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Earl Russell: To have to speak in a clause stand part debate last thing at night is a short straw; to have to do it to an exhausted House is about as short as straws come. I shall do my best.

The clause deals with the responsibility of parents whose children are playing truant from school. It raises the penalties to which they are subject from a fine of £1,000 to £2,500 with an alternative of three months' imprisonment. The clause in the Bill starts from the premise that something must be done. That is the most dangerous cry in politics.

It is true that something must be done. The problem is considerable. That is not in dispute. The question is whether there is a disjunction between the need to do something and the measures proposed in the Bill. The measures proposed in the Bill rely on the concept of vicarious guilt. They punish the parents for the default of the child. The question is whether causing more dismay for the parents, creating a greater determination in the parents to change the situation, will prove effective. I have very considerable doubts on that matter.

In one of my father's works I came across the remark, "Fortunately, most children desire approval. If they did not, all discipline would be impossible". In that context, the remark brought me up with a jerk, but I cannot help suspecting that we are here dealing with those few children who are exempted from that remark, who do not desire approval. If they desired approval, they would probably be going to school already. In this kind of case the parents' disciplinary powers are effectively nil because the sanctions

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available to a parent, especially a parent with a teenage child, are in practice extremely limited and the power of physical punishment is extremely restricted.

Very often the only power in the hands of a parent in a state of real desperation is to drive the child out of the house. Governments do not take that quite as seriously as they should. The MORI report of 1991 on 16 and 17 year-olds in receipt of severe hardship payment found that a majority of those who had left home had done so because the parents had thrown them out. We now have the Children's Society report which was debated in the House on 20th January. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who was in his place a few moments ago, spoke in that debate. The Children's Society found that almost one-fifth--19 per cent--of children who had run away overnight did so because they had been forced to leave home. The society estimates that as amounting to one in 50 of all young people or 14,000 young people in each school year cohort.

Those young people face quite considerable dangers and get into quite considerable difficulties. But whatever the effect may be, it does not improve their school attendance. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. If, as I believe, the chief effect of the clause will be to cause parents to throw out their children in order that the parents, in desperation, in shame and in fear, may escape the penalty of themselves being imprisoned for what they cannot prevent, the clause will do only harm.

I understand that in some cases there is a question of the parents being compliant in the offence of truanting. Where the parent has personal responsibility for an act, I would be perfectly prepared to see it treated as an offence of aiding and abetting. But very often, especially when a school system of notification has broken down, the parent is in ignorance that the offence of truanting has actually taken place. It may be quite difficult to prove one way or the other whether that is the case.

Parents should be punished for what they themselves are responsible for doing. The concept of vicarious guilt is a dangerous one and punishing the parent may serve only to worsen further the relationship between the parent and child, which may well have been bad enough in the first place. I hope there is still time for some further thought about this clause, which I think is counterproductive.

11.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: There are some questions about the clause that need to be answered. Perhaps I may give an example of a particularly difficult case. This happened about three years ago. The lady in question--she is the mother of a 15 year-old son--gave her son breakfast every morning and sent him off to school. After about seven weeks she received a letter from the school asking where he was because the school had not seen him all that term. Who was culpable here? Was it the school for not following up the absentee quickly enough, or was it the parent, who was totally innocent of the offence? Under the Bill, that circumstance would be considered an offence.

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Secondly, given that the Government have decided to increase the level of fines, when the policy was first announced I undertook a little detective work to establish what level of fines was being levied by the courts at the present time. I found that hardly any parent was levied the maximum fine allowed under the maxima. Perhaps the Minister's officials at the Home Office can provide me with up to date figures. Given that, while it may sound very macho to increase the level of fines, if the current level of fines is not being exploited by the courts, it appears academic to increase the level even further.

All kinds of problems are being thrown up by this issue. Nowadays, parents face genuine difficulties in this area. Many of the sanctions that were available to parents have been removed by law, either by the European Court of Human Rights or by decisions coming from this House of Parliament. Parents are left in an extremely difficult position in today's world. They need to care for robust teenagers--the example I cited a moment ago makes the position clear. I should be interested to know what is to happen in such circumstances.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful for both of the contributions. They were interesting and illuminating, giving as they did the views of the logician and the practitioner.

