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Chris Grayling: Although I recognise that, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we are fortunate in this country in that the incidence of violence in schools is not great, does he not accept that recent research, particularly that published last year by the National Union of Teachers, highlights the fact that antisocial behaviour, threatening behaviour and abusive language in the classroom go far beyond the so-called problem schools and can be found right across society?

Mr. Willis: As ever, the National Union of Teachers has carried out splendid research. Those on the Conservative Front Bench frequently rely on it in their speeches, which is an interesting phenomenon. The hon. Gentleman attends these debates and always makes interesting interventions. I accept that there is an increased incidence of such behaviour in schools, but that is a reflection of society as a whole. We would find exactly the same behaviour in the village pub, in the supermarket and on the streets, whereas we might not have found it before. We must not single out schools; they are a microcosm of society.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: How dare I not?

Mr. Turner: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his customary courtesy and good humour in allowing me to intervene. I am sure that he will acknowledge that people are not forced to go to pubs or supermarkets—although I accept that one may be forced to walk along the streets—but children are forced to go to school. Low level indiscipline is as of as much concern to many parents as the more elevated ill discipline about which we read in the press.

Mr. Willis: That is an interesting comment, but I do not think that I need to respond to it.

It is worrying that we are now seeing something that I did not see for most of my career. There has been a huge increase in street crime perpetrated by school children. We must address that issue, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). However, to suggest, as the hon. Member for Ashford did, that the problem appeared during the life of the present Government simply beggars belief. In 1991 there were 3,000 exclusions, but by 1996–97 the figure had risen to 12,700. If things were so fine in schools at that time, why was there more than a fourfold increase in the number of exclusions? It is wrong to suggest that we are dealing with a new phenomenon.

The hon. Member for Ashford too readily confuses different issues—truancy, poor behaviour, exclusions and crime—and ties the whole lot together, giving the impression that they are all one and the same. All four

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issues are connected at some point in time, but if we want to find long-term solutions, we must not draw convenient conclusions.

The Secretary of State was right when she said that over the past 10 years the incidence of truancy has hardly risen. It was also honest of her to say that the Government had missed a target. It was a foolish target that was badly set, and although she did not admit that, it was good that she admitted that it had been missed.

The House must also recognise that a significant proportion of truancy—probably 80 per cent.—is condoned by parents. The vast bulk of it is the result of holidays taken not by the ne'er-do-wells in the inner-city areas that the hon. Member for Ashford described, but in well-heeled constituencies such as mine, when parents take their children out of school for their two-week annual holiday, or even longer. We have to accept that that is part and parcel of condoned truancy.

Truants are not necessarily criminals, however, and the House must recognise that there is a plethora of reasons why children do not attend school. School-phobics present a real problem for teachers, but they appear in the statistics as children who play truant. Four per cent. of all children who play truant are being severely bullied, and I know from personal experience how difficult that can be within the family. Children may truant because of peer group pressure or dislike of lessons, particularly PE. Those factors are as prevalent now as they were when hon. Members were at school.

What is not in dispute is the fact that a vast increase in juvenile crime occurs when children are truanting or are excluded, and there is a massive problem that has to be addressed. The Metropolitan police point to alarming statistics: 40 per cent. of robberies, 25 per cent. of burglaries and 20 per cent. of thefts in London are performed by 10 to 16-year-olds during school hours. Even more disturbing is the picture painted by the recently published 2002 youth crime survey, conducted by MORI, with one in four schoolchildren saying that they have committed a crime in the past 12 months. We must address the fact that crime, especially low-level crime, is acceptable to young people.

We must, however, draw a distinction between children who occasionally truant and those who are long-term truants or have been excluded or expelled from school. Another interesting statistic from the youth crime survey is that of those children who commit crime, the number who did so before they truanted from school is almost the same as the number who began committing crime after they started truanting. That supports the point, which I was making to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, that this is a societal issue, and there are real problems that must be addressed.

