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6.21 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I am pleased to say that in his last few contributions the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has been agreeing with most of what the Government are trying to do. We can see from this debate that all parties care about truancy and want to do something about it, but it is fair to point out that the Conservatives had 18 years in government. The children who were truanting during the Thatcher years are now the grandparents of today's truants, so others must take some responsibility for the rot that has set in.

This debate is not all about inner-city areas; it is about areas such as Doncaster and Barnsley in South Yorkshire, where a whole industry was wiped out and nothing was put in its place. The children who thought that they could follow their fathers into a job down the pit found that there was no industry to employ them. I make no excuses for mentioning that because today, with objective 1 funding and other support from the Government, we have a chance to turn that situation round. However, those neighbourhoods were left without a lifeline, and the rot set in because there was no support for them.

Mr. Andrew Turner rose

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) rose

Caroline Flint: I will not give way because I have only just started my speech. Hon. Members can ask any professional in Doncaster who works with kids who have offended or with vulnerable families, and they will say that they now have countless opportunities to try to tackle those issues.

I sit on the board of sure start in Denaby and Conisbrough, and we have funded five staff members to work with schools and families before kids even start nursery school. They try to make sure that there is a connection between the school and the parents. In some cases there is only one parent and in others it is the grandparents who look after the children. We hope that if we can create a good relationship with carers when children are three, we shall be able to sustain it throughout their time at school. That is part of the process of connecting parents to schools, which we are striving to do. Some parents do not respond to such support, and I will return to that subject in a moment.

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I want to bring some fresh evidence to the debate. I congratulate Doncaster council and South Yorkshire police on beginning a two-week operation of truancy sweeps, deploying 16 police officers and 16 education welfare officers in a targeted campaign. The interim figures from those sweeps show that during the first week alone, 291 pupils who were not in school were stopped; 96 were immediately returned to school, and 101 were in the company of a parent, but 63 of them had no valid reason for not being at school. During the first week the officers visited an additional 163 homes to confront parents whose children's attendance record was less than 85 per cent.

One benefit of the campaign has been the high-profile and visible police presence, which I believe will depress the level of street crime in shopping areas in and around my constituency. I am delighted that constituents have mentioned seeing police vehicles marked "Truancy Patrol", which means that a wider message is being communicated to the public. Doncaster council is very willing to prosecute parents using the new aggravated offence introduced by the Government.

Inevitably, as the sweeps took place in May, some of the 291 pupils stopped were on exam leave. However, schools must try to reinforce the message that such leave is a time for quiet preparation for exams, not for shopping, and it is not an extension to school holidays. We must ensure that there are opportunities for pupils on exam leave to study, if not in schools then perhaps with the library service, and parents must support them in that.

There remains a problem with young people who are not sitting exams and therefore have no studying to do. Many have historically poor attendance at school, and during exam leave they have a lot of time on their hands. The situation of those who are excluded from the exam process reinforces the case for the Government to widen the curriculum to include work-based and vocational study from age 14. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) claims responsibility for that policy, but I know from my time on what was then the Education and Employment Committee that many Labour Members have been involved in campaigning for 14-plus options for a very long time. I welcome the Government's moves in that direction.

A further problem exposed by the sweeps is that if children are in the company of a parent, the truancy team has no power to return them to school, even if they have no valid reason for being absent. The team can only give the parent a letter explaining the consequences of non-attendance and send a form to the school for the school and the education welfare officer to follow up. We should consider how we can strengthen the law in that respect.

We have heard many contributions about the role of parents in relation to children's attendance at school, and I acknowledge that there are many reasons why children fail to attend school. The problem is multi-faceted, by any stretch of the imagination. Many parents need support, and although it may take some time, they become open to the idea of accepting it. Undoubtedly, however, there are hard-core parents who are given a huge amount of support but do not really give a damn. The level of parental connivance in truanting is extraordinary.

I commend Doncaster council for its tough stance on poor attendance. It welcomes the additional powers made available by the Government, and in Doncaster the first

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parent is about to be prosecuted for the new aggravated offence. The council wants to guarantee that parents who do nothing about truanting—by which I mean that they do nothing to co-operate with any of the services that are available—will make their first court appearance within 18 weeks of a pattern of non-attendance being established. The council is obliged to provide the court with evidence of poor attendance over 13 weeks to prove a pattern. I hope that in Doncaster we will not see a case like that of the mother in Banbury, in which it took two years of work before a conclusion was reached. Stronger action, taken earlier, should achieve a result sooner.

I know from talking to colleagues that there is concern about the removal of benefits. I welcome new powers such as parenting orders, and we need to think about how we can use them. I shall share an anecdote with the House. Discussion with a child who was truanting revealed that he felt that his mother did not give him much time. He was asked, "In return for your going to school, what is the one thing you would like your mother to do?" He replied that he would like her to sit and watch a football match on television with him. That seems ridiculously trivial, but when the mother was told that her son simply wanted to spend more time with her, she complied and the boy went to school. That is an example of imaginative use of a parenting order.

