Moved by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
At end insert “and do propose Amendment 9B in lieu of Amendment 9—
9B: In Clause 55, page 35, line 19, at end insert—“( ) ensure all child contact centres and organisations that offer child contact services regularly check their employees, agency workers and volunteers for compliance with national standards in relation to safeguarding and preventing domestic abuse as specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State.””
My Lords, the amendment I have tabled is a modified and simplified version of the previous amendment regarding child contact centres. I am most grateful to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, for meeting the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Burt of Solihull, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, and me yesterday. We were hopeful that the Government would want to commit to making regulations rapidly, but, alas, no.
In redrafting I have taken into account the concern expressed by the Minister in the other place that a statutory framework governing local authorities could be costly and bureaucratic. However, I take issue with the statement that the Government have not seen evidence to suggest that the framework used by the National Association of Child Contact Centres—or NACCC, as I will call it for short—and agreed with Cafcass through a memorandum of understanding, is not needed. A lack of evidence being brought forward does not mean that a problem does not exist; it simply means that it is currently going undetected.
She went on to say that
“it is important to make sure that those protocols are sufficient and that they are doing the job that needs to be done.”—[
Unfortunately, because there is no statutory requirement, such monitoring is left to voluntary sector services such as the NACCC.
There are individual cases of concern, but it is not appropriate to go into such details at this stage. Yet the Government’s own recent harm report, which assessed the risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases, identified that professionals involved in child arrangement cases show a
“lack of understanding of the different forms that domestic abuse takes, and of the ongoing impacts of abuse on children and victim parents”.
The report identified systematic minimisation of abuse and unsightly, unsafe child arrangements in an adversarial system with silo working. Some respondents felt the risk-assessment processes to be inadequate, providing examples of courts bypassing risk assessments altogether and simply ordering contact without assessing the ongoing risk for the non-abusive parent, without considering the risk of potential future harm and without consultation with the child. Surely the Government can see that their own report highlights that staff need specific training on domestic abuse.
That is why I find the Government’s email to me today about my amendment deeply worrying. In it, the Government recognise that individuals can set themselves up outside NACCC-regulated or Ofsted-regulated activities such as childminding. These people are not even eligible to seek such a certificate on criminal record should they wish to demonstrate their commitment to the welfare of those for whom they are providing a contact service. Parents using such contact services have no assurance that these people, who have not been screened by enhanced criminal record disclosure and barring service checks, do not have unspent or spent convictions and cautions. Those of malintent towards children and others who are vulnerable can hide.
The Government said that local authority arrangements safeguard public law cases, and in private law cases they did show that protocols are in place—but, again, there is anecdotal evidence that some parts of the judiciary are unaware off the full content of the judicial protocol and the memorandum of understanding between NACCC and Cafcass. In some communities where there is greatest suspicion of statutory bodies, child contact services may be harder to monitor and are not necessarily focused on a child contact centre. An individual may be complicit in abusive behaviours being perpetrated or have a history of inappropriate behaviour towards children that has gone unnoticed.
My amendment simply gives the Government powers to make regulation as they wish to ensure that all child contact centres and organisations offering child contact services regularly check for employees’, agency workers’ and volunteers’ full compliance with national standards in relation to safeguarding and preventing domestic abuse. At a minimum it is essential so that these vulnerable children are not exposed to further danger. All the personnel involved should have, as a minimum, the enhanced disclosure and barring service checks, and I hope the Government would also require them to have up-to-date specialist domestic violence training to be able to detect and appropriately manage situations of ongoing abuse.
