§ Order for Second Reading read.9.33 am
§ Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a great honour to promote the Bill today. It seeks to protect the most vulnerable and innocent in our society. It seeks to protect children from abuse, and closes down some of the avenues through which paedophiles operate. "Paedophile" is the wrong description—because "paedophile" means "child lover"; child molester, child rapist and child destroyer are all more accurate descriptions of adults who abuse children. Childhoods have been destroyed by individuals who have molested, raped or attacked children.
"Abuse", itself, is too gentle a word for the ordeal to which children—often very young ones—have been subjected, including oral sex, anal sex and a whole spectrum of sexual relations which no child should ever know about, let alone be subjected to by an adult who is meant to care for them.
The Bill refers to child care workers in whom trust has been placed. There are many people with immense power over the youngsters in their care—immense power to do good or evil. I pay tribute to the child care workers who strive hard to provide the best possible conditions of safety for children. I say to the others that we will close down their avenues of abuse. Child care workers who are decent and good know above all others how urgently the Bill's proposals are needed. Commenting on the proposals, the chief executive of the Children's Society said:It is crazy to leave the protection of children to chance. We need rigorous checks by law.The need for vetting is now well recognised, and I commend colleagues who have battled for years to get the matter on to the political agenda, and charities such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Save the Children which work hard to shine some light into the dark places of child abuse. Supporting the Bill, the chief executive of Childline said that it isa vital step in preventing known abusers continuing to harm children.Since my announcement in December that I would be dealing with child protection in my Bill, I have received 640 many messages of support. An early one came inside a small Christmas card. The well-wisher simply wrote:Thank you, thank you, thank you.It is clear that there are thousands of people in this country who, due to their personal experiences, are longing for greater child protection measures to be introduced.
Sadly, my Bill cannot deal with every possible area of vulnerability, and it certainly cannot guarantee that no child will ever suffer abuse again. I ask organisations to review their employment good practice procedures. Although the Bill cannot cover every avenue of potential abuse, it will substantially increase the level of protection in those public areas where that is most desperately needed.
It may help to follow the structure of the proposed arrangements if two crucial definitions used in the Bill are kept in mind—"child care position" and "child care organisation," both of which are laid down in clause 12. "Child care position" refers to a position that is concerned with the provision of services to children for which an organisation is responsible and where the worker has regular contact with children.
For the purposes of the Bill, a "child care organisation" is one whose activities are in some way controlled or regulated by statute, including all local authority social services functions relating to children; all children's homes—be they local authority, private or independent; nursing homes or mental service homes accommodating children; registered child minders; and some NHS trust services regarding children.
All those organisations will have a mandatory requirement to vet prospective employees, paid or unpaid. Other organisations not covered by the Bill—such as voluntary groups and cadet forces—will be able to vet employees and volunteers, and to refer names of abusers to the list. I sincerely hope that organisations such as the scouts, who have provided immense opportunities for youngsters, will fully avail themselves of the vetting mechanism for all volunteers who work with children.
No organisation is free from potential abusers. It is only right and proper that parents should expect organisations in which they have put their trust to vet their workers, paid or unpaid. That is a service that organisations such as Schools Outreach have pleaded for. Its chief executive remembers telling 12 interviewees that he was able to vet their backgrounds. One then admitted that he was a convicted child abuser; another admitted that he was awaiting trial.
It is important that the strong framework of vetting proposed by the Bill is balanced by a strong mechanism for appeal. The Bill proposes a right of appeal backed by an independent tribunal, as laid out in the schedule. It sets out for the first time a means whereby an individual who has had a conviction quashed on appeal or a malicious referral uncovered may have his name removed from the list. Furthermore, a discretionary power may be exercised by the Secretary of State without the need to go through the appeal tribunal. That is a major step forward in terms of civil rights.
Currently, an individual may be referred to existing lists without his knowledge, and if he discovers that his name is on a list, he has no statutory right of appeal. My Bill will allow for all those whose names are referred to the list to be notified. That, along with the appeal mechanism and independent tribunal, represents a significant improvement on the present situation.
641 Child care employers will be required to refer names to the list. That provision has been included to prevent the practice of letting people go when they are discovered to be abusive. By failing to report abusers, some unscrupulous employers have allowed—indeed, enabled—known abusers to move to new employment where they are able to continue their abuse. The requirement to refer is a fundamental measure in closing avenues of abuse.
Referrals will be made if someone in a position of child care is dismissed on the grounds of misconduct that harms a child or puts a child at risk of harm; if an individual resigns or retires in circumstances in which he or she would otherwise be dismissed; if an individual has been transferred due to circumstances of misconduct to a job in the same organisation, not in a child care position; or if an individual has been provisionally suspended or transferred to a non-child care position while inquiries are being carried out.
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
I apologise if I have misunderstood the hon. Lady's Bill. She says that there will be an obligation on the relevant organisations to refer, but I could not see any penalties in the Bill for failure to comply. Is that deliberate or because the issue is covered in some other Act that I did not study in conjunction with the Bill?
§ Ms Shipley
I am grateful for that intervention, which gives me the chance to clarify the issue. The child care organisations to which my Bill refers are covered by statute, so we have a means of bringing sanctions against them.
The message to child abusers and those who knowingly employ them is: "We will not tolerate you or your cruel and destructive activities."
The Bill has four main provisions. It will put the Department of Health's current administrative consultancy index, which lists individuals considered unsuitable to work with children, on a statutory basis and will require regulated organisations to refer names for inclusion on the new list. It will provide rights of appeal against inclusion on the Department of Health list and the similar List 99 of the Department for Education and Employment, which has always been statutory.
