HC Deb 14 May 1958 vol 588 cc437-50
Mr. Lawson

I beg to move, in page 3, line 29, to leave out "reasonable" and to insert "adequate".

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. S. Storey)

It will be convenient if we discussed with this Amendment the following four Amendments.

Mr. Lawson

All these Amendments relate to the one point and would alter this part of the Clause to read: if the Secretary of State is satisfied that there has been a failure to achieve or maintain adequate standards in the provision of any of the services giving rise to relevant expenditure, regard being had to the higher standards achieved by particular authorities". The Amendments relate to what amounts to an instruction to the Secretary of State about the standards that he shall seek to maintain in the services covered by "relevant expenditure". Our contention is that, as drafted, the standard which the Secretary of State is to cause local authorities to reach and maintain is, at best, a general average standard. As the Bill is drafted, that point clearly emerges. The Clause as drafted reads: If the Secretary of State is satisfied that there has been a failure to achieve or maintain reasonable standards in the provision of any of the services giving rise to relevant expenditure, regard being had to the standards maintained by local authorities generally … The Amendments seek to replace the word "reasonable" with the word "adequate" and insert the word "higher," delete the words "local authorities generally" and insert "particular". When we consider these words, the meaning of our Amendments becomes clear.

As the Bill is drafted at best it says no more to the Secretary of State than that he shall maintain or cause to be maintained an average standard. My own feeling—and I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree—is that this average standard is likely to become a minimum standard.

I now turn to a statement made by the Joint Under-Secretary of State in column 531 of the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Standing Committee, where he talks about the Secretary of State taking action under this Clause. He says: The conception is that if there were a manifest failure—and it would have to be a manifest failure—to reach standards considered appropriate, having regard to the codes laid down on the one hand and to the general standards maintained by local authorities on the other, the sanction would be called into operation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 16th April, 1958; c. 531.] Those words, as well as the wording of the Clause, clearly indicate that what is being asked of local authorities is, as I say, at best no more than that a local authority shall not fall below a general average standard. When there is an instruction that we shall not fall below general average standards, it is very likely, and, to my mind, there is a very great fear, that these standards will become lower and lower. There will be no inducement for a local authority to raise its standards above the average. If it does so, it will receive no recompense for having spent more than above the average.

The whole weight of this Clause would be such as to drive toward the maintaining of standards which, in fact, become minimum standards. I do not think that we are asking too much in our Amendment. We are not asking that the highest level reached by any given authority should be taken as a standard. We ask that the higher standard, not the highest standard, reached by particular local authorities is the appropriate standard. What we are trying to do is to enable the Secretary of State to consider a particular service and, finding that there are certain authorities that have reached a bit above the average standard, he can, on the basis of the instructions that we would have drafted into the Bill, seek legitimately and easily to bring the authorities that are below this level, the poor authorities, up to the required standard.

Let us consider the position of the Secretary of State if the Bill is passed as drafted. The instruction under which the Secretary of State operates is to maintain no more than the general average. I think it will be agreed that this will often be very difficult and that the Secretary of State will not intervene unless there is a manifest failure to reach and maintain these standards. But if our modest Amendments were accepted the position becomes quite different. He would be able to approach local authorities and say, "We want you to come up to the standards laid down". The Secretary of State and his officers would be in a position to induce progress among those authorities that are clearly behind what would be considered adequate standards.

I am sure that when the Under-Secretary considers this matter closely, he will agree that we are not asking much. Our great fear, which has arisen time after time in discussing the Bill, is that the Bill will result in a levelling down of standards. We do not want that, and I am sure that hon. Gentlemen opposite do not want that. But, as the Bill is at present drafted, it is difficult to say that that will not be the outcome.

5.0 p.m.

I need not go into details of the various parts of the Bill. To me and to my hon. Friends, the whole basis of the Bill tends to be in the direction of penalising extra expenditure and effort. In all these local services, we want extra effort. By means of the Amendment, we are trying to put the Secretary of State in the position where he can demand a little bit better than this dead level that might mean a levelling downwards. In these circumstances, I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us that he will take the model of the better—we have not said the best—local authorities and the services they render as the model upon which he wishes the others to be based. He would do this by accepting the Amendments.

