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Nick Cousins

Volume 490: debated on Wednesday 1 April 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Ian Austin.)

I am grateful to have secured this debate today. I want to tell part of the story of my constituent, Nick Cousins, because that will allow me to ask how a teacher who has never been found guilty by a court is now unlikely to be able to return to his vocation because, in effect, of the intervention of the Government and their agencies. The story raises serious questions about the balance—in our schools, in the education system as a whole, in government and in our popular culture—between the protection of pupils and justice for teachers, and about the consequences for those schools, that system and our education and popular culture if that balance goes awry. It also raises profound questions of justice and equity.

Let me now begin. In 1998, Mr. Cousins was a senior housemaster at Dulwich college in London. A pupil made an allegation of inappropriate behaviour against him. There followed an internal inquiry in which Mr. Cousins was cleared. In 2001, he became deputy headmaster of the Royal Grammar school—or RGS, as it is sometimes known—in my Wycombe constituency. In 2004, another Dulwich college pupil made allegations that Mr. Cousins had indecently assaulted him during the late 1990s. Later, a third boy, a contemporary of the other two pupils, made similar allegations. In July 2004, Mr. Cousins was arrested. In April 2005, he was charged with indecent assault; in March 2006 he went on trial.

Obviously, that series of events created difficulties for the school, which understandably suspended Mr. Cousins from his duties. I should say at this point that nothing I say this evening is meant to be in any way a criticism of the school, which acted in crucial respects, as we shall see, on the advice of the authorities.

At the trial, Mr. Cousins was acquitted on three counts and the jury did not reach a decision on the other two. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to order a retrial, but instead left the other two counts on file. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is aware of Mr. Cousins’ case, has pointed out that this is a standard method of disposal of counts on which juries are unable to agree verdicts, and is entirely neutral in its implications.

Following the trial, the RGS decided to set up its own internal inquiry in relation to the suitability of Mr. Cousins to work with children. I should say at this point that nothing I say this evening takes a view on his suitability to work in that regard. Rather, as I say, my central purpose is to ask whether he has been treated fairly by the Government and their agencies.

In my view, the RGS was justified in setting up its inquiry. There are evidently circumstances in which there are grounds for proceeding against people, even if they are cleared in court, especially perhaps where child protection is concerned. The school asked Buckinghamshire county council for advice, which is understandable, and the council recommended that the school use an independent investigator—again understandable. The council also recommended who that investigator should be. His report turned out to be controversial. The investigator allegedly met Mr. Cousins and the RGS headmaster only briefly and based his report mainly on the police’s evidence in relation to the Dulwich college charges, which the House will remember were not upheld by a court. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, who saw the report, raised concerns at the time about its impartiality.

Following the inquiry and report, the RGS decided to reinstate Mr. Cousins on the balance of probabilities. It is perhaps not surprising that both prior to the inquiry and following it, the RGS, backed by the council, approached Mr. Cousins’s union representative to discuss a compromise agreement, whereby Mr. Cousins would resign in return for a compensation payment. Mr. Cousins rejected both offers since he wished to return to work at the school.

In mid-August 2006, Mr. Cousins was told by the school that he would have to complete a new enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check—apparently, on the advice of Buckinghamshire county council. By the beginning of September, the CRB check had not arrived. Mr. Cousins was then told at a meeting with the headmaster, which was also attended by a representative from Buckinghamshire county council, that he would therefore be unable to return to work at the beginning of the approaching autumn term. Consequently, when the new term began later that month, Mr. Cousins worked from home.

At the end of September, he was allowed to return to work at the school, subject to the restriction that he should not seek contact with the boys without the headmaster’s permission. He then had to wait a further five months—until February 2007—to receive the results of the enhanced CRB disclosure. According to Mr. Cousins, this disclosure contained no new information, but it did apparently contain no fewer than 14 factual errors in the so-called soft box, which is where chief police officers can add additional relevant information at their discretion. The soft box also included allegations that had not been upheld in court and that had obviously been inserted there by the Metropolitan police. The House will remember that Dulwich college, the site of the original accusations against Mr. Cousins, falls within the Metropolitan police area. On that basis, Buckinghamshire county council was unable to issue a certificate clearing Mr. Cousins to return to work, in an unrestricted way, at the RGS.

