HC Deb 08 June 1981 vol 6 cc101-8

Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Canavan

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I heard someone say "The Prime Minister" and I thought that she was coming into the Chamber.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire)

Not to listen to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Canavan

The right hon. Lady might learn something if she came in, because her treatment of Scottish education has been every bit as bad as, if not worse than, the treatment meted out by the Scottish Office Minister who was supposed to be running the show and who is turning out to be a puppet of the Prime Minister, just like every other zombie at the Scottish Office, from the Secretary of State down.

Last Thursday the Secretary of State for Scotland announced a further round of local education authority cuts, and that point was raised at the annual general meeting of the EIS. That means further pressure by the Government on education authorities, particularly the Lothian region, possibly to sack more teachers or to make cuts in their education budgets elsewhere. I hope that the Lothian regional council will put up the maximum resistance and fight against the Government's proposals. Certainly pressure is being put upon local authorities by the Secretary of State and his minions.

That is the background to our discussion of the possible repeal of section 88. It is a depressing background of savage cutbacks in education expenditure—possibly the worst cutbacks that we have seen since the beginning of public sector education in Scotland. The morale of the teaching profession is being sapped by the Government's actions. We now have this proposal, at least on paper, from a Tory Member who seems to want to make it easier for education authorities to sack their teachers.

I can remember when the education convenor of COSLA came to see us about this matter. We put many of these points to him. He is a reasonable man. He took the points on board and the original amendment was dropped. I am referring to a meeting held with Labour Members of the Committee that dealt with the Bill. That is part of the reason why the repeal of section 88 was not pursued in Committee. We put reasoned arguments to COSLA and it did not pursue the matter further. It was dropped, but, unfortunately, it has been picked up by the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East.

It is important to remember why the 1882 enactment, which will be 100 years old next year, was put on to the statute book. The object was to protect teachers from arbitrary or capricious dismissal, because it was felt that a threat of such dismissal might be used to force teachers to slant their teaching in a particular fashion and thereby to indoctrinate their pupils. In other words, the initial reason was not just one of job protection for teachers, but was very much to do with academic freedom.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) dealt with that point, because these facts, which were relevant in 1882 when the section was, in essence, first put on the statute book, are still as relevant today.

In many sensitive areas of the curriculum teachers, perhaps under different circumstances—if this section were repealed, for example—might be wary of putting across a certain point of view or even different points of view to pupils if they feel that they are under threat of being hauled before a committee or even dismissed without being given a personal hearing. I do not think that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East suggested any alternative proposals, in detail, to the repeal of section 88. Perhaps he would be interested in giving us some later.

Mr. Allan Stewart

What I said was that if there were a straight repeal and nothing else happened, what, would happen in, say, Strathclyde would be what happen; at present—an appeal and a right of representation at director level, and then an appeal to the manpower sub-committee of the region, which is of elected councillors. It would be the same as for other employees. What is being suggested by individual members of COSLA as an alternative is the right of an education committee to devolve its duties under section 88 to a sub-committee. It has been suggested that that might be a better method of proceeding. I mentioned both of those points in my opening remarks.

Mr. Canavan

I am grateful to the hon. Member for reiterating his explanation. Nevertheless, I am sure that even he would admit that that proposal would represent a substantial lessening of the job security that teachers now have. For us as parliamentarians to impose a substantial reduction in job security unilaterally would be a grave mistake, especially in the light of the background that I have described.

Ten years ago teacher unemployment was virtually unheard of, as was the fear of unemployment among teachers. We are now in a completely different situation, and a steadily worsening situation, due to the Government's education policies. To come forward with a proposal to repeal section 88, especially at the present time, would be unjustifiable.

Since the section was put on the statute book 99 years ago, there have been certain modifications. Indeed, there were even attempts to get rid of section 88. I believe that the most recent was made under a previous reactionary Tory Government at the time of the Industrial Relations Act. Not even the Government headed by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) decided to go ahead with the repeal of section 88. The arguments that teachers and their unions put forward at that time were listened to with respect by the then Ministers. I only wish that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East had listened with respect to what the teachers' organisations are saying now, over 10 years later.

It is sometimes argued that if section 88 were repealed there would still be protection under the Employment Protection Act. Of course there would be some protection. I was one of those who supported the employment protection legislation that the Labour Government put on to the statute book. One of the greatest achievements of the Labour Government lay in putting such good legislation on to the statute book.

