HC Deb 11 November 1977 vol 938 cc1140-52

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

5.20 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Clemitson (Luton, East)

I am grateful for this opportunity of raising in the House a matter of the utmost importance to my constituents—[Interruption.]

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Some of us want to listen to what my hon. Friend is saying. This is an important matter, and I hope you will ask hon. Members to depart quietly from the Chamber.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

I hope that hon. Members heard what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Clemitson

I am grateful for this opportunity to address the House, because this matter is of importance to my constituents and, indeed, to all the people in the county of Bedfordshire. The subject is the cuts in the education service which are threatened by the Bedfordshire County Council.

In total, the council proposes a reduction at November 1976 prices below the level of current expenditure first forecast for the next financial year of £2,367,000. To achieve a cut of such magnitude, a series of possible reductions has been put before the education committee. These are divided into three groups. Group A, which is described as having the least damaging effect, covers reductions in caretaking and cleaning staff and a 10 per cent. cut in maintenance of buildings and grounds. It totals £509,585.

Group B is described as less acceptable and includes a 20 per cent. cut in in-service training, the end of the use of Putteridge Bury College, a reduction in college budgets, a 10 per cent. reduction in capitation allowances in primary and secondary education, and the ending of all nursery education. The savings in that group total between £1,170,000 minimum and £1,182,600 maximum.

Group C is described as the least acceptable and comprises the end of the provision of school crossing patrols and savings on salaries and wages of teaching staff. The total for this group is £1,445,815.

In other words, if the council persists in cutting education expenditure by £2..3 million-plus, the whole of the reductions of Group A, the whole of Group B and a considerable proportion of Group C will be put into effect. This must be so unless alternative ways of saving money are found.

When members of the committee were asked for their suggestions, the only significant one which came up was a possible saving of £108,000 on payments to parents for school uniforms.

Faced with this situation, the Bedfordshire National Union of Teachers produced a leaflet which reads as follows: Parents. Your child is at risk. Bedfordshire County Council proposes to save money at your child's expense. They want: all nursery schools to close ; large classes in all schools ; many teachers to be sacked ; no school crossing patrols ; fewer school books and materials ; repairs to school buildings neglected. This is only the tip of the iceberg. For the sake of your child's future refuse to accept any cuts."

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that what he has read out today are not cuts which the county council is obliged to bring in but simply guidelines? Is he further aware that the Government have obliged all county councils, and specifically the Bedfordshire County Council, to make a cut in real terms of 1½ per cent., which does not take account of inflation?

Mr. Clemitson

I am aware of all those arguments, and I shall deal with them at some length in a moment.

Finally, the leaflet to which I have referred advises parents about various courses of action which they might take, such as, for example, pressing county councillors and organising petitions, which they have done.

It should be noted that there is nothing in the leaflet which is out of line with the proposals which the county council has been considering and which I have described. Yet on Monday of this week, in addressing a lobby of many hundreds of teachers who assembled at County Hall, Councillor Hendry, Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee, described the leaflet in this way. I was there and I took careful notes of what he said. He described it as the "offending leaflet". He said that he deplored it and that it was "deliberately provocative". Indeed, anyone listening to Councillor Hendry would think that all the talk of cuts in both global and specific terms had been hatched at some secret conclaves of rebellious teachers.

The reality, of course, is rather different. The NUT and the other teacher unions have acted in the most responsible fashion, in my view, in alerting the people of Bedfordshire to what the council was saying. If any proof were needed of their responsible attitude, it is to be found in the fact that many hundreds of them were prepared to forgo half a day's pay on Monday not in pursuit of a pay claim but in defence of the education service.

What have the present rulers at County Hall to say in defence of their actions? They say, first, "We were elected in May with a massive majority on a programme of keeping the rates down and restraining public expenditure." Elected with a massive majority they certainly were. No one will dispute that—75 seats out of 81, is it, on the county council? But what did they actually say? I have here one of their election addresses, which was put out in one of the wards in my constituency. This is what it said : Unlike the Socialists who put dogma before people—we believe that by good housekeeping we can provide the services you need and expect, but without the constant excessive increases in rates. We will do all we can to ensure ‖ that our children receive the best education possible." That was signed by a man who is an ex-director of education to the county borough of Luton.

The message is simple but deceptive—" We can keep rates down and still provide the necessary services because there are thousands and millions of pounds of wasted public expenditure." How is it, then, that the Conservatives now in control at County Hall cannot save amp;£2 million without talking of ending all nursery education and all the other cuts which I have described? Is that merely "good housekeeping "?

