Clause 46

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 21st February 2008.

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Restrictions on proceedings for offences under section 45

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

I beg to move amendment No. 38, in clause 46, page 25, line 13, after ‘45’, insert ‘or an advocate of that person’.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 83, in clause 46, page 25, line 13, at end insert—

‘(6A) In making representations to the attendance panel the person alleged to have committed the offence shall be entitled to advocacy.’.

No. 87, in clause 46, page 25, line 17, at end add—

‘(9) The Secretary of State must by regulations make provision setting out the rules of the proceedings of the attendance panel in relation to its functions in subsection (6).’.

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

Before proceedings can be instituted against a young person for failing to comply with an attendance notice, the local authority must consult an attendance panel. The panel has to recommend to the local authority that proceedings be instituted. However, as we have discussed, subsection (6) requires the attendance panel first to invite the young person to make representations to it. The process contains a significant number of safeguards before criminal proceedings are started, but for some young people, even those safeguards might not be enough to avoid an injustice.

We have already debated the evidence of Barnardo’s about further safeguards such as that advocacy should be available where it is needed to enable a young person’s voice to be heard at the attendance panel at every stage of the process, especially for those with learning or communication difficulties. I will not repeat those arguments, except to say that even young people without special needs are inexperienced in putting their own case and may be intimidated by proceedings, regardless of how informally they are conducted.

Amendment No. 38 would put into subsection (6) a requirement that the attendance panel invite the young person or an advocate to make representations to it. That is all that I will say about that amendment. Amendment No. 83, tabled by the hon. Member for Yeovil, makes a similar point.

Amendment No. 87 would require that the Secretary of State set out the rules of the proceedings of the attendance panel in regulations. In particular, it refers to the hearing of representations from the young person against whom it is considering instituting criminal proceedings. As the panel will have a quasi-judicial, or even judicial, function along the lines of a grand jury in the United States, it is important that the proceedings follow the rules that apply to tribunals and courts. It should not necessarily follow the rules of formality, but it should certainly follow the rules of evidence. It should be made clear, for instance, whether the young person will be able to question the panel or the local authority that is instituting the proceedings. Clarification from the Minister on how the panels will operate would be very helpful.

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

I shall say no more other than that amendment No. 83 was tabled by the Liberal Democrats and that we want the Government to put a commitment in the Bill that gives the person an entitlement to advocacy for the reasons that we discussed earlier. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response to that proposal. Given that he considered for a while the possibility of granting advocacy for a particularly vulnerable group of young people, we are interested to hear his views about the wider cohort.

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)

When the attendance panel is considering whether a local authority should be able to begin proceedings against a young person, it is required to invite the young person to make representations to the panel. Under amendment No. 38, when considering that, the attendance panel would have to invite either the young person or an advocate for the young person to make representations to it. Amendment No. 83 would entitle the young person to advocacy in making those representations.

We are placing the duty to participate on the young people, so it is right that they should always be invited to make representations. I do not believe that, in reality, anyone would disagree with that. I very much agree that the young person should be able to bring someone with them to the panel if they want to, and we shall allow for that in regulations. The panel will also invite other people who understand the young person’s circumstances to make representations. Both those and the young person’s own explanation will be important in helping the panel to understand the individual circumstances of the case and the steps that have been taken to help, support and re-engage the young person, and so decide whether everything possible has been done.

How the panel invites representations to be made to it will be set out in regulations, as amendment No. 87 proposes. Clause 43(3) makes provision for that. It is appropriate to put the detail of the operation of the panel in regulations and to take time to consult on that. With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton will withdraw the amendment.

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

I take the Minister’s point about the wording of amendment No. 38 and the use of “or”, so I shall not press that amendment to a Division. I am also reassured by the hon. Gentleman’s firm statement that he will include in the regulations a requirement that advocates will be permitted to accompany a young person appearing before an attendance panel. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 183, in clause 46, page 25, line 17, at end add—

‘(9) The proceedings may not be instituted unless the local education authority is of the opinion on reasonable grounds that they have exhausted all other options for encouraging the young person to comply with their attendance notice.

(10) The Secretary of State shall make regulations providing a definition of “all other options” under subsection (9), setting out the circumstances at which this stage may reasonably be considered to have been reached.

(11) In determining whether all other options have been exhausted with an individual young person the local education authority must have regard to the statutory definition provided by the Secretary of State under subsection (10).’.

It is clear what the amendment would achieve. Proposed new subsection (9) is clearly an attempt to ensure that, given the seriousness of the measures that we are considering, every possible attempt has been made to engage with the young person and to allow them to comply. Proposed new subsection (10) would require the Secretary of State to make regulations that provide a definition of “all other options” to ensure that it is clear to local authorities what obligations they must pursue before deciding that a person is not compliant. I should be grateful for the Minister’s view on the amendment.

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 put it to the Committee that the amendment is unnecessary because the attendance panel is the safeguard that ensures that the local authority has exhausted all other options for encouraging the young people to comply with their attendance notice. It does that by intervening at two critical stages in the process. It has the power to dismiss or confirm the attendance notice on appeal, and it must consider the young person’s case again if a local authority wishes to begin proceedings in the youth court. In both instances, the panel is the mechanism that would ensure that the young person’s case does not progress to the next stage of the enforcement process, unless it considers that all other options for encouraging the young person to comply with the requirement to participate have been exhausted. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not press the amendment to a Division.

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

Given that the Minister has said that he is more or less happy with everything in the amendment, we would have preferred that he had accepted it. However, given his assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.