House of Lords
Wednesday 22 June 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.
Social Care: Children
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, published on 23 May; and what plans they have to make experience of being in care a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.
My Lords, we are grateful to Josh MacAlister for his important work, which matches our ambition for vulnerable children and their families. We will consider the recommendations in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, including the recommendation to make experience of being in care a protected characteristic. The Government will publish the detailed and ambitious implementation strategy later this year.
I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Today, 100 young people in the care system met Members of your Lordships’ House and the other place to express their views on how the care system can be improved, and I know that, like me, she had the privilege of meeting and talking with some of them. Can she say more about how young people will be directly included in the national implementation board of this care review?
I did indeed by chance meet a group of young people wearing badges reading “Our care”, so the opportunity was irresistible in view of the right reverend Prelate’s Question. We are building on the work that Josh MacAlister did. He had an advisory board made up of people with experience of the care system, and we are continuing with that approach for our implementation board.
The report recommends technology to achieve frictionless sharing of information, and a national data and technology task force. Is this the body that would decide on the unique identifying number for which the children’s workforce has been calling, to avoid children disappearing through the cracks between services?
My Lords, the SEND Green Paper said very little about social care, and the independent review the right reverend Prelate spoke about defers responsibility back to the same Green Paper. This has caused groups such as the Disabled Children’s Partnership to raise concern that reform of funding for disabled children’s social care will not be addressed. Will the Government ensure that this does not happen and that problems in disabled children’s social care will be resolved?
I am very concerned if the perception is as the noble Lord describes. I encourage those involved with particular expertise in that area to contribute to the consultation on the Green Paper, which is open until 22 July. Our ambition is clear: that we address the problems in the system comprehensively.
My Lords, I wonder if the Minister has taken on board—I am sure she has—a recommendation from the report that more senior social workers should carry on having case loads. My experience as a family judge was that senior social workers were completely divorced from the sorts of cases that were actually coming before the courts. I would be grateful to know if the Government will take that forward.
The Government are considering all 80 recommendations in the report, of which this is an important one. We have identified the five priority recommendations, but the implementation board will report back on all our actions by the end of the year.
My Lords, I welcome the focus that the review has placed on supported lodgings. However, work still needs to be done to enable supported lodgings to become a fully recognised provision. Will the Government commit to meeting Home for Good, a charity that has recently set up a supported lodgings network, to provide a definition and guidance on this provision?
My Lords, I too had the privilege of meeting some of those young people a little earlier, which included hearing a rather harrowing story of two brothers who had been brought up in foster care. The review recommends more support, both practical and financial, for kinship carers, which include grandparents, aunts, uncles and others who care for family members. Is the Minister able to say what is going to happen to that recommendation and whether the Government are planning to take it forward?
My Lords, the report recommends that schools are made a statutory safeguarding partner in the care system, to represent the voice of education in partnership arrangements. Will the Government take advantage of the opportunity that the Schools Bill presents? I recommend the amendment tabled in my name to that end. which would formalise the role that our schools already play, to give them the recognition and voice that they need to do that job effectively.
I look forward to debating the noble Baroness’s amendment in detail. We know that schools already play an incredibly important part in safeguarding children and represent an important source of information about whether or not a child is safe. However, I cannot prejudge the final decisions.
My Lords, since there is time, I will ask another question. The review calls for a reformed children’s social care system to be based on children’s rights, putting children’s voices at the centre of decisions. What framework will the Government use for this approach? Will they consider using the existing UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?
A decision has not been taken on that, but the noble Baroness exposes an important issue. For a long time, the voice of the child and the welfare of the child being paramount has been a concept that we are all extremely familiar with, but we must ensure that it happens in practice as well as in legislation.
Royal Navy: Ships
My Lords, with the new multi-role ocean surveillance programme announced in the defence Command Paper of 2021 currently in its concept phase, and the national flagship programme in its design stage, with a competitive procurement process in progress, it is too early to discuss build arrangements for the two programmes.
My Lords, five years ago the shipbuilding strategy came out, and I was impressed and pleased that the Government seemed to have gripped this very important issue. I said so on the Floor of the House. However, I said to the Minister that many times over the years I had been promised ships and had never stood on their quarterdeck. I have the same feeling with this. We have ordered five frigates since then and not a single other ship. Three years ago, we were told that we were ordering three fleet solid support ships. They are still not ordered. This really worries me. When it comes to these two ships, does the Minister agree that the oceanographic surveillance ship is way more important for our nation and defence than the other ship, because of data links et cetera going across the Atlantic? With the possibility of a world war, it is the sort of thing that Putin would have a go at.
The noble Lord will not be surprised to learn that I do not share his pessimism. I am tempted to ask under which government regime shipbuilding was in such a poor state. Thanks to the national shipbuilding strategy, we now see one of the most exciting programmes in UK shipbuilding for decades. That is recognised in the industry—and in his single service. These are two exciting prospects. As he knows, the MROS will replace HMS “Scott”. I will not say that it is a Trojan horse; it is a sturdy reliable Clydesdale which plods away doing its work. These two boats—
The original budget for the flagship was some £200 million. The Defence Secretary now says that it may be up to £250 million. With inflation running in the shipbuilding pipeline at some 8%, can my noble friend tell your Lordships’ House potentially what the upper limit for that budget would be, for the flagship to continue to offer value for money? Also, when was the last time that the Government or any Government delivered a warship for its original budget?
I will take the last question first. My noble friend is aware that very strict procurement rules now govern MoD procurement, and that the budgets for the Type 26 and Type 31 are very vigilantly watched. On the possible price range for the national flagship I cannot be specific about figures but, to put these sums in perspective, over four years the projected cost amounts to an impact on the defence budget in the region of 0.1%.
My Lords, the ocean surveillance ship has the purpose of safeguarding critical infrastructure in the north Atlantic. When it was announced in March 2021, the service date of 2024 was given, but in a Written Answer last November, the Government said there was no date for entry into service. Why has the service date been allowed to drag in that way? In relation to the national flagship, why is it necessary for a ship whose purpose is to showcase the United Kingdom’s economy, and to boost trade and investment, to be provided from the defence budget? The defence budget is not elastic, although this Government seem to think so.
I remind the noble Lord that the defence budget has one of the biggest settlements, from this Government, that it has seen in decades. That includes a period when the noble Lord was active in support of government. I say to the noble Lord that the MROSS is a technically complicated ship. It is in its concept and assessment phase. He will understand the complicated progress that is then made to the point of being able to talk about initial operating capability, never mind going into service. It is an important addition to the fleet.
On the budget of the national flagship, the national flagship will achieve two things. It will promote the UK in its foreign policy and security objectives, but it will also be an addition to the Royal Navy and, by adopting its soft diplomacy role, it will free up people in the Royal Navy to do other military tasks. It is a very natural addendum to the MoD.
My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests. The whole point of the ocean surveillance ship was to protect critical infrastructure pertaining to our digital capability and communications. I am not disinclined to be optimistic, but it will take some time before we can protect those cables properly. Is there any strategy, or any co-ordination with our allies and NATO, to protect that infrastructure until those ships actually provide it?
As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord West, we currently have HMS “Scott” continuing to do very important and necessary work. I would not want to give any impression that that infrastructure is not being protected. It is, but what we naturally look to is a replacement and successor for HMS “Scott”.
My Lords, following on from my noble friend Lord West’s Question, I think the House will be disappointed that the Minister said that it was too early to say anything about when the design would take place, when the ordering would take place and when we can expect these two ships to be in operational service. Would the Minister go back to the Ministry of Defence and say that we would like greater clarity on timing of all this? Furthermore, if it is the Government’s intention that these ships are built in Britain, will that be the default position? Should there be one British tender for either or both of these ships that will see them, particularly the national British flagship, built in Britain?
They are very different ships, as the noble Lord will understand. The intention is that the National Shipbuilding Office for the MROSS will seek to maximise the opportunities for UK industry in these programmes, but within the boundaries of our international legal obligations. As he is aware, national security will be attached to the national flagship and it will be built in the UK.
I cannot give my noble friend a precise figure for the entire fleet of ships, but I can say that, as he is aware, there have been significant additions in recent years, not least the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. We have an exciting programme of frigate building for the Type 26 and Type 31 and, of course, we have the Type 23s continuing in service and supporting. We are satisfied that we have the capability we need for the tasks that befall us.
Is it not the case that these ships require crews, and that crews require uniforms and other facilities on board for domestic purposes? Therefore, can the Minister give an absolute guarantee that none of the cotton products will include cotton from Xinjiang? It is absolutely fundamental, and I am very pleased that the Minister for Health is sitting next to the Minister, because exactly the same applies in the NHS. Do not trust the paperwork. The forensic company Oritain, using element analysis, can tell from the fabric where the cotton was grown. We do not want, on flagships for the Royal Navy, cotton produced by slave labour in China.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister agrees that much has changed in the world since the OSS was first conceived and the contract let. Would the Minister concede that it is inappropriate to stand at the Dispatch Box and find reasons why this project is being delayed? It would be more appropriate for the Minister to explain how it is being expedited and sped up to meet the new world situation.
The MROSS is not a military engagement ship, per se; it is a ship that will do important surveillance activity, with reference to our subsea cables and energy infrastructure. I do not for one minute disagree: it is an important project; the MoD recognises that, but it is complex. That is why proper regard to due process must be taken.
My Lords, in the context of Ukraine, can the noble Baroness say what role the Royal Navy is playing in deterring Russian aggression? Given that there are 25 million tonnes of grain blockaded in ports around the Black Sea, what advice is the Royal Navy giving, particularly to neutral countries and their navies, to get that food out to feed starving people in the Horn of Africa?
As the noble Lord is aware, maritime activity in the Black Sea is governed by the Montreux convention, which Turkey has deployed. For the moment, that restricts activity. The United Kingdom Government are consulting with allies and partners on how on earth we can try to get some of that grain shipped, either by sea or by land.
Social Care: Adults
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the survey by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, published on 13 May, which found that more than 500,000 people in England were waiting (1) for a social care assessment, (2) for their care package to begin, or (3) for a review of their care.
Local authorities are responsible for meeting the needs of those who require care and support under the Care Act. The ADASS survey highlights that their waiting lists are increasing, which is why we are investing to support improved outcomes and experiences of care for people and their families, including through an additional £5.4 billion over three years to begin a comprehensive programme of reform.
My Lords, both the ADASS survey on social care waiting lists of 500,000 and Age UK’s estimate of 1.6 million people with unmet care needs are a stark wake-up call for the Government’s mantra of having fixed social care. The Minister knows that the official figures that he always quotes and quotes today are nowhere near enough to meet current and future demands, as key stakeholders and the expert think tanks routinely remind him. What are the Government doing to prioritise care and support in people’s homes and local communities? Does the Minister not recognise that the situation is getting worse, not better?
Many noble Lords recognise the challenges faced by not just this sector but all sectors, during Covid. One issue we have been looking at for many years, over subsequent Governments—we discussed this during the Health and Care Bill—is that social care was seen as a Cinderella service for many years. For the first time, thanks to noble Lords’ support, we managed to get the Health and Care Bill through to have a properly integrated health and care system. We are also looking at how we can make sure that we properly understand the health and care landscape, with the register and the hub, and that it is a vocation that more people find attractive.
My Lords, I urge my noble friend, in light of the extraordinary number of vacancies in the social care sector—more and more staff are leaving to join other sectors—to urge the Government to revisit the Immigration Rules that do not allow overseas care workers, who could fill those gaps, to come in. We have a special system for agricultural workers; surely my noble friend agrees that we must not put picking fruit and vegetables above the needs of the most vulnerable in our society.
I thank my noble friend for the question, but make the point that it is important that we look not only to our domestic workforce but to recruit people from far and wide to fill those gaps. We have always done that. As I often say from this place, we must remember that public services in this country were saved by people from the Commonwealth after the war. They played a very important role in making sure that this country and its public services recovered after the war. On recruitment from overseas, on 15 February, we added care workers to the health and care visa and shortage occupation list, allowing these roles to be recruited from overseas. We hope that will enable us to fill thousands of eligible vacancies.
My Lords, I go back to the previous question: this ADASS survey shows that almost 170,000 hours of homecare a week could not be delivered for the first three months of this year, because of a shortage of care workers. This is a sevenfold increase on the previous year. The changes proposed to the social care system will not increase the rates of pay for social care workers, at the moment, to make it attractive to others, who can work in hospitality. But there is a dire need for people now. What will the Government do right now to help solve this crisis?
As the noble Baroness will acknowledge, some of the problems have been in evidence for a long time. Sometimes, we are tackling the legacy of this neglect of the social care system. At the same time, we have to remember that many social care providers are not run by the state; they are private providers. Following the People at the Heart of Care White Paper, we want to make sure that, first, we encourage better conditions for workers. We also want to make sure that local authorities determine a fair rate of pay based on local market conditions. We have seen an increase in the national living wage, which means care workers will get an increase. But we are looking at all this as part of the overview of the social care landscape.
My Lords, could the Minister comment on the March 2022 progress report on the Out of Sight – Who Cares? report, which came out in October 2020? It found that of the 17 recommendations, none had been fully achieved and only four had been partially achieved. Can the Minister say when Government will address these recommendations and end the excessive use of the dehumanising isolation, segregation and seclusion within adult social care?
My Lords, 500,000 is a staggering number, but the number experiencing the deepest emotional and physical impact on families may be in the millions. Is the noble Lord and his department aware of the costs associated with neglecting these people and how many may have lost their lives while waiting for these services?
When we look at the 500,000 number, we are talking about an assessment of any kind. These are not people who are outside the system; sometimes they may be in the system but waiting for another assessment within the system. For example, they could be waiting for Care Act deprivation of liberty safeguards, occupational therapy assessments, the beginning of direct payments or a review of their care. It means they are in the system but just waiting for another part of the system to work. The other thing about the report was that there was a 61% response rate, and it was extrapolated from that. Anyone who has read behavioural economists Daniel Ariely or Daniel Kahneman will know that people are more likely to focus on losses rather than gains and, similarly, in surveys people are more likely to report bad things than things that are going well.
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that what these figures show is that local authorities with insufficient resources are introducing rationing of services to some of the most vulnerable people in the country? Why did we pay more in national insurance if the money was not to be made available to social care until three years down the line and the crisis is now?
I wonder if I could correct my noble friend. The Government implemented a comprehensive review of the programme on adult social care with a £5.4 billion investment over three years from April 2022, of which £1.7 billion will be used to begin major improvements across adult social care in England, including but not limited to £500 million investment in the workforce and £150 million to improve technology. As many noble Lords recognise, for too long this sector has been neglected. In some cases, there is a lack of understanding about the breadth of the sector. We are trying to understand it and get people to register, and then we can improve it.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Some hospital NHS trusts have a third to a quarter of their beds bed-blocked by people who are clinically ready for discharge but cannot leave because of no social package being available. What are the Government doing now to deal with this problem? It undermines the NHS waiting list backlog as well.
The noble Lord makes an important point, and the fact is that if some patients do stay in hospital too long, they can lose control of certain faculties and see muscular deterioration. So it is our priority to ensure that people discharge safely, as quickly as possible, to the most appropriate place. Local areas should work together to plan and deliver hospital discharge, and the department is working with NHS England, NHS Improvement, local government and social care providers to monitor and understand the underlying causes and do something about them.
My Lords, the Government say this is a long-term problem, but they have been in power now for 10 years. What have the Government been doing to address this issue, bearing in mind that Andy Burnham identified this as a problem and was attacked by the Front Benches when he put forward some suggestions on how they could deal with it? This is a crisis made by this Government.
I am afraid I will have to humbly disagree with the noble Lord, because this has been a problem for subsequent Governments, as we discussed during the passage of the Health and Care Bill. In some cases we can see reports going back 50 years. What has happened over the years is that Labour, Conservative and coalition Governments have put those reports on shelves to gather dust. We were the first Government to introduce an integrated health and care system and to grasp the nettle.
My Lords, there is some anecdotal evidence that patients are being discharged from hospital without having a full care package in place. Could my noble friend say exactly what the Government’s policy is to ensure this does not happen? These are some of the most vulnerable people, such as individuals who have had a stroke. On occasions, they are sent home with no support mechanism at all.
I thank my noble friend for the question. It is a really important issue that we discussed many times not only during the passage of the Health and Care Bill but subsequently. We have to make sure that everyone in the system is working together to make sure that a hospital knows who it is discharging to and that the carer who will receive or help that person has not only the support but the facilities and capabilities at home, or wherever that person is being discharged to, to work with that person. There are gaps in the system; it is not perfect in all places. We are working with local authorities and others to make sure we improve the system.
My Lords, would the Minister care to associate himself with today’s celebration of the arrival of the HMT “Empire Windrush” in 1948, whereby a statue has been unveiled at Waterloo station to remember that it was Caribbean citizens who, frankly, came to the rescue of the National Health Service? Are there lessons to be learned that the Minister might wish to apply to today’s situation?
I am so keen to answer that question because of my own Caribbean background. In fact, my father was part of that Windrush generation. He travelled from Guyana to Trinidad in 1952, and then from Trinidad to the United Kingdom, where he worked first on the railways and then as a bus driver. His brother worked in a post office and his sister was a nurse. That shows the vital contribution that people from the Caribbean made to this country post war.
Housing: Private Renters
First, I declare my residential and commercial property interests as set out in the register. Our White Paper sets out how we will provide a better deal for renters and our commitment to consult on introducing a decent homes standard in the sector—the first Government ever to do so. This will mean that homes must be free from serious hazards and disrepair, warm and dry, and with decent facilities. We will also provide councils with the powers they need for robust and effective enforcement to drive up standards.
My Lords, by planning to remove Section 21, the Government have rightly recognised that security of tenure is one of the biggest issues for renters. The White Paper talks about the need to protect renters from evictions while also talking about making the eviction process as straight- forward as possible. The Government say:
“After eviction, tenants cannot always find suitable housing nearby, interrupting their employment and children’s education”,
yet the White Paper also says:
“Claim forms for possession will be simplified and streamlined for landlords.”
I ask the Minister for clarification: is it the Government’s aim to make it easy for landlords to get their house back at short notice even if the tenant is not at fault, or is it to give tenants security and to protect them from the cost of unwanted moves?
