HC Deb 07 November 1984 vol 67 cc208-14

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

10 pm

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

This is the first occasion that I have used the opportunities afforded by the Adjournment debate to raise a matter affecting an individual—one of my constituents. I make no apology for doing so, because in the last resort all representations which hon. Members make on behalf of constituents to Ministers ultimately rest on the assumption of an opportunity on the Floor of the House to bring considerations to the attention of the House and of the Minister in a more formal manner.

In any case, I think it would be agreed that what is involved here is a difficult and important matter of administrative judgment. I would not have been so convinced that it deserved to be raised but for the judgment of someone well versed in the area concerned, for whose opinion I have a great respect, who described the administrative decision that I wish to challenge tonight as "the only case in which" he felt that justice had not been done in his 14 years of dealing with the Department. I therefore hope that the Minister — although he has twice and personally reconsidered the background to this decision — will feel that before I sit down I have provided him with sufficient reason for reviewing it yet again. I am sure that he will do so with an open mind.

Stranmillis college, in the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), is unique and outstanding among all the colleges of education in the United Kingdom. It occupies a unique position in the educational life of Belfast and the whole Province of Ulster, and is not strictly comparable with any other institution going under the same description in any part of the United Kingdom. It is indeed this unique nature of Stranmillis college which is the background to the administrative problem which, I suggest, was wrongly resolved in 1975–76.

It was in those years that the recommendations of the Houghton committee were applied to salary scales for staff in colleges of education. In Great Britain, and consequently by parity in Northern Ireland, the recommendations of the Houghton report were applied by way of classifying departments of education into six grades, rising by size from grade I up to grade VI, which comprised departments counting at least 900 units.

I should perhaps explain that the term "unit" is very much a term of art. It is more than a simple counting of heads of students; it is a composite statistical convention designed to convey in comparable terms the volume of work which is done in a department of education. The problem with which the Minister and I have been grappling was the manner in which grade VI was applied to the headship of the department of education in Stranmillis college.

In the application of the Houghton committee's recommendations it was at all times recognised that the relevant local education authority should have discretion in the light of exceptional circumstances to modify upwards the scales set out. The exceptional circumstances where the scales were modified in grades lower than grade VI obviously did not include excessive size, because the automatic consequence of excessive size in terms of units of a department in any of the lower grades—I to V—would be its reclassification to a higher grade.

Nevertheless, the same provision was expressly made in the terms applied on the mainland also to grade VI. The terms were: Where the local education authority consider that in the special circumstances of a particular case of a Head of Department Grade VI the maximum prescribed above is not adequate, the authority may, in agreement with the Secretary of State, extend the scale to such higher maximum as they deem appropriate. The question that I am putting before the House concerns the use of that discretion to award a higher scale in the case of a grade VI department, being a department of over 900 units, namely, the education department in Stranmillis college.

The number of units on the same reckoning appropriate to the department at Stranmillis was 1,610. In other words, it was immensely in excess, in size and importance, of the minimum size for a department to be graded grade VI. The question is whether the discretion should not have been so exercised as to apply to Stranmillis a higher scale appropriate to a so much larger load than the minimum load for grade VI as is indicated by the figure that I have just given to the House.

The answer must clearly turn—I am at one with the Minister in believing this—on essential comparability between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The Minister told me that his Department had considered whether it should break away from the principles applied in Great Britain and go it alone. I believe, and I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will agree, that the Minister was right to stick to the principle of parity as far as it could be applied. My only quarrel with the Minister, and the point on which I make my submission to him, is that the manner in which the principle of parity with Great Britain was applied was, in the circumstances unreasonable.

I inquired of the Minister what was the evidence for Departments in Great Britain of sizes above 900 units and, to my great surprise, the Minister told me that the figure was "not readily available". Yet that is the crucial figure, because if it should turn out that on the mainland the size of departments in grade VI is commonly only a little above the number of minimum of 900, then the case, on sheer grounds of size, for a special scale being applied to Stranmillis with its 1,610 units, is irresistible.

However, there must evidently have been figures available, as I am told that the figure for the next largest department identified in grade VI after Stranmillis at the time when the comparison was made was no more than 909 units. So we are comparing a department with 1,610 units and 29½ staff with departments on the mainland of which at the relevant time the largest had 909 units and only 15½ staff.

Clearly, the general concession of a discretion on the part of education authorities—in this case the Minister's department — to make a special scale for special circumstances was amply fulfilled in the circumstances of Stranmillis.

Let me, to avoid any misunderstanding, assure the Minister that I am in no way basing my argument upon the particular qualities or attainments of the individual who, at the time concerned, was the head of the department. Those, by general consent, were outstanding. Nevertheless, it is not upon that basis that the argument that I am advancing is founded. It is founded upon the sheer unreasonableness, given a system in which departments are graded for purposes of salary at successive minimum and maximum sizes, of treating a department of 1,610 units on the same basis as departments of little more than 900 units, which are the norm in Great Britain with which the comparison is to be made.

