HL Deb 02 March 2004 vol 658 cc624-44

7.56 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what provisions are being made to improve vetting arrangements to prevent persons unsuitable to work with children from gaining employment with children in the United Kingdom and across the European Union.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, all over the world where one comes across fishing communities one finds, sitting on the quayside, people mending the nets. They do it with great care and attention because it is very important to them. Sometimes it is done by the fishermen themselves and sometimes it is done by their wives. Very often it is done with a culture, traditions and knots that have been handed down from one generation to another, so important is it.

Before noble Lords start to think that they might have unwittingly wandered into the wrong debate, I should explain that I believe that our debate tonight is about the need for us to mend the holes in the net that we cast to catch those unscrupulous people who want access to young children for the wrong reasons. Although the one that got away causes no more harm than a little dent in the pride of the fisherman, the one that got away in the terms of the net about children can have consequences which can ruin or even end a young and innocent life.

Ensuring that people unsuitable to work with children and young people do not gain employment in positions which give them a high level of access is an absolutely basic child protection measure. Yet it is one that in the UK, and across the EU, we so often fail to carry out efficiently. Current holes in the net of legislation allow individuals to move between EU jurisdictions and even within the UK with their new employers being unaware or unable to check for previous allegations or offences against children.

That is why I, together with a number of noble Lords, have been asked to raise the issue by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC)—for whom I am an ambassador—and their equivalent organisations Children 1st in Scotland and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It is why the ISPCC has been encouraging Irish Members of Parliament to lobby the Minister for Justice to improve vetting procedures in the Republic of Ireland and to consider the implications of movements of offenders across the Irish border. It is also why NSPCC has been briefing at the European level and in November held a roundtable discussion with MEPs and the European Commission's Director-General of Justice and Home Affairs.

When the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) was established in 1997, it was an important first step in preventing unsuitable people from working with children in England and Wales. The system can be effective because a combination of "hard" information, such as criminal records, and "soft" information, such as allegations and circumstantial evidence, can be accessed through it. While caution must be applied to the latter to protect the human rights of applicants, the children's charities support the use of soft details because of the simple fact that as many as 90 per cent of paedophiles are never convicted.

The system however is not foolproof. There are still significant problems: many people who are unsuitable to work with children are still gaining employment in areas with access to children and young people. One of the problems is that the systems in the different jurisdictions were developed independently. The CRB is composed differently from the systems in Scotland, Northern Ireland and other EU member states. There are significant problems with data transfer between any two of the systems.

I recognise that the Government have made efforts to put in place links between different jurisdictions for sharing information on those with convictions—I refer to Lords Hansard, 29 January at col. 321. But those links are not finalised and many gaps remain. For example, I recognise and welcome recent moves that enable different professional sporting bodies to check across all systems in the UK whether potential sports coaches have criminal records. Sadly, that is not the case in other lines of work where adults interact with children.

We must recognise that those who offend against children are often clever and devious people who will exploit any loophole that exists. We must address that with the utmost priority because they are clever fish who will find any little hole in our net and slither through it. It is vital, therefore, that there are clear and compatible protocols for information-sharing across borders, and that those responsible for implementing the checks in each of the jurisdictions make use of those protocols. Should there not be joint training and joint development of improvements to the systems?

The majority of problems resulting from those unsuitable people slipping through the vetting net relate to sexual offences. The tragic events in Soham and the conviction of Ian Huntley in 2003 brought just such problems to the fore. I appreciate that Sir Michael Bichard's investigation is currently examining how police intelligence was handled, vetting practices and why vital information was not shared between agencies.

However, I wonder whether an additional investigation on vetting procedures across the whole of the UK and the EU could not be undertaken. Perhaps that could be a vital first task for the new children's commissioner for England in liaison with the commissioners already established in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That would undoubtedly be for the commissioner to decide, but I would be interested in the Minister's views.

This case, and others where cross-border protocols failed, demonstrates the need for mechanisms to track effectively those unsuitable to work with children. I regret that I cannot talk about particular cases because many are still in the legal system, but there is plenty of evidence for concern. Files containing crucial information must not be lost, as appears to have happened in the Soham case, but must reach those who need to know their contents. Such vetting mechanisms must work in relation to other measures that register and manage offenders—particularly sex offenders.

The development of the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) in England and Wales is an excellent move forward that has been welcomed by the NSPCC. However, we are concerned about the lack of synergy with similar arrangements in Scotland. It is essential that we improve information sharing not only on data but also on management within the UK if we are to address the problem effectively.

When the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised the issue in a Starred Question in January, the Minister described a number of measures that the Government are taking to ensure greater compatibility between the systems in England and Scotland. He—I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Bassam—was not able to say when that work would be complete. Could the Minister tell the House today what progress has been made?

Before I close I want to turn briefly to the difficulties that lack of funding has caused to the effective implementation of vetting procedures. When the CRB checks were first introduced, the Government proposed charging organisations and employers that wanted to recruit someone to work with children to check for any records held on that person. It was even proposed that a charge would be administered for volunteers. After much successful lobbying by charitable organisations the charge for checking volunteers was dropped. That was a welcome move.

