Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Further Education Institutions and 16 to 19 Academies (Specification and Disposal of Articles) Regulations 2012
Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
My Lords, as you know, the Government are committed to improving standards of behaviour of young people in schools. An increasing number of young people of school age are being educated in colleges. We believe that they should have parity of treatment with their peers in schools.
Your Lordships will be aware that powers to search students without consent, and the list of prohibited items that students can be searched for, were introduced by the previous Government in 2007. The list then comprised knives, guns and weapons, and was extended in 2009 to include stolen items, illegal drugs, and alcohol if the student is under 18.
The Department for Education has recently extended by regulation the list that applies to schools to include tobacco products, fireworks and pornography. We are now doing the same in further education and sixth form colleges so that teenagers, and their parents, will have the assurance that expectations of behaviour will be the same, regardless of the educational institution attended.
While seeking to treat all under-18 year-olds equally, we should not impose on the civil liberties of adults. Colleges, particularly further education colleges, provide for a wide age range of students, and the majority of these are adults. Common sense, if nothing else, tells us that searching adults for cigarettes is an unwarranted intrusion on their privacy. This is why only students aged under 18 can be searched for these items, which is already the case for searches for alcohol.
I will set out briefly what these regulations mean in practice. Members of college staff can already search students and their possessions for knives and other weapons, illegal drugs and stolen items, irrespective of the student’s age. They can also search for alcohol if the student whom they believe possesses it is under 18. We are now seeking to add tobacco products, pornographic images and fireworks to this list. Like alcohol, they are only prohibited for students under 18.
Your Lordships will be aware that new provisions introduced by the Education Act 2011 also enable searches to be made for any item where there is reasonable belief that it has been, or is likely to be, used to cause an offence or cause harm or damage to property. Noble Lords may ask, therefore, why we need to specify further specific items for which a search may be undertaken. The answer is because of the substantial numbers of young people now being educated in colleges for whom these items are either harmful or illegal.
I am told by the Association of Colleges that in the previous academic year, 2010 to 2011, there were 911,000 students aged 14 to 19 being educated in colleges, including 58,000 14 and 15 year-olds. Of these, some 700,000 were full-time students and more than 200,000 were part time. Some of the youngest part-time college students will also be attending school. These figures do not include apprentices under 18, whose numbers are likely to increase following the recommendations of the Wolf report.
The Government’s coalition agreement promised to,
“give heads and teachers the powers they need to ensure discipline in the classroom and promote good behaviour”.
As I have already said, we believe that all children should be treated equally, which is why behaviour and discipline policies concerning colleges mirror those for schools as far as is practicable. This view is supported by the duty of care that colleges have towards the children whom they educate, as set out in Section 175 of the Education Act 2002.
Smoking is harmful to the health of both adults and children but, in making tobacco products a prohibited item for under-18s in colleges, we are reflecting Parliament’s view that children require extra protection against them. The Government are putting in place strategies to prevent children from taking it up. It is illegal to sell tobacco to under-18s, and the Department of Health recently imposed a ban on larger shops and supermarkets displaying tobacco products. But while we can try to protect children from the harmful effects of smoking, it is up to adults to decide for themselves whether they smoke, and it would be neither appropriate nor proportionate to make tobacco products a prohibited item for them.
As regards fireworks, it is illegal to sell fireworks to under-18s and for them to possess fireworks in a public place. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to prohibit under-18s bringing into colleges something which they are not legally allowed to possess and which they may not be sufficiently experienced to handle safely.
Pornography covers a wide spectrum of sexually suggestive and explicit material available in a variety of media, including printed matter and images stored electronically. While adults should be allowed to decide for themselves what they choose to read or view, children should be protected from exposure to material that is inappropriate, distressing or morally corrupting.
The conditions for searching students for these items remain unchanged. A search has to be undertaken by a member of staff of the same sex as the student being searched and in the presence of a witness of the same sex. The only exception to these conditions, introduced by the Education Act 2011, is when the member of staff has a genuine belief that there is an imminent danger of serious harm, to the student or anyone else, if the search is not carried out immediately. In this case, and in this case only, a search may be carried out by a member of the opposite sex and without a witness present.
Of course, we expect college staff to be sensitive to individual students’ circumstances when deciding whether to carry out a search. We know that colleges include students with special education needs, such as autism, for whom a search might be particularly distressing and, in collaboration with the Association of Colleges, we are preparing guidance on the conduct of searches which will be available later this year.
Colleges have a power to carry out searches for prohibited items, not a duty. College principals can therefore choose whether to exercise this power depending on their college’s individual situation. Where they do, they can be confident that they are supported by legislation. I beg to move.
My Lords, noble Lords will have noticed that we are somewhat embarrassed on this side because our spokesperson is not here. For the sake of completeness, if it helps, I can say that I am persuaded by what the Minister has said today and we are therefore prepared to support the order.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for being here and for saying that. I was aware that this issue has already been discussed in another place and that, apart from one or two points that I have been able to pick up on in my speech, we were in agreement. I feel that this is one of those times when this is okay. As I have said, the extension of the existing legislation will provide young people and their parents with the reassurance that they will have equal treatment regarding expectations of behaviour, regardless of the education institution that they have attended. We believe that it is important that all students at school age are treated equally. This is particularly so at the moment because of the increasing numbers of younger students in colleges. I trust that noble Lords agree—indeed, I know that they do, for which I am extremely grateful.