§ 10.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Roland Moyle (Lewisham, North)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of the Awards (First Degree, &c, Courses) (Amendment) Regulations 1972 (S.I., 1972, No. 1124) dated 25th July 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th August, in the last Session of Parliament.The object of these regulations is to apply the second stage of student grants agreed for the triennium 1971–1974. Obviously, the last thing that the Opposition wishes to do is prevent students from acquiring such crumbs as are to come their way. The main rate of elsewhere grants, which is the main one affecting the bulk of students, is £445, an increase of 3½ per cent. on the first stage.
A great deal of disquiet has been expressed over the Government's handling of the student grant situation and thus we wish to probe their thinking on this difficult question, although it is no function of mine or, I respectfully suggest, the Under-Secretary to negotiate student grants across the Floor of the House of Commons. In any case, it must be apparent to the Under-Secretary, with his experience of the House, that we have no intention of dividing it on this aspect tonight.
The present agreement on student grants is for the period 1971–74, but already the National Union of Students has put in a request for an interim improvement in the currently agreed rate of grant from about the end of last month. It main argument for so doing is the inflationary pressures, of which we in the House are all aware, because the present Government have presided over record levels of inflation since coming to office. It is not entirely the fault of any Government that there should be an inflationary or deflationary situation at any particular time. What is the responsibility of the Government, however, are the policies they adopt to combat the current economic trend at a particular time.
We can all remember the present Government coming to office in 1970 and making a great virtue of demolishing the Prices and Incomes Board, getting rid of the Consumer Council, and so on. The 1048 Opposition said then that the Government were wrong, and we are very happy to see that the Government admit that they were wrong then to do that sort of thing because they are in effect, whatever the various terms used at present, returning to the policies they so carefully demolished in those heady days of victory following the 1970 General Election.
What this all means is that the rate of inflation which the present Government envisaged in 1970 for the years subsequent to that date was much lower than what has subsequently happened. Therefore the burden of proof is on the Government to show where the NUS case is wrong, if it is wrong, rather than for the NUS to establish its case as right.
One of the key factors is that the triennium we are considering runs from 1971 to 1974 but the level of grant agreed for that triennium was based on figures for inflationary trends which were derived from the period 1967–70. The rate of inflation derived from that 1967–70 period was used to project forward the rate of inflation for the current three years, from 1971 to 1974. Obviously the projection of the rate of inflation was grossly out of line in view of everything that has happened subsequently. In particular, there was an added factor, and that is that hostel charges during the 1967–70 period were being religiously held down by the university and other higher education authorities, possibly to some extent artificially held down, and therefore hostel charges were a bad basis from which to calculate the rate of inflation, even from the 1967–70 period.
But even with these factors working in favour of the Government and tending to produce a low rate of inflation, as I understand it, the joint working party which was set up to consider the future of student grants in 1970 and towards the end of 1971 recommended that the basic grant for students outside London, Oxford and Cambridge should be £450 a year, even then. Because of the peculiar way in which the negotiations were carried on, however, and the unusual approach the Government adopted, even this figure was not satisfactorily reached in practice.
The Government allocated £76 million towards the solution of the student grant 1049 problem and one of the things they wanted to do—I do not criticise the Government for this—was to ease the parental contributions of those families with the lowest family income. But as the Government had set themselves a global sum for allocation, the only way they could do this was to take some money from Peter in order to pay Paul. The net result was that the £450, by the time that increases for the third year of the triennium had been allowed, had been reduced to a first-year, 1971–72 figure of £430. I shall use the elsewhere grant figures all the way through as covering the bulk of the students.
But £450 was already too low, because even as the negotiations were going on various university and higher education authorities were being forced to increase the charges for board and lodging at their halls of residence. Even before the triennium had got under way the charges had gone up on average by about £15. By this time inflation was already beginning to surge forward by leaps and bounds, and before the triennium really started a further £15 should have been allowed, to cover the interim cost of inflation. The first-year grant for the present three-year period, for the year 1971–72, was £430, whereas many of the experts and many of those involved in the operations and studies of the joint working party calculated that it should have been at least £50 more.
