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On 10 March, nearly three years after Mr. Cousins was acquitted, the head of the children’s safeguarding unit at DCSF wrote to Mr. Cousins to inform him that the Secretary of State had decided not to bar or to restrict his employment. The letter, however, had a twist in the tail:

The letter goes on to refer to

The House will remember that the governors of the RGS agreed that Mr. Cousins had been unfairly dismissed in 2007 and that he has never been found guilty in court, so to what “misconduct” is the Department referring?

Furthermore, Mr. Cousins alleges that it is clear from the letter that the DCSF has not sent him copies of all the documentation that it has considered, despite having promised to do so. That means that he has not had a chance to comment on all the allegations made against him. Not surprisingly, my constituent has now written to the Department about both those points.

To sum up this section of my speech, we have a teacher who has never been found guilty in court, who has been unfairly dismissed, who has apparently been the subject of inaccurate police claims, some of which have been dismissed in court, who has been investigated by the DCSF on a basis that that Department is unwilling to disclose either to him or to his Member of Parliament, and who the Department now judges to be guilty of misconduct on a basis that it has yet to disclose and may be unwilling to disclose, despite the fact that Mr. Cousins has never been found guilty in court but has been found to be unfairly dismissed. All this while, Mr. Cousins has endured delay, dismissal, disruption to his standard of living and quality of life, strain on his family life, public scandal and above all separation from the vocation to which he dedicated much of his working life. He would be entitled to feel that he has effectively been put on trial twice: once by a judge and jury, who did not find him guilty, and once by the Government and the authorities, who in effect did, but Government and the authorities are not, as the old saying has it, 12 men good and true. If the DCSF has evidence against my constituent, surely that must be produced. If it does not, the House and the world can only conclude that the handling of the case reeks of injustice.

I now want to ask the Minister some questions. I would be grateful if she indicated either now or during her response to the debate that she will write to me in response to any questions that she does not this evening have time to answer. I would be grateful if, rather than simply reading the brief, she would at least answer this evening the questions that pertain directly to Mr. Cousins.

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What is the nature of the “misconduct” referred to in the DCSF’s letter of 10 March, bearing in mind that Mr. Cousins has never been found guilty in court but has been found to have been unfairly dismissed? Was he shown all the documentation relating to his case? If not, why not, and will he now be shown it? More broadly, in what circumstances where a teacher is acquitted will the DCSF launch its own subsequent investigation? What are the procedures for referring such cases for investigation, and who is entitled to make these referrals? Assuming that the Department does decide to launch its own investigation, how does it appoint the investigator and how does it ensure that the investigator is both qualified and impartial? What checks has the Department introduced to ensure that any investigator has papers relating to both sides of the case? In this instance, although Mr Cousins did not dispute the findings of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, were a teacher to do so, what procedures would enable that teacher to appeal against the findings of a report? Given the delay, what guidelines has the Department issued on the speed with which it will conclude any investigation that it launches? Its latest letter to me said that

I now turn to the role of the Metropolitan Police. I would be grateful if the Minister could pass on the following questions to her counterparts in other Departments if she is not in a position to answer them herself. First, as a chief police officer can add “other relevant information” in the so-called soft box of a CRB form, how is relevant information defined, and what guidelines cover its use?

According to a letter I received from the Met in October 2007, the principles that can be extracted from the case law relating to CRB disclosures are as follows:

Do the Government believe that it is right that chief police officers are not required to make inquiries or carry out investigations into the accuracy or nature of such information? In how many and what percentage of cases is it conceded that a CRB disclosure is inaccurate, as the CRB conceded in the case of Mr. Cousins in relation to its first disclosure? What is the Met’s policy on the speed with which CRB checks should be completed? Are there recommended response times? If so, were they adhered to in this instance, and if not why not?

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to tell the House part of the story of the life of my constituent, Nick Cousins. I am saddened to have had to ask how he has been put on trial twice—once by a judge and jury, who did not find him guilty, and once by Government and authorities, who in effect did, without any new evidence of which I am aware.

