HC Deb 01 August 1952 vol 504 cc1994-2008

6.2 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Henderson (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

I desire to raise the case of Mr. Johnson Ball, the recently dismissed principal of the Halesowen Technical College. Mr. Ball resides in my constituency, although the school itself is situated in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle). The facts are, as follows.

Mr. Ball was appointed principal of this school in 1938 at the age of 37. So far as I can gather his relations with the governors of the school were reasonably amicable during almost the whole of the 13 years following his appointment. I am informed that the minutes of the governors' meetings are punctuated with commendations about Mr. Ball and his staff over the whole period of his service, culminating in a final commendation in April last year, only two months before the present dispute arose between the governors and certain members of the teaching staff arising out of an interpretation of the 1951 Burnham scales.

Mr. Ball, apparently, supported the claims of the members of his staff, and, so far as I can tell, his attitude on this matter seems to be the genesis of the present trouble. It is interesting to note that in November, 1951, the dissatisfaction expressed by the members of the staff was contained in repeated resolutions and letters to the governors, and the pressure which appears to have been exerted by the teachers' associations resulted in a provisional settlement which confirmed the inadequacy of the potential awards by nearly doubling the special salary allowance.

But by this time relations between Mr. Ball and the governors, apparently as a result of his supporting his staff, had seriously deteriorated. The governors seem to have made it clear to him that they wished to get rid of him. On 28th December, in reply to a letter sent by Mr. Ball's solicitor, a letter was sent on behalf of the Director of Education, the relevant parts of which I will read to the House. They are as follows: No specific charge or complaint or adverse report is being made. There is, I will add, no reflection on Mr. Ball's moral character or on his academic qualification. The truth is that the Governors found him ' impossible to work with '; their confidence in his handling of personal relations has declined; they have found his manner and tone intolerable. Hence their request to him to consider finding another job and tendering his resignation. It goes on: To help you personally I will try to be a little more specific. Mr. Ball has publicly criticised his employers and has made it plain to 'the world' that he is not working at one with them. I am advised that from Mr. Ball's point of view this refers to a speech which he made in relation to the non-provision of playing fields for his school and the transfer of certain ground to another school. The letter goes on: He has told the Governors on many occasions that he is not in harmony with them, 'deploring their attitude,' referring to the Education Authority's 'crazy obstinacy.' etc. I understand from Mr. Ball that he admits that in October last year, during this dispute over the wage scales, he made a critical reference to the governors. To continue the quote: He has been difficult and unto-operative with the Director of Education. An example is over the recent settlement of teachers' salaries. Instead of helping the Education Authority to settle things amicably with the staff he seems to have been a 'trouble maker.' The Governors are not entirely satisfied with his sense of proportion. For example, they have had to consider the expulsion by him of a girl for reading 'Forever Amber'; the expelling of a 14 year old who did not attend for prayers; the caning of a whole batch of boys for an incident or incidents which occurred on a bus. Mr. Ball's explanation of that allegation is that in 1946, six years ago, a girl was warned by him for typing and circulating in a mixed school most objectionable and obscene literature, and that within a few days was again found typing extracts from "Forever Amber," a book not found in Halesowen public library. I believe I am probably one of the few hon. Members of this House who has not read "Forever Amber," but the point is that this girl was not expelled only for typing extracts from this book, but be- cause she had consistently disobeyed the instructions of her principal not to type extracts from this book or from books of a similar nature.

