Clause 18 - Parenting contracts in cases of exclusion from school or truancy

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:10 am ar 8 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath 9:10, 8 Mai 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 43, in

clause 18, page 16, line 1, after 'body', insert 'or head teacher'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Llafur, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 44, in

clause 18, page 16, line 3, at end insert

'or any statement which the local education authority, governing body or head teacher believe, in their entire discretion, is appropriate for their side of a parenting contract'.

Amendment No. 45, in

clause 18, page 16, line 5, at end insert

'or any other requirements which may be thought appropriate'.

Amendment No. 46, in

clause 18, page 16, line 11, at end insert 'head teacher,'.

Amendment No. 206, in

clause 18, page 16, line 12, leave out 'local education authority or'.

Amendment No. 207, in

clause 18, page 16, line 13, leave out subsection (8).

Amendment No. 47, in

clause 18, page 16, line 13, after 'obligations', insert

'on the part of the head teacher, local education authority or governing body'.

Amendment No. 48, in

clause 18, page 16, line 15, leave out 'must' and insert 'should'.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

We are delighted to welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien, on a bright and sunny morning. Your fellow Chairman, Mr. Cran, kept us in order in the afternoon sitting earlier in the week, as I am sure you will know.

This is an important group of amendments. I make it clear at the outset that amendments Nos. 47 and 207 are alternatives to each other. It might help the Minister when he responds to know that they are alternative ways of approaching the issue. We believe that the Government have not got the clause right. As

for which one the Government should adopt at a later stage as a Government amendment, on Report or in another place, we have no strong preference.

We have now reached some of the issues to which I referred on Tuesday: I jumped the gun and got a little ahead of myself when I talked about head teachers at a previous sitting. The amendments are related and are not merely probing. They deal with issues that are significant for the teaching profession. Inevitably, many of the amendments that relate to parenting contracts are interlinked. I hope, Mr. O'Brien, that you will understand if some of the things that I and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee say are linked to other groups of amendments. I am sure that we can rely on you to be appropriately lenient and not rule us out of order if we stray a little on to overlapping groups of amendments.

Amendment No. 43 would insert the words ''or head teacher'' into subsection (4)(b). It is important that head teachers should have the opportunity to submit statements that they agree to provide support to help parents comply with a parenting contract.

Amendment No. 44 has perhaps even greater substance. We seek to add at the end of paragraph (b):

''or any statement which the local education authority, governing body or head teacher believe, in their entire discretion, is appropriate for their side of a parenting contract.''

This is another genuine attempt to improve the Bill by providing more flexibility, so that the LEA, the governing body, or the head teacher can include something sensible and helpful as part of their side of a parenting contract. When dealing with disruptive children who have been involved in antisocial behaviour, it is important to involve the LEA, the governing body and the head teacher—the people closest to the issue. As I know from my constituency work, it often happens that several children in one family are all behaving anti-socially. One parent, or two parents must sign up to an agreement with a school that relates to a series of children. We believe that those who know the family and the child best should not be restricted by the Bill and should be able to put whatever they like in the statement.

Amendment No. 45 makes a similar point. It seeks to add at the end of subsection (5):

''or any other requirements which may be thought appropriate.''

At present subsection (5) reads:

''The requirements mentioned . . . may include (in particular) a requirement to attend counselling or guidance sessions.''

Those are not restrictive words but we felt that it might be helpful to make it absolutely clear that the requirements may include any other requirements that may be thought appropriate.

Amendment No. 46 returns to the point about head teachers. Subsection (7) reads:

''A parenting contract must be signed by the parent and signed on behalf of the local education authority or governing body.''

Once again we think that it is crucial to insert the words ''head teacher''. I have had many discussions with head teachers in my constituency. All members of the Committee will have had discussions with the teaching profession about these controversial issues. It

is undoubtedly head teachers to whom these new powers should be given. There is no question but that it would be helpful for the head teacher—the person at the sharp end who knows the children best—to have the power to sign the contract, not merely the governing body.