That is the figure that many university hostels and universities throughout the country are using for their board and lodge charges now. I have letters here from presidents of students' unions saying that in halls of residence students are being charged by their universities about £50-plus for board and lodging in excess of the sum notionally allowed for the purpose in the grant. For example, I have a letter from the president of the Newcastle students' union setting out the figures.
The gap between the real value of what the grant should have been in 1971 and 1972 and what it is seems to have affected particularly the levels of charges being levied for board and lodgings at various universities. It cannot be denied that the general experience throughout the country is of a substantial gap between the notional board and lodging element of the student's grant and the 1050 actual board and lodge charges that universities, polytechnics and other institutions of higher learning are being forced to charge their students.
We have the great advantage that the first year of the student grant was taken as a sort of technical exercise. If students were meant to adopt a certain way of life in the autumn of 1970 based on the results of the joint working party study of the student grant situation, that way of life has been further deteriorated by the rate of inflation over the past 12 months. Whereas the difference between the grant of £430 to cover the first year of the three and £445 to cover the second year of the three is only 3.5 per cent., during that period the General Index of Retail Prices has risen by about 10 per cent.
The Under-Secretary's predecessor, writing to the Chairman of the Vice-Chancellors on 31st July this year, said:But I am sure that I do not have to remind you that the board and lodging element in the grant, as with other items, is a notional one based on averages, and that this gives a measure of flexibility within the grant.So it may seem from York Road and the higher echelons of administration in the Department of Education and Science. But on the ground the flexibility tends to offer itself as a choice between a meal, a pair of shoes, an important textbook or an agreement to pay what the universities want to be paid for residence in a hall of residence. After all, we are dealing with sums of £8-£9 a week, if we regard the grant as applicable over a 52-week year, or possibly £14 a week if we regard it as applicable over a 31-week year. Even with the most generous interpretation being placed on the figures, with the cost of living as it is there can be no margins for the average student to play with in budgeting to cover all the costs he must meet during the university year. When we talk about the underpaid sections of British industry we are usually talking about figures somewhat in excess of £14 a week. We shall come on to that before we finish the debate tonight.
The other problem is that many parents do not pay their contribution, though I think the great majority do. This again affects adversely and to a serious extent the budgeting problems of university students. Yet it is a built-in factor upon which the student is supposed to rely 1051 to cover his survival in the course of an academic year. In the course of the correspondence which the Under-Secretary's predecessor had on this subject he showed a fascination with the operation of the retail price index. I suppose the overall operation of the retail price index may be a good yardstick for dealing with normal industrial disputes about rates of pay. The normal industrial worker these days may possibly go in for television sets, motor cars and all sorts of other things which now form part of the retail price index. But we have met this factor in discussing the problems of old-age pensioners and others on retirement incomes, and that is that the income is so small that it is bound to be spent on the most vital things such as heating, clothing and food, and substantial movements in these particular items of expenditure can have a most drastic effect on people with small incomes.
The National Union of Students has made a suggestion which has often been made in respect of old-age pensioners, that there should be a particular retail price index, or what they call a student needs index. What I should like to know is whether the Government are looking into this suggestion, which could have an application outside the field of student grants to cover other matters. The only other thing that I should like to say about the National Union of Students' claim is that the married women's grant position was fixed in 1965. I shall not argue whether it was right or wrong, but, whether it was right or wrong in 1965, the fact is that the position must inevitably be becoming less correct with every year that passes and separate us from 1965. There is the question of discretionary grants which the National Union of Students suggests should be made mandatory, and it would be interesting to hear the Government's thinking on that topic.