The Bill will require regulated child care organisations to check the names of anyone whom they propose to employ in posts involving regular contact with children against both the departmental lists and not to employ them if they are listed—although only if they are listed on certain grounds, in the case of List 99.
The Bill will amend part V of the Police Act 1997 to allow the Criminal Records Bureau to act as a central access point to criminal records information, List 99 and the new Department of Health list for those who need information on people applying to work with children.
The provisions that I have outlined form the foundations of what, in time, will become a one-stop shop. The proposals are the result of extensive consultation by the interdepartmental working group on preventing unsuitable people from working with children and abuse of trust. Its report was placed in the parliamentary Libraries on 25 January. Some 39 parties are recorded as 642 having taken part in the consultation process. It is reasonable to conclude from the report that there was a thorough airing of the issues involved.
The Bill should be viewed as part of the process of seeking means to protect the most vulnerable in our society. It does not complete the process, nor does it deal with abusers operating outside the child care or teaching sectors. However, it is an indispensable step towards a more complete system.
Several hon. Members have approached me with concerns about vulnerable adults, particularly elderly people. The case studies that they have cited are horrific. I greatly regret that abused elderly people are outside the scope of my Bill. However, I understand that the working group is moving on to investigate how the procedures outlined in the Bill might best be extended to vulnerable adults. I welcome those urgently needed endeavours.
However, in clause 10 I have been able to include powers to extend the benefit of the Bill's provisions to adults suffering from mental impairment—those adults whose vulnerability arguably puts them closest to the position of children. The measure is welcomed by the charity Mencap, which has also brought to my attention the case of a child care worker who had abused a youngster and who was subject to disciplinary procedures that resulted in him being transferred to work in a residential care centre for children with learning disabilities, where the abuse continued. The Bill will close the loophole that allows known abusers to move on, free to abuse again.
The Mencap example is not isolated. Recent newspaper headlines provide all too many examples: "Freed sex killer given a job with schoolgirls"; "Social workers linked to widespread abuse"; "Child sex probe to go back 40 years". Such headlines represent only the smallest tip of a terrible iceberg.
I do not need to tell hon. Members that it is our job as parliamentarians to do all that we can to protect the most innocent and vulnerable in our society. That is the aim of the Bill.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) on her good fortune in pulling out No. 1 in the ballot. Many of us who have been here much longer than she has—there are many who have been here much longer than I have—have never even appeared in the top 20. She is very fortunate. I also congratulate her on the excellent way in which she has introduced her Bill, presenting the arguments cogently and without the extreme emotional language that such issues can engender. Such language is not constructive to the purpose of the Bill.
None of us would disagree with the need to protect our children. We have all seen newspaper headlines such as those to which the hon. Lady referred. Many of us have come across constituency examples. We must do all that we can to address this very important issue. I had the privilege to be the Minister responsible for the youth service in the previous Government. We did a lot of work on problems in this area, from which the concept for the Criminal Records Bureau came. I am a little surprised that the Government have not already brought the provisions into force. We could not do so, because the issue came 643 up in the last week before the House was dissolved. [HON. MEMBERS: "You had 18 years."] Hon. Members know that the issue has got worse over those years. If they want to make party political points, they are welcome to do so, but it is pretty pointless. I am trying to be constructive, as the hon. Lady was. I congratulate her on her speech. However, I wonder why the measure has not already been brought in.
It is right to ensure that we cover as wide a spectrum of children as possible. The hon. Lady is wise to have included the provisions covering mentally ill adults and I congratulate her on that sensible addition. I have a few concerns which I shall raise in a few minutes, but I assure the hon. Lady that I support her Bill in principle, although I hope that there might be one or two improvements.
I am not a great believer in rights generally. We spend too much time on rights and too little on responsibilities. However, we must bear in mind the right of parents to expect that a registered child minder or a statutory body to whom they entrust the responsibility of looking after their children has been properly vetted. The hon. Lady rightly pointed out that the measure will not stop all child abuse problems. Much child abuse takes place in the home. Parents who take on a nanny are not obliged to seek information about that individual.
We must find the right balance. Often in debates in the House, we try to put right wrongs and protect members of society, but we sometimes fail to keep a sense of proportion. I do not question the need for the Bill, but it might give the impression that there are millions of people out there preying on children when we all know that to be wholly false. Yes, there is a group of people who are almost beyond comment because of their desire to abuse children sexually and physically, but the vast majority of people—like, I trust, all hon. Members present—are sensible and reasonable, and concerned to protect children. We must not give a different impression.
I have immense respect for the work of the voluntary sector in caring for young people. It has a huge range of experience. The hon. Member for Stourbridge referred to Mencap; I have an excellent Mencap home in my constituency. I am anxious to ensure that the voluntary sector does not get into difficulties through the Bill.
Another aspect is the need to legislate on the back of the Utting report, which was set up by the previous Government and rightly continued by this Government. That report catalogued a range of abuses of trust and identified the need for an appropriate vetting system. I was surprised when I researched the issue to discover the Home Office study of 1997 which found that one in 60 males from a sample of those born in 1953 had a conviction for a sexual offence. I do not question that research, but I was astonished that the figure was so high. If that study was valid, it underlines the need for the Bill.
The study concentrated on men, but—as I hope the hon. Ladies present on the Government Benches will agree—the problem is not restricted to men. Women, too, can be involved in child abuse, both violent and sexual abuse, and it would be unfortunate if the debate focused entirely on men.
§ Ms Shipley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is important that the Bill is not seen 644 as an anti-man Bill. Everything in the Bill refers to both men and women, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that women abuse too.
§ Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)
I ask the hon. Gentleman to do the arithmetic. On his figures, one in 60 is almost 500,000 of the male population. The problem is serious, but the hon. Gentleman dismissed the numbers earlier in his speech. I find that 500,000 a frightening figure.
