HC Deb 06 February 1979 vol 962 cc233-92

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

4.31 p.m.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

In the period that is left of this halt Supply day, I wish to turn the spotlight on another aspect of the present industrial unrest. Though not quite so dramatic as the situation in our hospitals, which was discussed yesterday, it is, in its own way, equally sad and serious, I refer to the effects of the present industrial unrest on our education services and the disruption of education provided for our children.

I begin by stating one or two facts. At the beginning of this month many schools, particularly in the North-West of England, were unable to open because of a shortage of oil due to the action of tanker drivers. Many schools were closed for at least a week. Two weeks ago, on 22 January, during the one-day strike by the National Union of Public Employees and other public service workers, according to an answer that I received from the Department of Education and Science, in 25 out of 52 local authority areas the large majority of schools were closed. According to the Secretary of State, it was reasonable to deduce that almost half the schools in the country were closed. About 4½ million out of the 9 million children of school age failed to receive any education.

Since that day sporadic action has continued. As always happens in such situations, the picture is not absolutely clear, since it changes day by day. But there are some things that one can say with certainty. In Haringey, all 56 schools, involving 37,000 children, have been closed since 22 February. In Barking, all 75 schools have been closed since 29 January.

Sunderland and Newcastle upon Tyne face major strike action. I understand that in Sunderland 62 out of 170 schools are closed. I am told that in the whole of the North-East the situation is becoming more serious. Two-thirds of the schools in Gateshead are the subject of industrial action, with 91 schools closed. In Tyneside, only the fifth and sixth forms are open.

According to a report in yesterday's evening newspapers, NUPE claims that 1,500 schools, involving 700,000 pupils, are closed in London alone. There are mounting threats of more strikes by caretakers in different parts of the country, all of which, by means of closing the schools, will have a direct effect on the education of our children.

I ask the House to consider for a moment what that means. What does it mean to the children and the parents? What does it mean when we consider the risk to children, particularly young children, who turn up at school, possibly after a bus journey, to find that the gates are barred and that they have nowhere to go? What does it mean to parents who send their children off to school in the morning not knowing whether the school will he open to admit them? In particular, what does it mean to working mothers, whose whole life is disrupted because they cannot be sure that their children are being looked after during the time they are at work? What attitude is created in the minds of young children who see the effects of action of this kind?

Above all, what does closing schools mean to the children themselves? Time lost in education is time that is lost for ever. For many it comes at a critical period in their education. To those who are taking O-levels and A-levels in June of this year any time lost may have a serious effect indeed. It can determine whether they pass sufficient O or A-level examinations to enable them to continue in higher education, thereby affecting their ability to obtain a degree. In the end, this can affect their ability for the rest of their lives.

I believe that the majority of hon. Members feel that action which has that kind of effect on children who are in no way involved in the strike is a callous disregard of their future. Those who act in this way, and those who order them to do so, are lacking in the normal standards to be expected in a civilised society.

I ask the Secretary of State whether the situation is such today that we have reached the pitch in our industrial relations where children's education is to be looked upon as nothing more than a pawn to be tossed aside in the battle for higher wages.

When I intervened in the debate on 22 January, the Home Secretary seemed to imply that it was all to do with the press peddling lies, that really there was no intention to prevent children crossing picket lines, and that there was no intention to disrupt their education. I shall give one or two brief quotations from those who are leading the strike. Mr. Barker, the London divisional officer of NUPE, said: As far as we are concerned, strike action means keeping the children out. There wouldn't be any point in taking action otherwise. Another alleged leader of NUPE said that the union was not prepared to tolerate councils keeping schools open when our members are taking action. A NUPE official in Barking said: If we are going to win a decent minimum wage, we have got to hit the children. A Mr. Race said: You can't have a strike of caretakers without schools being closed down. Far from being the lies of the press, it appears to be the clear intention of some of those involved in the srtike to cause as much disruption as possible.

What, then, is the Secretary of State's attitude? To her credit, she has openly and publicly, with our support, deplored what is going on. She has said: It is legitimate action for NUPE members to withdraw their labour, but preventing children from going to school is a wholly unjustified use of the strike weapon. She has also said: I strongly believe that wherever possible authorities should keep the schools open so that children can continue their education. The words are fine, but what on earth has happened to the action? In view of the right hon. Lady's clearly expressed views that preventing children from going to school is a wholly unjustified use of the strike weapon and in view of her repeated statements in the House that she believed that schools should be kept open, what advice are she and her Department giving, or are they prepared to give, to local education authorities to ensure that arrangements are made to see that schools are kept open so that children's education is not affected? Sadly, the answer appears to be "No advice whatsoever."

Certainly, as far as I can discover, the right hon. Lady was unwilling to give any advice to local education authorities before 22 January, and as far as I know she has given none since. Indeed, far from the right hon. Lady's giving advice, the position is totally the reverse. Having said that she believed that wherever possible local education authorities should keep schools open, she added: I am not advocating that teachers or others should undertake the work done by members of unions who are on official strike. If she is not advocating that, what is she advocating?

If schools are closed, as they are today, because caretakers are on strike and are not opening them, and if the right hon. Lady specifically says that she is not prepared to advocate that others should open them in their place, how on earth does she suggest her wish should be achieved that wherever possible local education authorities should keep the schools open? Having said that preventing children from going to school is a wholly unjustified use of the strike weapon, the right hon. Lady is by her unwillingness to give any lead in the matter totally condoning that which she claims to be unjustified.

It is not a question of putting in the troops. It is not even a question of calling for volunteers. It is merely a matter of giving a lead to those who are on the premises to do that which they can do to ensure that education carries on.

The appalling industrial situation that we face must give grave concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Small groups of workers in pursuit solely of their own self-interest can do untold harm to the interests of others. Does not the right hon. Lady realise that if we are to rid society of that we need nothing less than a total change of attitude within society? Does not she realise that one of the attitudes that must be changed is the blind allegiance to the view that in no circumstances is any person to do the work of another who happens to be on strike, irrespective of the harm that that strike may be doing to innocent victims? Does not she realise that by her own words she is encouraging and endorsing that attitude?

Worse still, does not the right hon. Lady realise that by using such language as that in her statement, that there has been an agreement that teachers will not be stopped by picket lines from entering schools, she is herself giving credence to the totally false notion that those on strike have a right to prevent other people from going about their legitimate business?

What sickens me most of all today is that we are seeing in the attitudes displayed by the strikers the result of the philosophy of the speeches and actions of the Labour Party over the past 20 years, and in particular of the present Government since 1974. It is no good for the Prime Minister to wring his hands in anguish about the abuses of picketing that we have seen and the unwillingness of people to cross picket lines when he and his Government, by their action in extending immunity to secondary picketing and extending the stranglehold of the closed shop, have themselves brought about and encouraged the very abuses they now condemn.

It is no good for the right hon. Lady to deplore the disruption of our children's education, education that is a responsibility of hers through office, when, by her own words, she supports the attitudes that have made that possible. In short, it is no use for her and the present Government to deplore the end when it is they who have willed the means.

Therefore, will the right hon. Lady please state two things when she speaks? First, will she commend those caretakers who, in defiance of the instructions of their union but in the interests of the children in their schools, kept the schools open? Secondly, will she tell the local education authorities quite clearly that, despite the threats of action by caretakers in refusing to open schools, they have a clear duty to ensure that, so far as is possible, children's education should not be interfered with and that therefore they should provide other means to ensure that that education can continue? Will she assure them that if they take that action and follow that lead they will have the Government's support?

I have no doubt that the right hon. Lady is totally genuine in her rejection of violence. But she cannot forget that by herself being involved in a picket line she gave encouragement to others to go there and therefore cannot escape her responsibility for what has ensued. Therefore, so much the greater is her responsibility today to give her wholehearted backing to members of staff and local education authorities that are keeping schools open despite the action of those on strike.

The National Union of Teachers has rightly advised its members to ignore picket lines. The National Association of Head Teachers, yesterday or today, advised its members that if local education authorities wish to keep schools open the heads should assist in keeping them open. The right hon. Lady has had meetings in attempts to agree a code of behaviour by those involved in the strikes. The fact remains that a maintained school is the property of the local education authority. Presumably, therefore, anyone acting with the authority of that body has the right to open that school and to go on to those premises. There is nothing magic in the ownership of a key. I ask the Secretary of State whether she is prepared to advise local education authorities that that is what she believes they should do.

I turn finally to the legal position. May I remind the Secretary of State of what I understand is the statutory position? Under section 8 of the 1944 Act it is a duty of the local education authority to ensure that sufficient schools are available for providing primary and secondary education. By section 39 of that Act there is a duty on parents to see that the children attend school regularly. The right hon. Lady said the other day that she felt there was no action against local education authorities because the courts would hold that force majeure exists.

I have looked up, in as many dictionaries as I can find, the definition of "force majeure". In its strict interpretation, it means superior force. I presume that it might be said that for a union to take any action is, in the eyes of this Government, the action of superior force. But I do not believe that the right hon. Lady can seriously argue, using force majeure in its normal terms, namely, action outside one's control, that the action is outside the control of the local education authority when it is not opening that which it could open.

The right hon. Lady may be right in saying that the parents themselves have no right of action to enforce that duty. But she has. She possesses the one remedy available. By section 99 of the Act, if she is satisfied that any local education authority is failing to discharge the duty imposed upon it, she may make an order declaring the authtority to be in default and to direct it to carry out its duty, and any such direction may be enforced through the courts.

I raise that matter with the Secretary of State because she has received a letter in the last few days from the parents of a Hornsey school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), one of the schools in Haringey, which has been closed for over two weeks directly under the instructions of the local education authority, which advised the staff and children to stay away. The parents have asked the right hon. Lady if she will take the action she can take on their behalf under the Act. Until last night they had had no reply. I should like to know what is her answer to that request.

In the wider aspect, the present Government have never hesitated to issue circulars to local education authorities giving advice and instructing them on the type of education they must have. Now, when their help is sought and when authorities could well do with advice and guidance from the Department of Education and Science to remind them of their duties, so that they can support the head teachers, who can keep schools open, they appear to take no action at all.

The right hon. Lady has said repeatedly that she deplores what is happening. Yet she does not appear to be prepared to take any action to attempt to prevent what is happening. Once again, like other Ministers in this Government, she has failed to live up to the duty imposed upon her.

