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The Lord Bishop of Peterborough: My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill. As the Minister said, we are all aware of the tragic circumstances which led to the Bichard inquiry, and to the legislation to deal with the loopholes in the present system. Like every bishop, I have sought enhanced disclosures for hundreds of clergy and volunteers who work in our schools and churches. I am well aware of some of the loopholes in the system.

I know that I speak for all Church and religious leaders in saying that the safety of children and vulnerable adults in our care must be paramount. The education division of the Church of England and the National Society for Promoting Religious Education strongly support the Bill's proposals to minimise the risk of children and others suffering harm at the hands
 
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of those who work with them. Through its schools, which educate nearly 1 million children and young people, the Church of England has responsibility for well over 4,000—indeed, nearly 5,000—institutions in which "regulated activity", as the Bill defines it, takes place. Because of our existing commitment to ensure that children remain safe from harm, dioceses and diocesan boards of education have well-established child protection policies. We recognise, however, the need to strengthen the provisions and to make mandatory provision to vet all who work with children.

We have welcomed involvement in the preparation of this Bill through the consultative group on child protection, the education sub-group of the Criminal Records Bureau and the steering group, which has developed online training material for head teachers and governors for safer recruitment and selection of school staff. In addition, the Board of Education responded to the consultation on Making Safeguarding Everybody's Business: A Post-Bichard Vetting Scheme in July 2005.

In addition to their schools and other institutions, the Churches and faith communities engage with children and young people on a voluntary basis. In recruiting volunteers as well as employees, we have sought to implement best practice in establishing child protection policies, which cover all involved in working with children and other vulnerable people. But we are aware that the process of vetting volunteers is less easy to regulate, and it remains a matter of concern in respect of this Bill that the concentration on regulated activity in the list of establishments in Schedule 3 may not fully cover the many organisations in the voluntary sector where children need equal protection. I would appreciate clarification on the Minister's assertion in his opening remarks that volunteers are fully covered in the legislation.

There are always limitations on any scheme, however comprehensive it attempts to be. Bitter experience has shown that even enhanced disclosure will not identify every person at risk of harming children, but only those involved in incidents that have been notified to the police or other authorities. Our confidence in the proposed board and a better system must not replace the need for sound and rigorous techniques of recruitment and interview, alongside these proposals. Sadly, there remain some people without moral scruple, who can find ways of having access to children and young people, however thorough the systems are.

No system can be presented as foolproof or as removing the onus on every citizen to develop and uphold a sense of personal and moral responsibility for children and vulnerable adults. The existence of a barred list will not usurp that responsibility on all of us.

Conversely, if the public, and employers in particular, are to have confidence in the list, decisions about it must be made transparently and by suitably qualified people, as Schedule 1 proposes. It must be demonstrable that it is an improvement on the present
 
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system. I therefore welcome the consultation to which the Minister referred in introducing the Bill to the House.

The vast majority of our children and vulnerable adults is educated and cared for in institutions which treat them with dignity and care—a dignity and care which reflects their uniqueness as human beings whom the Churches regard as being made in God's image. I believe, therefore, that we should welcome the Bill and trust that effective procedures to maintain that record will lessen the culture of suspicion which too often undermines our confidence in each other and devalues the generous goodwill which leads our teachers and carers, both voluntary and employed, to give us their skills for the benefit and well-being of our children. Yes, we need a culture of vigilance but also a recognition that there is a difference between a culture of vigilance and the culture of suspicion which undermines the necessary trust upon which the care of children and vulnerable adults should be based.

I welcome the Bill and trust that through its proposals and improved vetting and barring procedures it will achieve the purpose of minimising the risk to our children and vulnerable adults. I look forward to working with others in the House in guiding it through its stages and improving it where necessary. Others have mentioned improvements which need attention and I shall not repeat them. I give the Bill an overall welcome. I congratulate the Minister on introducing it to us.

9.11 pm

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I am delighted that the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill has been brought before your Lordships' House and introduced so helpfully by the Minister.

I have spoken about vetting, barring and lists at least two or three times in the past eight years during the passage of various Bills concerning children's safety. The Government are to be congratulated on the fact that the Bill is the product of a great deal of consultation. I welcome the fact that they have already embarked on consultation on the independent barring panel. The Bill before us has benefited from the amount of discussion that has taken place.

The children's organisations with which I have an association, NCH and others, have broadly welcomed the Bill. Indeed, many have been clamouring for some time for coherence and clarity in this area. I am confident that with the customary thoughtfulness of the Minister and the expertise that resides in your Lordships' House we shall clarify that which needs clarification and improve the Bill before we pass it to another place.

I broadly agree with the concerns raised by the NSPCC and Barnardo's in their helpful notes on the need for greater clarification about such matters as which offences would lead to automatic inclusion on the barred list; whether a person under the age of 18 can be included on the barred list; and how the two lists might work—an issue raised by several noble
 
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Lords. If someone is included on the vulnerable adults list, does that mean they are not included on the children's list? I am sure we shall have many discussions on this matter.

