Child Protection

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 24th October 2007.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 6:01 pm, 24th October 2007

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for raising the important issue of child protection. She asked me a vast number of questions and the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Falkner, added to the list. Since I did not have notice of the questions, I shall not, frankly, be able to answer all of them. Indeed, I could barely write a number of them down given the speed at which all three noble Baronesses spoke in their allotted time. However, I undertake to write with a full account on all of the points that they raised, or where it is more appropriate that somebody else contacts them, they shall do so. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised a number of issues relating to the new inspectorate for children's services. Those questions are much more appropriately dealt with by Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, and I shall arrange for her to reply directly to the points raised, particularly on the professional competence of inspectors. It may be appropriate for the noble Baroness to meet with the chief inspector and I am sure that the chief inspector will be glad to do so if that enables her to follow up her points more effectively.

The noble Baroness described the new Ofsted with its enlarged children's services responsibilities as gargantuan, but I stress that it inherited the inspectors from the constituent inspectorates that existed before. The schools inspectors were all inherited from Her Majesty's Inspectors, and the social services and social care inspectors were inherited from the Commission for Social Care Inspection. Therefore, the professional expertise embedded in the constituent parts of the children's services inspectorates has been fully maintained by Ofsted. But I will leave the chief inspector to respond to those points. The noble Baroness's points in relation to the police and child protection cases may be better dealt with by the police directly, but when she writes to me with her specific points I shall decide whether it is more appropriate for the police to contact her directly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, raised the sensitive issue of restraints in the youth justice system. I confirm that restraint is not to be used as a punishment or simply to obtain compliance with staff. The Youth Justice Board's behaviour management code of practice makes that very clear. The code also emphasises that restraint must be the last resort in dealing with issues relating to children in custody. That has not changed, and we do not envisage the change to the secure training centre rules leading to greater use of restraints. The Youth Justice Board is closely monitoring the use of physical restraints.

As the House will know, on 12 July my honourable friends David Hanson and Beverley Hughes announced a joint review of restraint in juvenile secure settings. The announcement of that review followed concerns raised by the coroner in the inquest into the restraint-related death of Gareth Myatt in Rainsbrook secure training centre in 2004. The review will also consider the recommendations of the coroner of the inquest into the death of Adam Rickwood, who also died in 2004, in Hassockfield secure training centre. The review will take into account the recent Lancashire Safeguarding Children Board serious case report into Adam's death. There will be ongoing work in this area, and I will be able to report to the House when the reviews are complete.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, also raised the deplorable issue of child trafficking. We entirely agree with the sentiments that she expressed; which is why on 23 March my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, on behalf of the United Kingdom Government, signed the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. On the same day, the Home Office published the UK Action Plan on Tackling Human Trafficking, including a chapter on child victims of trafficking. We are committed to developing targeted guidance to address child trafficking. We have consulted on that guidance, and we will be publishing it shortly. I will see that it is brought to the immediate attention of the noble Baroness and the House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about CRB checks. First, on the general point about the competence of the CRB, I assure her—I can send her the statistics—that the CRB's processes have improved very significantly since the initial problems that we had in 2002. The time taken to process cases has been very considerably reduced. The proportion of cases that are dealt with in a very short timescale is extremely high. I can give her chapter and verse on that. I stress also that the guidance issued in November last year on CRB checks, which came into force in January, is very clear about who needs to be checked. From May 2006, all new appointees to the school workforce need to have CRB checks. Under the new vetting and barring scheme, anyone wishing to work with children or vulnerable adults will need to join the scheme. We are communicating that widely to explain the new scheme to employers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked me for an update on where we are on the setting up of the vetting and barring scheme and the implementation of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. We have recently consulted on the barring policy, and we will consult next month on wider aspects of the scheme and how it will operate. The noble Baroness asked about the board. Sir Roger Singleton, who was operating in a shadow capacity in this area, has been announced as the chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority. He has huge experience in this area, and his appointment commands general confidence in the child protection sector. Adrian McAllister is already in post as the chief executive of the Independent Safeguarding Authority. The appointments to the ISA board will be announced by the Home Office shortly.

On the basis of her engagement with young people and others, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about ContactPoint. She asked what the benefits of ContactPoint were and how they could be set out. We estimate the efficiency benefits of ContactPoint at 5 million hours of saved practitioner time a year, which will free up the time of professionals from administrative tasks to be devoted to providing services to children and their families. As I said in earlier debates on this issue, that will be worth the equivalent of £88 million a year from 2009. We have identified clear service-delivery benefits to children, leading to improved service experience for children, young people and their families—notably, faster intervention before problems become serious—because practitioners are better informed about children and young people's needs and the services they can access.

On the issue of whether ContactPoint is the thin end of the wedge of a Big-Brother state, which was the essence of the remarks that were made to the noble Baroness, I stress again that ContactPoint will hold only basic identifying information on children, and practitioner contact details. ContactPoint will not provide an integrated case-management system or replace case record systems that are already under development in health or social care, nor will it share data with other agencies' case management systems. ContactPoint will not record statements of a child's needs, academic performance, attendance or clinical observations about a child, nor will it hold subjective opinions or comments about the child, their parents or carers.

In respect of concerns about the security of ContactPoint, I again emphasise that it has been designed from the bottom up with security in mind. Rigorous testing of security measures will be undertaken before any live data are loaded and before the system is allowed to go live. This will include penetration testing which is a series of processes and tests that will check the ContactPoint infrastructure, including connectivity and software, for vulnerability to software hacking and unauthorised access, by a specialist third-party organisation under the control of the department, before the system goes live and afterwards. ContactPoint will not be put into service until it has passed these tests.

The noble Baroness asked when ContactPoint will be rolled out—it will roll out by the end of 2008. Only people who need to use ContactPoint as part of their job to support children and young people will have access to the system. They will need an enhanced CRB check, renewable every three years, and they will need to undertake mandatory training on the use of the system before gaining access to it. I will write to noble Baronesses will details on training, but it is substantial, and substantial resources are being put into seeing that the training is available.

The noble Baroness asked me about the report that we will make on Section 58 and the issue of reasonable punishment by parents. This report will be published very shortly indeed and, of course, if she wishes to ask questions about it or to initiate a debate, we would be glad to respond in any way that is appropriate.