Another reason why the burden of proof is on the Government is that the professional heads of our higher institutions of learning are all on the side of the National Union of Students. I drew this fact to the attention of the Secretary of State on 23rd November at Question time, and she replied:We have received a letter from the vice-chancellors. It is very easy for anyone to 1052 demand an increase for which he does not have to pay."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd November, 1972; Vol. 846, c. 1504.]I thought that did far less than justice to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and the principals of polytechnics. It is trying to create an impression that the vice-chancellors, now that they are coming under pressure from their students, are running for cover in any direction that they can go and they are obviously turning their guns on the Secretary of State. This is not true. In this matter the vice-chancellors' and principals' hands are completely clean because they told the Under-Secretary's predecessor 18 months ago that the situation now prevailing in our universities in respect of charges for halls of residence in particular was a situation which would develop anyway. They gave 18 months adequate warning of the situation which is at present existing, with a number of rent strikes in about 12 universities.
Far from there being one letter on this subject, there have been several exchanges of correspondence between the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) and the members of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors. Recently the Vice-Chancellor of Brunei University wrote to the Under-Secretary of State's predecesor before he was translated to higher and finer things saying that the university was charging £9.68½p for lodgings. Local lodgings were £9.94½, so that the university was, if anything, charging less than the going market rate. He said thatThese figures compare with the corresponding notional element in the local education authority grantfor halls of residenceof £8.88 per week (two winter terms) and £740 per week (summer term, fourth year students only) for thin sandwich students in the London area. You will note that the student in lodgings has just sufficient for lunch on alternate days and three additional cups of coffee per fortnight in the winter terms, but must apparently subsist on breakfast and supper alone (no lunch or snacks) during the summer.Coming from the head of a university, that must be considered very seriously. It points to a situation of which nobody can be proud.
Another aspect of the student grant situation which is not often mentioned but which I should like to discuss at a little length is the board and lodging services of university halls of residence 1053 which are maintained by a great many humble but worthy people—kitchen porters and assistants, cooks, catering assistants, cleaners, and so on. In effect, their wages are paid out of what students can afford to pay from their grants.
The result is that we not only are developing but have developed one of the most appallingly badly paid groups of people, namely, those who are working in university halls of residence and refectories. For example, in refectories in London kitchen assistants and catering assistants are paid between 39p and 40p per hour. It is significant that in a hall where post graduate students live, with their higher rates of grants, the same grades are paid a little more—42p per hour—because all these services must be, by the University Grants Committee edict, self-supporting. Therefore, the only way in which money can be obtained to pay these unfortunate employees is through the money which the students pay for their halls of residence charges and for their meals.
It is also significant that rates are not paid on a national basis or, as far as I can see, even on a university basis. They are paid hall by hall in some of the worst examples of an economic law of the jungle which I have seen since the Victorian era. It is significant and rather pathetic that the local authority equivalent in the school meals service receives about 49½p per hour for doing similar work. Cleaners in various London halls of residence are paid between 37p and 42p per hour for a 25 to 30 hour week, whereas local authority cleaners are paid 48p per hour for doing similar work.
In summary, it can be said that the employees of local authorities have never been regarded as highly paid people. They have been regarded as low-paid people. The Under-Secretary of State will remember, because he took an interest in these matters, that a few years ago the question of the local authority manual workers was referred to the Prices and Incomes Board for special study because those workers were regarded as exceptionally lowly paid people whose lot should be improved. Yet the dearest ambition of the university manual employees is to be treated as the poorly paid local authority employees are treated. That is a pitiful comment on their situation.
1054 The situation is getting rather worse. Local authorities are committed to equal pay for their staffs—equal pay for men and women doing the same sort of work. Universities are not committed, and so the gap will widen between the local authorities' staffs with their already low rates of pay and the manual staffs in universities.
