HC Deb 16 January 1992 vol 201 cc1207-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

9.55 pm
Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

I am glad to have the chance at a comparatively civilised hour to draw attention to the particular problems facing teachers dealing with allegations of child abuse. I should make it clear at the outset that I act as a parliamentary consultant to the Professional Association of Teachers and that much of what I shall say tonight will be based on the practical experience of PAT members. I should also convey the regrets of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) that he cannot be present this evening. He also advises PAT but is presently abroad carrying out his duties in the Council of Europe. Nevertheless, he has asked me to make it clear that he strongly supports the case that I seek to make.

In considering the problem of child abuse, we all have the same starting point. Nothing must stand in the way of the safety and well-being of our children. Any acts of ill treatment, harm or abuse must be detected quickly and properly punished. Teachers clearly have an important role in relation to child abuse. They can become personally involved in any of three ways. First, a teacher may discover evidence of non-accidental injuries or other abuse of a child at school. Secondly, a teacher may witness, or be told about, an act of child abuse by a colleague at school. Thirdly, and most seriously, a teacher may be accused of abusing a child under his or her care at school.

On the first issue, teachers are obviously in a crucial position to detect cases of abuse of children in their care. They are well placed to see the changes of behaviour that may indicate abuse, as well as to observe any physical evidence. Children see more of their teachers than any other adults, apart from their parents. Teachers are often highly respected and children will confide in them. Above all, teachers are trained to listen and to talk to children. After all, that is their job.

Nevertheless, figures provided by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children suggest that the number of child abuse cases reported by teachers remains comparatively low. Between 1983 and 1987, schools and educational welfare officers were responsible for initiating only 12 per cent. of total registrations of child abuse cases. From 1985 to 1987, only 10 per cent. of all registered children, 14 per cent. of physically abused children and 10 per cent. of sexually abused children were initially referred by schools.

Clearly, the effective training of teachers to deal with child abuse issues is crucial. The experience of PAT, which seems to be borne out by the NSPCC, is that, while some authorities provide excellent training, others seem to do virtually nothing.

There is a particular need for teachers with special responsibility for child protection to be trained in multi-agency working and procedures. Many teachers simply do not feel integrated into local child protection networks. The demands for in-service training generated by the many needs of the Education Reform Act 1988 may well have overshadowed the need for training in child protection. There is a real concern that local management of schools will add to these pressures and that training in child protection will be given only low priority.

In 1989, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children published a "Guide for Teachers", which said: A child sitting in class today could be 'tomorrow's tragedy'. Teachers must be helped to recognise abuse and have the confidence to know what to do about any concerns. Sadly, that remains as true in 1992 as when it was written in 1989.

That brings me to the next area of concern. A teacher who suspects that a colleague has acted improperly towards a pupil must not be deterred from disclosing his or her concern because of fears about the effect on employment prospects. Protection against unfair dismissal is available only to employees with two years' continuous service; anyone dismissed before then has no recourse to an industrial tribunal—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

Mr. Cartwright

Anyone dismissed before then has no recourse to an industrial tribunal, either to claim unfair dismissal or to require the employer to provide written reasons for dismissal. The Professional Association of Teachers has produced details of a particularly disturbing case in which a teacher in the independent sector was summarily dismissed very rapidly after making serious allegations against a colleague. Despite the support of parents, of fellow teachers, of priests and even of two hon. Members, one from each side of the House, that teacher was refused a hearing before the school governors and had too short a period of service to seek the support of an industrial tribunal. That may have been an extreme and, I hope, isolated case, but it underlines the need to ensure that teachers are not deterred from voicing concerns through fear of reprisals.

I now turn to the third and what I think is the most worrying issue, the position of teachers falsely accused of abusing children in their care. PAT has drawn to my attention a number of cases of teachers whose professional and personal lives have been virtually destroyed as a result of allegations made against them by children, allegations either subsequently withdrawn or shown to have absolutely no foundation.

The comparatively limited publicity that this debate has already generated has meant that a number of other cases have been brought to me, and the factors in all those are very similar to the ones given to me by PAT.

The teachers' accounts of what happened to them make disturbing reading. In two recent cases, the first that the teachers involved knew about the accusation was when the police arrived at their homes without warning, searched the premises and took away quantities of personal possessions. That surely cannot be right. I ask the Minister to consider what impact that has on innocent people and their families.