We must not let domestic abuse legislation go through and leave a loophole in our protection of children who are victims. It is consistent with the approach in the Department for Education document Working Together to Safeguard Children and with the welcome given by the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, to the Botulinum Toxin and Cosmetic Fillers (Children) Bill, debated last Friday in the House. The Minister said then that
“the provisions in the Bill will ensure that young people are accorded the highest protections to safeguard their physical and psychological health.”—[
In January 2021, the Government published their tackling child sexual abuse strategy. So, I ask, when will the Government make sure that all those working with children and vulnerable people are subject to enhanced DBS checks? Can the Minister explain why the Government are resistant to providing the highest protections to children who are victims of domestic abuse and potentially open to ongoing abuse or even predatory activities from people with criminal intent who could masquerade as providing child contact services?
Unless I have a firm and comprehensive assurance from the Government that this loophole will be closed, and of when it will be closed, I will seek the opinion of the House, as I believe this House is committed to the welfare of children. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and I congratulate her on the work she has done in this regard and on bringing forward a revised amendment at this stage. I declare my interests: I am vice-president of the National Association of Child Contact Centres; I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Child Contact Centres; and I am a non-practising Scottish advocate, so I did have some limited experience of family case law at the Scottish Bar.
I thank the Minister for meeting us on a number of occasions—most recently yesterday. I took great heart from his confirmation, which his official gave us on the call, that the Government indeed have the power to make the regulations we are requesting, so that this amendment would not be needed. I draw attention to the letter sent by email today following the meeting yesterday, which states:
“At the meeting yesterday I indicated that my officials would look at the DBS regulations, to assess whether these could be amended to apply to individuals setting up contact centres and services, outside of the NACCC accredited services, in order to provide a level of safeguarding for both children and parents.”
I would like to know why the Minister has drawn back from what I understood was a clear commitment to make these regulations.
I remind the Minister that this is my second attempt at supporting this amendment. I had a Private Member’s Bill some two Parliaments ago as a relatively new Member of this House on this precise point. I welcome the fact that the Minister and others spoke in previous stages in support of this amendment, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Burt, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. Our starting point is simply, as the Minister explained, that we want to ensure that in a family breakdown, the break-up of a marriage or any other relationship, the absent parent—normally the father, but possibly the mother—will continue to have contact with the child. It is extremely important for both the family and society that that is the case. I care passionately about families, and family law is at the heart of British society.
“You will need to have an enhanced check with barred lists from the Disclosure and Barring Service, if you want to look after children for a living … Who needs to be checked …You may need to go through a DBS check if you work directly with children or run the childcare organisation, for example as a … childminder … childminding assistant … nanny … playgroup owner … children’s home director”.
So I ask my noble friend a very simple, direct and straight question: why are those either working at child contact centres or offering services of contact being put in a less safe situation in relation to the children they are going to be dealing with than every other person working with children?
Let me remind the House that the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, has a Private Member’s Bill going through this House at the moment looking to close a similar loophole in the provision of education to children aged between 16 and 19, and I support that Bill. That loophole shows that safeguarding should extend to 16 to 19 year-olds, and the Government are seeking to close that loophole for a very good reason: nobody wants a terrible incident to happen, leading to a potential court case and huge trauma for all concerned, not least the Government, whose responsibility it is to protect 16 to 19 year-olds in education or enjoying educational services in any setting. So for what reason, as we seek to close that loophole for 16 to 19 year-olds, is a child or family in this case not enjoying the same level of protection as they do with every other category of a person providing a service?
I would like to humbly correct the Minister on one point. He stated that those supporting the amendment were claiming that there are large numbers of unaccredited centres at risk of domestic abuse. That has never been our claim. Our claim is that this small category is unacceptable because it is putting children at risk, and they are the most vulnerable in society. I would just like to correct my noble friend on that single point.
As for the judicial protocol, the very fact that it is being revised by the National Association of Child Contact Centres goes to the heart of the fact that it is not working. As all those involved in the judicial protocol agree, including Cafcass and the Family Division, it is not working as intended. I welcome the fact that it is under review, but we have to pause and point out to my noble friend that it is not working as it should. I think we have established that there are instances where it could work better, and that is of great concern to us and raises questions as to why the MoU is perhaps not being as respected as all those involved would hope.
