HC Deb 21 February 1964 vol 689 cc1632-44

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I take this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House what I believe to have been a miscarriage of justice concerning a 21-year-old constituent of mine, Alexander Love, of Shaw Avenue, Armadale.

I offer no apology for introducing a topic of slight consequence compared with the great issue of the underdeveloped countries which the House has been debating, since I also regard this House as the custodian of fair play for every subject in the realm. I believe this House to be the protector of individual rights and that an injustice to one is an injustice to all.

We must consider, first, how it came about that the noble Lady the Under-Secretary of State misled the House of Commons in a Written Answer to me on 22nd January, for which her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland apologised in a further Written Answer on 29th January. The noble Lady said that Mr. Love had been told before the examination that he could not be considered for the award of a certificate. I must make it plain, in fairness, that I have no doubt that the noble Lady believed her Answer to be truthful when she gave it. That is not in question. She explained her error in a letter to me dated 29th January, in which she said: This was based on information from both the Scottish Association for National Certificates and Diplomas and the Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Coatbridge Technical College, who were under the strong impression that the students had taken their application forms to the Association's office before the examination took place. Perhaps the noble Lady will now be prepared to answer the questions I put to her in my letter of 30th January. Is it good enough, in a case involving mammoth correspondence—since 26th June, 1963—that the Scottish Association for National Certificates and Diplomas should not have taken the trouble to find out when the students took their application forms to the Association's office?

Secondly, is it good enough for the Association to be under a strong impression—and I emphasise the phrase "strong impression"—after a lengthy correspondence like this? Let us be clear what took place. Let us check the facts. On 26th June, 1963, a letter from the works engineer of the North British Steel Foundry was sent to the Principal of the Coatbridge Technical College. On 4th July the Principal replied saying: I am having the matter investigated and taken up with the Secretary of the S.A.N.C.D., and as soon as I have more information I will communicate with you". Apparently to date no reply has been received. 13th August—North British Steel Foundry writes to Director of Education for Lanarkshire. No reply. 30th August—North British Steel Foundry write again. 3rd September—reply from Lanarkshire Education Authority. 6th September—North British Steel Foundry write again: We would respectfully suggest that from the substance of your letter, your rejection has been founded on a misconception of the Pacts we were endeavouring to submit. 3rd October—North British Steel Foundry write again to the Director of Education: We refer to our letter dated 6th September and note that your reply is still awaited. May we remind you, as a Public Servant, one of the functions of your office, and that of the Technical College, Coatbridge, is to educationally advance and assist students who come under your control. From our experience to date, you appear to be singularly indifferent to this responsibility. This is rather a measure of the frustration that my constituent, the North British Steel Foundry, was undergoing even some months ago.

  • 7th October—curt little letter from Director of Education.
  • 8th October—Love writes to me.
  • 11th October—I reply.
  • 12th October—I interview Love; incidentally, the first of eight interviews.
  • 1634
  • 12th October—I write to Director of Education.
  • 1st November—the Director of Education replies to me.
  • 9th November—having seen Love, I reply to the Director.
  • 4th December—having had no reply, I write again.
  • 12th December—Principal writes to Love.
  • 24th December—Director of Education replies to my letter of 9th November.
  • 15th Jan tary—my first Parliamentary Question.
  • 22nd January—my second Parliamentary Question.
In December, I put through a personal telephone call to my friend, Mr. McEwen, Director of Education, Lanarkshire, asking him to give the case personal consideration so as to avoid publicity and trouble, because at that time my constituent and his father did not want the case to appear in the Press. Desperately overworked man he must be, he explained that he had delegated the case elsewhere. Yet, after all this, the S.A.N.C.D. rely on so-called "strong impressions". It does not bother to establish the basic facts, which are extracted from it by my third Parliamentary Question of 29th January and, either deliberately or otherwise, it misleads the Minister's advisers.

Does not that failure to establish the basic facts show a contempt for Parliament in general and of the noble Lady's position as Minister in particular? This is either premeditated dishonesty and attempted deception or at best a dreamy incompetence of an order for which, someone, somewhere, I am not in a position to say who, ought to be downgraded.