In every case that I have examined, the police were involved at a very early stage, before any serious attempt had been made either to assess the reliability of the allegation or to give the accused teacher a chance of refuting it.

In two cases, the matter was given swift local publicity. I quote from the graphic account of the wife of a teacher who suffered a false accusation of this kind: An article about the allegation appeared in heavy type on the front page of the local newspaper and the headline was on the hoardings outside the newsagents. The article gave no names, to protect the child, but my husband was quickly identified. In a town twenty miles from the school the story was that he was guilty and had been sacked. In every case the accused teacher suffered a lengthy period of suspension before being told that the allegation had been withdrawn or that no proceedings would be instituted against them. All the personal accounts that I have read convey a sense of isolation, an absence of professional support, and the sheer despair generated by this experience.

All the accounts underline how difficult it is for a teacher to return to work after such a traumatic experience. As one of them put it: Teaching is all about trust between an adult and children. That relationship must be different now after the experience of being arrested and held in jail for 10 hours. Nor should we overlook the impact on the wives and families of accused teachers. One teacher put it graphically: Fortunately we have a secure relationship. Had this not been the case it could have resulted in an empty house for me to return to and a divorce eventually. None of the teachers whose cases I have examined are seeking any special protection for teachers; nor is the Professional Association of Teachers. Clearly the safety and well-being of children must be paramount, but it is simply not acceptable that a teacher accused of something as abhorrent as abusing a child in his care should be assumed to be guilty, unless or until his or her innocence can be proved. All allegations made by children, either directly or through parents or another teacher, must be considered seriously. To do less would be a dereliction of duty.

However, we must also accept that children can distort facts. Not only are children capable of fantasising about reality in an amusing way; young minds are also capable of making serious and damaging allegations against adults. Anyone accused in that way is surely entitled to expect, at an early stage in the investigations, some basic testing of the child's evidence. For example, quick but reliable checks could be made on the basic aspects of the complaint. Details such as the date, time and place of the alleged incident ought to be checked. Such basic initial assessment should be carried out before there is any question of the police being brought in.

If, as is almost inevitable, the accused teacher has to be suspended, that ought to be confirmed in writing, with the reasons set out. There should also be a clear statement that suspension is without prejudice and does not imply any presumption of guilt.

There must be strict confidentially. That is an absolutely essential protection for all concerned. Newspaper stories can be both distressing and inflammatory. As we all know, it is all too often the case that the initial accusation is given lurid headlines, while the subsequent clearing of a teacher's good name goes totally unreported.

Teachers accused of child abuse should be offered support and counselling during what may be a distressing and lengthy period of suspension. Anyone reading the accounts of teachers who have been through that appalling experience cannot fail to be affected by their feeling of being totally abandoned and of their resulting frustration and bitterness. It should be possible for the local education authority to arrange such support, either directly or through a specialist agency, rather than merely ignoring an employee in his or her hour of need.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman and linking what he just said to his statement earlier that 14 per cent. of referrals had come from schools. Is he suggesting that the 14 per cent. of referrals from schools were the result of alleged abuse on the part of a teacher? Surely that cannot be true. Have I misunderstood?

Mr. Cartwright

The hon. Gentleman is confusing the source of the reporting rather than the source of abuse. I was relating the fact that teachers are in a good position to see abuse that occurs in other situations. It would be a great mistake to suggest that the teacher who reports abuse is responsible for causing it. That is exceedingly unlikely.

The sort of elementary rights which I have described ought to be laid down in child protection procedures. I appreciate that the Department of Education and Science takes the view that such matters are best left to education authorities or to governing bodies. However, PAT experience has been that, all too often, there are no special arrangements locally to deal with complaints of child abuse. The procedures are all too often simply those which relate to normal staff discipline cases. They are not adequate, especially given cases in which teachers are accused of abuse and found to be innocent.

It is true that the DES has published revised guidelines about the role of the education service in child abuse cases. Those are laid down in the booklet, "Working Together Under the Children Act 1989", which was published last October. That advice does not tackle the concerns which I have been trying to outline tonight and which PAT expressed during the consultation exercise last summer. I regret that.

Teachers feel that they are in a vulnerable position on this issue. One teacher, who was subsequently cleared of all charges, was told by the detective inspector who brought him the good news: "You must change your teaching methods. It's the kind of world we live in. You have to watch your own back." If that is true, it is a sad reflection on our society. I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some hope that teachers accused of something as abhorrent as child abuse will be able to depend on the system of natural justice.