4.55 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science and Paymaster General (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

Let me say straight away that I am grateful for the opportunity that this Supply day gives me to set out what is happening in education and to respond to the charge made by the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) that the Department is doing nothing about it. Before I set out what the Department is doing and what the present situation is, it is important to underline the fact that, whether the hon. and learned Gentleman likes it or not, the employers of teachers are the local authorities. The local authorities are in direct charge of their schools, and the powers of the Department of Education and Science are limited.

The hon. and learned Gentleman raised a couple of legal questions with which I should like to deal. Section 99 of the Education Act 1944 provides that if the Secretary of State is satisfied that local education authorities have failed to discharge any duty imposed on them by or for the purposes of this Act, the Minister may make an order declaring the authority … to be in default. The premier section of the Act is section 8(1), which provides: It shall be the duty of every local education authority to secure that there shall be available for their area sufficient schools—

  1. (a) for providing primary education and..
  2. (b) for providing secondary education…
I have, of course, taken legal advice on this matter. I am advised that this section is concerned with the provision of sufficient school accommodation to provide education for children. It is true that there is another enforcement power to which the hon. and learned Gentleman might be referring, that is, section 68 of the 1944 Act, which says that if a local education authority has acted, or is proposing to act, unreasonably with respect to the exercise of any power confirmed or the performance of any duty imposed by or under this Act I can give directions as to the exercise of that power or the performance of that duty.

The hon. and learned Gentleman knows of the drastic narrowing of that power implicit in the Tameside judgment. It was commended by his own party some months ago. I report the words of that judgment given by Lord Salmon, in his summing-up. He said: In my opinion, section 68 on its true construction means that before the Minister could lawfully issue directions under it, he must satisfy himself not only that he does not agree with the way the authority has acted or is proposing to act nor even that the authority is mistaken or wrong. The question he must ask himself is 'Could any reasonable local authority act in the way the authority has acted or is proposing to act? I am taking legal advice on the question the hon. and learned Gentleman raised. I am bound to tell him that the narrowing of section 68, in the light of the Tameside judgment, makes it extremely unlikely that one could find unreasonable the action of a local authority in closing schools, when faced with suggestions that if it did not close them there would be further action, for example, against a section of the education system—such as in Haringey special schools—that it is able to maintain. It is very doubtful whether section 68 would stand up in the light of the Tameside judgment.

I want to refer to another matter which the hon. and learned Gentleman raised before I speak on the broad question of the schools system and what is happening to it. The hon. and learned Gentleman raised the question which has been raised by many Conservative Members and continually reiterated by newspapers. It concerns my presence on the picket line at Grunwick on 19 May 1977. I make no accusations against the hon. and learned Gentleman, who is an honourable Member of this House, but I have been subject to a degree of smear and innuendo which I find almost equivalent to the propaganda of some regimes in the past which would not describe themselves as democratic.

I should like to put the simple facts before the House. I visited the picket at Grunwick on 19 May 1977. It was a wholly peaceful picket and had been peaceful for the previous 10 months. There was no question at that time of any violence on the picket line. I believe that fellow members of my union, engaged in that strike, had a legitimate grievance. That is still my view in terms of the conditions under which they were labouring. I appeared on that picket line as a member of that union. I freely admit that to the House. Nor am I [...]shamed of it.

It was nearly a month later before there was any violence of any kind on the picket line at Grunwick. Within a few days of that first violence. I issued a public statement to the press which I will read to the House. It was dated 24 June 1977 and stated: I deplore the intervention of the far Right and the far Left who have no useful place in this dispute and whose arrival on the scene —very late in the day, I might say—has done no good to the cause my union is fighting for. Their intervention may have stiffened the intransigence of management and it has raised the temperature in a wholly unhelpful way. I want to put that on the record because hon. Members are open to question my judgment about appearing on the picket line. I agree that they are entitled to do that. But nobody is entitled to read from that episode that I in any way condone, or would condone, violence. I am totally opposed to it.

Mr. Carlisle

The Secretary of State will remember that I was careful to say that I fully accepted her total sincerity in saying that she would never advocate or support violence.

Mrs. Williams

I have already said that I did not for a moment associate the hon. and learned Member with the criticisms that I am bound to make of some of his colleagues and some newspapers.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Does the Secretary of State recognise with the wisdom of hindsight that gestures of solidarity of the type which she demonstrated by going to the picket line always lay themselves open in this place and elsewhere to guilt by association when things turn out differently? Does she now regret what she did?

Mrs. Williams

Guilt by association is something about which the House should be careful. It is an extremely dangerous doctrine. It was an official strike and, in my view, the conditions were such as to justify publicity being brought to bear on it.

The hon. and learned Member for Runcorn raised a number of issues which are of great concern to the House and those interested in education.

I deplore any loss of time at school for children because, as I have often said, children cannot repeat their formal education, and many will never recover ground that they have lost. I agree that some boys and girls may suffer all their lives from the consequences of failing examinations, or doing less well than they might otherwise have done, because they are unable to prepare adequately for them. This is especially true of young people attempting CSE examinations because final grades are in part based on an assessment of school work.

Furthermore, thousands of young people have already suffered disruption of their education this winter, from appalling weather conditions, interruptions of supplies of fuel or food to their schools as a result of the road haulage strike, and in some instances the effects of the sporadic railway dispute on teachers and pupils trying to get to school.

Some of these boys and girls are the children of the very people who have been engaged in disputes. However bitter the grievance—and I recognise that among low-paid men and women there is a strong sense of grievance—I cannot see what is to be gained by visiting those grievances upon the children.

Having said that, let me tell the House the present position as far as I am able to ascertain it from the reports of the 97 English local education authorities. As the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn said, the factual position is not always easy to ascertain.

Today at lunchtime about 1,150 schools were closed mainly, but not entirely, as a result of industrial action by public service unions. That represents about 4.4 per cent. of the 25,000 schools in England. It compares with 1,300 schools which were closed or partially closed a fortnight ago. The position is fluid and in most areas changes from day to day.

The public service unions have selected certain areas for longer-term action as distinct from one-day strikes. Of the 1,150 or so schools now closed, about 900 of them are in the areas of just 10 local education authorities. In Barking all schools including special schools are closed. In Haringey all schools are closed with the exception of two special schools. In Newham all schools are closed with the exception of one volun tary aided school—a total of 300 schools in these three authorities.

In the North-East of the country, North Tyneside, Gateshead, Newcastle and Sunderland have between them just under 400 schools closed with another 60 schools closed today in Sheffield. Tomorrow 180 schools in Sheffield will be closed for one day as part of the pattern of selective strikes in that city. The remaining areas affected to a considerable extent are in Essex and Cambridgeshire with about 150 school closures between them. There is a possibility that schools in Brent will be closed from tomorrow for the rest of the week.

The strikes started as one-day strikes in many areas on 22 January. As the hon. and learned Member said, on that day about half the schools in the country were closed. The majority of them reopened on 23 January. In all the areas that remain about 1,000 schools are closed.

In a number of schools meals are affected. About 30 authorities have reported that further education classes in schools and evening institutions have had to stop because of a ban on overtime by caretakers. In a few areas further education colleges and libraries have been affected either by partial or complete closure.

Since the hon. and learned Member raised the matter, it is fair for me now to turn to the fact that newspaper reports have not conveyed the correct picture.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

The Secretary of State has not yet mentioned Hampshire. My information is that 16 out of 72 schools will be closed by a strike of caretakers in my constituency. I mention that because all this started in Havant 18 months ago.

Mrs. Williams

I shall reply to the hon. Member later.

In my view, there has been a considerable addition to what is already a great sense of concern. I do not question that sense of concern because it is legitimate. But it is proper to make a distinction between that and what I can describe only as the wilder and more sensational reports that have appeared recently in newspapers.

Let us examine yesterday's evening newspapers. They announced that 700,000 schoolchildren in the London area were being locked out of school on that day, or would be the following day. The reports said that today all schools in Richmond would be closed. In fact, they are all open. The reports said that selected schools would be closed in Bromley—not true—Croydon—not true —Redbridge—not true—Waltham Forest —not true—Hillingdon—not true—Harrow, Ealing and Hackney—not true. They also said that schools would be affected in Southwark, but only one is affected.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

I hope that my right hon. Friend will say to which newspapers she refers. Surely it is a matter that should be referred to the Press Council.

Mrs. Williams

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. It is fair to say that it does not help when newspapers carry inaccurate reports and do not withdraw those reports in the light of the true position.

Mr. William Hamilton

Tory rags.

Mrs Williams

Until a week ago, schools were closed because of bad weather and fuel and food shortages in the aftermath of the lorry drivers' and train drivers' strikes. I am glad to say that the position on supplies has improved greatly. Today only about 100 schools are closed because of lack of fuel or food. I am confident that in the next few days all supply difficulties will be resolved. Schools in areas such as Stockport, Trafford, Cleveland, Durham, Cheshire, Leicestershire and Norfolk are nearly back to normal, following the steps that we have taken.

The regional emergency committees played an important part in getting food and fuel supplies to the schools in areas affected by shortages. I arranged for a member of Her Majesty's inspectorate to be attached to each regional emergency committee. His first duty is to work with the committee in the interests of keeping the schools open. We have received daily reports from the regional emergency committees. They have maintained constant contact with all the chief education officers. The committees played a particularly helpful role in overcoming the difficulties experienced by schools in Nor folk, Durham and others to which I have referred. I am grateful at national level for the support given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that adequate supplies of fuel oil reached the Birmingham and Warwickshire education authorities. Distribution is now being arranged for the schools in those areas and they should reopen shortly.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that schools in the Stockport and Oldham areas reopened this week for the first time since the Christmas holidays? There is a great deal of concern because of the slowness in getting fuel supplies to the schools after the tanker drivers' dispute ended. There is great puzzlement and a wish to know why the supplies were not delivered out of normal hours as it is understood that the drivers were only to willing to work overtime to supply the schools.