These grades in universities have not had a general negotiated increase for about 18 months because the only way that limited student money can be made available to some is to sack some of the rest. The most dramatic demonstration of that occurred in Kent University last summer. Kent University was making a loss on its catering service, which, the University Grants Committee told the university, should be brought into balance. I make no complaint about that, but I would point out that in consequence some 27 employees, part time and full time, were declared redundant, although there were a number of other vacancies which could have been filled, I agree, but not for skilled—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)
Order. The hon. Member is going a little wide of the regulations. I have been having a good look at them to see whether he could be in order, but I think he is not.
§ Mr. Moyle
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I would like it to be borne in mind that the rates of pay of the grades I have been speaking of are directly derived from the sums of money made available to the universities by payments from students from their grants. Therefore I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will properly bear in mind the sort of consequences which any action he might advise the Government to take will have in practice in the universities. I was coming to the end of that point, but would add that so depressed has the industry, if one may call it that, of university manual workers become as the result of the Government's policy on university grants that undesirable labour practices are creeping in. One London hall of residence has been driven to employing au pair girls on split shift working for £7 a week, from which a charge is deducted for living in. This is a Victorian level of exploitation not 1055 heard of for many years and takes us almost back to the match girls of the 1880s, and does not accord with the rosy glow of the Department's advice on the conditions and payment of au pair girls.
The situation I have been speaking about shows discontent by students; it shows a warning of considerable difficulties ahead in running our institutions, a warning which has been delivered by the professional heads of our institutions of higher learning. Behind the glittering academic facade—and we very often pride ourselves, quite rightly, on the way in which we run our institutions of higher learning in this country—behind a Lord Annan delivering an outstanding Dimbleby lecture, there is revealed the way in which we exploit men and women in our university halls of residence by paying them inadequately as one of the direct results of the Government's refusal to make any move on the subject of university grants. This latter problem has now engaged the critical and organisational attention of one of the larger unions, the National Union of Public Employees. It will, no doubt, be particularly interested in what the Undersecretary has to say about the future of its membership. I shall wait to hear—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary may not be the largest audience I have addressed, but he has certainly been the most attentive I have had for a long time. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
§ 10.34 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)
I do not intend to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Moyle) on his tour d'horizon of the history of the Government's first two years. I remind him—and as a literary man he will appreciate this—of the saying of Emerson that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for not treating this important subject as a party matter. He has made a moderate and constructive contribution to our discussion, probing, as he has every right to do, the Government's intentions and thinking on this difficult subject.
It is more a problem of logistics and priorities than anything else. We all 1056 want to see that students have a fair deal; we all want them to be relieved of financial anxiety; but we have to make an allocation between competing claims, as the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) knows very well from his own distinguished holding of office at the Department. We have to make choices; we have to set priorities. Just as one could spend the entire Budget on the health service and still not meet the need, so one could spend the entire Budget on education and still leave people not fully satisfied. I hope that we can discuss the problem in that context.
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Lewisham, North, but the conditions and pay of those employed in halls of residence and refectories are not matters for me. They may be matters for various of my colleagues. Although the Department is concerned indirectly, because one source of revenue of the refectories and halls of residence is student grants, and although those services are further subsidised by capital grants for buildings, the conditions of the workers are not the responsibility of my Department; nor indeed does it keep detailed information about these matters. It is the problem of the lower paid in general, which my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have considered and will go on considering, but it is not a matter for me.
En passant, may I say that there is competition here. It is not a closed market, and if conditions in local authority service are better, people are free to seek employment there. If the conditions of workers in colleges and halls of residence are poor, some of the responsibility—I put it no higher—rests upon the trade unions that have supported the hon. Gentleman and have never welcoved those people within their ranks.
The primary object of these amending regulations is to prescribe new rates of grant for students taking first degree and comparable courses, and for students in colleges of education, to come into effect from 1st September of this year, in substitution for the earlier date prescribed in the corresponding 1971 regulations. They also make minor changes in or 1057 clarify other parts of those earlier regulations.
