HC Deb 21 July 1958 vol 592 cc165-75

10.9 p.m.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. Robert Allan)

I beg to move, That the Statement of the Estimated Income and Expenditure of Greenwich Hospital and Travers' Foundation for the year ending on 31st March, 1959, which was laid before this House on 19th June, be approved. It will probably be convenient for the House if I move the Motion formally and, later, answer any questions hon. Members like to raise during the debate.

Mr. Thomas Steele (Dunbartonshire, West)

I have only one or two questions to ask the Minister, but in passing I ought to say that in reading the document now before us, the first thing that comes to my mind is the rising cost of the school itself. For instance, I see from page 5 of the Financial Statement that the average annual cost per boy at the Royal Hospital School has increased significantly over the past six years. In 1951–52 it was £216 a year; in 1956–57 it was £258; in the year just ended it was £261; while it is estimated that it will be £277 for 1958–59. The rising costs are understandable, since we still have a Conservative Government, and no doubt the trend will continue.

The gross expenditure for the school has risen from £175,905 last year to £187,370 for the year we are reviewing, an increase of more than £11,500. Net expenditure has risen from £156,620 to £158,035, a net increase of £1,415. That is rather difficult to understand, since fees are now being paid for the boys attending the school and income, from fees has gone up from £14,000 last year to an estimated £23,000 for next year, an increase of £9,000. There is an increase in receipts over last year of an estimated £10,000. We should have some explanation of what has happened.

There is an increase of £3,000 for rates, an increase of £2,000 for water, heating and lighting, an increase of £2,000 for wages and clothing for the staff and one of about £3,000 for superannuation allowance, which seems to be an unusual increase. Last year the figure was £3,900, whereas for the current year the estimate is £7,070! Some explanation of those figures should be given.

Rising costs over the years led the hon. Gentleman to intimate in July, 1956, that there would be a very important change in policy for the school, and for the first time fees were to be charged. We indicated certain fears about the future policy after fees were charged. I thank the Financial Secretary for ensuring that fees are shown separately on this occasion. This is probably due to the criticism that we made last year, when the fees were included in other receipts.

We have had assurances from the hon. Gentleman that no boy would be refused admittance to the school because of his parents' inability to pay fees. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say a little more about that matter tonight. Last year it was difficult for him to give a full assurance, because we had experience of only two terms. Now another full year has passed, and we would like the hon. Gentleman to repeat his assurance, and also to give us more information about the subject. Perhaps he can say whether local authorities are co-operating in the matter. When he intimated the change he said that he expected that local authorities would co-operate and would meet the fees in most cases. I should like to know if that has happened, and whether there have been any troubles in this regard. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) has indicated his fears about the changing policy of the school, and he may have a word to say about that tonight.

The Parliamentary Secretary may be able to tell us whether in fact the estimated £14,000 in respect of fees was received, or what the position was for last year. When the change of policy was announced it was also indicated that the fees would be raised to £72 in July, 1956, and I should like to know whether that maximum of £72 still operates, or whether it has been altered, in view of increased costs. The Minister might also tell us how many boys who entered after January, 1957, are liable to pay these fees, because it was in January, 1957, that they first came in. We should like to know how many have been paying fees and how many have not, and what is the average fee for the boys that I have mentioned.

One of the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman for the change of policy was that certain arrears of maintenance work had to be undertaken. I have looked at the figures for this year, and it appears that the amount being set aside for this work had not altered since last year. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell us if the maintenance work is being done, and if the kitchens are being brought up to date.

Finally, can he tell us what is happening to the boys at the school? How many of them are joining the Navy? Have the figures altered in any way? If the Financial Secretary can answer these questions we shall be very much obliged.

10.20 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

May I ask one or two questions about pensions? I often have the duty of applying for pensions under this trust, and I should like to know who are the people who decide who is eligible for a pension and what amount should be granted. Up to now, as far as I can gather from letters which I have received, it seems that the maximum grant is about 10s. 6d. The Statement does not reveal how many pensions are granted, how many old pensions are continued and how many new ones there are each year. I should like to know what the average grant per person is.

