The last hour of business in the House of Lords last night was given over to a – by Lords’ standards – bad-tempered debate on an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill.
The Government is proposing that certain categories of people who work closely with children need not be checked to see if they are on the barred list that says whether they are known to be a danger to children. In particular, they will not be checked if they are subject to “supervision”.
The amendment was moved by Lord Bichard, who led the inquiry into the Soham murders, who said:
“Everyone in this House understands that one of the most difficult responsibilities for any Government is to manage risk, whether that risk is the security of our nation or the safety of the most vulnerable members of our society. It is one of the most difficult responsibilities because very few risks of any significance can be entirely eliminated, and decisions must therefore be made about what is an acceptable-sometimes an unavoidable-level of risk, and what action is proportionate in seeking to minimise that risk.
That is why I emphasised two things when I published my report on the deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman at the hands of Ian Huntley in Soham: first, that we cannot create a risk-free society; secondly, that the steps we take to minimise risk should be proportionate. For those reasons, I very much sympathise with and support the Government in seeking to strike the right balance in this very difficult area. Some reduction in the level of bureaucracy associated with vetting and barring is necessary and achievable, and I welcome the Government’s attempts to do so. However, I cannot agree that these clauses strike the right balance, even with the amendments tabled by the Minister or by other noble Lords in this House. That is why I am moving this amendment.
To be clear, these clauses relate to those who train, supervise, teach or instruct children outside a specified place, such as a school or a children’s home, or to those who are unpaid volunteers in whatever setting. In such circumstances, a person will not in future need to be CRB checked if they are under the supervision of another person who is engaging in a regulated activity and is therefore subject to CRB checks. We can, and probably will, debate how close or intensive that supervision should be. My contention, inconvenient though it may be for those of us who want to reduce the level of bureaucracy, is that no amount or quality of supervision can be sufficient to prevent someone developing a bond of trust with a child that he or she can then exploit at a time when they are free of that supervision. That is how grooming takes place.
The internet provides enhanced opportunities for the bond of trust, once established, to be inappropriately exploited. Therefore, the focus of our concerns should be not on the quality, intensity or nature of the supervision but on whether the person involved in training, instruction, teaching or supervision presents a risk to the child. They should therefore continue to be subject to checks that can help establish whether
they are a risk to children. This will hold out some hope that we can prevent them gaining privileged access to children.
We know that checks cannot be foolproof, but surely we owe it to our children to take reasonable and quite simple steps to prevent those whom we know are a risk from gaining privileged access to children, even if they are subject to supervision. They must do that because children assume that adults who are trusted to offer guidance or instruction to them can be trusted-not just in limited circumstances such as the youth centre or playing field but wherever they are encountered. That is why supervision can never be enough, and why sometimes we have to place the safety of our children before our desire to minimise regulation and bureaucracy. I hope that that is what we will do this evening. If we do not, I fear that we will very quickly find that dangerous adults will realise that there are some settings and some ways in which it will be easier in future for them to gain access to vulnerable children. The people we are talking about are manipulative and clever. They will take advantage of those opportunities.”
Finally, I hope that the Minister will at least be able to confirm this evening that the Act will do nothing to prevent organisations, with their local knowledge, making checks where they think they are required. For example, a school with its local knowledge will be able to carry on checking volunteers if it believes that that is necessary and good practice.”
In support, I said:
“It is unfortunate that we are debating these amendments at this time of night in a fairly sparse Chamber. I fear that in a few years time people will look back on this debate and say, “Why did Parliament not do more? Why was Parliament so happy to allow those changes to go through without further checks and cautions?”. I am therefore grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, for his amendments. He is quite right to say that a balance has to be struck and that no system will necessarily protect all children against abuse and against predators. However, the omission that is being created by this Bill is enormous. It is saying that if a volunteer, or someone working with children, is subject to supervision, they do not have to be checked at all. The reality is that parents send their child to a school or a club because they assume that it is a safe place. They assume, therefore, that the people who will be in contact with their child at that school, that club or that activity are also safe. I suspect that unless they pore over the details of our debate, which I am sure is not the case, they will assume that all those people are being checked against these registers and lists. Of course they will not be. They are volunteers or they are under the day-to-day supervision that is envisaged.
