Sunday, 21 June 2015

Blank Cheques

For me, the most important event this week at Westminster will be the Second Reading Debate of the Education and Adoption Bill in the House of Commons. It is certainly not the biggest story that will dominate the news over the coming week - Greece is likely to dominate the headlines - and who knows what else may come along. So why am I so concerned about this bill?

I am a strong believer in parliamentary accountability (as an internationalist who believes in the central importance that legislatures should play in democracies - accountability by any legislature is important). Legislatures should write the laws (OK, pass them - even if the texts are proposed elsewhere - for example the Executive). The Executive's power should be approved and its use held to account by Parliament.

This bill grants the Secretary of State for Education powers that would have Dicey revolving in his grave - not at the speed of old LPs or singles (very dated reference for those of us of a certain age), but of CDs. She (currently the post is held by Nicky Morgan [NO relation]) is given extensive powers over a new "class" of schools; their existing governors and teaching staff; and local authorities. That might be justified - but she gets to write the criteria for "entry" into this class.

Currently the Secretary of State's powers are limited to "failing" schools - ones that have weaknesses identified by an Ofsted inspection. Now these powers are extended (in two ways - both to (1) schools and to (2) the extent of the orders she can issue and duties placed on the recipients of her orders).

It is not right that the Executive be given the power to make up its own definitions. It is Parliament's responsibility.

Clause 1 (A Clause in a Bill becomes a Section in a passed Act) of the Education and Adoption Bill says


(3)After section 60A [Education and Inspections Act 2006] insert—

60AB Coasting schools

(1) A maintained school is by virtue of this section eligible for intervention if the
governing body of the school—
(a)have been notified that the Secretary of State considers the school to be
coasting, and
(b) have not subsequently been notified that the Secretary of State no
longer considers the school to be coasting.
(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations define what “coasting”
means in relation to a school for the purposes of subsection (1).
Such regulations must be approved under the Affirmative resolution procedure - but that means little oversight in practice.
The Bill will get its Second Reading tomorrow evening, and will move to the committee stage in the House of Commons. Government Ministers and whips will have as their key objective NOT to accept any amendment other than ones the Government wants (so amending Clause 1(3) is almost impossible). Only the House of Lords stands a chance of defeating the Government on this - and it is rightly unwilling to do this except on rare occasions. Some lively criticism in the Commons Second Reading debate might embolden them.

I have other concerns about this bill - and its effect on centralisation of powers.
Sadly, the issue may just be left. The government may further extend its powers - with parents; local representatives and the public unable to act when these powers are used.
It isn't just the buildings that are crumbling at Westminster.

The Bill can be found here; Explanatory Notes (prepared by the Government) here and the House of Commons Library Briefing Paper here.

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