Education and Skills Bill

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Clause 35

Parenting orders
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 187, in clause 35, page 19, line 1, leave out ‘, but need not,’.
This is a short amendment to question whether a phrase such as “but need not” in a subsection that gives a permissive power for a parenting order to include a particular requirement is proper legislative language. Clearly, if the provision gives rise to a permissive power rather than a requirement, it already is the case that the power need not be used. The phrase is tautologous and rather folksy in its drafting and, therefore, should be removed.
Jim Knight: The phrase “but need not”, however folksy, is commonly used in legislation. It is used in the provisions in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 in respect of parenting orders for antisocial behaviour. In this Bill, it emphasises that the court has discretion in respect of the requirements imposed in the order.
It is important that orders are tailored to meet the individual needs of the parent so that he or she can most effectively deal with the behaviour that is of concern. That discretion, which is made exceptionally clear by the use of “may” and “but need not”, reflects that. I would argue that the phrase should be retained, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his interesting amendment.
Mr. Gibb: I tabled it as an interesting amendment, Mr. Bercow, but the matter has now been debated at length, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 37

Parenting orders: appeals
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 189, in clause 37, page 19, line 31, at end add—
‘(3) The grounds for an appeal under subsection (1) shall include a lack of suitable educational or training provision for the needs of the person to whom this Part applies.’.
The clause allows for appeals against parenting orders to be made to the Crown court. The amendment was tabled to enable the Minister to respond to the concern expressed by the National Union of Teachers in paragraph 20 of its briefing. The amendment applies equally to clause 43 and the grounds for appeal against attendance notices. The NUT says that the Bill provides for appeals
“but does not appear to allow for appeals on the grounds that the availability of the education or training available is not suited to their needs.”
The Minister’s response to its concerns would be appreciated.
9.30 am
Jim Knight: The amendment is unnecessary, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who spoke on behalf of the National Union of Teachers, will pass that comment on to his comrades. Clause 37 provides for parents a clear right of appeal to the Crown court against the making of a parenting order, if they feel that one has been issued unjustly. The grounds for such an appeal are currently unspecified and unrestricted, so there is no need for the explicit provision in the amendment.
A parent who believed that the court making the parenting order was unjust to conclude that such an order would be desirable in the interest of the young person’s fulfilment of the duty—because, for example, no suitable provision was available locally—might appeal on that basis. Parents can appeal for whatever reason they choose. I hope that on that basis the hon. Gentleman will agree that the amendment is unnecessary, and withdraw it.
Mr. Gibb: I am sure that my comrades at the NUT, with whom we have a good relationship, which we hope will continue, will be reassured by the Minister’s response, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 38

Parenting contracts and parenting orders: further provisions
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 188, in clause 38, page 20, line 2, after ‘cases’, insert
‘, in particular those relating to parents who are estranged from their children.’.
The clause gives the Secretary of State power to make regulations about parenting orders, and the amendment is intended to ensure that he would include in such regulations limits on the powers of local authorities to issue a parenting order in circumstances where the children are estranged from their parents. A 16 or 17-year-old child may have left home, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster said, on bad terms with their parents, and there may no longer be any contact. In those circumstances it would be unreasonable of the local authority to impose a parenting order on the parents, so the legislation should limit the power to make such an order in those circumstances.
Jim Knight: We have discussed at some length the reasons for not excluding various, often vulnerable, groups from different provisions, so I shall try to be brief. First, we do not want to specify any individual groups in the Bill. Everyone will be catered for, but it is not appropriate to introduce caveats in primary legislation for a range of specific groups. Secondly, the intention of the regulations is not to exclude any specific groups of parents. The relevant part of the Bill draws on existing legislation for parenting contracts and parenting orders, and the limitations of the regulations in this instance are in reference to where people live, rather than the exclusion of any groups.
The reason for the regulation-making powers is to ensure that the system is flexible enough to respond when a young person who fails to fulfil the duty is resident in one local education authority, but their parent is resident in another. The powers are also needed to set down further details of what should be done in such cases.
To issue a parenting order, a local authority will have to apply to the courts and provide information on the background of the young person. That information should include details of the relationship between the young person and their parent, which would help to inform the local authority and the court whether an order against that parent would be appropriate. A parenting order can be made only where the court is satisfied that that would be in the interest of getting the young person to participate. Clearly, the court would have to be satisfied that an order against an estranged parent was in the interest of getting the young person to participate.
When we make the regulations, judgments may be made about whether estranged parents should be included, but it would be appropriate to consult on matters relating to the regulations at the appropriate time, rather than to pre-empt any decision now. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to the Minister for that response, and I just emphasise one point. The amendment would not exclude the group that we are talking about from the general duty to participate, but it does address the issue of whether a parenting order would have any credibility when applied to a parent who has no contact with their own children.
None the less, I take on board the Minister’s persuasive points about the court having to take into account the relationship between the parent and the child before issuing a parenting order. I was also encouraged by his comment that when he and the Department come to make the regulations, judgments may be made about whether to include the circumstances alluded to in the amendment. On the basis of those helpful comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 39