This is a difficult and vexed subject. It is one that, as a parent, I have thought about a great deal. My children all attend school--the eldest is nearly 12 while the youngest is almost five years old. The problem can be seen in personal terms. However, children really do only have one chance to benefit from their schooling. They need to gain that benefit and to do so they must attend school regularly. Currently, too many children miss school for no good reason. There are around 1 million children--around 10 per cent of all pupils--who miss at least one-half of a school day through unauthorised absence; namely, truancy. That often happens with parent consent or even with parent collusion. We need to be clear about that and I believe that there is a consensus that that is often the case.

Apart from the effect that truancy has on educational levels of attainment, children out of school without permission are more likely to become involved in, or be drawn into, criminal activity or anti-social behaviour or, perhaps worse to themselves, become victims of abuse. They may fall into other highly undesirable anti-social practices.

The Government have been determined to address this issue, as no doubt were the previous government. We have introduced a range of initiatives through the education service to help to tackle truancy. To that end, we have provided significant resources through the social inclusion: pupil support grant worth some £500 million over three years. A high level of resource is being put into this. The grant is being used to support local projects which prevent truancy from happening in the first place.

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This measure to increase the penalty for non school attendance supplements those initiatives and challenges the culture which tolerates the absence of children from school.

Perhaps I should restate for the record what my colleague the Minister of State mentioned in another place; namely, that the intention of the measure is not to imprison parents of truants. I most certainly do not wish to see parents locked up. It would be counter-productive to have children taken into care in those circumstances. The purpose of the measure is to get parents into court and to change their behaviour, along with helping to change the nature of their relationship with their child.

Under Section 444 of the Education Act 1996, if a registered child of compulsory school age (5 to 16) fails to attend school regularly, his parents are guilty of an offence. If convicted, the parents are liable to a fine of up to £1,000, which is level 3 on the standard scale of offences. While not taking anything away from the importance of other offences, this is the same level as fines handed out for people found guilty of not having a fishing or a television licence. I would argue that permitting, aiding and abetting or colluding with truancy is, in many respects, more serious than that. It has to be more serious than that; it affects the potential and prospects of the child.

Baroness Blatch: Does not the noble Lord agree that statistics from the magistrates' courts indicate that nothing like £5 is ever levied? So what is the point of doubling it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I shall come to that point. Clause 63 provides that the penalty for school attendance offences be raised to level 4 on the standard scale and/or three months' imprisonment. The maximum fine will rise from £1,000 per parent per child to £2,500 per parent per child. Courts--this is the crucial point--will still determine the actual fine, dependent on the individual circumstances.

It is not a desire to fine heavily the parent; it is not a desire to imprison the parent. The thinking behind this measure is to close a gap which allows parents of truants summonsed to court simply not to attend. At the moment 80 per cent of parents do not bother to attend court.

The Government take the view that we cannot accept truancy. We cannot condone it--and it should not be condoned by the parent. That is unacceptable. I am sure that there is consensus on that point. It is not a matter, as the noble Baroness said, of us being macho about it; that is not the purpose behind this. It is to ensure that the offence is at a level where the parent is obliged to attend court.

To do this, we need to work with parents and to make it clear that truancy is not a matter to be treated lightly. It will be easier for a magistrate to help us with that if he or she can meet the parent in court and assess whether, for example, a parenting order or a community sentence is more appropriate. The Magistrates' Association has made it clear that parents

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not attending court is a source of considerable frustration. It has pressed for measures which would force parents to attend. That is exactly what we are after, getting the parent to court. We believe that the simplest and most effective way to do this is to make the offence imprisonable. That way a warrant may be issued for the parent's arrest, compelling them to come to court.

I am aware that having the imprisonment clause will allow magistrates to invoke the penalty; I accept that. If the measure becomes law, however, the Magistrates' Association will be providing guidance to magistrates which would draw attention to the fact that under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 custody is reserved for only the most serious cases. This would make it most unlikely that any parent would be imprisoned for this offence. But by raising the standard level of penalty to level 4, we will be in a situation where we can compel the parent to come to court, and then the authorities can begin seriously to engage with that parent.

Clearly, this has to be part of a broader strategy--I do not think any of us would want to see the court used in a heavy-handed way to achieve that--but it has the value of making the parent and child face up to their responsibilities together, to work with the authorities and to ensure that the truancy behaviour--which can trigger other unfortunate kinds of anti-social behaviour--can be prevented. That is the purpose of what we are proposing. I commend Clause 63 to the Committee.

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