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(ii) any person having charge of, or otherwise concerned with the operation of, the computer, apparatus or material, to afford him such assistance as he may reasonably require.
(9) Any person who intentionally obstructs another in the exercise of any power conferred by this section or the regulations shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.
(10) In this section "proprietor" has the same meaning as in the Education Act 1944.'.-- [Mr. Mellor.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Column 619--(1) It shall be the duty of--
(a) the proprietor of any independent school which provides accommodation for any child ; and
(b) any person who is not the proprietor of such a school but who is responsible for conducting it,
to safeguard and promote the child's welfare and in doing so to have regard to such guidance as may be issued by the Secretary of State.
(2) Subsection (1) does not apply in relation to a school which is a children's home or a residential care home.
(3) Where accommodation is provided for a child by an independent school within the area of a local authority, the authority shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to enable them to determine whether the child's welfare is adequately safeguarded and promoted while he is accommodated by the school and authority may recover from the proprietor of the school such fee as may be prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this section.
(4) Where a local authority are of the opinion that there has been a failure to comply with subsection (1) in relation to a child provided with accommodation by school within their area, they shall notify the Secretary of State.
(5) Any person authorised by a local authority may, for the purpose of enabling the authority to discharge their duty under this section, enter at any reasonable time an independent school within their area which provides accommodation for anychild.
(6) Any person entering an independent school in exercise of the power conferred by subsection (5) may carry out such inspection of premises, children and records as is prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this section. (7) Any person exercising that power shall, if asked to do so, produce some duly authenticated document showing his authority to do so.
(8) Any person authorised by the regulations to inspect records-- (a) shall be entitled at any reasonable time to have access to, and inspect and check the operation of, any computer and any associated apparatus or material which is or has been in use in connection with the records in question ; and
(b) may require--
(i) the person by whom or on whose behalf the computer is or has been so used ; or
(ii) any person having charge of, or otherwise, concerned with the operation of, the computer, apparatus or material, to afford him such assistance as he may reasonably require.
(9) Any person who intentionally obstructs another in the exercise of any power conferred by this section or the regulations shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.
(10) In this section "proprietor" has the same meaning as in the Education Act 1944.'.
Amendment (c), in line 12, at end insert--
Column 620(3A) A local authority may recover from the Secretary of State the cost of carrying out its duties under subsection (3) above.".
Column 621Government amendments Nos. 305, 393 and 308.
Mr. Mellor : These amendments arise from discussions in Committee, particularly those instigated by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and following a considerable amount of concern in the media about the welfare of children in independent boarding schools, particularly after the programme "That's Life" investigated some serious allegations of sexual abuse of children who were being accommodated at an independent boarding school. Since then, pursuant to undertakings that I gave in Committee, I have considered the matter carefully with Ministers at the Department of Education and Science. We have tabled the new clause and the consequential amendments in an endeavour to deal with some of the issues raised in that case.
There are three main elements to the new provisions proposed in new clause 19. First, a new duty is placed on the proprietor or any other person conducting an independent school that provides accommodation for any child to safeguard and promote the child's welfare. This provision applies to independent schools that are not categorised as children's homes or residential care homes. We dealt with such categories earlier. The House will remember that those provisions apply where there are fewer than 50 pupils.
Secondly, any local authority, within the area of which the accommodation is provided, must do what is reasonably practical to determine whether the child's welfare is adequately safeguarded and promoted while he is accommodated by the school. Those two elements broadly follow the welfare scheme for children in voluntary homes and children's homes, which is already included in parts VII and VIII. The third element is that, where the local authority considers that the person or proprietor conducting the school is failing to discharge his welfare duty under subsection (1), the authority must notify the Secretary of State.
Amendment No. 244, to be taken later, will amend the Education Act 1944 so that failure to comply with this duty will be a ground on which notice of complaint action can be taken. This can lead in serious cases to the school being removed from the register of independent schools and having to close.
