|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 155 to 159. These minor and technical amendments make it clear that only senior HMRC officials can authorise the use of intrusive surveillance powers. The amendments were made in response to opposition concerns. The Government were asked whether it could be made clearer precisely who is mandated by the provisions. A similar concern was raised when your Lordships considered the provision. As my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland said, we think that sufficient internal and external safeguards on the use of these powers exist, but the Government recognise that the internal safeguards are not obvious in the legislation. It is important that there is public confidence in the use of these intrusive powers. The amendments were made in response to ongoing concerns.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, having happily debated the Serious Crime Bill as thoroughly as we were instructed, we should progress to the Question for Short Debate, but I see that, with the exception of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, the other participants are not yet in their place. In those unhappy circumstances, I must move a Motion to adjourn your Lordships House during pleasure for a period no longer than five minutes. I beg to move.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, there has been a great deal of activity on the child protection front relating to legislation, regulation and practice. That is to the Governments credit. They have clearly demonstrated that they are not content to sit on their laurels but will continue to strive for improvement. I want to touch on six issues: first, the CRB checks, the new IBB and the implementation of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006; secondly, ContactPoint; thirdly, the effect of the CAF; fourthly, the Section 58 review; fifthly, childrens services and school inspections; and, sixthly, child protection proceedings, legal and police matters.
The CRB will continue, under the IBB, to carry out the checks on whether someone is suitable to work with children. The system is still far from perfect. People are unclear about who has to be checked, and how often. For example, a recent TES blog carried a question:
The fact that the person asked the question indicates that there is not widespread understanding of the system. The answers were varied, indicating a complete lack of consistency among schools about the current requirements.
There is clear evidence that the time the checks are taking is getting in the way of sports coaching. In August football matches all over the north-east had to be cancelled because 200 referees had not been checked in time. The local FA secretary said that it was because,
Clearly people do not understand the need for these checks, and, in many cases, feel insulted by them. There was evidence from the NCH at the start of volunteering week that 17 per cent of men would not volunteer because they would face a check; and 13 per cent would not volunteer because they would be perceived as a paedophile. How sad it is that the high profile of a very few terrible cases makes decent people feel like that. NACRO also expresses concerns about how the system deters ex-offenders from volunteering.
Finally on this topic, the guidance sent to schools last January says that existing teachers and others do not have to be fully vetted, despite claims by Ministers that the procedures would be tightened. The Government promised to close the loopholes, but Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education still says that schools are not required to run criminal checks on any staff already in post. New recruits are also exempt if they move directly from another school. When will this loophole be closed? If not, what evidence is there that this is safe?
I turn to the universal childrens database ContactPoint. Can the Minister update the House following his letter of 31 August? How many authorities are now ready, and when will the system go live universally rather than just in trailblazer authorities? Will he ensure that ContactPoint training is rolled out beyond those providing childrens services to include those who provide whole-family services, such as housing? Experience demonstrates that families seeking to keep under the radar will often not contact specialist services; so ensuring that generic services understand the importance of recording their involvement will be key to ensuring that the system works. Will he also ensure that training and information are provided to caseworkers who do not have access to the internet, as much of the training is on the internet?
Is the Minister aware that young people are very anxious about this database and believe that their privacy is being interfered with? I was at a meeting of young people yesterday; it is run by the all-party group and BT and is called Seen and Heard. One of the main issues raised was that, although those who know about the database are very concerned about it, many young people have no idea what it is all about. What are the Government going to do about that? One young person also told me that her boyfriend visited a school where the database was live and was shown it. She was concerned that security was very relaxed. It is vital that this system is available only to authorised users.
