HC Deb 14 November 2000 vol 356 cc878-83

Lords amendment: No. 52, to insert the following new clause—Provision for the protection of children— .—(1) The Protection of Children Act 1999 ("the 1999 Act") shall have effect as if the Service were a child care organisation within the meaning of that Act. (2) Arrangements which the Service makes with an organisation under section 13(1) must provide that, before selecting an individual to be employed under the arrangements in a child care position the organisation—

  1. (a) must ascertain whether the individual is included in any of the lists mentioned in section 7(1) of the 1999 Act, and
  2. (b) if he is included in any of those lists, must not select him for that employment.
(3) Such arrangements must provide that, if at any time the organisation has power to refer a relevant individual to the Secretary of State under section 2 of the 1999 Act (inclusion in list on reference following disciplinary action etc.), the organisation must so refer him. In this subsection "relevant individual" means an individual who is or has been employed in a child care position under the arrangements. (4) In this section "child care position" and "employment" have the same meanings as in the 1999 Act.

Mr. Boateng

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 57 to 66, 71 and 72.

Mr. Boateng

I add my voice to those congratulating you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. It is a pleasure to serve under you in this first debate on a topic of and in which, having visited with your local magistrates court, I know that you have a profound knowledge and interest.

Amendment No. 52 makes the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, its officers and organisations performing functions on behalf of CAFCASS, subject to the Protection of Children Act 1999. The others are more minor amendments, most of which add to or tidy up the definition of working with children in part II. Exceptions are amendments Nos. 57 and 58, which ensure that the definition of a qualifying sentence is accurate, and amendment No. 60, which closes a loophole in the offences created by ensuring that it is an offence to fail to remove a disqualified individual from working with children—for example, by holding open a relevant post for someone.

Amendment No. 59 provides for the restoration of disqualification orders through application by a chief officer of police or director of social services to the High Court. The other amendments add appropriate positions to the list of regulated positions—members of the youth justice board and the Children's Commissioner for Wales—or clarify the definition by taking into account the changes currently taking place as a result of the Local Government Act 2000.

The Protection of Children Act gives greater protection to children who may be put at risk of harm. The Act places a duty on child-care organisations to refer to the Secretary of State individuals who have been employed in a child-care position where they have been dismissed on grounds of misconduct which harmed a child or placed a child at risk. Individuals are covered even if they retire or resign before they are dismissed. Child-care organisations which intend to employ someone are placed under a duty to ensure that that person is not on the list held by the Secretary of State. If that person is found to be on the list, the child-care organisation must not employ them.

As officers of CAFCASS, and those performing functions on behalf of CAFCASS, will have unsupervised contact with children, it is essential that the measures apply to the new service. We have considered carefully the principle of allowing for reinstatement of the disqualification order introduced in part II. Having had the opportunity to consider the issue, we have come to the conclusion that it would be right in principle to make some provision to cover the matter, even if, as we believe, there should be a need for it only in rare cases, if at all. The amendment allows for the restoration of the disqualification order without in any way jeopardising the strength of the original order or the consideration of the tribunal for lifting it in the first place.

I trust that the other amendments to part II will not prove contentious. They serve only to ensure that disqualified persons do not remain in posts which would grant them access to children and enhance the range of, and properly define where necessary, those posts from which disqualified people are barred. In both cases the reasoning is clear and, I hope that the House will agree, valid.

Mr. Hawkins

I associate the official Opposition with the Minister's welcome to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in your new capacity.

On the third group of amendments, I said that we would return to the sensitive issues concerning the protection of children. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, will have noticed that with this group of amendments we have now reached that point. Perhaps even more significant are the next two groups of amendments, which deal with some of the most sensitive issues.

The Minister is right to talk about the importance of strengthening the Bill, but I want to take a little time to make the point that it might have been more appropriate had he paid tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Blatch for her initiative on behalf of the official Opposition with regard to the reinstatement of disqualification order, which the Minister mentioned in relation to amendment No. 59.

Before you, Madam Deputy Speaker, took the Chair, but as other hon. Members will recall, those on the Treasury Bench suggested that we were being unjust to their noble Friend Lord Bassam of Brighton in criticising the number of climbdowns that he has been forced to make, but amendment No. 59 is the clearest possible illustration of what we were talking about. Because these matters are important to disqualification orders in relation to those who are a threat to children, I want to set out the exact sequence of events.

