What Ruth Kelly didn’t say

In her allegedly make-or-break statement in the House of Commons on 19 January about sex offenders being permitted to go on teaching, Ruth Kelly, the young and talented education secretary, had the opportunity to speak on the following lines, but didn’t: 

12.2 pm 

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly):  Mr Speaker, I am now ready to give the House my conclusions from a careful study of the facts surrounding the controversy over whether we should automatically ban from teaching for life everybody who has been convicted of or cautioned over any kind of sex offence, and whose name is on the sex offenders’ register or List 99.  (I wish the honourable member for Havant, David Willetts, would calm down and listen for a moment.)  As the House knows from the hysterical panic in the tabloids in recent days, some people have been concerned to discover that two known past sex offenders have been cleared by ministers to resume teaching on the grounds that careful investigation has confirmed that they pose no danger to children.  

I can now inform the House that after the most exhaustive research and enquiries, it has become clear that since the system was first introduced in 1926, a number of former sex offenders or suspects of varying kinds have been cleared by ministerial decision to teach in schools, often subject to stringent conditions.  Recent concerns have focused on discretionary decisions by Ministers not to include an individual on List 99, despite that individual being on the sex offenders register. The review that I set in place has identified 10 cases since 1997.  In each case, the recommendations after expert evidence were that those individuals posed no threat to children. I can also now state that there is no evidence whatsoever that a single one of these has subsequently been convicted or even accused of any offence against children.  This tends to suggest that ministers of both Conservative and Labour administrations have exercised sound judgement in making these decisions, and I have no reason to fear that this will cease to be the case.  

It has been suggested in some quarters that ministers should be relieved of the responsibility for deciding whether in borderline or other doubtful cases a lifelong ban is either fair or necessary: and that such decisions should be taken by an independent panel of experts.  I have decided however that these decisions should continue to be taken by a person, that’s to say a minister, who is accountable to this House and who may be required to defend and explain his or her decisions to honourable members and to public opinion, in a way that would not be possible if independent experts took the decisions.  However, I shall lay down by regulation what has always hitherto been the practice of governments of both parties, namely that before taking a decision the minister must seek the advice of professional representatives of the main parties involved, including the police, social services, local education authorities, psychiatric social workers and school heads and governors concerned.  In the few cases where the minister decides to act otherwise than in accordance with the experts’ advice, he or she will be required to state the reasons for the decision in a written statement that will be placed in the library of the House of Commons.

I have also decided not to follow the suggestion made by some commentators (but, contrary to some reports, not by Sir Michael Bichard in his Soham Inquiry report)  that we should merge into a single list the seven existing lists of persons whose freedom to work with children may be in question, including the sex offenders register and List 99.  If all such persons were to be put on a single list, we would risk blurring the important and relevant differences between widely varying kinds of offence or other activities that have aroused doubt.  For example, there is obviously a huge difference between, on the one hand, someone who has persistently sexually abused children for his or her own gratification until found out, and on the other hand a then 16-year-old boy who, perhaps twenty years previously, had a consensual sexual relationship with a girl one year younger than himself and who has done nothing since then to suggest that he might represent any risk whatever to children if allowed to teach.  We must keep the circumstances of each individual case in sharp focus and preserve the flexibility necessary to balance the safety of our children from abuse against the need to be fair to individuals. An automatic teaching ban imposed indiscriminately on whole large categories of disparate people would be both unjust and probably in breach of their rights under the Human Rights Act.

Finally, Mr Speaker, I have considered the suggestion that for purposes of imposing a ban on any future employment affecting children, those who have been formally cautioned by the police in connection with an alleged sex offence should be treated in exactly the same way as those who have been charged and convicted of a sex offence.  I have come to the conclusion that this would risk giving rise to grave injustice in some cases.  It is true that a person who agrees to accept a police caution must also, by doing so, admit his or her guilt.  But we need to recognise the intense pressure on a person accused of a sexual offence against children to admit guilt and accept a caution, even if completely innocent, in order to avoid the public stigma of being charged and brought before a court, with the risk of being convicted and perhaps sent to prison even where no offence has been committed.  To reduce as far as possible the risks of injustice inherent in the police caution system, I have agreed with my Rt Hon Friend the home secretary that he will make new regulations requiring the police, before inviting a suspect to admit guilt and accept a caution, to warn the suspect of the possible consequences in terms of future employment as a teacher or in any other job involving contact with children; the police will be required to explain that the suspect has the option of being charged and tried rather than accept a caution;  and they will be obliged to remind the suspect of his or her right to consult a legal adviser before deciding whether to accept a caution.  I am disturbed to discover that not all of these warnings have always and automatically been given, and the House will, I am sure, agree that they must be given in future.  Moreover, my Rt Hon Friend has also agreed to ensure that in future the police may offer a caution instead of a charge only in cases where, if the offer of a caution is refused, they have enough evidence on which to base a charge.  A caution must never be treated as a convenient way of penalising a suspect against whom there is insufficient evidence to be likely to secure a conviction. 