Failure to fulfil duty under section 2: initial steps
Stephen Williams: I beg to move amendment No. 67, in clause 39, page 20, line 40, at end insert ‘, and
(c) must make an assessment of the person’s ability to benefit from the support offered.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 68, in clause 39, page 20, line 40, at end insert ‘, and
(c) may grant a waiver from this obligation where this seems in the best interests of the person.’.
No. 69, in clause 40, page 21, line 35, at end insert—
‘(2A) This further notice must not be issued before the authority has made an assessment of the person’s ability to comply with the initial notice, and whether this meets their needs.’.
Stephen Williams: My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil assured me that, given the glacial pace at which the Committee had cantered—or, rather, not cantered—through previous clauses, there was absolutely no chance that we would reach this stage before 10 o’clock, when he is scheduled to join us. For the past few minutes, I have therefore been somewhat panic-stricken and I have been reading through the amendments that my hon. Friend drafted and tabled. I will have to make my best attempt—[ Interruption. ] Well, it demonstrates palpable honesty in front of fellow Committee members. I will try my best to interpret what my hon. Friend would have said had he been here or had we been able to travel forward 20 minutes in time to when he was here.
The amendments suggest that if the local authority is to offer support to the young person to ensure that they can fulfil their obligations under the Bill to attend compulsory education or training, some assessment should be made of whether that support is appropriate. During our evidence sessions a few weeks ago, we heard some interesting evidence from various bodies, particularly the Prince’s Trust and Fairbridge, which suggested that some of the people at whom the Bill is aimed in the broadest sense—those not in education, employment or training—lead quite dysfunctional lives. They might have an addiction to drugs or alcohol or might have been in and out of the criminal justice system. The support offered to them by the local authority might not, therefore, necessarily address the fundamental needs that they have in their daily lives, and that might be one of the underlying reasons why they are unable to fulfil the obligation in the Bill to attend college.
Obviously, if someone has an addiction to heroin, or some other part of their life is dysfunctional, attending college or workplace training will not be at the forefront of their minds, and their attendance might not be welcomed by the institution or employer anyway. The compulsion introduced by the Bill will clearly not have the desired effect of ensuring that that group of people have a measurable level of educational attainments by the time that they are 18.
It will be clear from our earlier discussions and the questions that we asked during our evidence sessions that my hon. Friend and I would prefer these young people with dysfunctional lives to be given more access to the support services that would make a tangible differences to their circumstances, such as more drug rehabilitation and treatment and more investment in mental health, if such problems are the reason why they cannot fulfil their duty to participate. The purpose of the amendments is to put in place a requirement to assess whether young people’s health needs—I see drug addiction as a health problem—or mental health needs have been properly dealt with before further duties are placed on them. Our aim is to ensure that the relevant support is there so that the local authority can take an holistic approach. I have done the best that I can in the circumstances.
Jim Knight: It is a pleasure to move to chapter 5, which is headed “Attendance Notices”. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Bristol, West would like to issue an attendance notice on the hon. Member for Yeovil so that he can speak to his own amendments.
The amendments return us to discussions that we had at some length earlier in the Committee process about the support that should be offered to young people found to be not participating. Its intention is one that I share, as I have already set out: no young person should enter the enforcement system if they have unmet support needs.
Amendment No. 67 would mean that, before a local authority could give an initial notice, in addition to what the clause already requires, they would need to assess the person’s ability to benefit from the support offered. I believe that the intention of this amendment is already reflected in subsections (5)(a) and (b) and (6)(b). For the benefit of the Committee, I will briefly run through those provisions. Subsection (5)(a) states that the local authority
“must take all reasonable steps to secure that relevant support is offered”.
We have discussed that at considerable length, including what it means in respect of particular groups of young people. Subsection (5)(b) states that the local authority
“may not give the notice unless satisfied that the person has been afforded an opportunity to take advantage of the support offered.”
That, in my view, requires precisely the sort of assessment the amendment would insert into the clause. A local authority could not be satisfied that the young person has had the opportunity to benefit from the support offered if it considered that the young person in question did not have the ability to benefit from the support offered.
Subsection (6) then states that the local authority can begin enforcement action only if the young person is failing to fulfil the duty without reasonable excuse. I have, at the request of the absent hon. Member for Yeovil, written to the Committee about my thinking on “reasonable excuse”. I am sure that he will have a reasonable excuse for the hon. Member for Bristol, West. I hope that he will understand that as we are five years away from implementing the provisions of the Bill, I wish to use that time to consult fully with organisations such as those from which we heard during our evidence sessions and which the hon. Member for Bristol, West, speaking with alacrity on his feet, mentioned. My thinking will undoubtedly develop as a result of that consultation.
The relevant support referred to in subsection (5)(a) would be provided by Connexions, which is based on its personal advisers developing a sufficient understanding of a young person’s needs in order to assess what support might be most appropriate to meet those needs. Subsections (5) and (6) would mean that a local authority will not begin enforcement unless they have provided the right support.
9.45 am
Amendment No. 68 returns us to the question of a waiver certificate, which we debated at length in relation to clause 1, many moons ago. I believe there was an eclipse of the moon last night and it almost feels as though we were discussing clause 1 at the time of the previous eclipse. As I made clear to the Committee then, we do not support issuing any type of waiver to specific groups of young people to exempt them from the duty. The hon. Member for Yeovil withdrew his amendment that first introduced the concept of a waiver certificate in relation to clause 1, and I hope that this colleague the hon. Member for Bristol, West will do the same here. I know that he does not mean to suggest that young people should be denied the opportunities offered by participation in education and training.
As I understand it, amendment No. 69 would require local authorities to conduct an assessment of a young person’s ability to comply with an attendance notice before any such notice is issued. I do not believe that that would add anything to the caveats relating to attendance notices in clauses 41 and 42. The provisions in the Bill will ensure that before issuing an attendance notice, a local authority must satisfy itself that the named provision meets the young person’s needs. It will also have the knowledge of the matters that an attendance panel would take into account in considering any appeal by a young person against an attendance notice. The attendance panel provides an important independent check on the local authority’s actions, which I am sure that we will discuss fairly shortly. I look forward to that and hope, in the light of my reassurances, that the hon. Member for Bristol, West will withdraw the amendment.
Stephen Williams: I shall keep my remarks brief. Having heard the Minister’s assurances, I have only one option: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn
Clause 39 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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