Mrs. Williams

We have taken up these issues at local level. In some instances the problem was of a technical nature. For example, boilers were unable to handle an immediate return to full use. The other difficulty that has arisen lies with the disrupted supply of fuel oil because of sporadic railway strikes. In some areas there has been an inadequate supply of fuel oil to meet the needs. If my hon. Friend gives me details, the matter will be taken up immediately, as it has been in every case that has been brought to our attention by hon. Members. That has been done within an hour or so following hon. Members contacting my Department.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams (Hornchurch)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that difficulty has emerged in the London borough of Havering—it is one that I find difficult to understand—because headmasters do not have keys to the gates of the schools? Surely it is extremely unwise that a headmaster should not have access to his school. Will that be considered?

Mrs. Williams

If my hon. Friend allows me to continue with my speech, he will find that some of his argument has been met.

Authorities have been hit by the selective strikes of the public service unions. Some authorities have managed locally to make arrangements to continue the education of some of the children in their areas, especially those in examination years. I am referring only to the authorities that have most or all of their schools closed and not to the 87 authorities that have so far suffered only limited action.

In North Tyneside, for example, the authority has agreed with the unions that special schools should be exempted from strike action and that fifth and sixth formers may continue to study in schools. Gateshead has reached agreement on keeping special schools open. Heads of secondary schools are planning to make arrangements for the education of examination pupils to continue in church halls. Newcastle has obtained agreement to keep all but one secondary school open for fifth and sixth form pupils and in Sunderland fifth and sixth formers are being taught in church halls. In other areas teachers are doing what they can to arrange for examination pupils to deliver work for marking and to pick up fresh homework.

From these reports it is clear that the great majority of schools are working normally. Even in the areas where they are not, the House will take note that individual local education authorities have made special arrangements to mitigate the effects of industrial action on their schoolchildren. In areas where there has been a total closure, or a large proportion of schools are shut down, or which have been singled out for selective action for an indefinite period, authorities are making local arrangements for special groups to be catered for. I welcome that.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me perfectly fairly not what was being done by local education authorities, although I thought it fair to list some of the action that they were taking, but what action the Department of Education and Science was taking to support and help local education authorities in the action that they were undertaking. I am pleased to reply.

The hon. and learned Gentleman said —I agree with him—that parents of young children would be deeply concerned if their children appeared at school with no arrangements made for their care. We must realise that if lightning strikes take place children may be sent to school only to find the school closed. If their parents have left for work, children could be roaming the streets. They could be at risk and the authority may not have time to make alternative arrangements.

The hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to the damage to children taking public examinations in their examination year and having the sitting and preparing for those examinations disrupted. During the week before last I met the public service unions and spelt out to them the dangers to young children in the event of lightning strikes. I also mentioned to them the effect on young people if they are unable to take public examinations in a familiar and quiet atmosphere. I said that there is a risk that some boys and girls will leave school and be unable to repeat the examinations, possibly with lifelong consequences for their employment and the opportunity to go ahead in their working lives.

The four public service unions agreed together—I am not referring to any negotiations because nothing of that sort took place—on the guidance that they would offer in the light of the points that I made to them. They agreed to tell their members of the minimum standards to be observed when industrial action involved schools.

The unions agreed to give 48 hours' notice wherever possible of any action concerning schools, including notice on Friday morning of any action to start the following Monday. I welcome that. So far I have no evidence, apart from one instance in Bedfordshire where there appears to have been a misunderstanding, of the code not being maintained.

As I said publicly on 31 January, I do not believe that a 48-hour notice can compensate children for the loss of time at school. However, the House should recognise that to some extent it deals with the worry that many of us have had about the safety of young children left at schools where notice of action has not been given.

The unions accepted that it is important in the long-term interests of children to avoid any disruption of public examinations. To that end, they pledged that any school, or part of a school, designated for the sitting of public examinations by the local education authority would not be closed or otherwise disrupted.

Since my conversation with the public service unions, the National Union of Teachers has approached them. It has established that in addition to public examinations so-called "mock" examinations, or internal working examinations, will be covered by the agreement between the unions. In addition, there will be no difficulties raised about the establishment of alternative accommodation for the preparation of examinations outside the schools.

Mr. John Watkinson (Gloucestershire, West)

My right hon. Friend has referred to giving notice to schools of possible action. Is she aware that in Gloucestershire, which is not one of the worst hit counties, there seems to be little knowledge of the code of practice? Will she take steps through her Department to monitor the various authorities to ensure that the code is widely known, especially on the union side?

Mrs. Williams

To the best of my knowledge, which is up to today, three schools in the county have been to some extent affected by caretakers' action. We have an immediate emergency system established. Any reports that the 48-hour rule is not being operated have been dealt with immediately and will be dealt with immediately if hon. Members draw the attention of my Department to any breakdown in the system. It is up to hon. Members to draw such matters to our attention if they believe that there is any breach of the agreement between the unions.

Since the public service unions issued guidance to their members, I have seen the senior officers of both head teacher associations—namely, the National Association of Head Teachers and the Secondary Heads' Association. I asked them to tell their members that heads should open schools wherever 48 hours' notice of industrial action has not been given by the strikers or where a school is being used for public examinations. That is in accordance with the advice that the Secondary Heads' Association gave to its members on 11 January. It has involved substantial amendment to the advice given by the National Association of Head Teachers to its members on 18 January.

I quote that advice because it is relevant to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi). The advice was that any duties normally undertaken by ancillary staff are not part of the Head's duties, that Heads are not responsible for opening-up or securing premises, and that it is the responsibility of the LEA to arrange for the premises to be opened in the event of a strike. I am glad that that advice has now been amended along the lines I have indicated to the House.

I saw the chairmen of the two main local authority associations' education committees, Councillor Horrell of the Association of County Councils and Councillor Thornton of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, on 25 January and I have had further talks with both associations this week. I agreed with them that local education authorities should keep schools open wherever practicable and that, where schools are closed—for example, as a result of action by caretakers—they should make provision in suitable alternative accommodation, such as church halls, for the teaching of boys and girls in their examination years. That provision includes those taking CSE and O-levels and those taking A-level or other post-16 examinations and, wherever possible, in addition, the setting of homework for children in other years.

The damage to children's education will be limited if teaching and preparation can continue. I understand that the public service unions accept that this is a matter for local negotiations and that they are content that local arrangements of this kind should be made. I hope and believe that teachers will co-operate in these actions, as they are already doing in certain affected areas, such as Sunderland and Newcastle. I repeat that teachers have been advised by their unions that they may cross picket lines. The teachers' unions made it clear that in all circumstances the safety of children should be paramount. I should state again that the public service unions have made it plain that neither children nor teachers should be obstructed or prevented from crossing picket lines.

In the discussion on 29 January, following my statement to the House on that day, the hon. Member for Petersfield (Mr. Mates), as reported in columns 1035 and 1036 of Hansard, claimed that there was intimidation of children by pickets and said that this was stopping children going to school. I asked him on that occasion to send details of what he had in mind and said that we would immediately take it up with the unions concerned as a matter of the utmost urgency. I have had no report from the hon. Gentleman, from any other hon. or right hon. Member or, up to now, from any member of the public. I repeat, if any such report is made to me, the matter will be pursued immediately and with all possible urgency.

I do not think that any local education authority should close its schools without making every possible effort to keep them open, if necessary on a limited day basis of the kind that one or two authorities have considered because of problems about school meals. But I repeat that I do not expect LEAs to order their teachers or head teachers to undertake the normal work of those on strike.

Every local education authority has the legal right to access to its premises, and where health and safety or welfare of the school building is concerned a local education authority has the right to seek that access. I believe that in matters of public health—for instance, where food may be decomposing on school premises or where pet animals are not being cared for—the authorities must take steps to make sure that any hazards that may be involved are avoided.

Mr. Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)

Is the Secretary of State aware that there are more complications in this situation than is apparent from what she has said? In Harrow, where I believe some local authorities have prematurely closed schools, one of the reasons advanced for closure is that the dustmen in the borough, where we have had immense trouble, have said that, if schools remain open, they will not only step up their strike but will never go back to work again. What can he done about that situation?

Mrs. Williams

My present report is that no schools in Harrow are affected. Of course, I cannot vouch for what is happening about the dustbins. The situation may be as the hon. Gentleman described it. But no schools are at the moment affected in Harrow, and I understand that no notice has been given of industrial action.

Where schools are closed for more than a day or so, some authorities are considering how time lost can be made up. I have heard of one authority, Stockport —and there may be others—where teachers have volunteered to make good some of the time lost through school closures during the tanker drivers' strike. I pay tribute to the dedication of those involved, both teaching and non-teaching staff, in doing that. Schools have a good deal of flexibility in such matters and no doubt LEAs will wish to explore such possibilities with their own teachers and other school staff. However, I emphasise that such approaches will succeed only if the good will of all those involved is forthcoming.

I repeat that moves of the kind that I have outlined require the local education authority to explore its own local possibilities. I can advise, guide and exhort, but I cannot command local education authorities to act in a particular way. The Conservative Party, which often espouses the cause of local authority autonomy, cannot now say that the Government are wholly responsible for every local authority action which it dislikes. Nor can it insist that the Government intervene with every local authority which is not taking action. To suggest that is political manoeuvring of a cheap kind.

The Conservative Party often declares that the man or woman in Whitehall does not know best. I repeat that we will offer every help we can to local authorities in keeping schools open, but in the end it must be for them to decide what action is best advised, given the local circumstances. I have tried to outline the actions which in my view could effectively be taken.

Mr. Ron Thomas (Bristol, North-West)

My right hon. Friend has given a very comprehensive picture of the situation and has, I think, dealt adequately with the rent-a-crisis crowd on the Benches opposite. I hope that before she sits down she will say something about the appalling wage levels of caretakers and ancillary staff in our schools. What is she doing, as Secretary of State, to persuade the Government to increase what I think is still an unacceptably low offer of about 8 per cent.?

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend has anticipated the next part of my speech.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the only positive thing she has so far said is to urge teachers to cross picket lines and to go on teaching? The responsibility is on the local education authorities to give some support. What concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House is that we are putting teachers in an impossible position. We need some guarantee that the statutory obligations placed upon local authorities will be maintained. It seems that some local authorities have such a degree of tolerance for the people on strike that they are not living up to their statutory obligations.

