I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed regulation of out-of-school education settings.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and to welcome such an excellent Minister, dedicated to school standards, and an even more excellent Opposition spokesman—I say that in the hope that they might be nice when they sum up.
How have we come to a situation in which a Conservative Government are proposing that a parish church must register with Ofsted before it can teach children the Bible for more than a few hours? The Department for Education’s consultation—I emphasise that it is a consultation—on its plans for out-of-school settings is well intentioned enough. Nobody denies that. When Sir Michael Wilshaw goes on the radio to defend them, he tells us about children
“at risk of abuse and at risk of radicalisation.”
We all have those concerns, but why does tackling abuse and radicalisation in a very tiny number of madrassahs mean that every voluntary group in England that instructs children for six or more hours a week has to register with the state? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education told Radio 4 that she thought the number of problem institutions could be numbered in the tens. Why, then, are we requiring tens of thousands of totally innocent groups to register with the state?
Does my hon. Friend remember that when we were in opposition, we opposed the then Labour Government’s ContactPoint database precisely because it sought to capture information on every child in the country? We said, “No, it should be proportionate. We should capture the information on children at risk, not every child.” Why does he think that that principle is not being applied in this case?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. This issue has caused great concern among my constituents, particularly Rev. Simon Cansdale, who leads our churches in Chesham. He makes the point that surely we should be the Government who are responsible for wiping away red tape and disincentives for voluntary organisations to carry out this sort of work, but we appear to be putting more red tape in the way and creating more disincentives for them. As far as I am concerned, the proposals could even apply to, for example, teaching children music for recitals or outdoor skills, or to any sort of activity such as singing songs or reading out stories to young children. Surely it is verging on the ridiculous and should be swept away.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Just seven months ago he proudly stood on a Conservative manifesto, which, on page 61, stated that the Conservative party would
“reject any suggestions of sweeping, authoritarian measures that would threaten our hard-won freedoms.”
Does he believe that the proposals fit in with that promise?
Exactly. How proudly I stood on that manifesto. [Laughter.]
Returning to my speech, if the number of problem institutions could be numbered in the tens, why should all these voluntary groups be subject to inspection by Ofsted? Why does that mean that churches could have inspectors deciding whether their doctrine meets the “British values” test? Why should totally moderate, mainstream mosques and madrassahs have to register on a list of potential extremists?
The DFE says that an out-of-school education setting is
“any institution providing tuition, training or instruction to children aged under 19 in England”.
Exceptions are schools, colleges, and registered childcare providers. The Government talk about “intensive education”. That sounds bad—like it has a controlling influence on children—but the document says it is
“anything which entails an individual child attending a setting for more than between 6 to 8 hours a week”.
It says that that could be an hour or so every day after school.
I speak as somebody who even this coming weekend will be engaged in working with young people in a Sunday school. Does my hon. Friend think that, even if we normally do one or two hours a week, the proposals will apply if we take the children away for a weekend, which will be far more than six hours?
That is a very good question and is precisely what the Minister needs to respond to, because the proposals could apply and we want to know the answer.
Huge numbers of groups have the kind of contact with young people that we are discussing. They will all have to register as part of a scheme designed for spotting a few Islamic extremists. It sounds a bit excessive, doesn’t it? The DFE is clear that it has in mind
“activities and education for children in many subjects including arts, language, music, sport and religion”.
This scheme for spotting jihadists is therefore going to impose state regulation on groups teaching arts, music and sport, activities in which jihadists are not particularly known to engage. Stalin used to persecute innocent groups of philatelists or Esperanto learners; is this a very British kind of Stalinism? Members will be thinking of the many scout troops, sports teams, youth groups, churches, conservation groups and after-school clubs in their constituencies. They will all have to register, even though we can say with a high degree of certainty that none of them—none of them—are poisoning young minds with extremism.
The Scout Association has contacted me to say that the
“proposed threshold is neither helpful, nor workable”
and that “sufficient scrutiny already exists”. Of course, that is right. One does feel sorry for the association. It is hard enough nowadays to get volunteers to give up their free time to run scout groups, without more over-regulation.
Like, I am sure, many others present, I have had to go through the process of a Criminal Records Bureau check, which is now a Disclosure and Barring Service check. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is an important but onerous process? Sometimes, one has to be checked more than once, because it does not transfer to another activity that one might undertake with children if one is foolish enough to do a full weekend with the Sunday school. It is a very rigorous process, and if it was applied to the people who teach children Islam in all teaching environments, it would be a very good tool to deal with any excess problem that there might be.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. We should be using DBS checks if, for instance, people are trying to teach extremism, jihadism or whatever in an out-of-school setting or at home. We should use intelligence and existing powers to deal with the problem, not try to take a great sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. My constituents are concerned about the additional burden not only on volunteers, who do incredible work up and down the country, but on Ofsted. They are concerned about whether Ofsted has the capacity and the resources to implement the proposals, and about what the costs might be.
I believe that Ofsted has neither the capacity nor the resources. It should concentrate on its job of ensuring good educational standards.
The DFE consultation document also mentions settings that are used during school holidays. Clearly, summer camps were in view. The Department now says that “one off residential activities” will not be covered. Fair enough. The body charged with registration is the local authority, but I am afraid we have seen enough local authorities banning Christmas and pulling funding from church groups to know that there will be places where relationships between local churches and the council are not friendly.
Apparently, out-of-school settings will be
“eligible for investigation, and if appropriate, intervention where concerns were reported”.
Investigation? Intervention? This is pretty intrusive stuff. The Government say that all this has
“the broad aim of keeping children safe generally from the risk of harm, including emotional harm”.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I speak as somebody who, like other Members, has run residential courses like those that have been mentioned. Does he agree that we might end up with all the good, diligent organisations registering, while the ones we are trying to crack down on will not bother registering at all?
That is precisely the point, and I will come to it in a moment. Extremists will not register and will not talk about cutting off people’s heads when the Ofsted inspector is around.
Emotional harm is a vague concept. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins say it is “mental abuse” to teach children that the Bible is true. Does the Department agree? I am sure not. Do some Ofsted inspectors agree? I hope not.
The system includes a requirement to “register”, a power for Ofsted to inspect and a power to impose sanctions, including barring people from working with children and closing premises. Although the consultation process was, I believe, inadequate, the Department received thousands of responses, because people, especially Christian groups, are really worried. They are terrified because, for the first time, Ofsted will decide whether to bar someone or close down their youth work by assessing whether their teaching is
“compatible with, and does not undermine, fundamental British values.”
The Department says that prohibited activities will include:
“Undesirable teaching, for example teaching which undermines or is incompatible with fundamental British values.”