Then, gracelessly, the noble Lady's letter of 291h January tells me: This error was certainly unfortunate, but I do not think that it in any way affects the main point at issue namely that it was the students' responsibility to send in their applications to sit the examination before closing date". If it were the students' responsibility, why did the head of the department, Mr. Jamieson countersign the application after—after—the examination had taken place? Secondly, if it was so clearly the students' responsibility why were Love and his two classmates told by Mr. Jamieson to hurry off to Glasgow on 25th June to see what a Mr. Currie could do? That is one of the things I want the noble Lady to clear up. Is this Mr. Currie of the S.A.N.C.D. in the habit of putting mistakes right on the quiet? What would have been Mr. Currie's reactions if Mr. Walker, Secretary of the S.A.N.C.D., had not appeared on the scene to telephone Coatbridge Technical College, take charge, and send the students away, rather abruptly?

At this point my constituent's case may be thought to hinge on whether the college was at fault. Let me at once admit that a notice was probably put up, but several notice boards and a mass of notices make it difficult for a day-release student—and Love is a daystudent—who attends one day a week. Normally, the college says, there is an oral warning. In Love's case there was no oral warning. To quote the Minister's reply of 29th January: Perhaps because they took the two subjects involved along with a larger group of students who might have been informed in other classes. Then it is said: The three students could be expected to be experienced in College procedure. It is true that they had filled in forms for the Ordinary National Certificate, but genuinely did not realise that they had to fill in forms for endorsements, a new and for them a rather different matter.

In my opinion—it is only an opinion, I admit—this is a genuine point. After investigating the circumstances, the Lanarkshire Education Committee upheld the decision of the Principal. That was in a letter of 29th January. Were the Lanarkshire Education Committee deceived, as the noble Lady was deceived? Were they informed that Love and his co-students had been told before—I repeat "before"—the examination that they would not be eligible for endorsement? Anyhow, what sort of a one-horse cock-eyed investigation was this?

How does one investigate circumstances without ever contacting one of the main parties concerned? At no time did they interview Love. At no time did the Principal, Mr. Gardner, think it worth his while to interview Love. Yet we are not deal- ing with a school child we are dealing with a man who is old enough to vote and therefore old enough to be heard. Is he to be treated like a 13-year-old? If a man is old enough to vote, he is surely old enough to be given a hearing at the investigation into his case.

Here is what the Secretary of State said on this subject, on 15th January: I agree that it is perhaps bad Luck for these young men, but they are not all that inexperienced. The right hon. Gentleman goes on …I think that we must give students of this age the credit for being able to take some responsibility for looking after their own affairs".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th January, 1964; Vol. 687, c. 206.] If the Secretary of State is right, then the students should have a hearing in the Lanarkshire Education Committee's so-called investigation into their case. My opinion is that it was a pretty cursory investigation. Yet the Lanarkshire Education Committee includes many extremely able and experienced councillors—people of a calibre who, if they knew the full facts, would not be a party to this sort of carry-on. I wonder what story they were told, and by whom? If I were a member of the Lanarkshire Education Committee, for the sake of my own reputation for good sense and fair play, I would now demand all the facts surrounding this investigation.

Equally, I call in question the rôle of the civil servants of the Scottish Education Department. Why was their fact-finding, after a second Parliamentary Question had been asked, so shoddy? I am not a Member of Parliament who snipes at civil servants as a pastime. As one who spends every Tuesday and Thursday, between 4 and 5.30 p.m., on the Public Accounts Committee, I have a very high regard for the able members of their profession who come in front of us. I am not sniping on this occasion. No one has a higher regard for the good civil servant than I have.

Finally, how important is all this to the students concerned? The noble Lady's attitude on this point is summarised in the final paragraph of her letter of 29th January: As you are aware, the students will be allowed to re-sit the examinations at the end of this session with their final National Certificate Examinations. If they are successful as hope they will be they will not have suffered a serious setback as a consequence of what happened last year. First of all, does the noble Lady realise the strain involved in maintaining previous subjects at examination pitch? Secondly, does the noble Lady understand that the endorsement subjects—namely, in this case, the principles of electricity and production processes—are rather different disciplines from the subject of the Higher National Certificate that Love was attempting, namely, mechanical engineering? For those of us who know about such matters this really is a point of substance.

Towering above all other considerations is the question of individual justice. Six months of correspondence have established that crucial false information was given to the Minister for a second Parliamentary Answer, and probably to the Lanarkshire Education Committee. Yet is Alexander Love still required to resit examinations in which he has already been successful, for no other reason than that the authorities of Coatbridge Technical College, the Scottish Association for National Certificates and Diplomas, H.M. Inspectors, the Directorate of Education of the Lanarkshire Education Committee and the Minister should save face?

4.17 p.m.