I know that in these times it is not done to quote poetry in the Chamber—dear me, that would be rather old-fashioned. None the less, I am mindful as I speak this evening of the words of Auden:

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Finally, I close by reflecting on what this story suggests not just for one teacher, but for all teachers, all schools, our education system as a whole, and our educational and popular culture. Not long ago, there was an imbalance between the protection of children and the autonomy of teachers. The former was compromised at the expense of the latter. That imbalance had to be addressed. By and large, I think that it has been. The protection of children should be non-negotiable.

Ministers, the DCSF, local authorities, Parliament, the courts, schools, teachers and governors have no easy task in deciding where the balance lies. As I said earlier, there are circumstances in which there are grounds for proceeding against people even if they have been cleared in court, especially, perhaps, when child protection is concerned. None the less, there are, as I say, serious questions about whether this balance is now right.

Like other Members, I visit schools in my constituency. I am acutely aware that the life of teachers is modern Britain is not always easy. Once, teachers were repositories of knowledge. Like policemen, clergymen, councillors and even, dare I say it, Members of Parliament, they had authority, and a certain status. Now, they are often surrogate parents in what can be, for children, a world made even more bewildering and confusing than it already is by the way in which we live now—sometimes there is a lot of choice, but not always a lot of love.

Teachers no longer have the authority that they automatically possessed a generation ago. Nor does our culture always give them the respect and indeed the reverence to which they are entitled as the passers-on of the light of learning to the next generation. Their options, faced with children who are sometimes difficult at best and violent at worst, are limited. I note that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee has said that it plans to hold an inquiry into the handling of allegations against teachers.

In these circumstances, it is surely vital to ensure that teachers, no less than children, are treated fairly by Government and by the authorities. It is for this wider reason, as well as for the sake of justice and equity, that I bring before the House this evening the case of my constituent, Nick Cousins.

7.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing this debate. Our first duty in government and as a society is to do all we can to keep children safe, and I know that duty is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. That is why we have been strengthening the system for preventing unsuitable people from gaining access to children through their work, and it is why we have established the new vetting and barring system and the Independent Safeguarding Authority.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is not appropriate for me to comment on individual cases in the House, particularly given the obvious sensitivities for all concerned, but I would be more than happy to commit the Department to write to him in confidence to address some of the procedural issues raised by this case if that would be of help and if his constituent gave permission. The remarks that I make tonight will be about the processes in general as regards the DCSF and not about the process in this case.

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Mr. Goodman: Can the Minister confirm whether that letter would include what I described as the whole misconduct question if my constituent gave permission for the letter to be written?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We will look at the letter that is given. On the decisions made by our Department, we will always disclose any information that we rely on when making such decisions. On the procedural issues, we will look at the letter when it comes. This is a very sensitive issue.

As limited time is left for me to respond, let me say that CRB disclosures come under a different Department, so I will pass that issue to my colleagues. If I do not manage to get through all the procedures that the hon. Gentleman referred to, I undertake to write to him about the rest.

It is absolutely critical for both the Independent Safeguarding Authority and my own Department to be as scrupulous and rigorous as possible in consideration of all such cases. They frequently deal with very complex issues, and we owe it to all concerned, including those who are under consideration, to review the information that we receive with all due diligence.

The changes that we are introducing under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 will help to make sure that we have the toughest possible vetting and barring system for all those working with, or seeking to work with, children and vulnerable adults. We have already tightened the current system, so that anyone cautioned, as well as those who are convicted, for specified sexual offences against children will automatically be entered on list 99 and barred from working in schools and other education settings. We have made CRB checks mandatory for all new appointments to the schools work force, including staff entering the work force from overseas.