Does the Department really have a right to decide what is desirable and undesirable teaching in churches? Many groups focus on hobbies, sports, music, the outdoors —things that have no relevance whatever to British values. The truth is that those thousands of hobby groups are being forced to register only so the system looks even-handed. That is the point: the Government are terrified of not looking even-handed, and therefore they are bringing in all those other harmless groups.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on making a characteristically forthright speech that is based on common sense. Does he agree that the state has tools to address such issues in a risk-based way? We do it all the time with immigration and policing. Clearly, if there are risks, we should have a risk-based, proportionate approach based on common sense.
That sums it up very well. All the tools are there, and I will list them in a moment. They are based on risk.
The DFE’s real target, as we all know, is religious teaching; let us be honest about that. The major problem is that many religious groups do not have confidence in Ofsted. I led a debate last year on the treatment of certain Church and Jewish schools. I will not repeat all I said on that occasion. I mentioned the particular problems that Orthodox Jewish schools are having; I read out letters from pupils at a Christian school; I mentioned St Benedict’s Catholic School in leafy Bury St Edmunds, which was accused of not doing enough to tackle radicalisation; I mentioned Middle Rasen School in my constituency, which, according to Ofsted, is not British enough. I will not repeat those points, but they are on the record.
The Catholic Education Service does not oppose the plans, but it has a number of concerns, including the risk of
“Vexatious complaints and the use of the system as a means of pursuing critical objectives”.
Ofsted told Trinity Christian School in Reading to invite leaders of other faiths to lead collective worship and actively to promote other faiths. Ofsted denies it, but why would the school make it up? I am afraid that Ofsted has a reputation for being unfair to some Christian and Jewish schools. When inspectors went into the Birmingham non-faith schools that were part of the Trojan horse Islamist plot, they first rated them as “outstanding”. One of the key figures in the scandal was an Ofsted inspector, so it hardly has a stellar record of spotting extremism. Yesterday, I talked to Sir Michael Wilshaw, who is a very reasonable, able man and is clearly doing his best. I have no doubt that he has worked hard in the past year with his resources to root out radical jihadism, but because he has to look even-handed, he has to take part in this activity of controlling thousands of other group.
Are British values the answer? One only has to say the phrase now and people roll their eyes. The consultation paper says that British values include
“democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
That is too vague to provide a basis for state inspection of churches and scout groups. It is also sloppy. We cannot show respect and tolerance for all beliefs. Jihadism is a belief, and we certainly do not respect that.
The Government admit that their out-of-school plans will create a new burden on providers—the understatement of the year—but I do not think they have any idea of how big the bureaucratic monster they are creating is. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations—hardly an extremist group—says that there are more than 160,000 voluntary organisations in the UK. Many of them work with children and young people. For 37,000 of them, it is their core work. The NCVO counts only registered charities, but a vast amount of voluntary work is done without the formality of setting up a charity, so there are many thousands more groups not included in the NCVO figures.
I have several questions that I hope the Minister will reply to. How will those tens of thousands of bodies be notified of the new obligation to register, given that some of them do not even have a permanent address? Whose responsibly will it be in the setting, especially if the group is informal and has no structure? What about venues with different groups operating on the same premises? How will ad hoc groups calculate whether they breach the six-hour threshold? How many will be forced to register just in case? How will they know what Ofsted is looking for if they ever get a visit? How will they prepare for a visit? Can football be played in a non-British values compliant way? Can a conservation club be intolerant? Should martial arts clubs be worried?
The whole thing is a ridiculous mess that will severely damage the big society—our big idea. Some groups will cut their provision to less than six hours to avoid having to register, and some will close down altogether. Groups that rely on teachers as volunteers will be especially vulnerable because teachers will not want to risk their career by being involved in an amateur outfit that might slip up with Ofsted. It is the children who will suffer, not us, Ofsted or the Government. There will be less provision, which means that in future there will be fewer footballers, swimmers, linguists, artists and other high-flyers, all because of this bizarre, unfocused, ill-thought-out, politically correct imposition on our freedom.
I am also greatly worried about the cost and burden that the scheme will place on our already squeezed local authorities and on the Government. More taxpayers’ money will be spent on the scheme, and I think it would be unreasonable to expect local government to meet the cost.
From talking to our local councillors, we know that the last thing we should do is impose more burdens on them.
To top it all, the scheme will not make children any safer from extremism; it will just tie up thousands of non-jihadi groups in red tape. The idea that jihadists will take the time to register is incredibly naive. Islamist extremists regard our laws as a total irrelevance. If they have no conscience about teaching children that Jews and Christians are worse than dogs, does anyone seriously think they will have a conscience about registering with the local authority? Are they really going to put themselves on the radar for an inspection? If they beat up children for not memorising the Koran, do we really think they are going to put their hands up and say, “Here we are—come and inspect us”? If Ofsted turns up to assess them, does anybody think that they would use the occasion to show their ghastly videos?
If we want to find extremists groups that put children at risk, we have to use good old-fashioned intelligence. We spend a huge amount of money on the intelligence services. We have to rely on intelligence, surveillance, common sense and the bravery of members of the public who blow the whistle on such groups, including the many good Muslims who are fed up with this, frankly, and the good Muslim mothers who do not want their children to go to such places.
We should use existing laws, of which there are plenty. If these groups urge children to do things that break the law, we should prosecute them for encouraging the commission of a criminal offence under section 44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007. If the children are at risk of significant harm, we should get a prohibited steps order or a supervision order under the Children Act 1989. If the premises are dangerous, we should invoke health and safety law to close them down. If it is really an unregistered school, we should use the Education and Skills Act 2008 to close it down, as the DFE did last week to a school in Stamford Hill. We have the powers, and we should use them to deal with the genuine cases.
This out-of-school setting scheme is a total and utter distraction. We will end up with a list of tens of thousands of law-abiding, non-extremist groups, and Ofsted inspectors will try to justify their existence by picking on the occasional conservative religious group and brand them non-compliant with British values. It is a typical case of politicians and civil servants wanting to look as if they are doing something, rather than actually doing something. If they actually want to do something, they need to knock together the heads of the police, social services departments, Ofsted and all those with existing powers to make them use those powers properly.
This scheme is fundamentally illiberal. It is big government at its worst. It would do little or no discernible good, and an awful lot of harm, leading to false allegations. Ofsted knows that false allegations against teachers are a massive problem in the profession. A system based on “British values” and “undesirable” teaching is ripe for subjective, exaggerated and politically-motivated complaints, especially against religious groups. This will generate false flags and waste time. Finding extremists is already like finding a needle in a haystack. This system will just make the haystack much bigger.
Sir Michael Wilshaw tried to justify the new plans on LBC Radio last week by citing cases of unregistered schools where children were
“living in appalling conditions in a filthy environment where there was homophobic literature, anti-Semitic literature and misogynistic literature”.
