Draft School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (Amendment of Schedule 18) (England) (Order) 2001

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Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I stand in disappointment, bereft of further words of wisdom from the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes).

This is a small order, but it is right that it should be considered in Committee. Permanent exclusion is a serious matter that affects our constituents because it can have a profound impact on children's lives. I therefore have some questions for the Minister. Where has demand for the change come from? Was it generated within the Department, or have representations been made by LEAs, parents and—in particular—schools? Will the power allow for multiple adjournments? I accept that an adjournment might be appropriate on a first occasion, but the order appears to provide a general power of adjournment. My concern is that we are introducing to the schools appeal system a problem that affects the criminal justice system. There could be multiple adjournments that are in the interests of neither the child nor the parents. What safeguards will there be for parents who are concerned about the use of that power? The Minister has said that there will be codes of practice, but will parents who disagree with a panel's decision to adjourn be able to challenge it? Will there be a higher authority that they can approach if they feel that a panel is adjourning unnecessarily?

The hon. Member for Windsor mentioned the link to criminal proceedings. I would be concerned if there were an automatic assumption that an appeals hearing should be adjourned whenever criminal proceedings are pending. In many cases—for example, where a youngster has carried out a violent act—the criminal procedure might not end in a conviction, but, even though it might not be possible to prove to the court's satisfaction that the threshold of, say, actual bodily harm was reached, the behaviour of the person in question might still warrant permanent exclusion. Where permanent exclusion was withheld pending the outcome of a court case and the person concerned was found innocent under criminal law, it would be a pity if an appeal panel felt obliged automatically to revoke a permanent exclusion.

Mr. Hayes: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and it makes sense, but I invite him to consider the other side of that coin. Where the individual concerned is found innocent and blameless, adjourning and allowing the court to make that judgment might cause the appeal panel to revise a decision permanently to exclude an individual from school. The issue is not simply the impact of guilt, but the potential impact of innocence, on the appeal panel's decision.

Mr. Allan: The hon. Gentleman talks like a true Liberal, and I agree that in some cases, a person being found innocent might have some bearing, depending on the nature of the findings. As I have said, the behaviour might be severe but nevertheless insufficient to warrant a criminal conviction. In some cases, facts might be revealed that demonstrate that the individual should have been neither charged nor permanently excluded. I am simply arguing that the link should not be automatic. Where appeals panels do adjourn, they should at least consider the circumstances. Where appropriate—for example, where other matters are not subject to criminal proceedings—appeals panels should be able to continue their work. They should not feel obliged to adjourn simply because criminal proceedings are under way.

In certain circumstances, even though a criminal charge is pending it might be in the individual's interest for permanent exclusion to be resolved at that stage, because permanent exclusion has the potential to open up a new placement in a new educational setting. Following on from the comment of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, temporary education and the limbo of a permanent exclusion that has yet to be confirmed might actually be worse than starting again after confirmation of a permanent exclusion. It is in the child's interest for the matter not to hang over, but to have a permanent exclusion confirmed so that a fresh placement—in a referral unit or a new school—can be opened up. In many cases, someone who is permanently excluded from one school is accepted by another. We must bear in mind the interests of the child. When a permanent resolution might be in the child's interest, we should not use adjournment as a way to maintain a temporary situation.

4.49 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I have just a couple of questions that have not been dealt with fully. Does the Minister consider it appropriate for the panel to have full access to any court proceedings, or should such information be withheld until the end of the appeal procedure, so that, as in a court, one is unaware of any past convictions?

On linkage, I assume that where someone is convicted of a criminal offence, that would be good reason for exclusion. I would also like to know whether there is any time limit on adjournments.

4.50 pm

Jacqui Smith: I thank hon. Members for their positive and constructive approach to a debate about what we believe is a sensible and logical attempt to improve the current situation.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings rightly raised the importance of continuing the education of excluded pupils. As I pointed out in my opening speech, it is the responsibility of the local education authority after the first period of 15 days—the period between exclusion and the decision of the governing body discipline committee—to begin the assessment of the provision of a placement for the young person. I accept his point that, in the past, the provision of that education has not been satisfactory. That is why we set the target to which he referred.