On the second day in Committee in the other place, my noble Friend Baroness Blatch described in some detail the need for what was then amendment No. 97, headed "Reinstatement of Disqualification Order". She set out all the good reasons that the Government have now belatedly accepted as to why that was necessary. She was then faced with a lengthy attack on her reasoning and the amendment from none other than Lord Bassam. In attacking the Opposition's amendments, he said: I suggest that the way in which the noble Baroness seeks to reintroduce a disqualification order is not workable. We want to see a workable scheme. I believe that the scheme we have offered is workable. I believe that the explanation I have given for ways in which a ban could be reintroduced is coherent. We do not think that it is necessary to do what the noble Baroness seeks.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 October 2000; Vol. 616, c. 1538.] That was in response to many serious points that my noble Friend had made about matters relating to spent convictions. However, when the Government were later forced to change their stance, Lord Bassam did not participate in the climbdown. Another Minister, Lord Williams of Mostyn, dealt with the matter little more than a month later on 8 November when the Bill was being reconsidered by another place.

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My noble Friend Baroness Blatch said: My Lords, I shall be very brief. As noble Lords will have noticed, another amendment has been tabled covering the same area of concern— reinstatement of disqualification order— I have had throughout the passage of the Bill. I am deeply grateful to the Government for their Amendment No. 30. I shall now sit down and wait for the noble Lord to introduce that amendment. Up popped the Attorney-General, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who, by complete contrast with Lord Bassam of Brighton, said: The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is quite right. I listened to the way in which she deployed her argument on the point of—I believe that I paraphrase it accurately—the restoration of a disqualification to a previously disqualified individual, and, if I may say so, I believe that her argument had substantial merit.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 November 2000; Vol. 618, c. 1536–37.]

Mr. McWalter

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins

I shall give way in a moment to the hon. Gentleman who played a distinguished part in our Committee proceedings and, wisely, did not always support the Government. I shall finish my point before giving way.

There is no clearer example of a U-turn. In only a month, Ministers moved from claiming that the proposals of Baroness Blatch were unworkable to saying that her argument had "substantial merit" and introducing a similar Government amendment. The only practical difference in the Government amendment was changing my noble Friend's description of "reinstatement of disqualification order" to the Government's wording, "restoration" of disqualification order. Lord Bassam of Brighton is rightly called Lord Climbdown.

Mr. McWalter

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his interesting remarks about my role in Committee. He knows that in Committee we were keen to strike a balance between protection of children and the protection of those against whom malevolent accusations of child abuse might be made. People who have a disqualification order but have not breached it may be especially vulnerable. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what he portrays as a climbdown could be an attempt to try to resolve the tension between conflicting ideas about the rights of the different individuals involved?

Mr. Hawkins

I pay a further compliment to the hon. Gentleman, who has again shown his skills, on which the Home Secretary has rightly congratulated him. He is right. We spent much time in Committee discussing that important point. However, it will not have escaped his notice that, if the Government had listened to the comments of the Opposition in the House or in another place, and not simply said that our proposals were unworkable, we might have reached the current, more sensible position, which the Minister presented much earlier this evening.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that all hon. Members are aware of the dangers of malevolent allegations. Perhaps he saw in the national press last week details of an especially harrowing case. Two innocent teachers had been the subject of invented allegations. The charges were dropped against one and the other was acquitted. The judge made some savage criticisms of the investigation, which was insufficient; proper investigation would have led to a much earlier decision. There was no basis to the allegations. Discussing such points led to spending some time on a good and important debate in Committee.

As I said earlier, the Government have been dragged kicking and screaming to accepting some of the points that we made in Committee and in another place. I am delighted that they have done that, and I do not want to take up the time of the House unduly. However, it is important to recognise that the Bill is a classic example of the way in which it should be possible for Ministers, civil servants and parliamentary draftsmen to take on board the sensible points made by opposition parties much earlier. If that happened, we would have better legislation more quickly.

The Minister is right to say that some amendments are minor and consequential. However, we must be careful that we get the measure right and that we ensure that children are protected. The Bill is much better because restoration of disqualification orders is possible under it. I hope that the Minister will pay tribute to the substantial contribution of Opposition Front Benchers in another place to improving the Bill.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I, too, have not yet spoken when you have been in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I add my congratulations on your elevation.

