Six Lib Dem MPs rebel on Coalition’s Academies Bill

by Stephen Tall on July 27, 2010

The BBC reports:

MPs have approved legislation [317 votes to 225, Government majority 92] which paves the way for a radical overhaul of the school system in England. The Academies Bill, allowing schools to opt out of local council control as early as September, is now due to receive Royal Assent on Tuesday.

However, the Bill sparked a revolt among some Lib Dem MPs, with five defying the whips to back an amendment proposed by Southport MP (and former teacher) John Pugh allowing parents to be balloted if a school governor objected it to becoming an academy.

The five Lib Dems who supported John’s amendment were Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and Poole N), Andrew George (St Ives), Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South), John Leech (Manchester Withington) and David Ward (Bradford E).

Here’s a section from John’s speech to the Commons, courtesy Hansard, explaining his amendment and motivations in putting it forward:

Dr John Pugh (Southport) (LD): When were elected this May-God, it seems years ago-we all knew that there was some prospect that politics in this place might never be quite the same again. Many of us, frankly, welcomed that. The huge and welcome influx of new Members gave us all hope that things could possibly be different. That, along with the odd arithmetic of this place and the challenging nature of the country’s problems, seemed to dictate that the way ahead would be through rational consensus and for a while-all too short a while-it appeared that tribalism and command-and-control politics were dead; the Chamber and Committees would be important and the policy would have to be evidence-led, much to the disappointment of the media, whose preference is always for a good scrap.

What do we have with amendments to the Bill, however? We have the spectacle of Ministers who have already told us that they will accept no amendment, period, and the sight of Whips new and old cracking their knuckles off-stage and perfecting basilisk-like stares in the mirror, persuading people not to vote for amendments such as amendment 8 and others that, it could be argued, align with the spirit and improve the detail of the Bill. Paradoxically, they are doing that because they assume that is how coalition politics work. I say paradoxically, because the amendment-denying Ministers in front of us, whose agents the Whips are, seem to be the most mature, civilised and benign advocates of the new politics. I personally cannot associate myself with the recent comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron); nor can I afford to drink in the Boot and Flogger. I am simply moving an amendment with which the Committee should be comfortable and, frankly, which any Member of any party can and should be free to support.

In the event of a governing body being divided, amendment 8 obliges a school to hold a ballot if a governor or a minority of governors object to an application for academy status. It therefore provides a restraint on a motivated group of governors misrepresenting or riding roughshod over parents’ wishes.

Mr Evans, you might recall that under Mrs Thatcher, in the Education Reform Act 1988, a parental ballot was an essential precondition of the change to grant-maintained status in any school. There were votes across the country on those matters. Sadly, subsequent Governments seem to have lost interests in the views of parents and, in my view, have disempowered parents, with one exception. Tony Blair insisted that the change from grammar school status required a parental ballot and that condition survives and is effectively incorporated in this Bill.

Can anyone in this Chamber give me an argument for why grammar school parents should be balloted before the status of their school changes and parents of children at other schools should not? I am at a loss to find such an argument. Why should grammar school parents have a right that primary school parents, comprehensive school parents and special school parents do not have? Will anyone agree with the former and present me with a good argument for voting against the latter?

Fellow Lib Dem Mike Hancock offered one pointed answer (not on behalf of the Coalition), asking John:

Does my hon. Friend accept the suggestion that there are to be no ballots because most of them might be lost if parents knew all the facts? That situation is being avoided simply by not making provision for a ballot in the first place.

He might very well think that …