Safeguarding Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:48 pm on 19th January 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Shadow Minister, Education, Shadow Minister (Education) 2:48 pm, 19th January 2006

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.