This week's PR fail: the Department of Education and Megan Stammers

Teachers accused of offences against children: anonymous unless charged.

On Monday, legislation comes into force which means teachers accused of offences against children have lifelong anonymity unless they are charged.

Unfortunately for the Department of Education and teaching unions, this comes at the same time as a high-profile news story illustrating how ludicrous the new law is - that of Eastbourne teacher Jeremy Forrest who has now been discovered with 15-year-old schoolgirl Megan Stammers in Europe.

I can name him today, but as of Monday, who knows? This situation today prompted the Department of Education to put out a press release, the first sentence of which is the exact opposite of the truth.

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

This change will not affect cases like the one currently getting national attention. The police, media organisations and others will be able to apply to a magistrate for an order lifting teacher anonymity. If it is in the best interest of the child, this will be granted straightaway so the public can help the police. No teacher who has been charged with an offence, or where a warrant for arrest has been issued, will enjoy anonymity.

While situations like this are not common, it is the case that malicious and groundless allegations against teachers have been a serious problem in our schools. A survey for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that one in four school staff has been subject to false allegations from pupils. We want teachers to be confident that they can impose discipline without their careers and personal lives potentially being blighted by baseless claims.

Unfortunately the new law will affect cases exactly like the one currently getting national attention.

In future, the next time a teacher abducts a child in their care the police will have to go to a magistrate and argue the case for their right to anonymity to be waived. The order could well be opposed.

Anyone who has tried to get information out of a police press office will know that they can be pretty slow off the mark at the best of times when it comes to divulging information about recent crimes and this crazy piece of legislation is not going to help matters.

As an aside, the new legislation doesn't just affect the media - it means that parents who make accusations about teachers to each other could fall foul of the act. The result of all this will mean that teachers who have a reputation for overstepping the normal bounds of the teacher-child relationship, but are never convicted of anything, will move from school to school protected by lifelong anonymity over any accusations which may have been made about them.

Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty Images
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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.