My Lords, the purpose of this 12-point plan of reforms is to ensure that we balance the interests between landlord and tenant, but first remove the Section 21 no-fault evictions. In doing so, we are enhancing the grounds around Section 8 so that it is easier to remove tenants who disrupt the community and cause persistent anti-social behaviour, while bringing grounds for egregious rent arrears and moving and selling grounds, because landlords have a right to ask the tenant to leave if they need to sell the property. We are making those grounds work for the landlord so that we can remove Section 21. It is all about balancing those interests.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the measures that my noble friend announced on Monday, which will improve the terms of trade for private tenants, particularly against bad landlords. But is there not a risk that these bad landlords see the legislation coming and, before it is enacted, introduce leases that deny tenants that protection? Is it not imperative that this legislation is introduced as soon as possible and, if possible, backdated to the time of its Second Reading?
I always appreciate my noble friend’s eagle eye. We do not want landlords gaming the system, and we want to make it very clear that any abuse of the future system will not be tolerated. We are committed to ensuring that local councils will have the right powers to crack down on any rogue practices such as those that my noble friend has outlined.
My Lords, on Monday, in response to my letter about landlords leaving long-term lettings in favour of the more lucrative Airbnb, particularly at a time of increasing demand, the Minister replied that the English Housing Survey says that we are seeing some landlords leaving but an equal number coming in. Can the Minister tell us the source of the statistics that allow the Government to make that assertion, against mounting evidence to the contrary? I could not find it in the quoted English Housing Survey, nor the Government’s Private Landlord Survey, and the National Landlords Association could not help either. This is a vital piece of data, given what we believe is really happening on the ground.
My Lords, I suppose I should always be very careful about giving data. In response in the other place, the Minister—who was driving forward with the 12-point plan—made it clear that we are seeing as many landlords leaving the sector as we are seeing entering the sector. I will go back and find the data that underpinned my remarks in the debate we had earlier this week.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that part of the problem with the private rental sector is that many people in it would rather be in social housing at a fair rent, and that, because of a shortage in that housing, private landlords are often able to exploit some of the most vulnerable in our society? What could we do about that in the future, to increase social rented?
My Lords, it is important to recognise the balance of having more tenants who cannot afford renting in the private sector having social or affordable homes. That is why we have an £11.5 billion Affordable Homes Programme, and we are seeking to double the amount of social rented homes that we build to 32,000, because clearly, the housing benefit bill has been growing astronomically and we need to contain that over time.
Agreeing as I certainly do with the thrust of the previous four questions, I ask whether the Minister can confirm that in the last 20 years, the proportion of households living in private rented accommodation has doubled, whilst the proportion of owner-occupiers has reduced and the proportion living in social rented accommodation has reduced dramatically. This is despite the fact, as the previous questioner has pointed out, that the private rented sector is often the most expensive and certainly the least popular of the various forms of tenure. Is the Minister satisfied with these trends and is he happy for them to continue, or does he not think that it would be preferable to enable more people to move into the owner-occupied sector or the social rented sector, and stop this huge rise in the private rented sector?
I am not going to glorify one type of tenure over another. The noble Lord is right, however, in the sense that we have seen a doubling of the amount of private rented, but it is approximately the same proportion of the amount of housing stock: it has broadly stayed around 19%. You can look at percentages, or at the absolute amount. One of the benefits of Governments over the last few decades is that the proportion of non-decent private rented sector homes—those with category 1 hazards—has come down dramatically. In 2006, to pick a date at random, it was 46%. It is now down to 21% of homes, which is still too high, but that is why we are bringing in these measures, to drive that down even further. For young people, who are mobile, private renting is often a very good option and I am not going to knock it, but we do recognise that we need to build more homes for sale and have more social homes. I acknowledge that, but let us not put one form of tenure ahead of another.
Can we look at this in a very cautious sort of way? I am glad that the Minister used the word “balance”. I remember the Rent Act 1965, which was so well-intentioned that it led to a 25% fall in the amount of rented accommodation. The reason for that was that they did not keep the balance, and in the private sector, probably more than any other housing sector, we need to keep that balance, so that it looks as though both sides win.
My Lords, I am not sure I detected a question, but I am completely with the noble Lord in spirit, in the sense that it is an important comment. We need to recognise that landlords have a choice. We need to make sure that it works for tenants but also that when landlords have reasonable grounds to recover their property, those conditions are in place. These reforms seek to get that balance right.
My Lords, can the Minister reaffirm the assertion he made that the fundamental problem we have is an overall shortage of accommodation, with a growing population? In those circumstances, what policy do the Government have—any radical turn? Does he not recognise that many people now want to stay at home, do not want to work in offices and do not want to go to retail premises, which are now declining? Waitrose is converting some of its property into homes. When will the Government encourage people to stay at home? Then, we can use offices and retail premises to create more accommodation.
That is a very reasonable point. In a sense, we have to recognise that the world is changing and that there are opportunities to build more homes. We see that in the urban setting, where retail will diminish; people are buying online far more than before. Equally, I talk to my friends who live in the country—I am a city guy—who say that there are also agricultural areas that could easily be rezoned to provide opportunities for growth. We need to look at that, and that is why we are bringing forward the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to look at how we reform the planning system so that we get the right use of the right places and grow in the right way.
My Lords, many local authorities borrowed money to invest in commercial property; they were not allowed to borrow money to invest in social housing. I wonder whether the Minister can tell the House how much money those local authorities that invested in commercial property have now lost, and how much they might have bettered themselves and the country had they been able to invest in social housing.
My Lords, as someone who was a local authority leader for six years and in local government for 20 years, I know that not all councils invested in commercial property. We have some examples, such as Croydon, that got into that sort of game, but I do not think it was something that most councils did. Most councils have been seeking to get back into the council house building business. In 2018 we removed the cap on the housing revenue account, and I think it is great that this generation of council leaders are building more council homes for their residents. Proper oversight will ensure that the sorts of practices that the noble Baroness mentions are kept to the absolute minimum. If necessary, we will move in to take over control if it gets really bad.
Fraud Act 2006 and Digital Fraud Committee
Industry and Regulators Committee
Fraud Act 2006 and Digital Fraud Committee
That Lord Triesman be appointed a member of the Select Committee, in place of Baroness Taylor of Bolton.
Industry and Regulators Committee
That Baroness McGregor-Smith and Baroness Taylor of Bolton be appointed members of the Select Committee, in place of Lord Allen of Kensington and Lord Trefgarne.
Procedure and Privileges Committee
Motion to Agree
My Lords, the last edition of the Companion to the Standing Orders was issued in 2017. Although preparations for a new edition were almost complete in early 2020, publication was inevitably delayed by the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to the rapid adoption first of virtual and then of hybrid sittings. Only now, as the House has returned almost entirely to pre-pandemic procedures, has the committee been able to complete this work.
If the report is agreed today, a new edition of the Companion will be published online later this week and hard copies will be ready for when the House returns in September. The new edition will take account of changes to our procedures agreed by the House since 2017, giving us all an up-to-date, accurate edition of the Companion once again.
The report, which is, in most respects, identical to the committee’s seventh report of the last Session, also proposes a few minor but substantive changes to which I now seek the House’s agreement. I had originally intended to move the Motion to agree the seventh report on 16 May, but following representations made to me by number of noble Lords, I decided not to move the report but instead go back to your Lordships’ committee to ask it to look again at two particular issues. First, there is the proposal relating to the Lord Speaker’s leave of absence. I hope the recommendation that we have now brought forward, which seeks to accommodate the House’s legitimate interest in the Lord Speaker’s performance of his public duties, will be supported. Secondly, we have looked again at the recommendation on taking young children through the Division Lobbies. I must outline that this is not a change but confirmation of pre-existing, uncodified practice and I hope that the House will agree that the wording that we have now proposed reflects this.
Before concluding, I want to offer some further reflections on the short debate that took place last Thursday on the Motion to appoint the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, to the committee. The purpose of the Companion is to describe procedures that the House itself has agreed and is not to instigate changes to those procedures. Preparing a new edition is thus largely a technical exercise, updating the text to ensure that it accurately reflects current procedure. This means incorporating any changes to our procedures that the House has agreed since the last edition, as well as reflecting changes in statute law or updating references to Commons procedure. The entire text is carefully checked, errors corrected, and footnote references checked and updated.
Since the Procedure Committee was first appointed in 1940, the Companion has been published under the authority of that committee. The committee triages changes and brings points of substance to the House for a full debate, while taking responsibility for approving the many purely editorial or technical changes that are required when updating any document of this length and complexity.
I take very seriously concerns expressed by noble Lords. As I said in responding to last Thursday’s short debate, there is nothing unexpected in the new edition of the Companion, which, in substance, reflects the many changes that the House itself has agreed since 2017. But, to ensure the maximum possible transparency, I approved publication of the complete draft text of the new edition of the Companion, which was published electronically on Friday 17 June and made available in the Library. I have also arranged for copies of papers considered by the Procedure and Privileges Committee while preparing the latest addition to be placed in the Library of the House. These papers provide an audit trail of the committee’s decision-making.
I hope that, with these assurances, the House will now be content to agree the report that is before it today and thereby allow us to finalise the text of the new edition of the Companion. I beg to move.
My Lords, perhaps I may first say how grateful I am to my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker, in particular for arranging a meeting that I had this morning with the Clerk Assistant. I accept that the Companion has never been approved as such on the Floor of the House but rather that its component parts have been.
However, I rise on a small but not unimportant point that concerns the wording and use of language. I refer to paragraph 6 of the report, which my noble friend himself has just referred to, which proposes the following words:
“‘He or she seeks the leave of the House when such absences relate to the public duties of the Lord Speaker’”.
That is a wholly reasonable proposition, from which I do not dissent. Paragraph 8 proposes the words:
“‘If the Lord Speaker knows that an oral question is not going to be asked, they inform the House before they call.’”
In other words, in the first of two paragraphs separated by one, we refer to “he or she” and, in the second, we use the gender-neutral language of “they”. I plead that we have consistency and use the former, rather than the latter, throughout the Companion when we are referring to the Lord Speaker and, indeed, to others.
The Companion is a very valued companion. Many of us find it extremely helpful and important, but consistency of language is something that we have the right to expect. I ask my noble friend to respond positively to that suggestion.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks. As I say, we have worked as a committee. My predecessor’s 20 Procedure Committee and Procedure and Privileges Committee reports have been agreed by the House.
The point that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised was on language. I have looked into this because much of this occurred before my responsibilities, but the process of changing exclusively, for instance, masculine language in core documents has been going on for quite a considerable time and I think that this is universally agreed. It is fair to say that the Companion uses both “he or she” and in other places “they”. The Government have recently reaffirmed that legislation should be drafted in a gender-neutral way but—I think this was important when I looked into this—using gendered pronouns in specific cases. Clearly, one of those would be in referring to mothers of children.
It is also fair to say that we have had a degree of flexibility, mindful of guidelines but also in varying iterations. I am mindful of the point about consistency and accept that we should look at this. I will ask the House, however, to agree the report before us because, from 2017 until now, it is important that we have a Companion we can use.
The other thing I have asked, and we are going to look at it very strongly, is that the online version should be a contemporary version so that the House, over varying periods before it is reprinted, is always updated. This is so that, although some of us quake at the thought of lengthy documents and looking at them online, there is a resource we can all have the current version of.
I suggest that we will, obviously, in our consideration of all these matters look at revisions as they come up and have matters of substance always before your Lordships. I am mindful of what has been said today but I ask, please, for the consent of your Lordships to the report so that we can bring out a Companion which is updated. That is why I earnestly hope that the House will agree to the Motion.
Before my noble friend sits down, can I say how grateful I am to him for changing the language that referred to the Lord Speaker, rather than “he or she”, as “they”? However, I am a bit puzzled as to why, having got rid of “they” and substituted “he or she”, he has continued with “they” elsewhere. What is the reason for that?
Before the noble Lord responds, can I just say that in respect of the Lord Speaker’s duties and the issues regarding school-age children and other matters, nothing is unexpected in this new draft of the Companion? I offer my full support to the Senior Deputy Speaker, and I hope the House can now quickly agree this report. We have important business to discuss today.
My Lords, I welcome the Senior Deputy Speaker’s Motion to approve the report and the idea that the online version should, at any moment, be the most up-to-date version. Can I ask one quick question about paragraph 8? If a Member withdraws her or his Question before the day it is due to be asked, does that Member lose their right to ask the set number of Questions in each year? Is that withdrawn Question counted as one of the number you are allowed to ask in any given year?
My Lords, I am looking to my right, as they say. It is helpful that we have it on the record: providing they give 24-hours’ notice, a noble Lord would not lose their opportunity. I hope that is helpful.
I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Forsyth that in one reference I have “he or she” and in another there is a “they”, but what I really desperately want is for the House to agree that we have a new, up-to-date Companion.
That is what we want to do. As to this reference, the report is to ask the House to agree to the words that are in this document. As I have said, there is flexibility; there are varying moments when different terms are used. I find it difficult to believe that noble Lords would find it difficult to interpret or understand, but the points have been made and I have taken them back. Looking at various Members of the committee who are already here, I am sure that they will take note of the points which have been made.
My Lords, I am sorry—I want to make a point which can be put on the record. As someone who learned English as her third language and is quite sticky about the grammar, I find that this is a terrible sentence, because it starts in the singular and finishes in the plural. This is not English.
Social Security (Special Rules for End of Life) Bill [HL]
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.
At Second Reading, all who spoke acknowledged the importance of our social security system providing support as quickly as possible for those who are nearing the end of their lives. This Bill will ensure that more people in their final year of life can access the benefits for which they are eligible in a fast-tracked and simplified way. It is right that the Government are making eligibility changes for this fast-tracked access, so that those expected to live for 12 months or less, rather than the current six months, can benefit. This Bill will mean that thousands more people at the end of their lives will be able to access benefits earlier than they currently do. It will also result in a consistent end-of-life definition being used across health and welfare services in England and Wales, which will be more easily understood by clinicians and end-of-life charities.
I thank all noble Lords for their support in ensuring that this Bill passes through the House quickly. Clearly, we all recognise the significant positive impact this change will have for people who are nearing the end of their lives, and their families. I was also very grateful to noble Lords who engaged with me so constructively while the Bill was passing through this House. Several noble Lords signalled their overall support while also raising important issues, which I will ensure are taken into account as we work to implement the changes that we progress.
I end by paying tribute to all the campaigners and charities that have worked in this area; their support has been crucial in reaching this point and I am sure that all noble Lords join me in recognising the admirable support they provide people nearing the end of their lives.
The Social Security (Special Rules for End of Life) Bill will provide thousands more people with vital financial support, so that they can worry a little less about their finances and focus more on sharing the valuable time they have left with the people who matter to them the most.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her remarks and thank all noble Lords who participated in this Bill at the previous stage. It is a short Bill, but one which will have real benefits to people who have been told they have less than 12 months to live. The House can do few things that matter more than to make people’s final months easier than they might otherwise be. The change is long overdue, and we are very pleased to support it. Once again, I commend Marie Curie, MNDA and all the charities that have campaigned to get to this point.
We chose not to table amendments to the Bill, even though I would have liked the opportunity to explore some of the issues about the support available to people nearing the end of their life. However, it is really important to get this onto the statute book as soon as possible because, at the moment, some benefits are available only to those with six months to live and others are for those with 12. That is confusing for clinicians and patients, so we want to support this getting there as fast as possible. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the Government will reward our restraint by ensuring that the Bill gets through the other place before the Summer Recess.
Since we are not having a Committee or Report stage, I would like to ask two quick questions, of which I have given notice to the Minister. She is aware that various stakeholders, while supporting the Bill, had argued for a more open-ended approach than the one the Government chose to take. This Bill will allow special rules awards to be made for three years, whereas the Scottish Government have taken a different, more open-ended approach. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government intend to evaluate the effectiveness of the approach they have chosen to take in this Bill? Will they take advantage of the opportunity afforded by devolution to compare their approach with that taken by the Scottish Government, and implemented only recently?
In that vein, I ask about the success metrics for this policy change. Will the Minister’s department monitor whether more people are able to fast-track their claims? Will they monitor if fewer people are dying before their claims for benefits under the normal rules have been cleared? That has been an issue; it takes so long to process claims for PIP that people are dying before their claims are processed. Will the Government monitor if claimants find the process easy to manage?
I would like to express my thanks to the Minister and her officials for involving us, and to colleagues for their thoughtful contributions. We send the Bill to the Commons with our full support, and we wish it Godspeed.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Janke cannot be in her place today, so I am delighted to thank, on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches, the Minister for her remarks and all Peers who have taken part during passage of this Bill. I also want to thank the Minister’s officials, who have been very helpful. It was encouraging that the Bill is supported cross-party. It may be a short Bill, but we believe that its effects will be transformative to those individuals, and their families, who have to face a terminal illness and the financial shocks that go with it as they live the last few months of their lives.
We, too, decided not to table amendments, though we would have liked to, because we felt it was important that this Bill proceeded quickly. Prior to the Second Reading, we had discussions with Marie Curie and other organisations about whether the Government should review the impact of the legislation after a year and make an assessment as to whether the provisions of the Act have had a significant impact on reducing levels of poverty for individuals with a life expectancy of less than 12 months.
We draw the same parallel as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, that in Scotland they deleted any reference to timeframes. I think this would help to give us a comparator once the Bill has been enacted and put into practice in England for a year.
I want to pick up also the point that the noble Baroness made about time for the processing of claims. I made this point at Second Reading, and I hope that for everyone it will be as speedy as possible. I was reassured the Minister said that moving it to 12 months would not slow the process down, but we remain concerned that for some people it is still not as fast as it should be, given the straits that they find themselves in.
At the Second Reading I raised the current anomalies in the rules for the benefits of severely disabled children aged under three, compared to those over three. The Minister kindly agreed to arrange a meeting with the relevant Minister for myself and Together for Short Lives. Unfortunately, I have been offered a policy officer to answer my questions by email, which, while being very kind—and I appreciate the offer—is not quite what the Minister said. As I said at Second Reading, this is a policy decision to treat seriously ill small children differently to their older peers, so please can I repeat my request for a meeting with the relevant Minister?
