Royal Assent

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:13 pm on 21st July 2009.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North 7:13 pm, 21st July 2009

Year 5 at St. Christopher's school in my constituency of Brent, North is not usually the final year for pupils. However, on 18 May 2009, parents were notified that St. Christopher's would not run a year 6 class from this September. Parents were given two months to plan their children's future before the end of the school year, which is in breach of the contract between parents and Happy Child Ltd, which runs St. Christopher's school-some people may think that is a misnomer in the circumstances. I wrote at that point to Ms Tracey Storey, the managing director of Happy Child, asking her to clarify precisely when Happy Child began to consider that alternative provision for those children might be required, and to explain why absolutely no consultation with parents had taken place before 18 May to discuss their understandable concerns.

I was extremely concerned-and still am-about the impact of Happy Child's decision on other parents and children in the school. Such a decision undermines the confidence of parents whose children are in year 4 and below and who expect their children to continue to be taught at the school until the end of year 6. I asked Ms Tracey Storey to clarify Happy Child's plans for year 6 teaching for the children currently in year 4 and below.

Changing school is a stressful experience at any time, and it is normal for children to take time to settle in and make new friends. Year 6 is a critical year for many of those children, as they sit SATs and other examinations in preparation for their secondary school education. Such a change in the lives of those children can only be detrimental to their educational attainment and their future success. The parents tell me that their children were looking forward to being in the top year of the school and having the chance to be elected to positions of responsibility-being prefects and so on-and they are concerned that their children will miss out on those opportunities if they are removed from St. Christopher's. There are other issues about which the parents are concerned, including the additional cost of having to purchase a new school uniform, which raises the wider issue of compensation.

I therefore asked Ms Tracey Storey to confirm what she and Happy Child would do about issues such as compensation, as well as the fact that the school had failed to give the required notice, as set out in the contractual provisions between it and the parents. She replied that she was not prepared to discuss

"Happy Child's decision to ensure the viability of our business".

There was not one mention of regret or the effect on the children and their lives, or of the breach of contract with the parents. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to speak with the appropriate Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. At a time when children are going off on their summer holidays, can we ensure that those children in particular become happy children, not Happy Child's victims?

I want briefly to raise another issue that affects my constituency. Bailiffs are out of control in Brent, and the council is instructing them, even in cases in which it had entered into agreements with my constituents that they could pay their debts by instalment. We are all aware of the effects of the recession, and debt is likely to be on the rise. It is important that public institutions and bodies act appropriately. It is absolutely right that they should agree to make payment by instalment available to debtors who wish to enter into such agreements. Unfortunately, Brent council has not seen fit to do so in the case of Mr. and Mrs. J who, on 29 July 2008, received a council tax vetting form that stated:

"The customer is agreeing to pay for himself and his wife's share, equal to £245.60 of £739.06. The Council will have to make a decision if this is acceptable. The customer is able to pay by direct debit in 5 payments."

Despite the fact that Brent council failed to write to Mr. and Mrs. J, it instructed bailiffs, who arrived at their house on 9 December, asking for £1,142.91. My constituents had to pawn some jewellery to pay that amount. The bailiffs then contacted them again, stating that they owed a further £764.06, and Mr. J sent a letter to the council offering to pay the amount in five instalments. The council agreed to accept payment by instalments and, I am pleased to say, has now, after investigating the matter, agreed that it was mistaken to instruct the bailiffs.

Unfortunately, the council has not agreed as much in the case of Mr. F, regarding a council tax debt. On 1 July 2009, Equita Bailiffs visited his property to collect a debt of £2,300. The bailiffs did not see Mr. F, but they pressurised his aged and sick mother, who was not the debtor, to go to the bank and withdraw the full amount to pay off her son's debts.

Finally, there is the case of Mrs. T-