|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
There has been a flurry of legislative activity in government on child protection over the past two years. I recall well the debate we had on the contact point regulations; the many debates on the Childcare Bill and the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill; and the discussion of the Care Matters White Paper of last year which will result in new legislation. Tragic events galvanised the Government into action and it is right that new measures for vetting and barring in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill were introduced. However, the protection of children needs to, and must, go far beyond legislation and regulation.
The challenges of child protection are incredibly far reaching and affect every aspect of a childs life, from home to school, in education and in care. Families in whatever shape and size are, of course, the star players in keeping children safe and well cared for. The report of my right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith has touched on this with passion and great detail. His proposal for a national relationship and parenting invitation scheme for couples and parents to improve access to support for vulnerable families is a wonderful example of the kind of initiative that could assist struggling families.
Yet the tragedy at the moment is that for so many children growing up in dysfunctional families the next step is leaving that unit and being taken into care. The every child matters website raises the plight of children in care, stating that,
In 2004, up to 13 per cent of the 78,500 children in care were moved to a new placement three times; 12 per cent were children under the age of two, when emotional attachment and stability are so important. That is as distressing a figure now as it was then. I recognise the Governments determination to address this, but without more foster carers and dedicated child social workers, the very people who will care and watch out for these children, it will be a difficult task to achieve. Can the Minister tell us how this is progressing?
This short debate presents a good opportunity to ask the Government for a brief health check on their legislative arsenal. The guidance of November last year issued under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act did not cover the requirements of the new vetting and barring scheme to be introduced under that Act. It is my understanding that they were due to have been phased in this year. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us when we might expect to see that guidance and whether he would welcome a debate on the implementation of the vetting and barring scheme.
There was great concern when the Bill was in your Lordships' House that the vetting and barring system was not perhaps as straightforward as the Bichard inquiry had envisaged. Clearly the theoretical idea and the practical implication are two very different things. However, one issue that stood out was the accepted
24 Oct 2007 : Column 1125
We had an intricate debate on the establishment of Contact Point before the recess. Many questions were raised about that database and they were answered fully by the Minister, for which we were most grateful. However, Contact Point is just part of a web of other databases and directives. My honourable friend Tim Loughton MP was told in February that the evaluation of the study of the integrated childrens system, presented by academics to the Government in August 2006, would be published for public reference imminently. It is worrying that there has been no sight of this because this analysis is key to the implementation of all the systems set up by Government to safeguard children. Given that the Government's safeguarding strategy relies heavily on the integration of these databases, it would pose serious problems if that integration was not working. Can the Minister say when it will be published?
I should also be grateful for any further explanation on the decision to implement a single national IT system to support the Enablement of the Common Assessment Framework, eCAF, as disclosed by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Kevin Brennan, the day before the Summer Recess. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, the eCAF system is not as benign as it may seem and I find it extremely concerning that such a dramatic change in its use was brought about by a Written Statement slipped in just before the Recess. The data fields included in eCAF go far beyond Contact Point, including all the information in that system as well as very sensitive personal profiling. The statement describes that personal information as,
In schools, teachers are the professional protectors and defenders of our children. There are fantastic, dedicated people providing the best education and care that they can, so it is alarming that anecdotal evidence suggests that the heavy bureaucratic burden and the threat of information leaking has resulted in many schools refusing to make use of the service.
24 Oct 2007 : Column 1126
There are many serious questions here. What constitutes an appropriate summary? Who will have access to this database? Given that it is now a national database, will it come under the aegis of our favourite operational directive, the 2000 e-Government Interoperability Framework, otherwise known as e-GIF, which makes it mandatory for all public sector databases to facilitate the sharing of data across systems? I am sure this was done with the best of intentions and yet I would be interested to know what consultation there was on this change. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, we hear that schools are finding it hard to cope with filling out eCAF forms and unless a child is at immediate risk and a case is a clear Section 47 referral under the Children Act 1989 they do not refer the child.
Child protection officers are highly skilled and appreciate the absolute importance of the sensitivity of the situation, the importance of gathering evidence forensically and the importance of a methodical and highly skilled approach, which is vital to securing real safety for children who are at risk of harm. Does the Minister appreciate that their work could be at risk from other officers working under the aegis of eCAF, whose approach will be, in the words of the statement,
Parties of all hues are united in desiring the very best for our children and giving them the best care and protection. There can be no doubt that an enormous amount of good will surrounds measures introduced that will achieve that aim. However, we must proceed with caution. Standards of care should be high but children's needs must not be standardised.
