New Clause 9 — Power to Search Further Education Students for Weapons

Orders of the Day — Violent Crime Reduction Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 14th November 2005.

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'After section 85A of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (c. 13) insert—

"85B Power to search further education students for weapons

(1) A member of staff of an institution within the further education sector who has reasonable grounds for believing that a student at the institution may have with him or in his possessions—

(a) an article to which section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 applies (knives and blades etc.), or

(b) an offensive weapon (within the meaning of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953),

may search that student or his possessions for such articles and weapons.

(2) A search under this section may be carried out only where—

(a) the member of staff and the student are on the premises of the institution; or

(b) they are elsewhere and the member of staff has lawful control or charge of the student.

(3) A person may carry out a search under this section only if—

(a) he is the principal of the institution; or

(b) he has been authorised by the principal to carry out the search.

(4) A person who carries out a search of a student under this section—

(a) may not require the student to remove any clothing other than outer clothing;

(b) must be of the same sex as the student; and

(c) may carry out the search only in the presence of another person who is aged 18 or over and is also of the same sex as the student.

(5) A student's possessions may not be searched under this section except in his presence and in the presence of a person (in addition to the person carrying out the search) who is aged 18 or over.

(6) If, in the course of a search under this section, the person carrying out the search finds—

(a) anything which he has reasonable grounds for suspecting falls within subsection (1)(a) or (b), or

(b) any other thing which he has reasonable grounds for suspecting is evidence in relation to an offence,

he may seize and retain it.

(7) A person who exercises a power under this section may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances for exercising that power.

(8) A person who seizes anything under subsection (6) must deliver it to a police constable as soon as reasonably practicable.

(9) The Police (Property) Act 1897 (disposal of property in the possession of the police) shall apply to property which has come into the possession of a police constable under this section as it applies to property which has come into the possession of the police in the circumstances mentioned in that Act.

(10) An authorisation for the purposes of subsection (3)(b) may be given either in relation to a particular search or generally in relation to searches under this section or to a particular description of such searches.

(11) In this section—

'member of staff', in relation to an institution within the further education sector, means any person who works at that institution whether or not as its employee;

'outer clothing' means—

(a) any item of clothing that is being worn otherwise than wholly next to the skin or immediately over a garment being worn as underwear; or

(b) a hat, shoes, boots, gloves or a scarf;

'possessions', in relation to a student of an institution within the further education sector, includes any goods over which he has or appears to have control.

(12) The powers conferred by this section are in addition to any powers exercisable by the member of staff in question apart from this section and are not to be construed as restricting such powers.".'.—[Hazel Blears.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 8—Power of members of staff to search students etc. for weapons—

'After Section 85A of the Further and Higher Education Act (c. 13) insert— "85AA Power of members of staff to search students etc. for weapons

(1) A member of the staff of a further education college who has reasonable grounds for believing that a student at the college may have with him or in his possession—

(a) an article to which section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (c. 33) applies (knives and blades etc.), or

(b) an offensive weapon (within the meaning of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953), may search that student or his possessions for such articles and weapons.

(2) A search under this section may be carried out only where—

(a) the member of the staff and the student are on the premises of the college; or

(b) they are elsewhere and the member of the staff has lawful control or charge of the student.

(3) A person may carry out a search under this section only if—

(a) he is the Principal of the college; or

(b) he has been authorised by the Principal to carry out the search.

(4) A person who carries out a search of a student under this section—

(a) may not require the student to remove any clothing other than outer clothing;

(b) must be of the same sex as the student; and

(c) may carry out the search only in the presence of another person who is aged 18 or over and is also of the same sex as the student.

(5) A student's possessions may not be searched under this section except in his presence and in the presence of a person (in addition to the person carrying out the search) who is aged 18 or over.

(6) If a person who, in the course of a search under this section, finds—

(a) anything which he has reasonable grounds for suspecting falls within subsection (1)(a) or (b), or

(b) any other thing which he has reasonable grounds for suspecting is evidence in relation to an offence, he may seize and retain it.

