HL Deb 12 February 2003 vol 644 cc763-70

8.41 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th January be approved.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the approval of the order. It is another extremely important order, as its title implies. The order introduces provisions broadly in line with the Protection of Children Act 1999. Part II of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 and Part VII of the Care Standards Act 2000. The story is similar to that of the previous order, in that the provisions reflect those introduced in a Bill that had passed Second Stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly with a high level of general support.

Childcare organisations will have to carry out checks on prospective employees in childcare positions. The checks will be carried out with reference to a new statutory list of those deemed unsuitable to work with children that will be maintained by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Childcare organisations will be required to make referrals to the list if an individual has been dismissed or otherwise been removed from a childcare position on the grounds that he has harmed a child or placed a child at risk of harm. Similar provisions are made with regard to work with vulnerable adults. Those duties are imposed on providers of services for vulnerable adults.

It will be an offence for an individual to work in a childcare position while on the list. There is similar provision vis-à-vis vulnerable adults. In the case of work with children, it will be a further offence to work or seek work in a childcare position while on a list of those prohibited from working in education-related employment held by the Department of Education or while subject to a disqualification order made by a court. It will also be an offence for listed individuals to seek work in a childcare position and for an employer to offer work in a regulated position to such a person. Again, there is similar provision for work with vulnerable adults.

We have rightly been concerned with the welfare and care of children; we have not perhaps paid the same attention to vulnerable adults who require the protection of the law. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th January be approved.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, while welcoming the order, I shall make a few points arising from briefing from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and from the brief from officials for the scrutiny carried out by the Assembly before Stormont was prorogued.

The order refers at some length to Part V of the Police Act 1997 with regard to how the Act applies to Northern Ireland. Reading Hansard from another place, I do not consider that the Minister gave a positive answer as to when Part 5 of the Police Act 1997 would be introduced into Northern Ireland. As regards this order, it seems the sooner the better. I should be grateful to the noble and learned Lord if he would respond.

My next point concerns cross-border vetting arrangements. We are setting very high standards. Indeed, in the Bill the enforcement will be stronger in Northern Ireland than it is currently in England and Wales. The standards and organisation for listing paedophiles and likely people who should not be allowed to manage children in any way are now becoming very sound in the United Kingdom. However, we have the Republic next door and it does not have anything similar. Will the Minister ask his colleagues to put pressure on the Republic of Ireland in this respect when they have an opportunity. I am sure that there are a number of opportunities with cross-border bodies. It is a point worth making. We are leading in these measures, probably in Europe, but if we are going to lead, let us ensure that the others are on the bandwagon with us.

There is a question concerning cross-jurisdictional issues within the kingdom. The NSPCC believes that the Government have been slow to recognise the need for co-ordination between the agencies in the various principalities in England where they are different. There is the three bureau implementation group which has been set up recently, but it would be helpful to know whether the implementation group will become an established feature of inter-jurisdictional arrangements.

Those are three important points. I should like to hear the comments of the Minister. At the same time, I support the order.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I support the order which is clearly very important. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, referred to cross-border vetting arrangements. I believe that it is a matter of cross-many-borders and the position of other European Union states. It is important that the order is relevant to all who seek to work with children and adults with learning difficulties in Northern Ireland.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, I should first like to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for his response to the previous order and the points that I raised. I am grateful.

I welcome this order and beg your Lordships' indulgence that I speak at slightly greater length than I have on previous orders. It is a complex and sensitive issue, and of huge importance. Children and vulnerable adults continue to be abused in our society. Daily we read and hear of abductions, murders and abuse. Current police investigations into child pornography on the Internet illustrate the need to ensure that statutory and voluntary arrangements for protecting children are as robust and comprehensive as possible.

The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes the provision of checks to identify those on police lists who are considered unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable adults. I endorse and re-emphasise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. It is both disappointing and surprising to read that Part 5 of the Police Act 1997 is not extended to Northern Ireland. It would provide access to information about certain types of criminal record and would ensure disclosure of enhanced criminal record certificates and relevant non-conviction information.

I want to press the Minister as to why Part 5 has not so far been extended to Northern Ireland. What is the Government's position on this matter? Will the department be able to access "soft police intelligence" in addition to criminal records, as would be possible under Part 5? I do not think that I am paranoid, but I need to be reassured that narrow tribal and sectarian considerations are not dictating policy, as I consider that they did in the recent Northern Ireland Police Bill.

Is there not a gap in the provision of the order relating to the arrangement for background checks on persons serving or having served in the Armed Forces and their families? Could a gap occur if a soldier serving overseas is tried but not convicted by court martial of an offence against the child? Would any records and any soft intelligence be passed back to the United Kingdom? Will the department be able to access background details of Armed Forces personnel and their families? If so, how?