Amendments Nos. 47 and 207 are the two alternatives that I mentioned earlier. One approach is simply to delete subsection (8), which reads:

''A parenting contract does not create any obligations in respect of whose breach any liability arises in contract or in tort.''

The second approach is to keep subsection (8) but to add at the end:

''on the part of the head teacher, local education authority or governing body.''

Parents should understand that firm, legal obligations are placed on them. We understand what the Government are seeking to do. They want to ensure that aggressive parents cannot sue, in contract or in tort, the LEA, the governing body or the head teacher. That is a laudable objective. The last thing that we want is a further expansion of the compensation culture.

I am not challenging the basis of what the Government are trying to do. I see the Minister nod to indicate that he understands my approach. Our view is that it will be more helpful to have parents clearly understand that they have firm obligations in law and that, if necessary, the courts might become involved in ensuring that those obligations bite firmly on parents. We do not want parents to be able to sue the LEA, the head teacher or the governing body.

All these matters run together. I turn to our amendment No. 48, which seeks to change ''must'' to ''should'' in subsection (9). At the moment, the Bill says:

''Local education authorities and governing bodies of relevant schools must, in carrying out their functions in relation to parenting contracts, have regard to any guidance which is issued by the appropriate person from time to time for that purpose''.

We suggest changing ''must'' to ''should'', because I hear from just about every head teacher and teacher, and certainly every governing body of the schools in my constituency, that they are fed up to the back teeth with legislation and guidance from the Department for Education and Skills. There are pages and pages of bureaucracy, for which I do not blame the Minister because it is not his Department. All the legislation, circulars and material from the DFES to teachers, head teachers and governing bodies is dictatorial. The amendment simply changes the terminology slightly but it would send a helpful signal in terms of relations between the Government and schools if the provision said not ''must'' but ''should''.

Obviously, the Minister will have talked to his colleagues in the DFES, as my hon. Friends and I have talked to our colleagues in the shadow DFES team. In the sensitive area of the relationship between schools, head teachers, teachers, governing bodies and LEAs with disruptive families, we do not want to be too dictatorial. We understand that the Government want

in legislation to encourage head teachers and governing bodies to look at guidance but changing ''must'' to ''should'' would be helpful.

You, Mr. O'Brien, and I hope all members of the Committee will see that we are talking about important matters. The views that I am putting forward are held not merely by Conservative Members. They are shared by many head teachers and teachers to whom I have spoken in my constituency. We will return to the concerns of head teachers about the way the legislation will operate on subsequent amendments. We will come to the concerns of the teaching unions, which are unhappy about being asked to be on the deciding end of some of the penalty clauses. I cannot stress our concerns too strongly.

Beyond my constituency, these concerns are shared widely across Surrey and other counties. I have talked to colleagues such as the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), and the shadow schools Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). They are hearing the same concerns about the proposals from teachers throughout the country.

I have had a personal interest in education not only throughout my 11 years in the House; I spent some time teaching before I qualified at the Bar. My mother was a deputy headmistress. My wife used to be vice-chairman of education on a county council, with a particular interest in pupil referral units and disruptive children. I have a great personal commitment to the issue and I want the legislation to be right.

The Minister understands that we are not trying to undermine the Bill. We believe that the changes we propose in this group of amendments and on subsequent clauses will improve the legislation. If it is to work, it needs to be right at the beginning. I care passionately about that and I hope the Minister will take seriously what we say.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am coming from a slightly different direction but I agree with the aims of the clause. It is important to place that on the record. We have a responsibility to make the whole package work. I took a step back and thought, ''We have home school agreements. What's the difference?'' Of course there is a difference, because we are tackling the challenging behaviour that results in exclusions. Truancy may be part of that or it may be separate. These are difficult issues to crack and a multi-agency approach is required.

The parenting contracts are part of a process and therefore consistency is needed all the way through. Having the head teacher sign the contract might sound convincing on the face of it. However, that could lead to a parenting order, in relation to which it is important to have the LEA doing the enforcing and the head teachers and the school doing the supporting. Therefore, I suspect that it is rather important to keep the separation at this stage, although I shall be interested to hear the Minister's words.

