HC Deb 08 December 1972 vol 847 cc1894-904

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Cox (Wandsworth, Central)

As the Under-Secretary of State will be replying to this debate, may I at the outset say that any criticism I make in the course of my remarks is certainly not directed at him. He was not holding the position which he now holds at the time of the negotiations to which I shall be referring. My criticism, however, is certainly directed to the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

The events which took place in this House on 23rd November, when thousands of London teachers came here to lobby their respective Members of Parliament, should have indicated to the House the concern and, indeed, the bitterness that London teachers were expressing on the whole question of the London teachers' allowance.

It is regrettable that we are forced to have an Adjournment debate on a matter which is the responsibility of the Burnham Committee. Parliament should not be forced to intervene in such matters. The behaviour of the Secretary of State and her refusal to inform this House of her involvement in these negotiations are the reasons why this debate has been sought this afternoon.

The present London allowance was fixed on 1st November 1970 and in the summary negotiations which took place in April 1972 the claim for an increase in the allowance went to arbitration. No award was made but a revision was proposed, to take effect as from 1st November this year. On 20th September a meeting took place and a claim for £300 was put forward. The present figure of the London allowance is £118.

The problems faced by London teachers were clearly stated at that meeting. The cost of housing, the travelling costs that many teachers have to meet, and the appalling conditions under which many teachers have to exist in their schools were made perfectly clear at the meeting, as was the high turnover of London teachers—something in the region of 16 per cent. in Inner London. The management panel of the Burnham Committee, in view of the kind of evidence which was presented to it, gave a pledge that at the next meeting which was due to take place on 20th October a firm offer would be made.

It is appropriate to point out that while these discussions were taking place, the London authorities indicated that they were willing to offer something in the region of £200 a year for the London allowance. This would have meant an increase of £82, and it is important that we remember these figures. Indeed, the leader of the Inner London Education Authority, in a statement made at County Hall on 8th November, has confirmed this. This would certainly have been the attitude that would have been taken by the Inner London Education Authority.

However, when the meeting took place on 20th October the leader of the management panel informed the committee that while they were ready and prepared to make an offer, the Government had requested them not to do so, the Government being represented in this case by the Secretary of State for Education and Science—an action which I suggest she had no right whatever to take. It was contrary to what this House and, indeed, the country had been led to believe was taking place in the Chequers and Downing Street discussions, when we were told repeatedly by the Prime Minister in this House that the Government were prepared to agree to increases in salaries providing they were not in excess of £2 a week.

The £82 offered by the Inner London Education Authority was below the figure that the Government had indicated they were prepared to accept. The Under-Secretary, speaking in the debate on Wednesday, said Meanwhile the tripartite talks had got under way, and all parties in the negotiations were asked to do nothing which might be inconsistent with the proposals under discussions. The body concerned, being a responsible body, paid heed to that. It was bound to do so. It could not go against the wishes of the Government in this respect. It was the duty of that body to listen to the advice of the Government on this matter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1972; Vol. 847, c. 1425.] I say with respect to the Under-Secretary that that was certainly not the view taken by the committee. So concerned was it at the interference by the Secretary of State that it sent a joint deputation to see her to protest about her action. That is the reason for the debate today. Unfortunately, she was successful in denying the right of the Burnham Committee to free negotiations.

I have a letter dated 6th December signed by Mr. Edward Britton, General Secretary of the NUT, in which he says But at the meeting on 20th October, the Leader of the Management Panel, Sir Fred Hutty, informed the Committee that while the management side was ready and willing to make an offer they had been requested by the Government to delay an offer… This is not only disgraceful, but it is totally inconsistent with what we were led to believe was Government policy.

As representatives of Inner London we are entitled to ask why the electricity workers' negotiations were allowed to go through but the teachers' negotiations were stopped. Is this a case where the Government ran away from the challenge from the electrical workers because they knew that they could not hope to win, but were prepared to take on the teachers because they knew that the teachers did not possess the same negotiating strength as the electrical workers? In the course of our debate on Wednesday we heard a great deal about the indices which form the basis of the allowance. No one can possibly suggest that the offer which was finally made—£15—bears any relationship to the costs that face teachers in London. By her action the Minister has received serious criticisms from the teachers and she is destroying the morale and confidence, an action which in the long run can only harm education, and she should be made fully aware of that fact.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will pass these comments on to his right hon. Friend and that she will answer the points that I have to make. Is she prepared to refer these negotiations back to the Burham Committee? Will she give an assurance that she will in no way interfere with the negotiations? If an award is made and it is a unanimous one, will she be prepared to accept it? Teachers throughout London will await with great interest her replies to those questions. If she gives favourable replies she will be starting to rebuild the confidence of London teachers and I hope the Under-Secretary will give us an assurance this afternoon that he and the Secretary of State do not intend to lose this opportunity which is vital for London education but which is, above all, vital for the youngsters of London and for the confidence of London teachers.