Mrs. Williams

I always find the hon. Gentleman engaging, but I am not sure how numerate he is. I have counted eight separate things that I have said should be done or have been done. I have mentioned precise agreements reached, first, with the public service unions, secondly, with the headmasters' associations, thirdly, with the unions of teacher organisations and, fourthly, with local authorities. I really think that the hon. Gentleman is being very selective in his list of my remarks to the House.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I very much appreciate the comments of my right hon. Friend about the teachers in Stockport and their willingness to teach during holiday periods to make up for lost time, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that occasional days are used to compensate for any loss of school time and that holidays, such as half-term, should not be extended, as they have been traditionally, by what are called occasional days?

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend has been perfectly fair. The position in law is that all children must have 400 half-day sessions of schooling each year. However, subtracted from that is a figure of 20 sessions—10 days—which can be used for occasional holidays. It would be quite wrong for me to say that these days should be given up, but where authorities and their teacher organisations can agree that some of this time could be used to compensate children where time has been lost on a serious scale, I commend that course to them. However, I repeat, it depends on the good will of all concerned. It is not something that we can require by law.

I turn finally to those engaged in the disputes. I recognise that some local authority employees are low paid, including some school caretakers, cleaners and other non-teaching staff. Average earnings in most cases are a good deal better than the basic wage, and some employees are entitled to bonus payments. However, others work part-time—for instance, in the school meals service.

Any employees whose gross pay for a basic 40-hour week is less than £70—I agree with my hon. Friends that £70 is not much on which to live in these days —will benefit from the Government's offer to underpin any increase at £3.50 and to finance that element through the rate support grant. They will also gain from free school meals, rent and rate rebates and increased child benefit, which will be £4 per week per child in April. The dilemma for low-paid workers is that they lose on the swings all—and more—that they gain on the roundabouts if an unchanged structure of differentials is erected on a new, higher figure. For all these increases feed through into higher prices and higher interest rates, and low-paid workers end up no better off. Indeed, they will be worse off, because they will lose some of their income during a strike and will be even harder hit by inflation.

This is the mockery implicit in free collective bargaining, espoused by the Conservative Party and the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition, with the addition of the adjective "responsible". It provides no answer to the problem of the less powerful and of the low paid, it offers no solution to the problem of inflation, and it certainly offers no new way of the kind advocated by the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn at the Dispatch Box this afternoon.

It is true, and should be said, that the unions have not reached any understanding on whether priority should be given to the low paid or to the restoration of differentials. Yet, trying to combine the two is a recipe for inflation. However, it is encouraging that a number of trade union leaders have come together to try to grapple with this problem and have proposed the setting of an indicative norm each year and a body to make recommendations on the claims put before it. I believe that this contribution to the debate could play a major part in tackling our national problems.

We must find an answer on these lines. Meanwhile, the Government cannot concede double-figure claims of the kind now being made without putting the economy and the currency at risk. We are close to being sucked back into the bitter cycle of inflationary settlements, higher prices, pressure on sterling and the inevitable attempt to rectify the situation either by higher taxes or cuts in public expenditure or both.

Let me spell out the consequences of a 15 per cent. increase in pay for local authority employees generally. It would mean rate increases of well over 20 per cent. compared with the single figure average rate increase that was compatible with the rate support grant settlement. Or, if local authorities decided to finance such an increase instead by cuts in staff, it would entail for the education service alone—and there would be corresponding effects in other parts of local government service—the loss of upwards of 30,000 teaching jobs and 20,000 non-teaching jobs in England and Wales.

As a social services Minister, I have been down the stony road of public expenditure cuts before. Now, like my colleagues, I am able to see the prospects for a modest improvement: smaller classes, more in-service training, a first step towards educational maintenance allowances, additional resources for school improvements and additional resources for nursery schools. The same is true of the Health Service, the environmental services and the personal social services. All this is being put at risk for, I am afraid, illusory gains. I am saying this for the sake not only of the children, though they are the most important of all, but of the public service employees themselves.

I am encouraging LEAs to keep schools open wherever they can and to take the steps open to them to offset the loss of schooling where schools are closed. I am also pursuing arrangements and agreements with all the unions and professional associations involved and seeking their maximum co-operation to minimise the damage to children. I repeat, my Department and I will seek to help them in every way open to us.

5.35 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

I am afraid that my constituents will draw very little comfort from the speech delivered by the Secretary of State. It will be of little consolation to them to be told that their schools are within the 4 per cent. only of schools which remain closed today. Certainly none of the pious hopes expressed by the right hon. Lady of local education authorities making alternative arrangements will apply in my constituency.

We have entered upon the third week in which education, to all intents and purposes, has ceased to exist in the London borough of Haringey, of which my constituency forms part. Nor does there seem to be any prospect of the situation being remedied at any time in the near future. This is intolerable for the 37,000 children affected and their parents. It is a situation which both the Secretary of State and the local education authority have clear legal and moral obligations to resolve as quickly as possible. Yet, all we see is vacillation, lack of will to act, specious legal argument and an earnest hope that the problem will go away by itself.

There is no need for me to detail to the House the dangers in which my constituents' children are placed. There is the danger to their education—especially those with important public examinations only eight weeks away and whose whole future could be blighted unless they get back to their classes quickly. There is the physical danger to children who roam the streets because their parents are at work and the hardship and cost to those parents who arrange to stay at home from work in order to look after their children.

In all this I wish to pay tribute to those teachers who, of their own initiative, have sought to make alternative arrangements in their homes or in church halls. However, despite the dedication of those teachers and their high sense of professional duty to those in their charge, these arrangements are no more than a token and the dangers remain for the vast majority.

The situation in Haringey could well be considered farcical by the House were it not so tragic. There are no picket lines. If one speaks to the caretakers individually, one finds that they are unhappy with the situation: they do not want to be on strike. The teachers' unions have agreed that their members may open schools and teach, provided that they do not undertake the work normally done by the striking cleaners and caretakers. The governors of several schools have passed resolutions for the opening of their schools.

Despite all that, the local education authority has refused to give permission to the teachers to go into the schools, even in connection with preparation for public examinations. That is where the responsibility lies in my constituency. I understand that is because the majority group on the council, which includes two full-time paid officials of NUPE, has resolved that the schools shall remain closed for the period of the strike. That was a party decision.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the borough of Havering, where the Conservative Party is in control, has also closed schools for very much the same reason, I suspect, as in the hon. Gentleman's constituency?

Mr. Rossi

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will make his own speech on behalf of his constituents and adduce the facts that are relevant. I speak now on behalf of my constituents. I hope to address the Minister on what is happening in my constituency. Apparently, from what she said, the right hon. Lady is not fully apprised of the true circumstances there.

The attitude of the majority party that controls the London borough of Haringey is borne out by a school closure statement issued by the education office in Haringey. It reads: Haringey schools have been closed for the past week because of a strike by caretakers and other manual staff. The council believes that the root of the problem is the Government's pay policy and so the council supports the union's pay claim for a £60 minimum wage. I wish that the right hon. Lady had addressed her speech on the problems of Government pay policy to the mem- bers of her party, who form the majority in the London borough of Haringey.

The document continues: Other staff"— presumably teachers— have been advised not to broaden the effects of the strike"— that is, to stay away from the schools.

Mr. Anthony Grant

Does not my hon. Friend think it is extremely odd in the circumstances that the hon. Members for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) and Wood Green (Mrs. Butler), whose constituencies are in the same local authority area, should not be present to explain the situation?

Mr. Rossi

No doubt the reasons for the absence of the hon. Members are that they have other pressing engagements or fear that they might be asked to defend the indefensible.

Last Thursday I attended a debate of the full education committee of the London borough of Haringey, on a resolution to allow the teachers into the schools on the terms laid down by their professional unions. The resolution was rejected by votes along party political lines. From that debate it was clear that the primary object of the majority party was to further the interests of the strikers, paying little regard to the damage being caused to the children. There was no discussion of what practical steps might be taken to help the children in present circumstances. There was no discussion of the provision of alternative buildings or the opening of schools for public examination purposes. No question of time lost was discussed.

The right hon. Lady expressed the pious hope that the local education authorities would be dealing with such problems at this moment. None of those matters was deemed worthy of discussion by this local education authority when it had the full matter before it for debate on a resolution. Unless obliged to do so, this local education authority will not lift a finger in discharge of its duties under section 8 of the Education Act 1944. The right hon. Lady tried to dazzle us with a little bit of law in her speech. She referred to section 8 of the Education Act. She implied in terms that the duty of the education authority stopped after it had provided buildings. Section 8 states: It shall be the duty of every local education authority to secure that there shall be available for their area sufficient schools— (a) for providing … full-time education.

Dr. Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

That is the point.

Mr. Rossi

That is the point.

I suggest that the provision of 100 empty buildings is not the discharge of a duty to provide full-time education. I should like that matter tested. That is why I said that we were being given specious legal reasons for non-action.

I was brought up to understand that a school was more than just a building. If a local authority is under a duty to provide a school, it must provide the building, the teachers, the other facilities and all that is necessary for the provision of education. There is a clear breach of section 8 by this local education authority. I advise the right hon. Lady to go back to her legal advisers and ask them to produce better arguments.

The question therefore remains: what can be done to oblige the local education authority to discharge this clear statutory duty? Some parents are contemplating legal action. As the Secretary of State well knows, the courts ruled that no remedy lies in the courts for a breach of section 8 except perhaps—this is an obiter dictum—where it can be shown that damage has been suffered. Damage to education is a nebulous concept to prove, althtough if parents lose time off work as a result of closure of schools, or must pay private tutors to see to their children's education, that may well amount to damage. However, for the average citizen these are dangerous uncharted waters upon which to launch.

The courts said that the remedy in law for breach by a local education authority of its duty under section 8 is for the Secretary of State to give directions under section 99 where she has received complaints. The statute is there. The courts said that that is the only remedy available in law for a breach of duty by the local education authority.

The Secretary of State has received many complaints from my constituents, yet nothing has been done, refuge being taken instead behind these specious legal arguments. Every excuse is given today for inaction—" somebody else will do something. We hope that some arrangements will be made locally by common consent." That is ducking the responsibility that is placed by statute on the Secretary of State. What is more, the irony is that the situation is of the Government's making. The children are out of school as a result of Government policy.