However, we now find that organisations in England are being charged for the checks that they need to carry out for paid employees, whereas in other jurisdictions there is help with the cost. Perhaps I may give an example from sport. Umbrella bodies are bearing the cost of checks for sporting organisations in Scotland and Wales. They are able to do so because of funding from the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly; the latter giving £1 million to the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action, which has funded the checks on behalf of individual sporting and other voluntary organisations.

That is not happening in England. As a result, there has been a significant delay in the introduction of checks by English sports organisations. Organisations that employed paid coaches had budgeted this financial year to cover the original £12.50 fee, but when it was doubled in July 2003, most could not afford the increase; and it is due to increase again. Evidence from the NSPCC Child Protection in Sport Unit shows that organisations are now finding it extremely difficult to introduce comprehensive vetting of coaches. Why does Capita find it necessary to increase those charges so horrendously? Anyone would think that it is not making money. I recently read that its profits have soared in the past financial year: no wonder!

I am not saying that the checks should be stopped—far from it. But the Government must be aware of the implications of raising the fee. How are the Government holding Capita to account for its level of efficiency in doing the job at a reasonable price? In England, the end users bear the full cost. The need to finance the checks is diverting funding away from vital child protection training and awareness raising.

Can the Minister say whether the Government will increase the resources available to support registered bodies using the CRB to prevent them having to fund the whole cost of the checks themselves? I also ask the Minister to assure the House that there are no proposals to bring in back-door charges for checks on volunteers through, say, an administration fee or something similar.

I have touched on many issues and I know that there are others who wish to contribute, for which I am most grateful. I should like to close with one thought: child protection is the responsibility of us all. Let us be good fisherman and mend our nets.

8.7 p.m.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for her perceptive and darned good introduction to today's important and timely debate on the vetting of those working with children across the United Kingdom and the European Union. I likewise declare an interest as an NSPCC parliamentary ambassador. I shall speak principally about the European Union, which undergoes another seismic change in two months' time with the entry of 10 new member states and all that that means for the well-being of Europe's children.

Yesterday, the trial of Marc Dutroux began in the Belgian courts. Noble Lords will recall that he imprisoned and murdered four children. His trial may confirm the suspicion that he was part of a paedophile gang that operated across the borders of the European Union to pursue its nefarious and sickening ends.

About a year before Dutroux's arrest I, as an MEP working in Brussels, had an hour-long, one-to-one meeting with the single market Commissioner, Mario Monti. I had submitted to him my paper entitled Children and the European Single Market where I pointed to the advantages that will accrue to children as a result of the development of the single market, principally in economic and trade projects. I also sought to highlight what I perceived to be, even at that early stage of the market's development, the very real and disturbing dangers presented to children within our changing Europe. My views then and now are that each of the four freedoms of the free movement of people, capital, goods and services impacts on the lives of Europe's children.

But my overwhelming fear was that Europe's legislators did not recognise the social and criminal dangers inherent in the development of that single market. To put it no more finely than this, the sweeping away of the artificial barriers for business people to trade freely across borders gives at the same time the freedom to criminals of all kinds to range across the face of Europe. Nowhere would this be more true than for the criminal and paedophile fraternities.

Mario Monti's reply to me was that indeed the single market represented a wonderful opportunity for jobs and prosperity for children when they in turn came to adulthood. But what was missing from his reply was a recognition of the social threats that I had outlined.

Only now is the European Union economic giant awakening to the responsibilities that we owe to children of the market and the need to find complementary measures which will help us to retain the market but close the loopholes through which criminals in general and paedophiles in particular can filter. One such loophole is the vetting of those who work with children and who can now exercise their new rights to work across Europe's borders.

The problems in the UK have already been alluded to, but my principal concern is with Europe, which is closer than we think because it includes that thin border which separates Northern Ireland from the republic. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, will refer to that in his speech.

If the mechanisms and practices of sharing information across the UK are problematic, in the EU they are parlous. The entry of 10 new countries in May should deepen our concerns. For instance, Portugal has no current provision for disqualifying unsuitable people from working with children. Even if a Portuguese employer does check an applicant's criminal record—something which is not obligatory—the authorities have no power to reveal details of convictions which have attracted a sentence below six months. In Austria an employer who checks and discovers a potential employee's criminal conviction retains the discretion nevertheless to employ that individual. As regards new European Union states, most have legislation in this field which is slender at best and absent at worst. The Minister might consider commissioning the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of London to expand its 2001 report to identify different disqualifications and vetting systems current across the new Europe of 25 to enable us better to respond to this open sore. Will the Minister do so?

The European Union is now beginning to bestir itself in the face of these threats. The recent Danish presidency introduced a proposal for a Council decision on increasing co-operation among EU states with regard to sharing employee disqualifications. At that time my noble friend Lord Filkin suggested on behalf of the Government that the proposals should include disqualification in the field of sex offenders. Will the Government revive those suggestions? The European Parliament recently held a conference on the issue, which was attended by Jonathan Faull, the director-general of JHA, betokening, I hope, the Commission's warming interest. Will the Minister consult Jonathan Faull and leaders in the European Parliament about undertaking fresh initiatives?