Job protection under the Employment Protection Act is imperfect for many groups of workers and for dealing with the employment of teachers. Even if a dismissed teacher or a teacher threatened with dismissal took his case to an industrial tribunal and won, there is no guarantee that he would be reinstated in his job. Teachers suffer a dual threat of dismissal. Not only can they be threatened with dismissal because of misconduct in the course of their duties, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie) pointed out, they can be dismissed or threatened with dismissal for misdemeanours or actions that have nothing directly to do with the execution of their duties.

All teachers in Scotland have to be registered by the General Teaching Council and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire, I have kept up my registration. We have not yet been struck off, although I remember one occasion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when one of your illustrious predecessors temporarily kicked me out of this place. I thought that if the GTC got to hear about it it might strike me off the register, but I expect that it did not find out about it. As far as I know, I am still on the register.

Mr. Lambie

My hon. Friend still pays his £3.

Mr. Canavan

I pay the money every year by banker's order.

It is important to realise that teachers are in a profession where the act of registration and the possibility of removal from the register because of misconduct which may not have been done in the execution of duties is a threat to the teachers. Hon. Members may argue that it is justifiable because parents and pupils are entitled to high standards from teachers, and not just in the classrooms. There are special circumstances concerning the employment protection of teachers and employment opportunities for teachers. If a teacher is truck off the register, it will be impossible for him to teach in Scotland.

My contention is, and it is a reasonable case made by many teachers and teachers' unions, that if section 88 were repealed and a teacher were dismissed—it would be easier to dismiss him or her if the section were repealed—that would have a similar effect to being struck off the GTC register. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a teacher to find alternative employment, because of the stigma of having been sacked by an education authority. There are still valid reasons in 1981 as there were in 1882 when the section was first put on to the statute book.

10.15 pm

Therefore, is it any wonder that I share the anger of many of the teachers, particularly young teachers, who spoke at the EIS annual general meeting at the weekend? It is not only the EIS, the largest teachers' union, that is articulating the anger and frustration of the Scottish teachers over their treatment by the Tory Party and the Tory Government. The other teachers' unions—the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association and the NAS/UWT—have, I am sure, sent letters to all hon. Members complaining about the clause. We have all been inundated with letters from our constituents. Many schools in my constituency have sent petitions signed by members of staff, and many individual teachers in my constituency have written to me.

It would be interesting to know exactly how many letters the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East has received over the past few weeks. My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) is laughing, and I know why. He is sponsored by the Union of Communication Workers. The postmen have been having a field day delivering all the letters from the Scottish teachers to the hon. Gentleman. Oddly enough, the threat of the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East to sack the Scottish teachers has perhaps meant more employment for Post Office workers.

It is important that we should try to restore the morale of the teaching profession, which has been eroded by successive policies of the Government, including the massive cuts in education expenditure, which are denying teachers the resources to do a good job, which they are qualified to do. Unless they have adequate resources in the classroom and elsewhere, their job is made much more difficult. Not only does the teacher suffer, but at the end of the day the children suffer, and they are the most important people in education.

The teachers have also had to suffer unsatisfactory remuneration under the Government's policies. The last offer was a miserable 7 per cent., when inflation was running at at least double that figure. In other words, because of the Government's policies, the teachers were made to suffer a reduction in the real value of their salaries. in addition to their being denied the tools and resources to do the job, and being denied adequate remuneration, there is now hanging over their heads the threat of dismissal.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East does not intend to pursue the new clause to a vote. I do not know whether any of his reactionary colleagues intend taking up the cudgels. This proposal, which would make it easier to sack teachers, should never have been put on the Amendment Paper in the first place.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) for tabling the new clause. The Government's view is that in the Bill we have tackled many of the problems that relate to the education system in Scotland. We tackled last year the question of compulsory redundancy among teachers. Local authorities are free to deal with the question of compulsory redundancies, should they arise, now that we have put through the House the Teachers (Compensation for Premature Retirement) (Scotland) Regulations 1980.