Needless to say, Mr. Cousins challenged the terms of the disclosure. At the beginning of June he met Metropolitan police officers, and, following further correspondence, a new disclosure was agreed. Later in June, it arrived. Mr. Cousins claimed that it was still inaccurate in two significant respects, and that the agreed form of words had not been used. Consequently, the Criminal Records Bureau referred the matter to the information commissioners. I do not know whether the commissioners have published a view.

I now return to events at the RGS, where, as the House will remember, Mr. Cousins had returned to work pending receipt of a certificate from the county council, subject to the restriction that he should not seek contact with the boys without the headmaster’s permission. At this point, we have a new entrant to the story. On 14 May 2007, the then Department for Education and Skills wrote to Mr. Cousins stating that it had come to the Department’s notice—more than a year after the trial—that he had been charged and tried with respect to certain allegations. The letter announced that the DFES was to launch its own investigation of Mr. Cousins under section 142 of the Education Act 2002.

Nearly two years later, neither Mr. Cousins nor I, his Member of Parliament, have been able to obtain any explanation from what is now the Department for Children, Schools and Families of why it became involved. I understand that neither Buckinghamshire county council nor the Met referred the case to the DFES, as it then was. Mr. Cousins’s solicitor has claimed that the DCSF received a newspaper cutting about the case. I shall return to that later.

On 18 May, four days after Mr. Cousins received the letter from the then DFES, he was handed a letter by the headmaster of the RGS claiming that he had broken the restrictions imposed on him following his return to school. On 12 June, Mr. Cousins was asked to leave the school. The RGS then appointed another investigator to write a report regarding Mr. Cousins’s alleged infringements of the restrictions imposed on him on his return to the school. According to Mr. Cousins, the investigator was being advised by Buckinghamshire county council.

At the end of August 2007, Mr. Cousins was dismissed at a disciplinary hearing. I believe that the dismissal was upheld at an appeal at the beginning of November 2007, with the result that Mr. Cousins took his case to the employment tribunal. This part of the story finally ends in October 2008, when he reached a settlement with the RGS and the council. In a statement agreed by all three parties, the governors of the RGS acknowledged that Mr. Cousins had been unfairly dismissed, and the council apologised for not providing him with the level of support that he had expected in relation to his dismissal. The council also agreed to review the way in which the whole matter had been handled, and to learn lessons for the future. Mr. Cousins, for his part, acknowledged that the school had acted on advice and therefore in good faith.

The story of Mr. Cousins does not end with that agreement, however. The House will remember that in May 2007, more than a year after the trial, the then DFES wrote to him to say that it would launch its own investigation of his suitability to teach. However, it was not until January 2008 that he was interviewed by a psychologist from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which provides consultancy services for the DCSF. During the interview, it apparently emerged that she did not have any of the defence papers relating to the case, as they had been mislaid by the foundation. In the summer of 2008—more than a year after the Department had first written to him— Mr. Cousins finally received a copy of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation report. According to him, the psychologist stated in the report:

“I would not consider Mr Cousins to represent a risk of harm to children and young persons in education or other settings”.

By the beginning of this year, however, the DCSF had still not issued any recommendation with regard to Mr. Cousins, despite having initiated the investigation more than 18 months earlier. When Mr. Cousins finally managed to speak to an official in the Department at the end of January 2009, he was informed that his case had been transferred to another worker, and that the Department was still working through its internal reviews before a recommendation was made to the Secretary of State. I wrote to the DCSF at the beginning of February to ask why the inquiry was taking so long.

At the beginning of March, I received a letter from the Department saying that

“It is not possible to say precisely how long it may take to conclude any given case, because the circumstances of each case vary. The length of time it takes to reach a decision very often depends on how long it takes for other agencies or bodies to provide relevant information and evidence. However, we aim to conclude a case as soon as possible after receiving all the relevant information.”

