HC Deb 05 May 1960 vol 622 cc1405-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooman-White.]

10.33 p.m.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

I should like, first, to say, on behalf of my constituents, how very grateful they all are to the kindness that you, Mr. Speaker, have extended to me by allowing me the Adjournment tonight, as my previous Adjournment was lost because the Government wished to use the time early in February.

There are today four ways in which a Member of Parliament representing his people can temper and control the Executive. By far the most effective is on a Motion of Adjournment, as I am doing now. I am doing this in the interests of a minority in my constituency—Catholic people. I have no particular interest in their arrangements or their schooling, other than that I represent them as a minority, but naturally I have always been interested in Italy. I spent some time in the University of Perugia, and was, unfortunately, wounded in Italy during the war. Therefore, I am sympathetic with Catholic problems and, in particular, the Catholic difficulties in my constituency.

There is, too, the fundamental principle in the Conservative Party—its philosophy and policy towards education. It is quite a simple one. It is that all parents shall have the right to decide on the education for their children— what sort of education they should enjoy. This is an undeniable right, and one which we have maintained throughout the centuries. In my constituency there are between 4,000 and 5,000 Catholic parents. In the outlying areas they have to come into the school which, reading the Order Paper for tonight's Adjournment—St. Patrick's Roman Catholic School—one would imagine to be a complete unit. But that is not so. The school is divided in various buildings throughout the town of Wellington. In fact, it is divided into three buildings— North Road, Constitution Hill and Mill Bank.

I must be fair to the Minister. The school at North Road was put up in 1955 to relieve congestion in the other two buildings, but the other two buildings have been condemned for ten years as unsuitable for school premises. It is quite a remarkable situation when one thinks that there are 280 children and those children have to be scattered throughout Wellington in various classes, attending what is supposed to be one school—St. Patrick's Roman Catholic School. In 1949, there were 120 pupils; today, there are 280.

The local authorities have been pressing the Minister to see whether he can allow this school to concentrate itself in one building. That would obviously be wise. They have asked whether they could concentrate the school at North Road and there provide room for seven classes. I do not think it necessary for me to mention the number of times I have raised this problem, both in speeches in the debate on the Address in 1948 and 1949 and during my General Election address, nor the number of times I have pressed the Minister with Questions; indeed, the wad of letters I have from his predecessor shows that I have been pressing this problem ever since 1955.

I would ask the Minister to give special attention to the state of the school buildings at Mill Bank, one of the three classes scattered throughout Wellington. They were erected in 1809. They were constructed first as a church, and then converted. There are 145 children at this school—46 between the ages of 11 and 15 and 69 between the ages of five and seven.

It is only fair to take an independent view about conditions at this school, and to appreciate the state of the buildings in my constituency today. I am not going to give my own opinion. I am going to turn to the public health report given to the Wellington Urban District Council. It says: Mill Bank. … The main defects are as follows: Natural light is deficient in both buildings. Artificial light has to be used for the greater part of the time. Heating. The main form of heating is by gas convector heaters … which discharge the products of combustion into the room. And children are supposed to be taught in this room. The heating is the type of heating used for landings and halls.

There are three wash basins and one sink in the main building in the infants' block and for all these children there is no hot water. It is disclosed in the report of the sanitary inspector that right back in 1955 the sanitary provisions were in breach of the Public Health Orders of 1951 regarding the provision of toilet accommodation at this school. That is not a very happy state of affairs. There are one or two other deficiencies, but I will not take up the time of the House by discussing them.

The other little school is at Constitution Hill. Here the heating has been so inadequate that during the month of February the school was closed by order of the health and the local education authorities because it was impossible and wrong to teach small children in such conditions. So there we have the children at two classes, housed in condemned buildings and being taught in conditions which are disgraceful and insanitary.

There is, however, one redeeming feature to be found in the report to the Minister of Education, in 1955. His inspector who visited the school in 1955, said that the children were being taught by teachers of long experience and devoted service who, within the limitations there, gave the children in their early education a fair start. The Minister is well aware of the fact, and I am not surprised, that the local council has taken grave exception to such a state of affairs and has asked me to raise the matter tonight.

