Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction. I state right away that we on these Benches share the Government's concern about

23 Mar 2010 : Column GC344

how best to protect the public, especially the young, from those who pose a risk to them. To this end, it is important that people who have committed serious crimes do not end up being responsible for vulnerable groups. I doubt that anyone would object to that as the principle behind the orders. However, like other secondary legislation which has followed the 2006 Act, the instruments before us today will fuel even more concern and confusion about the Government's policy in this area. It is a serious and delicate area which we cannot afford to treat lightly. Regulation should be well thought out, rigorous and robust, but what we have before us is not. I therefore have some questions for the Minister.

The Singleton recommendations advised the Government to review the need for controlled activity policy. What consideration did the Government give to this advice and why does it appear from the orders today that they have ignored much of it? It has been asked whether it is reasonable to expect employers and voluntary organisations to implement the regulations in their current form, and how easy it is determine whether an individual is covered by the rules. The lack of clarity around the rules has led to confusion about vetting and barring, among not only people on the ground but the public in general. Are the Government satisfied that the scheme is easily accessible? I remind the Government that, on Report on the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, Members in another place called a vote on this communication issue and still, many years later, the problem persists.

There have been reports of mistakes when information about individuals has been sought and returned with the employers being told that potential employees have a criminal record when they did not. Mistakes have been rectified later, but by then the job, or the opportunity to have one, has passed-that is, if that mistake ever gets rectified and how easily. There are instances where individuals still bear the scars of incorrect information being returned. Can the Minister tell the Committee what data security safeguards are in place to ensure that people's information is protected?

While the need to protect vulnerable groups is paramount, we must be confident that we are making a proportionate response and that we assume people are innocent rather than guilty. The Government have managed to create an atmosphere in which we are all guilty until we prove that we are innocent. It is costly and complex and, yet again, a symptom of the Government's inability to trust people. What is required is a system which is rigorous but simple for employers and other organisations to implement.

Can the Minister tell us what she expects the likely cost to businesses to be? I am aware that voluntary organisations will not have to pay, which is a good thing. However, there are already organisations and regulations in place to vet potential employees. Is the Minister sure that there will not be duplication of roles, paperwork and, more importantly, costs? It should go without saying that we must be extremely careful not to impose additional burdens and bureaucracy on business if it is not absolutely necessary, and that, if we are to, we at least owe business the decency to make new rules as easy to abide by as we can.

23 Mar 2010 : Column GC345

What analysis and assessment has been carried out to measure the impact these orders will have on the rehabilitation and re-employment of ex-offenders? Can the Minister tell the Committee what proportion of offences against children and vulnerable adults were committed by first-time offenders, and how many offenders would have been caught by this register? I presume there would have been none if the register works only after conviction. If there are a significant number of first-time offenders, we must surely warn the public that this legislation does not tackle them and that they still need to be vigilant. I shall raise a significant point that was not answered in another place. Can the Minister tell the Committee what the Government are going to do to warn the public that these provisions in their current form do not automatically guarantee 100 per cent protection? This legislation does not address the serious issue of vulnerable children in their own homes.

Can the Minister say what these orders will cover? I notice that one of the statutory instruments clearly states that it is for England only. The other does not, but both have England and Wales in the title. Furthermore, one of the statutory instruments reads as if it will apply to Northern Ireland as well. In the other place the Minister said:

"There will be a UK-wide scheme-it will be the same scheme-but because of the relevant powers ... it will be necessary for Welsh Ministers to make the arrangements".-[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee 15/3/10; col. 5.]

I listened carefully to the Minister, but I would like some clarification on this area. Can she tell the Committee what she anticipates these arrangements will be and whether they will be identical to those before us today? If there is a chance of any deviations, what procedures will be in place to rectify any loopholes or confusion?

Overseas workers make up a large proportion of the workforce, particularly in healthcare and schools, and the number is ever increasing. What progress have the Government made on imposing proper procedures to obtain conviction data for overseas workers? Can the Minister tell the Committee whether our European partners have equivalent systems in place? If they do not, this fails to protect us from workers coming in from the EU. I am worried, largely due to the lack of clarity and explanation by the Government, that the measures will give a false sense of security as it is clear that they will not capture everyone. The Government need to explain more about why these measures are the right way to go, how many people will be affected and how they will make people safer. I look forward to the Minister's answers.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, these orders have resulted from the rigorous work of Sir Roger Singleton. I notice that he has chosen a very appropriate title for his report: Drawing the Line. That really goes to the heart of what we should be doing-that is, drawing the line in the right place to ensure that we do as much as we possibly can to protect children and vulnerable adults, without putting an undue burden on conscientious employers, employees, volunteers and public agencies. On these Benches, we judge all these things on whether they are proportionate.

