Schools Bill severely criticised for lack of proper detail in Lords Committee Stage first sitting
What’s been said?
The Schools Bill has been making waves in the House of Lords even before Peers begin to scrutinise Parts 3 & 4. Here we report on three items: a letter from Baroness Barran to “Interested Peers”; remarks made by former Under-Secretary of State for the School System Lord Agnew during Committee stage sitting on 8 June; and a Spectator article from 9 June headed “Tory bid to delete controversial schools law.”
On 1 June Baroness Barran, current Under-Secretary of State for the School System and the Minister responsible for presenting this Bill, deposited a letter in the Library of the House. Written in response to the Second reading debate (transcript Part 1 | Part 2 or video), it was addressed to those who had spoken during that debate or who had “expressed a keen interest in this Bill.”
Her stated purpose in writing was “to address some of the issues I did not have time to cover in my closing speech.” After extensive comments on school-related issues and more on Independent Educational Institutions, a long section on the Children Not in School registers can be found on pages 5-7.
Weds 8 June saw Clause 1 being debated. Baroness Chapman of Darlington opened the batting with some scathing comments -“the wildest imaginable power grab by the Secretary of State” – concluding that ‘This Government’s fill in the blanks later’ approach means that Parliament just cannot fulfil its proper role.”
Lord Agnew clearly found it frustrating to sit through lengthy discussion about the ins and outs of clauses when he himself had already recommended that his noble friend the Minister “just step back and kill off these 18 clauses so that there can be some proper reflection.”
Whilst conveying genuine sympathy for the pressures Barran is under, Agnew’s words reveal both a level of long-standing personal angst about HE and his current priorities re increased regulation:
“There are some important things in this Bill – the homework and home schooling stuff – which are absolutely vital. I saw that agony when I was here, in my noble friend’s place, when we had a Private Member’s Bill and it was suffocated. This is a huge problem, getting worse all the time. Let us get that sorted out. This is a crucial problem, not to be sorted out in a rush. My noble friend has been bounced; the Bill Office has just said, ‘You’re the first cab in the rank in this new Session, get on with it,’ and she has not had the time to do the job properly.”
The Spectator article provides a compact summary of the debate, focusing on the potential political fallout of such unsettlement with the Bill amongst the Lords. Author Isabel Hardman notes that “this latest spot of bother doesn’t come from Labour or the Lib Dems or even those difficult-to-read crossbenchers. No: the new rebels are a bunch of Tory ex-ministers who want to delete a large chunk of their party’s own bill.” Since “Boris Johnson cannot count on the support of his backbenchers at the moment,” this could have big implications for the Bill’s progress though the Commons.
Why does it matter?
Barran’s letter was not remarkable for revealing new information regarding CNiS registers. Essentially it was little more than a restatement of the Government’s position on issues raised by various Members in the Second Reading Debate, coupled with reassurances to smooth ruffled feathers.
Viewed in the light of Agnew’s comments about the Bill being pushed to the front of the legislative queue before being properly ready though, the Minister’s letter reveals how much playing catch-up is going on and may shed light on the much criticised, open-ended ‘fill in the blanks later’ approach. Trying to adjust design flaws once a vehicle is in motion is never ideal, and in the early stages of a Government bill is “highly unusual.”
Having got CNiS registers within a stone’s throw of legislation, Agnew clearly does not want momentum to be lost now. His disappointment about Lord Soley’s Private Member’s Bill going nowhere was evident. Though he can empathise with a colleague in a position he has been in himself, how sad it is that he can only see this “homeschooling stuff” as a “huge problem, getting worse all the time” and critically in need of a legislative solution. This blinkered view is common amongst politicians, and has been stoked by a media and lobbyist-driven misinformation campaign. It is however a reminder to responsible parents that they need to be determined as they push back against such tactics.
What can I do?
Home educators have a great deal of work to do in reshaping the narrative, the public perception of them and their educational choices as a problem. The slow drip-drip of misinformation has convinced most politicians that this is the case; the media have reinforced this negative narrative, and the man in the street eventually comes to believe what he is told…
But just as minds are made up individually, minds are changed in the same way – one person at a time. Each of us has our own circle of influence where we can advocate for the truth about home education. Now is the time to be doing that via whatever channels are open to you – in person chats, social media, letters to the Editor.
Making a personal approach to your MP is particularly important at this time. The Bill is making its way through the House of Lords now – it is unlikely to be debated in the Commons until after the summer recess – especially given the pressure from so many Peers. But if we want our MPs to represent our interests then, it’s important to establish meaningful connections with them now. Don’t just write to them, try to arrange to meet them.
Think about it – consider the difference between a hasty email from an unknown constituent the night before a debate, or a proactive invitation ahead of time to meet families and hear why HE has been a positive choice for them. If you feel apprehensive about talking to your MP on your own, why not see if another set of parents from your constituency would team up with you?
If you are concerned that your MP might share your details with the LA or others, see our guide MPs and confidentiality.