HC Deb 30 April 1999 vol 330 cc602-30

'.—The Secretary of State shall, within eighteen months of the date on which sections 1 to 4 of this Act are brought into force (or, if those sections are brought into force on different dates, the latest of those dates), lay before Parliament a written report stating, in relation to the first twelve months after those sections entered into force—

  1. (a) the number of people placed on the list kept under section 1, otherwise than provisionally;
  2. (b) the number of people provisionally placed in the list kept under section 1;
  3. (c) the number of people on the list who have initiated appeal procedures;
  4. (d) the average length of time taken to confirm the inclusion of individuals on the list kept under section 1; and
  5. (e) the average length of time elapsing between the commencement of appeal proceedings and determination by the Tribunal of the appeal in question.'.—[Mr. Hammond.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.35 am
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It was clear from the beginning, on Second Reading, that there was broad consensus throughout the House in support of the principles of the Bill, but that there were considerable concerns about its implications for the rights of individuals, about the way in which it gave powers to the Executive branch rather than the judicial branch, so that decisions would be taken by the Executive rather than the judiciary, and about the availability of access to a proper appeal mechanism within the scope of the Bill.

The Standing Committee was one of the most constructive and effective on which I have had the pleasure to serve. Sadly, Standing Committees do not always perform their intended function of considering a Bill in detail with the clear intention of improving the way that it works and reaching consensus on aspects where there is controversy or disagreement, but in this case Members on both sides of the Committee—and the Government—engaged in an effective debate to try to improve the Bill, not only to fulfil its principal purpose of protecting children, but to protect the rights of those whose name may be placed on the list to be kept by the Secretary of State.

The Bill was considerably strengthened in Committee by the inclusion of additional safeguards, by the assurances given by the Minister from the Dispatch Box, and by the deletion of certain words and phrases that had caused concern in certain parts of the House that the Bill's scope might be too wide.

The amended version of the Bill is undoubtedly an improvement on the original version. Some amendments, although not made, were debated in Committee, and in some cases the issues were argued out to the satisfaction of all concerned. In other cases, the Minister gave the Committee assurances that went some way—if not all the way—to satisfy Members' concerns.

My perception is that, when the Committee finished its consideration of the Bill, its members felt that, on balance, the Bill, while certainly not perfect, made a worthwhile contribution to the very important cause of ensuring the protection of vulnerable children, although they acknowledged that it could not be a comprehensive measure in that respect. It is only part of the solution to a very wide and, sadly, intransigent problem, but an important part none the less.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The use of the phrase "not perfect" troubles me. I wonder whether a Bill that operates in that most important and sensitive area, the civil liberties of individuals, is safe to proceed if it is, in that sense, less than perfect. I hope that my hon. Friend will be sensitive about that during these proceedings, and will at least by the end of the day be able to tell me and the rest of the House that he is satisfied that the Bill is sufficiently perfect to be acceptable and to proceed with its passage through Parliament.

Mr. Hammond

"Perfect" is a term that I use sparingly, particularly with regard to legislation. I am not sure that perfect legislation exists. I think that we should be testing the robustness of the proposed legislation, in terms of its ability to deliver on its principal purpose and its ability to protect the interests of those individuals who find themselves, for one reason or another, placed on the list that the Secretary of State will keep. However, my right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that the Bill touches on the issue of fundamental human rights. It is incumbent on us to satisfy ourselves, by the end of our consideration of the Bill, that fundamental human rights have been protected. I hope that a combination of amendments to the Bill, measures that are to be set out in the Bill and assurances that perhaps, in some instances, the Minister can give us from the Government Dispatch Box, will create a climate in which hon. Members on both sides of the House feel that it is safe to proceed with the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

On the character of the Bill as it has emerged from Committee, does my hon. Friend agree that we are hoping to move to legislation that is, if not perfect, fit for its purpose? Does he further agree that we should not entertain the notion that the Bill deals in every sense with the problem of securing children against abuse, even from those who are in a position of trust and responsibility, and that alongside it every other possible measure should be considered, such as the safe and alert practice in volunteering, which I know has been piloted in a number of places? That approach, which goes beyond the protections in the Bill, gives additional security to children where people other than their parents are responsible for them.

Mr. Hammond

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we recognise—I think all members of the Committee did—that, although the Bill can make an important contribution to the protection of children, it is certainly not possible for it to provide total protection. It would be dangerous if anyone were to believe that it did.

We discussed in Committee the dangers that might arise through a false sense of security developing as a result of the Bill. It is essential that those who are employing people in positions of trust in relation to children are aware that the Bill is not a complete solution to the issue and that they must remain vigilant and carry out the normal checks that one would expect of a respectable employer in such a sensitive area.

Before my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) intervened on me, I had said that the members of the Committee felt at the end of the Bill's consideration in Committee that it made a worthwhile contribution to the protection of children. I believe that they felt also that, although there were still some questions that needed further consideration, the Bill provided broadly adequate safeguards, for individuals placed on the list to be kept by the Secretary of State.

Those might seem to be slightly guarded words. I think that it is to that area that we shall be addressing ourselves primarily today—in other words, to the quality of the safeguards that the Bill includes. The new clause addresses those safeguards.

9.45 am

I readily acknowledge that, together with amendments agreed to in Committee, assurances were given by the Minister—including what I took to be an assurance about financial support for appeals by individuals against inclusion in the list. However, the Minister was unable to agree to an amendment that would have included within the legal aid regime provisions entitling individuals to legal aid for appeals to the tribunal that was to be established under the Bill. Nevertheless, the Minister gave an assurance that the current review of the legal aid system would include a review of the appropriate method for supporting appeals arising under the Bill. The Minister drew the Committee's attention to the variety of other sources of financial support that might be available to individuals who found themselves included on the list to be kept by the Secretary of State, and who believed that they had proper grounds for appeal against that inclusion.

I took the Minister's comments in Committee to be an assurance that individuals who have been included on the list will not find themselves unable to access the tribunal for want of financial resources. I think that everyone in the House would agree that where an individual is included in the list in a way that disables him, in a real sense, in his everyday life, including his ability to obtain employment, he must have access to a judicial or quasi-judicial tribunal, especially when the original inclusion on the list has been the result of an Executive decision. An individual's lack of financial resources should not be allowed to deprive him of the right of access to the tribunal.

I have already run into trouble once this week in misinterpreting the precise requirements of the European convention on human rights. However, I imagine that the terms of article 6 requires that access to the tribunal should be realistically available to an individual, and not merely available in theory. Of course, for it to be realistically available it must be affordable. I took what the Minister said in Committee to be an important assurance on that issue. The amendments accepted by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) and endorsed by the Minister, together with the Minister's assurances, answered many of the concerns that I and other hon. Members raised in Committee.

However, there are some outstanding issues, which will be touched on today. The hon. Lady's amendments address one area of concern, which is the possibility of people slipping through the net because of the long time that frequently elapses between people leaving a position of employment, abuse having taken place, and the facts of that abuse coming to light.

I ask the hon. Lady to accept that, although we approach the Bill as brought from Committee in a constructive and positive spirit, there are some residual concerns, and we must take the opportunity this morning to deal with them. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has said, it is incumbent on us, in dealing with a Bill that touches on areas of fundamental human rights, to ensure that the safeguards that have been built into it are robust and will be workable and effective once the Bill is on the statute book.

My new clause deals with my concern that, although we undertake great and detailed scrutiny of legislation, we tend to forget it once it is on the statute book. It is incumbent on us to be vigilant, not only on behalf of children—whom the Bill seeks to protect—but on behalf of those who may be wrongly or unjustly included on the list that will be kept.

This modest new clause provides for Members of the House who are concerned to be able to review the workings of the measure, after it has been in force for a year or so, by considering figures relating to areas of concern that have been raised during proceedings on the Bill. It simply requires the Secretary of State to provide certain basic information to enable us to assess the workings of the Bill. I have not even asked for annual reports, but have asked simply for a one-off. That will enable us to assess how the measure has worked and to sound the alarm bells if any of the reassurances that were given in Committee—and will, perhaps, be given again today by the Minister—prove in any way to be unfounded.

