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Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2006

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2006

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12 June be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, a draft of this order was laid before Parliament on 12 June 2006. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 allows ex-offenders not to disclose certain old, spent convictions in an effort to improve their employment opportunities and reduce reoffending. The exceptions order to the Act ensures that employers and bodies offering positions, professions and licences of a more sensitive nature would be excepted from the general rules and able to access an applicant’s full criminal history before reaching any decision. Passing this amendment will ensure that the exceptions order remains up to date and maintains its function asa safeguarding counterbalance to the rights that ex-offenders enjoy under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

Ministers made a commitment last September to exempt some in-house football stewards from the need to be licensed under the Private Security Industry Act 2001. We therefore seek to amend the exceptions order to give the CRB the legal authority to carry out checks on football stewards at the request of the Football Association or Premier League. The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, recently tabled an amendment to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill that would exclude football stewards from the 2001 Act, a matter mentioned by the noble Baroness earlier. The Government are considering this, alongside responses received to the recent consultation, as I have already indicated, and will decide whether exemption remains the best course of action. In the mean time, this amendment is needed to meet our commitment to introduce these CRB checks before the new football season starts. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12 June be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

My Lords, we have a clean sweep, as I thank the Minister and I am going to support the order. It certainly appears to be an uncontroversial measure. I am grateful to the Minister in particular for explaining why there is a reference to the Football Association in the order and for linking it with the changes that it is hoped we might achieve in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill.

In addition, can the Minister answer another query of mine, of which I gave prior notice? I was intrigued by the drafting of paragraph 25 in the amendment to Schedule 1 on page 3 of the order. I wonder what the intention is behind it, as it refers to:

“Persons who in the course of their work have regular access to personal information relating to an identified or identifiable member of the judiciary”.

I wonder which persons that is intended to cover. I declare an interest as my husband, although not a full-time judge, sits as a deputy High Court judge in the family division and from time to time as a recorder. I am thinking of magistrates more generally as well, given that there are more than 30,000 of them. They are covered as members of the judiciary because of the definition of “judiciary” in this order.

It is possible to interpret paragraph 25 very widely indeed, as it looks as though it would cover people who are responsible for keeping health records in a GP’s surgery of a primary care trust. I am sure that that is not what the Government intend, but if judges are registered there, they are certainly identifiable as members of a judiciary, as are magistrates. I wonder why those information banks, or people working in them, would be excluded from the definition in paragraph 25. I suspect it may rest on the definition of public or private information, but I should be grateful if the Minister could explain.

My Lords, this order is apparently the first since 2003 to amend the coverage of positions, licences, bodies and proceedings which qualify for disclosure of spent conviction information. There is always a balance to be struck between encouraging the reintegration into society of ex-offenders as far as possible, and protectingthe public by lifting the confidentiality of spent convictions so as to minimise potential risks to the public.

The Explanatory Memorandum assures us that every addition to the list has been,

“consulted upon within the industry affected”,

and it would be a waste of time for us to second guess that process, which I take it covers non-governmental organisations with an interest in each particular industry. As an illustration, I imagine the Government will have consulted with organisations concerned with disability and the disabled about the proposal regarding the carers of vulnerable adults, when reports have surfaced recently that unsuitable people are being employed.

I have been looking at the report of the inspection by the Healthcare Commission and Commission for Social Care Inspection of the authorities in Cornwall, in which they said that the scale of abuse was the worst that the inspectorates had come across. They found during the course of the investigation evidence of staff hitting, pushing and dragging people who are supposed to be in their care, as well as withholding food, forcing patients to take cold showers and so on. Obviously, the application of this order to those people is an absolutely essential safeguard for the people who are being looked after, and I hope that it will hope to improve the situation in authorities such as Cornwall.

I noticed that the words “contractor” and “sub-contractor” are used in relation to the courts in paragraph 7 of the order. How can we ensure that any such persons are aware of their responsibility to check on their employees' antecedents? Will they be sent a notice drawing the relevant provisions of this order to their attention, and can the Minister say anything about how contractors referred to in previous orders have complied with their obligations?

Finally, as regards proceedings in respect of a direction under Section 142 of the Education Act 2002, can the Minister say why this was not dealt with in the 2003 order, and whether she does not agree, especially bearing in mind her comment that exceptions have to be kept up to date, that bringing orders to Parliament every three years is too inflexible a way of dealing with situations that may require prompt action?

My Lords, I will deal first with the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. I suppose I too should declare an interest. Although I am currently a Minister, I am told I am still a deputy High Court judge in waiting, so maybe at some stage I will have an interest in this.

With regard to the staff, this is really to ensure that personal secretaries and assistants to judges in courts are covered in a way that is appropriate.

My Lords, I understood that would be the intent from the way those paragraphs fall in the list. However, does the Minister not agree that the actual drafting is open to wider interpretation? I put that down as a marker. I would not want another order to have to be drafted to remedy it. I do not wish to make any difficulty tonight, and I certainly support the making of the order, but I feel there could be a concern.

My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness’s concern. I am assured that that concern has no foundation because the amendment refers specifically to the judiciary and the definitions of “members of the judiciary”and “personal information” on page 5 provide clarification. It is the combination of these wordings that restricts the order to its particular function and ensures it is not broadened. That is how that has been dealt with. However, I will ensure that the parliamentary draftsmen have that anxiety pointed out to them so that on the next occasion, if there is a lacuna in any other statutory instrument, the noble Baroness’s wise words can be taken into account.

Regarding contractors and sub-contractors, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will know that the courts employ various people to undertake various typesof unsupervised activity in court buildings. It is necessary to ensure that such people are background-checked by the various officers of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. With regard to Article 9(a), the proceedings under the Education Act 2002, the paragraph that the amendment substitutes referred to the regime of determinations under the previous legislation. The amendment brings the law up to date.

I understand why the noble Lord would say that we should look at these orders more often than every three years. The exception order is subject to constant review in order to ensure that it has kept pace with changes in employment and public risks. When weaknesses are identified we move to amend that order. I hope that reassures the noble Lord that with regard to those matters we can act expeditiously and appropriately.

Vulnerable adults are increasingly an issue of acute concern. It is for that reason that they have not been included. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults Bill is currently before Parliament and it is not appropriate to introduce any amendments until the Bill has become law. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that this is a matter of concern to us. He was quite right to take this opportunity to highlight their innate vulnerability. We will have an increased volume of CRB checks over the next three years. The majority will result in a home inspector addition. It is a newly created occupation.

These are appropriate changes that we need to make in order to ensure that the system we are putting in place is as effective and tight as we can make it. I hope I have answered all the issues raised by the noble Lord. I am looking through my list to see whether I have forgotten anything, but I do not believe I have. On that basis, I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 9 pm.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.42 to 9 pm.]