HC Deb 24 April 1953 vol 514 cc1717-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

4.5 p.m.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

The matters discussed in this House today have ranged over a fairly wide field. I want to bring the House back for a few minutes to what I consider to be the most important thing of all, and that is the manner in which the adults of tomor- row are being treated while they are the children of today.

I want to raise the question of the refusal of the Minister of Education to authorise the rebuilding of the Saint Joseph's Roman Catholic School, at West Hartlepool. There are two sets of buildings involved. The Saint Joseph's Roman Catholic School had an attendance roll at the beginning of the war of about 800. In June, 1940, that school was very severely damaged by an enemy bomb and rendered unsuitable. Five hundred and twenty of the senior boys and girls were accommodated, after some rearrangement and overcrowding, in the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic school one-and-a-half miles away, leaving 280 junior and infant children with nowhere to go for school purposes. For months the teachers and pupils were scattered over the town.

A quarter of a mile away from the bombed school there was an abandoned school building, formerly known as the Exchange School. At the time of the bombing of Saint Joseph's Roman Catholic School the Exchange buildings were in the possession of the military as a barracks. They had been abandoned by the local education authority in 1934 because they were sub-standard and not considered suitable under the modern conception of education.

About the middle of 1951, the military abandoned the Exchange School as it was no longer of any use to them, and the local education authority offered the building to the managers of the Roman Catholic chool as temporary accommodation. May I say that any criticism I have to make this afternoon is solely of the Ministry of Education because the local education authority have been as helpful as possible and have done everything they can to assist the managers in their difficulties. I should like the House to note that the Exchange building was offered as temporary accommodation because of its sub-standard character. Even now, after 12 months, the Minister refuses to do very much about it.

In May, 1944, the solicitors acting for the managers of the Roman Catholic school sought from the War Damage Commission an indication of what was likely to happen about the bombed school. The Commission replied that it was not possible, at that stage, to say what view they would take. Everybody, locally, thought that the school would be regarded as a total loss and that compensation would be paid on that basis, and from time to time, from 1944 onwards, the Commission were asked what progress was being made. But it was not until November, 1949, that the Commission intimated to the managers of the Roman Catholic school that it had been decided to pay for compensation according to a cost of works classification. They also called the attention of the managers to the powers in the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, for other developments, if necessary, on the site.

The local authority, too, were interested, at that point in the acquisition of the site for other purposes. It was not until July, 1951, that the Commission told the managers and the owners of the school that the local authority had abandoned any idea of acquiring the site, and it inquired, having regard to the fact that it was merely paying according to a cost of works classification, whether the managers proposed to rebuild their school. The managers indicated that they did, and plans were put in hand for a one-storey school to accommodate some 240 children.

By March, 1952, the sketch plans were available, and the corresponding manager, on behalf of the managers, began the procedure for the rebuilding of the school. It is on record that on 4th April, 1952, he wrote to the Ministry of Education about it, and on 12th May the Ministry replied: With reference to your letter of 4th April. 1952, about the rebuilding of the above-named school"— the Saint Joseph's Roman Catholic— I am directed by the Minister of Education to say that the question of the inclusion of this project in the building programme is primarily a matter for the West Hartlepool local education authority who will have to consider it with the needs of other schools in their area. At the present time, the very limited resources available for educational building must be concentrated on providing new places for children of statutory school age from the larger new housing estates and new towns who would otherwise be out of school. The Minister regrets that in present circumstances she is unable to approve for inclusion in programme work designed mainly to replace or improve unsatisfactory conditions in existing schools. There are two points to note in the letter. The Ministry say that the rebuilding of the schools is a matter for the local education authority, and also that there is no material available to improve the conditions in existing schools. It is significant that the local education authority put the rebuilding of the school well up in its 1953–54 programme. The managers again contacted the Ministry to ask for an interview. The interview was refused. But through the activity of the local education authority an interview took place with officials of the Ministry in London last October.