My request to the Minister is that he should seriously address himself to a specific point. He should ascertain — I cannot believe that it is impossible to do so—the corresponding conditions obtaining on the mainland in the relevant years in departments of education graded in grade VI. If it turns out, as I believe it will, that the disparity between Stranmillis and either the norm or the maximum on the mainland was as gross and striking as I have suggested, then he must admit that an adjustment should have been made to the scale in the case of Stranmillis to take account of it.

I readily accept that in the other grades mere size of department was not regarded as adequate basis for exceptional treatment. That was only logical, however, since exceptional size was going to be dealt with anyhow by promotion into the next higher grade. It stands to reason that one could not create a top grade with a minimum and not a maximum size without taking into account major discrepancies of size in fixing the scale to be applied.

In readdressing his mind to that question and in looking specifically at the comparison on which I rest my argument — on which we in Northern Ireland are generally content to rest our case — with Great Britain at the relevant time, the Minister will not incur any risk of creating damaging and dangerous precedents. I know how precedent-ridden are advisers when a Minister faces an administrative decision of this kind. In this instance the pieces on the board have moved in an unrecognisable fashion since the relevant years and the only benefit would accrue to an individual in retirement who I believe, having addressed my mind to the matter and having sought the best advice available, has a justifiable sense that an administrative decision was taken to his disadvantage.

No precedent will be created, no repercussions will accrue in any other direction. I think I know the Minister well enough to believe that he will not be able to resist my request that specifically in the terms that I have put to him he should, even a third time, look again at this individual, difficult but, in its context, important case.

10.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) for having raised this issue on the Floor of the House and for the way in which he has conducted correspondence and pursued these arguments in the immediate past. I think that we are agreed on most of the background facts, although I should like to put some of them on the record. We know that the debate concerns the grading in respect of a former head of department at Stranmillis college, a college of education for the training of teachers in Belfast. Indeed, it might be appropriate for me to pay tribute to that college and to its role in teacher training, particularly during recent very difficult years in Belfast.

However, at issue tonight is the level of salary that was paid to the right hon. Gentleman's constituent for the period from 1 April 1975 until his retirement on 31 August 1976, upon which his retirement pension was subsequently based. I should like to reiterate a point that I have made to the right hon. Gentleman in correspondence. The merits of this case have nothing whatever to do with the personal or professional qualities of his constituent, about which there has never been the slightest question.

The matter has been raised with my Department by the right hon. Gentleman's constituent and, as has been made clear, there has been correspondence between us. I am perfectly satisfied that the investigations that have over the years been conducted within the Department of Education in Northern Ireland have been thorough and that the conclusions reached have been supported by the terms of the so-called Burnham document and by the Northern Ireland salary regulations which apply in such circumstances.

My officials took great care to ensure that the treatment of the right hon. Gentleman's constituent was not prejudiced by the fact that Stranmillis was by far and away the largest of the three colleges of education in Northern Ireland and that there was, therefore, no means of making direct comparisons with other heads of departments of a comparable size within the Province. In a moment I shall outline the steps that were taken within the Department in that respect.

For the benefit of those hon. Members who do not represent Northern Ireland constituencies, I should make it clear that, although the education system in the Province is administered as a separate entity by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, it has been Government policy, in so far as is possible, to maintain a broad equivalence of provision between the Province and the rest of the United Kingdom. This policy has applied to all phases of education and, for obvious reasons, has been closely observed in the determination of salaries paid to teachers and further education lecturers. Although there have always been separate salary negotiations for Northern Ireland, the outcome has always followed closely, and more often followed precisely, the settlement of salary negotiations in England and Wales.

For the record, perhaps I should explain that the framework within which salary negotiations take place was laid down by the Pelham committee — which subsequently became known as the Burnham committee — following the 1974 Houghton report, and this has remained substantially unaltered in principle over the past decade. This establishes a comprehensive and definitive method by which the entitlements of, in this instance, a college of education to different grades of staffing are established, including such things as the proportion of senior posts and the emoluments applicable to the post holders. The means of aiming at conclusions on these matters and the factors to be taken into account are clearly identified in the Burnham document. In addition, in Northern Ireland commensurate provision is made in the college of education salaries regulations.