I conclude with the final comment of another teacher cleared of all allegations because it is so typical of all the sad cases that I have examined: There was no apology, no public clearing of my name, not even any compensation for the nightmare we had lived through. According to the DES it is an unfortunate consequence that a teacher suspected of child abuse is suspended and subjected to a long wait while investigations are carried out, but if the allegation is a false one, then everything will be put right when the teacher is reinstated. I am now expected to return to teaching as if nothing had happened. But every area of my life has been tainted. A stain has been put on my character; my integrity has been questioned and that will remain with me for the rest of my life. That strikes me as an appalling indictment of the way in which we handle an admittedly difficult problem.

If these injustices are not to be repeated, we must have clearly laid down procedures which ensure that "innocent until proved guilty" is fully honoured in practice as well as in principle.

10.10 pm
Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) on raising the subject and for doing so very sensitively. As one with teachers in my immediate family and a close involvement with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, I venture to say a few words.

Alas, there are cases such as the hon. Gentleman has described where children fantasise with the distressing and sometimes tragic results that the hon. Gentleman has told us about. Clearly, every step should be taken to minimise that. Sad to say, there are still thousands of children who are abused by their parents and by relatives. Teachers have an important role to play in identifying children who appear to have been subjected to abuse—physical abuse, sexual abuse or sometimes emotional abuse which is difficult to identify—or simply children who are at risk of such abuse.

Teachers see a great deal of children. They can spot minor injury, the poorly clothed child, the underfed child, the child who seems reluctant to go home, or the child who has few friends. There are also children with learning difficulties which may have been caused by some form of abuse. I am not suggesting that learning difficulties are caused automatically by abuse, but sometimes that may be a symptom.

Is the Minister satisfied that teachers receive training in how to recognise signs of child abuse, and do they know what steps they should take in such cases? I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware that the NSPCC provides literature, including the guide to which the hon. Member for Woolwich has referred. The NSPCC also runs training courses for teachers and others on this difficult and specialist subject.

I simply ask the Minister to urge all local education authorities to ensure that all their teachers have adequate training in how to recognise possible cases of child abuse and that they follow the correct procedures in such cases.

10.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Michael Fallon)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) for affording the House the opportunity to consider the issue of child abuse. Over the last few years, the Government have taken a strong lead in improving the efforts to protect children from abuse. The relevant Departments—notably, the Home Office, the Department of Health as well as my Department—work very closely together, mirroring the co-ordination of effort at local level between the police, health, social and education services.

The "Working Together" doctrine, to which the hon. Member for Woolwich referred, embodied in published central Government guidance with that title, is widely known and respected. For my Department's part, we made very firm recommendations to the education service in 1988, at the time of Lord Justice Butler-Sloss's report on child sexual abuse in Cleveland. Our paramount concern was then, and has continued to be through various further measures since, with protecting children.

The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) raised a number of points about training, to which I shall reply in detail in writing, because I wish tonight to concentrate on the particular matter to which attention has been drawn, the position of teachers accused of child abuse.

Naturally, I have every sympathy for the innocent teacher who suffers personal agony and blight as a result of unjustified suspicion of having perpetrated abuse on a child, and I recognise that that can be a deeply unpleasant experience. But we must start from the position that, sadly, there have been instances where individual teachers have betrayed the trust placed in them and have committed child abuse.

Where a child makes an allegation, it must be investigated and the correct procedures followed. It is sensible in cases involving an allegation of serious misconduct for the member of staff to be suspended pending full investigation of the case. I am happy to confirm that such suspension is not, and need not be seen as, a disciplinary penalty. It is a prudent measure allowing time for a proper and dispassionate investigation of the charges that have been made.

I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman that it is in everyone's interests for allegations to be investigated without delay, and conclusions reached as soon as possible; but it may be necessary to call on the skills and expertise of a number of different agencies and individuals. In complicated cases, investigations may often—for the best of reasons—take some time. The interests of the individual teacher are best protected if there is a thorough and careful examination of all relevant aspects of the case.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)


Mr. Fallon

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not give way.

Those are matters for the employers of teachers and for the investigation agencies. It is for the employer to decide whether disciplinary action is to be taken and, if the offence is serious, for the police to decide whether a prosecution is to be brought. For maintained schools, the Education Reform Act has clarified and simplified lines of management, notably the arrangements that must be followed when a teacher is dismissed.

