With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 106, in clause 11, page 7, line 3, after ‘check’, insert ‘, or
(b) he makes arrangements through direct payments or individual budgets for another person (P) to permit an individual (B) to engage in a regulated activity and does not—
(i) notify the individual (P) of the existence of the barred lists, and
(ii) offer to undertake an appropriate check on behalf of (P).’.
No. 107, in clause 16, page 10, line 34, after ‘body’, insert—
‘(4) If an offence under sections 9, 10 or 11 is committed by an individual acting on behalf of a body administering the provision of direct payments or individual budgets and is proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance of, or to be attributable to, neglect on the part of a designated responsible officer of the body, he (as well as the body) commits an offence.’.
I appreciate that the Minister might find some technical fault with the amendments, so I shall concentrate on the sentiment behind them, which is all-important. The core amendment is amendment No. 106, which has the support of the Parkinson’s Disease Society. It would require a regulated activity provider to inform direct payment recipients about the vetting and barring system, to increase awareness and to offer to undertake an appropriate check on the individual’s behalf.
I shall backtrack and explain how the issue was dealt with in debates in the other place, where I understand it was one of the most controversial issues. My noble Friends argued that people who arranged services for vulnerable recipients of direct payments should be classed as regulated activity providers and wanted everybody involved to be vetted and barred. Probably quite rightly, the Government did not accept that argument taken to its extreme, because it would have placed a huge burden on some 2 million carers in the UK, many of whom are family or friends, perhaps in informal arrangements.
The introduction of the direct payments scheme has brought additional bureaucracy, which has destabilised some long-term caring arrangements with extra requirements. The last thing that amendment No. 106 is attempting to do is destabilise arrangements or make already difficult situations even more difficult; rather, it says that the local authority, which is likely to be the instigator of the direct payments, should tell the recipient that the vetting and barring scheme exists.
We have all acknowledged how complicated the system is, and the recipients of direct payments will not have much time or inclination to work their way through the complexities of the legislation. Amendment No. 106 is intended to say that the local authority should say to the recipient of the direct payments, “This system exists—would like assistance to do any checking on the carers you’re going to use? If you’re quite satisfied, because you’ve known them for 20-odd years, we needn’t take it any further.” In other words, amendment No. 106 is permissive. However, taken together, the amendments would place a duty on the local authority or whomever to alert the recipient to the fact that the new system exists and to give assistance.
If the Minister cannot accept the wording, I hope that he will accept the idea as a compromise that would meet the many concerns that have been raised. The direct payments scheme is becoming a bigger and bigger way to provide care. It is a good way to give people choice, but we want a bit of a safety net when that choice is exercised.
Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. Conway. I shall say a few words in support of the amendments. They are sensible. As she has said, it is an area of care for vulnerable people that will grow. The Government rightly support direct payments, and many authorities throughout the country have pushed them.
The amendments also fit in with the Government policy, which we share, of encouraging as many people as possible to stay at home for as long as possible, but only where due and appropriate support is available. It should not be done by continually raising the threshold qualifying them for residential care without providing sufficient support to ensure that they, particularly elderly people, can stay at home without harm or injury.
An increasing number of people will use the direct payments scheme to engage the services of complete strangers to help clean their homes, do their shopping and provide other health-related and personal services. Such people will be put into a strong position of trust and will be able to take advantage of vulnerable people should they be so minded. I am sure that a few people will get into the system in order to take advantage of vulnerable people. Although the vast majority of people offering services through direct payments will not, the Bill is about weeding out bad apples.
It would be an excessive obligation to require every person offering such services to be vetted. It could cause enormous delay for people trying to exercise direct payments, and could lead to a diminution of choice for those trying to engage the services of somebody about whom they might know very little. It is eminently sensible and not too onerous a new obligation on local authorities simply to inform a vulnerable person or their carer—if there is a part-time carer, somebody with a power of attorney or an appropriate person—about the availability of the vetting system, and that they might like to avail themselves of it before taking a firm decision about whom their direct payments will go to.