Mr. Willis

These Amendments undoubtedly spring from the anxiety which the Joint Under-Secretary of State himself raised in the minds of my hon. Friends by the paragraph to which my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) referred in which the hon. Gentleman explained how the arrange- ment would work. Perhaps I might read it again to see what we are talking about. On 16th April the hon. Gentleman said: The conception is that if there were a manifest failure—and it would have to be a manifest failure"— that is the point emphasised by my hon. Friend— to reach standards considered appropriate, having regard to the codes laid down on the one hand and to the general standards maintained by local authorities on the other, the sanction would be called into operation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 16th April, 1958; c. 531.] That is not very specific. It indicates that the sanction would not be called into operation unless a local authority had fallen very low indeed in the standards it was maintaining.

I do not know exactly what this means, and I foresee possibilities that certainly would not be welcomed by the House of Commons. First, we lay down a code of standards which local authorities are expected to achieve. Then, we judge them not by that code but by the general standard which has been achieved. Quite a number of factors might affect that general standard which is achieved throughout Scotland.

Many of us fear that the Government's financial responsibility for educational development will become less as a result of the Bill. That is a general fear throughout Scotland. I know of no educational organisation which does not share that fear. I know of no local authority, with the possible exception of Edinburgh—and I am not certain even about Edinburgh—which does not fear the same thing. Therefore if, as most people imagine, the Government's financial responsibility for educational development becomes less and they contribute less, which seems to me to be implicit in the White Paper, it is possible for local authorities not to be able to maintain anything like the standards laid down in the code. That is a logical deduction from the statement by the Joint Under-Secretary and from the possibilities that we envisage.

Even with the best will in the world, if local authorities are to be called upon to pay increasingly towards the cost of educational services, they will find it exceedingly difficult to do so with rate poundages increasing as they are. Therefore, the general standard that is achieved at any given time in Scotland might be well below the level of the code, not because the local authorities do not want to achieve a good standard, but because the Government have been cutting down their contribution towards future educational development.

If the general standard is well below the code, the local authority that is penalised must fall still further below the general code. As my hon. Friend said, this seems to indicate that what we are doing is only to penalise a local authority which has set an exceedingly low standard. It is not an encouragement to local authorities to achieve a higher standard; we have Amendments down about that later. It is not an encouragement for any local authority to do anything other than to achieve the general standard that exists in Scotland at the time. Even according to the words of the Joint Under-Secretary himself, that general standard might be below the code laid down by the House of Commons or by the Secretary of State.

That is not a good way to legislate. The encouragement should not be given to local authorities to achieve a general average which might be exceedingly low but to achieve something better. That is what these Amendments seek to do. In other words, instead of taking the general standard as that which is generally achieved, which might be very low, we should take the standard achieved, not by one exceptional local authority, but by the better authorities. There might be a dozen which achieve the best standard. We should take that as the general standard.

We want a high standard by which to judge failure and not a low standard by which to judge it. I certainly think that the Government should consider the implications of what they are doing. The Joint Under-Secretary should take into consideration the full implications of what he said on 16th April. It certainly causes serious concern. It would be better to try to do something on the lines which we on this side suggest rather than leave the position as it is.

Mr. J. C. George (Glasgow, Pollok)

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) has managed to get another kick at the general grant, this time on Clause 3. I admire the ingenuity of hon. Members opposite in continuing to attack it when, obviously, they are out of order. The hon. Member painted a picture of Scottish local education authorities—

Mr. Willis

On a point of order. Is it in order for an hon. Member to suggest that you are not capable of keeping the business of the Committee in order, Mr. Storey?

The Temporary Chairman

Mr. George.

Mr. George

The hon. Member painted a gloomy picture of the future educational progress in Scotland. He painted a picture in which the local authorities, because of the Government's failure to give an adequate general grant, pay more and more out of the rates towards education; and in consequence of that picture we see education in Scotland falling below even the general code.