There are, however, some families who are not doing their children justice, and deduction of child benefit may be a way forward. It is erroneous to suggest that that policy is an attack on the poor. If children do not attend school they will not achieve, and they will be relegated to a life of poverty. Along the way, they will set an example for their younger brothers and sisters. We should consider withholding child benefit until parents improve their attitude and their approach to working with the services, and then give it to them if they co-operate. That is all about having policies that provide support and take account of the complexities, but at the end of the day, it is about putting the child's interests first.

People should not kid themselves that we do not consider deducting benefits for other reasons. If people refuse to work they can lose their employment benefit. If people park their cars on double yellow lines they will get parking tickets, regardless of their income. We have to consider poverty in the long term. We cannot give up on such children; it is important that we develop a sense of responsibility among parents. Schools exist to provide a quality service and a good education, but parents are responsible for their children. They have to take up that challenge, and we must ensure that they attend to it.

6.30 pm

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): I am pleased to have the chance to speak in this important debate, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who plays a significant role in my life in so far as he prevents me from truanting from the House—if I were ever to think of doing so, which, of course, I do not—because he is the pairing Whip. It is largely thanks to him that I am here.

I came into politics in the hope, of course, that my ideas might change things. I dreamt that a policy that I conceived might one day influence the Government—so imagine my surprise when on 22 March this year I heard that the Prime Minister was proposing to dock benefits

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from the parents of truanting children. I thought that I had seen that policy somewhere before, and looked up The Daily Telegraph of 17 January, where I found an article that had evidently inspired new Labour. The resounding penultimate paragraph said:

I looked to see who had written those words, and I was astonished to see that it was me.

I tackled a friend of mine, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Coventry, North–East (Mr. Ainsworth), and asked him whether I had inspired the Government's policy, and he all but confirmed it. The Secretary of State is not now in her place, but perhaps other Ministers will be so good as to authenticate my paternity of that policy. It is a better solution than locking up Patricia Amos for 60 days. When the Minister winds up the debate, I should like him to tell me how he thinks the policy might work.

Before we reach that solution, however, we need to consider seriously why we have been driven to those desperate expedients. The reason, of course, is that the position is bleak. I do not know what figures Labour Members are relying on, but our evidence suggests that truancy has risen by 11 per cent. since Labour came to power, and that violence against teachers has risen fivefold. I do not want to be partisan; I agree with the line taken by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). This has been a useful debate, but the Secretary of State was perhaps excessively complacent. Her line seemed to be that this was a chronic problem that had been going on for many years, so she could be forgiven for not attempting to solve it.

There is no room for complacency; 50,000 children a day are truanting. They are blighting their own lives. We all know the figures: 30 per cent. of prisoners are ex-truants. They are blighting the lives of the rest of us. Society is now living in exaggerated terror of feral children. We are now so frightened of children on trains that when we see them mucking around, swearing and threatening people, we cower in our seats and we do not even intervene. Too often in this day and age, we pass by on the other side. That is ignominious and a poor reflection on all of us. The problem must be addressed, and it begins at school. That is why this debate is vital.

What are the causes? I agree with the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough about the causes. Many hon. Members have said a lot about children being fed up with school and not being interested in their lessons. That may be part of the problem, but it is not all the problem. It is not enough to demand that teachers be so electrifying in their performance as to keep the attention of the likes of the hon. Member for Huddersfield and prevent them from goofing off, as he rather alarmingly said he did, thus setting a poor example to his constituents.

It is not enough to ask teachers to pep up their lessons; the central problem is a loss of parents' and teachers' authority. The key reasons for that have been well adumbrated by my hon. Friends. Head teachers' power to exclude was taken away. Exclusion is a terrible thing, but it was a severe diminution of head teachers' authority to circumscribe them in that way.

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I talked to the head teacher of a primary school who has lost a great deal of authority over his own staff. He cannot decide whether to promote a teacher up the pay spine, as it is called, without a 27-page document from the teacher herself and an independent Whitehall assessor to decide whether that promotion is justified. That is a ridiculous piece of Whitehall bureaucracy, and it should be got rid of.

Head teachers no longer have sufficient authority to discipline either teachers or pupils. That is ridiculous, and I agree with the tenor of much of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). It is a shame that a head teacher in my constituency cannot even ask children who have broken several school rules to pick up crisps during break by way of punishment.

It is true that there are no simplistic solutions. We cannot ignore the final point that teachers make to all hon. Members, which is that their problems and difficulties with discipline are very largely passed on—or subcontracted out—to them by the parents who refuse to discipline their children. Of course there are many reasons why parents may not be providing their children with adequate discipline. I am sure that Labour Members will be swift to leap to their feet to blame Thatcherism and 20 years of Tory misrule. Aye, they will blame society.

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