The letter goes on: Generally he has obstinately failed to accept the position that he is the employee of the Education Authority and is employed to carry out their policy. He has, by his attitude, lost the confidence of the Governors. The present unhappy situation is the result not of weeks but years of difficulties. A major factor has been Mr. Ball's own obstinate refusal to recognise the extent to which he has failed to retain the confidence of his Governors." Yet apart from commendations constantly appearing in the minutes of the governors, I have here a letter dated April of last year from the district clerk for education, only two months before this dispute arose. It says: The Governors at their last meeting were intensely interested in your report on the forthcoming exhibition of pictures by the Green brothers. They appreciate the tenacity of purpose you have shown in carrying out the tremendous amount of historical research in this matter, and I was instructed to convey to you and to the members of your staff concerned the appreciation of the Governors for all this work and interest. In October of last year the former chairman of the governors, County Alderman Parkes, wrote: I pay full tribute to you and your staff for the untiring work you must have put in, compiling such a record (Catalogue of the Green Exhibition). I am very pleased that we have still men such as yourself and some of your staff, who, during the last year or so, have done a remarkable job in bringing to light the Green brothers and their work and placing them in their rightful position in our old town. I send you my esteem and respect. The allegations, I suggest, are merely generalisations without any specific particulars to support them, except in the case of the girl who is supposed to have been expelled for reading "Forever Amber," and according to Mr. Ball was expelled for disobeying instructions which he gave on this matter; the expelling of a 14 year old boy who had not attended prayers after receiving instructions on several occasions to attend; and thirdly the caning of the boys, which was hardly a matter for terminating the employment of this headmaster.

I am advised that in 13 years there were only three occasions on which complaints were made to the governors on these matters. The governors seem to have scraped the barrel by raking up incidents going back to 1946 in order to build a case against Mr. Ball, and I am bound to say that T find it somewhat thin and unconvincing.

I want to make it clear that I am not raising this case on legal grounds. As the Minister herself stated in reply to the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), the interpretation of a contract is a matter to be determined by a court of law. It may well be the fact that proper notice of termination has been given to Mr. Ball.

But, even if that be so, that does not dispose of the case. Mr. Ball is a public servant with 20 years' service to his credit. The good name of the community may well be involved if it appears that a public servant has not had a square deal or that there is even a semblance of victimisation. Justice must not only he done but must appear to be done.

This case has been surrounded by a veil of mystery and secrecy. It has been considered by four separate bodies —the governors, on eight occasions, the education sub-committee for the county, the county education committee and finally the county council itself. On every single occasion it was considered behind closed doors. The county council only carried the decision to consider the case behind closed doors by 39 votes to 32. I think that that is evidence of the uneasiness of many members of the county council at the secrecy surrounding the case.

In addition, 14,000 citizens in the district have signed a petition in Mr. Ball's favour, and this has been supported by meetings of parents, trades councils and other public bodies. The public are obviously anxious and perturbed by this treatment of Mr. Ball. After 20 years in the teaching profession, 13 of them as a principal, he has now been thrown on to the scrap heap. He is within three years of his pension, and it is a very serious position for a man of his age, over 50, who is within three years of attaining his right to a pension, that he should be thrown out on to the scrap heap, in a position which, if this decision stands, makes it quite impossible to secure another appointment.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman clarify one point? In the event of Mr. Johnson Ball retiring now, is it the fact or otherwise that he would receive a modified pension?

Mr. Henderson

Yes, when he reaches 60 years of age, but now the most that he would be entitled to would be a return of his contributions. His dismissal, therefore, will mean loss of pension as it is inconceivable that he will secure another post.

I would refer to Section 1 of the 1944 Act which lays down that the duty of the Minister is to secure the effective execution by the local authorities, under his control and direction, of the national policy for providing a varied and comprehensive educational service … I want to make this suggestion from the point of view not only of Mr. Johnson Ball but of the county council itself. If the Minister can state categorically Low that she has investigated his case personally and is satisfied that justice has been done, speaking for myself, I would be content. If she has not done so, I would press her to make a personal investigation and publish her findings not only as to whether justice has been done to Mr. Ball but also as to whether it appears to have been done.

Of course, local authorities have their responsibilities and their difficulties, and this House must be careful before it seeks to interfere with them in their responsibilities; but surely it is also essential to ensure that public servants such as Mr. Johnson Ball are given some measure of protection. If the Minister cannot undertake to investigate this case, I would ask that she should consult with the county council on what steps can be taken to bring all the facts into the open so that the public can form their own conclusions on the merits of this case.