Sir Roger made some very sensible recommendations, most of which the Government are now trying to implement. However, I notice that, although the

23 Mar 2010 : Column GC346

Explanatory Memorandum indicates that there will be a considerable reduction in the number of people who will be affected by the need to register because of the changes to the frequency and intensity rules, there is no detailed assessment of the impact of those changes on the protection of children and vulnerable adults. Can the Minister say what the Government have looked into before implementing those recommendations?

I share some of the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, about overseas workers. Whenever this Committee has discussed orders to do with things that came out of the 2006 Act, we have always taken the opportunity to ask the Minister for an update on the Government's negotiations with other countries about the sharing of information. I look forward to the Minister's reply on that point.

In another place, there was great concern about communication-not surprisingly, because every time you make a change, it adds further confusion. I compliment the Government on the Mythbusters document, which is a very good way of trying to counter some of the outrageous and inaccurate claims that have been made in the media. It is important that documents of that kind are very widely distributed and that very clear guidance is given to employers, potential employees and volunteers about what they have to do, particularly given the penalties that will result from not doing it.

Three points came out of Sir Roger Singleton's report which are not dealt with by these orders. I take the opportunity to probe the Minister a little on three of the recommendations about further work that Sir Roger made at the end of his report. First, he asked whether private medical practitioners should be looked into, as well as whether they should register. I think the Department of Health is taking the lead on looking into that. Can the Minister tell us what co-ordination is going on between her department and the Department of Health and who is being consulted on that matter? Secondly, how will the Government approach deciding whether there is any need for the controlled activity category to continue? This is another matter that Sir Roger raised. Will the Government ask Sir Roger to look into it further? It was beyond the remit of his original report, which is why he raised it at the end. Thirdly, he raised the issue of whether there will be a continued requirement for CRB checks.

This brings me to some anecdotal information, which I can pass on to the Minister. In the past four days, I have met four people who work with children and vulnerable adults who have four concurrent CRB checks. One was a volunteer who runs a cadet force in a school. He has to have one CRB check for the school and another for the military for the same voluntary job. Then he works in another school, doing some coaching, so he needs another CRB check for that. Finally, he volunteers in an old people's home, so he needs a fourth CRB check for that. This afternoon, I met a young teacher who works in two different schools and is on sabbatical from a third. He has three CRB checks for those three different schools and is a school governor in a fourth, so he has another one for that.

People complain about how long it takes to get CRB checks back-indeed, I heard again today about surgeons who cannot carry on doing their work when

23 Mar 2010 : Column GC347

they move from one hospital to another because their check has not come back-yet all that duplication is going on. What are the Government going to do to stop this waste of time and money? Until November, when the new registration scheme comes in, it is all we have. Clearly, checks could be done a lot quicker if there was not so much duplication.

Finally, can the Minister tell us anything about another matter that the Government have asked Sir Roger Singleton to look into: the physical punishment of children in part-time learning situations? The Government have indicated that they expect him to report by the end of the month, but as far as I can see there will be no legislative opportunity for the Government to put his recommendations into operation straight away, as they said they would. Does the noble Baroness have any further information than she had the last time I asked her about this-which was nothing-on how the Government are going to approach that matter?

6 pm

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I thank both noble Baronesses for their contributions and for participating in this debate, which is an important act of scrutiny of these important orders. I have had quite a lot of questions; I will do my very best to cover them all now but, as ever, if I do not or miss any answers, I undertake to write to the noble Baronesses. My right honourable friend in another place has just written to honourable Members in response to their debate. Some of the questions that the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, touched on were picked up there, so we are addressing them. I apologise if I am not going about this in the right order, but here goes anyway.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, asked whether we have made an assessment of the negative effect of the whole scheme on ex-offenders in finding work. We have made a great effort to ensure that the exceptions that these provisions make to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act are as narrow as possible. That means that, as much as possible, we are trying to leave standing all the work that people have been doing around the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act to get it right. The only entitlement to details of spent convictions in relation to controlled activity is if the individual concerned has been barred by the ISA from regulated activities, which means that the ISA has already deemed a person to pose a risk to vulnerable groups. We estimate that the CRB might get around 5,000 applications a month, of which between one and five might be barred. It is a tiny proportion.