I quote again from the same document, under the heading "Education ": Conservatives are concerned about the quality of achievement in our schools and will concentrate on raising standards, especially in basic subjects. Teaching and learning will be put before administration." Five months later, those words have a somewhat hollow ring.

In my view, the prospectus on which the Conservatives fought the county council elections was false and dishonest. They knew it at the time. The parents and children in my constituency know it now.

The second argument deployed by the Conservatives is that the proposals, the guidelines as the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) called them—are no more than just that—guidelines for discussion ; no decisions have yet been taken, and the reaction is premature.

Perhaps we should be thankful to the council for the fact that the cat is out of the bag at an early enough stage for protests to be made before and not after the event, but, having disclosed the way in which minds are working the Conservatives can hardly complain if they get something of a reaction. People are not daft. They know that guidelines can easily become tramlines, and they expectantly await alternative proposals. Councillor Hendry did not come up with any on Monday. He said that he did not for one moment believe that the education committee would consider closing all nursery schools.But there was no assurance that it would not cut some—

Mr. Skeetrose—

Mr. Clemitson

—and some can be 95 per cent.

Mr. Skeet

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clemitson

No. I have given way once.

Mr. Skeet

Specifically on the point which the hon. Gentleman has raised, will he give way?

Mr. Clemitson


Mr. Skeet

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I find it difficult to see where the point of order can arise.

Mr. Skeet

If the hon. Member refers to me specifically by name, and if he is making a suggestion which was not in the mind of the council—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That cannot possibly be a point of order.

Mr. Clemitson

I was dealing with the points raised by the hon. Member for Bedford in his earlier intervention.

Again, Councillor Hendry said that he was totally against redundancies, and in his next breath he said that redundancies would be considered only as a last resort. I believe that that is known as trying to eat your cake and have it.

He is suggesting that every class can be increased in size by one without it mattering, apparently oblivious of the consequences in terms of the numbers of teachers required. It seems to me that it is the council that is being premature. It does not know what the size of the rate support grant will be. Neither has it yet felt the full benefit of falling interest rates.

Next is what might be called the comparison argument, or the how-good-we-are-in-Bedfordshire argument. It is said, for example, that we have the highest rate precept of any shire county. That is true, but it is also true that the rate rise this year was only the fifteenth highest in the country. It is said that we have the highest expenditure per pupil in primary schools and the fourth highest in secondary schools in the national table. It is a remarkably strange argument which says "We are the best and, therefore, we can afford to cut ".

But the argument tends to fall apart when one discovers who the first three counties are which spend more on secondary education per pupil than Bedfordshire. They are Hertfordshire, Surrey and Buckinghamshire. I have rarely heard it seriously argued that Surrey and Buckinghamshire are in the vanguard of educational progress in this country.

Then there is the argument that the council is only carrying out Government policy. It points to the reduction in expenditure for education and science under the Government's published expenditure plans. That reduction as between this year and next is of the order of 1..7 per cent. for education, according to my calculations. At first glance there might appear to be some substance in the council's case on this point, but even the most cursory glimpse below the surface raises certain questions. Circular 3/77 envisages actual increases of 1.1 per cent. in the case of schools' current expenditure, and 1.2 per cent. in the case of further education.

Again, the White Paper itself envisages an increase in real terms for under-fives expenditure. However, on page 72 of the White Paper we read : In England and Wales provision has been made for staffing sufficient to maintain the standards obtaining in 1976/77 ; and from 1977/78 for the gradual expansion of in-service training and beginning of induction training for newly trained teachers." In the light of the published figures and statement, how is it that included in the proposed cuts we find the ending of nursery education, a 20 per cent. cut in in-service training and savings in salaries and wages of teaching staff? Could it be that the message has not reached Bedfordshire County Council, or has it heard the message and ignored it?

I end with three pleas to my hon. Friend the Minister. The first is that she should communicate to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment the importance of giving favourable consideration to counties such as Bedfordshire under the rate support grant settlement this year. I think that on that there will be some accord between myself and Conservative Members. I realise the great difficulties in assessing priorities and the undoubted needs of the deprived city areas, but I remind my right hon. Friend that not all the deprivation is to be found in the great cities.