It has long been the practice to have a review of student grants once every three years. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the rates for 1971–72, 1972–73 and 1973–74 at the conclusion of her last review in May. I can say that my right hon. Friend intends to lay a further set of amending regulations before the House next year to enable the 1973–74 grants, which are grants at the higher rate, to be implemented in the final year of the current triennium.
It is important for the House to realise that these rates of grant were arrived at only after an extremely thorough and comprehensive review in which the student bodies—the National Union of Students and the Scottish Union of Students—as well as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and the local authority associations were closely involved. On this occasion we departed from the normal practice of having an independent review body to make the recommendations and we first set up a working group, consisting of officials of my Department and the Scottish Education Department and representatives of the student bodies, to undertake jointly a fact-finding study of the changes in courses and price levels which have had occurred since the previous review.
I believe that this review was remarkable of its kind. An extremely responsible and helpful part was played by the NUS, under the leadership of Mr. Digby Jacks, and the results of a review of university halls of residence charges, which the student bodies themselves had undertaken independently, was used by the working party in putting forward its findings. Great care was taken to relate the study to students' expenses. That really answers the point raised by the hon. Gentleman about the cost of living index. We did not relate this simply to the retail price index; we took into account the actual expenses and conditions under which students live. So there was working in practice exactly what the hon. Gentleman suggested—a students' cost of living index.
It was those recommendations of the working party—which are being fully implemented in the 1973–74 rates of grant 1058 —which were ultimately agreed by all the participants—by the student bodies, by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and by the local authority associations. The hon. Gentleman mentioned an extra sum of £15. An additional £15 was added to the rates for students attending provincial universities other than Oxford and Cambridge—that was the chosen ground on which he wished to argue—because of information which came to the Department at a later stage.
What also must be remembered to get the problem into perspective is that certain other improvements on the grants were both needed and asked for by the interested parties—such things, briefly touched upon by the hon. Gentleman, as improvement of dependants' allowances and rates of parental contributions. In order to accommodate these things, the rates of the two earlier years of the triennium had to be slightly lower.
Overall, the package was acceptable. It was an agreed package. I do not pretend that those affected would not have liked more money; we all would. But agreement was reached. This is not a package imposed by fiat of my right hon. Friend, even if it were in her nature to act that way, which it is not. She prefers to proceed by agreement rather than diktat. This was a fully agreed settlement.
The hon. Gentleman made much of the rate of inflation. The burden of his argument was that the rate of inflation had made the settlement out of date. It is a point which has been made by others in this controversy. I cannot accept that it is so. The increases which were agreed last year were considerable. Although the hon. Gentleman dealt with the amount in terms of weeks—in such terms it is only a few pounds and does not sound much—when one looks at it over the whole range of students who have benefited and have to be supported, it amounts to no less than £76 million, almost all going into improvements in the basic grant rates. That is an enormous sum. As a result of the review, the increase in the basic rate of grant in the middle band, which the hon. Gentleman selected, was 22.3 per cent. for the three-year period, 13.1 per cent. being added in the first year. Therefore, bearing in mind that the retail price index increased by just under 26 per cent. in the three academic years from 1968 to 1971 and 1059 that there was a noticeable slowing down in the rate of increase of inflation between 1970–71 and 1971–72—it fell from 10 per cent. to 7 per cent., which was still too high—I consider that the students have not done too badly in the settlement. I put it no higher than that, and of course students suffer from inflation just like everyone else in the community. The Government have quite rightly put the control of inflation as their first priority.
I want to pass from general considerations to three specific points which are of great concern to all in this matter. The first is the halls of residence charges which were mentioned by the hon. Member. The argument is that it is unfair that nothing should be done to help keep down the cost of halls of residence to the level of the notional element of the student grant allocated for board and residence. The other argument is that the grant should be raised to take account of these increases. I fully appreciate the vice-chancellors' dilemma when they see the need to increase their charges in order to prevent their accounts from going into deficit. From that point of view I suppose they would like to raise their charges, but they know the difficulties that that would make for the students. I appreciate the difficulties that students have in universities where the halls of residence charges are comparatively high. It is not an easy problem to solve. At some universities, however, the charges are comparatively low—lower than the notional element, and the notional element itself is based on average costs.