Having said that, I am not sure that it is logical for the clause to mention the governing body if the head teacher is not mentioned. There is no amendment on

that matter but I make that point to the Minister. The problem is complex and involves dealing with children whom one would wish to give the greatest possible support. The school must have perfect freedom to be the supportive people and not the enforcers in the process. The amendment is unnecessary and does not add much. However, it is important to debate what exactly the parenting contract is all about, which sets the scene for this morning's discussion. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to the amendment.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

Is not the whole point of the clause and the amendment, whether or not it is right, to allow the school to reassert its authority? In that sense, the provisions are about enforcement. The hon. Lady is right that most of the time one wants the head teacher to discuss things and to come to a voluntary agreement. Despite that, the provisions are about trying to enforce the authority of the school in a situation in which everything else has failed.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

We are talking about a preliminary stage. We are saying that there are supportive measures that we can introduce quickly enough, which must surely be the basis of the provisions—by the way, I am supporting the Bill in not seeing the head teacher as part of the process. However, we need to be logical all the way through. If one puts in ''head teacher'' at this point in the Bill, one needs to have it all the way through, because things will not work otherwise. That is the argument for keeping the head teacher out. There is a longer process.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I said that part of the basis for our amendments is the fact that the Government refer a lot to head teachers in subsequent clauses. Because of that we are trying to be logical all the way through, as the hon. Lady suggests we should be, by putting ''head teacher'' in this clause.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That is the point that I am trying to make. We need to get consistency at the beginning, which is why I am throwing the challenge back at the Minister. If one leaves the head teacher out, one must consider the inclusion of the governing body, because that leads to a halfway house.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Let me first turn to amendments No. 43 and 46. I understand the intention behind the amendments. Head teachers who work with parents daily should and will have a say in how best both to persuade those parents to take responsibility for their children's attendance and behaviour and to support them in doing so. However, a parenting contract may require a parent to attend guidance or counselling sessions, which must be funded. The party that enters into the contractual arrangement with the parent must therefore supply the funding.

In a school, the governing body currently has control over the budget; although it body delegates certain powers to the head teacher, it has responsibility for the budget. That is why the governing body is being given the power to enter into a parenting contract.

Under the amendment, the head teacher alone, without the approval of the governing body, could

enter into a commitment that involved a financial liability. That responsibility should rest with the governing body. There are different levels of delegation in different circumstances in different schools. We are not trying to impose a rigid system to override that. However, unless we want to blur the responsibility for a school's budget, it must be the governing body that enters into a contractual arrangement that could lead to financial liability.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow 9:30, 8 Mai 2003

I am slightly concerned about where the Minister is taking us. It seems that the clause reflects who is to carry the can financially rather than the best way of managing a disruptive child. If the concern is over finances, we should make arrangements to deal with that, perhaps at LEA level. It is not wise to justify the clause purely on the ground of financial responsibility.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I ask the hon. Gentleman not to be so silly so early in the morning. We are considering voluntary contracts entered into with parents in order to try to control the behaviour of their children, and the support that is needed on the other side of the equation in order for those to work. That involves a cost and a fundamental principle—when one takes a decision, one has to take responsibility for the facts that flow from it. The Liberal Democrats may not understand that, as is illustrated by some of their taxation policy, as well as their comments in Committee. If the governing body is going to pay for the support that will be necessary to make the contract work, the governing body must have the legal power to enter into the contract. If the LEA is to bear those financial consequences, it should have that legal responsibility. The Liberal Democrats appear to believe that we can give the responsibility to one body and impose financial consequences on another. We cannot.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I now have a concern because it is sometimes difficult to persuade schools to take on pupils who have been excluded from other schools. It is right for a school to want a parenting contract if it is to accept a pupil who has been excluded but I cannot see a governing body being keen on accepting something that will take a chunk out of its budget. Does the Minister envisage that the LEA will be more proactive in such cases?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

In all probability, it will. That is why the LEA is there—it will provide the necessary services. However, the school will potentially provide some back-up. None of that is cost free. If a contract has to be entered into, which might involve a cost to the school, the governing body should have control over who enters into it. If the costs are to be borne by the LEA, it should have power over the contract. It is not unreasonable to suggest that those who risk incurring a financial burden should be those who enter into the contract, who sign it and who accept responsibility in the first instance.