That aside, from these Benches we welcome this short but vital Bill and look forward in hope that it will ease some of the financial difficulties faced by terminally ill people and their families.
I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Brinton, for their supportive comments, and may I say that we are doing everything we can to get this through the other place in time? Everybody is on red alert to do so.
I would particularly like to address the points made by both noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Brinton. The noble Baroness Sherlock is interested in the department’s approach to evaluating the changes being proposed in this Bill and whether this will also cover a comparison with the approach taken by the Scottish Government. I can confirm that we will continue to monitor our own approach and watch with interest the different approach taken by the Scottish Government as it is fully rolled out.
We will also continue to conduct audits of medical evidence provided to us in support of claims made under the fast-track special rule process and to monitor feedback that claimants provide to the DWP through our existing communication channels. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, also expressed interest in the metrics that would be used to judge the success of the new approach for claims made under the special rules for end of life. The department considers the time taken for these claimants to receive the financial support that they are eligible for as a measure of the policy’s success. I am extremely pleased that the department has a strong record of processing claims made under the special rules in a matter of a few days on average. We also had a constructive relationship with end-of- life charities and will continue to work with them to ensure that the policy intent behind the Bill is being met.
On the noble Baroness’s question about people dying while waiting for the outcome of a claim under normal rules, we want to do all we can to ensure that people get the support they are entitled to while living with a long-term disability or health condition. It is obviously incredibly sad when someone passes away while waiting for the outcome of a PIP claim. The cause of death for PIP claimants is not collated centrally by the department. However, there is no evidence to suggest that someone’s reason for claiming PIP was the cause of their death, and it would be misleading to suggest otherwise.
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, is interested in whether we will check that claimants find the process easy to manage. I assure all noble Lords that the department is engaging with stakeholders, and clinicians involved in supporting people to claim under the special rules, to ensure that they understand and can navigate the process. We will continue to do so. The department is also looking at making process improvements for the end-to-end customer journey for claims made under the special rules and will use the direct experience of claimants to inform that work as it progresses.
Regarding the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I did agree to a meeting. I am not quite sure what has happened, but I will go back and advise people that we will meet. It will get me into trouble but I will do it. I have held two all-Peers briefings on this Bill. As always, my door is open. Going forward, the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, who is sponsoring this Bill in the other place, will be happy to reach out on any outstanding questions that noble Lords may have.
Bill passed and sent to the Commons.
Schools Bill [HL]
Committee (5th Day)
Relevant documents: 2nd Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 1st Report from the Constitution Committee
Clause 48: Registration
112A: Clause 48, page 42, line 2, at end insert—
“(4) Regulations must, in relation to a register under section 436B, make provision about the right of appeal to an independent body against any interpretation or discretion applied by a local authority in compiling the register or in taking action based on information contained in or requested for the register.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is intended to ensure that parents have the ability to argue effectively with a local authority who refuses to accept good reasons for not complying with their requests.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 112A, I shall speak to my other amendments in this group. The focus of the group is the relationship between local authorities and home educators, which is well illustrated—we shall come to it later—by the text of Amendment 128A, which reads:
“Local authorities must … recognise that the first responsibility for educating a child lies with its parents … be supportive of those who elect to educate their children at home … recognise that home education is of itself not a safeguarding issue, and … acknowledge that in many instance the decision to home educate reflects failures by other institutions of the state.”
I would add that they also must recognise that home education can be very different from school education. You inherently have much more flexibility in the structure. You do not need to follow all the systems and rules which make a school practical. You may choose to do things very differently.
There are local authorities where relationships are very good. One email sent to me, from someone under Gloucestershire County Council, said that the EHE team are a “genuine delight” and that, “Talking to our caseworker just feels like boasting about how well our daughter is doing and being reassured about any concerns I have by a person with a great deal of knowledge and experience of elective home education.” I have also talked to home educators in Coventry who described the team there as “very well liked, at ease with the children and respectful of parents” and said that 85% of home educators ask for a visit because it is an open conversation and a totally supportive experience. As a result, Coventry has a higher than average rate of school attendance orders, because the team in Coventry knows what is going on and home educators, when they know of a problem elsewhere, pass it on to the team because they know that things will be fairly dealt with by the team.
There are other local authorities—I will not name them in public, but if anyone would like to see the documentation I have on them I would be happy, if I have permission, to share it—where the team appears not to have any relevant experience either of home education or of teaching. There is a totally oppositional attitude to home educators and no understanding that the structures of schools do not necessarily apply to home education. There have been extraordinary exchanges between people who do not appear to have sufficient qualifications to be a teaching assistant and a home educator who has been a teacher for 20 years, asking the most ridiculous questions. Under those circumstances, it does not surprise me that the relationship between the local authority and the home education community breaks down; a lot of difficulties arise because of that.
I do not stick to any particular formula in my amendments in this group, but their overall objective is to suggest to my noble friend that there are ways in which the Bill can incentivise local authorities to act well, so that it is easy to be a good local authority. Being a bad local authority is a path that is not conducive to the efficient exercising of its functions, and therefore it gradually becomes one which is not followed.
I note the breadth of powers given to local authorities in the Bill, in particular the ability to make any demand of a home educator under a totally open new subsection that allows them to ask whatever they want and, if the parent does not provide it, to dump them into school attendance order proceedings without any appeal. That is a system in which it would be tremendously easy to be a bad local authority. Local authorities will have total power over home educators, with no one controlling how those powers are used. There will be no incentive for local authorities to improve. I do not think that is a reflection of the long relationships and discussions that the Department for Education has had with home educators. It was immensely surprising to the home education community that the Bill should be written in this way. I very much hope that we will be able to persuade the Government to make some changes.
Amendment 112A and other amendments suggest that there should be a right of appeal—a space in which a home-educating parent can argue in front of an independent tribunal with a local authority. As we are giving local authorities such huge powers, in fairness, there surely must be some form of appeal—some outside oversight over whether they are being reasonable.
Amendment 130A asks that data held by the local authority should be made routinely available to home educators. If we want a good, open, conversational relationship between good home educators and their local authority, sharing information plays a very important part.
We should have available to us, as legislators—indeed, as the Government—data on the penalties imposed by local authorities. That is a very good indicator of the state of relationships between the home education community and local authorities. We need early indicators in the system so that we can see when things are going right or, maybe, not so right.
Amendment 136ZA brings in the phrase “light touch”. This is one much used in conversation between the Department for Education and home educators. I should really like to know what the department means by it. It startles me to think that some local authorities whose work I have looked at could be defined as light touch, but perhaps it can. I need to understand where the department stands on this. I should like an arrangement where the people in local authorities charged with looking after home education had some relevant qualifications and experience.
If you have in a team someone who knows what home education looks like and someone with strong teaching experience, that seems to be the combination, looking nationwide, that works really well in local authorities. The main thing is that the people in the local authority should have enough experience and qualification to feel confident in the judgments they are making. If not, they have to rely on getting out the baseball bat and beating home educators around the head, because they do not understand the arguments being made. Getting qualifications and a level of performance into local authorities is an important aim.
On Amendments 137B and 137C, I say that being able to tip parents into punitive action after just one fault does not seem the right way: there should be a pattern of behaviour that then requires the whips and scorpions to be got out. Amendment 137B states:
“Except in circumstances of deliberate rule breaking, the school attendance order process must be preceded by a process of communication where the education being provided can be adjusted and services under section 436G offered.”
In other words, this should be a supportive dialogue between the local authority and the home educator. Where the home educator is failing, there are conversations about how things could be made better; where the local authority can help with that process, it does; and only if that process breaks down do we get into the punitive provisions. That is the nature of the relationship between home educators and local authorities in a lot of areas. That would be a better template for the legislation: to take the pattern of behaviour which is current in local authorities where there is a very good relationship between home educators and the local authority, rather than the pattern of behaviour exemplified by the more punitive local authorities.
Amendment 137C is another right of appeal. Amendment 138ZA looks at dealing with a child who is in mid-assessment. If a school recommends a child for assessment for special needs, and then the parent withdraws that child because there is clearly a problem in school and they think home education will be better, that process of assessment ought to be completed before the local authority can tip the parent into a punitive process. The process of assessment is entirely in the hands of the local authority; it can make it fast if it wants to. I know a lot of them have long backlogs on this, but that is up to them—they can prioritise a child if they are worried about them—but they should not be able to tip parents into a school attendance order process where they have failed to provide the assessment that the school has said is necessary.
Similarly, if it is clear to a medical practitioner that a mental health assessment is needed—this would be common in the case of people suffering from school refusal or trauma as a result of events at school, when a proper assessment needs to be made—it seems entirely appropriate that the local authority should wait until that process is complete, and until there is not an independent medical professional standing in the way saying, “No, don’t do this now. We don’t know what the right thing to do for this child is.”
Amendment 138A looks at things in a more general sense. It says that this is a really disruptive process for the family and the child. Local authorities really need a proper justification for what they do and need to ascertain where the child stands in this process.
Amendment 143B asks that a refusal of the revocation of a school attendance order must be reasonable. That may be implicit in the law as it stands, but I would be grateful if my noble friend could confirm it.
Amendment 143F argues that if a parent re-offends, the circumstances should be reinvestigated as they may have changed and things may be different. Just having the ability to reimpose an endless series of penalties does not seem in accordance with the general practice of English law.
Amendment 143I gives the Government an opportunity to justify why stronger penalties are needed. We seem to be entering a level of penalties that I find excessive in the context of not sending your child to school, but I would be interested to listen to what my noble friend said.
Although it is not in this group, Amendment 143IA asks that Ofsted should have oversight of the local authorities’ performance on elective home education, which would be a very constructive way of making sure that local authorities were aware that if they fell down seriously, in looking after home educators, somebody would be on their tail. I beg to move.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is participating remotely, and I invite her to speak now.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for his introduction to Amendment 112A and the many others in this group. Amendment 112A is important, as it gives parents the right of appeal to a local authority that refuses to accept their reasons for why their child is not being taught in school.
I am particularly supportive of the approach taken by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas: to be seen as being open and positive with parents who want to home educate their children. Some years ago, I saw an excellent example while on a study tour of Education Otherwise in California. I visited the American River Charter School, an independent home school based at Sierra community college, north of Sacramento. It was a parent-driven, teacher-supported, not in the mainstream school, the equivalent of an FE college. Many of the students participate in educational field trips and come together to do lab work with supervising teachers, but only if the parents want it.
The result is that, through links with the local authorities, the pupils participate much more widely in sports programmes and other elements that are not available in the UK—at least, I have not encountered them. Services and resources are provided to students through a dedicated budget of instructional funds allocated to enrolled students by the school’s board.
Amendment 130 discusses the issue that I raised two groups ago: there must be guaranteed local places to sit national exams for “educated otherwise” students. I am glad to see that here and hope the Minister takes on board the importance of that happening.
Amendments 130A and 134A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, provide for the transparency of data—the former on an annual copy of data related to fines and penalty notices. I agree with that.
I will briefly comment on the last group on Monday, when the Minister said that she would consider whether the register should be published and that she would come back to your Lordships. I cannot rise from my seat before the Minister sits down to say that this matter really concerns me. The publication of this sort of data should not be available to anyone and, if it is not the Government’s intention that it should not be published at all, it should not be brought into law on the say-so of the current Government. The problem we always have is that a future Government may choose to publish that data.
Amendment 138ZA, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, echoes my concerns about school attendance orders, as drafted in the Bill, not making it explicit that special educational needs assessments may not have been carried out, that a child is awaiting a mental health assessment, or that—in the case that I have raised in other groups—medical practitioners have recommended that a child should not attend school. This is vital.
Amendment 143I says that the current fines system should be retained and proposes to remove lines 18 to 20 from Clause 50. The current system is set out well on the government website; it is like a ladder of clearly escalating issues: first, a parenting order, then it moves on to an education supervision order, then a school attendance order, and then a fine. It says that each parent can be fined up to £60, which might rise to £120 each if not paid within a certain amount of time. If not paid at all, you may be prosecuted. In the section on prosecution, it says you could get a fine of up to £2,500, a community order or a jail sentence of up to three months, and that the court could also give you a parenting order.
However, Clause 50 of the Bill goes way further than that. It says a person may be liable
“to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale, or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 51 weeks, or to both.”
The jump from three months—12 weeks—to 51 weeks is extraordinary and very worrying. As an indicator, at the moment the Sentencing Council guidelines advise six months for threatening with a weapon and six months for a second offence of possessing a weapon. As I know from my experience and that of my colleagues, the person who stalked and harassed me and them for over two years, at over 100 events, was given a 12-month suspended sentence. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister explain why this enormous leap from 12 weeks to 51 weeks is deemed appropriate. Even if it is intended to be used only rarely, it seems very strong indeed. I hope the Minister will reconsider.
In the meantime, I support this amendment. If it were divided on at a later stage, I would certainly hope that these lines are removed from the Bill.
I shall speak to Amendments 130 and 139 in my name. I can be pretty brief, given the comprehensive outline that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has given, and indeed the words from my noble friend Lady Brinton.
Amendment 130 addresses the difficulty and expense of home-educated children sitting public examinations. They need to find a school or examination centre that will accept them, since not all will if they do not know the children and do not wish to see their results reduced by young people who may not have been taught for their exams and whose results may bring down their overall ratings. That is quite a hurdle for many home-educating parents.
Having found somewhere for their children to sit the exams, home schoolers then have to pay for them. That can easily run to hundreds of pounds. Home schoolers are not necessarily wealthy people and may find the cost of exam fees prohibitive. However, home-educated children are entitled to get credit for their knowledge and skills, just like school-educated children. This amendment probes the possibility of financial assistance for children who could otherwise not afford to be awarded GCSEs or A-levels. Could there, for example, be a system for those on universal credit or of limited means to be helped with exam fees?
Amendment 139 suggests that the opinion of the authorities should be supplemented by a suitably qualified independent assessor to ensure that home educators are given a fair hearing if their child is subject to a school attendance order and the parent or guardian feels that it is inappropriate. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has already touched on the reasons for that. It is an extra check and balance for those who do not want their child to attend school and feel that the order is not in the best interests of the child, and fear too an overbearing authority. This is surely a measure that the Minister could acknowledge and accept.
My Lords, this is an important group of amendments, very well introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas; like the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, I do not propose to spend much time going over the points that he has made. I read the somewhat testy exchanges—when everyone was a bit tired, I think—at the end of the day on Monday, so it is nice to be having a debate about how we can better support parents rather than causing them any anxiety, if that is the concern.
In that context, having some means of appeal is really important. That might be through the ombudsman that the noble Lord, Lord Wei, is proposing in Amendment 171X or by some other means. I have been sat here wondering whether the Office of the Schools Adjudicator might be another possibility of a pre-existing office that could perform the function of refereeing and providing some kind of safeguard against the possibility that some rogue local authorities might overuse some of the powers being talked about; that is a worry, given the variety among local authorities that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, talked about.
Amendment 130 from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, about exams, which I put my name to, is important. It is really important that parents have a positive reason to register and are not just doing it because the law tells them to and that if they do not then they will be subject to penalty. This would be one of those positive reasons that we could offer. I am not sure whether the local authority having to find the funds itself is the answer because, as we know, local authorities struggle to find the funds to do much these days. If the Minister were to agree with this, perhaps she could reflect on the national funding formula or some other means whereby the money could find its way to elective home educators so that their children can have a link with a school and an examination centre. That all seems very positive in the wider scheme of things.
I share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about the scale of change regarding the penalties being proposed for parents who fail to abide by this. There is a further amendment on school attendance orders and there having to be some kind of judgment about what is suitable education from someone who at least knows something about education; that is also an important safeguard that we could put in to protect parents.
My Lords, I shall speak to my Amendment 171X on the proposal for an ombudsman to provide protection for home educators. I support many other amendments in the group. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Lucas for putting this focus on the need to provide protection from overzealous local authorities.
I also need to apologise for not speaking at Second Reading due to a variety of home and personal health matters. I also need to declare an interest, in that I am part of a family that home educates. I cannot disclose all the details, which are private, but I have two sons whom primarily my wife home educates. She is incredibly well qualified for that work. They are teenagers and their education is going incredibly well. I fear I might be the only Peer in that situation, but if there are any others we might be able to form a little club.
I want primarily to speak from this perspective, as somebody from a home education family, on the Bill and the relevant clauses. First, as many others have done, I honour the many parents and caregivers, including my wife, who work tirelessly to raise their children, often at no cost to the state, for their outstanding outcomes and work in a variety of different contexts and for a variety of different reasons. If noble Lords want to find out more about how amazing home education can be, an exhibition has just been announced in Parliament in the Upper Waiting Hall, commencing the week of 4 July, which I highly recommend noble Lords pop in and see.
I need to start by saying that I cannot support the Bill. I believe much of it was designed after consultation merely to make the lives of officials in the department and at large in local authorities easier. Not enough is in it to help parents and families, or indeed society. It feels like it was a bit of a one-sided consultation.
We shall see how colleagues in the other place view the Bill. Arguably, the way it is currently drafted in many parts is an affront to freedom and makes a mockery of our claims to be about rolling back the state and enabling ordinary citizens to take back control. If it transpires, as has been reported in the press, that the Bill was launched without proper political vetting and that it will be radically altered by the other place when the politicians have time to look at it, then we all have to ask why our time is being wasted with what appears to be an incredibly lazy piece of legislation, designed to make officials’ lives easier, not those of citizens.
Frankly, I would rather that this part of the Bill, on registration of children who are not at school, which includes many in home education, did not exist, especially in its current form. It has not been thought through; more consultation is needed. Registration is a hammer to crack a nut, the nut being bad actors—I commend the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on raising this very real issue; it is not one that we want to sweep under the carpet—such as those in informal schools who, frankly, would raise children to oppose the existence of this country, or commit future generations to violence against citizens of this country, or inflict neglect and abuse. Many of these situations have been talked about.
