HC Deb 19 December 1962 vol 669 cc1401-12

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

10.5 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

My concern tonight is twofold; first, to show the importance of so-called minor capital works, up to a sum of £20,000 per unit, and, secondly, to show that the County of Kent is not getting its fair share of the money available. If we were able to cut out some of the frills of major educational matters, that would enable more money to be spent on minor capital works, and that in its turn would benefit a far greater number of children because the spread of money throughout minor works would affect a larger number of schools and, therefore, a larger number of pupils. I remind the House that although they are called minor capital works, they are minor only in so far as the sums involved are concerned. They are by no means minor in their importance.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will remember that I raised this matter at Question Time more than a year ago, and I have been disquieted about the position of minor capital works ever since. In the County of Kent, we do not have a school population bulge in the same way that the rest of England has. We have had a steadily rising school population. In 1950, the school population of Kent was 189,000 pupils. In 1962, it reached the figure of 247,000, and by 1972 it is estimated that it will be 282,000, a total increase of very nearly 100,000 pupils in 22 years.

At present it is fashionable to talk about the drift to the South-East as though it were all to the detriment of the rest of England, and yet this drift is placing a great burden on the education authorities of the South-East, and particularly on Kent. The new population which we have in Kent is largely suburban-minded. People may have come to Kent for one of many reasons—the natural beauty of the county, our improved railway services and in many cases because of the very good reputation of the Kent County Education Authority. But the fact remains that they are suburban-minded.

They are the sort of people who are used to having an internal W.C. in their house. Out of some 30,500 rateable dwellings in my constituency, only some 7,000 do not have an internal W.C., and that gives a measure of the standard of living within the homes of my constituents. The fact remains that the great majority of the schools in the neighbourhood have W.C.s which are out of doors. There may be no great harm in this, but the children see the contrast between home, where everything works well, and school, where in the past fortnight, for at least four schoodays, they have all been frozen up. I do not want the House to feel that I believe that frozen water closets are all there is to minor capital works in education. The Kent authority is facing far greater problems than that.

When it prepared its 1963–64 minor works programme, the Kent Education Committee compiled a list of all the projects which were outstanding, some of them very long deferred and all of great importance. The total was £1,747,845. The Education Committee is composed of reasonable people who realised that they could not ask for £1¾ million in any one year.

I will briefly tell the House how this figure was made up. Six hundred and sixty-six thousand, eight hundred and fifty £s was for primary schools, of which over half was for additional teaching places. Two hundred and sixty-five thousand £s was for replacement of unsatisfactory sanitation. A mere £23,000 was for improved playing facilities. All this was for primary schools.

Secondary schools took about £811,000, roughly divided in quarters between additional teaching places, sixth form science and other important facilities, hall/gymnasia for schools without them—these are secondary schools—and sanitation, cloakrooms and other improvements. The rest of the £1¾ million was divided between urgent projects far further education, which were to take £156,545, new or enlarged kitchens £71,000, and three important projects for special schools £42,000. These figures give a measure of Kent's real need. I remind the House that, because of the shortage of proper school places, nearly 100 village and similar public halls are still being used for teaching purposes in Kent.

The education authority realised that Kent could not ask for this very large sum of money in one year and pruned its list drastically. It left it so that it would include the extra teaching places I have mentioned. The school meals project I have mentioned. This, together with £80,000 for sanitation and much reduced figures for special sohools and clinics and only £104,000 for further education came to the total of £879,000, which was the figure the Ministry was invited to give the County of Kent. We wanted £1¾ million. We asked for £880,000. We were given a derisory £260,000.

When I raised this matter with my right hon. Friend the Ministea of Education at Question Time on 6th December, he pointed out to me that the so-called "mini-minor" works under £2,000 no longer formed part of this and therefore the situation was not as bad as it seemed. I welcome this. I also welcome the greater flexibility that it has given the education authority, but an education authority cannot buy very much for less than £2,000 today in the way of minor capital works, as I hope to show later.

