HC Deb 08 June 1998 vol 313 cc738-48 5.15 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

I beg to move amendment No. 84, in page 8, leave out lines 14 to 18.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 12, 13, 85, 96, 97, 14 to 33 and 99.

Mr. Byers

I extend a warm welcome to the occupants of the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Members for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May); I hope that they will occupy their shadow positions for many years to come.

The amendments relate to the procedures that are necessary to bar teachers from entering the teaching profession. Tomorrow, we shall have the opportunity—in line with the recommendations of the Business Committee—to discuss in some detail the powers and responsibilities of the General Teaching Council. The amendments before us today enable us to consider what responsibilities the GTC should have, and reflect the Government's disagreement with the recommendations coming from the other place and our view that child protection matters should remain to be considered by the Secretary of State. We feel it appropriate for the GTC to have powers over the conduct of teachers and on the question of teachers' competence or otherwise—

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

Before my hon. Friend gets into his stride, I wish to intervene on a general issue involving the General Teaching Council. I know that my hon. Friend has been actively considering education jobs moving to York now that the Funding Agency for Schools is moving away. May I say publicly what I have said privately to my hon. Friend, which is that I believe that the GTC would be an appropriate body to be sited in York, partly because of its size and partly because in my view it needs to be away from the mainstream of the Department for Education and Employment to illustrate its independence and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman wants to speak at such length, he should wait and make his speech later.

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend has been a doughty campaigner for the Funding Agency for Schools and for retaining employment in York. I regret that our decision did not go in favour of basing the new framework department in York. Instead, we decided that it should be placed in Darlington. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the potential for the GTC to be sited in York. No doubt there is a strong case that can be made on behalf of York—and no doubt my hon. Friend will make it. Decisions about the location of the GTC will be made over the next few months. I assure my hon. Friend that we will take into account the strong representations which he has already made and which he will no doubt make over the months ahead.

The amendments deal with the role that the Secretary of State should continue to have in the barring of teachers from the profession. A number of commitments were given in Committee, and the amendments reflect several points that were made from the Government Benches and by the Opposition, who raised a number of concerns about the detail of the implementation of procedures for the barring of teachers. The amendments reflect the positive contributions made by all members of the Committee.

For the benefit of hon. Members, I shall briefly outline the existing provisions for the barring of teachers from the profession. At present, the Secretary of State has the power to bar any individual from employment by a local education authority in a school. It is not restricted to teachers, but applies to classroom assistants, caretakers and youth workers—anyone with involvement in a school and contact with children attending it.

In discharging those responsibilities, the Secretary of State must put the interests of children first, especially in child protection matters. That is why there is provision that anyone convicted of a sexual offence involving a child under 16 will automatically be barred from the teaching profession. All hon. Members would agree that that is wholly appropriate, but in cases that fall short of a criminal conviction, there is discretion about whether an individual should be barred as a teacher or from carrying out any capacity or responsibilities in a school.

That discretion is currently exercised by the Secretary of State. The House of Lords, however, proposed that the power to bar for child protection reasons should be taken from the Secretary of State and handed over to the General Teaching Council. The Government have grave concerns and reservations about handing over such an important responsibility to the untried and untested General Teaching Council, which is why I shall invite hon. Members to reject the proposals from another place and agree to the amendments, under which child protection matters would remain the responsibility of the Secretary of State.

In dealing with those matters, the Secretary of State considers representations made on behalf of individuals, who can submit written representations, testimonials, character references and, where necessary, medical and other reports. The aim of the Secretary of State, and of Ministers who have responsibility for deciding such cases, is to achieve an overall picture of the conduct of the individual. In arriving at a decision, we do not require proof beyond reasonable doubt, which is the normal test in a criminal case. We believe that, even though evidence may fall short of that, there will be situations in which an individual should be barred from a school and from working in it if the interests of children are to be put first. Ministerial decisions are made on that basis, and there is no right to appeal. An individual may apply for judicial review, however, if he believes that the Secretary of State has exercised his responsibility in a way which should be challenged.

In exercising those responsibilities, we have always put the interests of children first. Many hon. Members and parents will be concerned at the scale of the problem and the number of times annually that the Secretary of State has to consider whether an individual should be barred from taking part in classroom activities. In the 12 months to 31 March 1997, the Department dealt with no fewer than 458 misconduct cases: in 125, individuals were barred from a school and from taking part in activities, and 12 individuals had employment restrictions imposed on them. That clearly shows that we are not considering only isolated cases. Unfortunately, hundreds of cases a year—the majority concerning misconduct in relation to child protection matters—have to be dealt with by the Secretary of State.

