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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my name has been attached to this amendment. I have a few questions for the Minister. It would be useful to know the extent to which the schemes to reduce truancy in schools that have been put in place at very great cost have been successful. Right across the country local authority schools have received money to help them produce strategies for reducing the number of young people who are truanting from school. It would be helpful to be given that information.

In May this year I tabled a Question for Written Answer which was answered by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. I asked,

To all three Questions the answer was that the department did not know and that it would be disproportionately costly to find out the information. If that is the case, what is the basis for doubling the fine? What is the argument for saying that doubling the fine will have an effect?

I re-tabled the Question in a different form in October. I received a reply on Monday 30th October. In that Answer, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, argued that it was disproportionately expensive to find out the information. However, the noble Baroness added:

    "Most importantly, our proposal"

--that is, doubling the level of the fine--

    "will force parents prosecuted for school attendance offences to turn up in court to face the consequences of their actions, or risk arrest. It will also give magistrates greater flexibility when deciding on the fine level to impose when parents are found guilty".--[Official Report, 30/10/00; col. WA 72.]

I find that extraordinary. I understand that 80 per cent of parents do not turn up in court now. I have done a little detective work of my own in a number of courts with which I am familiar. The levels of fine are derisory. They range from £10 to £20 and up to £50. Evidence shows that some parents are fined an average of £50 to £100. The Government are talking of doubling the limit of the fine but the courts are nowhere near using the limit of the fine at the moment. What is the rationale for the measure? If 80 per cent of parents do not turn up in court when a lower maximum fine may be imposed, what makes the noble Lord believe that they will turn up if it is doubled?

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How much more flexibility will such a measure give the courts if they are not using the flexibility available to them at present to levy greater fines on parents who commit offences in relation to non-attendance at school? How will the measure that is proposed increase flexibility in this regard? The department does not know how many parents are found guilty or appear in court. It would be helpful to hear the Minister's views on that matter.

As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, we all have an interest--this is common to Members on all sides of the House--in seeing our young people in school. Every day spent out of school constitutes another lost opportunity for young people. The most vulnerable children are the ones who are most at risk of losing out on education. That blights their lives for ever. Anything that can be done to reduce the incidence of truancy would have my support. However, it must be something practical that will work. I believe that the Department for Education recently announced giving the police powers to conduct a sweep of streets and shopping areas during school hours to take truant children back to school. I support that practical measure. I am sure that the police would carry it out in a sensitive manner. The important matter is to find a way of getting truanting children back in school.

I refer to another proposal that I would have supported when I was a Minister if we in the department had not been thwarted by confidentiality rules. Children who spend time out of school will often say that they have been to the dentist or to the doctor or they have been doing this, that or the other. It was not possible for the police to check with the dentist or doctor to verify the excuse. I was sad about that as I thought that it would have been breaching confidentiality for good reason if a dentist or a doctor were allowed to say that the reason he was giving the information was to ensure that the children in question did not get away with false excuses for being out of school illicitly. I hope that across Whitehall ways can be found to allow for that kind of breach of confidentiality.

At the end of the day, I believe that it is in the interests of the child to be back at school. I am not against reducing truancy. I am not against practical suggestions. But simply doubling the fine will do nothing for these parents. We have already talked about instances where the parent is not culpable. In good faith, the parent ensures that the children have their breakfast and are sent to school. I gave the example of a case known to me where for three months the child had been sent off to school. The school rang to ask whether the child had left the school or the family had left the area. The parent was completely unaware that the child had not attended school but was playing with friends somewhere else in town. How culpable is a parent in that situation? As parents we have a responsibility to ensure that our children attend school. Where does the culpability lie when the parent sees the child through the school gate, the child registers for school, and then disappears?

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Finally, there is confusion about where those cases are dealt with. The adults appear in the adult court; the children appear in the juvenile court. The same issue is discussed. They are treated very differently in the courts. It is unsatisfactory. I believe that the clause should not be in the Bill. I support the noble Earl, Lord Russell.