That summarises the difficulty. On the one hand, it identifies real problems such as educating children in filthy conditions, but talks about those problems as if we cannot tackle them without a new law. That is not true. We do not need a new scheme to do that. On the other hand, Sir Michael Wilshaw raises issues that involve highly subjective judgments, such as what constitutes “homophobia” and “misogyny”. People routinely use words such as homophobic and misogynistic to describe the contents of holy books of all religions. One can bet there are Ofsted inspectors who take that approach. I half wonder whether the homophobic, misogynistic and anti-Semitic literature found at unregistered schools was just some religion’s holy book. There is some pretty blood-curdling stuff in the holy books of all religions.
I absolutely accept that no religious person has the right to impose any violent language on anybody else, but we are talking about religious people. It does not matter whether they are Hindu, Sikh, Muslim or Christian —they believe their holy book. I am not saying that anyone has the right to enforce their holy book on others, but they do have a right to say that they believe that their religion is right and that others are wrong. That is why they are religious. That is real diversity and pluralism—not this ridiculous situation in which we all have to pretend that we believe the same thing.
The Minister may tell us that the Government have no intention of registering Sunday schools, chiefly because they do not like the sound of the headline, but Sir Michael Wilshaw told the LBC Radio audience last week that Sunday schools would have to register. He is right because Sunday school provision is just one aspect of a church’s work with young people. If a child spends two hours at Sunday school, another two hours at a youth group on Wednesday, and another two hours in choir practice on Friday, they have spent six hours receiving tuition and training from the church. It may have involved three different groups with three different sets of volunteers but it is all in one setting, so that church will have to register. Its Sunday school workers, youth group leaders and choir masters are all liable to British values inspections.
In 1787, it was estimated that a quarter of a million children were enrolled in Sunday schools. They were mainly non-conformist. Frightened by the French revolution, the then Archbishop of Canterbury denounced Sunday schools as “nurseries of fanaticism”. Prime Minister William Pitt almost introduced a Bill prohibiting the dangerous innovation—plus ça change. In conclusion, the Department must think again before it unleashes a whirlwind of destructive over-regulation on the voluntary sector.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. I agree with a great deal of what he said, and I think there will be widespread agreement that the prospect of Government officials inspecting and supervising religious activity is not an attractive one.
We all understand—the hon. Gentleman set this out clearly—why the Government want to introduce the measure, but the way in which they go about doing so is very important. The Christian organisation CARE, in its briefing for the debate, rightly asks the question that he raised: what became of the big society? The approach being taken here is very different. It is the big state approach, which, as we have been reminded, the Conservative party’s election manifesto explicitly repudiated.
I am particularly uncomfortable about the idea that religious instruction should be placed under the authority of some vaguely defined British values administered by Government officials. Surely, in reality, it is the other way around. Admirable British values have been formed as a result of the practice of religious faith over hundreds of years. We need the practice of faith to renew and reinvigorate those values, and there is a good deal of that around the country at the moment—for example, in the extraordinary network of food banks that has developed over the past few years, a great majority of which are faith-based. That is where good values come from. Making religious instruction subject to a state-controlled version of values is deeply problematic.
There is a recurring theme in the Government’s efforts to address extremism. Of course, it is right that the Government address the problem, but that is a very difficult thing to do. Sometimes, one gets the feeling that the Government are coming up with ideas in order to be seen to be doing something. There is a worry that a view is emerging that a person who is deeply religious should be regarded in consequence as suspect. In reality, there is no correlation between those two things; it is not true for Christians, Muslims or others. Islamist extremists, on the whole, are people who are outside of regular mosque attendance because mosque attendance involves socialisation, which helps to protect against extremism. Therefore, in reality, the connection is mistaken.
The right hon. Gentleman is touching on the nub of the problem. In society, there are groups of people who are deeply religious and hold devout religious views. Does he agree that any Government initiative or change in legislation must not assume that those groups are in some way suspect and treat them in a blanket way to isolate and deal with the very small number of people who use devout religious views as a means and mechanism to achieve a more devious and illegal aim?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I very much agree with the way he has expressed that danger, which we are heading into at the moment. If the Government are determined to make some changes in this area, I wonder whether there might be a less problematic way of doing so than the one proposed in the recent consultation. As was mentioned earlier, there is not a good fit between the task proposed and the institution—Ofsted—proposed to undertake it. I am an admirer of Ofsted and, in particular, of its current chief inspector. I admired him when, years ago, he was a headteacher in the borough that I represent in the House of Commons. However, inspecting and holding to account publicly funded schools is a very different task from monitoring occasional problems in wholly voluntary settings. As one commentator has observed, the measure would, in effect, make Ofsted the state regulator of religion. It is quite surprising to see this idea from a Conservative Government. Ministers have rightly called for religious freedom overseas. We need to be vigilant that we do not undermine it at home.
There are pragmatic considerations as well. Sensitivity and tact are not the hallmarks of Ofsted. Its job, on our behalf, includes a lot of heavy lifting. The task that the Government envisage here is a very different kind of task. I cannot see that it would be right to ask Ofsted to undertake it. Instead, what if the task of inspection— if it must be done—were given to one of a number of inspecting bodies, which could perhaps be set up for the purpose? Each setting could then choose the body by which it was inspected. They might be set up by the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Alliance or the Muslim Council of Britain. The bodies would be rigorously supervised and audited by Ofsted, but it would be their staff who did the inspecting, rather than Government inspectors.
Of course, there would need to be a limit on the number of bodies, and there would be a case on the ground of openness for an inspector from a different body to accompany an inspecting team on its visits. Sunday schools or after-school Koranic classes do not object to outside visitors. The problem is with the idea that they are answerable to Government officials for the religious instruction that they deliver.
My right hon. Friend’s suggestion sounds interesting, but does it not fly in the face of what this Government have said for many a year, which is that they do not want to see state bodies and apparatus put in place? Whether they used the original proposals or my right hon. Friend’s interesting ideas, all of it suggests further layers of bureaucracy, which they keep saying that they do not want.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was attempting to propose a different way of doing things that might get around at least some of the serious difficulties in the Government’s proposals.
In conclusion, several of us received this morning an email from a man who writes:
“I’m a British born Muslim living in East London. I have a beard and pray five times a day and I can no longer walk down my street without being looked at strangely as a threat.”
In addressing the problem—a real problem, albeit one affecting only a tiny number of people—there is a danger of accidentally severely undermining the values that we are setting out to protect.
I will be brief, because the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has made most of what I was going to say unnecessary. The proposals are disproportionate and likely to be ineffective, and pose a real threat to freedom of speech, conscience and belief. They are also quite probably illegal, a point to which I will return in a moment.
Whatever reassurances the Minister may give us today that the proposals will not affect the salt of the earth organisations of which my hon. Friend spoke, we cannot be sure. The problem is that office holders change. Politicians change. Civil servants change. Once such regulations are in place, what guarantee do we have that they will not be interpreted differently in the future?