(7) A person who exercises a power under this section may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances for exercising that power.

(8) An authorisation for the purposes of subsection (3)(b) may be given either in relation to a particular search or generally in relation to searches under this section or to a particular description of such searches.

(9) In this section—'outer clothing' includes an outer coat, a jacket, gloves and a hat; 'possessions', in relation to a student of a college, includes any goods over which he has or appears to have control.

(10) The powers conferred by this section are in addition to any powers exercisable by the member of the staff in question apart from this section and are not to be construed as restricting such powers.".'.

Amendment No. 22, in clause 41, page 41, line 17, leave out

'has reasonable grounds for believing' and insert 'believes'.

Amendment No. 26, in page 41, line 35, leave out paragraph (a).

Amendment No. 27, in page 41, line 41, leave out from 'a' to end of line 42 and insert 'second member of staff'.

Government Amendments Nos. 78 to 81.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I support Government new clause 9 and resist Opposition new clause 8. I shall also convey my position in respect of the other amendments in the group, which I particularly look forward to debating with the hon. Members who tabled them.

On Government new clause 9, we agree entirely that the power to search students and learners for weapons should be extended to further education colleges. We discussed this issue in Committee, when I gave a commitment to consider it further, and I have duly tabled a Government new clause on Report. Given the increasing number of pupils under 16 who are, or will be, attending courses at college under arrangements made by their school as part of their compulsory education, it is of course right that this power be extended to FE colleges. It is essential that there be a level playing field for schools and colleges, and this new clause will remove the anomaly of a person in school perhaps enjoying a higher level of security than his or her counterpart on a similar course at an FE college. I hope that the Opposition are satisfied with the new clause, that it meets all their expectations, and that in the circumstances, they will not feel the need to press their amendment on this issue to a vote.

I am afraid that I am going to resist Amendment No. 22, which would actually reduce protection for a pupil who is searched. Under it, a member of staff would be able to search a pupil simply if they believed that they had an offensive weapon; they would need no grounds, nor any reasonable grounds, for that belief. Requiring reasonable grounds offers a pupil protection against arbitrary searches. That is a normal standard that we adopt in many different circumstances, and we want to keep that safeguard. Removing it could harm pupils' and parents' trust that school staff will act reasonably. On that basis, I ask the Opposition to withdraw the amendment.

I also urge the House to resist Amendment No. 26, which would remove paragraph (a) from clause 41. Removing this paragraph would cause uncertainty to both the pupil and the member of staff, and reduce safeguards for both. The Government are introducing an amendment to replace line 20 on page 42 of the Bill with a definition of which items of outer clothing staff may require a pupil to remove.

I ask the House to enable us to give further consideration to Amendment No. 27, which would change the wording of the provision relating to the additional person who must be present when a pupil's possessions are searched from a

"person . . . who is aged 18 or over" to a "second member of staff".

Such an amendment would ensure that both adults involved are members of staff, and not, for example, volunteers or parents; however, it does not prevent the presence of such people in addition to the two members of staff. We are prepared to consider this issue further, and in doing so we will want to consider requiring that the second person who must be present at a personal search also be a member of staff. If there is to be this extra safeguard, it is probably more important that it exists during a personal search than during a simple search of possessions. We also want to consider whether equivalent amendments should be made to the provisions relating to FE institutions and attendance centres, to ensure coherence and consistency throughout the Bill. On that basis, I ask the Opposition to withdraw their amendment, but I happily undertake to examine the matter further, and to consider whether we can build in the safeguards that the amendment is designed to introduce.

Government Amendments Nos. 79 and 81 provide a clear definition for the meaning of "outer clothing" in respect of searches conducted at schools and attendance centres. This definition will make it clear to both staff and the person being searched which items of clothing they may be required to remove during a search. We have added shoes and boots to the list, which is an important practical change. The amendments also provide that any item of clothing worn over a shirt or blouse—a jumper or pullover, for example—can be removed. Amendments Nos. 78 and 80 correct a minor drafting error. I look forward to the debate on these amendments and new clauses.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

We begin our deliberations with a discussion on the vexed but important issue of being able to search children to ascertain whether they are carrying weapons upon them. The Government have introduced a new clause. In effect, it extends the right to search to those who are undergoing further or higher education. As for new clauses 9 and 8, my hon. Friends and I will undoubtedly accept that there is sense in what is proposed.

