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We are suggesting that the current guidance should have greater legal force. It should have full statutory
force, and people who breach the provisions on confidentiality in the guidance should be committing an offence. That is what we are trying to achieve. If I may say so, I think the arguments in favour of our approach would be widely appreciated across the House.
We all know that in terms of a balance of rights and responsibilities, many people in the teaching profession feel that they are on the receiving end of a rights culture which is sometimes skilfully understood by extremely young children, but that the rights of teachers are not properly protected. There is a strong case for giving teachers at least a right to anonymity similar to that which those who accuse them often enjoy.
Mr. Drew: The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way and he is doing the right thing by moving the new clause. If a child has made an allegation against a teacher, the child, as a minor, enjoys confidentiality. What happens if the parent of that child chooses to make the same allegation against the teacher? What recourse is there against the adult? A court case may follow, but in the meantime the teacher has lost their confidentiality.
Mr. Willetts: If a parent has broken the confidentiality in those circumstances, that should be an offence. The protection that we are trying to provide for teachers is a general protection. The hon. Gentleman is right. The protection of anonymity is enjoyed only by children. Often it is the child versus the teacher. We want as much protection as possible for teachers when they face such allegations.
I know that there are arguments against what we are proposing. One argumentwhich we hear from people who have reputations that we respect for their work with children who are genuine victims of abuseis that children already find it difficult to make allegations of abuse, that many children suffer in silence, and that the proposal may make it even harder for them in future. The evidence that I quoted earlier shows that that is not the problem. The problem appears to be the very high proportion of allegations against teachers which are not well founded and which do not lead to a charge, let alone a successful conviction, but which cause enormous distress to many teachers, in some cases causing them to leave the teaching profession.
It should be possible in some way or other for the Government to put the proposed guidance on to a clear statutory basis. We would like to go wider by, for example, implementing some of the proposals in the Home Affairs Committee fifth report, which recommended the protection of anonymity for defendants in such cases, at least until charges are made. We need clear statutory action, but in pressing for the problem to be tackled, we are speaking on behalf of many people within the teaching profession who find the use of allegations against them an increasing source of concern. Even if our particular drafting today is imperfect, I hope that it is possible for the Minister to indicate that the Government are committed to tackling the problem.
Annette Brooke: As we approached this short debate, I was particularly struck by the headline of one of the
many newspaper articles on this issue, Crippling the life of a teacher is childs play. I share many of the concerns that have been raised by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). All too often, teachers are subject to allegations that later prove to be either malicious or exaggerated, but the damage done to a career or to someones personal integrity can last a lifetime and often cannot be undone. An innocent person can have their life destroyed, which, as the hon. Member for Havant has said, is not the usual presumption in British justice.
We have some concerns about the particular approach in new clause 1, but I hope that we can reach an agreement, because we all agree that more protection is needed for teachers. Anonymity up to the point of conviction is a particular concern. In past debatesfor example, the debate on the Sexual Offences Act 2003Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers came together on Report to argue for anonymity up to the point of charge. We felt that there was a strong case, which would have covered teachers.
There is a low conviction rate of teachers who are accused by pupils. That is extremely serious, and I would like some research to be undertaken on that point, because there must be something wrong with the processes of the Crown Prosecution Service if the conviction rate is particularly low. In other words, why is that the outcome in so many cases? What can be done to investigate the process from charge to conviction and the unusual outcome of so many teachers being found innocent? It seems to me that something fundamental must be wrong.
The police are currently urged not to release the names of school staff unless staff are charged, and there is guidance on that matter, which we discussed at great length during the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Although the guidance will probably be effective, the big issue is that someone else could go to the press, which would lead to the storys publication. Sadly, before the case that was mentioned previously, one of the youngest mothers in England was living in my constituency. It is possible that the parents sold the story to the press. One never knows who is going to do that. We always have to take on board how we are going to cope with any restrictions on the press.
When it comes to child protection, we need to listen to the childrens organisations. We may need to build in a provision whereby reporting restrictions could be lifted in extreme cases involving really serious accusations, because it may be, for whatever reason, that that particular person must be identified. I should like everything to be turned on end. The widespread publicity that we see now should be the exception rather than the rule, and a court should have to give permission for it.
The question the Government should be asking itself is whether there is a workable way of protecting teachers from mass publicity.
That is what this is all about. The guidance that was introduced last November has been very helpful, and it sets out the issues, which are well rehearsed. However, we need something with stronger teeth than mere guidance. We are looking to the Government to come up with a
statutory way of giving teachers much greater protection. There should be anonymity up to the point of charging, not trial and judgment by the media beforehand. I hope that we can move forward and achieve a consensus on this, because it involves some important principles on which we are in thorough agreement.