What is particularly damning about the new survey is that two thirds of children excluded from school have been responsible for a recorded crime and that permanently excluded children are responsible, on average, for 44 crimes a year each. Those are two staggering statistics, and they must be addressed. Permanently excluded children are more likely to drink, to take drugs, to damage property, to handle stolen goods, to commit assault and to carry a weapon. However, the biggest problem arising from long-term truancy and exclusion is the damage that those young people do to themselves. The future for them, far from being bright, is distinctly dismal.

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Equally dismal is the fact that the same categories of children who were excluded 10 years ago are at the centre of today's exclusion bonanza. They include children in care and children from minority communities, particularly Afro-Caribbean boys and Bangladeshis. They include children who have special needs, who are seven times more likely to be excluded than other children, and children with low levels of attainment, many of whom, as the Secretary of State rightly said, end up in our prisons. Eight per cent. of persistent truants achieve five good GCSEs, compared with 54 per cent. of children who do not truant at all. Three quarters of homeless teenagers on the streets today were either permanently excluded or were long-term truants before they ran away from home.

None of those issues was addressed by the hon. Member for Ashford, who spoke for the Conservatives. Yet his party leader made a speech this morning about connecting the Tory party with real communities and offering solutions. That is the sad thing about where the Tory party is, as opposed to where it would like to be. MPs talk glibly about getting tough—with respect, I must point out that Members on both Front Benches have done so—but I hope that they will stop and think that for many of the young people about whom they are talking, life is already very tough indeed.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): As always when I intervene on the hon. Gentleman's speeches in such debates, I pay tribute to his knowledge and his commitment to the subject. I am disappointed, however, that he should pour scorn on what the leader of the Conservative party said this morning, because my right hon. Friend was making some of the same points that the hon. Gentleman makes about our responsibility and duty to address such issues in a non-partisan way for the benefit of those who are least able to speak for themselves. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the courage and integrity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for making that speech this morning.

Mr. Willis: I, too, have great respect for the hon. Gentleman—we have been friendly adversaries for some time—but with all due respect to him, may I say that words come easily, but it is actions, and providing resources to support those actions, that really matter? Not a single word from the Leader of the Opposition this morning, nor a single word in the book recently written by the hon. Member for Ashford, refers to any solution, with real answers and real resources, to attack real problems; what comes from them is just words.

Geraint Davies: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's interesting speech. Does he agree that the real challenge for the Government is to provide the right sort of specialist educational facilities, properly resourced, to match the real needs of excluded children in a way that will deliver educational success and lower crime? In particular, he says that the Afro-Caribbean community is disproportionately affected by exclusion. That difficulty is in turn reflected in the prison population, and then spirals back on itself through reoffending. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that difficulty can also be addressed by providing the right sort of educational opportunities,

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not just pupil referral units, which sound a bit like borstals, but proper intensive education to get people back on the straight and narrow?

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I am grateful to him for making that point, with which I shall deal—although briefly, because although we would like to spend more time on such issues, I am mindful of my promise to the hon. Member for Huddersfield.

I was about to say that the Government have introduced several interesting initiatives in the past five years to tackle some of the inherent problems. What saddens me is that of late, the Government have gone for the Daily Mail approach of removing benefits from families, which affects the whole family rather than an individual. I find the imprisoning of a single mother for 30 days totally unacceptable. The Secretary of State and her colleagues—and, indeed, the hon. Member for Ashford—supported that move. We differ fundamentally there; I do not believe that that mother was a danger to society. We must strip away some of those issues and find coherent wholesome ways to treat some of the problems.

The Government have put a significant amount of additional resources into tackling some of the issues. Electronic registration, pupil referral units, in-school behaviour units, mentors, the Connexions service and even bringing in the police and other agencies are all issues on which the Government have our broad support. However, I find it difficult to understand why the Government have not attacked some of the central reasons why children do not attend school. The evidence is before us: the most significant reason that children give for not attending school long term is that they do not like it; they do not like the lessons.

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