Largely, I feel that this has been designed to fix an IT problem. As much was confirmed to me by a government representative, who I will not mention, who I discussed this with. I said that the Government could get this data anyway: we have birth certificates, local authorities ask who is in households and we have pupil registration in formal schools. We could triangulate that data—I come from an IT background; that is the kind of thing we can do with IT—to find out who was not in school. But of course, that is too difficult for the Government to do right now; IT is a very difficult area. So, to make us do all the work for local authorities and government, a registration programme is to be brought in when we could have fixed it with good IT and good use of the powers that already exist to safeguard children who are suspected of being abused or neglected. This is on top of a risk that the data, once collected, could be used intentionally or unintentionally to harm, or get hacked, which has happened.
I will not say much more on this point because I want to get to my amendment, but I suggest that registration could be voluntary to begin with but highly incentivised, perhaps using the Oak National Academy, the online school set up by the Government, as a resource and a referrer, which could provide amazing data if parents consented to it being provided and analysed.
What incentives might there be for signing up voluntarily to such a scheme? We talked about the cost of exams and paying for them. It costs £150 to £200 per GCSE; I am feeling the pain of that right now. Many families have to fork out a huge amount of money for those exams.
Another incentive might be the provision of forecast grades in the event of situations such as Covid. This was brought home for many home-educating families, whose children basically had to resit because no resource was available; children in school could get forecast grades from their teachers. The Oak National Academy might be a place that could provide such forecasts, based on its data.
We should require publicly funded providers of education, such as museums, to support home education. Many do so generously, and London is probably one of the best places in the world for home education. From a very young age, my children went to science lectures at the Royal Institution to get science teaching from some of the world’s best scientists.
Many home educators understand the need to catch bad actors and to design mechanisms to do this, but I do not believe that compulsory registration as a first resort is the way to achieve this; it is certainly not the way to carry them with you. I push back against the notion that this legislation will improve the lives of children by collecting lots of data and doing lots of monitoring, when there are already many other ways to achieve the ultimate goal of catching those bad actors.
I acknowledge that there are bad actors out there; there is off-rolling and abuse. If we have to do something, I suggest that we limit it to very defined situations and collect the least data possible, and only when specific criteria have been met—not, as I have been told, to catch home educators who perhaps are not teaching their children some of the things in PSHE at primary age that they would rather their children did not learn until later—or to catch those who are using illegal schools and faking it, and many of the other scenarios that have been talked about. I believe that in those situations, officials should be granted some powers to query home education as the excuse for practices we have already talked about—essentially like a warrant—but only in those special cases and not as a blanket power.
This brings me to the main issue I want to raise through my amendment. Even if the other place passes this Bill, despite the clear issues around data privacy and freedom and the way it has been written without much proper consultation with the home education community, I do not believe it will be implemented for many years, because some in the home education community are incredibly well resourced. They will take the Government to court, put injunctions on this legislation and do everything to block it. It will make the migration controversy we have had in the last few weeks look like a walk in the park, because some of these home-educating families past and present are incredibly well networked in the legal world and so on. Why go through all this trouble and cost to make an enemy of the home education community by doing this, when you could work with it and still achieve the same end goal?
Why push many of the bad actors, who, even when you have the legislation, will just go into the black market and disappear? They will go to a farm where you cannot find them or to another country. The very people you are trying to protect from radicalisation or other issues of concern might not even be on the system once you have built it, and lost all this good will.
Despite the assurances given, and given the determination to rush through this mandatory registration, the vague and wide-ranging reasons for requesting data and the risk of mistaken situations or intentions, I feel we need an ombudsman, ideally independent from government. I have been told that there are ways for parents to appeal to a local authority, the department or the Minister if they suspect there is a problem, but I am not sure that those representatives would truly understand home education, which is culturally so different from public education and schooling—in fact, that is its strength. It would be like asking the cat to listen to the mouse’s appeal.
The fact that Part 3 of the Bill is called “Children not in school” evidences a total lack of understanding of how home education works. They are learning. They are in a school of sorts, just not a school run or paid for by the Government.
Such an ombudsman would listen to parents if they felt persecuted but also be a sounding board for local authorities and prevent court cases through mediation. It should ideally be voluntary, in that the role should be filled by somebody who is doing it voluntarily, as many home educators are, and not paid for by the Government or any other party. They could even work with the Oak National Academy to improve the resources, skill levels and data sharing made available to home educators, with consent, which would then enable local authorities to focus on going after the bad guys and not the vast majority of home educators, who need help, not hindrance or overzealous monitoring.
I would like to come in on Amendment 112A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and say I agree with a great deal of what he said. Indeed, we have discussed it in the past; there is an issue here. I am not convinced by the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Wei, that we can do it all by current IT methods—I think there are problems there. Although I have some sympathy with some of the things he is saying, actually this is a very difficult area.
Amendment 112A is, to my mind, incredibly important, because one of the things we have to do is work out the best type of appeal system. My starting point is really where I ended up when I spoke on Monday, which is to say that this legislation on home education needs to be seen as supportive, not punitive. That is very important. If we can develop a supportive method of local authorities and home educators co-operating together, there will not be many problems in the future, and ideally, practices and strategies could be developed, both by local authorities and by home educators, for dealing with the problems that will inevitably emerge.
The appeal system must deal with many of the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, raised. When I was consulting widely on my Bill, I had such a wide range of claims as to why local authorities were doing it badly. I cannot go through them all now, but some suggested that a local authority was blind to the individual needs of the child. It might have been about educational achievement, but it might also have been about behaviour, because at times it was clear that the school was pushing the child out of the school because their behaviour was so challenging. So you actually have a problem that is, in a way, the reverse of what we expect—the school saying, “This kid is a problem: let’s get them out of the school.” That has to be dealt with, too. The rights of the parents to appeal to an independent person or organisation is, to my mind, incredibly important. As I say, I could give many other examples that came to me when I was consulting on the Bill.
But I also have to say that this is two-sided, and it is the classic problem we deal with in Parliament, time and time again, of the balance between individual rights and the rights of society, to protect the vulnerable. At times, some of those home-educated children are vulnerable, and that is something we have to face—and it is difficult to face. As I said on Monday, my knowledge of education generally is not particularly good, but as a former probation officer and senior probation officer of 40-odd years before I became an MP, and having taken children into care on occasion when I had to when social services could not do so for legal reasons, I can tell noble Lords that it is not just a difficult decision: some parents are incredibly cunning, incredibly devious and incredibly cruel. That comes out if you talk to someone like the noble Lord, Lord Laming, who has chaired committees dealing with abuse. You realise how clever some cruel people can be in fooling anyone—doctors, probation officers, social workers, the general public, neighbours, all sorts of people—into thinking everything is all right.
One thing in my mind, and I want to make this clear, is that when I put that Bill forward, I put it forward as an education measure, not a social or psychological measure. But in doing so, I recognised that if a child was not being given a proper education—and by proper education I do not mean some set educational system but growing up able to read, write and be numerate—we had to be able to be sure that that was being done. The interesting thing for me is that, of all the people I talked to about home education, when I dealing with the Bill, it was actually a small but significant minority who said that the education authority must never be allowed to see the child or should not see the child with them. I remember one parent saying to me, when I said, “Well, why should they not see the child?”, that the child does not like being seen by a stranger. That immediately made me raise my eyebrows, because if a child of school age is nervous about being seen by a stranger, you wonder how the education is being done—unless they have got special needs, because there may be circumstances in which they will be nervous about being seen by a stranger. But by and large, children are far more resilient than we give them credit for. Indeed, one of the problems in society, I often think, is that parents are overprotective, and we do not recognise that children are actually very resilient and can cope with situations like this.
But what I want to make clear here is that the problem is two-way, exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, described. It is also that, at times, the education authority will have a concern that the child is not being properly educated. If you say that the education authority cannot see the child, how will it ever know? One person said to me that the authority could ask to see written work. But you will not even know whether that child did the written work. So it is not just a measure about behaviour here, or about abuse or radicalisation; it is also about whether the child is being properly educated. As I have said, I do not mean some particular system of education, because I know that troubles quite a few home educators; it is about being able to cope in society as you grow up, and I gave an example on Monday of someone who was left very vulnerable because of the way that home education was done.
My argument here, and this is something I ask the Minister to really take on board—it is a difficult one—is about how to get an appeal system that can work in both directions. It is absolutely right that the parent can appeal against the local authority that does not understand the problems that they or the child are facing, but it has also got to be one where the education authority can say, “We are not absolutely sure that this child is being educated. We are not absolutely sure that there is not some more nefarious process.” Indeed, one of the cases I took up before as a result of my Bill that got some publicity in the press involved three children, if I remember right, in one of the London local authorities who were being trafficked. Two of them just disappeared and, to my knowledge, though I have not checked up recently, have never been seen since. Now, the local authority—or to be more precise, the school—was worried about what was happening, because it knew what had happened to one of the children but did not know what had happened to the other two.
So I say: if you do not have a system where the local authority can say, “We need to be able to see the child, and see that the child is receiving an education”, then you have got a system that is almost designed to blow up in your face. Sooner or later, at some abuse inquiry or other inquiry into a case, you will find it being said, “Well, we the education authority were not allowed to see the child, so we could not know.” I ask those Members who are taking a very clear view on the rights of the parent here to recognise that the rights of the child are absolutely important: in key situations, they override the rights of the parent. I think all of us accept that in other circumstances—if you did not, it would be very bizarre; you would be arguing that whatever the parent did to the child was acceptable.
I have not got a model for the Minister, I am sorry to say. I wish I could say, “This is the way to do it”—I have not got that. I would be very willing to engage with her in further discussions, if that would be helpful, and I think people like the noble Lord, Lord Laming, might be very useful on this too. What you need is a system designed to be supportive, not punitive. That is the key to this. Then you start by saying, “We know what a lot of these parents want,” because the examples are already there—the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, gave them. Those are the ones who appeal, but we also need the ability of the local authority or education authority to appeal against not being able to see the child, where it is worried about the child and might need to visit more often than it would do otherwise. I think that is profoundly important. As I say, I would be happy to offer whatever help I can in getting that bit right.
As I said on Monday, I commend the Government for taking my Bill on board and delivering on it in the way that they have. It is very commendable, but this is the most difficult area. The education authority must have the right to see the child and must have some rights over how often and in what circumstances. However, that needs to be appealable in both directions: by parents and by the education authority.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 140 but before that I note that the debate has raised a number of fundamental issues. Listening to it tells me that we have another set of issues that the Government need to take away and think carefully about. I understand that Report is due to start in little over a fortnight. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, is absolutely correct about the need to have these discussions; fundamental issues are being debated around whether there should be an appeals system and what kind of system it should be, and what the exact role of a local authority is. The noble Lord made a very important point: the Bill should be about supporting home educators and not about a punitive system.
I want to give another example of how I see the problem in this group. My Amendment 140
“aims to clarify the provisions on school attendance orders to ensure that school attendance orders should only be issued when in the opinion of the local authority this course of action is in the best interest of the child.”
At the moment, the Bill reads:
“A local authority in England must serve an order under this section 10 on a person”,
and gives reasons in paragraphs (a) and (b). Paragraph (c) gives the reason that
“in the opinion of the authority it is expedient that the child should attend school.”
What is the meaning of the word “expedient”? Sometimes these words have meanings that maybe the Government do not intend. My interpretation of the word “expedient” is that it is about attaining an end. It is a convenience to attain the end, but it may not be right to attain that end.
That has led me to consider who in a local authority is responsible for making a decision. Ministers may reply that this will all be shown to us in guidance. I am quite bothered about that, because a huge number of issues have been raised, in all parts of the Chamber, about how this system will actually work.
I agree with the noble Lord that it could well do that. I noted the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—I hope I quote him correctly. He said that it will be tremendously easy to be a bad local authority. Given the way that this has all been written, that may prove to be true. He also said that there needs to be oversight as to whether a local authority is being reasonable. There has to be a system to assess this. I spent many years in a local authority environment. Officers and councillors will change, and case histories may not be fully understood, and yet decisions are being made. I do not know what protections are in place against poor-quality decisions being made.
My amendment says that the absolute requirement is the best interest of the child, not that a decision is deemed by a local authority to be expedient. I should be grateful if the Minister could respond as to why the Bill has been written in this way. It may be convenient to be expedient but it may not be proper. For that reason, we need to have a further discussion. I do not see how Report can happen in a fortnight to three weeks’ time. The Bill needs its Report deferred until the autumn.
My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of Amendment 112A, which relates to a point that I raised at Second Reading. As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, there has to be a check on parents to avoid those who might abuse the freedoms. The local authority may be the right place to do that but the merits or otherwise of home education versus school education, and the structure of the curriculum, can end up as matters of educational doctrine. If a local education authority takes a view that starts as biased against home education and the freedoms within, it may well take a view that is prejudicial to the parents, in the way in which my noble friend Lord Lucas said.
There has to be a right for parents to go to some appeal process, whether in the form of the amendment or the ombudsman proposed by my noble friend Lord Wei. It may well be that the objections to the way in which the local authority runs its schools is the primary reason why somebody wants to educate their children separately. To have that education authority then be judge and jury over whether the child is being given an adequate alternative education just allows one set of educational doctrines to run roughshod over other people’s rights.
I completely accept the need for checks on parents but, as others have said, my noble friend the Minister needs to think about how, when the Bill comes back, there can be proper provision to deal with this matter—whether in the form of the amendment or something similar.
My Lords, I may have omitted to declare an interest as chair of the Department for Education stakeholders’ group and other similar interests listed in the register. If so, my apologies.
I have added my name to Amendment 143I in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I should make it clear that it is the increase in fines and custody that I have difficulty with. It might be better to do away with fines altogether.
I am heartened by the statement in the department’s factsheet that
“The government does not intend to criminalise parents”
in respect of school attendance orders. But Clause 50 does not achieve this aim.
When I was a magistrate, I recall cases of parents who, with the best will in the world, simply could not control their children. They were rarely parents who could manage the fines prescribed. As for the custodial option, the Farmer review emphasised how
“disruptive and costly short sentences are to family life”
and ties. What does the imprisonment of a parent do for a child’s attitude to school?
There are deep reasons for school refusal that should be investigated, as I also recall from my time as a teacher. Different means to ensure the essential participation in education that children must have must be developed, and indeed in some schools are adopted, but in this time of a cost of living crisis, at least we should not increase the penalties, which can be justified in very few cases.
In conclusion, may I gently take issue with the “hammers and nuts” of the noble Lord, Lord Wei. The nut of not being in school is a very large nut indeed. Of course there are parents who educate their children well and who are going to have no trouble with a register, although I quite understand that there needs to be some clarity, but children who are badly educated or not educated account for a much larger number. It may be that noble Lords do not come into contact with these children very often. In other debates in this Committee, we have spoken about where these children are and why they are not educated. It would take a lot of time to go through this, but it is a much larger number than the number of children who are well educated. We really must do something about this. That is why the register is a good idea.
My Lords, I will clarify my position. A number of noble Lords have mentioned—and perhaps implied—that what I was trying to say was that we do not go after these bad actors and do not pursue those using home education as an excuse to provide a poor, non-existent or abusive context for learning or non-learning. That is not what I am saying. I am actually in favour of strengthening the use of other means for the identification and pursuing of families, parents or caregivers who are not home educating and are instead using it as a cover for their practices. Personally, I think we should be as hard as we can on that and strengthen our response as much as possible, whether through data, local authorities or other action.
Right now, some people are using home education as an excuse to say, “Stay away; don’t look here; go away”. However, if the ombudsman, or any other mechanism, were to agree with the local authority that there are good grounds to pursue families such as these and ask for any kind of information it wants—and if, on the evidence, if it looks as though home education is not happening—then, yes, let us go after those many families who are thought not really to be home educating. In addition, let us support those families who are struggling. I did not want to be misunderstood on that front.
However, my main concern is about where there are miscarriages of justice and we get into matters of educational philosophy. I ask noble Lords to consider Finland, where education is not really monitored until the very end. Nevertheless, Finland has pretty much the best education in the world because it does not spend 30% of time in education—as we do—monitoring, testing and checking the learning; the Finns just let the learning happen and train the teachers. I believe teachers there are given the equivalent of bankers’ salaries to make them some of the best education and learning facilitators—if you like—in the world. I would therefore just caution against this monitoring and the need to know what people are doing—I do not think we need to do this. If we have suspicions that what is going on is bad, we need to pursue this and use every power we can to sort that out. However, I am not sure that it is the right approach to ask about everyone in the country who is doing home education—whether good or bad—just because they might be doing something wrong. The ombudsman would make sense of this; it would also make sense not to put families under such an investigatory lens for too long. I have friends who have waited two years for national insurance numbers for their teenagers. Imagine a home-educating family having to wait two years, just to be told that they are not abusing the system but are instead teaching well.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the tenor of many of the amendments in this group, as explained by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas: they strengthen parents’ hands against any overbearing local authorities. That is not to suggest that all local authorities will be overbearing, but it ensures that they are not necessarily interpreting their role always as one of policing. This is all about balancing powers and having a sense of proportionality. I like the idea of the home school ombudsman suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Wei, although I would rather it were not needed because I do not like lots of this part of the Schools Bill.
I listened carefully, in particular, to what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, including his last point on this being supportive, not punitive. Those points are very important, but I want to raise my qualms about this. Of course, those noble Lords who raised the point about bad actors are correct: some parents are cruel and some represent a threat to their children. However, in a free society, do we not assume that the vast majority of parents are not a threat to their children? At the moment, as far as I know, we have not nationalised parenting. We are not saying that we are better at doing it than parents; we assume that parents are good at it.
I am nervous that, according to this conversation, bad home schooling is being used as a means of abuse and presented as the tip of an iceberg, as though we do not know what is going on behind closed doors. This implies that there is a relationship between those who choose to home school and abusive practices. I want to kick back against that.
The emphasis has been on the rights of children, as though their rights are in contradistinction to those of their parents. It is as though parents are going round snatching all the rights of children and we should let the state and the local authority be the arbiters of protecting children. I hate to mention it, but the state as parent has a bit of a mixed record: ask the young women of Oldham who were sexually abused in plain sight of state authorities—the report on this is out now—whether it is likely that parents or other people would be the abusers in that instance. I am concerned by the tenor of the discussion because, in Committee on Monday, the Minister warned us against the tone of our language. She is right; nobody wants to hype up matters or scaremonger. But in our discussions about home schooling, I did not raise all the issues of abuse; the issues of abuse have come up in the course of a discussion about home schooling. It is understandable that many people involved in home schooling feel anxious that there is slippage between those sorts of things.
