HC Deb 09 March 1966 vol 725 cc2118-29

4.6 p.m.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

It so happens, Mr. Speaker, that you have called me to address the House immediately following the remarks which you have just made from the Chair. Perhaps it would not be impertinent of me to say, simply because I happen to have the Floor immediately following what you have said, that it would be the wish of both sides of the House most warmly; to associate themselves with what you have said about the Officers and the staff of the House.

If I may say so without presumption, I think that the House itself would feel a reciprocal debt to you for the way in which you have presided over our proceedings in the later part of this Session and for the kindness, firmness and wisdom with which you have guided us. I hope that it will not be felt out of place that I should say that, but I could not help feeling that it would have been a little discourteous to embark on the debate without referring to what you had said.

It so happens that you have called me when the House, on the eve of the dissolution of this Parliament and pursuing the statement of the Leader of the House, has been discussing a matter of abiding and fundamental constitutional importance, namely, the exercise of arbitrary power by the Executive. It so happens that the matter which I want to raise has a similar implication.

The subject which I want to raise is the exercise of Ministerial powers under the Education Act, 1944, with especial reference to the reorganisation of secondary education on comprehensive lines and also with especial reference to the Borough of Redbridge, one part of which I represent.

I should like to say straight away that the House will appreciate the Minister's courtesy in being here to answer the debate. Neither of us will expect the other to mince matters or be mealy-mouthed. This is a prime issue of controversy between his party and mine and I raise it on the eve of the dissolution of Parliament and our appeal to the electorate. I ask the Minister now to make a candid declaration about his party's intentions in pursuing, should it have the opportunity to do so, the policy outlined in the Secretary of State's Circular 10/65.

There is no need for me to remind the House that this circular called on local education authorities to submit plans for the reorganisation of secondary education on comprehensive lines and there is no need for me to remind the Minister or the House or local education authorities that the Secretary of State has absolutely no power under the 1944 Act to force local education authorities to organise secondary education in any way whatsoever.

All that is common knowledge, and I think that the Minister knows that many local education authorities profoundly resent what they see as Ministerial intrusion into their exclusive sphere of responsibility. But whatever his general information may be, I should like to take this opportunity of informing him of one specific point about which he can hardly be expected to know so much. Although I am sure that his intelligence is very good, I doubt whether it has spread from Redbridge to Walthamstow that last night there was a meeting held in Ilford in the Borough of Redbridge, attended by 550 people, and which would have been attended by a couple of hundred more had the caretaker of the school not turned them away for safety reasons, and that this meeting passed a resolution to be submitted to the council.

I should like to read the terms of the resolution to the Minister and also to point out to him that this meeting, which was held before the dissolution of Parliament, attracted a larger attendance than anyone would expect any political meeting in the General Election to attract in the coming three weeks. It shows how very seriously people take this issue which his right hon. Friend has put before the country. The resolution which was passed was to the effect that in the Borough of Redbridge no destructive change be introduced into existing grammar and secondary modern schools; secondly, that no effort be spared to bring secondary modern schools up to the educational standards of the best of them; and, thirdly, that comprehensive education be only introduced into the borough with new purpose-built all-through schools so that parents have an even wider choice than at present and all concerned can judge the merits of comprehensive schooling on their home ground.

It is for the local authority to form its own view on the merits of this resolution and on what it intends to do in response to Circular 10/65, but we in this House have a duty to assist the local authority—and, indeed, other local authorities which may be similarly placed—in deciding what their policy should be. On their behalf, I want now to ask the Minister frankly to declare his party's intentions as to the future carrying out of this policy if his party should again be responsible for it. I shall do my very best to see that his party is not responsible for it, and the electorate will have to judge between us whether this be so or not. I think and hope that their judgment will be affected by the Minister's answer.

First, I want to ask the Minister to confirm that Circular 10/65 is in no way whatsoever mandatory upon local authorities. Secondly, I want to ask him to say absolutely frankly to what extent he and his right hon. Friend are influenced and have been influenced in giving or withholding approval for major school building schemes by considerations as to whether or not any given scheme fitted into the reorganisation of secondary education along comprehensive lines.

