Clause 24 - Positions of trust: interpretation

Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 16th September 2003.

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Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey 3:15 pm, 16th September 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 187, in

clause 24, page 12, line 3, leave out 'regularly'.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 150, in

clause 24, page 12, line 7, leave out 'regularly'.

No. 151, in

clause 24, page 12, line 8, leave out 'regularly'.

No. 197, in

clause 44, page 22, line 39, leave out 'regular'.

No. 198, in

clause 44, page 23, line 3, leave out 'regular'.

No. 199, in

clause 44, page 23, line 8, leave out 'regular'.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey

This is a simple set of amendments to try to close what I, and others, regard as a potential loophole in the law. Clause 24, which refers to interpretation of positions of trust, states that

''a person looks after persons under 18 if he is regularly involved in caring for, training, supervising or being in sole charge of such persons.''

It is the word ''regularly'' that is causing great concern. In some cases, an adult might be in a position of trust where the contact with the child is limited—a supply teacher or a bank worker, for example—but it only takes one or two contacts to abuse a child. It is wrong that such an adult—who knows perfectly well that they are in what anyone would regard as a position of trust—could exploit this facet of the Bill.

If the amendments are accepted and references to regularity are removed, the position will be much tighter because anyone who seeks to abuse a vulnerable child could decide that this law would make it too difficult for them to stay in one care home because it makes their position there untenable. They would be unable to carry on doing what they are already doing.

That person can put themselves in the hands of an agency or another organisation that enables them to abuse at a number of homes in an area. That situation is difficult: a fellow care worker may have suspicions, but the next day the abuser might be working in a different home, and it takes a while to build up a pattern of suspicion. Very often these people are in different homes or settings or educational establishments, so it is not easy to get together and to raise concerns. We are creating the potential for someone to commit abuse on a wide scale just because they are not having regular contact with a specific individual.

The ''position of trust'' definition also applies to anyone who works with children in schools in a way that could be regarded as regular, such as a peripatetic music teacher. What criteria are used to define what is regular in this context? The Government should think about these amendments carefully. Are they satisfied that they are not creating the loophole that I have described?

The issue was discussed at great length in the House of Lords, where an attempt was made to amend the Bill in this way. It failed. I do not know whether the Government have reflected on the matter since then. We all agree that the aim of the Bill is to protect the vulnerable, and we could achieve that in a better way in this instance.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking 3:30 pm, 16th September 2003

I shall speak to amendments Nos. 150 and 151, which were drafted by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. They would leave out the word ''regularly''.

I want to reinforce what the hon. Member for Romsey said. It would be helpful to get from the Under-Secretary—via his officials—a full definition of what is meant by the word ''regularly''. There are so many nuances in our language—in phrases such as ''from time to time'', ''frequently'' and ''regularly''.

In teaching and allied worlds in particular, there are many people who are undoubtedly in a position of trust but who may not be regularly in that position. I have in mind a few different examples of that. What about the person who runs a holiday camp for one week in the summer, where the children are dropped off by their parents and given sporting and other help and generally advised and looked after? Such holiday and sports camps are for one week a year, and then it is end of story. Is that regular? The peripatetic teacher was also a good example. However, what happens with the other teacher—the person who has control, is in a position of trust and who, once a month, drops in to a school? I suppose that such contact must be regarded as regular—or is it once every two months or once every three months? If I were on a jury, I should not want to decide such matters without knowing what the Government mean by ''regularly''.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I have been given helpful advice, which goes to the heart of the question, ''What does regular mean; how is it defined?'' which was asked by the hon. Members for Romsey and for Woking. Whether regular contact applies in particular circumstances is for the courts to decide. It is not one-off contact. It must have a pattern and be consistent. We have tried to draft the clause widely to capture several relationships that could be defined as regular. Clearly, a full-time class teacher or a member of staff in a children's home is in regular contact with the child. However, the peripatetic teacher who takes a music class once a week, about whom we have already heard, is also in regular contact with the child. The physiotherapist who gives treatment to a child one day a week has a regular relationship with the child.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey

The hon. Gentleman mentions the peripatetic teacher who teaches once a week. I accept that that would be caught under the definition of ''regular''. What about supply teachers? There are always occasions when a school must go to the C list for someone to look after a class in the knowledge that the teacher is not very good, although not necessarily for the reasons under discussion. Teachers will go into a school on a one-off basis.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. Her question has two answers. First, the supply teacher who takes over from the regular classroom teacher and has the regular contact with the child could be said to have a relationship that reoccurs regularly. Secondly, a supply teacher may teach children in a school, which has a sixth form. There may be a 17-year-old in the school who does not meet the teacher in the school and is never taught by him. We would not want to capture that teacher under

the clause, because there is no regular contact by definition of the child being at that school and the teacher being a supply teacher at the school.

The hon. Lady is looking quizzical, so perhaps I have not persuaded her of my argument. I repeat that the supply teacher who takes over the full-blown, regular relationship with the pupil in the class is clearly caught under the Bill. As for the teacher who goes to the school as a supply teacher and who never comes across the 17-year-old with whom he may take up a sexual relationship, that is a different relationship. There is no regularity in such contact.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey

The hon. Gentleman defeats his own argument. He said that there was no contact at the school between the 17-year-old and the supply teacher and that it was a later contact. Clearly, that relationship would not want to be brought under the remit of the Bill. Will he confirm that that was his argument?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

What I can confirm concerns the 17-year-old who is in a sexual relationship with a supply teacher who came to the school on a one-off basis. I did not say that the teacher ''did not meet the child'' in the course of carrying out his duties; I said, ''may not have met the child''. We do not wish to capture such a person under the provisions. We want to capture the supply teacher in a classroom who has regular contact with the child, even for a short time. That is a different relationship. As with all things in the Bill, a line must be drawn and we believe that we have struck the right balance.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey

I am disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the right balance has been struck. He spent much time talking about schools, but the clause applies to more vulnerable children, perhaps with a learning disability, where the situation is much less clear. Unless there were some big falling-out and a vexatious complaint, the relationship that he described between a 17-year-old and a supply teacher would be very unlikely to result in a complaint against the teacher, because it involved a consensual act.

The matter becomes more difficult if people who less easily understand the boundaries of a sexual act are involved, and we shall come on to clauses on that issue later. Such people may not understand some of the ramifications. For those cases where care workers or therapists go to an institution occasionally, there is a real question of vulnerability that must be addressed. We must find a way to protect people in such situations.

I am very disappointed that the Under-Secretary will not give way on any aspect of this debate. I shall not press the matter to a vote, but it is very likely that we will want to revisit it on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 210, in

clause 24, page 12, line 23, at end insert—

' ''care order'' has—

in relation to England and Wales, the same meaning as in the Children Act 1989 (c.41), and

in relation to Northern Ireland, the same meaning as in the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 (S.I. 1995/755 (N.I. 2));'.

No. 211, in

clause 24, page 12, line 34, at end insert—

' ''education supervision order'' has—

in relation to England and Wales, the meaning given by section 36 of the Children Act 1989 (c.41), and

in relation to Northern Ireland, the meaning given by Article 49(1) of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 (S.I. 1995/755 (N.I. 2));'.

No. 212, in

clause 24, page 13, line 8, at end insert—

' ''supervision order'' has—

in relation to England and Wales, the meaning given by section 31(11) of the Children Act 1989 (c.41), and

in relation to Northern Ireland, the meaning given by Article 49(1) of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 (S.I. 1995/755 (N.I. 2));'.—[Paul Goggins.]

Clause 24, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.