As the Education and Adoption Bill becomes an Act, John Fowler reflects on the lack of public debate that accompanied its passage through Parliament; a marked difference from the progress of the Education Reform Bill almost 30 years previously.
At just before 7.23 pm on Tuesday, 23 February 2016, the Education and Adoption Bill had its last outing in Parliament nearly nine months after it was introduced. The debate, which enables the Commons to decide whether amendments made in the Lords should be added to a Bill used to be called Commons Consideration of Lords Amendments (CCLA), but which the Parliament website calls part of “ping pong” where both Houses have to agree on the final text of a Bill. The Bill awaits Royal Assent, which on current practice can take two to three weeks.
Nearly 30 years ago I had a ringside seat on the equivalent stage of the Education Reform Bill, a much bigger Bill that was before Parliament for only eight months. In the intervening period I have watched closely the development of education legislation and supporting legislation on local government, childcare and children’s care services. And I have written books, papers and articles to explain to parliamentarians the legislation they have just passed and to colleagues in local government and schools what it means for them. So this blog is a few quick ‘compare and contrast’ thoughts. Please note that although in both 1988 and today there is a Conservative government and a Labour opposition, many of my observations are applicable to the 13 year period when the roles were reversed, and where there has been a gradual change irrespective of the party of government.
Firstly, there are a few things that have not changed, in particular the courteousness and helpfulness of the Parliamentary staff especially the clerks in understanding what the legislation means and accompanying amendments. I am not sure I can say the same about Departmental Bill Teams but this in part depends on the personality and seniority of the Bill manager.
The under-resourcing of opposition parties to do the job of opposition is the same now as it was in 1988, but it is a complex picture. It is not a matter of the level of government or Parliamentary cash resources going to opposition parties – principally, to use the jargon, short money – which must have increased significantly in 30 years judging by the number staff front bench opposition speakers have, but the government is planning to cut these resources.
Three reasons why I think the opposition job is harder: the complexity of the legislation, demands on opposition speakers’ time, and the unwillingness of charities and representative groups to participate actively in debate.
In 1988, the standard work on education law, Butterworths, could be found in one volume. Today it occupies seven volumes. The pages are a testament to the hideously, and needlessly in my view, overly detailed and complex structure in which to run an education system. Because very few people know the law, this has allowed Parliament at the behest of successive governments to hand vast powers to Ministers, which were previously exercised by local communities. This has also made questioning the use of such powers appear an affront to Parliamentary sovereignty, but this is a complex argument almost as complex as the legislation itself.
Opposition speakers are much more in demand outside Parliament to speak at meetings around the country, do press conferences, lead Party inquiries, etc. The excuse that such and such an opposition speaker cannot be reached by a national newspaper because the MP is in the Commons library drafting a speech would not hold today.
The third change is harder to define. In 1988 I could have counted perhaps 40 groups who would participate publicly in debate, producing arguments on paper, not by a tweet or other social media, explaining how their view differs from the government. This would be amplified by all the broadsheets and other national newspapers having well-respected education journalists. Now charities, and to a lesser extent trade bodies, do not speak out, so that we have the ludicrous situation where Parliament has passed legislation that severely affects the role of local government but the representative body, the Local Government Association, has been more or less silent, as have the professional associations of chief executives and directors of children’s services. Reasons for the latter could fill many a blog, but I will give one below.
Parliamentary proceedings are much more immediate now, but I am not sure that has improved Parliamentary debate or the quality of arguments put forward. Perhaps very few people read Hansard now except for the big showcase events such as Prime Minister’s Questions. The CCLA stage of the Education and Adoption Bill was listed for an hour, had a debating time of just 39 minutes, followed by a division. The government minister (Nick Gibb) who introduced the Lords amendments did not respond to the opposition front speaker (Nic Dakin). There were a few tame interventions by backbenchers, but all in all a damp squib of an event. This is from my reading of the Hansard, available online a few hours after words are spoken, and in a well presented PDF format from about 7.30 am in the following morning.
The equivalent stage of the Education Reform Bill debate was over two full days, the first finishing at midnight (as was often the case 30 years ago). The Hansard record of debate after about 10.20 pm was not produced until two days after the debate, so I had to be there to find out what was happening, and a lively debate it was. The Commons was not televised at the time and although I could have watched the 2016 debate in comfort on my PC, I prefer the written words. Incidentally, the only way to get the Hansard in 1988 was to go into Westminster.
What has changed is the quality of Ministerial argument. Schools Minister Nick Gibb used the argument ‘it was in the manifesto’ four times in the space of about 20 minutes to justify provisions in the Bill. In effect he was saying ‘the people have spoken’ so there is no point in debating this issue. This argument was not used once during the equivalent stage of the Education Reform Bill in spite of it also being a “first session” Bill fulfilling manifesto commitments.
The “it was in the manifesto” argument would have more credence in my view if I had heard one major speech by a Conservative minister in the 2015 General Election campaign justifying before an informed audience the need for forced academisation. Mr Gibb, in the CCLA debate in the House, said that people who question the government must be “ideologically driven”, and that the past practice of consultation with parents is a “rigid approach that allowed vested interests to prevent sponsors [of Academies] from taking decisive action”. This is part of the mantra used by ministers that “a single day spent by a child in an underperforming school is a day too many” (although thankfully not used by Mr Gibb in the CCLA debate), but actually when unpicked it has little relevance to school improvement and enabling every child to fulfil his or her potential.
In conclusion, I wonder if what I describe as “playground language” used by ministers is one of the reasons why there is no longer an informed public debate (with the exception of some debate promoted by some of the teacher associations, who have grown very thick skins over the years). This unwillingness to understand the opposition and professional opinion and engage constructively with it means we are as a country the poorer for it. It is perhaps no wonder that many groups whisper about the government but are unwilling to speak publicly if your views are dismissed as “ideologically driven”. And I must add for the record, what I have described here, did not start in 2015, or 2010 – I can easily find examples of ministers in last Labour administration doing the same.
And at the end of nine months deliberation on the Bill, and having read all the Hansard debate, and a large number other documents, there are still many questions I cannot answer about how this new legislation will work. Once the Bill is enacted, there will be a CSN Policy Briefing which will explain the Act to the best of my knowledge, which will also cover the adoption provisions.