4.30am and MPs still have 4.5 hours to go debating the latest schools bill

3rd April 2009 at 01:00
Politicians on scrutiny committee forced to endure marathon 20-hour session after Labour loses three votes in one morning

Proposed legislation governing teachers' powers of pupil search and restraint was not given the proper parliamentary scrutiny because it was being debated at 4.30 in the morning, The TES has learnt.

And government ministers have been accused of trying to "bully" opposition parties into shortening their debating time.

The important legislation, which includes new rules on complaints in schools, forms part of the all-embracing Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill that is passing through Parliament.

Opposition members on the bill's scrutiny committee were forced to hold their debates in the early hours of last Friday morning, despite a final committee meeting being scheduled for last Tuesday. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, together with teachers' leaders, have condemned this rushed approach.

The marathon 20-hour debating session happened after the Government was unable to muster representatives in last Thursday's morning session, meaning it lost three straight votes on its own bill.

It is understood that once Thomas McAvoy, Labour's deputy chief whip, heard this news, he forced the committee to stay from 1pm on the Thursday to 12.30pm on Friday afternoon to ensure the Government did not lose another vote. MPs had only a short break between 4.30am and 8am.

It is also understood that the Government was close to losing an important vote on the powers of the new exams regulator Ofqual - it was saved by the deciding vote of the committee chair, Joan Humble.

David Laws, the Lib Dems education spokesman, said the Government had the "same problems with unauthorised absenteeism as many schools".

"It was very immature behaviour," said Mr Laws. "During 12am and 4.30am there were lots of rows between members, with ministers trying to bully us into shortening debates, despite the fact we were dealing with really important issues.

"I hope and assume they would be rather ashamed about what they put the committee through. And it wasn't only the committee, but also the catering staff, the police officers, and the other staff who cannot leave while a committee meeting is in progress," he said.

Nick Gibb, the shadow schools minister, said the the episode would have cost the taxpayer thousands. He added: "No Labour backbenchers turned up for the morning session and they lost three votes, so to punish them Mr McAvoy kept the committee for a further 17 hours, excluding breaks. We will be formally requesting just how much this cost."

The events caused outrage among teachers' union leaders, who had already voiced concerns over many aspects of the bill. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it was a "classic example" of putting the most contentious issues last.

"It is not a very good model of management. But this kind of thing has been happening for a long time. You put the most contentious issues at the end when everyone's attention is not at its greatest and these things get rushed through."

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