Section 88, which hon. Members have been discussing, is aimed at assisting local authorities, at their request, to deal with the question of incompetent teachers. This is an issue that the House cannot ignore, although Opposition Members have tried hard to ignore it. Opposition Members spoke at great length about teachers, although they have no monopoly of concern for teachers, teacher training or professional standards in education in Scotland. I was disappointed that no hon. Member addressed himself himself to the problems that incompetent teachers present to parents and children.

Hon. Members cannot be unaware of the complaints that come to hon. Members, local councillors and others as a result of the difficulties faced by local authorities in dealing with incompetent teachers who, for whatever reason, find themselves unable to perform their task properly. Those teachers, if left in a responsible teaching position, as, I am afraid, too many are, inflict great damage on children and families and cause great hardship and suffering to children and families.

A number of hon. Members are former teachers or have been associated with the teaching profession. They cannot be unaware of the problem that is created by attempts to sweep this question under the carpet. I am therefore indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East for giving the House an opportunity to discuss the matter. As my hon. Friend says, the new clause originates in a suggestion from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. I am fully aware, as are my right hon. and hon. Friends, of the anxiety among teachers about the prospects of dispensing with the special protection that section 88 of the 1980 Act provides. I am bound to say, however, that most of the letters and protests that I have received ignore or appear to be unaware of the protective provisions already contained not only in the Employment Protection Act 1975 but in the disciplinary procedure already agreed in the Scottish Teachers Service Conditions Committee.

It is wrong to argue the case, as Opposition Members, who should know better, have done, by saying that if section 88 is removed teachers in Scotland will be subject to arbitrary dismissal. That is utterly untrue. They have the protection of the Employment Protection Act and other procedures that have been negotiated by the local authorities through the Scottish Teachers Service Conditions Committee.

It is important that we should take time to consider the question of unsatisfactory teachers, bearing in mind that the new clause, was initiated by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. It followed, I understand, the advice of the Association of Directors of Education—I am glad that the association recognises the problem—which complains that it is greatly inhibited in trying to take action against a teacher who is incompetent, who is a poor performer and who is causing damage. The House should pay attention to the Association of Directors of Education and to the position of parents and teachers.

It is open to the STSCC to extend its existing agreement on dismissal procedures, for example, to include some appeal procedure and to make whatever arrangement that, in conjunction with the teachers' organisations, it believes would help to overcome this problem. The chairman of COSLA's education committee is in touch with the Education Institute of Scotland and other teachers' organisations with a view to starting new negotiations and discussions to deal with this problem. I hope that no hon. Member would deny that such steps should take place. Indeed, I initiated those steps when I became aware of COSLA's concern about this problem. As I have implied, this matter cannot be swept under the carpet in Parliament, in COSLA, in the local authorities, in the EIS or anywhere else.

The negotiations are going ahead. I hope that they will reach a conclusion that will satisfy both sides in the negotiations as well as hon. Members and those in Scotland who are deeply concerned about this problem.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I am interested to hear that the negotiations are taking place. If they reach a satisfactory conclusion, will section 88 have to go? If so, what initiative have the Government taken to ensure that such action is taken properly?

Mr. Fletcher

First, we wish to ensure that negotiations take place. As long as the Government believe that section 88 should remain in the 1980 Act, there will be no incentive for proper negotiations. My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East has kindly agreed to withdraw his new clause. It is right that he should do so. However, the Government will take a keen interest in the negotiations with a possible view to tabling an amendment in the other place that will enable section 88 to be repealed within a time scale—which might mean including in the amendment a commencement date some months hence—whereby there would be no excuse for either side in the negotiations not to satisfy those interested in education in Scotland, the House and themselves that a proper procedure will exist for dealing with incompetent teachers.

We have plenty of evidence that such teachers exist. Indeed, we have such evidence from teachers' associations. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the House to give every encouragement and incentive to both sides in the negotiations in order that they should endeavour to reach proper and sensible conclusions that will represent a step forward and an advance for educational standards in Scotland.

Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

Most of this lengthy debate has concentrated on the timing of the tabling of the new clause. It was only in the Minister's closing remarks that we gained some information about the Government's intentions. When the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) spoke, there was no sign that there would be coercive negotiations with the unions or the teachers' associations.

