HC Deb 08 May 1963 vol 677 cc561-74

10.10 p.m.

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

I beg to move, in page 3, line 1, to leave out from "State" to "grants" and to insert "shall make annual".

In doing so. I should like to protest against the growing practice by the Leader of the House, who I see is now leaving the Chamber, of putting down Scottish business for after ten o'clock. This is a bad practice to develop and one to which we shall have to give some thought if it is to be carried on. I see that the right hon. Gentleman has now returned to the Chamber but I noted that he does not stay after ten o'clock to listen to this kind of business.

The Amendment seeks to delete the words "may from time to time" in subsection (5) and to insert "shall make annual". The subsection would then read: The Secretary of State shall make annual grants to the Board which shall be applied by them towards meeting their expenses. The Clause, however, gives the Secretary of State for Scotland powers by regulation to establish a board for the conduct of examinations. The board will have the purposes which are enumerated in the Clause. The regulations are framed by the right hon. Gentleman and he can impose such duties in addition to those mentioned in the Clause as he thinks necessary or desirable. The regulations may also empower the Secretary of State to give the board directions for the discharge of its functions as appear to the right hon. Gentleman to be expedient.

In other words, the real boss of the board is the Secretary of State, but when it comes to paying for the board it is not the right hon. Gentleman who pays but the local authorities, because subsection (4) says: Every education authority shall, at such times as may be fixed by the Secretary of State, contribute to the funds of the Board such sums as may be fixed by him after consultation with … various local authority bodies. Instead of suggesting that the Secretary of State should make annual grants towards the financing of the board, the Clause goes on to say that "from time to time" he may make grants.

What do the words "from time to time" mean? The right hon. Gentleman might make grants next year, but he might not make another for a very long time. The Tories seem to have forgotten that there are several years remaining in the 1960s. The next grant might be in the 1970s, because Tory minds are on the 1970s. It is not uncharitable, therefore, to assume this, and there is nothing in the Clause to provide that a grant shall be paid before 1980 or 1990 or the year 2,000, or that a grant shall be paid at all. The right hon. Gentleman will make a grant from time to time to this body which is under his control and is solely responsible to him. The board will not be responsible to the local authorities or even controlled by them. As I read the Clause, the local authorities will have no say in the matter whatever. Everything is to be done by the Secretary of State.

10.15 p.m.

This is a modest, fair, equitable, just—are more adjectives needed?—Amendment which seems so eminently reasonable that the Under-Secretary should spring up and say that she accepts it. To be frank, I cannot see a case against it. I have puzzled my mind over this—admittedly, I was not on the Standing Committee and did not, therefore, hear all the argument—and it would seem that the Amendment should be welcomed by the Government.

My hon. Friends and I believe that the Secretary of State should say clearly what he intends to do, how often he will make grants and, in this connection, I believe that he should be responsible entirely for the financing of this. I understand that the board will cost a fair sum of money. Simply to say to the local authorities that they must pay for it but cannot give any instructions to it is going too far. In fact, everything will be determined by the Secretary of State and not the local authorities. In fact, even the advice the board will give will be given to the Secretary of State.

As I read the Clause, the local authorities do not enter into the matter until the question of payment arises; and then they must pay for it. As a local government elector of Edinburgh I should like to discuss the matter at municipal election times with my councillor, including the amount of money Edinburgh Corporation pays for the board. Despite this, it will have nothing to do with me because only the Secretary of State will be involved. As a ratepayer I am going to foot the bill. This is entirely wrong. My democratic rights as a citizen and ratepayer of Edinburgh are being taken from me by this dictatorial Government in a manner that does not stand examination for a moment.

I hope that, with these remarks, the Under-Secretary will spring to her feet and say that after the thought she has given to the matter—and she must have given it considerable thought—and in view of the moving speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, she is happy to accept the Amendment.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lady Tweedsmuir)

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) has moved his Amendment persuasively, as he always does. It is with some regret, therefore, that I must inform him that I cannot accept it. However, I hope that the reasons I shall give will persuade him that there is some reason for allowing subsection (5) to stand without alteration. It is, as he rightly says, in a form which enables the Secretary of State—enables, but does not place a duty on the Secretary of State—to make grants to the Board—

Mr. Willis

Why not?