I agree that, when a teacher has been suspended pending an investigation—and may be wholly innocent of the charges that have been levelled—it behoves the employer to consider what support and counselling that teacher needs, and perhaps whether alternative work can be found, not involving direct contact with children, while the matter is investigated. But that is a matter for individual employers in the light of the circumstances of the case.

I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that, in cases of that kind, ill-informed press reporting is extremely regrettable and can be very damaging indeed. Careless or salacious press reports can cause untold misery. A teacher may subsequently be cleared of the charges laid, but what remains in the public mind, nationally and locally, are the original allegations and innuendos. I hope that certain newspapers will consider much more carefully the wider implication of the way in which they report these cases. If they pander to prejudice and idle gossip and smears, they can do untold damage.

The Secretary of State takes extremely seriously his particular responsibilities in relation to the protection of children in schools. Where independent schools are concerned, under the Education Act 1944 the Secretary of State has power to serve a notice of complaint if he is satisfied that the proprietor of the school or a teacher employed there is not a proper person to be the proprietor or to be employed as a teacher at a school. He can also serve a notice of complaint if he is satisfied that the proprietor is failing in his duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children at boarding schools.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Fallon

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not giving way. I have a lot to get through.

We have examined carefully the procedures for protecting children in independent schools following the Crookham Court case and some other widely publicised cases in residential schools. Much of that was in preparation for the full implementation, last October, of the Children Act 1989, but I would also wish to give credit to Ms. Esther Rantzen's programmes about Crookham Court school, which have done much to bring to everyone's attention the horrors which can be perpetrated on schoolchildren. Her campaign on behalf of children at risk of abuse influenced the amendment of the Children Act to impose a duty on proprietors of independent boarding schools to safeguard and promote the welfare of pupils.

Just before that, in April 1990, the Department's registrar of independent schools wrote to head teachers and proprietors reminding them of their statutory obligation to report dismissals or resignations of teachers on grounds of misconduct. That letter gave guidance about the arrangements for checking the possible criminal background of prospective employees and repeated the Department's strong advice that all schools should make use of the facilities.

The Education (Particulars of Independent Schools) Regulations have been amended to require proprietors of schools to report the dismissal or resignation, on grounds of misconduct, of non-teaching staff as well as teachers, so that the Department can also consider barring them. The effect of this will be to widen the net to include staff other than teachers who come into close contact with children.

The Department continues to work closely with the Department of Health to make effective the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of pupils placed on proprietors or those responsible for running independent schools with boarders. In particular, social services department inspectors, during their inspections of schools under the new provisions of the Children Act, which came into force in October, now look for evidence that appropriate checks have been made on the appointment of new staff.

My Department is today sending all boarding schools copies of the social services inspectorate's practice guide on the implementation of the new welfare duties under the Children Act. It contains further, practical guidance on all aspects of pupils' welfare—including the prevention of child abuse. It emphasises proper training for staff in this matter, as in all other matters.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Fallon

I am sorry, but I shall not give way.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Speaker


Mr. Fallon

Records are also being kept to monitor the volume of inquiries from independent schools about the confidential list of barred teachers. This information, together with the records kept by the Department's teachers misconduct division, will in future give us a clearer picture of the use that independent schools make of the facilities to check new staff.

Where it comes to the notice of the Secretary of State that there is immediate concern about the welfare of pupils at an independent school, we now also consider bringing the known facts to the attention of all parents or of agencies that place pupils in the school. Those measures should help considerably in tightening up on possible child abuse in independent schools.

The Secretary of State does have a direct role to play in individual cases of misconduct by teachers, but that is different from the employer's role and comes at a later stage. His responsibility is to consider individual cases of misconduct reported to the Department and to decide in each case whether it would be appropriate to exercise his power under the Education (Teachers) Regulations 1989 to bar the person concerned from teaching and from work within schools or the youth service involving regular contact with children.

If a person is barred, his or her name is then added to the Department's list 99. That is a confidential list of people who have been barred by the Secretary of State, which is circulated to local education authorities, organisations representing independent schools, and other bodies concerned with the employment of teachers. At present, there are about 1,500 names on it.

