Safeguarding Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:54 pm on 19th January 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords (Children), Education & Skills 2:54 pm, 19th January 2006

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.