On the 20th January 2016 Sir Edward Leigh, MP for Gainsborough, hosted a Commons debate on the regulation of out-of-school education settings. The Rt Hon Caroline Spelman, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, spoke twice during the debate, urging a more proportionate policy in order to avoid unintended consequences. The Minister for Schools Mr Nick Gibb responded to the debate for the Government and his remarks are included below.
Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Like, I am sure, many others present, I have had to go through the process of a Criminal Records Bureau check, which is now a Disclosure and Barring Service check. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is an important butonerous process? Sometimes, one has to be checked more than once, because it does not transfer to another activity that one might undertake with children if one is foolish enough to do a full weekend with the Sunday school. It is a very rigorous process, and if it was applied to the people who teach children Islam in all teaching environments, it would be a very good tool to deal with any excess problem that there might be.
Sir Edward Leigh: I agree with my right hon. Friend. We should be using DBS checks if, for instance, people are trying to teach extremism, jihadism or whatever in an out-of-school setting or at home. We should use intelligence and existing powers to deal with the problem, not try to take a great sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mrs Caroline Spelman): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. Fortunately, we are discussing a consultation. Although it is closed, I urge the Minister to consider the contributions to the debate as part of that consultation.
I speak as the Second Church Estates Commissioner and I want to place on the record the position of the Church of England, which provides 500,000 children with out-of-school educational activities, involving 80,000 volunteers. The Church’s objections to the proposals should not be interpreted as a rejection of the Government’s aim of protecting children from harm. Of course not. It is simply that, if the Government do proceed, the Church wishes that the measures will be much more proportionate and avoid the unintended consequences.
If even-handedness is the concern of the Government, they should use existing laws that protect children and that the Church of England, its volunteers and its professionals are required to abide by. Everyone who works with children in such settings has to have CRB checks, which are now called disclosure and barring service checks—sometimes people have them again and again—but every church is also required to appoint a child protection officer, even if they do not have a Sunday school but aspire to teach some children in the setting. If the Minister wishes such things to be done in an even-handed way, that should also apply to other educational out-of-school settings.
One of the Church’s main concerns, which has been articulated by hon. Members, is the singling out of religious activity for new laws, which implies that religious activity is inherently problematic. That is likely to inhibit the religious freedom that the consultation aimed to ensure we protect.
Muslim mothers came to see me in my constituency before Christmas, beseeching me to ask the Government to do something about the teaching of their children in private madrassahs. They are fully aware that the Church and other religious groups are required to abide by this country’s laws, but they are also aware that that is not happening in private madrassahs. Laws already exist—for example, on the application of CRB checks and the childminding registration laws for domestic settings, which hon. Members know are quite onerous for childminders. I urge the Government to use the tools they have even-handedly so that all groups required to abide by this country’s laws actually do so.
The Minister for Schools (Mr Nick Gibb): [extract] … All of the speeches made today will be taken into account as we consider the responses to the consultation, which closed on 11 January after six and a half weeks and to which we received more than 10,000 responses. Notwithstanding the valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, the consultation has been widely heard and responded to, and we will now consider all responses as we develop the policy in more detail.
Ensuring that parents have the freedom to decide how best to educate their children is a fundamental principle of our society and our education system. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough referred to the long history of the churches’ role in education which, of course, predates that of the state.
Parents have always valued the education provided by religious organisations. They choose faith schools for their high academic standards and ethos and they appreciate the religious faith of those schools, which gives them confidence that their children will be taught to understand and respect the traditions and values of their faith. Responding to that demand, we have opened more than 300 free schools since 2010, of which 76 have a religious designation or ethos.
Out-of-school settings can also be of immense value. As my hon. Friend pointed out, many of those are run by religious groups and provide a distinctive education or activities that supplement and enhance that provided in mainstream schools. Such settings, including Sunday schools, can enrich children’s education and deepen their understanding of their own culture and heritage.
My hon. Friend made a powerful argument that the providers of this broader education, which is often staffed by dedicated volunteers, should be supported by the Government and not stifled by excessive regulation. I can assure him that we share that objective. The Government do, however, need to balance the need to protect and encourage high-quality out-of-school education with the need to keep children safe from any harm. That includes not only extremism, but the risk of physical punishment, unsuitable individuals working in some out-of-school settings and children being educated in unsafe or insanitary conditions.
A clear regulatory framework exists to protect children from those risks in childcare settings, and in state and independent schools. The call for evidence on out-of-school education, which closed last week, invited submissions on how to ensure that we are similarly able to safeguard children attending such settings—supplementary education —while avoiding disproportionate regulation. It reflects a commitment made in the Prevent strategy, published in June 2011, to reduce the risks of radicalisation occurring in out-of-school settings. It is the latest step in implementing the Prime Minister’s announcement in October last year that, if an institution is teaching children intensively, we will, as with any other school, make it register so that it can be inspected. He was also clear that, in addressing the risks that we have identified, we will uphold parents’ right to educate their children about their faith.
