HL Deb 15 July 1986 vol 478 cc861-4

Viscount Davidson rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th June be approved [27th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the order we have before us, which amends the provisions of the 1975 exceptions order, arises from the need to ensure the fullest measure of protection for children. A number of serious incidents of assault on children by those in a position of trust (in particular the murder of Marie Payne) has led to a widespread concern that criminal records, which are normally treated as confidential, should be made more widely available to prevent unsuitable people obtaining such positions.

A review team has examined the system of disclosure of criminal records through local police forces, and a copy of its published report is in the Library. One important recommendation of the report was that the existing exceptions to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act should be extended to cover beyond doubt all those groups of people considered by the review team to have substantial access to children. In particular, the review identified the need to cover child minders, and adults living in the same households as foster parents and child minders. We have felt impelled to amend the 1975 order to close these loopholes, but without upsetting the important balance which Parliament created between the interests of former offenders and the need to protect the public.

To ensure that no further loopholes might appear in future we have therefore formulated a new generalised exception at paragraph 14 covering activities concerned with the provision to children of any one of a wide range of different services, provided that the person carrying out such work will have access to persons under the age of 18 in the course of his normal duties. Thus, teachers will be excepted because they provide "schooling"; child minders, who were not previously covered, because they provide "care" and "supervision"; and so on.

It is worth noting that we have included in paragraph 14 other people who normally work on the same premises where work with children goes on. This additional provision already exists for school premises because of the special position of the school caretaker; and I need hardly remind your Lordships of one appalling recent instance in which a caretaker abused his position of trust. We think it right to adopt this safeguard generally.

The order also amends the 1975 order by extending the disapplication of Section 4(2) of the Act in relation to work with children. The new order permits questions about spent convictions in order to assess the suitability of a person to be concerned with such provision to children as is mentioned in the order, whether or not that provision is in the course of the person's office or employment. One situation about which we are particularly concerned where no question of employment arises is where a local authority having formal custody of a child is considering whether to return the child to the home of its natural mother on a trial basis. We think that when making its decision the local authority ought to be fully aware of the background both of the mother and of any person who may be living with her. The new provision will allow for questions about spent convictions to be asked in these and similar cirumstances.

The order also enables questions to be asked about the spent convictions of persons who live in the same household where provisions to children normally takes place. This will allow local authorities, for example, to obtain information about any spent convictions which a person living in the same household as a child minder may have which would justify refusing or curtailing the employment of the child minder.

I hope that this explanation has helped the House understand the intentions as well as the working of the new order. The order is important as a basis for the procedures for disclosures of convictions. It continues the existing policy of safeguarding the most vulnerable groups in society and I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th June be approved.—(Viscount Davidson.)

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Viscount very much for explaining this order in such a clear way. It certainly helped me to see what is its objective. We very much welcome the measures that have been taken to protect children in every conceivable way. As the noble Viscount said, the right balance seems to have been achieved by the new proposals in this order.

Perhaps I may ask the noble Viscount one question which arose during the Standing Committee in another place and which did not seem to be answered fully by the Minister. The question was whether the Minister was satisfied that the new exceptions cover volunteers helping in homes run by charities, homes where children are very much involved. It was pointed out that cases had come before the courts in which people had volunteered for quite the wrong reason. They had volunteered because they wished to be with children. I felt that the Minister's answer did not make it quite clear. I listened to what the noble Viscount said but I do not think he said anything about volunteers. I wonder whether he will kindly clear up this small point for me. Otherwise, we very much welcome this order.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, I rise with a sense of nostalgia to speak on this matter because this was the principal Act on which I made my maiden speech many years ago.

I felt then that it was an Act as valuable as it was incomprehensible. That means that it was a very valuable Act indeed. I have felt ever since then with increasing force that that was so. This matter affects in many ways the ordinary citizen as he goes about his ordinary daily life. Can he ask a particular question of a particular person he wants to employ? Is the person he is interviewing obliged to answer it? Simple questions of that sort can be answered only with the aid of counsel's opinion, but it is perhaps rather too late now to do very much about that.

We welcome this order. We believe it is an important step towards increasing the protection of young children; and that of course is a very desirable aim. I was going to ask the same question as the noble Baroness asked. Repetition would be otiose and therefore I shall simply sit down and await the noble Viscount's answer.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, for their welcome to this order. As regards voluntary workers, the question has never been addressed by the courts but it is our view that unpaid voluntary employment does constitute employment for the purposes of the Act. In any case, the current order extends the circumstances in which questions about spent convictions can be asked to all those, employed or not, who are concerned with provision for children. I hope that answers the question of the noble Baroness.

On Question, Motion agreed to.