Previous SectionIndexHome Page

16 Oct 2002 : Column 334—continued

Estelle Morris: I heard the point about process and fact, but I did not have the slightest idea what the hon. Gentleman was on about. That is why I had to intervene.

Let me explain what I think stage two of the new policy will be, because the hon. Gentleman has now mentioned guidance.

Chris Grayling: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Estelle Morris: No, not at the moment.

I think that the Opposition's new policy means that not every parent will have the right to go to the LEA to seek the overruling of the head teacher's and governing body's judgment. Some parents will have that right, and others will not. Whether they have the right will depend on guidance written by the hon. Gentleman. If that is the policy, that is fine. However, we have heard all the time from the Opposition that never under any circumstances should the head teacher's judgment be second-guessed because it is absolutely sacrosanct. No matter how the hon. Gentleman tries to get out of it, he has just said that, in certain circumstances that he has not yet described to his Back Benchers, the Government or the public, the head teacher's judgment can be second-guessed by an appeal panel.

As I said, I always agree with my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards. He is absolutely right. The only difference is that, under this Government, the system will be independent whereas under the Tories it will be run by the LEAs. I leave it to people to reach a judgment on that.

Chris Grayling rose—

Mr. Lansley rose—

Estelle Morris: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, and then I shall make progress.

Chris Grayling: May I return the Secretary of State to the reality of what has happened? Eighteen months ago,

16 Oct 2002 : Column 335

her predecessor wrote to the head teacher of Glyn school after an appeal had been overturned and a pupil had been replaced in the school after exclusion. Her predecessor set out clearly in a letter a number of cases, including those involving violence and the threat of violence, in which a governing body had every right to exclude. However, when the governing body and head teacher of Glyn school put that statement to the test, the system failed them. The system is clearly wrong. The Secretary of State is making small political points, but when will she sort the problem out?

Estelle Morris: The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall read the words from the guidance that was issued to the appeal panels before the last election. It said:

That is exactly why I made my statement last Thursday. I join the hon. Gentleman in saying—I say it again at the risk of again being accused of interfering—that I back teachers if they are threatened with violence or abuse by any pupil in their school. That should not happen. However, it should be equally clear that, in a natural system of justice in which appeal panels have power, I have no powers to overrule them. The hon. Member for Ashford is suggesting that, if the Tories were ever to return to government, they would take to Secretaries of State the right to overrule an independent appeal panel—in his case, the LEA. That is their policy, but I have described the only way to proceed.

The process is important and I want to explain my actions on the incident at the school. Whether there are appeals panels and whether they are independent or part of the local education authority, there is still a right in law to go to judicial review whether we like it or not. No hon. Member can change that—unless, of course, there is another policy announcement. In recent years, parents who have not got satisfaction at exclusion appeals hearings have gone to judicial review. No one is saying that that is not the case. If we get rid of appeals panels, which was Tory policy until today, people would seek to pursue the course of natural justice by questioning a decision in the courts. The quickest, most expedient, cheapest and most efficient way to deal with the natural right of a parent to ask for a double check to be made on a key decision is to go to an independent panel, and that is why we support them.

My right hon. Friend said in Prime Minister's questions that of all the decisions taken by heads, at the end of the day 3 per cent. are overturned. In some cases, such as last week's high-profile case, a decision comes to the public attention. Last week's decision was important. I do not detract from the need to have a national discussion about that because I welcome it. There is nothing wrong with the discussion that the nation had over the weekend. Indeed, it is about time that parents and everyone else in the community joined politicians and educationists in deciding what behaviour we accept from our children in schools. We should make that clear. I made my view clear last week and will continue to do so at every opportunity.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Surely the policy just announced by the Conservative spokesperson on

16 Oct 2002 : Column 336

education is even more incoherent when he mentions the local government ombudsman because the ombudsman's decisions have no force over local authorities. He cannot compel them to do anything.

Estelle Morris: That is absolutely right and people would probably end up in court. Perhaps I should not say this, but that process would take far longer than an exclusion panel.

Let me set out my involvement in the constituency of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) last week. He wrote to me on 7 October, expressing his concern about the case. He had every right to do that. It is a letter that I would expect to receive from a Member of Parliament. It shows a proper process and reflects the fact that the hon. Gentleman expected the Secretary of State to take an interest, offer help and express an opinion. There was nothing to suggest that he did not want my interest in the case to be noted. By the time I heard about the letter on 10 October, someone had taken the case to the media and it had become the focus of national attention. That was the situation by the time I knew of the case and read the letter.

I am not criticising that—it was natural that the case should cause concern—but the media were already circling the school and trying to discover the identities of the parents and children, and people were giving interviews to the press. The idea that I would say, XNot me, guv. I have no powers and will not express an opinion," is wrong. That is not something that hon. Members will ever hear from this Secretary of State. The case deserved national attention and the nation was entitled to ask the Secretary of State's view.

I went further than that, as I would do in many circumstances, and not just those that relate to exclusions. I asked my officials to phone Surrey county council and ask whether we could help. I also wanted them to ask whether the process was as speedy as possible given the fact that the public eye was on the school and the boys. I mentioned that for two reasons: first, the school needed to get back to normal and there was a ballot for a teachers' strike the next day; secondly, and of equal importance, the boys' future needed to be settled because they had rights as well. They needed to get back to full time, good quality education.

That was the nature of my intervention, and it became very public last Thursday and over the weekend because the incident was in the spotlight, but quite honestly it is the bread and butter of my Department's work. It regularly responds to invitations, such as the one that I received from the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, in whose constituency the school is situated, to do what it can. Sometimes, in fact quite often, we are asked to give money, while other requests are for us to change legislation or use our influence. On that occasion, we sought to use our influence.

Mr. Damian Green: The right hon. Lady rightly says that my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) wrote to her on 7 October, and she now tries to muddy the waters. I point out to her that on 10 October she found time to issue her press release and gain publicity, but she did not bother to reply to my hon. Friend until this morning, six days later.

Estelle Morris: I shall let the House into a state secret: I have a marvellous Department, but sometimes it does

16 Oct 2002 : Column 337

not reach its targets for replying to letters. Six days exceeds every Whitehall target for replying to letters, and I am very pleased about that.

The hon. Gentleman should further consider the timing of the statements, which is an important point. One of our most important tasks is to get the standards agenda going and to achieve the desired progress in the education system. What we need to do most is back schools on discipline; collectively, we must make sure that we get that right. I made my statement at about four or five o'clock in the afternoon; I stand to be corrected about the precise time. By the time I made my statement the story had already been reported in the media, and rightly so—I make no criticism of that. It does not matter who gave the story to the media; it is a matter of natural national concern, and we acted completely appropriately.

Chris Grayling: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Next Section

IndexHome Page