Clause 29 - Meaning of “relevant service” and other key expressions

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:00 pm ar 7 Rhagfyr 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Ceidwadwyr, Basingstoke

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause 30 stand part.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Clause 29 is the first of a chapter of clauses that relate to the criminalisation in England and Wales of contract cheating services, which are more widely known as essay mills. Taken together, this chapter of clauses will make it an offence for an organisation or individual to complete, or arrange for another person to complete, all or part of an assignment on behalf of a student. It also criminalises the advertising of these cheating services. Essay mills threaten to undermine the reputation of our education system and to devalue the hard work of those who succeed on their own merit. They also prevent students from learning themselves and risk students entering the workforce without the knowledge, skills or competence they need.

Clause 29 provides clarity on the exact meaning of the key terms used throughout this chapter of clauses; removes the potential for unintended consequences to arise from the clause; and allows for fraudulent essay mill companies, their employees and contractors to be captured by the legislation. Because of the way that we have defined “relevant service”, we have also ensured that generally permitted study support, such as revision guides, will not be in scope, but essay mill companies that complete assignments on behalf of students will be in scope.

Clause 30 criminalises providing essay mill services or arranging for such services. It is therefore crucial in our fight against essay mills. It provides a powerful legislative tool to tackle these deplorable organisations and individuals.

I will talk briefly about the practicalities of the offence that we are creating. It will be for the prosecution to prove that the cheating service has been provided to the student. However, the burden of proof in relation to the defence is on the defendant. For example, the defendant would need to prove that they could not have known, even with reasonable diligence, that the student would or might use the material provided to complete an assignment. For example, simply asking a student to sign a contract that states that they will not use the work in a certain way is not a defence. Clause 30 states that clearly.

If someone were to be found guilty, they would be liable to be punished with a fine. The appropriate fine will be determined by the courts in accordance with Sentencing Council guidelines. Clause 30 will help to tackle the existence of these companies and to fine them appropriately if they continue to carry out these illicit services.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

Clause 29 defines the term “relevant service” and other key expressions. We have no desire to vote against it.

I am interested in the representations that the Minister has received about the way clause 30 is drafted. Subsection (4) will immediately set those with more experienced legal minds than mine—there are such people in this place—to consider how difficult it may be to achieve a successful prosecution under these provisions. If there is a defence that enables a defendant to say, “I had no idea what the legislation was”, that starts to bring home how difficult it might be to get successful prosecutions in this area.

Notwithstanding that point, we support the Government in seeking to bring the provisions in the clause into being. We think this is an area of real importance. Every single student who diligently does their revision and their work, and who has a qualification in their hands that they have earned, needs to know that the qualification has meaning. If other people can win that qualification not through the same diligence and hard work but by accessing these cheating services, that undermines the qualification and those hard-working students. We support the intentions behind the clause, but are interested to see what representations the Minister has received on the drafting.

Will the Minister also tell us how he anticipates that the fines and offences will be regulated? For example, will the provision of a cheating service that is utilised by five different students be five offences or one? It is the technological advances that have taken place that make such a clause necessary—it would not have been previously. If, for example, an organisation was putting things on the internet that were subsequently being used in a way that was considered to be cheating, where is the line between the sale of those services and that information, and simply selling access to a website? Will the Minister tell us a little more about what he anticipates will be seen as a cheating service? That would be helpful.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education) 3:15, 7 Rhagfyr 2021

I have a few points to add to my hon. Friend’s remarks. In principle, these clauses make some important points about essay mills and the advertising of relevant services. There is a long-overdue need to legislate to prevent such services, and this will give the issue the importance that the sector has been demanding for some time. Back in 2018, something like 40 vice-chancellors wrote to the then Secretary of State demanding action on this issue. We are three years on. The problem has grown to an industrial scale and needs tackling.

The problem has become so—well, I would not say endemic, but it is widespread, and there are many students out there who seek to access these services or feel under pressure because of the need to get good grades. There was a case not so long ago where Coventry University students were blackmailed by an essay mill company, which said that if they did not pay yet more money, it would tell their university. There is a lot to be covered in this respect, and that is why the clause is very important.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am pleased to see that the Opposition support our move to legislate on this matter. We are all of one mind that cheating services actually end up undermining the good work of the vast majority of students, and they introduce an unnecessary element of doubt.

I reassure the Opposition that the Bill has been carefully drafted with some excellent Government lawyers. Clause 30 is designed to ensure that convictions are much more likely and that some of the easy defences—for example, that these services were just providing information and had no idea that it would be used in cheating services—cannot be used as a get-out-of-jail card. We are confident that it is a major step forward in combating this insidious crime and we look forward to its enactment.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 29 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.