Initially we were concerned about the timing of the tabling of the new clause, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) said, some of us had had a meeting with COSLA officials and about a week later we received an intimation of a desire to amend section 88. I understand that the amendment did not have the support of the majority of the political officials of COSLA. Prior to March—during the lengthy discussions that took place—the Scottish Education Department, the Association of Directors of Education and COSLA did not consider that topic. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that in the lengthy discussions about the content of this Bill no consideration was given to the matter. If we are to believe the concern that was expressed by the Association of Directors of Education, by teachers' associations and by the Minister about the so-called question of incompetent teachers, the matter would have been on the agenda from the outset of the discussions.

We know that discussions about this measure have been going on since August last year. We know that on the subject of clause 6, the controversial provision which deals with the closure of schools, about 40 meetings took place between the Scottish Education Department and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Scotland. There has been no lack of enthusiasm on the part of officials at the Scottish Education Department to meet people who have important matters to discuss. Therefore, it was not surprising that the response in Scotland was on one of shock and amazement. It was a result of COSLA's intention, and of the proposal of the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East. I realise that he quickly backtracked from saying that he was prepared to look at it to saying that he would like to instigate a discussion on the matter.

10.30 pm

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman acted from the outset with the best of intentions and merely sought to raise the matter as one for discussion. If so, the House will be generous. Perhaps it was political incompetence or ineptitude on his part that forced him into a position where, on the one hand, he sought to open up this can of worms but, on the other hand, tried to close it just as quickly because he realised that the many problems it involved would not be so resolved in the short time at his disposal.

It should not be forgotten that the response that has been provoked by this attempt to revoke section 88 did not come simply out of dislike of the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East. It came out of fear of unemployment, which is very great now among teachers. It came out of anxieties about victimisation. The section does not affect only people who are being laid off or are being made redundant in the public sector of education; it affords protection to teachers in the private sector, because it applies also to the governing bodies of maintained, direct grant or independent schools. Any teacher who is registered with the General Teaching Council is entitled to protection under section 88. Consequently, the fear of victimisation, which can arise more pointedly in the private education sector, was prevalent in teachers' minds.

Moreover, a trained teacher does not have much of a prospect of alternative employment if he is sacked or made redundant. Cases are now going through the courts that involve teachers who for many years have been on what are called temporary contracts. The question is being asked in the courts whether a temporary contract that is extended over a number of years becomes de facto or—in these cases—de jure a permanent contract.

If teachers took advantage of the industrial tribunals that are available, at best they could seek compensation. They have no guarantee of reinstatement under the existing provisions. So section 88 is the only defence that teachers have against arbitrary dismissal.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

We have experienced the charade of the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) moving his new clause, knowing that he would withdraw the motion, and the Minister at the end of the debate saying that although he knows that he will not get his way with the House of Commons, he might proceed through the back door in the House of Lords.

Mr. O'Neill

That is the point at which I began my speech. The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East has been used as a puppet or fall guy. He was required to raise the issue. The Minister is seeking to force the hand of the unions by saying "Unless you concede something we shall introduce a measure in the other place in the form proposed by the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East." That is why I waited until the end of the debate before I spoke.

My worst suspicions have been realised. The Minister has not played fair. The messages from the EIS and union officials were true. The Minister is using a hapless Back Bencher to do his dirty work. He is using the other place to break an important principle in teaching trade unionism in Scotland. He is using the House in an abominable manner. He waited until the end of the debate before he made a statement. He could have allayed much of the anxiety and given a clearer picture of what was to happen if he had come clean earlier. We might not have needed a debate of such length if he had intervened earlier.

The issue might be considered in a different way in the Lords, because their Lordships might have sympathy with such a proposal.

Mr. Neil Carmichael (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

I thought that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) might intervene, because it would be interesting to know whether he knew what was happening.

Mr. O'Neill

The procedure of the House is such that when the hon. Gentleman tries to withdraw the motion he will require the approval of the House. If he wishes to comment, I give him the opportunity. It seems that he does not wish to intervene.

We have had a lengthy debate. Only at the end did the Minister give a clear description of the Government's intentions. The education world is left in no doubt that a relatively unrepresentative group in COSLA will get its way. It will not be to assist the removal of incompetent teachers, but a sign to the teaching profession in Scotland that for many their days are numbered. If we do not have an opportunity to vote against that this evening, we shall do so when the Bill returns from the other place, if it is possible for the Government to dupe the other place in the way that they duped the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East.

Mr. Allan Stewart

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the section.

Hon. Members


Question put and negatived.

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