Previous Section Index Home Page

I also visited Manthorpe Engineering, a world-class engineering company in my constituency, and I have with me a picture of some of the 24 apprentices whom, in consultation with a local school, it has taken on over
11 Jan 2010 : Column 503
the past few years and trained up for engineering. It is important that the range of opportunities for pupils does not disappear, but, looking at the Opposition's policies, I am concerned, because I understand that the Conservatives would abolish the new diplomas. That would be a huge mistake, because they provide another pathway for pupils.

I recently attended a workshop organised by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and I talked to a number of girls and boys who have been taking engineering diplomas. They were excited by the way in which they had been able to get into engineering and take up that opportunity. Indeed, the institution has been very positive about the implementation of advanced diplomas, and Russell group universities now recognise and accept them for 79 per cent. of their courses. That development is highlighted by the Bill's guarantee of a broad range of choice, but it would be extremely disappointing if the Opposition came to power and took away such choice. I certainly hope that we carry on down that path, because it is extremely valuable.

The two other areas that I should like to mention have been well covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). The provisions on community facilities and on life skills, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North put it, are invaluable parts of the Bill, and they will be very important.

Opposition Members say that the Bill is bureaucratic, but a system has to have order. A free-market system, which we would allegedly move to if we operated the Swedish system, would mean only that we threw a pile more money into things; we would not have a proper, organised programme. The programme and developments in the Bill, however, are really positive. They will enable us to move on to the next stage of improving education in my constituency and to build yet further on the improvements that we have made in recent years.

9.9 pm

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): In the short time that is left in this Second Reading debate, I would like to concentrate on part 2 of the Bill, on which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) spoke with great authority. I declare an interest in that before taking my seat in this place I was a practising family law barrister for 10 years.

Part 2 deals with the relaxation of the rules on reporting information relating to family proceedings. Like most Members who spoke about this issue, I support the principle of making the work of family courts more transparent and accountable to the wider public. That principle has developed over a period when the issue has been brought to the fore by a series of high-profile miscarriages of justice, including the cases of Sally Clark and Angela Cannings, involving professional or expert witnesses whose evidence has been discredited-in those cases, the expert witness was Professor Sir Roy Meadow. The desire to open up the family courts is therefore understandable. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who is not in her place, that the fundamental shift that the Bill will introduce should not be rushed into without proper consideration and consultation, because it concerns a particularly delicate area.

11 Jan 2010 : Column 504

The family courts touch the lives of the majority of people in this country. One need only look at the example of adoption-one in four people knows someone who has been involved in an adoption. That, in itself, shows the importance of the family court system and of people's confidence in it. The system is subject to too much delay and suffers from a lack of judges, and there is a disconnect between the family court process and the public's understanding of what that is. It is therefore essential that we address those issues when considering the transparency of these courts. Clients in family court proceedings used to ask me questions as simple as "What is a courtroom like?", "Is there a jury?", "Can I speak?", "Will the social worker be there?", and "How does the judge decide what to do?" If the people involved in the family court system do not understand these issues, it is not surprising that the wider public have a dearth of understanding of the process. It is only right that they have those questions answered, as long as the privacy of the parties and the protection of the child remain paramount. The Bill touches on that important issue. Accessibility of information must happen without compromising the natural course of justice. People's experiences of family courts, as of criminal courts, vary widely, from satisfaction with the depth of inquiry and the sensitivity of the proceedings to disbelief at the way they feel they have been treated through their involvement in the case.

Opening up the family court system will help people to understand the judge's reasons for coming to their decision, dispel some of the myths surrounding family court proceedings, and help to bring confidence back into the system. However, I make a plea to the Government that they should also be considering how we can prevent cases from going into the family court system in the first place, particularly the role that mediation and alternative dispute resolution can play in bringing parties together and ensuring that they do not go as far as having to instruct solicitors and to spend their own money, in some cases, or money from the public purse, in others, on trying to resolve issues that could have been resolved much earlier on.

One of my concerns about this aspect of the Bill is that it builds in a two-stage process for reviewing the sensitive information that will become available to the public through the introduction of the media into the courtroom. Stage 1, which will apply for the first 18 months once the Bill becomes law, creates a slight loosening of the reins in the reporting of proceedings, particularly placement proceedings, but when we move to stage 2, that reporting goes much further and would allow the Lord Chancellor, of his own volition, to relax rules to the extent that sensitive personal information, as it is termed, can be published unless the court specifically imposes restrictions. That presumption should be re-examined to see whether it is the right way forward, because the anonymity of some very vulnerable young children is at stake. It is clear from some of the information that has been provided to us by those who are interested in that aspect of the Bill that there is a real danger that some children will become identifiable through other sensitive information that will become available to the public, such as psychiatric and health reports. When pieced together, such information could form a picture of exactly who the child in question was.

