Howells admits approving sex offender for job as MPs attack Kelly

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Kim Howells, a former higher education minister, has accepted the blame for allowing a PE teacher on the sex offenders' register to work in schools.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has been under mounting pressure since it was revealed that a school in Norwich employed Paul Reeve, who had previously been cautioned by police for accessing banned images of children on the internet.

Mr Howells said: "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 for both parties. I read Mr Paul Reeve's file very carefully and sought advice about the facts contained 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.

"The decision that followed about whether he should be employed or not at a school was obviously a matter for his would-be employers,"he said in a statement released through the Foreign Office. Mr Howells, MP for Pontypridd, is now a Foreign Office minister.

Mr Howells's statement may take some of the pressure off Ms Kelly, but it will raise the question of which other ministers were responsible for allowing sex offenders to work in schools.

Ms Kelly faced fierce criticism in the Commons yesterday as she announced a tightening in the vetting system to stop sex offenders working in schools, a system that Mr Howells said he "fully supported".

Downing Street insisted again that Ms Kelly had the Prime Minister's confidence. But her announcement of new legislation, which will be rushed through Parliament next month, failed to convince critics. David Willetts, the shadow Education Secretary, called her statement "disappointing" and insisted the basic principle should be that "sex offenders should not be able to work in schools". Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "It seems this Government always needs to have scandal and a review before they are spurred into action."

Ms Kelly said in future anyone cautioned for a specific offence would be treated the same as if they had been convicted and barred from working with children for life. She launched an "exhaustive review" into the unknown number of cases in which ministers have cleared individuals on the sex offenders register to work with children. She said she would urgently review the procedures which determine whether sex offenders are placed on the Department for Education and Skills' confidential List 99, which bars them from working in schools for life. Ministers could be stripped of their power to decide whether offenders in borderline cases, such as that of Mr Reeve, should be put on the list, she suggested. Ms Kelly also said legislation would also be brought forward in February to implement the recommendations of the Bichard report into the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by the school caretaker Ian Huntley in Soham in 2002. Police had failed to spot allegations of rape and sex with underage girls during vetting of Huntley.

The controversy centres on the differences between two lists used to vet people applying to work with children. List 99 is the DfES's official blacklist. The sex offenders register, set up in 1997, is run by the police, and includes the details of anyone convicted of or cautioned for a sexual offence.

An enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check, which is required for workers with children, will reveal whether an applicant is on the register. People are automatically placed on List 99 if they have pleaded guilty or been convicted of a sexual offence listed in the legislation. But List 99 does not automatically match the sex offenders register because some offences do not lead to a ban and ministers must also rule in cases where someone has been cautioned, not convicted.

But Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT, the UK's largest union representing teachers and headteachers, said: "The Secretary of State must resist the calls to abandon List 99 in favour of one general list. List 99 ... also includes people who have serious health problems."

Chris Webb Jenkins, a lawyer specialising in social care and education at Browne Jacobson, said: "It is a matter for government to set the threshold at which they think it is safe for someone to work with children.

"Where it becomes a legal problem is where they are prepared to accept lower grade evidence... a police caution or an unproven allegation."