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17 Oct 2007 : Column 931

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the sending of guidance to all schools on homophobic bullying. I should explain that the homophobic bullying guidance is part of the overall “Safe to Learn” document. That extensive online document is available for schools to order if they wish to have a hard copy, although—as the Minister with responsibility for sustainability in the Department—I do not want to have too great an impact on the Amazon rainforest by sending out huge documents that schools do not want if they can be made available online.

The hon. Gentleman might also have been referring to some further work that has been done by Stonewall and the Anti-Bullying Alliance. I understand that Stonewall is planning to send additional materials to schools in conjunction with the Anti-Bullying Alliance. That is not specifically a departmental initiative, and it is not yet clear what the distribution strategy is.

Stephen Williams: Given that the resource has been made available to schools online by the Government, how can the Minister be confident that every school—especially faith schools—will implement the guidance?

Kevin Brennan: I have made it clear that I expect all schools to implement the guidance and we will use the national strategies and the Anti-Bullying Alliance to monitor what is happening in schools. The guidance applies equally to faith schools and we will monitor the implementation in all schools closely. It is a requirement for schools to develop a bullying strategy, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk a little about his party conference and the Prime Minister’s remarks earlier today. He is right that there are many different types of bullying—I will not repeat the point about leadership bullying, which might concern his party—that sometimes require a different approach. That is what we are trying to do in our further work. It was remiss of me if I did not mention personal, social and health education lessons in schools, which are an important part of delivering that kind of education. I hope that he will also acknowledge, as I asked the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to do, the importance of the social and emotional aspects of learning programme. We have had independent verification that that has been effective in improving behaviour in schools.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government’s approach does not embrace the so-called no blame approach to bullying? About 18 months ago, in response to problems in Bristol schools, the then Liberal Democrat-run council gave out an instruction to schools that pupils should not be punished for bullying other pupils, and I am still angry about that.

Kevin Brennan: I give my hon. Friend the absolute assurance that the Government are not embracing the no blame approach. We have also made that clear to the Anti-Bullying Alliance. Bullies should always be punished. As we have discussed, further help might be required for bullies, their families and their parents, but I have no doubt whatever that it is a big mistake if the bully’s actions have no real consequence. It is ultimately in the interests of the bully’s own welfare and well-being that there should be such consequences.

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Stephen Williams: I want to put on record that the hon. Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) is being slightly mischievous. When Bristol city council issued anti-bullying guidelines over a year ago, the so-called no blame approach was just one of the options that schools could take up, and a link to the then Department for Education and Skills website highlighted that no blame was an option—not the sole option, but one of many—for a school.

Kevin Brennan: For absolute clarity, let me assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not our policy to support that approach to bullying. For the benefit of any local authorities or others who are listening, let me make it clear that such an approach to bullying is a mistake.

The hon. Member for Peterborough made an important contribution. He said that the debate was important, and bemoaned slightly the lack of attendance for his speech, which was a great shame as it was well worth listening to. I suspect that the football might have had something to do with that, but certainly no one was excluded from listening to his speech.

The debate was broadly consensual, but I have a fundamental difference with the hon. Gentleman over the issue of ending appeal panels, which is his party’s policy. It is a bit of a dog-whistle issue: superficially, the argument is that we must back the head teacher, and that it is a mistake not to do so. We would all assent to that proposition in its raw form. It is not common sense, however, to say that a mistake could never be made about exclusions. Nor is it common sense to leave schools open to being sued through the courts and dragged into the judicial system as the only way to deal with that kind of problem. That would allow lawyers to line their pockets with money as appeals were made through the courts, judicial review or whichever mechanism was used, instead of through a simple, proper appeals mechanism.

In 2005-06, only 1.4 per cent. of excluded pupils who appealed were reinstated, and only half went back to the original school they attended. It is a dog-whistle issue, and I understand why the Opposition are raising it, but it is not common sense. If they reflect on it, they will find that that is the case.

Mr. Gibb: A quarter of appeals are overturned. That is a big concern to head teachers, who say that in many instances that deters them from making exclusions in the first place. The issue is a major drag on the ability of head teachers to impose discipline. We propose that there could be an appeal to the governing body of the school; it could be heard by governors who were not involved in the original exclusion.

Kevin Brennan: Ultimately, we want to avoid such matters getting to the courts, and I am not sure that what the hon. Gentleman suggests is the appropriate way to do that. Whomever is appealed to, he acknowledges that there has to be some sort of appeal. To pretend that an alternative form of appeal would be any different is not to be strictly open about the nature of the motivation behind that policy. That is one issue on which we shall have to agree to disagree.