I have the greatest sympathy for the lower-paid workers. I should like to see them attain a living wage. It is because of their personal difficulties that the unions have engaged upon a trial of strength with the Government over their pay policy. In this struggle the local authority negotiators are powerless to do anything. The children and their parents have become the innocent pawns in this power game. Thus, the responsibility of the Government is twofold—first, to see that this pay dispute is resolved as quickly as possible. Only the Government can do that. Secondly, they must ensure that meanwhile the education of children does not suffer. The power to deal with both those matters lies with the Government.

What kind of society is it in which we live today? We boast of Western civilisation in the twentieth century. Yet our society does not allow the bereaved to bury their dead or the sick to be cured in hospital. Nor does it even suffer little children to come unto their schools. On behalf of my constituents, I demand that the Secretary of State should cease to look the other way and should now take action.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

The House should be aware that I have on my list the names of nine hon. Members who would like to catch my eye. The Front Bench speeches start at 6.35 p.m.

5.49 p.m.

Mr. Gerry Fowler (The Wrekin)

Many Labour Members welcomed the appointment of the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) as the Conservative spokesman on education. He had on his appointment one supreme virtue—he was not the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson). But I think it can be said today that the honeymoon is over, for I have rarely heard—I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me for saying this—such a farrago of nonsense as the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech. It was legal nonsense. One would think, to listen to the hon. and learned Gentleman, that it was this Government who had invented and legalised, if not picketing as a whole, at least secondary picketing. What the hon. and learned Gentleman thought was going on at the Saltley coal depot when he was Minister of State, Home Office, the Department responsible for law and order, is beyond my comprehension.

With due respect to the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), it is not obvious to me that section 99 bites on section 8 in the way suggested, because the duty to provide sufficient schools to afford full-time education seems to me to be met—and I have little doubt that the courts would hold this—if the authority has provided the buildings, the teachers, the equipment and the books. If for other reasons the authority cannot open the schools, it is not in default of its duty. I would not wish to see the Secretary of State suffer another rebuff from the courts.

Strangely enough, the section that would have been relevant was destroyed by the Tameside judgment. Although the hon. and learned Gentleman was not then the Conservative spokesman for education, the hon. Member for Brent, North, who sits beside him, uttered whoops of joy when that section—which alone would have allowed the Secretary of State to intervene effectively—was destroyed in favour of a Conservative-controlled authority which was behaving far more unreasonably than the Haringey authority. I know this from my own knowledge, because I telephoned it from my own office in the Department of Education and Science. It was running a selection procedure, before its education committee had ever met, from an office above that of an estate agent who was a prominent member of the Conservative Party in Tameside. Yet the hon. Member for Brent, North was delighted when that section was destroyed.

What the hon. and learned Gentleman said today was also moral nonsense, in my view, because the crucial element omitted from his speech was the origin of all this trouble—which I deplore as much as he does—and that is the scandalously low pay for some workers in the public sector. I make no bones about saying that, because I drew it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he announced this phase of the pay policy last July in the House.

I was talking yesterday to a head teacher from Essex whose caretaker takes home under £40 a week. It is obvious that an 8.8 per cent. increase will do him a fat lot of good. I am not asking for a massive breach of pay policy, but I am suggesting that it is high time that hon. Members on both sides came to grips with the issue of low pay, because we must find a solution to it. It cannot be found on the principle of simultaneously maintaining all differentials.

It may not have escaped the attention of some hon. Members that at exactly the point when this dispute was getting under way there was a claim from the National Union of Teachers for a 35 per cent. increase. Many members of that union—although not all, by any manner of means —are head teachers. Some of them sit on the executive of the NUT and they earn more than Members of this House. It cannot be said to groups such as school caretakers and to dinner ladies that they must restrict themselves to the same percentage increase as people who are demanding 35 per cent. when their income is already £7,000 or £8,000 a year. That sort of policy will not work in the end, and that is one of the origins of the difficulty we face. I should not be surprised if that NUT claim had exacerbated the feelings of some members of the National Union of Public Employees or of the General and Municipal Workers' Union who are engaged in the present dispute.

This House has to come to a resolution of the problem, but so has the Trades Union Congress, and the nation as a whole also has to face up to it. We cannot have it both ways for ever. If we do, we really are in the game of confetti money.

There is a second caveat that I want to make about my sympathy for the NUPE members which has not to do simply with confetti money. It is that some of them seem to believe that they might have an easier time under a Government who were not trying to enforce a pay policy. But what is the alternative? The alternative is the policy that is advocated repeatedly from the Conservative Front Bench. I do not know whether the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn is a monetarist, but he was selected for his present post by the Leader of the Opposition, who is totally committed to that position and who is advised by the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), who is a fanatical monetarist. Their policies amount to a rigid restriction of the money supply, enforced not least in the public sector by, as we hear repeatedly from the Opposition Front Bench, cuts in public expenditure over and above anything that we have seen hitherto, and thereafter very rigid limits.

What does that do for the pay of the caretakers and the dinner ladies? Many of them will be out of jobs. Those of them who remain in work will, in the future, have real take-home pay lower than they have today. That will be the effect of the policy of the Opposition. How they have the gall to criticise the Government for trying to get some sense into the present scramble is beyond my comprehension.

We must devise—and I here I come closer to the position of the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn—a method by which, when industrial action takes place, workers in pursuit of their claim can avoid penalising fellow trade unionists, and avoid penalising the weak and the more defenceless members of society. I mention fellow trade unionists, because that is apparent in this dispute. We are really talking not of the effect on teachers but much more of the effect on parents indirectly. Many of those parents—or at least one parent in each family—will be a member of a trade union, attempting to carry out his own job.

When I speak of the weak and the defenceless, I refer not only to the children who are taking examinations. I am just as much concerned about those children who will not be taking any examinations because they are at the lower end of the attainment spectrum. They cannot afford to miss any of their education, and least of all should they be encouraged to think that they can truant with impunity. One day they are shut out and the next day they do not bother to go to school. I am very concerned about that group as well as about those who are taking examinations.

It is not the members of NUPE who are excluding the children from the schools. In some cases it may happen by a decision of the local education authority. More often, it is by a decision of the head teacher or by a decision of the teachers collectively that they will not cross the picket line, that they will not perform the duties usually undertaken by NUPE members, and that they will not use the key to open the school. Usually the headmaster has in his pocket a duplicate of the caretaker's key. There has been some vacillation on this issue from the National Union of Teachers, which one day advised its members not to cross picket lines and the next day advised them to cross picket lines. We could at least ask for some consistency there.

Clearly, there is a need for a new understanding on who is to work when other workers are on strike and what workers are to do in those circumstances. Why, after all these years of trade unionism, have we reached the position that we need a new understanding? I believe that the reason—and it is well documented in a number of academic studies—is that over the past 20 years there has been a progressive unionisation of the white collar professions. Today we have a position which could not have arisen 20 or 30 years ago, for then the vast majority of teachers would have crossed picket lines without thinking about it. Today, now that they are unionised, they do not cross picket lines. Some head teachers will not open their schools. A new understanding will have to be worked out. I say no more about that issue, because obviously it is a matter of delicate negotiation in which the Government may be involved, and in which above all the TUC must act by bringing together its member unions.

We also need a new understanding on low pay, but I argue that we shall get neither of these things from the pursuit of the policies advocated time and again from the Conservative Benches. If those policies are pursued, we shall see a souring of the atmosphere. We shall see not a new understanding but a new confrontation which will harm not only education but the whole of the public services in this country.

I look to an early resolution of the dispute. I hope that it will be one that will give many of the most poorly paid workers in the public sector a greater increase in real terms than some of their more greedy colleagues, who are already much better paid, will get. I look forward to an early resolution of this dispute, but I hope that we can learn from it and build upon the lessons that we are learning at the moment so that we may avoid such events in the future. That is what we ought to be debating in this House, instead of making cheap party politics out of it.

6.0 p.m.

Mr. John MacGregor (Norfolk, South)

As one of the more silent Members on the Bench below the Gangway, it is rare that I am able to speak in the House at the moment. However, I wish to intervene briefly because I feel strongly about the matter and I am affected by it. I begin by declaring my interest.

While I am fulfilling my responsibilities in the House during the week, I live in the borough of Haringey, my wife is a councillor and on the education committee in the borough and my daughter attends, or rather should be attending, one of the schools there.

I shall not repeat any of the points concerning hardship that were so well made by my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi).

But it is important to concentrate on Haringey because it is more affected than any other part of the country because the strike is indefinite—and still indefinite—and across the board. The figures given by the Secretary of State bear this out. Haringey is also more affected because of the attitude of the local education authority.

I should like to make three points that I hope the Minister will deal with in her reply. The first two are concerned with the role of Haringey authority as an employer as distinct from an education authority. I believe that it is worth repeating the sentence in the rather useless document sent out by the borough to parents and described as a school closure statement: The Council believes that the root of the problem is the Government's pay policy, and so the Council supports the Unions' pay claim for a £60 minimum wage. The members of the council in debates have gone beyond that. They have made it clear that they believe it is up to the Government to meet the full claim of the strikers and that there should be no burden upon ratepayers. Therefore, the Haringey authority is supporting the strikers against their own Government's attitude on pay. That is why the children in Haringey are suffering and why the educational advice has been given by the authority to teachers not to cross picket lines. Moreover, the authority is attempting to shuffle off its responsibilities as an employer by saying that the Government must pay up.

The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and many Ministers including the Secretary of State this afternoon, have made it clear that they will not pay up beyond the percentages they have already announced. I agree that the Prime Minister confused the issue by the loose statements that he made this weekend, but he has now made the position clearer —as against what the Secretary of State for Social Services said on Sunday—by saying that there will be nothing beyond what the Government have already offered. I believe that the Secretary of State should not only make that statement in the House but tell the Haringey authority directly.

Second, on Saturday the Prime Minister said, in a passage that was not much quoted because of his gaffe on pay, that the strike weapon should not be used in situations when negotiations have not yet begun or, indeed, until they have been concluded. The negotiations in this dispute have hardly begun and no one could say that we are anywhere near a conclusion. Therefore, there is no reason for the indefinite strike by caretakers in Haringey. The Government should not be lending their support to it, and should instruct the authority likewise to withdraw its support.

The results of an interesting poll appeared in the Daily Express today. I shall not refer to the more sensational aspects of the poll. However, the interesting answer to the question "Do you agree or disagree with the ban on secondary picketing?" was that 86 per cent. of trade unionists so agreed. I accept that we are not talking about secondary picketing here, though about something not far removed from it in that teachers are being told that they cannot go through a line of school caretakers.