Regarding the allegations that we have not put sufficient evidence, to my noble friend’s satisfaction, in the public domain as to why the amendment is needed, I make a plea to his human side and hope he will realise that this is a deeply sensitive area. It is very difficult, given the nature of some of these issues— I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is well versed in them, as a practitioner—to put many of these cases in the public domain and, in the limited time available, we have refrained from doing so. Perhaps the Government should take it upon themselves to look for this evidence, rather than a cash-strapped voluntary organisation such as the National Association of Child Contact Centres, which is working to keep our children safe.
I am clearly disappointed at the Government’s apparently dismissive refusal to recognise this issue. This amendment is actually doing the Government and families a great service by pointing out a loophole in the law, as we have done previously. The type of screening that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has encapsulated in this amendment is precisely what is needed to close the loophole and to ensure that those working in the public setting, through local authorities, and the private setting, to which the Minister referred, are covered by the same provisions. As I have informed those who need to know, I will support this if it is pressed to a vote.
My Lords, I support the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay of Llandaff and Lady McIntosh of Pickering, particularly Lady McIntosh in what she has said about child contact centres and organisations offering child contact which are not accredited. It seems to me, as a matter of principle, that all contact centres and organisations involved in providing this crucial service should be accredited in some way or another. As for the idea that they can set up without anybody having to check, it seems blindingly obvious that this should not happen.
As a judge, I used to be very involved with the National Association of Child Contact Centres, and with individual contact centres. I was a patron of several of them, so I have some knowledge of the importance of child contact centres as places where children can meet their parents or parent. It is crucial that the safeguarding issue be recognised in such a way that no one can fall through the gap, so I support this amendment.
Before we come to the winding-up speakers, does anyone in the Chamber wish to speak who is not on the list? If not, I call the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay of Llandaff and Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and to others whose knowledge far exceeds my own, for all their efforts to bring this amendment forward. I have to join my cross-party colleagues in expressing disappointment at the Government’s eventual response to this amendment, despite the undoubted work and good will of the Minister.
The Minister in the Commons, Victoria Atkins, seemed to consider that a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, to the President of the Family Division and the chief officer of Cafcass requesting that they “raise awareness” would resolve the issue. It will not. The problem here is that the Government are talking about one thing, the formal requests from the family courts—not that they are all up to speed in using registered child contact centres—while the main problem lies elsewhere, in less formally constituted organisations sent by local authorities and other cash-strapped bodies. The Government seem to think that the existing guidelines will filter through by osmosis to everyone who is commissioning a child contact. There is a lack of awareness on the part of courts and local authorities and, if an unfortunate incident occurs because centre staff have not been trained properly and a child suffers or is put in jeopardy, the likely outcome is that the matter will be hushed up. We will not hear about it in the public domain, which is why it is difficult to provide evidence on the extent of the problem.
The revised amendment we are discussing today is far less prescriptive than its predecessor previously discussed by your Lordships. As noble Lords have said, it simply applies the same criteria to child contact centre staff as to anyone working with children— for example, a DBS check. The requirement for a register is gone. No protocol and no policies are being stipulated: that will be down to the Government themselves. A child minder or a nursery assistant will have the same requirement imposed on them. These are national standards for anyone working with children, so who could argue that this bare minimum should not be applied to child contact centre staff, volunteers or agency workers? The national standards and regulations would be for the Government to determine.
For goodness’ sake, let us at least weed out the bad people, so that we do not expose our children to them at arguably the most vulnerable time of their lives. For that reason, if the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, decides to test the opinion of the House, I and my party will support her.
My Lords, as is often the case, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, put the point simply and persuasively: that there should be common standards for all those who provide services under child contact centres.
We have heard about the welcome exchange of views between the signatories to this amendment and the Minister. In the email we received from him, he seemed to acknowledge that the DBS regulations should be assessed, and potentially amended, to see whether they apply to individuals setting up contact centres—so, he has acknowledged that deficiency in the existing arrangements. Further to that, in the concluding paragraph of the Minister’s email he undertakes to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place for anyone who seeks to set up as a provider, and to explore further whether that is indeed the case.