We believe that it is right and proper that that responsibility should remain with the Secretary of State. The Department maintains a list of people who are barred or restricted from teaching and from being involved in school-based activities, which we refer to as "List 99". Hon. Members will be surprised to learn that more than 2,100 people are on it at present. The majority have been barred from teaching or from classroom activities for child protection reasons, so the scale of the problem is considerable. The Government will not ignore it. Copies of "List 99" are issued to local education authorities, to further education college corporations and to other organisations representing employers in the education service. We are all responsible for ensuring that individuals on "List 99" are not involved in school-based activities.

The Government have a responsibility to ensure that no one slips through the net. There are concerns, which were expressed in Committee, that a number of lists compiled for child protection purposes operate in various Departments. The Department for Education and Employment has "List 99", and separate lists operate in the Department of Health and the Home Office. I am pleased that the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), announced last Thursday that we are to establish an interdepartmental group of officials to consider the additional safeguards that are necessary to prevent unsuitable people from working with children.

The aim is to have a co-ordinated approach to ensure that we can establish a central register, which will be backed up by a new criminal offence, to prevent those on any register applying for work with children. I hope that the initiative will be welcomed by hon. Members.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Private schools, institutions and nurseries, where it is far more difficult to get control, were mentioned in Committee, but have not been addressed in the Bill. Can the Minister assure hon. Members that he will consider those organisations carefully, to ensure that we can offer the same protection to children in that sector as we do to children in the state sector?

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Individuals on "List 99" are also barred from teaching in independent schools. I am happy to give notice that if we discover an independent school employing an individual on "List 99", we shall take steps, not only in relation to the individual, but in relation to the school.

We have powers to serve a notice of complaint and to strike a school off the register of independent schools, and we have certainly exercised them since I have had responsibility for the matter. We have moved against individual independent schools that have not regarded child protection matters as being as important as they are and struck them off the register, which means that they can no longer act as independent schools. We shall exercise that power in any situation where we think that the interests of children are not being put first. That applies to the independent sector as well as to the maintained sector, for which we have responsibility as well.

5.30 pm

Although it is important that the General Teaching Council should be a single unified voice for the profession, it is the Government's view that it should not have responsibility for child protection matters. The House of Lords took a different view, but we believe that the public have a right to expect a coherent and rigorous system for barring people who are unsuitable to enter schools. It would have been wrong, misguided and dangerous to adopt the proposals from another place, which would have fragmented the child protection system by passing those responsibilities to the General Teaching Council.

The General Teaching Council should have a more clearly defined role as regards regulation of the profession, however. Schedule 2 provides for the council to determine those cases that involve unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional incompetence, but reserves child protection matters for determination by the Secretary of State. More than half the cases that come before the Department concern child protection matters; they will remain the Department's responsibility. Many of the other cases have little or no child protection dimension and those will become the responsibility of the General Teaching Council. In a small number of cases where it may be difficult to define the classification, it will be for the Secretary of State to determine whether the issue involves matters of child protection: if it does, it will continue to be reserved to the Secretary of State.

We shall place on employers a requirement to report to the General Teaching Council when they have dismissed someone on the ground of misconduct or incompetence, or when a person has resigned when he or she might have been so dismissed. Amendment No. 13 ensures that a teacher cannot tender his or her resignation in order not to be reported on the ground of incompetence or misconduct. That important safeguard closes a loophole that would otherwise exist.

A teacher must always be entitled to put his or her side of a case at a hearing to determine whether he or she should be barred from the profession. The Bill at present requires that teachers will have legal representation before any hearing of the General Teaching Council. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) raised that issue in Committee. He was concerned that the provision was overly restrictive in terms of a friend's accompanying a teacher. The Government agree with that view. It would be inappropriate to restrict the provision solely to legal representation. Amendment No. 17 makes it clear that a teacher can be accompanied by anybody of his or her choice, rather than someone from a legal background alone. That will be bad news to many Members of this House who are in the legal profession, but it is right and appropriate in these circumstances to widen the classification of those who can accompany an individual teacher.

The General Teaching Council should be able to strike teachers off the register for serious professional incompetence as well as unacceptable professional conduct. That corresponds with the powers of most professional bodies, particularly the General Medical Council. Indeed, we have based many of the proposals before the House this evening on the GMC model.

