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Clause 45

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 21st February 2008.

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Offence of failure to comply with attendance notice

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I beg to move amendment No. 34, in clause 45, page 24, line 24, leave out first ‘an’ and insert ‘a civil’.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 35, in clause 45, page 24, line 27, leave out ‘an’ and insert ‘a civil’.

No. 81, in clause 45, page 24, leave out lines 30 to 31.

No. 36, in clause 45, page 24, line 30, leave out from ‘person’ to end of line 31 and insert

‘acting unlawfully under subsection (1) is liable to a civil penalty not exceeding £200.’.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

If I have been uncharacteristically quiet so far today, and now rise, moist eyed, with a tremor in my voice, it is because I know that we shall soon be parted, for you have told us, Mr. Bercow, that you will not be joining us next week. May I advise you during that brief sojourn to read again William Morris’ “News from Nowhere”? It is a fine book that is entirely relevant to the Bill, and indeed, to this aspect of the Bill, because Morris understood that training was critical—that the relationship between craft and beauty was of immense importance in inspiring young people to acquire skills.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Will the hon. Gentleman reassure me that this is not another of the volumes that he has been reading in Committee during my speeches?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

No, I was riveted by the hon. Gentleman’s speech to such a degree that I was unable to pick up a single paper. I was entirely preoccupied by the sagacity of his remarks.

To return to the amendments more specifically, Mr. Bercow, you will know that at the heart of our considerations thus far has been the concern of Opposition Members, among whom I include the hon. Member for Yeovil, about the prospect of criminalising young people. According to the explanatory notes for clause 45,

“non-compliance is an offence and liable to a fine of a maximum of level 1 on the standard scale. Currently level 1 is a maximum of £200, with the actual amount in each case being decided by the court in light of individual circumstances.”

The amendment would delete the criminal elements of the Bill and translate them into civil penalties. In earlier sittings, we challenged the Minister on precisely that point, and we did so in concert with many witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee before we started our detailed scrutiny. The amendment would therefore specify that non-compliance be a civil matter, rather than a matter for the criminal law.

Time and again in the evidence sessions, we heard that young people may be criminalised by the Bill. That is of great concern to the very organisations with the most experience of dealing with challenged young people—those young people who are most typically disengaged from the system. I make no apologies for reminding the Minister, because he seems recalcitrant about the matter, of the evidence that we took from some of those experts. Martina Milburn, the chief executive of the Prince’s Trust told us that

“the bulk of the 40,000 people who we worked with last year had issues with drugs and alcohol. What do you do with a young person who is already going down the path of taking too many drugs and drinking too much and who just says, ‘I’m not going to do it’ and disappears? That happens not just in the age group  that we are talking about. I was talking to a young person yesterday who started drinking at eight and who was on heroin by the time he was 11; he certainly was not in school after that time. The question is how you deal with that. Do you increasingly criminalise young people and just say, ‘Right, we’re going to lock you all up,’ or do you find some way of trying to reach them and sort out some of their issues?”——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 22 January 2008; c. 16, Q36.]

That evidence graphically illustrates that the young people in greatest need are least likely to benefit from the Bill, particularly if it coerces them. We need an approach that is founded on the principle of encouragement of support and is sensitive to the fact that those young people might not be in a position to abide by the terms of the Bill. As the representative of the Prince’s Trust said, if someone is already in the kind of dire circumstances that she described, it is unlikely that the Bill as drafted will make much difference to them.

The Association of School and College Leaders also submitted a briefing on the Bill. It states:

“Our preferred approach to achieving full participation is by persuasion rather than coercion. In particular we do not support the potential application of criminal penalties for what is a civil matter.”

Our amendments would ensure that enforcement of the provisions of the Bill would be restricted to civil law. It is inevitable that we will oppose the Government’s measures unless the Minister can make a compelling case for criminalising young people who are disengaged from education and who are some of the most vulnerable members of society—denied a loving home, support and the knowledge and guidance of parents.

For Conservatives, and I guess for some Liberals too, from all that we have heard from the hon. Member for Yeovil, education means opportunity for all, rather than criminalising a few. Even if the Minister cannot accept the amendments today, I hope that he will reflect on the tenor of the discussions that have taken place over these past weeks. It is not the case that members of the Committee who do not share his enthusiasm for criminalising young people do not also share his enthusiasm for increasing participation; we simply do not think that the system that he wishes to put in place will work.