All cases of misconduct reported to the Department are given very careful consideration. That is particularly true of cases of offences, or alleged misconduct, involving children. That is only right. Parents have a right to expect that their children will be safe when they send them to school, and the protection of children must be a paramount concern. However, I agree with the hon. Member that that concern must be balanced with the right of the teacher concerned to a fair and objective decision, taking full account of his or her representations and all relevant information about the matter.

The Department's procedures are very carefully designed to balance the need to ensure that children are protected from unsuitable persons with the need to ensure fairness for the teacher and to observe the rules of natural justice. The Department is not an investigative agency—that is the role of the police and, where appropriate, local social service departments—but where barring is a possibility, we always attempt to obtain as much information as possible about the offence, or alleged misconduct, from those agencies or from the teacher's employer.

An individual being considered for barring is entitled to submit written and oral evidence and may submit a medical report. These procedures inevitably take time, but teachers who are faced with the prospect of being barred—perhaps for many years—from their chosen profession must have a full opportunity to put their side of the case to the Secretary of State.

It is also important to recognise that the Secretary of State cannot, and does not, bar anyone without proof. Where the teacher has not, in fact, been convicted of a criminal offence the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the allegations of misconduct are substantiated. He cannot act on the basis of unsupported accusations or suspicions. We need firm evidence to support or corroborate the allegations as a basis for action. But where there is such evidence, and where the allegations are substantiated, we do not hesitate to bar the individual concerned from teaching and from work involving regular contact with children. This is, as I think the hon. Member acknowledged, a difficult and often time-consuming business and I would like to give the House a brief glimpse of it.

Mr. Skinner

Before we get on to that point, what redress has Kay Black, who worked at an independent Catholic school in the county of Derbyshire, who made allegations about child abuse and who was sacked within six months? There were police inquiries and she has had no redress. The Department of Education has had the case; it has done nothing whatsoever to help her. We have all these glossy booklets, but Kay Black is without a job. That happened in March 1989. She still has no employment. She is in Derby city hospital now having an operation.

It is high time that the Government were prepared to do something instead of waffling on. They should do something for Kay Black who, because of the Government's own employment laws, was not able to complain of unfair dismissal as a result of making allegations about child abuse. Having made those allegations, she has finished up without a job. The Government must get something done and let us have legislation to allow people like Kay Black to get jobs.

Mr. Fallon

The hon. Member has made his point and packed a number of allegations into it.

Mr. Skinner

It is all true.

Mr. Fallon

It may well be. I shall certainly look into that matter.

Each year, we receive about 350 reports of misconduct, of which about a fifth concern offences or alleged misconduct involving children. Each is investigated as thoroughly and as fairly as possible by a small team of officials in the teachers' misconduct division. I pay a tribute to them for their dedication and commitment to what is often quite unpleasant work. As a result, in the year ended March 1991, some 54 people were barred from teaching, 41 of them for misconduct involving children.

I hope that the House will accept that no system, however conscientously and thoroughly it is applied, can be guaranteed either to prevent misconduct or to prevent allegations from being falsely and unfairly made. Our procedures have been considerably tightened up over the last two years, partly in the light of the Children Act 1989 and partly in the light of a specific number of cases, mainly in independent schools and, indeed, mainly in boarding schools.

I fully accept the statement by the hon. Member for Woolwich that those procedures must be fair, and must be seen to be fair, to the teachers concerned. Equally—and I think that the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst reminded the House of the balance to be struck in these matters—we have to put in the forefront of our minds the paramount concern in these matters, which is the protection of the child. In the way that the agencies co-operate on the ground, in the way that we liaise with the other Departments in Whitehall and in the way that we investigate these cases and apply the procedures that I have outlined, we seek to be as fair as possible to all concerned.

I can give the hon. Member for Woolwich the assurance that, during each investigation, the interests of the teacher are borne in mind. We always remember that there is a career at stake, a chosen profession at stake; and each case in which an individual is considered for barring comes for ministerial decision. I can assure him from my own experience over the last year and a half that that is not a decision that is taken lightly. It has to balance the interests of the teacher, the seriousness of the allegations, the investigation that has taken place and the interests of the child.

10.29 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

A teacher who makes allegations about child abuse in an independent school such as the one to which I referred earlier is treading dangerously. I am sure that Kay Black decided to try to make it clear to the people concerned that something needed investigating. But because she worked in an 'independent school, the LEA could not intervene.

In the last minute of this debate, the Minister should state that any future legislation will cover independent schools as well as LEA schools so that people like Kay Black can get redress—

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half past Ten o'clock.