Whoever enters into a contract with a parent, whether it is an LEA or a governing body, has to be trusted by the parent. At this stage, the contract is entirely voluntary. The LEA or governing body have

the option to enter into a contract, because they must satisfy themselves that they are capable of delivering their side of the bargain. It would be no good if they entered into a contract that they were not in a position to fulfil.

We do not expect governing bodies to take a route that imposes ridiculous burdens on their own budgets. They will not do that. They must feel comfortable that the liability that they accept is one that they can fulfil and that they see as a priority, and they must approach their side of the bargain freely.

The governing body may choose to delegate the power to a head teacher; we expect that to happen in many schools. I assure members of the Committee that although the Bill does not give head teachers separate powers with respect to parenting contracts, they will be able to play a significant role in implementing the provision.

Amendment No. 44 would have the effect of allowing the local education authority or the governing body further discretion to decide what to agree to do in their part of a parenting contract, which need not include support. That would completely change the nature of the parenting contract. The provision is designed to provide a parent with the support to enable them better to perform their responsibilities.

The amendment is not necessary if its intention is that the local education authority or the governing body should be able to include additional material as well as the statement that it agrees to provide the support. The provision as drafted does not prevent the contract from containing any other statements by the local education authority or governing body, provided that the parent signs up to the contract. The only real restriction on the contents of a contract is that it should be agreed by both parties.

Amendment No. 45 is also unnecessary. Clause 18 already provides that a parenting contract should contain a statement that the parent agrees to comply with the requirements specified in the parenting contract. Subsection (5) provides that the contract ''may include'' a requirement to attend counselling or guidance. Counselling and guidance are mentioned specifically as they are an important aspect of a parenting contract but that does not mean that the parent is limited to those requirements.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

Guidance and counselling sessions for parents are fundamental to the proper working of the clause. Will the Minister confirm that he will talk to whoever is responsible for ensuring that enough of those guidance and counselling sessions are provided, so that they become a practical option under the parenting contracts?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We will have to do a lot of work to ensure that all the agencies buy into the measures and that the facilities are provided to make them work. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills and others in Government will have to follow that through, to ensure that such provision is made.

Amendment No. 47 seeks to make the parent who has signed the contract subject to obligations in the contract and in tort, whereas the local education authority or governing body would not be subject to those obligations. That would defeat the object of' parenting contracts, which is to work on a voluntary basis with parents. The threat of creating contractual obligations and liability in tort would make parents far less likely to sign a contract. One could even envisage cases in which parents were given legal advice not to enter into a contract with the school, for fear of taking on such liability.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath wants an element of coercion by the authorities, and that exists in the Bill. The situation must be looked at in the round, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) said. Down the road, potentially, is a binding parenting order imposed by the court. As it does not involve going to court or the law, the parenting contract arrangement will cut out bureaucracy and coercion when parents are happy to enter into the contract and to pick up their responsibilities. Imposing a potential legal liability on the parents at that first stage would not be helpful.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

As I was confident that he would, the Minister is addressing difficult issues very sensitively. He will accept that we are debating a judgment call but does he recognise that, as head teachers have told me, solicitors for a disruptive family who would advise parents not to sign up to a parenting contract if there were legal liability are just as likely to give that advice if there is no legal liability? One must try to understand how such a situation appears to head teachers, who often have 20 or 30 years' experience of dealing with disruptive families.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I accept entirely the hon. Gentleman's point, and if we were examining parenting contracts in isolation from the rest of the powers in the Bill, he would be right that we should consider coercive powers. However, taken with the other measures that are available, I hope that he can see that the potential exists for a voluntary agreement in many cases. The lawyers that he mentioned would have to be mindful that, if their clients failed to address voluntarily the problems that their child was causing, they would be leaving them open to further action. They would have a duty to advise their clients about that.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