I shall speak briefly to amendments Nos. 22, 26 and 27, all of which are in my name and the names of my hon. Friends. At the same time, I shall comment on some of the Government amendments.

Amendment No. 22 relates to clause 1 and the issue of whether a member of staff should have reasonable grounds for believing that a pupil may have a weapon with him or her. My amendment would leave out the words "reasonable grounds for believing" and insert "believes". We believe that a fairly tough and vigorous approach should be taken to the entire issue of knives and other weapons being carried by school children. The purpose of inserting "believes" instead of "reasonable grounds for believing" is to strengthen the position of the member of staff concerned before a search takes place, and not to put too great a burden on the teacher. If it is the case that the member of staff has to have reasonable grounds to believe, he or she may be expected to go through some sort of mental gymnastics before concluding that it would be right to search the child—for example, "What grounds do I have? Are they reasonable? Would they be open to challenge later?" We are very used nowadays to children being able to challenge members of staff. I want to put that person in a slightly stronger position so that they could perhaps avoid unnecessary challenges in due course.

The Minister, who is not happy with my amendment, talks about pupil protection and the need to ensure that trust is not damaged. However, we are dealing with a serious problem. In a sense, I want to give members of staff stronger powers to do what they think is right even if, from time to time, the grounds on which they want to search someone may not always be deemed to be reasonable by outsiders.

For example, what is the position of a member of staff when a pupil comes up to them and says, "I think that so and so may be carrying a weapon"? Is that a reasonable ground for a search? What about a member of staff who overhears one pupil talking to another about carrying weapons? Would that amount to a reasonable ground? What about a bulge, for example, where a knife might be kept in a young man's trousers? Would that amount to a reason for a member of staff saying, "I think that there may be a ground for a search. I believe that there may be a knife there. I am going to search." That decision would be reached without having to examine the whole issue of reasonable ground.

The purpose of amendment No. 22 is to strengthen the position of the teacher rather than to weaken it.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Linlithgow and East Falkirk

I was a teacher, and often taught in circumstances that were somewhat stressed. Removing "reasonable" puts the person who is trying to dissolve the conflict or resolve it at great risk. I do not understand why "reasonable" should be removed from any power that is given to a person in authority. That does not make sense to me as a former teacher.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The other side of the argument is that I do not want to put too great a burden on teachers in terms of always having to justify their actions. We seem to be in a world nowadays where the burden is always on the teacher to justify what he or she is doing rather than on the pupil or the parent. The purpose of my amendment is to toughen up the clause, to strengthen the position of teachers and to help them avoid challenges at a later date by some aggrieved child or by a parent who says, in terms, "Justify this search by proving reasonable grounds. If you don't, I will bring some sort of case against you." I do not want teachers to be put in that position.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Does my hon. Friend accept that amendment No. 22 is reasonable because a teacher would use the power in the presence of someone else, who is clearly defined? That in itself would be a form of control.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers) 3:45 pm, 14th November 2005

My hon. Friend is right. There are burdens on teachers to ensure that they do the right thing. As he readily says, they cannot do the search alone. There are already duties on a teacher without imposing on them too high a burden.

Amendment No. 26 relates to clothing. We had a serious debate in Standing Committee about the clothing that could be removed during a search. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I recall vividly that while we debated this Bill in one Committee Room, another Home Office Bill, on which I also had to serve, was being debated in another Room. A similar provision on searching through clothing was proposed in the other Bill. One of them—I forget which—mentioned the removal of a hat. The other one did not. I rely on the Minister to remind which it was.

