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21 Oct 2008 : Column 163

Driving Instructors Convicted of Sexual Offences (Suspension)

3.37 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I beg to move,

I am standing here today because of a brave young woman called Lesley Anne. Learning to drive can be a stressful experience; people have to learn all the signs and how to do three-point turns and hill starts. They should not also be thinking that their driving instructor could be a sexual predator. Lesley Anne Steele’s was, and almost three years ago she suffered a humiliating and degrading sexual assault. Thankfully, her instructor, James Bennett from west Fife, was convicted. Yet even after that conviction, he continued to be a threat to young women, as he was permitted to continue as a driving instructor.

However, picking Lesley Anne as one of his victims was the biggest mistake that Bennett made. She is not to be messed with at all, and has a steely resolve—Steele by name, steel by nature. She was determined that what happened to her would never be allowed to happen again and waived her right to anonymity so that she could tell her story. That is when she got me involved.

Shortly after the incident, Lesley Anne wrote to me:

Now, that is rubbing her nose in it. He was close to her house, in the small village that she lives in.

Together, Lesley and I have discovered massive failings in the Driving Standards Agency and loopholes in the law. Lesley Anne received an apology from the predecessor of the Minister here today, and the DSA and the then Minister made commitments to make substantial changes. Many of those changes were made, but the law remains the same. All of that happened two years ago. I am frustrated that such urgent legislative changes have still not been made.

There are more than 40,000 approved driving instructors in the UK in whom we entrust our safety on the roads. The overwhelming majority of them are upstanding members of society. My issue is not with them, but with those who seek to tarnish their reputation—those who are a threat to our learner drivers. The nub of the issue is that the Driving Standards Agency does not have the right to suspend an instructor from the register of approved driving instructors. It does have the power to remove, but only after the full procedure is followed, including an individual’s right to appeal. If the offence committed is serious, but not serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence, the instructor could operate for a further 42 days after conviction. I have no objection to the individual’s right to dispute the proposal to remove, but I do not see why that cannot be undertaken under
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suspension. The Government agree with me, and I want to give them some credit for the progress that they have made.

First, the Minister at the time admitted that there was a loophole, and admitted the mistakes that had been made and the flaws in the system. He made a personal apology to Lesley Anne, and I thank him for that. Secondly, the DSA and the Government introduced enhanced criminal record checks for all current and future instructors. That process, conducted during the past year, weeded out eight offenders who can no longer pose a threat to learner drivers. If it were not for Lesley Anne, those people would still be on the road. Thirdly, they changed the complaints procedures and customer care, so that complaints, such as those made by Lesley Anne, will be dealt with in a more sympathetic and effective manner. However, it should not require the involvement of an MP to get such a complaint dealt with seriously. The profession of driving instructor is now a notifiable profession for the Home Office and the Scottish Executive. If an instructor is convicted of an offence, the DSA is automatically notified, which was not the case before.

However, despite that progress, it is regrettable that two years on, the loophole of a lack of power to suspend remains in place. Some have suggested that instructors should be suspended immediately on being charged, not just when they are successfully prosecuted. However, the requirement to prove guilt, rather than simply allege, is a right that must be protected. Malicious allegations should not be permitted to have more effect that they already do. During a debate in Westminster Hall in November 2006, the then Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), told me:

In the past two years there has been at least one case of a driving instructor being successfully prosecuted but not jailed for that offence. David Austin from Suffolk was convicted of sexual assault. I understand that he has been removed from the register, but I do not know whether he was teaching after conviction and before he was removed. If he did not teach, it was his choice, because it is not within the DSA’s power to remove him. That must change. We must remove the power from those individuals to continue teaching.

Doing research for the debate, I discovered that the problem was identified before I raised it today. In 2005, in the Rochdale Observer, there was a story on a driving instructor who was convicted of sexual assaults on female pupils but who continued to teach. The article read:

The DSA knew about the situation earlier than the point at which I raised it in the House, which makes it more difficult to understand why we have not made any further progress two years on.

If my Bill does not make progress today, I hope that my contribution in the Chamber will spur on the Government—perhaps by some other mechanism—to introduce the legislation that is required. If the power to
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suspend is not introduced immediately, we will not be performing our duty to do everything that we can to protect learner drivers.

Lesley Anne has now passed her driving test and is a very proficient driver, no thanks to her instructor. She also recently married and is enjoying life. Let us pass the legislation and get the situation sorted, for her sake and for the thousands of young women who learn to drive every year. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Willie Rennie, Mr. Mark Lancaster, Ms Katy Clark, Nick Harvey, Mr. Adam Holloway, Gordon Banks, Jo Swinson, Linda Gilroy, Mr. Alan Reid, Danny Alexander, John Barrett and Mr. David Hamilton.

Driving Instructors Convicted of Sexual Offences (Suspension)

Willie Rennie accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the immediate suspension from the Register of Approved Driving Instructors of driving instructors convicted of sexual offences; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 27 October, and to be printed [Bill 154].

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Opposition Day

[19th Allotted Day]

Immigration Controls

Mr. Speaker: We come to the main business. I inform the House that in both debates I have selected the amendments in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.46 pm

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I beg to move,

My first task is to welcome the new immigration Minister to his job, and it is a real pleasure to do so. He has made an impact already; indeed, he has made such an impact on the Home Secretary that she has decided that it might be wiser not to let him open the debate for the Government. It would be useful for the House to discover what he has said that she disagrees with.

