Clause 20

Part of Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 13 July 2006.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Education) 2:15, 13 July 2006

A great deal of the Bill is complex and technical. Indeed, that was one of the first things the Minister said when we began our discussions. Nowhere is that more true than in the introduction of the concept of controlled activity. Employers are required to check the barred status of an employee, but with the discretion to employ barred individuals if appropriate safeguards are in place. The provision covers many health, further education and social care settings.

The clause is pivotal in as much as it provides for statutory guidance on the steps that employers should take when employing individuals in controlled activities. The amendments in my name and the names of my hon. Friends are intended to do three things: tighten the language to ensure that guidance is issued, which is not how the Bill is currently worded, ensure that there is a full and open debate on what should be included in the guidance, and ensure that that guidance is acted on. Those are three simple objectives, and they are vital because guidance on the matter cannot be viewed as an optional extra. It must be issued, and that is not how the Bill is currently worded.

The guidance needs to be debated in full using the affirmative procedure. It is an important element and I would have preferred to see it in the Bill. The Government have chosen to do it in another way, but we need to ensure that we do not lose the opportunity to debate the issues in full. We also need to know how the guidance is being acted on. It is important that employers do not just need to have regard to it.

The Government do not always have a good record in this area. The Minister will no doubt remember the recent Ofsted report on employment practices in schools. It showed a considerable amount of confusion and inconsistency among employers as to their duties and obligations under the various laws and regulations that have been issued. I am sure that the Minister and other members of the Committee will remember that we were unable to discuss the report in detail on Second Reading because, for some reason that still remains rather vague, it was not fully available to all hon. Members. I wish therefore to take this opportunity to go through one or two of its findings, which are pertinent to the debate.

In terms of confusion, hon. Members who have read the report will have read:

“Schools and LAs are confused about what action they need to take about existing staff members. The messages from the CRB, via the DfES, are not making the situation clear.”

It is clear that regulations and rules can often be misleading and are not helping employers in such  situations. That underlines the point made in the amendments, which is that the regulations need better and fuller debate than they have received in recent years.

The Ofsted report also found many instances of inconsistency, including poor record keeping by schools and local authorities on employment checks, and a widespread belief in schools that somebody else was checking staff, with the result that nobody carried out those essential checks. On page two of the report, Ofsted says:

“Such practice lacks rigour and thoroughness”.

The report also says that the letter from the then Secretary of State on 19 January 2006, which was intended to clarify the rules following the problems over list 99 and paedophiles in schools, added to the confusion. Many schools thought that the rules had suddenly changed, with the result that a further letter had to be sent out on 25 January to clarify the position. Again, that adds weight to the argument that these issues have not been dealt with well under current practices. That is why the amendments are important.

As with so much in the Bill, a lot of the important detail has been left to regulations. Without adequate scrutiny, the risk is that processes will not be subject to thorough debate and discussion. We could continue to make the mistakes that the Government have been making if we do not change the way we do things. Amendments Nos. 115, 118 and amendment No. 131, tabled by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), work towards guarding against such a situation and would ensure that regulations on employers’ duties receive full debate and approval in Parliament. They would also ensure that employers acted in accordance with such regulations and did not just have to take regard to them, thereby preventing some of the confusion and inconsistency that Ofsted so graphically outlined in its report.

It is essential that we set out the framework clearly and unequivocally. Otherwise, how can we expect schools and other employers to follow through? If we fail to do so, we are just creating a future problem for ourselves. The loose language, which has been a theme within the debate, does not help us communicate and does little to ensure consistency in future.

The amendments would also address a significant hole in the Bill, whereby employers may employ a barred individual in situations where they might not normally directly come into unsupervised contact with children and vulnerable adults—for example, a receptionist in a dentist’s surgery. Although that would add an extra layer of complication, the amendments generally attempt to prevent the current confusion. The amendments will, hopefully, guard against the inconsistency that Ofsted says is currently occurring and improve the Bill.