Lady Tweedsmuir

That is just the point. As it is proposed to be amended, it would, of course, be an obligation on the Secretary of State. But the amount of the grant to be paid would still be in his discretion. To give an extreme example, a grant of only £l would fulfil the obligation. Therefore, as it is worded, the Amendment does not have any real effect and for that reason I cannot accept it.

There are other reasons. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East asked why an obligation should be placed on the education authorities to contribute but not on the Secretary of State. The reason is that the role of Parliament here in relation to the education authorities is quite different from its role in relation to the Government. We have, of course, no control over local authorities, except in so far as it is provided by Statute. In order to be sure that an education authority will contribute to the funds of the board it is necessary to write into the legislation a quite specific obligation—

Mr. Willis


Lady Tweedsmuir

Perhaps I may be allowed to finish my point, and then the hon. Member might like to speak. On the other hand, even if we accept the Amendment, the Secretary of State would have to ask Parliament each year to find the grant to be made by him to the board, and the supply procedure gives hon. Members an annual opportunity to consider the amount of the grant.

Mr. Willis

Is not this really turning the thing upside down to say that the Secretary of State has no control over local authorities in certain spheres? Is it not a fact that the local authority has no powers outside those given by Parliament?

Lady Tweedsmuir

The fact is that by Statute we usually lay an obligation on local authorities, and subsection (5) as drafted is in the form which is quite usual in these circumstances. The normal practice is for the main legislation to, empower the Minister to pay grants, and it gives him the statutory basis on which to ask for supply. Traditionally the House of Commons does not commit itself to giving supply for more than a year at a time, and the Parliamentary authority for the grants covered by the 1963–64 Estimates of the Scottish Education Department, which total about £22 million, is seen in Section 75 of the Education (Scotland) Act, 1962. Exactly as in the subsection we are now discussing, it is worded in this form—"The Secretary of State may ….

It is true that we might have made the grants to the board under that Section and we could have left out subsection (5) altogether. We decided to include it to make our intention quite clear. As hon. Members will know, the 1962 Act is the master Statute. We thought it right to include his subsection in order to make clear the Clause as a whole. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will agree that this is in accordance with precedent.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

The hon. Lady says that subsection (5) was put in to make clear the intention of the Government. We discussed the matter during the Committee stage, but we have no idea yet what proportion of the cost of running this board will be borne by the local authority and what proportion will be provided by the Secretary of State. Nothing that has been said tonight makes us feel that we have received any reassurance on that point. Can the hon. Lady give us that assurance?

Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)

I hope that the Minister will give us more clarification. From the information we have had already, what we have here is a quite unjust imposition on Scottish local authorities. The present examination system which is to be transferred to the new board is paid for entirely by the central Government, or the Secretary of State. According to the original Financial Memorandum, it costs about £160,000 which at present is paid for entirely by the Secretary of State.

Under the board set up by the Bill it is estimated that the costs of the operation will be about £200,000. The major part of this will be met by contributions from the local education authorities. The only mention in the Financial Memorandum of a contribution direct from the Secretary of State is £5,000. In the absence of information from the hon. Lady it is impossible for us to tell what proportion of the £200,000 is likely to be met by any increase in the general grant.

At the moment, we are left with a situation in which it is quite clear that the Government are passing off a responsibility they have carried far many years to the already overburdened shoulders of local authorities. Apart from the hon. Lady's legalisms, this Amendment would enable the Government to say that they accepted each year their share of the cost of the new board.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

The hon. Lady keeps disappointing us. She said that by Statute we lay obligations on the local authorities. Here we are making arrangements for the conduct of examinations. I do not know whether she realises it, but this very week the children in Scotland are sitting their examinations. Who is paying for them? The Secretary of State. But after this Bill goes through we are to have a new examinations board. Who will pay for that? The local authorities.

It is only because of the policy of the Government: that we require this Statute. The local authorities are to have no say on this board. The Government do not want them to have any say, for they are to have only two representatives out of about thirty-two members, although the Government find it convenient to make them pay up. But when it comes to the Government., what tenderness of language we find.

The Bill says: The Secretary of State may from time to time… There is no obligation on the Government to do anything. But until now, and I gather for another year, the Government have been paying, and the cost for last year was £160,000. It is a bit much to shuffle off the cost, even with grants:, on to the local authorities and then to suggest that this is what we always do by Statute. That is nonsense and unfair. The hon. Lady says that this will not mean very much, but I should like to see the Scottish Office putting £1 a year towards this Act and seeing just exactly what the reactions of the Scottish local authorities would be to it or, indeed, of Scottish Members of Parliament. She has already told us what the Government propose to pay from time to time, and she reckoned it at about £5,000 per year. On her own argument there is no obligation on the Government to pay anything at all.

