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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills [Lords]

Learning and Skills [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 16 May 2000

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Clause 55

Right of entry and offences

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 217, in page 24, line 13, leave out from ``premises'' to end of line 14 and insert

    `used in connection with the provision of that training and development;'.-[Mr. Clappison.]

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 145, in page 24, line 21, leave out ``reasonable'' and insert ``one month's''.

No. 235, in clause 61, page 27, line 7, at end insert

    `excluding the house of that person'.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): Good afternoon, Mr. Benton. We were discussing important issues about the powers of the inspectorate. My final remark was on amendment No. 235, which relates to the powers of the inspectorate to enter the home of a trainer. Analogous provisions in the School Inspections Act 1996, which was introduced by the previous Administration, give the Office for Standards in Education the same access to school premises for the purposes of inspection without excluding dwellings. I am sure that many schools and colleges, including boarding schools, have private dwellings that are within school premises. I am not aware of any difficulty with that, and the previous Administration obviously did not think that it would be a problem because they made no provision for it.

I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) that the inspectorate will act sensibly and reasonably and will co-operate as fully as possible with the people who are being inspected.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I apologise for my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) who has another engagement. He had hoped that the Minister would have concluded his remarks this morning so that he could consider them. I am but a poor substitute and certainly no lawyer.

The Minister's most important operational statement of the day was that he would draw the substance of our debates to the attention of the adult learning chief inspector. That would be helpful. It is right to be concerned about civil liberties, but it is wrong to be obsessed with them when it comes to good practice. I expect him to monitor the situation, and if a case occurs in which civil liberties are infringed, I hope that that will not be treated as a success. It is important that we work with sensitivity.

The growth of information technology has put a different gloss on the situation over the past four years. The Minister's response was about the co-location of home and education establishments, but the existence of IT and networks means that learning can be conducted anywhere, including in a person's home. The issue is serious, but given the Minister's assurances and, in anticipation of future debates, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendent No. 218, in page 24, line 34, at end insert-

    `(6A) It is an offence for an inspector wilfully to remove files or printouts of computer material if they are not material to that inspection'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 236, in clause 61, page 27, line 24, at end insert-

    `(5A) It is an offence to publish or otherwise make use of other than for the purposes of the inspection information or material acquired in the course of such inspection and any such information or material shall be returned to the person from whom it has been taken as soon as reasonably may be after the conclusion of that inspection.'.

Mr. Boswell: These amendments are very much in the same vein as the previous group, and I can dispatch them relatively quickly. Amendment No. 218 would make it an offence for an inspector wilfully to remove files or print outs of computer information that are not material to an inspection. The word ``wilfully'' is important. In the same way that I managed to pick up extraneous papers on other clauses for today's debate, it would be possible for an inspector, acting in good faith, to pick up a batch of papers that he thought were part of the accounts or student records, or to acquire a computer file that was thought to be dedicated to a particular purpose but which included additional material-but I infer nothing more than that. Broadly, he should not seek to go on a fishing expedition or go looking for trouble; it would not be within the material terms of the inspection. He certainly should not take away material that has nothing to do with the inspection.

In a sense, amendment No. 236 is a mirror image. If material-for the purpose of this discussion, we may assume it to be relevant-has come into the hands of the inspector, the amendment would put two further constraints on him. The first is that he should not publish that material if it is not relevant. The other is that it should be understood that the material will be returned to the person whose property it is once the inspection or any connected purpose is over. That scenario will not be unfamiliar to legally qualified members of the Committee, who will recall that the police have the power to retain items of evidence.

We do not seek to subvert the inspector's scope to carry out his duties, but he cannot have unbridled powers. He should not take away material without reason and, if he has material, he should not spread it around or hang on to it after the need for it has been discharged and he has completed his inspection. Those are reasonable points, and it would be useful to hear the response of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Malcolm Wicks), on whether the provisions need to be set in legislation or whether he would prefer a slightly different approach.

