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Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I too would like to thank the Minister for introducing the Bill so clearly to your Lordships' House. The provisions it makes are long awaited and very much welcomed by us on these Benches. I have listened with great interest to all noble Lords' contributions to today's Second Reading debate. The contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, was as ever a comprehensive and sensitive appraisal of this challenging issue; and who could disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about the danger of scaring away good people and well-motivated staff from working with children and vulnerable adults?
Our children's safety is precious to us. Events have unfolded in the past few years which have caused great alarm to parents of young children and to the children of not-so-young parents. The Bill brings in measures that have been promised since the publication of the Bichard report in 2004. Those provisions cannot be implemented soon enough. This is rightly an ambitious Bill and contributions from all noble Lords have pointed to the fact that we all want the provisions of the Bill to succeed. But we need to get those provisions right. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, both spoke of the criteria under which an individual may be included on the barred list. I too was surprisedas many noble Lords have mentionedand concerned to see that those criteria are not in the Bill. What is more, under Schedule 2, those criteria can be set by the Secretary of State, and it is the Secretary of State who makes the final decision as to whether someone is to be included on the list.
There are some provisions for appeal, but my concerns echo those of my noble friend Lady Buscombe. Once an individual is included on the most stringent list, he or she will have no process of appeal. The rhetoric surrounding the Bill suggests that responsibility is being shared out among experienced professionals. But is the reality that the Secretary of State remains firmly in the driving seat? I am reminded of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, in the Second Reading debate on the Childcare Bill, which she mentioned again today. She asked what would happen if a 17 year-old boy had intercourse with an underage girl, which was consensual, but which led to him being placed on the register of sex offenders, even though they went on to form a solid relationship. Would he be included on the barred list for ever? As the law presently stands a judge would have a discretionary power to disqualify him from working with children.
I read with interest the Minister's letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I, too, was surprised to see that Ofsted has the power to waive a disqualification; I think that others would also be surprised. Will the Minister say whether Ofsted will retain its powers under the Bill?
Of course, the most pressing concern is the vulnerable groups that we are seeking to protectthe people who stand to lose the most and who can defend
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themselves the least if the system fails them. Under Clause 14, it is possible for barred individuals to work in prisons and probation centres, yet we are all only too aware of the mental problems and vulnerability of many of our prisonersnot least the many who suffer learning disabilities, whose plight the noble Lord, Lord Rix, so graphically outlined.
Even though our pressing concern is for vulnerable groups, we must be vigilant and concerned for the rights of those who may find themselves wrongly included on the list. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough so rightly said, we must also be watchful that we do not foster a culture of suspicion or stifle the spontaneity of ordinary everyday life.
I am reminded of an episode involving my honourable friend in another place, Tim Loughton. He is president of a local animal charity, which was proposing to hold a Santa's grotto, with the committee dressing up as elves to help Father Christmas. Of course, my honourable friend jumped at the chance to become a Christmas elf for the dayI am sure that noble Lords would have jumped at the chance to see that sight. But when it came to it, that good-natured participation was stifled by the need for a CRB check.
I accept that in some situations you can only regret the fact that life is not what it used to be, but that anecdote raises a serious point. We must not stifle everyday life in the pursuit of total control. As we have heard, volunteers are a rare and valued commodity, especially for charities, and we must be wary of discouraging their generosity. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, mentioned just one of those difficultiesfinding people to run Scout and Brownie packs.
We face a challenge to get the balance right. This brings me on to the technical side of things. The computer schemes will hold very sensitive material. Noble Lords will remember as well as I do the string of fiascos surrounding government computer systems. The CSA system will not work fully for two years. The council tax revaluation system has cost upwards of £10 million to install and is now being cast aside. Also, we heard yesterday the sorry tale of farmers being denied much-needed income because, we understand, the systems in the Rural Payments Agency cannot cope with the complexity of the single payment scheme. I could go on.
Across the board, this Government's record with computer systems leaves much to be desired. The system that we are discussing in this Bill is already well behind schedule and has already cost £54 million. In light of that, I wonder what reassurances the Minster can give to show that this system will be robust. Without an efficient computer system, the provisions of the Bill will be severely compromised.
There is a fine line to be drawn not only in designing and creating these lists, but in preserving and updating them. This is a two-tiered issue. First, the lists need to be solid, robust and efficient. Secondly, we need to be mindful of the way in which the list is used. We must make it a priority that the list is not a substitute for communication between professionals, parents and
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schools. These lists will only be as effective as the organisations that use them. They are a starting block from which a strengthened attitude to child protection can spring.
One of our major concerns is that the list will be terribly efficient and well used but only in some areas of the country. I repeat the concerns of my noble friend Lady Buscombe in asking how comprehensive this list will be. Will it link up to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? There was a recent case of a Sussex paedophile who was arrested for grooming a young girl in Northern Ireland. Will it link up to other countries with other such lists? The Minister outlined a number of checks that will take place. Those appear cumbersome, and I agree with my noble friend Lady Buscombe that this will challenge the system.
I come to another issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, highlighted, and on which the noble Lord, Lord Rix, spoke so strongly, which is the need to have two lists at all. In the face of the potential loopholes that I have mentioned, I wonder how well the lists will "talk" to each other.
There is evidence that some who abuse children will go on to abuse adults. The statistics from the Ann Craft Trust quoted by my noble friend support that. They show that there is a cycle of abuse not just from abuser to abuser, but a cycle which leads those who abuse to seek new types of victim.
Noble Lords will agree that looked-after children are among the most vulnerable in our society. The statistics from the National Children's Bureau family summit in 2003 showed that looked-after children suffer from a high rate of mental health problems: 45 per cent of five to 17 year-olds were assessed as having at least one psychiatric disorder.
Foster carers play a huge and essential role in the well-being of some of our most disadvantaged children. In 1998 the House of Commons Health Committee said that their dedication and commitment should be saluted. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and I have often referred to them in your Lordships' House as heroes. It goes without saying that the vast majority do a truly wonderful job. But there is a severe shortage of foster carers. When they offer their services they are welcomed with open arms. But I wonder how the organisations that organise fostering will manage to cope with the pressure of vetting every single applicant for foster parenting without extra help.
Will the Minister indicate what kind of support will be offered to those hard-pushed organisations, and other organisations that rely on good will to implement the essential requirements of this legislation? I wonder, too, about the required checks on those who wish to visit vulnerable people, say, for example, in care homes. Let us say for argument's sake that they are a distant cousin and wish to take their relative out for a walk or out for a day. Will they need to be CRB checked? At what point does a relation become so distant or a friend so old that they are no longer considered safe? These are difficult but necessary questions.
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While keeping at the front of our minds that it is those who are on the receiving end of abuse that we are protecting, we need also to consider that once upon a time many of those who now commit abuse were abused themselves. I bring that to the attention of your Lordships because we must be aware of every part of the challenge that we face. The Minister mentioned wider safeguarding measures, which we debated in your Lordships' House a few months ago.
The Bill is brought to our House in a spirit of care and fairness. It is our job to present reasonable, effective legislation that can be implemented efficiently. We will work hard to ensure that it sets up a workable framework of protection and reassurance.
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