The reality is that children coming into contact with those adults will again assume that they are safe. The bond of trust, and it does not have to be a very strong bond, will be built up and created. When they see that individual elsewhere, perhaps in the town centre, loitering near their school or wherever it may be, they will assume that that person is as safe for them there as in the supervised context. That is why such an important gap is being created by this legislation. I know that the Government have moved significantly in terms of the amendment they have tabled about supervision being,
“as is reasonable in all the circumstances for the purpose of protecting any children concerned”.
I wonder whether that is really going to be sufficient. Is it really going to provide the protection that is needed? Is it, for example, going to ensure that the individuals concerned never offer their e-mail address, their Facebook page or their BlackBerry messenger identity to children? How can it do that if that offer is made not on the premises of the school or the club or outside the activity concerned? There will be no way of knowing whether that happens. However good the supervision may be inside that school, that club, or during the activities concerned, there will be no way of preventing that bond of trust being created and therefore the vulnerability of that child meeting that individual again outside that school, that club, or that activity. That is where the danger is going to be created.
As I said, most parents will assume that that school, that club or that activity is safe. They will assume that the people there, whom their child will encounter, will be safe, but the Government in this legislation are removing that security in saying, “We’re not guaranteeing that. All we’re guaranteeing is that physically while your child is in that environment, those people are supervised and therefore no abuse can take place”. The real, persistent danger of people who are extremely clever and extremely manipulative in getting access to children is not that they are going to do whatever they do in front of other adults or in the school or club or during the activity time. They will want to do it away from those settings, and they will do it because they have built up that bond of trust. I appeal to the Minister. It may be that he can give us enough reassurances about what,”
“all the circumstances for the purpose of protecting any children concerned”,
will amount to, but I doubt whether those assurances can ever protect that trust. The only way that that can be achieved is by not drawing this distinction in this way but by accepting the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard.”
It was also supported by Baroness Howarth of Breckland, former Chief Executive of ChildLine, who said:
“I want to concentrate on the people who are likely to abuse. I declare an interest as the vice-chair of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, of which I have been a trustee for some 20 years. It is the organisation that pioneered the work in grooming and understanding the nature of abusers.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said, there is no doubt that these individuals will see this as open season on children-and I choose my words carefully. I have probably been involved with more of these men than most-some women, but mostly men-and so I know just how deceitful, clever, manipulative and strategic they are. They have a long view. These individuals do not just move in, see a child and think they are going to abuse them; they plan their moves carefully. There has been talk about building trust, but when a teacher can systematically abuse a child in a classroom, as in a recent case, noble Lords should take that as an example of what these kind of individuals can do, and then recognise that there are others right across the country who are thinking at this moment, “Will there be another opening for me to reach a child?”.
I have also worked with victims of that abuse. Imagine it was your son or daughter who had been buggered or raped by one of these people, who had gained their trust. The child or young person involved believes that they are implicated-the trust means that they carry the guilt. This is why often these youngsters will not come forward early, but if you talk to rape crisis lines or the people who deal with adult abusers, time after time they will tell you how the guilt kept them from telling. Research may show that if you talk to young people there is less of it, but many youngsters will not say that it is happening to them because they have that guilt.
As far as supervised access is concerned, anyone who has recently been to any of the youth provision that is around will know how hectic it is-properly so, for young people enjoying themselves-and that “supervision” is a strange word. In fact, you are just about maintaining the peace in some of these organisations. It is very easy for these individuals to make contact with the young people. As has already been said, modern technology makes it even easier.
I can see the Minister sitting there thinking, “We have heard all this before; we have our position”. But I would say to him that if you really care about our nation’s children and what happens to them in their adulthood after these incidents have happened, when they are unable to make relationships, when their marriages break down, when they have problems with their own children, when they end up in mental hospitals or in prison-if you look at any of those cohorts you will find that a lot of these youngsters have been abused-then you will find a way to absolutely ensure that it is not as loose as this. Anyone who is likely to abuse a child must be able to be checked so that certainty can be held by a parent and indeed by the child-and in some ways by the individual themselves because the abuser’s life is destroyed as well if they are not helped to not go through all of this. I hope the Minister will do so.”
