MPs have expressed overwhelming opposition to the government’s plans to register ‘out-of-school’ settings, during a parliamentary debate that was held this morning.
Sir Edward Leigh, who led the debate in Westminster Hall, described the plans as a "mess".
The government has proposed to force ‘out-of-school education settings’ that provide "intensive tuition" for more than six to eight hours a week to register and be subject to inspection.
The plans were outlined in a consultation by the Department for Education, which passed its deadline last week.
According to Minister of State for Schools Nick Gibb, who answered for the government during the debate, the consultation received thousands of responses.
The debate was attended by parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, including several Christian MPs.
Several representatives raised concerns over the government’s proposals, describing the scheme as "illiberal", "statist" and even potentially illegal.
|Watch the full Parliamentary debate on Parliament TV here|
Real threat not addressed
Among the concerns raised, it was pointed out that the "wide and shallow" approach would not target the real threat posed by hard-line Islamic teaching.
"The problem is confined to one religion and one religion only", said Sir Gerald Howarth.
Sir Edward Leigh said that those who actually teach children radical material would not subject themselves to registration. If they were to be inspected, the true nature of their doctrine would be unlikely to be revealed during an investigation.
He went on to say that forcing religious groups to register would put them at risk of whistle-blowers, who could make "subjective, exaggerated and politically motivated claims", and that highly subjective judgements could result in censorship of biblical teaching.
British values should be informed by Christianity
DUP MP Jim Shannon and others joined in the defence of Christianity.
Ministers drew on the UK’s Christian heritage, saying that the nation’s values were founded on Christian teaching and that the Bible should be promoted, rather than censored.
Caroline Spelman MP, representing the Church of England, said that church groups already carry out DBS checks and provide a child protection officer for every church that holds youth activities.
One MP said that Christian youth events helped children to find their "mission in life to go and serve humanity".
Existing powers sufficient
Sir Edward and others emphasised that, rather than push through these new plans, the government should simply draw on existing legislation to tackle any threat.
Investigations must be "evidence-based and intelligence-led," said Sir Gerald Howarth.
Ofsted, several argued, did not have the capacity nor the resources to enforce the proposed measures.
Breach of human rights
Fiona Bruce MP, who in December had asked the government to extend the consultation, pointed out that the plans were potentially unlawful.
Inspecting religious groups, she said, would be a breach of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the right to religious freedom and expression without public interference.
She agreed that the proposals ought to be abandoned altogether.
In his closing remarks, Sir Edward reaffirmed the widespread concern over the sweeping nature of the government’s proposals.
Last week, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw said that this ensured an “even-handed approach".
"We’ve already sacrificed too much of our freedom in this country in the name of equality," said Sir Edward.
Church settings will be covered
Minister Nick Gibb ended the debate by saying that the government would consider the concerns raised and would continue discussions with religious groups as to how to proceed.
But he also confirmed that settings running events (even if the events were run by different groups) exceeding six to eight hours in total, would be covered by the plans as they stand at present.
This stands in contrast to Prime Minister David Cameron, who said that Sunday schools were not to be included.
"The Government is not proposing to regulate institutions teaching children for a short period every week, such as Sunday schools or the Scouts," he said in a letter to Sir Gerald Howarth last week.