That is the best pragmatic argument for supporting the amendment that I can make. I hope that the Minister, in the spirit in which I have offered it, will seize it with both hands—although I have thrown him lifelines before and he has cast them aside—and get himself off the hook by translating the criminal elements of the Bill into civil matters.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

There is no point in the Minister sighing at the thought of me speaking. After all, I am going to speak to amendment No. 81, as it would be somewhat negligent not to since I tabled it and it has been selected for debate. The amendment would delete lines 30 and 31 from clause 45 and thereby prevent someone from facing a fine not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will agree with that aim.

We come back, as the hon. Gentleman did, to a good many of the representations about these clauses that  were received from all sorts of organisations that work with young people, and even by some of those who support the Bill and the element of compulsion contained within it. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England is clearly opposed to the provisions in this part of the Bill. The British Youth Council made it clear that it was opposed to the clauses that impose penalty fines on young people.

Rainer, too, has made representations to the Committee to say that it is concerned about the proposals in clauses 45 to 48. In the useful briefing note that it provided on Second Reading, Rainer pointed out that when it discussed that aspect of the Bill with young people, it was understandably the part that caused young people the most concern and anger. The feeling was that imposing fines and criminal sanctions on young people who may, in many senses, already be marginalised will be of very little value and in some cases will actually be counter-productive. The Rainer briefing paper quotes one young person who was consulted on the issue, who said:

“The whole point is to get a better job. How are you going to do that with a criminal record?”

Rainer believes that the proposals, and the fines contained within them,

“are likely to be particularly damaging for those who have struggled in or disengaged from mainstream education.”

An interesting part of the briefing sets out Rainer’s thoughts on how the Government might reframe some of the responsibilities in a way that would be more positive, and whether the sanctions regime could be reformulated to be more rational and acceptable to young people. Rainer says that the overwhelming majority of young people that it spoke to thought it appropriate that they should face the consequences for non-attendance, but felt that

“the only suitable penalty would be withdrawing financial incentives and support (such as free public transportation, or enhanced benefit payments) for taking part” in the courses in question. Rainer said that those incentives could be regained by somebody who then re-engaged in education and training.

We know from a previous debate that the Government are reticent about stating their intentions for the future financial framework of incentives and support for young people. Indeed, some of the comments by Ministers and officials on the record even suggest that the Government are looking at the future of the educational maintenance allowance. I wonder whether that is something that the Government might be planning to get rid of, phase out or reduce. I think that we heard from the Minister during earlier questioning that the Government are committed to keeping the EMA, but they have left open what other forms of financial support there may be for young people who have to comply with the Bill. I cannot recall when the Minister said he would be in a position to tell us about the financial support structures that will be in place after 2013. I have a feeling that it would not be for some time.

Since I have a feeling that the Minister may not be inclined to accept all of the amendments today, I wonder whether we might persuade him first, to give some indication of when he or his successors will be in a position to say what the financial support arrangements will be for young people. Secondly, would he be willing  to consider a process of sanctioning, as Rainer and young people have suggested, using the withdrawal of financial benefits for engaging in education and training, rather than this heavy-handed method of imposing fines on young people? In many cases they could not afford to pay, given the income of many young people and the fact that parents will be unwilling, or in some cases unable, to pay the fines. That could lead to criminalisation, which could then make those young people even less willing to engage, and less attractive to future employers.

If the Minister is not inclined to accept all of the amendments today, will he tell us when the Government will be in a position to say more about the financial support mechanisms and whether there is any possibility of adopting a more rational and more liberal approach—I will not say a high Tory approach, because I am not sure what the high Tory position on these matters would be—that was more positive and based more on providing incentives and support for young people, rather than the sanctions and penalties that are contained in the clauses?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 2:45 pm, 21st February 2008

Amendments Nos. 34 to 36 would replace the possibility of a prosecution and a criminal fine on breach of an attendance notice with liability for a civil penalty not exceeding £200, as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said. Naturally, I considered that and other options, but I concluded that a civil enforcement system would not work in practice. I have set out the reasons for that previously, although I am not optimistic that the hon. Gentleman will accept them given the hard line he took in his opening comments, saying that unless I persuaded him, he would press the amendment to a Division. However, I will have another go.