The new clause requires the Secretary of State to report on the number of people placed on the list that is to be kept under clause 1. It is important for us to know the extent of the list. Various members of the Standing Committee have their own ideas about how many people are likely to find themselves included, but we do not know whether the requirements on employers who dismiss or otherwise deal with an employee who is believed to have been involved in inappropriate conduct, or in misconduct relevant in the context of the Bill, will unleash a deluge of referrals to the Secretary of State. We do not know whether there is, below the water, a part of the iceberg that we cannot see. Implicit in the Bill's introduction is the belief that there is a submerged problem, so there is a question mark over the number of referrals that are likely to be made.

There will be two classes of person on the list. First, people will be included provisionally, from the time of the referral to the Secretary of State, when there is a prima facie case for inclusion, and while the Secretary of State makes the proper inquiries and gives the individual the proper opportunity to respond to his inclusion. Secondly, people will be included permanently and finally following a determination by the Secretary of State or—in exceptional circumstances—by the tribunal that will be established under the Bill. The new clause requires the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on both categories.

The new clause also requires the Secretary of State to report on the number of people who have initiated appeal proceedings. That information will be vital to those who are assessing how the Bill is working. Even more importantly, the new clause requires the Secretary of State to report the average time he takes to confirm an individual's inclusion on the list.

Mr. Lansley

Can my hon. Friend help me? I have read the new clause, but I am not sure by what means we would find out the extent to which referrals to the list were being made, but were not proceeding to inclusion. Would it not be useful for someone reviewing the Bill's implementation to know not about the individual cases, but about the aggregate figure—the extent to which bodies make what turn out to be spurious referrals?

Mr. Hammond

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. He spoke of spurious referrals, but referrals that are not included on the list, even provisionally, will not all be spurious. The Minister made it clear in Committee that the Government intend to issue guidance to organisations that are required to make referrals to the Secretary of State under clause 1. There will be a learning curve, and it is perfectly likely that organisations will err on the side of caution in the early days of the Bill's operation. They may interpret the Secretary of State's guidelines cautiously and refer someone if they think that there is any chance that he will fall within those guidelines. The Secretary of State will review the referrals and decide whether there is a prima facie case for including people on the list.

I suspect that there will be a process whereby organisations will see which cases the Secretary of State includes on the list and which he does not. They will begin to establish in their own minds a clear idea of when it is appropriate to make a referral, and in what circumstances a referral would be proper and would be likely to lead to the Secretary of State including someone on the list.

Mr. Lansley

We have happened on an interesting point. My hon. Friend was quite right to correct me; referrals would not necessarily be spurious, but they may be unjustified—that is perhaps a more neutral phrase. It will be important to be aware of the balance between referrals that prove to be unjustified and those that lead to inclusion on the list. If a high number of referrals are not included, there will be a problem. The sanctions relating to provisional inclusion are rightly tough and there would be difficulties if a large number of individuals were provisionally included, only for their inclusion subsequently to be found to be unjustified.

Mr. Hammond

I take my hon. Friend's point, but, if my understanding of the Bill is correct, the Secretary of State will not automatically place a name on the list when he receives a referral, but will do so if it appears that it may be appropriate for the individual to be included in the list". There will be a learning curve in the early stages and organisations will learn what are the Secretary of State's criteria. The Secretary of State will issue guidance to assist organisations, but practice will lead them to a clear working understanding of when it is appropriate to refer and when it is not.

10 am

I confess that my hon. Friend has made an interesting point. I did not include it in my new clause, and I note that he has not included it in an amendment or a new clause of his own. I have learned, in my brief time in the House, that the best riposte to anyone who tells one that one's amendment or new clause is inadequate is to challenge them as to why they have not tabled their own. It usually has the desired effect.

One of the key areas that we addressed in Committee, and a legitimate area of concern, was that an individual who finds himself provisionally included on the list should not be left there to rot for a long period without access to some form of judicial review or appeal tribunal. That part of the Bill was substantially improved in Committee, and the Bill before us today provides that an individual who has been on the list provisionally for nine months may apply to the tribunal to determine whether he should be included on the list.

Although we could debate whether nine months is the appropriate period, everybody agrees that it is an absolutely essential safeguard to incorporate in the Bill if individuals provisionally on the list are to have the right to appeal to the tribunal in the event of the Secretary of State's taking an unduly long time to determine their case.

One reason why I have sought to obtain information about the average time taken to confirm the inclusion of individuals on the list is that, although the time limit for allowing an individual so included to appeal to the tribunal has been set at nine months, it was clear from what the Minister told the Committee that it was envisaged that, in the vast majority of cases, the Secretary of State could make his determination much more quickly than that. The Minister said that the nine-month limit was a backstop, which left the Department feeling comfortable that it could deal with run-of-the-mill cases well within that time scale.

Considerable disabilities are attached to being included on the list, even provisionally, and we shall want to be sure that the Department is dealing with cases in a timely fashion and that the nine-month limit for appeal to a tribunal does not become a buffer against which the Department runs the routine cases. I expect that many cases will be dealt with very quickly —within weeks. Given that the majority of cases will be fairly straightforward, I expect that the average time, which is what the Secretary of State is asked to report on under paragraph (d) of new clause 2, will be short—perhaps three months. It would be interesting to hear the Department's view on the likely time scale for dealing with "normal" cases that come before the Secretary of State for determination under this legislation.


Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Before my hon. Friend concludes his remarks, there is one aspect on which he has not touched and about which I am unclear. He will be aware that in clause 9, which sets up the tribunal, the Secretary of State has been given the power to make regulations. Some 20 different regulating powers are prescribed there. One of the key facets of the workings of the Bill will be how the tribunals work, the general trend of cases, the excuses that some people make, and whether lawyers are employed. I am not sure whether there is a general instruction under the Council on Tribunals for there to be an annual report from the tribunal itself so that we can see what is happening at tribunals. The new clause does not address that point. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that parliamentarians will be able to get a report on the trends at tribunals and the justifications for their actions?

Mr. Hammond

I should be more careful when I use the word "finally". I do not wish to alarm my right hon. Friend—but I meant "finally" not in the sense that I was about to sit down, but in the sense that I was merely about to turn to paragraph (e), which is the last of the paragraphs. He need therefore have no immediate fear on that ground.

The point that my right hon. Friend raises is interesting. I do not purport to be an expert on the general body of law regarding tribunals, but I noticed that the Minister was nodding his head vigorously during my right hon. Friend's remarks, so he might be able to offer him some reassurance later in the debate.

Ultimately—as I shall put it—paragraph (e) requires the Secretary of State to report also on the average length of time elapsing between the commencement of appeal proceedings by an individual on the list. That would include both individuals provisionally included on the list, who were appealing to the tribunal for a determination of whether they should be on the list at all, and individuals included on the list other than provisionally as a result of a determination by the Secretary of State, who were appealing against that determination.

That matter will concern all those who are anxious to protect individuals and avoid yet further erosion of their human rights. It will be a matter of great concern to ensure that appeals under this legislation are dealt with in a timely fashion. The starting point—admittedly, not a solution to the problem—will be to have the information available so that we may assess, first, whether there is a problem and, secondly, the extent of that problem.

The question of time limits was of particular concern in Committee. Despite pressure from some Committee members, the Minister was reluctant to accept tighter limits on the Department than those that have subsequently been incorporated in the Bill. The single most important response that I should like to hear from the Minister today is that the time limits in the Bill will not come to be considered as the norm, but will always be considered as a backstop so that we can dispatch the vast majority of cases much more quickly.

It is vital that we review this measure after it has come into effect to confirm that the assurances that we received in Committee, and any that we receive from the Minister today, are valid and that the concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House are unfounded. That is the principal purpose of new clause 2, but it also serves a secondary purpose. I am conscious of the fact that it might be possible to obtain the information sought in new clause 2 by other means.