Both noble Baronesses asked how we deal with foreign offences, which I know is a matter of concern. As they know, we deal with them in several ways. Since the EU decision in 2005, an EU member state must inform the UK if a UK national is convicted in other EU states, as the noble Baronesses are aware. A standard for exchanging information electronically is being developed and the CRB is pursuing bilateral agreements on exchanging information for employment vetting purposes. We know that a prospective employer in the UK can also ask an applicant from overseas for a police certificate of good conduct. We would obviously also expect employers to take up references and to

23 Mar 2010 : Column GC348

check with previous overseas employers, but that is of course an imperfect system. We rely on the sound judgment of employers, but we are working to create as strong and proportionate a system as possible.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, asked about the coverage of the scheme. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, also asked, but perhaps not. To be clear, the scheme as it relates to regulated activity-where people on the barred lists are prevented from working-applies in England and Wales under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, and parallel legislation in Northern Ireland provides similar arrangements there. So there is some alignment. The only difference relates to the different structures there; for example, the existence of health and social care trusts and education and library boards rather than local authorities. The ISA is the barring authority in both England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and an ISA bar is already recognised in those countries.

I do not want to focus on too much detail, but Scotland will have a slightly different scale operating under the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act. However, it is important that we intend to recognise Scottish bars and Scotland intends to recognise ours, so a person barred anywhere in the UK will be barred across the whole UK. It is therefore right to describe the system as a UK system.

Arrangements may be made for controlled activity in Wales which are different from those for England. However, the Welsh Assembly Government intend to make the same interim provisions for controlled activity in Wales as we intend to make for England. In Northern Ireland, employers are entitled to obtain enhanced disclosures on all workers in controlled activities, not only on those who are barred, and therefore there is no need for these interim arrangements. Scotland will be covered in the same way.

Baroness Verma: Will Scotland be covered with regard to controlled activity?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: Scotland does not have controlled activity; that is the difference. I shall set that out for the noble Baroness when I write to her.

The noble Baroness referred to concerns that this scheme is about people who work with children, whereas a great deal of child abuse takes place in families. That is an area of concern and that is why last week we launched our report on the progress that we have made on the review of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, on safeguarding in the UK. We are working to make sure that we have a safeguarding strategy across the piece but we can never be sure that people who work with children are perfectly safe. The scheme does not promise that and we are careful not to raise expectations. Our communications need to be crystal clear on this. The scheme complements, for example, safe recruitment and employment practices; it excludes those who pose a risk-the barred people-from regulated activity and gives information about them to employers; but it does not indicate that there is no reason for someone not to work with children. We have to be clear about what the scheme can do, as both noble Baronesses have said.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, asked for clarity about who is covered in controlled activity. The Government issued detailed guidance on this last week,

23 Mar 2010 : Column GC349

including case studies and examples to illustrate the coverage of the scheme. I shall be happy to copy that information to the noble Baronesses and we shall be interested to receive any feedback from them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was concerned about security. The ISA has new IT systems which are built to the Government's confidential criteria and are more secure than any other government IT system.

Vigorous safeguards mean that personal information is properly protected and cannot be downloaded from the system or accessed from less secure computer systems. The ISA has set in place a robust security system. Any potential breaches can quickly be identified and dealt with through audit, and we are confident that we are well placed effectively to deliver our security requirements. These are, as the noble Baronesses would expect, also reviewed and tested on a regular basis.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, wanted to know what the Government's position is on the Singleton recommendations. When Sir Roger published his report, we accepted his recommendations and clearly indicated to him that we would need to operate interim arrangements pending the longer-term consideration of those recommendations; otherwise, we would have barred people entering into controlled activity and employers would not even know that they had been barred. Therefore, we have had to tighten up the loophole that we identified, but this is a light-touch requirement to prevent the risk of barred people entering into controlled activity. We accept Sir Roger's analysis, and his suggestion that the scheme can be simplified is very helpful.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was interested in knowing the percentage of convictions in England and Wales given to offenders with no previous criminal history. The figures that I have for autobar offences-those where the offender is automatically placed on the barred list, either with or without representations-show that in 2008 46 per cent of convictions in England and Wales were given to offenders with no previous criminal history. That is quite an interesting figure.