Civil penalties would be enforced in civil courts, which are not geared to dealing with young people in the way that youth courts are. For example, judges in the youth court receive specialist training on dealing with young people, and the court is not open to the general public. The amount of a fine in a youth court is set by the court, taking into account the young person’s means. Persons under the age of 18 may be sued in civil courts, but there are complex rules under part 21 of the Civil Procedure Rules 1998, such as the requirement in most instances to be represented by a litigation friend. In addition, although debts may be enforced using civil recovery methods, such as recovery by bailiffs, in practice such methods are rarely used against people under the age of 18. The local authority would have to pay a court fee to pursue the civil enforcement method, which also might not be appropriate in practice, and would leave the authority with mounting costs. Court fees and costs are added to the debt in the civil courts, which does not happen with a fine in the youth courts.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

So because English law has developed over the centuries to protect young people against the rigours of the civil court procedures, the Minister wants to use the even more rigorous criminal law?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am saying that we have a specific youth court which is trained and configured around the needs of young people being brought to justice.

I have previously reassured the Committee that the offence in the clause would not be a recordable one and that the conviction would be spent after two and a half years. Although I agree that it is important to ensure we have explored all the options in relation to enforcement, civil court proceedings and subsequent enforcement in the civil courts do not present a realistic means of ultimately enforcing attendance notices. I therefore ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Amendment No. 81 removes the provision for a fine in the youth court, but leaves it unclear what the consequences of committing an offence under the clause would be. It is important for the effectiveness of the new requirement, and to avoid confusion, to set out clearly the consequences of refusing to participate and failing to comply with an attendance notice. Accepting the amendment would reduce that clarity.

Proceedings in the youth court will always be the last stage of the enforcement process, but we need to make that last stage clear from the outset. A person found guilty of the offence under the clause will be liable to a maximum level 1 fine on the standard scale, which is the lowest category available. Currently, level 1 is a maximum of £200, with the actual amount in each case being decided and fixed by the court in the light of individual circumstances and sensitivity to issues for young people. The maximum of a level 1 fine provides protection for young people by putting an upper limit on the penalty a youth court can impose. Without that, there would be no indication of how such an offence might be dealt with and the penalty imposed could be more severe.

Financial support provided to young people in this context is principally the education maintenance allowance, but that is obviously currently conditional on participation in education or training. so I am not sure how we can introduce something else that is conditional in the way that the hon. Member for Yeovil suggested. We have explored whether to take benefits away, but very few young people satisfy the criteria for benefits—unless they are in extreme hardship—so I am unhappy about the idea of an enforcement system that is based on benefits.

I hope that that helps the Committee and that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am rather disappointed with the Minister’s response. I thought the ideas that I advanced on behalf of Rainer were so convincing that he would want to go away and reflect. In the light of that response, I might want to press amendment No. 81 to a Division.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

Again, we have heard a weak case from the Minister. The essence of his argument is that the civil system is not appropriate to deal with young people so, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton suggested, the Government are going to use a still less appropriate set of procedures. The difference is that the option preferred by the Minister will leave the young person with a criminal record. That is what it boils down to. A number of the most disadvantaged and challenged young people, who we are trying to encourage back into learning so that they will return to civil society and hopefully obtain employment, are going to be put through a criminal procedure. That argument does not stack up.

A reasonable person, looking on objectively from outside the orbit of the Committee, would scarcely believe that a Parliament was going to put people through a criminal court for not turning up at college. That is what it boils down to—that the Government believe in such a policy. Yet again, I urge the Minister to reconsider.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about enabling a fine of up to £200 to be imposed on a person who is highly unlikely to have any financial means? What about the effect that that might have on their intention of seeking employment, given that the fine outstanding would be attached to future earnings?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

We know how such a fine might be paid ultimately, because the explanatory notes on the Bill made that clear: it could be paid through a deduction of money from subsequent earnings, and I guess it could even mean seizing people’s assets, although I do not know if a young person would typically have any assets. However, it is, as my hon. Friend said, curious to the point of being bizarre that we are going to consider taking 17 and 18-year-olds, who may be acutely disadvantaged, and put them through a criminal process. As I said, that does not stack up, because it is not reasonable.