I know that the Minister gave a Written Answer the other day to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Cooper) to the effect that approval had just been given for a major project to the tune of £128,000 in the Borough of Redbridge. But, of course, he will be aware, and it has not escaped me, that this was only for one stage out of three stages in one project, and that the completion of this one stage in this one project would not have affected one way or the other the total reorganisation of secondary education in the borough along comprehensive lines. In a famous phrase, it kept all the options open.

Therefore, in approving this scheme the Minister was not giving any reassurance to the borough that he had an open mind, and that he would consider schemes on their merits and approve them, if they were sound, regardless of the fact that they might be incompatible with comprehensive reorganisation. I think that it was a former American President, "Teddy" Roosevelt, who said that he found it advisable in politics to "talk soft and carry a big stick". I think that perhaps this may be the Minister's approach, and there is this suspicion in the minds of local education authorities.

I want to ask the Minister what his attitude is now, and what the attitude of his successors in the future would be, if they were guided by the policy of his party, to making grants for schemes for the development of schools locally which are totally irreconcilable with comprehensive education—for example, a scheme to improve an existing secondary modern school which could not be reconciled with fitting that school into a putative comprehensive scheme.

I want to ask the Minister, also, for an assurance that his party adheres to the principle of the Education Act, 1944, of independence of local education authorities in their responsibility for secondary education, and that he has no thought in his mind of amending legislation as part of the future policy of his party.

I hope that the Minister's answers will be purely academic, but I think it right for him to be on record so that he and his party may be judged accordingly at the forthcoming election if the answers are unsatisfactory. Alternatively, if the answers are satisfactory from my point of view, he can be held to them. That is to say, I should like him to give an assurance to the Redbridge Borough Council that, if it says that it wants to have nothing of his schemes of comprehensive reorganisation, it will still not be penalised by having grants withheld from it. If, unfortunately, circumstances should arise in which a satisfactory assurance is of any significance, I think it right that the Minister should be on record so that he and his successors in office in his party should be held to it in the future.

4.19 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Edward Redhead)

May I, first, Mr. Speaker, allude to the reference by the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) to your own expression of thanks to those who have served this Parliament, and share with him the endorsement that he expressed of our appreciation to those who have been most excellent servants of this House. I should like to take this opportunity of no less warmly endorsing his very well-deserved tribute and expression of thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, for the manner in which you have presided over our deliberations.

The hon. Member for Ilford, North has not sought today to reopen the whole range of the discussion about the policy of reorganising secondary education on comprehensive lines, which we debated at length last Wednesday, but has, in fact limited himself to the broad question of the extent of statutory powers to enforce compliance with Circular 10/65.

The hon. Gentleman said, in passing, that this was a matter of major controversy between the parties. It is just as well that I should put on record that there are considerable elements in the hon. Gentleman's own party who are at one with my hon. Friends in recognising the merits of reform along the lines of comprehensive education and in the belief that it should not be debated as a purely party issue. On the contrary, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has seen of recent date that a particular element in the Conservative Party, known by the unedifying initials P.E.S.T., give some measure of approval to comprehensive education and express extreme criticism of the Conservative Party itself.

But in the wider field this matter has not been going on strictly party lines, and certainly not in the local sphere. I hope that it will not be debated purely on party lines. It is not disputed for a moment that the existing powers of the Secretary of State do not enable him to enforce compliance with Circular 10/65. I confirm quite frankly and without any qualification that this is not a mandatory document. In fairness, it should be noted that it has never been claimed that it was and the circular itself suggests this neither explicitly nor implicitly.

It is worth recalling the circumstances in which this circular was issued. It followed a Resolution of the House which went on record as saying that it believed that the time was now ripe for a declaration of national policy in general approval of reorganisation on comprehensive lines. The circular thereupon goes on to say, and this is significant and is the whole tone of the document, that the Secretary of State accordingly requests local education authorities, if they have not already done so, to prepare and submit to him plans for reorganising secondary education in their area on comprehensive lines.

Elsewhere in the circular the same note of request is the constant feature, and no one at any time has suggested that it is mandatory. Nevertheless, it is a national policy by decision of the House, and the Government are, therefore, perfectly entitled, and this is per- fectly consistent with past development in education, to require that the Secretary of State should bring this to the notice of local education authorities and seek to guide and assist them in conforming with the opinion which has now emerged.

