Licensing of Teacher Agencies

Orders of the Day — Education Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 28th January 1997.

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  1. '( )—(1) The Secretary of State may by regulation make provision—
    1. (a) for the licensing of any business or agency supplying short-term or temporary teaching staff;
    2. (b) for the regular inspection of any such business or agency by persons appointed by her for that purpose;
    3. (c) as to the conduct of any such business or agency.
  2. (2) The Secretary of State may by regulation provide for amounts to be payable in respect of any person seeking a licence under this section.'.—[Mr. Kilfoyle.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7 pm

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle , Liverpool, Walton

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 53, in clause 63, page 47, line 11, leave out 'or'.

No. 54, in page 47, line 12, at end insert 'or(d) any other person who arranges, whether under contract or otherwise, for another person to be a short-term or temporary teacher'.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle , Liverpool, Walton

I shall be extremely brief because the clause is self-evidently sensible. It has arisen from the assiduous work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) in her attempts to ensure that the Government regulate agencies to prevent them abusing their position by, for example, accepting on to their books people debarred from active teaching because they are on list 99. I commend the new clause to the House.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge , Barking

I, too, shall be brief because I know that other issues have to be debated.

As I said in Committee, I warmly welcome clause 63. When I introduced the Protection and Education of Children Bill, 39 Conservative Members voted against it, including three who considered this Bill in Committee. I am therefore delighted that the Conservatives have seen fit to change their mind and take this opportunity to start the regulation process. I also thank the Under-Secretary for her letter in response to issues that I raised in Committee.

The regulation of teacher agencies is important. From the data that we have, we know that probably one in 15 to one in 20 classes are currently taught by supply teachers. A survey that I carried out in the first three weeks of the autumn term showed that three out of four schools in London use supply teacher agencies. It is because such agencies are here to stay that we must ensure that they operate correctly. As I have said before, many reputable agencies do a good job, but my survey showed that a third of the schools that we contacted had experienced problems with supply agencies.

Clause 63 insists that all supply teachers meet the same standards and undergo the same checks as permanent teachers—that means medical and police checks, checks on their qualification and investigation of whether they are on list 99. My real concern, and the reason why I urge Conservative Members to support the new clause, is whether clause 63 will work in practice. I shall explain that concern.

Under clause 63 as drafted, the onus rests with the head teacher or the supply teacher. In practice, a head teacher arrives at school at about 7.30 am and discovers that a member of staff is off sick. In an hour and a half, that head teacher has to find a supply teacher. He rings a supply teacher agency but, in the short time available, he cannot verify that the supply teacher has the necessary qualifications or has undergone the necessary checks.

Nor is it sufficient to put the onus on the supply teacher. Many supply teachers come from Australia or New Zealand. They spend only six months to a year working in this country before moving on, and the temporary nature of their work in Britain means that there is no incentive for them to ensure that they comply with the requirements of the regulatory framework as set out in clause 63.

We therefore need to regulate and regularly inspect the agencies involved. The good agencies have recognised that. Agencies such as Timeplan and Capstan have said that they are willing to pay for the regulation themselves, so there would be no cost to the public purse. Regulation of the agencies is a simple way to regulate supply teachers properly.

The agencies, which are employment agencies, have been subject to deregulation under this Government, so anyone with a mobile telephone and a car can set up a supply teacher agency—many people do just that. While carrying out my research, I came across an agency in south Glamorgan that changed from supplying crane drivers to supplying teachers. Another had been supplying construction workers, drivers and secretaries and then supplied teachers.

One reputable agency set up a branch in Bromley, but was contacted by the regulatory authorities and the Department of Trade and Industry only when the DTI tracked it down, having seen an advertisement in the paper saying that the agency was in the business of supplying teachers.

Inevitably, some agencies cut corners. I talked to an ex-member of staff of one agency who told me that although the agency did take up references on teachers, it put them straight into the filing cabinet and did not check them. Another agency that I came across accepted a teacher, whom I shall not name, who had been rejected by another agency. It accepted her even though her reference said: Ms … appeared to be a very needy person who seemed somewhat unstable. I am therefore unable to recommend her to you. Despite that reference, the less reputable agency placed her in a school, and problems subsequently arose.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Employment)

Does the hon. Lady know whether that incident was reported, as I suggested in Committee that it should be? I made it clear that the necessary mechanisms were in place.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge , Barking

I thank the Under-Secretary for that intervention; I shall come to the relevant mechanisms in a moment. I do not know whether that particular incident was reported, but I shall take soundings and find out.