The Minister went on to say, as justification, that going through the civil procedures would cost the local authority money. Given that he has told us that it will only happen in a small number of cases, that is not the most powerful of arguments to draw from his armoury. Because it will cost the local authority a few bob, it is better put those young people through the criminal courts instead.

We heard a series of pretty unconvincing arguments in response to what was a measured and reasonable case for sensible amendments that would improve the Bill. On that basis, I am inclined to press the matters to a vote and to test the Committee’s will. Those who vote should remember this: if they vote for the amendments, they will be accepting the advice, given in evidence to the Committee, of those who work closely with the sort of young people that I have described; if they vote against the amendments, they will be voting for criminalising desperate and vulnerable young people.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the 10-stage process of enforcement. That is not something we would enter into lightly. The notion of people being criminalised for not turning up to college is clearly nonsense. That would never be a consequence of not turning up, but would only come into effect if a young person actively refused to participate, without reasonable excuse and after all the support and all the other stages had been gone through. I could go on, but interventions must be short.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I do not doubt for a moment that the Minister is honest in his determination to ensure that such action is the last resort. I do not challenge the idea that the 10-stage process will, for the most part, allow young people to participate who have not done so thus far. However, if the Minister is so sure about that, and  without anticipating our next debate, I wonder—I am only guessing—why I feel in my heart that he is unlikely to accept the amendment that means that this offence will not be part of a police record. If the Minister does not want young people to be branded as criminals, he has a chance—

Jim Knight rose—

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I give way. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not persuade me to divert my attention from the amendments to another group that may come later.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

We will deal with that matter when we debate the next amendment. I am sure that you will quickly challenge me, Mr. Bercow, if I attempt to do so now.

As I said, I am minded to divide the Committee on the amendment. I suspect that the debate will continue. I implore the Minister, who is an eminently reasonable man, to reconsider whether we want to go down the road of using criminal sanctions in pursuit of our shared aims: to inspire a thirst for learning in young people, to encourage participation and to increase employability.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division number 22 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 45

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The hon. Member for Yeovil signalled that he would like a separate vote on amendment No. 81. I assure him that there will be an opportunity for that. As he noted, the amendment in question amends another clause and will be taken at the appropriate time—or rather, it is to the same clause, we have not reached it yet.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I beg to move amendment No. 80, in clause 45, page 24, line 29, at end insert—

‘(2A) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under subsection (1) to show that he or she is—

(a) in employment,

(b) in treatment for a serious medical condition,

(c) caring for a family member, including as a parent,

(d) terminally ill, or

(e) unlikely to benefit from the service offered.’.

Anticipating that the Minister would not give ground to the previous amendment, we have tabled  backstop amendment No. 80, which I am sure the Minister will agree to. The amendment would make it clear that if a person charged with an offence under subsection (1) could show that they belonged to one or more of the categories listed in the amendment, that could be used as a defence.

My hope—my certainty—is that the Minister would not want to impose a fine on somebody in any of those categories. The categories include persons who are already engaged in employment. We are therefore not talking about a young person who is determined to be disengaged from the labour market or education and training, but rather somebody who has got off their backside, found a job, and is learning useful skills. I am sure that their employer would be worried if that person were dragged through the measures envisaged in clause 45, which might end up in their having a criminal record.

The amendment details a number of other circumstances in which I am confident the Minister would not want to impose sanctions. I anticipate that he will say that all of those issues will be taken into account by the attendance panels, which are extremely reasonable, and that it is unthinkable that members any of those groups could be fined, as that would be completely unreasonable. However, if that is the case, I invite him to accept the amendment as a backstop measure that would prevent the penalty process from being extended to those whom we would most assuredly want to protect from that process.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 3:00 pm, 21st February 2008

We believe that all young people have something to gain from participating in education until they are 18, and we do not believe that any group of young people should be treated differently from the outset, as that would risk their being given a second-class offer.

