§ 9.36 p.m.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 26th February be approved [8th Report from the Joint Committee].
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this Motion perhaps I may first draw to your Lordships' attention a typographical error in the draft order. Under the heading "Transitional provisions", paragraph 6(3)" should read "8(3)". This does not affect the meaning of the draft order. A corrigendum was placed in the Printed Paper Office on Monday. I apologise for that error.
§ The proposals before the House seek to amend Schedule 18 to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Section 67 of, and Schedule 18 to, the Act govern appeals against exclusion of pupils. Paragraph 18 of the schedule empowers my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to amend the schedule if necessary. Your Lordships will be aware that schools can permanently exclude pupils when serious indiscipline occurs. The 1998 Act contains safeguards for schools, children and parents. Under the Act, the process of exclusion begins with the head teacher's decision, which must then be reviewed by the school governors. Where the governors uphold the exclusion but the parent remains unhappy, the final safeguard is an independent appeal. All these steps are governed by a statutory timetable that is designed to ensure rapid decisions.
§ This amendment concerns exceptional cases where there is good reason to delay the decision process. The circumstance we most want to provide for is where the excluded pupil is also subject to criminal proceedings. The amendment itself is quite straightforward. Paragraph 8(3) of Schedule 18 currently provides that parents of permanently excluded pupils, or excluded pupils themselves if they are aged 18 or over, may ask the local education authority to set a date for the hearing of their appeal that is later than the statutory latest date, which is 15 school days after the appeal is lodged. We propose to repeal this narrow provision and replace it with a broader one through new paragraph 10(3), which will give the panel itself a 957 general power to adjourn. The effect would be that in all cases the local education authority would have to convene an exclusion appeal hearing within 15 school days of the parent lodging an appeal. However, in certain circumstances the panel may decide to adjourn the hearing to a later date.
§ One example of a possible adjournment is where a parent requests a delay in exceptional circumstances—a situation for which paragraph 8(3) currently provides. At present, the local education authority can agree to give the parent more time. Under the new provision, the panel could agree to allow the parent more time by adjourning. The effect here will be essentially exactly the same as now: parents will still be able to ask for more time if there is good reason. They may need more time to prepare a more effective case; they may be waiting for new evidence, such as a medical report; there may be domestic reasons, such as illness or bereavement; or perhaps a witness cannot attend the hearing.
§ However, the principal reason for the proposed change is the situation, which unfortunately occurs from time to time, where the excluded pupil is also facing criminal proceedings arising from the same incident as led to the exclusion. I am talking about an incident in school where the head teacher has good reason to exclude but where at the same time or later the police are called in to investigate the incident. In some cases the police investigation may be inconclusive or may lead to the pupil being cautioned. But in other cases the police may decide that there is enough evidence to prosecute.
§ In these cases a difficulty can arise—as happened in a case last year—that the statutory timetable for the review of the exclusion by the discipline committee and then by the appeal panel moves faster than the timescale in which the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts resolve the matter.
§ A permanent exclusion case takes about 45 school days to reach the appeal stage, but the time needed for the police to investigate, for charges to be brought and for the courts to rule is sometimes longer than that. In that situation, which is exceptional, we want panels to have the option of adjourning to await the outcome of the criminal proceedings. It will depend on the circumstances of each case whether an adjournment is appropriate and for how long. But panels will want to reduce the risk, not only of prejudice to the criminal proceedings but of their decision turning out to be inconsistent with the outcome of those proceedings.
§ We shall need to give schools and local education authorities guidance on the circumstances in which the panel might appropriately use the power to adjourn. Where panels adjourn, local authorities continue to have a duty to provide suitable education outside school—which must be full-time by 2002—for any child excluded for 15 days or more. Within 15 days of the head teacher excluding a child, the governors' discipline committee must meet to decide whether to uphold the exclusion. If it decides to confirm the exclusion, the local authority must immediately arrange to assess the pupil's needs and how to meet 958 them, irrespective of any subsequent appeal or adjournment. So, while the order will allow adjournment of the appeal against exclusion, it will not allow authorities to delay making alternative education provision for the child.
§ If the House does not approve the order, we shall be left in the present unsatisfactory situation that the only means whereby an appeal panel can adjourn is by inviting the parent to ask for an adjournment. That may work in some cases, but the panel is put in a difficult position if the parent insists on the appeal going ahead whatever the circumstances, including those circumstances where court proceedings are known to be pending. The draft order before the House is a positive measure which will improve the legislation governing school exclusion. I commend the order to the House.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 26th February be approved [8th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for setting out an explanation of the order. The order, which amends Schedule 18 to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, allows the appeals panel to adjourn an appeal hearing for the parents of a permanently excluded child. The proposal replaces the right of parents and, in some cases, pupils to request an adjournment.
The reasons given by the Minister are persuasive and the case for flexibility is well made. Nevertheless, there are some residual areas of concern. First, for example, there will be delays in court proceedings, during which temporary arrangements will have to be made for the pupil. Secondly, tension may be caused where a parent may oppose a first, second or subsequent adjournment.