Including a requirement to lay this information before Parliament in the Bill also sends a clear signal that we are not complacent about the human rights of people who are placed on the list, and that we will be as vigilant on their behalf as we will be on behalf of the children whom this measure is designed to protect. Throughout the proceedings on the Bill, both sides of the House have recognised that, if this measure is to be durable and robust, it is essential that we get the balance right between the desire to protect children and the need to protect the rights of individuals who are caught up in the administrative system and put on the list created by the Bill.

I hope that the hon. Member for Stourbridge and the Minister will accept this modest proposal to impose a limited element of post-legislative scrutiny of this measure. If the Minister is not minded to accept new clause 2, I hope that he will at least accept the principle that lies behind it, and give the House concrete assurances on the provision, through some other means, of the information that I seek to have available after the Bill has come into effect.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

I thank the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) for his comments, which I echo. The Committee stage of the Bill was my first experience of a Committee, and as the Member in charge I found it a steep learning curve. I was extremely lucky that the Committee was constructive. All hon. Members recognised the importance of the topic—the protection of children—and the importance of balancing that with the rights of the individual. When the Bill came out of Committee it had been strengthened: it was a better Bill than when it went in. That shows Parliament at its best, working on a serious topic. Constructive, useful and effective are the words I would use to describe the Committee, and I thank all members of the Committee for their sincere and long efforts—the Committee went into five sittings.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said that the Bill was not perfect. I immediately thought, "No, it isn't perfect because it doesn't stop abuse of children and all the avenues that abusers can use." That saddens me enormously. A huge number of people have written to me sad and sickening letters. The Bill may go only some way towards closing down avenues of abuse, but it is an important "some way".

I am in some difficulty over the new clause, because I am more than sympathetic. I welcome the fact that it reflects the depth of interest there has already been in my Bill, and which I am sure will continue to be shown once the legislation becomes operational. A wide range of organisations will be keen to see how the Bill is working, and it would be right to respond to that interest. However, the wording of the new clause leaves a little to be desired. That is perhaps because it is a probing amendment to establish the fact that there will be a great interest in the Bill, and that the Secretary of State should be expected to respond to it appropriately.

Taking the new clause at face value, I believe that it is rather limited. It envisages only one report from the Secretary of State, which is wholly confined to the operation of the Department of Health's list. If interest in the Bill extends to an interest in the operation of some of the main provisions, the Secretary of State should provide a wide range of information.

Mr. Hammond

I do not know what discussions the hon. Lady has had with the Minister on this subject, but, in framing my new clause very tightly and very modestly, I was hoping that it would sneak in under the wire of bureaucratic rejection of reporting whenever possible.

10.15 am
Ms Shipley

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's comments. As he is aware, I have all along wanted more and more for the Bill while always being aware that, as a Back Bencher, I can have only less and less. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my comments as supportive of the principle of the new clause.

Such statutory requirements as are in the new clause are rarely desirable or necessary in principle. What may be seen at the outset as the most important features of the Bill to be monitored—even before the ink is dry—may turn out to be much less important than other unforeseen ones or newly felt concerns. If there were a statutory requirement, which it would take a new statute to change, the Government would be committed to churning out data that no one wanted, whereas the data that people did want would not be so readily available.

Mr. Maclean

The hon. Lady has moved on to another point, but I want to ask her about remarks she made earlier. The Bill covers the Department of Health's list, the Department for Education and Employment's list and the tribunals operating under the Lord Chancellor's direction. I do not want the hon. Lady to make any commitment, but given that the Government believe in joined-up government—to use their own terminology—does she agree with me that, if we were to have a report to Parliament, it should be a more comprehensive overview?

Ms Shipley

The more information is readily available to Parliament, the public and interested organisations, the better. I would urge the Secretary of State to be open and forthcoming with information, so as to facilitate monitoring and assessment. As for an overarching umbrella, I think that it is appropriate to have both types of information available—joined-up, interdepartmental information and specific information, where appropriate.

I wondered whether I could suggest a way forward that would satisfy the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. I could undertake to convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State my support for the spirit of the thinking behind the new clause. I must have made it clear by now that I support the spirit of the new clause. I invite the hon. Gentleman to accept that active consideration—perhaps Whitehall-wide and over a longer time scale than that envisaged in the new clause—should be given to what information could be collected and published about the operation of the legislation.

I grant that, in the larger scheme of things, the legislation will be a part of a series of interlocking measures. That seems to me to be the best way to proceed. As we have had little time since the new clause was tabled to think this matter through, I am unable to comment further, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will say a little more. I hope that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will find that acceptable.

Mr. Forth

One appreciates the response of the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) to the new clause proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), but we shall have to hear quite a bit more before I can regard that as a satisfactory response to the issue covered in the new clause. We are seeking a mechanism whereby we can be reassured that the measures that will be taken as a result of the Bill will be transparent and accountable, and we can have guarantees that the whole process will be proper and open.

I shall paraphrase what the hon. Lady has just said as, "Trust me or trust the Minister; it'll all be okay." I am afraid that those of us who have spent a little time in the foothills of government find that less than reassuring. I am not criticising government or Whitehall, for which I have the greatest admiration, but, as the hon. Lady has conceded, we are discussing an area of the law that carries with it enormous sensitivities and considerable risks. My hon. Friend made that point powerfully and effectively. I do not think anyone has denied that. We are faced with the difficult task of balancing the risks.

Of course we all want to take every proper and effective measure to protect children. There has never been any dispute about that; nor will there be during the Bill's passage through the House of Commons. From the outset, however—on Second Reading, and throughout the Committee stage—worries have rightly been expressed about the striking of a balance between the necessary protection of children and the need to ensure that our encroachments on the rights and liberties of individuals are kept in check.

The new clause seeks to provide reassurance in the form of a visible, reliable mechanism to ensure that what is done is proportionate and acceptable. I must confess that I have had to take issue with my hon. Friend's approach, and may not feel able to support the new clause, for reasons touched on by both the hon. Member for Stourbridge and my hon. Friend himself.

The new clause makes provision only for a one-off report. That strikes me as odd, given that we are dealing with a new situation, and especially given the sensitivities involved. We want to ensure that there is a proper reporting mechanism, but I do not think that once is enough. Surely, as the hon. Lady implied, it is not unreasonable to expect an annual report if we are to gain the reassurance that we all seek.

Mr. Hammond

I understand what my right hon. Friend is saying, but perhaps we have different aims. My right hon. Friend wants a mechanism providing for on-going monitoring, while I am more concerned with establishing whether my expectations about the number of people who might be caught by the provision, and the length of time for which they might wait for a determination, are broadly correct. I consider that it will be enough to examine what has happened during the first year of the Bill's operation; my right hon. Friend is suggesting a different type of on-going scrutiny, which would serve a different purpose.

Mr. Forth

I half accept what my hon. Friend has said, and I understand why he has said it; but can we assume that the early information provided for by the new clause would be representative? We shall need to see what pattern emerges in the early stages of the Bill's operation—and by "early stages" I mean not the first year or 18 months, but a longer period. I cannot accept my hon. Friend's explanation, even on the basis on which he has offered it.

I shall return shortly to the question of what response would be expected to the information provided for in the new clause. First, however, let me draw attention to a lacuna that—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) hinted in his intervention—has already been spotted. I share the blame, if blame is to be apportioned, for not spotting it earlier and seeking to correct it. I see no requirement in the Bill for the tribunal to report on what it is doing. Perhaps the Minister will be able to reassure us; my memory of the overall provision for tribunals has faded somewhat, and, uncharacteristically, even my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border could not put his finger on it. However, my right hon. Friend and I both fear that, unless there is to be an overall provision in the guidance for tribunals compelling them to issue regular public reports on what they have been doing, something is missing from both the Bill and, regrettably, the new clause.

We all want—at least, I hope that we all want—to be certain that, whatever happens in the early stages of the Bill's implementation, we know everything about it. We want to know that there will be a mechanism providing for early review, and for any necessary correction to be made.

That leads us to an interesting question. How will we judge success, in terms of the operation of both the Bill and the tribunal? Will it mean a large number of cases, or a very small number? As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, the new clause would provide the beginnings of a means of measuring success, in that it requires the number of people placed on the list, provisionally placed on the list and so on to be enumerated; but do we want or expect to see a large or a small number of people on the list? That is germane to the effectiveness of both the Bill and the tribunal.