6.18 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

The House will be grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson) for seeking an opportunity, on this Adjournment to ventilate a matter of grave public concern not only in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's constituency and the constituency of the hon. Member for Old-bury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle) but also in my constituency. In the Kidderminster Parliamentary division many pupils of Mr. Johnson Ball reside, as well as many past pupils of the schools.

I think it fair to say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gave a lucid resume and summary of all the circumstances relating to this sad case. I am going to confine my few remarks to voicing my reflections upon the actions of the county council in this matter and the position in this controversy of the Minister as representing the central Government.

First, with regard to the behaviour of the county council, which is, of course, the employing authority in this instance, there have been two public criticisms of their action. The first is that they considered the case of Mr. Johnson Ball behind closed doors, and the second is that the county council refused to publish the reasons for Mr. Johnson Ball's dismissal. All I can say in this House is that there are very sound reasons for the county council having taken those actions, and reasons to which not only the present Government but many previous Governments have always subscribed.

On the first point, I find upon investigation of the model standing orders published by the Ministry of Health, that local authorities are recommended by the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Administrative, Professional and Technical Services that such matters as the personal terms of employment or the reasons for engagement or the reasons for dismissal of any individual servant of a county council shall not be discussed publicly. That is a model standing order of the Ministry of Health.

The second point is that it is agreed as a condition of tenure of all teachers—and when I say "agreed" I mean subscribed to by the teachers' representative bodies, the local authorities and the central Government—that all proceedings in relation to the employment of teachers should be held to be confidential until a decision of the local educational authority has been made and thereafter any publication should be restricted to the operative decision only. That means that the authority, in the terms of this general agreement between all the interested parties, is not required to publish the reasons for a dismissal, as in this case.

I want to pass from the attitude of the county council—which I believe to be one of the most scrupulous propriety in regard to the handling of this case, although I am not commenting upon the merits or demerits of Mr. Ball's claim because I am not qualified to know whether he is right or otherwise—to the position of the Minister. It has been suggested that the Minister should intervene in this matter under Section 68 of the Education Act of 1944. At this stage in this short debate I should like to read the relevant Section, which is quite short. It is as follows: If the Minister is satisfied either on complaint by any person or otherwise, that any local education authority or the managers or governors of any county or voluntary school have acted or are proposing to act unreasonably with respect to the exercise of any power conferred or the performance of any duty imposed by or under this Act, he may, notwithstanding any enactment rendering the exercise of the power or the performance of the duty contingent upon the opinion of the authority or of the managers or governors, give such directions as to the exercise of the power or the performance of the duty as appear to him to be expedient. The suggestions which have been made to the Minister are that she should give a direction to the Worcestershire County Council, which is the local education authority in this matter. I suggest that if the Minister did use her powers under this Act it would be tantamount to a gross affront to the established autonomy of the local authority in educational matters. Further, it would create a situation whereby the Minister herself would become the person responsible for the terms and conditions of employment, of pensions, of hiring and firing and associated matters for 300,000 teachers in this country.

I think that hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House will agree that we in this House have always been strong supporters of the local authority having autonomy in matters of this sort, and I do not think that it would be correct for the Minister to give a direction in this instance. Such a direction would have the effect of destroying that autonomy.

It has also been suggested that the direction of the Minister might be for an inquiry into the circumstances of this case. I should like to speculate for one moment what would happen if an inquiry were held. The inquiry could do one of two things. It might find for the decision of the county council or against that decision. If it found for the decision of the county council the position of Mr. Ball would be exactly as it is now. If it found against the decision of the county council, what sort of situation would arise?

Presumably pressure would then be brought to bear upon the Minister to order the reinstatement of this teacher in the face of an acclaimed decision of the county council, carried by a substantial majority, that the teacher should no longer be employed. That would lead to a direct conflict between central Government and autonomous local government and, in my view, would be a very undesirable state of affairs.