During the current quarter and the four preceding quarters the Kent Education Authority has been able to spend only £150,292 in these mini-minor works. I apologise for the horrible term, but I think that it is generally prevalent throughout the Ministry. If expenditure in the coming five quarters were to run at the same rate on these mini-minor works and that were added to the miserable £260,000 that we have been offered, we would then have a total expenditure of just over £410,000 in the coming year. I am giving the Minister the benefit of the doubt by giving him five quarters instead of four for the mini-minor works. The £410,000 is a great deal less than the £455,000 that Kent was allowed in 1960–61. This is a reduction, and I view it as a retrograde step.

I also welcome the change that we have got from £10,000 to £20,000 as the ceiling for minor works, but although it makes for greater flexibility there are a large number of items which would previously have been classified as major works which are now making crippling inroads into our minor works allocation. For instance, in important scientific projects alone £130,000 could be spent on only nine projects.

I do not wish the House to think that I am dealing only in broad generalisations, and I will therefore give a few specific examples. Because I quote these particular schools which happen to be well known to me or to which my attention has been drawn, I do not want hon. Members to think that these are the hardest hit schools in Kent. Various hon. Members and myself have often stressed the importance of scientific teaching, but today in Kent we are desperately short of seven laboratories in technical colleges. The cost of these would form part of the £156,000 I mentioned earlier; money we wanted for further education. Three of these would be in Bromley—and I hope that I might have some support from my illustrious right hon. Friend the Prime Minister who represents that constituency—two would he in Tonbridge and two in the Medway Towns.

To give an example of the pressure on 6th form places, the Chistlehurst and Sidcup Grammar School for boys now has over 200 pupils in its 6th form. Libraries are badly needed; not books but physical buildings, in a large number of excellent 6th forms, notably the Gravesend Grammar School for Boys, the Huntleys Secondary School at Tunbridge Wells and at the Tonbridge Secondary School for Girls. The Warren Wood Secondary School for Girls at Rochester, which has about 500 pupils, has neither a school hall nor a gymnasium but only one general purpose dining room—and the school is only about ten years old.

In my constituency I am eagerly looking forward to a new primary school at Ulcombe, but the Loose County Primary School remains a source of great anxiety. Here is a school with sanitation facilities which are hopelessly out of date. The sanitary facilities in this school, which is in an essentially new suburban area, are about half of the statutory requirement. In round figures there are 11 W.C.s for 475 pupils and I understand that the statutory requirements for that number would be 19. There are other matters I could mention concerning the school.

In my village of Mereworth there is a school in a very special position. At present it 'has 106 local children on the roll, 52 from Royal Air Force families and 38 from United States Naval families. The length of stay of these Service families varies from 3 years to a few weeks. There is no hall and very inadequate sanitary arrangements. The Kent Education Authority has tried to get these put into modern order under the £2,000 limit but has been unable to get the sanitary facilities for anything like this figure. The United States naval families all speak highly of the education their children get at the school, but are the sanitary arrangements giving a good impression of our country to these young foreigners and is the overcrowding fair to my young friends and neighbours or the first-class staff who work there?

On 6th December my right hon. Friend told me that Kent had been given seven out of the eight requests on its top priority list. My right hon. Friend forgot to tell the House that that list was a rushed request, was for items which could start before March and that the whole list was, in the view of the Education Committee, essential, top priority and was only a choice among near equals. On the same day my right hon. Friend told me that Kent was to get £90,000 out of the £6 million increase in the current year. Is this a fair proportion of the national total? When I remind the House that the school population in Kent is 247,000, compared with the national figure of 5 million pupils, then on this basis hon. Members will see that Kent should have had £211,000 and not £90,000.