The hon. Member knows that that will not happen. He knows that the general grant is so designed as to take cognisance of and to arrange for meeting all eventualities and to ensure that this country, which is so conscious of the need for an expanding educational service, will provide year after year enough to ensure that that progress will be made in Scotland. The picture painted by the hon. Member is a false one.

To return to the Amendment, the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) showed a lamentable lack of faith in Scottish education authorities. He expressed the view that the average of Scotland will probably descend to becoming the minimum, thereby implying that the zeal of local authorities is not to advance forward but to slip back into an easy way of education, getting down and down to the minimum and with no spark of effort to get forward.

The whole history of Scottish education and our local authorities has been to drive forward in education. In the last six years, expenditure in Scotland has been doubled. Surely, that is an advance. Why should local authorities, who are now sure of getting as much money as will meet their future needs—[HON. MEMBERS: "No".]—cease to take that same keen interest in advancing education in the future as they have done in the past?

This is a penal Clause to deal with the laggards. In my view, it is hardly a workable Clause because, unless there is obvious failure over a long period, the Secretary of State would not come to Parliament to try to get the grant reduced. The general picture in Scotland will be of the vast majority of authorities providing a good system of education in keeping with Scottish tradition. In that picture, perhaps one or two local authorities—I hope none at all—which are laggard may drop behind the others and fall below minimum standards, because it is not practicable in law to prescribe anything else than adherence to minimum standards. We hope that they will rise above the minimum and that they will get up above the average. I believe that the Clause is drafted in the only possible way in which it can be drafted, and will, perhaps, with great difficulty, deal with the one or two local authorities who might be the laggards.

Mr. Woodburn

With his usual anxious desire to defend the Government, the hon. Member for Pollok (Mr. George), has rushed in to defend something which is quite contrary to his own spirit. I would have thought that the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) would have been here to defend the Clause. He believes in the whip and the lash. He believes in corporal punishment as the way to get good done. This Clause is the Calvinistic, hellfire doctrine that people must be punished to make them good. We consider that to be the wrong way. As the hon. Member for Pollok said, the Clause is useless in the sense that it is punitive, and it would be extremely difficult to make a case for punishing a local authority which did not do what it was supposed to do.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) has made any mistake, it has been in trying to improve the Clause and make it workable. It is a bad system altogether to preach to local authorities that if they do not do something they will be punished. We believe in encouragement. As my hon. Friend said, the Clause will represent a levelling down. This is a bad principle. The whole Clause is bad. Even with the Amendments, it will still be bad, because it is a punitive Clause. It is the wrong way to approach the development of education. We should encourage people to do better and not punish them because they do not do so well. In any case, the situation has so many difficulties about it that I agree with the hon. Member for Pollok. It could not be worked in any sense of decency upon the educational authorities in Scotland.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I, too, want to address a remark or two to the hon. Member for Pollok (Mr. George). I was rather surprised, although I should not have been, at his ability to reprimand a Member on this side for being out of order. The hon. Member managed successfully to keep to the topic of education during the whole of his remarks, whereas education does not appear in the Clause. The Amendment is quite simple. I should have expected the hon. Member for Pollok to agree that we should use the terminology of the Bill itself. The very first of the Amendments proposes to leave out "reasonable" and to insert "adequate." "Adequate" is the kind of word which is used in the rubric to the Clause: Power to reduce general grant where service not adequately provided and to prescribe standards off administration. In the matter of terminology, there should be no complaint on that score.

5.15 p.m.

The second point is that the standard should be the higher standard of local authorities. I am sure we agree that it is the higher standard we should get local authorities to emulate, and that being so, there should be no objection to the insertion of the word "higher". It is not sufficient, as the Bill says, merely for the standard to be maintained. Our fear is that because of the change which the Bill makes these achievements will be impaired, and it was this which prompted my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and my other hon. Friends to put down this series of Amendments.

We hope we have said sufficient to convince the Government that these are reasonable Amendments and should be accepted. If this can be done, it will put us in a better temper to meet some of the points which will come up at a later stage.