It is true that every child matters. What is also true is that every child is different and has different needs and vulnerabilities. Meeting those needs requires more than CRB checks, collating databases from the earliest years and surveillance. The recording of those small individuals' details alone will not protect them. The first step must be a change in culture. That change must constitute a departure from endless bureaucracy and a renewal of trust in the people who care for and work for children.
My honourable friend David Willetts has proposed in our childhood review a fantastic portfolio that would inject that much underestimated qualityriskback into childhood so that for children and their carers acting responsibly does not diminish from a sense of responsibility, so that while a carer might protect children they do not stifle their growth and so that instead of subjecting our children to an over-extensive surveillance culture, we do not forget their most basic righttheir right to a childhood.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for raising the important issue of
24 Oct 2007 : Column 1127
The noble Baroness described the new Ofsted with its enlarged childrens services responsibilities as gargantuan, but I stress that it inherited the inspectors from the constituent inspectorates that existed before. The schools inspectors were all inherited from Her Majestys Inspectors, and the social services and social care inspectors were inherited from the Commission for Social Care Inspection. Therefore, the professional expertise embedded in the constituent parts of the childrens services inspectorates has been fully maintained by Ofsted. But I will leave the chief inspector to respond to those points. The noble Baronesss points in relation to the police and child protection cases may be better dealt with by the police directly, but when she writes to me with her specific points I shall decide whether it is more appropriate for the police to contact her directly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, raised the sensitive issue of restraints in the youth justice system. I confirm that restraint is not to be used as a punishment or simply to obtain compliance with staff. The Youth Justice Boards behaviour management code of practice makes that very clear. The code also emphasises that restraint must be the last resort in dealing with issues relating to children in custody. That has not changed, and we do not envisage the change to the secure training centre rules leading to greater use of restraints. The Youth Justice Board is closely monitoring the use of physical restraints.
As the House will know, on 12 July my honourable friends David Hanson and Beverley Hughes announced a joint review of restraint in juvenile secure settings. The announcement of that review followed concerns raised by the coroner in the inquest into the restraint-related death of Gareth Myatt in Rainsbrook secure training centre in 2004. The review will also consider the recommendations of the coroner of the inquest into the death of Adam Rickwood, who also died in 2004, in Hassockfield secure training centre. The review will take into account the recent Lancashire Safeguarding Children Board serious case report into Adams death. There will be ongoing work in this area, and I will be able to report to the House when the reviews are complete.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, also raised the deplorable issue of child trafficking. We entirely agree with the sentiments that she expressed, which is why on 23 March my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, on behalf of the United Kingdom Government, signed the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. On the same day, the Home Office published the UK Action Plan on Tackling Human Trafficking, including a chapter on child victims of trafficking. We are committed to developing targeted guidance to address child trafficking. We have consulted on that guidance, and we will be publishing it shortly. I will see that it is brought to the immediate attention of the noble Baroness and the House.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about CRB checks. First, on the general point about the competence of the CRB, I assure herI can send her the statisticsthat the CRBs processes have improved very significantly since the initial problems that we had in 2002. The time taken to process cases has been very considerably reduced. The proportion of cases that are dealt with in a very short timescale is extremely high. I can give her chapter and verse on that. I stress also that the guidance issued in November last year on CRB checks, which came into force in January, is very clear about who needs to be checked. From May 2006, all new appointees to the school workforce need to have CRB checks. Under the new vetting and barring scheme, anyone wishing to work with children or vulnerable adults will need to join the scheme. We are communicating that widely to explain the new scheme to employers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked me for an update on where we are on the setting up of the vetting and barring scheme and the implementation of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. We have recently consulted on the barring policy, and we will consult next month on wider aspects of the scheme and how it will operate. The noble Baroness asked about the board. Sir Roger Singleton, who was operating in a shadow capacity in this area, has been announced as the chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority. He has huge experience in this area, and his appointment commands general confidence in the child protection sector. Adrian McAllister is already in post as the chief executive of the Independent Safeguarding Authority. The appointments to the ISA board will be announced by the Home Office shortly.
