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16 Oct 2002 : Column 334continued
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.
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 thatunless, 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.
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 thatit was natural that the case should cause concernbut 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.
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 soI 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.