I am sure that the amendments and the new clause will commend themselves to the House because what concerned people as a result of the "That's Life" programme and the issues raised by it was that social services departments could intervene only when allegations of child abuse had been made. We know that most independent schools are conducted in ways that totally obviate any concerns for the welfare of the children, but although one acknowledges that straightaway, there are isolated examples that we cannot ignore. If, as I hope, the House passes the new clause, we will be providing a corresponding provision to the duties that already exist requiring Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools to be satisfied about a school's educational and other standards. In effect, we are allowing a social services department to satisfy itself about the social as opposed to the educational welfare of the children. Obviously, the circumstances of individual schools will determine the amount of time that a social services department feels that it must spend.
Column 622I hope that the new clause represents a move forward with which the whole House can be happy. I hope that the hon. Member for Wakefield feels that he has had fair value
Mr. Mellor : No, but I am glad to be able to clear that up. It applies to all independent schools. Such institutions with fewer than 50 pupils are, in effect, already deemed--by the provisions that we passed earlier--to be a children's home. As originally drafted, the Bill dealt with schools only in one particular category. The provision now applies to all independent schools. Obviously, while no one is suggesting that such problems arise in all independent schools--they do not--it is difficult to arrive at a definition that allows us to include those schools where problems might arise. The provision is a way of ensuring that there can be satisfaction about certain non-educational standards in the schools--what one might call "the standards of the regime". The provisions will not be burdensome or onerous on the many well-conducted independent schools throughout the country.
Mr. Rowe : Is my hon. and learned Friend aware of the radical nature of his proposal? There must be generations of parliamentarians of all parties, but especially from this party, who find the concept that they were at an institution with a duty to promote their welfare subversive to the point of astonishment.
Mr. Mellor : As a humble grammar school boy I know nothing of those things. I simply do my best with the circumstances in which I find myself. New clause 19 is the best I can do and I commend it to the House.
The House will be aware that much of the rest of my time is spent with the education team and that much of my time in Committee was spent on the Education Reform Bill. Then we argued strongly that the independent schools system should be seen as part of the nation's provision and regulated in that way in terms of educational provision and other matters.
I was interested by the Minister's remarks because, on other parts of the Bill, I have argued strongly that one cannot deal with the education of children without taking note of their care whether in a residential home or in their family home. Those two requirements cannot be divorced. If a child is abused or neglected, that has a major effect on its educational opportunities and on its ability to gain the confidence from which learning springs.
The clause is welcome as it represents a recognition by the Government that the market mechanism cannot be trusted as the sole weapon to look after the welfare of children. During the proceedings on the Education Reform Bill, that market argument was used by the Government to exclude the independent sector from various aspects of the Bill.
Mr. Key indicated dissent.
Ms. Armstrong : I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not remember that part of our proceedings. I remember, however, that that was the reason that the Minister of State gave for excluding independent schools.
Mr. Key : I had not intended to intervene, but the hon. Lady has taunted me. I do not recall that argument being used. The argument was that an independent school is an independent school and, therefore, one does not wish the Secretary of State to become involved with it other than within the framework of the law by which everyone else must abide. The Secretary of State is not directly responsible for education in the independent sector. That was the argument used in Committee.
The Government said that parents would move their children from a school if they were dissatisfied with that school. Therefore, they implied that the free market would make the decisions. Now, however, it is recognised that young people--in this instance, young boys--may find themselves unable to tell their parents what is going on for all sorts of reasons. Through the good offices of Esther Rantzen and "That's Life", those boys made clear in graphic and horrifying terms the practices that were going on in the school that they had been unable to stop.