§ Mr. Paice
I was not dismissing the figures. If that study is right, the figure is 500,000. I may be at fault for not going into great detail about how statistically valid that study was and whether it would be replicated if other age groups were examined. I do not know, but if the study is right, the problem is significant. However, that does not mean that all those 500,000, to use the figure that the hon. Gentleman derived, are out there being predatory. Many of them may be able to keep their problems under control, especially if they have already been convicted of an offence. Some people are rehabilitated by our systems.
Some confusion is caused by the present system of registers and they should be amalgamated. The Bill would not achieve that directly, but, as the hon. Member for Stourbridge suggested, it sets out a move to a one-stop shop arrangement. That is right, because too many agencies are involved and too many different criteria for inclusion on the lists are used. Policies also differ on access to the lists. It is time to put the consultancy index on the same statutory footing as the national computer database and List 99, so that we move towards a one-stop, centralised register.
I said earlier that I was concerned about the voluntary sector and that includes the issue of costs. I know that the cost of accessing the register will not be huge, but, for the voluntary sector, even a few pounds can be painful. I hope that the cost can be kept down. I assume that the hon. Member for Stourbridge will reply to the debate, and I hope that she will be able to shed some light on the link between the voluntary sector and the statutory sector. So much of the voluntary sector is grant-aided by the statutory sector, especially local education authorities, and I am not clear whether the obligation to make checks will automatically accompany grant-aiding. Will the grant-aiding body be able to impose that obligation on the voluntary sector?
I also wish to ensure that sufficient safeguards are put in place. I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Member for Stourbridge has done to try to meet the civil rights concerns that she described, but the process through which someone is included on the list is still administrative and not judicial. Although a tribunal will be set up, I find it surprising that the tribunal will not make the decision on whether someone should be included on the list, but instead it will be made by the Secretary of State or his nominees.
The threshold for initial inclusion on the list is quite low. That is not necessarily wrong, but it makes it harder to ensure that the list is operated fairly. Organisations that 645 are obliged to report an incident involving an individual will still have to judge whether to report it and decide on the seriousness of the offence. I am referring not to offences that lead to prosecution, because they are covered in the Bill, but to activities described in clause 5(2) of the Bill.
I understand that there is no requirement that any dismissal should be lawful, and that must be addressed. Human nature being what it is, we must also be careful that no opportunity exists for malicious nominations of individuals to the list. We must be frank about the realities of life and accept that, for whatever reason, malicious accusations are made that do not have a basis in fact. Safeguards must be put in place against employers or anybody else who seeks to smear the reputation of an individual. How many people would have to endorse the submission of a name before that person was included on the list? What procedure would be followed by a firm, youth service or child-minding agency to submit the information and how would that submission be validated?
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
My hon. Friend served his penance with me in the Department for Education and Employment for some time, so he will know that a genuine problem in the education world is that pupils often make serious allegations against teachers. Those allegations may be unfounded, but sometimes they ruin careers and lives. Does my hon. Friend share my worry about the Bill—and I hope that the problem will be clarified later—that the provision for placing a person on a provisional list does not include access to a tribunal? There is, therefore, the possibility that someone will linger on the provisional list for some time, possibly on the basis of an unfounded allegation. Does that not reinforce the point that my hon. Friend is making?
§ Mr. Paice
My right hon. Friend is right on both counts. As I said a moment ago, we have to accept that life out there is not as good as we might wish. Some people want to be malicious, for whatever reason: their potential victims must be protected.
I should also be interested to hear what the hon. Member for Stourbridge has to say about paragraphs (c) and (d) of clause 5(2), which deal with the grounds on which people are to be considered unfit for employment. [Interruption.] Excuse me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but my pager is going off, as did the hon. Lady's during her opening remarks. I was impressed with the nonchalant way in which she silenced it and was not thrown off her speech.
I am worried about how wide the definition of who is fit and proper goes. Should not the Bill include some criteria about the seriousness of the alleged offence? Also, what about people who were themselves abused as children? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that such people are more likely—although not necessarily through their own fault—to become abusers when they grow up. I hope that the Bill will not mean that people, because they have been abused, will be regarded as not fit and proper to work with children: indeed, some people who have been abused learn from that awful experience and go on to become extremely valuable members of society. However, the problem needs to be tackled.
646 In addition, the onus is on people who believe that they have been included in the list wrongly to ensure that their names are removed. The Bill needs to place a greater obligation on the Secretary of State, or whoever will operate the list, properly to investigate complaints by people who believe that they have been wrongly included in the list. The hon. Member for Stourbridge will no doubt point out that the Bill provides that anyone included in the list will be informed and will have the right to inquire about why they have been included. Nevertheless, the onus appears to me to be in the wrong place, with the result that the Bill smacks a little of suggesting that a person is guilty until proven innocent. That is not a feature that I would welcome in our legal system.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
There is also the worry that legal aid would not be given in such cases. Would not people without good financial resources suffer from the burden of trying to ensure that their names were removed from the list?
§ Mr. Paice
My hon. Friend has relieved me of the need to read the next paragraph of my speech, which deals with that very point. I am worried that many people who believe that they have been wrongly nominated will not have sufficient resources to fight to clear their names.
It is fashionable sometimes to use phrase "big brother", and I do not want to use it in the context of the Bill, but we have to strike the balance between protecting our children and enshrining in statute a level of authoritarianism that is unacceptable in a free society. We do not want to create a poisoned chalice: people who would otherwise be prepared to commit their lives to looking after children must not be deterred from doing so by a fear that their backgrounds may be subject to intense investigation and inquiry.