The Government have not made a huge assessment of the impact that the proposed changes will have. The original changes were brought in only in April 2009,
11 Jan 2010 : Column 505
and as we have heard, there has been no independent evaluation of their impact on children, courts and reporting. We can say that there has been very little journalistic take-up of the opportunity to go into the courts and view the family law process. The danger is that journalists will end up going only to cases that have a sensational element and that they believe will have some public interest through their newspapers, as opposed to getting a true, broad picture of what goes on in the family courts across the country. Rather than help to deal with the fear of the family court system that some people have, the media may reinforce it through the selective reporting of what goes on.

I am conscious that other Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude by saying that although it is a welcome move that we are looking to open up the family court system, there is a danger that if we go through the process set out in the Bill, we will move ahead too quickly with a rather complex system that ends up not helping the accountability of the family court system and people's understanding of it but shrouding it in even greater mystery with selective reporting of what goes on. People need to understand what goes on in the family courts, but I am not sure that the Bill goes the right way about it. A more structured and cautious approach of evaluating the evidence and returning to the matter at a later date would be a much more constructive way of ensuring that we deal with this very sensitive issue in the appropriate way.

9.17 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I want to make a very brief contribution on a few topics. On the first two, home education and personal, social and health education, it is interesting to note that the Government's current stance represents a U-turn. However, there are interesting contrasts in their approach to the two issues.

There are a number of reasons for home education, and it clearly is not one homogenous entity, which makes a heavy-handed and rushed approach to legislating seem singularly inappropriate. I have long been concerned about the lack of support for those home educators who would like to access certain support, and I shall briefly give a constituency example. I have a letter that states:

So it goes on. I wrote to the local authority and established that there was no help. That was in 2007. I also wrote to the Government, because I was concerned about that mother, who had withdrawn her child from school for the very best of reasons-to ensure that he could make something of his life. I received a letter from the then Schools Minister, the right hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), stating:

That is quite a statement, which obviously reflects the Department's stance. That stance has affected the culture in the Department and in local authorities. I welcome the fact that the Government and Badman himself identified the need to provide support, but before rushing into legislating, one needs to work on the culture and training. Indeed, I cannot understand why the support that is to be introduced needs legislation.

Furthermore, when we had revised education guidelines for local authorities-in 2007, dipping into 2008-the Government did not move far. They suggested a few examples of additional support, such as using the library, but certainly nothing like supporting entry into examinations.

I welcome the U-turn on support, but the problem is everything that comes with it. When we examine the diverse nature of home education, we realise that a large group of competent parents wishes to pursue education for their children and is clearly capable of doing that. Those parents probably removed their children from school because they wanted to escape the straitjacket of the national curriculum. The greatest fear is that, under the Government's proposals, registration and all the strings attached mean that there is no control over the direction of home education. That is why I understand home educators' concerns. It is a complex topic, which needs time. We should deal with it step by step, starting with the important subjects of support and training. We should be wary of a registration scheme, which could represent the most heavy-handed approach and perhaps destroy some imaginative education.

I want briefly to consider PSHE education. I welcome the fact that it may be made statutory. I have proposed that on several occasions when considering other Bills, and been defeated. The difference between that U-turn and the previous one is that once the Government decided to follow that route, they engaged in pilots and a great deal of consultation. There is much to be commended in the proposals. I should have liked the process to start many years ago, but I respect the fact that it has happened. A great deal of engagement with the school, parents and the local community is important, as is high-quality provision. We are placing such high expectations on the provisions that we must all show great leadership. They have the power to deliver a great deal, but they could be just a damp squib if we are not careful.

It is important to dwell on the relationships provisions because they are about empowering young people to say no, whether to alcohol, following the gang or engaging in violence, as well as sex. I am therefore concerned about the opt-out of sex and relationship education at 15, because some aspects are crucial to young people's development. We can usefully explore that in detail in Committee.

I want to consider clause 9, which deals with exceptional provision for ill or excluded children-I do not think that anyone else has referred to it. I am all in favour of improving the education on offer to excluded children. It is one way of stopping the downward spiral of exclusion, truancy and disillusionment with school.
11 Jan 2010 : Column 507
However, it is important to get the education right for children and young people who have long-term health conditions. I am not sure what clause 9 offers them. There are parents in my constituency who say, "I'd get more help with home tuition if my child was excluded rather than ill." That cannot be right. I recently had a constituency case of home tuition being needed for someone in the sixth form. It was extremely complex. I was told:

There were months of discussions with different bodies, but the child was perhaps let down at the end of the day. In that case, the young person had myalgic encephalomyelitis. She needed to get a secure package to ensure that she could make a sound start to sixth-form studies-probably a mix of school and home tuition-but she failed to get it.

Finally, I echo some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) and my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws). Will the Minister give some clarification on whether there is a loophole in section 58 of the Children Act 2004 that allows certain adults who do not have legal responsibility to use physical punishment on a child in their care? Whereas teachers for the most part are prohibited in law from using such sanctions, the prohibition may not extend to teachers providing under 12.5 hours' education a week, such as those in Sunday schools or madrassahs. That is important, and I would appreciate some clarification.