The clause recognises that the state should have not only the power to intervene, but the duty to do so. What surprises and concerns me is that we have heard no word about this from any of the organisations that are connected with the independent schools. I am a little disappointed about that. I should have thought that after the revelations on "That's Life" those organisations would have pressed the House to take such powers so that those organisations could reassure people who were thinking of placing their child in such a school that the state had the power to intervene. Perhaps that is an indication that voluntary codes of control simply have not worked and have been insufficient to promote the welfare of children. We welcome the Government's recognition of the role of local authorities in providing regulation and recognise that local authorities are the best organisations to do this. However, the new clause contradicts other aspects of the Bill. Amendment No. 27 seeks to remove the provision which allows local authorities to charge for the registration of child minders. I know that we shall come to this issue later in the debate, but I wish to raise the principle here. I assume that the Government must have decided to accept our amendment because in bringing forward the new clause, which also introduces new powers of regulation and inspection for local authorities, they have not attached a fee similar to the one which they propose to charge to voluntary playgroups, child minders and so on. I hope that this is a recognition on the Government's part that regulation and inspection of this nature is a public responsibility and is important to all of us and that, therefore, there should not be an individual charge.
Column 624I would find it inconceivable for the Government to want to charge voluntary organisations such as playgroups for registration, but not to recognise the need for public schools--about which Government Members know more than me and which charge exorbitant or high fees--to be subject to a charge for their inspection by the local authorities. I am sure that the Minister will want to clear up this anomaly. We tabled an amendment seeking to ensure that the Secretary of State would accept responsibility for this aspect of additional duty which will be costly to local authorities. We are adding duties to those which the local authorities already have and we have heard that some of them have insufficient resources to meet their new duties. It is important that we ensure that we do not place such a considerable additional duty on some authorities that they are forced to choose between different duties when deciding how to spend their social services budget. I am sure that the Minister knows what I am asking. I hope that he will say that it is a public responsibility to ensure good regulations and a good quality of care, but that he will ensure that local authorities have sufficient money for this purpose. I was also interested to note that the Secretary of State for Education and Science has laid an order before the House which deals with the application of corporal punishment in independent schools. The order makes it clear that in those schools where the social services are paying the fees of a student children should not have corporal punishment administered to them. In many ways that fits in with the clause. When a beating has taken place it is difficult to determine whether it has been for educational or care purposes. Today we are saying that for care purposes we shall regulate to ensure that that is not possible. I hope that the independent schools will take notice of that and ensure that children who are the subject of care orders or who are placed in independnt schools by local authorities are treated no differently from other children, and that all corporal punishment will be ended in these schools. I hope, furthermore, that the contradictions opened up by the statutory instrument and the new clause will be recognised and resolved.
I urge the Secretary of State to let us know what additional resources will go to local authorities which carry this out. We see this as a first step towards bringing the independent sector into the mainstream. Of course, the next Labour Government will be interested in the welfare of children in public schools--so much so that we are also interested in their education. We believe that they are part of the nation, and we will ensure that they are brought within the national curriculum.
We shall also ensure that local education authorities are given a power similar to that contained in the new clause so that social services departments can inspect public schools, and we will make sure that the inspection of education at, and the publication of information on, public schools match those being demanded of state schools.
Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury) : I can tell the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) that neither market forces nor state intervention is any safeguard against human wickedness, so the argument has no mileage in it. However, like her, I welcome the spirit and intent of new clause 19 because of the disturbing allegations which have been referred to and which, to some extent, apply to a school in my constituency. Other schools also give rise to concern.
This new clause partially makes up for the surprising omission from the Foster Children Act 1980 of any duty on a local authority to safeguard the welfare of young people at independent schools. Now the duty is to be placed on the proprietor of, or the head teacher at, a boarding independent school
"to safeguard and promote the child's welfare."
Perhaps that is the right way round, but I cannot help feeling that the words
"to safeguard and promote the child's welfare"
will be found to be open to many interpretations, and I hope that the regulations referred to in the new clause will lay down clear standards that can be followed by independent schools and include a requirement for regular visits from the social services department. What if a proprietor or head teacher for reasons of his own, however, says that a visit on a particular day is inconvenient, or refuses to allow entry to the premises without prior notice? Does that constitute obstruction under the new clause? I should be grateful for guidance on that from my hon. and learned Friend. Let us assume for a moment that a social worker from the social services department of a local authority has decided to visit a particular school and that his visit has been agreed by the head teacher or proprietor. May we be assured that the regulations will empower him to interview all the staff and pupils individually or in unaccompanied groups? Will he be able to inspect bedrooms, washing facilities and kitchens and investigate pastoral care, medical care, the contact children are allowed with their parents and the areas available for free time?