It may be difficult—and in some cases impossible—for some young people to participate, and we have built flexibility into the system so that those cases can be judged individually and the appropriate allowances made for their circumstances. However, many young people in difficult circumstances, such as those who have a serious medical condition or caring responsibilities, do participate, and that should be encouraged. We will do everything we can to remove the obstacles and difficulties that might prevent them from participating.

There are series of safeguards—the hon. Gentleman anticipated that I would say that—built into the system to ensure that an attendance notice will not be issued if it is not appropriate, and that the local authority will not be able to act if the young person has a reasonable excuse for not participating, as outlined in clause 39. I set out our intentions in some detail in my letter to him regarding what is likely to be considered a reasonable excuse. The groups that he specified in his amendment, with one exception, will not have enforcement action taken against them.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The Minister said, I believe, that nobody in categories (b), (c), (d) and (e) would have enforcement action taken against them or incur penalties under the proposals. Is he confident that that is correct?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am confident enough to say that I find it difficult to conceive of circumstances in which enforcement action would be taken against those groups. I cannot absolutely rule anything out. There might be someone in those circumstances who is offered every reasonable support and could be judged able to participate if they took advantage of all that support. As things stand, I cannot envisage the circumstances in which that would happen, but I do not want to rule out enforcement action if someone in some of those circumstances deliberately failed to participate.

We do not believe that being employed should be a defence for not participating; that would not be considered a reasonable excuse. We recognise that work can be a valuable experience for young people at this stage, but we believe that they should continue their education and training too. We discussed that at considerable length in earlier sittings. Education and training help young people to move on to successful and fulfilling lives and have wide benefits for the individual and society. It is critical that all groups of young people have the same opportunities and expectations of success. In the light of my reasoning, I hope, although I am not optimistic, that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I was excited because I thought that I had wrung a valuable concession from the Minister. I believe that the record will show that he said that nobody who fell into the (b), (c), (d) or (e) categories would be dragged through the penalty process. Of course he cannot give us that assurance, because there is no such protection in the Bill. It is left entirely to guidance that we have not seen to set out how somebody will be treated who has a serious medical condition, is caring for a family member, is terminally ill, or is unlikely to benefit from the service offered. When the Minister was put under pressure on that point, he quickly rode back and said that this is all fudge and mudge. Great puffs of smoke went up in front of him and suddenly all of those great reassurances did not amount to, as the Americans say, a hill of beans—as we say in Somerset, Ohio and such places. On a reassurance scale, I think that my reassurance level is about one out of 10.

Even worse than that, we heard that the Minister can envisage that people in employment, slogging their guts out day in, day out and learning all sorts of useful skills could, because of some jobsworth Minister—referring back to the his comments the other day—end up being dragged through the courts and receiving a penalty and a criminal record. That is so monstrous and so confused that I feel I have to press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Division number 23 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 45

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 81, in clause 45, page 24, leave out lines 30 to 31.—[Mr. Laws.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Division number 24 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 45

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I beg to move amendment No. 37, in clause 45, page 24, line 31, at end add—

‘(4) An offence under this section shall not be regarded as a recordable offence under the National Police Records (Recordable Offences) Regulations 2000 (S.I. 2000/1139).’.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 82, in clause 45, page 24, line 31, at end add—

‘(4) A conviction under subsection (1) shall not be recorded under the National Police Records (Recordable Offences) Regulations 2000 (S.I. 2000/1139) after the date of the person’s 18th birthday.’.

No. 178, in clause 45, page 24, line 31, at end add—

‘(4) An individual who receives a penalty under this section shall not—

(a) receive a criminal record if none already exists,

(b) have this penalty notice added to their criminal record if one exists.’.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

It may be that the amendment in my name and those of my hon. Friends and, indeed, the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Yeovil and his hon. Friends are superfluous, given what the Minister said a few moments ago. Nevertheless, just in case I misinterpreted his remarks, I will set out our intentions clearly. The debate on clause 45 has focused on the fact that non-compliance is an offence liable to a fine. That would be bad enough, but we are moving these amendments because we are anxious about the fact that young people may also be regarded as having committed a recordable offence that might figure on national police records, although I think that the Minister has suggested that will not be so. If that is the case, he will no doubt relieve us all when he replies.