In conclusion, it has been suggested that this is a quite exceptional case. Indeed, it is exceptional in that it has received a great deal of publicity. I am not attaching blame or otherwise to anybody on that score, but the case has received an enormous amount of publicity. But in no other way is it exceptional. It is just one case of the dismissal of a head teacher or a school teacher. In the "Daily Mail" today—and this is to he found on the front page —I read the following: Mr. Eric Longdon, for 24 years headmaster of Brackley Modern School, Northamptonshire, said last night: 'I have had a letter from the education committee telling me that I have been dismissed.' Excessive punishment of a child is alleged. I remember a similar case of a headmaster being dismissed at Cheltenham some time ago. All cases are, in principle, the same.

I have the utmost sympathy with the many representations which have been made to me in this matter, and in my short intervention I have sought only to make one point. I would not have the central Government take any action or make any move which would tend to destroy the established autonomy of a local education authority. In this case the local education authority is the Worcestershire County Council. I have no means of assessing whether or not Mr. Johnson Ball is correct and I hope that the Minister, when he winds up the debate, will be able to clarify the situation and say whether or not Mr. Johnson Ball's recourse should not now be to the courts.

6.27 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Moyle (Oldbury and Halesowen)

I am sure that I am echoing the sentiments of the House, Mr. Speaker, when I say that we are deeply grateful to you for arranging for the question of the dismissal of Mr. Johnson Ball to be ventilated on the Floor of the House this afternoon.

May I reaffirm the statement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson), who opened the debate? Mr. Johnson Ball was the first principal appointed to the Halesowen Secondary Technical School, and I think I can express the views of hon. Members who represent Worcestershire when I say that, as a result of his work at this school, Halesowen Secondary Technical School is regarded as the finest school in the north of Worcestershire. Pupils are drawn not only from Halesowen but also from Bromsgrove and Kidderminster and other adjacent areas. Mr. Ball has a brilliant scholastic record and, speaking as the Member for the constituency concerned, I can testify to his popularity in the constituency.

What is so remarkable about the whole case is this. The British characteristic is never more charitably expressed than when it is enlisted in the service of the underdog, but even so, it is particularly noticeable that in this case the most prominent citizens in my constituency, men of experience of public life, have entered the lists in support of the headmaster of this school, because they have serious misgivings about the manner in which he has been dealt with. In short, it is their deep-seated conviction that justice has not been done in this matter.

For example, I have before me a letter —I shall not read it all—that was addressed to Mr. Johnson Ball as recently as 15th June, 1952, and sent him by the wife of his former director of education, Mr. Priestley, who, for a number of years, was director while Mr. Johnson Ball was at the Halesowen Technical School. This is what she says in this letter: It appears that neither your professional skill nor your intellectual and moral integrity are called in question. I hope your Governors may even now recall their decision. I am asking my local county councillor, if your case does appear before the County Council, to do his best to secure you an impartial hearing. Moreover, the Mayor of Halesowen himself took the chair at a public protest meeting at which about 500 people attended. Alderman Greene, the Mayor of Halesowen, was in the chair, and he sent Mr. Johnson Ball a letter in which he said, among other things—I shall not quote the letter fully: When you were doing so well at the technical school … after reading of the wonderful things you had done, and after listening to some who were managers of your school praising you for your splendid work—and then to receive a letter from you stating that those same people were endeavouring to get you dismissed—well, I have not got over the shock yet. But I can assure you that if there is anything I can do I shall esteem it a pleasure to do so, because I have always found you honest and straightforward in all your dealings. There are two prominent citizens of Worcestershire with two warm commendations of his work as the principal of the Halesowen Secondary Technical School.

In addition, 14,000 citizens signed a petition of protest against his dismissal, and those 14,000 people were disturbed, not because they were damning the county council, but because of the fact that no one—not even my right hon. and learned Friend and I—knows what are the reasons why such a drastic decision was taken that has led to Mr. Johnson Ball's dismissal from the technical school.

Mr. Nabarro

Nor do I.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

Then the hon. Gentleman had better say nothing.