Mr. N. Macpherson

I am sure we all agree it is right that the Committee should be concerned with the general standards to be achieved by local authorities in education as in other matters. Indeed, subsection (2) provides that the Secretary of State may make regulations prescribing standards and general requirements, and those regulations would be debatable in the House and would be subject to annulment in pursuance of a Resolution of either House of Parliament. I am sure we would also agree that all local authorities should emulate the highest, but, as my hon. Friend has said, in this subsection we are not dealing so much with the general level to be maintained and observed by local authorities as with the question in what circumstances the Secretary of State will propose to the House of Commons a reduction in the general grant. That is the question with which this subsection deals.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) said that we were considering an instruction to the Secretary of State as to the standards he shall seek to maintain, but that is not really the case. We are considering the question in what circumstances we should penalise local authorities for falling below reasonable standards. The endeavour to maintain standards is not confined to the use of sanctions alone. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Department of Education is organised to encourage the achievement of higher standards and to assist in that achievement.

The question is in what circumstances will the Secretary of State propose to the House a reduction in general grant. I think my hon. Friend is right, that the Minister should only propose such sanctions in the event of a manifest failure. As I said at an earlier stage of the Bill, there is nothing new in this form of sanction. It exists already. Indeed, it was re-enacted by the party opposite when they were in power in regard to the equalisation grant. So, although the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) may think it is a bad principle, the principle of hell fire, it is nevertheless a principle which his party has also seen fit to apply.

Mr. Woodburn

Also encouragement.

Mr. Macpherson

The encouragement is there as well. Let us consider whether the words suggested here would be better than the words proposed in the Bill. As it stands, the Bill empowers the Secretary of State to reduce the grant payable to a local authority where it has failed to achieve or maintain reasonable standards. The Amendment substitutes "adequate" for "reasonable", and also requires the Secretary of State to have regard to higher standards achieved by particular local authorities. I sympathise with the purpose of the Amendments, which clearly is to ensure as high a standard as possible in the education and other services. But we are here dealing with sanctions in case of default, and it is more natural to penalise those who fall below the general standard than those who fall below the higher standard.

The Amendment would, in effect, divide local authorities in Scotland into two classes—the scholarship class and those, so to speak, who are brought up on the tawse, or, if you like, the stick. The Amendments, as they are drafted, would really mean that the tawse would have to be used far too often. The right hon. Gentleman, far from deprecating hell-fire, is really introducing a great deal more hell-fire into this Clause by the Amendment.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman sought in his Amendment to qualify the word "adequate" by reference to higher standards, but it would be difficult in a specific case to say whether a standard achieved was adequate. How far would a standard have to fall short of the best standard or even the higher standards in order to be pronounced adequate, or how easy or difficult would it be to convince the House that a standard was not quite adequate? That is why I said at an earlier stage that for this Clause and the sanctions to be invoked there would obviously have to be a manifest failure, because only in that case could it be proved to the House that the grant should be reduced.

The Clause gives the Secretary of State fairly clear-cut criteria, criteria of reasonable standards in relation to standards maintained by local authorities generally; that is to say, a single standard which could operate for the country. It will enable the Secretary of State to come down on a local authority whose education or other services fall unreasonably below average and so spur on the laggards, and if they go on lagging, to impose on them the sanction in this Clause. As has been said before, this form of sanction exists already. It has not had to be imposed, and we hope it will never be imposed. It is a reserve power, but it is a necessary power. It is not a pleasant power, but we think that the terms used in the Clause as drafted will meet the need far better than the terms proposed in the Amendment.

Mr. T. Fraser

The Joint Under-Secretary has shown once again how determined the Government are to level down standards of education throughout Scotland. In putting forward these Amendments, my hon. Friends have demonstrated once again how anxious they are to see standards raised. On an earlier Amendment, they were anxious to secure that the education authorities which carried out the exceptional experiments would be financially encouraged so to do. That was rejected by the Joint Under-Secretary on the ground that he wanted them all to march forward in step. He thought those who carried through these exceptional experiments would be proud to feel they were doing it all off their own bat, paying for it themselves. They were to be encouraged by the Secretary of State in this forward march by the right hon. Gentleman putting lead in their boots, and they would be all the prouder of their achievements because they had marched ahead of the others with this handicap.