We intend that the General Teaching Council will be entitled to act only when a teacher has been dismissed on the ground of incompetence or has resigned to avoid such dismissal. The council will then consider the case and decide whether the incompetence demonstrated is so serious that it should be taken forward with a view to striking the teacher concerned off the register or placing conditions on his or her practice as a teacher. However, the new powers that we are giving the General Teaching Council will in no way cut across the new capability procedures now being adopted by local authorities and school governing bodies throughout the country. It will be for individual governing bodies to judge a teacher's competence or otherwise, and it will be the responsibility and right of a governing body to dismiss the teacher.

Nothing in the powers that we intend to give the General Teaching Council will cut across that obligation and responsibility on a school governing body. We intend to ensure that, where that incompetence is so grave, the General Teaching Council should have the power to strike the teacher off the register so that he or she can teach in no other school.

Schedule 2 sets out the range of sanctions that will be open to the General Teaching Council. Again, they reflect the powers made available to other professional bodies. The sanctions will be graded to respond to misconduct or incompetence of differing levels of severity. Schedule 2 would allow the General Teaching Council to issue a reprimand to attach conditions to a teacher's registration, to suspend registration for up to two years, or to strike a teacher off the register—the ultimate sanction. Those powers will provide the General Teaching Council with a full and substantial role in regulating the teaching profession. I believe that that approach will be welcomed by teachers and the wider public.

People who are disciplined by the General Teaching Council should have a right of appeal, and the Government have been considering what arrangements should be put in place. We have now tabled amendment No. 28, which provides that individual teachers will be able to lodge an appeal with the High Court within 28 days of receiving notice of a disciplinary order. That reflects the arrangements that apply north of the border, where teachers may appeal to the Court of Session against a decision made by the General Teaching Council. I am advised that, since the GTC for Scotland was established in 1966, there have been only two appeals, so we envisage that the number of appeals will be small.

We seek to close a further loophole by means of amendments that have been tabled this evening. Teachers may commit offences abroad. Where those would have been considered offences in the UK, we want to ensure that they can also be considered. As the law stands, it does not allow us to do so. Amendments Nos. 15, 23, 30 and 31 will achieve that objective and close what could be a significant loophole. When the General Teaching Council investigates and hears disciplinary cases, it will need to have the power to assess all the necessary and relevant documentation, to require witnesses to attend, to give evidence and to administer oaths. That is in keeping with the powers of other professional bodies, and we intend to give such powers to the General Teaching Council. Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 do precisely that.

In addition, the General Teaching Council will have the power to impose conditional registration orders on teachers found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional incompetence. Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 make it clear that such an order might involve the teacher having to incur expenditure to comply with those requirements. For example, a teacher may need to undergo further training or be required to attend in-service training. In those circumstances, it is wholly appropriate for the individual to bear the costs.

This is an important area. By means of the amendments that we are tabling this evening, and by reversing the defeat that the Government suffered in the House of Lords, this House will put the interests of children first. Where child protection matters are concerned, we must be eternally vigilant. By providing the Secretary of State with a continuing role in child protection matters, we shall be able to guarantee our children the security that they deserve. The amendments will do that, and I commend them to the House. I hope that, although the House may divide on other issues this evening, this raft of the Government's proposals will command support from members of all parties.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I thank the Minister for his kind words of welcome, but must say that, as a result of his well-known facility for figures, he has his numbers wrong again concerning the number of years that we Conservatives will be on the Opposition Benches.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate from the Front Bench. I suppose that many hope that, when making their first such speech, they will be able to set the political world on fire by making a speech to which reference is made in hushed tones for generations to come.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

Have a go, then.

Mrs. May

Were it my intention to make such a speech, Government amendment No. 84 would not have been my chosen starting point.

As the Minister made clear, the amendments raise several very important issues. I turn to the responsibility for child protection, and ensuring that those who are in charge of our children and young people in schools are entirely suitable. The Minister has set out why he believes it is important that the child protection regime should be maintained and that such powers should not go to the General Teaching Council. I fully appreciate that, given that the GTC is untried and untested, it would be risky to give it such powers and take them away from the Secretary of State.

The Minister spoke about putting the interests of children first, which, of course, is important. Given that responsibility for dismissing teachers on various grounds will be split between the GTC and the Secretary of State, we must ensure that arrangements work properly and fully and that there is no danger of any information or decisions falling between two stools. I note the interdepartmental group, although it is not clear whether it will consider ways of making certain that decisions on teachers will not fall between two stools, thus enabling teachers to continue teaching even though they are not suitable. I hope that the Minister will consider that issue to ensure that procedures are appropriate.