The reverend gentleman who represented the managers put his case, and he writes: I was informed that, no matter what the conditions of the school were, so long as there was a building, nothing could be granted. His reply was that the Ministry was responsible for the welfare of the children of the country. The answer he got to that was, That is what I have been told to tell you. The corresponding manager reported the interview to the local education authority and also addressed a long communication to the Ministry on 3rd November. In December, 1952, the school was visited by one of Her Majesty's inspectors. On 13th January, 1953, the managers received a letter from the Ministry saying: Re your letter of the 3rd of November. 1 am directed by the Minister of Education to state that she has been fully informed by Her Majesty's inspector on the conditions of the premises used by the above school. After considering this information, she is unable to vary her previous decision not to include the provision of a new building in the L.E.A. 1953-54 building programme. On 9th February the Minister said in reply to a Written Question from me in this House, when I asked her to give me a copy of the inspector's Report, that she would write to me. She wrote to me on 16th February, and said: I should explain that Her Majesty's Inspector did not make a report on this school in the normal sense of that word…. In this instance, he sent a fairly detailed description of the school premises and dealt in particular with the structural condition, the heating and lighting facilities, the sanitary offices, fixe precautions and the state of internal decorations. I wrote to the Minister on 19th February saying I was amazed that anybody who called himself an inspector of schools could, either by minute, letter or report, regard these premises as being suitable for the teaching of children. The Minister replied, on 3rd March: I must start by making clear that Her Majesty's inspector did not in any way disguise from me the fact that these premises left much to be desired. He was at pains to make quite clear what defects there were. You must, therefore, blame me and not him for the judgment that the premises, though far from satisfactory, are not unfit for use. It is not without significance, in that connection, to point out that the inspector who saw this school in December was of the opinion that it was quite unsatisfactory.

On 25th February, the school was examined by Mr. T. A. Crawford, a Licentiate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and I want to read his report: Generally, the structure of the building externally is sound. Internally, the conditions are, to say the least of it, shocking. The approach to the first floor classrooms is on a very gloomy stone staircase with the landing which is about three feet wide, serving as a cloakroom. The classrooms are exceptionally high and the windows are glazed in a good many cases with the war-time utility glass which helps to make the classrooms gloomier. In each of these classrooms there are open fires, plus one or two inefficient radiators which are absolutely inadequate to maintain the proper temperature for the comfort of the children and the teachers. During the winter months it is difficult to understand how the pupils can see to read and write with the existing lighting, which consists in several rooms of one gas pendant with four small mantles in equally small globes which one would expect to see in a sitting room of a cottage. Generally, the cloakrooms are of a makeshift character and the washing facilities totally inadequate. One of the drawbacks of this school is the appalling sanitary arrangements which consist of four w.c's for girls"— might I here interpose to say that there are 135 little girls attending this school— and one w.c. for the boys"— there are 110 boys in attendance at this school every day— and are in a completely deplorable condition. Whilst they are termed w.c's they are purely and simply pans which connect directly to the drains without any traps and without automatic flushing system. The only way in which these w.c's can be flushed is by the caretaker going round periodically with buckets of water and pouring it down. The condition of these lavatories is disgusting in the light of present day sanitation and is decidedly unhealthy. The area of the playground is totally inadequate for the number of pupils in the school. I have no hesitation in stating that this school should be condemned as unfit. That is the building that the Minister of Education, as recently as January of this year, said is not unfit for use by children.

But that is not the whole of the story. In March of this year, the school was examined by the senior sanitary inspector of the local authority. His report points out that whereas the Ministry's minimum requirement for this number of girls is 11 w.c's, the accommodation is six obsolete and insanitary trough closets. As far as the boys are concerned, there should be four w.c's and eight urinal stalls, whereas there is only one obsolete and insanitary trough closet in addition to a 10 feet urinal. The Ministry's minimum standard provides for 22 wash basins, but only five are available. There is a staff of one male and nine females and all the accommodation is three w.c's.