I suspect that if the question "Should teachers be banned by an education authority from going through picket lines because of a caretakers' picket?" were asked, the vast majority would answer as they did on the question of secondary picketing, that they should not.

My final point concerns the role of the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the educational role of the authority as distinct from being an employer. The crucial issue here is what the education authority is telling the teachers. Last week the Secretary of State made clear—and this was also made clear in today's debate—that the education authority is not telling the teachers what the Secretary of State would wish them to do and what other education authorities throughout the country, including ILEA and my own education authority in Norfolk, have been telling their teachers. Where the teachers have been given different instructions, these have been followed and schools have been kept open.

It is the instruction of the borough of Haringey that is worrying teachers and frightening them from going into the schools. Immense efforts are being made in teachers' homes, draughty church halls and other places to provide a primitive form of education for children. However, they will not go into the schools because of the instruction.

Not one of the eight things that the Secretary of State said she has done has made a difference to the borough of Haringey. I believe that the Secretary of State, the Government and the borough of Haringey are behaving to the detriment of the children. The Secretary of State today in her latter remarks made tough statements on education and pay policy with which I largely agree. But I believe that it is up to the Secretary of State to go to the borough, and talk with the education authority in order to spell out the points that she made in her concluding remarks, because no one in the Haringey local education authority will listen unless she goes and tells them herself. That is the kind of action I should like to see her take.

6.5 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I believe that the indignation and anger felt by members of the community against the current situation and the way in which an industrial threat is being posed towards children is rightful. In her opening remarks the Secretary of State gave the game away when she described the NUPE proposals to switch strike action from place to place. It is a question not of a group of ancillary workers spontaneously refusing to work a day longer for their present wage but of a deliberate policy to pick on various areas and say "That is where the pressure can be applied and that is where we can get results."

Few people involved in the dispute wish to hit children, but they are interested in hitting parents because they know that once a school is closed many parents begin to complain. The parents cannot go to work, particularly wives in low-paid homes. Therefore, the pressure to pay up mounts because of the large number of people involved when schools are closed. This indignation is bound to be stronger in a place such as Haringey where the reality is that the education authority, not just the caretakers, is itself on strike against its statutory responsibilities.

We have not suffered from this extreme in the North-East, but in parts of Tyneside there have been severe difficulties. Local education authorities appear to be playing a "cat and mouse" game with the unions, wondering how far they dare go. In Northumberland, all schools have remained open except on the one day of action a fortnight ago. However, I fear that in coming weeks we will become the victims of selective action. I have reason to believe that many people at different levels in Northumberland—caretakers, dinner ladies, teachers, head teachers and those in the education authority—are prepared to use their common sense and to keep schools open. I believe that attitude should be encouraged wherever it occurs.

All hon. Members should ask themselves why it is that people who have worked long and hard in schools and have become respected there—caretakers and catering staff—are prepared to get involved in harmful action. I have visited many schools and know these people to be of basic, sound common sense. However there is a sense of panic among these people which makes them prey to the proposals of their union. They feel that they will be completely overtaken in the pay race if they do not become involved in militancy. Where should they look for the assurance that they will not be left behind? What can the moderate people among the ancillary staff of schools rally around?

I believe that as a trade union leader no one did greater disservice to his fellow members than Alan Fisher. He went to the Trades Union Congress, and went around the country, saying that pay policy should be got rid of, that he could get his fellow members "the moon" and that low pay would become a thing of the past. The reality is that, whatever increases he achieves for his members, the whole structure of differentials will remain.

Labour Members below the Gangway refer to low pay as if by its mere reference a magic formula emerges upon which we can all agree and by which the problem can be solved. The attitude seems to be "As long as we say 'low pay' we can pay up and settle the dispute." They forget that there is no agreement among trade union members, let alone in this House, on the problem of low pay. There is no agreement between occupational groups. There is no agreement, for example, on the simplest method of solving the problem of low pay, which is that we should all be paid the same. That is the easiest way to deal with low pay. That brings in certain other problems, but if we were all paid the same there would be no problem of low pay, or if there was we would all share it. But if the caretakers and the dinner ladies get a large increase, what will happen to the 35 per cent. pay claim of the NUT? It will be higher still, because differentials must be preserved.

We have heard exactly the same argument with regard to the hospital disputes. How many times have hon. Members heard consultants and nurses say "A hospital porter gets so much, and here am I cutting people open and performing delicate operations. Surely I am entitled to X per cent. more than a hospital porter"?

Of course, we could abandon differentials. After all, we do so in this place. The chauffeurs and many of the administrative staff are paid more than Members of Parliament. But very few voices in ASLEF, ASTMS or the NUT support such a policy. Even if we managed to reach some modicum of agreement, the fact is that increases which are paid to low-paid workers, and consequential increases above, reflect themselves in the prices, rates and taxes of the low paid, and they finish up no better off. That is madness. It is collective suicide. It is a madness which seems likely to go on if the political parties and the trade unions cannot agree to accept the necessity for some kind of pay policy, one in which people who are prepared to forsake militant action know that the Government will back them up.

The people do not have such an assurance now, and neither have they been given it by the Conservative Opposition. Unless there is that kind of assurance, the tendency to militancy, which I deplore because it will leave people worse off than they are now, will continue. Unless we address ourselves to that problem, it will spread through all areas of the public service and more and more of the innocent, weak and helpless will be hit as a result.

6.12 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

The prescriptions that have been put forward by the Conservative Opposition for the difficulties that we have been facing in recent weeks have been fallacious, for the simple reason that the diagnosis of Conservative Members is wrong. If their prescriptions were followed, the patient would get worse rather than better.

The problem we are facing is a reassessment of the importance of work. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) touched upon it in what he has just said. We must recognise that unpleasant types of work can no longer be low-paid work. The two things can no longer go together. But until now that is the basis we have followed. The assumption has been that if work is nasty and unpleasant it does not deserve much money. That is a proposition which is deeply embedded in our society.

Several hon. Members have said that one of the problems is that of recognising the low paid. But the low paid themselves have no doubt about their plight. If we take a little trouble, we can identify who the low paid are. Generally speaking, one finds that the low paid are those who do the types of work that no one else wants to do. That is the opposite of what ought to be happening in a market economy. If work is unpleasant and undesirable, and there is a shortage of those willing to undertake it, it should he highly paid in order to attract people. That is the logic of the market, if we are interested in the market.

We are short of bus conductors, because that is not attractive work. It is pretty hard work and passengers can be rather rude. Therefore, we have had to increase the pay of bus conductors. The same principles generally apply to the area that we are now considering. As has been said, if we meet the present problems—and we must meet them—on a basis that gives a substantial increase in remuneration to those about whom we are talking, it is quite absurd to suppose that differentials can be maintained and that a 35 per cent. increase, or anything like it, can be sustained on behalf of the teachers.

These facts must be faced. We must get rid of the idea that the consequence of meeting a need at a lower level is that progressive demands must be met right up the scale. This brings us to a difficult problem, because the middle classes are now beginning to learn the lessons of trade unionism. We are now getting militant doctors and pilots. Quickness off the trigger is not confined to shop stewards. Just the other day, a group of pilots took quite sudden and unreasonable action in relation to a problem which ought to have been faced and dealt with across the table. Therefore, we must deal with this question on that basis.

The nostrums that have been put forward by the Conservative Opposition will not cure the problem. I take as an example the secret ballot. I had better declare an interest as a member of the board of management of the National Theatre, which has experienced such a problem. There was a legitimate pay claim from the workers, other than the actors, in the National Theatre, which over a period of time was the subject of discussions. The increase offered was a reasonable one within the Government's guidelines, and a series of productivity deals were arranged and a package was put forward which seemed to the union negotiators to be a reasonable one. The National Association of Theatrical and Kinematograph Employees—NATKE—is one of the few unions that has in its rule book a clause which provides for a secret ballot to take place, and this proposal was put to a secret ballot. But it did not go through the works committee. It went straight from the trade union to the staff concerned. The works committee recommended against acceptance, and the consequence was that it was decisively thrown out. In fact, the proposition was a reasonable one, yet it was rejected precisely because there was a secret ballot. Had there been no secret ballot, had the proposition gone through the normal procedures, had the negotiators been allowed to do their stuff and then call a union meeting, I believe that there would have been no problem.

What happens when a secret ballot takes place and a proposition is rejected? What happens when the management goes as far as it can, when the union agrees that the proposal is a reasonable one and should go to the work force and the work force turns it down? Where does one go from there? That is the problem about a secret ballot. If the secret ballot rejects a proposal, everyone is then up the creek.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

What it does in essence, and what Conservative Members do not understand because they have never been deeply involved in trade unionism, is that in the process it destroys the art of leadership.

Mr. Jenkins

Precisely. Basically speaking, that is why I am hostile to such things as referendums. They are all right for constitutional change, but they are no good in relation to issues that need to be discussed.

Similarly, a document on trade unionism circulated to Members and entitled "Capital Question" is a load of rubbish, because the issues raised have not been discussed. For instance, that document states that three out of four people believe that social secruity payments should not be payable to their families if they join a strike unless it has been voted for by a majorit in a postal ballot. What nonsense! I have just described what happens when one has a postal ballot. It would not result in any curative action whatever.

I believe that at present there is too much rigidity in pay policy. I believe that a nod should be given by the Secretary of State that the Prime Minister's indications of relaxation apply to those groups of people about whom we are now talking—the caretakers, the ancillary workers, the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. For example, a nod should be given to the Arts Council for it to pass on to the management of the National Theatre that these minor details can be ironed out. If they are ironed out, as far as the National Theatre is concerned, in spite of the secret ballot, we shall get through.

I do not apologise for mentioning this subject. It is within the ambit of the education empire. It may still be possible to reach an agreement without the threatened strike. We must avoid this just as much as we must avoid closing schools. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to say that there is some flexibility here. With flexibility the issue can be resolved.

No one can be sure what is happening from day to day about the schools, but in my constituency we have so far got through without too many problems. But the Government must realise that a reassessment is taking place of the value of different types of labour. We can no longer assume that the low paid will continue to be low paid. In future the work of the low paid will be assessed as some of the most valuable work needed in the community. When the low paid stop working, we are in much greater trouble than when the high paid stop working. We can manage for a long time without some professional people. We cannot manage for long without the workers who provide the sinews of society. The problem must be treated generally, and there must be a reassessment of the rewards that people receive.