It will not do to say that we are being alarmist. We need only remember the plight of the Plymouth Brethren, which you will remember well, Mr Turner. They were threatened with the removal of their charitable status some three years ago over a difference of interpretation of the words “public benefit”. That came after reassurance had been given in the House during debates on the Charities Act 2006 that traditional religious charities need not fear the legislation. If I am correct, you were the shadow Minister at the time, Mr Turner, and you expressed grave disappointment in this very Chamber that, years after the passing of 2006 Act, an established charity with some 300 churches across the country was having its charitable status challenged following a different interpretation of the legislation. The reassurances that had been given were swept aside. The challenge cost the charity hundreds of thousands of pounds and was only averted after dozens of MPs stood up in this place and called for the outrageous attack to be stopped. That is why we are speaking out against the proposals today.
I now turn to the probable illegality of the proposals and the human rights issues. I thank Professor Julian Rivers, professor of jurisprudence at the University of Bristol and an expert on law and organised religion, for his advice. He describes the proposals as “astonishing”. He says that such a registration requirement, as it would apply to religious groups, would
“be straightforwardly in breach of the UK’s international human rights obligations.”
Let us have a look at articles 8, 9, 10, 11, 14 and 18 of the European convention on human rights. Hon. and right Hon. Members will be relieved that I will not quote them all. The Human Rights Act 1998, which refers to the convention, states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and expression, to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. Requiring religious groups to register would breach that. Indeed, just last year, the European Court of Human Rights said that the European convention on human rights
“excludes any discretion on the part of the State to determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate.”
It is therefore quite likely that, were Ofsted to identify and sanction undesirable teaching in a church youth group in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough described, it would be in breach of the ECHR.
Much as I would like to, I will not go on. There is a great deal more I would like to say, but I will say in closing that the consultation has been rushed through and is of particular concern to faith organisations. At some 42 days, it was very short and the shortest of the Department for Education’s current consultations. I stood up in the House before Christmas and asked for an extension, bearing in mind that the consultation took place over Advent and Christmas, but it was refused. I pointed out later that one of the email addresses on the consultation’s website was wrong, so some of the consultees’ responses were never received. There was then confusion over the time of day on the final date when the consultation finished. Many consultees who put their responses in after around 5.30 pm found that they had missed the deadline. There needs to be a clearer understanding of what the deadline is.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s speech, but my one concern is that she is almost suggesting that the Government should rerun the consultation. May I suggest that she makes it clear in her closing remarks that the best thing that the Government could do is to bury the consultation once and for all?
Two minutes? My goodness, how can I say everything that I want to say in two minutes? What a pleasure it is to stand alongside the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and support him in what he put forward. I thank him for all he has done.
I am not alone in having serious concerns raised with me by traditional faith groups and faith schools with no history of extremism whatsoever about the prospect of counter-extremism strategies potentially affecting them. That is what this is all about. Let me be clear. A framework needs to be put in place with safeguards to prevent the strategy from becoming a draconian measure. There needs to be intelligence-gathering and reasonable suspicion before any investigations or the specific targeting of a school. We cannot end up in a situation in which a Sunday school is declared a radical theatre or religious studies at a local primary school becomes a matter of national security. Such things are incredible.
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I am on the record as saying that freedom of expression and of religion are essential to any free, modern and healthy democracy. I fully support that and think that other right hon. and hon. Members here support that. I want to ensure that that is how we consider the matter.
The Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella group representing some 2 million practising Christians in the UK, said that the proposals risk the
“wholesale nationalisation of youth work and the indirect state regulation of private religious practice”.
Can you believe it! What a prospect!
Colin Hart of the Christian Institute described any enforcement of the so-called British values—incidentally, I am British and a British passport holder, British by birth and British by choice, but these values are not my values—on any faith group with any reasonable cause for concern as
“an unprecedented attack on freedom of religion in this country”.
He warned that Ofsted inspectors not only could be sent into Sunday schools, but could end up investigating scout troops—this year it is the 100th anniversary of the Cub Scouts—and even bell-ringing clubs. My goodness, there will be people sitting on every corner with their black shirts on ready to do the business!
If this is the sort of Britain that we are on the road to, we are not on the road to a very good place. A serious re-evaluation is needed of whether it is worth eroding such civil and religious liberties in the name of those so-called British values. I hope that today gives the Government a chance to change that. This serious issue is important throughout the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I urge the Minister to say clearly in his response, “It is not happening.”
I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said. It is important to understand why we are in the Chamber today. We are here because Sir Michael Wilshaw found that the Trojan horse experience in Birmingham had exposed the most dangerous corruption of our children imaginable. Indeed, the people of this country cannot imagine what was being done to our children, and Sir Michael has expressed his horror about what he found.
That exposed a problem in our country and, I am afraid to say, the problem is confined to one religion only: Islam and what is done in its name. Christians do not threaten our national security, and nor do Buddhists or Sikhs. The threat to our national security is clear and defined, and we can see it in Syria: British young people, brought up in British schools and taught British values, are now perpetrating the most barbaric medieval practices imaginable.
It is therefore right for the Government to address the problem, although we are not doing so correctly by introducing such sweeping proposals, which have been drawn up only to counter Islamic extremism, which threatens our national security. The Government, however, are pretending that there are extremists in other quarters in this country, such as in far-right groups. Yes, there are undesirable, revolting groups in this country, but they do not threaten our national security as it is being threatened by one group.
That is an important point. The Government recently published a counter-extremism strategy. When I asked why Northern Ireland, which has a fair number of extremists, was not included in the strategy, I was told, “Don’t push the issue too far. It is really a counter-Islamic strategy.”
Indeed. Everything is being done so that the Government can pretend that they are being even-handed. We cannot be even-handed between those who do not threaten our national security and those who do. We have to be specific.
There is of course complete confusion about how the Government are approaching the issue. On 14 January Sir Michael Wilshaw said in an interview on LBC:
“We have got to deal with this in an even-handed way…all we’re saying is that if church groups or religious groups want to run out-of-school classes then they need to register so that the country and the Department of Education know they exist and that they’re being run properly.”
That is what he said.
Fortunately, on 15 January the Prime Minister wrote a letter to me, which I received yesterday. He said:
“I want to be clear: the Government is not proposing to regulate institutions teaching children for a short period every week, such as Sunday schools or the Scouts. Nor will it apply to one-off residential activities, such as a week long summer camp. We are looking specifically at places where children receive intensive education outside school, where children could be spending more than six to eight hours a week.”
I am grateful that my hon. Friend read that out. I run, or help to run—I do not want to overstate the case—a Christian youth camp that runs for longer than a week. It runs over two weekends, so for more than a week. Will he join me in calling on the Minister to clarify that such camps that run for 10 days or two weeks will also not be included in the proposals?
