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Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Christopher Chope, Mrs. Joan Humble
Blackman, Liz (Erewash) (Lab)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Hayes, Mr. John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Knight, Jim (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Miller, Mrs. Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)
Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Simon, Mr. Siôn (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills)
Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Williams, Stephen (Bristol, West) (LD)
Chris Shaw, James Davies, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 26 March 2009


(Part III)

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

[Continuation from column 836]
8.15 am
On resuming—
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment 88, in clause 229, page 131, line 30, at end insert—
‘(6A) The requirement in subsection (6)(b) shall not apply in circumstances where—
(a) the school has no members of staff of the same sex as P, or
(b) the provisions of subsection (4)(b) apply and there are no members of staff of the same sex as P available.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 89, in clause 229, page 131, line 30, at end insert—
‘(6A) The requirement in subsection (6)(c) shall not apply in circumstances where—
(a) the school has fewer than two members of staff of the same sex as P, or
(b) the provisions of subsection (4)(b) apply and there are fewer than two members of staff of the same sex as P available.’.
Amendment 91, in clause 229, page 131, leave out line 33.
Amendment 96, in clause 231, page 134, leave out line 45.
Mr. Gibb: It is good to see you fresh and alert, Mr. Chope, on this Friday morning. I just spent half an hour asleep in the office, among the moths, and I now realise that MPs do not need a second home.
Amendment 88 relates to proposed new section 550ZB(6)(b) in the Education Act 1996, which requires that a person carrying out a search
“must be of the same sex as P”,
P being the pupil being searched. Subsection (4)(b) states that, if off premises, a search may be carried out only if the member of staff has
“lawful control or charge of P.”
The exemption we seek would be for either a small school where the teachers are of one sex, and that sex is different from that of the pupil being searched, or a school trip with no members of staff of the same sex as that of the pupil being searched.
The Association of School and College Leaders raised the following concern:
“We believe that detailed provision for conducting searches should not be on the face of the Bill... There may be occasions (particularly in small schools or on small school trips) when it is important to search but all the conditions cannot be fulfilled. There needs to be some flexibility if senior school leaders are not to be exposed to risk of legal action when doing their duty. Under the Bill a minimum of four staff (two of each gender) must accompany any school trip where there may be a possibility of drugs, alcohol or weapons being carried or bought - clearly this is impracticable and would put an end to many school trips. Given that this is a reserve power for use in emergencies, we think there should be some allowance for emergency use when there is a risk of serious disorder or physical danger”.
This is a pragmatic amendment to an important clause giving powers to school staff to search pupils suspected of having on them a prohibited item.
Amendment 89 relates to subsection (6)(c), which states that someone
“may carry out the search only in the presence of another member of staff of the same sex as P.”
The amendment is similar to the previous amendment, but concerns situations in which there is only one member of staff of the same sex as the pupil being searched. The requirement is that there be more than one. Amendment 91 would leave out line 33 on page 131. That line just reads: “P; and”. It deals with a search of a pupil’s property in the presence of the pupil. Subsection (7) states:
“P’s possessions may not be searched under section 550ZA except in the presence of...P...and...another member of staff.”
That is also of concern to the Association of School and College Leaders, which stated:
“We are concerned, however, that the effect of these clauses is that no belongings may be searched except in the presence of the pupil concerned. There are occasions when a school may, for example, find it necessary to have a general locker or bag search while pupils are in class to find stolen or forbidden items without arousing the suspicion of the pupils concerned. To have every child present while this is done would be wholly impracticable. The term ‘possessions’ is defined as including any goods over which a pupil has or appears to have control. This is helpful in preventing the pupil from saying ‘it’s not mine, it’s my friend’s’, but we seek clarification that the term ‘possessions’ does not cover pupils’ lockers or desks. We believe that there should be a distinction between the power to search clothing with force and the search for possessions.”
It would be helpful if the Minister responded to that question about the definition of possessions in the Bill. Alternatively, if the Minister accepts amendment 91, which would delete line 33, that would remove the problem.
Finally, amendment 96 would essentially remove the same provision for college students, which requires a person of the same sex to be present while their belongings are searched. Again, there may be occasions on which the college authorities need to search bags or lockers to find items such as drugs without wishing to alert the student under suspicion to the search. It would be perfectly pragmatic to remove that prescription from the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Mr. Laws: May I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Chope, and say good morning to Committee members and those listening to our proceedings in the Gallery? May I particularly thank the staff of the two Departments and the staff of the House who have remained with us? They have been extremely patient in spite of the fact that they have probably had to deal with unusual circumstances and have perhaps slept in places where they have not slept before. That is very much appreciated.