Further, I should like to know if people who apply from the Republic of Ireland, who have had their husbands serving here in the Royal Navy or Royal Marines and who have gone to live in the Republic of Ireland, are eligible, because in many cases they are able to draw only a very small pension from the Government of the Republic of Ireland. I should like to know if there is any scale laid down for these people. The Statement shows an expenditure of £200 for gratuities to parents and dependants of deceased seamen and marines. That does not seem very much for the parents and dependants of deceased seamen and marines, and I should like to know whether this is one specific grant to one person, given annually. I should be very glad to have some information about that.

My final point is on the question of the rent for the Greenwich Hospital building let for the purposes of the Royal Naval College. It would appear to me that the rent is very low, and I wondered whether, in view of the need to increase funds for charities, it will be possible to increase the rent, as we know the rents of other properties have recently been increased. Has this been considered in order to add more money to the fund?

10.22 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

I had intended to make a speech tonight, but in view of the fact that some of my hon. Friends have a prayer on the Order Paper I will content myself with one or two questions.

In the first place, however, I should like to follow up the point about the Greenwich Hospital pension by asking whether, in fact, the amount spent on pensions for officers and men is actually fixed. Is it a fixed percentage of the sum available? I ask that question because the sums are exactly the same for each year, which would seem to indicate to me that the sum is fixed. It would seem to me that there should be some agreement about this because otherwise there is a tug-of-war between the pension and the school. The more the school receives the less there is for pensions, and the more there is devoted to pensions the less there is for the school. I cannot think that it is exactly desirable to have a situation of that kind, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman will answer that question when he replies.

I should like to ask two questions about the school. I made my position quite clear last year concerning the payment of fees, but in spite of the assurances that were given last year, and in spite of information I have had since, including information which I have had this weekend, concerning the admission of orphan children for whom no fees are payable, I am still rather concerned about this matter. I accept the promise that this will make no difference to the type of boy going into the school; in other words, no boy will be denied the advantages of this school because nobody is prepared or able to pay fees for his entrance.

I accept that assurance, but I fear that, with the procedure itself—the fact that the boys' parents have to make up their minds whether the boy is eligible, plus the fact that a fee is payable, and then approach the local education authorities—there may be difficulties. I understand that local education authorities are not always willing, and I have had two cases quoted to me this weekend in which two different local authorities were not prepared to give anything in respect of particular children entering this school. The boy then has to surmount the hurdle of admission to the school. In fact, there are more hurdles to overcome before boys can enter the school, and if that is so, it seems to me that the difficulties are increased.

I wish to ask how many boys are in the school for whom no fees are payable. I wish also to ask whether there is any diminution in the number of boys for whom application for admission is made and for whom no payments will be made. I am wondering whether there is any decline in that direction, which would tend to support my suggestion that now there are more obstacles put in the way of boys wishing to enter the schools. We are, I think, justified in following closely what is happening at the school. The countryside is littered with schools started for poor children, and no poor children ever get anywhere near them now. I should not like that to happen to this school.

I am glad to see the improved standards and that kind of thing, but I want the school retained for the type of children for whom it was intended, and, because of that, I think we are entitled to inquire fairly closely into what is happening there.

10.27 p.m.

Commander J. W. Maitland (Horncastle)

I agree with what has been said by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis). It is the duty of Parliament to insist that this school is run efficiently for the type of children for whom it was designed. I have worked on the committee which endeavours to do something to maintain Parliamentary interest, and I think that these principles are maintained. I hope that the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary will point out to hon. Gentlemen, who have rightly indicated how much more this school now costs, that it is doing magnificent work. Not only the country and the Navy, but the boys themselves who pay fees get good value for their money. I hope my hon. Friend will draw attention to some of the happenings in the school during the last few years.

On page 9 of the accounts and on page 7 of the Statement there is a reference to the Travers' Pensions for retired naval officers. I cannot see anything in the accounts that shows why the estimate for £2,550 is represented by an amount of £2,206. I see that the cost of repairs is less than the estimate, but I should have thought the accounts would show why it was that the amount was less than was estimated.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. R. Allan

I hope the House will forgive me if I reply briefly to the debate, but as was said by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis), some of his hon. Friends wish to discuss sugar, which is a subject of some interest to the younger generation, but which, I think, is also likely to result in a certain amount of party controversy. Fortunately, in our debates on this subject we do not have any party controversy, and I am grateful to hon. Members for the fact that we have not had any tonight.