The real problem is that the prime concern of many agencies is for the bottom line. For example, Recruit plc advertised, "Book 10 teachers days and get one free". Another said, "Book before Christmas and get £10 off". The worst case, which I mentioned in Committee, involved an agency that had set up a new office in Manchester. The manager went to a school to attempt to drum up business, but the head teacher found that the manager was on list 99.

I know that the Under-Secretary is bound to say that the Department of Trade and Industry carries out routine inspections. In her letter to me, she said that in future they would be focused on teacher supply agencies, for which I am grateful, but the current system is rather hit and miss. It deals largely with complaints made after the event—it is a question of too little, too late.

I hope that Ministers agree that the new clause would place on the statute book a foolproof system that is simple to operate and which would involve no cost to the public purse. I therefore hope that they will accept the new clause. I am delighted that the Government have gone as far as they have, and I simply wish to urge them to go one step further to regulate properly the supply teachers who play an important role in teaching many children in many of our schools.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce , South Dorset

I must declare an interest as an adviser to the Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services and as someone who ran an active employment agency and still owns an employment agency that is not active. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who has now been fully briefed on the issue, should continue to try to turn the tables on employment agencies. It is well known that the hon. Lady, when she was the leader of a certain council, presided over a situation in which that council did not vet teachers.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce , South Dorset

I am sorry—social workers. As a result, the wrong social workers were employed. Employment agencies that want to supply teachers currently have to go to the local education authority to get vetting done, because the agencies do not have access to the information. Many local education authorities, especially in the north of England, have tried to stop agencies vetting.

The industry wants to vet teachers and will do so, and that is why the Government's proposals are so warmly supported by the industry. The Bill will allow vetting and ensure that supply teachers are pre-vetted before head teachers ring at 8 o'clock in the morning for a supply teacher. The new clause would simply do what the Employment Agencies Act 1973 did. In other words, it would involve a whole rigmarole meaning that it would take two or three months to decide whether somebody could start work, and it would provide no extra safeguards for the individual. Agencies have to do a proper job of vetting people and will do that without any recourse to the new clause.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge , Barking

All the reputable agencies to which I have talked wish the new clause to be incorporated in the Bill. The new clause would provide not for the odd spot check, but for a proper regulatory framework with registration and inspection, paid for by the agencies. The reputable agencies want that because it would give us a foolproof system.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce , South Dorset

The hon. Lady need not make her speech again. I oppose the new clause.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Employment)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) for his contribution and for the welcome that he has given to clause 63. It seeks to close a technical loophole in the legislation on qualifications, health and misconduct that did not previously cover staff, whether teaching staff or others working with young people in schools and colleges, who did not have contracts of employment.

The hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) welcomed clause 63, and she withdrew her amendments in Committee after an amicable debate. As most of the points were covered in Committee, I shall merely refer hon. Members to the report of the Committee from column 626 onwards. However, I wish to make a couple of further points.

A licence is no guarantee of future good conduct. The majority of serious breaches of the legislation are when licences were issued by licensed agencies. Instead, we have put in place a power to prohibit persons from carrying on business in employment agencies when there has been misconduct or for other sufficient reasons. I can tell the House that the employment agency standards inspectorate has plans to visit some 100 agencies dealing with teacher employment in the next six months, and the Department has also arranged for information on the employment agency standards team's powers, including the number of its national inquiry line on which any problems can be reported, to be included in "Schools Update". That will be issued to all schools in the spring and will reinforce information already contained in circular 7/96 on the use of supply teachers.

I shall repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Barking. If any hon. Member believes that there have been breaches of the conduct regulations or that other issues need examination, they should take up the matter with my hon. Friend the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs at the Department of Trade and Industry, who is directly responsible for overseeing the work of employment agencies.

Clause 63 will empower the Secretary of State to impose regulations that will be binding on all parties involved, including agencies. We take the matter seriously and we have acted. I therefore reject the new clause.

Question put and negatived.