Behind Closed Doors

Behind Closed Doors

What Lynne Neagle’s letter reveals about the hostile environment towards EHE

What’s been said?

When the Welsh Children and Young People Committee [CYPE] met on 14 November, it noted two pieces of correspondence concerning the recent consultation on Elective Home Education. Shortly afterwards it agreed to sit in private. Behind those closed doors the committee members must have discussed   the content of the letters, because afterwards Chair Lynne Neagle AM wrote to Education Minister, Kirsty Williams AM with a copy to Sally Holland, Welsh Children’s Commissioner.

Neagle’s letter initially requests “clarification on the legal points raised about the basis on which proposed guidance could be made.” Next, and rather ambiguously, it asks for “details of which (if any) Assembly procedure and/or consultation process the final versions of the following will be subject to, and associated timescales” for the new guidance and for the consultation on “a database of children of compulsory school age in their area to help them identify children who are not known to them.”

This is ambiguous because it is not until the concluding paragraph of her letter that Neagle makes clear that they are not seeking to ensure that any new measures are within the law, but that these should be introduced no matter the validity of any legal objections raised against them:

“As you will be aware from the letters we have issued over the past year (listed in the annex to this letter), we have maintained an active interest in elective home education. As part of these exchanges, we have stated clearly our belief that action is needed to ensure that children educated at home are seen and spoken to about the education they are receiving, and that they are happy, healthy and safe, and would like to reiterate these views at this stage.”

Why does it matter?

Most importantly this letter demonstrates that politicians are not really concerned about upholding human rights or about other legal restraints on their powers. Instead Neagle and her colleagues are being influenced by an ideology which believes that all children are first and foremost the responsibility of the state rather than their parents, assuming, it seems, that the latter cannot be trusted.

If these politicians believed that the majority of parents were trustworthy, then they would not be insisting that their employees have to see and speak to children who are not on their books. The code behind Neagle’s closing phrase, we “would like to reiterate these views at this stage” can be deciphered to signal to the Minister that should the legal objections which have been raised prove valid, the CYPE will support every effort to circumvent them.

What then are the laws which might hinder their intentions to assume parental authority over every child? We have already cited the excellent legal opinion crowdfunded by Protecting Home Education Wales. Item 3.1 on the CYPE agenda was their letter to every Welsh AM summarising the main points of the attached legal opinion which focussed on Human Rights concerns. The second relevant item (3.2) was an “Email from the Trustee and Welsh Liaison for Education Otherwise regarding the draft statutory guidance for local authorities on home education.” The contents of this have now been published as part of the minutes of the meeting and are available as a PDF document.

Before referring to David Wolfe QC’s legal opinion in her letter, Wendy Charles-Warner of EO focussed on the requirement on Welsh public bodies to comply with the Gunning Principles when conducting consultations. These were established by the case, R v Brent London Borough Council, ex parte Gunning [1985] 84 LGR 168, and pertain across the UK.

Charles-Warner highlights several ways in which this legal precedent has been ignored in the recent Welsh consultation. Not least she cites a letter from Williams to Neagle dated 11 July, less than three weeks before the consultation was published, in which the Minister stated her view that she does not “believe it would be possible to make an informed judgement about whether a child is in receipt of suitable education without seeing the child.”

The first of the four Gunning Principles is that consultations must take place whilst the proposal is at the formative stage. Officials cannot consult on a decision which has already been made. To do so would be both unfair and pointless. Williams’ letter clearly states that she had already made up her mind about the outcome of the consultation before it was published.

In her letter Charles-Warner cites other evidence demonstrating that Williams has ignored various aspects of the Gunning Principles. It is unclear whether the Minister was unaware of these safeguards, or whether she thought they could be circumvented. Neagle’s letter, on behalf of the CYPE, makes clear their hope that a way can be found to bypass both the Gunning Principles and relevant Human Rights legislation.

All concerned citizens, be they parents or not, part of the EHE community or not, should be very troubled by the way in which public servants are acting as if they are public masters!

What can I do?

If you have not already seen them, read the nine letters listed on the final page of Neagle’s letter to Williams. The first is dated 9 November 2018 and they catalogue an ongoing three-way conversation between Neagle, Williams and Holland. The latest one is quoted above, and was the first indication that two consultations were being planned in Wales. We highlighted it on 24 July.

If you have not already read Charles-Warner’s letter, make it a priority to do so.

We also encourage you to read the three articles recently published in our new Library section, as they help to explain why this debate is no longer about the education a child receives, but about who has oversight of the child. Helpful summaries of these articles can be found in a recent Byte entitled Understanding the Hostile Environment in which we Live.

Stop Press: After this Byte was written, Protecting Home Education Wales published information on its website alerting readers to the meeting of the Welsh Assembly’s Petition Committee tomorrow (Tuesday, 3 Dec. 2019). On the agenda is discussion of the petition calling for the withdrawal of the proposed home education guidance, which received over five thousand signatures. All relevant links, including details of how to watch the session live, can be found on their website.