The serious point is that the Minister is trying to reach a position in which a proper—a full and thorough—search is made. As we said in Committee, the search must be realistic, by which we mean fairly full. To take an obvious example, if a child is required to remove only an outer coat, it is possible that a weapon might be concealed further down in their clothing. The Minister has to strike a balance. Her proposal goes further than the position taken in Committee. To that extent, I welcome what she said and thank her for it.

Amendment No. 27 is important. I am grateful to the Minister for the courteous way in which she received it. We are, after all, talking about searching and the need for the search to be carried out in the presence of another person. The Opposition agree with that concept, but it occurred to me shortly after proceedings in Committee that there could be serious disadvantages if the Bill were left in its current form, with the search taking place in the presence of another person who is aged 18 or over. That is a wide provision and could involve someone who is not a member of staff and teacher trained, such as a parent or a member of staff in the catering department who has no skills in dealing with pupils. Strictly speaking, it could involve another pupil at the same school. I do not think that the Minister intends the second person involved in the search to be another pupil who happens to be 18 or over.

I thought that that was unsatisfactory and still do. The Minister said that she will look more closely at the matter, perhaps with a view to the Government tabling an amendment that is drafted in the same or similar terms as mine. I do not propose to ask the House to divide on the matter, but I do ask her to consider the position carefully, and I know that she will.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government also need to consider religious dress and that they should be sensitive to those who wear religious dress to school? Given that they have tabled the new clause, which relates to higher education, is not it the case that we now have a new problem of adults who carry religious knives? That is a sign of adulthood in Sikh communities such as mine in Shropshire. It is important that those communities are not offended and that the Government realise that Sikh male adulthood includes carrying ceremonial knives.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend who raises the important issue of apparel—for want of a better description—that might be important to someone in relation to their religious beliefs. He is right to say that the House should be sensitive to such issues, which are very important to some members of our community. It is not unknown for members of certain religions to carry small knives, but I have to say to my hon. Friend that I cannot immediately form a decisive view on that issue except to say that it is an offence under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 to carry a bladed article in a public place. All of us would wish to ensure that the law was properly upheld and enforced in that respect.

The new clause deals with the power to search school pupils for weapons. It is not appropriate for the Government to introduce this clause as a flagship proposal to address the problem of knives in schools. As with so much of the law, it is a question of properly enforcing the existing laws of the land. For example, it is already an offence under section 139A of the Criminal Justice Act for a person to have a bladed article on school premises. Furthermore, under section 139B, a constable already has a power to enter school premises to search them and any person on them for any article to which that section applies. Tens of thousands of schoolchildren are carrying knives on school premises, disguised in their clothing, and it distresses me that the existing law as laid out in section 139 is not properly enforced.

I asked the Minister some weeks ago if she could provide figures for the number of occasions on which a constable has entered school premises to conduct a search of a school pupil. The Minister was not able to tell us how many times that has happened. I asked the Minister in a written question earlier in the year about the current powers of head teachers to search and suspend pupils whom they suspect of carrying a form of weapon. The Minister replied that state and independent school head teachers may search a desk or locker without the pupil's consent, search a bag or jacket with consent or ask the police to do a personal search.

We think that we have a problem with young people carrying knives, but it is now critical and needs to be addressed seriously. A Youth Justice Board survey last year showed that 1 per cent. of pupils aged 11 to 16 have, at some time in the previous year, carried a knife in school for offensive reasons, and 2 per cent. had done so for defensive reasons. I checked with the Library the number of schoolchildren of that age in the state sector, and it is more than 3.5 million. Even if one chooses a smaller number of children, if 1 per cent. of children carry a knife for offensive purposes, it means that more than 20,000 children are carrying knives in schools for offensive purposes. If 2 per cent. do so for so-called defensive purposes, it means that more than 40,000 children aged between 11 and 16 are—according to the Government's figures—carrying knives for defensive reasons. It is a horrible statistic: 60,000 children are carrying knives in our schools, yet what is the prospect of their being charged or prosecuted for that offence under existing law? We need only look at the figures.