My second plea is that the Department should consider very carefully the advice which is given to local authorities. I realise the very delicate relationship and balance of powers that exist between the Department and local education authorities, but when the Department gives advice and guidance to local authorities I suggest that the authorities should be left in no doubt about what is expected of them and where their duties lie.

My final plea to the Government is, please, to leave the Tory-controlled Bedfordshire Education Authority in absolutely no doubt about what the Government think of its proposals. Teachers and parents are united on this issue. Rarely has an issue produced such widespread and deep-seated reaction. 'indeed, the chairman of the education authority, Councillor Bowles, a man of long experience and involvement in education. resigned his chairmanship in protest. Bedfordshire County Council must be made to think again before it is too late The Minister could perform an invaluable service this afternoon in lending her voice to those of teachers and parents of Bedfordshire in their campaign to prevent the decimation of educational provision by the council.

5.35 p.m.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Luton, West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) for allowing me a couple of minutes to intervene during his Adjournment debate. I should like to give a sample of the corespondence that I have received from my constituents.

On 19th October I had a letter from a Mrs. McIlravey. She said: Dear Mr. Sedgemore, I have just attended a parents' meeting at Icknield Infants school and I am shocked to hear of Bedfordshire County Council's proposed educational cuts of £3 million which include closing all nursery schools, larger classes, no crossing patrols, fewer books and materials etc. All the parents and teachers were outraged. The blame was put on the Labour Government as it was stated by Councillor Mrs. Quinn that ' the Labour Government gives the best support grants to Labour controlled councils '. We shall certainly not sit back and let them take away from our children their hard won right to a decent education for all and call upon you to support us. Yours sincerely. I replied : Dear Mrs. McBravey, I was very surprised to read the contents of your letter of 19th October. I know that standards in public life have declined but surely not as much as would be the case if you have reported Cllr. Mrs. Quinn accurately. The remark which you attribute to her is simply untrue. If she did indeed make it then it is such a big lie that I feel the only public service left for her to perform is to resign. There is no way in which the government can or would use the rate support grant as she apparently suggests. The closing down of nursery schools, the expected increase in the size of classes, fewer books and materials, the abolition of crossing patrols, all these are the policies of the recently elected Conservative County Council. They are unrelated to any action on the part of the government, not linked to any public expenditure cuts authorised or in the pipe-line. They are taking place at a time when government and local authority expenditure in real terms is expected to rise slightly on these items over the coming years and at a time of falling interest rates and rising Council balances. If there were a Labour Council these cuts simply would not be taking place. Since this is a time for plain speaking can I say that one must be careful of ' outrage' expressed by teachers and parents, many of whom are after all responsible for the current situation because they were the people who voted the Conservative Party into office in Bedfordshire and have left me without one single Labour councillor in Luton West to help in the fight against the cuts. The fight must be carried out on a straight political basis. I enclose for your information a copy of a letter I have sent to the Rt. Hon. Shirley Williams, M.P., the Secretary of State for Education. I have no objection to your making this letter public or reading it out to the parents and teachers concerned. Following that, I had other letters of a similar kind from such people as Mr. Morris and Mrs. Jones. I received a sheaf of letters from my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East.

I asked myself why this had happened. I discovered the answer when I was reading a book in the Library today called "Let Our Children Grow Tall", which contains selected speeches made between 1975 and 1977 by the present Leader of the Opposition. If I understand her case properly, the book should be called "Let Our Children Grow Tall, but not in Bedfordshire ". The right hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) wrote : and some will grow taller than others. That is another way of saying that children in Bedfordshire will have their creative instincts stunted by her Tory councils carrying our her Tory philosophy. The right hon. Lady went on to say: Our religion teaches us that every person is unique and must play his part in working out his salvation. Leaving aside the male chauvinism of that remark, are we to say that the salvation of our children is to come from their being deprived of necessary education at precisely the time when they need it. What sort of Christianity is it that the right hon. Lady preaches? It seems to have its inspiration more in primitive materialism than in God.

The right hon. Lady goes on to say: Let us hand on to our children an inheritance for which they in turn will work with gladness and pride. How cynical, how hypocritical, how corrupt that message must look to parents, teachers and children in my constituency. It is the right hon. Lady's Conservative councillors carrying out her political philosophy who need to be condemned by the Minister.

Mr. Skeet rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have not had an indication that the hon. Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) has given permission for the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) to intervene in the debate.