Mr. Byers

Rather than spending time dealing with that specific point in my winding-up speech, I shall deal with it now. Decisions on the matter will be reserved to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will determine whether the GTC has responsibility for a matter, although if it is one of child protection, the Secretary of State will determine it. With the Secretary of State as the central authority, making the decision on allocation, the difficulties to which the hon. Lady refers should be overcome.

Mrs. May

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention, which goes part way to resolving my concerns. I still wish to leave the issue on the table because there will always be suspicion when one body deals with instances concerning professional misconduct and health of teachers, and another deals with child protection issues. If the GTC is found to work well and is respected in the teaching profession, I hope that the Minister will not close his mind to the possibility of child protection issues being under its remit. Would it be necessary to introduce further legislation to enable that or, if everybody agreed that it were appropriate, would it be possible simply to pass the responsibility over under existing powers?

In response to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), the Minister referred to the Secretary of State's responsibility in child protection matters for determining the suitability of teachers in independent schools. Will such responsibility also apply to people who look after children and young people in the out-of-school homework clubs that the Government are introducing? It is possible that all such people may not be members of the teaching profession. It is therefore necessary to ensure that the same rules, regulations and protection apply in such circumstances.

5.45 pm

Government amendment No. 13 would provide that information could be given to the Secretary of State or the GTC for England or for Wales in respect of dismissals for misconduct or incompetence, or on medical grounds, or where people resign in circumstances where their employers would have dismissed them, or considered dismissing them, on any such grounds". I am concerned about circumstances in which an allegation is made against a teacher, a governing body considers whether it is appropriate to continue to employ that teacher, and the teacher takes early retirement or resigns due to concern about the case, even though the case would have been dismissed as entirely unreasonable and the teacher would have been exonerated. In such circumstances, a person might want to return to work. As I understand the amendment, information about the initial consideration would be on record but, because the case had not been heard properly, its result would not. Will the Minister respond to questions concerning justice and fairness in that regard?

I should like to raise a technical point about amendments Nos. 84 and 99; it concerns who can put their hands into teachers' pockets for GTC registration fees. I am sure that the Minister will say that he made it clear in Committee that the sums of money concerned are very small. I think that the sums quoted were £10 or £20. That may be so today, but a possible increase is not precluded.

I am concerned about the Government's definition of employer, especially in relation to a debate in Committee on the School Standards and Framework Bill, with which the Minister will be familiar, about the relationship between local education authorities and education action zone forums. In an EAZ, teachers may, effectively, be employed by two bodies. Given the definition that the Minister is intending to insert into this Bill, it certainly seems to me that it is intended that the EAZ forum will also have the opportunity to be the body taking money out of teachers' pockets. I look to the Minister for confirmation. How will duplication be prevented when a teacher is employed by both bodies?

As the Minister has said, several of the amendments are technical. The Government are proposing important changes in disciplinary procedures concerning the GTC. We shall tomorrow have a wider debate on what it is appropriate for the GTC to do. I accept that, as the Minister said, the House will be wary of a body, which is not tried and tested, dealing with the very important issue of child protection. If the aim is that the GTC should develop into a body that maintains professional standards in teaching, it may be necessary to consider giving it child protection powers. I hope that the Government will at least keep their minds open on that possibility and not simply dismiss it out of hand.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

I shall be brief, because there will be a wider debate on the powers of the General Teaching Council tomorrow. I may be unique in this House, in that I have served on a General Teaching Council. How can that be? I was an elected member of the General Teaching Council for Scotland—a post I had to give up, reluctantly, on my election to this place. In Scotland, the General Teaching Council—founded in 1966—works extremely well, although I must admit that a number of teachers in Scotland were against it at the time.

I welcome the strengthening of powers to enable the General Teaching Council for England and for Wales to be able to strike a teacher off. I served on the investigation committee of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, which looked at any allegations to see if there was a case to answer. The committee had all the information in front of it, but took no evidence from the individual. The committee merely looked at whether there was a case to answer before passing it on to the disciplinary committee, the quasi-legal committee which took the case forward. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, only twice has the appeals mechanism to the Court of Session in Scotland been used in such cases.

It is right that the General Teaching Council should be able to strike teachers off. It sounds draconian, and it is something which one should not do lightly—that is the case in Scotland. Moves have been taken after a great deal of deliberation, but that has meant that there is confidence about the teaching profession in Scotland. The teachers themselves would not want any body other than the GTC to be taking those decisions.

I wish to refer to the issue of an appellant being accompanied by someone other than a lawyer. In Scotland, someone from the teacher's trade union will often accompany the teacher, and there is no reason why a friend cannot come along. That makes things much easier for any teacher who is going through what is, for them, a stressful situation.

