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Mr. Malins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and also for his contribution in Committee. As he rightly says, there is no point in giving teachers those powers unless there is some result from their being used in practice. That is why I was illustrating that the Government's track record to date is so abysmal. The offence of carrying a knife on school premises already exists, but there is only one chance in 2,500 of a pupil being prosecuted for such an offence under existing law and only one chance in eight that any of those prosecuted will be sent to prison. The situation is terrifying.
It is all very well for the Government to bring forward a so-called flagship policy of searching children for knives and giving head teachers the powers to do so, but the Government should be deeply ashamed of the fact that knife carrying in schools has risen so dramatically over the past few years, causing so much fear to so many people, yet it is under-prosecuted by the authorities. The culture of the blade is indeed with us.
In Committee, I briefly raised with the Minister a particular case relating to search and I want to raise it again today. Some weeks ago, Opposition Members were horrified to read a newspaper report that a council was forced to pay £11,000 to a boy expelled for taking a knife to school. Apparently, the council was ordered to apologise to the teenager and to pay his mother £5,000 compensation for anxiety and uncertainty, plus £6,000 for home tuition for her son. Not surprisingly, teachers reacted with fury. If that is what happens when somebody is expelled from school, it is a very sorry situation.
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Carrying a knife in school is a serious matter that should result in prosecution of the child, yet the reality is, as my figures show, that it is simply not happening. To return to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) made, it is almost a waste of time giving the Government further powers if they do not use their existing powers properly. My general proposition is that although there are more than 60,000 offences a year of carrying a knife in school, the number actually being taken to court is paltry in the extreme.
Michael Connarty: The hon. Gentleman referred to a newspaper article but drew the wrong conclusion. He did not tell us who was the author of the decision. If the power to expel a pupil exists and someonenot the pupil or the Government but, presumably, someone in a judicial positionmade a judgment to overturn the initial decision, I do not understand why the blame should lie with the Government who gave those powers or with those who used them.
Mr. Malins: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but I lay the example before the House this afternoon so that it can understand that knives in school are a serious problem and to tell the House that I for oneI am sure that the hon. Gentleman would take the same viewbelieve that giving compensation to a mother and son for distress in a case involving the carrying of a knife is a very sorry situation indeed. I accept the point that he makes; but, nevertheless, I want to ask the Minister whether she will be kind enough to comment on that caseshe did not do so in Committeeand say how it squares with Government policy. That concludes my remarks on my amendments.
We find no reason to challenge the Government amendments, certainly not those in this grouping. Searches by a second member of staff are an important issue, and I very much hope thatif not today, certainly when the Bill reaches another placethe Government will introduce a suitable amendment to give the duty to a second member of staff. I appreciate what the Minister has said about clothingshe has toughened up that clausebut none of this will count for anything in life unless it is acted on.
I stress that, if we are giving this power to teachers, it is vital that education authorities and teachers get to grips with the problem of the knife culture in school, which is almost out of control, and use, as well as the power to search pupils, the existing criminal law, which is ready to be enforced. It is simply not right that a handful of charges have been brought under the existing law. A much stronger enforcement of current legislation is needed.
I wish the clause good luck, and I wish the teachers who have to enforce it good luck and good fortune in the very difficult task that they have to carry out, but my final wish is that the culture of the blade, which dominates our schools at the moment, can as quickly as possible be stamped out by whatever means are necessary.
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Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I rise to speak to new clause 8, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, which hon. Members may notice is not a million miles different from Government new clause 9. I very much welcome the Government's tabling of that clause, because it acknowledges the concern that we expressed about not giving further education colleges an equivalent power, thus sending out a worrying signal that only school pupils need protection and possibly even giving the impression that colleges are a soft touch. More 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time education attend further education colleges and sixth form colleges than schools701,000, compared with 345,000and 120,000 14 to 16-year-olds choose to study vocational courses at college. So we very much welcome those powers being extended to teachers and head teachers at further education colleges.
On amendment No. 22, tabled by the Conservatives, I find myself in agreement with the Government, as there is more protection and greater safeguard in having reasonable grounds, rather than in simply believing. However, I welcome amendment No. 27 and the Government's response, in which the second person might be a member of staff. That is an intelligent and probably better way forward. The extra clarification about the definition of outer clothing can only be helpfulthe more definition, the better.
I shall not extend my remarks interminably, but I wish to comment on the assertion of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) that 60,000 children are carrying knives. If that figure is correct, would 60,000 prosecutions really be the answer? I would prefer those children to be searched by their head teachers and staff, because that would be a more personal and connected way of addressing the matter.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady accept that it might take only some token prosecutions before those carrying knives at school learned that there would be a penalty for that? There would thus be no requirement for 60,000 prosecutions.
Lynne Featherstone: I totally agree that there should be some prosecutions. The Government are often guilty of not enforcing current legislation. However, I would be totally opposed to installing knife arches to detect knives, because that would cause all children to be treated as though they were criminals. It is right to proceed along the lines of members of staff performing searches, rather than using other methods. However, we must take things forward and some prosecutions must be brought.
Hazel Blears: May I respond briefly to the points raised by the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Malins) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)?
The hon. Member for Woking spoke to amendment No. 22, which would remove the words
from clause 41. I cannot accept the amendment. We are trying to strike the right balance among the rights and responsibilities of students, their parents and teachers. It is proper that staff should have reasonable grounds for their belief. In any event, courts would be likely to
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understand any belief as being reasonable belief, because that is the way in which they interpret matters. The process must be in line with the European convention on human rights. There is little merit in adopting the lower burden of belief in such circumstances. It is important that the relationship between pupils and teachers be maintained so that we have the maximum possible trust among students and parents.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about ceremonial knives, as did the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). I understand that the Department for Education and Employment issued detailed guidance in 1997 on ceremonial knives. I understand that such a knife will not be considered an illegal blade if it is very small and in a sealed covering. There has never been a problem with ceremonial knives. We are addressing a problem of an entirely different character. The guidance has been perfectly satisfactory at dealing with such situations, so I would not want the House to have any impression that we must address a problem involving the carrying of ceremonial knives.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Are you confident about the question of weapons? A pair of scissors was recently used as a weapon in a school. Children often have access to compasses, dividers and other equipment that can be sharpened and readily used as a weapon. I am worried that we are addressing only the knife culture, while a sharpened blade from a sharpener can be used as a weapon just as easily. Are you confident that all those things can be addressed? Will it be possible to look reasonably for a pair of compasses on someone's person? We need to move forward, so I would like your views.
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