Hazel Blears: I support Government new clause 9 and resist Opposition new clause 8. I shall also convey my position in respect of the other amendments in the group, which I particularly look forward to debating with the hon. Members who tabled them.
On Government new clause 9, we agree entirely that the power to search students and learners for weapons should be extended to further education colleges. We discussed this issue in Committee, when I gave a commitment to consider it further, and I have duly tabled a Government new clause on Report. Given the increasing number of pupils under 16 who are, or will be, attending courses at college under arrangements made by their school as part of their compulsory education, it is of course right that this power be extended to FE colleges. It is essential that there be a level playing field for schools and colleges, and this new clause will remove the anomaly of a person in school perhaps enjoying a higher level of security than his or her counterpart on a similar course at an FE college. I hope that the Opposition are satisfied with the new clause, that it meets all their expectations, and that in the circumstances, they will not feel the need to press their amendment on this issue to a vote.
I am afraid that I am going to resist Amendment No. 22, which would actually reduce protection for a pupil who is searched. Under it, a member of staff would be able to search a pupil simply if they believed that they had an offensive weapon; they would need no grounds, nor any reasonable grounds, for that belief. Requiring reasonable grounds offers a pupil protection against arbitrary searches. That is a normal standard that we adopt in many different circumstances, and we want to keep that safeguard. Removing it could harm pupils' and parents' trust that school staff will act reasonably. On that basis, I ask the Opposition to withdraw the amendment.
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I also urge the House to resist Amendment No. 26, which would remove paragraph (a) from clause 41. Removing this paragraph would cause uncertainty to both the pupil and the member of staff, and reduce safeguards for both. The Government are introducing an amendment to replace line 20 on page 42 of the Bill with a definition of which items of outer clothing staff may require a pupil to remove.
I ask the House to enable us to give further consideration to Amendment No. 27, which would change the wording of the provision relating to the additional person who must be present when a pupil's possessions are searched from a
Such an amendment would ensure that both adults involved are members of staff, and not, for example, volunteers or parents; however, it does not prevent the presence of such people in addition to the two members of staff. We are prepared to consider this issue further, and in doing so we will want to consider requiring that the second person who must be present at a personal search also be a member of staff. If there is to be this extra safeguard, it is probably more important that it exists during a personal search than during a simple search of possessions. We also want to consider whether equivalent amendments should be made to the provisions relating to FE institutions and attendance centres, to ensure coherence and consistency throughout the Bill. On that basis, I ask the Opposition to withdraw their amendment, but I happily undertake to examine the matter further, and to consider whether we can build in the safeguards that the amendment is designed to introduce.
Government Amendments Nos. 79 and 81 provide a clear definition for the meaning of "outer clothing" in respect of searches conducted at schools and attendance centres. This definition will make it clear to both staff and the person being searched which items of clothing they may be required to remove during a search. We have added shoes and boots to the list, which is an important practical change. The amendments also provide that any item of clothing worn over a shirt or blousea jumper or pullover, for examplecan be removed. Amendments Nos. 78 and 80 correct a minor drafting error. I look forward to the debate on these amendments and new clauses.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): We begin our deliberations with a discussion on the vexed but important issue of being able to search children to ascertain whether they are carrying weapons upon them. The Government have introduced a new clause. In effect, it extends the right to search to those who are undergoing further or higher education. As for new clauses 9 and 8, my hon. Friends and I will undoubtedly accept that there is sense in what is proposed.
I shall speak briefly to amendments Nos. 22, 26 and 27, all of which are in my name and the names of my hon. Friends. At the same time, I shall comment on some of the Government amendments.
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Amendment No. 22 relates to clause 1 and the issue of whether a member of staff should have reasonable grounds for believing that a pupil may have a weapon with him or her. My amendment would leave out the words "reasonable grounds for believing" and insert "believes". We believe that a fairly tough and vigorous approach should be taken to the entire issue of knives and other weapons being carried by school children. The purpose of inserting "believes" instead of "reasonable grounds for believing" is to strengthen the position of the member of staff concerned before a search takes place, and not to put too great a burden on the teacher. If it is the case that the member of staff has to have reasonable grounds to believe, he or she may be expected to go through some sort of mental gymnastics before concluding that it would be right to search the childfor example, "What grounds do I have? Are they reasonable? Would they be open to challenge later?" We are very used nowadays to children being able to challenge members of staff. I want to put that person in a slightly stronger position so that they could perhaps avoid unnecessary challenges in due course.
The Minister, who is not happy with my amendment, talks about pupil protection and the need to ensure that trust is not damaged. However, we are dealing with a serious problem. In a sense, I want to give members of staff stronger powers to do what they think is right even if, from time to time, the grounds on which they want to search someone may not always be deemed to be reasonable by outsiders.
For example, what is the position of a member of staff when a pupil comes up to them and says, "I think that so and so may be carrying a weapon"? Is that a reasonable ground for a search? What about a member of staff who overhears one pupil talking to another about carrying weapons? Would that amount to a reasonable ground? What about a bulge, for example, where a knife might be kept in a young man's trousers? Would that amount to a reason for a member of staff saying, "I think that there may be a ground for a search. I believe that there may be a knife there. I am going to search." That decision would be reached without having to examine the whole issue of reasonable ground.