Blair 'has full confidence' in minister who cleared sex offender

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The Prime Minister has full confidence in minister Kim Howells - who admitted clearing sex offender Paul Reeve to work in a school - Downing Street said today.

Mr Howells, now a junior foreign office minister after his stint at the education department, also won the support of his boss Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly was forced to make a Commons statement yesterday announcing an "exhaustive review" both of the "small number" of other cases where sex offenders have been cleared to work with children, and of the vetting process itself.

At present, ministers pass judgment on "borderline cases" where offenders have not been placed on the Education Department's own List 99 containing the names of those banned for life from working in schools.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "Kim Howells made a judgment based on the evidence before him, which he checked was the only evidence that was available to him, and based on the advice contained in that evidence, and the Prime Minister recognises that Kim Howells did his job."

Asked if the premier retained full confidence in him as a minister, the spokesman replied: "Yes."

Mr Straw said he retained "every confidence" in his junior minister, adding that Mr Howells was a "responsible, careful and a good colleague".

Ministers sometimes regretted decisions they made, he said, although he would not say whether that was true in this case.

He said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think he acted properly.

"Kim is a long-standing friend of mine and a very good minister as well. I know, he has talked to me about this, that he looked at the papers with great care, he looked at the recommendations, he took the best decision that he thought was available at the time.

"With hindsight we can always have debates about these decisions and ... sometimes if you look back on a decision you may have made a different one."

Asked if that was true of Mr Howells in this case, he said: "You will have to ask him but I have every confidence in Kim. He obviously is concerned about what has subsequently happened but he is a very good minister: he is responsible, careful and a good colleague."

Mr Howells worked as Higher Education Minister in the run-up to last year's General Election.

He released a statement through the Foreign Office last night saying: "As duty minister for the Department for Education and Skills in the first days of May 2005, it was my job to reach a decision on any cases put to me under long-standing arrangements followed by government ministers in both parties.

"I read Mr Paul Reeve's file very carefully and sought advice about the facts obtained in the file.

"They argued that this person did not represent an ongoing threat to children but that he should be given a grave warning.

"I took that advice in good faith and acted accordingly.

"The decision that followed about whether he should be employed or not at a school was obviously a matter for his would-be employers with all the facts in front of them."

Mr Reeve was appointed as a PE teacher at a school in Norfolk, despite his police caution for accessing child pornography, having been cleared by the Education Department to work at schools.

He lost his job when Norfolk Police contacted the school to air their concerns.

Ms Kelly has promised to update MPs on the outcome of her review within a few weeks.