Then there are the welfare problems to which we all think this new clause refers. They must include sexual abuse, possibly committed by members of the staff on the children for whom they are responsible. It is extremely unlikely that a pupil who has been abused and who is interviewed in the presence of, or in close proximity to, his abuser will say what happened.
Therefore, it seems that total privacy is a first essential if the social worker is to discover anything of value during the short visit that he or she may make to a school. I am not sure at what stage a social worker can ask for a medical examination and whether the social worker will be empowered to remove a pupil from a school, perhaps to a doctor's surgery, if he feels that that is the correct course of action.
Even in the most favourable atmosphere pupils may be reluctant to say what has happened to them because of the sense of guilt from which such children are known to suffer and because of the stigma that such matters carry. Plainly, social workers will have to be very carefully trained in order to pick up the warning signals.
Column 62610.30 pm
I wonder whether some teachers in independent schools might be able to join the courses organised by the Community Education Development centre in Coventry. I know that that centre has been running courses for many years to acquaint teachers in state schools with the same warning signs. The clause states that where a local authority is of the opinion that there has been a failure by an independent school to carry out its duty to safeguard and promote the child's welfare it shall notify the Secretary of State. What then happens and what sort of time frame is considered? Will action by the Secretary of State be immediate? Will it be within a given time, perhaps 48 hours, and what will it consist of?
If there are strong grounds for believing that there has been sexual abuse, plainly an investigation will have to be set in train. If the head teacher or principal was involved, who would have power to suspend them while the inquiry was going on? One might reasonably say that the governors would have that power, but there is no requirement for independent schools to have governors. Even if there were, there is no certainty that the governors, having been appointed by the principal, did not share his predilections.
Some independent schools accept the children of service families, and some of the schools about which allegations have been made are in precisely that position. If they receive an income from the Ministry of Defence in education grants or, for that matter, from Foreign Office grants because a family is overseas, a strong case could surely be made for the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office having a member on the governing body or in a supervisory role. Perhaps as in the state sector it would be suggested that one or two parent governors would be another safeguard.
New clause 19 seems to be a badly needed measure to enable social service departments to look after the welfare of children who up to now have been outside the responsibility of those departments. I have no doubt that 99 per cent. of independent boarding schools already provide excellent pastoral care. However, the allegations that have been made are so serious that we cannot let them go by. The Bill gives us the opportunity to take action. I am aware that there is understandable reluctance by the Department of Education and Science to become involved in the running of independent schools. Perhaps to some extent I share the view of the hon. Member for Durham, North-West that there should be some loose structure provided by the Department for independent schools.
Her Majesty's inspectorate carries out inspections of independent schools in connection with the quality of teaching, the general facilities and the state of the buildings. Therefore, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that a social services inspectorate might go in with HMI inspectors when they make a visit. While the HMI inspectors are looking at standards of education, the social services inspectorate could consider welfare matters and, like the HMI, publish its findings. It would in no sense be an alternative to what is in the clause but it would reinforce the inquiries carried out by social services departments. That would be to bring in a third line of inquiry, much as local education authority inspectors are reinforced by the HMI in terms of education.
When the legislation receives Royal Assent, as I have no doubt that it will, how soon will it be implemented? It has
Column 627been pointed out to me that the Children's Homes Act 1982 still waits to be implemented. I should be sad if that were the fate of this Bill.
Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : I do not want to belittle the deep seriousness with which the hon. Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair- Wilson) has spoken, but he has underestimated the nature of the problem. He is still looking back to the romantic time of his old school days, with an ivy-covered quadrangle and an accommodation block run by a nice, friendly matron. The world of private education is not always like that. There is a demi monde of new-type private education that may provide accommodation, but in lodging houses in the town. The Bill does not oblige such schools to inform the local authority of how they are providing accommodation.