It is abundantly clear from all the evidence that a very large section of the educational world, regardless of political alliances, broadly supports this approach. This was manifest at the last annual conference of the Association of Education Committees, and the National Association of Divisional Executives for Education, at its annual conference, passed by a very large majority a resolution welcoming the Government's steps to introduce comprehensive secondary education.

I thought that the point about powers had been made abundantly clear already. I answered a supplementary Question only on 24th February last, put to me by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) when he asked me: …is it not clear that as the law stands at present there is no power to compel an authority to send a particular reply to this circular or to comply with it? Whatever our views of the merits of the question, is it not very important that the present legal position of the Ministry and of the local authorities should be made quite plain? I replied: I am sure that local authorities would not defy what has been the normal position of observing circulars on Government policy and requests made to them to conform to that policy. Nevertheless, it is true that there is no absolute statutory power to enforce some part of that circular, except in so far as an application is required under Section 13."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th February 1966; Vol. 725, c. 607–8.] Perhaps I should have amplified that reference to Section 13. I should make clear now that that Section deals with the question of a proposal by an education authority which desires to close a school or open a new school and first has to secure the approval of the Secretary of State. In so far as such a proposal may be part of the scheme submitted by a local education authority, the Section obviously gives the Secretary of State the power to frustrate the scheme if it is wholly dependent upon such a closure or new school, but it does not give him the power to enforce or impose the scheme, and the answer which I gave previously is still the position.

On the other hand, let me make it perfectly clear that local education authorities are free to introduce a scheme of comprehensive secondary education outside the requirements of Section 13 on their own volition, and they do not expressly require the permission of the Secretary of State to do this. This is explicit in the 1944 Act.

The hon. Member asked me about the position at Redbridge. He will appreciate that, although Walthamstow is the next-door neighbour to Redbridge, so far the news has not reached me about the decision at the public meeting last night to which he referred. I have noted the terms of the resolution. It was a public meeting and, obviously, one would await the response not of the public meeting but of the local education authority for Redbridge before commenting on the expressed opinion of that resoution.

Indeed, when the hon. Member asks me for a frank declaration of intention I can only tell him, in respect of Red-bridge or any other local education authority, that each and every proposal received from local education authorities will be most carefully considered on its merits. I repeat what I said the other day—that there is no intention whatsoever of passing schemes willy-nilly, regardless of the educational consequences. As the hon. Member will know, some are eager and anxious to implement the principle and have put up schemes which they have been asked to reconsider. Approval has been withheld because in the opinion of my right hon. Friend they are not satisfactory in as much as some destructive element is present in the proposals. This will continue to be the policy, and this will be the manner in which we shall proceed to consider such proposals.

Mr. Iremonger

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. He has framed his declaration carefully on the assumption that the local authority is submitting a scheme for comprehensive reorganisation, but let us suppose that a scheme submitted consists of blunt defiance of the circular. Will the hon. Gentleman then say, "Very well, I cannot order you to do this or that, but when you come with your request for money for schemes you will find yourselves always at the end of the queue"? It is of this that people are afraid.

Mr. Redhead

I have the point, but may I correct the general impression which the hon. Gentleman seeks to create? It is perfectly true that one or two authorities—and I have official knowledge only of two—have indicated to us that they are not prepared to submit any plans at all in compliance with the circular. One of these authorities is clearly opposed to the principle and considers that its existing form of organisation is satisfactory to meet the needs. The other, while not opposing the principle, has certain hard practical difficulties in its way in implementing the proposals in the circular. But to represent that these are in any sense a sign of open rebellion and revolt all over the country is, quite frankly, to exaggerate.

There may be others who contemplate similar answers. But I emphasise most strongly that, while the position is bound to be a little obscure until the bulk of local education authorities have reached conclusions—they have until July to do so—and submitted plans and proposals, all the evidence which I have suggests that, by and large, the vast majority of authorities are willingly seeking to co-operate with this request on the part of the Secretary of State in carrying out what, after all, was the expressed view of the House of Commons.

Mr. Iremonger

I am much obliged to the Minister for being so patient and for giving way again. I hope that he will forgive me if I press him on this point. He is not answering my question. If Redbridge says, "We do not want to reorganise", will he take it out of Redbridge when it asks for loan sanction for major developments which are irreconcilable with a comprehensive scheme?

