Serious Crime Bill [HL] — Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 28 October 2014.

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Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 4:00, 28 October 2014

My Lords, I gather from what has already been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that an understanding has been reached with the Minister on this amendment, which I hope we will be able to welcome when we hear from the Minister exactly what it is.

We are extremely concerned about the way that children and vulnerable adults have been badly let down, not least in recent high-profile cases. Although we support mandatory reporting in principle, we have concerns about the amendment, and in particular its potential unintended consequences, which may have the opposite effect to that desired.

The amendment states that all providers of regulated activities involving children or vulnerable adults will be required to report any suspicion of abuse to the appropriate local authority. That would potentially cover millions of people being required to report. But the amendment is not specific or clear about exactly who would and would not be covered; nor does it define abuse. The signs of actual or likely abuse can be obvious but potential indicators of abuse, such as becoming more withdrawn, may not be quite so obviously a consequence of abuse; therefore, it would not be obvious that it would be an offence not to report them.

Among regulated activity providers there will be big differences in the level of pastoral support expected. For schools and hospitals, most referrals will be about abuse conducted not at the school or hospital but at home. However, it is not clear that a swimming club, for example, would have the same level of pastoral responsibility in respect of potential abuse. In some cases, conduct should be reported to the police where it is a straightforward criminality issue: for example, if a swimming club or football club suspected one of its coaches of taking inappropriate photographs. In other cases, such as a school, where it is likely to be safeguarding issue, the reporting would be to the local authority. I do not think that the amendment addresses or reflects those kinds of realities.

There is some evidence from outside the United Kingdom that suggests that a mandatory reporting requirement as broad in scope as that provided for in the amendment can lead to the child protection system being overwhelmed. With social services budgets here facing unprecedented cuts, that must be an issue of real concern. Some evidence from outside the UK indicates that people may play safe over reporting in order to protect themselves from a criminal liability for failing to report, with the consequence that resources are redirected to the investigation and assessment of the increased numbers of reports and away from detection and protection and meeting the needs of children at risk and of vulnerable adults.

That is not to suggest that the current system works as it should: for example, through ensuring that incidents or suspicions of child abuse or abuse of vulnerable adults in institutions such as care homes and boarding schools concerned to protect their reputation are reported and properly addressed. It is also clear that, as in some recent high-profile cases of child abuse, the issue has been one not of failure to report but of failure to act on those reports.

We will await the Government’s response, but while we favour and want to see the introduction of mandatory reporting, we do not believe that the way in which the amendment proposes to do it is the right approach, for the reasons I have mentioned. These include possible unintended consequences that could have an adverse effect on the protection of children at risk and vulnerable adults. I hope that the Government will take on board the principle of mandatory reporting and work with all interested parties to bring forward a detailed proposal that will have the confidence and support of the whole House.