The Government Minister, Lord Henley
, had a difficult time in replying to the debate, but resisted accepting the points made:
The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Henley): My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked that I should take particular note of what the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said in moving his amendment. I can give him, the House and the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, an assurance that I will do that. Our time goes back a long way to when I served with the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, in the former Department for Education and Employment and I hope that we both have a great deal of respect for each other.
I echo the introductory words of the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, when he said-this is important-that we cannot completely eliminate risk. We understand that. He also made the point that we must be proportionate in how we manage these matters and accept that we must try to reduce bureaucracy as and where we can. I was grateful for the wise words of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, when she referred to the need to reduce the unnecessary CRB checks that were taking place.
It is important for us to remember that it is a question of balance. It is one that we can never get absolutely and completely right and we will probably have to go on arguing almost until the cows come home before we can resolve these matters. We should try to get it right, but the balance will be perceived differently between one individual and another.
By way of background, I reiterate that the Government believe, as do many outside bodies, that by scaling back the scope of regulated activity, and thus disclosure and the barring scheme, we can strike a better balance between the role of the state and that of employers or other organisations in protecting the vulnerable. Both have a role to play.
Clause 64 and the amendments to it provide that certain activity, which would be within the scope of regulated activity in relation to children when unsupervised, will not constitute regulated activity when it is subject to day-to-day supervision. An example was given to me-I think by my noble friend Lady Walmsley-of a technician in a school. He certainly would be covered. The amendments take us back to the wider scope of regulated activity as it existed under the previous Administration.
Baroness Walmsley: In a letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, of 1 February, the noble Lord suggested that an IT technician would not be regulated.
Lord Henley: The noble Baroness has caught me out and has got the letter that I wrote. I shall have to look again at the letter I sent to my noble friend and check that. I take back what I said but my understanding is that that is not the case. However, obviously I have got that wrong.
Baroness Butler-Sloss: Would the technician be covered?
Lord Henley: My Lords, if my letter-written with the great authority of myself-said that he would not, obviously he would not. However, my understanding-I have obviously got it wrong and I will have to look very carefully at that letter-is that he would be covered in a school. Perhaps I may look at the letter and then get back to my noble friend.
Baroness Randerson: To clarify the situation, my recollection of the Minister’s letter is that he would be covered in a school but not in a college.
Lord Henley: I am grateful to my noble friend for that correction. My noble friend Lady Stowell has just reminded me that there is a strong distinction between schools and FE colleges. For that reason I think it is very important. Oh, dear, I have to give way to the noble Lord, Lord Harris. Can he wait and let me finish my remarks? Calm down, as they say. I shall look very carefully at what I said. Obviously there is an important distinction between the two. I now give way to the noble Lord.
Lord Harris of Haringey: All I would ask is that when the noble Lord is looking very carefully to clarify that distinction he also looks at the situation of the large numbers of volunteer assistants in schools and volunteers used for out-of-school activities linked to the school-for example, to interest children in science, since we have been talking about technicians, but it could also be in art or other activities-to see whether they would be covered.
Lord Henley: Of course I will look at those matters and respond to my noble friends Lady Randerson and Lady Walmsley. I will even send a copy of that letter to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in due course.
