HC Deb 23 July 1985 vol 83 cc865-8

The following questions stood upon the Order Paper:

2. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement about corporal punishment in schools.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Sir Keith Joseph)

The Government will not proceed further with the Education (Corporal Punishment) Bill during this Session and will now consider the appropriate course for the next Session.

Mr. Bennett

Will the Secretary of State confirm that at the moment any teacher who applies corporal punishment to any pupil without the parents' consent would be extremely foolish and would be unprofessional, as he would be in contempt of the European Court ruling? Will he also confirm that it could lead to the Government spending anything up to £120,000—the equivalent of 13 or 14 teachers' salaries—in defending such a case, and to the pupil receiving substantial damages? Will the Secretary of State make it clear that no teacher should apply corporal punishment where the parents disapprove? As the Conservative party claims always to be the upholder of law and order, what steps will the right hon. Gentleman take to implement the court ruling, as the Government have already had four years to consider this matter?

Sir Keith Joseph

The teachers, along with all other citizens, are subject to the law of the land. As for the options before the Government, I have told the House that we are considering, for the next Session, which of the options to take.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that a large number of hon. Members on both sides of the House, many people in the teaching profession and many parents are pleased that the Bill is going no further? Does he further accept this does not represent some silly, Left-wing plot, and that corporal punishment is not the prerogative of the far Right? Is it not time that far more sense was talked about this issue in the House.

Sir Keith Joseph

I must say in support of my hon. Friend—although only to a limited extent—that there are many parents and teachers who, on the whole, would prefer that the right of moderate corporal punishment should remain within the decision of parents and teachers. That having been said, we have an obligation to the Court, to which we have subscribed, and the Government are considering the options.

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

Now that the Bill is not going through, which we welcome, will the Secretary of State for Education and Science devote the time that he would have spent on Third Reading and Report to resolving the teachers' pay dispute?

Sir Keith Joseph

I wish that my time alone could solve the teachers' pay dispute.

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, contrary to the suggestion of the Opposition, the present law is as it always was and that nothing that has come out of Strasbourg changes the position of this country?

Sir Keith Joseph

That is what I tried to say in answer to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who asked this question.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Is it not utterly disgraceful that the Government should have introduced such an unworkable Bill which everbody knew, ultimately, they would have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to get rid of? I see that on the Front Bench Ministers are smiling, but did we not in the Standing Committee warn them of the unworkability of the Bill? Is this not proof that the vast majority of the Government's policies are similarly unworkable and that they should withdraw all of them?

Sir Keith Joseph

In fact, the Bill passed its Second Reading in the other place without a Division.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Now that he is quite rightly dropping this ludicrous Bill, will my right hon. Friend look at another option that he rejected on Second Reading, which is to do nothing?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Sir Keith Joseph

My hon. Friend gets a certain amount of support for suggesting that which this country has never done, that is, to break a treaty obligation.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

Has the Secretary of State taken on board the fact that he was warned on Second Reading that his Bill was completely unworkable? Now that he has had recourse to common sense, will he give instructions that no corporal punishment will take place until there has been another debate in this House?

Sir Keith Joseph

Even if I wished to do so, I have no such power. It is this House that controls, subject to the courts, the law. As for common sense, I never pretended that the exemption proposals that lay behind the Bill were without problems. But abolition has its problems, too, since we should not like to override the views of a large minority, if it be a minority, of parents and teachers who would prefer to keep the option.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Does my right hon. Friend not accept that corporal punishment is an essential and vital sanction in schools? Does he not also accept that, without discipline and structure, little progress can be made in education? Will he therefore introduce legislation into this House to enable corporal punishment to continue in our schools, in accordance with the wishes of the majority of teachers and parents?

Sir Keith Joseph

I should like to agree with my hon. Friend, but there are two reasons why I cannot do so. First, many schools seem to achieve order and discipline without the use of corporal punishment. Secondly, we have a treaty obligation.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Would it not be fair to say that the Secretary of State has deserved and got, in his own words, a moderate thrashing on this subject? What has he learned?

Sir Keith Joseph

I have learned a proper sense of respect for the decisions of both Houses of this sovereign Parliament.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Does my right hon. Friend accept, without mincing words, that one of the root causes of football crowd disorder and complete lack of respect for authority is the lack of discipline in the home and definitely in the schools? If that is accepted, would it not be sensible, for once, to defy the conventions of Europe and reintroduce corporal punishment into our schools to try to restore order and discipline to this country?

Sir Keith Joseph

I agree with my hon. Friend's objective, but I do not quite share his self confidence in the diagnosis.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Secretary of State not agree that the freedom of parental choice in these matters, which was secured by the European Court, should not be put in question by any further decision of the Government about the right of petition to the Commission which the Government will have to take in the next Session of Parliament? Will he give a guarantee that, whatever may be the Government's views about renewing the right of individual petition, he will bring the law of this land into conformity with the judgment of the European Court?

Sir Keith Joseph

If we did not accept such an obligation, we would not have introduced the Bill and I would not have spoken of deciding which option we should follow next Session.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the whole episode is a tribute to the wisdom of the other place, and that the role played by the Upper House in our constitution has been more than amply fulfilled by this excellent example? Therefore, will he give very long and careful thought before introducing any other Bill which could run into the same common sense in the Upper House?

Sir Keith Joseph

I say yes, with qualifications, to the first part of my hon. Friend's question, but I can agree with the second part.

Mr. Reg Freeson (Brent, East)

In all seriousness, is it not a sad commentary on Britain, which has such a proud record of civilised values and standing, that almost alone among west European countries we should still be debating this issue? Why does not the right hon. Gentleman introduce a one clause Bill to abolish corporal punishment, and fall in line with all other civilised practices?

Sir Keith Joseph

That would run against the views of a substantial minority of parents and teachers, and I think that this House should hesitate before encouraging the Government to do that.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that his job would be much easier if we gave six months' notice to leave the EEC?

Sir Keith Joseph

My hon. Friend's comment would be more suitably addressed to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, but I have heard it.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the vast majority of parents and teachers are opposed to the abolition of corporal punishment, particularly until suitable alternatives have been thought out? Will he resist Labour and Liberal party pressure which is designed to take us to a Swedish situation in which five-year-old children are encouraged to take their parents to court for smacking them?

Sir Keith Joseph

There is ample evidence from this short debate that the differences of opinion here are reflected in the country as well.