The primary purpose of the process for considering cases is to safeguard children from contact with people who are considered unsuitable, either because they present a risk to a child’s safety or welfare, or because their behaviour presents an unacceptable example to children. Cases are typically triggered by reports from the police, schools or local authorities, wherever there are grounds for concern about an individual working in a school, a further education institution or a local authority education setting.

In addition, any relevant information received by the Department—for example, through the media—may be considered. Where allegations or offences cause concern but do not meet the criteria for automatic barring, information will be sought from a range of agencies and from the individual concerned. Supporting evidence is required to assess the seriousness of the behaviour, or alleged behaviour, and to establish whether the allegations are proved on a balance of probabilities.

It is impossible to say precisely how long it will take to conclude any given case, because the circumstances of each will vary. The length of time it takes to reach a decision very often also depends on how long it takes other agencies or bodies to provide us with the relevant information and evidence. However, we aim to conclude a case as soon as possible after receiving all the necessary information. Although we try to deal with all these cases as quickly as possible, obtaining sufficient information
1 Apr 2009 : Column 1022
to decide whether to take up a case and then completing the processes inevitably takes time. Strengthening existing arrangements in the ways I have mentioned has led to a significant increase in the number of individuals on list 99. Last year, the total number was 8,036, but it had risen to 12,992 by January this year. The vast majority of the increase is due to the implementation of the amended list 99 regulations that came into force in February 2007.

In relation to cases referred before 20 January this year, the new Independent Safeguarding Authority has been advising the Secretary of State on his decisions under the current scheme. On 20 January this year, however, legislation came into force that required all referrals made from that point to be made to the ISA, and required the ISA to have responsibility for making decisions on those cases in accordance with the new vetting and barring system.

From July next year, all individuals registering with the new vetting and barring system will be subject to a regime of continuous monitoring. They will be reassessed against any new information, whether that comes from police, employers, social services departments or other sources. If necessary, they will be barred from the work force as a result. Legal penalties will exist to enforce that provision.

In certain circumstances, people will be barred automatically from working with children, although in the majority of cases they will be able to make representations about why the bar should be lifted. While those representations are being made, they will continue to be barred from employment as teachers or school workers.

Where the criteria for automatic barring are not met, all the facts of cases will be considered in deciding whether people are unsuitable to work with children and whether they should therefore be barred to prevent them from entering the children’s work force. People are automatically barred from working with children and young people if they have been convicted or cautioned for any of a range of offences against children, including sexual offences. People are also automatically barred if they are subject to a court order that disqualifies them from working with children.

Barring becomes discretionary when there are allegations or offences that cause concern but do not meet the criteria that I have just mentioned. In cases where there are allegations of concern, the ISA will perform the most rigorous assessment by seeking information from police, employers and other agencies, as well as from the individual concerned, before reaching any decision. In some cases, a specialist risk assessment of the person will be commissioned: once completed, that evidence will be taken into account by the ISA.

The system is designed to be as fair and rigorous as possible. It gives those under consideration the opportunity to state their case, but it also reflects the huge importance that we have to place on safeguarding every single child’s welfare.

Of course, placing people who are unsuitable to work with children on a barred list is one of the main safeguards in place to protect young people from harm, but it must be stressed that former and prospective employers also play a vital role. It is for any prospective employer to decide, on the basis of information gathered from criminal
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record checks and other relevant sources of recruitment information, whether to employ a person. It is for former employers, when asked, to provide frank and accurate references for former employees.

The safety and welfare of children is always our top priority. If there is any suggestion that an individual might pose an immediate risk to any child or young person, we would expect action to be taken without hesitation. In cases where no criminal offence has been committed, the Department will be absolutely rigorous in its efforts to ensure that it has all the information that it needs to make a decision on whether a person poses a risk to children and should be barred.

The Department continues to consider cases after court proceedings have been completed: it does take
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court outcomes into account, but the Secretary of State also considers cases at the civil standard—that is, “on the balance of probabilities”. The criminal courts test evidence at the higher criminal standard of proof—that is, “beyond all reasonable doubt”—so an acquittal of charges at court does not necessarily mean that an individual will not be barred.

