Amendment 53

Part of Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 21 October 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 7:00, 21 October 2021

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the government amendments and all noble Lords who have spoken. I shall say a brief word on government Amendments 58 and 72, on religious academies. When my noble friend Lord Touhig raised this matter in Committee, my noble friend Lady Wilcox made clear our support for his endeavour, so it is good to see the Government responding positively by bringing forward on Report their own amendments to address the problem. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Touhig. Given how long this has seemingly been worked on, I hope that at least one academy, the Lord Touhig catholic academy, will be appearing any day now to mark his success. I am going to ask him to put his name to my amendments in future, in the hope it will have a similarly positive effect on the Minister on future subjects. I look forward to his support. These amendments are very welcome.

Turning to the remaining government amendments in this group on essay mills, as I made clear in Committee, we fully support the outlawing of cheating services. Having had to research this matter for one of the many Private Member’s Bills proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey—I had only just taken the brief on—I was shocked to find how comprehensive the available services are. I think I have regaled the House more than once with my story about commissioning imaginary essays on Augustine and the problem of evil and various other things, and being astonished to find the precision with which one could request services. There was even a “comparethemarket.com” for it. The whole thing is extraordinary.

I have a small number of questions, and I apologise, but given the amendments have been brought forward on Report, we have not had an opportunity to ask about them, so I hope the Minister will bear with me.

First, one of the conditions is that material provided to a student has to have been prepared in connection with the assignment, rather than published generally. One of the abuses of the current system has been essay mills selling the same essay to more than one student, as the same topic comes up again and again. If material had been prepared for one student and was then resold to 15 more, is that one offence or is each sale an offence?

Secondly, the policy note talks about committing offences in England and Wales. What does that mean? Does it mean that the website is hosted in England or Wales, that the company that owns it is registered there or that the owners and essay writers live there? Who commits the offence? Is it the person writing the essay, the one promoting the service, the staff, the owners or all of them?

I have two other quick questions. We are told that enforcement of the law will fall to the police and the CPS. Given the pressures on both, do the Government have a sense of how many prosecutions, if any, are likely in a typical year or will this rely on deterrence as a way forward?

Finally, the penalty on conviction is a fine. I sought clarification offline as to the likely scale of this and was told simply that this will be determined by the courts in accordance with Sentencing Council guidelines, with no cap on the powers of magistrates to issue fines. When I have had to deal with these things on Bills before, I have normally been given some kind of heads-up about the likely tariff or scale from the Government Benches, so can the Minister give us an idea? Are we talking about £50, £5,000, £50,000 or £5 million, or something relating to the profitability of the company? Can she give us some sort of heads-up or a rough benchmark?

I commend the Government for acting on both these points and look forward to the Minister’s reply.