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

I am grateful. to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for the chance to clear up the misunderstandings which have certainly befogged this case. I shall try to separate clearly the facts from the more controversial features of this problem.

To begin with the facts, Mr. Love and two other students have for some years been attending part-time classes at Coatbridge Technical College in order to obtain a Higher National Certificate in mechanical engineering, to qualify for membership of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. To obtain membership of that Institute it is necessary not only to have a Higher National Certificate, but also to have passed in two additional subjects mentioned by the hon. Member before entering the final year of the course. All these examinations are subject to external assessment, because if they were not, the certificates could have no proper claim to be national in character.

Here, I come to what I think is one important feature of this case, that to sit an assessed examination it is not necessary to have been accepted for assessment. This may seem strange, and could account for some of the misunderstanding which has arisen. The point is that students can, and many do, sit these examinations with no intention of being assessed for a national certificate. The usual reason for this is that a student his been studying for his own purposes a single subject which happens also to be Tart of a composite course—for example, statistics in a mathematics course. He may sit the examination in that subject and he may be awarded a certificate by the college, but he would not be eligible for a national certificate. The fact that the three students were allowed to sit the examinations has, therefore, nothing to do with their consideration for a national certificate.

I should like now to turn to the organisation which actually conducts the examinations, the Scottish Association for National Certificates and Diplomas, which, I think, for the sake of brevity, I should refer to as the Association. I think that the shortest description of the Association's functions is this: it acts as the co-ordinating agency for all the education authorities and central institutions which provide national certificate courses.

I should like to take this opportunity of paying some tribute to the very important part which is played by the Association in our system of further education. However, it is not grant-aided and I have no power to direct how it should carry out its functions from day to day.

Mr. Dalyell

Is it not a fact that on the governing body of the Association half the members are Her Majesty's inspectors?

Lady Tweedsmuir

I could not answer that accurately as regards all the members. There are some, but I cannot say whether they are exactly half. The fact remains that they are not grant-aided and I have no power to direct them in their day-to-day activities.

The Association prepares examination papers and it draws up lists of approved candidates for assessment. At least one month before the exam, it must submit to the Joint Committee a statement of the number of candidates, together with the necessary fees. Like all other national examining bodies of which I am aware, the Association prescribes a date by which applications for assessment for national certificate must be submitted.

Mr. Dalyell

And endorsement?

Lady Tweedsmuir

I shall come to that.

Application has to be made on a prescribed form and all applications have to be endorsed by the college the student is attending. One month's grace is allowed for late applications, with a nominal penalty of 5s. These necessary dates and conditions are set out in the Association's handbook, which also states that applications will not be accepted beyond the date. Again, this is a common requirement of examining bodies.

In the present case, the three students failed to apply for assessment by the normal prescribed date of 28th February or within the period of one month's grace. In fact, they did not apply until June, over three months after the prescribed date. The college has no record of the date on which the application forms were received, but they were countersigned by the head of the department on 25th June, a week after the end of the examination. I see no reason whatever to dispute the students' own statement that this was the date on which they filled up the forms and handed them in.

I wish now to refer to the Question asked by the hon. Gentleman and the correction which I have already made to information which I gave him in the House, in good faith, as he recognises, on 22nd January.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the noble Lady explain why the head of the department saw fit to countersign them after the examination? His action needs explaining.

Lady Tweedsmuir

I wish to go into all the details, but there is not a great deal of time.

I told the hon. Gentleman in the House that the students knew before the examination that they could not be considered for the award of a certificate. This was later corrected. The information was based, as I told the hon. Gentleman in my letter, on the personal recollection of the staff of the college at the time when the question was raised, six months after the examination. When the actual application forms for the exam were referred to, it emerged that they had been countersigned on 25th June.

It appears to be quite clear, therefore, that the staff of the college were mistaken in their recollection as to the date on which the students were told of their position. This was very unfortunate, but I am quite sure that there was no intention on the part of the college to mislead my Department or the hon. Gentleman. I gave him the information at the time because it seemed relevant to his Question, but I say again that it was not in any way crucial to the main issue.

I understand that the college first became aware of the fact that the students had not applied for assessment at the end of May or the beginning of June, when the examination papers had been received by the college and a routine check was made of the students involved. The college then discussed the case with the Association but, apparently, without reaching any conclusion on whether applications could still be accepted. The college staff have no definite record or recollection of when the students were informed of their position, but, as I have said, I naturally accept the students' statement that they were not told that they were ineligible for assessment until after the examination.

