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16 Oct 2002 : Column 322—continued

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): That is an interesting new policy. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that Conservative policy is not, as I had thought until a minute ago, to abolish appeals panels, but to make the LEA the appeals panel instead of the present independent panel?

Mr. Green: The hon. Lady should listen. Of course, we want to abolish appeal panels, but a due process must be operated. [Interruption.] There could be a simple appeal to the LEA. The right hon. Lady seems to be particularly ignorant of her own policies, as she misbriefed the Prime Minister, who looked extremely foolish when he claimed that the appeals panels that were established under a Conservative Government had the power to do what they have done, which was not true. That was done under an Act that the right hon. Lady introduced.

Estelle Morris rose—

Mr. Green: The right hon. Lady has had her chance. What the Government have been saying all along as an argument against the abolition of appeals panels, which we support, is that that would bring the courts into the equation.

Estelle Morris rose—

Mr. Green: The right hon. Lady should contain herself for a second. As I understand it, the Government's objection to the abolition of appeals panels is that that would bring in the courts. That is a ludicrous objection, because it is impossible for the courts to be much more legalistic than the appeals panels already are. She must know, as I do, of head teachers who have had to spend in excess of #20,000 on individual appeals. We believe that that #20,000 would be better spent on books, teachers and equipment in our schools.

The right hon. Lady knows as well as I do, that if we are to avoid a legal process, which is expensive, bureaucratic and takes a long time, in law there needs to be an appeal in case the process is wrong. The simplest and cheapest way is for the LEA to carry out the appeal. I do not know why she objects to that.

Estelle Morris: Can we be clear about this new policy, which is being developed on the hoof? Having given LEAs the power to carry out the exclusion appeal hearing, will the hon. Gentleman also give them the right to overrule decisions of the head teacher and the governing body?

Mr. Green: Only if the process is wrong. The right hon. Lady should have listened to me. [Interruption.] I can tell that the amount of legal knowledge among Government Members is less than it should be. Like every MP, she should be aware of the powers of people such as ombudsmen, who cannot take hearings of fact but can take hearings on legal processes. The difference should be clear to every Member of Parliament, but it appears not to be clear to Labour Members. I can only assume that none of them has ever —[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) must be heard.

Mr. Green: I can only assume that no Labour Member has ever taken up a constituent's case with an

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ombudsman, and that the simple difference between problems with process and problems with fact has therefore never occurred to any Labour Member.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Green: I want to make some progress.

Let me offer the Government another of the policies that we unveiled last week. Why does the Secretary of State not allow heads, if they wish, to insist on binding contracts with parents setting out their schools' disciplinary codes? Parents would then know that they had some responsibility for their children's behaviour even when they were inside the school gates.

Both those policies would have a beneficial effect on situations such as the one affecting Glyn school, and either would be more effective in the long run than the Secretary of State's talking tough when she cannot act tough.

That was just one of the October crises, but let us move on to one of last month's horrors—the failure of some schools to open for the start of term because of a backlog at the Criminal Records Bureau. I am aware that that is partly a Home Office problem. If the Secretary of State is feeling sore about her predecessor and what he has done for her reputation, let me assure her that I shall come to the primary school targets in a moment. The real scandal of the Criminal Records Bureau, however, is that things are getting worse. The backlog is now at a record high. Errors have led to 100 people being wrongly accused of having a criminal past. Thousands of applications have been stuck in the CRB system for up to seven months, and nearly 4,000 completed checks have been disputed by applicants.

The problems that that is causing are particularly acute in education. One of the teacher supply agencies, Time Plan, has said that it still awaits the results of dozens of CRB checks. Local education authorities have experienced delays as well. Essex county council has 400 outstanding applications, 50 of which were submitted during last April and May. Even by the standards of this Government and this Department, that is spectacular incompetence.

The Secretary of State is getting used to apologising. Another person to whom she should apologise is Donna Naseby of Whitley Bay, who has been unable to open her day nursery on time because her CRB disclosure took 15 weeks to arrive. We have all sat here for some years listening to the Government explaining how important early-years education is, but that same Government, through their own inadequacy and bureaucracy, are preventing nurseries from opening.

The Secretary of State might also like to apologise to a teacher who has written to us from Daventry. I hope Ministers will listen, as they say that they are in favour of teachers. This teacher writes that he has done

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He writes

the relevant building

the letter is dated 8 October—

If the Government are presiding over crises like that, they should be apologising to more people than A-level students.

Roger Casale: Whether we are talking about appeals panels, AS-levels or extra resources for literacy and numeracy, does not the policy of the hon. Gentleman's party—as we heard from its leader a few moments ago—amount to little more than XScrap it, scrap it, scrap it"? As his party's education spokesman, has the hon. Gentleman anything positive to say about raising education standards? If he has, when will he get on with saying it?

Mr. Green: This party has many things to say about raising standards, the first of which is that we need better standards of discipline in our schools. We will provide that by supporting heads and teachers with home-school contracts—which, had the hon. Gentleman been listening, he would have just heard me recommend to the Government—by scrapping appeals panels and by allowing students in class to learn and not be disrupted by a small minority of disruptive pupils.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Before my hon. Friend leaves the question of the Criminal Records Bureau, he should recall that the public may have appreciated this matter over the summer to a much greater extent than beforehand, not least because of events in Cambridgeshire. However, it should have been amply evident to the Government that things were going wrong and that action was not being taken. Cambridgeshire county council wrote to the chief executive of the Criminal Records Bureau in March. I had correspondence with Ministers in July. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) had a debate in July. Ministers blithely worked their way towards disaster in August and September without taking a grip, just as they have done on so many other issues.

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend is exactly right. I suspect that Members of this House on both sides have heard tales about the problems with the CRB. I know that the teaching unions alerted the Department as long ago as last April that a crisis was coming. Extraordinarily,

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no one in the Department appeared to grasp the basic fact that the school year starts in September and that more teachers need to be processed in August than in any other month of the year. It was only in August that the Department panicked and took one decision, followed by a flatly contradictory one when the Secretary of State got back from holiday in September and realised that many schools had not opened. It was a classic case of how not to do it.

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