HC Deb 13 February 1969 vol 777 cc1713-24

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

10.24 p.m.

Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)

I am very grateful for this opportunity to raise the question of adult non-vocational classes. I am particularly concerned with the arrangements for cuts about to be made by the Cheshire county education authority, but it is a matter of more than purely local importance, which has implications for us all. I am also glad to have the opportunity of bringing forward on the Adjournment a subject in which you, Mr. Speaker, have great personal interest and of which you have extensive professional knowledge.

We are concerned with the proposed cuts by the Cheshire County Education Authority but it would be right to go through the history of the matter briefly and refer to the cuts made by the Government and announced by the Prime Minister on 16th January, 1968. He referred to a cut of £100 million in education expenditure over a period of two years. I am aware that the Under-Secretary of State may say that this is not really a cut and that the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, the right hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Gordon Walker), referred to a "planned reduction" in the rate of growth. Nevertheless, to those on the receiving end, it seems to be a cut.

It is right to make clear that all the blame, if blame there is, does not necessarily lie on the Cheshire authority. In the area, the population growth has averaged about 7 per cent. per annum. The school population has doubled since the war. The present arrangements for rate support grant are very far from being helpful, so the authority has its special problems.

I am constantly pressing the authority on various matters, such as primary schools with classes approaching 60 pupils, or with outside sanitation, and so forth, and it would be irresponsible of me not to recognise that, in the context of having to make cuts in planned ex- penditure, the authority has some difficulty in deciding where to place the burden. Nevertheless, in proposing these cuts, it is surely asking adult education to bear a disproportionate share.

However, the Government have much responsibility for the situation and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use his influence with his colleagues to do something to ensure that the economic cuts will be moved away from education to certain other sectors of the economy which could bear them better. As Minister for Sport, and with Cup Final tickets at his disposal, he will have some influence with his colleagues. I hope that he will use it.

Mr. Grant-Ferris (Nantwich)

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government are much more to blame than the Cheshire authority and that, having studied what it could do to meet the Government's requirements, it appears to be meeting them by the best method it can find? That is not to say that I disagree with the hon. Gentleman altogether. I agree with him that the Government must accept responsibility for the cuts.

Dr. Winstanley

I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The total cuts add up to just over £1 million and consist of cuts in various educational activities. But £600,000—more than half—is to be cut from adult non-vocational education. This is not a proper division. It is wholly disproportionate.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must relate what he is saying to some Ministerial responsibility.

Dr. Winstanley

I will do so closely and rapidly. On 13th January, the authority published Circular No. 69/6, in which it outlined the cuts it would make in response to the requests made by the Department of Education and Science. These were to fall into various sections but in particular I am concerned with items 29, 30, 31 and 32.

Item 29 says: Cessation for one year of all non-vocational evening institute classes. True, it is followed by a note which says that it is suggested that where a group of students, not less than 16 in number, combine together and are prepared to pay the full cost—it says a payment of not less than £9 paid in advance—it might be possible for the classes to continue.

Item 30 says: Savings by cancellation of courses and other means in the seven colleges of further education. Item 31 says: Cancellation of issue of permits to Cheshire residents to attend part time day and evening non-vocational courses provided at colleges not maintained by the Cheshire authority. Item 32 says: Suspension of grant to W.E.A. and University extra-mural classes.

Mr. Trevor Park (Derbyshire, South-East)

I agree with the stricture the hon. Gentleman is making about the decision of the Cheshire authority. Would he not also agree that where the entire future of the W.E A. provision is being threatened by the attitude of a local authority, it lies within the power of the Minister to put the matter right by increasing his Departmental grant to W.E.A. districts? Would he put that point to the Minister?

Dr. Winstanley

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will have the opportunity to say that he will do something of this kind, or at least he will do something equivalent. These items of savings amount to £158,000, £240,000, £190,000 and £4,750, making a total of nearly £600,000 out of total cuts of just over £1 million.

They were not final proposals. They were being considered, but they caused alarm and despondency among the people who attend these classes or teach in them. Following that I had a letter from the Director of Education, Mr. Armitage, and I should like to pay tribute to him. Since he has taken over as Director he has worked as hard as he can to meet the very special difficulties which Cheshire has. He has a particular difficulty here, and I hope that he will meet it in a better way than it has so far been met.