We welcome the provision under Article 19 to enable any person associated with a childcare organisation to report a failure by his organisation or another childcare organisation to comply with the requirements under Articles 4 and 17. However, can the Minister clarify what is meant by "associated with"? Does that refer solely to someone who works for the organisation or does it extend to a parent or carer?

Furthermore, can the noble and learned Lord indicate the Government's position with regard to anonymity for whistleblowers? Anonymity for whistleblowers does not appear to extend to the protection of vulnerable adults. Are the Government making a distinction between the protection of vulnerable adults compared to children? Can the Minister assure me that the same provisions will apply to both?

The order requires that an individual must be given a sentence of at least one year before a disqualification order can be made. Surely a disqualification order should not be dependent on the length of sentence but, rather, that any conviction imposed by a court should be sufficient. I also have concerns regarding the apparent potential for those awaiting an appeal to continue working with children until their cases are heard. Again, the disqualification does not seem to extend to abuse of vulnerable adults.

Regarding the provision for non-childcare organisations such as scout troops and sports and leisure clubs to be accredited by the department, can the Minister give an indication of what financial support will be made available to assist with the development? How will such organisations be assisted? How will the added burden on voluntary youth leaders not become a deterrent? Does he agree that there must be balance and sensitivity? The order introduces a fee in respect of pre-employment checks. I am concerned that such a fee will actually prove to be a disincentive to organisations adequately to vet applications or to move in the direction of accreditation. I understand that the Scottish Executive and the Home Office waive fees for organisations which rely on volunteers. Surely that same practice has to be applied to Northern Ireland.

One final point which has been covered by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. It dealt with the extraterritorial problems. Perhaps I may add to his comments that the provision should be applied not only to the Republic but to other European countries.

Despite my many concerns, I believe that the order is to be welcomed.

Lord Eames

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord. Lord Williams, will remember that a few days ago in Grand Committee we discussed the housing problems in Northern Ireland. I then took the opportunity to pay tribute to him for the sensitivity and the care with which he has taken on this no doubt unwelcome burden of dealing with many issues from Northern Ireland in the absence of devolution. I gladly repeat that tribute in the Chamber today.

I also want to repeat the emphasis of the order on housing. It illustrates the fact that many of the orders we are debating today overlap. They cover a wide range of consequent and similar concerns. This one on children and vulnerable adults is another example.

The trouble with speaking at the tail-end of a debate, when all the official spokespersons have had their say, is that you can tick off one by one the points that you were going to make as everyone else is making them. Having listened professionally to sermons of varying lengths, I can assure the Lord Privy Seal I shall not do that tonight. However, if he will bear with me for a short time. I wish to draw his attention to two aspects of the order based on my experience and responsibilities in Northern Ireland.

My first point, as my noble friend Lord Maginnis reminded us, has been referred to already by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran—that is, the question of the scope of accreditation. We do not need to be reminded that in the voluntary sector there are many organisations which are not principally classified as childcaring organisations but which are actively involved with young people—scouting, the Boys Brigade and a long list of other organisations, not least youth organisations run by the Churches.

If there is to be an opportunity, a door opened., for these organisations to become accredited, there will of course, as the order states, be a balanced responsibility. I welcome that. My own Church, the Church of Ireland, has for some time operated the Safeguarding Trust policy. This has been widely welcomed and is reflected in many of the other Churches.

I was dismayed when I read Hansard of another place that when the appropriate Minister, Mr Browne, was asked about certain aspects and the breadth of accreditation, he used words which need to be underlined in this Chamber. Can the Lord Privy Seal help me to understand them? Referring to the question that all childcare organisations should be required to carry out checks by law, he stated, "We felt that such a requirement could not be satisfactorily enforced". I ask, quite simply, why not?

If the door is being opened—and I welcome that very much from the voluntary sector—can we not go the second mile? The encouragement to back up the opportunity given by the order would surely be enhanced by the fact that there would be financial support and help on that aspect.

Secondly, I underline what my noble friend Lord Maginnis and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, have said about the cross-border problem. I am privileged to be the Primate of an all-Ireland Church. There are many opportunities for employment, I know, through crossing the border—this is growing in a European sense also—and I urge the Minister to bring to the notice, perhaps through the cross-border organisations that exist, of his colleagues in the Republic of Ireland that there is a serious discrepancy between the standards required on both sides of the border, particularly when the order takes effect. Perhaps he will share our anxieties with his colleagues in that other jurisdiction.

From my perspective, and speaking on behalf of many of my colleagues, I greatly welcome the order.

Baroness Blood

My Lords, it is not very often that I have an opportunity to follow an Archbishop.

