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Lord Hylton: I should like—

Lord Dixon-Smith: If the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will forgive me, I have some amendments grouped with these amendments, which I should perhaps speak to so that the whole group is before the House.

Amendment No. 120 would remove the power of the head teacher to authorise others to issue penalty notices. Amendment No. 124 would authorise a community safety officer to issue penalty notices. I note the difference of opinion between the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and myself about the involvement of the police in this sector. However, if the police have the power to do that, community safety officers—that new category of catch-all, wonderful people, who will fulfil a very useful role and very often may be the first people to realise that a child is truanting—may be even more appropriate to exercise that function. In some authorities, I imagine that a community safety officer on the ground may realise what is going on while an education welfare officer or truanting officer, or whatever they are now called, because they are relatively few and far between, might not find out until much later. There is a real issue involved in that.

Amendment No. 126 would mean that a head teacher or "his authorised nominee" at a school might issue a fixed penalty notice. Using that wording would restrict it to one per school, which would be necessary for the sake of clarity within the school and for parents and children.

Amendment No. 127 is in a sense slightly inconsistent with Amendment No. 120, as it once again involves the head teacher. That is because of the way in which the Bill is drawn up. The amendment would mean that the person issuing fixed penalty notices for a school would be a member of the non-teaching staff. It would probably be wise to avoid having academic staff involved in issuing fixed penalty notices. That certainly concerns us, and it needs careful consideration.

Amendment No. 128 takes us back to amending the paragraph that refers to,

The amendment would take out the head teacher out and revert to the LEA.

It is difficult to see exactly how the new system will work. I imagine that the noble Baroness, who has to devise the regulations to make the provisions work, will have to run a few experiments before she can be absolutely certain of the most appropriate way in which to make progress. There is such a breadth of detail in this very long part of the Bill, which allows an almost infinite variety of possibilities. However, it will be necessary in the end to have something simple and

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straightforward that can be made to work universally. It may therefore need to be broad brush. To try by regulation to define with precision exactly how the provisions will work will be an immensely complex task, and I am glad that it is the task of the noble Baroness and not mine.

Our points need serious consideration, and we thought that they should be before the Chamber.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Hylton: I shall speak to Amendment No. 119A to Clause 23, which is entirely a probing amendment, as Members of the Committee may have guessed.

It is important that fixed penalties should not become a quick fix or substitute for parental contracts or parenting orders. I start from the general proposition that non-attendance and truancy is often a symptom of other difficulties that need to be addressed, and not only something that gives rise to a fine. One can think of many examples of the underlying difficulties, such as bullying at school, violence and abuse in the home, parental discord, the ill health or emotional imbalances of pupils, or pupils being addicted to substances—or even worse, or as bad—to crime. Therefore, I agree with the NSPCC that compulsory measures should be used only as a last resort.

The LGA has argued, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, pointed out, that fixed penalties may adversely affect family relationships, perhaps especially in cases of cohabitation, trial marriages and step relationships. Such penalties could increase the number of children taken into care where, eventually, a parent is sent to prison for non-payment. I note that there is no right of appeal or representation as regards fixed penalties.

What are the Government's views on those last two points and what do they intend to do to minimise the taking into care of children because of non-payment? With the Bill as it stands, will parents suffer prosecution if they deny the facts behind a fixed penalty notice, oppose the penalty or are unable to pay?

Problems of professional ethics already arise under Section 444 of the Education Act 1996 and the Criminal Justice Act 2000. In one county in the South West, parents are invited to a court assessment meeting at the school with their child. A senior education welfare officer chairs the meeting and an education welfare officer gives evidence about non-attendance and reasons for it. The chairman then decides whether to acquit, review the case later, give a warning or recommend court action. He thus appears to act as prosecutor, judge and jury. Furthermore he is often the line manager of the junior EWO, who may be tempted to say what his senior wants to hear.

That quasi-judicial process seems somewhat flawed, especially when dealing with inarticulate parents who do not have representation.