On the basis of her engagement with young people and others, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about ContactPoint. She asked what the benefits of ContactPoint were and how they could be set out. We estimate the efficiency benefits of ContactPoint at 5 million hours of saved practitioner time a year, which will free up the time of professionals from administrative tasks to be devoted to providing services to children and their families. As I said in earlier debates on this issue, that will be worth the equivalent of £88 million a year from 2009. We have identified clear service-delivery benefits to children, leading to improved service experience for children, young people and their familiesnotably, faster intervention before problems become seriousbecause practitioners are better informed about children and young peoples needs and the services they can access.
On the issue of whether ContactPoint is the thin end of the wedge of a Big-Brother state, which was the essence of the remarks that were made to the noble Baroness, I stress again that ContactPoint will hold only basic identifying information on children, and practitioner contact details. ContactPoint will not provide an integrated case-management system or replace case record systems that are already under development in health or social care, nor will it share data with other agencies case management systems. ContactPoint will not record statements of a childs needs, academic performance, attendance or clinical observations about a child, nor will it hold subjective opinions or comments about the child, their parents or carers.
In respect of concerns about the security of ContactPoint, I again emphasise that it has been designed from the bottom up with security in mind. Rigorous testing of security measures will be undertaken before any live data are loaded and before the system is allowed to go live. This will include penetration testing which is a series of processes and tests that will check the ContactPoint infrastructure, including connectivity and software, for vulnerability to software hacking and unauthorised access, by a specialist third-party organisation under the control of the department, before the system goes live and afterwards. ContactPoint will not be put into service until it has passed these tests.
The noble Baroness asked when ContactPoint will be rolled outit will roll out by the end of 2008. Only people who need to use ContactPoint as part of their job to support children and young people will have access to the system. They will need an enhanced CRB check, renewable every three years, and they will need to undertake mandatory training on the use of the system before gaining access to it. I will write to noble Baronesses with details on training, but it is substantial, and substantial resources are being put into seeing that the training is available.
The noble Baroness asked me about the report that we will make on Section 58 and the issue of reasonable punishment by parents. This report will be published very shortly indeed and, of course, if she wishes to ask questions about it or to initiate a debate, we would be glad to respond in any way that is appropriate.
Lord Morgan: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting my noble friend. I am glad to hear that there will be an opportunity for questions, but I hope that there will be an opportunity for much more than that. Before we had the pleasure of welcoming my noble friend to the House, we had concerning and worrying debates on the chastisement of children. It emerged that this country lags far behind others in the observance of childrens rights and the edicts of the United Nations, and that, in the definition taken by the childrens commissioners, England lags behind Wales and Scotland. Many of us on these Benches who commonly support the Government faithfully and enthusiastically on every other policy felt that it was disturbing how many retreats had been conductedparticularly retreats into vague discussions about legal chastisement and reasonable punishment.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I understand the strength of feeling in the House. All I can say is that from my experience as a Member for only two years, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, can be relied upon to bring the attention of the House to this issue on every available opportunity. I am sure that she will not be slow to do that once we have published the report. We will respond in any way that is appropriate and I understand the points made by my noble friend. I would simply say that in this area we are implementing the will of Parliament, which deliberated on this issue at great length three years ago, and the position that was reached then was achieved by a substantial majority on a free vote in this House. I am sure that there will be opportunities to consider this further.
I am almost out of time, so I will have to respond to many of the other points in writing. A number of concerns have been raised about eCAF, to which I will also respond in writing, as I think that some alarmism has been generated. However, let me deal with the specific point about the relationship between eCAF and ContactPoint. Our vision is that, in future, when a common assessment framework has been logged in an eCAF system, ContactPoint will be automatically notified that a common assessment has been carried out and will be sent contact details of the practitioner who completed or updated it. However, there will be no access to the common assessment via ContactPoint. ContactPoint will display these contact details, so that another practitioner looking up the child will discover immediately whether a common assessment has already been carried out and whom to contact about the child.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I will be brief. One of the big concerns is that people are filling in eCAF forms on laptop computers. This is highly sensitive information that flags up that a child is vulnerable. Will he please look into this before he responds to us?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I have undertaken to look into it, but the advice that we have been given is that the processes are secure. We do not believe that the concerns that have been raised are valid, but I will look into this further and report back.
The Bill was returned from the Commons with certain Commons amendments not insisted on but with amendments proposed in lieu thereof; with another Commons amendment not insisted on, with the Lords amendment in lieu thereof disagreed to and with amendments proposed in lieu thereof; with a Lords amendment to a Commons amendment disagreed to but with an amendment proposed in lieu thereof; and with the remaining Lords amendments agreed to. The Commons amendments were ordered to be printed.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|