6.23 p.m.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

I must first say to the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) that we are not talking of politics when we speak of differentials. The matter is much more fundamental, involving statistics and the basic arithmetic of the distribution of incomes. As has been said in this debate, there is no way in which the level of pay of the low paid can be brought up to the national average other than by total equality of incomes. However calculated, with whatever distribution of incomes, in any country or society, the answer will be the same.

Central to this issue is an important and fundamental confusion in our thinking—the confusion between authority and function. Authority is elected or appointed. Those in authority have the right to delegate function. I think it was the Secretary of State who said that the headmasters had copies of the caretakers' keys, but it is the caretakers who have copies of the headmasters' keys.

Parliament has delegated authority by law to county councils and local authorities. Those bodies have delegated authority to the governing bodies of the schools, which in turn have delegated it to the headmasters and teachers. Those who administer the schools have rightly and properly delegated the narrow functions of opening and closing gates, turning boilers on and off and cleaning classrooms to caretakers. Under the laws of our society caretakers have the right to withdraw their labour, and if they do so society is obliged to accept only one thing narrowly and specifically—that is, the collapse of the function that they were authorised to undertake, and nothing else.

Today we are facing a claim that has been widely exercised, not only by caretakers but by many others, to extend from a narrow function the right to decide authority over a broad range of activities in our affairs, whether in a factory, the National Health Service or a school. As I see it, social activities and therefore social obstruction are involved.

In the House we are well served by a distinguished body of senior servants of the House who are the badge men. They have the function of opening, closing and locking the doors of this Chamber. That function is delegated to them from this House of Commons through Mr. Speaker via the Serjeant at Arms. If we found these doors locked, would we accept that it was the proper exercise of the authority of the badge men to deny us the right to exercise our proper constitutional activities in this Chamber to debate the major issues of State? I do not believe that there is a Member of the House who would not insist that the doors were opened and ask Mr. Speaker to make the Chamber available. That is the essence of the matter.

In The Daily Telegraph today Mr. David Hart, on behalf of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that written safeguards must be secured from employers so that heads may be indemnified against all responsibility. That is utter poppycock. It is not the employers but the unions and the caretakers who should accept the responsibility. He goes on to say that action might be taken by militant pickets against those who unlock strike-bound schools. That is an intolerable sentiment. Such action would be criminal, and criminal action is rightly and properly dealt with by the criminal law.

He goes on to describe as the "wild men of Borneo" people who believe that it is a moral and statutory obligation of those responsible for schools to ensure that in all possible circumstances they should be opened. If they are the wild men of Borneo, so, indeed, am I. We do not need Mr. Hart's interpretation of the law. These people need no protection because they have the law on their side. That is all that anyone in this country needs.

This situation developed for the first time quite conspicuously in my constituency. To my great regret, it is to reassert itself there tomorrow, where 16 out of 72 schools are apparently to close. I admire and congratulate the headmasters and school authorities who have decided to open their schools, and I regret that 16 have decided to close.

Last week I put five specific questions to the Prime Minister outlining the difference between function and authority. I await his reply. Function must not be confused with authority. If it is confused, the authority of the State and all that depends on it and flows from it will inevitably and irrevocably be harmed.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

This debate should be renamed. It should be called "disruption of education services as a result of inadequate wages to school ancillary staff and caretakers." Anyone who has worked in a school—and I do not think that anyone in this House has done so for longer than I have—knows that that is an absolute truth. When the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who seems to know as little about this matter as he does about other things, said that this situation was due to Government policy, he was right. Of course it is. It is due as well to Opposition policy. The unity of the two Front Benches has kept down the wages of poverty-stricken people.

In the debate on the economy last week the Shadow Chancellor was asked what he would give to the low paid. He hurled across the Floor the information that he would give nothing. That was his answer. Do the Tories really think that working people will go on with misery wages? Does anybody think about their children who for all these years have been poverty stricken? The people who have vast wages are telling the poverty stricken to stop being greedy. These are the realities of life.

The hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) applauded those caretakers who disregard the instructions of their unions and keep the schools open. He will applaud very few caretakers. He said that opening the schools would help the children. How little he knows and how much less he understands the reality. His advice would deepen and intensify the whole problem. Perhaps that is what he wants. Perhaps the Opposition and their paid and kept servile press, radio and television want to deepen the problem.

By agreement with the other unions, headmasters and teachers have the right to cross the picket lines but not to do other people's work. If they go into a school with no cook, no cleaners, no dinner women, no heating, no caretakers and where the supply unions are sympathetically inclined to those on strike, they have the instructions from the NUT as to what they should do. Those instructions read: Where action is being taken, the cardinal principle involved is that the NUT members should not undertake duties or functions normally undertaken by members of NUPE, the G and MWU and the T and GWU who are on strike. This means that NUT members should not, for example, start up central heating boilers or clean classrooms in the absence of cleaners. The instruction continues: Where the caretaker is on strike and will not therefore be available to open the school on the day of the strike, no NUT member should unlock the school. The union would expect that where the caretaker is not available to open the school, the school would have to be closed on that day. The Opposition have talked as if that ruling did not exist. I warn them and my own Front Bench that there is no solution to this problem without a major offer of cash on the table to these poor people. They are well meaning, well behaved and orderly people who have practically never been on strike. The crocodile tears of the Opposition almost make me weep. The reality is that only cash on the table will solve the strike, because these people need that money. Tame interviews on radio and television with people who give the answers that are expected will not solve the problem. The policy of the Opposition which would give nothing to the low paid will deepen the crisis. The intensity of the Opposition's fervour in their backwardness and reaction is steadily antagonising more and more people.

I appeal to my right hon. and hon. Friends to give more money to these people, because that is the reality that will stop picketing and striking and solve the problem.

6.36 p.m.

Dr. Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)


Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Put him right, Rhodes.

Dr. Boyson

I do not wish to deal at any length with the figures of disruption which we already know and which were dealt with adequately by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle). In my constituency of Brent the schools will close for another three days tomorrow. They were out for between a week and 10 days in November, and for one day last week. We must also bear in mind the fact that there is a risk of further disruption when the teachers put in their pay claim. We could solve one problem and then move into another. There have been a number of NUT strikes around the country over class sizes and other matters. It is becoming almost an epidemic in all sections of the education community.

I draw the attention of the House to the NUT strike in Liverpool on 17 January. That was a half-day strike against the form of secondary reorganisation there. It was said by someone on behalf of the NUT that the strikers were "breaking new ground". It certainly is breaking new ground when anyone comes out on strike to disagree with the policy of the elected authority in the area. If that is breaking new ground, I have a lot more sympathy with some of the caretakers for the ground that they are breaking.

The result of these sporadic strikes is very serious for children. First, there is the breaking of habits of work. It takes a long time to train children for regular study inside school. School is not a natural society. Most children like to go outside and go swimming when the sun shines and it is warm. They do not particularly want to be in school from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It takes a lot of training in infant and primary schools to build up regular work habits. Once these habits are interrupted, the whole pattern of learning breaks down. Everyone knows that at the end of a summer holiday it takes time to get people back to work again.

Also it is very difficult to enforce good school attendance when the truant officer stops a child one day for playing truant and takes him back to school, and the next day he catches that same child who tells him that there is no school because it is the teachers who are playing truant. This kind of thing does not develop good citizenship. It does not help if children grow up seeing teachers on strike one week, caretakers on strike the next week, and no school meals the following week. They will get a very strange idea of adult maturity.

In addition, some hon. Members have already referred to the interruption to O-level and A-level studies and the mock examinations leading up to them. One cannot learn mathematics and languages at home. It is all very well to take a history book home and read it from cover to cover. That may work, but one cannot do the same in mathematics or languages and certain other subjects. We have already heard at Question Time today the difficulty facing language students in this country. All this will be worsened by this break.

Another result is the effect on the one-parent family and the working mother. This is very difficult. I have had large numbers of letters about this from people in my constituency. Mothers who are single parents have the greatest difficulty in caring for their children if the school is closed. I read in the paper the other day of a case where a woman lost her job because she had to be off duty sporadically to look after her child. If the Minister has special knowledge of this case, we shall be fascinated to hear it. I would be very surprised if there were not other cases as well.

We feel so strongly about this matter that we shall push it to the vote tonight. It is a very sad commentary on our society when children are used as pawns in the wage battle. In international law for a long time there was an attempt to get an understanding that certain non-combatants and others should not be involved in warfare. It seems to me that, in a civilised society, children and the sick should not be involved in whatever battles there are. It seems to me that it is a test of civilised society whether we say that children are beyond these struggles, and so are the sick and the handicapped.

Mr. Carlisle

In the year of the child.

Dr. Boyson

As my hon. and learned Friend says, in the year of the child we have had the day of the strikes.

One of the saddest things has been that we have had one headmaster in a county outside London who considered that it was strike-breaking when little children brought sandwiches for their lunch. I just wonder how far society has dropped when it is felt to be strike-breaking for children to bring sandwiches to school in that way.

If we lessen or worsen the standards of education of our children, we are sowing the seeds of trouble in the future. It is not unusual for that to happen under the present Labour Government. The oil which could keep us going for a long time is being used to carry exceedingly high Government expenditure at present. Similarly, if we do not get the children back to school consistently throughout the year, we shall suffer for it in education standards in the future. In the infant, primary and secondary schools children are suffering, particularly in pockets around the country, often working-class pockets. That is certainly so in parts of Brent, where for the second or third time since September last the schools will very largely be closed tomorrow.

My hon. and learned Friend raised certain questions with the Secretary of State. Section 1 of the 1944 Act says specifically that the Secretary of State has a general duty to promote the education of the people of England and Wales and there are provided in section 99, and in other sections, the means of enforcing that duty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) has said, it is not just the provision of school buildings which is provided for in the Act, for it refers to the actual schooling. That applies to the question of the number of days. I had a note from my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) on the question of the 400 sessions. There is a reference there to "some unavoidable cause". It depends upon whether one thinks these continual strikes are an avoidable or an unavoidable cause; but it would seem to me that that is a responsibility, which may have to be tested in law, for the local education authorities, and ultimately for the Secretary of State, to ensure that since September up to the July holidays the children in those schools have had 400 sessions of education.