I welcome the amendments, and tomorrow we will debate why it is so important to have the General Teaching Council for the good and well-being of the teaching profession in England and Wales.

Mr. Byers

With the leave of the House, I shall reply to this useful debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) for sharing with hon. Members her personal experience of how a General Teaching Council works in practice. It is interesting to note that Scotland has had its General Teaching Council since 1966. If all goes well, we hope to establish one covering England and, probably, a separate one for Wales, by 2000. That is another example of where Scotland leads, England and Wales eventually follow.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) raised a number of detailed points about the way in which we intend to develop the General Teaching Council, and I shall try to deal with them all. She referred to the important issue of ensuring that there is an individual with clear responsibility 'for dealing with child protection matters, and ensuring that, under shared responsibility, no individual can somehow slip through the net.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead touched on a very important point—one which we have considered in some detail. We must ensure that the practical difficulties to which she referred do not apply to the Bill. That is why we have taken the view that the Secretary of State should determine whether the General Teaching Council or the Secretary of State should deal with the matters. The Secretary of State will not deal with a matter of conduct or competence, which will go to the General Teaching Council. The Secretary of State is likely to deal with purely child protection matters, and will take decisions in such cases.

The interdepartmental group—which my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office announced last Thursday—is working across Departments, and not just within the Department for Education and Employment. The group recognises that, at the moment, a number of different Departments have responsibility for child protection matters and operate their own registers to bar people from working with children.

Our concern is that a register in, for example, the Department of Health is not accessible by the Department for Education and Employment. Schools or FE colleges may be unaware of an individual registered for barring purposes by the Department of Health. We want to establish a central register so that no one slips through the net in terms of child protection. The interdepartmental group has been set up specifically to establish such a central register. That will go a long way toward ensuring that we do not have the loopholes which apply at present.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead asked whether the General Teaching Council might, in due course, take responsibility for child protection matters. As the Bill is at present worded, new primary legislation would be needed if the view was that the General Teaching Council should have responsibility for child protection matters. The matter would need to come back to the House. Some would say that that is disappointing, and that we should give more responsibility to the General Teaching Council.

In child protection matters, we should be cautious. I am prepared to see how the General Teaching Council develops over time. If the view is that it would be appropriate to give the responsibilities to the General Teaching Council, the matter should come back to this House for a decision.

To assist in the process, we intend to involve the General Teaching Council in child protection cases from its establishment. We would like the General Teaching Council to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on child protection issues so that it can be involved, consider matters and make recommendations. There is no guarantee that the Secretary of State will agree with the recommendations, but it is a way of involving the GTC.

Over time—when the GTC becomes tried and tested—we may well be able to hand over responsibility for child protection matters to the General Teaching Council. If so, it is only right and proper—in the Government's view—that the matter should come back to this House to be dealt with by fresh primary legislation.

In terms of out-of-school homework clubs and a range of activities out of traditional school hours—such as expanding summer schools or work before the normal school day starts—existing legislation and the Bill will cover those developments. The message is clear. There is no escape from proper scrutiny. The strict regime that we are proposing will apply to any activity that is school-based and involves children of school age—at no matter what time of day or night it takes place. That is right and proper.

The sort of individuals about whom we are concerned will use any opportunity which may be available to them. If they can see a chink in the armour, they will exploit any loophole. Protection will be there for any school-based activity at any time of the day, and at weekends.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead referred to amendment No. 13 and expressed concern at the way in which it is worded, as it simply talks about an individual who resigns being considered for dismissal. There was no alternative to that wording. If someone wanted to escape disciplinary proceedings by resigning, the matter would obviously never be determined. Striking the right balance was difficult, but it will be for the General Teaching Council to consider whether, in the circumstances, a person would have been dismissed. We felt it appropriate that, rather than allow someone to exploit the device of resigning before the matter is determined, the matter should go to the General Teaching Council or to the Secretary of State. We believe that the inclusion in the Bill of the words "considered dismissing" represents the way forward.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead is right that the Bill contains a wide definition of the employer. We want to cover all eventualities, as we are not sure how the school system will develop in the months and years ahead. Some of us have clear views on how it should develop—fingers crossed—but I am delighted that the definition in the Bill covers all eventualities.

The amendments are important. I make no apology for giving them 45 minutes of debate, as they raise important matters that will affect hundreds of children every year—we should put those children's interests first. I hope that the House will agree to the amendments so that we can move on to the next group.

Amendment agreed to.

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