In some of the rooms the natural light is very poor. Artificial lighting is by gas, which is said to be fluctuating and inadequate. One room had to be artificially lit at 10.15 a.m. on an average day. Heating is by open fires and gas radiators. I have with me a chart showing the heating arrangements on 10 days in January, every day in February, and nine days in December last. The temperature at 9 o'clock in the morning was not above 45 degrees. This is the building which the Ministry of Education say is not unfit for use.

Because time is short, I put this last point to the Parliamentary Secretary. All over the country, houses and shops which were bombed are being rebuilt. Luxury and semi-luxury buildings which were partially or completely destroyed by enemy action are being rebuilt with scarce material. In this case, however, where a school was rendered unfit for use by enemy action, the Ministry are hiding behind the fact that there is this substandard building in the neighbourhood and they refuse to grant a licence to the managers to rebuild the school.

The question of finance does not arise. Apart from the minor provisions of the Education Act, 1944, the main provision for the new building will be either from the managers of the school or from the War Damage Commission. Plans have already been prepared, costing some£20,000, very little of which will need to be found by the Ministry of Education. All that the Ministry are asked to do is to grant the necessary licence so that building can proceed.

The sanitary conditions of the school are so damnable that they might easily lead to an outbreak of an infectious disease. In these conditions, it would not be difficult to get the material from the Ministry of Health with which to build the new school. I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that the attitude of the Ministry of Education is quite unjustified and unfair.

In her letter of May, 1952, the right hon. Lady the Minister, in a letter to the local corresponding manager of the school, said that no money was available to improve buildings which were then being used. It is not without significance to observe that since January of this year more than£1,100 has been, or will be, found by the Ministry of Education to improve this school. That is not because they want to do it, but because the facts of the case have been brought to light in letter and in Parliamentary Question.

I want the Parliamentary Secretary to deny this, if he will. I wrote to the Minister of Education on 3rd March, sending her a copy of the independent architect's report and threatening that if there was an outbreak of infectious disease in that part of the town, I should hold the right hon. Lady and her Ministry responsible. The very next morning the telephones between London and West Hartlepool were humming, because on that day instructions were given to the local education authority to go ahead with the improvement of the sanitary arrangements. Indeed, they were actually put in hand during the Easter holidays.

I say that it ought not to be necessary to do that, but that the report of their own inspector, the report of the chief sanitary inspector of the local authority and the report I sent of the independent architect ought to convince even the present Minister of Education that this building is unfit for children to use as a school.

It is true that the original application was made for this school to be put in the 1953–54 programme. That. I fear, is now too late, but I should like an assurance this afternoon from the Parliamentary Secretary that as the local education authority have placed the rebuilding of this school as first priority on their 1954–55 programme, the Minister will agree to this school being rebuilt as soon as possible.

4.22 p.m.

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

I have no objection at all to the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) taking the platonic view that the most important thing of all is education, although there might be a long debate about the meaning of some of the words involved. I do not wish to diminish the importance of education, nor the necessity for doing all that can be done to provide the appropriate quantity of schools and, where the appropriate quantity of schools exists, there to improve the quality.

If I may mention one of two of the things the hon. Member said before I return to my notes: if I do not controvert I do not think I must be taken as accepting his accounts of conversations. Conversations are very notoriously difficult to report. 1 personally would never hang a dead dog on a report of a conversation, honestly as I should try to do it. I am therefore not in any way impugning the good faith of the hon. Member or those who informed him, but I think it proper to say that his accounts of conversations must not be taken as necessarily exact.