Over the last few years, how many of the 60,000 children who, according to the Government's figures, were carrying knives, were charged with and convicted of having a bladed article on school premises? In the past five years, fewer than 100 children were charged with that offence, and of those sentenced only nine received a custodial sentence. That is an astonishing statistic, which means that carrying—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the amendments are about the powers to stop and search and he has gone on to custodial sentences, which are beyond the scope of the amendments.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am anxious not to stray from the basis of the clause, which relates to search, so I shall come back to the point.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is little point in the Government legislating to provide teachers and members of staff with the authority to search pupils unless there is a result when the search discloses a bladed weapon? No doubt that is what my hon. Friend is pointing out to the Minister.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and also for his contribution in Committee. As he rightly says, there is no point in giving teachers those powers unless there is some result from their being used in practice. That is why I was illustrating that the Government's track record to date is so abysmal. The offence of carrying a knife on school premises already exists, but there is only one chance in 2,500 of a pupil being prosecuted for such an offence under existing law and only one chance in eight that any of those prosecuted will be sent to prison. The situation is terrifying.

It is all very well for the Government to bring forward a so-called flagship policy of searching children for knives and giving head teachers the powers to do so, but the Government should be deeply ashamed of the fact that knife carrying in schools has risen so dramatically over the past few years, causing so much fear to so many people, yet it is under-prosecuted by the authorities. The culture of the blade is indeed with us.

In Committee, I briefly raised with the Minister a particular case relating to search and I want to raise it again today. Some weeks ago, Opposition Members were horrified to read a newspaper report that a council was forced to pay £11,000 to a boy expelled for taking a knife to school. Apparently, the council was ordered to apologise to the teenager and to pay his mother £5,000 compensation for anxiety and uncertainty, plus £6,000 for home tuition for her son. Not surprisingly, teachers reacted with fury. If that is what happens when somebody is expelled from school, it is a very sorry situation.

Carrying a knife in school is a serious matter that should result in prosecution of the child, yet the reality is, as my figures show, that it is simply not happening. To return to the point that my hon. Friend Jeremy Wright made, it is almost a waste of time giving the Government further powers if they do not use their existing powers properly. My general proposition is that although there are more than 60,000 offences a year of carrying a knife in school, the number actually being taken to court is paltry in the extreme.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Linlithgow and East Falkirk

The hon. Gentleman referred to a newspaper article but drew the wrong conclusion. He did not tell us who was the author of the decision. If the power to expel a pupil exists and someone—not the pupil or the Government but, presumably, someone in a judicial position—made a judgment to overturn the initial decision, I do not understand why the blame should lie with the Government who gave those powers or with those who used them.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers) 4:00 pm, 14th November 2005

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but I lay the example before the House this afternoon so that it can understand that knives in school are a serious problem and to tell the House that I for one—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would take the same view—believe that giving compensation to a mother and son for distress in a case involving the carrying of a knife is a very sorry situation indeed. I accept the point that he makes; but, nevertheless, I want to ask the Minister whether she will be kind enough to comment on that case—she did not do so in Committee—and say how it squares with Government policy. That concludes my remarks on my amendments.

We find no reason to challenge the Government amendments, certainly not those in this grouping. Searches by a second member of staff are an important issue, and I very much hope that—if not today, certainly when the Bill reaches another place—the Government will introduce a suitable amendment to give the duty to a second member of staff. I appreciate what the Minister has said about clothing—she has toughened up that clause—but none of this will count for anything in life unless it is acted on.

I stress that, if we are giving this power to teachers, it is vital that education authorities and teachers get to grips with the problem of the knife culture in school, which is almost out of control, and use, as well as the power to search pupils, the existing criminal law, which is ready to be enforced. It is simply not right that a handful of charges have been brought under the existing law. A much stronger enforcement of current legislation is needed.