11.45 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this sounds like dangerous liberalism with perhaps Conservatives going soft on the issue of truancy.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is not going soft on truancy. I believe that I gave sufficient examples to underline that we should do all that we can to get children back into school. It is for the Minister to defend why this policy will be effective.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am more than happy to make that case and put that argument. However, when we come up with measures which are quite hard nosed and tough, Members from the party opposite do not seem to want to deal with that toughness.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I remind the Minister, first, that there are two parties opposite; and, secondly, that the point at issue is whether these measures are effective. I should be grateful if the Minister will address that point.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am well aware that there are two parties opposite; and, yes, I intend to deal with whether these measures will be effective.

I am acutely aware that our children have only one chance at education. I have three children at school. As a parent I, too, have to account for their behaviour and attitude, and what my children do in and out of school. I see that as an important parental responsibility. Today I have had to send a letter to my son's school to advise the school on why he had a day and a half off school, and why he could not get to school on time yesterday. I believe that that is an important responsibility placed on parents. I take my responsibilities seriously and expect others to do exactly the same

At least 1 million children at school play truant in any one year. I was interested in the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Russell. He seemed to conjure up an image of the average truant: an early teenaged boy, perhaps a child under duress at home, not enjoying happy home circumstances. That may be the case in some instances. But the noble Earl may need to take account of this important statistic: the majority--some 600,000 of those who truant--are of primary school age and their parents know and collude with the fact that they are not at school.

The Government believe in practical, quite hard-nosed measures. For that reason the truancy sweeps referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch,

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initiated by the Government, and mounted by the police working with local authorities, work very effectively. They have found that two-thirds of those children are out of school without permission and are with their parents when they are found. That is further evidence of collusion.

As the noble Baroness rightly acknowledged, 80 per cent of parents prosecuted for school attendance offences fail to turn up at court. Clearly they do not believe that it is worth their while or that they should be interested. Most are fined in their absence. The noble Baroness referred to parliamentary Questions that she has asked. I am happy to confirm that those Answers show that the courts fine as little as £1 to £10, with an average fine of £50 to £100. Only a small number of fines reach the maximum level of £1,000.

The background information suggests that there are 60 prosecutions a year using the relevant provision in education legislation, which has been in place for 50 years or more. There may not be a large number of cases that make their way to court, but there is an important issue at stake. If we as a society disapprove strongly of people playing truant, we should say so. This is a way of making a powerful public statement of our disapproval of truancy. Truancy leads to young people getting into trouble and can lead to terrible offences. That is why the Government have taken the issue so seriously. Everyone says that they want to do something about truancy, but thus far nobody has been prepared to do it. We believe that we should. If the measure sends a powerful message to society, we shall have achieved our aim.

On 19th October, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Home Secretary announced a series of measures to tackle unauthorised absence from school. Next year, £43 million will be made available to schools and local education authorities to use on a range of initiatives to tackle truancy and improve discipline in schools. The two are undoubtedly linked.

The Secretary of State has called for a renewed effort to tackle truancy through a co-ordinated programme of truancy sweeps in every local authority. Funding will be provided for more learning mentors in Excellence in Cities areas where extra provision can be made to help individual children at risk of not attending or not succeeding at school. We intend to consult carefully with schools that have above average truancy levels. The new Connexions service will provide further advice and guidance to all 13 to 19-year-olds. All young people who want support will have access to a personal adviser.

The noble Baroness made great play of the level of fines. I suppose that the nub of her argument was that if the fines are generally low--perhaps £10 or £50 to £100--what is the point of raising the maximum fine to £2,500 or of making the offence potentially imprisonable? The point is that a warrant can then be issued so that the parents can be brought to court. The

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magistrates can then see the parents and make clear not just their displeasure at the parents' inability to get to grips with the issue or to share responsibility--

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