Mr. Redhead

If the hon. Gentleman will be a little patient, I shall answer his questions.

I wanted, first, to remove a basic misapprehension on this subject which appeared to be animating his mind. I repeat that to refer to this situation, as some commentators have done, as a muddle is to go quite beyond the facts. It is wholly misconceived. To find the sound of rebellion in the air—or a large measure of resentment, as the hon. Gentleman himself put it—is to ignore the fact that, in a great many instances, local authority planning is, in fact, going ahead, though not necessarily, I agree, without problems.

Everyone recognises that there are problems here, but local authorities are proceeding in a spirit of willing co-operation with the national policy. I derive that impression not only from the schemes which have come forward, but from the response to that part of the circular which invited local education authorities to consult the Department in respect of the preparation of plans or any difficulties which they might have in this connection. Discussions have been held with many such authorities.

I say frankly that the present policy was initiated in reliance upon the willing co-operation of authorities and, as I have said, the response so far justifies that expectation. But a final judgment on what the situation will be must, obviously, await the end of July when it will be possible to assess the total response to the circular. Until then, and before the process of discussion and persuasion has been fully exploited, it is quite unhelpful to speculate on the hypothetical need to take additional powers.

Compulsion is certainly not an immediate prospect and may never arise at all. I am sure that I express the view of my right hon. Friend when I say that we hope most earnestly that no measure of compulsion will ever be necessary.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)

As another hon. Member who attended and participated at the meeting to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) referred, may I press the Minister to answer his question? Would the Secretary of State withhold loan sanction from a scheme put forward for the development of an existing school and, therefore, as I understand it, not coming under Section 13, if that development were inconsistent with the move towards the comprehensive system?

I have particularly in mind a school in my own constituency in the Borough of Redbridge, St. Barnabas Secondary School, for which a scheme may well come forward. Would the Secretary of State withhold consent or loan sanction from such a scheme if it was inconsistent with the development of comprehensive secondary education?

Mr. Redhead

This situation will be made abundantly clear within a few days, when my right hon. Friend will be issuing his invitation to local authorities to make their plans for the next round of the building programme. But I should say here that it would, obviously, be quite inconsistent with the Government's long-term objective, fulfilling the declared view of this House, if future school building programmes were to include new projects exclusively fitted for a separatist system of secondary education. I want to be quite frank about that.

It would be premature and improper for me to say what would be the likely fate of any particular project which might be referred to the Secretary of State from the Borough of Redbridge, or from any other borough, but I make the point that, clearly, given a national objective and a national policy, it would be quite inconsistent on the part of my right hon. Friend—assuming that he will still be in office and have the decisions to make—to give approval to a project for a new school building which was exclusively designed for a perpetuation of the separatist system of secondary education.

I hope that I have dealt with that point. I wish to make clear, also, that we are extremely hopeful that we can proceed, as so often in education, on the basis of willing co-operation with the local authorities. I do not want to talk in terms of compulsion, sanctions or anything of that kind. Local education authorities have a variety of difficulties which are fully appreciated in this context. The circular itself makes abundantly clear that this is well appreciated. Not only are local authorities given the opportunity of considering various systems, but the circular itself makes clear that local factors must be both a very important conditioning element in the preparation of authorities' plans and a conditioning element in my right hon. Friend's consideration of those plans.

While we hope that there will be no question of compulsion or sanctions in this regard, the hon. Gentleman has asked me what our intention will be if we are, as we are confident we shall be, in office after the General Election. We shall go on with our policy, as my right hon. Friend expressed it in his recent speech, seeking to fulfil this purpose as rapidly as possible, but as slowly as we must, taking account of all the difficulties and the variations of local circumstances. But it would not be right for me to say at this stage that, in seeking to ensure the implementation of a national policy on the reorganisation of secondary education, my right hon. Friend would not in any circumstances, if he found it necessary, consider seeking further powers to carry out the avowed and expressed intention of this House.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that I have tried to deal frankly with his questions. What use he makes of my answer will, of course, remain to be seen. I assure him that I have no hard feelings about my neighbouring Borough of Redbridge. Indeed, in anticipation of still being in a position to influence these matters, I have accepted an invitation to open a new school in his borough only next month.