HC Deb 30 March 1999 vol 328 cc872-4 4.16 pm
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the anonymity of teachers, etc. accused of sexual offences against children in relation to whom they are in a position of trust; and for connected purposes.

Last year, 700 people attended the funeral of Nick Drewett, a 31-year-old teacher in my constituency. He was a popular, committed teacher who took his own life when facing charges of behaving improperly with pupils in his care. The master who was charged with him was subsequently acquitted.

A significant factor in Nick Drewett's decision to commit suicide was the sensational publicity that attended the investigation of the charges. Sadly, he is not alone. The National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers has had recent experience of three members who have taken their own lives in similar circumstances. Since 1991, there have been 974 police investigations into abuse allegations made against NAS/UWT members. In 792 of them, no grounds were discovered for prosecution. Publicity in 80 per cent. of those cases did serious injustice to innocent teachers. The Bill attempts to protect teachers from injustice that can do them permanent professional and personal damage.

There is a popular view that an allegation of child abuse, unsubstantiated by investigation, is in itself sufficient cause for concern to disqualify permanently a teacher from being in charge of children. There is little awareness that teachers are liable to be the victims of false or malicious allegations. It is therefore just to take measures to ensure that teachers as well as complainants undergo investigation with their identities protected. That is what the Bill aims to achieve.

I am grateful to the NAS/UWT for its help with the Bill and for supporting data. I am also grateful to the National Association of Head Teachers for its support. Teachers are particularly vulnerable to such allegations because of the nature of their job. Regrettably, often because of wide publicity given to cases, pupils know that such allegations can cost a teacher his or her job. Some pupils have had no compunction in seeking maliciously to make allegations against teachers whom they dislike.

The press has endless opportunities to obtain such stories. Cases are often reported to it at the investigation stage by a variety of people, including the parents of the child concerned, other parents who have heard rumours, and pupils. It is not unknown for the police to assist the press with its inquiries. Press coverage includes the usual harassment of those under investigation to obtain photographs and statements. The combination of sex and teaching does not make for restrained reporting. Sensational news stories are allowed to identify teachers.

Allegations against teachers are investigated under the Children Act 1989. The practical effect of its operation is to reverse the normal criminal law convention. Teachers are suspended and then investigated. The experience of teachers accused of child abuse is that they are presumed guilty by police and social services. In Nick Drewett's case, the assumptions made by the police, no doubt reinforced by the publicity, contributed to his depressive state. Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence?

The Bill would not mean that teachers were not suspended while investigations were carried out—a harrowing experience for innocent teachers—but it tries to deliver the simple principle of innocent until proven guilty in the climate that surrounds child abuse allegations today.

Bizarrely, the National Union of Teachers does not appear to support the principle of innocent until proven guilty for its members. It has declined to support the Bill as it will protect the guilty as well as the innocent … there is potential that the Bill could shield those guilty of serious crimes until after court proceedings are concluded". I find the contrast between the NAS/UWT and the NUT most marked. One organisation represents teachers and the other seems more concerned with politically correct posturing. It will be for teachers to decide which organisation best represents their interests, but members of the NUT will have to take comfort from the fact that their union believes that a Department for Education and Employment circular will restrain the press from traducing the reputation of innocent teachers and that an accurate controlled statement will stem the spread of gossip and local publicity". It appears that the NUT does not live in the same world as you and me, Madam Speaker.

Once publicity is given to a case, even after the teacher has been cleared, dismissal or inability to return to work are probable outcomes. Even where the school and its governors are supportive, the publicity can cause serious damage to the teacher. It causes major problems at home, at the workplace of the teacher's partner and at the schools of their children. Health breakdown is not unusual in such cases. The effects of the publicity are devastating not only for the teacher but for his or her family. Constructive dismissal can result because the teacher's position, as a consequence of publicity, often becomes untenable. For example, parents, having read the press coverage and operating on the principle of no smoke without fire, may choose to remove their child from the school. Governors often bow to that pressure.

If our objective is to make education top of our social priorities, the status of the teaching profession is central to that objective. That status should be reinforced and supported by our laws, not undermined by them. No longer should unsubstantiated publicity destroy a professional reputation built up over years, if not decades. If the climate of suspicion and anger that surrounds allegations can be restrained by limiting publicity to the issues and not allowing it to extend to personalities in advance of conviction, the Bill should allow the genuine allegations of sexual abuse to be made more readily. The current system, while it serves to blacken the reputation of innocent teachers accused, also ensures a sensational and sometimes hysterical atmosphere, in which a child and the parents must deal with reporting an offence. That hurdle to reporting an offence would be reduced by the Bill.

The Bill would not only assist teachers and pupils directly involved in allegations of sexual abuse, but contribute to a climate of support for the profession as a whole. Teacher training colleges continue to report a shortage of men training to become primary school teachers. There has been much discussion about the consequences of the absence of male role models for many children, not least those of single mothers. However, if we encourage a climate of paranoia and suspicion, it is hardly surprising that many young men are unwilling to enter the profession. The Bill offers the profession some protection against false allegations and it should lead to men more readily entering the profession and doing so with more confidence.

There is injustice when the principle of innocent until proven guilty is in effect overturned by publicity. There is a general principle of open, transparent justice, but when the sensational handling of cases has the effect of undermining justice, the requirement for open justice must be balanced by the requirement for justice itself. Victims of sexual offences are already accorded that protection.

I hope that the House will accept my Bill as a way of preventing more victims from being created among the teaching profession by salacious publicity in the media climate in which we all have to operate.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Crispin Blunt, Mr. Robin Corbett, Mr. Ian Bruce, Mr. Ian Cawsey, Mr. Graham Brady, Mr. Nick St. Aubyn, Mr. Gerry Steinberg, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. John Bercow, Dr. Phyllis Starkey and Mr. Tim Loughton.