My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on safeguarding vulnerable groups. The Statement is as follows:
"Mr Speaker, I am grateful for this opportunity to make a further Statement about arrangements for vetting those working with children and barring those who are unsuitable. In addition, I am placing in the Library copies of the review of List 99 that I announced last week, which gives further background on the Statement I am making today.
"Nothing matters to parents more than the safety of their children. So I deeply regret the worry and concern that have been caused to parents over the past few days. I am determined to do everything I can to ease their concerns.
"This is a complex area. There are no easy answers. Child protection has been a top priority of successive governments. Ministers in this and previous administrations have made difficult decisions, particularly in maintaining the safety of children while protecting those working in schools from malicious allegations.
"The operation of the list is set out in legislation going back to 1926, but attitudes have changed significantly in recent decades. This has led to a greater concentration on the terrible effects of child abuse. Consequently, law and practice have been continually tightened.
"I pay tribute to the party opposite for paving the way for the sex offenders register and for beginning the process of automatically barring teachers convicted of sex offences. This Government have gone further still. From the year 2000 those included on List 99 on the grounds of unsuitability to work with children have received a full bar. All sex offenders placed on List 99 are banned from schools indefinitely. And in 2003 we passed the most comprehensive overhaul of sex offences legislation since the 1950s. We introduced the Criminal Records Bureau in 2002 to ensure that all schools have full access to the convictions and cautions of the schools workforce. Sir Michael Bichard's report, following the events in Soham, made 31 further recommendations, 13 of which are already in place with the remainder being implemented.
"But there is more to be done. Our vetting and barring system, which is a shared responsibility between government, local agencies and employers, has developed piecemeal over the past 80 years. In addition, rightly, the public mood on these issues has hardened.
"It is time therefore to overhaul the system. We need a system where child protection comes first—above all other considerations. It must be a rigorous system drawing on the best expert advice. There must be absolute clarity about who does what. The system must command public confidence and it must be accountable. And it must be fair to individuals, giving rights of appeal. There must be no witch-hunts against hard-working teachers and there must be protection against false or malicious allegations. Today, I am setting out how we will achieve that.
"Public concern has focused on the operation of List 99. I understand that concern, but ensuring List 99 works properly is only one key part of the current vetting system. The most important check against a school unknowingly employing someone with a sex offence is the check employers do through the Criminal Records Bureau. These show the full record of potential employees, including convictions and cautions and whether the applicant is on List 99 or other centrally held databases. Criminal records checks allow schools and others to make informed decisions about whether to appoint. List 99 provides a further check, including the most serious cases. For someone who is on the list, because they are unsuitable to work for children, it is a criminal offence for them to apply to work in school.
"List 99 contains 4,045 names. The vast majority are barred indefinitely from working in schools. A much smaller subset—210—are subject to restrictions short of a full ban. List 99 goes wider than just sexual offenders and covers those convicted of crimes such as deception as well as those who are unsuitable on health grounds. But because List 99 has only ever automatically covered those individuals who are already working in the education sector when they commit an offence, the Criminal Records Bureau, which covers everyone, is the main safety net.
"For convictions for 40 of the most serious offences, inclusion on the list is automatic. For other cases the decisions have been at Ministers' discretion, the vast majority always taken by officials on Ministers' behalf. In these discretionary cases, advice may be sought from a wide variety of relevant sources before a decision is taken—for example, the police, experts in sexual offences and forensic psychiatrists.
"In 2005, 2,554 cases were referred to the department, of which 513 resulted in a full bar. In many cases, where an individual is not barred, the evidence considered will have been based on suspicions and allegations rather than firm criminal cautions or convictions, or the individuals referred will have been nothing to do with education. A preliminary comparison of these numbers with historic data from 1985 and 1995 suggests that the number of decisions reached each year has increased substantially. Yet, in all three years, both Ministers and officials have made a wide variety of decisions on individuals with convictions, cautions and subject to allegations which have been referred for a wide variety of reasons, including sexual offences. As I say, these issues are complex, always have been and successive Ministers have been required to make the most difficult decisions.