Let us return to the amendments because that is the important thing to do. I suspect this might now have to be the last amendment that we can deal with. In putting forward the amendment, the noble Lord has questioned whether we are confident that any supervision would be adequate to protect these children. In making the case for these amendments, reference has been made to the concept of secondary access. Some commentators imply a unique causal link between initial contact with the child and later contact elsewhere if the first is the place where most work is regulated activity. We do not accept that premise. Initial contact may happen where regulated activity takes place or it may happen in some other setting, such as a leisure centre, library, church or wherever. In our view, one type of setting does not offer significantly more help than any other for seeking contact with the same child later and elsewhere. Whatever the setting, we believe that parents have the primary responsibility for educating their child in how to react to an approach from any adult if it goes beyond that adult’s normal role. I give way to the noble Baroness.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: Is the Minister seriously suggesting that, if there was a CRB check showing that an individual was dangerous to children, it would not be noted because this was supervised contact? That person could then contact a child through all the known mechanisms, which parents are totally unable to deal with, and abuse that child. Do the Government believe that it is acceptable that that should happen?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I accept the noble Baroness’s great experience in these matters. She is pointing to an occasion where a CRB check has been taken out on an individual and it becomes clear that they are not suitable to be employed in the school or wherever. In that case they are not going to be. So I do not quite see the point that she is making. Do I give way to the noble Baroness again? We must get this right.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: I was saying that the Government do not take responsibility for secondary contact. The problem is that we are not necessarily talking about a school; we are talking about youth facilities where trust is built up between a young person and a child and where supervision may take place but not the kind of supervision that can have oversight at every moment. A CRB check might well show that one of the volunteers in that setting is dangerous. At the moment those CRB checks would be taken up. But the person concerned might make contact outside the primary setting. That at the moment is covered and children and young people are safe. Under the new situation it seems to me that they will not be safe.
Lord Henley: I do not accept that. Let me see if I can get this right. I think what the noble Baroness is trying to imply is that any number of checks will provide the safeguard. I do not think that safeguard would be provided by a CRB check in the particular case that she outlines because we have now moved on to some secondary setting. Does the noble Baroness follow me?
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: To clarify the point, if a CRB check has not been taken out because this is a supervised setting and the volunteers are supposed to be supervised, and the person is actually an abuser who could have been identified by a CRB check, under the new provisions will that person no longer be checked and therefore be able to build up a position of trust with a child which, in a secondary setting, they could abuse?
Lord Henley: Will the noble Baroness accept that there is also a role for the parents in terms of the guidance that they offer their children in that role as well? That was the point that I was trying to get over. I shall give way again.
The Archbishop of York: I go back to the Soham murders. Huntley happened to be a caretaker and these girls trusted him because he was the caretaker and they had seen him in school. On that day, there was no supervision. What happened to those girls? I would rather be on the side of stricter rules and in time try to water them down a bit than assume that, because someone is in a supervised role, they cannot do something worse when they are in an unsupervised role. The word “supervision” is very loose. Unless it is tightened up, people like me will still be left worrying about what happened to those girls. The caretaker was not in a supervised role at that particular point and that is when he did it.
Lord Henley: My Lords, on the contrary, it would be covered now, and following the changes that we are going to make it would still be covered. He was not covered by what was in place before and that is how he slipped through the net. That is why the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, was asked to set up his review into these matters and why the changes were made. The point that we are trying to make is that the changes have gone too far-this was the point also made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss-in terms of the bureaucracy involved. As the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, put it, one can never totally eliminate risk and there has to be a degree of balance in how one deals with these matters. One must be proportionate. Merely to think that any number of checks imposed by the state is going to eliminate all risk is, I suspect, a wish too far. I give way to the noble Lord.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. He said a few moments ago that there is a responsibility for parents in this. The difficulty is that the normal assumption of parents will be that every person whom their child comes into contact with in a club or other activity is safe. So presumably what the noble Lord is saying is that, in the guidance that will explain what all this means, parents will be provided with a list. It will say, “The following people whom your child comes into contact with have been checked and the others on the list have not been checked. Please advise your children not to have any contact outside this activity”. That is the implication of what the Minister is saying. Of course parents have a responsibility, but what the Government are doing is creating a situation in which parents will think that an environment is safe, but it is not because some individuals will not have been checked and those individuals may build up a relationship of trust with a child that they could choose to abuse at secondary contact.