The amendments would enhance the Bill by providing an extra safeguard for the growing part of the population that belongs to one of the vulnerable groups that we are discussing. The amendments would achieve that without being unduly onerous on local authorities, which after all will be responsible for organising direct payments. A reminder of the service’s availability would therefore not be too great an additional requirement.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway. This is the first time that I have spoken in Committee with you in the Chair, and it is good to see you.
This debate is sensible and important. The concepts of direct payments and individual budgets are at the heart of public service reform, empowering individuals with far more control over the services provided for them. It is right to make the point, as did the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), that that will be a significant part of how services are provided in future.
We must strike the right balance. We must ensure that people receive appropriate protection and safeguards without undermining the principle of empowering them by giving them more control and choice. We must not place onerous and undue requirements on them but must give them every assistance and support to ensure that they can employ anybody they choose, either on their own behalf or on behalf of a family friend or relative.
Individual budgets and direct payments will be a greater part of the mainstream care system than they have been. We are running 13 pilots at the moment for individual budgets, and we want to learn from those before we decide whether to roll out individual budgets as a national option or an entitlement for people.
We should be trying to incorporate into those 13 pilots, which are at an early stage, a means to ensure that people understand their right to seek information and make the necessary checks so that they have the maximum protection. During those pilots, I shall certainly look at lessons that can be learned.
On amendment No. 105, we do not believe that it would be appropriate to bring a family member or friend within the definition of a regulated activity provider. We should enable and assist relatives and friends to have the right to make the necessary checks, but it would be inappropriate to oblige them to do so by statute.
On amendment No. 106, we agree that all individuals in receipt of a direct payment should be aware of the vetting and barring scheme, and of their right to engage with it. I shall try to assure hon. Members. In another place, we gave a commitment to introduce a Government amendment placing a duty on local councils to inform direct payment recipients of their right to engage with the new scheme. As hon. Members are aware, we have tabled that amendment, and either I or the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), will speak to it later. That should meet the intention of the amendment tabled by the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and for Brent, East (Sarah Teather).
In addition—I hope that this gives further assurance to the Committee—we are exploring how people who require help in making checks can be assisted by local authorities. We envisage direct payment support services playing a key role in that area. The new scheme will allow all private, domestic employers, including direct payment recipients or their nominees, to check an individual’s status in the scheme online, or via other means. At this stage, we do not think that it is necessary to put a requirement on local councils to do that on an individual’s behalf.
On amendment No. 107 relating to criminal offences—I do not think that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole referred directly to it—the Bill provides already for a number of offences, where appropriate. We are not convinced by the argument for specific or additional offences in respect of direct payments and individual budgets. Therefore, although it is right that we send a strong message about the consequences of breaching the law, to introduce specific offences relating to those issues is neither necessary nor desirable.
I like to think that we have given way significantly since the debate began in the other place. We are all learning as the concept of individual budgets and direct payments develops and we will need to reflect on the lessons learned. However, I think that the Bill just about strikes the right balance between enabling and supporting people to have access to the relevant vetting process and procedures and not placing an inappropriate duty on them. It will give them more freedom and control over the choice of care provided. On that basis, I ask hon. Members not to press their amendments.
I thank the Minister for his comforting words. At this stage I shall be happy not to press the amendments. However, although I did not refer specifically to amendment No. 107, I do think that, if we consider the matter important, it needs to have some legal force. For example, in children’s legislation, we had to clearly make a person responsible within a local authority. In this area, we have seen so much buck-passing over the years that, if we consider it to be of importance, we must be clear that there is a designated person who has responsibility.
Amendment No. 107 follows if we accept the logic of amendment No. 106 that we cannot leave direct payments out of the whole scheme. We must bring them in, as the Minister says, in such a way that they are not a burden and do not upset long-standing arrangements, but give the necessary protection. I may revisit the matter, but given the Minister’s comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.