The Bill will not cover nannies and child minders employed by private individuals. However, will there be an obligation on registered child care agencies to carry out checks? That is especially important, as such agencies often bring in nannies and child minders from abroad. Will we find that it is much less safe to employ foreign people in that role than people who are registered in Britain? Hiring foreign workers is well known to foster good international understanding, and our young people also enjoy the benefits of working in foreign countries.
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again, and I hope that the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) will return to that point when she replies to the debate. The House needs the maximum reassurance that the levels of quality and reliability of people hired from overseas are as high as we would expect in people from this country, because there is a danger of a lacuna appearing in the Bill if they are not. Our other option would be to say that people from abroad would not be allowed to work here if the information about their backgrounds was not reliable. Is that not a genuine dilemma which must be resolved if the measures in the Bill are to be secure and properly implemented? I suspect that my hon. Friend is aware of that problem, and I hope that the hon. Lady will deal with it later.
§ Mr. Paice
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. A person who employs a child minder from a registered agency may not realise that other countries have different 647 vetting systems. It would be invidious to name another country, but a parent employing a person from, say, Scandinavia, may not realise that that person could be less well vetted than an English person.
I appreciate the value of the Bill. When it becomes law, agencies recruiting staff to positions of control, responsibility and care with regard to children will have to make the checks that the hon. Member for Stourbridge has set out. By simplifying and improving the system, the Bill will lessen the possibility that children will be abused.
I have set out where I believe that the Bill needs more work with regard to the civil liberties of people who may be wrongly accused, and I have described the safeguards that need to be put in place. I also spoke about the problem of the voluntary sector's links with statutory bodies not being covered by the Bill. However, I am sure that the hon. Member for Stourbridge will return to that, and the matters that I have raised can be discussed in Committee.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stourbridge on winning the ballot, and on her wisdom in choosing this subject, which is more complicated than those normally covered by private Members' Bills. I hope that there will be unanimous agreement that it should proceed.
§ Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
Ever since I came to the House 12 years ago, I have battled to improve the lot of children. It has been a hard battle. So concerned was I in 1995 at the slow progress being made that, as shadow spokesperson for children, I, along with the late and sadly missed Joan Lestor—then Member for Eccles—and my right hon. Friend the current Home Secretary, wrote a letter to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who was then Home Secretary.
We asked, among other things, for the establishment of a nationwide database of known or suspected sexual offenders and a tightening up of the vetting procedures for those who worked with children. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's written response was positive, but his action was not vigorous. We have had to wait until today for this welcome Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), to narrow a glaring and obvious gap in child protection legislation.
It is good at last to have a Government who contain so many members committed to improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society—children. As a trustee of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, I have even heard the complaint that so many excellent initiatives, guidelines and legislation are coming from the Government that the society is finding it hard to keep up with the pace.
Interdepartmental working groups have been making progress, and we have seen the continuing work of the social exclusion unit, sure start and the national child care strategy. There has been work on tackling drug abuse, and the positive response to the Utting report has included the proposal for important and long-fought-for children's rights officers. There has also been the long-awaited implementation of the remaining recommendations of the Piggot report on child witnesses. The quality protection initiative sets standards for looking after children. There is real progress at last.
648 Even when I wrote to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe in 1995, it was obvious that there was, despite the best efforts of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, an urgent need for a coherent cross-sector system to identify people unsuitable to work with our children. As the Bill makes clear, a number of departmental lists contain the names of people who should never work with children; lists are also held by the police and, more recently, there is the national sex offenders register.
I feared that those with a tendency to abuse children would be able to slip through the net simply because information held on one list was not available in another place. I also worried that voluntary organisations would be unable to ensure that volunteers had a clean bill of health. The system was quite unable to cope with the skill that child abusers develop in hiding their evil intentions, and we all know of many cases of that happening. We have seen enough evidence to know that abusers who have been caught have often had access to children through several previous jobs or voluntary positions.
We also know how hard it is to convict child abusers. The Crown Prosecution Service and the police often have to make hard judgments about whether the pain of going through the present court system is in the best interest of the child concerned, or whether the evidence of a child will be enough to convict. I am sure that the Government share my concerns about the fall in the number of successful prosecutions, and that they will keep a close watch on the number of failed and successful prosecutions. There are certainly further lessons to be learned in that area.
It was obvious to me then, and it remains so now, that to hold separate lists in different departments with no way of cross-referencing them would always put children at risk. I welcome the concept of a one-stop shop, making it clear to all the organisations that work to help children how they can help to protect those in their care.
I welcome the proposed tribunal to ensure fairness. There are dangers in having lists that include the names of people who have not had allegations against them tested in court. Many hon. Members will know of cases in which allegations have been made out of spite and vindictiveness. It is only right that there should be a right of appeal against inclusion on the list.
Some people will say that the Bill goes too far, and others that it does not go far enough. In my opinion, my hon. Friend has struck the right balance. I congratulate her on coming top in the ballot, but, even more, I offer my warm congratulations on her determination to put children first.
§ Jackie Ballard (Taunton)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) on achieving first place in the private Members' ballot. I know of her genuine concern for children's welfare and her desire to increase their protection. The Bill proves her acceptance that much can be done to increase the safety of children. Much can be done, but nothing can be done to ensure 100 per cent. safety for all children in every circumstance, or 100 per cent. peace of mind for every parent. Sadly, life can never be risk free.
In November 1997, I secured an Adjournment debate in which I called for a register of nannies and child care workers. The register would have listed all the people who 649 work with children, their qualifications and their employment records. It could have been checked by employers, both corporate and individual. It would have helped them to make judgments about the people whom they were considering employing to look after their children. The Government have so far resisted setting up such a register, for a number of reasons. Instead, they have put forward other proposals, of which the Bill is one. With their backing, it will certainly fill some of the gaps.