Commander Maitland

Sugar or no sugar, surely we are entitled to a full answer from my hon. Friend.

Mr. Allan

I do not think my hon. and gallant Friend need worry. We shall have a full answer, I hope.

I was going to say we are very grateful for having on these occasions some criticisms and advice, because we are not complacent in administering this Fund. As the House knows, we have two representatives from here on our Committee, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) and the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu). I should like to say how grateful we are to them for their services on the Committee and the valuable advice which they give us.

The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) mentioned the question of rising costs, and particularly instanced the cost per head at the Royal Hospital School. It is, as he said, estimated that this year it will cost £277 per head. We have made recently inquiries of a rather confidential nature of a number of other schools, and I have not yet been able to find any school which is in any way comparable which has not a very much higher per capita rate. I know that this is high, but I think it reflects credit on the people who administer the school that it is relatively so low.

The hon. Member mentioned particularly a number of matters, the rates, wages, superannuation. These are the results of rising costs. Rates were the result of the reassessment which was agreed by the Treasury valuer. The wages of the staff have gone up as a result of a national agreement with the trade union. The superannuation is a specially high figure this year because there are, as it happens, a large number of people who are reaching retiring age and we have to make provision for them. There is every likelihood that the figure will be about half next year.

On the question of fees, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, I am very grateful to hear the hon. Member's remarks, because he has great knowledge of the Navy and has had long association with the Royal Benevolent Trust, particularly with Mayfield House, and so we pay great attention to what he says. The House knows that my predecessor in this office, the Secretary of State for Air, when he made his speech introducing fees, pointed out the reason, which was simply—and this answers another part of the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East—because the school was beginning to swallow more of the Greenwich Hospital Fund than we thought was perhaps right.

The fees are £72, as the hon. Gentleman said. There is no intention of raising them. As the hon. Gentleman said, they were started only in January, 1957. We have now had a full year with them. Of course, they are conditional, at least for the next two years, upon increases in these estimates under the heading of fees, until all the boys become eligible for fee paying. At that time we expect to get something over £40,000. Last year—the hon. Gentleman mentioned this—we estimated that the fees would be £14,000. In fact, receipts from fees were £12,000. That was because of various arrangements which we made in assisting boys' parents to meet the fees. At the moment, there are 266 boys in the school in respect of whom fees are paid. Local education authorities pay either full or part fees in respect of seventy-one of these boys. I should like to put on record how grateful we are for the co-operation we have had from local education authorities. They have been very good, but in a few cases they do not pay fees and in those cases the Greenwich Hospital Fund helps to reduce the cost to parents.

We said we would never refuse a boy, and in fact we never have refused a boy because his parents were unable to pay fees. We help parents either fully or in part, when they find difficulty in meeting these fees.

Mr. Willis

In the case of boys for whom no fees are paid because they are orphans or their parents cannot pay, what about other expenses of attending school, such as rail fares?

Mr. Allan

Parents are expected to pay rail fares, but nothing else. Clothing for school and everything else is covered by the £72. We do not like to give too many detailed figures, but there are a handful of boys at Holbrook for whom parents pay no fees at all, the whole cost being met by the Greenwich Hospital Fund. There is a graduated scale. For reasons the hon. Member will understand, one does not want to go into too much detail on these matters.

The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West mentioned maintenance work. We are doing what we can, but, as the hon. Member pointed out, the cost of the school has gone up by £10,000 this year and fees brought in only £9,000, so the fees at the moment are helping up only to stay where we were. It is hoped that as income from fees increases from more boys becoming eligible that will enable us to get on with some of the maintenance work. It is fair to say that we have not added anything to the arrears of maintenance. That is not very positive, but it is something in view of what has happened in the past.

The hon. Member also mentioned the kitchens. Really they are not bad kitchens. When one considers the money to be spent on them, they might not be considered good, but I have been in kitchens in many naval establishments which could not compare with them. We have painted them although, through lack of finance, we have not been able to put in the new ranges and cookers we need.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East asked if the introduction of fees had reduced the number of boys applying for places in the school. In fact the reverse has happened. We have more applicants for the school than in recent years and unfortunately we have had to turn away a number of boys as we have not places for them.

