trade unionists and keepers of registers last autumn.

The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North in respect of harm is a sound one and goes to the heart of what we are discussing with stakeholders. The ISA has no interest in creating an unnecessary and unwieldy bureaucracy that might hinder rather than improve safeguarding. The suggestion that any person who is on a professional register would have their case heard and concluded by the professional regulator prior to referral to the ISA is, in all likelihood, how the process will work. We must ensure that we are aware of any potential loophole or flaw in the process, that we have a proper notification and that we know exactly where responsibility lies at each stage of the process. As the Minister responsible, I am anxious that we do not have a system that sets up a chain of events and that, when different bits of the chain slip, we do not end up with a tragedy for which no one takes responsibility. We must have clear lines of responsibility at every point.

As for conflicting decisions between regulators and the ISA, different conclusions might be reached, but that may be for the reasons that I outlined at the beginning. The ISA might not bar someone who has been dismissed for professional misconduct because
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they might not be a risk to children or vulnerable adults, but it might bar someone not because they have been dismissed from the professional body but because it holds other relevant information, and it must take all that information in the round. Therefore, we will sometimes see different decisions, but we must be clear about why. I am very positive about our work with the trade unions and the registers of information on the matter.

On appeals, individuals can appeal to a tribunal only on points of law or fact. It was recognised that the expertise of the ISA board and its professional judgment should not be overturned by a court that does not have the same expert knowledge. The option of continuing to a judicial review of decisions remains and discussions are ongoing with those involved in representing employees about how the scheme will work, and I am still open to discussion. We have to start as we mean to go on, and we start with what we have already outlined and laid out in law. If the scheme does not work, I pledge to review it after the fact and to continue to have discussions about how we ensure that it works properly. Let me reassure all concerned that the factual information provided will be properly considered.

I have very little time left, but I want to stress that I went to Darlington and met the caseworkers, and I will write to the hon. Member for Basingstoke about the training aspects. I had a very positive experience meeting them and I was impressed with how seriously they take their jobs and their decisions, knowing the impact that they have on people's lives.

Let me clarify that the ISA scheme does not apply to private and family arrangements or infrequent arrangements. However, when carers-those of us who are parents or caring for anyone who is an adult-hand someone over to others who are not in their direct control, they need the reassurance that they are safe. That is what this scheme is intended to do and what I believe, with the adjustments that we are making, it will do.

Let me reassure the hon. Lady that we are making good progress on the police national database. Moreover, I have to say that we have not been inept on the communications front. We have done a lot to communicate with different bodies, but sometimes, alas-as a journalist myself I find this distressing-newspapers do not always check their facts properly and headlines can alarm people. We will continue to provide information. The helpline has dealt with many queries and e-mailed responses. A lot of work has been done by the ISA to help to guide people through the process. Youngsters of 16, 17 and 18 do not need to be vetted. As for the issues around overseas visitors, I will write to the hon. Lady about them and send a copy to other hon. Members.

In summary, the scheme is important and I welcome the debate on it. It is a shame that we have not had more time to discuss it.

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Island Transport Services

11 am

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): This is a very important debate for my constituents, who are extremely concerned about the links between mainland Penzance in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in my constituency.

I am delighted to have secured this debate. Although I understand, of course, that there are very few constituencies south of the Scottish border that have islands with substantial populations who have questions about island transport services, such services are none the less important to my constituents.

I am grateful to the Minister and his Department, particularly for their work during the passage of the Concessionary Bus Travel Act 2007. At that time, I raised concerns about what would happen to ensure that residents on the Isles of Scilly achieved parity with those people who were fortunate to have roads and bus services between the communities that they needed to communicate and travel between. I raised those concerns because the water buses-the launches that operate between the Isles of Scilly-are the equivalent of bus services elsewhere. Therefore, I am grateful that his Department was prepared to consider that issue in 2007 during the passage of the Act and that it found a settlement that I know both the council and the residents of the Isles of Scilly were satisfied with.

This debate, which is a 90-minute debate rather than a 30-minute debate, is very specifically geographically focused on my constituency, particularly the west of my constituency, and it is related to the future plans for investment in and improvement of the Isles of Scilly ferry link. For reasons that I need to explain and that I must at least put on record today, this project has been seriously knocked off course by a recent decision, which had been predicted for some time beforehand. The reason that I have secured this debate in Westminster Hall is that I now need the support of the Minister; ideally, I need his intervention, but certainly I need his advice, to help to ensure that this project can be put back on course and that we can find a way forward for it. We need to find a way to ensure that this project can proceed.

By way of assisting the Minister, I will just run through in advance a number of questions that will arise from what I am going to say, to give him the opportunity to reflect on those questions while I paint, if you like, the picture that lies behind them. I will perhaps come back to those questions at the end of my contribution, but I thought it would be helpful if I gave him early notice of them.

The Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), recently wrote a letter to me, dated 22 December 2009; as the Minister knows, I have corresponded with both him and the Minister of State. In that letter, the Minister of State reasonably stated-I entirely understand his statement-that

that is the Isles of Scilly ferry scheme-

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I entirely accept and appreciate that comment. He goes on to say:

I appreciate those remarks, because I must say that it has been a difficult negotiation locally on this scheme and it remains difficult now.

However, there has been a recent development, which is the rejection by Cornwall council of its own transportation department's application for listed building consent for one aspect of Penzance harbour. Of course, gaining that consent is critical to the progress of the ferry scheme and so there is now probably a need for aspects of the scheme to be reviewed. In the light of that development, are there circumstances in which the Minister would be prepared to join me in a meeting with others to help to find a productive and constructive way forward for this project?

In my opinion, the best way forward would be to have input by the Regional Minister, the Minister for the South West, the right hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight); the Government office for the south-west, which I have been speaking to on this issue and which has been very helpful, I must say; senior officials from English Heritage, who I have also spoken to and who are very keen to make a constructive contribution to finding a way forward; and of course officers from Cornwall council. Crucially, however, we also need senior officials, or at least those who can be given an "executive brief", from the Department for Transport to help us find a way forward. I have already offered to convene such a meeting or series of meetings, in the event of receiving the appropriate agreements from all concerned. My second question therefore is, will the Minister be prepared to commit some of his senior officials to assist with that meeting or series of meetings?

In the letter dated 22 December 2009 from the Minister of State, Department for Transport, which I referred to a moment ago, he told me:

Although I query how decisions can be made in a region where there is no line of democratic accountability, I will not probe that issue at the moment. None the less, I am pleased that that decision has been made and that the scheme remains a priority.

That letter from the Minister of State was clearly written after the planning decision that I referred to, which was made on 14 December 2009. Therefore, bearing in mind the rather catastrophic situation that we found ourselves in just before Christmas, I am reading it into the Minister of State's letter that there is some support from the Department for Transport to find a way forward for the scheme.

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