I think it intolerable that such a situation should exist in our country. The Wellington Urban District Council has gone further and suggested that this matter should be put right. It has approached the county council and asked whether plans to extend the school at North Road could be put into the programme of the Shropshire County Council for 1960–62.

One can imagine, therefore, the disappointment when I was told that out of all the various submissions made by the Shropshire County Council to the Minister, he had selected a great number of other projects but had decided not to select St. Patrick's School. I have been the Member for the constituency for five years, and my constituents have asked me how long I am prepared to endure such conditions; and I feel that the time has come when the situation should be brought forcibly to the Minister's attention.

People may say, "Why has nobody raised this matter before and why has no protest been made in the House?" I suggest that this is because of the humble and quiet way in which some of our minorities accept their conditions without complaint.

We lost Father O'Reilly, who was the leader of the Catholic Church in the area, during the General Election. He is sadly missed in Wellington. His loss was a bitter blow to every Catholic. The streets are not quite the same when we do not see that old, cheery figure walking along underneath a great big black hat. He had a lovely Irish brogue and always had a kind welcome for everybody. He had been a padre in the First World War—a padre who was esteemed and popular.

I do not want to delay the House. The Parliamentary Secretary and I have had many discussions on this matter. I must be true to Conservative principles and recognise the right of rate-paying Catholics to equitable treatment from the Government. I do not think that their school-building projects should be prejudiced in the interests of an overwhelming majority. Only this morning I received letters from people in Newport pointing out the desirability, too, of maintaining the Church of England schools.

The Parliamentary Secretary realises that in these schools some of the best basic teaching in our land is carried out. I know that he intends to see that these schools are maintained and helped to the best of his ability. In our small voluntary schools is found an unparalleled standard of good teaching and good education. These are heritages which it is my duty as Member of Parliament to sustain and to uphold and to bring to the attention of the House.

I only ask the Minister one thing. Over the last five years it has never been possible to get from any Minister of Education the date on which he imagined the programme of building this school, or of combining these classes at North Road, would foe possible. Ministers have always said "Some time ". I do hope that my hon. Friend will tonight be able to give a definite date.

This is probably a unique Adjournment debate, because tomorrow there is to be a very great national occasion. Perhaps on behalf of my constituents, and of back bench Members, I might be allowed to extend to the two distinguished and great people our humble and heartfelt good wishes. I particularly thank Mr. Antony Armstrong-Jones for his help to me during the General Election. Of one thing I am convinced, and it is this: tomorrow, Her Royal Highness marries a Christian and a gentleman. On behalf of back benchers and of my constituents. I would extend to both our best wishes

10.47 p.m.

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

I am sure that the House will endorse the concluding remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. W. Yates). I am glad to be able to say a few words about the school and the general problem of Wellington schools that it represents. My hon. Friend's constituents certainly have no cause for complaint that they have not had their case brought to the attention of the Minister and the Department with great regularity, great frequency and great force.

That my hon. Friend has been able to raise the matter on this Adjournment will, I hope, draw their attention to the fact that not only has he done his duty as a Member but, in doing so, he has made quite sure, if assurance were needed, that in the Ministry, both at official level and by Ministers, the case of this school has been very well and thoroughly studied on a number of occasions.

I should also like to congratulate the Wellington authority, the Shropshire Education Authority and the managers of the school on the way in which they have, with patience but with diligence, kept the case of a new school before the Department and, while doing so, have continued to do their best in conditions that we know are anything but good. Indeed, I endorse what my hon. Friend said in description of conditions at this school. In no way has he exaggerated or drawn a longer bow than he had to. The conditions are not good. We are aware of the fact, and that school must, when we can manage it, be replaced.

However, I hope that he will not conclude from that, and that nor will those on whose behalf he speaks con-dude from that, that there is any easy way in which the Ministry can solve this problem. There are many other problems of a similar kind which beset local education authorities up and down the country.

A great deal has been done since the war to bring schools of this kind up to a better standard, but, of course, our besetting problem from the end of the war has been to provide new places in additional schools for the vast additional numbers of children. We have had to cope with the "bulge". That has meant that it has been in new towns and new estates around towns in the growing industrial areas of the Midlands and the Home Counties and similar areas that we have had to concentrate our school building effort. That is Where the great bulk of our resources has had to go.