Former Irish PM John Bruton has led the working group within the convention whose recommendations appear in the text for a proposed constitution for the European Union. The text demands the mainstreaming of child protection in all EU policies and programmes. Will the Government ensure that, if the constitution is ratified under the Irish presidency, that text is retained and acted upon? Will the Government take inspiration from our Irish colleagues, who, under their current presidency, have already emphasised existing resources available to member states to help to identify unsuitable employees seeking cross-border jobs, including the use of Europol, Cepol (the European Police College) and the EU Police Chiefs' Task Force?

A powerful initiative in that field would be for the Government to commit to establishing common minimum standards, including the encouragement of all EU countries to establish lists of sex offenders and appropriate mechanisms to share those lists across borders. That initiative could be a central plank of our own presidency in late 2005. Now is the time to catch the tide. The Government join the Council troika in 10 months' time, and work can be done now to accomplish the goal of drawing up lists in all EU countries and creating mechanisms to share information that will unremittingly track down those who so heartlessly track down our children. Will the Government respond?

The Government can do much more at EU level to protect children from the menace of under-vetted paedophiles in Europe's increasingly mobile workforce. I refer the Government to the DAPHNE II programme, concerned with violence against women and children, which runs from 2003–08, and whose funding has been doubled to accommodate the extension of the CUPISCO project from 15 to 25 countries. The Chancellor, who has an excellent record in helping underprivileged children, will recognise that the EU budget requires judicious expansion from time to time to fund effective and targeted programmes such as DAPHNE II.

Action at Community level will be strengthened when the new constitution is signed, especially as the draft proposals make direct reference to anticipating children's concerns in all EU policies. Will the Government confirm their wholehearted support of the proposed constitution, particularly the reference to children? With the constitution in place, will the Government work to realise in full the 1991 Maastricht Treaty's creation of the JHA third pillar; the areas of freedom, security and justice in its derivative, the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty; and their own ultimate expression; that is, the vigorous implementation of the Eurojust proposals, an embodiment of the free movement of prosecution, which is so essential in this area? Will they co-operate with other EU states to explore the possibility of an EU-wide power to restrict the free movement of known paedophiles to their home countries? Similar measures have been enforced against football hooligans; children are clearly much more important. Furthermore, will the Government explain the implications of our absenting ourselves from the Schengen agreement? To what extent does our participation in the Schengen information system compensate? That, too, impacts on children.

I also invite the Minister to discuss the difficult question of establishing a proper balance between the human and civil rights of all European citizens, including sex offenders, with the rights of children to remain unmolested. If those competing rights clash from time to time, how are we to ensure that matters are resolved? I renew my plea to the Government to make action in this field an action point in the 2005 British presidency. Europe's children would expect nothing less.

8.19 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, we are all very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for ensuring that this very important subject is before us today. I very much support what she said about the need to mend any holes in the net, improving vetting procedures and having clear, compatible procedures across jurisdictions in both the United Kingdom and the European Union. The European Union dimension, with the forthcoming accession of 10 new member states, was particularly and rightly emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison.

I particularly want to speak from the standpoint of the Church of England. There are two reasons in particular that the Church of England has a very committed interest in the field. First, the Churches between them are the largest voluntary movement in the country and are weekly in contact with thousands of children. One aspect of that is that the Church of England is, I believe, the biggest employer of full-time children and youth workers. For example, in the diocese of Oxford the parishes between them employ 40 full-time youth workers, which is more than the number employed by the secular authorities. That pattern is repeated for the country as a whole. That is the first reason—weekly contact with thousands of children and the fact that we have so many paid professionals working with children.

The second reason is a sadder one. As is well known, paedophiles gravitate to churches. No doubt they do so for a mixture of reasons. Many of them have a sincere religious faith and they are using the resources of their religious faith to struggle with their condition. But for some of them, and perhaps for many in part, it is because churches give access to children. So there are two important reasons why this issue is very much a lively concern for the Churches. I speak from the standpoint of the Church of England which is committed to safeguarding all the children who are involved in its activities.

During public worship, children are generally in the care of their parents, but guidance for good practice is set out for all occasions where children and young people attend church services without their parents. The Church has many activities where children are in regular informal contact with adults, and it is here that children can be particularly vulnerable. Our experience is that adults can use these situations to target children, playing on the trust that church people engender and leading on to abuse that would usually happen outside the actual church activity. It is for this reason that the Church of England continually revises its guidelines, as it has done recently, having had the guidelines endorsed by the General Synod of the Church of England. That is also why we have a full-time child protection officer at Church House, Westminster, as do most dioceses now.

The Church believes that creating a safe environment for children is the main way that they are protected. We are aware, as has already been mentioned, that most people who harm children have not been convicted. However, we use the Criminal Records Bureau, particularly for enhanced disclosures, as part of our recruitment procedures. I shall mention those briefly.

Enhanced disclosure is required for all ordinands before they are selected for training and also before they are ordained. All clergy are checked when they move to a new appointment; clergy already in post are gradually being checked; readers, sometimes called licensed lay ministers, and other people who hold a bishop's licence who are in contact with children are checked in the same way; all paid children and youth workers are also checked.

The Church has many thousands of volunteers working with children, and adults in regular contact with children. All those in regular contact with children, when the parents are not present, are gradually being checked at the appropriate level.

