HC Deb 26 March 1998 vol 309 cc675-6
11. Mr. Efford

What steps he is taking to ensure the welfare of children in independent boarding schools. [34904]

Mr. Byers

All independent boarding schools are required by statute to safeguard and promote the welfare of their pupils, and are subject to regular inspection by local social services departments. We are currently consulting on the recommendations in the Utting report regarding safeguards for children living away from home. We shall then announce what further steps we shall take.

Mr. Efford

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In an attempt to minimise the likelihood of further damaged individuals arriving on the Opposition Benches, and following Tuesday night's historic vote to ban caning in private schools, will my hon. Friend join me in expressing concern about the findings of the 1996–97 Office for Standards in Education report, which found that many independent boarding schools have significant weaknesses in relation to pupil accommodation and welfare, and that one quarter of schools do not have sufficient arrangements for checking individuals who have unsupervised access to pupils? Does my hon. Friend agree that parents who are considering sending children to those boarding schools should be made aware of those findings? In considering what future action to take, will he ensure that those matters are investigated properly and adequately?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend raises several important points, some of which are contained within the recommendations of the Utting report. It would be inappropriate for me to say at this stage precisely what our response will be, as public consultation on the recommendations closes tomorrow.

However, I can tell my hon. Friend that the Boarding Schools Association, which is the representative body of the independent boarding schools sector, is mindful of the adverse comments made in the 1996–97 Ofsted report and is making changes to the inspection regime to address those issues. I agree with my hon. Friend: all Labour Members were pleased to implement one recommendation in the Utting report and ban the practice of corporal punishment in independent schools.

Mr. St. Aubyn

On 1 May last year, the Conservatives won control of Surrey county council by the largest vote in at least 18 years. Will the Minister promise that his Government will not—to borrow a phrase from the Secretary of State's speech yesterday morning—cock a snook at the democratic decision of Surrey county council to build bridges between independent schools and the state sector? With a new system of partnership provision that draws on money from charitable sources and does not use funding that is needed for teachers and primary schools, it will successfully replace the former assisted places scheme.

Mr. Byers

Less than two hours ago, the hon. Gentleman raised that specific point with me. I offered him the facility of a meeting to discuss the Surrey plan. I said that I would take him through the Government's view and suggest any alterations to the plan that might be necessary in order to meet the Government's requirements. That offer stands, and I am pleased to make it on the record this afternoon. I hope that my word is good enough—even if it is not good enough for the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), I think it is probably good enough for the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn).

We want to build partnerships, but the Government's view is clear: we do not build partnerships between the independent and state school sectors by funding places to take children out of the state sector. That enforces divisions and does not create a partnership.