HC Deb 06 May 1975 vol 891 cc1203-7
16. Mr. Madel

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the current state of negotiations over the pay claims for university lecturers.

18. Mr. Grist

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will now make a statement on the progress of his talks with the Association of University Teachers on the salaries of university teachers.

21. Mr. Freud

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the pay claim submitted by the Association of University Teachers.

22. Mr. van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what progress has been made with the AUT's pay claim.

Mr. Prentice

I would refer the hon. Members to the reply I gave yesterday to similar Questions by a number of hon. Members.

Mr. Madel

As these pay negotiations are deadlocked, will the right hon. Gentleman again consider taking the case to arbitration? If that should happen, would the Government abide by a decision of the arbitration body?

Mr. Prentice

I certainly do not rule out a reference to arbitration in so far as the case relates to a new settlement of university teachers' salaries from October 1975. What I would rule out is any back-dating to October 1974 because that would be a clear breach of the 12-months rule, which is a crucial element in the social contract.

Mr. Moonman

Would my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that the General Secretary of the AUT warned last weekend of the crisis situation developing? Will he particularly comment on the fact that a number of restrictive practices could begin to operate in the next couple of months, including those concerning the marking of examination papers?

Mr. Prentice

I do not regard this as a crisis situation. The Houghton Report recommended substantial and overdue increases in pay to staff engaged in higher education outside the university sector. That has created an anomaly between them and the universities. The report also recommended that for the future there should be broad comparability between the sectors. I accept that in principle. We have been in intensive negotiations for some weeks as to how that should apply with effect from October 1975. University staff should regard this situation as giving them an opportunity for a much larger increase in October 1975 than most people will get at that time.

I do not regard it as a crisis. Any form of militant action—I do not think there will be very much ; the reports coming through today say that it is very uneven—would be quite irrelevant and unhelpful. I do not need convincing of the need for a substantial increase. I accept it. But no one will convince me that it should breach the 12-months' rule. That is quite out of the question.

Mr. Grist

Since the right hon. Gentleman accepts that the present situation is unjust and that university teachers should get parity, and since the Houghton Report gave teachers and polytechnic lecturers an increase at a stroke, why cannot university teachers get the same increase at a stroke this year, in one go?

Mr. Prentice

As I have told the House twice in the last few moments, because that would be a breach of the 12-months' rule which is a crucial element in the social contract.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Does not the Secretary of State, having accepted that there is an anomaly here, about which he has been very frank with the House, understand that many university teachers and those who have not necessarily been uncritical of them in the past regard the actions of many others in this field as breaching the social contract and find it difficult to sustain a position in which apparently the contract is rigidly applied to university teachers but not to others? Is it not incumbent upon the right hon. Gentleman to look yet again at what is understandably a difficult situation to see whether the strong feelings which have been aroused in universities cannot at least in part be met?

Mr. Prentice

I accept that there is an anomalous position in the pay of university staffs compared with the pay in other areas of higher education, but, after all, before the Houghton award there was an anomalous position the other way round. Anomalies occur in wages and salaries through hout the whole of our society. The appropriate time to adjust the anomaly is 12 months after the last settlement, which for the universities will be in October 1975.

To reiterate what I said yesterday, we are negotiating now for the element in the settlement which will involve a catching-up operation with staff outside universities. We propose that there shall be a second element in the settlement representing a cost-of-living increase which we shall necessarily have to negotiate nearer the time.

Dr. Hampson

As the Houghton proposals were outside the social contract terms, why does not the Minister accept the need to bring university staffs into a comparable position? Is he aware that university lecturers will shortly be eligible for family income supplement and that his bungling is causing senior people to leave their jobs? Why has he not set up an independent arbitration, and why did he say in reply to an earlier supplementary question that he would not accept the arbitration results unless they met his own criteria? Is not that prejudging the issue?

Mr. Prentice

I made absolutely clear that I do not rule out arbitration in relation to the settlement with effect from October 1975, but I will not be party to a clear breach of the social contract which would be involved in any back-dating of a settlement to October 1974, on which date the university staffs had an increase in pay. As to the Houghton award being outside the contract, the Government—I understand with the full support of both sides of the House—identified the teachers in the public sector as being a special case, just as they identified nurses and one or two other exceptional groups. Special cases by their nature have to be limited special cases and cannot be quoted by everyone else. If they are quoted by everyone else, such claims have to be resisted. It is in that sense that I am resisting the claim for back-dating to 1974 and will continue to do so.

Mr. Crouch

Is the Minister aware that as I represent a university town I have had a great many letters, which are extremely well argued and well written—as I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that they would be—arguing strongly that the Secretary of State should get a move on? The whole House recognises his determination to see that the social contract is observed, and we support him in that, but the university teachers say that they suffer from a relativity disadvantage and they ask him to get a move on. We welcome what he has said today, but the university teachers are asking for an answer to be given more quickly than he suggests.

Mr. Prentice

I am delighted to learn that the letters are well written. That reinforces my high level of confidence in the university system I have been getting a move on. We have been doing just that. We entered into communication with the AUT and the other parties concerned within a week or two of publication of the Houghton Report. The first meeting of the negotiating committee was in February and there have been intensive negotiations since. There is no question of delay on our part. The simple point on which I claim and expect support from both sides of the House is that there should not be a breach of the social contract in the way that some members of the profession are suggesting.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Surely the Secretary of State is being both complacent and obstinate in the face of an unprecedented crisis in the universities. Is there not a duty upon him as Secretary of State to seek to bring this crisis to an end by allowing the claim to go to arbitration straight away before bitterness is caused throughout the university world?

Mr. Prentice

I agree that I am being obstinate for what seem to me to be good reasons, but I do not accept that I am being complacent. It is because of the understandable disquiet in the university world that we started as early as we did the preliminary negotiations for a settlement which can take place only next October. We entered into those discussions willingly at an early date so as to reassure university teachers that we intended a substantial settlement in October which would include two elements, first a catching-up element which we can negotiate now and on which we can go to arbitration if that appears to be the right course, and secondly, a cost-of-living element which will be negotiated nearer the date.

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