In order to achieve the highest possible standards, the Church of England and other Churches are committing time, resources and money which they can ill afford. Not only is there the cost of the salaries of the child protection officers but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned, there is the increasing cost through the raising of fees for these disclosures, which I understand are shortly to go up to £33 for each enhanced disclosure.

The noble Baroness mentioned sports organisations. All the money for this has to be found from Church of England congregations—through voluntary giving. I very much share her concern that this money could be used better by the Church and other voluntary organisations. Any streamlining of the service to make it less time-consuming and costly would be very much appreciated.

The new regulations to be put before Parliament clarify those eligible for an enhanced disclosure. However, we believe that the legislation and regulations continue to demonstrate rather less understanding of the place of volunteers in the care of children, in particular the often informal nature of much Church and voluntary activity—such as in churches with mixed choirs. We regard it as very important that the checks made on volunteers are carried through as professionally as is enhanced disclosure for paid professionals.

I strongly support the plea of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that we should tighten up our vetting procedures and that we have clear and compatible protocols across jurisdictions in the United Kingdom and the European Union. From the standpoint of the Church of England, we are fully committed to having the highest possible standards and to making our full contribution to those standards in the whole of our national life across the UK and the European Union.

8.26 p.m.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I am also most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House. Stopping unsuitable people from working with children is an important matter, especially from a Northern Ireland perspective. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, alluded to the fact that we are the only part of the United Kingdom with a land boundary with another EU state. With the very different vetting arrangements in the two parts of the island of Ireland, this creates some concerning loopholes.

The system of vetting in Northern Ireland carried out through the Pre-Employment Consultancy Service at the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, has existed in Northern Ireland for 22 years and has widely been regarded as leading other parts of the United Kingdom in vetting procedures.

Last year, legislation on vetting that had begun its life in the Northern Ireland Assembly passed through this House. The Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 replicated parts of the England and Wales Protection of Children Act 1999 and the Care Standards Act 2000. But significantly, and quite uniquely in the United Kingdom, the order dealt with the weakness found in the English legislation whereby there was no duty imposed on non-regulated childcare organisations to vet and report those dismissed for harming children.

The Northern Ireland order introduces the concept of "voluntary accreditation". This will apply to a range of community and sporting organisations, allowing the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to benchmark them against a number of child protection standards. These organisations, once accredited or "kite-marked", then acquire a statutory duty to vet and report staff dismissed or moved for harming children. I trust that the Government will note the developments taking place in Northern Ireland on this issue and I would be interested to know if the Minister is taking steps to strengthen the Protection of Children Act 1999 in line with the provisions on accreditation in Northern Ireland.

Differing provisions underpin the operation of vetting arrangements in each jurisdiction and the exchange of information. There are two matters that I should like to highlight. First, despite being enacted in 1997, Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom not to benefit from Part V of the Police Act. This provides a statutory scheme for the disclosure by the police of non-conviction information and is extremely important. While the Government have indicated that they will enact Part V, I am concerned at the lack of progress to date which will have serious implications for the roll-out of the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Northern Ireland) Order. I ask the Minister for an assurance that the Government will take immediate steps to ensure the implementation in Northern Ireland of Part V of the Police Act 1997 and that this is co-ordinated in conjunction with the commencement of the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.

Secondly, given the proliferation of legislation in each of the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom underpinning the operation of the Pre-Employment Consultancy Service, Disclosure Scotland and the Criminal Records Bureau, the exchange of information across bodies is a complex issue. I should like to ask the Minister for an assurance that each vetting bureau has full legal access to the lists of disqualified people held by each of those jurisdictions. Will she confirm that there are no loopholes in the systems that will allow a disqualified person in one jurisdiction to gain access to a vetted post in another?

As I indicated earlier, Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom with a land border with another EU state. This gives rise to loopholes. In the Irish Republic vetting has not been mainstreamed as in Northern Ireland. The Government there have established the Garda Siochana Vetting Unit, which carries out police checks on a limited number of posts. However, these checks are very inconsistently applied, and there is no equivalent of a procedural or statutory disqualification from a working-with-children list or provision of non-conviction information.

These anomalies create huge problems for adequately and consistently vetting staff working in Northern Ireland who reside in the Republic of Ireland. Moreover, problems are also created for sporting organisations which organise on an all-Ireland basis but which have to work with the very different vetting standards pertaining in the two jurisdictions. There is a real danger that adults unsuitable to work with children could manipulate these different systems. Indeed, we have seen with recent criminal convictions how an individual can pose a risk in both parts of the island of Ireland.

I would ask the Government to take urgent action to raise this issue with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin through the auspices of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and through the European institutional framework. The current Irish presidency of the EU would seem an opportune time to look at vetting in a wider EU context given the situation that exists and the problems that arise in the island of Ireland.

Before I finish, I understand that the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Nigel Williams, has proposed that there should be an overall review of vetting procedures in Northern Ireland, including relationships with other jurisdictions. Perhaps the noble Baroness will comment on whether the Government would welcome such a review.

Preventing unsuitable people gaining access to children through employment or volunteer posts is a very important part of a structure and system to ensure that children are protected when in the care and trust of others. I hope that the Government will take action to ensure consistency in the United Kingdom and across the enlarged European community.