I also agree with the concern of the Local Government Association about the funding, establishment and maintenance of the list. I recall a discussion in this House some years ago about the bringing together of all the different lists and about costs being a major barrier as well as complexity. I do not believe that this is a no-cost exercise.

The major point I wish to raise relates to paragraphs 2(1)(e) and 2(4) of Schedule 3 to the Bill at page 42. The intention of the regulations seems to be to make it compulsory for people to be made the subject of criminal and other checks if they are engaged in moderating online activities which are aimed at children or are likely to be used by children.

I understand that at present such checks are optional. First, I am not sure why in this context the protection should be extended only to children and why it does not extend to all vulnerable groups encompassed by the Bill. Secondly, while I entirely understand the sentiments which lie behind the apparent attempt to stiffen the laws in this area, I should like to query, or obtain clarification on, its intended scope. I am not expressing opposition to the sentiment which has led to these proposals, but I want to explore why they have been framed in the way they have, and what they might do.

As noble Lords will be aware, online chat rooms, discussion forums, bulletin boards, blogging and social networking are hugely popular with children and young people. They give them an excellent opportunity to develop their writing skills, to express themselves and to form relationships with people all over the world. I take some comfort that my own daughter will use the lucidity that her blogging and other activities express, and hope that she will transfer those with positive effect to her A-levels.

However, we are all too familiar with some of the tragic consequences which can befall the child if, in these sorts of virtual worlds, they have the terrible misfortune to encounter a sexual predator—typically an adult. Adult sexual predators are attracted to these environments precisely because they know that children go there in large numbers. They are looking for photographs or information, or both, which would render a child vulnerable to their manipulative skills. Elsewhere, in shorthand, this is known as "grooming". Some noble Lords will recall the attention we gave to this issue during the passage of the Sexual Offences Bill.

In the main, sexual predators who have taken advantage of children in these types of virtual worlds have been other users rather than moderators, who have been charged with keeping the environment safe. However, there have certainly been some cases of that type. In the UK, most of the larger online discussion forums and chat areas employ professional moderation companies, where all the moderators have been made the subject of CRB checks. I confess that
 
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I am not sure whether the checks are standard ones or enhanced but, clearly, they ought to be enhanced. The BBC, Vodafone and many other household-name companies absolutely insist on moderation for their interactive areas. They do not doubt its value or importance. They ensure, for example, that a child does not publish to the world details of where they live, or their home or mobile phone numbers, and that they do not disclose intimate details about themselves or their family life. Neither would they allow compromising or illegal images of the child to be posted on the site.

However, while the BBC, Vodafone and others insist on professional moderation of their services—on which we should congratulate them—many such sites rely on volunteers to do some or all of the moderation. The site itself may be run as part of a straightforwardly commercial venture. They may be a small number of paid or professional moderators, but many—perhaps all—might be volunteers. What effect would this Bill have on them?

Some of these sites are, in effect, global. Some of the moderators, whether professional or volunteers, might be based in the UK, whereas others might be overseas. The company providing the service might be British or overseas. What happens in these mixed environments? I understand from reading Clause 6 that the Bill is not intended to catch private arrangements that individuals might make between themselves, but it would be hard to describe some of the global sites which claim membership of millions—or some of the UK sites with tens of thousands of members—as falling within that category. Yet those are precisely the sorts of numbers that some of these sites claim to have in membership. What level or type of consultation has there been around these provisions with the internet industry, companies that provide moderation services and their users?

In this country, we have, by and large, a successful self-regulatory environment, where child safety issues are discussed and handled by a combination of the internet industry, children's organisations, the police and the Government—led by my honourable friend, Paul Goggins—all working together. So, for example, when in the other place my honourable friend Ms Judy Mallaber raised the downloading of child pornography, the Minister said:

He went on to say:

I would imagine that, under these circumstances of co-operation, there has been some discussion with all the interested parties. I raise this point, because I am aware that concerns have been expressed by some members of the Home Secretary's internet task force
 
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about compulsory checks and the precise scope of rules of this kind, particularly with regard to blogging and social networking.

To conclude, the worry is that these measures might lead many sites to close down and young people would therefore lose the opportunity to participate in potentially creative and useful sites. The Bill proposes a directly interventionist stance. While I am certainly not opposed to that—indeed, I have spoken about these issues many times in your Lordships' House—I am surprised that the Government appear to feel that self-regulation has failed in this instance. I do not think we are quite at that point, and I would have thought that self-regulation ought to have been given the opportunity to work here, as it has done in other areas. Perhaps the Secretary of State might consider taking these powers as reserve powers, to be implemented only if a need were to arise. I hope that we can discuss this issue in the course of this excellent Bill's passage through your Lordships' House, and I look forward to working with colleagues on it.

9.21 pm


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