The immigration Minister gave an interview on Saturday in which he said that he wanted a limit on the numbers coming to Britain. That sounds sensible. In fact, it sounds like every interview that I have given on the subject for the past two years. Sadly, he gave another interview on Sunday, in which he said the opposite, describing talk of a limit as nonsense.

I can only assume that the second U-turn came after a talk with the Home Secretary, because she has spent the past two years energetically criticising the policies that on Saturday the Minister said he would introduce. She spent two years saying that any limit on immigration would be arbitrary and unworkable. Her immigration Minister now wants a limit. She spent two years saying that there are huge economic benefits to immigration at any level. He says that it has been too easy to get into this country.

I do not want to be unfair on the Minister and accuse him of disagreeing only with the Home Secretary. He also disagrees with himself. There are so many contradictions in what he has said that I will ask her to comment only on the main one. In his now notorious interview with The Times on Saturday, he said:

He is nodding—that is Conservative policy, and that is a good thing. However, on “The Politics Show” on Sunday, the Minister was asked by Jon Sopel,

to which he said:

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Not unreasonably, Jon Sopel said:

to which the Minister replied:

So on Saturday he wants a limit and on Sunday it is nonsense to want a limit.

I am happy to say that there has been more clarity in the Minister’s subsequent interviews. He is completely clear in The Guardian today, where he is quoted in the headline as saying, “We have lost people’s trust on immigration”. He is right about that, but the Home Secretary might care to explain why her junior Ministers are going around admitting that her policies are a disaster. Is she a little worried by this? If not, she should be.

The Minister went further in the speech that he made yesterday. To give balance, I shall quote him this time in The Daily Telegraph. According to that newspaper, he said that the Government had

He also went a long way on asylum policy, saying that the Government’s asylum policy had caused

He is right, although those are strong words. He made his best point while praising Dutch immigration policy, saying:

Perhaps he would like to explain who has been in power during those 10 years in which immigration policy has been such a failure.

I think that we can now leave the Home Office team to sort out their differences—[Hon. Members: “More!”] I should love to give my hon. Friends more, but it is important to hear what the Home Secretary has to say about her junior Minister. It is also important to establish whether his candid admissions of failure have any substantial policy changes behind them. Even if we take the words in his Saturday interview at face value, there is a serious problem. Sometimes, he seems to be arguing that unlimited immigration was okay during the economic boom, but that it will not work for the economic bust that we are now experiencing. At other times, however, he argues that we need to treat this as a demographic problem. When he says that, he makes a lot more sense.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made it clear a year ago that the Conservatives believe that population growth has been too fast and that it must be put on a more sustainable course. To achieve that, however, we need properly controlled immigration numbers at all times, not just in a recession. Without a limit, we cannot plan our public services properly, we would have little incentive to improve the training of unemployed people, and, most of all, we would make it more difficult for new arrivals to integrate easily and quickly into British life. I want an immigration policy that will help to make Britain a less tense, more cohesive society. One big charge that the Government must answer is that, over the past 10 years, they have achieved exactly the opposite.

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Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab) rose—

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab) rose—

Damian Green: I shall give way just once or twice, because I am aware that many people want to speak in the debate. I shall give the co-chairman of the all-party group on balanced migration the first go.

Mr. Field: Given that the hon. Gentleman has now committed his party so clearly to introducing a cap, will he tell us where he will draw the cap?

Damian Green: The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I shall be coming to that point later.

Some of the Minister’s remarks over the weekend not only set out the problem but threatened to make things worse. When he says:

he is getting alarmingly close to blaming immigrants for rising unemployment. It is the duty of every moderate politician to exercise great restraint when addressing this subject. For the past decade, Labour has been the incompetent party on immigration. The Minister is in danger of making it the nasty party on immigration as well.

The chaos inside the Home Office is frustrating, because there is a chance for a new political consensus on immigration—perhaps symbolised by the formation of an all-party group. I think that we all agree that immigration can produce economic and social benefits, but it will do so only if it meets five criteria. First, it should be under control. Secondly, people need to know that there is a limit, and that there will be no sudden surges. Thirdly, people need to have confidence that the authorities are competent to deal with illegal immigration. Fourthly, our essential public services need to be able to cope with the number of people arriving. Fifthly, immigration policy must aim to attract people who will be of considerable benefit to our economy and our wider society.

Dr. Starkey rose—

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab) rose—

Damian Green: What a choice! I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, as he has been commenting on this issue over the weekend.

Mr. MacShane: Will the hon. Gentleman define an immigrant for the purposes of this debate? Are Irish non-British citizens immigrants? Are the Europeans who are allowed to live and work here—as we can in any European country—immigrants? They all require housing, schooling and health services. Before we get much further into the debate, will he tell us what the Tory definition of an immigrant is?

Damian Green: What the right hon. Gentleman characterises as a Tory definition of an immigrant is exactly the same as his own Government’s definition, which is someone who comes here for more than 12 months. I am glad that he intervened, as it reminds me
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that he made a thoughtful point in The Observer on Sunday— [Interruption.] I am full of generosity of spirit today. The right hon. Gentleman said that the new immigration Minister’s comments

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