8.33 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the gap. My interest in this issue is sharpened because I have recently been vetted to work with children by the Criminal Records Bureau.

Let me remind your Lordships of what Sir William Utting said in 1997 in People Like Us: The Report Of The Review Of The Safeguards For Children Living Away From Home: The best safeguard"— for children— is an environment of overall excellence". And yet I am reminded by leaders in social care that, on occasions, children who have been neglected and abused are still cared for by people who have difficulty in reading and writing, in addition and subtraction.

I simply add that the Government's emphasis on improving the recruitment, retention and quality of the social care workforce is vital to improving the protection of our most vulnerable children. I should like to put on record my warmest welcome for the attention they are paying to this area and for the commitment they are showing.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness for giving us a chance to discuss this important topic. We have benefited from her experience in the field and from the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on the European dimension.

In the light of the Soham case, numerous questions have arisen, in particular about the provisions of the Data Protection Act and the interpretation of them. It is clear that a good deal of confusion persists. I hope that Sir Michael Bichard's inquiry will go some way to answering these public concerns, and I am sure that noble Lords are anxious to see, hear and discuss Sir Michael's conclusions.

Meanwhile, the efficacy of the Criminal Records Bureau, as managed by Capita, the implications of the Data Protection Act and the collaborative sharing of information between local police forces in the United Kingdom and between EU member states remain key concerns. They combine to give a pretty confused picture. The extent of this confusion is demonstrated when one examines in a little more detail how the vetting process works in practice. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, we have had some very helpful briefings from the NSPCC and the Children's Society, among others. While the system sounds quite simple in theory, it has proved far more problematic in practice. Practitioners say that, while the CRB appears to be a smooth running operation, we need only scratch the surface to see that it is not quite so satisfactory.

The bureau was established as a public/private partnership between the Passport and Records Agency and Capita plc. Live services began in March 2002. Weaknesses in the business assumptions led to a great deal of subsequent criticism, particularly in the recent National Audit Office report. It was assumed in the business plan that between 70 and 85 per cent of people would apply by telephone to a call centre and that others would apply online. The assumptions had clearly not been adequately researched. It was found that over 80 per cent of applications came in paper form. Data entry screens were not designed for keying in details from paper forms, and staff were not suitably trained. There were also limits on the number of users who could access the system at the same time and links between the bureau and the Metropolitan Police systems were slow.

These technical problems were the results of poor research and the inaccurate assumptions of Capita and the Passport and Records Agency. Capita estimated low processing costs, which were far from realistic, and was paid an extra £1.7 million to manage these unexpected processing costs. But in total it was paid an extra £8 million for changes, extra costs of testing and delays in going live. The National Audit Office concluded that Capita had been fined a total of £3.7 million for failing to meet parts of its service agreement and at the same time had been paid more than £23 million up to January 2003. The result of all these figures is that fees for a check have been raised from £12, the level set in the spring of 2001, to either £28 or £33 from April 2004. The service is now expected to break even sometime between 2005 and 2006, that is a year later than expected, and it will cost the taxpayers an extra £68 million. Of course, as several noble Lords have pointed out, one of the prevailing concerns is the rise in the cost for disclosures. With further increases in prospect, there are many child welfare organisations that will be hard hit by the charges for checking. According to the Criminal Records Bureau regulations, the CRB is proposing to show on its website the surcharges levied by umbrella-registered bodies because, in its words, this approach will allow market forces to operate more effectively by compelling high charging Umbrella Bodies either to reduce their fees or to de-register". That is a hit rich from a body that is not subject to market forces, and which has increased its charges by 250 per cent in two years of operation.

Obviously, costly checking will not help to improve the vetting system. However, there are other areas of concern that are potentially even more detrimental. The security of the recorded data is clearly of vital importance. On 12 February I received a Written Answer concerning this issue from the Minister who is to reply to the debate tonight. She said: it has at all times been the intention that, in terms of data protection, security and other aspects, the arrangements for processing data should entail no material increase to the risk of misuse of data".—[Official Report, 12/2/04; col. WA 173.] The use of "intention" and "no material increase" gives me some cause for concern. I hope that the Minister can be more positive when she comes to reply.

The Minister continued in another Written Answer by explaining that there are personnel in India involved in the processing of data for the Criminal Records Bureau. That may be one cause of her uncertainty. I draw her attention to an article by Mr Pete Warren in the Evening Standard on 9 February 2004, entitled "Criminals target India call centres for data". It highlights the concerns triggered by the Government's Trade Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, after chairing a meeting on 2 February about mass overseas outsourcing. It transpires that there has been a significant rise in criminals who target call centres in India for data. The article explains: If you are using people in a low-wage area, organised crime can afford to pay a lifetime's wages for data". We are not talking about limited information about an individual. Another reply from the noble Baroness, for which I was also grateful, stated: Work—consisting solely of manually inputting all personal information contained on Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) disclosure application forms (including the mandatory details such as the applicant's name, date of birth, current and previous addresses during the past five years, position applied for, the organisation concerned and details of the documents used as evidence of an applicant's identification, such as passport, driving licence and birth certificate)—is undertaken at a site in India".—[Official Report, 1212/04; col. WA 172.] That means that a comprehensive detailed record of a person's private life and records is inputted by a person outside the United Kingdom.