I hope not to get a rebuke similar to that which the Minister gave to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green)—in my case, any stupidity would be natural rather than conscionable. We have talked about parent or parents, and I have looked through the Bill to find a definition of that. Does the contract have to cover both parents if a child is living with both of them? What would happen if one parent were happy to sign a contract but the other one were not? I am sure that there is a good legal answer but I would like clarification.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is treachery rather than stupidity to ask me a question like that at this time in the morning. [Laughter.] I have learnt to be wary of the hon. Gentleman over some time, and I shall come back

to him on what would happen if one parent were prepared to agree while another were not.

The threat of creating a contractual obligation and liability would make parents less likely to enter into a contract and would defeat the object of the voluntary part of the arrangements. If there is a lack of co-operation, the local education authority and governing body may, in cases of exclusion from school for serious misbehaviour, apply to the court for a free-standing parenting order. The courts may take into account any refusal to enter into or breach of a parenting contract in deciding whether to impose such an order. In cases of truancy, the local education authority or the authorised school staff could issue a penalty notice under clause 22, or the LEA could prosecute for the offence.

Amendment No. 48 would remove the necessity for LEAs and governing bodies to have regard to any guidance issued about parenting contracts in cases of exclusion from school or truancy. That would compromise our aim that parenting contracts should be used consistently across the country. We intend the guidance to advise on when to consider using parenting contracts for tackling poor behaviour, attendance or both, and when the measures would be appropriate for use in exclusion cases. Parents should be able to feel confident that they will receive similar equitable treatment, irrespective of the school that their child attends. Guidance should ensure that that is the case.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has reflected on the matter and thinks that it is dreadfully authoritarian. I do not think that that is the case. We are talking about the words, ''must have regard''. We are not talking about a need to comply with the letter of the guidance in every circumstance. I do not think that we are far apart in the matter. He contends that the words should be, ''should have regard''. I do not think that the measure is quite as draconian as many people believe. The local education authority or governing body need not slavishly follow the guidance if it is inappropriate in an individual case. If there is good reason in an individual case, the local education authority can depart from the guidance.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath 9:45, 8 Mai 2003

I am pleased that the Minister understands that it is not only we who are saying this—the teaching and voluntary organisations have made their concerns known. Does he understand that if the Bill contains phrases such as ''must have regard to'', the impression in the minds of a governing body or a head teacher is that they really must do it? That tends towards the slavish following of the words. If the words were, ''should have regard to'', it would be different. I realise that it is a small point but will he acknowledge that it is a valid point, and keep the matter under review? Having considered not only what we have said but what some of the teaching bodies and voluntary charitable bodies have said, perhaps he will consider tabling an amendment.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman is worried about presentational issues. He seems to be urging me

to appear soft and cuddly, on behalf of the Government.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I understand that matters can be misinterpreted but I am not sure that that is the case in this instance. The words do not sound dreadfully authoritarian to me. However, I will reflect on the words of the hon. Gentleman.

I have gathered my thoughts on the point that was raised by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) about the situation where one parent was happy to go along with a contract but another was not. Parenting orders and parenting contracts could apply to one or both parents. If one parent is unwilling, the potential is there to enter into a contract with the willing parent. That contract would not be binding on the unwilling parent and that is potentially problematic. In those circumstances, a parenting order may be more appropriate. Many cases will involve an absent parent who is not associated with a child's welfare. The parent with responsibility for care will be able to enter into the contract, and the school will be free to enter into a voluntary contract with that parent. It is possible that there will be circumstances in which both parenting contracts and parenting orders will apply.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

The hon. Member for Uxbridge has made a valid point. I am aware of an instance in which two parents have split up. One parent has mental health problems and the children are with that parent for half the week. When the children are with that parent, they fail to attend school. When they are with the other parent, they attend perfectly normally. My concern is about how that should be dealt with. If parenting orders are to be issued, will they be issued to the parent who is getting the children to school, or to the parent who is failing to get the children to school? That is a grey area.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Any Member of Parliament who holds surgeries and deals with some of the problems that come before them will know how many difficulties there are. As I said, we are talking about a voluntary arrangement. If one parent is doing their best, and there is a degree of compliance in terms of what is sought from the child, the school or the LEA will want to enter into a parenting contract not with that part of the partnership but with the part that is failing. As I said, entering into the contract will be voluntary. Of course, in court cases and in the coercive situation of an order further down the line, the courts will have to wrestle with all the complexities that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I do not pretend that that will be easy.

