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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I was a teacher, and often taught in circumstances that were somewhat stressed. Removing "reasonable" puts the person who is trying to dissolve the conflict or resolve it at great risk. I do not understand why "reasonable" should be removed from any power that is given to a person in authority. That does not make sense to me as a former teacher.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The other side of the argument is that I do not want to put too great a burden on teachers in terms of always having to justify their actions. We seem to be in a world nowadays where the burden is always on the teacher to justify what he or she is doing rather than on the pupil or the parent. The purpose of my amendment is to toughen up the clause, to strengthen the position of teachers and to help them avoid challenges at a later date by some aggrieved child or by a parent who says, in terms, "Justify this search by proving reasonable
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grounds. If you don't, I will bring some sort of case against you." I do not want teachers to be put in that position.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that amendment No. 22 is reasonable because a teacher would use the power in the presence of someone else, who is clearly defined? That in itself would be a form of control.
Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend is right. There are burdens on teachers to ensure that they do the right thing. As he readily says, they cannot do the search alone. There are already duties on a teacher without imposing on them too high a burden.
Amendment No. 26 relates to clothing. We had a serious debate in Standing Committee about the clothing that could be removed during a search. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I recall vividly that while we debated this Bill in one Committee Room, another Home Office Bill, on which I also had to serve, was being debated in another Room. A similar provision on searching through clothing was proposed in the other Bill. One of themI forget whichmentioned the removal of a hat. The other one did not. I rely on the Minister to remind which it was.
The serious point is that the Minister is trying to reach a position in which a propera full and thoroughsearch is made. As we said in Committee, the search must be realistic, by which we mean fairly full. To take an obvious example, if a child is required to remove only an outer coat, it is possible that a weapon might be concealed further down in their clothing. The Minister has to strike a balance. Her proposal goes further than the position taken in Committee. To that extent, I welcome what she said and thank her for it.
Amendment No. 27 is important. I am grateful to the Minister for the courteous way in which she received it. We are, after all, talking about searching and the need for the search to be carried out in the presence of another person. The Opposition agree with that concept, but it occurred to me shortly after proceedings in Committee that there could be serious disadvantages if the Bill were left in its current form, with the search taking place in the presence of another person who is aged 18 or over. That is a wide provision and could involve someone who is not a member of staff and teacher trained, such as a parent or a member of staff in the catering department who has no skills in dealing with pupils. Strictly speaking, it could involve another pupil at the same school. I do not think that the Minister intends the second person involved in the search to be another pupil who happens to be 18 or over.
I thought that that was unsatisfactory and still do. The Minister said that she will look more closely at the matter, perhaps with a view to the Government tabling an amendment that is drafted in the same or similar terms as mine. I do not propose to ask the House to divide on the matter, but I do ask her to consider the position carefully, and I know that she will.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con):
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government also need to consider religious dress and that they should be sensitive to those
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who wear religious dress to school? Given that they have tabled the new clause, which relates to higher education, is not it the case that we now have a new problem of adults who carry religious knives? That is a sign of adulthood in Sikh communities such as mine in Shropshire. It is important that those communities are not offended and that the Government realise that Sikh male adulthood includes carrying ceremonial knives.
Mr. Malins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend who raises the important issue of apparelfor want of a better descriptionthat might be important to someone in relation to their religious beliefs. He is right to say that the House should be sensitive to such issues, which are very important to some members of our community. It is not unknown for members of certain religions to carry small knives, but I have to say to my hon. Friend that I cannot immediately form a decisive view on that issue except to say that it is an offence under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 to carry a bladed article in a public place. All of us would wish to ensure that the law was properly upheld and enforced in that respect.
The new clause deals with the power to search school pupils for weapons. It is not appropriate for the Government to introduce this clause as a flagship proposal to address the problem of knives in schools. As with so much of the law, it is a question of properly enforcing the existing laws of the land. For example, it is already an offence under section 139A of the Criminal Justice Act for a person to have a bladed article on school premises. Furthermore, under section 139B, a constable already has a power to enter school premises to search them and any person on them for any article to which that section applies. Tens of thousands of schoolchildren are carrying knives on school premises, disguised in their clothing, and it distresses me that the existing law as laid out in section 139 is not properly enforced.
I asked the Minister some weeks ago if she could provide figures for the number of occasions on which a constable has entered school premises to conduct a search of a school pupil. The Minister was not able to tell us how many times that has happened. I asked the Minister in a written question earlier in the year about the current powers of head teachers to search and suspend pupils whom they suspect of carrying a form of weapon. The Minister replied that state and independent school head teachers may search a desk or locker without the pupil's consent, search a bag or jacket with consent or ask the police to do a personal search.
We think that we have a problem with young people carrying knives, but it is now critical and needs to be addressed seriously. A Youth Justice Board survey last year showed that 1 per cent. of pupils aged 11 to 16 have, at some time in the previous year, carried a knife in school for offensive reasons, and 2 per cent. had done so for defensive reasons. I checked with the Library the number of schoolchildren of that age in the state sector, and it is more than 3.5 million. Even if one chooses a smaller number of children, if 1 per cent. of children carry a knife for offensive purposes, it means that more than 20,000 children are carrying knives in schools for offensive purposes. If 2 per cent. do so for so-called defensive purposes, it means that more than 40,000 children aged between 11 and 16 areaccording to the Government's figurescarrying knives for
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defensive reasons. It is a horrible statistic: 60,000 children are carrying knives in our schools, yet what is the prospect of their being charged or prosecuted for that offence under existing law? We need only look at the figures.
Over the last few years, how many of the 60,000 children who, according to the Government's figures, were carrying knives, were charged with and convicted of having a bladed article on school premises? In the past five years, fewer than 100 children were charged with that offence, and of those sentenced only nine received a custodial sentence. That is an astonishing statistic, which means that carrying
Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is little point in the Government legislating to provide teachers and members of staff with the authority to search pupils unless there is a result when the search discloses a bladed weapon? No doubt that is what my hon. Friend is pointing out to the Minister.
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