As I speak, it occurs to me that a clutch of similar points can be made, and that the Under-Secretary might want to produce a code or guidance for the inspectorate that would embrace them, and, in due course, give a calling letter to the chief inspector. The hon. Gentleman may decide to publish it, and lodge a copy in the Library, so that we all understand where we are.

I do not sense a failure of the Committee's common objective to get it right. The sensitivity of the matter in terms of civil liberties, the European convention on human rights and so forth has been sharpened during the past year or two. With respect to the Minister-I understand why he drew on it-even the standards of the previous Government in relation to safeguards may have been overtaken by events. We want to raise safeguards for individuals if we can, but I would be grateful if the Minister would consider the points seriously, as they are intended in a constructive spirit.

Mr. Wicks: As the hon. Gentleman emphasised, we are debating the balance that needs to be struck between proper public interest, scrutiny and accountability, and issues such as privacy. When I heard that the hon. Gentleman had picked up an extra bundle by mistake, I am bound to say that I wondered if it could have been one of mine, and that he would have been able on this humid afternoon not only to move amendments but to reply on my behalf. As we have nothing to hide, I would have been quite happy with that, but it turned out to be his own extra bundle.

On amendment No. 218, I agree that it would be unacceptable for an inspector wilfully to remove anything that was not material to the inspection. The adult learning inspectorate has no power to do anything of the kind, and the law would apply to the removal of non-relevant material in the same way that it would apply, for example, to the removal of a pile of bricks from the employer's yard. In other words, it would already be against the law. The amendment is therefore not necessary. However, I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman moved it, because it has allowed me to clarify the point.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that I found amendment No. 236 rather odd. It would make it an offence for anyone-not just an Ofsted inspector, presumably-to make use of or to publish inspection evidence

    other than for the purposes of the inspection.

Taken literally, that would mean that inspection data on attendance, retention or achievement could not beused once an inspection was over. It is likely that some or all of that information would be published in the inspection report. Would that mean that the figures could not be quoted again in a speech or in a seminar? That obviously was not the hon. Gentleman's intention. He seemed to be referring instead to information that was not strictly relevant to the inspection.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister is reading my mind broadly correctly. I was concerned mostly with material that might, under certain headings, including that of removal and the legality of removal, be seen as relevant to the inspection but which might contain other information with nothing to do with the inspection. The inspectorate might choose to leak that non-relevant information to the general public, even though it did not add value to the inspection.

Mr. Wicks: I understand that important point. As I have noted in relation to amendment No. 218, collecting clearly irrelevant information is beyond the powers of the inspectorates. The amendment is to clause 61 and, therefore, about Ofsted, which is a statutory body. It cannot exercise functions not given it in statute. It has no right to collect or to publish material not relevant to an inspection.

The other part of the proposal related to the prompt return of material. There is no need to worry: there is a clear right under clause 61(2)(c) for Ofsted to take copies of records and, in many cases, it will not need to remove anything. If it borrows material, it should of course act reasonably and return things promptly. Failure to do so would constitute grounds for complaint by the provider. I should emphasise that there will be a published complaints procedure. A principle in the draft common inspection framework is that, following the inspection, every provider should have recourse to such a procedure if dissatisfied with any aspect of the inspection. That is important.

It might be helpful to add that the adult learning inspectorate will be bound by the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 and, in particular, the convention on private and family life. The Act will be of help in terms of the dangers of fishing expeditions. We do not expect there to be such expenditions, but it is always right to point to extreme examples when testing law.

Following my earlier point, which the hon. Gentleman has welcomed, we should bear in mind our discussion and the will of the Committee when we bring issues to the attention of the new inspectorates. Again, our discussion on the amendments has been helpful, and we will certainly bring Hansard to attention of the leaning inspectorate with proper covering guidance. I am convinced that, when the inspectorates take on their new functions, they will take seriously the guidance offered to inspectors.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has moved the amendments. I hope that, given those points, he might consider withdrawing.

 
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