Mr Speaker, I am satisfied that on the basis of the decisions which I have just announced, honourable members and parents everywhere in Britain may be reassured that the existing and long-standing system now in place, operated without complaint by governments of both complexions for many decades, and with the small adjustments that I have described, strikes a fair, safe and reasonable balance between the paramount need to protect our children from harm and the need to keep a sense of proportion, flexibility and fairness in dealing with the many borderline cases of individuals who on close investigation may prove not to present a risk to the children whom they can safely be allowed to teach.  Of course there can be no guarantee that a mistake will not be made at some time in the future, however conscientiously the decision has been made.  But where the risk is remote and the danger of grave injustice is real, I believe the House and the public would wish us always to come down on the side of justice, and that is what I have done today.  (Hon Members: Hear! Hear!)

Alas!  Ms Kelly said the exact opposite on almost every point:  and on the points where she didn’t say the opposite, she was silent.  At the first whiff of gunshot from the tabloids, she hesitated for ten days while her officials burrowed in the files;  and when not a single skeleton had been dragged from her own or anyone else’s cupboard, not the faintest sign or smell of a smoking gun produced from her handbag, she went to the House of Commons and unconditionally surrendered.  Left to her own devices and judgement, might she have come out of her corner with fists flailing to defend her and her predecessors’ eminently defensible records?  Was that pathetic white flag forced on her by a besieged and tremulous prime minister, perhaps speaking through his creepy vicar on earth, the inappropriately named Lord Adonis?  Perhaps we shall know when the Blair or Adonis Memoirs are published; probably not before.

Lord AdonisWhat does this pre-emptive surrender tell us about the likely fate of the forthcoming Education Bill, allegedly designed to put flesh on the ugly bones of the Education White Paper that is already proving so indigestible to more than half of Mr Blair’s and Ms Kelly’s back-benchers?  Will there be another pre-emptive surrender, and if so to whom — to the Tories who mischievously offer to support the Bill provided that it remains faithful to the White Paper, or to the Parliamentary Labour Party which demands a U-turn on at least three of its key proposals?  No doubt Mr Blair would feel more at home with the Tories in defending every last dot and comma of the White Paper, come what may.  But will John Prescott and a raft of other senior party and government  figures allow him to impose a radical change of education policy whose approval by the House of Commons depends on Tory support against a huge slab, perhaps a majority, of Labour back-bench opinion?  Would the Crown Prince, Gordon Brown, allow him to do it?  Would he really be prepared to carry on in the face of threats of resignation by key members of the government?  Might even Ruth Kelly be prepared to threaten resignation if prevented by No. 10 and her notional underling, Baron Adonis, from negotiating compromises with their own party that would in truth amount to another surrender?  We should know the answers soon.  Meanwhile my money is on a messy and largely meaningless batch of compromises that will be just enough to buy off a sufficient number of Labour rebels to get the Bill through, perhaps with the Tories abstaining, and to save at least a part of Mr Tony’s face.  But I could easily lose my shirt.

Renewed hat-tip to Tony Hatfield whose magisterial deconstruction of the police caution system (based on his own personal experience as a criminal lawyer) hasn’t received anything like the attention it deserves;  and another to Michael Portillo, of all people, whose column in today’s (22 January 2006) Sunday Times is spot on as regards sex offenders and teaching, but hopelessly wrong on future education policy and the White Paper.

PS:  Yes, I have changed my mind about the desirability of ministers continuing to take responsibility for deciding in borderline cases or appeals whether a past offender or suspect should be allowed to work with children in future, having stated in a recent Ephem, Ruth Kelly and the Plague of Pervs, my then opinion that they should not.