On 10 March, nearly three years after Mr. Cousins was acquitted, the head of the children’s safeguarding unit at DCSF wrote to Mr. Cousins to inform him that the Secretary of State had decided not to bar or to restrict his employment. The letter, however, had a twist in the tail:

“Although it has been decided, on this occasion, not to make a direction under section 142 of the education Act 2002 on the grounds of your misconduct, you are warned that your behaviour has caused great concern”.

The letter goes on to refer to

“any further misconduct on your part”.

The House will remember that the governors of the RGS agreed that Mr. Cousins had been unfairly dismissed in 2007 and that he has never been found guilty in court, so to what “misconduct” is the Department referring?

Furthermore, Mr. Cousins alleges that it is clear from the letter that the DCSF has not sent him copies of all the documentation that it has considered, despite having promised to do so. That means that he has not had a chance to comment on all the allegations made against him. Not surprisingly, my constituent has now written to the Department about both those points.

To sum up this section of my speech, we have a teacher who has never been found guilty in court, who has been unfairly dismissed, who has apparently been the subject of inaccurate police claims, some of which have been dismissed in court, who has been investigated by the DCSF on a basis that that Department is unwilling to disclose either to him or to his Member of Parliament, and who the Department now judges to be guilty of misconduct on a basis that it has yet to disclose and may be unwilling to disclose, despite the fact that Mr. Cousins has never been found guilty in court but has been found to be unfairly dismissed. All this while, Mr. Cousins has endured delay, dismissal, disruption to his standard of living and quality of life, strain on his family life, public scandal and above all separation from the vocation to which he dedicated much of his working life. He would be entitled to feel that he has effectively been put on trial twice: once by a judge and jury, who did not find him guilty, and once by the Government and the authorities, who in effect did, but Government and the authorities are not, as the old saying has it, 12 men good and true. If the DCSF has evidence against my constituent, surely that must be produced. If it does not, the House and the world can only conclude that the handling of the case reeks of injustice.

I now want to ask the Minister some questions. I would be grateful if she indicated either now or during her response to the debate that she will write to me in response to any questions that she does not this evening have time to answer. I would be grateful if, rather than simply reading the brief, she would at least answer this evening the questions that pertain directly to Mr. Cousins.

What is the nature of the “misconduct” referred to in the DCSF’s letter of 10 March, bearing in mind that Mr. Cousins has never been found guilty in court but has been found to have been unfairly dismissed? Was he shown all the documentation relating to his case? If not, why not, and will he now be shown it? More broadly, in what circumstances where a teacher is acquitted will the DCSF launch its own subsequent investigation? What are the procedures for referring such cases for investigation, and who is entitled to make these referrals? Assuming that the Department does decide to launch its own investigation, how does it appoint the investigator and how does it ensure that the investigator is both qualified and impartial? What checks has the Department introduced to ensure that any investigator has papers relating to both sides of the case? In this instance, although Mr Cousins did not dispute the findings of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, were a teacher to do so, what procedures would enable that teacher to appeal against the findings of a report? Given the delay, what guidelines has the Department issued on the speed with which it will conclude any investigation that it launches? Its latest letter to me said that

“The length of time it takes to reach a decision…depends on how long it takes for other agencies… to provide relevant information and evidence.”

I now turn to the role of the Metropolitan Police. I would be grateful if the Minister could pass on the following questions to her counterparts in other Departments if she is not in a position to answer them herself. First, as a chief police officer can add “other relevant information” in the so-called soft box of a CRB form, how is relevant information defined, and what guidelines cover its use?

According to a letter I received from the Met in October 2007, the principles that can be extracted from the case law relating to CRB disclosures are as follows:

“The Chief Officer is not required to carry out further police investigations and/or enquiries into the accuracy or nature of the information.”

Do the Government believe that it is right that chief police officers are not required to make inquiries or carry out investigations into the accuracy or nature of such information? In how many and what percentage of cases is it conceded that a CRB disclosure is inaccurate, as the CRB conceded in the case of Mr. Cousins in relation to its first disclosure? What is the Met’s policy on the speed with which CRB checks should be completed? Are there recommended response times? If so, were they adhered to in this instance, and if not why not?

