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16 Jun 2010 : Column 198WH—continued

We will introduce legislation in the autumn that will give teachers the right to remove disruptive children from the classroom without fear of legal action and give them greater powers to search pupils for particular banned items. The list of banned items will be extended beyond the list that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole and I discussed during the Committee stage of the last couple of education Bills that went through the House. There will also be no-notice inspections for schools where behaviour is a serious problem.

All schools must look at behaviour and not be complacent. It is not always a given that poor behaviour happens in the most challenging areas. Over the past five years, I have visited nearly 300 schools around the country. I have been to schools in very affluent areas where behaviour is a real problem because the processes and policies for dealing within bullying are simply not sufficient. Sometimes, as my hon. Friend said, those policies are not implemented on the ground. It is all very well having them written down, but they have to put into practice. In contrast, a school such as Mossbourne community academy in Hackney-one of the most deprived parts of London-has an immaculate behaviour record.

In its inspection framework, in relation to behaviour, Ofsted draws a clear distinction between good schools and outstanding schools. In good schools, pupils are compliant with the rules, fearing the consequences if they misbehave; but in outstanding schools, pupils do not just comply, but take responsibility for their own behaviour. That is the gold standard that I am sure my hon. Friend and I both want to achieve throughout schools in this country.

I had lunch fairly recently with some pupils in the school canteen at Mossbourne academy, and I asked them about bullying. They told me that bullying does not happen in their school and said, "We're not allowed to engage in verbal bullying." They volunteered that information to me, which showed an acute awareness of what constitutes bullying and its impact on others. When such an approach works well, the effects are often seen in the wider community, too. On becoming an academy last September, a school in my constituency introduced a new blazer and tie uniform and shaped a clear ethos and identity for the school. Pupils' behaviour improved in the school to such an extent that it was noticeable in the town. People have commented to me about the behaviour of young people in the town since the school had adopted that new approach to behaviour.

We must be clear about responsibilities outside schools. Under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, schools have powers to take measures to regulate the conduct of pupils off-site, including journeys to and from school. The best schools take that responsibility very seriously and use those powers when appropriate. A head teacher in Cumbria told me that he felt responsible not just as a
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head, but as a member of the local community. Any poor behaviour that he heard about in, say, the town during the weekend, he took up with pupils first thing on the Monday morning, and because it was a tight-knit community, he could often trace and track the perpetrators of the poor behaviour. Such behaviour creates a bigger challenge if the school is situated in a larger, urban city such as London, but the answer to the problem must be partnership.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): The Minister has set out some excellent actions to take within the school environment and now he is touching on actions to take outside that environment, such as on journeys to and from school, which the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) spoke about; but does that apply also to social network sites and cyber-bullying, which are not under the direct control of schools or teachers?

Mr Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such an important issue. Dealing with cyber-bullying is important, and we are working with industry to make sure that, when offensive material appears on a social network, it is removed instantly. There is good guidance for teachers on how they should tackle incidents of cyber-bullying that are reported to them.

Annette Brooke: When a parent makes a complaint about bullying to the school and that bullying has taken place on the school bus or outside the school, what will definitively trigger the school taking the complaint seriously? Such behaviour is out of sight, so it is easy to ignore it. The essence of Mr. Vodden's argument is that the problems were not taken seriously.

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Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. My sense is that when schools do not take such matters seriously, that is a symptom of a deeper problem with the management of the school. I suspect that if we undertook a survey of schools' attitudes to reports of poor behaviour from parents, we would see a direct correlation with the standards in those schools generally. We have to raise standards in the way schools are lead throughout the country. That is what we hope to achieve in our general policy of trusting professionals more and giving them more autonomy and more freedom to run their schools as they see fit. I believe that if we can get away from the culture that exists in some areas, we can reach a position where that professionalism means that every aspect of the school is run more professionally and that complaints are taken seriously by head teachers and teachers. It is also important to ensure that teachers understand their own powers and responsibilities, which is what we want to sharpen up and focus on when reviewing the guidance.

We believe strongly that there is a duty not only in schools but in local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. It is a collective responsibility that must be shared by those in the community, including the school, the staff of children's services, the police, transport providers and so on. Sharing the responsibility among services is vital.

This has been an important debate. School and the routes to and from school-indeed, anywhere that pupils congregate-should not be places of dread, but places where children can feel safe, confident and focused on their education. The Government are committed to reducing bullying significantly and to securing for generations to come the progression, knowledge and supportive educational environment that will provide pupils with a platform for future success.