Amendment No. 206 would exclude the LEA from signing a parenting contract. It is intended to ensure that LEAs do not act in isolation when entering into such a contract but it would leave the governing body as the only party able to sign one with the parent. We appreciate that there will be many circumstances in which the governing body is best placed to arrange a contract on behalf of the school but that will not always be the case. LEA officers often work directly with the pupils and families that parenting contracts are meant to help.

Where pupils persistently fail to attend school, the LEA, through its education welfare service, works closely with those pupils, their parents and schools to bring about an improvement in attendance. Similarly, the LEA would be involved if a pupil were excluded from school, either permanently or for a series of fixed periods. In permanent exclusion cases, for example, the LEA is responsible for reintegrating pupils into full-time education. In some cases, therefore, it will be most suitable for the LEA to enter into the contract.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I am glad that the Minister mentioned LEA education welfare services. To an extent, our amendments were intended to draw him out on such issues and to get him to respond to them on the record.

The head teachers and experienced counsellors to whom I spoke asked why the Bill made no mention of what used to be called truancy officers. We are, after all, talking about children playing truant. Of course, truancy officers have been given the new and—to use the Minister's phrase—more cuddly-sounding title of education welfare officers. None the less, would not it be sensible—this is one of the issues I had in mind, although I did not table any amendments on it, and I am glad that the Minister raised it—for the Government to include education welfare officers in the Bill?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The reason why is along the same lines as that for including the governors rather than head teachers of schools. Head teachers will often be at the forefront of sorting the issues out but the liability will be on the governing body. The Bill must therefore draw the governing body into the contract. In the same way, liability will be with the LEA, albeit that the work is done by the education welfare service—the old truancy officers, as the hon. Gentleman rightly noted. I think that the point is covered, as far as legislative necessity is concerned, by saying that the LEA must be the partner in the contract. We want parenting contracts to be used widely, and maintaining the flexibility for the LEA or the governing body to enter into and to sign parenting contracts will make that possible.

We intend to issue guidance to emphasise the importance of collaboration between the LEA and the school in arranging parenting contracts. The guidance will stress that the LEA should not act in isolation when entering into such contracts.

Under amendment No. 207, there might be no consequences should either of the parties that entered into a contract fail to carry out what they committed themselves. For example, either party could sue the other in the county court for breach of contract. The aim underlying the contract is to encourage parents who are unable to deal with their child's poor behaviour or bad attendance because they have poor parenting skills to accept support, at that stage voluntarily. We want the process to be as straightforward as possible. As I said earlier, the threat of proceedings would act as a disincentive for the parents to enter into a contract. In addition,

parenting contracts are two-sided agreements. If we introduced sanctions against parents for breaches, we would have to introduce similar sanctions against LEAs and schools, and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has already pointed out some of the difficulties and liabilities that schools might face should we go down that road.

I make a wider point in response to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. There seems to be a view abroad—we have all heard it—that caring services ought to be almost exclusively caring, and that they should not get involved in enforcement because it breaks the relationship that they are trying to build with the people whom they serve. I totally reject that. I do not see why enforcement services, such as the police, should not have concerns or cares about the consequences of what they are doing. I do not believe that caring services, such as education welfare services, schools or social services departments, should see their role as exclusively supportive. There is an enforcement role, and I do not see why one should detract from the other.