My hon. Friend’s illustration exposes the complete absurdity of the whole regulatory process that the Government are seeking to introduce. I thank him for his helpful intervention.
We risk passing massive powers to Ofsted to define extremism and what constitutes British values. In conclusion, therefore, the scheme is hopelessly broad, covering vast swathes of activity with children and young people in respect of which there is not a shred of evidence of anything remotely resembling extremism. Any scheme must be evidence-based, intelligence-led and tailored to the problem that it is designed to solve, which is that of Islamic fundamentalism poisoning the minds of young people in this country. This scheme represents none of those things.
The previous time I spoke in this Chamber, we discussed the Donald. Since then I have had scores of emails from lively Americans who have described Members of our honourable House as jihadist-supporting and Christian-hating fundamentalists. Today I hope that faithfulness and truth shine out of this House and that the Government take on board the strong message that we are getting throughout the Chamber that the proposals we are discussing are far too wide and far too shallow, when really they need to be narrow and deep.
As well as completely unlawful and completely unworkable.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) indicated how bizarre the proposals would be for those they are really meant to affect. Which jihadist or fundamentalist would abide by the letter of the law? Even if they are radicalised or militarised, are they not capable of stopping their radicalisation lessons at five hours and 59 minutes per week? Are they not cute enough not to register or draw themselves to the attention of the grey bureaucrats in Ofsted? Of course they are. They will avoid all the good intentions that might lie behind the proposals.
We would be left in a bizarre situation. Section 48 of the Education Act 2005 allows faith schools to select their own assessors; the denomination selects the assessors. But churches, those single entities that house so much good work for so many organisations—the cumulative effect of the Scouts, the church groups, the Sunday schools and other lessons, and the Alpha courses for children—once they reach six hours, they will come a cropper under the proposals.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) fairly and helpfully illustrated the legal difficulties. I know that there is not an awful lot of love for the Human Rights Act but, underneath all the rhetoric about it, there has always been the confirmed principle that the European convention on human rights would be upheld, including the enshrined freedoms of religion and association. Moreover, the right to freely associate is protected from arbitrary state interference. There are scores of cases involving, for example, Moldova, Hungary and Russia—there was a case involving the Church of Scientology in Moscow and the Russian state. These proposals would fall foul of the European convention on human rights. In fact, we would be associating ourselves with such champions of freedom as Belarus or Turkmenistan, which the UN’s special rapporteur criticised for seeking unfairly to hinder the freedom to teach and educate on the basis of faith principles.
I recognise, Mr Turner, that I have gone well beyond the time you suggested and I will sit down shortly, but I want to highlight the promise made to the people of this country in the Conservative manifesto last year. On page 61, it states that a Conservative Government will
“reject any suggestions of sweeping, authoritarian measures that would threaten our hard-won freedoms.”
Live up to that promise, Minister, and having considered the possibility of the proposals, set them aside.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. Fortunately, we are discussing a consultation. Although it is closed, I urge the Minister to consider the contributions to the debate as part of that consultation.
I speak as the Second Church Estates Commissioner and I want to place on the record the position of the Church of England, which provides 500,000 children with out-of-school educational activities, involving 80,000 volunteers. The Church’s objections to the proposals should not be interpreted as a rejection of the Government’s aim of protecting children from harm. Of course not. It is simply that, if the Government do proceed, the Church wishes that the measures will be much more proportionate and avoid the unintended consequences.
If even-handedness is the concern of the Government, they should use existing laws that protect children and that the Church of England, its volunteers and its professionals are required to abide by. Everyone who works with children in such settings has to have CRB checks, which are now called disclosure and barring service checks—sometimes people have them again and again—but every church is also required to appoint a child protection officer, even if they do not have a Sunday school but aspire to teach some children in the setting. If the Minister wishes such things to be done in an even-handed way, that should also apply to other educational out-of-school settings.
One of the Church’s main concerns, which has been articulated by hon. Members, is the singling out of religious activity for new laws, which implies that religious activity is inherently problematic. That is likely to inhibit the religious freedom that the consultation aimed to ensure we protect.
Muslim mothers came to see me in my constituency before Christmas, beseeching me to ask the Government to do something about the teaching of their children in private madrassahs. They are fully aware that the Church and other religious groups are required to abide by this country’s laws, but they are also aware that that is not happening in private madrassahs. Laws already exist—for example, on the application of CRB checks and the childminding registration laws for domestic settings, which hon. Members know are quite onerous for childminders. I urge the Government to use the tools they have even-handedly so that all groups required to abide by this country’s laws actually do so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. Just a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister stood up in the Chamber and declared that he believed we were a Christian nation and that, in fact, it was our Christian heritage and values that have made us the great nation that we are. I believe that those words were broadly welcomed, so, if that is true, what are we afraid of? We should be promoting the teaching of the Bible to our children, not seeking to restrict it, because the results of that produce an awful lot of good.
The Government are in danger of making a bad decision based on very bad evidence. Where is the evidence of any British citizen attending the local Methodist Sunday school and being incited to carry out acts of terrorism? Where are the Sunday school teachers who seek to inspire and incite young people to join terrorist organisations? I suggest there is no evidence whatever to impose such restrictions on Sunday schools and other church groups.
My hon. Friend is right. There also seems to be little evidence that the inculcation of ideas in madrassahs leads to extremism. We have had little from the Government to show an evidential link—it seems to be lonely teenagers looking on the internet rather than being taught in schools, officially registered or otherwise.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I wholeheartedly agree with him. We need to recognise that the vast majority of people of all faiths in this nation are decent, honest, law-abiding citizens who want only the best not only for their own children, but for our nation. We are in danger of applying onerous restrictions on the many to address the actions of a few. That is the wrong thing to do.
In this country, we have already sacrificed too much of our liberty in the name of equality. I fully appreciate that the Government are trying to walk a tightrope on this issue to appear even-handed, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) pointed out, we need to be clear about where the source of the threat comes from and target the Government’s response to address the source and not tie up tens of thousands of volunteers with unwarranted bureaucracy when they already have a hard enough job to do.
When young people attend Sunday school or other Christian events throughout the year, they often find not just faith but a mission in life to go and serve humanity. Thousands of young people attend Christian camps every summer and, as a result of the teaching they receive, they are inspired to travel the world, serving humanitarian causes. That is something we should be promoting, celebrating and encouraging, not restricting.
I implore the Minister and the Government to think again. There is clearly a degree of confusion over this issue, but there is no smoke without fire, so there is certainly something going on. I ask the Minister once and for all to quash the proposal to put onerous restrictions on faith groups, and churches and Sunday schools in particular. Let us celebrate our Christian heritage and not seek to restrict it any further.
Thank you, Mr Turner. I will confine my comments because the hour draws near. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. The strength of feeling expressed in the debate speaks loudly to the Government about the concern of our constituents.