The amendments are important. I confess that I considered tabling something similar. These requirements seem onerous. There are concerns that schools are becoming inclined to shy away from school trips because of their real and perceived health and safety obligations. Some of those concerns may not be genuine, and schools may have excessive concerns over the risk of legal action, but some concerns are genuine, and they relate to issues such as those specified in these provisions. They are highlighted particularly in the earlier amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton.
Sad though it is, I understand that we live in an age when these powers must be exercised very carefully by school staff. Their activities are open to great scrutiny, and claims are sometimes made by pupils and others about inappropriate activity by staff. I appreciate the need for proper protections not only for pupils but for staff members who could be at risk of having their reputations impugned. That is what caused me to shy away from my natural inclination to try to amend these provisions to make them more reasonable. I am attracted to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier amendments because they focus on small schools or schools with a restricted number of teachers of one or both sexes. In that situation, there is a particular reason for providing greater flexibility than we might otherwise, and for ensuring that the reasonable actions of teaching staff are possible and that we do not inadvertently deter schools from taking their pupils on school trips, where such issues often arise.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The existing legislation on the powers to search for knives and other offensive weapons includes a number of important safeguards to ensure that power is not used inappropriately.
Before I go any further with my remarks, however, I must beg your indulgence, Mr. Chope. Hon. Members may have noticed that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport was not with us last week. Her father was very seriously ill, and I regret to inform the Committee that he has since died. He was previously an hon. Member, and I am sure that the Committee will wish to pass on its condolences.
The safeguards include a requirement that the person conducting the search must be of the same sex as the learner, and that the search must be carried out in the presence of another staff member who is also the same sex as the learner. They also require that searches of the learner’s possessions are conducted in the presence of the learner and a second member of staff. Several of the safeguards were introduced during the passage of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, in response to concerns about human rights issues, and I understand why hon. Members would wish to remove them in certain circumstances. However, they are important safeguards that are intended to protect the learner and the member of staff conducting the search.
One instance that the hon. Members for Yeovil and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton both mentioned was school visits, but our guidance on those says that if a power to search is required, people should call the police. Most secondary schools and colleges, which are much more likely to use the power, will have a mix of staff, so it is likely that the issue of not having staff of the same gender as learners will apply only in primary schools, and we do not think that that justifies removing the safeguards from the entire school and college system.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The word that we need to use is “proportionate”, and we should also point out that the provision is a power, not a duty. If it is not appropriate for a school or college to undertake a search, it is not required to do so. The powers are much more likely to be used in secondary schools and colleges, and that is why, on balance, we should not remove the safeguards.
Mr. Gibb: The Minister must be a little out of touch if she has not been reading about—or, given her position, heard first hand—that violence is increasing among very young children. There is, therefore, a strong likelihood that they will possess contraband, so I am surprised that she uses “proportionate” and “power, not a duty” in relation to the clause. There seems to be a hole in the clause, because she admits that the provision is not applicable to a significant number of primary schools, where the amount of poor behaviour, violence and, undoubtedly, children with banned and illegal products, is increasing.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The other point is that we are discussing a certain power without consent, but schools can, of course, require children to turn out their pockets. The safeguards are important, and we have come to the view that we need to keep them in the system.
It is worth noting that the requirement that the learner be present while his possessions are searched is to protect not only learners’ basic human rights, but the member of staff conducting the search against accusations of theft or of planting evidence. Failure to comply with that requirement might render any evidence unreliable. “Possessions” covers lockers, and schools can make it a condition of having a locker that pupils consent to a general search of lockers.
I appreciate hon. Members’ reservations about the approach, but, by enshrining those important safeguards in the Bill, we will ensure that the powers are used appropriately and protect the rights of staff and learners. I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
8.30 am
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