That is of particular concern when considered in conjunction with the 2001 individual learning accounts debacle. Run on contract by Capita, the scheme was scrapped in November 2001 after discovery of fraud and security failures in IT systems run by Capita. In the light of that, it is particularly worrying to imagine fraud and security failures in IT systems run for Capita and the Criminal Records Bureau in India.

I therefore want the noble Baroness to answer some questions. First, were the Government aware that the terms of the contract with Capita permitted it to sub-contract the work to another party—Hays plc—and that that party could carry out work outside the United Kingdom? Secondly, what is the Government's view now of Capita's operational performance, particularly in light of the increased fees charged? Thirdly, does she not agree that Capita appears to have submitted initially an unrealistically low bid in order to secure the contract from the CRB?

Although the Minister will no doubt argue that a number of those problems have now been addressed and resolved, strategic issues still persist. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, asked about interchange ability of data. It appears that the bureau still cannot access all potential sources of data, such as those held by HM Customs and Excise and the British Transport Police. The bureau's listings might not identify an applicant who has been under investigation by HM Customs for smuggling drugs or pornography—two examples that the Government often use—but who has yet to come to the attention of the police. Could the noble Baroness shed any light on whether steps are being taken to rectify that lack of cohesion?

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about Scotland. It has been reported that the cross-border legal loopholes have left Disclosure Scotland—the Scottish equivalent of the CRB—unable to access vital information about paedophiles and alleged abusers in England and Wales when carrying out checks on behalf of potential employers. Joanne Robertson, writing in the Sunday Times's Scotland edition on 21 December 2003, said: The loophole arose following the introduction of the Protection of Children Act at Westminster in 1999 … Separate legislation introduced north of the border resulted in the creation of Disclosure Scotland. However, it did not include a provision to allow employers continued access to List 1R, a register of suspected paedophiles in Scotland, or to the Protection of Children Act List held by the Department of Health". She concluded that, as a result, more than 350,000 people working with children in Scotland have not been subject to vital child protection checks". A spokesman for Disclosure Scotland has since commented that the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003 will close the cross-border loophole. However, that Act will not come into force until next month. Can the Minister confirm that the procedures to close the cross-border loophole are ready for implementation and that there will be a reciprocal transfer of relevant data between the Scottish records system and the English equivalent?

In addition, what are the links between the CRB and overseas crime databases so that the past credentials of a foreign language teacher or a sports coach working internationally can be checked with the same thoroughness as someone registered on the UK system? Is that to be changed? Is there to be full integration with the other European Union databases? Does the Minister know the condition of the criminal records bureaux in EU member states? The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, referred to, I think his word was, a seismic change. What about the countries which are to join the EU on 1 May? What do we know about the criminal databases in additional countries—Cyprus, the Czech Republic, and so on?

However, perhaps strategically the biggest cause for concern—it has been underlined by the news from Soham—is the uncertainty surrounding the interpretation of the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998. Extracts from that Act help to demonstrate how difficult they can be to interpret. Parts I and II of Schedule 1 to the Act spell out the circumstances in which personal data should be stored or deleted. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of Part I state: Personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date … Personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes". The key word must be "necessary". Without further details and explanation, how will the data processor or policeman know exactly what is "necessary"' Above all, how is it to be known when it is no longer "necessary" to keep the data? In that case, the devil more than ever is in the detail—and it is clear that the amount of detail here is unsatisfactory.

In conclusion, there are clearly numerous improvements to and clarifications of the vetting system that need to be implemented. The loophole in the cross-border system with Scotland must be dealt with swiftly as must the establishment of some form of cohesive approach with other EU member states. But, most importantly, we need a system that is clear and comprehensible to those who run it, within our own country. How can we be expected to initiate a unified system beyond England if we have not achieved this yet within our own borders? I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to these and other important issues raised.

8.47 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for initiating the debate and commend her and the NSPCC, Children First, and their Northern Irish counterpart for their substantial efforts in encouraging the development of this and the broader debate. I agree that the issue is about how we can prevent those who seek to take advantage of any perceived hole in the safety net which has been created for the protection of children. I am pleased that the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Harrison—they are NSPCC ambassadors—have been able to participate in the debate.

I begin by airing a slight note of caution. We must all be very careful not to overlook the need to protect and safeguard other vulnerable members of our society apart from children. Certainly we as a government do not. Some of the measures that we have put in place apply more widely than children and are designed to protect other vulnerable people too. In addition, we have introduced further measures specifically to cover other vulnerable groups. I have in mind, for example, measures taken by colleagues in the Department of Health under the Care Standards Act 2000 to regulate care homes, domiciliary care agencies and nurses agencies, which includes the vetting of staff. Much of that would impinge on children too.

However, we all recognise that the protection of children is of particular importance. Certainly it is a matter to which we as a government attach very great importance. It is a paramount consideration.