"Understandably, recent concerns have focused on discretionary decisions by Ministers not to include an individual on List 99, despite that individual being on the sex offenders register. The review that I set in place has identified 10 cases since 1997. In each case, the recommendations, after expert evidence, were that these individuals posed no threat to children. As a result, these individuals were issued with a grave warning with the requirement for disclosure if they applied for a job in a school. I can, however, tell the House that officials and the police have examined each case.
"Current enquires suggest that none of the individuals concerned is working in a school. I have also asked police to visit each of these individuals to check whether there is any cause for concern. None is judged by the police to pose a current risk. However, over the past 10 days I have been determined to go further to provide a more complete analysis. I have asked officials to look at the similar decisions by officials; and decisions by Ministers and officials on cases since 1997, where the relevant offences were committed prior to the sex offenders register. That has identified a further 46 cases. As many of these cases deal with very old offences and are not monitored under sex offender monitoring arrangements, our information is much more limited. Officials, and where relevant the police, have found the following:
"For 32 of the 46 cases, there is no evidence that the individuals are working with children. In one case, an individual is working in education but has been assessed by the police as of no cause for concern. In 13 cases, preliminary checks have shown no reason for concern, but our information is as yet not complete. In two of those cases, inconsistent data need to be reconciled. Further action on all 13 cases will be considered in conjunction with the police on a case-by-case basis."
"I am sure that the House will want me to thank the police for their work in following up individuals as part of this exercise. In addition, the police have carried out an initial review to see if there were any further individuals being monitored on the sex offenders register who might be eligible for List 99. Initial investigations suggest there may be 32 such cases in England and Wales. As a precaution, the police have assessed all these cases. In one case, investigations are continuing.
"I fully accept that this review of individual cases has identified wider issues about how the vetting system currently operates. Building on Sir Michael Bichard's inquiry, I have identified three key issues that we now need to address. The first is the lack of coherence between List 99 and the other lists held nationally. That is made worse by problems in sharing information and by the fact that, historically, cautions have been treated differently from convictions despite both being a legal statement of guilt. The second is the lack of clarity about who is responsible for doing what, locally and nationally. The third is ministerial involvement in decisions.
"I have concluded that further reform is necessary. Some of it can be done immediately and some through the primary legislation that we have already planned. Over the past 10 days, I have considered whether it would be possible more closely to align the sex offenders register and List 99. I have decided that we need to go further than that. After extensive consideration, I have decided that the most effective approach is to bar from working with children all those who are now convicted or cautioned for any sexual offences against children, whether the individual is on the sex offenders register or not. I will shortly bring forward regulations automatically to enter on List 99 anyone who is convicted or cautioned for a sexual offence against a child. I will also automatically bar individuals for a range of other serious sexual offences against adults. By including cautions as well as convictions, the anomaly between offenders who are convicted and those who admit their guilt and accept a caution will end. Individuals will have the right to make representations, but they will need to prove that they are not a threat to children before they can work in a school or other education establishment. I shall consult widely on the detailed implementation of this measure.
"Secondly, I will require mandatory Criminal Records Bureau checks for all newly appointed school employees, replacing the current guidance. That will also require that teaching agencies ensure that their teachers have a Criminal Records Bureau check. That should ensure that all employers make judgments about appointments in full knowledge of the facts, whether or not a potential employer has previously worked in the education sector.
"Thirdly, Ofsted will carry out an urgent survey of existing vetting practice in a sample of schools to report to me in the spring. Fourthly, I will be writing today to all schools setting out how the checking system will work and informing them of the change to mandatory CRB checks. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is writing today to all chief constables, chief officers of probation and the Youth Justice Board to restate how the current system works; how it is changing; and the priority attached to this area.