I like these amendments because we need to say to local authorities, if there is to be an intervention, that they should not have an implicit presumption that there is something dodgy about children not being in school and being educated outside a school setting. There is no law against that at the moment. The reality is that nobody has a right to schooling. The law does not say that you have to be schooled; it says that you have to be educated. The majority do so through schools, but not everybody does and, as far as I know, the law is not trying to change that. We assume that this is part and parcel of a free society; it is a choice that people have. However, if we keep talking about bad actors and abuse whenever we discuss it, it is not surprising that those who choose to educate their children outside school are anxious about what the Bill is trying to do.
My Lords, I shall come in briefly on this because I did not put my name to my noble friend’s amendment on examinations. I am sorry to go back to a smaller point, but one thing that happens in education is that you usually need a certificate to carry on. It is your pathway to the next step. I have not been deaf to what has been said about the rights of home education but, to go back to one of the building blocks of our system, to gain access to the next stage of education, training or employment, you generally need the examination that proves you have done it. It does not prove much else; it just proves you have been through the process and reached a certain point. I hope the state will allow and support people to get the proof that says they have done the work to get through. If you do not have it, everything shuts down suddenly. You cannot do much else; it does not matter if you can quote Shakespeare fluently, you have still failed English if you do not have the qualification.
Think also about the home-schooling groups who have special educational needs, such as some of the groups I have met. They will sometimes need help and structure to be able to take that exam. It will be important to have some form of interaction around that; it is an important point in their process. The Government have been very keen on testing whether education is successful, usually using examination results, so if home education is to do anything, it needs that to go through.
I cannot resist making a comment about my noble friend Lord Shipley’s statement about having “expedient” in a Bill and not defining how it is used. If you wanted to cause trouble—I suspect somebody in the department was having a bad day when they drafted this—that was an excellent way of doing it; I congratulate them. Unless we get some clarification, and realise that we are trying to make sure that those who are doing things well are supported and those who are doing things badly are identified and stopped if necessary, we are going to have carnage when we come to Report.
My Lords, I support the principle of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that there should be a right of appeal, but some of the language was not helpful. He constantly used the word “punitive” if any local authority intervenes in any way. As my noble friend Lord Soley said, this is a difficult balancing act to get right, and we have to be careful of the language that we use.
I know—to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Wei—of plenty of people, friends of mine, who are really good home educators. They have a different approach, and I do not think anyone would be opposed to that. They are not the people who worry me. As my noble friend Lady Whitaker said, we have a lot of experience in this area; there are unfortunately others who do not.
This House has a duty to do two things: to ensure that the legislation is fair and capable of not penalising people who understandably prefer their children to be home educated; but we also have a responsibility to protect those children, as children do have rights. I profoundly disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox—of course children have rights. We cannot absolve ourselves of that responsibility.
It is a difficult one for the Government—they cannot duck it. I started to look up whether “expedient” was the right word, but that is not what concerns me. I am concerned that while there is a right for people to home educate their children, provided they act responsibly, there is nothing wrong with local authorities having a list and being able to assure themselves that it is taking place in an appropriate manner. It should not be seen as punitive—I agree with that—but it does not absolve them from asking some questions. I agree with my noble friend Lord Soley that a child has to be seen. I have had personal experience of cases where parents have deliberately tried to ensure that the children were not seen. These are real threats to children. We have a responsibility to protect them and to ensure that the way Government monitor home education is fair. On balance, I support the right of appeal. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I have listened to this debate carefully, and it has been extremely sensitively presented, but it has raised a lot of questions. I shall certainly not talk about home schooling, on which I have no expertise whatever, but I am going to make a comment about procedure, of which I have a learnt a little over the years.
This is not the first group of amendments where I have sensed there is serious need for proper discussion between Committee and Report. It has alarmed me, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, mentioned, that the date being pencilled in for Report is the week beginning 10 July. We will probably not finish Committee stage until Monday 27 June. The minimum period between Committee and Report is 14 days. We would be abusing Standing Orders, or require a special resolution, to reduce it further.
I do not want to inflame the conversation, but this badly prepared Bill is crying out to have a longer period between Committee and Report. The only excuse that the Government can make—it is not an excuse but a genuine problem that Governments face—is that towards the end of a parliamentary Session there is urgent time pressure to apply the minimum gaps between Committee and Report. However, that is not the case here, right at the beginning of a Session. When the Commons have tons of Bills to consider and we have a very small number, there is no pressing requirement for the Government to apply the minimum gap.
I hope that it does not sound like a threat when I give notice that I think that there are many people in this House, on all sides, who feel that it is important for there to be a proper gap. There are mechanisms with any Chamber for majorities, if a majority exists, to ensure that this happens. I hope that it does not come to anything like that, but I urge the Government to think carefully about doing as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, and allowing Report to take place in the autumn.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I echo the two phrases that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, used: we want to protect the vulnerable and protect the rights of children. There are some amazing home educators who do an amazing job, but there are also some amazing local authorities which do a very good job as well. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, praised local authorities, and I pay tribute to my former local authority. We had a boy with a phobia of being in school who had to be home educated. It was not because his single-parent mum, a nurse, wanted that, but because we just could not physically get him into school, so we home educated him. And guess what? Knowsley LA—I will name-check them—supported my school in doing that, in financial terms as well.
There are lots of examples of good local authorities, just as there are hundreds of thousands of examples of good home educators, but it should not be “us and them”. Disagreeing with whoever said it, I like the language used by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. This is an opportunity to reset the dial in terms of home education, to do the things that protect the vulnerable and protect the child, but to ensure that local authorities work with home educators. There are all sorts of ways in which we can do that.
Hopefully, if we do it that way, in a few years’ time, home educators will realise the value and importance of local authorities and how much they can bring to the table. Perhaps there are ways of doing it. I like the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Wei, of an ombudsperson. That might be a mechanism for ensuring that home educators do not feel threatened, because they would know that there is a way of dealing with it. As long as that does not lead to a massive increase in bureaucracy, maybe we should consider it.
Let us also remind ourselves of an important point which has not yet been made. Through formula funding, every child who goes to school is worth a sum of money; is it £6,400? Home educators do not get that money, so every child who is not taught at school but taught at home saves the Government money and those home educators have to pay for it. They give up not only their time but considerable money to home educate. Therefore, it seems sensible that we should show willing and give something back to home educators. Maybe one way would be by taking Amendment 130, tabled by my noble friend Lady Garden, and looking at supporting them when they want to take examinations.
For example, when we have established this new relationship, we could ensure that local authorities give learning resources and materials to home educators, if they want them.
I want to talk about attendance, which is a very important matter. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, will recall that the Blair Government put great store on attendance and rightly so. They put great store on children not being permanently suspended from school. When I had a welcome meeting for parents, I would say, “Look, the most important thing you can do for your child is to make sure they are in school every single day”—they cannot be if they are really ill, but the more school they miss the more learning they miss. You can do this in two ways: you can either use a stick and beat up or threaten parents, or you can use a carrot and encourage them. Most schools try to celebrate and reward good attendance, and this must be the way to do it, because language is important. Of course, there are cases of parents not sending their children into school and they do them a total disservice, but I am sure there are ways we can get around this. There are charities that have all sorts of good ideas about how to encourage good attendance, and we should be listening to them and considering or adopting some of their ideas.
The noble Lord, Lord Wei, mentioned Finland and many do—I remember Michael Gove always going on about Finland—but people always mention Finland in regard to their own particular issue; they never mention Finland as a whole. I agree with the noble Lord, but we should therefore adopt all the other things that Finland does: every teacher must have a master’s degree; every teacher must be paid a Rolls-Royce of a salary; every pupil has to—et cetera. Let us not just dip into the little bits of Finland that we like.
It is hugely important that we get this right. I quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and would rather go the extra mile, even if it means another week or whatever it is, so that we do what is best for our children. This is not a race to get to the finishing tape; it is about making sure that we end up with legislation with which we all agree.
I am sorry to interrupt again, but the point about Finland is important, because many of us in education policy—I helped to set up Teach First—have studied this material and I do not believe Finland is as exceptional as people make it out to be. I brought Professor Hattie over 10 years ago, who is a researcher who studied 15,000 randomised control studies on education—the noble Lord, Lord Knight, knows what I am talking about. He looked at 30 million children across thousands of studies and found three things that affected their education the most by a standard deviation. They were simple: how well does the teacher, or the parent in home education, know the child? How difficult is the work? If it is too hard or too easy, it makes a big difference. And when they mark their work or give feedback, how good is that feedback? Those three things can work in any system or country, whether private or public. All the things we argue about in politics—private/public, the size of the class and teacher pay—were shown to make a limited difference in the randomised studies. Incidentally, televisions and screens were very bad, and keeping kids back a year took things back by a standard deviation.
We could debate Finland for a long time, but I would argue that home education has many of the hallmarks that the Finnish enjoy. They are: an incredibly great relationship between the well-paid teacher and the child; and the time, because they are not being monitored all the time, to set work at an appropriate level; and to give great feedback.
I thank the noble Lord for that and would, at some point, like to talk to him about Finland. One of the other things we forget is that, just as a teacher in the classroom—I still miss teaching and miss my time in the classroom, because I got a great deal from that—home educators get a great deal from being with their children, learning with them and teaching them. We forget the importance that can have for the family home and for parents, whether they are a family or a single parent.
I end by going back to the point I was making: it is really important that we get this right. This is an opportunity to reset the dial, so that we achieve what we are all trying to get.
My Lords, I missed the opportunity to speak before the Front-Bench spokesperson got up. The point I want to make on home schooling is that it is as much about the rights of the child as it is about the rights of the parent. In the debates on Monday and today, I think that we have heard too much about the rights of the parents, but the rights of the child not to be abused and to get a decent education are important. They are not important; they are crucial. Those rights might be a counterpoint to those of the parents.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, asked a rhetorical question: is the state going to adjudicate? The answer is yes. Who else will adjudicate between the rights of the parent and the rights of the child? The education authority and the social services authority clearly have crucial roles there. Noble Lords need only cast their minds back to all the dreadful cases that have occurred where the school or social services have failed. This is not about home education. What is notable about many cases of child abuse is that those children were at school, although their absence from school too frequently was a hallmark that should have been picked up. The local education authority and the local authority more generally have an important role. They should not be demonised, in the way some speakers have suggested, as if the hallmarks were bureaucracy and interfering with parental rights.
I have two more points, the first of which is on the point of the noble Lord, Lord Wei, on data. I am afraid he made two conflicting points: first, that the data was available anyway and, secondly, that it would be hacked. If the data is available anyway, it can be hacked.
The other point is a genuine, not a rhetorical, question for the Minister. Noble Lords have referred to decisions made by the local authority. Do they not come under the aegis of the Local Government Ombudsman in any event? Why do we need a special ombudsman service? If the Government are trying to cut back on bureaucracy, they can use the tried and tested system we already have.
Before the noble Lord sits down, I just want to clarify or ask a question. At the moment, we have a system in which social services or child protection agencies, quite rightly, are the part of the state that intervenes in those terrible cases where we suspect that a child is being abused. Is he not concerned if, through its education role, the local authority now has to do that job? That is almost the implication. In schooling, we have the phrase “in loco parentis”: the idea is that parents entrust their child to teachers and the education authority, because they say that “You educate them, but we parent them.” Is there not a danger of posing a conflict between parents and children in this competition of rights? For the majority of the time, that is not a problem. Even when it is, the appropriate body would be social services. I am worried about education being dragged into what is effectively social services. Keeping an eye on kids is one thing; it is not the same as being social workers with their expertise.
Sorry, I was just waiting, because every time I have tried to stand up someone has spoken. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, reminded me that I should declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association—hard won and well deserved, I think.
We have heard a fascinating debate with a wide range of views. It is the first time that I have had the pleasure of listening to the noble Lord, Lord Wei. We could have so many discussions about Finland and Teach First, but he was really quite amazing at contextualising the Bill at the beginning of his remarks. It is very interesting that he comes from his Government’s perspective, but he put us firmly in the context of what he saw that is wrong about it. That is what we have been talking about over the past five days. I appreciate those comments.
Most home-schooling parents are, of course, wonderfully motivated and they deserve our full support, but we need to safeguard children. To pick up the right of appeal issue from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Knight, we have an excellent local authority model in the form of school admission appeal panels, comprising independent individuals with no links to the local authority. They give impartial judgments on children’s admission to schools. So, there are good models out there.
We know that, under the Education Act 1996, parents are responsible for ensuring that the education provided is sufficient, full-time and suitable to age and ability. They can choose to employ private tutors to assist them—there is no requirement, of course. Learning can take place in different locations and is not limited to the child’s home.
We have not mentioned Covid during this debate, which caused a huge increase in home schooling. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services estimated that the number of children being home educated at some point during 2020-21 was 115,542. That is a 34% increase on the 2019-20 total. It further remarked that in many cases, home schooling
“does not seem the most appropriate route for the children concerned.”
So, concerns have been raised. This has been a long debate, so I will draw my comments to a close. We are therefore keen to follow this register’s impact as it is developed and implemented across England.
My Lords, I thank you all for your thoughtful contributions. I start by saying that I could not agree more with my noble friend Lord Lucas. I had the pleasure of talking to a number of home educators from Gloucestershire yesterday and to the local authority, thanks to an introduction from my honourable friend Siobhan Baillie. Clearly, the relationships between the two were extremely strong and good, as my noble friend pointed out.
I will start my remarks with Amendments 112A and 137C, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas, and Amendment 171X from my noble friend Lord Wei. The issues of appeal are extremely important. I will summarise the current routes for your Lordships, but also make some commitments to the Committee about how we can make sure that the concerns that have been aired this afternoon, and by home educators I have spoken to, can be addressed.
As your Lordships are aware, several existing routes are already available to parents, such as a local authority’s internal complaints procedure, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, which the noble Lord, Lord Davies, referred to, and the Secretary of State’s powers under the Education Act 1996, as well as the Information Commissioner’s Office where concerns relate to the handling of data. The law already enables a parent to apply to the Secretary of State to intervene and make a determination if a local authority has refused a parent’s request to revoke a school attendance order.
A number of your Lordships, led by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend Lord Lucas, made the critical point that this needs to feel like a supportive system. I would go further and say that it is really important that we have a system that feels fair to parents and which builds trust and confidence. Therefore, we propose to create, in close collaboration with local authorities and home-educating parents, new statutory guidance for local authorities which will cover all the powers and duties of local authorities regarding the register and support. This will include advice on how to promote positive engagement with the home education community.
We will also continue to consider what more we can do to support parents and strengthen independent oversight. I thank the noble Baroness opposite for the suggestion she put forward and that other noble Lords have mentioned. I of course welcome the offer from the noble Lord, Lord Soley, to support us in that work and for his very generous offer on behalf the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in his absence, which I am sure he will be delighted about.
I again thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for his helpful suggestion in Amendment 137C. The preliminary notice stage already provides parents with the opportunity to evidence that their child is in receipt of a suitable education. They would still need to demonstrate this if they were to appeal to the First-tier Tribunal, so we are not clear that my noble friend’s amendment makes any practical difference to parents.
Turning to Amendment 130 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, the Bill includes a range of examples of the types of support that local authorities can provide. As I mentioned, we plan to publish statutory guidance to support local authorities to discharge this duty. This will include more detailed examples, which could include support for exams. As I said, we will work with stakeholders, including parents who have chosen to educate their children at home, on this prior to publication.
However, there is a principle that underpins this: by electing to home educate, parents accept full responsibility for their child’s education and the costs associated with this, including exam fees. There will not be a legal requirement for local authorities to provide specific funding to home-educated pupils for examination fees as part of the support duty, but it would be one way they could choose to discharge the duty.
Before the noble Baroness finishes that point, if somebody has special educational needs—we had an example from my noble friend Lord Storey—and they are still interacting with the education system to an extent, would they still get that support despite the fact they are home educated? I appreciate that it is a difficult interchange—I probably did not declare my interests properly before—but could we get an example? The primary problem with this is the fact that home educators are a very broad church.
So, as the noble Lord knows extremely well, is the spectrum of educational needs. I know that one is not allowed to have props in the Chamber, but I commend to the noble Lord the flowchart at the back of the policy notes on this part of the Bill. It sets out the process, including where a child has special educational needs. I think it is easier to follow than me trying to explain at the Dispatch Box.
Turning to Amendment 130A from my noble friend Lord Lucas, individuals already have the right to ask local authorities for copies of their personal information and inquire how they are using it by submitting a subject access request. A parent can demand that inaccurate information is corrected, and if the local authority fails to do so, the parent can complain to the Information Commissioner, who has significant enforcement powers.
Turning to Amendment 134A, I repeat that it is not possible for fines or penalty notices to be given to parents for failing to provide information for the registers and the Bill does not provide for that, but if parents fail to demonstrate that their child is receiving a suitable education, it is right that the local authority begin the process of issuing a school attendance order. If the parent is unable to evidence that the education they are providing is suitable, the process will lead to an order being issued. If the parent then breaches the order, they may be fined by the magistrates’ court. On collecting and publishing data on this, the Bill already provides flexibility to require this through regulations.
I now turn to Amendments 136ZA, 136B, 136C, 137B, 138ZA, 138A, 139 and 140, from my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. My department’s guidance for local authorities highlights that the authority should initially attempt to resolve doubts through informal inquiries.
The noble Lord raised the point of expediency, and I am grateful, because I absolutely understand why, and why it sounds anything other than what one might expect. The current test for issuing a school attendance order is that the child is not receiving a suitable education, in the opinion of the local authority and, as the noble Lord said, that it would be expedient for the child to attend school. That is the test contained in the existing Section 437 of the Education Act 1996, and new Section 436J mirrors that test, so this will keep the test for issuing a school attendance order the same in both England and Wales. I again point the noble Lord to my favourite flowchart, from which he will see that, prior to issuing a school attendance order, there needs to be a preliminary notice, which is covered at new Section 436I(3)(c), where it says that one of the conditions for issuing a preliminary notice is:
“the child is not receiving suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise”.