4.10 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

The fact that six hon. Members representing inner and outer London, particularly Opposition Members, are present for a Friday afternoon Adjournment debate is an indication of the strength of feeling on the matter. We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) for raising it.

I should declare an interest, in that I received the London allowance and am a member of the National Union of Teachers. If it becomes the electorate's wish that I should no longer be a Member of the House, it is possible that I shall have to receive the allowance again, in whatever form it may take.

Some people may have felt that we said some fierce things in the debate on Wednesday. Those things may well be justified if 10,000 teachers go on strike. I do not believe that many of them necessarily support one party or another. Many, if not most, were probably losing hope and faith in all politicians, and possibly in the House. The action of the Secretary of State which precipitated the massive strike of teachers is something of which no professional politician can be proud. I believe that it is not unconnected with a prevalent public mood. The right hon. Lady intervened arbitrarily in what we understood was free collective bargaining.

My hon. Friend has clearly outlined the facts as we understand them. The right hon. Lady admitted to me at Question time on 23rd November that she had intervened. Why? Is it clear that it could not have been because of the Government's statement on pay increases limited to £2 a week, which was a reason she gave. Unless the panel intended to offer more than £104, which is not what we are told, she could not have intervened on that criterion. On what criteria did she inter[...]?

The answer may well be connected with subsequent events, which my hon. Friend has mentioned. On 3rd November there was an offer of £15, based on the indices, which suggest that that was the sum that the right hon. Lady thought appropriate.

In fact, she has made that clear in answer to questions I have asked. Therefore, are we to assume that the sum to be offered on 20th October was considered too great? Was that why she intervened, because it did not come within the indices that she thought should be applied? If that is the reason, what she says about the Downing Street talks is wrong. It must be one thing or the other, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will make clear which it was. If the offer on 20th October was too big, I hope that he will tell us that that is why she intervened. If it was not that, can he tell us why she bases her intervention on the Downing Street talks, when the offer of £82 would have come within that?

This raises rather larger questions than the question of free bargaining. We do not want to argue on the merits of the indices used, and it would be wrong for us to do so. But I understand that the Burnham Committee has not been given an opportunity to discuss that matter. That is another indication of the extent to which the right hon. Lady, through her representatives or otherwise, is interfering in free negotiation in the Committee. It ill behoves the Government to do that, because of their views on unions and free collective bargaining under the law, which they tell us should be the rule.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give us clear and unequivocal reasons for what happened on 20th October, that he will tell us why the right hon. Lady accepts the indices and whether the other side has accepted them as a reasonable basis. I hope that he will also say that 1st November will still be the date from which any award will be paid, so that there will not be a gap, which would mean that the teachers would lose out yet again.

4.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to reply at somewhat greater length than was possible the other night, although even now it must be within a short compass, to this important debate on the question of the London teachers' allowance. The hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) and the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) have stated their case extremely clearly and cogently and I must try to answer it.

The hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central, I think out of a desire to be fair to me, attempted to draw a distinction between my position and that of the Secretary of State. He says, and it is true, that when this policy was developed I did not hold my present office. By accepting the offer that was made I have assumed responsibility for the situation as it was. So I identify myself completely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and if she is to be cast in the rôle of St. Catherine and to be broken on the wheel I am ready to play the rôle of St. Sebastian and to be shot through with any arrow that may come from the Opposition side of the House.

I want to deal with the arguments and the facts. May I say first to the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central, who quoted a number of figures, that whatever figures have been bandied about in relation to what went on inside the management panel they have no official status and cannot be the subject of a statement from me.

In my opinion this is not an issue in which all right is on one side and all wrong on the other. I appreciate the great difficulties that teachers in London are facing, first because of the higher cost of housing and secondly because of the higher cost of fares. Those difficulties, however, are not confined to teachers; they are met by all sorts of people living in London. Secondly they are not confined to London. If we look at the South-East, we see the same sort of thing happening. In my constituency of Chelmsford, in my conversations with teachers' representatives they have made it plain that in some ways they are even worse off than teachers in the London area. My case is that, on balance, right is with the Government.

This story begins with the report of the National Board for Prices and Incomes in 1967 which made it clear that the London teachers' allowance was an allowance to cover the higher cost of living in London. In essence it is not a cost of living allowance in the sense that it is tied to a cost of living index. It is rather an expenses allowance. It is, however, treated as income and is subject to superannuation. That is the answer to the hon. Member for Acton who asked why my right hon. Friend intervened and why there could not have been an increase in the London allowance and later a £2 offer considered.

If this had been allowed, the offer would have had to have been treated as income up to the limits of the £2 offer. To have accepted the allowance in the middle of the tripartite talks, whether the increase suggested by the teachers or that which was in fact put forward, would have had to have been set against the £2 and would have pre-empted it.

Mr. Spearing

We do not understand that.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is not my fault. The point is quite clear.

Mr. Spearing

But £82 is less than £104.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Of course. But it would have gone towards that, so there would have been that much less available within the £2 offer.