It is very unfortunate if, as appears to be the case, the college did not inform the students of their position when this first came to light before the exam. The uncertainty as to the exact date on which the students were told about this cannot, however, alter the essential fact that they did not apply until well after the closing date and, even if they had been told to hand in their application forms when the question first came to light at the beginning of June, there is no reason to suppose that the Association would have been willing to alter its decision that applications could not be accepted.

The next critical question to be asked, I suggest, is this: did the Association act reasonably and justly in refusing the late applications? Closing dates for applications are, I think we all agree, an inescapable fact of modern society. We have them for all sorts of purposes—passports, vacancies for jobs, even nominations for candidature to Parliament. It is the normal practice of national examining bodies to prescribe a final date beyond which they will not accept applications.

In the case of national certificates in Scotland, we are dealing with thousands of candidates from scores of colleges sitting one or more of several hundred examinations held within the space of a month or so. Obviously, the Association would find it impossible to make efficient arrangements if its rules about applications were not strictly observed.

Despite this, it is the practice of the Association, as of most other examining bodies, to accept applications beyond the extended final date if there are exceptional circumstances outwith the students' control—for example, if the student completed the application form and the college failed to pass it on, or if the form were lost in the post. In the present case there were no such obvious exceptional circumstances, and the officials of the Association who saw the students refused to accept the late applications unless the principal of the college was prepared to certify that the fault lay with the college and not with the students. This he was not prepared to do, and in this he was fully supported by Lanarkshire Education Committee.

The hon. Member asked why the head of the engineering department of the college countersigned the application forms when the students gave them to him after the examination. I should certainly have expected him to know that the Association's policy was not to accept late applications unless the college concerned accepted responsibility. But as far as the Association is concerned, I do not think that anyone can seriously dispute its right to refuse late applications unless in exceptional circumstances.

As I understand it, the students' case rests on the suggestion that the need to submit applications for assessment and the arrangements for them were not sufficiently clear. I must say again that the primary responsibility in this matter is always placed upon the student. That is the normal practice. The Coatbridge Technical College prospectus puts this very clearly: Students are particularly requested to WATCH THE ANNOUNCEMENTS ON THE COLL 7, GE NOTICE BOARDS FOR THE LAST DAY OF ENTRY TO CERTAIN EXTERNAL EXAMINATIONS. It is the student's responsibility to see that entries are made properly and in time". I have been assured by the education authority that notices were in fact displayed on main notice boards throughout the college. The hon. Member, I know, says that in his student days he never looked at notice boards, and I can sympathise with him in this, but it is a fact that these students had already completed the necessary application forms on earlier occasions.

In addition to the measures to which I have already referred, there is the Association's Guide to Courses——

Mr. Dalyell


Lady Tweedsmuir

If the hon. Member wishes me to answer his case, he must give me time to answer.

I fully accept that an even more effective method of informing the students is to distribute copies of the application forms and to remind the students orally in the classrooms. This is normally done at Coatbridge, but it does not seem to have bean done where these three students were concerned. How this happened is not quite clear, but the probability is that it happened because the three students were studying production processes and principles of electricity as special supplementary subjects along with a large number of other students.

The executive committee of the Association, which for its part also reviewed the case, decided that its rules about late applications should stand and that the circumstances of the present case were not such as to justify exceptional treatment. In those circumstances, I do not think that I should be justified in seeking to have the decision about the students reversed. I am, however, very concerned to see whether we can make the procedure more watertight, and I have asked the Association to consider whether improvements could be made in procedure which would ease the difficulties of late applications.

The hon. Member will realise that although the decision not to waive the requirement to sit the examination has been made, special concessions were given in two ways. It is a requirement that passes in additional subjects must be obtained before the final year. This has been waived. It is also a requirement of the Joint Committee that a student who has to re-sit an examination must also re-attend classes. At the request of the Association both these requirements have been waived.

Therefore, while I well understand the difficulties for these students in having the examination hanging over their heads, the fact remains that they will not lose another year, as they might have had to do, and that it will be possible for them to sit this examination together with the final subjects.

Although this has been very unfortunate, the fact remains that the prime responsibility for sending in applications before a certain time must remain with the student. I should like to take this opportunity of saying to them that, while I recognise their difficulties, I hope and believe that they will continue to have success in their studies and particularly in their careers in the future. I should like to tell all other students that we are doing everything we can to ask the Association to reexamine in detail its procedure——

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.