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Line 31, at end add--
'( ) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, and to report to the committee from time to time.
( ) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the minutes of evidence taken before the sub-committee.
( ) The quorum of the sub-committee shall be three.'-- [Mr. Dowd.]
Line 40, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 50, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I make it clear that I had the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) to move that debate on the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill be resumed on 6 April?
Gillian Merron (Lincoln): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the important matter of access to criminal records for universities seeking to recruit lecturing staff. I have been pursuing the issue with Ministers as a result of a disturbing chain of events that took place at the Lincoln campus of the university of Lincolnshire and Humberside. My constituents and I take great pride in the many achievements of the staff and students and in all that the university contributes to our city as an integral part of the community.
The university in Lincoln regrettably came into the national spotlight last year in connection with the case of Russell Griffiths, a former lecturer who, following acquittal on a charge of raping a student, pleaded guilty to, and went to prison for, obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception. He had lied about his previous criminal convictions to get a lecturer's post and it transpired that he had unspent convictions, all relating to ex-girlfriends on whom he had inflicted threats to kill, criminal damage and obscene material.
I am sure that the House would agree, knowing what we now know, that Griffiths would not have been a suitable person to appoint to the trusted post of lecturer, a job that is performed with much professionalism and skill in universities and colleges across the country. It is important that we record our trust in the overwhelming majority of lecturers who do a first-rate job on our behalf. However, such a case must not be allowed to happen again. I am anxious that confidence among staff, employers and students is re-established and maintained.
I speak with the backing not only of my constituents, but of Universities UK, the national body that represents vice-chancellors, and the National Union of Students, which has joined forces with university staff to form CAMPUS--the Campaign for the Protection of University Students. To speak with one voice is a powerful and representative position from which to present the case to Parliament. I hope that the Minister will take account of the unanimous views on the matter.
I pay tribute to the leadership and clarity shown by key players at the university of Lincolnshire and Humberside, including Professor David Chiddick, the vice-chancellor, Verity Coyle, president of the students union, and Debbie Wilson, a senior lecturer. They have my appreciation and admiration for the way in which they have worked to look positively and constructively to the future and have brought their important colleagues on board.
I am pleased that the university in Lincoln has taken some important steps by strengthening its short-listing and interviewing procedures, including checks on references by telephone rather than relying on letters. However, the authorities are limited by legislative provision that prevents them from obtaining the level of checks on criminal records that they want. They eagerly await the establishment and operation of the Criminal Records Bureau, which will assist them greatly to vet prospective employees.
I wonder, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you, like me, remember being 18 and being convinced that you knew everything and the world was out there waiting for you. Perhaps you did, and perhaps it was. I would not want to remove that quality, but at 18, only a few months--or, indeed, a few weeks--mark the divide between being legally regarded as a child and living at home and being a legal adult who is in a new environment with full responsibility for one's daily life, decisions and actions. We should support students in their new world of university by making it a place where they can learn and grow, both academically and personally, without fear of those whom they should be able to trust to guide and support them.
Moreover, as the Government press ahead to widen access and participation in university education--something I very much endorse--the increasing number and range of background, age and experience mean that, as with any section of the population, the range of ability to deal with life's challenges will also widen and vary. Whether a student is more or less vulnerable is simply not the issue, as many students are more than capable of looking after themselves. It is the nature of the relationship between the student and the lecturer that we need to consider.
Of course, perfectly sound, morally acceptable and defensible relationships do exist between lecturers and students, as consenting adults. That is not the area of concern to which I refer. However, we need to bear it in mind that lecturers do not work only with young adults. At Lincoln, for example, a children's university for 12 to 16-year-olds regularly takes place, as do visits of school groups, which is very much to be encouraged. It also provides a venue for the Co-operative Kids Club. Such events enable lecturers to work, unsupervised, with those under 18.
I urge the Minister to work closely with the Department for Education and Employment to ensure that guidance and instruction is issued to universities on requiring a basic disclosure document, from the criminal records bureau, as a condition of employment. That would enable a full check to be made on unspent convictions. I should like to go one step further by asking the Minister to review the exceptions order in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and include university lecturers. They, like teachers, traffic wardens and probation officers would then be required to declare spent convictions according to the Criminal Records Bureau standard level of disclosure.
I quite understand and endorse the purpose of the 1974 Act--to allow ex-offenders to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. Equally, there are some occupations for which I believe that that is not appropriate, which is recognised by the exemptions that have been made. I also appreciate that there is a delicate balance to be struck between giving ex-offenders the chance to contribute fully to society once again--and having a job is one of the best ways to include rather than exclude people--and ensuring the protection of those they work with, where appropriate.
The nature of the job of lecturer with its attendant responsibilities and requirements, needs careful consideration. I am in no doubt that if the case of Russell Griffiths is to have a positive outcome and scars are to be healed at the university in Lincoln, we must ensure, as far as possible, that such a case cannot happen again. We need to move that bit further to restore full confidence between students and staff and among each other.
I hope that this case, which sent shock waves throughout the Lincoln campus, will not have happened in vain. I thank the Government, particularly the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who has been most helpful with this case, for the progress that has been made so far in establishing the Criminal Records Bureau. That is a responsive measure, and will prove highly effective. However, I ask that the Minister seriously consider the request that I have made, on behalf of my constituents, for the benefit of the university community and their friends and families across the country.