I absolutely understand his question, but I hope I have reassured him and the House that, while it may appear to be one thing, it is covered absolutely properly in the legislation dating from the 1996 Act. The current law, supported by guidance, requires that local authorities take all relevant factors into account when considering whether it is expedient for a child to attend school, and that includes where the child has expressed an opinion about attending school—the voice of the child was something that a number of your Lordships raised.
Local authorities should have the in-house expertise to make these decisions, but if they do not, they can and should consult a suitably qualified external expert. We will make this clear in our guidance. It is crucial that the time a child is in receipt of unsuitable education is minimised, and therefore it is right that local authorities move to initiate formal school attendance order procedures as soon as possible where home education appears unsuitable. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, rightly mentioned the work of many charities; we may be thinking about the same ones. If he goes back to the schools White Paper, he will see that our approach on attendance is: support first, support second, support third, with enforcement very much down the line. We are working with a number of charities which are leaders in this field.
Amendment 143B from my noble friend Lord Lucas is unnecessary, because if local authorities were to refuse to revoke a school attendance order on an unreasonable basis, that refusal would in itself be unlawful.
My noble friend’s Amendment 143F would mean that if a parent was found guilty of breaching a school attendance order and continued to breach it, the local authority could take no further action to enforce it: it would have to restart the process and make a new order. That would obviously be a waste of public resources, but, more significantly, would add to an already lengthy timeframe in which a child may be in receipt of an unsuitable education. I should be very happy to follow up with my noble friend on the specific example he gave, where that home education may have changed, to check that we have that very reasonable point covered.
Finally, I speak to Amendment 143I, also tabled by my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. A breach of a school attendance order is currently punishable by a fine of up to £1,000, compared to a maximum fine of £2,500, or up to three months’ imprisonment, for the offence of knowingly failing to cause a child to attend the school at which they are registered. This means that there is currently an incentive for some parents to remove their child from school under the guise of home education rather than incur the greater penalty associated with non-attendance. By aligning the penalties, we can increase the deterrent and help ensure that as many children as possible are in receipt of a suitable education.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Whitaker and Lady Brinton, asked about the change in custodial sentence. Wider criminal justice legislation, which has not yet come into force, will raise sentences in magistrates’ courts from three months to 51 weeks. New Section 436Q is simply in line with that wider change, and until it comes into force, the maximum sentence under new Section 436Q will remain at three months, as set out in subsection (9). The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, also raised the issue of publication of individual data, and I am happy to repeat that we are taking that away to consider it.
I hope that I have answered the bulk of the points raised in this group and I ask my noble friend to withdraw his Amendment 112A—
I think that my amendment might have been missed out. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister had any thoughts on Amendment 171X and the idea of an ombudsman with the expertise to adjudicate and mediate to prevent any expensive court cases that might otherwise occur.
I apologise. I referred to my noble friend’s amendment right at the beginning of my remarks and reflected that we will consider what options there are to make sure that there is a system that feels fair to parents and in which parents have trust and confidence. With that, I ask my noble friend Lord Lucas to withdraw his Amendment 112A and hope that other noble Lords will not move theirs.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for those replies. I shall read them in Hansard and return to her if I have any points of detail to make. I very much agree with my noble friend Lord Wei that we need an appeal system that feels fair and builds trust. There are different ways of doing it. It clearly should not be by internal local authority appeals, the Local Government Ombudsmen have not proved helpful in elective home education cases to date and the Secretary of State system is a bit on the impenetrable side, so I very much hope this is an area where we will make improvements.
My noble friend’s remarks put a lot of weight on the forthcoming guidance. If at any stage a draft of that can be shared, I would be most grateful to have a look at it. It would shortcut a lot of debate if we had a clear feeling of where the Government are heading.
I hope my noble friend picked up the point, but if not, I will repeat it: we plan to develop the guidance in co-operation with home-educating parents and local authorities. I am sure that, when a draft is ready, we would be happy to share it with other Members of the House.
My Lords, I was not trying to hurry my noble friend; I was just saying this is clearly quite important.
Picking up on other points made in the debate, I am absolutely delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and I are so much in agreement on this. We approach it from different angles, but we both agree on the need for the system to be supportive and for children who are not being properly educated to be rescued with speed. The question is: how do we do this fairly and leave home education as a supported system?
My general experience of this—and I hope that talking to Gloucestershire will mean that my noble friend shares it—is that where there is a supportive system, money is much better directed. Money goes to supporting the education of children, rather than being used to try to control their parents, and there is a much better flow of information about what is happening. Providing facilities for parents, including maths and English catch-up and even swimming lessons, means we get to see these children and get the information without having to be punitive about it. There is a flow of information because we are working with the home education community. The numbers that remain outside the easy orbit gets small, and they can be focused on. Building something that is supportive and works with home education is a double benefit—using the money well and allowing us to catch up with children who are being failed swiftly. I very much hope that that is the direction the Bill will take.
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 112A withdrawn.
Amendments 113 and 114 not moved.
Before calling Amendment 114A, I inform the Committee that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will be taking part remotely and that if Amendment 114A is agreed, I cannot call Amendments 115 or 116 due to pre-emption.
114A: Clause 48, page 42, line 26, leave out from “1(a),” to “days” in line 27 and insert “the period of 30 school”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment, along with other amendments to Clause 48, page 42, and Clause 49, page 47, in the name of Lord Lucas, are intended to simplify the immediate duty to one of registration, leaving it to the local authority to then inform the parents of the other requirements, and to increase the timescale to accommodate for additional responsibilities on parents. “School days” are used to exempt parents from having to disrupt holidays to provide the required information.
My Lords, Amendment 114A is the first appearance of an amendment that deals with longer time limits. Such amendments seem to be scattered through a number of groups. I will try not to repeat myself, or indeed focus on them at this moment because there are many more of them in later groups.
The principle I am working to is that the time limits being set should work for a reasonably together, reasonably collaborative parent. We have to allow for the fact that children go on holidays and that out of term time, it may be hard to get hold of them. We should look at longer limits than are set out in the Bill, and at the concept of “school days”—the parental equivalent of working days—as the form these limits should take.
I am interested to know where my noble friend finds herself on this and all the other amendments on time limits. I am aiming to help the Government produce a system that works fairly. If we have a system that trips parents easily into school attendance orders, then we need to allow parents time to react first. I particularly think that we need to give parents time to get it wrong first. I know how often I managed to get things wrong. Reading through my amendments in putting together these groups, I can see that my drafting has not exactly been perfect. We ought to have human time limits. They should not be overlong, but they ought to allow for the real lives of the home educators involved. After all, local authorities are not known as the fastest people in the world when it comes to responding to inquiries. There ought to be some equality of allowance.
In this group, Amendment 122C questions whether, in this section of the Bill, the Government intend to catch hired home tutors—people picking up an individual from a tutor supplier and saying, “We’d love you to come in a couple of days a week to support us in home education”. Would they be caught by Amendment 122C? Where is the boundary between organised provision of education and a parent asking an individual to come in and help?
Amendment 126A asks that we look at the benefit of registering tutors, in much the same style as we have done with parking operators. The Government are expanding the number of tutors and their use in the schooling system, but we do not have a system that in any way is protective of the public. There is no useful form of registration for tutors. To my mind, this is a subject to which the Government should be bending a thought. The best I can hope for from my noble friend is, “Yes, we’re thinking of looking at it”, but I do think that they should be.
I have read through Amendment 128A before. This does need to be said somewhere, and I suspect it is in the guidance my noble friend has been talking about. The basis on which local authorities are supposed to be interacting with home education need to be made clear to them.
All the other amendments in this group—apart from Amendment 140B, which is just an example of an appeal—consider ways in which the support the Government mention in the Bill but do not, as far as I can see in the impact assessment, provide any money for, might be provided. They look at things that good local authorities already do. Amendment 173 suggests that this support should be in place before we pitch into activating the registration system.
The point was made when considering the last group that home educators are actually saving the state a lot of money. My noble friend said we should not start giving money to home educators, and that this was a decision they had made. Yes, but we should give money to local authorities so that their support for home educators is properly funded. In previous iterations, I have suggested that half the money the Government save should go to local authorities—with no undue ring-fencing—the intention being that it is a fund to provide for their support of home educators, to be used in a way that works best locally. That is not in the impact assessment at the moment, and I very much hope that the Government will have a figure in front of us before the Bill leaves this House. I beg to move.
I remind the Committee that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is taking part remotely. I call the noble Baroness.
My Lords, the comprehensive introduction by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to the wide-ranging amendments in this group has once again set the tone for many of us with concerns about this part of the Bill as originally drafted. I think that everyone, including the Minister, has said that they want to see the relationship between home-educating parents and their local authority start from a position of trust and support, while ensuring that there is a system that protects children too.
I am pleased that at the end of his speech the noble Lord mentioned that there should be some money for local authorities to help support home educators. That was one of the points I mentioned about the northern California home educators I saw at Sierra College, just outside Sacramento. That was exactly what had happened. The school board here understood that it could help parents without changing parents’ way of educating their children. As a result of that trust, the entire tone changed between the home educators and the school board.
I have signed the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans’s Amendments 115, 117 and 119, which extend from 15 to 30 days the period in which parents must register their child and provide the information. Other amendments in this group do the same. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, talks about “school days”, not just “days”, and that is very helpful and supportive as well. Amendment 129 from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will ensure that children or teachers get the support for any special educational need or disability that they would have already got.
In previous groups I have talked about the problem that many parents have had of not getting the support they need for their child, even though they may be entitled to it. If they have had some support, it has not been enough to provide the specific support that the child needs, whether for special educational needs, disability or a mental or physical health problem. I have given examples of that before. As a result, some parents have been forced to withdraw their children from school, often because they felt that their child was literally not safe—perhaps a medical procedure requires a school nurse to do it but there is no longer a school nurse available. Sometimes parents have been threatened with off-rolling by the school. Sometimes the promised special educational needs support has not happened.
In the last group the noble Lord, Lord Soley, gave a further good example of children being withdrawn from school because of their challenging behaviour. It is important to recognise that children with this challenging behaviour should also get support. If they end up out of school with their parents trying to cope, that is a very big burden for parents. The behaviour of parents, when accused by the local authority of not doing things, often causes friction. Local authorities should always come from the approach that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, outlined: that of teachers always wanting to help, understand and get to the root of the problem and provide the support that will change the child’s behaviour.
I believe the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is vital. A child with SEN, a disability or a health problem who is out of school should have the support that they would have got in school. They need it wherever they receive their education. His amendment needs to succeed.
My Lords, I will speak briefly to the amendments in this group, of which Amendments 115, 117 and 119 were originally tabled by my right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans, who is unable to be present in the Chamber today.
As he is absent, I will focus on the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, which also extend the relevant period in which a parent must comply with registration and provide information, as requested from a local authority, from 15 days to 28 days, 30 days or 30 school days respectively. I know my right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans would have been happy to support these amendments, as do I, given their shared principle that giving parents sufficient breathing space to comply is helpful.
Fifteen days is simply too short a timeframe to register a child or provide any information necessary in accordance with the register. To begin with, parents may not even be aware of the obligation to register their child in the first place, making it imperative that there is a reasonable timeframe to inform the local authority that the child is eligible for registration. Home schooling is not subject to the traditional school calendar, meaning that a two-week holiday, far from unusual, would take up the entirety of the relevant period to comply. Fifteen days appears somewhat punitive and may unintentionally mean that parents fall foul of it, particularly where circumstances make it impossible to comply. I am not aware of any specific rationale behind this compliance timeframe of 15 days, so I would welcome the Government’s reason for it.
As it stands, I do not believe that the Government have reasonably considered the complexities of some families’ lives and the multitude of reasons for delays that could occur. Rather than being unnecessarily tight, as currently stipulated, the relevant period ought to reflect a more reasonable timeframe. I hope the Government will provide home-schooling parents with a relevant compliance period that reflects real-life circumstances, whether that is 28 days, 30 days or 30 school days.
Finally, I add my support to Amendment 128A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, which helpfully defines the correct relationship between local authorities and home-schooling parents, and the constructive and non-judgmental attitude that local authorities should have when dealing with elective home educators.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and I absolutely agree with everything he has just said. I rise to speak to Amendments 116, 118, 125 and 126 in my name. I tabled these amendments on behalf of home educators. There are quite a lot of them so I crave your Lordships’ indulgence.
As we have heard from the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, the first two refer to wishing to lengthen the relevant period in a number of different situations. My amendments lengthen from 15 to 28 days the period in which parents are required to comply with duties imposed by local authorities, but I would be happy to go along with the 30 days in the other amendments. Parents would argue that they may need time to consult, possibly obtain legal advice or, at the very least, consider all the implications, and 28 or 30 days is a much more reasonable timeframe for that than 15.
Amendment 125 finds itself in this group. It seeks to ensure that the less structured but enormously beneficial forest schools and farm schools are not overlooked. Both teach a great deal to pupils and get them out in the open, with fresh air and acquiring a new understanding of natural surroundings, animals, crops and all the other invaluable work of farms. My daughter teaches four year-olds, who really love their forest school lessons. It is some of the most pleasurable and productive learning they achieve. It is particularly beneficial for town and disadvantaged children, who may never have walked through woods or seen a cow.
Amendment 126 ensures that someone who has made strenuous efforts to provide information should not be penalised if the information is deemed inadequate. People can do only their best, and we would not wish to see parents fined for matters that were not their fault.
My Lords, I will speak briefly to Amendment 129. I put my name to this because I saw it and said, “Yes, this is right”. What level of support are you going to give to a certain group with special educational needs, particularly if they do not have the plan? Anyone who has looked at special educational needs knows that there is a great struggle to get the plan. We have a bureaucratic legal system in which whether you get it often depends on the lawyer you have employed. I know that this was not the original intention of the Bill, because I did it. Going through this process, there was supposed to be something called a graduated approach involved. Can we have some indication of what the Government feel the process will be in future? I assume that the new review of special educational needs will come up with something that is an improvement.
The law of unintended consequences, or the cock-up theory of history, means that we have a mess in special educational needs at the moment. I do not think anybody seriously disputes that, but I hope that in future we will not be so dependent on the plan, the statement mark 2, the gold star tattooed on the back of your neck or whichever way you identify special educational needs; you will not be as determined on the higher classification. Many people are getting the plan now because they are not getting any support, their education is deteriorating and they are suddenly finding themselves in the higher-needs group.
I did the Bill and the noble Baroness did not, so maybe this fault falls more on me than on her, but that is the state of affairs at the moment. Some indication that the Government will intervene before they get to this crucial point would be very reassuring, at least with regard to their thinking and lines of progression on this. It is not happening at the moment, and some assurance that it will happen in future, or at least that the Government plan for it to happen in future, would make life a little easier.
I was slightly diverted there. I am going to be very brief. I am diverted because—is Amendment 123 in this group? Yes, it is.
I will perhaps ask the Minister a question. Any teacher who is teaching children in a school has to have disclosure and barring clearance. Regarding the practice—and I do not complain about this—where some home educators use teachers either to teach their own children, not all the time but occasionally, and maybe a group of children, presumably those teachers have to also have safeguarding qualifications. What I am trying to say in this amendment is that there are cases—and this actually was raised with me by some home educators—where, for example, and I think this is very good practice, the children will meet other adults who are not qualified teachers but have particular expertise in a particular area to instruct or teach their children. What this amendment seeks is to ensure that those adults also have safeguarding clearance. I do not know what the current situation is on that.
I also want to respond to the point in Amendment 129, which my noble friend Lord Addington signed. This is the issue which I still struggle with. For those pupils who are permanently excluded from school—and in the vast majority of cases they are young people with special educational needs—if there is not a pupil referral unit on the site of the school, they get moved to an alternative provider. As we have discussed, I think in Written and Oral Questions, many local authorities, often because there is a shortage of places or because they have not got the money, look for the cheapest provider. I had a meeting yesterday with Ofsted, which told me—I was absolutely horrified by this—that one unregistered provider charges £50 a day plus taxi fares, including the £50, almost just to look after that child. That child could have special educational needs, so this cannot be allowed to go on. We need to take a firm hand. I am sort of having a second go at this, because I was chairing the session today at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education. The Minister on special educational needs spoke about this and I was very reassured, but hoped I could be reassured from our Minister on this issue as well. Other than that, that is all I want to say.
I do not want to repeat much of the good stuff that has been said, but I shall just mention our Amendment 128, which amends Clause 48 on sharing data between local authorities when a child moves. We are just pointing out that we must have regard to child protection and the safety of their parents when this is done. We are concerned that, where there are circumstances in which a parent is moving as a consequence of domestic violence or is a victim of or witness to crime, that they are protected. To be absolutely clear, we want to make sure that information can be shared, and that it can be shared safely and quickly.
On Amendment 129, about the support provided by local authorities to children with special needs or disabilities, we are very interested in supporting this. We take the points raised on time limits and school days and would be sympathetic to any reasonable amendments along these lines at Report.
My Lords, I turn to the second group of amendments, starting with Amendment 128A, in the name of my noble friend Lord Lucas. I would remind the House that the law is already clear that parents have a right to educate their children at home. The Government continue to support this where it is done in the best interests of the child. Our guidance on home education for local authorities is clear that elective home education, of itself, is not an inherent safeguarding risk, and local authorities should not treat it as such. We are also aware that there are a number of reasons why parents may choose elective home education. Sometimes, as your Lordships have already raised this afternoon, this may not be their choice, for example due to off-rolling, which is why we believe it would be valuable to require the recording of reasons for home education, so we can identify some of the wider system issues which my noble friend rightly points to in his amendment.
On Amendment 128, from the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, the information held in registers will of course be protected under UK GDPR, like any other data, and the Bill only enables data to be shared with prescribed partners where the local authority feels that it is appropriate and proportionate to promote the education, safety and welfare of children. I am very familiar with the issues that she raises in relation to domestic abuse and just how devious some people can be in trying to track down a former partner, which is why that proportionality of risk is so important.