One solution is to subsidise, but the argument against doing so is that it might lead to the subsidising of inefficient provision. It might even mean subsidising lavish provision, but I do not place great stress on that. On the whole, students live more in conditions of monastic austerity than of Roman luxury. I certainly express the wish that vice-chancellors in universities where rates are high will do everything they can to keep costs down. The University Grants Committee is conducting its own survey into these costs and when it produces the survey, which we await with considerable eagerness, we shall at least be in a position to see what the facts are.
1060 The second point which was raised concerned discretionary awards. Of course the National Union of Students has advocated that all awards should be at the mandatory rates whatever the level of the course, and they have given that a fairly high priority in their list of demands. But there are good reasons why that should be resisted. The courses involved vary considerably. They vary from GCE O-levels to near-degree courses. If all awards were mandatory in respect of all courses, costs would be prohibitive.
If, on the other hand, the authorities were left with the discretion whether to make the awards but with mandatory rates, it is likely, because of the costs, that they would make very few awards at the lower levels. Although that solution, therefore, might get rid of one shortcoming it would only replace it with another.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned briefly the married women's grant, which I will deal with at greater length. The Department has been asked to improve the married woman's grant, where she is living with her husband at their home, which has remained at £275 since 1965.
Our idea of marriage has changed. It has moved continually this century from the idea of subjection to the idea of partnership. The sexes, if not yet on an equal status in our law, are approaching that status. Women have much improved their status in relation to men, so they are approaching equality. That is a social advance which I welcome. I still think that women get an unfair deal in our society. I do not think we can raise an argument in principle against ending this form of differentiation, but unfortunately there is an argument in practice.
We are faced, as we are with all questions about grants, with the limited global sum which is available for improvements. This particular grant has tended to come low on the list of priorities for the factual reason that in all such cases the student is by definition living at home with her husband. There is, therefore, an additional source of income in the shape of the husband's wages or salary to cushion the harsher effects of inflation which other students, whether male or female, living away from home do not have.
Let us remember that there are many women students who are widowed, 1061 divorced or separated who are given special consideration. When a married woman must live away from home whilst studying, she receives the same rate as any other sudent living away from home. I appreciate the strong feelings which exist about this grant and I am willing to look at it again in the next review.
Finally, we have the difficulty of parental contributions. Again we return to a question of money. If we abolished the parental contribution system it would cost us between £35 million and £40 million a year. We would have to find that money from somewhere else. If we could not get it out of the Treasury—I need not tell the House that getting blood out of a stone is a simple operation compared with getting money out of the Treasury—we would have to find it from somewhere else in the education service. I do not think we can contemplate simple abolition.
It is suggested that we should make the whole thing subject to the law and that we require parents by law to pay their contributions to their children. I could not agree to that. That would bring the blunt bludgeon of the law into the heart of the home. It would destroy the harmony of domestic relations and make the law an aider and abettor in the struggle between the generations, which is difficult enough as it is. Although that suggestion has been advanced, I regard it as a piece of folly.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that in the last review considerable improvements were made in this respect by raising the level of residual income at which payments of contributions start from £900 to £1,100 and by reducing the amount of the contribution at the lower end from £40 to £30. We also made a reduction of £10 in the contribution at all the higher points of the scale up to a residual income of £1,699.
However, I say again, as I said in relation to the position of the married woman student, that in the next review we shall be willing to look most carefully at the question of parental contribution to see whether we can find some adjustment which will ease the problems which occur. Even in the short time I have been at the Department I have seen the problems which individuals, a small minority, face through parents refusing 1062 to fulfil their moral obligations in this respect.