I want to make two points. First, there is clearly a general interest in making sure that the law succeeds in preventing people with a record of abuse or relevant sex offences from working with children, and recording their past history accurately so that future employers and, more important, their charges are protected.

During the summer, the Government consulted Opposition parties about the way in which the law needed to be advanced. I was grateful for the positive consideration of and constructive responses to suggestions that I made to the Secretary of State and copied to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). That resulted at least in conversation about the way forward. That is one example of how we are trying to tighten up the system for protecting children in the proposed legislation as it progresses. I am sure that, whatever the details of debates in another place, we all share a desire to get it right. I compliment the Government and those in another place who sought to tighten up the rules on sex offenders working with children.

Secondly, I want to ask a question that links the Bill to the measure on the equal age of consent, which is being considered at the other end of the building. One issue has been raised both in the context of the Bill that we are considering and of the other measure. If, at the end of the Session, we enacted the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, which deals with correcting a distinction with regard to sexual activity, two matters will remain anomalous. I do not pretend to have perfect knowledge, but they are clear.

First, there is currently a defence at law, which the Minister will know well, whereby a young adult male who has sexual intercourse with a girl who is under 16 is entitled to plead that he believed her to be over 16. For obvious reasons, that defence is not open to someone who is over 24. That matter has not been addressed in the context of equal treatment of people, irrespective of whether they are charged with heterosexual or homosexual offences.

Secondly, and more importantly, if the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill is enacted, it will render people between 16 and 18 potentially not guilty of an offence of which they would otherwise be guilty. Will Ministers address that issue and ensure that legislation does not continue to regard someone as a criminal when their actions are no longer criminal under another measure? Perhaps the Minister will not be able to deal with that matter now. It relates in general terms to amendment No. 59, which includes references to people who are under the age of 18 when they commit offences. That must be reread with reference to disqualification, not the offence. How will the Government correct an anomaly that will remain if both Bills become law at the end of the Session?

Mr. Boateng

I thank the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) for his description of our approach to the aspect of the Bill that deals specifically with the protection of children. Our intention has always been to be as inclusive as possible. That means including all parties in both Houses. I believe that that is vital. Protecting children is not a matter on which one should seek to score party political advantage.

I regretted the tone and, at times, the content of the speech of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was not, to my knowledge, in the Chamber for his speech. She was not within sight to hear his speech, and one cannot fail to notice her. She was not in my direct line of vision. If she was hidden behind the ample figure of the silent one on the Opposition Bench, all well and good—lucky her. I did not see her, but had she heard the hon. Gentleman's contribution I do not believe that she would have found it of such a nature as to commend itself to a House that was trying to consider these matters in a consensual manner. It really does not do to attack noble Lords in those terms and in that way.

I pay tribute to all noble Lords and Baronesses for the care and attention with which they addressed these important issues during the passage of the Bill. I am grateful for the improvements that have been made.

I see the right hon. Lady is fixing me with one of her looks. I am only too happy to rise to her challenge on the rigour and conviction stakes, but if she expects contrition from this Minister, she is looking in the wrong direction. We do not have anything to be contrite about.

In Committee, my Front-Bench colleagues and I appreciated enormously the contributions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), because they were rooted in real experience of these issues. They were constructive and at all times supportive. I am very grateful to him for the stance that he took. I do not regard criticism, knowledge and constructive contributions to debates on issues of public importance as anything other than supportive. That is what consideration of a Bill in Committee and on the Floor of both Houses is all about. I am grateful to all those who have made this section of the Bill that much stronger as a result of their deliberations.

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness Blatch. We were not able to accept her original amendment. My noble Friend Lord Bassam was right to reject it. She argued that the tribunal should reinstate the order. Our concern was that, in reinstating an order which it had discharged, it may be tempted to discharge disqualification orders in borderline cases knowing that it could correct a mistake subsequently. That would have been entirely the wrong approach, which is why we took the view that the High Court was important in this area. The Bill as amended has sufficient focus and rigour to ensure that the danger of Baroness Blatch's amendment to which I alluded has been avoided. With that in mind, I urge the House to give these amendments its blessing.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 53 to 66 agreed to.

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