Lord Soley’s Home Education Bill – R.I.P.?

What’s been said?

The home educating community is wondering if the current lull in media interest in HE represents the calm before a coming storm. Are the lobbyists and their journalist allies waiting for some political hook upon which to hang their next volley of hysterical stories? With that in the back of their minds, some concerned parents may be wondering what will happen in the run-up to the timetabled Second Reading debate of Lord Soley’s Bill in the House of Commons.

When the Bill was sent to the Commons in July, a ripple of alarm arose as it received an immediate First Reading and the date for a Second Reading was set for Friday, 26 October. After consulting Parliament’s website however, some soon realised that there was little cause for concern.

Before the Lord’s Committee stage Lord Lucas and Lord Addington, who both oppose the Bill, were telling those who had written to them that the Government was determined to bury it in the Commons. Hence the alarm when it was assigned a date for a Second Reading so quickly. Both these stages, however, are nothing more than procedural devices. The First Reading was simply an acknowledgement that a Bill has been passed from one House to the other. Once a Bill has been noted, a potential date for a Second Reading debate has to be allocated to it, but that is all. When the list of Commons Business for that day was published, it contained one hundred and thirteen items, and this Bill was literally at the bottom! By the time of writing the list stands at one hundred and three, with Soley’s Bill now seventh from the end. The real priority for the day seems to be the first three items listed – all of which appear to have the Government’s backing.

So what will happen to the hundred other bills listed for a Second Reading? Peter Bone MP, made a good job of explaining on 28 June, 2018 when he complained about the way Private Members’ Bills are handled, “Next Friday, 63 Bills will be offered for Second Reading. None of them will be debated… A senior Whip will jump up and object to all those Bills. It is a complete farce.” His concern arose because each House has only a limited number of Fridays in each session – on average one a month – on which to debate the large number of PMBs in the system. Thirteen such days were allocated by the government between October 2017 and November 2018, but these provide very little time for any PMBs to complete their Second Readings, never mind all the other stages they must pass through to gain Royal Assent.

In fact, on 6 July just thirty-four bills were on the order paper, with only four being debated. The other thirty were listed under “Business without Debate” with all but one being objected to. Most were reassigned to 26 October for a potential Second Reading, adding to the queue in which Lord Soley’s Bill now waits. The majority of these will be listed as “without debate”, and receive the mandatory “Object” from some Hon. Member. This is the cycle in which the HE Bill is now caught.

Why does it matter?

This near inevitable burial in parliamentary procedure reminds us that Lord Soley must have always known his Bill was most unlikely to succeed. So why did he propose it in the first place? He has apparently enjoyed his few sessions in the limelight, but this cannot have been his only motivation. His interest in HE developed back in the days of the Badman Review, when he posted three pieces on the “Lords of the Blog” site [1, 2 & 3] in February 2010. Surprised by the strength of comment he received, and perhaps encouraged by associates in the National Secular Society and Humanists UK (both of which have targeted HE in their wider campaigns against faith schools), Soley, it seems, has sought to advance the agenda underlying Badman. Given the almost certain demise of PMBs, debates generated by them appear to be an amplified form of lobbying rather than real attempts to create legislation. In that respect therefore this Bill has been successful, as it forced the government’s hand to announce the recent consultation.

What can I do?

One thing not to do is to spend the whole of this coming Friday watching Parliament TV – in July, “Business with Debate” commenced around 2:30pm and took just seven minutes.

The most important unknown on the political front is when the Department for Education will announce its response to the HE Consultation. Under normal circumstances that should have been around thirteen weeks after it closed. As previously highlighted, that target was never going to be met. No warning will precede its publication however, so the home educating community needs be on its toes, not only ready to respond but thinking through how to do so constructively.