What is "providing accommodation"? Does it mean directly, by way of premises in the ownership of the school, or does it mean suggesting lodgings with one of a group of landladies? That is quite common. Does it cover the over-16s? Does it cover pupils who are aged between 16 and 18 and going to the new private sixth-form colleges that are proliferating? These frequently have foreign students who may live 10,000 miles away from home and their family. They have come with a desperate desire to get English A- levels and will frequently live in one of the suggested lodging houses. The local authority will not necessarily know about the lodging houses which come under the umbrella of the school and which could easily be interpreted as having been provided by the school under this clause.
I am not sure that local authorities will know where the accommodation is, so the idea of social services inspectors going in with the HMI to inspect the dorm while they inspect the school is not tenable. The accommodation may be provided in another local authority area. The clause does not go far enough to establish control over the new private schools run as businesses or as a straight commercial activity.
Mr. Key : I should like to help the hon. Member. He may be interested to know that at Harrow school, where I taught for some years, it was only in the 1930s that the school governors purchased boarding houses, which had previously been owned by the landladies and sometimes by the schoolmasters. Today, Harrow owns all the accommodation for its boys. There is a common pattern in the independent sector of the use of masters' accommodation and of landladies, which is part of the ancient school tradition. It is by no means a modern phenomenon and it does not pose a difficulty.
Mr. Morgan : The hon. Member has pinpointed the source of the difficulty. If there is no obligation on the school to issue a list of the accommodation that it is providing, or even to say whether it is providing accommodation, and is therefore covered by the clause, there is a problem, particularly for many foreign students who cannot consult their parents on such matters because they may not see them from the beginning to the end of the year, and are dependent on Britain's good reputation for looking after its schools. Their parents, 12,000 miles away, will think that they are safe because they have been sent to Britain and are in good hands. I wonder whether they are.
Column 628Official Report, Mr. Morgan. I teased Mr. Morgan a little by referring to what happened when I said that a Tory Member resembled Dr. Squeers. I shall not identify that hon. Member because I am sure that he is readily recognisable to his colleagues. When Hansard came out, the word had been changed to "square". Dickens probably does not have quite the influence that he had on education.
Mr. Hardy : He is unlikely to receive a high place on the curriculum. Dickens exposed the reality of the horror on schools in some parts of England and, I am ashamed to say, in some parts of Yorkshire, because Dotheboys Hall was a real school, with a different name, situated in my county. That was all before social services departments were set up. That was before the NSPCC, with which I am proud to be associated, was established. But, as the hon. Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) said, evil is still with us, despite the new structures that have been put in place. For that reason, my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) was right to refer to the need for priority and resources.
Subsection (3) of the proposed new clause commences :
"Where accommodation is provided for a child by an independent school within the area of a local authority, the authority shall take steps"
to care for the child. Some parts of the country may not contain any independent schools. I may not in my area have an independent school capable of providing residential accommodation--and I do not think there are any such schools in Rotherham--but there may be some in Doncaster.
What will be the position if a child from the Rotherham area who is known to Rotherham borough council attends an independent school near his home but not within that borough council area? Will the authority in which the school is situated assume responsibility for the child, even though that authority's social workers may not know anything about the case? The wording of that provision might cause problems. Surely, the authority that knows the case history of the child, perhaps co-operating with the authority in which the school is situated, should be responsible for maintaining supervision of the child.
Subsection (5) of the proposed new clause is also worrying. The hon. Member for Newbury thought the school would agree to a visit by an inspector. I am not so sure, and that is why I question the use of the word "reasonable" in that subsection. I suggest that
"any person authorised by a local authority"
to care for a child should be free to visit an independent school at any time. "Reasonable" seems to qualify that freedom, remembering that some people may wish to stretch the use of the word "reasonable" in an unreasonable way. As the hon. Member for Newbury said, there are latter-day Squeerses.
We read in today's newspapers reports about two areas of difficulty, one of them of an enormously serious character. Because, 150 years or more later, the problems of Dotheboys Hall are still with us, we must not qualify the freedom of those who are charged with supervision in this area and who come into contact with people who are responsible for children, remembering that many of those children may have had horrifying experiences in the years prior to their attending such schools.
