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Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. We welcome the report. It is serious in substance and deals with a frightening issue. The abuse of people is reprehensible, but when it is the abuse of vulnerable people, in particular children, it is worse again. When that happens in the context of a trusting relationship iniquity is piled upon iniquity. But the greatest nightmare of all is when children are removed from one abusive situation and put into another--trapped into further abuse at a time when they should have been able to put their trust in protection by the law and by others.

We have not had time to study the report in detail. However, the matter to which it refers, and the litany of failure and abuse referred to in the Statement, ensures that it is not merely major and significant but that it carries with it a moral imperative. There have been previous such reports dealing with one important aspect of the problem; that is, how to protect young people from the malevolent. I refer, for example, to the Warner Report published in 1992. Yet it appears that some of the recommendations--for example, the extensive vetting of those who seek to work with young people--have not been fully carried forward. The report needs to be fully considered and a great deal of work will be required. However, we seek the Government's assurance that those needs will not be used as an excuse for further delay and lack of implementation. We seek an assurance that the report will be implemented without delay in order to protect vulnerable young people from the malevolent.

There is another side to the matter, which is the protection of the vulnerable. Such young people, aside from the abuse they might suffer, are vulnerable in all kinds of ways. They are vulnerable, for example, educationally. We know that such young people are not performing at anything like the level of other young people. Some 75 per cent. of this group are leaving school without qualifications and are 10 times more likely to be excluded from school. We know, too, that their personalities are likely to be affected by the abuse that they have sustained. In their relationships with others it is not infrequent that the abuse is repeated. It is not easy to work with such young people.

That leads me to another group of vulnerable individuals, mentioned briefly in the Statement. I refer to the staff who work with those young people. There has been a movement to have more young people dealt with in the community. Out of 60,000, approximately 40,000 are dealt with in the institutional context, but

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one-third are dealt with in foster care. As we move towards those young people being dealt with out of the institutional environment, the concentration of disturbance within that environment becomes all the greater. The pressures on staff are greatly increased. If there are resource difficulties, staff under pressure, increasingly disturbed young people and heavier requirements and regulations, then the vulnerability of the staff in dealing with those young people is also greatly increased.

It is not sufficient merely to demand more professionalism and better management. We must also ensure real support and sufficient resources so that the staff do not become increasingly vulnerable and that the work is attractive to those who want to do what is best for the children. I seek the Minister's assurance that issues such as the educational vulnerability of the children and the vulnerability of the staff as regards supervision and treatment will receive urgent attention.

Finally, will the Government attend to the wise words of the NSPCC, which has so much experience of these affairs? It states that the standards and quality in different parts of the country are varied and that great attention should be given to ensuring equality across the country so that there are no pockets in which such incidents recur. The noble Earl pointed to one way in which that can be achieved. I look forward to the Government's response with eagerness.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for their constructive response to the Statement. Both noble Lords indicated the seriousness of the subject under discussion and reflected what I think the noble Earl described as the general revulsion at some of the material revealed in the report. I am extremely grateful to both noble Lords for indicating that any constructive and forward-looking response by the Government, once we have gone through the consultation process which I described in repeating the Statement, will be supported on different sides of the House. I know that the Government will value that greatly.

The noble Earl referred to the general necessity to both underline and encourage the better training and screening of people involved in a professional way in looking after children living away from home. That is probably the crux of the matter and it is something to which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, also referred. We shall of course give great emphasis to looking at that both in relation to the better training facilities which are needed and the better support to which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred. Of course, it must be looked at also in the context of resources. As I said in repeating the Statement, the matter will be given attention in the cross-departmental discussions on the comprehensive spending review.

The noble Earl referred to the question of whether one should look to a national strategy to try to implement some of the report's findings and whether some issues should be approached on a broader basis. The chief of the social services inspectorate in England is now assessing local authorities' compliance with essential management and staffing safeguards and, it is hoped, will be reporting to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for

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Health shortly after Christmas in terms of the national review of present practice and making some national recommendations for future activity.

We feel also that it will be possible to examine the whole problem in the context of a national strategy by the creation of the general social care council which will be able to regulate standards of conduct and practice by social services personnel throughout the country. We hope that it will provide some gold standards on that. I trust that that reassures the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that we take seriously the need to maintain national standards and have a consistency of practising policy which I endorse entirely.

The noble Earl referred also to the need to exchange more information about the selection, vetting and management of care staff. We agree that that needs to be looked at again, particularly in the context of some of the original recommendations of the Warner Report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred. One problem which arises from making those procedures compulsory is that that may take more time and may make appointments more bureaucratic and expensive to fulfil. But we understand that that is a very important issue and we shall consult those affected professionally in every other way before we reach a decision.

We accept that it is important to look at the possibilities of making it easier to exchange information both between departments at national and local level and between different groups of people involved professionally in looking after those children. It is likely that we shall be able to take that forward but legislation will be needed. There will need to be particular statutory reference to the exchange of information between departments because of the issues raised by the Data Protection Act and related matters.

We are encouraged by the thought that the Private Member's Bill on public interest disclosure, which the Government have said they will support, may address some of the issues but it may not cover all of the points which the noble Lord raised and additional legislation may well be needed.

On the more general point about the seriousness with which the Government take this report and the need to implement it quickly, I want absolutely to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that we shall take that forward as quickly as we can. The ministerial taskforce, which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is to lead, will be established and will be up and running very quickly. It involves cross-departmental liaison but from the initial response to my right honourable friend's inquiries of other departments, everyone in Whitehall takes this as seriously as they should do. I hope that it will be taken forward very quickly at that level and that that will then be translated into both national and local action.

4.35 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, my noble friend has explained the report, its 20 recommendations and the setting up of the ministerial taskforce. In my 35 years in Parliament I have heard many statements dealing with these problems and they seem to go on and on. Something should be done immediately. Are all the

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police forces aware of their responsibility in checking on, for example, teachers and people working in childcare establishments and other such fields? Is that being carried out properly? I know from my contacts with the NSPCC that it works with police forces in child abuse cases. Will the Minister check immediately to ensure that all police forces are aware of their responsibilities?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I share his concern that we seem to hear about these terrible events occurring time after time. It is almost as though there is a vicious cycle in terms of reports, as well as the actual activities which produce them.

As regards police responsibility, I shall check on that for my noble friend and write to him on the subject. He will be aware that there is a continuing discussion among the various departments responsible for those matters, both on the social services side and on the law enforcement side. There is continuing tension on the question of safeguarding the rights of individuals--the civil liberties problem--and the rights involved in safeguarding particularly vulnerable children. Those are extremely difficult matters. But I assure my noble friend that this report is a spur to looking at those problems yet again and perhaps reinforcing the legislation and some of the requirements of local police forces in the way that my noble friend described.

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