Mr. Hammond

One of our most important tasks will be to compare the number of people on the list to be kept under the Bill with the number of those on the non-statutory list currently maintained by the Department of Health.

Mr. Forth

That is a legitimate approach, but it is only one approach. What bothers me is this: do we want to encourage putting a large number of people through this process, or to discourage it? If we want to encourage it, anxieties about the implications for civil liberties must increase in proportion. I concede that the new clause provides at least the basis for a judgment to be made.

Mr. Hammond

That point will be addressed primarily by the guidance that the Government will issue. As is often the case, it is difficult for us to judge the effect of the legislation from what is in the Bill; the guts of that legislation will be contained in guidance, regulations or secondary legislation.

Mr. Forth

That is an important point, of which those of us who have been responsible for the passage of legislation are all too aware. The difficulty lies in the making of a proper, rounded judgment on both what is in the Bill and what we are told, or anticipate, will underpin it. That brings us back to the "Trust me" approach. We are being told, "This is the overall thrust of the Bill; the details will emerge in due course, in the form of regulations or guidance." As we do not know those details, we are required to exercise an element of trust. We must accept that, however uncomfortable it may make us feel—especially when we are dealing with issues as this.

Even more important than the criterion on which success is to be measured is the unasked question that lurks behind all this: what do we expect to be the response to the information provided for by the new clause? Whether we have the one-off report proposed by my hon. Friend or the regular reports that I would prefer, we are left with an intriguing question, which I hope will be answered either by the hon. Member for Stourbridge or by the Minister: what should our response be to the information? What if the number of names on the list or provisionally on the list, the number of appeals, the length of time and so on began to alarm us? What if they were too large or too small, or if appeals were taking too long to deal with? That would raise some very awkward issues.

10.30 am

Given that so much will be dealt with in the Bill—which will by then be statute—are we able to rely on a promise that a variation in the details of guidance or regulations will be a sufficient response should information emerge, one way or the other, on the operation of the new clause's provisions? Such questions touch on the necessary balance between an Act's provisions, regulations and guidance.

Funnily enough—although hon. Members often argue, for our own sense of security, for as much as possible to be included in a Bill—in this case, it might be more reassuring if more of the detail were dealt with in regulations or guidance, precisely so that changes might be made in response to information that would be elicited by the new clause. Although I do not often make that type of argument, I think that it is right to do so in this case.

Mr. Maclean

I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend's train of thought, but there is another little problem to feed into the conundrum. If new clause 1 had been selected, my right hon. Friend would undoubtedly have made a passionate plea for legal aid provision to be extended. However, the Government are reviewing legal aid, and—probably after the Bill is passed—people covered by the Bill's provisions may not qualify for legal aid. Although legal aid may not be granted when those people initially appear before the tribunal, they may receive it later. Will there not be a different balance and mix of provision, and will not time limits be lengthened?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman may have assisted the House by interrupting the train of thought of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), as we were getting into matters that go rather wider—indeed, to the philosophical nature of legislation generally—than new clause 2 specifically. It would therefore be helpful if the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst returned to his more narrow brief.

Mr. Forth

I am, as ever, grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and—for the reasons that you gave—shall not be tempted on this occasion to deal with the issue that my right hon. Friend has raised.

I am trying to establish the extent to which the information that would flow from new clause 2 should be expected to give rise to consequent action, as that is germane to our consideration of the detailed information that new clause 2 proposes should be provided. It would be helpful if we could have some guidance on the matter from either the hon. Member for Stourbridge or the Minister.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, however, has prompted me to ask—I think that, at this stage, it is a legitimate question to ask—whether the Bill's definitions are sufficiently settled for to us rely on the information that would emerge if the new clause were passed.

As we speak, an interdepartmental working group is beavering away on matters that are very closely related to the matters dealt with in the Bill. It would help us if the Minister—on this occasion, the Minister rather than the hon. Member for Stourbridge—told us just what stage the group has reached in it work, and how that work might relate to the information that would emerge from the provisions of the new clause, thereby helping to inform the House of the relevance of the new clause and the information that it would provide.

If we were able to have all that information, hon. Members might conclude that new clause 2 was defective. I am now convincing myself that it is, and that I shall not be able to support it today. However, in the other place—in the light of what has been said today, the guidance that my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has given and the comments of the hon. Member for Stourbridge—the proposals in the new clause may be reconsidered, and it may be thought that they are the appropriate means of addressing the issues.

As so often happens at this stage in the consideration of a Bill, we are debating a very important idea that has not been dealt with fully in an amendment. That is my conclusion on the new clause.

I believe that the new clause is on to something very important. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has raised an important issue, but I am not—for the reasons that I have given—entirely happy with the way in which it would operate. However, I hope that, when the Minister answers some of the questions that have been asked, we will find a way of implementing the principle behind the new clause, and thus improve the Bill.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

I shall be brief, not only because I am losing my voice, but because I should like to ensure that the Bill makes progress today. I shall therefore not feel it necessary to speak to every amendment that is moved.

I share the widespread view that the Bill was improved greatly in Committee, where the core of our debate was a wish to ensure that the legislation generally provides greater protection to children, but not at the expense of denying basic rights, especially employment rights, to innocent people—I repeat, innocent people, as that is what matters. We all want to remove, so far as possible, any risk of abuse of children.

As other hon. Members have said, we had very constructive debates in Committee. I particularly welcome acceptance of the need to include in the Bill a time limit between an individual's initial inclusion on the list and the exercise of his or her right to be heard at an appeal. In the time such people are on the list, they are unable to find any work in the profession of their choice. Moreover, the longer they are on the list, the less likely it is that they will be able to find other work in child care, even if they are ultimately found to be completely innocent of any charges. People tend to believe that "there's no smoke without fire" and to ask, "What were you doing for that year or more?" I therefore very much welcome the decision to include such a limit in the Bill.

I welcome also the Minister's hope that the determination of appeals will be dealt with well within the nine-month limit, and that the limit will not be thought of only as a target—as, despite the best of intentions, so often happens when a limit is provided in legislation.

New clause 2 helpfully raises some important issues. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) thinks that it is helpful, although I understand her problems in having to temper her desires with the ministerial reality of the Government's views on the matter. However, new clause 2 would enable Parliament to monitor the Bill's progress, after it becomes an Act, by providing information on the number of people included in the list, how provisional listing worked in practice and the efficiency and effectiveness of the tribunal process.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge seemed to take the view that the new clause was too prescriptive, and that it would perhaps limit opportunities for Parliament to scrutinise progress on the Act's implementation. I do not think of it in those terms. A statutory provision requiring Ministers to report in 18 months' time does not mean that, in 18 months or more, a Minister cannot lay before Parliament a report providing more relevant information. I should hope that "open government" entails the Government's wish to provide the most comprehensive progress reports on legislation that they can provide, and that Ministers will not feel constrained in reporting by what the House thought was most important at a specific time.

I therefore hope that at least the spirit of new clause 2 will find its way into future deliberations on the Bill in the other place, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

Mr. Maclean

I give new clause 2 my provisional support, although I am concerned that it may not go far enough to deal with some of the issues that we have touched on this morning.

First, I should like to comment briefly on the Bill as it has emerged from Committee. We often say, particularly on Fridays, that the Bill under consideration has been wonderfully improved in Committee. Over the past 15 years, I can certainly recall occasions when the use of that terminology has been slightly optimistic. Of course, no hon. Members have told untruths about the extent to which a Bill has been improved, but they may have exaggerated the importance of the one or two technical amendments that have been made.

Today's Bill is in a different category altogether, as is clear from the five sittings of the Standing Committee. On Fridays, we are often asked to make amendments and consider new clauses on a Bill that was bounced through Committee in half an hour and, we are told, wonderfully improved. However, in this case I congratulate the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) and the hon. Members on the Standing Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond).