We have now reached the stage where the problems of the "bulge" have been pretty well provided for. We can say that, at the end of the 1960–62 programme, they will have been taken care of. While we were compelled to devote our resources to that purpose, we have had to tolerate the kind of conditions in this school to which my hon. Friend has drawn our attention. But having solved the problem of the "bulge" of providing roofs over the heads of the children, we now have to pass to the next stage of the problem, which is to look after the needs of those same children as they move from the primary schools into the secondary schools. My hon. Friend will recall the White Paper published in 1958, which set out the next priorities to which we have to have regard in our building programme. At the present time the 1960…62 programme—the programme which is going on now, and which my hon. Friend says we should fit in this particular job—is taking care in the main of the last of the provision of accommodation for the children of the "bulge". It is designed to begin the job of bringing all our secondary schools up to a decent standard, a job to be completed within the five years, to complete the reorganisation of all-age schools, of which this school is one, and then to be able to do something for the replacement of bad and unsatisfactory buildings.

We face, however, the simple fact that all these things cannot be done at once. We must get our priorities right and, having done that, as, I think, we have, we must then stick to them and carry out our programme step by step logically in a way designed to give the greatest return fairly distributed, not only between one place and another, but between the different parts of the education system, of which primary and secondary schools are only two parts. We have a vast technical college programme under way and a vast teacher-training programme and, now, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is engaged in vast university expansion. All this cannot be done at once or overnight.

I should, however, like my hon. Friend and his constituents to be assured that even in spite of all the difficulty of getting the priorities right, the affairs of this school have not been either ignored or overlooked. First, as my hon. Friend reminded the House, an instalment of the new school was built in 1955 and was occupied and provided some relief, continuing from that time, for the school. There is also being provided in Wellington a Roman Catholic secondary school in the current building programme. When completed, this school will take away from St. Patrick's 86 of the senior children, providing that much relief for the existing overcrowded conditions in the school. That still leaves us, however, with the residuary problem of unsatisfactory buildings broken into sections in different parts of the town and a generally unsatisfactory state of affairs.

My hon. Friend wants to know, and rightly, when some relief can be hoped for. We must still obey our priorities. We have asked the local authorities all over the country to send us details of their projects for the 1962–63 building year. We will be given details of a large number of projects, the cost of which would amount to a lot more than the amount of money that the Treasury will allow us to devote to the building of schools. Therefore, even before we begin to put our priorities right, we must do some paring of the global total to keep it within the amount that we are allowed to dispose of.

Our next step is to take account of the local authorities' ideas of what the priorities should be within that amount. If the right priority is given to us by the local authority for St. Patrick's, I have no doubt that we ought to be able to find a place for it in the 1962–63 programme.

Mr. Yates

I do not think that is quite fair. I would say that the county council submits to the Minister about ten or fifteen things which in its mind are urgent. It is the responsibility of the Minister to choose from those projects the ones which he thinks are urgent. He ought not to put the responsibility on to the county council to decide which are urgent, but to decide himself.

Mr. Thompson

I do not want to run away from the responsibility; I think we want to let it be known that the Minister in making up his mind does not ignore the estimates provided by the county councils. He takes that into account, and it would be wrong not to do so. After all, St. Patrick's is not the only school in the Shropshire Education Authority's empire which needs urgent attention.

Mr. Yates

But it is in my constituency.

Mr. Thompson

That may be so, but not only does my hon. Friend have a responsibility limited territorially, but Shropshire Education Authority has limited territorial responsibility and the Minister has to look at this global problem objectively.

When we get all this programme in, I promise my hon. Friend that we shall go into it with the greatest possible care and, all things being equal, we ought to find a place for the school in the 1962–63 programme if it fits in with the other items in the total available resources. I very much hope that with that assurance my hon. Friend can feel that he has discharged his duty as an hon. Member and that my right hon. Friend has been willing to turn a very sympathetic ear to what we know to be a very deserving case.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eleven o'clock, till Monday next, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.