Can the Minister tell us how that may be improved and what the effect of the fixed penalties is likely to be on our existing procedures? Can she give us details of plans for developing alternative kinds of education for

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pupils who simply do not fit into the available standard schools where they are supposed to be, especially when those pupils are disruptive and rebellious teenagers? Can she say whether behaviour improvement programmes are successful in helping children to reintegrate into schools from which they have been absconding?

Finally, I should like to inquire about lines 18 and 39 on page 21 of the Bill. The first refers to a police constable and the second to a community support officer. I can see that it may be necessary to include police and quasi-police in relation to fixed penalties for the sake of completeness. I ask, however—as I think did the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith—whether the Government wish to involve the police in cases other than the most exceptional ones. If the police can remain outside this process, that seems wholly desirable. The police have more important things to do and might only aggravate some situations.

I conclude by asking the noble Baroness if she will be kind enough to look again at the drafting of subsections (4), (5), (7) and (8). They seem hardly elegant, and I wonder whether they are really necessary. The answer may be that they seek to improve the poor drafting of previous Bills. However, perhaps they only make matters worse for the lay user of the Bill.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I start by immediately reassuring the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that these provisions are not a means by which parents can buy themselves out of prosecution. She will know that the application of a fixed penalty notice does not expunge the basis on which it was issued if that penalty is not paid. Indeed, it is hoped that the penalty itself will be one of the catalysts for improved behaviour. It is very important that I make that plain at the beginning, before I begin my other remarks, as I know that some may have had the anxiety which the noble Baroness expressed. I should like very expressly to reassure her that that is not the case.

Amendments Nos. 115, 130 and 131, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, would remove the power for head teachers and their nominees to act as responsible officers for parenting orders. I say straightaway that I understand the thrust of what the noble Baroness says and the anxiety she has expressed. However, we cannot accept that head teachers or their staff should be written out of the picture in this way. In many instances, it will be appropriate for this responsibility to lie with the local education authority. However, it is also right to allow for the possibility that a head teacher or their nominee should take on this role.

It is not hard to think of an instance where the head or a member of school staff is the person working most closely with the child and parents in order to bring about an improvement in behaviour, and there is no reason why they should not be designated the responsible officer with their consent. Our proposed regulations would ensure that that would be possible only if the school governing body also agrees.

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Guidance will advise on the appropriate circumstances for a school to be involved in overseeing a parenting order. Nothing in these provisions is mandatory or obliges head teachers, LEAs or others to participate. We are simply creating extra tools within the practitioners' toolkit. If they think that they can and should properly and effectively use them to assist a parent and a child on the road to recovery in terms of behaviour, those tools will be available for them.

One could think of a number of examples in which head teachers could be assisted thereby. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Ashton gave me one such example. Some basically good parents—by which I mean parents who meet the average developmental and emotional needs of their child—can have a total or almost total disregard for timing or for whether their child should go to school. Teachers have been able to do very little to encourage such parents. They are not so bad that one would wish to remove the child or take corrective action through the courts, but they are sufficiently in error for one to wish to change their behaviour. If they thought that the school could do something about their bringing their child to school late every day—so that the child missed its first maths lesson, for example, for a year—and that a fixed penalty notice might result, that could be the catalyst in persuading them that it might be better to find an earlier bus. We know that children in such circumstances are sometimes excluded for half a day or something of that sort. So in such cases the orders could be a truly useful tool that could be used if the teacher thought it appropriate. These amendments would introduce inflexibility into the operation of parenting orders that would hinder their effectiveness in dealing with the root causes of poor behaviour.

I turn now to the amendments on penalty notices for truancy. Penalty notices have an important role to play as one of a wide range of interventions to promote better school attendance, which is essential to improve children's educational prospects and to avoid putting them at risk of criminal or anti-social behaviour. I shall begin with the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith—Amendments Nos. 120, 126, 127 and 128.

Your Lordships will be aware from the debate in another place of our intention to limit to senior school staff only those who may be authorised by head teachers to issue penalty notices. Draft regulations which have been placed in the Library of the House specify that limitation as applying to deputy head teachers and assistant head teachers. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, agrees with me that head teachers should be given the discretion to issue penalty notices. Our proposals would enable head teachers to empower their senior management team to do the same.