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to tell the House part of the story of the life of my constituent, Nick Cousins. I am saddened to have had to ask how he has been put on trial twice—once by a judge and jury, who did not find him guilty, and once by Government and authorities, who in effect did, without any new evidence of which I am aware.

I know that in these times it is not done to quote poetry in the Chamber—dear me, that would be rather old-fashioned. None the less, I am mindful as I speak this evening of the words of Auden:

“Acts of injustice done,

Between the setting and the rising sun,

In history lie like bones, each one.”

Finally, I close by reflecting on what this story suggests not just for one teacher, but for all teachers, all schools, our education system as a whole, and our educational and popular culture. Not long ago, there was an imbalance between the protection of children and the autonomy of teachers. The former was compromised at the expense of the latter. That imbalance had to be addressed. By and large, I think that it has been. The protection of children should be non-negotiable.

Ministers, the DCSF, local authorities, Parliament, the courts, schools, teachers and governors have no easy task in deciding where the balance lies. As I said earlier, there are circumstances in which there are grounds for proceeding against people even if they have been cleared in court, especially, perhaps, when child protection is concerned. None the less, there are, as I say, serious questions about whether this balance is now right.

Like other Members, I visit schools in my constituency. I am acutely aware that the life of teachers is modern Britain is not always easy. Once, teachers were repositories of knowledge. Like policemen, clergymen, councillors and even, dare I say it, Members of Parliament, they had authority, and a certain status. Now, they are often surrogate parents in what can be, for children, a world made even more bewildering and confusing than it already is by the way in which we live now—sometimes there is a lot of choice, but not always a lot of love.

Teachers no longer have the authority that they automatically possessed a generation ago. Nor does our culture always give them the respect and indeed the reverence to which they are entitled as the passers-on of the light of learning to the next generation. Their options, faced with children who are sometimes difficult at best and violent at worst, are limited. I note that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee has said that it plans to hold an inquiry into the handling of allegations against teachers.

In these circumstances, it is surely vital to ensure that teachers, no less than children, are treated fairly by Government and by the authorities. It is for this wider reason, as well as for the sake of justice and equity, that I bring before the House this evening the case of my constituent, Nick Cousins.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing this debate. Our first duty in government and as a society is to do all we can to keep children safe, and I know that duty is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. That is why we have been strengthening the system for preventing unsuitable people from gaining access to children through their work, and it is why we have established the new vetting and barring system and the Independent Safeguarding Authority.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is not appropriate for me to comment on individual cases in the House, particularly given the obvious sensitivities for all concerned, but I would be more than happy to commit the Department to write to him in confidence to address some of the procedural issues raised by this case if that would be of help and if his constituent gave permission. The remarks that I make tonight will be about the processes in general as regards the DCSF and not about the process in this case.

Can the Minister confirm whether that letter would include what I described as the whole misconduct question if my constituent gave permission for the letter to be written?

We will look at the letter that is given. On the decisions made by our Department, we will always disclose any information that we rely on when making such decisions. On the procedural issues, we will look at the letter when it comes. This is a very sensitive issue.

As limited time is left for me to respond, let me say that CRB disclosures come under a different Department, so I will pass that issue to my colleagues. If I do not manage to get through all the procedures that the hon. Gentleman referred to, I undertake to write to him about the rest.

It is absolutely critical for both the Independent Safeguarding Authority and my own Department to be as scrupulous and rigorous as possible in consideration of all such cases. They frequently deal with very complex issues, and we owe it to all concerned, including those who are under consideration, to review the information that we receive with all due diligence.

The changes that we are introducing under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 will help to make sure that we have the toughest possible vetting and barring system for all those working with, or seeking to work with, children and vulnerable adults. We have already tightened the current system, so that anyone cautioned, as well as those who are convicted, for specified sexual offences against children will automatically be entered on list 99 and barred from working in schools and other education settings. We have made CRB checks mandatory for all new appointments to the schools work force, including staff entering the work force from overseas.

The primary purpose of the process for considering cases is to safeguard children from contact with people who are considered unsuitable, either because they present a risk to a child’s safety or welfare, or because their behaviour presents an unacceptable example to children. Cases are typically triggered by reports from the police, schools or local authorities, wherever there are grounds for concern about an individual working in a school, a further education institution or a local authority education setting.