He sent me a letter to say that they were proposals. Now they have been agreed, at a meeting on 27th January. I was sent another letter on 6th February, and then another which I understand has been distributed among hon. Members and a copy sent to the Minister, on 10th February, explaining that it might not be necessary to suspend these non-vocational adult educational classes but that it might be possible to continue them if people were willing to pay, and adding that a working party was sitting.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

This Adjournment debate has had some effect, and I have personal experience because my wife is attending a non-vocational course which was suspended, and which has since been reinstated. We owe the hon. Gentleman congratulations for the endeavours he has made.

Dr. Winstanley

I am grateful. It is true that it seems that the attitude of the county council has shifted recently.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)


Mr. Speaker

Order. After all, it is the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate.

Mr. Carlisle

May I make the point that it was said to me last week by the Director of Education in Cheshire that these plans were being considered long before the hon. Gentleman was concerned.

Dr. Winstanley

The hon. Member must know that I raised this matter a fortnight ago, and the notice I referred to is one which came out some weeks ago. Surely we are concerned in doing what we can to ensure that some kind of adult non-vocational educational classes continue on a basis acceptable to those who take part, rather than in scoring cheap party political points. I am astonished at the hon. Member for choosing to make one.

It is my view that if the original decision to suspend these classes were carried out it would be contrary to the spirit and letter of the 1944 Education Act, Section 41 of which says: … it shall be the duty of every local education authority to secure the provision for their area of adequate facilities for further education, that is to say:—

  1. (b) leisure-time occupation, in such organized cultural training and recreative activities as are suited to their requirements, for any persons over compulsory school age who are able and willing to profit by the facilities provided for that purpose."
Surely to suspend classes completely must be contrary to the provisions of the Act. The education authority would not then be discharging its duties. The point is arguable, I agree, if the county education authority arranges for classes to be held on the basis that those who attend pay the full cost or, in some cases, in excess of the cost so that they are providing the county education authority with a profit, but I cannot see how that can be in accordance not merely with the spirit but with the letter of the Act.

If it transpires that the education authority is not able to continue these classes, I hope that the Minister will address himself to the question whether the authority would be in breach of the 1944 Act. If there is merely a reduction in the facilities provided, I hope that he will ensure that it is not a major reduction. I suggest that even a small reduction would be in many ways extremely inadvisable.

These classes serve many functions, including very important social functions. I have received scores of letters, as I am sure have other hon. Members, from people who rely on these courses, for example old-age pensioners who write to me to say that at one time they felt that they were out of the community and that it was only through attending such classes that they were brought back into the community. I have letters from people recently arrived in the district who felt that they did not belong to the district until they attended the adult non-vocational education classes, which brought them into the life of the community. Many people who have been sick, suffering from nervous conditions, have found that attending these classes restored them to useful life.

In my professional experience in practice I have found that I have been able to do more good for many patients by getting them to take part in these activities than by pushing out bottles of medicine and tablets. I was telephoned a short time ago by a Miss Evison, not from my constituency but from Mossley, who said, "I left school when I was 12 years of age. I have had practically nothing by way of education out of the State, for I went straight to work in a cotton mill. Now I am 64 and I go to these classes." At last she is getting some benefit from our provision of education. Is she not entitled to it?

This is a matter of great importance. In this connection I would remind hon. Members of an interesting quotation from a letter written by Sir Winston Churchill to Sir Vincent Tewson when the latter was Secretary of the T.U.C. Sir Winston wrote: … There is, perhaps, no branch of our vast educational system which should more attract within its particular sphere the aid and encouragement of the State than adult education. I do not think that it is attracting very much aid and encouragement at the moment in the County of Cheshire. Sir Winston continued: How many must there be in Britain, after the disturbance of two destructive wars, who thirst in later life to learn about the humanities, the history of their country, the philosophies of the human race, and the arts and letters which sustain and are borne forward by the ever-conquering English language? This ranks in my opinion far above science and technical instruction, which are well sustained and not without their rewards in our present system. Sir Winston said that education of this kind demands the highest measures which our hard-pressed finances can sustain". This is a point of view which I support and which I hope all hon. Members support.

