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Let me start by welcoming the broad thrust of the Bill, which has much to commend it. I believe that the protection of civil liberties, privacy and personal freedoms is incredibly important and is a fundamental building block of a democratic society, but it must be sensitively balanced against the need to provide security, safety and public confidence, which is where the debate hinges. As I said in an intervention, I am a volunteer with young people—an adult leader in Girlguiding—and I am particularly interested in the proposed changes to the vetting and barring scheme, on which I shall focus my remarks.
I agree entirely with the Home Secretary that we do not want to place unnecessary barriers in the way of people who wish to volunteer. Many youth organisations depend almost entirely on people who are willing to give freely of their time to benefit our young people, and those volunteers often find themselves caught up in an incredibly intrusive situation that can be a bureaucratic nightmare and incredibly off-putting. I hope that the Home Secretary agrees that our primary concern as we try to resolve those issues must be the safety and protection of young people and vulnerable adults. If there is a balance to be struck, the emphasis and greater weight must be on protecting the vulnerable; it is incredibly important that we do not lose sight of that. We must therefore proceed with a degree of caution as we try to change those protections and we should recall the context in which they were introduced. The earlier comments of Mr Straw greatly assisted us in recalling some of the incidents that led to the introduction of the protections, their very serious nature and the public outcry that surrounded them when people felt that children were not being adequately protected from predatory adults.
Although no one would question the need to redress the balance, given that the pendulum has swung almost too far in one direction, we need to be careful not to take it too far in the other direction, but instead try to find some sensible balance. Most people would welcome simplification of the system—for example, a system of vetting and barring that would allow clearance in one role to be carried forward into other roles, rather than repeated checks being carried out on the same individual.
However, if that is to happen, the detail of the Bill poses a challenge. People would still be checked only for the immediate role that they would be fulfilling and would not be able to carry those checks with them. That has not been addressed, but it is important to people who work with young children.
One of my concerns arising from reading the Bill is that if someone working in a non-regulated activity displays behaviour that would cause concern—behaviour which, were that activity regulated, could lead to their being barred—it is not clear that that would trigger a referral to the Independent Safeguarding Authority or to barring. My concern is that that individual could later move into a regulated activity, and young people would be left vulnerable.
A further area of concern to me is the treatment of 16 and 17-year-olds in the context of the Bill. The changes proposed appear to remove some of the protections afforded to 16 and 17-year-olds in matters of sport, faith and education. The young people with whom I work directly are aged 14 to 25 and therefore include that group. Despite the fact that they are entering adulthood, they are still young and vulnerable and they still require protection as children. They appear to fall into some kind of gap between regulated activity for children and the vulnerable adults provision in the Bill. I seek reassurance from the Home Secretary that that grey area will be clarified. We do not want children of 16 or 17 to become easier prey for predatory adults.
Finally, I want to examine the relationship between the Bill and what will happen in Northern Ireland. At present, with respect to vetting and barring schemes, England, Wales and Northern Ireland operate within a single framework. The reforms set out in the Bill are not proposed to be extended to Northern Ireland. The mix of responsibilities between the Department of Justice and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety would largely cover the areas encompassed by the vetting and barring scheme. It would be a matter for the Executive and the Assembly whether or not to extend that to Northern Ireland by a legislative consent motion or an Assembly Bill, if they choose to do it.
However, there is significant merit in the Home Office pursuing with the devolved Administration every opportunity to maintain the common approach that currently exists, as that is one way to maximise protection for young people throughout the country. We would not want to see the protection reduced, and the Assembly would have the right, if it considered that the Bill would reduce protection, to go its own way on these matters. During the Bill’s Committee stage and beyond, it is important for the Home Office to listen carefully to the concerns that are raised and to work closely with the devolved Administrations so that we can achieve a UK-wide consensus on this serious issue and maintain the common framework that has served us well.