We think that head teachers can be trusted not just to issue penalty notices themselves, but also to empower their senior management team to do the same. It is often the case that a deputy or assistant head teacher will take on responsibility for attendance and discipline matters within a school, and we believe that it is appropriate that they are able to support the head

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teacher further by issuing penalty notices, if the school has decided to make use of this sanction. Our view is that the head teacher is in a better position than the local education authority to decide which, if any, of their staff should be empowered to issue these notices. A number of head teachers have said that they welcome such a power for themselves and their senior management team because it will bolster their and their school's authority to ensure that parents take seriously their responsibilities to ensure that their children attend school.

Similarly, we believe that the senior management team are in a far better position than ancillary staff to know the detailed circumstances of each case and to exercise the professional judgment required. We are not saying that clerical staff cannot provide support in issuing penalty notices, simply that the decision to issue should be taken at a higher level. It is right that schools should challenge as well as support parents and decisions about which approach to take should be taken by the senior management team.

Amendment No. 124 would add the words "a community safety officer" after "a constable" in the list of authorised officers. I join the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, in commending the good work that has been done by such officers. The Bill refers to community support officers (CSOs) rather than community safety officers but we believe that we are talking about precisely the same thing. The amendment is therefore unnecessary because community support officers are already included. New Section 444B(3) of the Bill amends the Police Reform Act 2002 to give a community support officer the same powers as a constable to issue a penalty notice for truancy.

I turn to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. I shall begin by clarifying one matter. This Bill does not create a new offence in respect of truancy. Under existing legislation (Section 444 of the Education Act), parents of a registered pupil whose child fails to attend school regularly have committed an offence for which prosecution is currently the only available sanction. Penalty notices will provide an alternative and enable parents to discharge potential liability for conviction for that offence by paying a penalty. The reference to "proceedings" in new Section 444A(3) of this Bill refers to bringing a prosecution for truancy under the existing Education Act provisions and is intended to ensure that any prosecution is stayed until the parent has had an appropriate opportunity to pay the penalty. I hope that these comments respond to Amendments Nos. 117 and 118 in the name of the noble Baroness.

The remainder of the noble Baroness's amendments deal with who should issue these notices. I hope that the noble Baroness will be reassured when I say that we expect most penalty notices to be issued by local authority education welfare officers, who also organise prosecutions for truancy. But we believe that it is right also to give a number of others the power to do so. I shall not repeat what I have already said in that

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regard. Instead, I shall explain why the police should have a role in issuing penalty notices. The police nowadays are far more involved in the world of education than they used to be. In some areas there are now police based in schools and in many schools police deliver talks on various subjects such as drugs awareness and personal safety. And of course the police are a key agency in combating truancy at street level as they continue to fulfil their traditional role of accompanying education welfare officers during the operation of local authority truancy sweeps and patrols through the use of the Section 16 power of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 which enables police officers to bring truanting children and young people back to school or a place of safety. So there is nothing new about the police having a role in tackling truancy.

Police officers involved in truancy work locally will understand the issues and in many cases will know the children and families they encounter out of school, whether on a truancy sweep or otherwise. It would therefore be illogical and potentially counter-productive to create a situation where they were prevented from issuing penalty notices.

Naturally we are anxious to ensure consistency in the way penalty notices are used and we intend to achieve this in two ways: first, by issuing statutory guidance which will ensure national consistency and cover the general circumstances in which a penalty notice might be issued. The statutory guidance and associated regulations will be the subject of a full public consultation. Secondly, we intend to ensure consistency through a local code of conduct which will be prepared by the local education authority, the purpose of which is to ensure local consistency and the smooth administration of the scheme. In preparing the code LEAs will consult schools and the police who will subsequently issue penalty notices within the parameters of that local protocol.

Last, but by no means least, I turn to Amendment No. 119A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. This would remove all the supplementary provisions relating to penalty notices. These provisions are necessary to ensure the effective administration and consistent application of the penalty notice scheme; indeed, the scheme could not work without them. The regulation-making powers are required to specify who can issue notices—

7 p.m.

Lord Hylton: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I explained that it was purely a probing amendment. I gave notice to the noble Baroness's department of the points that I wished to raise. Therefore, I look forward to a very sympathetic reply.

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