I agree with the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, about the impact of mistakes and wrong information being supplied to employers. It is an extremely important point on which to focus in these deliberations. In the event that a dispute is raised by an applicant, the CRB works with the relevant police force to ensure that the dispute is resolved very swiftly and ensures that the registered body-the employer-is made aware that any information released in a disclosure has been disputed. That swift action is important. In accordance with Treasury policy, the Criminal Records Bureau makes financial awards to redress customers for maladministration. Again, that is important. The CRB also awards customers for any loss of earnings that arise as a direct consequence of the CRB's maladministration. Again, I hope I can reassure the noble Baroness that we take this very seriously.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, touched on a point about which I, too, feel very strongly-that is, getting the communications right. I am glad that the myth-busting document has been helpful. A host of communications has been prepared and is in train as we go towards the July 2010 deadline. However, we recognise that it is important to make sure that

23 Mar 2010 : Column GC350

parliamentarians are properly informed as well. We produced detailed guidance about the scheme in October 2009, and, as I said, full guidance was released last week. We have been publishing information about the scheme in various media, as one would expect, and have just finished a large-scale and, I am advised, well supported sequence of roadshows, which are about going out and talking to those who will be using the scheme.

We are advised that the feedback that we have had from the roadshows and surveys that we have conducted indicates that there is general support for the approach that we are adopting with the scheme. We should feel encouraged and reassured by that. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked for more detail on overseas workers, but I will write to her with the latest update on that.

6.15 pm

With regard to working with the Department of Health, this is, I believe, about self-employed private health practitioners in particular. As the law currently stands, when the patient attends one of these practitioners, it will be a private arrangement. Therefore, although the practitioners may register with the scheme, there will be no requirement for them to do so. However, the intimate nature of the medical treatment may suggest that these practitioners should be registered. The Department of Health will lead on this in collaboration with the DCSF and healthcare regulators. I hope that, by the time I write to the noble Baroness, I can tell her how closely we are working on that. I worked very closely with Phil Hope and other Department of Health Ministers on several issues. The whole vetting and borrowing scheme is pressing ahead apace. It is not the just the DoH that we need to work with; we also work with the MoJ and the Home Office. I recognise that that is very important.

We are launching consultation on the timetable for the review of the CRB checks today. The noble Baroness made a good point from the case studies that she described, which I absolutely recognise as an important issue that this consultation on the use of CRB checks must address. I hope that the noble Baroness will be happy to share the details with me so that I can look at them further. My view is that ISA registration, particularly for volunteering, must be a great step forward for all those who volunteer and work in different settings. We must work towards making this an effective, user-friendly, proportionate system.

Baroness Verma: I declare an interest as a provider in social care. The difficulty, which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, picked up very strongly, is that these sectors already have great difficulties in recruitment. If CRBs are not transportable, the sector suffers and those people who desperately need the jobs are left very much in a world of limbo. CRB checks need to be transportable, as they once were, rather than different CRB checks being needed for different organisations. It is duplication, yet again.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: We need to remember that the beauty of ISA registration is that once you become registered, your registration is monitored and you can take it with you wherever you go. If you work in a regulated activity and change jobs a lot or have several different jobs, your ISA registration will work.

23 Mar 2010 : Column GC351

All you have to do is give your employer or the charity for which you are volunteering your registration. That employer, with your permission, can then check your ISA registration and see that you are not barred from working with children or vulnerable adults. That has to be the ultimate in portability. What we have to do through the consultation that we are launching now is look at what that means for CRB checks. We in government have to tread gently in looking at this. Many employers value the entitlement to have a CRB check. We want to get the balance right. We do not want to create turbulence in the system at a time of change. I value very much the points that the noble Baroness made about that. I see portability being one of the most important aspects of this whole scheme. I would hope that in a few years' time, the noble Baroness would see the benefits of the scheme going forward in that way.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Verma, talked about the importance of a proportionate approach. Before coming in here today, I was thinking that it needs to be proportionate, fair and consistent. But we do have to make it proportionate, which is why we asked Sir Roger Singleton to undertake his check. Drawing the Line is a good name for his report; we needed to look at whether we were drawing a line in the right place, and Sir Roger's report helped us to do that. It is safe to say that public opinion has moved on significantly since all of us were here for the debates around the Act following on from the Bichard report. His recommendations, which we have accepted in full, are widely supported, and most people accept that activity once a week should be covered by the scheme, as he recommended. Our aim throughout has been to develop an approach that is proportionate, balanced and effective, with the scheme operating in a way that is neither burdensome, bureaucratic or off-putting to potential volunteers, which meets the concerns of parents and families.

As for the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about physical punishment, I am advised that the report will be published very shortly and that we will respond to it as quickly as we possibly can. With regard to whether there is time to act on the recommendations, I am looking forward to having many more months to take forward anything that I may learn from a new report that Sir Roger Singleton might do for us. I am not unduly worried about the timescale.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page