Perhaps I may make a few brief points. Many of the matters to which I wished to refer have been spoken to already. I welcome the order but, like most of my colleagues, I have a few questions. The order is based mainly on the Westminster Protection of Children Act 1999 and the Care Standards Act 2000. While the order itself contains a number of unique provisions as a result of concerns already raised in consultation indeed, the order seeks to deal with some of the flaws in the Protection of Children Act 1999 in relation to vetting, non-childcare organisations and whistle-blowing—the original Bill was only part-way through its committee stage at the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Many MLAs and children's organisations such as Barnado's and the NSPCC have welcomed the main thrust of the Bill. But a major issue came to light during its passage. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and my noble friend Lord Maginnis have already raised the issue of the non-implementation of Part 5 of the Police Act. This was taken up in another place by Northern Ireland MPs. Some clarification was given on a number of important policy issues. The Minister indicated that his officials would look at the implications of implementing Part 5. Like my colleagues, I should like to know why and when.

Do the Government agree that the PECS Awareness Group is an excellent example of an inter-agency, multi-professional safeguarding initiative? Will the noble and learned Lord confirm its future role and operation?

This is quite a complicated order, bearing in mind that we are making decisions about children and vulnerable adults.

Finally, I should like to place on record, along with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, a very warm tribute to the noble and learned, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for his patience and sensitivity in dealing with issues pertaining to Northern Ireland.

9 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. In Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, was uncharacteristically in error. The correct description of Lord Eames, is "the noble and right reverend Lord"—which is to be found on page 63 of the Companion.

Some very serious and challenging questions have been raised. Looking back, perhaps we ought to have agreed—the request was not made and I am not complaining—that the order should be taken in Grand Committee. Then, all of these pertinent and searching questions could have received a more appropriate response than I shall even attempt. In a sense, this is because the order is a step forward, and is not likely to be the final step in this particular context.

Some answers I can give. The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, referred to the PECS Awareness Group. It has produced a publication entitled Safer Organisations Safer Children. It includes representatives of the statutory and voluntary sectors. I confirm that it has worked well. We anticipate—I hope that this is a comfort to the noble Baroness—that it will have a continuing important role to play in raising public awareness.

The accreditation scheme is designed to promote good child protection procedures. The noble and right reverend Lord asked about funding. Most organisations will already have good child protection procedures. Funding is provided to the project, Our Duty to Care, which offers training and support to organisations in the voluntary and community sectors. Consideration will be given to what further support may be necessary.

I am not happy that the material I have is sufficiently focused to provide appropriately reasoned answers to all the questions raised. I want to reflect on some of them, if your Lordships will allow me to do so.

A number of speakers referred to Part 5 of the Police Act. I know that my honourable friend, Mr Browne, the Minister with responsibility for health, social services and public safety, intends to discuss that issue with my honourable friend Jane Kennedy, who has responsibility in that area. I undertake personally to be in contact with Mr Browne—who is always responsive to requests from your Lordships, as we discovered when we were dealing with the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill—to see what can be done. It will take a little while for me to be able to write, but I undertake to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, asked about armed services personnel. Checks will be possible through collaborative arrangements with the other United Kingdom jurisdictions. I want to ponder his question about vulnerable adults—again, a serious question—as I do his question about whistle-blowing arrangements.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, asked why a sentence of 12 months or more should be required as a pre-condition for a disqualification order. A disqualification order will result in a ban from employment for substantial periods—possibly for life. It was considered necessary to reflect that in the sentence imposed by the court. In other words, the court must consider the case to be sufficiently serious to warrant the imposition of a disqualification order.

Other questions were raised about whistle-blowers on which, again, I want to reflect. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, asked about soft police intelligence. Under current arrangements, the police service can provide soft police intelligence.

The noble Lords, Lord Maginnis and Lord Glentoran, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, asked about cross-border issues. An important aspect of the implementation of the order will be co-operation between all jurisdictions to protect against individuals moving across borders. There is already the Three Bureaux Implementation Group, which comprises representatives of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is intended to facilitate the exchange of information between all jurisdictions. We anticipate the continuation of that collaborative approach.

I wish to give a further answer on the Irish Republic. I have mislaid the appropriate notes, but I can recite it from memory. At present, the Garda is carrying out work with a view to improving its practices. The North/South Ministerial Council may provide a useful avenue for that.

I undertake to collate all the necessary material and respond in writing to all noble Lords' questions within a fortnight—I think that that is reasonable. If detailed answers are not forthcoming, it is because the issues might need further consideration. I hope that noble Lords find that period reasonable. At least a dozen serious questions were raised. I shall provide answers on the basis that I indicated. We should have put our minds to Grand Committee on this matter. If noble Lords do not think it unhelpful, if I could have notice of the questions, we could discuss matters with officials. I repeat that I offer briefings with officials before any Grand Committee. This is a good order. I am not saying that my explanation of it is perfect. I am conscious that it is not. For the moment, I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at seven minutes past nine o'clock.