HC Deb 16 July 1979 vol 970 cc1005-9
Sir Anthony Meyer

asked the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received from local education authorities in Wales regarding the impact of cuts in the rate support grant on educational provision.

Mr. Michael Roberts

The Welsh Joint Education Committee has asked my right hon. Friend to receive a deputation and arrangements for a meeting are being made.

Sir A. Meyer

Does my hon. Friend agree that. if cuts must be made, they should preferably be made in such a way as not permanently to damage nursery education and, still more, remedial education? Is he aware, however, that of the preferable cuts, such as reducing the swollen administrative bureaucracy, or charging more for school meals, or imposing a charge for nursery education, or reviewing the school leaving age, these are all excluded by the law as it now stands? Will my hon. Friend initiate urgent discussions with local authorities to seek a way out?

Mr. Michael Roberts

I do not believe that in the present situation it would be helpful for me to initiate discussions with individual authorities about their priorities, although, as I have said, arrangements are being made for a meeting with the Welsh Joint Education Committee. I can understand my hon. Friend's concern to protect crucial areas of the education service. I would expect authorities, in approaching this exercise, to have very much in mind their statutory duties as well as the special needs of particular groups of pupils.

Mr. Barry Jones

Is it not typical, however, of a crafty Tory Party that in a general election campaign it offers us the prospect of tax cuts, but afterwards it sets about attacking nursery education, remedial education and Welsh language teaching?

Mr. Michael Roberts

Admittedly, the election campaign is two months behind us, but I should have thought that the hon. Member would have remembered that part of our policy was cuts in public expenditure. The cuts in public expenditure have been placed as a responsibility on the local authorities. It is for the hon. Member to tell his people in Clwyd what he thinks they should do with the 3 per cent. cut. I look forward to seeing his views in the Liverpool Daily Post.

Mr. D. E. Thomas

Did I understand the Minister aright as having told the House that he had no interest in the priorities in education policy laid down by local authorities in Wales?

Mr. Michael Roberts

No, I certainly did not say that.

Mr. Barry Jones

The hon. Gentleman did.

Mr. Michael Roberts

I think that the hon. Member will have to look in Hansard tomorrow to resolve this dispute.

Mr. Alan Williams

Does not the hon. Gentleman realise, however, that it is an act of political cowardice by the Government to impose these cuts and then to say that where they fall must be decided by the local authorities and that the Government will accept no responsibility for them? Is he aware that at a headmasters' conference last week these cuts were denounced as the most vicious of the post-war period? In West Glamorgan, the equivalent of 100 jobs may go, and teachers in Wales have indicated that the cuts are so massive that they may mean changes in the character of our education.

Mr. Michael Roberts

The right hon. Member was not talking about the cuts that have been imposed, nor were the headmasters. They were talking about the options which are now being discussed between the local authorities and the Government.

9. Mr. Alec Jones

asked the Secretary of State for Wales which part of the education service is to be cut in Wales to achieve the 3 per cent. reduction in the volume of local authorities current expenditure in the current year.

Mr. Michael Roberts

It is for local authorities to determine how to achieve the necessary savings in their current expenditure.

Mr. Jones

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that he has some responsibility to the people of Wales who, at this moment, are alarmed at the stories from North, South, East and West Wales of the likely effect of cuts in the education service? It is really nonsense for the Government to seek to impose a 3 per cent. cut and to say " You cut, and we shall just walk away from it."

The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. Wyn Roberts), suggested that local authorities were responsible bodies. I agree with him. If they are responsible, may we have an assurance that the Government will allow them to choose not only where the cuts shall fall but whether they shall raise their rates to pay for the services?

Mr. Michael Roberts

It is a perfectly reasonable proposition for the Government to say, as we have said, that we are cutting the rate support grant by 3 per cent., and then to turn to those authorities which have the best ability to assess the needs of their areas—the local authorities—and ask them to make the decision. The right hon. Gentleman is right when he says that there is alarm and despondency. However, I should like to point out that not one firm decision has yet been made by any county local education authority on education. Therefore, it is alarm and despondency before final decisions have been made.

Dr. Roger Thomas

Does not the Minister agree that a considerable part of the basis of the present Administration's cuts is based on falling school rolls? Would the Minister care to suggest to areas such as Dyfed, where the projected populations are static for the next few years, how they will be able to cope with these cuts in expenditure, which are little short of Draconian, causing the closure of establishments and the discontinuance of essential services and provisions? Perhaps I may quote one example. [HON. MEMBERS: " No."]. The youth services in Dyfed—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must be fair to other hon. Members.

Mr. Michael Roberts

The decision on the 3 per cent. cut in the RSG is not based on the falling rolls in our schools, because it is not specifically designed for schools. If authorities direct all the saving into the schools, that is their decision. I appreciate the point that the hon. Member makes about his own constituency.

Mr. Wigley

The Minister cannot get away with that. Surely he is aware that two-thirds of local government expenditure is on education. Therefore, inevitably, cuts such as these are bound to land on education. Is he aware that, although final decisions have not yet been rubber-stamped, the county of Gwynedd has announced an £800,000 cutback on education and West Glamorgan announced a £1.6 million cut only last week?

Mr. Michael Roberts

I appreciate that education takes about 52 per cent. of the expenditure on rate fund services. Therefore, an element of the cut inevitably must fall on the education service. Obviously, in education authorities which have a falling roll, that will be taken into consideration. But it is for local authorities to decide how best they can administer a 3 per cent. cut with the minimum of damage to their services.

Mr. Best

Does not my hon. Friend welcome the shift away from central Government involvement in local government finance by the cut in the RSG, and does not this indicate a transference back to local authorities of greater autonomy, for which Opposition Members have been clamouring for ages?

Mr. Michael Roberts

It is certainly the role of the local authority to deal with this matter. I think that local authorities are the bodies best suited to make these judgments.

Mr. Alec Jones

Will the hon. Gentleman now answer the second part of my question—will the Government give a guarantee that they will not introduce legislation to prevent local authorities acting responsibly and so levying rates instead of accepting the cuts?

Mr. Michael Roberts

I can give no such guarantee.