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Electoral Administration Reform

4.30 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair today, Dr McCrea. I am delighted to have secured an Adjournment debate this afternoon on the reform of electoral administration. Before I start, I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on his new role in the Government and wish him well in his post. I hope he will be able to respond to my concerns and lay out the Government's proposals for the reform of this important part of our democratic system.

Electoral administration sparked much discussion following incidents that arose during the recent general election. In total, many hundreds of people were denied their vote-something we should take seriously and should ensure cannot happen again. In my constituency on election day, a number of people were unable to fulfil their democratic right to vote. At one polling station in Woodseats, people who were queuing to vote in the general and local elections were turned away at 10 pm and the doors were locked, not because they had turned up late or were not on the electoral register, but because of administrative blunders. That polling station was responsible for 2,772 electors, but it had been allocated only one presiding officer and two poll clerks to officiate. The acting returning officer later disclosed that there had been queues throughout the day and that extra assistance had been provided, but obviously not enough. The problem of queues and people being turned away was repeated at three polling stations in the neighbouring constituency of Sheffield, Hallam, as well as in Chester, Hackney, Leeds, Lewisham, Manchester, Newcastle and Islington. Similar problems were seen across the country, which points to a problem in administration greater than that found in just one location.

Both the Electoral Commission and Sheffield city council undertook reviews into what happened on 6 May to find out why those problems were not anticipated. Each review investigated the processes that led to the deplorable challenge to the democratic system, and indicated possible changes for the future. The Electoral Commission review concluded that the substantial queues at a number of polling stations on 6 May came about for a wide variety of reasons. The most common factor was poor planning and an inadequate system, specifically

In addition, a number of reports suggested that many polling stations were not adequate venues for a continuous flow of voters.

Some polling stations where voters had difficulty were responsible for more than 3,000 people, while others had as many as 4,500 possible voters. That is contrary to the guidance issued, which indicates that numbers should not exceed 2,500. Guidance also recommends that, in addition to the presiding officer, there must be a poll clerk for the first 1,000 electors and one further poll clerk for the next 750, with an extra necessary for the maximum of 2,500 electors. Across constituencies, the Electoral Commission found that there were various levels of staffing. Some provision was effective; other provision, of course, was not.

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The Electoral Commission heard that almost all the areas that reported problems with queuing had higher levels of turnout than expected. Some advised that polling staff were simply unable to cope with the demand. A contributing factor, certainly in Sheffield and a number of other areas, was the combination of local and general elections, which of course slowed the whole operation. Even where extra staff were deployed, the problems were not always resolved, even when several hours' notice was given. A common problem was that polling station staff were not always clear regarding when they should contact the acting returning officer to ask for help; and when they did ask for help, it did not always result in prompt, decisive action. The Electoral Commission was made aware that in some areas, after the close of poll at 10 pm, presiding officers continued to issue ballot papers to people who were queuing within the polling stations. Legislation is clear that no ballot papers should be issued after the close of poll.

The Electoral Commission review concluded that there are a number of areas where change is needed. The time allowed for voting is generous-15 hours in general elections-but the rules for close of poll are restrictive and leave no leeway to allow people who have made the effort to vote to do so. The commission found that there would be benefits if the rules were revised, and that those within the polling station at its closing should be able to vote. That, I understand, requires primary legislation, and I urge the Government to ensure that that happens as soon as possible.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I am interested to hear my hon. Friend's account of the problems that arose, and the role of the Electoral Commission in putting right a number of those and wider problems. On the question of the close of poll, does she accept that a one-clause Bill is perhaps required to amend the Representation of the People Act 2000 and thereby put things right? That should not be confused with wider reform of electoral administration, such as constituency management and individual electoral registration. Will she urge the Minister to say whether he will consider the early introduction of a one-clause Bill to put that right-perhaps in this Session-ahead of any wider review of the administration of the Electoral Commission that might take place?

Meg Munn: My understanding is that it is a relatively simple, straightforward matter, but that it does require primary legislation. Perhaps the Minister can give us more information. It seems that it could be resolved relatively easily, so that the problem of people waiting to vote at 10 o'clock should no longer arise.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. The problem in my constituency was not so much voting on the day, but the issuing of polling cards telling people when to apply for a postal vote, which appeared way after the deadline actually printed on the cards. People in my constituency were disfranchised in a different way. I agree with everything the hon. Lady has said, but such legislation should include a provision that polling cards must be sent out before the deadline for postal votes.