I have a further observation to make which I think is not entirely out of place in this debate. No body of persons in this country, whether students, trade unionists, clergy or even Members of Parliament, can afford to ignore the public opinion of the nation as a whole. We are an old and mature democracy in which discussion is valued as a means of reaching the truth and when, thanks to radio, television and the Press, we have a public better informed on the political and social issues of the day than we have had at any period in our past, public opinion is more important, more pervasive and more effective than ever.
If students are to gain what they consider justice and a higher standard of living, they will succeed in that object only if they can create a sympathetic public opinion and carry the public with them. I am afraid that, so far, this is something which they have notably failed to do. The hard fact, whether we regret it or welcome it, is that the public are not sympathetic today to the student point of view.
I do not wish to rake up the embers of the Stirling controversy, but no incident in recent years has done more to turn members of the public against students. I quote these words, in the form of a rhetorical question:Why did a few students at Stirling offer a gift hostage to those who wanted one? Was the issue of such importance that it was justifiable to obtain hysterically abusive frontpage headlines in the popular Press, to squeeze out of the mind of the public every vital issue on which conference instructed the Executive to campaign?Those are not the words of a member of the Conservative Central Office or even of a member of the Monarchist League; they were the words of the President of the National Union of Students, Mr. Digby Jacks, speaking at Margate.
More recently I had a personal experience, at the polytechnic in North London, when on my first official visit I went to deliver a message of good will to the students, not only of the polytechnic but of the country. Before I could even open my mouth, I was howled down by a group of demonstrators who prevented anyone—it was a distinguished audience, of 1063 academics and local authority representatives of all parties—from hearing a word of what I had to say.
For myself I make no protest. I regard that kind of thing as part of the small change of public life. But the public will not tolerate that sort of behaviour towards those who, whatever their limitations, represent the parliamentary tradition and the civilities of democratic life which have been developed in this country over many centuries.
If these incidents continue and grow, it will not be a question of reviewing grants upwards. It will be a question of seeking to resist a remorseless tide of public opinion which will demand a radical reform of the whole system of student support.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)
Most unexpectedly, I am intervening in the debate. The hon. Gentleman said that he did not wish to rake over other embers, but he is now doing so and I hope, for everyone's benefit, that he will at once desist. Will he agree—perhaps he will then close the subject—that the incidents to which he refers are created by a very small minority of students and that what he is now saying is quite out of context with the financial provision which we are debating on the regulations?
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I am grateful for that intervention, which was one of the side effects of my remarks. I repeat, I am not raking the embers but seeking to ensure that we do not have further incidents of that kind when the embers will once again burst into flame. I am sorry that the debate is taking place at this late hour so that this warning—
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
It is not a threat but a warning as to the state of public opinion and what will happen to public opinion if the small minority, and I agree that it is a small minority, is allowed to go on in this way dragging the good name of the vast majority of students into disrepute.
§ Mr. J. D. Dormand (Easington)
Is not the hon. Gentleman saying that if the cost of a university year is, say, £500, if students do not behave themselves we will give them only £460? Is not that part of his argument irrelevant?
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
No. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to clarify my position. I do not take that view and it would be a totally illogical view. I am merely pointing to the state of public opinion. Every hon. Member is in touch with public opinion, for we are in our constituencies every weekend. The view has been continually put to me—even more since I reached my present position—by people of every party that they are highly critical of these students. The sort of logic that the hon. Gentleman identified is a general attitude that is growing. I am concerned that students should realise the gravity of the situation and should check this development. That is exactly the point made by Mr. Digby Jacks at Margate; we are absolutely agreed about that.
My Department and my right hon. Friend and I certainly wish the students well. We want to do our best for them and we want to help them in the difficulties that face them. But we always have to take two things into account: the state of public opinion, which I have just mentioned, and the educational priorities to which we have set our hand and which will be given new force and clarity in the White Paper to be published later this week.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Awards (First Degree, &c, Courses) (Amendment) Regulations 1972 (S.I., 1972, No. 1124) dated 25th July 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th August, in the last Session of Parliament.