"Fifthly, I will ensure that all DfES staff who are part of the vetting process receive appropriate training, support and advice in child protection issues. Finally, in advance of legislating to remove Ministers from the process entirely, I will establish a panel of independent experts, chaired by Sir Roger Singleton, the former head of Barnado's, to oversee the whole List 99 process. His role will be to ensure the quality of the process and advise me on any further List 99 cases that need to be decided. The panel will draw on expertise from the police and child protection specialists. While I will not fetter my discretion on individual cases, I cannot presently envisage the circumstances in which I would not follow its expert advice.
"The expert panel will also review cases determined before 1997. The panel will examine cases which, had the sex offenders register existed, would have resulted in the individual's inclusion on the register and all cases involving a sexual offence or allegation which resulted in a decision not to include on List 99 or in a restriction or partial bar. The aim of this review will be to establish whether any individual poses a risk of harm to children and if any action should be taken. The Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Skills will ensure that the relevant former Minister is consulted in any such case.
"These reforms will make the current List 99 system work better immediately. But the whole Government are determined to replace List 99 entirely with a new, better system as quickly as possible. As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said in his Statement today, good progress is being made in implementing the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry. The necessary legislation, promised in the Queen's speech, will be brought forward in February. In particular, this legislation will bring together List 99 and the Protection of Children Act list into a single register of those barred from working with children.
"I will also use this legislation to make further reforms. I will legislate to give independent experts the final decision on who should be barred. This will have the effect of removing from Ministers the responsibility for taking barring decisions. Decision making will be transferred to a statutory body, which will be the holder of the new combined register and will take all decisions about who should be barred. Individuals will retain the right to appeal. While I will consult about the exact role of the body, I will ensure that police advice will inform every decision.
"Over the years, procedures have been strengthened. It is time, however, to strengthen them further. Nobody who is convicted or cautioned for child sex offences should be allowed to teach in schools. We need an independent panel to take decisions. And we must do all this with proper safeguards to ensure that no teacher subject to claims or allegations that may be strongly contested should be unfairly condemned. Our task as a Government, my task as Secretary of State and all our tasks as legislators is to get this framework right. That is what the reforms that I have announced today will do".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Parents and teachers will be relieved to hear the Statement today. After nearly a fortnight in which teachers and parents have become increasingly worried and confused about sex offenders in schools, at last we have some basic information. We welcome that. We also welcome the commitment that no one convicted or cautioned should be allowed to teach. Even after Soham and the Bichard report, Ministers still made decisions that broke that principle. Why has it taken so long to get any information from the Secretary of State? Ministers were personally deciding whether sex offenders should work in schools. The Secretary of State has rightly stressed today how difficult those decisions were, but surely the department would have to keep track of the sex offenders that it was releasing into our schools. Instead, the department has been incapable of answering basic questions about those sex offenders for a whole fortnight.
Even if the Secretary of State did not decide on individual cases, surely it was her responsibility to make sure that they were properly monitored. Instead, parents have been shocked that Ministers have been so ignorant of decisions that they themselves have taken. It is that complete absence of reliable information over the past fortnight which has created the frenzy of speculation. Ministers must understand how much damage the uncertainty of the past fortnight has done to parents' confidence in the department and to the integrity of the people working in our schools.
There are still uncertainties. Today's Statement indicates that a life ban will be imposed on those convicted and cautioned. Will the Minister tell us whether this will apply to those who had convictions or cautions prior to the sex offenders register? The Secretary of State states that the principle should be that no sex offenders should be placed in schools. However, in figures given to the House, it appears that in 88 cases Ministers have breached this principle. What plans does the Minister have for the 13 individuals where there is insufficient information to determine whether there is a concern?
Many key questions have been put to the Minister's department on behalf of parents and teachers to which we still do not have answers. Why is it possible to work in a school without even completing a criminal records check? Why did a previous Secretary of State specifically recommend schools to continue recruiting people before these checks had been completed? Were head teachers and governing bodies informed if Ministers decided that a sex offender should be permitted to work in their school? Why did the Secretary of State tell the House last week that offenders were automatically put on List 99 which bars them for life from teaching, when we know that that is not the case?