I now turn more specifically to the new clause and to the libertarian issues that concern me, including some of the arguments advanced by Liberty. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who, unusually, is not in his place today, for tabling amendments that the hon. Member for Stourbridge was sensible and gracious enough to accept and have improved the Bill. They dealt with the point relating to incompetence, which was one of the main concerns expressed on Second Reading.

Nevertheless, it is possible for a good Bill such as this one, which is better than when it was last before the House, to be improved further. I am not sure that it is perfect legislation, but I can see fewer dangers with it than with the so-called perfect Dangerous Dogs Act 1989. No doubt, if we had had a report after 18 months of the operation of the Dangerous Dogs Act, we might have concluded that there was scope to amend it earlier than we did.

I hope that the Minister will not advance the argument that there should not be a reporting requirement, and that his defensive briefing, written by any of the two or three Departments that may have an interest in the Bill or in the new clause, does not include the advice, "For goodness sake, Minister, do not offer an annual review. Imagine the mess that we will be in if the Bill turns out to be as bad as the Dangerous Dogs Act. We will all be very embarrassed."

I am fairly certain that that is not in the Minister's briefing, but, if he has been advised not to accept a reporting requirement because it may be immature and expose some inadequacies in the Bill, that is not a good enough argument. I seek a reporting procedure not to try to discover any inadequacies in the Bill, so that we can catch the Government out and say that they did not protect children as perfectly as they could have, but because we want to see whether general trends emerge in what the abusers are doing and how they are operating the law and spot potential gaps and loopholes.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge and the Government have admitted that the Bill is not the be-all and end-all, but is only one in a comprehensive series of measures designed to tighten up loopholes in earlier legislation and to ratchet up the measures against those who abuse children.

It is delightful to see the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), in his place this morning. His experience will be exactly the same as mine if he has talked to the National Criminal Intelligence Service and any of the police forces in Britain: as soon as measures are introduced to deal with current criminality, even before the legislation has completed all stages, criminals are thinking of ways around it. Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of paedophiles and child abusers.

When we debate legislation to deal with soccer hooliganism, and particularly since the ghastly outrages and bombing incidents in London recently, we tend to describe the perpetrators as dangerous thugs and mindless morons—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I was beginning to detect threads of a Third Reading speech in the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, but I am now beginning to think that they have moved beyond that. May we please return to the new clause?

10.45 am
Mr. Maclean

My sincere apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The report in the new clause may identify trends among paedophiles and child abusers. Hon. Members will know that those who abuse children are not thugs or mindless morons; some of them are very clever and very skilful at covering their tracks.

Mr. Forth

My problem with the new clause is that it would not show trends, as there would be only one report. My right hon. Friend must square up to that. If he supports the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), he must find a way around the problem that a one-off report will not show trends.

Mr. Maclean

My right hon. Friend, with his customary logic, is right. I am sympathetic to the new clause, which would be a step in the right direction. I could not bear to oppose it, but I also agree with the hon. Member for Stourbridge that, in this world of joined-up government, it would be beneficial if the provision did more than place an obligation on the Secretary of State for Health under clauses 1 to 4. If the new clause cannot go further, perhaps the Government can do so non-statutorily and produce a joined-up report, taking into account aspects in the new clause and some of the loopholes that it has missed that I should like to mention.

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said about his new clause and I shall not repeat his arguments. However, it is important that the House should be informed in a coherent and sensible way about the operation of the legislation. Like others, I am not sure that a one-off report in 18 months' time is sufficient. I would have preferred my hon. Friend to amend his new clause to provide for an annual report. I shall discuss later whether it should be statutory; it may not have to be.

If the Minister accepts the spirit of the new clause and other proposals that I shall make on how it can be improved, an annual report from the various Departments concerned—presumably it would have to be produced by the Cabinet Office, as it would involve joined-up government—including chapters from all of them on how they saw the system working, could be produced, providing a more comprehensive overview of those who were placed on the list and what they were up to. We should be able to get an idea of that from the way in which they bring appeals and the arguments that they use.

We know that, as people start appearing before tribunals, there will be work for double the number of lawyers, although I am not criticising the lawyers who will run behind the ambulance of the Bill. I am not criticising the Minister of State, Home Office, who can be forgiven for having been a lawyer in his past life. I am glad to see that he now has decent employment. It is inevitable that some lawyers will specialise in defending those who have been put on the list. A body of argument will develop quickly and there will be a trend of justification and the best legal excuses for justifying what has happened. I hope that most of those excuses will not get past the sensible people who will be appointed to the tribunal under clause 9, but inevitably some people will get off—the House may think wrongly—because a body of law has grown up or certain excuses have come to be accepted that are not covered by the law.

That is not a criticism of the Bill. I do not want an annual report so as to be able to point the finger at the hon. Member for Stourbridge, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge or others in the House and say, "Clause 4 is faulty; you didn't make clause 6 tight enough." In my opinion, the purpose is to examine the measures both in the Bill and in other legislation.

I do not want to have to table a series of questions to the Minister to find out how many people have been placed on the list kept under section 1, including those placed on it provisionally, or how many people initiated appeal procedures, the average time taken to confirm the inclusion of an individual or the time elapsing between the commencement of appeal proceedings and their determination by the tribunal.

I have tabled a few questions this Session; if one tables too many, the immediate criticism by some Departments is that one is wasting £400 per question, simply by asking them. It may be cheaper in the end for the Government to produce a comprehensive report, rather than depending on hon. Members asking questions.

Moreover, if in the absence of the new clause I ask those questions, I will get only a little part of the picture. What concerns me more, and what the new clause does not deal with sufficiently, is clause 9 and the tribunal. The tribunal is connected with clauses 1 to 4, which the new clause is about, and represents an important part of the Bill. There is a schedule to deal with setting it up, although I shall not talk about its detailed operation now, as that might be out of order.

Under clause 9, the Secretary of State has the power to make regulations relating to all aspects of the functioning of the tribunal—who may have leave to appeal, obtaining medical reports on people who appear before it, the rules governing who may appear on behalf of the parties, whether lawyers, Queen's Counsel or friends of individuals may appear, and the awarding of costs or expenses.

The Minister may say, "Don't worry about the fact that the new clause does not have anything about getting an annual report on the generality of cases before the tribunal. You may not know this, but the Council on Tribunals"—or some tribunal Act, of which I am unaware—"insists that all tribunals produce an annual report on their activities." That may be so, and it may be good and sufficient to give hon. Members, if we find the report, an overview of the final results of the Bill.

I am not simply asking for information on how many people the Secretary of State has placed on the list, or how long it has taken the Secretary of State to come to a determination; I am asking for information on the ultimate conclusion of cases, who has appealed and how long it has taken to do so, the verdict at the end, and also for an overview of the arguments that are presented to the tribunal—which ones the tribunal finds persuasive, and which it finds are a load of tosh, used by people who are trying it on. We need to know those outcomes.

We often have to pass legislation not because we have found that a previous Act is wrong or full of technical errors, but because the courts are doing things that we did not expect. The interpretation of legislation by courts and tribunals often catches Governments by surprise. It is fair for me, as a former Home Office Minister, to make that point. The Minister of State, Home Office, who is sitting on the Government Front Bench at the moment, would confirm, in a totally non-political way, that, even with the best legislation that any Government pass, whether it comes from the Home Office or from other Departments, one can suddenly find that the courts have not interpreted it exactly as Ministers or the rest of the House thought they would. In Committee, we heard references to Pepper v. Hart, and those may be valid, but the courts will often conclude that, irrespective of what Members of Parliament have said, the legislation is clear—and clearly different from what we expected.

The new clause is an important step in the right direction, but it would not give us that complete overview. Even if the Lord Chancellor publishes a separate report on what the tribunals do, we also need information about the regulations that the Secretary of State makes under clause 9, and why he has made them.

The Minister may say that it is up to alert Members of Parliament to spot the legislation that the House is voting through. No doubt, over the next few months, regulations will be laid under the Bill and we shall have a chance to spot them on the Order Paper, and therefore we should know what is going on. However, I make a plea to the Minister to think again, because, as we can see from the Bill, the protection of children is a highly complex matter.