Mrs. Dorries: It is a long time since I was in a school classroom and had a blackboard rubber lobbed at me for talking. I hate to think what would happen to a teacher who did that today, although I am not that old and it was not that long ago. We would not have dreamed of taking action against a teacher or accusing a teacher of anything. Unfortunately, things have changed. One teacher recently said to me of her classroom, Its a war zone in there. Todays pupils grow up in a rights-aware societythey are rights-savvy. They know what their rights are, and some use them in a way that we would not expect. Indeed, parents encourage them to do so.
We ask our teachers to put up with an incredible amount in the classroom because society has changed. We live in a society where one in four nurses is attacked in an accident and emergency department on a Saturday night.
Society is changing its attitudes. We know what society thinks of politicians, journalists, nurses and doctors, so it is no surprise that in the classroom, teachers are facing similar problems. It does not happen in the majority of schools. My two children attend a comprehensive school where, fortunately, discipline levels are good. There is an exchange of respect that has been well worked out between the staff and the students; all credit to the headmaster for that. However, that is not the case everywhere. It must be scary for some teachers to work in particular classrooms, knowing that they cannot take any action and that, even if they held on to a child to restrain it, they could find themselves in difficulties.
The amendment does not propose total anonymity for teachers, regardless of whether they are in the right. Once due scrutiny of any accusations against a teacher has taken place and a process has been undertaken, if the teacher is found guilty, that should be in the public domain. However, the new clause would provide protection in the initial phase when the facts are not clear and nobody knows whether the teacher is guilty or whether the allegations constitute malicious behaviour on the part of one or a group of students.
I know a story that is similar to the one told earlier. It involves a group of girls and a science teacherthe teacher who told me that the classroom is a war zone. The group of girls was out to get that teacher because she was of the old school and a disciplinarian. She taught science, which is difficult to teach and requires
the full attention of the class. However, the fact that the girls were out to get her shows the mentality of some of the students teachers have to deal with.
If we want to get the best people into the teaching profession and attract the brightest and best to teach our children, we must offer them protection when they are in the classroom. They must know that their lives will not be destroyed by a one-off accusation that a pupil can make at any time for no particular reason. They have to know that teaching is a career in which they can progress and that it will not be halted or destroyed through no fault of their own, but by the actions of a malicious student.
I fully support the new clause and hope that the Government will consider it favourably and offer teachers the protection that they need. Perhaps we can consider doing that for nurses, too, through a staff charter.
Mr. Drew: As someone who spent 10 years as a teacher trade unionist and represented teachers in difficult circumstances, I am thankful that I did not have a case of a teacher suspended in the circumstances that we are considering. However, I know of cases that resulted in people having their names dragged through the newspapers. Whatever the rights and wrongs of their actions, that was a trial in itself.
There are two problems that make the new clause unworkable because of the way in which it is framed, but I have great sympathy with what Opposition Front Benchers are trying to do. First, the nature of the allegation will almost certainly result in a teachers suspensionsometimes for their own good, given the way in which the rumour mill works in schools. A suspension means that a teacher loses some anonymity because it is difficult to hold the line on why someone has been suspended. When an allegation is made, the fact that some cases can take not only months but years to come to court puts such great pressure on the teacher that it adds to the unacceptable position. Something may therefore have to happen to try to bring those cases to some form of resolution much more quickly.
Secondly, I know of cases in which allegations have been made against a teacher, not in the context of the school or teaching activity there, but something else that the teacher does, for example, being a swimming coach. I shall not go into too much detail because this relates to a genuine case. An allegation could be made against a teacher who was also a swimming coachnothing to do with the teaching or the fact that the person may also teach swimming at school. This was an allegation that had been made outside school.
How should such allegations be handled? Proceedings might be taken in such cases, but does the fact that they might be taken against a teacher mean that that teacher should have additional protection? Or should the teacher be treated in exactly the same way as any other adult? If charges were brought, they would of course lose their anonymity, if they had not already done so.
One of the downsides of being a teacher is that, rather like politicians, some people will always want to try them, regardless of the truth and of the process involved. Sadly, people make allegations and come to conclusions as to whether a person is innocent or guilty. I have raised these points simply to seek clarification from my own Front Bench.
Angela Watkinson: I should like to speak briefly in favour of new clause 1, and I want to illustrate its importance by sharing with the House a story about someone known to me personally. This is a case exactly like those that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) mentioned in his opening remarks.
I should preface my remarks by saying that they do not refer to a constituent of mine or to anyone who teaches in a school in my constituency. They refer to a very experienced teacher whom I know personally. He had a false accusation made against him, although of course it was not immediately known that it was false. He was suspended straight away, as one would expect, pending an investigation. The story immediately got into the local newspapers, however, and he was vilified and lost his reputation.
