Rory’s tribute to his predecessor David Maclean, and speech on Academies Bill
A man may not make a maiden speech twice. Due to a misunderstanding in Westminster Hall, I appear to have lost my maidenhood, so I apologise to the House. I would like to speak about amendment 71, but very briefly, with your permission, Mr Caton, I would like first to pay tribute to my predecessor, David Maclean of Penrith and The Border, and then bring my remarks back to this important amendment.
In Westminster Hall, I was unable to recognise the extraordinary service that David Maclean paid to this House over 27 years. I thought that I was stepping into big shoes, but I had no idea how large. I remember climbing up a snowdrift in December last year feeling like Scott of the Antarctic reaching an isolated farmstead to find that David Maclean, like Amundsen, had already been there before me, and repeatedly. As I have moved around over the past few weeks, I have seen the incredible care that he paid to his constituents. Every time I pick up a sheaf of documents, I can see that he has written no fewer than 11 letters of astonishing energy and specificity. During the debate over the past two days, I have often heard the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) ask people to answer the question. On the basis of the letters that I have seen, Mr Maclean answered the question repeatedly, and with vigour and honour. When asked, for example, about windmills, he did not simply say, like an ex-civil servant such as myself, “On the one hand, but then on the other,” but instead attacked the technology and the proposal and ensured that people organised as a social committee to oppose it.
Let me conclude on the subject of my predecessor by saying that his greatest moment was during the foot and mouth crisis, when, with his staff, which he and I would call a cromach, in his hand, he moved across our landscape, denuded of livestock, with funeral pyres burning on the border, and defended his constituency-the ancient constituency of the Western March, that ancient mediaeval frontier-like a warden of the Western March.
In relation to amendment 71, I have been charmed by the reasonableness of the hon. Member for Gedling. I entirely agree with him about the importance of special educational needs provision; I have personal reasons to do so. I agree also about some of the dangers that he has mentioned, such as the potential confusion between funding arrangements and the responsibilities defined within the Bill. He and the bodies that he cited are absolutely right to be concerned about special educational needs provision. I am no expert on the subject, so these comments are meant respectfully to him.
As I say, I am not an expert on education, nor am I a lawyer, but it seems to me, as the hon. Gentleman has already accepted, that many of the things for which he is pressing have already happened under clause 1(8)(a). Some of this-again, I am not a lawyer-seems declaratory in nature rather than necessary. The focus on recognition of the condition and the right of appeal is central, but with respect I would say that there is some confusion about the amendment, and that it would not achieve the purposes that he wishes. He has talked at immense length about his concerns over funding, quality, and the definition of low incidence special educational needs. Amendment 71, to my non-lawyerly eye, would not achieve any of those objectives.
In fact, if one listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, one heard him focus repeatedly on the word “mechanism”. He is very interested in process, and on that we have a philosophical disagreement. Instead of beginning from where we are and what academies are actually doing, and accepting that the Bill will improve rather than decrease the performance of academies in relation to special educational needs, he is obsessed with central processes. He seems to believe that local authorities are the ideal mechanism.
Reading the amendment carefully shows that it is not really as the hon. Gentleman implies. It is an attempt to do things that have nothing to do with the law. A lot of what he talked about from the Dispatch Box would be absolutely right for him to consider if he were the Minister, such as the importance of considering funding arrangements and ensuring that definitions are in place, but a lot of the detail of the amendment is about administration, not about the law. The purpose of the law is to define the objective, which, broadly speaking, is to delegate.
I notice that the hon. Gentleman does not like the word “delegation” and is not comfortable with it. He is not, as he suggests, simply asserting the importance of special educational needs, nor even the necessity for a process or a mechanism. He is setting out a specific process and mechanism, namely local authorities. His amendment repeatedly requires the Secretary of State to assess all the current local authority provision and the support that it provides, and to focus in that assessment on any funding requirements attached to that.
That is a classic example of what was wrong with the previous approach. Instead of focusing on a special educational needs outcome with which we all agree, the hon. Gentleman is attempting to micro-manage the process with a preference for the local authority.
With respect and much gratitude, I thank the Committee.