I have had to reread the Hansard reports of our proceedings in Committee several times just to grasp what was going on at the time, because the details were very complicated. I pay tribute to all the members of the Committee not just for the important changes that they made to the Bill, but for understanding the arguments that were advanced and the effects that the changes would have on the Bill.

Child care law is complicated, and it is not all in the Bill. The Bill interacts with the Children Act 1989, and also amends the Education Reform Act 1988. My criticism of the new clause is that it fails to deliver enough. If I wanted a proper report to Parliament, I would want a chapter from the Department of Health, giving the information that my hon. Friend has asked for in the new clause; a chapter from the Department for Education and Employment, giving its view on how it has been operating its part of the Bill and identifying any problems and trends that have been detected, the number of teachers who have been struck off, and the number of people who have not been allowed to be employed as teachers; and a little bit from the Home Office.

I do not think that I would be breaching any of the rules of the House if I said that the Minister has ready access to advice from those three Government Departments right now. If he can be given advice on the Bill by them all today—he rightly requires back-up in the Chamber—there is no point in new clause 2 requiring a response from only one Secretary of State. If we publish a report, it should have input from the various Departments that have advised the Minister on the Bill and think that they have a locus and some ownership of it.

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend has raised in my mind a problem that we have not identified hitherto. That thought was sparked off by his reference to the DFEE and what, until now, has been known as List 99, with which, sad to say, I am over-familiar. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a problem in bridging the gap between overall figures, which may or may not tell us much, and individual cases? In this matter, more than in others, it is individual cases that matter. In trying to categorise and group people together for the purpose of analysis or drawing policy conclusions, one can run into considerable difficulties. There is a balance to be struck between looking at the overall figures to draw conclusions and paying attention to each individual tragedy.

Mr. Maclean

My right hon. Friend is right. If we ask parliamentary questions, we may get a pile of statistics that tell us little. If the Minister accepts the new clause and we have a report in 18 months' time, I have no idea how many people will have been placed on the list under clause 1, provisionally or otherwise.

What will the ball park figures be? There may be a dozen, 100, 200 or even 1,000. Some of those numbers would be surprisingly low; 1,000 may be shockingly high—although those who work in the professions may say that that is only the tip of the iceberg and there are a lot more. I have no idea. If 1,000 people are placed on the list, should we be horrified or should we say, "My God, we are only scratching the surface. There must be 10,000 abusers and we have only 1,000 on the list"? I do not know.

When we debated the Football (Offences and Disorder) Bill a couple of weeks ago, the most helpful briefing I received was one from the National Criminal Intelligence Service which had been taken off the internet. It gave the figures, but it also gave the trends. For example, it said that violence was moving from inside grounds to outside.

Similarly, in an annual report on this Bill, I would want to know the figures, but I would also want to know the opinion of Ministers or others with a legitimate view on whether 1,000 people having been placed on the list in new clause 2(a) is a good figure, whether the trend is downwards and whether 90 to 95 per cent. of offenders are caught. The report should contain similar figures from the Department for Education and Employment and an analysis. The report should also have Home Office input, including conviction figures on those who refuse to comply with the requirements in clause 9. Conviction rates may be low under that clause, but we should have the figures from the Home Office.

11 am

The new clause should also contain a report from the NCIS, which runs the most effective anti-paedophile unit in the world. Members of Parliament can obtain information on the working of legislation through parliamentary questions and from departmental reports. The annual report from the NCIS contains some statistics about the crackdown on paedophiles and child abusers, alongside information about its work against drug dealers and terrorists and other vile criminals. Some of that information may touch on the workings of the Bill.

However, it would be preferable in the era of joined-up government—I am not making a political jibe, because the Government boast about that—to have a report that pulled together those elements and others that I have not thought of. For example, the report could contain a chapter by the Lord Chancellor's Department on the operation of the tribunal and the trends that have been noticed. There could be chapters from the NCIS, the Home Office and the Department of Health.

New clause 2 would provide for a one-off report in 18 months' time, and it does so because my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has tried to give the Government the least cause to reject the new clause. If the new clause had requested a comprehensive report every year, the Minister would have said that it was too expensive and that Ministers had better things to do than to sit in a Cabinet Sub-Committee drawing up annual reports. So that it is not rejected, the new clause is modest and does not ask for too much. However, it has asked for so little that it might not be worth doing and the Government might reject it on the ground that such a report would not tell us enough.

The interdepartmental working party on children could be the mechanism to produce the information that we seek. We do not want the working party to reveal any secrets about the Government's intentions, but we should have a report that lets us know the Government's thinking. An annual report would be much better than a one-off report which could give us only a snapshot view; an annual report could give the trends and show how the legislation was bearing down on those who abuse children.

The Bill, although not perfect, will be as effective as any other measure in tackling child abuse and will have some impact. However, I am also certain that the people who abuse children will begin to find ways around it. The Department of Health will have to try to plug those escape routes, and Parliament should be able to monitor them so that we can later determine what further legislation may be necessary.

That is not a criticism of the Bill; but abusers are clever, nasty people who will try other ways of contacting children to commit the offences that too many of them are currently committing. The benefit of an annual report is that it would give the Government a chance to let us know what is happening in the working group considering ways to prevent unsuitable people from working with children. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a little more about the group's progress.

The Bill is an important attempt to deal with a significant aspect of the problem, but the working group has recommended an integrated system for identifying people unsuitable for work with children in England and Wales. It suggests a central access point, sometimes called a one-stop shop, to the integrated system. People who should not be allowed to work with children should be identified in advance.

The working party is considering what sort of ban should be imposed. All those people who have committed specified criminal offences—and we need to know exactly which offences—are already excluded by virtue of List 99 or included on the consultancy index held by the Department of Health. The working party has suggested going further than the Bill and making it a criminal offence for a person deemed unsuitable to apply for, accept or continue work with children. Access should be allowed to all those who, by virtue of section 120 of the Police Act 1997, are authorised to countersign applications for criminal record certificates by those wanting to work with children. That would cover all those registered to receive criminal record checks in relation to working with children, including those registered to receive enhanced criminal record checks.

If the Minister tells us that we do not need the new clause, I hope that it will be because the Government intend to publish a report on a non-statutory basis that covers the wider issues hinted at by the hon. Member for Stourbridge.

My final point concerns legal aid and the Government's statement that legal aid issues cannot be included in the Bill because they are having a review of legal aid and people affected by the Bill may or may not qualify for legal aid, depending on the outcome of the review.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I cannot see any possible connection between legal aid and the terms of the new clause. There is a degree of proportionality that must be observed in saying why a clause should include something that it does not. There are limits and those limits have been reached.

Mr. Maclean

I entirely accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was suggesting that there should be a report to Parliament—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not engage in further repetition. If he does, I shall be minded to quote the terms of Standing Order No. 42.

Mr. Maclean

I should not challenge your rulings in any circumstances, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I hope that the Minister will not reject the new clause out of hand as being too narrow, too expensive or too much of a commitment to a measure that it will be too early to judge in 18 months' time. I shall be disappointed if he does not say that he intends to pull together all Departments concerned with working with children and bearing down on paedophiles and others who abuse children. I hope that he will present a comprehensive report to the House, or publish it, so that hon. Members may have access to information and statistics. Access to the views of Departments, officers, Ministers, the NCIS and others on how legislation, including the Bill, is working for the benefit of children is also important if we are to decide whether further measures are necessary in due course.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

The debate has been very interesting and the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) should be congratulated. I am pleased to be a sponsor of the Bill, but, having read the

Standing Committee's deliberations, equally pleased not to have sat on the Committee. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is a far more esteemed member of the Friday club than a comparatively new Member such as myself, and he was right to say that there is a tendency to exaggerate what is done in some mystical half hour on a private Member's Bill in Committee. In this case, however, the Bill is all the better for the deliberations upstairs, and issues that I raised on Second Reading were well discussed there. The Committee is to be congratulated on its work.

I was provoked to rise because what I am about to say I will not be able to say often. It is that I broadly agree with almost all that was said by the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border.

