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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): The hon. Gentleman repeats the motion's words about a sixfold increase in the number of places. There are currently 13,000 places in pupil referral units. Does the Conservative party propose that we should have 78,000 places in such units instead? If so, the cost would be considerably higher than £200 million. It would be at least £500 million and probably more.
Mr. Collins: The Under-Secretary cites a different figure from that previously published by the Government, on which we based our calculation of an increase from 4,000 to 24,000 pupils. The figure of £200 million is the sum that we have available for spending. Even on the figures that the Under-Secretary cited, it would provide for a substantial increase in places. We will review the figure, for which I have received the agreement of the shadow Chancellor. It could be reviewed upwards, but not downwards in school spending. It would be a substantial increase on any basis.
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): If the hon. Gentleman wants an increase in specialist schools for those who are having difficulties emotionally and behaviourally, why is the Tory county council in Dorset currently planning to close Penwithen school, which it had previously described as a centre of excellence?
I have one other important policy matter, which is directly relevant to discipline, to discuss this afternoon. It is the sensitive issue of how best to balance the competing rights and interests of those involved when an allegation is made that a teacher has abused a pupil in his or her care.
The issue was brought to life for me when a constituent, who has given permission for me to raise his case today, came to see me at an advice surgery. David Sowerbutts is a retired head teacher. He had a blemish-free 28-year career. His life was shattered after a woman, now in her 30s, claimed that he had assaulted her when he was a deputy head teacher in the 1970s.
When the case came to court, clear evidence was brought forward to clear Mr Sowerbutts, and the case was comprehensively thrown out. However, in the meantime, my constituent was branded a paedophile, spat at in the street, had his home vandalised and, worst
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of all, received a series of terrifying death threat calls telling him every day for a week to kill himself or get ready to be murdered.
My constituent is now trying to put his life back together. Sadly, however, that option is not open to the family of Alastair Wilbee, a head teacher on the Isle of Wight who hanged himself after being accused of sexually abusing a boy. The coroner in that case called for legislation to grant the same statutory right to anonymity for teachers accused of abuse that the law already gives to children making such an accusation.
The same call was made as recently as last Friday by Christopher Ifould, a former deputy head, who was cleared unanimously by a jury after being tried on a charge of sexually assaulting a pupil. I shall quote his words, which appeared in last Saturday's Daily Mail, and other papers. He said:
"Nobody should have to go through what I and my family, friends and colleagues have endured. Teachers are increasingly vulnerable to false and malicious allegations. It is all too easy for disgruntled pupils, and those in pursuit of compensation, to make false allegations. The scales have tipped too far in favour of complainants."
Chris Bryant : The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. I happen to believe that a similar argument could be made in regard to the youth service, in which exactly the same problems can arise in relation to informal teaching arrangements. However, everyone in a community such as the one that I represent would know that an allegation had been made, whether or not it had appeared in the newspapers, because that is the nature of our community. How would the hon. Gentleman deal with that problem?
Mr. Collins: Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that no law can deliver perfection, but a law of this nature could make matters better than they are at the moment. Teachers and their union representatives are emphatic that legislation would help. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it would not solve every aspect of the problem; no law ever can. But it would make things better, and, for that reason, it is legitimate for the House to consider the wishes of teachers on this matter.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con):
I congratulate my hon. Friend on demonstratingif demonstration were neededthat we are committed to the reintroduction into education not of the three R's, but of the six R's: reading, writing, arithmetic, right, wrong, and respect for legitimate authority in the classroom. Does he agree, however, that if we are to ensure that such measures are practically effective and not weakened or thwarted in Government, it will be necessary to act against that consistent and inveterate clique of left-wing officials in the Department for Education and Skills whose activities have done too much damage to the life chances of too many state school pupils for far too long?
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Mr. Collins: I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that it is the intention of the next Conservative Government to free our schools from political interference, from left or right, by making it possible for them to take many more decisions for themselves and not be subject to interference from officials of whatever political orientation.
I could have quoted many more examples of the difficulties being experienced by teachers facing accusations of abuse. Ninety per cent. of those accused are never formally charged with an offence, and most of those who are so charged are subsequently acquitted. Indeed, according to figures from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, only 69 of the 1,782 accusations of abuse made against members of that union in the past decade resulted in a conviction. In the meantime, however, many such teachers go through what they describe as a period of pure personal and professional hell so traumatic that many who are accused never go back to teaching, even though their name is subsequently entirely cleared. That is why the teaching unions have called for a statutory right of anonymity for teachers. The Conservatives believe that that call is reasonable, and we back it.
The link to discipline is also clear. As one teacher put it to me, "How can I enforce discipline in a classroom if I know that if I antagonise any one of the pupils, and they choose to use the word 'abuse', my entire personal and professional life could be over?" That is why anonymity is important.
Let us be clear about what this does and does not involve. No one is calling for a return to the past, when allegations of abuse were simply ignored or brushed aside. Teachers are not asking for immunity from prosecution or investigation, or even that they should not be suspended if a credible allegation is made. On the contrary, all such claims should be thoroughly investigated. However, teachers are very understandably of the view that they are treated now as though they are guilty until proven innocent, when it should be the reverse. The pendulum has swung too far. No doubt in past children's complaints were not given sufficient weight. Today, it is the right of teachers to basic justice, protection from false or malicious allegations and the presumption of innocence that needs to be given more weight.
In fairness, the Government have said that they recognise that there is a real problem with the current situation. Indeed, they spent several months earlier this year consulting and considering what to do. Unfortunately, their final conclusions have been greeted with some disappointment. I accept that the Government will seek to speed up the time scale for investigations and trials and that they have secured guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers, and reached a voluntary agreement with the media, to limit the publication of the names of teachers in such circumstances. Those measures will undoubtedly improve matters and thus are welcome, but the police are already not supposed to provide such names during an investigation and the press have long undertaken to be responsible, yet names of teachers still keep being reported.
Those measures do not add up to what is being soughtthe same legal right to anonymity for the accused teacher as for his or her accuser. So, let me make
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this offer across the Dispatch Box: should the Government choose to introduce a short Billit would need to be of no more than one or two clausessimply to cover this point, the Opposition undertake to help to give it swift passage through both Houses of Parliament. Even in the short period before the expected election, such a Bill would have time to get on to the statute book. However, should Ministers choose to decline this offer, Conservatives undertake to include such a measure in the teacher protection Bill, which we are pledged to introduce in our first Queen's Speech.
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