As a former teacher, I think this has all the hallmarks of parents’ evening: it is only those parents who we really need to see who will not come. That point was made ably earlier. Just this morning there has been news about teacher recruitment, with issues about schools seeking to fill vacancies. Classes have cover and supply teachers because we are struggling to recruit the numbers we need. Many are the pressures in teaching, but Ofsted represents one of the most significant pressures for teachers. I know I speak for my colleagues in that. If we bring Ofsted into this setting, we will decimate the number of volunteers who give hour upon hour and add tremendous value to the young people they engage with.
I am deeply concerned about the proposal. It strikes me as statist. I am brought back to what the Prime Minister said:
“Whether it’s tackling crime and anti-social behaviour or debt and drug addiction; whether it’s dealing with welfare dependency or improving education outcomes—whatever the social issue”—
I have the temerity to add extremism—
“the answer should always begin with family.”
These families choose the settings to which they send and entrust their children. The parents are often in that setting alongside the leaders. They are engaged, so parents are our best allies, not Ofsted inspectors. Should we go down the path of these sweeping authoritarian measures—that is how they appear to me—we will be letting terrorists win by sacrificing precious, hard-won freedoms.
I am struck by the parallel with the registration proposals of the previous Labour Government for home education. The thought was, “There could be a problem. We don’t have enough data. We don’t know what’s going on. There could be issues—children could be being abused in their homes. So we must register every single parent,” even though the long-standing settlement was to respect that parents have the duty to educate their children, not the state. This is creeping statism.
I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) not to add me to the list, but I am someone of no faith and there are lots of people in the Chamber with faith. This proposal seems to me a gross infringement of so many rights, including the rights of Muslims, and in a free society we need to respect families of whatever denomination and recognise where the line should be drawn by the Government, notwithstanding the risks.
If we go back, we think of the reds under the bed. It was not that there was not a clear and present danger from communism; it was the fact that a disproportionate, illiberal and un-American response was inappropriate. We can think back to when the leader of the Catholic Church—Islam has no such leader—was clearly opposed to the society and Government of this country, yet we recognised that Catholics were predominantly law-abiding and needed to be respected.
Nearly exclusively. It is exactly the same issue.
I make one final point. If we go ahead with this, it will have the opposite effect on safety to what is intended. Forget all the other points my colleagues have made about how it will break down volunteering and all the rest of what is good—what about targeting Islamic extremism? If we take an organisation such as Ofsted, whose budget has been falling consistently over time—local authorities are in the same position—and ask it to register everyone, it will spend its entire time trying to do that and it will fail to get to the real problem.
With the Labour proposals on home education, we knew that the people who were really troublesome would never register and would evade the authorities with ease. Everyone else—every law-abiding, committed family—would be put through the hoops and subjected to a state imposition that was clearly and utterly inappropriate. That is what we risk here.
I have changed my mind on this proposal. At first, I thought it could be proportionate and reasonable, but I do not think it can be, so let us not do it. ContactPoint was wrong, and so is this—let us put a stop to it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with almost everything he said.
Like the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), I am a former teacher. I know the difficulties teachers have in recruiting people to help with out-of-school clubs and activities, and adding a further layer of bureaucracy will simply close those down, with all the benefits to our young people being lost in one foul blow.
As has been mentioned, anyone working with children already needs to undergo disclosure checks. Although those can take time and be problematic for people who want to get started, they are an important tool, and they are already in place.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned an atheist who said that teaching children the Bible was akin to child abuse. We must be careful about how we perceive teachers and what they do. People often think that teachers in particular settings are taking part in indoctrination or putting forward one view. Teachers in Catholic or other Christian schools do not simply teach one view—they teach different views.
Let me give an example from my experience. I was a science teacher. When we looked at the energy debate, we would give pupils the facts about renewables and nuclear and let them make their own decisions—we would teach them how to argue and how to think. The point here is that we are forgetting the professionalism that teachers show, whatever setting they are in. Teachers are not brainwashing pupils; they want to give them the knowledge to make their own decisions.
While we are talking about brainwashing and indoctrination, I should add that I am far more concerned about children who spend six-plus hours in front of the television, being fed soap operas and “The X Factor”, with all the lessons that those teach.
The hon. Lady makes a great point. The proposed regulation could mean that more people in the communities where many churches operate—some of the most deprived communities in the country—are sitting indoors, doing less activity, which links to the debate we will have tomorrow about having a strategy to deal with the obesity that these things are resulting in.
Absolutely. We need to look at the huge benefits that children—our future citizens—gain from these additional activities.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) talked about the need to tackle the threats to national security. We all share the responsibility to tackle extremism, but in doing that we must be careful not to throw the net too wide. Tarring every Muslim in Britain with the same brush because of the actions of those who carry out atrocities such as the recent Paris attacks or the 7/7 bombings is like tarring every Irish person with the same brush because of the Warrington bombing. We must be careful about the language we use so that we do not play into the hands of extremists. If we approach the Muslim community aggressively, we will simply cause anger and upset, and we will not get to the nub of the issue—the handful of extremists feeding poison to people.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the proposal risks being very heavy-handed? At its heart, it fails to take into account the fact that children and young people access so many out-of-school services and clubs and that those are at the heart of many communities across our country.
Absolutely, and the same is true in the Muslim community. My local mosque, in Glasgow’s West End—the Ahmadiyya welcome centre—has children visiting every day after school to learn the Koran. It also opens its doors to the community and says, “Come and see what we do with these children. Come and see how they are benefiting. Come and find out about the values that are being taught here.” When we go in, we find happy children and a group of people who want to share what they are doing, and that is the experience in most mosques across these isles, so we need to be careful about these issues.
When an attack takes place, it is nothing to do with Islam, which is a faith of peace, or with our Muslim brothers and sisters, who contribute so fully, but it is everything to do with poisonous individuals and their individual agendas. We must continue to ensure that the Muslim community plays a full part in the wider community and that it does not find itself cut off or feel that it must cut itself off.
Many Members have talked about British values. Let me finish by saying that the values I hold dear are freedom of speech and freedom of expression, as long as people exercise them respectfully. Our values should include respect for people of all faiths and for those of none at all.
The fact that more than 20 right hon. and hon. Members have contributed to the debate shows how big the concern is about the issues that have been raised. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), whose constituency neighbours mine, on securing the debate and on raising so many pertinent questions.
The first thing to be clear about is what problem the Government are trying to sort out. The main spur for their desire to review the registration system for out-of-school education settings seems to be the serious problems discovered in a number of unregistered schools in Birmingham. In July 2015, Ofsted warned the Department for Education that high numbers of pupils were dropping off the radar and potentially ending up in unregistered schools, where they could be exposed to harm, exploitation or the influence of extremist ideologies.
