Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords]

– in a Public Bill Committee on 11th July 2006.

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[Mr. Derek Conwayin the Chair]

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup 10:30 am, 11th July 2006

Good morning. It is a warm day, so if anyone wishes to remove their jacket, it will of course be perfectly in order.

I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill, and copies are available in the room. I remind members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule my co-Chairman, Eric Martlew, and I do not intend to call starred amendments. Will all colleagues ensure that their mobile phones, pagers and so on are turned off, or at least on silent mode, during our sittings?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

On a point of order, Mr. Conway. I was perhaps being presumptuous, but was it in order for us to remove clothing, given the conditions?

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

I made a ruling in a Committee last week that Bermuda shorts and flip-flops remained banned. That will continue. Perhaps the blinds should come down lower as the day progresses, but we shall see how Mr. Martlew feels about it this afternoon.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills

I beg to move,

That—

(1) during proceedings on the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords], in addition to its first meeting at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday 11th July, the Standing Committee shall meet at:

(a) 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 11th July,

(b) 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 13th July;

(2) the Bill be considered in the following order, namely, Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clause 2, Schedule 2, Clauses 3 to 5, Schedule 3, Clauses 6 to 25, Schedule 4, Clauses 26 to 47, Schedules 5 and 6, Clauses 48 to 51, new Clauses, new Schedules, remaining proceedings on the Bill;

(3) proceedings on the Bill shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 p.m. on Thursday 13th July.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship in my first Committee as Minister, Mr. Conway. I welcome Members from all sides. Many of us have met before on a number of occasions, even though I have not been in place for long, including not long ago on the Children and Adoption Bill.

I look forward to detailed scrutiny of what I accept is a technical and complex Bill. It has had good  scrutiny in the Lords, and I am delighted that the finest Whips known to Parliament, on both sides of the House, have struck a good deal on the scrutiny that we may give it this week. I look forward to engaging with both Opposition parties and with Government Back Benchers today and on Thursday.

I shall not hold up events further as there is a lot to get through.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Education)

It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway, as it will be to do so under Mr. Martlew.

The Opposition have a strong team to ensure, as the Minister put it, that we have a thorough review of the Bill, given its technicalities and complexities. I am particularly pleased to have on the Conservative Benches my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), who with his experience and background in education will bring a great deal to the debate; my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), whose expertise in matters to do with children and health are well known to many in the Committee; and our Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who also has great experience that will add to our debate in the next few days. We will be joined this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), who is otherwise engaged this morning. Her background in local government will be of particular use.

No legislation can guarantee the safety of children or vulnerable adults. The Bill covers only one part of the 31 recommendations made by Bichard. That means that while examining it, we must consider how to engender a broader culture of vigilance and support. We must also ensure that we touch on other progress being made as a result of the Bichard report. I am sure that the Minister will want to ensure that the Committee is fully briefed, particularly on the police information systems so critical to ensuring that the Bichard recommendations are fully realised. Data and systems are not the answer; they are simply part of the answer, and we must keep that uppermost in our minds.

The Bill has benefited from a great deal of debate in the House of Lords, and the amendments passed there will be well known to Committee members. They relate to better read-across between the two lists and to malicious allegations. However, the Bill will benefit from further consideration. The focus of the amendments tabled by the official Opposition is the role of the independent barring board, its processes and practices and what we expect of it.

The other area critical to the Bill’s success concerns the need to ensure that there is clarity on the thresholds used when action is to be taken. We shall raise other issues, too, including the use of secondary legislation, which is extensive in the Bill, overseas workers, and exemptions for certain groups. A number of other issues will be drawn out from our amendments and dealt with in detail.

Many of the issues that we have raised through amendments were raised in two specific consultations: the post-Bichard consultation, held last year, and the Department for Education and Skills consultation,  which reported in April. The Minister is relatively new to his post but, as he pointed out, he has been thrown in at the deep end and has already debated two Bills with us so far. I will perhaps challenge him on why more heed has not been paid to the feedback that he and his colleagues had from those consultation processes, because if we ask experts their opinion but choose not to take their advice, we risk undermining their trust, their interest and perhaps their help in future. I would be interested in the Minister’s thoughts on that.

I said on Second Reading that the systems that we have in place have too often been unreliable, and research suggests that that statement is correct. We are all aware of the Ofsted report that came out around the time of Second Reading, which found that 90 per cent. of schools were ignoring the scheme to stop paedophiles working as supply teachers. That is coupled with the Commission for Social Care Inspection report, which showed a widespread failure to use safe vetting procedures that are already in place; 40 per cent. of children’s homes were not using those procedures. It is our responsibility today to ensure that we weave out of the Bill the opaqueness that is in it and that we add clarity. We hope that we will succeed in doing so through the amendments tabled.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) and myself, I welcome the Minister. I imagine that this is the first Committee in which he has been in control of the proceedings. I am sure that it will be a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway, and that of Mr. Martlew. This is the first time that I have served on a Committee with you. We look forward to working with the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and her team. We have been engaged with so many children’s Bills this year that we have worked together quite a lot.

I echo what the hon. Lady said about the Bill’s complexity and its technical aspects. Inevitably, we have very carefully to consider definitions of words, because it is so important that we get the Bill right. It will also be incredibly important that we end up with a Bill whose demands and requirements can be communicated clearly to all those whom it affects. That theme should flow through all our discussions: we need to think about how the details of the Bill will be communicated.

Some of our amendments are probing amendments. Even though a great deal of work was done in the other place, we would like to be absolutely clear that the various definitions of activities contain no loopholes. It is most important to get the Bill right, and I hope that every member of the Committee will make a full contribution.

I was privileged to serve on the Committee that considered the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and we had excellent cross-party working. One went home at the weekend thinking that one was really doing a really good job. I hope that that is how we feel about our consideration of the Bill. We Liberal Democrats commit ourselves to being brief and very much to the point.

Question put and agreed to.