What Next for Flick Drummond’s Bill?

What Next for Flick Drummond’s Bill?

On Friday 15 March, her Children Not in School (Registers, Support and Orders) Bill received a Second reading without debate. What does this mean? What will happen next – and when?

What’s been said?

There were thirty-two Private Member’s Bills [PMBs] on the order paper for 15 March. MPs knew that only one, two or three of them would be debated. Mrs Drummond’s Bill was fourth on the list, and was therefore likely to be advanced “without debate.” This process follows the “moment of interruption”. On Fridays this is at 2:30pm and from that time on, the outcome of the remaining PMBs on the Order Paper is decided rapidly, without debate. Generally speaking, if they’re opposed, they can’t proceed.

There are two possible outcomes for them; a clerk reads out the name of the next Bill on the list, the member who has proposed it says “Now,” thereby requesting that the Bill receives approval for its Second reading without debate. If any Member present calls out “Object” at that point, the Speaker acknowledges this by responding with “Objection taken.” The Bill’s sponsor then names a date for a Second reading debate – but the delay usually prevents it from progressing further.

Alternatively, Members in the Chamber remain silent, thus signalling their support for the Bill in question. The Deputy Speaker then calls for those in favour of the ‘motion’ to indicate their support by saying “Aye.” They then call for objectors to say “No.” This is predictably met with silence because any dissenters would have objected already, and so the Speaker declares that “The Ayes have it.” This is what happened with Drummond’s PMB. The Hansard record is minimal, whilst the whole ten seconds is on Parliament TV.

Why does it matter?

“What’s going to happen next?” is the question most home educating families are asking. Answering that is not straightforward because there are several unknowns. Hopefully the following explanation will help readers to understand what may or may not happen in the coming months.

First, it has to be recognised that both Drummond and the DfE are expressing a certain amount of confidence that the Bill will be successful, but neither can guarantee that it will complete its course through both Houses. There are unconfirmed reports that some politicians are sceptical about it reaching the finishing line. Whilst Education Ministers are repeatedly stating their support for it, the final decision does not rest with them, but with Downing Street. Sunak, however, has more important matters on his mind at present, in particular the date of the General Election.

It is well known that PMBs have a very limited chance of becoming law mainly because far more are proposed than there is time to process. Often they are used as a means of lobbying the Government or influencing the wider debate – this is all part of the political game, as anyone should realise if they watched MPs debate dogs, cats and ferrets for nearly four hours, whilst waiting to see what happened with Drummond’s Bill!

All Bills before Parliament need to complete the same series of stages before receiving Royal Assent. However, some stages differ significantly depending on the type of Bill under consideration. The stages remaining for this Bill, are shown in this graphic from the Bill’s page.

It is now waiting for Committee stage and no date has been fixed for this at the time of writing. When this will take place is a major question for anyone trying to asses the Bill’s chances of progressing. In a normal Commons session, there are just thirteen Fridays allocated to PMBs. So far, seven of these have been used, with two more already timetabled for April. Whilst more than one PMB can have a Second reading debate on the same Friday, in the Commons there can only be one with an active Committee stage at any time.

The available Fridays in this Session have thus far been taken up with debating (or not) Second readings. From now on, those Bills which have passed their Committee stage will be given priority for their Report and Third reading stages. Three are timetabled for 19 April, with four more currently lined up for the following week. The Committee stages of these took place on the seven available Wednesdays between 31 January and 20 March. (Easter recess began on Tuesday 26 March). [This page on the Parallel Parliament website provides live data; however we have created an archive of that page as it appeared on 29 March 2024.]

Normally PMB Committees are held at the start of business on Wednesday mornings, beginning around 9:30am and lasting for no more than a hour, but it is possible for them to be held at other times. Occasionally the Report stage and Third reading follow on immediately afterwards, meaning that a PMB can be hastened through the Commons when there is sufficient support for it!

It is important to note that the conduct of PMBs’ Committee stage in the Commons is very different to that of Government Bills. For the latter, the Committee is representative of the Party political balance across the House, and opposition MPs will normally be doing their best to obstruct the passage of a Bill. For PMBs however, the recruitment of Committee members rests with the MP who has proposed the Bill, though they only provide a list of names to the Selection Committee which formally nominates them. The point to note therefore is that with a PMB which has “cross party support,” the membership of the Committee will consist entirely of MPs who are in favour of it, and there will be no attempts to delay or disarm it through amendments. There is little point therefore in lobbying MPs at this stage.

