Bill 'won't hit sex lessons'

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
The Scottish Executive is insisting that teachers will not face prosecution over sex education lessons as a result of the sexual offences Bill going through Holyrood.

In evidence to the parliamentary justice committee scrutinising the Protection of Children and Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill, the General Teaching Council for Scotland has expressed "strong concerns for a wrongly accused teacher made the subject of any of the Bill's range of civil orders and the devastating effect this would have upon hisher life and career".

The Educational Institute of Scotland also has major reservations about the "risk of sexual harm orders" (RSHO) which the Bill will impose on those believed to pose a risk to the safety of children. These orders, the union says, could be open to misinterpretation and threaten teachers delivering sex education.

The Catholic Education Commission is worried the Bill might leave teachers vulnerable to malicious complaints, and suggests there may be a case for excluding them from its provisions.

The Executive has rejected such a move and the committee agreed, proposing instead that information on the Bill should be incorporated into sex education and sexual health guidelines.

Anxieties about the Bill, which provides for a range of protective measures for children such as creating a specific offence of internet grooming, stem from the impact it might have on the classroom. Risk of sexual harm orders might cover a series of catch-all situations in which teachers might find themselves, such as:

* "Causing or inciting a child to watch a person engaging in sexual activity or to look at a moving or still image that is sexual."

* "Giving a child anything that relates to sexual activity or contains a reference to such activity."

* "Communicating with a child, where any part of the communication is sexual."

Action on Rights for Children has called for the Bill to be amended in line with the Sexual Offences Act 2003 in England and Wales. The initial legislation there gave rise to similar fears over a "potential criminalisation" of teachers until a campaign succeeded in changing it, Terri Dowty, the organisation's policy director, said.

The amendment south of the border exempts from prosecution those who would normally be considered as acting to protect children where they were engaged in activities that might otherwise constitute an offence.

But Hugh Henry, Deputy Justice Minister, told MSPs that such "class exemptions" would not be wise since it could be a person from within one of these groups who committed an offence.

Mr Henry said that no one working with young people should feel threatened.

Only if an individual deviated from the agreed curriculum or guidelines "in an inappropriate way" would they risk being subject to sexual harm orders.

A spokesperson for the Executive said it did not believe there would be any problems in respect of sex education. There was a two-tier protection for teachers and others working with young people, she said.

First, the local chief constable must be convinced that inappropriate behaviour had taken place on at least two occasions. "We don't anticipate that teachers delivering sex education would be judged to be in that category," the spokesperson said. An order then has to be approved by a sheriff.

The GTC is none the less calling on the Executive to clarify how the new legislation will impact on its own statutory requirements, with "clear protocols" for sharing and using information between the council, courts and the police.

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