Mr. Mellor : I am grateful to hon. Members for their comments and I shall, in view of the hour, reply to them briefly. I thank the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) for welcoming our proposals, which were drafted following a debate in Committee initiated by her hon. Friends. While we do not in new clause 19 agree in every particular with new clause 33, I hope that she will feel that it is sufficiently similar for her not to press new clause 33 and broadly to accept new clause 19. I am aware that the new clause will impose further duties on local authorities ; those matters will fall to be considered when we deal with the allocation of resources. As for fees, I must reserve what I have to say about the Pre- School Playgroups Association until we reach that point in the Bill. I will say, however, that although we seriously considered imposing fees, we did not do so because fees are apparently not charged for the registration of schools, and it would therefore have been difficult for us to impose them while being consistent. I assure the hon. Lady that the fact that we were dealing with independent schools was not the reason.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair- Wilson) for his contribution. I realise that the descent of disagreeable publicity on his neighbourhood must have been painful for him, and for his constituents. New clause 19 does indeed give a power of entry exercisable at reasonable times.
Let me point out to the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) that, in the event of genuine fear that something dreadful was going on, an emergency protection order could be sought ex parte and the social services could intervene at any point. The "reasonable hour" provision is there because a representative of the social services will visit most independent schools, and it would clearly be unreasonable for him at half-past one in the morning to knock on the door of an establishment that no one had any reason to believe was other than perfectly respectable. Anything that amounted to an attempt to deny a power of entry would constitute obstruction--itself a criminal offence.
My hon. Friend rightly wanted to know what would happen next. If, following an investigation, an allegation of sexual abuse was made, the child protection machinery would roll into action and an emergency protection order could be sought. If it simply revealed deficiencies that fell short of serious risk to a particular child, but were nevertheless material, a report would be made to the Department of Education and Science, which would be expected to act in a way with which we are all familiar : inspectors would go to the school and examine the circumstances. I dare say that the speed of response would vary according to the seriousness of the allegations, but I would expect an appropriate response, and no doubt the Department would be criticised if it failed to provide one. My hon. Friend put his finger on a point that was spotted earlier by the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist). Both hon. Members--who do not often find themselves in alliance--rightly pointed out that we have incorporated in the Bill parts of a 1982 Act that has not yet been implemented. I assure them that we intend to implement all of the Bill by the autumn of 1991 at the latest. This thorough wash and brush-up of children's law is intended to retain those aspects of existing legislation that are necessary. They are not there simply to
Column 630be on the statute book ; they are there to be activated, and we shall activate them with what I hope will be a sensible programme. Let me say to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) that I believe that where a school provides board and lodging as part of the school--even if those establishments are outside the curtilage of the school--they will be caught by the legislation. It is true that we have not extended the Bill to children attending schools teaching English as a foreign langage, most of which provide short, non-residential courses. Some children boarding out for 28 days or more, however, would come within the scope of the private fostering provisions in part IX, which contains various powers and safeguards. Similarly, if care and accommodation are provided in a home, part VIII could be relevant. I do not believe that the Bill is toothless, although we shall re-examine it in the light of what the hon. Gentleman has said so as not to be caught out on any of the technicalities.
Finally, the hon. Member for Wentworth raised a point about the authority in which the school is located. We are seeking to give local authorities the right to look at schools in the same way as they have the right to look at any place where a child was living within their area. If a child was already known to a local authority and in contact with the social services department, one would expect liaison, and there would be a role for the home local authority. Otherwise, where a child had simply gone from one area to another to go to school, he probably would not be known to either local authority social services department.
Social services departments that, rightly or wrongly, feel that they do not have the right to know what is happening in schools should have the right to satisfy themselves about conditions so that they are not merely responding to allegations of abuse, when, if they had been in some contact with the school before, the danger signals should have been spotted. The right should be triggered by the existence of the institution itself and not by the presence of any particular child.
I have enjoyed this short debate. I hope that it means that the House can collectively set its hand to new clause 19.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
(a) a residence order is in force with respect to a child in favour of any person ; and