I would like to thank again my noble friend Lord Lucas, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St. Albans and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, for Amendments 114A through to 119. We believe that the timeframe of 15 days in which parents or out-of-school providers must provide information for a local authority register strikes the right balance between minimising the amount of time a child would spend in potentially unsuitable education and allowing sufficient time to send the required information. In addition, defining the period in terms of “school days” would, we believe, be an inappropriate and impractical measurement for home-educated children who, as we heard in the debate, by definition do not necessarily follow a school calendar. But I think the issue with the timings and those proposed by my noble friend in later amendments on the school attendance order process is that, if you take them all together, it would more than double the length of time that a child would be without suitable education. It would take the total number of days to 120, instead of 51 on the Government’s proposed process. I think that is the way I would ask your Lordships to think about it. Each individual step may look tight to some of your Lordships, and to some home educators and proprietors of education institutions, but when we look at it in the round, the fact that a child could be in unsuitable education for 120 days, versus 51, is the point I would ask your Lordships to reflect on.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, proposed Amendment 126. The monetary penalty for failing to provide information, contained in the new Section 436E, only applies to persons who provide out-of-school education to children without their parents being present. Parents who fail in their duty to provide information, or who provide false information, for the register would not be subject to any financial penalty. Rather, as I mentioned earlier, the local authority will be required then to initiate the process of finding out whether a child is receiving suitable education. That is obviously the central point of their inquiry. If they find that a child is not receiving this, then it could lead to a school attendance order. And if that attendance order is not complied with, it could eventually result in a fine being imposed, but only if the parent convinces neither the local authority nor the magistrates’ court that their child is being suitably educated.
Turning to my noble friend Lord Lucas’s Amendment 140B, as raised earlier in this debate there are already a number of options for parents who want to query or challenge a school attendance order. We are not convinced that introducing a further route such as this to appeal a local authority’s decision would be the best use of effort and resources. As I have already mentioned to the Committee, we recognise the importance of having a system that feels fair and is trusted. We will do what more we can to support parents and strengthen independent oversight.
I turn to Amendments 129 to 129F, from my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. The Bill already includes a broad range of examples of the types of support local authorities could provide. I think behind the noble Lord’s amendments, if I have understood correctly, is not just what is provided but how it is provided. As I have mentioned, we plan to publish statutory guidance for local authorities which will include further and more detailed examples, and—again I repeat myself—we will work with all key stakeholders to do this.
Consideration for the needs of the child is already included in the support duty, and there are a range of areas where parents and children may need support and resources. Therefore, rather than setting that out explicitly in the Bill, we think those decisions are best made locally. Local authorities already have a statutory duty to secure the provision set out in an education, health and care plan for children with special educational needs.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked about the situation for children without an education, health and care plan and about the Government’s aspiration. As I am sure he is expecting me to say, the Government’s aspiration through the consultation we are carrying out on the SEND and AP Green Paper is to address some of the issues he highlighted. Our current published guidance to local authorities on elective home education says that
“if the home education is suitable, the local authority has no duty to arrange any special educational provision for the child; the plan should simply set out the type of special educational provision that the authority thinks the child requires but it should state in a suitable place that parents have made their own arrangements under s.7 of the Education Act 1996”.
However, this should be caveated by the fact that our clauses in the Bill would give the local authority a duty to provide some support if the child is registered on the children not in school register, which could include special educational needs support. As I said earlier, this would be at the request of parents and not imposed.
That was fairly helpful, but we are now overly dependent on the plans; I do not think there is any doubt about that. The Government are effectively saying that an identified need which is either not severe or has not yet gone through the process would still give some form of obligation, recognition and an entitlement to support in certain circumstances.
Under the changes proposed in the Bill—if I understood the noble Lord correctly.
I turn to Amendment 173 from my noble friend Lord Lucas. We would like the system of registration to be implemented as soon as possible to—I hope—reassure those parents who are doing a great job supporting their children at home. It will offer support to those parents who are struggling to provide education to their children at home, help safeguard those children who may be more vulnerable and not in school, and allow local authorities to better target their resources to those families who want or need support. We will take sufficient time prior to the registration system coming into force to ensure the registers work for everyone and that local authorities are clear on their support duty. Therefore, we do not feel it is helpful to set a strict implementation plan for the new support duty in the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised Amendment 123. I hope he will be reassured that it is already a criminal offence knowingly to recruit someone to work in a regulated activity with children who has been barred from working with children.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and my noble friend Lord Lucas brought forward Amendments 122C, 125 and 126A. A threshold set out in regulations will ensure that the duty to provide information targets only those providers that are used for a substantial proportion of a child’s education. I was not altogether surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised the issue of unregulated alternative provision. I know we are going to be debating it in more detail in a subsequent group, so I hope I can save my remarks on that for later.
There is also a power in new Section 436E(6) to make regulations creating specific exemptions to the requirement for providers to provide information, which could be used to exclude certain settings from scope. We will continue to engage with stakeholders on this. However, where providers are eligible, the duty will be vital in aiding identification of eligible children and ensuring the registration system is effective in safeguarding them from harm and promoting their education.
My noble friend—I mean my noble friend Lord Lucas; I have so many noble friends—referred to the importance of adequate funding. We are still in the process of determining what the minimum expectation on local authorities should be in terms of their new support duty. To ensure that it is as effective as possible, it is right that we undertake the necessary consideration and assessment of need, including how this can be achieved and the costs involved. We will engage closely with stakeholders on this prior to the statutory guidance being issued and we have also committed to undertake a new burdens assessment to identify the level of funding that may be required to support local authorities so that they can discharge their duty effectively and well. Therefore, I ask my noble friend Lord Lucas—
I have a very quick question before the Minister sits down. She talked about making sure that people have the relevant safeguarding qualifications and going through the process. Whose responsibility is that? Does the parent of a home-educated child have a legal duty to do the checking or does that power and responsibility lie with someone else? If it was a school, it would be the school’s responsibility. I am not sure whose responsibility this is.
I do not know the answer to the noble Baroness’s specific question, but I will get an answer and respond to her.
In closing, I ask my noble friend Lord Lucas to withdraw Amendment 114A and other noble Lords not to move the amendments in their names.
My Lords, yet again, I am very grateful to my noble friend for her replies. I assume that the Government have all the powers they need to create this guidance that we are all placing so much reliance on. I hope my noble friend will tell me if that is not the case, but I assume that it is. I look forward to reading her replies in more detail in Hansard and picking up any issues I have with them in correspondence. For now, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 114A withdrawn.
Amendments 115 to 119 not moved.
120: Clause 48, page 42, line 32, leave out “15” and insert “28”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment, and others to Clause 48 in Baroness Garden’s name, are intended to lengthen the “relevant period”.
My Lords, I shall move Amendment 120 and speak to Amendments 122, 123 and 134 in my name. I can be brief because we have effectively discussed all this already. The first three amendments all refer to wishing to lengthen the relevant period from 15 to 28 days in a number of different situations but, of course, I would be very happy to accept the amendment that suggests 30 days. I really will not go into detail on each of them, although Amendment 134 does ring the changes, as here, for some reason, it is 14 days. One wonders why, when we have had 15 all along, suddenly here only 14 days are given to challenge a monetary penalty. Could the Minister explain how these periods are arrived at? It would be helpful if we knew how the Government decided that some should be 14 and some 15. Anyway, my amendment does not waver. We still consider 28 days a reasonable time for such representations. I will not repeat previous arguments but will just say that that is a much more reasonable period in which to challenge and work out an appropriate response. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have a couple of amendments in this group. My noble friend covered the government arguments on this subject clearly under the previous group. I expect to come back at her in one form or another when I have the time to analyse the detailed timescale she is looking at—in other words, the whole distance between a worried local authority saying that a child is not being looked after properly and being able to enforce, and how that all works together. But I shall not move my amendments at this time.
My Lords, this is a technical question and compassion for parents who are often struggling to deal with vulnerable children must be factored in. These amendments are intended to simplify the immediate duty to one of registration, leaving it to the local authority then to inform the parents of the other requirements and increase the timescale to accommodate additional responsibilities on parents. School days are used to exempt parents from having to disrupt holidays to provide the required information. These all seem sensible alternatives to what is currently proposed by the Government. I conclude by asking the Minister what analysis lies behind the Government’s choice of a 15-day period in these proposals.
My Lords, again, I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, represented tonight by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, for Amendments 120, 120A, 121, 122 and 122A. As debated with your Lordships earlier this evening, the relevant period has been set at 15 days to minimise the amount of time that children are potentially not in receipt of a suitable education and to allow local authorities to use their powers effectively. Therefore, extending this timeframe could reduce local authority visibility where, for example, a child might be missing education, and prevent them quickly redirecting their resource, where a child ceases to be eligible for registration, to those children and families still eligible. As I said in the earlier group, our approach to this has been to look at the total length of the process and consider the balance between the requirements placed on parents and providers with the rights of the child to access a suitable education as quickly as possible. As I said, the amendments would increase that from 51 days to 120 days, and I am sure all the former teachers in the Committee will be able to convert that into a term or more in a nanosecond. That is the reason we would resist these amendments.
Turning to Amendment 124 from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, the response time for providers has been set to 15 days for similar reasons—so that local authorities can be sure that their registers are accurate and they are discharging their duties effectively to ensure that children are in receipt of a suitable education. By extending the timeframe, local authorities would not be able to identify where certain children are receiving their education or, at worst, if they are attending unsuitable settings such as illegal schools.
Finally, turning to Amendment 134: we consider extending the 14-day period unnecessary, as a person served with a warning notice is already able to extend their period to respond to 28 days if they provide notice that they will be making representations. Therefore, I would ask the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to withdraw her Amendment 120 and other noble Lords not to move theirs.
Amendment 120 withdrawn.
Amendments 120A to 134A not moved.
Debate on whether Clause 48 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I oppose Clause 48 standing part of the Bill to enable us again to have a full discussion of the issues in this part. Part 3 has drawn significant criticism from home educators and I want to put their significant anxieties and concerns about the introduction of the children not in school register to the Committee. They are very fearful of its consequences and its unintended consequences for their children and their children’s education. Sadly, many feel demonised by the tone of this part. As we have heard from the Government, their intention behind this part of the legislation is to tackle the increasing number of pupils who are disengaging from schools and increasing non-attendance. I hope, therefore, that this debate will allow the Minister to explain to the Committee, and put on record comprehensively, the reasons this part is being introduced. More importantly, I hope it will give the opportunity for the fears and anxieties of home educators to be alleviated, to allow the Government’s significant reassurances to be given to home educators and for this Committee to hear those comments before Report.
I think all of us in this Committee would recognise that home-educating families begin and continue with home education as they passionately believe the home is the best setting for their children to learn and thrive. There are many reasons why school is not a suitable environment for some children. Often, it is because the specific needs of the child cannot adequately be accommodated by a school, which may already be managing a lot of competing needs of the children in its care. By way of illustration, may I spend a few minutes giving the situations and views of two home-educating families?
First, I have first-hand experience of how a five year-old boy has thrived from being home educated. This little boy, settled now with his new adopted family, can be quite disruptive. In a school environment it became clear that, if bored, he would cause trouble and risked being too easily dismissed as the naughty kid in the class. Through home education this five year-old little boy now has a reading age of eight: he loves Shakespeare and reading about classical Greek mythology. In maths he is doing algebra because he loves it, and does it over and over. He is confident and, although only five, can have a proper conversation with anyone, including me. All that was needed was a different educational environment in which he could flourish. His parents and the home-educating community of which they are a part are terrified by this part of the Bill. His parents can understand the intent behind it, but they feel that
“this legislation is effectively punishing parents for doing what they feel is right by their child”.
My second example illustrates how a child’s specific health needs often mean home education is the only choice. For one mum the health of her daughter was paramount; her daughter developed absence seizures in year 1, a debilitating condition which affected her brain. Despite requests, her school refused to facilitate necessary long-term changes to benefit her health. They asked for her to attend school late once a week, so she could wake naturally, as advised by her consultant. Even though this was trialled prior to lockdown, when the school reopened the family was threatened with a fine. It appeared to the family that the school was far more concerned about the impact on its attendance figures than the needs of their daughter. Now, through home education, in which the family was able to deliver the needs advised by the medical professionals, the young girl has recovered from the seizures and her parents are determined to keep it that way. Her mum said:
“I am terrified the Schools Bill will result in her being forced back into school and the seizures recurring.”
What assurances can the Minister give both these families, and the many others that have contacted us, that the register will not be used by local authorities to force children back into school? For example, condition C in new Section 436B could be read as saying that consent needs to be secured to educate your child at home. Parents—and especially parents of children with special educational needs—need assurances that their child will not be compelled to attend a school that is unable or unsuitable to provide for that child. What assurances can the Minister give that this will not be the case? Will the Government consider tabling an amendment to this condition to ensure that this is not the case?
The renewed focus on reducing the number of children not in school must not lead to an overaggressive approach from schools and local authorities towards home educators. Can the Minister state or comment on whether it is envisaged that guidance about the use of the register regarding home educators will be issued? We already hear reports from home educators of overreach by schools and local authorities, threatening fines and prosecutions, and making parents feel like they are troublesome or elitist and making the wrong choice for their children. There is a lack of empathy and understanding that, for home educators, it is the successful education of their children that is utmost in their mind. How will the Government ensure that the regulation around the children not in school register and any associated guidance will not be used as a stick to erode parents’ democratic right to decide how best to educate their children?
In this part of the Bill, there is a huge increase in information for families to provide—so much so that it is intrusive. Home-educating families are already known to their local authority. Why is more personal and sensitive data needed? New Section 436C(2) states that the register may contain
“any other information the local authority consider appropriate.”
What information did the noble Baroness have in mind when this subsection was drafted? What reassurances can she give that the information requested by local authorities will not grow and be extended in different ways by different local authorities, creating a postcode lottery of registration information?
It is so important to be clear about what data will be published, who it will be shared with and how it will be kept secure, as the failure to provide this data, as people have said in the past, can result in fines and imprisonment.
New Section 436D creates a duty on parents to provide information requested by the local authority, but there must be exemptions for victims of domestic violence. One woman who works with home educators wrote to me to explain that local authorities will now require the names of both parents. The fear of data breaches from authorities is causing terror among some women who have fled abusive former partners. One mother she met through her work has already had to relocate three times, including once to a refuge with her daughter, because both social services and the local authority elective home education staff divulged her address to her former partner who, by court order, was not allowed to hold her or her daughter’s address. This situation happened under the current protections we have in place. How will the Minister protect victims of domestic abuse when the regulation around the register seems to eradicate this protection completely?
Many home educators are part of local groups and networks. They offer each other support and share information. That is why new Section 436E is a concern for those home educators who are part of active home education groups. It could allow for financial penalties to be levied against child tutors, childminders or home education groups where parents share care of their children. I am sure that was not the intent of this section, and therefore ask the Minister to look again to see whether the breadth of this section can be re-examined so that there are no other unintended consequences of this nature.
Finally, one of the stated aims of this part of the legislation is to give more support to home educators. However, it is not clear what support will be afforded to home educators, as it is left to the local authorities to decide what they think is fit. Furthermore, there is no clear and detailed framework to ensure that local authorities assess children’s education fairly and consistently. What support do the Government envisage being given to home education by this part of the Bill and by local authorities?
In conclusion, I thank all the organisations and home-educating parents who have contacted me; there have been many, including Education Otherwise, Square Peg and the elective home education art project, to name a few. I hope I have managed to get across their main concerns today. All the themes of their comments were the same: that home educators felt demonised not encouraged, unfairly victimised, and powerless to counter the additional local authority powers and demands. Clearly, this reaction from home educators was not the Government’s intention, so I hope that this debate, and the other debates we have on clauses in this part, will allow the Minister to allay the genuine fears of home educators across the country and consider how this part can be changed before Report.
My Lords, I remind the Committee that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is taking part remotely. I call the noble Baroness.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, whose introduction to this clause stand part debate was helpful, especially with the examples she provided. I also agree with her about ensuring that no data for victims of domestic abuse should be published or passed on. When doing my work on stalking law reform, I met a woman who was such a victim. She and her son had had to repeatedly move after her violent and stalker husband had found her. After the third move a big red flag was put on her file, but the social worker at the local authority decided to give her ex-husband her address because she felt that he should have access to his son. Unfortunately, he attacked both her and him. We cannot always guarantee the behaviour of people, but in this case we know that victims of domestic abuse are targets for their ex-partners.
The Minister has heard from noble Lords across the Committee over the last two days of debate concerns about this part of the Bill, particularly Clause 48, with questions about the language. My noble friend Lord Shipley raised concerns about the word “expediency”, but plenty of other concerns were raised too. For example, how exactly will data be held and used?
There are concerns too about the tone of the legislation, which is designed on the basis of home educators being a problem, as we have heard from many people speaking today. I know the Minister does not agree with that and is urging us to be careful with our language, but we are hearing from parents that the tone of the Bill is what worries them.
Once again, many parents have said that, unfortunately, their relationship with the local authority has been the root of their problems, which has meant that the child had to be withdrawn from school. Far too many local authorities have taken the view of having a hostile and difficult relationship. It has been helpful to listen to the debate and hear the supportive way in which many amendments, often led by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, have tried to change that tone. It would be good to see that in revisions from the Minister at a later stage.
Concerns about the principles that underpin this clause also worry many. So I completely agree, first, with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, that we should ask the Minister to respond to the clause standing part, but also with my noble friend Lord Shipley’s earlier comment that, with Report stage starting in under two weeks, it is completely wrong to proceed with this part of the Bill while there are so many unsolved problems: those of principle, language and attitude. Frankly, this means that there must be a delay to starting Report while the Government think again—at least until the autumn.
I was not going to speak on this group, but I am now. My noble friend Lady Brinton is right: the tone is really important; we underlined that in previous debates.
I am very nervous that we said right at the beginning—I think there was agreement across the Committee—that this was about protecting the vulnerable and ensuring the rights of children. I guess that all noble Lords here have been bombarded with emails from home educators, and we must be careful that we do not believe everything that they tell us. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, was talking, I received an email giving a completely different view about how some home educators are suing one other over what they said; some are being told to be quiet. The noble Baroness mentioned a couple of organisations, but, for some people, there is more at stake here. We must remember—I repeat this—that the vast majority of home educators are doing a fantastic job; they want support and to work together. If we ramp up the fear that they will be threatened, they will feel threatened. We should try to ensure that they completely understand what we are trying to do to support them and their child.
