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Hazel Blears: Clearly we are trying to ensure that searches can be carried out so that we can confiscate both knives and bladed weapons from students who unfortunately bring them to school. We had a lengthy discussion in Committee about whether it would be possible to use a sharpened blade from a pencil sharpener as a weapon. There have been dreadful events in recent timeswe heard at the weekend about a young girl who was attackedso we want the Bill to provide schools with powers to search. We will never be able to anticipate all the different weapons that may be used, but we are determined to try to make sure that schools can not just search pupils but confiscate items that could be made or adapted for use in violent situations.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Before my right hon. Friend leaves the matter of ceremonial dress, will she include the sgian dubh, which is often part of a Scots person's full ceremonial dress?
As I said, there has never been a problem with ceremonial weapons, and I would not want any hon. Member to think otherwise. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 introduced the offence of having an article with a blade or point in a public place,
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and it also includes the defence of possessing such an article for religious reasons. We contemplated that provision, and I believe that the guidance is sufficient.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): To pursue that point, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) talked about the culture of the blade and said that it must be challenged. However, the Minister has not explained how an individual armed with a pair of scissors, a compass or a Stanley knife, which has a short blade, will be dealt with. Those people will quickly learn the new law, and arm themselves with such implements. How will she address that threat?
Hazel Blears: Having a blade on school premises is an offence, and any other material that could provide evidence of that offence could be seized. If an individual was even contemplating using any other pointed articles, those items could be seized and confiscated as a result of the search. Schools and teachers will have the necessary powers to be able to take potential weapons away from people, which ought to make our school premises significantly safer in future.
The hon. Member for Woking raised the case of someone who was excluded from school. I should put on the record the fact that compensation, as I understand it, was awarded because of the failure to provide alternative education provision rather than anything to do with the seizure of the knife. Schools obviously have powers not just to conduct searches under the legislation but to exclude pupils for violent activity, including the carrying of knives on the premises. We would certainly support teachers and head teachers who take such action to exclude pupils, but the compensation in the case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman was payable, I believe, for the failure to provide education provision rather than because of the initial decision to exclude. We would not want teachers to shy away from exclusion in such circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of schools and the police working together closely, and I can confirm that police officers are stationed in 400 schools across the country, where they can build extremely good relationships with both teachers and pupils. Police officers who are based full-time in schools have had a significant impact on the likelihood of violent incidents occurring in school. They can often nip problems in the bud, and do excellent educational work with pupils to show them that the carrying of knives and other weapons is not the way to resolve conflict. Basing police officers in schools is therefore an extremely good idea.
Bob Spink: The right hon. Lady is making an excellent case both for Government new clause 9 and for the presence of police officers in schoolsan initiative that is working well in my south Essex constituency. Can she explain to the House exactly what happens if, during a search on a pupil, a weapon is not found but other contraband, illegal substances or materials are found?
If there is evidence of offences that have been committed, the police would take the action that they usually take in those circumstances. We have
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introduced powers for searches for alcohol and tobacco in the possession of under-age youngsters, as well as for other substances. If the police found illegal substances they would retain them and dispose of them in the normal manner, just as they would for anyone else who had committed an offence. The age of criminal responsibility in this country is 10, and if people are found to have committed criminal offences the police will take appropriate action as a result of the evidence that they find.
Mr. Malins: The Minister remarked on the number of police present in schools, which we all applaud. However, in what percentage of schools across the country are police present for much of the time? Does she, like the Opposition, think that it is a good idea to try to encourage a much greater take-up of that facility?
Hazel Blears: Apart from the fact that my maths is not up to it, I do not know the total number of schools so I cannot give a percentage figure now, but I shall endeavour to find the hon. Gentleman some details. We encourage schools to have extremely close relationships with the police service. I find that police officers stationed in schools often build a relationship with pupils that diverts them from becoming involved in crime, antisocial behaviour and other activities that cause problems. Of course we now have 13,000 extra police officers, so there are more to go around our schools than there were a few years ago. With the advent of 24,000 community support officers and the ability to have a neighbourhood police team in every community by 2008, I anticipate even more schools being able to develop a better and more positive relationship with their police services.
In Committee, the hon. Gentleman said that, as well as introducing somewhat punitive measures in relation to searches, confiscation and prosecution, it is important to concentrate on educating our young people in the idea that carrying knives and other weapons is no way to resolve conflict. We must try to give them alternative skills to deal with some of the problems they face at school, so that we can minimise the prospect of the horrendous events that we have seen all too graphically in the past few weeks recurring. The Government support a range of education projects, in particular with the police service, and I hope that the House welcomes that sort of work.
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