Mr. Moyle

It is extraordinary that the whole of the teaching staff have entered a protest, which my right hon. and learned Friend and I have received, against Mr. Johnson Ball's dismissal. That is the background. Now this is my plea—and it is not on behalf of Mr. Johnson Ball. I make the plea on behalf of good administration in local government. I was rather surprised at the intervention of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), in that he considered it bad policy on the part of the Minister to intervene. The fact is that at least 50 per cent. of the approved expenditure in education is met by the Treasury, and the rest is met by rates.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

Sixty per cent of the teachers' salaries.

Mr. Moyle

Yes, 60 per cent. of the teachers' salaries. Therefore, it will not be establishing a precedent if the Minister of Education does intervene; provision is made for it under certain circumstances.

What has happened as a result of all this? Local education administrative authorities are in disrepute, particularly the Director of Education and the chairmen of the local governors, because it is alleged by people generally that the reasons which led to this action is—and this they feel in their hearts—that this man is a victim of some unexplained vendetta. So that confidence may be restored locally in the county education committee and in the local governors—and that is all that I think one can ask —in order that confidence may be restored in local education administration, and so that equity may be served in the case of Mr. Johnson Ball himself, I ask the Minister whether a public inquiry cannot be instituted. If not, I beg the Minister, in the interests of good administration and with a view to restoring local confidence, to investigate this case so that if the dismissal is upheld she will have at least the satisfaction of knowing from her own direct knowledge, as a result of her inquiries, that justice, in her view, has been served.

6.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pickthorn)

My right hon. Friend takes with extreme gravity all these questions of dismissal, and dismissal at this sort of age most particularly. I think that I can fairly summarise the speeches that have been made if I say that the right hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson) put, I think quite fairly, as one would expect from one of his professional eminence, the ex parte case, so to speak, for Mr. Johnson Ball. I do not use the expression ex parte in an aggressive sense; that was plainly his proper function.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) put with equal fairness the argument for local autonomy in these matters. And the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle) put the point that local opinion is extremely disquieted, and that if anything can be done about it something ought to be done about it. I will endeavour as shortly as I can to put what seem to me to be the principles concerned.

First of all, I think we need not really waste much time on this about the veil of mystery—which I think was the right hon. and learned Gentleman's phrase. The secrecy in the matter, in so far as there has been secrecy—and it is not a question-begging word—has been entirely in accordance with precedence, practice and agreements. I do not think there is really any doubt about that. Indeed, as lately as 5th July Mr. Johnson Ball said, I read in one of the local papers, that the last thing he wanted was publicity. He has got a great deal since—and I do not say that at all to blame him; in the position he is in it is not for me to judge whether he has been wise or unwise. I do not really think we need waste very much time on the publicity point. It really is a false point, though quite fairly taken at an earlier stage in the controversy, I think.

Then we come to the question of what are the Minister's duties in this sort of matter. Upon all the best advice I can get, the Minister's duties are not with the employer-employee relation, not with the appointment and dismissal of teachers. The Minister's duties are with the status of teachers, in the sense of their qualification and disqualification. So that, for instance, if a teacher is dismissed for reasons of certain kinds—moral reasons or professional incompetence—it becomes the duty of the dismissing authority so to inform the Minister, and the Minister has the extremely onerous and anxious task of deciding whether these things are to form permanent disqualifications or not. That is the Minister's duty in that case.

The Minister was not informed in this case that the reasons for dismissal were of that nature. Ex abundanti cautela, if in a debate so educational I may drop into one of the learned languages, she did inquire whether that was so or not, and she was informed that that was not the case. I do not think that there is any doubt at all that there was no duty on the Minister to do more. I do not think that it is really suggested now that there is a duty on the Minister to do more.

With every respect for the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen, I do not think that either of the two halves of his argument is really tenable. The one is that there is considerable local disquiet: I do not think that part is tenable, because what the local disquiet is about is the behaviour of the local authorities, and that really is the business of the local electors. Nor do I think the other half is tenable: that 60 per cent. of the teachers' salaries come from the Treasury via my right hon. Friend and, therefore, my right hon. Friend is directly concerned in their appointment and in the ending of their contract. No doubt we should get more efficiency in some respects, if in some respects at greater cost, which I should consider excessive as I think everyone here would, and no doubt we could get advantages if we had that degree of centralisation which meant in this employer-employee relation there was always a direct appeal to the Minister; but the whole development of education in this country—

Mr. Moyle

if the hon. Gentleman were to find evidence along lines which I have indicated and which I consider is a real probability of this dismissal, adversely affecting the administration of education locally, would he then agree that intervention would be necessary?