Mr. Forth


Mr. McNulty

I thought that that was such a nice thing to say, and that I would have so little opportunity ever to say it, that I should put it on the record. The right hon. Gentlemen were right to say that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge did us a service by moving the new clause, and they have eloquently outlined sufficient flaws in the Bill to require the Minister not to dismiss it out of hand. Given the complex, nasty and horrible side of what we are trying to prevent, there should be scrutiny and monitoring across Departments in a way that might not be appropriate to other Bills.

Both right hon. Gentlemen also picked up on the 18 months element. I thought of intervening, but did not because they waxed so lyrical and eloquent. The new clause suggests a report within 18 months on the first 12 months of implementation of the Act. To suggest that we could discern any trend or pattern from the first 12 months of the Bill's operation would not be entirely correct.

Much of what the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said about having an annual review and continued monitoring, with some cross-departmental involvement, showed us how we should proceed. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) has not claimed that the Bill is a panacea which will end abuse or prevent people from achieving positions that they should not hold, but it will contribute to a wider legislative framework and interact with other laws. That interaction, including with subsequent laws, should be covered by any review or monitoring.

11.15 am

Like the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, I am not entirely sure that the slab of statistics outlined in paragraphs (a) to (e) of the new clause would have any real meaning. As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, there is, for example, a split between the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health. The DOH list covers a plethora of areas in which people who should not be allowed near children may work with them. Matters are not as clear cut as they are for, say, working in a nursery or as a teacher, which are dealt with by List 99. We would need a breakdown far longer than the National Criminal Intelligence Service list of hooligan offences, which we touched on in a previous Friday club meeting.

The raw statistics alone would not be sufficient. However, I hope that we shall not throw out the essence of the new clause. In some senses, we should go further, and the three Departments referred to—Health, Education and Employment, and the Home Office—should be hooked on to the Bill, and should scour all areas of activity in their wider work with children, as well as monitoring, evaluating, reviewing and analysing in a far greater way. That is not suggested in the new clause. We could then see how the broad legislative framework was dealing with what the Bill seeks to do in its small way—preventing people who seek to abuse our children from achieving relevant positions.

If, therefore, we can accept what was said by those whom, for this morning alone, I shall term my two right hon. Friends across the Chamber about both the failings of the new clause and the service done by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge in trying to tease out what will happen on monitoring and evaluation, the Bill will be all the better for it.

Mr. Lansley

To echo one point made by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), it is well understood, not least by those of us who sat on the Standing Committee, that the Bill is not a panacea. It is one more brick in an as yet insufficient wall to protect children. It is incumbent on us to recognise the sterling work of various organisations, not least the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in its "full stop" campaign. It is clear to us all that, partly for the reasons adduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), those who wish to abuse children often seek to evade statutory measures. The vigilance and culture that we seek to inculcate in society are tremendously important.

The debate has illustrated the reasoning behind new clause 2, which was so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). There have been arguments of two kinds. First, it is argued that the new clause is insufficiently wide ranging. Secondly, it is argued that it is so narrowly drafted as to serve an insufficient purpose. Neither is true.

Many hon. Members have suggested that the new clause should cover a wider range of factors—I mentioned one in an intervention—or that the report should be annual. Neither suggestion is appropriate. Clearly, if the report is to give rise to a wider understanding of statutory protection for children and the way in which statutorily regulated organisations ensure that persons guilty of misconduct towards children and who are unsuitable to work with children are prevented from doing so, it would be far from sufficient if it were narrowly focused on the operation of the legislation.

The Bill is not an all-encompassing measure to protect children, but a further step forward. It would change the Department of Health list and put it on a statutory basis, but, in other respects, it would simply co-ordinate and make more accessible other lists, including List 99 and the Police Act 1997 list. It would be difficult to broaden the scope of the Bill to make it the motor for an annual review of the process of protecting children.

I would reinforce some of the arguments made in the debate, but I do not necessarily endorse the view that the new clause should be different. From time to time, the House loses the broader perspective on the rights and protection of children. When the Select Committee on Health conducted its inquiry into children who were looked after by local authorities, we came across an existing statutory responsibility on the Department to report on such children. That obligation had not been met. One of the most stinging criticisms made by the Select Committee concerned the fact that that report should have been provided.

I am reminded of a military analogy—the armed services use "fire and forget" missiles. The House must never think that it is on a fire-and-forget operation when scrutinising legislation, not least when the task is as important as the protection of children. On the interlocking sets of responsibilities between Government Departments and different aspects of legislation, it would be far preferable for Ministers to encourage an annual debate on the rights of children and their protection, rather than to institute a statutory responsibility on a Department to produce a report at a given date.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) has been listening attentively to our debate at various points this morning. Over the years, she has made a great effort to promote the rights of children and she might well say that, by focusing on individual legislation, we often miss the need to debate the overall trends and impact of legislation on given groups of people. That is true of children and it is often true elsewhere. For example, the best value system in local government is often best conducted by considering those who are affected, rather than merely the services that are provided. We should start with the children and work from there.

Rather than reject the new clause for being too narrow, we should look to different mechanisms to achieve a regular—perhaps, an annual—examination of the way in which Government measures, both statutory and non-statutory, serve to protect children. Although the new clause does not serve that purpose, it would be useful.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said, we need to know the impact of the legislation in one crucial respect. In its regulatory impact assessment of the Bill, the Department draws our attention to the fact that the consultancy index contains about 750 names. If my memory serves me right, about 7,000 checks are already made on the list each month. In its impact assessment, the Department contemplates an increase to perhaps 1 million checks a year on the list, which is a very large number. If the increase in the number of checks is any measure of the increase in awareness of and use of such a list by statutory bodies following the legislation, we may be talking not of hundreds of names on the list, but of thousands. It is impossible to speculate. For obvious reasons, one hopes that there will be as few as possible—we all hope that relatively few people will be deemed unsuitable to work with children. Equally, all the evidence suggests that non-statutory measures have not resulted in the number of referrals to the list that they should have. A tenfold increase in the number of checks may result in a tenfold increase in the number of referrals.

This is unaccustomed thinking for me, but perhaps we should provide the resources to ensure that the job is done properly rather than consider how the legislation may increase expenditure. The regulatory impact assessment makes it clear that Government Departments intend to meet any costs that arise from the legislation from within their existing provision. I do not dissent, but, if there is a tenfold increase in the level of activity, including the number of referrals, after the legislation has been enacted for a year or 18 months, either Departments will have to reallocate resources to meet the challenge and deal with it expeditiously or the present time span of four weeks for a decision to be made about a referral to the list will stretch to a longer time. It is important that the pressure on the system does not result in a great extension in the length of time that such decisions take, and people should not be included on the list provisionally as an expedient until their case is decided.

The arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge when moving the new clause remind us of some of the pressures that might result from the legislation. Many people may be placed on the list provisionally. It is important that the provisional section is not unduly large if the list is to be a device for protecting the interests of children.

In such circumstances, the rights of the individuals concerned would be abridged if their cases were not determined speedily. Furthermore, the number of people on the list who initiate appeal procedures will be a clear indication not only of whether the legislation is giving rise to difficulties for individuals but, because the tribunals will in many respects be a judicial process, of whether it is working well in legal terms.

There are particular reasons for wanting to know what the impact of the legislation will be at a defined moment, but it does not follow that one needs to know about it every year. We are dealing with a step change. There is every reason to suppose that the number of referrals to and checks on the Department of Health consultancy index will rise dramatically. That is what we need to see and we need to work out the implications.

11.30 am

I have two final points. The first relates to an important aspect of the initial report sought by new clause 2. We are dealing with statutorily regulated bodies, often in the public sector. We are changing from a non-statutory to a statutory obligation, and making it an offence not to refer persons. As a former civil servant, I am only too well aware that, when the Government are placed under an obligation, they sometimes not only meet it, but go too far. It is important that we ensure by early review of the implementation of the legislation that the guidance that Ministers issue is working in Departments and producing an appropriate, rather than an excessive, number of referrals. Given the sanctions involved and the implications of being placed on the list, the public sector should not treat referral as a matter of routine or a tick box operation. It must be done carefully and with justifications given throughout the process, or the rights of individuals will be abridged.