The Bill has my backing, too. We have heard many positive reasons why it should be supported. It puts the consultancy index on a statutory basis, and it means that there will in future be a single access point for checking the names of people involved in the care of children. Employers will have to refer the names of relevant people to the list, and they will have to check the list before they employ someone.
However, the ability—if not necessarily the statutory duty—to check the list must be extended to every employer, perhaps on the payment of a fee. If that is not allowed, people on the list may see that their best hope of going undetected—we must remember that child abusers can be very devious and will seek other routes by which to carry out their actions—is to work for a private individual as, for example, a nanny. Private employers will have no access to the list, and abusers might thus yet again slip through the safety net which should exist for every child in every situation.
Everyone whose name goes on the list will have to be informed of that inclusion, and the Bill, for the first time, brings a welcome right of appeal. Everyone in the House will be appalled at reports of mental, physical or sexual abuse of children. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Stourbridge resisted the temptation to give us an horrific catalogue of events, but abuse is the ultimate destruction of childhood innocence. It is an abuse of trust for any adult to behave in such a way to a child in his or her care.
The hon. Lady is right to want to identify people who are unsuitable to work with children, and to prevent them from getting further access to children through their work. Both as a parliamentarian and as a mother, I want the House to do everything in its power to ensure the safety of children. However, the Bill will not address every instance of child abuse, especially institutionalised abuse.
The inspection of private boarding schools is currently split between social services, the Office for Standards in Education and the Department for Education and Employment. That tripartite arrangement means that a culture of low-level abuse or lack of care is often not sufficiently focused on. Each organisation takes only a partial view of the situation: Ofsted looks only at the quality of education in a boarding school, and it may not look at inappropriate relationships between adults and children; and, the DFEE says that it has no role or resources to investigate allegations in the schools.
I have written to Ministers about allegations of events in a school just beyond my constituency boundaries. Ultimately, it decided to close of its own accord. If it had not done so, it is difficult to see how the three bodies concerned could have engineered a closure. Certainly, that had not happened throughout the long period during which the allegations had been made.
650 Children are especially vulnerable when they are living away from home. Therefore, it is vital that we ensure that the inspection system within any child care setting is robust, comprehensive and co-ordinated. The Bill focuses on the individual abuser, but we must also focus on the institutions within which children are cared for because institutional abuse shows adults at their most damaging and dangerous.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Hutton)
The hon. Lady makes an important point, but I hope that she is aware that we have already outlined in the White Paper on modernising social services proposals for improving the quality, depth and range of inspections in children's services.
§ Jackie Ballard
I am aware that there are proposals and I hope that it will not be too long before they are enshrined in legislation so that the system can be better co-ordinated than hitherto.
One part of the Bill worries me. The Secretary of State can decide that someone should be on the list, if he is of the opinion that the referring organisation reasonably considered the individual to be guilty of misconduct or incompetence and, therefore, to be unsuitable to work with children.
In the House, we often have to balance the rights of individuals and to come down on one side—it is not always obvious which side, and there will be differences of opinion between us. Looked at simply, it could be interpreted that the rights of the child to protection are more important than the rights of the adult to work in an employment setting of his or her choice. If we followed that argument to its logical conclusion, we would bar men from child care roles altogether as most, but not all, abuse is perpetrated by men. That would be taking the precautionary principle too far, as we all would agree.
If the list is to have credibility, we must ensure that the people on it are there because they really are a danger to children and have not merely fallen out with their previous employer or been the subject of malicious allegations. As has been said, we all know examples of teachers who have been wrongly accused of an assault by a teenager and whose career has ended as a result. If the Bill is enacted unamended, the danger is that men may not go into jobs in teaching or child care. Some men who are suitable for such work will feel that it is not worth the risk, and there is already a serious shortage of male role models in primary schools and residential child care.
§ Ms Shipley
I must make it clear that the Bill does not sexually discriminate between men and women. Women are abusers too. If we investigate in some depth, we may even find that a significant number of women abusers are not yet known. It is much harder to accuse a woman of being an abuser. There are a significant number of male abusers, but men should not be put off work with children by the measures in the Bill any more than women should be. Those measures apply equally to both genders.
§ Jackie Ballard
I accept that the Bill is not designed to discriminate between genders. I was not trying to imply that it was. However, I think that we would all accept that, statistically, men make up the greater percentage of people who have been cautioned or convicted for child 651 abuse. I also accept that those statistics may hide many cases of women who are never brought to court or of allegations that have not been followed through for various reasons, perhaps because it is culturally easier to accuse a man of abuse rather than a woman. That also means that it is easier falsely to accuse a man because the accusation is likely to be taken more seriously. The differences between me and the hon. Member for Stourbridge are not as great as they might appear.
If the Bill is enacted unamended, allegations may be made maliciously and may for ever destroy someone's career. That is a pretty big stick to hand to a disturbed or damaged teenager. The reasonable suspicion provision tips the balance too far against civil liberties and natural justice. I hope that we can look carefully at that part of the Bill in Committee.
I hope that the Bill goes to a Standing Committee because, in most ways, it is an improvement on the present situation. A number of issues cause concern, including the reasonable doubt provision and the maximum time allowable between someone's name appearing on the register and an appeal being held and decided on. I do not think that anyone would want someone who has been falsely accused to have to wait in limbo, unable to work in the setting of his or her choice while the process grinds on, so a maximum time limit must be written in.
I want individual employers outside the categories listed in the Bill to have access to the register. We must also consider the cost of checking the register, especially for volunteer organisations.