It may be helpful in setting the wider context to describe some of the steps that we have taken in the past five years. We need to look at the issue holistically. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was right in saying that we have to look at an environment of excellence which will help better to protect the children that we seek to safeguard. Therefore, it is important that we have tightened the law on the sexual abuse of children in the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

New offences have been created to protect children from abuse—for example, in the areas of grooming, child prostitution and pornography. We have strengthened the sex offenders register, including introducing a requirement for sex offenders to tell the police when they travel overseas. There were 21,413 offenders on the register on 31 March 2003. From May, offenders will need to notify the police whenever they intend to travel overseas for three days or more.

We have introduced new orders to protect children from grooming and to stop sex offenders travelling overseas. A new order will require sex offenders who commit offences overseas to go on the sex offenders register if they come to the UK. We have established MAPPA, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has referred. We have brought in disqualification orders prohibiting unsuitable people from working with children. Disqualification orders have been strengthened in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and we have introduced post-release supervision for up to 10 years for sex offenders. We have expanded places on sex offender treatment programmes, established a task force on child protection on the Internet and run awareness campaigns on the issue.

So, the Criminal Records Bureau is one part of that safety net and I know that the noble Baroness will say that when we go fishing we take all our rods with us. I heard the criticism made by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, which I respectfully suggest is mainly historical. A key element in the wider programme has been the establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau under Section 5 of the Police Act 1997. The noble Lord will remember that prior to that, arrangements for police checks agreed at national level with the Association of Chief Police Officers were restricted in two important ways.

First, checks were available mainly in relation to posts only in the statutory or public sector. Secondly, checks were restricted to posts which afforded, in the words of the main circulars, substantial unsupervised access to children. So, even in establishments where checks were available, there was only limited, selective access where it was judged that the risk was greatest. We all believed that that was not good enough and we needed to do better. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford commented on all the work done by the Churches to try to protect children. The people who were volunteering also had to be looked at.

For the first few months after it began operating in March 2002 the CRB suffered from initial operational problems. In the summer of that year the service improvement plan was put in place. Since autumn 2002 the CRB has achieved substantial and sustained improvement in performance. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, asks if we are satisfied that the improvement is sustained and real. We are. The CRB has now issued over 3 million disclosures. Its capacity is currently in excess of 55,000 disclosures a week and it is keeping pace with demand. Since last June it has consistently met its further standards of issue—90 per cent of standard disclosures within two weeks and 90 per cent of enhanced disclosures within four weeks. Across that period it has averaged 92.5 per cent and 92.9 per cent respectively and applications more than six weeks old, which at one stage were 70,000, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, will remember, are now below 1,000.

The Criminal Records Bureau was established in response to mounting pressure for greater access to information from police records—both across other interested sectors and in relation to a wider range of posts within bodies which already enjoyed some access to police checks. The CRB now offers the capacity for between two and three times the number of police checks that were available hitherto.

It is important to say that CRB disclosures are not a panacea. Under a convenient one-stop arrangement, the CRB provides information about convictions, cautions, reprimands or warnings recorded on the police national computer and information on whether the individual is recorded on the Protection of Children Act—POCA—list and List 99, both now maintained by the Department for Education and Skills, of people who are unsuitable to work with children. And in the case of the highest level of disclosure—enhanced disclosure spoken of by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford—information comes from local police records which in the judgment of the chief police officer is relevant to the purpose for which the disclosure was being sought.

Disclosures are intended to supplement and certainly not to replace other forms of check which have long been part of a good recruitment practice and must continue to do so. Checks such as taking up references and inquiring into previous employment history, if properly undertaken, are more likely to yield more information—and more meaningful information—but clearly CRB disclosures may provide information which is particularly material to a recruitment decision.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, will the noble Baroness answer the question that I raised? When the CRB began, did the Government anticipate that much of the data inputting would be done in India?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is right to say that it was not necessarily anticipated before the whole scheme began. The decision to outsource the inputting work to India was taken only after the most careful scrutiny of the security and data protection implications. It has always been the objective that there should be no material impact on security and data protection. Arrangements have been rechecked to ensure that they remain sound.

It is right that we should have the smoothest, most efficient, most effective system possible. Of course I hear the comments the noble Lord made about outsourcing to a country where the amount of payment is low. However, he knows very well that, relatively speaking, this work is paid very well in India and the quality of the people dealing with it are of a high standard. Many of them have degrees and so forth and it would be invidious to make a comparison between the standard of education and opportunity that we might have for people checking in one jurisdiction from another.

A number of important issues were raised and I should be delighted to answer the noble Lord in great detail. However, time will prevent me so doing and I hope that he will understand that.

This year the Scottish Executive is putting in place an equivalent of the POCA list used in England and Wales. This is being introduced in phases beginning around May, with referrals from bodies such as the General Teaching Council for consideration for inclusion in the list. The second phase from around July will introduce referrals from courts. Under the final phase in the autumn, other organisations will be able to make referrals. The plan is that Disclosure Scotland will be able to access our POCA list and List 99 from around May.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, asked about the Northern Ireland situation. Separately, a list broadly equivalent to the POCA list will be introduced in Northern Ireland, replacing the Pre-Employment Consultancy Service register managed by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. This is due to come into force towards the end of the year. An order-making power is in place which will enable Disclosure Scotland to access the Northern Ireland list once it comes on stream.

