Thursday, July 15, 2010

Educating Michael

Tom Watson may have been unparliamentary in his language, but you could understand the passion and anger when he rose and rounded on the "pipsqueak" Michael Gove, who does look rather like a third-former placed in charge of the tuck shop.

That pipsqueak claimed to have scrapped the BSF project because of the poor management associated with the scheme, but then demonstrated his own sheer incompetence by supplying a series of inaccurate lists of schools affected by his cuts. Even the list provided at the time of his first apology contained errors and there have been subsequent lists all containing mistakes. While he rightly took the blame in public, his friends have been busily briefing privately that it was actually the fault of faceless civil servants.

Graham Stuart, the Tory MP who chairs the Commons education select committee, told Radio 4's Today programme that the "quango" established by
Labour to oversee its school building programme, Partnerships for Schools (PfS)
had been responsible for the list. The body had been "incompetent", he added. Mr
Stuart said: "I thought it was refreshing to have a secretary of state who actually accepted responsibility for the errors that took place in this process
"But of course the irony is, which isn't lost on the rest of us, is that it was Labour's quango, Partnerships for Schools – whose chief executive actually earns more than the prime minister – who came up with the error-filled list in the first place."
Stuart laying into a Labour quango there. I hope he'll be equally scathing about the New Schools Network, which is run by a former aide to Michael Gove, has another former aide assisting and has just had half a million of our money pumped into it.

However, it appears that the confusion started with Gove. When he told officials that the BSF model was too slow and complicated and that he wanted to scrap the whole programme, they responded that that about half of the 1500 projects in progress were far too advanced to be stopped as the legal costs involved would be astronomical. So rather than putting the thing out to consultation, the minister decided that a wholesale axe would be brought down and civil servants then had to deal with a moving set of criteria to tie down which category schools would fall - it is no wonder that mistakes were made, but the ultimate responsibility does not lie with civil servants, but with the minister who rushed them, ignored advice and gave them dud instructions.

MPs of all shades are coming out of the woodwork to defend school modernisation in their area - Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour alike. This is the first cut where the effects are widespread and locally identifiable. Closing the QCA affects a relatively small number of people in Coventry, but threatening schools - much like closing hospitals - is a very personal matter to local people, so it is no surprise that many MPs have come under such huge pressure. Sandwell can feel very hard done by about this in particular, as they had predicated a complete realignment of their school places on the basis that so many would be rebuilt. Stopping the programme at this stage has caused immense problems.

Aside from the disappointment and sheer inconvenience, this has cost local authorities over £160 million and construction firms have stumped up a further £100 million to advance plans to the point where Gove feels able to scrap them. Some authorities and - I would suspect - most construction firms will be looking for compensation, although Birmingham has apparently decided to take losses on the chin. Whether the council is legally able just to write off these costs for political reasons without seeking to recover them on behalf of the hard-pressed council taxpayers of the city is perhaps an interesting question.

Gove has also been critical of Ed Balls in private, alleging that staff from the Partnership for Schools agency have been briefing the former Secretary of State. Gove didn't seem to object to the supply of information from the Home Office or the Treasury under the last government - indeed he defended it - so quite why he should be surprised now the boot is on the other foot isn't clear.

Tellingly, Gove dodged answering this question from Ed Balls
"Did you at any point receive written or oral advice from departmental officials or Partnerships for Schools urging you not to publish a list of schools until after you had consulted local authorities, to make sure your criteria were sound and your facts were right?"
In keeping with the great political tradition of never asking a question unless you know the answer, I suspect Ed knows full well that Gove did receive such advice. Gove preferred to attack Ed rather than deal with the substance of the question, although a spin doctor later denied the suggestion. You will note that this denial was not issued from the despatch box, thus ensuring that Gove cannot possibly be accused of lying to parliament should, say, a ministerial direction appear at some point in the future.

All in all, this has not been a good fortnight for Michael Gove. He has been shown to be lacking in the basic competence required of a senior minister and confirmed as an ideologue of the first order. No wonder that many had him as the first minister to be removed from government. I wonder if he'll survive the first reshuffle?

1 comment:

Malcolm Armsteen said...

Gove has only been an MP for 5 years, yet he is one of the key secretaries of state, with no experience in government at local or national level at all. Not only are his ability, experience, motives and bona fides called into question, but also those of an ideologically driven coalition desperate to dismantle and destroy without consideration of the future or the needs of the many which shoved him into high office.