Our real worry is with the future. What help are we to get towards clearing our backlog of £1¾ million? I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to remind my right hon. Friend that the population of the south-east is still growing, and I believe that this money should be more widely spent on minor works in order to benefit the greatest number of pupils in those areas where people really want to live, and not in those areas where the theorists think they ought to live.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I must necessarily be very brief, but I am very glad to be able to support the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells), because whenever he has raised the matter at Question Time I have been able to support him. Lord Eccles, as he is now, made the point that the Ministry is in a weak position on minor works, and readily susceptible to cuts. For the same reason, the Parliamentary Secretary should agree that this is a programme that can be very readily and rapidly expanded. I hope that he will do so.

As the hon. Member for Maidstone has pointed out, there are really two classes of children; those fortunate enough to go to the new schools and those at the old schools. A tremendous amount can be done at very limited expense. A second factor that I must impress on the Parliamentary Secretary is that a large number of additional new places are provided by the minor works programme, and that is very important.

I shall not trespass on the hon. Member's Kent interests, but I will say that what is said on behalf of Kent can be said on behalf of other counties and county boroughs in the country. I would particularly call attention to the education authorities in the areas which the Government are at present trying to aid, because I have just received a protest from the Newcastle Education Committee saying that its programme has not been accepted by the Ministry. I am told of a similar position in regard to the programmes submitted by Durham and Sunderland. This is a sphere in which the Government—and it is a governmental responsibility primarily—could readily help these areas by doing everything possible to support their programmes.

The Parliamentary Secretary must admit that up to the present the Government have not done enough, and I want to call attention to the figure of £21 million which I have called in aid on each occasion at Question Time. I pay tribute to Lord Eccles for obtaining this figure. That was the figure of starts in 1960–61, and we cannot be satisfied until we get back to it. I hope that what the hon. Member for Maidstone has said will have impressed on the Parliamentary Secretary that something must be done, and done quickly.

10.23 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Christopher Chataway)

When my right hon. Friend was answering Questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) he said that he would welcome the opportunity of an Adjournment debate in order to deploy at greater length the arguments in relation to Kent's minor works programme, and I hope that in the few minutes left to me I can answer some of the questions my hon. Friend has now raised. I am glad, too, that the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) has intervened, because it gives me a chance to explain the confusion that arises over the figure of £21 million that he introduced when I was answering Questions at one point.

I think that the difficulty arises because three separate sets of figures are used in relation to minor works. They are for minor works allocations, actual minor works starts, and minor works payments made—normally referred to as "work done". We were at that moment discussing allocations of minor works, and when the hon. Member mentioned the figure of £21 million it was my impression that he, too, was referring to allocations rather than to starts. I think that he will agree that the total allocation of £16 million for 1963–64 is well up to the average of recent years. The average for the past five years is £15½ million.

Before I turn to the case of Kent, it might be helpful if I were to say a word about the manner in which my right hon. Friend distributes sums available between the various claimants. The total amount for minor works for any given period is not the same as the amount we distribute to education authorities as their allocation. We have to keep a reserve to cover jobs costing less than £2,000, and I entirely absolve my hon. Friend of responsibility for inventing the term "mini-minor works".

We allocate some money centrally, as, for example, to voluntarily-aided schools. The allocations are not made between local education authorities on a purely arithmetical basis. I think that it would be wrong for us to take that line. We look at what each local education authority asks for. They send in bids with some account of the kind of projects they want to carry out. Obviously, we take account of their size, the number of children and the number of schools, and we try to meet the needs of the smaller authorities which happen to have one large particularly urgent job. A small local education authority might, for example, qualify for an allocation of not more than £10,000 but yet it might have one particularly urgent job costing £20,000, and it might get an allocation of £20,000.

We have this year shown a distinct bias towards the areas of relatively high unemployment, as in the North-East and the North-West. I accept, of course, the point that my hon. Friend makes, that the drift from the North to the South creates problems in the South just as it creates problems in the North, and we give priority to areas where growing population looks like outrunning school places. I accept that Kent is an area of this kind. It is quite true that the population of Kent is steadily increasing. The recent electrification of railway lines as far as the coast has made a great deal of the county far more accessible. Maidstone and Ashford are developing. There is a possibility of a new town. There is a great deal of "filling-in" in the Medway area. As a result, there is a demand for new schools or for an expansion of existing schools. This my right hon. Friend fully recognises.