As I have said, the Secretary of State is under a duty to consider allegations of a serious nature that suggest that children have been put at risk of harm. If the Department becomes aware of information—such as a press report, or information from police, employers, the courts or a member of the public—

7.39 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).

1 Apr 2009 : Column 1025

Deferred Divisions

Ecclesiastical Offices (terms of service) measure

The House divided: Ayes 362, Noes 21.
Division No. 92]


Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Alexander, Danny
Alexander, rh Mr. Douglas
Amess, Mr. David
Anderson, Mr. David
Armstrong, rh Hilary
Austin, Mr. Ian
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baird, Vera
Baker, Norman
Balls, rh Ed
Banks, Gordon
Barlow, Ms Celia
Baron, Mr. John
Barrett, John
Battle, rh John
Bayley, Hugh
Begg, Miss Anne
Beith, rh Sir Alan
Bell, Sir Stuart
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Benn, rh Hilary
Benton, Mr. Joe
Benyon, Mr. Richard
Bercow, John
Binley, Mr. Brian
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Blears, rh Hazel
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Blunkett, rh Mr. David
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Bone, Mr. Peter
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Boswell, Mr. Tim
Bottomley, Peter
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben
Brady, Mr. Graham
Breed, Mr. Colin
Brennan, Kevin
Brokenshire, James
Brooke, Annette
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Brown, Mr. Russell
Browne, rh Des
Browne, Mr. Jeremy
Bruce, rh Malcolm
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burns, Mr. Simon
Burstow, Mr. Paul
Burt, Alistair
Burt, Lorely
Butler, Ms Dawn
Byrne, rh Mr. Liam
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Caton, Mr. Martin
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Challen, Colin
Chapman, Ben
Chaytor, Mr. David
Clapham, Mr. Michael
Clark, Greg
Clark, Ms Katy
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom
Clegg, rh Mr. Nick
Clelland, Mr. David
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Clwyd, rh Ann
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Corbyn, Jeremy
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Crausby, Mr. David
Creagh, Mary
Cruddas, Jon
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Cunningham, Tony
Darling, rh Mr. Alistair
David, Mr. Wayne
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Davies, Mr. Dai
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Denham, rh Mr. John
Devine, Mr. Jim
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Dobbin, Jim
Drew, Mr. David
Duddridge, James
Duncan Smith, rh Mr. Iain
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Engel, Natascha
Ennis, Jeff
Evans, Mr. Nigel
Evennett, Mr. David
Fabricant, Michael
Farron, Tim
Field, rh Mr. Frank
Field, Mr. Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Follett, Barbara