It is fundamentally important that we do not stigmatise young people who, as I said earlier, will often  be vulnerable and challenged. That point was made powerfully to us by the British Youth Council in its advice.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

It might help the Committee and speed things up if I state categorically that the offence will not be a recordable offence. It will not be recorded automatically on the police national computer and will not be routinely disclosed in Criminal Records Bureau checks.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I anticipated that from what the Minister said earlier, and it is good news. However, we would do the British Youth Council a disservice if we did not flesh out its concerns, because they relate to the broader principles that we have been debating. It says:

“Young people at risk of dropping out need support not a criminal record. The ‘attendance panels’ could still operate...without the recourse to a penalty notice further along the line.”

It describes the proposals as potentially “demonising young people” and as perpetuating the negative stereotype that Ministers have elsewhere said that they wish to counter. I am relieved by the Minister’s intervention, which no doubt he will reaffirm shortly, but he will understand why we feel so strongly about the issue. Our cause is the most vulnerable citizens, because we are the champions of social justice, as you know, Mr. Bercow, perhaps better than most.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I was temporarily stunned by the hon. Gentleman wearing the mantle of championship of social justice. Perhaps the book about liberalism that he was reading during one of my speeches the other day has influenced him.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I do not want to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman because I know that he is a thoroughly decent chap, but his grasp of these things does seem a bit limited. Compassionate conservatism is born of social justice. It was our party that throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, in the form of people such as Wilberforce, Shaftsbury, Elizabeth Fry and others, did so much to advance social justice, when his party still had members who wanted to put boys up chimneys.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. At this stage I make simply two observations. First, it must of course be recognised that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings would be reading something only if and in so far as it related to the treatment of matters pertaining to the Bill or amendments thereto. Secondly, although the hon. Gentleman’s philosophical musings are always entertaining to the Committee, they are sometimes at best tangentially related to, and at worst wholly divorced from, the Bill.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Bercow. I will not be put off by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I am delighted that the Minister is so enthusiastic about the amendments. We simply need to ask which of the three he is prepared to accept and put in the Bill. As soon as he has let us know that, we can safely withdraw the amendments.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 3:15 pm, 21st February 2008

I shall be brief. As I set out for the Committee when giving evidence on 29 January, in response to question 475 from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, only offences that are punishable by imprisonment or specified in regulations—probably the regulations mentioned in two of the amendments that we are discussing—are known as recordable offences and are automatically recorded on the police national computer. The offence of failure to comply with an attendance notice is not punishable by imprisonment and we have no plans to specify it in the relevant regulations.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

But is it beyond possibility that, in a few weeks’ time, after the Bill has received Royal Assent, a Minister could, through secondary legislation, add the offence to the list included in the National Police Records (Recordable Offences) Regulations 2000?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I can tell the hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Government, that we will not specify the offence in the relevant regulations. It will therefore not be a recordable offence, will not be recorded automatically on the police national computer and will not be routinely disclosed in CRB checks.

It is true that young people convicted of the offence of failing to comply with an attendance notice without any reasonable excuse would, for a short period, have what we would understand as a criminal record—but “criminal record” is not a phrase that exists in law, which is why I could not accept one of the amendments. The main factor here is the length of time in which convictions must be disclosed—the short period of time in which someone has what we would understand in common parlance as a criminal record. As I have already confirmed, the rehabilitation period for a fine imposed by a criminal court on anyone under 18 is two and a half years. After that the conviction will be “spent” and will not have to be disclosed. In effect, that means that the young person will have no criminal record after that point.

If a young person had previously been convicted of a recordable offence and had that conviction recorded on the police national computer, that would be a separate matter; it would make no difference to this position. The offence of failing without reasonable excuse to comply with the requirements of an attendance notice would still be non-recordable.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Do I understand, therefore, that a young person who had finished his education or training, but had been through the process and committed an offence under the clause, would have to disclose that offence in any job application made while he was 19 or 20, and perhaps even approaching his 21st birthday?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Yes, if it was less than two and a half years from the date of the conviction. I made that perfectly clear in evidence. I have been consistent. I think I have said that the latest age at which the measure could apply would be 21. I hope that I have been extremely clear. I urge the hon. Members not to press their amendments.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Our sense of reassurance did not last long. We were looking for two bits of reassurance. First, we sought assurance that our proposal was so welcome and so much in line with the Government’s thinking that it could merely be plopped immediately into the Bill at the relevant place, in which case it would only be a matter of choosing between the two excellent amendments and deciding whether the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings or I should gain the credit. However, we now discover from the Minister that the reassurance that he is offering us is not as great as we thought.