Such scrutiny is the purpose of the Standing Committee. I will certainly not oppose the Bill today because I support it in principle, as I hope that I have made clear. If I am fortunate to be a member of the Committee, I hope that we will be able to table constructive amendments to deal with some of the issues that I raised to enable a sensible debate to take place and to enable us to enact a Bill that will make life safer for many more children in years to come.
Before I sit down, I must apologise to the Minister and the hon. Member for Stourbridge as I have an unavoidable appointment after 12.30 pm and, if the debate carries on until lunchtime, I may not be here for the replies.
§ Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)
I am pleased to have the opportunity to support and speak to the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley). The Bill will not merely protect children and all who are vulnerable, but deal with many older people who feel that they have the right to abuse in private others who do not have the ability to protect themselves. Therefore, the Bill is profoundly valuable.
We and our society have been shocked too many times by revelations of day-to-day occurrences. No doubt, they have occurred in a minority of places, but those revelations have been heartbreaking and, invariably, repairing the damage has been almost impossible. The establishments concerned have been public—schools and care facilities—and there has been clear abuse of the privileged position of care.
Helping to develop a stable and caring home life and environment—whether in schools or public places of enjoyment, such as the scouts or the girl guides—is 652 something that we all, as parents and people who believe that we are principled, want to do. That ensures the best start in life for all children and young people. That is obvious. We say the obvious so regularly, and achieving such a stable environment should be an obvious fact of life. However, for so many, that is not the case. Such a start in life provides the best way to achieve a well-balanced and well-adjusted society. However, we must protect the young and vulnerable from prejudicial acts or behaviour not merely because it helps us to achieve a stable society, but because that is their right.
Unlike the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), I see the Bill as clearly and determinedly establishing a right to be treated with dignity and with respect. It is valuable to have a right without question to be able to turn away and object to unwanted advances, which could well be abuse, and to have at all times and in all circumstances protection against all those who would threaten those rights. I see the Bill differently from the hon. Gentleman because I see it as implicitly and explicitly defining a right.
§ Mr. Paice
I hope that the hon. Lady will do me the courtesy of reading what I said. She will find that I did not say that I did not see the Bill as being about rights. I made the general point that we spend too much time thinking about rights, rather than responsibilities. I recognise that the Bill is about rights, both those that she described and those that I described—the rights of parents to expect their children to be cared for by responsible people.
§ Ms Taylor
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I misunderstood him; I will read his words.
I want a clearly stated law that will deter actions that have the potential to be prejudicial or damaging. It is not a question of appropriateness but one of establishing a right that without question should be afforded to all people, particularly children and the vulnerable, who are away from the public gaze in the private worlds of education, caring or police custody. The Bill is such a law in the making. For me, it is long overdue.
Laws that embody the protection of human rights are the cornerstone of a good society. Their very acceptance, existence and operation underpin individuals and their freedom to act. Rights inevitably define responsibilities. Rights, with their accompanying responsibilities, can control the acts of all people at all times and, I hope, outline, define and control consequences. The Bill is about establishing the relationship between rights and responsibility, an easily operated means of control and the facility to enable people to grow up, develop and participate in every situation without interference from others with known abuser records.
In my previous life, I worked in care as a house mother. From that experience, I want to describe for two minutes how rights can easily disappear. I happened to work in an excellent home with staff of the highest quality. However, the very need for the existence of that care establishment was heartbreaking. The children, aged from five to 16, obviously felt discarded and excluded by the good society. It was appalling to feel that sensation when we were trying to build up their hopes and expectations of life. It was a difficult task.
During the week, in a stable, warm environment, we survived most experiences. On Saturday and Sunday, I longed for Monday to come. Whether five or 16, 653 the children sat at the window looking at the drive, hoping that a mum, dad, friend or someone who cared about them would walk up. That was a daunting experience, especially when, as often happened, no one appeared and the child would make excuses and say, "They are busy." Seeing such young people so vulnerable and out of all the good life has produced in me a belief that we must—and I believe that we can, with the Bill—make such situations as caring, supportive and without abuse as we can. We should have taken that responsibility a long time ago.
I was only a young woman when I was asked to work at another home because someone was away on pregnancy leave. I had had the experience of a good supportive staff. I was suddenly in a home where the staff were not supportive; frankly, they were scuppering. If the first experience was daunting, the second was unacceptable. The control mechanisms were few and far between. The children were told regularly that they were naughty and a problem, that they were not people whom someone could love. That was not abuse in the sense of sexual abuse or of being slapped, but traumatising emotional abuse. Putting a six-year-old who was out of his or her family life in a dormitory where he was the only one in a room with 12 beds, and then hearing of the abuse of other staff and the absence of the care that my previous experience made me feel was normal and natural, was very distressing.
I realise that the Bill in no way protects children from uncaring people; it is to protect children from known abusers. We must all understand that known abusers are a crucially group to control. Homes for children and vulnerable people must have control and protection mechanisms so that those in their care have a chance of coming out into society as well balanced as they can, given that they have often come from broken homes or homes to which death has ensured that they cannot return.
I am pleased—more than pleased, privileged—to support the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge. It seeks to ensure that all agencies—all statutory agencies; I wish it were all agencies, including voluntary ones—work together. A list—a one-stop shop—that can be effortlessly retrieved to give clear, precise guidance about employment will be operable shortly. That is an incredibly important first move towards ensuring that we afford the young and vulnerable in our society the protection that they deserve. It is the first move towards ensuring that they have rights that they can lean on against any abuse or potential abuse of which they are or could be victims, and that we can begin to prevent such abuse.
§ Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)
On behalf of the Opposition, I congratulate the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) on securing her position in the ballot and on her choice of Bill. I repeat that the Conservatives will support any reasonable, sensible measures that seek to address the abuse of children and other vulnerable people. No one in the House would dissent from the view that the protection of the vulnerable, especially children, is one of the paramount duties of Parliament. However, we have an obligation to uphold the principles of natural justice, and to ensure that adequate safeguards are provided, so that any infringement of liberty that is necessary to ensure the 654 protection of the vulnerable is the minimum necessary to ensure that protection, and that proper mechanisms are in place to review any such infringements to ensure that injustice does not occur.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) questioned whether the legislation, based as it is on maintaining the balance of probability standard of proof, was the correct way forward. I have asked myself the same question, but concluded that it is necessary—
§ Ms Moran
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the balance of probability is the correct balance, according to the Utting report, which, as I am sure he knows, provides a full and comprehensive review of the needs of vulnerable children. After that lengthy review, the report recommends the balance of probability as the basis for judgment, and the Bill follows that recommendation.
§ Mr. Hammond
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but, if she had waited another microsecond, she would have heard me say that, after careful consideration, I have concluded that to ensure the proper protection of vulnerable young people it is necessary to stick with the civil standard of proof, rather than move to a tougher standard.
When introducing her Bill, the hon. Member for Stourbridge referred to the need to get right the balance between protection of the vulnerable and the natural justice imperative to ensure that those who are accused have a chance to answer their accusers. She is absolutely right: if the legislation is to be durable and to command public support, it must achieve that balance.
By introducing a statutory ban on employment in respect of those on the Department of Health list, the Bill brings that list into line with the existing arrangements for the list maintained by the Department for Education and Employment. It also addresses concerns which have been voiced about the lack of appeal rights in respect of both lists. In those respects, the Bill represents a positive step forward. As the Minister reminded us, the Government have already announced that they intend to introduce measures to ensure tighter controls over those working with all vulnerable people. The Bill does so only in respect of those who work with children, and I share the hon. Lady's expressed view that it is a shame that it is so narrow.
§ Mr. Syms
I read Ceefax this morning while I was preparing my speech. I was intrigued to see that the lead story stated:Government plans to extend paedophile curbs",and that it made no mention of the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley). Perhaps the BBC got it wrong and had not been briefed that the Bill was not a Government Bill, but we must take care to ensure that the issue does not become too political.
§ Mr. Hammond
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I approach the matter in a spirit of 655 co-operation across the House and I sincerely hope that that Ceefax announcement is a result of a misunderstanding by the BBC, not of an attempt by Government spin doctors to claim credit for a private Member's Bill.
§ Ms Shipley
It is a small point, but the BBC got it wrong a couple of times yesterday: at one point, I was billed as the Health Minister.
§ Mr. Hammond
The hon. Lady can live in hope, and I am sure that her performance this morning will have done nothing to diminish her prospects.
It is a shame that the long title of the Bill clearly constrains its scope, but, in a constructive spirit, I wonder whether the hon. Lady has considered the possibility of extending clause 10 so that the definition of mental impairment includes at least a significant number of vulnerable elderly people, for example, those suffering with Alzheimer's disease. I suggest that we explore that possibility in Committee: perhaps, by broadening that definition, we can ensure that, in practice, large numbers of vulnerable elderly people can be covered by the legislation without going outside the scope of the long title.
In view of the Government's announced intention to introduce tighter controls of their own, we have to ask the Government how they envisage the Bill interfacing with their programme. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether the Government, who back the Bill, regard it as complementary to their agenda, or as an interim measure which will be overtaken by, or subsumed within, the Government's more comprehensive proposals for registering and vetting all those who are employed in the social care sector.
Will the Minister also explain the Government's thinking in supporting the Bill? My remarks are not intended as a criticism of the Bill, but I note that the interdepartmental working group on preventing unsuitable people from working with children recommended that there should be no compulsion, either on employers to report dismissals or on potential employers to run checks on potential employees. The explanatory notes prepared by the Department of Health refer to that interdepartmental working group, but not to the fact that the group's recommendation was that there should be a non-compulsory system. Similarly, the regulatory impact assessment prepared by the same Department states:Extension of a 'voluntary' scheme would be likely to increase costs to Government without delivering significant benefits in terms of increased protection for children; it would not, therefore, represent value for money.I do not necessarily disagree with that conclusion, but it contrasts sharply with the conclusions of the Government's own interdepartmental working group, so it may be useful and illuminating for the House to be told by what process the Government arrived at the decision to support the Bill in its entirety and so to abandon the conclusions of the interdepartmental working group.
I have several questions to ask and concerns to express, but I hope that the hon. Member for Stourbridge will accept them as constructive comments and criticism and regard them as issues on which we shall work together in Committee in an attempt to improve the Bill. They are in no way meant as criticism of or objections to the principles underlying the Bill, which I certainly support. 656 However, I am concerned about the inclusion in clause 2(2)(a) of the reference to "incompetence". In her opening speech, the hon. Lady referred to paedophiles and abusers, and the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) said—wrongly, I am afraid—that the Bill addresses only known abusers; unfortunately, the inclusion of the reference to "incompetence" means that the scope of the Bill is far wider than that.
There is no doubt in my mind that those who through their incompetence put children at risk of harm need to be dealt with effectively. However, someone who is merely incompetent is in a quite different category from someone who has actively or aggressively physically or sexually abused a child. When we take into account the relatively low standard of proof required before a person can be included on the list, the breadth of the concept of incompetence is such that for people to be included on a list with paedophiles and abusers merely for being incompetent might be considered to be the basis of considerable potential injustice.
§ Ms Shipley
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's constructive approach to what he sees as the problems with my Bill; I am sure that that is the right way to produce the best possible Bill to protect children. However, I should like to clarify the specific point which he raises. He refers to that part of clause 2(2)(a) that states:that the organisation has dismissed the individual on the grounds of misconduct or incompetence",but the paragraph continues:(whether or not in the course of his employment)" —that should read "his or her", but apparently I am not allowed to do that—which harmed a child or placed a child at risk of harm".The reference to "incompetence" is not to any old incompetence, but is specifically targeted on cases where there is harm or risk of harm to a child.