I wish the clause good luck, and I wish the teachers who have to enforce it good luck and good fortune in the very difficult task that they have to carry out, but my final wish is that the culture of the blade, which dominates our schools at the moment, can as quickly as possible be stamped out by whatever means are necessary.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I rise to speak to new clause 8, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, which hon. Members may notice is not a million miles different from Government new clause 9. I very much welcome the Government's tabling of that clause, because it acknowledges the concern that we expressed about not giving further education colleges an equivalent power, thus sending out a worrying signal that only school pupils need protection and possibly even giving the impression that colleges are a soft touch. More 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time education attend further education colleges and sixth form colleges than schools—701,000, compared with 345,000—and 120,000 14 to 16-year-olds choose to study vocational courses at college. So we very much welcome those powers being extended to teachers and head teachers at further education colleges.

On amendment No. 22, tabled by the Conservatives, I find myself in agreement with the Government, as there is more protection and greater safeguard in having reasonable grounds, rather than in simply believing. However, I welcome amendment No. 27 and the Government's response, in which the second person might be a member of staff. That is an intelligent and probably better way forward. The extra clarification about the definition of outer clothing can only be helpful—the more definition, the better.

I shall not extend my remarks interminably, but I wish to comment on the assertion of Mr. Malins that 60,000 children are carrying knives. If that figure is correct, would 60,000 prosecutions really be the answer? I would prefer those children to be searched by their head teachers and staff, because that would be a more personal and connected way of addressing the matter.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Does the hon. Lady accept that it might take only some token prosecutions before those carrying knives at school learned that there would be a penalty for that? There would thus be no requirement for 60,000 prosecutions.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I totally agree that there should be some prosecutions. The Government are often guilty of not enforcing current legislation. However, I would be totally opposed to installing knife arches to detect knives, because that would cause all children to be treated as though they were criminals. It is right to proceed along the lines of members of staff performing searches, rather than using other methods. However, we must take things forward and some prosecutions must be brought.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

May I respond briefly to the points raised by the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Malins) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)?

The hon. Member for Woking spoke to amendment No. 22, which would remove the words

"has reasonable grounds for believing" from clause 41. I cannot accept the amendment. We are trying to strike the right balance among the rights and responsibilities of students, their parents and teachers. It is proper that staff should have reasonable grounds for their belief. In any event, courts would be likely to understand any belief as being reasonable belief, because that is the way in which they interpret matters. The process must be in line with the European convention on human rights. There is little merit in adopting the lower burden of belief in such circumstances. It is important that the relationship between pupils and teachers be maintained so that we have the maximum possible trust among students and parents.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about ceremonial knives, as did Mark Pritchard. I understand that the Department for Education and Employment issued detailed guidance in 1997 on ceremonial knives. I understand that such a knife will not be considered an illegal blade if it is very small and in a sealed covering. There has never been a problem with ceremonial knives. We are addressing a problem of an entirely different character. The guidance has been perfectly satisfactory at dealing with such situations, so I would not want the House to have any impression that we must address a problem involving the carrying of ceremonial knives.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

Are you confident about the question of weapons? A pair of scissors was recently used as a weapon in a school. Children often have access to compasses, dividers and other equipment that can be sharpened and readily used as a weapon. I am worried that we are addressing only the knife culture, while a sharpened blade from a sharpener can be used as a weapon just as easily. Are you confident that all those things can be addressed? Will it be possible to look reasonably for a pair of compasses on someone's person? We need to move forward, so I would like your views.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Lady is a new Member. It is not for me to make a judgment on these matters, but for the Minister.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Clearly we are trying to ensure that searches can be carried out so that we can confiscate both knives and bladed weapons from students who unfortunately bring them to school. We had a lengthy discussion in Committee about whether it would be possible to use a sharpened blade from a pencil sharpener as a weapon. There have been dreadful events in recent times—we heard at the weekend about a young girl who was attacked—so we want the Bill to provide schools with powers to search. We will never be able to anticipate all the different weapons that may be used, but we are determined to try to make sure that schools can not just search pupils but confiscate items that could be made or adapted for use in violent situations.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan PPS (Team PPS), Ministry of Defence

