HL Deb 08 November 1989 vol 512 cc825-7

218 Clause 60, page 55, line 7, at end insert — '(i) independent school providing accommodation for any child; (j) premises which are provided by a local authority and in which any service is provided by that authority under Part III.'.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 218. In moving this amendment, I wish also to speak to Amendments Nos. 223 and 232B.

These important amendments deal with a matter which had not been foreseen when the Bill was last in this House, but which came to public attention while the Bill was being considered in another place. Following widely reported serious allegations of sexual abuse of children who have been accommodated at a certain independent boarding school, my honourable friend the then Minister responsible for health and the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, with the approval of all Committee Members in another place, including those representing the Opposition parties, reviewed the existing Bill provisions for protecting children in order to establish whether further provisions dealing specifically with independent boarding schools were needed. In particular, the Government considered a proposal that local authority social services' departments should be given power to inspect the quality of life in independent schools.

The Bill already contains a number of preventive, regulatory and protective measures which can help deal with problems of this kind. Apart from these amendments the Bill already contains an extensive array of responsibilities and powers. We have taken the view, however, that children who spend long periods away from home in boarding schools are potentially very vulnerable and require specific provisions for safeguarding and promoting their welfare, just as we are providing specifically for children in other longstay establishments. Prevention, in particular, needs emphasising.

Amendments Nos. 218 and 223 are consequential to the main amendment. The first adds independent schools providing accommodation to the list of homes and other premises in Clause 60(1) which the Secretary of State may cause to be inspected. Amendment No. 223 adds proprietors of independent schools to the list of those from whom the Secretary of State may require information and access to records.

There are three main elements in the new Clause to be inserted by Amendment No. 232B. First, a new duty is placed on the proprietor or other person conducting an independent school which provides accommodation for any child and which is not also a children's home or residential care home to safeguard and promote the child's welfare. Secondly, any local authority within whose area such accommodation is provided must do what is reasonably practicable to determine whether a child's welfare is adequately safeguarded and promoted while he is accommodated by the school. These two elements broadly follow the welfare scheme for children in voluntary homes and children's homes in Parts VII and VIII. The third element is that where the local authority considers that the proprietor or person conducting the school is failing to discharge his welfare duty under subsection (1), it must notify the Secretary of State.

Amendment No. 386, taken with Amendment No. 111 and others on education supervision orders, will amend the Education Act 1944 so that failure to comply with this duty will be a ground on which notice of complaint action may be taken. This can lead in serious cases to a school being removed from the register of independent schools and having to close. In common with other provisions in the Bill where they have welfare and regulatory responsibilities, local authorities will have a power of entry exercisable at any reasonable time. Regulations will be made under subsection (6) to control inspections of premises, children and records under these powers. These will be prepared in consultation with representatives of independent schools, local authorities, the Department of Education and Science and Her Majesty's Inspectorate.

The other provisions on inspection access are in line with the provisions elsewhere in the Bill. This more specific involvement of social services in this area of the operation of independent boarding schools is one that will require good will and co-operation between social services and the schools concerned, especially in the earlier years.

Representatives of the Independent Schools Joint Council, the local authorities associations and the Association of Directors of Social Services have been consulted on the proposals and have undertaken to co-operate in the preparation of the regulations on inspection and on guidance for schools and local authorities on the nature and extent of their respective responsibilities. The Government welcome that positive approach.

I hope the House will agree that the new framework for the protection of children from abuse provided for in the Bill would be incomplete without specific measures to guard against outrages of the kind alleged earlier in the year.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in the said amendment. —(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.