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Baroness Buscombe : My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Parents and teachers will be relieved to hear the Statement today. After nearly a fortnight in which teachers and parents have become increasingly worried and confused about sex offenders in schools, at last we have some basic information. We welcome that. We also welcome the commitment that no one convicted or cautioned should be allowed to teach. Even after Soham and the Bichard report, Ministers still made decisions that broke that principle. Why has it taken so long to get any information from the Secretary of State? Ministers were personally deciding whether sex offenders should work in schools. The Secretary of State has rightly stressed today how difficult those decisions were, but surely the department would have to keep track of the sex offenders that it was releasing into our schools. Instead, the department has been incapable of answering basic questions about those sex offenders for a whole fortnight.
Even if the Secretary of State did not decide on individual cases, surely it was her responsibility to make sure that they were properly monitored. Instead, parents have been shocked that Ministers have been so ignorant of decisions that they themselves have taken. It is that complete absence of reliable information over the past fortnight which has created the frenzy of speculation. Ministers must understand how much damage the uncertainty of the past fortnight has done to parents' confidence in the department and to the integrity of the people working in our schools.
There are still uncertainties. Today's Statement indicates that a life ban will be imposed on those convicted and cautioned. Will the Minister tell us whether this will apply to those who had convictions or cautions prior to the sex offenders register? The Secretary of State states that the principle should be that no sex offenders should be placed in schools. However, in figures given to the House, it appears that in 88 cases Ministers have breached this principle. What plans does the Minister have for the 13 individuals where there is insufficient information to determine whether there is a concern?
Many key questions have been put to the Minister's department on behalf of parents and teachers to which we still do not have answers. Why is it possible to work in a school without even completing a criminal records check? Why did a previous Secretary of State specifically recommend schools to continue recruiting
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people before these checks had been completed? Were head teachers and governing bodies informed if Ministers decided that a sex offender should be permitted to work in their school? Why did the Secretary of State tell the House last week that offenders were automatically put on List 99 which bars them for life from teaching, when we know that that is not the case?
In repeating the Statement, the Minister stated that there must be absolute clarity. We entirely agree with that. In implementing the details of new measures, there must be no oversight. The Secretary of State has also failed to explain some grotesque decisions that Ministers have taken in the past five years. The whole system needs a complete overhaul. We will work constructively with the Government to achieve that.
I turn to the Government's proposals. The Secretary of State has said that she will finally implement the recommendations made in the Bichard report of 2004. Let us go back five years to the Protection of Children Act 1999. The Explanatory Notes of that Act state that its purpose is to create:
"the framework of a coherent cross-sector system for identifying people unsuitable to work with children and achieving a 'one stop shop' to compel or allow employers to access a single point for checking the names of people they propose to employ in a post involving the care of children. This will involve . . . checks against criminal records and two lists . . . maintained respectively by the Department of Health and the Department for Education".
Why have Ministers not implemented those measures so that they passed into law six years ago? The Bichard report exposed an inadequate system of child protection. The ultimate responsibility for this rests with Ministers.
I believe that the Secretary of State is honourable and honest. The question for Ministers and for the Prime Minister is whether they are capable of regaining the confidence of parents and teachers after such a difficult fortnight. I hope that the Government will take stock and will put the interests of parents, teachers and the integrity of our school system first.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and acknowledge the work that he, his colleagues, the police and DfES officials have done in the past few days to complete this vital review. The Secretary of State appears to have gone a long way today towards achieving what everyone wants; that is, the restoration of parents' confidence in the system of child protection. However, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that it will take more than one statement to complete that process.
I am pleased to say that the Statement contains much of what I called for in the previous debate. I particularly welcome the proposals for a single list for people working with children in order to end confusion for employers and dangerous inconsistencies and loopholes; the removal from Ministers the responsibility for individual case review and the establishment of an expert panel to start work
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immediately; new guidance and training for schools on appointment procedures; and the intention to protect teachers from malicious allegations.
The Minister emphasised the importance of CRB checks, but will he explain why the latest guidance issued by his department in June 2005 did not require schools to receive an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau disclosure before appointing a teacher? Surely the NSPCC is right to argue for such a disclosure before anyone can work unsupervised with children. What can he say to reassure parents and schools that the CRB can perform an increased number of disclosures more quickly in the light of the delays that we have heard about?
I support the proposed central barring unit, with experts reviewing individual cases. Will the Minister confirm that the criteria and guidelines that the units use will be published? How will Parliament be able to participate in their establishment? Can he confirm that the plans will ensure that certain categories of work with children, currently exempt from CRB checks, will now be covered? Will it include all schools, including academies and those in the private sector? Why were people minding children over eight years old ever exempted from these checks? Does the Minister also accept that parts of the package today urgently need more work? Does he share my concern that some agencies which supply staff to schools appear to be particularly poor at checking references and records, even if they are to be obliged to do so? What will the Minister do about that?
When people from overseas apply to teach in our schools, is the Minister convinced that the plans provide for sufficient checks? Is he really satisfied that the CRB should have no statutory role in regard to overseas staff working with children and that employers must rely on faxback services available from a small number of countries? Given the increasing reliance of some public services on staff from abroad, why are the Government not going much further on that, working within the EU and the Commonwealth? What did the UK presidency, for example, do on that?
Will the Minister reassure the House that in this vital drive to protect children we also remember to protect teachers when false allegations are made? Will he ensure that new guidance and training reminds schools of the need for safeguards for teachers who may be wrongly accused? How will he ensure that teacher recruitment does not suffer from all this? Does the Minister now accept that this situation has largely arisen due to delays in implementing the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry? Can the Minister tell the House what the Prime Minister failed to tell another place yesterday: how soon will the 18 unimplemented Bichard recommendations be implemented? How many of those are the responsibility of the DfES? How many fall to the Home Office? Given the Home Office delays with computer projects for Bichard, can the Minister
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reassure the House on the timing of the IT proposals set out today and the safeguards that there will be in the interim?
I should like to ask a serious question about a particularly important sentence on page 5 of the Statement. It reads:
"After extensive consideration I have decided the most effective approach is to bar from working with children all those who are now convicted or cautioned for any sexual offences against children whether the individual is on the sex offenders register or not".
Is that about the past or just about the future? This is a genuine question of clarification. Does this mean that gay men who were on the sexual offenders register for offences that are no longer offences will be barred from working with children? I refer, of course, to the equalisation of the age of consent legislation, which has left some anomalies. Does it also mean that an 18 year-old male who has consensual sex with his 15 year-old girlfriend would be barred from choosing the teaching profession? These cases may have serious human rights issues.
It is in the interests of children, parents, our schools and the whole community that confidence is restored rapidly and the hysteria is ended. I believe that the Secretary of State and the Minister have made a really good start. If they deliver on their promises and answer our reasonable questions, Liberal Democrats will work with them to complete that task.
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