Mr. Willis

I did not mean the total number of applications, but applications in respect of children for whom no fees could be paid.

Mr. Allan

I have looked at this matter, because the same point occurred to me. There is no evidence of that happening. I am sure the hon. Member will be glad to hear that. The hon. Member expressed fears about the type of school Holbrook was tending to become. One must remember that the buildings of Holbrook are quite superb. I do not think I have visited any school in the country which has better facilities. Under those circumstances, and with a very able staff, there must be a strong temptation to build up Holbrook academically. That is understandable. After all, we are under an obligation to provide an education for these boys and it is quite proper that we should interpret that as meaning giving the best education possible. That they are undoubtedly getting.

I quite understand the hon. Gentleman's fears that this will become a sort of select, high-grade boarding school at the expense of those boys who have not, perhaps, been able to reach the academic standard which Holbrook is now expecting. He is quite right to express those fears; that is something that we should keep in mind. I think that, largely through what the present headmaster is doing, we have overcome that difficulty through the introduction of streams. Their main value is that we do not hold back the bright boy, and we do not put too heavy a load on the duller one. Therefore, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's fears are justified, though I am grateful to him for raising the matter. It is something that we always have to bear in mind.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) asked about the number of pensions and the average amount. There are 291 pensions payable to officers and their dependants, and 1,521 payable to ratings and their various dependants. Those are currently in force. It is difficult to give the average payment, because the pensions vary, but, by and large, the payments to officers are about £50, and to ratings about £40 per annum, and payments to widows are, roughly, 10s. 6d. a week.

The hon. Lady also asked about the position of those who lived in the Republic of Ireland. We certainly do not differentiate against those people and, in a recent list of pensions approved to be paid—I saw it only this morning—there were three in Ireland out of, shall I say, about twenty.

The rent paid by the Royal Naval College at Greenwich is agreed by the Admiralty. If we could squeeze a little more out of the Admiralty we might be glad to do so, although I would then have the embarrassment of having to defend it in the Navy Votes. I think that it is a fair enough rent because, of course, the Admiralty is responsible for repairs and maintenance of the buildings at the Royal Naval College.

I am only too pleased to accede to the request of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle by saying that this is a first-class school, and gives very good value. I am afraid that I cannot immediately answer his query about the Travers' Foundation. The Fund is entirely dependent on income, and it is always anticipated that the whole of the income will be paid out, over the year. At any one point in the year there may not be sufficient pensioners on the book, but, over the year as a whole, the figure is made up.

I hope, Mr. Speaker, that these remarks will answer the questions that have been asked, and I am very grateful to the House for this debate, which, I am sure, has been most helpful to us. We will remember what we have been told.

10.43 p.m.

Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu (Huddersfield, East)

Although the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary has replied, I want to make two observations—and, just for the moment, to blazes with sugar!

This is a most important subject. On this side, the criticism has come mainly over the fact that the school is now fee-paying. I am afraid that we cannot re-open that with any effectiveness at the moment, but we should not have had to charge fees in this school if the Ministry of Education had played its part properly and had given a grant. As the Ministry of Education has not the decency to give us a grant, it might, at least, have the decency to make some representations to those local education authorities that are not helping us with fees for people coming from their areas. That is my first point.

My second point is that, naturally, when these Estimates come up, questions are asked from this side that are critical, and may, for the moment, seem hostile. They are only critical in the sense of probing, and I would not like it to go out from this House to the director, still less to the headmaster or to his staff, that we do not think they are doing a jolly good job. I cannot speak for the management committee; I speak for myself entirely.

I am glad of House of Commons questions. I think the time may come in the not too distant future when I shall want the House of Commons to ask some questions which are even more penetrating than those which have been asked tonight on the functions and powers of the management committee. In the meantime, I think my hon. Friends on this side of the House would like it to be known that we appreciate the work that has been done in that school since the war, that it is now becoming a really first-class school, and that people are not excluded from it because of means.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Statement of the Estimated Income and Expenditure of Greenwich Hospital and Travers' Foundation for the year ending on 31st March, 1959, which was laid before this House on 19th June, be approved.