I turn to the amount of the allowance. This has been increased over the years. Before 1st November 1967 it was £70. From that date it was increased to £85. From 1st November 1970 it was raised to £118. That award was due to run for two years until 1st November 1972. There has never been any two-tier system here. Unlike the Civil Service everyone has had the same. One may argue for a two-tier system, but the teachers' wishes have been that there should be a uniform allowance and that no distinction should be made between those teaching in the inner London area and those teaching in the greater London area.

I come, then, to the 1972 arbitration. In May 1972 the teachers put forward their claim. They wanted the sum raised from £118 to £220, and they wanted it raised virtually straight away. The management panel on the other hand took the view that the settlement reached in 1970 should run for two years until November 1972. While the arbitration body did not pass an opinion on the question of the raising of the amount, it was quite clear about the date. It said that the date should be November 1972 whatever the sum might happen to be. Its recommendation was: The London area payment shall remain at £118 until 31st October 1972. We note that the Burnham Committee proposes to review the amount of the payment later in the year and we recommend that any revision should take effect from 1st November 1972. A further development took place on 20th September when an additional £80 was claimed on top of the £220 which had been put forward earlier. That made a claim of £300 for the London allowance. But no new evidence was put forward at that stage to justify the increase in the claim.

The management panel promised that it would make an offer on 20th October. At that point the tripartite talks had begun and all parties to all negotiations were asked to do nothing in negotiations which was inconsistent with the proposals under discussion in the talks, which included the £2 suggestion—

Mr. Spearing

£82 to £104?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Yes, but that would have come within that £2 offer. It would have counted—

Mr. Spearing


Mr. St. John-Stevas

So no one would have gained.

The hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central made a great deal of this exchange of dates. It has been a mere postponement involving a couple of weeks, no matter what the amount might be.

The promise of an offer was not kept. I do not deny that. But it was fully justified because the Burnham Committee is a responsible public body. If the the Government make a request in the national interest they are bound to comply with it.

All that it involved in practice was a postponement of two weeks, because the offer that was promised on 20th October was made two weeks later—

Mr. Spearing

The same one?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

All that was promised was an offer. No sum was promised.

In the event, the tripartite talks broke down on 2nd November, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who had arranged to see the teachers and employers on 3rd November, said that she would not seek to prevent the employers making an offer but that she could not undertake in advance that an agreement would be honoured unless it were actually reached on that date. That was correct, because everyone knew some kind of freeze was being considered, so she could not give that undertaking. An emergency meeting of the negotiating committee was rightly called that afternoon. It was at that meeting that the offer from the employers was considered, £130, later raised to £133.

Hon. Members have criticised that offer, but it was a genuine, substantive offer amounting to over a 12 per cent. increase. If we take the indices as being the basis of the settlement we could even say it was a generous interpretation of the results of the calculations. Nevertheless, all the teachers rejected the offer, except the college of education lecturers; they concluded an agreement and they have received the increase.

Let me conclude in the very few minutes left to me by making three points. The Chequers talks have not made the slightest difference in the long run to the outcome of the negotiations, because had there been no Chequers talks, had there been no standstill, there is no evidence that anything over and above the offer which was actually made on 3rd November would have been available. There is no evidence of that at all.

The second point which I must emphasise is that in the calculations, although mortgage rates as such are not covered, housing costs are covered at the last rateable value, 1963, and in estimating the increase account is taken of that and the increases in rents since then.

The third point is this. It has been suggested, and I think it is a constructive suggestion, that special houses should be provided for teachers. As I said in the last debate, the Department of Education has no power to do that. It is impracticable from our point of view. However, some local education authorities do it, and some give priority to teachers on the housing lists, and some give 100 per cent. mortgages. So perhaps local authorities could look in that direction to see how they could help London teachers.

I accept completely that there are grave difficulties which teachers, along with others, in London are facing, but I maintain, and it has been my argument this afternoon, that, given the present system, my right hon. Friend not only acted honestly and properly but went out of her way to make sure that before the freeze came the teachers would have a chance of whatever offer was available, so they would not be caught by the freeze.

Mr. Thomas Cox

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am not going to give way. The hon. Member must be fair to me. He had his opportunity.

Mr. Cox

Answer the points.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I delayed my reply to give the hon. Member for Acton a chance to get in. I have been defending my right hon. Friend—and myself: we are identified—on the basis of the present system. If we criticise the whole system of the London allowance and the indices, that is another matter, but that has not been the subject of our debate today. Hon. Members themselves have maintained they were concentrating on the point whether the Secretary of State acted properly within the context of the present system.

I have, I hope, made out a case to show quite clearly that she acted properly. I have given the facts. I have shown that she acted properly and that she has shown that she intends to do her best for teachers. I myself have sympathy with the teachers, but I also have complete confidence in the integrity and honesty of my right hon. Friend. [Interruption.] I should be a very strange kind of Minister if I stood at this Box and attacked the head of the Department in which I serve. Of course I defend her. I hope I have defended her cogently—

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

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.