I want to refer further to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Peterborough. He said one other thing: that poor discipline is a major problem in all our
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schools. I am not sure whether he meant to say that; I wrote it down when he said it. If he did, I should say that I do not agree with him; as we have discussed, discipline, behaviour and tackling bullying are important, but poor discipline is not a problem in all our schools, as Ofsted’s report today would confirm to him. In fact, behaviour has improved in recent years. However, we have agreed in this debate that we have to do better.

Mr. Stewart Jackson rose—

Kevin Brennan: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall not give way because of the time available; I also want to comment on the remarks made by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson).

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the school playground, buddy systems and so on, and he talked a lot of good sense about approaches to reduce bullying that use peer mentoring and so on.

Finally, I turn to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Upminster, who told us that she had been first in the class when a student. We saw why from her interesting and engaging speech, full of a lot of good sense. She also told us about an unfortunate incident that she personally suffered recently. The individual involved was no gentleman; that was absolutely clear.

I was taken by her remarks about pupils eating together in school. I met representatives of the School Food Trust this morning, and we discussed that issue. The hon. Lady may be interested to know that my mother was a dinner lady in the primary school that I attended as a young lad. I had no choice but to learn how to use a knife and fork and eat properly. There is a lot in what the hon. Lady says: we should consider how to ensure a good environment for children when they have school meals. It should not just be a case of their turning up to eat at lunch time; they should learn social skills and table manners, if we want to call them that. They should learn how to use a knife and fork properly and how to have a discussion while having a meal. Those are important skills for any young person to
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learn. A lot of young people come into school without such skills, which we might expect them to have.

The hon. Lady also mentioned how effective school councils can be. She may not mind my telling her, in another family reference, that my daughter was elected to her school council a couple of weeks ago; I am afraid that that is probably the effect of having an MP as a father. School councils are important, and I am personally aware of how useful they can be in dealing with problems such as bullying.

The hon. Lady also mentioned technology and video games. Not all such games are violent; there are some good, educational ones. However, as I am sure she will welcome, we are having a review on the issue—the Byron review—in the next few months, at the instigation of the Prime Minister. I am sure that any observation that she made to that review would be welcome. The review will specifically cover video games and their influence on children; I thought that the hon. Lady would be interested in that and want to make a contribution.

We have had a good and consensual debate and I thank everyone for their contributions. The issue is very important: dealing with bullying is fundamental to the learning experience of pupils and a safe working environment for school staff. Clearly, on both sides of the House there is a commitment, which I welcome, to tackle the issues. A range of views has been expressed, and I thank all who spoke.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),


Question agreed to.

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Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn .—[Mr. Blizzard.]

7 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): On an evening when I am sure that some hon. Members are a bit gloomy that England got beaten 2-1 in the football match—although we can look for better things against Croatia—I hope to cheer everyone up with this debate about the Maldives.

When we die, most of us aspire to enter paradise, even though we might be sinners. Well, I have news for the House: my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) had an early taste of paradise when, through the all-party parliamentary group, we had the opportunity to visit the Maldives earlier this year. No words can describe adequately just how beautiful the islands are. He and I had a splendid visit, and learned at first hand the challenges faced by the Maldivian Government. I bring the House the good news that we were given an open opportunity to visit all parts of the Maldives, and that next year’s plans will result in democracy being well and truly delivered to the islands.

Britain’s relations with the Maldives began with our colonial expansion into south Asia in the mid to late 18th century. On 16 December 1887, the Sultan of the Maldives signed a contract with the British governor of Ceylon, turning the Maldives into a British protectorate. The British Government promised the islands military protection and non-interference in local administration, in exchange for an annual tribute paid by the Maldives. In 1957 the British established a Royal Air Force base in the strategic southernmost atoll of Addu, where hundred of locals were employed. Nineteen years later, the British Government decided to give up the base, as it was too expensive to maintain.

The Maldives has been an independent state throughout its known history, except for a brief period of 15 years of Portuguese occupation in the 16th century. The Maldives remained a British protectorate until 26 July 1965, but I am sure that the Minister will accept that the ties between Britain and the Maldives remain very close, even though it is no longer a British protectorate. We remain a leading economic power, and rightly still contribute aid to the Maldives, which is a developing country. The great disparity in wealth between our two countries, and our shared history, places an obligation on Britain to continue to provide assistance to that island state.

The Maldives is a small nation, but the House may not understand that it is made up of 1,200 coral islands, most of them uninhabited. The fact that none of them stands more than 6 ft above the level of the ocean makes the country very vulnerable to rises in sea level associated with global warming. With their abundant sea life and sandy beaches, the Maldives islands are often portrayed by travel companies as a paradise, and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South can testify that it is.