Mr. Pickthorn

I am not arguing any general proposition, especially negative, as it was Charles I in Westminster Hall who said that any general negation is extremely difficult to prove; and I am not trying to say there never could be a case in which there might be so strong a prima facie view that the L.E.A. was behaving unreasonably that it became the duty of the Minister to make specific inquiry and, if necessary, to issue an instruction. I do not argue that there never could be such a case. I say that to speak as if that would be the natural result of the combination of local disquiet with the Treasury grant would be to upset the whole of our development.

Sorry as we all are for Mr. Johnson Ball—and I do not wish to comment on the merits beyond this point—it is quite apparent that Mr. Johnson Ball has, in his time, done some service to the State, and quite obviously he is a man of intellectual distinctions, high qualifications and great energy. It is a public loss if such a man's work is in any way interrupted, and extremely painful if his work should be interrupted by authority in a way that inflicts personal loss and, it may be, hardship upon him. I could say all that, but I think the argument which I thought had been suggested before, that Section 68 of the Statute ought obviously to be invoked, is not so strongly held now. At any rate, it was not specifically put this afternoon.

Mr. A. Henderson

Will the hon. Gentleman say a word about my last suggestion?

Mr. Pickthorn

Yes, Sir. I am coming to that in a moment.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the question of Section 68—

Mr. Speaker

I must point out that we are running into the time of the next debate.

Mr. Pickthorn

I do not want to waste time—

Mr. Wigg

My question will take only 10 seconds. Is it not Section 68 which gives the Minister the power to intervene if he wants to do so?

Mr. Pickthorn

That is a very shortened form of interpretation which must not, I think, be taken for authority; I do not wish to stop now and argue it. In principle and in general practice engagement and termination of engagement have always been matters wholly for L.E.A's. I have not been able to find—I am not a lawyer nor a lifelong administrator in education—a precedent—certainly not more than one very doubtful one—for intervention or even inquiry in a case like this.

Mr. Ross

The hon. Gentleman will find that there was one in Scotland last year.

Mr. Pickthorn

My responsibilities have taken me far but, providence be praised—I am sure Scotland would agree —not to Scotland.

I think that is all that I can properly say, especially as we have outrun time. My right hon. Friend will read with the most careful attention everything that has been said today. But I am not in a position to give any kind of assurance, and I am bound to warn the House that this might be the first step on a very slippery slope indeed. There are nearly 300,000 teachers and a considerable number of other employees whose relation is not with the Minister but with an employer elsewhere, and that those relations, or any high proportion of them, or such where local disquiet was noticeable, should come up for Ministerial decision, would, I think everyone in the House would on reflection agree, be a very great step indeed. If that step is to be taken I think it could only really be taken by the Education Bill, 1967, or whatever it might be, and really it could not be taken by administrative decision on an individual case, however regrettable that case, and however much we must all sympathise with both parties, both the people in Halesowen, who feel their education to be damaged, and with Mr. Ball himself.

Mr. Ede

The hon. Gentleman said that the Ministry had not been informed what was in the charge against Mr. Johnson Ball and that there was no allegation against his moral character. Were they informed what the charge actually was? That is what perturbs the friends of Mr. Johnson Ball. We cannot find out what the exact charges were.

Mr. Pickthorn

But the right hon. Gentleman knows better than I do that if that perturbs Mr. Johnson Ball's friends it perturbs the friends of everybody else whose contract has ever been ended in similar circumstances. That is asking for a particular and unique piece of information. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is so, I think.

Mr. Ede

The answer was really "yes" or "no"?

Mr. Pickthorn

I have given the answer in my words, and I think it is plain.