Kelly passes Commons test but faces further questions over reforms

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The Independent Online

Ruth Kelly appeared to rescue her cabinet career yesterday after adopting the most radical curbs on sex offenders working in schools. But she was then plunged into a fresh test of her authority over reforms to schools.

The Secretary of State for Education tried to face down a growing political crisis by announcing the results of a review by her officials and police showing that 88 sex offenders had not been banned from schools. In a Commons statement, Ms Kelly said: "I deeply regret the worry and concern that has been caused to parents over the past few days."

Now she faces renewed opposition on a different front, with the former Labour leader Lord Kinnock and the former education secretary Estelle Morris challenging the Government's reforms of the state school system. But cabinet colleagues were rallying behind her, Tony Blair calling her statement "excellent".

Some ministers said they sympathised with her over the row. "She was in a nightmare position which some of us have also been in," said a senior cabinet minister.

Tony Blair will reshuffle the Cabinet next week but it is not expected that Ms Kelly will be moved. She now has the tougher task of defusing a rebellion by 90 Labour MPs against the reforms. One senior Blairite said: "This is a battle Tony Blair cannot afford to lose. She cannot give in too much, otherwise the reforms will simply die. If he goes down on this, Tony will be out."

Ms Kelly gave a confident Commons performance, trying to restore public confidence in her handling of the sex offenders row through a comprehensive review of the most controversial cases. A Downing Street official said: "It has been worth taking the heat for 10 days. It has not been comfortable but if there is that clarity [about the treatment of sex offenders], it is worth it."

Ms Kelly had faced calls for her resignation but showed no nerves as she announced she had found 10 cases where Labour ministers had used discretion to allow people who were on the sex offenders register to continue teaching, including five she personally approved. Police had investigated again and found none were working in schools, she said.

Last week, Downing Street officials had warned that the policy she has adopted - treating cautions in a similar way to convictions - would lead to fewer suspects on the register of sex offenders because teachers would know they would lose their jobs if they accepted a caution rather than opting to go to court.

Her approach disarmed the Tory attack, and one senior Tory figure said: "She's taken the toughest option to try to save her own skin." David Willetts, the shadow Education Secretary, said: "Confidence in the Secretary of State has ebbed. It must be for her and others as to whether she can regain the confidence of teachers and parents."

Parents' leaders said that there were still "muddy waters" despite Ms Kelly's announcement. Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "At least she had the good grace to say sorry, to a degree."

But she said parents would have liked the ban on teachers convicted of, or cautioned over, sex offences to have applied retrospectively to all those on the sex offenders register since 1997.