About the condition of the school in general, I would not very much differ from him. My knowledge is second-hand, but it is as exact and has been as much checked as second-hand knowledge can be. I think he was a little less than fair on one comparatively small point about the temperature. As far as I can tell from examining the papers, there is a real conflict of evidence about whether the warming of the school is anything like as inadequate as the hom. Member suggested. I have looked at all the papers very carefully and I would put it no higher than this, that there is a conflict of evidence on the point of the warming of the rooms. About the sanitation, lighting and the rest I do think the hon. Member, however unintentionally, was a little less than fair. I have listened to the hon. Member for two-thirds of his time and I must be allowed to say that he was a little less than fair.

In one part of his speech, the hon. Member described this school as it was before the recent repairs and improvements were made, and in a later part of his speech he seemed to object to the money that had been spent on repairs and improvements. That really is landing us in a situation in which we have not the proper opportunities for self-defence. 1 quite agree that there is here a good deal that needs defence. On the other hand, there have been honest attempts to make the premises tolerable lately and neither "satisfactory" nor "fit" is a term of art, so far as I know, or has been judicially defined. When my right hon. Friend finds herself unable to accept the putting of this school into the "unfit" category, it is not because she is not very well aware of what can be said against this school.

I put the argument at its simplest, and I am sure that the hon. Member will do me the justice of accepting that if I think the argument simple I do not for that reason think it any less important; the most important things are often the simplest. If it is true, and upon all the expert advice and information which my right hon. Friend can consult it does reasonably appear to be true, that the resources allotted for educational building would, if enough of them were directed to the rebuilding of this school, thereby prevent or postpone building somewhere where there is not at present a school—if that is true, and it is a matter very difficult to tell; nobody can tell without examining all the files and cross-examining all the officials concerned—I think, with every respect to the hon. Gentleman's perfectly proper feelings about the unsatisfactoriness of this school, that if it be true that to replace this school by another would mean postponing the construction of a school somewhere where it is quantitively needed, there can be no doubt that my right hon. Friend's decision has been correct.

I honestly cannot see how anybody, whatever his political principles or prejudices, can get round that argument, which I think is the simple and rather sadly simple argument in this matter. The Minister has insufficient capital; I think that "capital" was the word she used, whereas the hon. Gentleman naturally and unobjectionably said that "money" was needed. I am glad that in another sentence he said there was no financial question arising.

It is not here a question of finance, but one of actual material resources, human and otherwise. In that sense my right hon. Friend has not. and in view of the history and politics of the last 15 years, which we have not now time to debate, could not have had. enough capital to allow of the building which any reasonable person would want to replace both obsolete schools and war-damaged schools. That has not been possible, and where it becomes necessary for the Minister to choose between the quantitatively obligatory school and the qualitatively highly desirable replacement, one has only to state the choice plainly to see which way the Ministerial decision must properly go.

The local education authority now proposes the rebuilding of the bombed school—[Interruption.] With respect, last year, it was after the programme had been submitted by the local education authority and settled by the Ministry, that the town clerk wrote to the Ministry asking for this school to be added to the programme. The L.E.A. now proposes to rebuild the bombed school as the first item in their 1954–55 programme. That programme has not yet been settled by the Minister. I must not be taken as in any way binding her in her decision, but it is fair to say that the Minister and the Ministry are fully conscious of the unsatisfactoriness of this school, that they have been, and were, even before the hon. Gentleman took the active steps to which he has referred, considering this school and what could be done. Without making any promise to him, if any kind of new factor can be produced which may make it possible to reconsider her choice—which I have tried to indicate to the House—if any new factor can possibly be brought into that consideration, it will be given any weight that by any possibility can be given to it.

In view of what I have said about the necessary attitude of the Minister as between quantitatively and qualitatively desirable school building, I do not believe any Minister of whatever political colour —and we must remember that it was the late Mr. Tomlinson who established this quantitative-qualitative principle, although he did not use those words—could go further than I have gone in my last or my last-but-one sentence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and all Hartlepool will accept the fact that the Minister, and particularly the inspector concerned, are not a bit hard-hearted or cynical about this, but are extremely sensitive about it and desire whatever can be done to be done as soon as it is physically possible to do it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes to Five o'clock.