Andreas Whittam Smith: A case of contempt of Parliament

When the Academies Bill reached the Commons, the Government announced it would not allow it to be amended. In contrast, the Government accepted amendments in the Lords
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The Independent Online

When I heard that Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, was going to rush through legislation that would allow the creation of many more academy schools, I thought " here we go again". How disappointing to find the Coalition repeating the Labour Government's bad habits. Yet when I came to examine the progress of the Bill, which completed its Parliamentary passage on Monday, I discovered not undue haste but disrespect of Parliament.

There are two stages in policy making by governments. First there is the announcement. That is the bit that ministers love. When the Home Secretary said on Wednesday that it was "time to move beyond the Asbo (the anti-social behaviour order)," she duly found herself on every news bulletin and in every newspaper. We who hear the announcement and the minister who makes it, both tend to assume that that is it. Right, we say, no more Asbos. But this is to race ahead.

For next comes the indispensable political process. This determines how effective the policy pronouncement will be. There should be a White Paper that sets the new policy in context. Interested parties should be contacted. Legislation should be well drafted. Finally the bill should undergo rigorous scrutiny in Parliament.

Ministers find this second part of the process much less thrilling. The last Government was so committed to making daily announcements as part of a manic marketing strategy that it often rushed through the stage of consideration as fast as it could. There was often no White Paper and precious little consultation. New Labour used to ram legislation through the House of Commons. The main thing was to show the electorate that you had acted. Should the drafting of the resulting Act of Parliament be less than perfect, then there was no need to worry, we were told, some amending legislation could be put through later.

So have we truly returned to the bad, old days? I have looked at the timing. The Academies Bill was first debated in the House of Lords on 7 June and finished in the Commons this week. The Lords devoted 31 hours to its examination of the text. The second reading debate in the Commons lasted six and a half hours. Then three days of close scrutiny in Committee and a short third reading debate added a further 18 hours. Altogether the Bill took up 55 hours of parliamentary time.

Whether or not that is a lot or a little depends upon the nature of the proposals. In fact the Bill is a modest piece of legislation. The academy idea, under a different name, goes back to Mrs Thatcher's days. John Major and then Tony Blair took over the baton and now Mr Cameron's Government is running with it. In fact one of the Labour education experts, Vernon Coaker, accurately pointed out what was new in Mr Gove's measures. He said: " This Bill inverts the way in which the previous Government pursued the academy programme. We established academies in areas of poor educational performance and areas of social disadvantage. The Bill turns that on its head, allowing outstanding schools to fast-track to academy status." Yes, that is novel, but it is the development of a principle already well established. In addition academy status will also be open to primary schools and special schools. The lock hold of local authorities is to be removed. And that is about it.

Further evidence that the Academies Bill was not a revolutionary act was provided in the second reading debate by the nature of the Secretary of State's opening speech. It was perfunctory. The reply by Mr Gove's opposite number, Ed Balls, was largely irrelevant. He made only two good points: the Bill, he said, "deprives schools with the biggest behaviour and special educational needs challenges of local authority support for special needs provision" and it "centralises power in the hands of the Secretary of State over the future of thousands of schools".

In this light, turn again to the hours of parliamentary time allotted to the measure. Fifty-five hours is in fact eight working days. So the Academies Bill received eight working days multiplied by the number of members who were present in both chambers of Parliament during the debates, perhaps a minimum of 20. That is, in fact, quite a lot of man/woman hours for a Bill that runs to only ten pages plus a further ten pages of schedules. Frankly, having read much of the Hansard report of the parliamentary proceedings, I don't believe you can sustain the argument that there wasn't enough time for proper debate.

Nonetheless there was something extraordinary about the process that has not been widely reported. When the bill reached the Commons, the Government announced that it would not allow it to be amended. The Government took the committee stage on the floor of the Commons rather than in a committee room so that the full voting power of the Coalition could be deployed to make sure that no change could be made. In contrast, the Government accepted amendments in the Lords.

As a result of the Lords' scrutiny, children with special educational needs will have greater rights to admission to academies. New requirements for the funding of low-incidence special needs were added. New duties to consult were included and the Secretary of State will now be obliged by statute to take into account the impact on other schools of any new school established.

Fine. This is how committee stages in Parliament are meant to work. Bills are improved as a result. But Mr Gove denied the Commons, the elected chamber, the opportunity enjoyed by the Lords. This was foolish. It was also insulting. It was insulting to Parliament, for it disabled a part of the machinery of scrutiny that has been perfected by generations of members. It was insulting to the Opposition parties for, in effect, they were told that the Government wasn't interested in anything they might say. And it was insulting to you and me who elect these same MPs. And that the author of this arrogant handling of the Commons was Michael Gove, who has promised to be a brilliant member of the new Government, increases my disillusion.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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