I am delighted to know that in the area of Stockport teachers are prepared to cut down some of the occasional holidays, to do extra teaching for the children there. All credit to the profession and to their dedication in doing so. But there is a responsibility on the local authorities and on the Minister in this case which may have to be tested. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) today and others at other times have raised the question of enforcing this basis of 400 sessions—one can almost say 400 years with the length of time this has gone on—of education throughout the year.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn pressed the Secretary of State, and I press her again, on the question of enforcing the opening of schools as part of that responsibility. Will she back headmasters who open their schools irrespective of what the authorites say, and will she back teachers who go in, irrespective of what is said by anyone in the area? There was some rhetoric at the end of her speech which may have re-established her in certain parts of the Labour Party, but the question is—are we going to get the children back to school? That is the only issue. Is she prepared to give a lead in a climate of opinion? I realise that there can be no question of direction, but will she indicate that she and the Government will openly back headmasters who open schools and similarly teachers who are prepared to go in to keep schools open?

It seems to me that the attitude of the Government on this question is part of the supine attitude of the Government at present in face of the disruption of organised labour which we see throughout the country. Their attitude on schools is the same as the attitude elsewhere whereby the Labour Party, particularly by concessions time and time again and by the so-called social contract, has bred a trade union tiger which it can no longer control and which has turned upon those who have fed it over the last four or five years.

It is the Government's inability to stand up to that and their appeasement of it which is causing our problems, particularly at present. A thought occurred to me last night—[Interruption.] I wish that even one thought would occur to certain hon. Members on the other side from time to time. I will not mention specifically the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), with whom we spar from time to time and whose occasional thought enlivens our debates and discussions in the Chamber and in Committees in which we spend our time.

It would have been very interesting to know who was the first person to refuse to open a door. I do not know about the hon. Member for Hillsborough, but certainly as long as I was headmaster I always made certain that the school door was opened in good time. If a caretaker had influenza, the school was still open and somebody saw that the boilers were stoked. All that was arranged so as to keep things going. It would have been interesting if the person connected with that union had been the porter at No. 10 Downing Street and he had decided that on that day he would not open it; we should then have seen whether the Government would have done no more about that than they have done about this, with the Prime Minister standing outside the door with his Ministers saying they could not open the door or carry on the Government, so that in law as in reality there was no Government of this country. That would have been fascinating, because it would have brought about the general election for which we all hope. My sadness is that it is the children who are suffering, not the Labour Government, who could have cleared the whole thing up by proper action.

The proposed topic for our debate this afternoon is the disruption of the education service and we on this side of the House feel very strongly on this issue; and certainly parents feel very strongly on this issue. If any hon. Members opposite represent constituencies where children are not able to attend school, the views they have put forward this afternoon will be found to be very different from those of parents. The toad knows where the harrow cuts. We do not feel that the Government are giving a right and fair lead, and we will divide tonight because we believe that we are speaking and voting today on the right of the children of England and Wales to have a proper and a full education.

6.48 p.m.

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

May I first apologise to the House for the absence of my right hon. Friend from the latter part of this debate due to the illness of a close relative. She has asked me to make that point particularly to the House and to say that she regrets that she is unable to be here.

A point which has consistently escaped most hon. Members opposite who have contributed to this debate, a point which does not usually escape them and one which they usually labour almost to an excessive degree, is that it is local education authorities and not my Department which runs schools. It is local education authorities which are the employers and it is those authorities which are charged with the duty of assessing the local situation and taking their decisions on that situation. Normally, hon. Members opposite are most keen to emphasise the role of local education authorities.

Clearly, this leaves some considerable role and responsibility for my right hon. Friend, and I must tell hon. Gentlemen quite frankly that it struck me that they were both surprised and dismayed to learn from her this afternoon just how considerable have been the initiatives she has taken to try to bring about an end to this dispute whenever it has taken place. My right, hon. Friend has met representatives of trade unions and of authorities and has taken steps to see that Her Majesty's inspectorate is in touch with local situations, with the remit of doing what it can with the regional committees to keep schools open wherever possible. Although, as I have indicated and as she indicated in her speech, she is not a negotiating party between an authority or authorities and the union involved, nevertheless she has done everything she can to foster agreement and to foster regional arrangements which will minimise to the greatest possible extent the disruption that children in some schools are facing.

Mr. Carlisle

The Minister says that the Secretary of State has left it to the authorities. Will she tell me whether she was prepared to give local education authorities any advice when they asked her how they were meant to keep their schools open?

Miss Jackson

The hon. and learned Gentleman will remember that my right hon. Friend said that she had suggested to the local authority associations that they should do all they could to find alternative accommodation. That advice is being carried out in many areas and is minimising the disruption that children are suffering, whether because of the general closure of their schools or because they are facing public examinations. My right hon. Friend showed clearly in her speech the steps that she has taken.

The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) was rather scornful about the legal advice that the Department has been receiving on section 8 and the application of section 99. Were I not more polite than he, I could be equally rude about the legal advice that he has given the House. We understand that it is not the case that sections 8 and 99 would have the effect that he claims. If they did, it would be a different matter, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler) clearly indicated, the section of the 1944 Act that might have been of use to the Secretary of State in such a difficulty is one that was effectively nullified by the Tameside decision which so many Conservative Members welcomed.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) spoke about the situation in Haringey. I presume that he did so because the schools in his constituency are not affected. The hon. Gentleman said, however, that he has a family involvement in Haringey. I was at a loss to follow many of his remarks because he made a number of references to secondary picketing and we are not dealing with that question.

I also found it hard to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). He said that the action of the unions was perhaps not spontaneous. It may be that in his constituency he feels that the action is not supported by union members, but I have never known industrial action to be supported to such an extent by members of the unions involved.

The hon. Member said that he thought there was a sense of panic among the union members involved and that this was contributing to their militancy. That may be the case, but I must ask the hon. Gentleman why he and his party contributed to that sense of panic by voting with the Conservatives against sanctions which were a cornerstone of the Government's incomes policy and why, therefore, he does not feel that he bears a share of the blame for any sense of panic which employees in the public sector feel at the prospect of runaway wage gains.

Having made that decision, the hon. Member now seems to be arguing that there should be acceptance of pay policy. There has been a certain amount of inconsistency in the attitude of the Liberal Party and I understand that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends are to display a further and even more surprising inconsistency later this evening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) spoke at length about the value of the work done by the workers involved in the dispute. I am sure that we all recognise the value of that work and that we are making ever greater demands on all the unions involved in our education service, not just on the members of the unions involved in the present dispute.

The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) quoted the comments of Mr. Hart, the secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. We take many of the points made by the hon. Gentleman. Mr. Hart is reported as saying that the question of indemnity is a matter between head teachers and their local education authorities … but our immediate reactions are … head teachers (and other teachers) have certain responsibilities in relation to their schools at all times though it was accepted that they should not be asked to incur exceptional and abnormal liabilities. Certainly, if Mr. Hart has been correctly quoted—and one must always enter that caveat—he was going a little far in his arguments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) said that what was needed to solve the dispute was cash on the table. I take that point, but I do not believe that the dispute will be settled solely by cash on the table. It may bring an end to the present dispute, but I am not so sure that it will bring an end to the problems that will ensue, even for those involved in the dispute.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) gave us a list of the attributes of good schooling, including regular work habits, and he referred to the problems of truancy and the difficulties pupils face in trying to work for examinations. We all recognise and acknowledge that those problems will inevitably occur when such a dispute takes place. They are problems with which we must all be seriously concerned.

However, when I searched for the solutions that the hon. Member for Brent, North and the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) were offering, I found that material was a little thin on the ground. The hon. and learned Member said very little about what solution might be offered by the Conservative Party, other than to give advice about the legal situation—advice which we do not believe to be valid.

The hon. and learned Member said that, if we were to rid ourselves of these problems, we needed a total change of attitude. To some extent, I agreed with him. I assume that he was saying that we need a society with a more unselfish attitude and greater concern for the difficulties that our actions create for others.

But who are the Opposition to criticise people on the grounds that they are putting their private interest above that of the general public? The Conservative Party has always encouraged individuals to put their own selfish interests above the interests of others. The Conservative Party has brought about a return to free collective bargaining. The Conservative Party always encourages people to ask for more—particularly when they already have a good deal. The hon. Member for Hornsey asked what sort of society we were becoming. I will tell him. We are becoming a society in which far too many people are attempting to adopt the philosophy of the Conservative Party.

The hon. Member for Brent, North and the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn told us nothing about the approach of the Conservative Party to low pay, let alone anything about their approach to this pay claim. However, we can divine one or two clues. We know that the Conservative Party stands for massive cuts in public expenditure. That is obviously not much encouragement to the lower-paid workers that they will receive fair treatment from the Conservatives.

I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough that the Shadow Chancellor conveyed the view that low-paid workers in the public sector could expect nothing from the Conservative Party, but perhaps the best hint was given in a report in Saturday's Daily Express. The article dealt, I grant, with the hospital crisis, but the Leader of the Opposition said that she would like to see in the hospital service—and we are entitled to look at her remarks as a possible Conservative answer in other areas—a cut in the number of ancillary workers, with those who are left taking a bigger share of the pay kitty. No wonder the hon. Member for Brent, North and the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn did not dwell at length on their solutions to the crisis. It is either to allow to leave or to sack enough members of the ancillary services to enable a pay settlement to be financed.

Our approach throughout the debate and during the past two weeks has been to try to do what we believe will help. My right hon. Friend listed the steps that she has taken to try to bring an end to the disruption in our schools and to minimise it where it exists. We have succeeded in resisting the suggestions of Conservative Members that we should go in for publicity-worthy comments or

take action that would exacerbate the dispute rather than help to minimise it.

In the end, the dispute will be solved, whether by cash on the table or in other ways, only by negotiation and by those involved getting round the table and reaching agreement. I believe, as my right hon. Friend believes and as I hope the House will affirm, that our way of tackling the crisis will help to minimise the effects of the dispute and, ultimately, help to solve it. The Conservatives' way would merely make it worse.

Question put, That this House do now adjourn:—

The House divided: Ayes 270, Noes 276.

Question accordingly negatived.

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