The starting point is that there are uneven levels of regulation across the network of child contact centre providers. I accept what the Minister has said regarding private law in our courts and that the existing memorandum of understanding is going to be updated and revised, but that very fact may be an acknowledgement that improvements are needed. I have to say, speaking as a family magistrate, that all the child contact centres I have ever referred children to have been accredited by the NACCC. The Minister also set out the existing public law statutory architecture, which is more complex, but as so many speakers have said in this debate, we are talking about private providers—providers who may come and go and may come from particular communities which do not trust existing services. Those are the difficult cases that we are seeking to include in this extension of regulation.
As the Minister will be aware, we are talking about some very difficult cases—cases which are difficult to put in the public domain—and a few cases, not the many cases which he claimed. The Bill is an opportunity to close this loophole. We on the Labour Benches will support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, if she chooses to press it to a vote.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I am mindful of the views which have been expressed across the House. I start with a point on behalf of the Government and of myself. So far as the Government are concerned, like the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, they are committed to the welfare of children—that is not a phrase with which any of us would disagree. For myself, if I may accept the point put by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, I do have a human side. Notwithstanding that I am a lawyer and a Government Minister, something of a human side still pokes through occasionally.
There is nothing between us on the aim; what is between us is the means. I therefore remind the House of two points. First, of course anything said by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in this area has to be heard with care and listened to diligently, but it is the case already that the vast majority of people in child contact centres will have to have certain checks through NACCC accreditation and because of the local authority obligations. That is the first general point.
The second general point in response to one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, is that the fact that the memorandum of understanding is being updated and revised is no indication whatever that there is a problem with it. For example, one of the revisions which is being made is to substitute the name of the previous President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, with the name of the new president, Sir Andrew McFarlane. Updating and revision of an MoU does not indicate that there is a problem. A lot of very good documents are continually updated and revised.
One is therefore back to the essential point, which is: what is the evidence which underpins the proposed amendment? It is all very well to talk of a loophole, but the real question is whether there is an underlying problem. It is the evidence base with which we have concerns. I say with genuine respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, that anecdotal evidence is not a sufficient basis in this area on which we should be legislating. Of course, staff must be trained and we must look to see whether there are legislative gaps, but we have to proceed on proper evidence.
So far as my email is concerned, I do not pull back from that at all; I stand by every single word of it. In particular, with regard to DBS checks, I am happy to repeat from the Dispatch Box precisely what I said in the email: “I am ready to explore whether there is a case for ensuring that there are appropriate arrangements in place for anyone who seeks to set themselves up as a provider of child contact centres to be subject to criminal record checks. The issue is that the regulations with regard to DBS are about eligibility for DBS checks, not whether they are mandatory.”
I suspect that where we end up is on the question of whether there is a proper basis to legislate in this space, given my assurances that we would be looking at the DBS point and that there is no cogent evidence that the current system is not working. The protocol is in place and has been endorsed at the highest level by the judiciary and Cafcass. There are statutory and regulatory requirements in the public law cases. Indeed, the only first-hand evidence which we have heard this afternoon from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, has been that the matter is working well. As he confirmed, he sends his cases to an accredited centre only.
That is the position. Even at this late stage, I respectfully invite the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am most grateful to all who have spoken, and particularly to my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss for her support, which I view as weighty. I stress to the House that a call for common standards seems to have come through in all the speeches in support of my amendment. I am slightly concerned that the Government decry an evidence base because I have seen no evidence that they have undertaken a systematic review of the standards of all the child contact centres and services around, nor have they looked at them systematically. When they asked for evidence, we brought it, and did what we could in the time available, and now it is being dismissed as anecdotal. We have gone round in circles and I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 298, Noes 240.