Safeguarding Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 19th January 2006.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools) 3:00 pm, 19th January 2006

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.