The Minister in another place suggested that a parent could invoke tribunal proceedings. Is that sensible? There could be three procedures in play: the appeal which stands adjourned, the court proceedings and a tribunal. If such a situation were to come about, would the best interests of the child really be served?
Thirdly, why is there no limit on the length of adjournment? I accept that attempts are being made to speed up the youth justice system; nevertheless, cases can run on for many months and decisions on the future of a pupil should be made in a reasonable time-scale.
Fourthly, the independence of a decision taken by the appeals panel to do what is in the interests of the school and the pupil is paramount, irrespective of any outcome from the court proceedings. I should like an assurance from the Minister that that will be the case. Finally, why is there no time limit on that time which elapses following conclusive court proceedings?
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches thank the Minister for setting out so clearly the case for the order. By and large, I welcome the order. It seems to be a fairly 959 sensible move. However, I want to raise two points which to some extent reiterate the points already made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.
First, is there any limit to the number of adjournments that may be called? Can an appeal be put off time and time again? That would not be in the interests of the child. Secondly, where an appeal is adjourned, we have real concerns about the kind of education that the pupil will be receiving. The noble Lord has given us some assurance that after 2003 it will be a full-time education. I hope that that will be so. One comes across too many cases where the local authority is providing just two or three hours of education a week, particularly when cases are pending. That is not good enough if it goes on for a long period of time.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I think that it is common ground that the time when pupils are either suspended or excluded from school is one at which many criminal careers start. Those unfortunate pupils go on from bad to worse. I was therefore glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, say that there would be no delay in the provision of alternative education. However, it may be that that will not be fully available throughout England and Wales until 2003. I should be grateful if the noble Lord could clarify that point. Will he also welcome the partnerships between statutory and voluntary organisations which are already proving their worth, to my knowledge, in Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast? Is that perhaps the right way to go about making full provision for these excluded and suspended children in England and Wales?
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, I am grateful for the broad welcome given to the order and shall do my best to answer the questions that have been appropriately asked. I take entirely the point made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch and Lady Sharp. It is of the greatest importance that the education of the child should reach the highest possible standard during the period of time when the child is excluded from school. I mentioned the date of 2002 when we expect to have full-time provision instead of what we all know has in the past been inadequate part-time provision for excluded students. That is an important principle behind the concept of fairness and the obligation on the local authority to meet the educational needs of the student irrespective of the fact that the institution in which he or she has been educated may not be appropriate, either in the short term or more permanently, as a result of decisions on exclusion. Thus, on the issue of schools and the interests of pupils—I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, stressed the matter in those terms—education must be kept very much to the fore with regard to this process.
As regards the more detailed questions put to me, it is the case that the provision would allow multiple adjournments to be called. In doing that, the panel would not know in every case the end date to which it 960 should adjourn. For that reason, it would adjourn for what it regarded as a reasonable time, but then perhaps discover that, for reasons outside its control, the original reason for the adjournment had not yet been resolved. For that reason, within the framework of the order, the power is in place for the panel to call multiple adjournments.
However, each adjournment must pass the test of reasonableness. In taking the decision to adjourn, the panel will be expected to be reasonable in its decision. We expect this power to be exercised well and we do not expect the panels involved here to do anything except to consider the interests both of the school and of the child.
Parents will have the right to make their representations to the panel before it decides to adjourn. If a repetition of adjournment arises, on each occasion the test of reasonableness will come into play. Furthermore, if the child concerned is a person of 18 or over, he will be able to ascertain for himself whether that test has been met.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked about the number of judgments which may be pending and the number of education authorities which may have outstanding appeals panels and court proceedings. I should imagine that only in exceptional circumstances—
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, that would be inevitable. If an appeals panel were standing adjourned, and if a court proceeding were in place and the parent objected to the delay, then the Minister in another place pointed out that the resort for the parent would be to a tribunal. Thus one could have a tribunal, a court proceeding and an appeals panel standing adjourned.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, in such a case, one would envisage that the decision of the tribunal would turn on whether the adjournment effected by the panel was in fact reasonable. It would focus on that decision rather than on the final decision with regard to the case.
I see that I have not entirely satisfied the noble Baroness on that point, for which I apologise. Perhaps I may clarify the situation further in writing. However, that is how I understand the position.
Perhaps I may assure all noble Lords that the policy within which this order fits is one where we are seeking to ensure that the number of exclusions is reduced. I am happy to report that that is presently the case: the numbers being excluded are in decline. Nevertheless a certain number of cases will always arise. The point of this order is to ensure that, as far as possible, the system which deals with the process of exclusion is as fair and appropriate as possible. Perhaps I may reiterate the assurance I gave in my opening remarks; it is intended that the education of the young person concerned should be sustained at the highest possible level during the period that the difficulties are being worked through.
961 Although the change envisaged in the order is technical, it is nevertheless important. I am grateful for the indications of support from all parts of the House.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he can clarify one point. If a case was taking too long, would an appeals panel be free to come to a final conclusion on the case, irrespective of whether the case was continuing?
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, the answer to that is affirmative. However, I think we all recognise that the purpose behind the order is to obviate the very difficult circumstances where a judgment, taken in all honesty and appropriately by the panel, is athwart a subsequent judgment by a court, leading to very obvious difficulties.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.