Ruth Kelly was under fire last night for allegedly misleading MPs as she prepared to tighten up measures to stop convicted sex offenders teaching in schools.
The Prime Minister is expected to delay a reshuffle of the Cabinet until after the Education Secretary delivers a statement to the Commons on Thursday which is intended to draw a line under the continuing row.
There was a concerted campaign by ministerial colleagues last night to shore up Ms Kelly's position. Senior cabinet ministers said she would not be moved in the reshuffle and Downing Street said she continued to command the Prime Minister's full confidence.
But the row failed to subside as the Government's defence continued to unravel in the face of more disclosures. These included claims that, in spite of assurances last week that sex offenders would be barred from teaching, Ms Kelly had personally approved William Gibson, 59, to carry on teaching after being convicted in 1980 of indecently assaulting a 15-year-old girl.
Mr Gibson last night denied being a paedophile. He said: "Of course, this has all been hovering over me for years, but I love teaching and I think I have something to offer." He said he was "frightened and dazed" by the public furore and feared for his safety.
Ms Kelly has looked more vulnerable as each day brings a fresh twist in the story. No 10 denied opposition claims that Ms Kelly misled the Commons last week by saying her department's teaching blacklist - List 99 - banned offenders from working with children for life. But it emerged that her predecessor Estelle Morris had approved a science teacher named on List 99 - Keith Hudson from Sussex - to work in all-girl schools because evidence suggested he was a risk only to young boys.
The Tory leader David Cameron said: "People are having less and less confidence in the Secretary of State for Education. We were told that anyone on List 99 could never go near a school - we now see that they can."
David Willetts, the Tory spokesman on education, made protests in the Commons over the confusion surrounding Ms Kelly. Mr Willetts said since her assurances last week that there would be an automatic ban from teaching on those on List 99 "we have discovered that this bar is not automatic and it does not bar teachers for life from working in schools."
However, the confusion continued last night as Downing Street confirmed that the rules were changed in 2000 to bar all those on List 99 from teaching for life but said ministers still had discretion over who went on the list. That is expected to change after Thursday when Ms Kelly confirms to Parliament that ministers will no longer have the final say over whether teachers accused of sex offences should be given exemption to teach.
She is also expected to announce moves to merge the sex offenders register with the List 99 as recommended by the Bichard inquiry in the wake of the Soham murders. It could take until 2008 to implement the changes because it will require new computer systems.
Ms Kelly's position is also being reinforced by Downing Street because she is due to introduce the highly controversial Education Bill, which is facing a Labour rebellion over alleged measures to allow selection in schools.
One ministerial source said: "Tony Blair cannot move her now, because he was responsible for the part of the legislation that has attracted all the flak. He needs her to get the Bill onto the statute book."
How confusion reigns in the vetting system
Confusion about who is to blame:
The storm broke on 8 January after it was revealed that a PE teacher, Paul Reeve, had been allowed to continue working, even though he was a registered sex offender. Ruth Kelly was accused of a "serious lapse of judgement" by the Tories. The former education minister, Kim Howells, later said he gave his approval acting on advice from officials, apparently clearing Ms Kelly. However, last weekend it was revealed that she had approved another teacher, William Gibson, to work although he had been convicted of indecently assaulting a girl, 15.
Confusion over rules:
Ms Kelly said a conviction and a caution would lead to an automatic ban from teaching. Downing Street backed off, saying it was a "complex legal matter". The impression was still given that those on the List 99 of sex offenders would be barred from teaching. But there were exceptions - Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, had permitted a sex offender to continue teaching.
Confusion over policing:
Downing Street said it was possible for teachers to inadvertently log on to a child porn site, putting them at risk of being barred. Detective Inspector Paul Cunningham of Norfolk Police dismissed the possibility, saying Paul Reeve's name was raised in Operation Ore using information from US authorities. He had used his credit cards to subscribe to child pornography sites.
Confusion about action:
On 12 January, Ms Kelly announced a review of all such cases "since the introduction of the sex offender register in 1997". The Prime Minister's spokesman said the review would go back "decades", raising suspicions that the Government was seeking to protect Ms Kelly by spreading the blame. She told MPs a conviction and a caution "will lead to automatic barring" of sex offenders. The Government said the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry after the Soham murders had been accepted, but the legislation would be introduced next month, and wouldcome into force in 2008.Reuse content