The Maldives islands are absolutely magnificent, but many Maldivians live in absolute poverty. The country has done its best to develop its infrastructure and industries, including the fisheries sector, and there has
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been a boost in health care, education and literacy. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as he has some splendid ideas about developing further educational links between our two countries. I think that he also has some points to make about human rights.

In December 2004, the Maldives was hit by the Asian tsunami. Homes and resorts were devastated by the waves, precipitating a major rebuilding programme. The Maldives are beautiful but the country faces many challenges, one of which is the threat of rising sea levels.

During our visit, we saw at first hand just how vulnerable the islands are and I want to outline briefly some of the issues. Malé, the capital, is home to the majority of the country’s 300,000 inhabitants; it is by far the most developed of the Maldives islands. I do not know whether the Minister has had the opportunity to visit the island, but Malé is absolutely crowded—there is nowhere left on the island for building or development. That is a real issue.

To counter pressure on the capital, the Government have developed an extraordinary project; they have reclaimed and rebuilt an island, which will in time be bigger than the capital. Hundreds of people already live on the island and the Maldivian Government are considering the construction of a bridge or causeway to link Malé to the new island. So far, under the first phase, 1,500 people have gone to live in the housing that is being erected on the 465-acre island. It is an absolutely magnificent project.

Hulamalé is already the same size as the island of Malé and will more than double when the project has been completed. It is phased over 40 years and eventually the island will house 153,000 people. The vast, flat, barren rectangle is a far cry from the rest of the Maldive islands. The project began in 1997 and will be completed in a number of stages. It has already cost £30 million. Malé residents are being given priority in land and home purchases and the Government of President Gayoom are offering real estate at a 40 per cent. discount on prices in the capital as an incentive.

The President has spent much of his 26 years in power warning of the dangers of global warming, erosion and shifting weather patterns. The reclaimed island offers an opportunity for British involvement in the development of the project and I hope the Minister will reflect on it.

The new island will be 2 m above sea level—a metre higher than Malé—as a safeguard against the rising ocean. Commenting on the threat of rising sea levels in relation to the project, the President said:

We hope that the island will be safe in the future.

My hon. Friend and I visited a regeneration project on Dhiffushi island. The tsunami that hit south Asia in 2004 struck the Maldives on 26 December at 9.20 am. It destroyed lives and affected the livelihoods of a third of the population. The disaster severely affected the whole country, flooding all but nine islands—13 islands were completely evacuated. The tsunami claimed
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82 lives, left 26 people missing and displaced more than 15,000 people. It destroyed much of the country’s physical asset base, including homes and entire settlements, public service utilities, such as hospitals, clinics and schools, transport and communications infrastructure, private businesses and livelihoods. The main industries of tourism and fishing were badly hit. The total asset loss is estimated at 62 per cent. of the Maldives gross domestic product.

One island that was very badly hit by the tsunami was the one that my hon. Friend and I were taken to. There we saw a wonderful project to look after people with mental health problems, and we also saw a number of other projects. However, I cannot emphasise enough to the Minister the fact that the people there are struggling. They need more help. None of the Ministers and officials whom we met asked for anything, but, given the financial constraints, my hon. Friend and I thought that our Government could be encouraged to do a little more than is being done at the moment. The reconstruction project was absolutely wonderful.

The Maldivian Government have proposed an investment programme of £200 million to meet the challenges caused by the devastating tsunami of three years ago. The work that has so far been completed on the land reclamation project has cost £33.25 million and the total cost of the project will of course be much greater than that.

I congratulate our Government on the way that they have responded to the challenges and helped the Maldivian Government so far. The British Red Cross was also absolutely magnificent in helping to construct new houses. The Government have done the very best that they can to support the Maldivian Government, but many more challenges need to be faced.

I shall end with a few remarks about the political situation. I want to praise my noble Friend Lord Naseby, who is the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group. He has already met one of the election commissioners and was very impressed by the meeting. The view is that there will probably be a bigger turnout when the elections are held next year than there would be in a British general election, and he was very impressed by the arrangements that are in hand. The Parliament and the President sit for five years, and the President is chief of state and the Head of Government. When a referendum was held on the way forward, there was a very high turnout and 90,000 voted for the new agenda and 60,000 voted against. The outcome was very satisfactory and new elections are scheduled for 2008. I hope that our Government will enthusiastically send observers to oversee the election process.

During the trip, my hon. Friend and I met the Speaker, the Foreign Minister and the Chancellor and we were given wide access to any number of officials. However, the Maldivian Government are concerned about Islamic fundamentalism.

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