We must keep sending the message to organisations that are supposed to be performing a public service that they should not draw those lines and distinctions. In many circumstances, their responsibilities are holistic. The hon. Lady raises a problem. People say, ''Oh dear. We can't possibly go there. It would ruin our relationship with the parents or with our clients''. I reject that as nonsense.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I speak with some experience on the matter, again, based on example, not firm or widespread evidence. Education welfare officers already deal with parenting orders. They have much experience of operating on behalf of the youth offending teams. Those to whom I have spoken have said that they try to separate their roles under parenting orders. One educational welfare officer will do the pursuing and the hard part of the parenting order, and another from the same authority will deal with some of the other aspects of the order. Some professionals, at least, have made that deliberate decision in order to make the orders workable. We cannot pronounce that there is only one way to do these things.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am not saying that it is as simple as that but I know that such views exist and are held fairly widely. I believe that they are potentially damaging. As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath says, it is like the good cop, bad cop routine. Social services departments, schools and so on all have an enforcement job—to educate children or to look after children in need. They cannot simply walk away from that side of the job while getting on with the rest of it.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

Before a parenting contract is considered, the school will have been involved in supporting children and parents in a number of ways, in order to get the children to school and to behave acceptably. The school would clearly be able to demonstrate that such an approach had been taken but had not succeeded, which is where parenting contracts kick in.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

That is a far more mature way of going about things than pretending to parents that there are no sanctions. We must provide back-up, support and care—and sometimes sanctions. It is not for anyone to say, ''It is my job to provide support. Somebody else will do dreadful things to you if you do not comply.'' It is a false division. It has nothing to do with the amendment.

I ask the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath 10:00, 8 Mai 2003

The Minister has set out the Government's response in his usual careful way. There are judgment calls to be made, and I am sure that there will be further interesting debates when the Bill is considered in another place. As we know, many Members of the other place have spent a lifetime working with children, including in education, and they will have much to say about it. Given that the Minister said that he would keep certain matters under review, the legislation may take account of some of my points.

I shall not press the amendments to a vote, although they are important, because they involve matters of judgment. I strongly agree with and endorse the view that the Minister expressed towards the end of his remarks: all agencies have a responsibility to emphasise the toughness, rather than concentrate only on what one might call the soft-cop approach. If the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole disagrees, well, the Liberal Democrats are always on the side of the soft cop, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) observed. That is one reason why they lack credibility. I totally agree with the Minister's latter remarks about the need for sanctions.

It is fair to say, however, that some of the charitable organisations that have written to me and perhaps to other members of the Committee, such as Barnardo's and the Children's Society, have expressed concerns. It is fascinating that the Children's Society says that the extension of the powers in this part of the Bill is ''open to debate''. That is why we are debating it. Barnardo's also sent a helpful brief, saying of the legislation:

''There is no requirement for the LEA or Governing Body to consult with or make reference to any other agency or person before establishing a contract''.

Again, it was important to make that point on the record, and the Government might want to consider it. We did not feel the need to table amendments in that respect, but I thought it important to state the fact that organisations such as Barnardo's and the Children's Society, which do very valuable work, have made those observations. The Government and others can consider them as the Bill progresses.

At this stage, I do not seek to pursue these matters further. There are related issues about which we feel even more strongly and to which we shall return under later amendments, but for now, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

The last part of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister and the contribution made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath are crucial to the debate on trying to change the culture of some of the agencies that work in this field. Agencies need to understand that it does not help children if they talk only about supporting, consulting and working together. There comes a time when people must almost be forced to accept their responsibilities. In some cases, parents, whether there is one parent or two parents, have to be forced to accept their responsibilities. In some cases, it will be for the courts to determine where the responsibility lies.

The crucial point is that people fundamentally misunderstand how society works if they say that it is always in the children's interests to act in a soft way in respect of those who do not accept their responsibilities. It is not true to say that, because at the end of the day it often is in a child's interests to force the parents, through legislation if necessary, to accept their responsibilities. If we cannot effect that cultural change with some agencies in terms of adopting a soft-cop, hard-cop regime, some of the Committee's aspirations will be difficult to meet.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.