In early November, Ofsted identified and inspected several unregistered schools in Birmingham, finding a “narrow Islamic-focused curriculum” and the use of
“misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic material”,
along with “serious fire hazards”, “unhygienic and filthy conditions” and staff who had not undergone suitable checks or who did not have clearance to work with children. It immediately informed officials at the Department. Yet, when it returned on 30 November, four weeks after the initial inspections, it found that all the unregistered schools were still operating.
Rather than immediately stopping the unregistered schools operating, the Department for Education seems to have advised the proprietors that they could register their provision. That suggests that the Department perceived what was taking place as acceptable practice. Ofsted expressed serious concerns that that could encourage others to open such schools. The illegal schools were closed down only after Ofsted inspectors remained at the premises until they were satisfied that the schools had ceased operating and that alternative arrangements had been made in registered schools for all the children, with the support of local authority officers. Ofsted says that that was achieved despite “confusing and unhelpful” advice from the Department.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) referred earlier to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Charedi Talmud Torah Tashbar school in Stamford Hill, which apparently operated illegally for 40 years. The Department for Education, Ofsted, local authorities and others need to enforce the existing law before they are capable of extending it elsewhere. Let us enforce the existing law first and then consider extending it, once we can do what we are already supposed to properly.
Absolutely. Ofsted remains concerned that the number of children being educated in unregistered schools in parts of the country is far higher than is currently known by the Government.
When confronted with the real issue, the Government were slow to act, allowing children to remain exposed to a narrow and negative curriculum in unsafe premises, in the care of staff who had not been cleared to work with children. Every day that children remain in such a setting is a day too long. The Government have a basic responsibility to ensure that children are kept safe, yet despite warning after warning, they failed to act swiftly and deal with the issue.
The prohibited list of activities in paragraph 3.19 of the consultation document seems highly appropriate. I agree that action should take place immediately to investigate genuine concerns and evidence of out-of-school settings engaging in prohibited activities. That seems common sense, but as many Members have pointed out, there are lots of ways in which it can be done already under current legislation.
The question remains: does the direction of travel in the consultation document deal with the actual problem? As I said earlier, it seems that the main spur for the Government to review the registration scheme for out-of-school education settings is the serious problems discovered in a number of unregistered schools. I am sure the Minister will take time today to explain why the Department failed to act as swiftly and effectively back in November as we all would have wished it to.
When Ofsted investigated those unregistered schools, it found timetables suggesting that teaching was taking place in institutions for at least 20 hours a week, despite the fact that anywhere offering more than 20 hours of teaching a week is legally obliged to be registered as a school. The reality is that those institutions should therefore have already been registered under current legislation and subject to inspections and safeguarding requirements that ensure children receive high quality education and are well looked after.
Before we even begin to examine the appropriate threshold for registering schools, the most important question to answer, in my mind, is: why were those institutions, which should have already been registered, allowed to go under the radar? Without explaining that and what is going wrong in the Department for Education, the Government are wholly unable to justify the changes they propose as being the robust action needed to tackle the real problem.
As the situation in Birmingham demonstrates, the Department for Education is evidently unable to monitor and ensure that all provision that breaches the threshold set is actually registered in the first place. That issue goes to the heart of what is wrong with the Government’s approach to our schools today. There is an obsession with school structures, at the expense of driving improvement in education for all children, which has created such a fragmented system of oversight for schools that some children are dropping off the radar and ending up in harm’s way.
The report published today by the Select Committee on Education supports that. It finds that oversight of our schools is not being carried out by Whitehall effectively. The model of eight regional schools commissioners, each responsible for thousands of schools across very large areas, is not working well to identify problems and to challenge and support schools to improve, let alone to spot the provision going under the radar, which is at the heart of the problem.
At the same time, local authorities are not empowered with the responsibility and capacity to act when inappropriate things are happening and children are potentially at risk. They do not have the resources to ensure they have strong intelligence about what is happening on the ground and that appropriate action is taken when things go wrong. Further cuts to local authority budgets, as promised by the current Government, will only weaken that situation even more.
The truth is that the Department for Education is currently failing on all its route 1, basic duties. Are we recruiting enough teachers? As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) pointed out, there are chronic shortages of teachers up and down the country. Are we providing enough school places? Instead, some families applying last week will go straight on to a waiting list with no offer of a school place, and soaring numbers of children are being crammed into ever expanding classes.
It is the point. It is important that we concentrate on the key issues, and at the heart of this is a failure of oversight. Are we ensuring that all children are safe and out of harm’s way when they are in school or out of school?
As we have seen time and time again since 2010, this Government are not delivering on the big issues. There is real concern in the wider community that the Government are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, tying up many voluntary organisations and faith groups in more red tape that makes it look as if the Government are doing something. They already have the powers to act, but they have a track record of being slow to use them.
I fear that this is all about activity, rather than action. As the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) said, what is being proposed is wide and shallow, when what we need is something narrow and deep. That is very pertinent to the debate. It is rather like a teacher keeping the whole class in at break to teach them a lesson, when just one pupil had been misbehaving. It is better to use our energies and finite capacity to deal with the actual problem in a focused way.
Will the increase in red tape make it more likely that people running unregistered provision get it registered—which is part of the problem—or will it end up putting an administrative burden on various voluntary and charitable organisations running youth activities, including Sunday schools? If so, for what purpose? I would be grateful if the Minister—who is a very good Minister, I have to say—focused on the following questions when he responds. How many registered out-of-school settings are there under the current system? What is the Government’s estimate of the number of unregistered settings that should be registered under current legislation? What steps are they taking to register those settings? What is the Government’s estimate of the number of out-of-school settings that would need to be registered if the proposals in the consultation were where we ended up?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for his kind comments. I was going to criticise him for his wider criticism of the Government’s education policy on school places, to point out that we have increased school places by 445,000 since 2010, in stark contrast with the 200,000 primary school places cut by the Labour Government when the birth rate was increasing. I also would have pointed out that we have had to tackle the grade inflation we inherited from his party’s Government, that we have had to improve the curriculum, which was deeply damaged by his party’s Government, that there are 1.4 million more pupils in good and outstanding schools today than there were in 2010, that 120,000 more six-year-olds are reading better today than they were in 2010, and that there are 13,000 more teachers in our schools today than there were in 2010.
Those impact assessments will be done as we come to produce firm proposals. We, of course, assess the cost of all proposals as we develop policy.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing this debate on the proposals for regulating out-of-school education settings? I welcome the constructive debate we have had and the thoughtful and passionate speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) and for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman). We also heard very good speeches from the hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms).
All of the speeches made today will be taken into account as we consider the responses to the consultation, which closed on 11 January after six and a half weeks and to which we received more than 10,000 responses. Notwithstanding the valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, the consultation has been widely heard and responded to, and we will now consider all responses as we develop the policy in more detail.
Ensuring that parents have the freedom to decide how best to educate their children is a fundamental principle of our society and our education system. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough referred to the long history of the churches’ role in education which, of course, predates that of the state.