5.41 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter. I recognise that there is great concern in Bedfordshire at the proposals being considered by the county council. May I reinforce their observations about the status of the proposals? I understand that, as part of the annual budgeting cycle, each committee of the authority was instructed in the summer to draw up a schedule of economy measures to reduce 1978–79 expenditure by 2½ per cent. in real terms. This would have meant economies in the education service totalling about £3.24 million.

It was when the education committee considered the measures that would be needed to make economies of this magnitude that it contemplated the measures that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) has outlined, including the complete cessation of nursery provision, substantial reductions in expenditure on in-service teacher training reductions in books, materials and equipment for schools and a proposed reduction of 329 teaching posts on top of those that would be lost if nursery education in the county came to an end.

I understand that the present position is that in the light of reports on the impact for education of such savings, the policy and resources committee has set revised targets which, for education, will involve savings of £2.37 million and that the education committee is considering the new target.

However, I must join my hon. Friends in emphasising that this revised target is not a final decision on the budget for education next year. It could hardly be otherwise, because the county council will have to take into account much more information. For example, the Government's proposals for rate support grant will not be made known until 18th November. They must be debated and considered in the House. Local authorities cannot yet know what their share of the grant will be. I take on board the points made by my hon. Friends on this matter, and I know the difficulties that some counties have faced in previous years. My right hon. Friend has been looking carefully into this problem.

The level of rate support grant will be crucial in considering the authority's budget for 1978–79. Local authorities also do not know what guidance the Government may feel it necessary to give about the main implications of the RSG settlement. The Bedfordshire authority is therefore acting very much in the dark rather than in some knowledge of the Government's intentions.

Finally, the authority does not yet know the future level of its expenditure. I understand that even the proposed savings are in relation to budgeted expenditure for last year and the council still has to learn what the actual expenditure within the authority was during that year.

Mr. Skeet

I am obliged for what the Minister has said about these difficulties, which seem to necessitate no strife, since there are so many uncertainties to be resolved. In the RSG distribution it is, apparently, Government policy to give more to London and less to shire counties. Will the Minister ensure that in order to avoid a 30 per cent. increase in rates in Bedford, to which such Government action could lead, she will give an adequate allocation, so that cuts are avoided, because no one wants cuts in education at any time?

Miss Jackson

I cannot comment on the hon. Gentleman's remarks. It has always been the Government's policy to give the greatest help where we see the greatest need, although we are anxious to ensure that this does not involve too great an inequality. I cannot comment on the rate support grant in general.

I am concerned at the assumptions that Bedfordshire has chosen to adopt in the budgetary exercise that it has conducted. Against the background of a lack of information about the likely proposals for next year, it appears that the local authority took the figures contained in this year's public expenditure White Paper and sought to apply them directly to its own local situation. I should like to make three points about that.

First, the figures in the White Paper are national figures. They are not put forward as being uniformly applicable to every local authority. Each authority must consider the national trend revealed in the White Paper in the light of its own needs and circumstances.

Secondly, the figures for local authority expenditure on education in the White Paper require careful interpretation. As my hon. Friend said, although overall planned expenditure on the education service was expected to fall by about 1.5 per cent. between 1977–78 and 1978–79, the main burden of the economies that this reduction implied was expected to fall on the school meals service. Expenditure on education overall was expected marginally to increase nationally, by just over 1 per cent.

Thirdly, underlying the public expenditure White Paper figures was a clear statement of how the Government saw the priorities within the education service. We have made it clear that the expenditure levels planned for the next few years will be sufficient to sustain the Government's policy of meeting the levels of demand that are now expected.

Since the White Paper was published in February, my hon. Friend will know that apart from the implications of the White Paper, the Government have made additional resources available for 1978–79 to help the education of the young unemployed, to increase the eligibility for free school meals, and to provide for the em- ployment of additional teachers in deprived areas. The White Paper assumed that staffing standards would be maintained at their present level nationally, that there would be a modest but steady increase in the proportion of under-fives receiving nursery education, and that the provision for in-service training for teachers would be further developed.

Against that background I am naturally concerned that Bedfordshire should be contemplating policy changes which are far more drastic and severe than the White Paper assumes nationally. The local authority has said that no decisions will be taken until all the facts are known.

I understand that the policy and resources committee of the authority will be looking again at these matters. I am sure that it will take account of the powerful arguments put forward by my hon. Friend. I hope that the local authority will look thoroughly and carefully at its own assumptions and calculations before reaching decisions that could have a very serious effect on the standards of the education service in that county.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Six o'clock.