Foster, Mr. Don
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Francois, Mr. Mark
Fraser, Christopher
Gapes, Mike
Gardiner, Barry
Garnier, Mr. Edward
George, Andrew
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Gilroy, Linda
Goggins, Paul
Goldsworthy, Julia
Goodman, Helen
Greening, Justine
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Griffith, Nia
Griffiths, Nigel
Grogan, Mr. John
Gwynne, Andrew
Hain, rh Mr. Peter
Hall, Patrick
Hamilton, Mr. David
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Hammond, Stephen
Hancock, Mr. Mike
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Dr. Evan
Harvey, Nick
Healey, rh John
Heath, Mr. David
Hemming, John
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen
Hermon, Lady
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Heyes, David
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holmes, Paul
Hope, Phil
Hopkins, Kelvin
Horam, Mr. John
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Howell, John
Howells, rh Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Hughes, rh Beverley
Huhne, Chris
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Hunter, Mark
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Hutton, rh Mr. John
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Mr. Eric
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jack, rh Mr. Michael
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, rh Alan
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Mr. David
Jones, Helen
Jones, Lynne
Jowell, rh Tessa
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keeley, Barbara
Keetch, Mr. Paul
Kelly, rh Ruth
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Key, Robert
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kidney, Mr. David
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Kramer, Susan
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Lamb, Norman
Lancaster, Mr. Mark
Laws, Mr. David
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Leech, Mr. John
Lepper, David
Levitt, Tom
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn
Loughton, Tim
Love, Mr. Andrew
Lucas, Ian
Luff, Peter
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
MacShane, rh Mr. Denis
Mactaggart, Fiona
Malik, Mr. Shahid
Mallaber, Judy
Mann, John
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Maude, rh Mr. Francis
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCarthy, Kerry
McCartney, rh Mr. Ian
McDonagh, Siobhain
McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair
McFadden, rh Mr. Pat
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McGuire, rh Mrs. Anne
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McKechin, Ann
Mercer, Patrick
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Miliband, rh David
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew
Mitchell, Mr. Austin
Moffatt, Laura
Mole, Chris
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Moore, Mr. Michael
Morgan, Julie
Moss, Mr. Malcolm
Mulholland, Greg
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Mundell, David
Munn, Meg
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Murphy, rh Mr. Jim
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Neill, Robert
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Olner, Mr. Bill
Öpik, Lembit
Osborne, Sandra
Ottaway, Richard
Owen, Albert

Paice, Mr. James
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Paterson, Mr. Owen
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Pope, Mr. Greg
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Prosser, Gwyn
Pugh, Dr. John
Randall, Mr. John
Reed, Mr. Andy
Reid, Mr. Alan
Reid, rh John
Rennie, Willie
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Robertson, Hugh
Robertson, John
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Rooney, Mr. Terry
Rosindell, Andrew
Rowen, Paul
Roy, Mr. Frank
Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Bob
Russell, Christine
Sarwar, Mr. Mohammad
Scott, Mr. Lee
Seabeck, Alison
Selous, Andrew
Sharma, Mr. Virendra
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Shepherd, Mr. Richard
Sheridan, Jim
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Simpson, Alan
Simpson, David
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Slaughter, Mr. Andy
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Smith, rh Jacqui
Smith, John
Smith, Sir Robert
Snelgrove, Anne
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Spelman, Mrs. Caroline
Spicer, Sir Michael
Spink, Bob
Spring, Mr. Richard
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stewart, Ian
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Straw, rh Mr. Jack
Streeter, Mr. Gary
Stringer, Graham
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Stunell, Andrew
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Swinson, Jo
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Syms, Mr. Robert
Tami, Mark
Taylor, David
Taylor, Mr. Ian
Thornberry, Emily
Timms, rh Mr. Stephen
Todd, Mr. Mark
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Trickett, Jon
Truswell, Mr. Paul
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Turner, Mr. Neil
Twigg, Derek
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew
Ussher, Kitty
Viggers, Sir Peter
Villiers, Mrs. Theresa
Wallace, Mr. Ben
Walley, Joan
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Watkinson, Angela
Watson, Mr. Tom
Watts, Mr. Dave
Webb, Steve
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wicks, rh Malcolm
Wiggin, Bill
Williams, rh Mr. Alan
Williams, Hywel
Williams, Stephen
Willis, Mr. Phil
Willott, Jenny
Wills, rh Mr. Michael
Wilshire, Mr. David
Wilson, Phil
Wilson, Mr. Rob
Wilson, Sammy
Winnick, Mr. David
Winterton, Ann
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Woolas, Mr. Phil
Wright, Mr. Anthony
Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Wright, Dr. Tony
Wyatt, Derek
Young, rh Sir George

Cash, Mr. William
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Fallon, Mr. Michael
Gray, Mr. James
Holloway, Mr. Adam
Jackson, Mr. Stewart
Kawczynski, Daniel
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Main, Anne
Penning, Mike
Pritchard, Mark
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Swayne, Mr. Desmond
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Walker, Mr. Charles
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Question accordingly agreed to.
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