If it is her intention to pay £5,000 a year and she wants to make that intention clear, the way to do it is to change "may" to "shall" and "from time to time" to "annually". If she wants to put in some limitation in relation to payment for advice, in subsection (1,b), in respect of the services that will be rendered to the Secretary of State, she will have ample opportunity to do it elsewhere, but there is no logic in turning down our modest suggestion that she should go part of the way now by making clear her intention, to which she referred in Committee, to meet the obligation that the Secretary of State would pay £5,000 a year.

Our feeling is that the Government should pay far more than £5,000 a year. Indeed, we have another Amendment on the Paper—still very indefinite, for we are bound by the rules relating to the Report stage and all the rest—to ensure that if the contribution of the local authority is reduced, obviously it will automatically increase the contribution that will have to be made by the Secretary of State. I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady will undertake that obligation to consider this point.

10.30 p.m.

We have just had the local elections and the Tories did not do very well. I do not know what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (The Earl of Dalkeith) is muttering. If he wants to make his maiden speech on education, I shall be delighted to give way. I know he is probably feeling very lonely in his isolated position. In Ayrshire the Tories lost. In my own constituency they lost control of Newmills and they lost two seats in Kilmarnock. They lost control in Ardrossan, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Sir F. Maclean), for all his struggles, and education had a lot to do with this. I am sure that the knowledge that the Government were bilking in respect of this subsection had a lot to do with it, because this is the whole idea of the Conservative Government in relation to many of the services which they share with the local authorities. The local authorities are really their agents.

Here is a service, which is an external examination, which has nothing to do with the local authority, and indeed which is probably a way of judging, in respect of certain sections of our education, whether the standard of education is adequate. That is an obligation which is placed by Parliament not on the local authority but on the Secretary of State. It is his responsibility to see that the standard of education is right, and part of that proceeding is the external examination. The local authorities dare not have anything to do with it, because they would be interfering with the secret processes in the proper conduct of the examination. That is why the Department of Education has had it for all these years. That is why, when they are shifting the responsibility in relation to the physical aspects of it, they are shifting it not to the local authorities but to the board, dominated by scholastics, entirely independent— a body corporate with perpetual succession and a common seal". But although the obligation with respect to the standard of education rests with the Secretary of State, he is not going to pay. Although the conduct of examinations is placed in the hands of the board, it is not going to pay. The money is to be paid by the ratepayers. No wonder the ratepayers of Scotland are getting rather sick of the Tory tricks. The hon. Lady the Under-Secretary has a chance to make good the position by accepting this Amendment and to shoulder, on behalf of the Government and of the Scottish Office, a continuing obligation for a service which they have provided and paid for since the "Highers" were established a long time ago.

Mr. Willis

I am very dissatisfied. This is a scandalous situation. The noble Lady's argument in reply amounted to this. First, the Amendment is not quite correctly worded. At that point, I hoped that she would say that the Government nevertheless accepted it in principle and would attend to the wording in another place. But she went on to say that, if we put these words into the Bill, they still would not make any difference because the Secretary of State might just make a nominal grant of £1 a year.

As I understood it, the great benefit under this Clause is that, as a result of a grant being made even of only £1, £20 or £50, we should have the right to discuss the matter on the Floor of the House. Of course, we should have the right to discuss it. If it were put in the Bill, we should then have a guarantee that we should be able to discuss it every year, but now we shall have no guarantee that we shall ever discuss it again before the year 2000. With even £1 a year grant, we should have an opportunity to tell the Government what a crowd of "stinkers" we think they are, but, as it is now worded, we probably shall not have the opportunity until the year 2000.

I did not know what were the sums involved, but, now that I have heard that this is to cost £200,000 and that the Government think that they might make a grant of £5,000, I am staggered. What would the electors of Scotland think if they knew? My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) said that this subsection has probably led to the defeat of the Tories in Scotland. I am sure that, if the Scottish electors had known that the Government were to offer the meagre pittance of £5,000 out of £200,000, they would have swept the Tories out of every town council in the land. Even in Edinburgh we should have won a big majority because Edinburgh folk are very careful with their money. This is what the Tories win their elections on, telling people what good managers they are. It is a preposterous situation, and I feel that we should fight further on this Amendment.