In addition, any relevant information received by the Department—for example, through the media—may be considered. Where allegations or offences cause concern but do not meet the criteria for automatic barring, information will be sought from a range of agencies and from the individual concerned. Supporting evidence is required to assess the seriousness of the behaviour, or alleged behaviour, and to establish whether the allegations are proved on a balance of probabilities.

It is impossible to say precisely how long it will take to conclude any given case, because the circumstances of each will vary. The length of time it takes to reach a decision very often also depends on how long it takes other agencies or bodies to provide us with the relevant information and evidence. However, we aim to conclude a case as soon as possible after receiving all the necessary information. Although we try to deal with all these cases as quickly as possible, obtaining sufficient information to decide whether to take up a case and then completing the processes inevitably takes time. Strengthening existing arrangements in the ways I have mentioned has led to a significant increase in the number of individuals on list 99. Last year, the total number was 8,036, but it had risen to 12,992 by January this year. The vast majority of the increase is due to the implementation of the amended list 99 regulations that came into force in February 2007.

In relation to cases referred before 20 January this year, the new Independent Safeguarding Authority has been advising the Secretary of State on his decisions under the current scheme. On 20 January this year, however, legislation came into force that required all referrals made from that point to be made to the ISA, and required the ISA to have responsibility for making decisions on those cases in accordance with the new vetting and barring system.

From July next year, all individuals registering with the new vetting and barring system will be subject to a regime of continuous monitoring. They will be reassessed against any new information, whether that comes from police, employers, social services departments or other sources. If necessary, they will be barred from the work force as a result. Legal penalties will exist to enforce that provision.

In certain circumstances, people will be barred automatically from working with children, although in the majority of cases they will be able to make representations about why the bar should be lifted. While those representations are being made, they will continue to be barred from employment as teachers or school workers.

Where the criteria for automatic barring are not met, all the facts of cases will be considered in deciding whether people are unsuitable to work with children and whether they should therefore be barred to prevent them from entering the children’s work force. People are automatically barred from working with children and young people if they have been convicted or cautioned for any of a range of offences against children, including sexual offences. People are also automatically barred if they are subject to a court order that disqualifies them from working with children.

Barring becomes discretionary when there are allegations or offences that cause concern but do not meet the criteria that I have just mentioned. In cases where there are allegations of concern, the ISA will perform the most rigorous assessment by seeking information from police, employers and other agencies, as well as from the individual concerned, before reaching any decision. In some cases, a specialist risk assessment of the person will be commissioned: once completed, that evidence will be taken into account by the ISA.

The system is designed to be as fair and rigorous as possible. It gives those under consideration the opportunity to state their case, but it also reflects the huge importance that we have to place on safeguarding every single child’s welfare.

Of course, placing people who are unsuitable to work with children on a barred list is one of the main safeguards in place to protect young people from harm, but it must be stressed that former and prospective employers also play a vital role. It is for any prospective employer to decide, on the basis of information gathered from criminal record checks and other relevant sources of recruitment information, whether to employ a person. It is for former employers, when asked, to provide frank and accurate references for former employees.

The safety and welfare of children is always our top priority. If there is any suggestion that an individual might pose an immediate risk to any child or young person, we would expect action to be taken without hesitation. In cases where no criminal offence has been committed, the Department will be absolutely rigorous in its efforts to ensure that it has all the information that it needs to make a decision on whether a person poses a risk to children and should be barred.

The Department continues to consider cases after court proceedings have been completed: it does take court outcomes into account, but the Secretary of State also considers cases at the civil standard—that is, “on the balance of probabilities”. The criminal courts test evidence at the higher criminal standard of proof—that is, “beyond all reasonable doubt”—so an acquittal of charges at court does not necessarily mean that an individual will not be barred.

As I have said, the Secretary of State is under a duty to consider allegations of a serious nature that suggest that children have been put at risk of harm. If the Department becomes aware of information—such as a press report, or information from police, employers, the courts or a member of the public—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).