I move seamlessly to my third concernthe new electronic common assessment framework. It is extraordinary that throughout the whole debate on the regulations for ContactPoint, the Government did not once mention their intention to create a second, parallel, national electronic database containing sensitive assessments of children seeking services. All our concerns about the security of ContactPoint are amplified in relation to eCAF. It is simply not possible to keep such a large database secure. It will have thousands of users, quite conceivably as many as ContactPoint. While arguments about the potential insecurity of ContactPoint have been countered with assertions from the Government that it will contain only minimal information, the same cannot be said about eCAF. It will contain detailed personal information about children seeking services and clear indications of their vulnerability. The Government have insisted that eCAF is a consent-based process, but my informants, Action on Rights for Children, have been contacted by several practitioners involved in the pilots, who tell them that consent to share eCAFs is not being sought and that families are being told that they will not be able to access services unless they agree to an eCAF. That is disgraceful.
These practitioners have also expressed concerns about the potential effect of eCAFs on child protection. In borderline cases, where a teacher is unsure whether to make a Section 47 referral, they have been told to complete an eCAF. I have heard from a number of practitioners that this practice is reducing the number of referrals because of the extra workload. Some practitioners are not sure whether
24 Oct 2007 : Column 1120
My next point is about the involvement of the police in child protection investigations. Is it a deliberate policy to reduce their role and, if so, what are the reasons? What statistics are being gathered about how often the police are involved? I have been asked by experienced social workers and police to bring a number of related matters to the Ministers attention, but I have not been given enough time, so I will write to him with the details. I must say that allowing only 10 minutes per speaker when we have a 90-minute debate slot is just stupid.
There is major concern among professionals about the abolition of the child protection register, which identified high-risk children and focused resources and alert systems where they were most needed. It was the most important tool that we had to protect children. There are concerns that the new arrangements will reduce thresholds and cause confusion, and I hope that the Minister will take very seriously the professionals concerns that I have relayed to him today and will write to him about in my imminent letter.
A very recent development has been the consultation on Section 58 of the Children Act 2004; the issue of children being hit by their parents. There have been hundreds of responses from professionals and the voluntary sector working with children. Will the Minister confirm that the report of the consultation will be published as promised this autumn? Will he also confirm my understanding that the vast majority of the responses were critical of the current law allowing reasonable punishment as being unjust and unsafe? Will he also accept my comment that I think the questions were terribly distorted? For example, the very first question:
can only be regarded as a leading question and would probably have been challenged if put to a witness in a court of law. Nevertheless, will the Minister take very seriously the opinions expressed by all those who responded to this unusually short consultation?
Now I will say a word about inspections of schools and children's services. Ofsted is now a gargantuan organisation with responsibility for inspecting care services as well as education. Would the Minister care to tell us how this is going? Is he confident that those doing the inspections really have the skills and experience to do them? Do they understand the significance of what they are seeing and do they have adequate time to do it? In relation to the last point, I
24 Oct 2007 : Column 1121
I also have serious concerns about the recent Ofsted annual report, which says on page 38 that almost 40 per cent of independent schools inspected did not have sufficiently robust policies and procedures to safeguard children. Perhaps that is because the latest independent schools regulations just say what has changed since the last lot. That does not make them easy to follow. What do the Government intend to do about that? The regulations are very muddled between what is required and what is recommended as good practice. Independent schools must comply with the guidance for child protection but need only have regard to the guidance on health and safety. To make matters worse, some of the guidance is simply badly drafted.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, is not able to be with us today, but she asked me to raise two more issues. She understands that future changes in local government arrangements will result in less external scrutiny of local authority social workers. Is that so and, if so, why are the Government confident that that is not needed? Secondly, she was told by the Minister in a recent debate that local authorities will be given extra funding to underpin their child protection services. Will the Minister say how much they have received and when?
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I apologise for my delayed entrance in this debate. My office is right at the other end and I anticipated that the previous business would go on slightly longer, so please accept my heartfelt apologies.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Walmsley for giving us the opportunity to debate this critical issue. I will keep my intervention rather brief, although I have to agree with her that time limiting people when there is a 90-minute debate and we have so few speakers is quite extraordinary. Nevertheless, I will concentrate on two or three areas, one of which is the use of restraint on children in custody.