It took two years for the case to come to court, during which time my acquaintance had been unable to teach. He was found not guilty, but that did him no good whatever. His reputation had gone, and he had lost his home in the meantime. The local education authority, notwithstanding the courts decision, was very reluctant to accept him back on to the supply teachers list. It took another two years before the authority felt confident enough to allow him to go on to the list.
My acquaintance then began to get jobs in local schools. The head teacher would be pleased with him, as he would settle in well and develop a good rapport with the children. After a few weeks, however, as sure as night follows day, the gossip would start at the school gates. Oh, that was the teacheryou remember the onethat we read about in the local papers. I should add that the local papers had printed a very small comment to the effect that he had been found not guilty. So the head teacher would ask him to leave. He would then find another job, but the same thing would happen again and again.
After three or four attempts to get back into the teaching profession, this man decided that it was impossible to recover his career. So a good teacher had been lost to the profession. Furthermore, he had been a lifelong foster parent, but as soon as the accusation had been made, he had been removed from the foster parents list. This is someone whose earlier foster children came to visit him with their children, whom he regards as his own grandchildren. He had had decades of blameless foster parenting.
This man had also spent decades as a scout leader. He would take his scout pack out every summer washing cars, cutting hedges and mowing peoples lawns to earn their own money so that he could take them on holiday every year at no expense to their parents. In other words, he is just one of lifes good eggs. The boy who had made the false accusation turned out to have been aggrieved because he had been dropped from the football team as a punishment for larking about. But this man has now been lost to the teaching profession, lost to the fostering service and lost to the scout movement. His reputation is irrecoverable.
That is why it is so important that all possible protection be given up to the point at which charges are brought. That would not have helped in the case that I have described, because once this man got to court, he was found not guilty. I take the point made by other
Members that even if it is an offence for other people to leak such stories, it is of no great comfort to the accused person, as the very fact that their name is in the public domain means that their reputation is lost. That should not stop us at least trying to control that and giving some protection to the good reputation of teachers who have been wrongly accused.
Mr. Rob Wilson: It is always a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). She made a number of valid and telling points, using a compelling example of how a life can be utterly destroyed. I was not planning to speak in this debate, but I have been encouraged gently by my Front-Bench colleagues to do soas I value my career, of course I will do so. That apart, this is also an important and interesting debate in which to participate.
New clause 1 is extremely important, as it supports that ancient British legal right of being innocent until proven guilty. There is an old saying that mud sticks. Let me tell the House that it is at its stickiest when accusations involve teachers and other members of school staff. That is why privacy is so important when accusations are thrown around. The allegation that a teacher has harmed a child, committed a criminal offence against a child or behaved in an unsuitable way can have long-term repercussions. For example, the family life of the person and his wife and children can be put under strain. The whole school community can be affectedsuch allegations shock a school community. They are not a trivial, silly or straightforward matter.
My concern is that once the mud is thrown, some of it will stick, even if the accusations are later proven to be untrue. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), whose constituency name I always find a tongue-twister, made an important point about the current low conviction rates in relation to teachers who are accused. If a teacher is accused of being a paedophileof sexually interfering with a childtheir reputation and family life would be destroyed, even if there is not a shred of evidence to support that allegation.
We all know that some children can stretch the truth or muddle the facts. Therefore, we must know the veracity of the claims before anything is made public. We all know from our constituencies that the press loves nothing more than a scandal at the local school and we also know that that coverage is often blown out of all proportion to the actual events at the school.
We also need to be aware, however, that we should not protect the guilty. The new clause strikes the right balance, however, between protecting the innocent and ensuring that the guilty are exposed. It builds on some of the work started by the Government, which appears useful and which we can all support, so I hope that the Government can offer reciprocal support to the new clause.
Sammy Wilson: As someone who taught for 23 years, I recognise the importance of this issue, especially in more recent times, to those in the teaching profession. When I left the teaching profession about 10 years ago, it was not such a prevalent concern. For many who are
still teaching, however, their worst nightmare is to have an allegation of assault or abuse of a child made against them. That can not only ruin their career but put terrific strain on their family lives. Several teachers with whom I served and several who are constituents have come to me about well-publicised cases in Northern Ireland.
I want to make three points about this new clause. First, in the absence of anonymity there is an incentive for youngsters to make allegations because they know that those allegations can have an almost immediate impact. I do not think it insignificant that over the past few years the number of allegations against teachers has increased fourfold. That may lead to one of two conclusions. Either the quality of the teaching profession and those who enter it is becoming worse, or youngsters who are now imbued with a knowledge of their rights, and who may want to be spiteful to teachers, are tending to use such allegations as a way of destroying a teachers life. I suspect that that is the more likely explanation.
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