Secondly, following the questioning of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, we discover that young people over the age of 18 will, for a period, have to declare the convictions for these offences when seeking employment, which is surely not desirable and could be damaging to their employment prospects. I cannot see that the position that the Minister envisages is satisfactory. I do not know if the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will want to press his amendment No. 37, but I will press my amendment No. 82 if there is no indication of the Minister having a sudden change of heart.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I moved the amendments in a conciliatory tone, saying that they might be superfluous. I had been gulled or persuaded by the Minister that they were indeed superfluous—until he rose to respond to the debate. However, when he did respond, it appeared not that the amendments were superfluous, but that they contradicted the Government’s position in as much as young people are going to be on record, albeit only for two and a half years. However, the two and a half years that the Minister speaks of could be critical to a young person emerging from training and acquiring a job.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

It may be semantics, but those young people will not be on record in that they will not be on the police national computer, or be discoverable by CRB check. They will simply have an obligation to disclose for that two and a half years.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

That is a fair semantic or technical point, but it does not in any way dilute the power of the argument that those young people, in disclosing what the Minister casts aside with a degree of complacency, would jeopardise their chances of achieving success—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

To continue my remarks—achieving success, perhaps for the first time, by taking those first faltering steps into the world of work. What prospect of that could there be if they are dogged by the necessity of declaring that they have been convicted? The irony is, of course, that, following that conviction, they might have participated in purposeful work or training for more than a year. However, because the requirement to declare their previous folly remains for two and a half years, I suspect they would be unattractive to an employer even so.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

The hon. Gentleman has extensive worldly experience, including as an employer. If an applicant came to him who was perfectly adequate for the job in hand, and he asked the individual whether he had a criminal record and that person said, “Yes, I had a problem but I now want to come into work,” would the hon. Gentleman hold that against that individual and not employ him?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

That is an unfair question to put to an untypically philanthropic person. The issue is not what I would do: it is what others might do. It is true, of course, that some employers would take a more generous view than others, but notwithstanding that, we heard from witnesses at the evidence sessions that a degree of stigmatisation will occur. In the words of the British Youth Council, people will be demonised.

A few moments ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton suggested to me that there is another risk. If we do not put these matters on the face of the Bill, a Government even more draconian than the present one, with a Minister even less sensitive to our arguments than the Minister here today, might, through a statutory instrument, sharpen the knife still more. Our aim is to fight for the interests of all those young people who we all want to encourage back to learning and work.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

There may well be employers who would be minded to offer employment to a young person in these circumstances, but who were prevented from doing so by the constitution or regulations governing the organisation they represent.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

That is true. It may well be that even the most philanthropic employers will be inhibited in the way my hon. Friend describes.

Because of our doubts about the Government’s good will, because of our fear that the measure will grow into an even more vicious monster than it currently is, and because of our anxiety to support the representations we have had from the people who work the most closely with vulnerable young people, I am inclined to press the amendment, even though I acknowledge that, in its current form, it is imperfect, as is the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Yeovil. What we actually want to do is deal with the matter of disclosure, which has risen in our sights as a result of the Minister’s admission that these young people are to be labelled for two and a half years. We will press the amendment to make the very strong point that I hope has been transmitted, albeit imperfectly, in these few brief words.

Mr. Laws rose—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I was proposing to move to a vote. Mr. Laws signalled that he wanted to press for a Division on a later amendment, which he will have the opportunity to do. However, if he wants very briefly to comment at this point, I will happily listen to him.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful for that, Mr. Bercow, given the exchanges we have just had.

There is a danger at this late stage of the day of glossing over an important issue. What the Minister’s comments have highlighted is that there is a risk that young people will have to declare what will, in essence, look like a criminal record—an offence. I think the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings is right to say that there are employers who will be very concerned about that. I have a constituent who has a record of low-level offences, which is having a major impact on her ability to take a job which is not unrelated to the offences she committed.

