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Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Further to that point of order—

Mr. Speaker: Let me answer the point of order. I have had no notice. The Minister would normally notify me in the morning, and there has been no notice.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to have given you notice of the point of order. My constituent, Captain Strong, has been unable to get a British passport because he has not been in this country for five years, as he has been serving valiantly in Her Majesty's armed forces abroad. I tabled a question on the subject to the Home Office in good time before the Queen's Speech. The Home Office avoided answering the question because of the new rule that Departments are not obliged to answer questions that fall at the end of a Session. I retabled the question on 29 November—a fortnight ago—and it has still not been answered. I am tabling a pursuant question today. How long can the Home Office go on avoiding answering this difficult question?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has followed the proper procedure for trying to get answers out of Ministers, which is to ask the question twice. I will look into the matter. Hon. Members should have questions answered in a reasonable time.

Mr. Francois: Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), I have checked the Order Paper and we do not, unfortunately, have Defence questions before the House rises for the Christmas recess. Given the reports
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that are circulating in the press and causing considerable uncertainty in the Territorial community, it would be pernicious if the TA were punished for the chaos that exists in the Ministry of Defence. Is there anything you can do to bring a Minister to the Dispatch Box to clarify the matter and, hopefully, to save the Territorial Army from what appears to be in prospect?

Mr. Speaker: Before we break up, we have the Christmas Adjournment debate. On that day, hon. Members may bring up any subject they wish. That is an opportunity, and there are others: the hon. Gentleman could table a written question and also, perhaps, try for an Adjournment debate.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance. As you know, we are about to have an important debate in Opposition time on the crucial issue of school discipline, and it is disappointing, to put it no more strongly, that the Secretary of State does not appear to have the self-discipline to be present for the debate. I have just been advised by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), in response to a sedentary question from me, that he does not know where his boss is. Is it in order that the Secretary of State should show such abject contempt for the House as to fail even to turn up to debate an issue of this importance? It sets a very bad precedent.

Mr. Speaker: I do not know why the hon. Gentleman is disappointed. I am not disappointed, and the Under-Secretary is here, so we can look forward to a good day.


Child Benefit

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by Mr. Secretary Clarke, Mr. Paul Boateng, Mr. Secretary Johnson, Dawn Primarolo, Mr. Stephen Timms and John Healey, presented, under Standing Order No. 50 (Procedure upon bills whose main object is to create a charge upon the public revenue), a Bill to make provision for and in connection with altering the descriptions of persons in respect of whom a person may be entitled to child benefit: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 13].

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Opposition Day

[1st Allotted Day]

School Discipline

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.36 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House notes that the vast majority of pupils are well behaved and eager to learn but is concerned that their ability to do so is increasingly undermined by a disruptive minority; regrets the fact that an assault takes place on a teacher every seven minutes, as reported by teaching unions; further notes that incidents involving poor behaviour, intimidation, violence, guns and drugs in schools are all increasing; deplores the announcement by the Government that it will force every state school, irrespective of the wishes of its head teacher, to take a share of pupils with disruptive or even violent backgrounds; believes that head teachers should be given, unequivocally, the final say on expulsions by abolishing independent appeals panels; calls for a six fold increase in the number of places to be provided for high quality, intensive but separate education of those whose behavioural difficulties make them unsuitable for inclusion in mainstream schools; is confident that the ability of teachers to exercise discipline would be greatly enhanced by protecting them from the fear of false allegations of abuse, and urges swift legislation to guarantee anonymity for teachers facing accusations at least up to the point where a formal criminal charge is brought; recognises that teachers, parents and pupils all, overwhelmingly, want to see stronger action on discipline and have the right to expect it; and consequently, further believes that it is time for the rights of the majority of pupils, parents and teachers to be given greater weight.

There can be few more important subjects than the topic before the House today, and therefore I should like to add my expression of sorrow to those that have already been voiced at the absence of the Secretary of State today.

What is the essential pre-requisite for high-quality education? Getting resources, teachers, training, the curriculum, buildings and facilities right are all vital, but none can have effect unless learning can take place in a disciplined environment. As the Opposition motion makes clear, the vast majority of pupils are well behaved and eager to learn. Many schools have few, if any, serious discipline problems. Unfortunately, however, there are plenty that do.

The Guardian reported last year that 31 per cent. of teachers leaving the profession cite poor pupil behaviour as the reason. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers reports that a teacher is assaulted every seven minutes in one of our schools. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has recommended that metal detectors should be installed outside schools, a suggestion that it is predicted the Home Secretary will adopt on Wednesday. What was once a symbol of social decay confined to the worst excesses of inner-city America could soon become a daily part of life for many children in this country.

The Times Educational Supplement in August this year reported that the first termly exclusions survey of local education authorities by the Office for National Statistics showed that in just one term in 2003 no fewer
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than 17,424 pupils were suspended for violent behaviour. Sometimes these acts of violence can be genuinely horrific.

We think of Luke Walmsley, the 14-year-old stabbed to death in one of our schools a year ago, whose parents, with great courage, have come to London today to lobby for changes in the laws concerning knives. We think of the 15-year-old who died at school only last month, apparently after a fight with a pupil; of the 13-year-old left drenched in blood after being stabbed at her desk at school, also last month; of the pupil who was shot in the head at school in October; of the 12-year-old rushed to hospital after being stabbed on a flight of stairs at a school in September. Those may be the most extreme and shocking cases, but they are by no means entirely unrepresentative.

The ONS survey showed that in just one term in 2003, there were 288 permanent exclusions and 4,000 temporary ones for physical assaults on an adult, with a further 336 permanent and 12,800 temporary exclusions for assaults on fellow pupils.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): My hon. Friend has mentioned a number of cases at one end of the scale, but would he also agree that at the other end of the scale pupils bullying pupils should also be taken extremely seriously, and where it is deemed sufficiently serious, pupils should also be excluded if they persist in bullying other pupils?

Mr. Collins: I agree with my hon. Friend, who has raised a serious problem. He is right to say that head teachers must have the unlimited right to exclude pupils and that they should be encouraged to exclude pupils who engage in organised, systematic bullying.

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