I do not know whether it is an annual cost. Is it £200.000 a year, out of which the local authorities will find £195,000? Is the Government's £5,000 to be an annual grant? The local authorities have practically nothing to do with this body, for no fewer than four-fifths of the members are to be appointed by the Secretary of State.

This attitude towards local authorities in Scotland is most alarming. Is this what the Government mean by strengthening local democracy? I have been reading the Progressives' literature during the municipal elections and I have not found in it anything about whittling down the powers of local authorities and robbing them of power. On the contrary, I read how the Progressives were anxious to strengthen local democracy and make it a reality and take it out of the grip of Whitehall. I was almost persuaded to vote for them on the basis of those cries—almost. I think about these things when people say them and I weigh them up. Talk about the man in Whitehall knowing best! In this case he not only knows best but does everything—appoints the members, receives their reports, gives them instructions, and lets the local authorities pay. This is most unreasonable and I hope that the hon. Lady will think about it again.

The hon. Lady is not unintelligent. I have always attributed a great deal of intelligence to her. I have always attributed to her a desire to make democracy work. I listened with great interest to some of the speeches which she used to make from the third bench above the Gangway and I was always intrigued by them. I thought that she was progressively minded and anxious to confer power on local authorities and to see that they functioned well and were strengthened and were made vital living democracies which were an example to the world. Instead, she has created a tin. pot dictator in St. Andrew's House and the local authorities are to pay for the privilege of creating him. This is wrong. I ask the hon. Lady to tear up the brief which she has been given and ignore the people in the Officials' Box. If she does, I am sure that she will come to a different conclusion from that which she has now reached.

I ask her whether even at this late stage she can do better than she has done. I cannot give her any marks at all so far. I hope that she will apply her mind to this matter and do justice to the argument which we have advanced and reconsider this matter before the Bill goes to another place to see whether something can be done to give a greater degree of assurance to local authorities.

10.45 p.m.

Lady Tweedsmuir

I think that you will agree, Sir Robert, that of all hon. Members, those representing Scottish constituencies have an absolutely fascinating skill about putting everything in order. We have had a most interesting debate on the local elections. I shall return to the Amendment.

Mr. Archie Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

On a point of order. Was the hon. Lady slighting the Chair, Sir Robert, when she said that she would return to the Amendment and that we had really been discussing local elections? I think that she should be pulled to order. In Scottish debates we are very careful to uphold the Chair.

The Deputy-Chairman (Sir Robed Grimston)

I did not think that the hon. Lady was slighting the Chair, because she alluded first to the skill of hon. Members in keeping in order.

Lady Tweedsmuir

I did not wish to pursue the question of the local elections.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Lady Tweedsmuir

Not for the reasons hon. Members opposite might think. I recognise that that there are some lion. Members present who were not members of the Standing Committee, and who therefore may not perhaps be aware of the financial contribution which is required from the local authorities on this question, and the contribution which it is intended the Secretary of State shall make towards these expenses. If, therefore, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) will allow me to do so, I should like to give the details of the exact expenses involved, because I think that the hon. Gentleman is under a considerable misapprehension if he thinks that it is only £5,000.

As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) said, there will be a preparatory stage after the board has been appointed and before it first conducts the examination for the Scottish certificate. This period will last for about twelve months, and during this time the board has to create the organisation and appoint its staff. It is my right hon. Friend's intention to ask Parliament to vote grants to the board to cover the whole of its expenses during this preparatory period. The Scottish Education Department's estimate for 1963–64 includes £20,000 for this preparatory period.

Once the board is in full operation it is the intention that grants should be voted under subsection (5) to meet the cost of the board's advisory functions, and that the education authorities should be required to make contributions under subsection (4) to meet the cost of the board's executive functions and the running of the examinations. The expenditure incurred by the education authorities will automatically be relevant for general grant, and it is our intention that the amount to be paid to general grant each year in this respect will be not less than the full amount of the first year's contributions. The effect will be that the sum ultimately to be met from local rates—which I think was the point stressed by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson)—will be no more than a fraction of the extra cost compared with the first year of running the board.

The hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) particularly asked for figures in relation to this question. We cannot with complete accuracy state what the board's expenses will be, but we estimate that the budget in the first operational year might be about £200,000. The Secretary of State will contribute perhaps £5,000, and the education authorities perhaps £195,000, but—and this is the point in reply to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East—the general grant for that year would also have £195,000 added to it, so that in the first year the rates would bear none of the cost.

Suppose that in the second year the board's budget went up by 5 per cent., say, £10,000. The contributions obviously would also have to rise. The general grant would be increased on the usual proportionate basis, and thus about £4,000 of the total expenditure would fall on the rates and the remainder on the Exchequer. If expenses continue to rise, for example by 5 per cent. each year, by the mid-seventies the board's budget might be about £300,000, and of this about £40,000 would be found from local rates throughout Scotland, and £260,000 from national taxation.

I therefore suggest to hon. Gentlemen who are anxious about subsection (5) that the total which would come from the rates for this purpose of the Examination Board would be very small in relation to the large sums spent on education throughout Scotland. And, quite apart from that, as I said earlier to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, Section 75 of the Education (Scotland) Act, 1962, uses the same form of words. It says that the Secretary of State "may", and for that reason I trust that the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing his Amendment.

Mr. Bruce Milian (Glasgow, Craigton)

The figures of the burden to be borne by local authorities which the noble Lady has just given are quite different from what she said in Committee upstairs. Although I have not the Official Report of the Committee with me, I remember raising the matter. In the Standing Committee it seemed to be admitted that local authorities would pay approximately 40 per cent. of the expenses, on the noble Lady's figures She is saying something entirely different now. Has something happened since, or was the noble Lady misinformed when she spoke in Standing Committee?

Lady Tweedsmuir

I am certain that my figures are exactly the same. I have exactly the same figures before me now. I made it perfectly clear that the whole of the board's expenses would be paid in the first year and that, after that, grant would be payable at a rate of 60 per cent. on the additional cost—the proportion from the local rates being 40 per cent.—and the total cost, even if we take it eleven years hence with increased expenses as I estimated to the Committee just now, would be a very small proportion indeed of the total spent on education in Scotland.

Mr. Ross

The noble Lady cannot slip away with that one. This is a fixation on the 1970s. We have even reached the 1980s and to a position where there was a sum of £300,000 being spent and somehow or other 40 per cent. of £301000 became £40,000. Would the noble Lady like to explain that wee bit of arithmetic, or will she submit her calculations to the new council and see how many marks she will obtain? As an ex-teacher I shall not give her any marks at all.

The noble Lady has made wonderful promises about what will happen under general grant. Have we already got the general grant for next year? It has been passed through the House of Commons. Therefore, the noble Lady is telling us now that she will introduce a supplementary order to give the benefit of an additional general grant to the local authorities. She has also told us what we shall have in general grant somewhere about the year 1979 in respect of one thing, but this is one of the features of the general grant about which we just do not know. A general grant is one block grant and nothing is identifiable, and we have drawn attention to the fact that the proportion in respect of general grant was coming down rather than going up. The noble Lady's figures are more than a bit haywire, but it is late at night and she is on the Government Front Bench alone with no support from any other Scottish Minister. We quite understand that the Secretary of State for Scotland is worn out after his efforts earlier today. He has probably been taken to hospital. The noble Lady can do better arithmetic. I assure her that 40 per cent:, of £300,000 is not as low as she makes out.

Mr. Milian

I am sorry to pursue the point. I hope that the noble Lady is being given the OFFICIAL REPORT reference now. She did not challenge the figures which I gave in Standing Committee and which I took from the Financial Memorandum. If I understood the noble Lady correctly this evening, she was saying that the basic £200,000 expenses of the board were to be borne by the Government, and the local authorities would pay almost 40 per cent, of any additional expenses coming in future years but, with respect, this is not the argument which the noble Lady used in Standing Committee or, if it was, she put it with conspicuous lack of clarity.

I thought that it was generally accepted in Committee upstairs that 40 per cent. of the general expenses were to be born by the local authority, and not 40 per cent. of expenses additional to the expenses in the first year. Can we be absolutely clear that that is not the position and that the Government have changed their mind? If so, and if they are being more generous towards local authorities, we want to give them credit. But we will not give them credit if the Under-Secretary continues to pretend that what she is saying is exactly what she said in Committee upstairs.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.