He will be reassured to hear that, since 1997, places at pupil referral units have increased by 1,100 and that there are nearly 600 additional teaching and support staff in such units. Those additional staff and the funding provided by the Government mean that pupils have had more than the two or three hours of education that was received pre-1997. In 2000, one third of pupil referral units provided a full-time education, and two thirds provided 13 or more hours per week. By September 2001, two thirds of such units will be providing full-time education to excluded secondary school pupils. All LEAs are on target to provide full-time education by September 2002. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman. I assure him that the Government take the situation very seriously. I agree that to exclude a child from a school and then fail to provide him or her with a decent education is to pass the problem from the school to the local community.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) raised the important issue of maintaining the speed of the process and he questioned where the demand for change had come from. It arose from practical cases, such as the one in the hon. Gentleman's area to which I referred

There will not be an automatic right for an appeals panel to adjourn. The guidance will say that the panel must consider each case on its merits. The emphasis will be on addressing exceptional circumstances and not on achieving administrative simplicity. In most cases, it is important that the process is as quick as possible. For that reason, there will be no time limit on the adjournment and the independent appeals panel will determine the time required in each case. We expect them to act reasonably, in the context of the legislation.

There has been some discussion about the relationship between the criminal proceedings and the process of the appeals panel. I emphasised the criminal proceedings because they were the spur that made us recognise that the change is necessary, but I hope that I made it clear to the hon. Member for Windsor that that does not mean that the two proceedings will be linked. They are independent, but they will have implications for each other and we are asking the Committee to approve the right to adjourn so that the appeals panel can consider those implications. The panel may consider the same action by the pupil that is the cause of the criminal proceedings, or the actions may be slightly different. There will not be two procedures covering the same issue, but there may be an important link and sometimes they may be parallel.

Mr. Hayes: I want to be absolutely sure about the longstop position, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and the hon. Member for Hallam. If the panel adjourned and adjourned and adjourned, at what point and under what power could the process be stopped? We cannot presume that every panel will be as fair minded and reasonable as the majority.

My second question did not arise from our discussion but was stimulated by it. Will there be any extra costs? If there were several adjournments over a period of months, which could happen in a complex legal case, would there be an extra administrative burden and cost? I do not want to focus too much on that, because the ethical issues are important, but it is worthy of comment.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about unreasonable adjournment. It would be possible for the aggrieved party, if it thought that an adjournment was unreasonable, to apply for judicial review on the basis that the independent appeals panel was acting unreasonably. The hon. Gentleman's point was serious and well intentioned and should be covered in the guidance, notwithstanding what I said previously about the independent appeals panel not being overly prescribed in the way in which it makes it decisions.

The hon. Gentleman's second point--

Mr. Hayes: Is there any extra administrative burden or cost?

Jacqui Smith: We do not believe that there will be an extra administrative burden. The appeals panel will not carry out the criminal investigation, but will simply adjourn. We have made extra resources available to LEAs and schools and we do not expect there to be a significant extra burden, but we shall consider the matter as we implement the change.

Mr. Randall: I am not sure that the Minister addressed the question of how appropriate it would be for the appeals panel to have details of any criminal cases and whether it would have a full record. Will that be encouraged or discouraged?

Jacqui Smith: Clearly, the appeals panel is empowered to consider the issues surrounding the exclusion: the nature of the exclusion, the decision made by the head teacher, whether it is in line with guidance issued by the Department, and whether it is reasonable. It may be necessary to consider issues that are also part of the criminal proceedings, but it is not necessary to introduce a requirement to consider them or an exclusion to prevent consideration of them. One difficulty that we have identified, which is part of the reason for introducing the measure, is that it may be difficult for witnesses who are also involved in the criminal proceedings to be involved in the independent appeals panel. However, I emphasise what I said earlier--that these are two separate routes. There may be some cross-over in the information and people involved and a potential adjournment is the sensible way forward.

With those reassurances, I commend the order to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (Amendment of Schedule 18) (England) Order 2001.

        Committee rose at Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Sayeed, Mr. Jonathan (Chairman)
Allan, Mr.
Bailey, Mr.
Barnes, Mr.
Betts, Mr.
Hayes, Mr.
Lammy, Mr.
Randall, Mr.
Smith, Jacqui
Squire, Rachel
Trend, Mr.

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