We have made it clear that Part 5 of the Police Act 1997 is to be implemented in Northern Ireland. No date for its implementation has yet been given, but colleagues are actively considering how best to implement it. There is legislative provision in place to enable Northern Ireland to access the POCA list and List 99 when Part 5 is in force there.

We are committed to introducing legislation as soon as there is legislative opportunity which will enable the CRB to access the lists of people unsuitable to work with children which are being introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is intended that the same legislation will enable Northern Ireland to access the new Scottish list. Together with the provisions already in place, this will complete the network, enabling checks to be carried out across the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, asked about the review. I understand that colleagues in Northern Ireland intend that a review of vetting arrangements should be conducted in collaboration with the Commissioner for Children and Young People in the light of the findings of the Bichard inquiry into matters arising from the tragic events in Soham. Colleagues will be making an announcement about this and about preparatory work by the relevant departments in Northern Ireland. I hope that that answer will give the noble Lord a little pleasure.

A very important issue was raised about the European dimension further afield both by my noble friend Lord Harrison and by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. In today's world, there is greater movement of people between countries. My noble friend was right to say that it is a great opportunity in widening Europe, but there are also some dangers in that. This is especially true in the European Union. Issues arise about checks on people from outside the UK wishing to come here to work.

The CRB is not empowered to search databases outside the UK for conviction and other information shown on its disclosures. In fact, inquiries made about arrangements in force in other countries showed both how varied they are and how complex it would be to introduce widespread arrangements to link up with the records in a range of other countries. The CR13 has taken the initiative by establishing what it has termed its "overseas information service". This is for the benefit of employers who are considering recruiting staff from outside the United Kingdom.

The service provides detailed information about the arrangements for checks in other countries including where such information can be obtained, how to go about obtaining a check, the cost and the time taken. At present, 17 countries are covered, including 10 in Europe. The possibility is currently being explored of extending the service to a further 14 countries, including 12 in Europe. We are also exploring with our European partners how arrangements for collecting and sharing information on those who are a sexual risk to children can be improved. In some such areas the United Kingdom leads the way. There is much that we can learn from our partners, but also much that we can share with them.

As a first step, we are hosting a seminar for members and accession states in London on 18 March to consider how we can take forward work on this issue. That seminar will be an important opportunity. I say to my noble friend Lord Harrison that it will give us the opportunity to test the waters. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness will know that not all our partners in Europe are as enthusiastic as we are about this issue. They see challenges, and they have concerns. We would love to be able to address those concerns and talk to them. The seminar will be an ideal vehicle for us to use to make that assessment as to how much further or other encouragement or work may be necessary.

It is an important area, and I know that I only have a few moments left, but I should like to touch on some of the important questions that I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord. I hope that noble Lords will indulge me with just a couple of minutes so that I can give some answers.

The noble Baroness asked me when we will have a compatible system across the United Kingdom. VISOR, which is the violent and sexual offenders register, is as the noble Baroness will know, a national database that is currently being developed. It is hoped that it will cover Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales. The system is due to be rolled out in England and Wales at the end of this year. The database would provide access for police and probation officers across the United Kingdom to records on dangerous offenders, which will be helpful and important.

The noble Baroness and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford raised the issue of volunteers. We have no plans to change the current systems in Scotland and Wales. The situation in England is on a different scale. It is necessary to consider how beneficial such arrangements would be. We continue to have dialogue with the sector to identify the most appropriate and most effective means of accessing the CRB services. It has always been the intention of the CRB, as noble Lords will remember, that it should be self-financing by means of charges. In future years, this will certainly be the case. It has been necessary to subsidise the CRB through payments by the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Department for Education. Our aim is that the CRB should be self-funding by 2005–06. This is a year later than originally planned. The most recent fee increase of £4 per disclosure from April 2004 is the next step towards this target, reducing the level of Government subsidy and increasing the contribution made by CRB customers. My noble friend asked about the 2001 study undertaken by the University of London. It has been the starting point for our seminar, which I mentioned, on 18 March. However, we are not considering extending that research programme by commissioning further research and reports. Instead, we have gone to each of the EU countries for an update of their system and to see where they are.

We are working with the NSPCC and others to advance the issue in Europe, where the UK is driving the issue. As I said, we have said that that is a good way forward. Issues arise relating to Europol, but we must recognise that our EU partners will need a little, if not a great deal, of persuading to adopt similar measures. As I said, the seminar will provide an opportunity to do that.

I really have run out of time. I hope that I have covered most of the main themes raised in the debate. I see signs that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, may or may not be satisfied, but, notwithstanding the fact that I could doubtless keep your Lordships here for long time answering all his questions, I shall write to him on all the matters that I have been unable to cover.

In conclusion, it has been a privilege to participate in the debate. This is an important area. As I have said, we are certainly not complacent. We are keen to pursue measures both within the UK and across Europe to strengthen the protection of children through the sharing of criminal records and other information. To that end, we continue to put in place links between the different jurisdictions in the United Kingdom for sharing conviction information and information about people disqualified from working with children. We are also examining with other EU states how arrangements for sharing information can be improved.

I very much welcome this debate, thank the noble Baroness and apologise for speaking with such rapidity.

House adjourned at seven minutes past nine o'clock.