Lord Henley: The noble Lord may say what he wishes, but he should not try to put words into my mouth, which is what he is trying to do. He is trying to suggest that we could tell all parents exactly who is safe and who is unsafe. Obviously we cannot do that. What we are trying to do is create a system that will provide the necessary safeguards but does not make parents feel that their children are automatically safe. Parents must still have the duty of looking after their children by warning them of potential dangers. They should not assume that merely because someone has been CRB-checked, merely because the process has been gone through and merely because every box has been ticked, which is what the noble Lord seems to suggest, all is safe.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords-
Lord Henley: I am not going to give way to the noble Lord. I am going to get on with my speech. If the noble Lord will allow me to do so, I will continue.
These amendments seek to preserve what we believe is a disproportionate disclosure and barring scheme that covers the employees and volunteers far more than is actually necessary on this occasion for safeguarding purposes. In so doing, it subjects all the businesses, organisations and whatever to unnecessary red tape and discourages volunteering. The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, also made the important point of whether it would still be open to schools, organisations and businesses to continue to check volunteers and others. Of course they can, and we will ensure that they are still able to request the enhanced CRB certificate when necessary. We want to emphasise the importance of good sense and judgment by the managers on the ground when they look at this issue. That is at the heart of our proposal and it is why we think we have got the balance right. The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, is now looking somewhat quizzical but no doubt we can have further discussion about this between now and another stage.
The right thing is to get the correct balance in how one looks at these things. The noble Lord asked about schools and what they could do. This gives local managers the ability to determine these things flexibly and make extra checks. With the various interruptions I have had, I appreciate the slight muddle I got into earlier over the letter to my noble friend Lady Walmsley. There has been a degree of confusion here.
Baroness Walmsley: Will my noble friend give way?
Lord Henley: Can I just continue these matters? I hope that I have answered most of the points that the noble Lord put forward and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Baroness Walmsley: I am grateful to my noble friend. Could he just clarify one point? The volunteers we are talking about here are the volunteers who see children on a regular basis. That is correct, is it not?
Lord Henley: Correct.
Baroness Walmsley: I have one second point before my noble friend rises to answer. I accept that people who are not regulated can still be CRB-checked but the employer cannot get barring information. Unless the person has committed a crime and got on the police records in that way, the employer who voluntarily carries out a CRB check still does not know if that person has been barred. I understand that Sir Roger Singleton claims that 20 per cent of the people on the barred list have never been in contact with the police. Could my noble friend clarify that?
Lord Henley: May I write to my noble friend on that final point to make sure that I get it right? I will make sure that I look at my letter with the greatest care before sending it off to make sure that I have got it right. No doubt we will come back to this at a later stage. Meanwhile, I hope that I have satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, and that he is able to withdraw his amendment.
Baroness Butler-Sloss: Could I just put one question to the Minister? I preface it with the fact that I congratulated the Government-and still do-on the laudable effort to cut through a great deal of this red tape. I said that I share the concern right round the House about secondary access. I urge the Minister to go away and look at what we have said. It may be that some areas of secondary access could be differentiated from others-I do not know. He said that he might talk about it later. I urge him to do so.
Lord Henley: My Lords, if the noble and learned Baroness asks me to do that, then of course I will. It is obviously very important to get these things right-I want to get them right. Again, it is always a question of getting the balance right. That is what we are trying to do this evening. As I said, I suspect that the noble Lord may want to come back to this at a later stage. We will see. In the mean time, I hope that he is prepared to withdraw his amendment.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, at the risk of straining my noble friend’s patience-he has been very patient-he offered to come back on points that have arisen today. It is obvious that we are going to continue this subject with the next group of amendments, which we will come to next week. It would be extremely helpful if the noble Lord responded, as he has offered to do, not just before Third Reading but before we return to this next week. He may not wish to give an undertaking to that effect but I leave him with that thought. As the debate has gone on, I have made more and more notes on his Amendment 50A, which will be the first amendment next Wednesday.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I do not know whether it will be next Wednesday when we come back to this. I remind the House again that we are on Report not in Committee, and I think I have been interrupted and intervened upon more than one would expect. I will try to write to my noble friend before the next day on Report on this Bill. Whether it will be next week, I do not know.”
I hope we will be able to return to the issue at Third Reading, although for procedural reasons it is not clear whether this will be possible.