The second point concerns reports from tribunals. I am no expert on tribunals, but from my knowledge of other tribunals—particularly school admission tribunals—I do not recall any provision under the Tribunal and Inquiries Act 1992 for them routinely to provide reports. I recall, because I think that I read it, a report from the Council on Tribunals, but that impinges not on the merits of the issues brought before tribunals, but on their conduct and the training provided to those who sit on them. It is peculiarly important that this tribunal should involve appropriate training and qualification. Although it is not mentioned specifically in the report proposed by new clause 2, I hope that in so far as the Minister is responding to the sense as well as the letter of the debate, he will ensure that the review ensures appropriate training, particularly in respect of the lay panel members. I support new clause 2.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Hutton)

Several hon. Members have made important and helpful contributions to this useful debate. I welcome with open arms the new converts to transparency and openness among Opposition Members. It may be unhelpful, given the spirit of compromise that has dominated our proceedings, but some of us wonder where they were for the past 20 years.

Mr. Maclean

In government.

Mr. Hutton

Precisely, but without results. None the less, we welcome the sinners' repentance and we welcome them to the cause of openness and transparency.

New clause 2 is about providing information to Parliament about the operation of the list of those considered unsuitable to work with children and the work of the tribunal, both of which are key parts of the Bill that were amended in Committee. I agree with the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) about the way in which the Committee went about its work. The Bill now strikes a better balance between a proper regard for fundamental civil liberties and the need to ensure that we provide maximum protection for children from people who might harm them. In particular, the new opportunities for those who have been provisionally listed to appeal to the tribunal in clause 4 have strengthened the Bill's safeguards without weakening one of its central purposes: allowing the Department of Health to keep an accurate, comprehensive list on a proper statutory basis of people whose behaviour has harmed a child or placed one at risk of harm.

I assure Opposition Members that the Department intends to deal with referrals in a timely and efficient manner. The nine-month limit will not become the norm. That was never our intention. We aim to deal with referrals for inclusion on the list as quickly as possible so that people know where they stand and so that the list can serve the purpose for which it has been properly set up.

Mr. Hammond

The Minister said that the Government would deal with referrals as quickly as possible. That does not tell us much. Can he assure the House that the Department will set internal targets for the time taken to deal with referrals and test itself against them?

Mr. Hutton

Yes, we will. We want to ensure that the system is efficient and effectively operated and to avoid undue delay. The purpose of maintaining the list would be compromised if those problems crept in.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) for her constructive and helpful attitude to new clause 2, the intention and spirit of which I welcome. She spelled out one or two problems with it. I agree that it would be unwise to include it, for the reasons that she gave.

I confirm that we will look carefully at how best we can provide regular information to Parliament about the operation of the new statutory list. However, there is no reason why hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, cannot table parliamentary questions on all the matters covered by new clause 2. I assure the House that we intend to be as open as possible about the new arrangements, given the widespread concern across the House about the importance of ensuring that children are properly protected from harm at the hands of abusers.

Mr. Forth

The Minister is trying to be helpful, but it is asking us to extend our normal credulity when he says that, instead of a regular report, we should rely on the random tabling of parliamentary questions by assiduous Members. That is a new doctrine. Instead of the Government or their agencies reporting freely and openly to Parliament, we are to wait for Members to table questions. Given the Government's recent record of timeliness and openness in answering them, I do not accept that as a credible approach.

Mr. Hutton

With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he has misunderstood. I said that we were trying both to improve the spread of and access to information about this part of the Government's work, as well as responding fully to any parliamentary questions that hon. Members might wish to table. The two things are not exclusive. I am sure that he has never tabled a random parliamentary question.

Mr. Maclean

I am grateful for the Minister's attitude to new clause 2. Will he confirm that, when he says "we" intend to be as open as possible and "we" will publish information, he is speaking not only for his ministerial capacity in the Department of Health, but for Ministers in the Department for Education and Employment, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office?

Mr. Hutton

Yes. When I say "we", I am referring to the Government as a whole.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) raised several questions. He and, I think, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) mentioned the information published about the work of tribunals. The Council on Tribunals publishes each December an extensive statistical report on the work in the previous year of a variety of different tribunals. It gives details on the number of tribunals in each area, statistics on the number of cases before them and the number handled, with or without a hearing. There is an existing mechanism for publicising information about the work of tribunals. This tribunal would be included in that statistical digest.

Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), asked about the Department's current list, the consultancy index. There are nearly 900 people on it. Under the scheme, we receive between 12 and 15 referrals a month of people who should be included on that list. Each month, we carry out not 7,000, but 14,000 checks. I hope that those figures provide the House with better particulars about the existing arrangements. We do not underestimate the difficulties or the extent to which abusers of children seek ways to avoid mechanisms for protecting children, but, by common consent, the Bill is a significant step forward and will provide children with better safeguards. As I said, we shall ensure that the House is kept properly informed about the operation of the legislation and the Government's continuing work to deny abusers access to children.

Mr. Hammond

The Minister's answer to this question will be important to me in deciding how to proceed with the new clause. Will he assure me that if I or other hon. Members seek to obtain the information listed in new clause 2 through parliamentary questions, that information will be provided and those questions will not receive the standard answer that the information is not collated centrally or is available only at disproportionate cost?

Mr. Hutton

The whole point about the list is that it is operated by the Department of Health, so it is entirely our responsibility to collect and retain the information. If the hon. Gentleman were to table the appropriate parliamentary question, we would try, as we are required to do, to answer it as fully as we possibly could. I certainly invite the hon. Gentleman to table such a question. I would always be happy to correspond with him about those issues in detail and, if he thinks it appropriate, to place that correspondence in the Library of the House.

This has been a helpful, useful debate. I understand the spirit and the purpose behind the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, but, for the reasons already given by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge, it would be unwise to include it in the Bill. I hope that I have given the assurances that many hon. Members have sought in the debate, and that the hon. Gentleman will therefore feel comfortable in withdrawing his new clause.

Mr. Hammond

I thank the Minister for his comments.

I am sorry that he felt it necessary to spoil the mood of consensus, and I assure him that we need take no lessons on transparency and openness from him because he talks a good game, but there is precious little evidence that the Government are putting their rhetoric into practice. However, I thank him for his willingness carefully to consider how to ensure that appropriate information will be made available.

I was a little disappointed that my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) were somewhat critical of new clause 2. It did not escape my notice that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who said at the beginning of his remarks that he was critical of my new clause, gave one ground for criticism, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, who said at the outset that he was supportive of the new clause, went on to give two grounds on which he objected to it. That lesson will not be lost on me.

I understand the valid points that have been made. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst argued eloquently for the need for annual reports on the operation of the measure. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border suggested that the new clause might need to be broadened to include information from other Departments.

In framing the new clause, my attention was focused on the need to assess the impact of what my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) described as a step change. A single report of information would allow me to assess the Bill's impact in producing that step change.

Mr. Maclean

I intervene to save me from having to make further remarks at the end of this comprehensive debate. Will my hon. Friend urge the Minister to study the reports published by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which is a quasi-tribunal and, in its report, not only gives statistics, such as the number of cases handled, but gives an overview of trends, and offer recommendations and suggestions for the future? Through my hon. Friend, I urge the Minister to adopt that model as a means of reporting on how the Bill and other child care legislation progresses.

11.45 am
Mr. Hammond

I am certainly happy to urge the Minister to take note of my right hon. Friend's comments, and I am sure that he will do so.

I sense that the House views this issue as worthy of further consideration. There may be arguments for having annual reporting requirements and for extending them beyond the rather narrow remit that I have suggested in my new clause, and I suspect that those arguments will be considered in another place. In the meantime, the Minister's implication that I could serve my immediate purpose by seeking information on a one-off basis through written questions is greatly reassuring. That satisfies my purposes, but it may not go far enough to satisfy the concerns that my right hon. and hon. Friends have expressed. Perhaps those will be dealt with in another place.

I am persuaded by the weight of the arguments that I have heard, and I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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