Parents have always valued the education provided by religious organisations. They choose faith schools for their high academic standards and ethos and they appreciate the religious faith of those schools, which gives them confidence that their children will be taught to understand and respect the traditions and values of their faith. Responding to that demand, we have opened more than 300 free schools since 2010, of which 76 have a religious designation or ethos.
Out-of-school settings can also be of immense value. As my hon. Friend pointed out, many of those are run by religious groups and provide a distinctive education or activities that supplement and enhance that provided in mainstream schools. Such settings, including Sunday schools, can enrich children’s education and deepen their understanding of their own culture and heritage.
My hon. Friend made a powerful argument that the providers of this broader education, which is often staffed by dedicated volunteers, should be supported by the Government and not stifled by excessive regulation. I can assure him that we share that objective. The Government do, however, need to balance the need to protect and encourage high-quality out-of-school education with the need to keep children safe from any harm. That includes not only extremism, but the risk of physical punishment, unsuitable individuals working in some out-of-school settings and children being educated in unsafe or insanitary conditions.
A clear regulatory framework exists to protect children from those risks in childcare settings, and in state and independent schools. The call for evidence on out-of-school education, which closed last week, invited submissions on how to ensure that we are similarly able to safeguard children attending such settings—supplementary education —while avoiding disproportionate regulation. It reflects a commitment made in the Prevent strategy, published in June 2011, to reduce the risks of radicalisation occurring in out-of-school settings. It is the latest step in implementing the Prime Minister’s announcement in October last year that, if an institution is teaching children intensively, we will, as with any other school, make it register so that it can be inspected. He was also clear that, in addressing the risks that we have identified, we will uphold parents’ right to educate their children about their faith.
The call for evidence highlighted the fact that many settings already have robust measures in place to ensure safety. They may work under umbrella organisations that set high standards, be part of voluntary accreditation schemes or receive support from the local authority. However, that is not universal. We are therefore considering how best to address failures in the minority of settings that fail to meet their obligations while preserving everything that has made the vast majority of supplementary education so successful.
The responses to the call for evidence included many from Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups, and we will continue to discuss our developing proposals with those groups and others to ensure that they are proportionate and effective. Any final proposals will, of course, be subject to further discussions with interested parties.
At this stage, I hope I can provide assurances on some of the specific concerns raised by my hon. Friend and others.
Will the Minister deal with one of the practical points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)? Those who wish to teach in this extremist way will effortlessly elude any regulation system that we set up. We will therefore have an expensive and burdensome system that captures so many organisations, but does not capture the very organisations that we need to capture. Is that not the central point? To me, it seems to be a rocket that explodes this whole policy and should cause the Minister to think again.
Well, no, because by not registering, such organisations are liable under strict liability to an offence, and we can then take much swifter action when we are made aware of those settings through our usual intelligence routes. That is why this has a double edge: we register the settings and only inspect settings where risks are identified; and we have very real powers to tackle the settings that do not register.
Let me go through some of the specific concerns that have been raised.
If I may, I will continue for a little while, then give way to the hon. Gentleman.
First, I can confirm that the Government are not proposing to regulate settings teaching children for a short period every week, such as Sunday schools or the scouts, nor will it apply to one-off residential activities, such as a week-long summer camp. We are looking specifically at places where children receive intensive education outside schools, where they could typically be spending more than six to eight hours a week.
I will give way in a moment, but I want to go through these four specific points in the time available.
Secondly, providers wishing to set up and run out-of-school education settings will not need to seek the Government’s approval to do so. Although our proposals envisage that such settings operating intensively should register, the aim of that is simply to improve the visibility of such settings. There would not be an application process and registration would be automatic. We have no intention of tying up voluntary and private sector organisations in red tape.
Thirdly, we are not proposing that settings eligible to register should be routinely inspected. This would be wholly disproportionate and an inefficient use of resources. We think that an inspection should only happen when there is evidence that certain prohibited activities might be taking place within a particular setting. Settings that provide a safe environment for children to learn in could legitimately expect never to be inspected.
Fourthly, we have no intention of seeking to regulate religion or to interfere in parents’ right to teach children about their faith and heritage. Protecting religious liberty is a fundamental principle. Out-of-school settings will not have the same obligations as schools actively to promote fundamental British values. Although out-of-school settings of all types can, and do, impart positive values to children, they are not the main providers of children’s education, and it is certainly not the state’s role to prescribe what they should teach, just as we are not seeking to prescribe other aspects of how they operate. I can therefore confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and other hon. Members that Sunday schools will not be under any requirement to teach any other religions.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I am glad that he has indicated he will consider the contributions as part of the consultation. He has reiterated the Prime Minister’s point that Sunday schools will not be included, but will he consider the cumulative effect of all the activities taking place under one church roof? That includes Sunday schools, youth clubs, the scouts, worship, choirs and whatever else people may be engaged in. It will all add up to more than six hours.
The plans are for the threshold to be hit when a child attends a setting for more than six hours a week and that activities run by one setting would be aggregated but, following the call for evidence, we are considering a range of issues and how to take forward the proposals. We will look at whether it is appropriate to disaggregate particular activities or indeed, exempt particular activities altogether. That question was in the call for evidence.
The Minister says that the Government do not wish to inhibit religious freedom, but is he aware that the very existence of such regulations could have a serious impact? The proposals carry the risk of a so-called chilling effect on free speech, and they could shut down debate because of the fear, on the part of, say, youth workers teaching young people, of speaking on issues that might not be mainstream. They may fear that someone is listening who, perhaps out of mischief or with a particular agenda, may report them as undesirable—as not being in line with British values—and in itself, that would shut down free speech and debate.
That is not the intention of the regulations. They are not a way of regulating religion. We are not infringing on people’s freedom to follow particular faiths or hold particular beliefs. In fact, the mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs is one of our core British values, alongside democracy, rule of law and individual liberty, and nothing in the proposals infringes on that.
In view of time, I will finish by saying that we welcome the suggestions that a number of faith organisations have made about how to ensure that any system of regulation is targeted, proportionate and focused on those settings that are failing to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. We wish to continue that dialogue and, once again, I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions today.
In conclusion, I thank the perhaps up to 20 people—friends and colleagues from all parties—who have turned up this morning. It is not often that we have a debate such as this in Westminster Hall, and we have heard some very powerful speeches and very powerful points.
I will sum it all up: we have sacrificed too much of our liberty in the name of equality, so I beg the Minister to bear in mind the places that are under the radar, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) mentioned. Bear in mind the cumulative hours. Bear in mind that there is very little extremism—indeed none at all—ever practised in Methodist Sunday schools. This is the point we are making, and we are doing so powerfully and strongly. We are not a party that intends to further state regulation and control; we are a party of liberty, freedom and religious tolerance. I will leave it there.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).