Clause 31 - Offence of advertising a relevant service

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:15 pm ar 7 Rhagfyr 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education) 3:15, 7 Rhagfyr 2021

I beg to move amendment 61, in clause 27, page 33, line 19, at end insert—

‘(2C) Before applying to a court for an education administration order in relation to a further education body in England, the Secretary of state will conduct a review of the impact of the closure of a Further Education institution on learning opportunities in the local area and provide a report to

This probing amendment is designed to find out the Government’s anticipated tariff for such offences. To what extent is it seen as a serious offence? To us, it is absolutely obvious that the fine needs to be of a sufficient sum to make it not worth providing such services. Although we support the Government’s intentions, we seek further clarification about the level of the anticipated tariff for such an offence. Will perpetrators get off with a fine that costs them the equivalent of a week’s dinner money, or are the Government taking such offences seriously? Will they set the fine at a high enough level to act as a deterrent?

To return to the question to which I do not believe the Minister responded when we considered clause 29, in the event of a cheating service that is utilised by five students, would that be judged as five offences or one?

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

I am sorry, I forgot to reply to that. It would be five offences.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

That is useful clarification. Can the Minister also clarify whether perpetrators would be guilty of a civil or criminal offence? Would they get a criminal record? In the event that a business was perceived to be providing those services, what would be the impact on that business? Or is an individual judged to have committed the offence? I would be grateful for that clarification.

Overall, we believe it is vital that there is a level playing field. We support the Government’s intention to prevent the use of fraudulent services, such as essay milling, and we believe that the fines should be such to act as a deterrent. We also believe that there should be a corresponding damage to reputation provision when people or businesses commit that offence. It is crucial that the amount of the fine and the publicity surrounding those fines reflect the severity of the offence. As we have said, the practice significantly undermines the efforts of all students who work hard to achieve their qualifications legitimately.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

It would be interesting to hear from the Minister what form of penalty the Government imagine. We heard the probing question from my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield about the case of five individuals. Can the Minister elaborate on what sort of penalties he envisages for the business behind the essay mill? If he does not agree with our suggestion, what scale of punishment does he believe would be appropriate? Is it more akin to dropping litter, fly-tipping or another offence?

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

We are in agreement that essay mills need to be driven out of business, and that is why the clauses are in the Bill. In response to the hon. Gentleman’s points, these are serious criminal offences.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

I suspect that the Minister is about to say that the Sentencing Council will have a view on the issue, and actually it is for the Sentencing Council to determine the length and type of sentences that might be involved in criminal activities.

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

My hon. Friend is extremely prescient, and I congratulate him on that. This is a criminal offence and we want to see it seriously punished. However, for reasons I will set out, we do not think that amendment 62 would solve the problem in the right way. It would amend clause 31 by setting a minimum penalty of a fine of no less than £5,000 for the offence of advertising a cheating service. As drafted, the Bill does not state the level of fine payable on conviction. Instead, conviction of either offence carries the penalty of an unlimited fine—as the name implies, that is a fine imposed without financial limit. That approach carries serious potential consequences and provides a significant deterrent effect to those planning to advertise contract cheating services.

The Government do not believe that setting a minimum amount is appropriate, where maximum fines are unlimited. Setting a minimum fine of £5,000 risks that level of fine being seen by essay mill providers as a likely fine, rather than a minimum. Sentencing and the precise size of a fine should be matters for the independent judiciary, in accordance with Sentencing Council guidelines, based on the full facts of the case. I would draw hon. Members attention to the fact that Ireland, which has a similar legal system and a similar offence, imposes a fine of up to €100,000 per offence and/or a prison sentence. That is the sort of thing that might go through the minds in our justice system. We do not therefore think that the amendment is necessary.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

I accept what the Minister says. I do not accept that introducing a minimum fine of £5,000 would necessarily lead to essay mill services thinking that that would be the likely level, but I take his point. The amendment was a probing amendment to try to reach some understanding of the Government’s position. If there have been fines of the level that he outlined, that will be heartening for all those who want to see the issue addressed. 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 Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Clause 31 makes it an offence to advertise essay mills. Marketing and advertising are the lifeblood of any successful industry, and we do not want this industry to be successful or to have lifeblood. Many essay mill companies use marketing techniques that seem to indicate that they offer legitimate academic writing support for students, when in fact they are providing cheating services. Students who use essay mills risk their academic education and future employment prospects if they are caught cheating. Anecdotal reports indicate that some essay mills are even seeking to blackmail students who have used the services, as the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington mentioned. The clause will put beyond doubt that advertising cheating services in England and Wales is not just unethical but illegal, and will provide the means to prosecute those who fail to comply with the law in England and Wales.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education) 3:30, 7 Rhagfyr 2021

I have already outlined our support for this move. We believe that this is a serious offence. It is important that any perceived legitimacy of essay mill services is aggressively challenged. On that basis, we will support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 31 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.