We know that there is much concern about the rising numbers of children in the United Kingdom who are incarcerated. While there may be exigencies where no other option is available than to incarcerate children, surely their protection when under custodial sentence is paramount. The House will be aware of the work of my noble friend Lord Carlile in this regard and the report by the Howard League for Penal
24 Oct 2007 : Column 1122
In the United Kingdom, we incarcerate more children than most other European countriesabout 2,900 children are in custody of one form or other. As my noble friend Lord Carlile pointed out in our debate on 19 February 2007, restraint was used about 8,000 times in the last 12-month period for which figures were available.
The Government have acknowledged that statistical data on the use of restraint can be improved. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, in responding then informed the House that a set of common definitions and new accounting rules had been agreed to enable statistical data to be collected in a way that allows clearer comparisons of practice across the three sectors of the estate. He said that the new data reporting and recording would come into effect from April. In the light of those new systems, can the Minister confirm that the new system will indeed break down data according to race and ethnicity as well, so that we may be able to tell how many of the affected children come from ethnic minorities? That is the minimal information that we need in order to evaluate whether particularly community interventions are successful.
Another area that I want to raise today is about the use of physical interventions overall. The Minister will know of the report in the Guardian on Monday this week that the Ministry of Justice is to review current guidelines on the use of batons on children as young as 15. The Government confirmed to my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford that the Youth Justice Board has not indicated that it wants a change of policy in that regard, but I hope that the Minister will use this opportunity today to reconfirm that they will not move in that direction. In fact, will the Minister confirm that the Government accept that physical force must never be used to secure compliance or as punishment? According to the NSPCC, staff in secure training centres currently use restraint to maintain order or to impose the authority of staff over children. If that is the case, that is indeed to be deplored.
I understand that the Joint Committee on Human Rights is currently looking into the compatibility of the Secure Training Centre (Amendment) Rules 2007 with international human rights standards. The committee's deliberations are currently under way, but I wonder whether the Minister can assure me that the views of the JCHR will indeed inform the Governments position on the rules in their current review. At the moment, the rules allow for powers to restrain under that technique to prevent physical injury, escape, property damage or the incitement of other children to do the same. Now, we understand, the amended rules will further extend those powers to permit the use of authorised physical restraint,
The implication of that change is that the use of force will become far more frequent and that signifies a trend in the wrong direction. If that is the direction of travel,
24 Oct 2007 : Column 1123
My other point is to do with the trafficking of children. In 2004, the most conservative figure that we had for child trafficking was that of the US State Department, which thought that about 600,000 to 700,000 people were trafficked worldwide. According to the State Department, the figure for children was about 50 per cent of that. On the other end of the scale, the OSCE thinks that 1.2 million children are trafficked each year. The scale of the problem is unknown, yet the misery and suffering that it causes are all too evident. It has been referred to as the modern-day equivalent of the slave trade.
The Minister will be aware of the recent report from UNICEF, Rights Here, Rights Now, which indicates that more than 180 children trafficked illegally into the UK have gone missing without trace from social services care. The report said that even where traffic children are identified,
I welcome the signing by the United Kingdom of the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. This certainly brings a little closer the guarantee of help and protection for those who are trafficked. But, nevertheless, there are concerns about the lack of access to care and support, particularly for those children entering under asylum rules.
Concerns also remain about the Governments reservation on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which, in the opinion of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, legitimises unequal treatment of asylum-seeking children. Will the Government ensure that the protection of child victims of trafficking is not compromised? Will they furthermore indicate when they expect to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings? The matter is pressing and the longer reviews take, the more children are exposed to risk.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, what we lack in numbers today we certainly make up for in commitment. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for raising this important subject. It will always be timely because the welfare and protection of children is a serious and ongoing concern. Sometimes it is jostled from the top of the political agenda but that can never be said of your Lordships House from the Motion of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the excellent ensuing debate two years ago on the second Joint Chief Inspectors report on arrangements to safeguard children, to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on the UNICEF Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries, not a policy on the welfare of children and their protection goes unscrutinised, and I pay tribute to that dedication.
Interestingly, the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, draws attention to the Governments new arrangements for child protection. The noble Baroness covered these comprehensively and with her customary authority and I shall be echoing much of what she said.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|