In repeating the Statement, the Minister stated that there must be absolute clarity. We entirely agree with that. In implementing the details of new measures, there must be no oversight. The Secretary of State has also failed to explain some grotesque decisions that Ministers have taken in the past five years. The whole system needs a complete overhaul. We will work constructively with the Government to achieve that.
I turn to the Government's proposals. The Secretary of State has said that she will finally implement the recommendations made in the Bichard report of 2004. Let us go back five years to the Protection of Children Act 1999. The Explanatory Notes of that Act state that its purpose is to create:
"the framework of a coherent cross-sector system for identifying people unsuitable to work with children and achieving a 'one stop shop' to compel or allow employers to access a single point for checking the names of people they propose to employ in a post involving the care of children. This will involve . . . checks against criminal records and two lists . . . maintained respectively by the Department of Health and the Department for Education".
Why have Ministers not implemented those measures so that they passed into law six years ago? The Bichard report exposed an inadequate system of child protection. The ultimate responsibility for this rests with Ministers.
I believe that the Secretary of State is honourable and honest. The question for Ministers and for the Prime Minister is whether they are capable of regaining the confidence of parents and teachers after such a difficult fortnight. I hope that the Government will take stock and will put the interests of parents, teachers and the integrity of our school system first.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and acknowledge the work that he, his colleagues, the police and DfES officials have done in the past few days to complete this vital review. The Secretary of State appears to have gone a long way today towards achieving what everyone wants; that is, the restoration of parents' confidence in the system of child protection. However, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that it will take more than one statement to complete that process.
I am pleased to say that the Statement contains much of what I called for in the previous debate. I particularly welcome the proposals for a single list for people working with children in order to end confusion for employers and dangerous inconsistencies and loopholes; the removal from Ministers the responsibility for individual case review and the establishment of an expert panel to start work immediately; new guidance and training for schools on appointment procedures; and the intention to protect teachers from malicious allegations.
The Minister emphasised the importance of CRB checks, but will he explain why the latest guidance issued by his department in June 2005 did not require schools to receive an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau disclosure before appointing a teacher? Surely the NSPCC is right to argue for such a disclosure before anyone can work unsupervised with children. What can he say to reassure parents and schools that the CRB can perform an increased number of disclosures more quickly in the light of the delays that we have heard about?
I support the proposed central barring unit, with experts reviewing individual cases. Will the Minister confirm that the criteria and guidelines that the units use will be published? How will Parliament be able to participate in their establishment? Can he confirm that the plans will ensure that certain categories of work with children, currently exempt from CRB checks, will now be covered? Will it include all schools, including academies and those in the private sector? Why were people minding children over eight years old ever exempted from these checks? Does the Minister also accept that parts of the package today urgently need more work? Does he share my concern that some agencies which supply staff to schools appear to be particularly poor at checking references and records, even if they are to be obliged to do so? What will the Minister do about that?
When people from overseas apply to teach in our schools, is the Minister convinced that the plans provide for sufficient checks? Is he really satisfied that the CRB should have no statutory role in regard to overseas staff working with children and that employers must rely on faxback services available from a small number of countries? Given the increasing reliance of some public services on staff from abroad, why are the Government not going much further on that, working within the EU and the Commonwealth? What did the UK presidency, for example, do on that?
Will the Minister reassure the House that in this vital drive to protect children we also remember to protect teachers when false allegations are made? Will he ensure that new guidance and training reminds schools of the need for safeguards for teachers who may be wrongly accused? How will he ensure that teacher recruitment does not suffer from all this? Does the Minister now accept that this situation has largely arisen due to delays in implementing the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry? Can the Minister tell the House what the Prime Minister failed to tell another place yesterday: how soon will the 18 unimplemented Bichard recommendations be implemented? How many of those are the responsibility of the DfES? How many fall to the Home Office? Given the Home Office delays with computer projects for Bichard, can the Minister reassure the House on the timing of the IT proposals set out today and the safeguards that there will be in the interim?
I should like to ask a serious question about a particularly important sentence on page 5 of the Statement. It reads:
"After extensive consideration I have decided the most effective approach is to bar from working with children all those who are now convicted or cautioned for any sexual offences against children whether the individual is on the sex offenders register or not".