§ Mr. Hammond
I hear what the hon. Lady is saying. I have already said that I recognise the case for action against someone who puts a child at risk through incompetence. Let us take the example of someone who fails to supervise a child adequately when taking him or her for a walk and the child runs on to a road. Such a person must clearly be dealt with and is obviously not suitable to look after children. However, I question whether it is reasonable to include that person's name on a list with the names of known paedophiles and sex offenders.
The public will view this list as a list of paedophiles and child abusers. The hon. Member for Stockton, South shakes her head, but she said that the Bill deals with known abusers of children only. That will be the widespread perception. We must examine this matter later to see whether there is some way of distinguishing between names on the list. Perhaps sub-lists could be created.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. The hon. Lady must not agree with me about these matters. Although I do not wish to constrain debate in any way, 657 we are in danger of straying on to points that might be raised in Committee. An awful lot of hon. Members wish to contribute to this Second Reading debate, so I hope that we can move on.
§ Mr. Forth
My hon. Friend drew attention to an issue that has concerned me: we shall need to consider the "momentary inattention" point. It also strikes me that a strict reading of the paragraph could give rise to the inclusion on the list of the name of a social worker, for example, who could be perceived to have caused harm to a child by failing to protect it. That individual could be caught by the provision and included on the list. We will have to examine that point in detail to ensure that the Bill does not move in a completely different direction from that obviously intended.
§ Mr. Hammond
I thank my right hon. Friend for that point. Mindful of your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall move on.
We have said that, although we support the principle of dealing with abusers and paedophiles, we must be careful about how far we extend the scope of the list. We shall no doubt discuss the issue at greater length in Committee.
If incompetence is to remain a ground for inclusion in the list—or, I suggest, in any case—the Secretary of State should have the power to remove someone from the list when evidence of a material change of circumstances is presented. That would mirror the provisions in place in relation to List 99. The Bill, as drafted, does not give the Secretary of State that power. He is able to remove someone from the list only when he becomes aware subsequently that that person's original inclusion was wrong. That is a completely different circumstance. I am talking about a person who was correctly included on the list but who, 20 or 30 years later, should be removed from it because the Secretary of State has deemed that that person is no longer a threat or a risk to children.
The Bill does not require informants to provide information to the Secretary of State. There is simply a requirement to give the names of persons within the defined category. It will be necessary to include a provision regarding the supply of information to the Secretary of State in order to allow him to make a decision. Perhaps we should also include in the Bill a power for the Secretary of State to refer a case to the tribunal for decision when he is unable to reach a clear-cut conclusion in light of the information available. Under the present structure, the Secretary of State will have to make a decision using the information available, which may not be fully adequate. The person whose name appears on the list will then have to appeal to the tribunal, and it is only at that stage that the tribunal will become involved in the process.
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
Is my hon. Friend entirely comfortable with the general approach of 658 proceeding via administrative action through the Secretary of State and only then allowing appeal to the tribunal? My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) recommended that the initial approach should be via the tribunal rather than through administrative action.
§ Mr. Hammond
I recognise my hon. Friend's concern, which has been voiced by various organisations. We already have an administrative procedure in relation to the list. The hon. Member for Stourbridge proposes introducing an appeal mechanism that does not exist at present. I believe that we are moving steadily in the right direction.
The Bill provides that certain employers "shall" inform the Secretary of State in certain circumstances and that other employers "may" inform the Secretary of State. Those in the compulsory category—those who shall inform the Secretary of State—are regulated voluntary and statutory bodies. I have no problem with that. However, I am concerned about those who are invited to inform voluntarily, as they will not all be bodies of uniform competence or probity. The Secretary of State will be placed in a position of having to put people's names on the list—at least provisionally—merely because they have been referred voluntarily by a body.
My premise is that the list will carry considerable stigma: merely having one's name placed on the list—albeit provisionally—will stigmatise the individual significantly. I wonder whether we shall need in due course to consider ways of tightening the definitions of those organisations that report voluntarily to the Secretary of State. Perhaps we should at least give the Secretary of State some discretion to examine the quality of the organisation making the complaint and the quality of the information provided.
My hon. Friends have referred to the problem of the provision of malicious information. Some of the organisations that report to the Secretary of State may be very small. Perhaps information will be provided in the context of a matrimonial dispute; regrettably, allegations of child abuse are not unknown in those circumstances.
The Bill does not refer to the issue of defamation. It may be appropriate for the legislation to state whether the Secretary of State or the informant will be subject to the usual laws of defamation in respect of information that is supplied. I wonder whether the Secretary of State could be vulnerable to defamation action in respect of his decision to include someone on the list. Does the hon. Lady intend that proceedings in relation to the list will be absolutely privileged? If that is the case, it will be helpful if she will explain that point later this morning. It will no doubt be reverted to in Standing Committee.
The Bill provides for the inclusion of a name on the list as soon as information is received. I understand that, during the period of provisional inclusion, a person will be banned from any employment within the specified categories. However, he will not have access to the appeal mechanism during that time. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said earlier, if a person is to suffer that jeopardy during the period of provisional inclusion without any redress to the 659 appeal mechanism, a time limit must be placed on the term of provisional inclusion so that the period of jeopardy does not extend indefinitely. It appears that clause 2(2)(d) would compel the Secretary of State to include on the list people who have been provisionally suspended from their employment rather than dismissed by their employer.
§ It being Eleven o'clock, MADAM SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).