Before my right hon. Friend leaves the matter of ceremonial dress, will she include the sgian dubh, which is often part of a Scots person's full ceremonial dress?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

As I said, there has never been a problem with ceremonial weapons, and I would not want any hon. Member to think otherwise. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 introduced the offence of having an article with a blade or point in a public place, and it also includes the defence of possessing such an article for religious reasons. We contemplated that provision, and I believe that the guidance is sufficient.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

To pursue that point, my hon. Friend Mr. Malins talked about the culture of the blade and said that it must be challenged. However, the Minister has not explained how an individual armed with a pair of scissors, a compass or a Stanley knife, which has a short blade, will be dealt with. Those people will quickly learn the new law, and arm themselves with such implements. How will she address that threat?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Having a blade on school premises is an offence, and any other material that could provide evidence of that offence could be seized. If an individual was even contemplating using any other pointed articles, those items could be seized and confiscated as a result of the search. Schools and teachers will have the necessary powers to be able to take potential weapons away from people, which ought to make our school premises significantly safer in future.

The hon. Member for Woking raised the case of someone who was excluded from school. I should put on the record the fact that compensation, as I understand it, was awarded because of the failure to provide alternative education provision rather than anything to do with the seizure of the knife. Schools obviously have powers not just to conduct searches under the legislation but to exclude pupils for violent activity, including the carrying of knives on the premises. We would certainly support teachers and head teachers who take such action to exclude pupils, but the compensation in the case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman was payable, I believe, for the failure to provide education provision rather than because of the initial decision to exclude. We would not want teachers to shy away from exclusion in such circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of schools and the police working together closely, and I can confirm that police officers are stationed in 400 schools across the country, where they can build extremely good relationships with both teachers and pupils. Police officers who are based full-time in schools have had a significant impact on the likelihood of violent incidents occurring in school. They can often nip problems in the bud, and do excellent educational work with pupils to show them that the carrying of knives and other weapons is not the way to resolve conflict. Basing police officers in schools is therefore an extremely good idea.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

The right hon. Lady is making an excellent case both for Government new clause 9 and for the presence of police officers in schools—an initiative that is working well in my south Essex constituency. Can she explain to the House exactly what happens if, during a search on a pupil, a weapon is not found but other contraband, illegal substances or materials are found?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

If there is evidence of offences that have been committed, the police would take the action that they usually take in those circumstances. We have introduced powers for searches for alcohol and tobacco in the possession of under-age youngsters, as well as for other substances. If the police found illegal substances they would retain them and dispose of them in the normal manner, just as they would for anyone else who had committed an offence. The age of criminal responsibility in this country is 10, and if people are found to have committed criminal offences the police will take appropriate action as a result of the evidence that they find.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

The Minister remarked on the number of police present in schools, which we all applaud. However, in what percentage of schools across the country are police present for much of the time? Does she, like the Opposition, think that it is a good idea to try to encourage a much greater take-up of that facility?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Apart from the fact that my maths is not up to it, I do not know the total number of schools so I cannot give a percentage figure now, but I shall endeavour to find the hon. Gentleman some details. We encourage schools to have extremely close relationships with the police service. I find that police officers stationed in schools often build a relationship with pupils that diverts them from becoming involved in crime, antisocial behaviour and other activities that cause problems. Of course we now have 13,000 extra police officers, so there are more to go around our schools than there were a few years ago. With the advent of 24,000 community support officers and the ability to have a neighbourhood police team in every community by 2008, I anticipate even more schools being able to develop a better and more positive relationship with their police services.

In Committee, the hon. Gentleman said that, as well as introducing somewhat punitive measures in relation to searches, confiscation and prosecution, it is important to concentrate on educating our young people in the idea that carrying knives and other weapons is no way to resolve conflict. We must try to give them alternative skills to deal with some of the problems they face at school, so that we can minimise the prospect of the horrendous events that we have seen all too graphically in the past few weeks recurring. The Government support a range of education projects, in particular with the police service, and I hope that the House welcomes that sort of work.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.