Is that about the past or just about the future? This is a genuine question of clarification. Does this mean that gay men who were on the sexual offenders register for offences that are no longer offences will be barred from working with children? I refer, of course, to the equalisation of the age of consent legislation, which has left some anomalies. Does it also mean that an 18 year-old male who has consensual sex with his 15 year-old girlfriend would be barred from choosing the teaching profession? These cases may have serious human rights issues.
It is in the interests of children, parents, our schools and the whole community that confidence is restored rapidly and the hysteria is ended. I believe that the Secretary of State and the Minister have made a really good start. If they deliver on their promises and answer our reasonable questions, Liberal Democrats will work with them to complete that task.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Buscombe and Lady Walmsley, for the broadly supportive tone of their responses to the Statement and for their support of the Government in bringing forward legislation to implement the Bichard recommendations this month. We look forward to their continuing support when the legislation is presented so that it can be enacted as swiftly as possible.
I cannot stress sufficiently strongly that there has been no delay in proceeding with the Bichard recommendations. Last week I gave the House details of the post-Bichard vetting scheme action plan, published before the general election. It was agreed with Sir Michael Bichard in detail, including timescales on the way forward. We are delivering on our commitments in that plan, and those include the timescales involved. As the report itself states in terms, the plan agreed with Sir Michael meets all the material requirements of his recommendations and Sir Michael himself is happy to endorse it. As he said last week when asked about our actions in response to his report, he has been very impressed with the work of the DfES. I hope that we can move away from a dispute over what was or was not said by Sir Michael and now get on with the process of implementing his report, on which we are all agreed.
The point made in the Statement which links directly to a question put by both noble Baronesses is how important it is that employers should not only have regard to List 99, which is a ban on individuals working in schools, but also that they should themselves complete effective checks on the status of individuals to whom they are minded to offer jobs. Those include CRB checks. We think it is very important that CRB checks should be completed in a timely fashion. My figures show that currently the CRB processes 99.4 per cent of applications for standard disclosures—cautions, convictions, reprimands or warnings—within 28 days, while 85.5 per cent of applications for enhanced disclosure—including details of all information available to the public authorities—are also being processed within 28 days. I believe that provides the kind of security head teachers and school governors need when proceeding with making appointments subject to the requirement we are now imposing: that they must seek a CRB check. In virtually all cases it will be possible to complete the check before a formal job offer is made and employment is taken up. It is important to stress that to schools so that they do not fear that they will be facing a major new problem in response to these decisions. While we do not require the CRB check to be completed by the time an individual takes up their employment, in virtually all cases it will be. Where that is not the case, a whole set of requirements is placed on schools covering how they should behave, including ensuring proper supervision.
We have given a good deal of advice to schools following the publication of the Bichard report on how they should undertake vetting and how to widen the interview process so as to root out those individuals who are not suitable to work in schools. Substantial safer recruitment materials are now available online in addition to the formal guidance issued by the department. I have a copy of the online material with me. It is set out clearly and is helpful to schools because it emphasises the need for continued monitoring. That has been done because many people who become unsuitable to work with children would not have exhibited those characteristics or have a record from which it could have been ascertained at the time of their appointment. The need for schools to maintain a culture of awareness, openness and vigilance is stressed, in addition to good recruitment and induction practices as a vital contribution to safeguarding pupils and supporting their staff.
The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, asked about the 13 cases where we do not yet have complete information. I am advised that the police are actively engaged in examining these cases. We will consider any further action in the light of their findings. However, it is not the case that those 13 cases have been put to one side. The police are continuing with their investigations in that regard.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about the position of independent schools. I understand that the requirements placed on independent schools are even more stringent than those for state schools in terms of completing CRB checks in respect of their staff. We are aligning the current statutory regime that applies both to independent and state schools.
The bar on working for all those who are convicted or cautioned will be for the future but, as indicated in the Statement, the expert panel will look at all past cases to see whether there are concerns which should be addressed. Of course where there are questions or concerns, the panel will urgently draw those cases to the attention of the police and the employer.