My Lords, we are respectful of the right of parents to educate their children at home, but we cannot agree that this clause should not be part of the Bill. There are clearly important measures that we support quite strongly and want to see enacted. We support the principle of a register. However, there have been some helpful suggestions for improvement—particularly on new Sections 436C and 436D(2), inserted by Clause 48—and the Minister has committed to go away and consider those further.
On the issues around data we raised in relation to Amendment 128 in an earlier group, having thought about what the Minister said and the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and other noble Lords, I think it is worth some further consideration, because clearly there are risks and we would not want to rush into anything that would cause more problems. We hope that, with some improvements, this clause will be a helpful and necessary change that will safeguard children. It is not about forcing children back into school; it is about balance between freedom to decide and safeguarding.
On the comments that we have just heard from my noble friend, this Bill is not ready for Report. We do not think that the Government will have time to reconsider some of the issues that have been raised. It would seem appropriate, given everything that has been said, for us at least to wait for the regulatory review to be completed before we take this Bill to Report.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for giving us the opportunity again to ensure that the tone we take when talking about this issue—as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and many other noble Lords in this debate have said—is one of support, of explaining what the Government are seeking to achieve with these measures and of trying to allay some the concerns we have heard, while being clear that we do not lose sight of the importance of protecting a child’s right to education. In doing so, I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, that the introduction of registers is not, in any way, intended to undermine or interfere with the parents’ right to educate their child how they choose. This clause includes no measures on monitoring or assessing the education that parents may be providing. Local authorities’ existing powers are already sufficient in this regard, and we have already provided guidance to support local authorities to determine whether education is suitable.
As many noble Lords have said, we know that many parents who home educate do it very well—often to a very high standard and in challenging circumstances. However, that is not the case for all. That is a key point I would like to emphasise: this Bill is about establishing registers so that we know who and where home-educated children are; it is not about forcing them back to school.
A school attendance order can be issued only if the local authority is not satisfied that the education provided for the child is suitable. The example raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, of the little boy thriving at home with his new adopted family is clearly a case where the home education being provided is suitable and, if demonstrated as she described, the local authority could only agree with that. Similarly, on her example of a girl in year 1 who developed seizures, if the education being provided at home is suitable—and that is demonstrated to the local authority—the local authority could not reasonably issue a school attendance order. In addition, the current law, supported by guidance, already requires local authorities to take all relevant factors into account when taking a view on whether it is expedient for a child to attend school, including any medical grounds.
I turn now to the noble Baroness’s question about parents needing local authorities’ consent to home educate. I can reassure the noble Baroness that condition C in new Section 436B simply does not do that; it establishes that a home-educated child is eligible to be included on the local authority’s register. That is a statement of fact; there is nothing about consent involved in new Section 436B.
As we heard in an earlier debate, we must recognise that there are growing numbers of children not in school, particularly after the pandemic, and there are concerns that some of these children will not be receiving suitable education—and, in some cases, not at all. We need to be able to assure ourselves that they are receiving a suitable education, and that is what these provisions are all about. While parents of eligible children will be required to provide information to local authorities for inclusion on their registers, local authorities will be able to require only that information which is prescribed in legislation. Any additional information prescribed will be intended to support the promotion of the education, welfare or safety of children.
I have also heard the concerns about data sharing—which was raised not just in this group—and was sorry to hear about the specific situation the noble Baroness described; that absolutely should not have occurred. As my noble friend the Minister has explained, there will be protections in place: the clause allows local authorities to share information only with certain prescribed persons, to be set out in regulations, when they consider it appropriate for the purposes of ensuring the safety, welfare or education of a child—
I can absolutely take that point away and see whether it is possible. If that is not the mechanism by which we can provide further detail and assurance, I will look at what else we can do to explore, and reassure on, that issue further.
As my noble friend the Minister said, under UK GDPR, parents have the right to object to any processing where UK legislation requires such processing, which would include the sharing of information to prescribed persons. The organisation responsible for that processing would then need to review the request and decide whether the processing is in the best interest of the child or family, and either uphold the request in the specific circumstances or proceed with the processing. The parent also has a formal route of complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has a range of powers in this area. It is essential, however, for local authorities to be able to share information, if needed, to support multi-agency safeguarding and education efforts, with the appropriate safeguards in place.
On the question of statutory guidance, which the noble Baroness asked about also, this will help ensure the consistency of interpretation and implementation of duties across local authorities. As we said, we will ensure that it is created in close collaboration with local authorities and home educators, and includes advice on how local authorities can best promote positive engagement, as we have heard the concerns from parents where that has not been the case. We have also heard examples of best practice, and that is what we will seek to draw on in drafting the guidance.
There was a concern about financial penalties for tutors or childminders and home education groups. The duty on providers to share information on request will be important in helping to identify those children who are not—but should be—on registers, and those regulations will be used to set a threshold at which an education provider comes into the scope of the duty in Section 436E, ensuring the duty is only placed on providers that provide a substantial proportion of an eligible child’s education. There is also the power to make regulations to create specific exemptions to this duty, and we have indicated our intention to use that power to exclude informal groups of home-educating parents from the scope of this measure.
I thank the noble Baroness once again for the opportunity to reiterate some of those points, and I think we have heard the areas that the Government will take away and look at to ensure that we continue to have a message for support for home educators, but not lose sight of the importance of what we are trying to achieve with these registers.
My Lords, that was a good answer, but I feel my noble friend has not addressed the reasonable fears of some home educators about the way this Bill is drafted at present. For instance, in new Section 436C(1)(c),
“such details of the means by which the child is being educated as may be prescribed”
is a completely open phrase. This is an area which is used by some local authorities to pressure parents. They pursue parents for timetables, the details of subjects of studied and other things which do not necessarily form part of home education. Home education is not subject bound. Schools have to do it that way; if the Times has its way, schools may not have to do it that way, but they do so at the moment. Home education may follow timetables, or it may be something much looser. The age at which a child begins to read can be quite late in home education, or it can be very early. These things vary enormously from the practice which is necessary in school. That new Section 436C(1)(c) is in this Bill, and opens and then flows through to the school attendance order provisions, is a source of considerable worry, and I think reasonably so.
Clause 48 agreed.
Amendment 135 not moved.
Clause 49: School attendance orders
136: Clause 49, page 47, line 18, after the first “notice” insert “of at least 28 days”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment specifies that the period within which a person must satisfy a local authority that a child is receiving education is a minimum of 28 days.
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 136 and speak to Amendments 137, 138, 139, 141, 142 and 143 in my name. It might have been less painful if most of these had been grouped with my other amendments seeking to increase or specify relevant periods for parents to respond to notices.
Amendment 136 relates to “the period specified” within which a person must satisfy the local authority; home educators would wish this to say “of at least 28 days”, for reasons we have already set out. Amendment 137 replaces a period of not less than 10 days with our favoured 28 days. Amendment 138 once again specifies 28 days in place of the vaguer “specified in the notice”.
Amendment 139 moves into another area of concern: that of authorities taking on roles which may run counter to the wishes of parents or the best interests of the child. It would be preferable if the authorities’ wishes were supplemented by those of a “suitably qualified independent adviser”, and we have touched on this already in an earlier group, and surely the Minister can see that would allay fears of overriding officialdom.
Amendments 141, 142 and 143 all ask to replace 10 days with 28 days. Parents do not wish to dodge their responsibilities, but they do wish to have sufficient time to assess, research and respond in a way which, as ever, serves the best interest of the child.
I hope the Minister will appreciate how strongly home educators feel that this Bill is giving undue powers to authorities, powers which they feel more than able to fulfil themselves. Once again, we have to be aware of cautions over parents who do not have the best interests of their children in keeping them off school, but so very many excellent home educators can surely be allowed to serve their children without heavy-handed monitoring. I beg to move.
My Lords, I now invite the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to take part remotely.
My Lords, I have two amendments in this group: Amendment 137D and 143IB. Amendment 137D replicates Amendment 171V that I had in an earlier group, for children who are home educated or out of school long-term for other reasons.
Amendment 137D sets out that a local authority must take account of the advice of a doctor, social worker or youth offending officer when considering school attendance orders. This comes back to the issue that I have talked about often in these groups, where some parents have their children out of school not because they want to but because their child is not safe in school, whether that is for medical, psychological or other reasons. For the reasons I said earlier, and I will not go through them again, many parents say that the officer at their local authority refused to acknowledge the reasons why the pupil was out of school. This amendment ensures that the advice of the relevant independent expert must be taken into account when considering orders and school nomination notice for a school attendance order.
My Lords, I have some amendments in this group: Amendments 136A and 137A are timing amendments, and we have covered that subject already.
Amendments 140A, 143A, 143C, 143D, 143E and 143H are of a technical nature. I think the quickest thing would be for me to listen to the Minister’s reply, because I think I have made my intentions clear in the amendments.
Amendment 143IA goes back to an earlier discussion on the relationship between local authorities and home educators. It suggests that having Ofsted report on the quality of the home education provision in a local authority, and on the quality of the work that it does on school attendance, would be a useful way of redressing the balance between home educators and a local authority, and that it would direct the attention of the local authority to the need to perform well in this area, and would have similar benefits in the case of attendance.
My Lords, I have in Amendment 143G a very simple provision that, on acquittal for breaching a school attendance order, that particular school attendance order dies—no ifs, no buts. Surely, natural justice mandates that the court’s decision is respected for that specific attendance order.
My Lords, the general thrust of these amendments is to make school attendance order conditions easier for parents by, for example, increasing the information handover period, compelling consideration of the child’s relevant medical conditions—looking at the child holistically.
An important factor that has not had enough mention is that of the impact of poverty on attendance. Poverty affects school attendance for a variety of reasons, and in the third decade of the 21st century some children are unable to attend school because their parents cannot afford fuel or travel costs, or they are more likely to be absent with sickness as their families cannot afford heating or hot water, or to provide a healthy diet.
For some children, not having the right uniform and missing breakfast are barriers to them setting foot in school. Children are having to take days off school due to unwashed, ill fitting or shabby clothes. This often leads to bullying, which is a huge concern when children are unable to dress like their peers and have poorer-quality clothing, shoes and school bags. I have seen and experienced these issues first-hand as a barrier to attendance, and teachers themselves often provide for children in these desperate circumstances. It cannot be right that in a society as wealthy as Britain, we still have children living like this. Poor attendance adds to the inequalities that they face.
We know that schools are often the first point of contact when dealing with such inequalities, so it is important that we have the correct resources and tools to deal with them. Our Amendment 144 ensures that schools’ attendance policies consider how to support staff who have been given new responsibilities for implementing the policies. This whole Bill will give hard-pressed teachers even more responsibilities, so we require recognition of that and to get them the support that they deserve in those areas.
Naturally, none of these measures will increase the resources for education, financial or physical. In the debate on Monday, I noted to your Lordships the paper-thin state of local government finances, and schools are finely balanced within that equation. Such an increase in monitoring and evaluation of attendance policies will be yet another job for an already hard-pressed member of the senior management team in a school. I have served in that capacity for decades; it is an extremely stressful occupation. This is one reason it is increasingly difficult to recruit heads and deputies in the secondary sector.
Our Amendment 146 will mandate the Secretary of State to produce a breakdown of those fined to allow assessment of disparities and compel them to consider the measures to address this. If we examine the data, attendance fines and fixed penalty notices are vastly skewed towards women, who are more often caregivers, and less affluent people, who are more often dealing with truant children. The Secretary of State should be forced to recognise this injustice and tackle it. I pose the question: where is the levelling-up agenda here?
I must stress that we do not disagree with this clause in principle. I set out earlier that we must ensure that the children at greatest risk attend school regularly, but I must press the Minister on what her department’s hard evidence is—whether behavioural science or otherwise—that fines will increase the information given or get more absent children into school. Children with poor attendance need support and staff need the resources to help them deal with it.
I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox, Lady Chapman, Lady Brinton, Lady Bennett and Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for their amendments in this group. I shall speak to Amendments 136 to 143, from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and Amendments 136A and 137A, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas. We have worked closely with a group of local authorities in developing the timeframes set out in the Bill. As we discussed in previous groups on school attendance order timeframes, we want to ensure that the school attendance order process is as efficient as possible, so that any child not receiving a suitable education is placed in adequate provision swiftly and can benefit from the full-time education to which they are entitled.
Amendment 143D, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas, would bypass the existing procedures under the Children and Families Act 2014 and associated secondary legislation for amending an education, health and care plan. Clause 49, as drafted, does not prevent a parent seeking to have the name of a school changed or removed from their child’s education, health and care plan, in line with the existing process and timescales set out in the Act. Following that process, a parent may apply for the school attendance order to be revoked as normal.
I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, for their Amendments 140A, 143A and 143C. If local authorities were required to revoke orders simply on the grounds that a child has moved to a new area, the continuity of the child’s education and the local authority’s duties to safeguard children—and to satisfy itself that every child is receiving a suitable education—would be impeded.
When a child leaves the local authority area, including, as in the example given in Amendment 140A, to move to Wales, we expect both local authorities to work together to co-ordinate and facilitate the movement of children and parents subject to school attendance orders. We expect local authorities to facilitate this swiftly and efficiently, given the importance of ensuring that all children have access to suitable full-time education, in line with their common-law obligation to act within a reasonable timeframe. We will set out further details on this issue in future guidance.
On Amendment 143E, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas, I assure him that school attendance orders already apply only to children of compulsory school age. This is included under new Section 436J(4), introduced through this Bill.
On Amendments 143G and 143H, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and my noble friend Lord Lucas, Clause 50 as drafted already allows the court to use its discretion to rule that a school attendance order ceases to be in force in the event of an acquittal for breaching the order. This discretion is valuable, as there may be circumstances where there are clear reasons for the order to remain in force.
If the court finds that a parent has had their child registered at the school named in the order, they would find the parent not guilty of the offence, but there may be individual factors making it important for the child to continue attending that school and, therefore, for the order to remain in force; for example, if there had been a previous pattern of school attendance orders being required in respect of that child.
Amendment 143IA, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, would create duties on Ofsted to oversee local authorities’ exercise of their functions in relation to electively home-educated children and school attendance in a way that encourages a positive relationship between the two. As your Lordships have heard me and my noble friend say several times this evening, that is absolutely our goal. Ofsted already covers both elective home education and children missing education as part of its children’s social care remit; local authorities are held to account in relation to those functions.
On school attendance, through recently published attendance guidance, which we intend to put on a statutory footing through the Bill, local authorities are expected to provide attendance support to pupils who face barriers to attendance prior to considering any legal intervention. As I said earlier, in response to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, it is “support, support and support” before there is any kind of enforcement. We understand that the reasons children may not be attending school are often very complex and support is almost always the right answer.
On Amendment 137D, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, local authorities are already required by law to take account of relevant factors when making decisions, including on preliminary notices. They should have the necessary in-house expertise to make these decisions but, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, that is not always the case. If local authorities do not have the expertise, they are able to consult an external expert. Parents are able to ask local authorities to take account of expert advice when making decisions, and the local authority must consider this external evidence and any other relevant considerations in line with public law.
Similarly, on Amendment 143IB, again tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, our recently published school attendance guidance makes it clear that local authorities should work together with other services and partners such as health services, youth justice services and children’s social care to unblock the barriers to attendance. This will include considering the individual needs of children with specific barriers to attendance and working together to put in place appropriate support so that they can attend school regularly. We expect local authorities to build strong relationships and meet regularly with these services, which should share their expertise and build effective data-sharing opportunities to make sure that the response is consistent and joined up across the local authority for the benefit of the child.
Moving to Amendment 143J, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, the Equality Act 2010 protects pupils with certain characteristics, including race, disability and religion, from unlawful discrimination in their educational setting. Schools already have clear duties under the Act, and we expect schools to develop all policies, including attendance policies, in line with those duties.
On Amendment 144, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, through the aforementioned school attendance guidance, academy trust boards and governing bodies of maintained schools are expected to ensure that school staff receive appropriate training to fulfil the school’s duties on attendance. This includes training on the importance of school attendance, and the strategies and procedures for tracking, following up and improving attendance.
Finally, I turn to Amendment 146, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman, Lady Wilcox and Lady Bennett. The Government share their desire to ensure that pupils receive support to attend their education setting, and it is the intention that these reforms move away from the punitive action by default that, as the noble Baronesses know well, is happening in some areas of the country. Clause 54 is central to that ambition. The Government are clear that fixed penalty notices should be used only where all supportive approaches have not been successful, or were not engaged with or appropriate, such as an unauthorised holiday in term time. We will continue to work closely with local authorities to ensure that support is always considered before punitive action, including through the department’s regions group. We will also consider what more we can do as a department to ensure that local authorities are held to account for delivering on this important matter.
Based on those arguments, I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to withdraw her amendment and other noble Lords not to move the amendments in their names.
My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for her full reply. There are still some issues that we may wish to come back to on Report, but she has dealt comprehensively with a lot of the matters that were raised. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 136 withdrawn.
Amendments 136ZA to 143D not moved.
Sitting suspended. Committee to begin again not before 8.05 pm.
Debate on whether Clause 49 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I oppose Clause 49, and the other clauses and the schedule set out in the group, standing part of the Bill. I do so partly because the Bill is such a mess. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, pointed out that a lot more discussion is needed on it, but we also need to facilitate a debate on the rights of home-schooling families. That is not clear to the families themselves, nor to me because of the Bill.
We have already had extensive debates on this on previous groups, so I will not go on, but I will briefly reflect the worry that many home-schooling families have expressed to me and to other noble Lords. The Minister said on Monday that the Government are not criminalising anything and that it is dangerous to talk in these terms, but that is the sort of language that we have heard from home educators; that is how they feel. If that is not right, they need to be told, and told clearly. They are genuinely fearful that their way of life will be trammelled by this legislation and that the state will use the legal system against them.
Can the Minister please take this opportunity to make a clear statement to home-schooling families about what the legislation means for them, what safeguards will be in place to protect their way of life and what work the Government will do to ensure that positive support, rather than coercion, is provided by local authorities? There are some points from Monday’s debate that might be worth reiterating, but I am aware that it is getting on and it would be wonderful to get through the Bill today.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is taking part remotely on this group. I therefore invite her to speak now.