The call for evidence highlighted the fact that many settings already have robust measures in place to ensure safety. They may work under umbrella organisations that set high standards, be part of voluntary accreditation schemes or receive support from the local authority. However, that is not universal. We are therefore considering how best to address failures in the minority of settings that fail to meet their obligations while preserving everything that has made the vast majority of supplementary education so successful.
The responses to the call for evidence included many from Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups, and we will continue to discuss our developing proposals with those groups and others to ensure that they are proportionate and effective. Any final proposals will, of course, be subject to further discussions with interested parties.
At this stage, I hope I can provide assurances on some of the specific concerns raised by my hon. Friend and others.
Graham Stuart: Will the Minister deal with one of the practical points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)? Those who wish to teach in this extremist way will effortlessly elude any regulation system that we set up. We will therefore have an expensive and burdensome system that captures so many organisations, but does not capture the very organisations that we need to capture. Is that not the central point? To me, it seems to be a rocket that explodes this whole policy and should cause the Minister to think again.
Mr Gibb: Well, no, because by not registering, such organisations are liable under strict liability to an offence, and we can then take much swifter action when we are made aware of those settings through our usual intelligence routes. That is why this has a double edge: we register the settings and only inspect settings where risks are identified; and we have very real powers to tackle the settings that do not register.
Let me go through some of the specific concerns that have been raised….First, I can confirm that the Government are not proposing to regulate settings teaching children for a short period every week, such as Sunday schools or the scouts, nor will it apply to one-off residential activities, such as a week-long summer camp. We are looking specifically at places where children receive intensive education outside schools, where they could typically be spending more than six to eight hours a week.
…Secondly, providers wishing to set up and run out-of-school education settings will not need to seek the Government’s approval to do so. Although our proposals envisage that such settings operating intensively should register, the aim of that is simply to improve the visibility of such settings. There would not be an application process and registration would be automatic. We have no intention of tying up voluntary and private sector organisations in red tape.
Thirdly, we are not proposing that settings eligible to register should be routinely inspected. This would be wholly disproportionate and an inefficient use of resources. We think that an inspection should only happen when there is evidence that certain prohibited activities might be taking place within a particular setting. Settings that provide a safe environment for children to learn in could legitimately expect never to be inspected.
Fourthly, we have no intention of seeking to regulate religion or to interfere in parents’ right to teach children about their faith and heritage. Protecting religious liberty is a fundamental principle. Out-of-school settings will not have the same obligations as schools actively to promote fundamental British values. Although out-of-school settings of all types can, and do, impart positive values to children, they are not the main providers of children’s education, and it is certainly not the state’s role to prescribe what they should teach, just as we are not seeking to prescribe other aspects of how they operate. I can therefore confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and other hon. Members that Sunday schools will not be under any requirement to teach any other religions.
Gavin Robinson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I am glad that he has indicated he will consider the contributions as part of the consultation. He has reiterated the Prime Minister’s point that Sunday schools will not be included, but will he consider the cumulative effect of all the activities taking place under one church roof? That includes Sunday schools, youth clubs, the scouts, worship, choirs and whatever else people may be engaged in. It will all add up to more than six hours.
Mr Gibb: The plans are for the threshold to be hit when a child attends a setting for more than six hours a week and that activities run by one setting would be aggregated but, following the call for evidence, we are considering a range of issues and how to take forward the proposals. We will look at whether it is appropriate to disaggregate particular activities or indeed, exempt particular activities altogether. That question was in the call for evidence.
Fiona Bruce: The Minister says that the Government do not wish to inhibit religious freedom, but is he aware that the very existence of such regulations could have a serious impact? The proposals carry the risk of a so-called chilling effect on free speech, and they could shut down debate because of the fear, on the part of, say, youth workers teaching young people, of speaking on issues that might not be mainstream. They may fear that someone is listening who, perhaps out of mischief or with a particular agenda, may report them as undesirable—as not being in line with British values—and in itself, that would shut down free speech and debate.
Mr Gibb: That is not the intention of the regulations. They are not a way of regulating religion. We are not infringing on people’s freedom to follow particular faiths or hold particular beliefs. In fact, the mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs is one of our core British values, alongside democracy, rule of law and individual liberty, and nothing in the proposals infringes on that.
In view of time, I will finish by saying that we welcome the suggestions that a number of faith organisations have made about how to ensure that any system of regulation is targeted, proportionate and focused on those settings that are failing to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. We wish to continue that dialogue and, once again, I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions today.
Sir Edward Leigh: In conclusion, I thank the perhaps up to 20 people—friends and colleagues from all parties—who have turned up this morning. It is not often that we have a debate such as this in Westminster Hall, and we have heard some very powerful speeches and very powerful points.
I will sum it all up: we have sacrificed too much of our liberty in the name of equality, so I beg the Minister to bear in mind the places that are under the radar, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) mentioned. Bear in mind the cumulative hours. Bear in mind that there is very little extremism—indeed none at all—ever practised in Methodist Sunday schools. This is the point we are making, and we are doing so powerfully and strongly. We are not a party that intends to further state regulation and control; we are a party of liberty, freedom and religious tolerance. I will leave it there.