Why would the Government want a situation in which these offences had to be disclosed for two or two and a half years? Is it their view that disclosure is useful and sensible, or is it simply an inadvertent by-product of the way in which the Bill will operate? The Minister’s implied that a record of such offences would not matter either way to an employer. If the Government do not think it is useful, why not accept that it would be sensible to amend the Bill, as we are trying to do—perhaps imperfectly—to ensure that the information will not have to be disclosed for that two-year period? If that were to be done, it would address our concerns. I also very strongly endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that we want this provision on the face of the Bill. It is not at all satisfactory to have it dealt with elsewhere.

I have a final point to make. The Minister may want to respond and indicate why he wants disclosure to be obligatory. If he is not prepared to respond, his position is highlighted in its full weakness, and we shall be even more inclined than we already are to press the amendments. If he can, will he say whether amendment No. 178 would in any way deal with our concern? Is he essentially saying that the words “criminal record” would not have a meaning in law that would have any application to these circumstances? I think he is, and that he is indicating—as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings has said—that we may have to table other amendments on the matter at a later stage. For us, that would leave an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

I think the record will show that the Minister has not been willing to defend the Government’s position.

Jim Knight rose—

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, even though it takes up time and we have plenty to do. I felt that I had made all the arguments I could. In the end, the disagreement between us will be about whether there is some kind of incentive for people not to break the law in having, for a brief period, a modest level of conviction attached to them which they ought to disclose if asked. That is the principal disagreement.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The Minister is in danger of standing his own argument on its head. He is now praying in aid that a young person might be incentivised to comply with the legislation through fear that he or she would have to reveal the conviction at a later stage or declare  their record, which could damage their employment prospects. All that has served to do is highlight our concerns even further.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

All I am saying is that there is a disincentive effect attached to going through the criminal process. That is an extremely common theme of our deliberations in this House.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 3:45 pm, 21st February 2008

That may be a slightly different point. It does not necessitate the requirement to declare for that period of time, which is our concern.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

The hon. Gentleman makes the point I was about to make. The Minister now says that the disincentive is going through the criminal process. A moment or two ago, he said that the disincentive was having to declare this matter subsequently. That cannot possibly be a disincentive, because the young people concerned, as we have heard from all the experts, are already rejecting authority regularly. This provision will simply make them suspicious of and hostile to authority to an even greater degree.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I entirely agree. A powerful case has been made for the amendments.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I am delighted to say a further word on this subject, although I do not want to test the Committee’s patience too long. There may be members of the Committee who have been convicted for parking on a double yellow line or speeding. I was inclined, impertinently, to ask hon. Members to put their hands up, but that would be to embarrass my colleagues. Those things are not declarable in the way that the Government now suggest the offence under the Bill should be.

We have heard a very poorly structured argument. We have been told that the measure is principally a matter of providing disincentives, but when we spoke about the tension between civil action and criminal action, we were told that it is principally about avoiding the inconvenience of going through the civil system. Then we heard that the disclosure rather than the offence was critical in—presumably—intimidating people into participating. None of that bears any relation to and can in any way be squared with the advice we had from the experts during the witness sessions. I defy the Minister to suggest one witness who would support the thrust of the argument that he has made in the past few minutes.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

All I will clarify is that disclosure is a function of the offence being a criminal offence. That is all it is. We are not creating the requirement to disclose for the sake of this offence.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

Parking on a double yellow line is a criminal offence, as is speeding at 32 mph in a 30 mph zone, yet they are not disclosable matters. People who commit such offences are not treated in the way that the Minister wants to treat young people convicted of the offence under the Bill. We will have to press this matter to a Division, not because our amendment is  perfect, but because it will send out a message that we think that it should be clear in the Bill that young people should not be stigmatised in the way that we suspect they may be if the clause is not amended.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Division number 25 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 45

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The hon. Member for Yeovil requested a separate Division on amendment No. 82, but he is now shaking his head. I am sure that he will clarify.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Mr. Bercow, with your permission and given that we have divided on an amendment that is very similar, I do not wish to press amendment No. 82 to a Division.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Motion made, and Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 5.

Division number 26 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 45

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 5 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.