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Meg Munn: I am very interested to hear that, as I was not aware of that issue. Later, I will address a different way that that issue could be resolved.

Local authorities and acting returning officers should review their planning to ensure adequate numbers of polling stations and adequate staffing, and address the question of their location. Those local reviews should obviously reflect on the individual problems identified during the May elections, including the one just raised by the hon. Gentleman. I understand that the Electoral Commission will give more prescriptive guidance on those issues.

We should take the opportunity to modernise comprehensively this country's electoral administration. We should ensure that we obtain a professional electoral administration that takes into account the recommendations made in the commission's August 2008 review of administration. The Government could consider changes, such as advanced voting in a suitable location-for example, the town hall-for up to five days before election day, and perhaps a trial of weekend voting.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): When I was a councillor in Swindon, I was elected in all-postal elections and in elections involving internet and telephone voting-a form of advanced voting. Those very successful pilots took place over two years, and I would like to see that system introduced, as it would reduce the numbers coming through on the day.

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Clearly, we should learn from those processes. I know there have been concerns about fraud, but I think all approaches should be examined. I am suggesting that people could vote perhaps just in one central place in the days before the election, in order to give another option and reduce the number of people turning out on election day.

Compiling the electoral register must be a higher priority, and acting returning officers must receive the resources necessary for that to be done. We know that many people-perhaps as many as 3 million-are missing from the register. It is time for greater effort to be put into producing accurate records. Local councils must use all available data banks to get electoral registers up to date, such as council tax lists and information from other local services-Sure Start, for example-that offer services to people who are otherwise hard to reach.

I also propose that the Electoral Commission be given a power of direction. At the moment, it can advise but cannot direct local authorities. There is no way to intervene if there is poor decision making at the local level, and a power of direction might be able to deal with the issues raised by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole. The commission could look at what happened, make recommendations and direct so that it did not happen again.

Wider issues need to be addressed. I found on the campaign trail-I am sure this was also true for other Members-that many young people did not know how to vote, where to go, or how to find out about that basic democratic right. We should use advertising much more to reach out and inform people about the basics of voting. A 20-second advert could be sufficient to encourage
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more first-time and new voters to get out and vote. Too many people are afraid of looking silly by having to ask how to vote at a polling station; a quick advert could resolve that.

The Electoral Commission ran a successful campaign aimed at young people and students, using brands such as Kiss, Heat and Closer magazines, and 4Music. The message was, "Don't be part of the silent generation," and it encouraged young people to register to vote. The campaign resulted in some 540,000 registration forms being downloaded or posted, 2.3 million visits to the About My Vote website and 53,000 calls to the commission's call centre.

We should also look at the design of ballot papers and how candidates are presented on them, an issue I have raised before in the House. In its 2003 report, the Electoral Commission stated that a randomised system for the names of candidates was the most attractive option, rather than an alphabetical system that provides an advantage to candidates with surnames beginning with A or B. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) agrees with that. When testing that approach, the commission also recommended that grouping party candidates together could assist both the electors and counting clerks.

As a Labour and Co-operative candidate, I faced an entirely unexpected issue during the general election. It became clear, just as nomination papers were due to be filed, that candidates standing for two parties could not use a party symbol. I had to choose whether to use one symbol and describe myself as standing for only one party, or to not use a symbol and use the names of both parties. That has not previously been an issue, and I have never had a problem before in describing myself as a Labour and Co-operative candidate. Indeed, I have been a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament throughout my time in the House. Legislation needs to be amended to ensure that Labour and Co-operative candidates can present themselves to the electorate in a clear way.

The method of challenging an election result-fortunately, I have never had to follow that path-is complicated, expensive and antiquated. Although I do not want to encourage frivolous attempts to frustrate the democratic process, I want the laws governing the electoral system to be understandable and easy to follow if the need to challenge arises.

We need an election administration system fit for the 21st century. The current system was designed when fewer than 5 million people had the vote; now, we have more than 44 million electors. Being able to vote is a fundamental part of our democracy. I understand-as I am sure the Minister does-the frustration and anger of those who were unable to exercise the most basic democratic right of giving their vote to the candidate of their choice. We cannot rewrite the past, but we can use this opportunity to ensure that the administration of our democratic system is brought up to date, and that we not only enable all our citizens to register and vote, but encourage them to do so.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): I call the Minister, Mark Harper, who seems to be very popular in Westminster Hall today.

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