9.26 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): In the few minutes that I have, I shall address the subject of home education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) did in an excellent speech. From the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) spoke a lot of common sense on the topic, as did the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who addressed it in the first half of her speech.

Under clause 26 and schedule 1, local authorities will have a duty to run a licensing system-that is what it is-for all home-educating parents in their areas, complete with monitoring by local authority inspectors, who will have to be hired and trained and sent out in order to have all their meetings. Local authorities may revoke a parent's licence to educate their own child or refuse to give one if the inspectors do not think that that child is receiving a suitable and efficient education, if they deem the families to be unco-operative-God forbid that any family should be unco-operative when an inspector from the local authority comes knocking on the door- or if the parents fail in any of the administrative requirements imposed on them by the Bill.

It has always been the duty of parents, not the state, to educate their children, and they may choose to do so through school or otherwise. That historic settlement will be turned on its head by the Bill, which tears from parents and gives to the state the decision as to how a child is to be educated. We have heard much about guarantees in this debate, but for many parents, the freedom to choose how their child is educated is the ultimate guarantee.

11 Jan 2010 : Column 508

A small minority of parents elect to educate their children at home, for a variety of reasons-I will not go into that, but various speakers have mentioned the diverse nature of parents who home educate. Under the current legal framework, parents are trusted to do the right thing by their child unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Of course, some home-educating parents do not do a good job of educating their child, but overwhelmingly, what evidence we have suggests that that is a tiny minority, and nothing said by Ministers has done anything to dispel that view. To deal with that tiny minority, the Secretary of State wants to set up a huge licensing bureaucracy with a long list of reasons why home-educated children can be sent back to school, whatever the opinion of the parents and the child. Because of this Bill, the cloud of suspicion will be extended to the many, not the few.

As I understand it, the Government have three principal motives for introducing the licensing inspection proposals: first, the Department for Children, Schools and Families says it has evidence from serious case reviews and other such things that under the guise of home education, some children are at risk of suffering harm or being denied an education; secondly, Ministers point out that they intend the measures to give the state the power to guarantee that every child receives a suitable education; and thirdly, Ministers say that to allow local authorities to provide greater support and other services to home-educating families, they need a better idea of the numbers.

As we heard from the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), the Government made no effort before introducing such a major licensing system-this draconian set of powers-to support home-educating families. Indeed, they wrote to her specifically to say that absolutely no money was available for home-educating families. On the Department for Children, Schools and Families website today, in the small print on the page about the home access scheme, which is designed to provide grants for parents to look after their children, it says that home-educated children are specifically excluded. That is the history under this Government, of which home-educating parents are well aware. There has been lots of suspicion, but no support, and now Ministers tell us that their approach is all about education, support and a more co-operative relationship between parents and local authorities. However, I am afraid that none of the home-educating families out there feels the same.

There has been a lot of concern about the fact that the consultation on the Badman proposals was not published before the Bill was published, despite the Cabinet Office guidelines, to which the Department is a signatory, which say that Departments must ensure that any consultation is meaningful and can properly influence decisions. I thank the Minister for Schools and Learners, with whom I had a meeting last week, for saying that he would do everything possible to ensure that as much information as possible was provided, but the response to that consultation was published yesterday. That hardly helps to inform our deliberations too well today, except for those who are particularly astute.

The numbers were 230 in favour, 4,497 against and 106 unsure, yet Ministers keep making out that it is a minority of people who are opposed. It is not a minority. A system is being set up, supposedly for the benefit of home-educated children and their families, to create,
11 Jan 2010 : Column 509
according to Ministers, a co-operative atmosphere, yet that system is being forced on to families, practically none of whom wants it. Ministers should ask themselves whether they want to bring such help to families who are so adamant that they do not want to receive it.

It is not that families do not want help or would not welcome access to the home access scheme, or to libraries or other facilities-the points that the Badman report makes on that have been fully supported by the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families-but where is the guarantee of support in the Bill for home-educated families? The Bill is full of guarantees, but anyone who searches through it for such guarantees will find that there are none. There is no evidence of any additional money and no evidence that home-educating families will be treated fairly as taxpayers and citizens. What is guaranteed is a large licensing scheme. What is also guaranteed is that the local authority will impose a school attendance order on those who fail to put their child on the register, regardless-it specifically says this in the legislation-of the quality of the education provided to that child. In other words, the administrative convenience of the local authority is to be put ahead of the interests of the child. That is what is in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath touched on this issue, but in connection with the Badman review, on which the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) spoke last week, it is also worth mentioning that bad data lead to bad decisions. That is what the legislation is based on. One member of the Badman review's expert reference group described the review as

Next Section Index Home Page