I believe I have answered most of the questions that were put to me and I shall follow up any others in writing, in particular the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about teachers from overseas. We are indeed seeking to enhance action in that area. In conclusion, I say that it is absolutely essential that schools have confidence in the system for vetting and authorising those seeking to teach. We believe that the system is robust and that the further changes made this afternoon by my right honourable friend, including the rapid introduction of a single register and an independent panel, will increase public confidence. Schools can proceed safely on that basis.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Buscombe has referred to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills as being "honest and honourable". I am sure that that will be endorsed by the entire Chamber. Does not that constructive response contrast with the way certain elements of the media have handled this whole business over the past 10 days? It says little about the historic role the media are supposed to perform.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and I agree entirely with the point he makes. The media have great public responsibilities in this area. They must ensure that people are not alarmed unnecessarily, but of course they have a duty to report cases where they believe that there are concerns. I hope that the Statement made today by my right honourable friend will enable a much more informed debate to take place in the media and that it will percolate down rapidly to schools themselves.
My Lords, following on the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, of course there have to be safeguards and I welcome these measures, which are obviously sensible. However, does not the Minister agree that there has been an element of hysteria about the risks posed by paedophiles? Hysteria is illiberal because it endangers human rights, such as the rights of some teachers; it is dangerous because it stirs up in some elements of society an atmosphere of lynch law; and it has enormously exaggerated the problem. Paedophilia is not one of the greatest problems of our time, as recent media comments appear to suggest. In fact, the risk from paedophiles is much less than that faced by children in crossing the road, but its effect may well be that children are restrained from taking part in activities that are healthy and desirable. Does not the Minister agree that it is time we regained a certain sense of perspective on this issue?
My Lords, our overriding duty as a government is to ensure that the systems in place for preventing the employment of unsuitable people, particularly those convicted of sexual offences, or those who have a record meaning they are unsuited to working with children, are robust. We have public duties in this matter and I believe that we have fulfilled them in the way the public would expect, that the measures my right honourable friend set out today will enhance public confidence, and that the hysteria to which the noble Lord refers does not continue to take hold of debate in the media.
My Lords, I welcome the Statement repeated by my noble friend, the review and the overhaul of the lists announced by the Secretary of State. I also want to echo the mood of the House: I think it is absolutely right that the Secretary of State took the time to pay detailed attention to this matter prior to the announcement. It would have been hysterical to approach it any earlier.
As someone who has been involved in child protection for a good 20 years, I very much welcome some of the publicity, but does the Minister accept that some of this publicity may not have filtered down to many sections of the community? I would very much like to hear what he suggests we do to ensure that the impact of List 99, or the changes that are perhaps afoot in the very near future, are announced as widely as possible, to ensure particularly that it covers not only the private education sector, but some after-school activities. I am talking, in particular, about religious institutions that run clubs and so on. I am also particularly concerned about sporting facilities where schools often use ad hoc teachers. How will they be covered?
Finally, will my noble friend Lord Adonis assure the House that not even one paedophile is allowed to taint a child's life? One paedophile is too many.
My Lords, as I said in the Statement, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is writing to all local authorities today, setting up arrangements that will apply from now onwards and will enable local authorities to put in place immediately any changes needed to their own practices. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is writing to all police authorities today, too. I hope that will enable a quite rapid dissemination of the elements of these new arrangements to all local authorities and for any improvements that are needed to take place pretty well immediately.
I want to comment on the point made by noble friend about the importance of measured judgments in this matter. When the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, repeated the remarks of her colleagues in the other place, I thought she asked why it had taken so long for this information to be made available to the House. We have spent 10 days trawling through 4,000 or more files of all cases, concerning not only those where Ministers took a decision but those where any official took a decision, or where there was any other factor to do with police information or anything that might be ascertained by going through the relevant information. I do not believe that, given the scale of the task at hand, 10 days was an excessive period. I believe that we would have been criticised in Parliament if we had done this job more hastily and come back with a less complete picture.