However, I would stress that Kent is not alone, nor is it even exceptional, in its population increase. There are about 36 other authorities in whose areas the increase in school population during the last decade has been as large as or larger than in Kent. My hon. Friend mentioned the figures. According to my reckoning, the increase in the Kent school population during the past ten years has been about 27 per cent., which is a very substantial increase. But perhaps I may give a few examples of those with even larger increases. During that period Hertfordshire had an increase of 78 per cent., Berkshire 64 per cent., Buckinghamshire 60 per cent., West Sussex 57 per cent., and so on.

This is not a complete answer—I realise that—to the point that my hon. Friend is making. He is arguing that there will be an even greater increase in population over the next few years in Kent, but I think he will agree that what I have said is an indication that there are many other local education authorities who are in a similar or worse position in this respect.

My hon. Friend has talked about the cut in the allocation to Kent, and it is perfectly true that we have not been able to meet the request of Kent in anything like its entirety either for 1962–63 or for the next financial year. As he said, the authority asked for £879,000 and the allocation is £260,000. My hon. Friend makes a derisory gesture at that, but I think he will realise that it is a very strange state of affairs—almost a unique event—if a local authority gets all that it asks for.

I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend makes, that the Kent authority does a good deal of pruning before it submits figures to us, but so do other local education authorities. The totals of local education authorities' bids for the 1963–64 minor works allocation came to about £30 million. The total which we had to distribute between local education authorities in England was just over £9 million. It will be seen, therefore, that, in receiving just under one-third of its allocation. Kent conformed fairly nearly to the proportion which prevailed over the rest of England.

I have mentioned that the North-East and the North-West have done relatively better than the Home Counties in the South and South-East. I am sure that the House will agree that, in the prevailing situation, this is a right decision.

Mr. J. Wells

That is exactly what I do not agree. The South-East is where the people are going. What is the point of building elegant schools for no children? We want improvements where the children are.

Mr. Chataway

I assure my hon. Friend that his vision of school conditions in the North-East and North-West is not very accurate. There is a need for modernisation of schools in those areas which is every bit as pressing as that required by conditions in the south.

Mr. Willey

The proportion of older schools in the North-East is greater. On top of that, we have large numbers of building trade workers unemployed.

Mr. Chataway

There are these two points, and, as the Chancellor has said on several occasions, there is the opportunity to initiate work in these areas of unemployment, work which, if it were initiated in other areas of Great Britain, might have an inflationary effect.

The truth is that it is open to many authorities to complain that they could use a much larger allocation than they receive. My right hon. Friend has to do his best to achieve balance and fairness within the limited resources at his disposal. Given this situation—which, of course, is not unique this year or unique to this topic—I cannot agree that Kent has been unfairly treated.

There is one pencil-thin ray of hope that I can offer to my hon. Friend, though I do not pretend that it is anything substantial or anything in the nature of a promise. My right hon. Friend has kept back a small part of the £9.15 million which was available for distribution among the English local education authorities, and this he will in due course distribute among those authorities which have a particularly strong case for receiving an extra allocation. But the reserve is very small. While my right hon. Friend will certainly consider Kent's claim for a share of it, I cannot give any indication as to how much, if any, the county would receive.

I agree entirely with the points which were made by the hon. Member for Sunderland, North in relation to minor works generally. My right hon. Friend accepts completely the proposition that there is a vast amount which can be done by means of these small jobs. A great deal can be done with them for the education service.

I am sorry not to have been able to give a more forthcoming reply to my hon. Friend, but, in the light of the explanation which I have given, I hope that he will realise that my right hon. Friend is fully aware both of the importance of minor works in general and of the reality of Kent's needs in particular. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my assurance that, in the difficult process of distributing much-needed resources, a great deal of care is taken to ensure that it is done with justice.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.