The hon. Member for Pollok (Mr. George) must not be surprised that we keep on referring to the general grant. This is a general grant Bill. We know full well that some of the most laggard local authorities in Scotland stand to gain substantially from the block grant, and we thought it would not be bad if some of them were not to get the full benefit which will come to them under the system of apportionment proposed in the Bill. Also, we wanted to get a word or two from the Joint Under-Secretary as to what he hoped to get in the way of improved standards.

Having said that, I put it to my hon. Friends that we should not press this Amendment unduly. As has been made clear already, there are some local authorities which will be severely punished by the provisions of the Bill in general. I give the example of Shetland County Council, whose rates will be increased by 2s. 6d. in. the £. If that council is forced to reduce the standard of the education service it provides as a consequence of this burden upon the rates, it would not be the wish of my hon. Friends that the Secretary of State should then step in and say that it is not coming up to the highest standard of the good authorities and, therefore, should have the grant further reduced. So we would not wish to press this Amendment for that reason, and I shall be pleased if my hon. Friend will see fit to withdraw it. If he feels strongly about it, however, the Amendment can be negatived, but I ask him not to press it to a Division, because some of those authorities will not be able to achieve reasonable standards in the future for the simple reason that the Secretary of State has so reduced the financial assistance available to them that they will not be able to provide reasonable standards.

Mr. Lawson

The Joint Under-Secretary has all along resisted any suggestion that what was being written into this Clause was the minimum standard. I was being generous when I talked about average for, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Pollok (Mr. George) has pointed out, it can be no more than a minimum standard. So let us be honest, and let the Joint Under-Secretary be honest, too, and say that as regards this penal Clause it relates only to minimum standards. These terms are no more precise than the term "adequate" which I used, and not nearly so precise as the term "higher". So here we are putting into the Bill a Clause which will impose sanctions if certain local authorities fall below a minimum standard. There are the added words, the words of emphasis, that the sanction will be imposed only when they manifestly fall below the minimum standard. That is the position in which we are put.

The hon. Member for Pollok said that I show a lamentable faith in the local authorities. I have a lamentable faith in the party opposite. It is the type of order that is being imposed upon the local authorities about which I am concerned, and I am sure that local authorities would support me in what I am trying to put down here.

Mr. George

I said a lamentable lack of faith.

Mr. Lawson

I accept the correction. Yes, a lamentable lack of faith—in the party opposite, but not in the local authorities. Our concern has been to endeavour to raise standards and to provide words which would make it easier for the Secretary of State to do so. Since my hon. Friend has said that, in certain circumstances, this would penalise local authorities which do not deserve to be penalised. I am prepared to accept his advice and beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Woodburn

I beg to move, in page 3, line 36, after "representations", to insert: and provided that the Secretary of State is satisfied that such failure is due to conditions outside the control of the local authority or local authorities concerned". I have no doubt that this provision will never be used by any Secretary of State for Scotland in an unjust way. A man who is living under the bridges in London is very independent, but he cannot afford to spend anything. Local authorities may become very independent, but they will have no money, and the product of 1d. rate in some areas is very small.

The result is that some local authorities will not be able to reach the standards which the Secretary of State will lay down. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that he will do nothing if the failure of the local authorities is due to conditions outside their control? If the failure is not due to the local authorities and is outside their control, what steps will the right hon. Gentleman take to help them to achieve those standards?

There seems to be an impasse here. If a local authority cannot afford to undertake a scheme adequately, will the Secretary of State refuse to give it more money? If a local authority cannot afford to do something, will the Secretary of State reduce the grant still further so that the local authority will be able to afford it even less?

This is a probing Amendment in order to find out how this penalising works and how the Secretary of State measures the failure and whether he penalises a local authority by reducing its grants still further. That seems to me a most mysterious form of encouragement.

Mr. N. Macpherson

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) knows the answer to this question.

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