I am not unmindful of the difficulties of Cheshire County Council, but I believe that in saying that non-vocational classes should virtually be closed down, they are placing a disproportionate burden on adult education. I remind the Minister that once these classes are stopped, the teachers will have gone, and we shall not get them back again. I also remind him of what is happening in my constituency which borders other contiguous education authorities. People are going into Manchester to get accommodation addresses in order to enter courses in another authority's area. The saving may, therefore, not be as great as it seems. Indeed, will there be a significant saving? The vocational classes have to continue, so that there will still be lighting and heating and a caretaker to provide in the schools. The saving may not be as great as is supposed.

I am astonished to find in some districts that the number of people taking part in these courses is 20 per cent. of the community; in other words, as high as one in five in certain districts. This is not a minority interest. It is of great educational and social importance. Therefore, I implore the Minister to do what he can to enable Cheshire to keep this service going as fully as it possibly can.

10.40 p.m.

Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I will detain the House for only two minutes on this subject.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) on one point. I have constantly said in this House that education has suffered disproportionately from the Government's economy measures during the past year. I repeat that this evening.

I am sure that we ought to remember the acute problems caused for local education authorities by the restrictions on the rate support grant. This is something much more severe than many imagine. It has caused problems for Cheshire, Kent, and many of the best authorities in the country.

None the less, I am sure that many in this House feel anxious for two reasons. First, because of the part that adult education plays in providing a second chance for many of our citizens, not least those who came, as it were, before the Robbins Report. We are not just talking about courses; we are talking about people.

I must admit a special interest. I am a National Vice-President of the W.E.A., which has been mentioned this evening. I believe that in present circumstances, with the great problems that face local authorities financially, it is inevitable that authorities should take steps to make a number of courses more self-supporting. I think that Government supporters are unrealistic if they do not recognise that this is the consequence of their policies. I should be very sorry if there had to be any large-scale total suspension of a number of courses. I am sure that many Members in all parts of the House feel that, too.

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn is right. Cheshire is aware of the conflicting considerations. I hope that it may be possible, partly as a result of this debate, to have more courses made more self-supporting, but not the total suspension which may originally have been planned.

10.42 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Denis Howell)

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) not only for raising this issue in the interests of Cheshire, but in the interests of adult education generally throughout the country. That is the view that we take.

My reply to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) and to the hon. Member for Cheadle concerning some of their comments about Government economic policy—I obviously cannot deal with all the points in the 10 minutes or so available to me—is that there are 168 education authorities in this country, and the overwhelming number do not find that they have to make proposals such as this. This is a matter of which we must take account.

I was pleased that the announcement I made the other day about the setting up of a new Committee under Sir Lionel Russell to look into the future of adult education was welcomed on all sides in the House. One reason why we have established that Committee is because the Government want to take this opportunity of reaffirming their faith in adult education as a service within the totality of education in this country.

The facts given by the hon. Member for Cheadle are true. I do not want to reiterate them, but they are causing concern everywhere. The National Institute of Adult Education, knowing that this Adjournment debate was on tonight, rushed round a letter to me by hand in which it said that it supported the protest that was to be made.

It is true that the total cuts that Cheshire proposes amount to over £592,000, or 60 per cent. of the cuts in the whole of its education service. I do not want to beat about the bush. My view of the proposals is that they are unbalanced, harsh and deplorable, and certainly contrary to the spirit of the Education Act, 1944.

In pursuance of the judgment that the Secretary of State has to form on these matters in future, we should like to know a lot more about the practicality, for example, of such ideas that one man wishing to take a course has to find another 15 people, each of whom is prepared to pay £9 in advance to make it a valid course. By that proposal alone Cheshire is proposing to increase the cost of adult education by 450 per cent. in one year, which I do not believe people can sustain.

I want, now, to come to the financial arrangements. The House will know that there used to be a percentage grant, until 1958 I think, when we then introduced the general grant. When the general grant was established, it included a calculation by the Government for the provision of a further education service, including adult education, and a youth service. There was a calculation from the start of the general grant for an adult education service.

When we discussed next year's grant, for 1969–70, although the amount of increase that we wanted for local government as a whole was 3 per cent. in real terms, the increase for education which was allowed in the general grant was 3¾ per cent., and the increase for further education in real terms was 5 per cent. We have therefore expressed the Government's intention, and my right hon. Friend's intention, that further education should receive a measure of priority. What this means in practice is that Cheshire is receiving grant aid for adult education, but is proposing to spend its money elsewhere. Under the general grant arrangements the county is entitled to do this, but the morality of it being done is a matter which must be left to the electors and to the ratepayers of Cheshire.