The biggest question is when Drummond’s Bill will be allocated a Committee stage. Information on the ordering of PMBs being allocated a Committee stage date is difficult to find. The procedure seems to depend on two things: the order in which PMBs received their Second reading, and when the Member provides the list of MPs to form the Committee. The process appears to be overseen by the Clerks in the Public Bill Office rather than by politicians, but no clear statement is available.

However, according to the Order paper for 15 March, before this Bill moves into Committee it requires a Money order debate, because its passage into law would require local authorities to allocate public money for something which hasn’t previously been authorised by an Act of Parliament. So the Money order will be the next event on the Bill’s calendar, but there is no set timing between that debate and the previous or following stages. The two PMBs which have had Money orders in this Session are currently awaiting a Third reading on 26 April.

The most important determining factor however seems to be the time available for the seventeen PMBs which are waiting for a Committee stage in the Commons. The yet to be decided date of the General election is very relevant on two counts: first, whether or not the seventeen PMBs are allocated dates for Committee; and secondly whether or not there would be time for them to pass through the system in the House of Lords, should any get that far.

An early May election is not possible now, and in the unlikely event of a June election, the PMBs still waiting for Committee will fail to progress into the Upper House. If the election is not called until after the Summer recess, which starts on 23 July, then there are a maximum of thirteen Wednesdays available between now and then. At the rate of one a week, not all the seventeen remaining PMBs which have been granted a Second reading will finish in the Commons by the summer – Drummond’s was the fifteenth to have progressed to this point.

To confuse things further, no date is yet determined for when the Commons will return after the summer. Nor have the dates for the customary Party Conferences recess been announced. What follows is therefore a guestimate of what might happen in coming weeks and months.

Assuming that Parliament returns on 2 September, and an election date was announced by 5 September (unlikely), then Parliament would be dissolved one week later on 12 September. Otherwise, the Liberal Democrats Party Conference will start on 14 September, with the Labour and Conservative conferences on the two following weekends. Dates for the “Conference recess” are presently undecided, but Thursday 12 September to Thursday 3 October would appear to be the minimum, and this would account for fourteen sitting days. (The Lords do not have a conference season recess.)

Once the conferences are past, an election will have to be called before 12 December. If not, there will be an automatic shut down on 19 December, with the election on 23 January. The following table sets out the impact of potential election dates on the number of Commons sitting days,* assuming the House returns on 2 September and there is a Conference recess of around three weeks – election dates are those discussed in this article:

There is no way anyone can guarantee when the election will take place, but the winter months of December and January are not normally popular, and it is probable that Sunak will want to use his Party’s conference for electioneering. An election at any point in November would allow very little time for any PMB not in the Lords before the summer to become law, i.e. a November election will make it very difficult for Drummond’s Bill to succeed.

What can I do?

Having progressed to Committee stage, there is very little that can be done to significantly impede the progress of this PMB in the Commons. To make any difference, it would need three or four MPs who opposed it to be nominated by Drummond to join the Committee! Previously the most effective use of a petition has not been to change policy, but to communicate with MPs so as to bring them “on side” with home educators. However, the two Parties which did this in 2009 now deem it politically expedient to champion the cause espoused in this Bill.

The need therefore is to continue seeking to change the narrative around home education. The upcoming election provides an ideal opportunity to do this, even if one’s MP is not standing or is bound to lose their seat. Actually, the lower ranks of political parties have more influence than many people realise. MPs listen carefully to what local councillors report to them. Councillors also have more time to listen to their electorate than MPs. Do contact them, asking if they know any long term home educators and if they have any understanding of how HE families function. How will local politicians understand our lifestyle if we don’t educate them?

It’s important to use the election campaign to raise HE with party workers. Whether or not the person who knocks on your door is from your party of choice, if they represent one of the major parties you will be on safe ground to open with something along the lines of “I’m very concerned about your policy on elective home education, please can you explain to me why your party has adopted it?” (Only the Greens and some of the minor parties have policies which are positive towards EHE.) Of course, the canvasser will look at you blankly, but you can politely insist that they find out why, and ask them to bring the candidate back to explain this to you. If sufficient people take that type of approach, it will feed back through the party machinery and therefore raise concerns about attempts to register HE.

Finally, even if you have never been to a political hustings in your life, go along to any which are organised in your area and ask a question. You can do this either during the meeting to all the candidates, or with any you talk to afterwards. Again, the objective is not to convince them there and then, but to raise awareness within the parties that their policy in respect to HE is not going down well.

Finally, remember whilst we cannot be certain how far Drummond’s PMB will progress between now and the election, we already know that all the major parties are committed to taking away your responsibility to provide your children with an education suitable to their needs. Home educating families should not let this Bill distract them from the greater threat.