Mr. Carlisle rose

Mr. Howell

There is not enough time left for me to give way.

I turn now to Cheshire's own arrangements, and this is important. Cheshire has to get its priorities right within education, and also education within the whole of its local government provision. I understand that the general rate of expansion in Cheshire for next year, 1969–70, in money terms, not real terms, is 11.7 per cent. for the whole of its local government spending. The total figure which Cheshire is proposing for education is 11.6 per cent., just about the average, but I am interested in the figure which shows that the county's in- crease in expenditure next year for roads is 20.3 per cent.

It is not: for me to determine whether Cheshire has got its priorities right, across the board of local government expenditure, or whether it has got it right in respect of education as a whole, but I cannot escape the thought that any reasonable assessment of these figures leads one to wonder whether a more modest roads programme nearer to the county's average growth for the whole of its services might not enable the county to carry on the adult education service reasonably intact. This is a reasonable point to make at this stage of the debate.

I turn now to the legal position, which is extremely important. The hon. Gentleman mentioned, quite rightly, section 41 of the 1944 Act, and this establishes the spirit of the Act. It is clear that it places on local education authorities a duty to run an adult education service and a further education service, but there is a proviso at the end of the section which says that under Section 42—the next section—a scheme of education has to be submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Cheshire submitted its scheme of education, and this was approved in December, 1954.

The law is an involved matter which deserves continuing study, which I hope it will be given—in fact I am certain it will be—by hon. Members. The law is that Cheshire cannot carry out any adult education service not in the scheme of education, but once my right hon. Friend has approved it he has no power to insist that the county carries out all the things in the scheme that he has approved.

I was asked about sanctions, and what could be done. Never since 1944 have these sanctions been brought into play against any authority. This is one of the great difficulties, although I agree that it is a new situation. Certain sanctions are open to my hon. Friend at the end of the day under Section 99 of the 1944 Act and Section 4(1)(b) of the Local Government Act, 1966. They are as follows. He cannot anticipate a default in the service but he can take note of it when it has occurred. Second, in deciding whether an authority is in default, he must have regard to the standards maintained by other authorities. In other words, in deciding whether the standard in Cheshire is good enough, he must have regard to all the 168 authorities, and he clearly cannot do that until he knows their proposals for 1969–70. He can use some sanctions. He can impose a duty on them by direction and Regulation and Parliament has the final sanction. By affirmative Order, it can withhold rate support grant if it is so pleased.

No-one can support many of these proposals, many of them in fields other than education—

Mr. Carlisle

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howell

I am sorry, but I have no time. The hon. Gentleman should have sought an Adjournment debate himself if he is concerned about the position—

Mr. Grant-Ferris

But the Under-Secretary is making charges.

Mr. Howell

No, I am not making charges against the hon. Gentleman, or I would of course give way.

The position as we see it is that Cheshire intends to call a halt to virtually the whole of its adult education service and I do not believe that any hon. Gentleman would support that proposal—

Mr. Carlisle

Where does one make the cuts?

Mr. Howell

I have already answered that question. Although it is a matter for Cheshire to decide for itself and in which local democracy must be heard, I have already expressed my view, that they have not balanced their economies in education as a whole. It is impossible to maintain that they have when they are making a major cessation in one activity—or a reduction compared with other local government services. We must take this into account.

Also, they have acted unilaterally and without consultation with the universities, the colleges and the W.E.A.s This also, in a day and age when we are used to so much consultation in education, is something which we must all regret. In respect of their proposal to cut down on grants to people who might get places—or are in the process of getting places—in colleges of further education and so on it could be a serious matter, affecting people's future careers. Therefore, to chop £60,000 off future grants to such students unilaterally will affect not only the students but, almost certainly, the finances and arrangements of the colleges themselves. I am sure that the right hon. Member, for Handsworth will agree that that is not the way in which we usually order our financial affairs in education.

All this is to be deplored. I greatly regret this situation. I hope that, even at this late hour, this debate, with its remarkable attendance for an Adjournment debate, and the expressions of concern on both sides will lead the authority to think again and reconsider these decisions so as to produce a more balanced solution to its problems. It goes without saying that my right hon. Friend and I will continue to watch the situation very carefully—

The Question having been proposed after Ten 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 six minutes to Eleven o'clock.