I shall explain in slightly more detail than the right hon. Gentleman did how the gradings of a college and its academic departments are determined on the basis of point scores. The score is built up from three elements: the numbers of students on courses; the number of hours of work undertaken 'by students in the college in a normal week, and the number of weeks' attendance students are required to fulfil during the academic year. Having agreed the appropriate figures for those components with the local authority or, in the case of Northern Ireland, with the Department of Education, the subsequent computation and consequent grading can be determined from the tables set out in the Burnham document. For a head of department, grading is determined by the category within which the points score falls. At the bottom of the scale, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, a grade I head of department will require 76 points, whereas grade VI requires 901 points at the minimum. I emphasise that that is the minimum required for a grade VI appointment.

The bands approximately double with each step. For example, the difference between grade I and grade II is from 76 to 140 points. The difference between grade V and grade VI is from 601 points to 900 points. If one extrapolates that into the difference between grade VI and a possible grade VII, one would be talking about a dividing line on 1400 or 1500 points. I accept that the Stranmillis point score is in excess of that, although not greatly. In a sense, that is beside the point because there has never been any question of such an extrapolation. In Great Britain, the Department of Education and Science has resolutely declined to accept it.

The points score at Stranmillis was 1610. Immediately the Department of Education in Northern Ireland recognised that that was significantly in excess of the minimum points necessary to justify a grade VI head of department. The trouble is that there are no means by which to acknowledge that excess of points in a tangible way. That is the root of the difference between the right hon. Member for South Down and the Department.

I can assure the House that the Department endeavoured at the time to establish any means that might be appropriate to make this possible. Most contingencies are covered in the Burnham document and, in particular, there is a discretionary clause which provides, with the agreement of the Secretary of State for Education and Science, for salary enhancement in special circumstances.

The college orginally based its claim on that set of circumstances and the large size of the education department at Stranmillis. The Department of Education in Northern Ireland consulted the authoritative sources—the DES and the local authorities conditions of service advisory board, but unfortunately it was only too clear from the advice received that sheer size and volume of work did not constitute special circumstances for such enhancement.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Does any comparable post exist in England and Wales for which so many units are not recognised?

Mr. Scott

We have been unable to establish that. We are talking about 10 years ago. Many of the comparable institutions involving teacher training and further education that one would have looked to 10 years ago for comparable figures have been merged or reduced in size as a result of the rundown in teacher training. It is not possible to establish from the authorities on this side of the water whether comparable sizes existed here at the time.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Can the Minister let me have a list of the authorities responsible for grade VI departments? I shall willingly correspond with them and ask them to turn up their records for the 1970s, since this is a material point.

Mr. Scott

That may be so, but the essential point is that, whatever excess there was over the minimum of 901, the Department of Education and Science and the Burnham committee have resolutely set their faces against extrapolating the grades a step further—originally to grade VIII as suggested by Stranmillis or even to the grade VII, its fallback position. Sheer size and volume of work do not constitute the circumstances for such enhancement. It was understood that there were instances in comparable institutions in England and Wales where heads of large departments had point scores considerably in excess of 901. However, there had been no agreement to extend the Burnham gradings and the Burnham committee resolutely set its face against any such movement. In those circumstances it would not have been right for my Department to make a special exception in this case.

At a later stage in the protracted negotiations the college submitted a case for special circumstances apart from size, but the professional advice received by my Department was that the duties listed did not constitute anything out of the ordinary for a large education department. I take the point about drawing comparisons with institutions in Great Britain where there are point scores ranging above 901, but over and above the difficulty which I have mentioned of trying to identify precise analogues my Department considered that the overriding determinant was the interpretation by the Department of Education and Science of the Burnham provisions. The advice was that no matter how high the point score, size alone did not constitute special circumstances.

The only other possibility within the Burnham rules would have been to restructure the college with the education department established as a faculty, having itself a number of constituent departments, with the head of the department becoming, as it were, a dean of the faculty with an appropriate allowance. This possibility was examined in great depth and was regarded as neither practical nor desirable within the college's existing academic structures for the education department.

It is some while since my Department was so involved in the protracted negotiations in this case, which ran from 1976 to 1981. It is always difficult to appreciate a situation as it obtained some years past. However, from the more recent examination which I have conducted as a result of correspondence initiated by the right hon. Member for South Down, I am satisfied that my Department pursued every avenue possible and reached its conclusions rightly in the light of national interpretation of policy at the time.

I can well understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern for his constituent. I can assure him that if there had been any acceptable and valid way of facilitating his constituent my Department would have wished to adopt it. Alas, it was not possible to do that, and as we conducted our negotiations and discussions between the Department of Education and the Department of Education and Science we asked for their advice and asked them to seek the Burnham committee's guidance on what should be done. On each occasion the answer came back that there was no question of extending upwards. Indeed, the committee made it clear that it should not even be asked to offer an opinion on individual cases of this sort because grade VI was the top and only if, for example, a head of a department with an excessive point score was involved in some form of research elsewhere in the institution, or had taken on other responsibilities within the institution, would discretionary payment be considered.

I believe that the Department has done its best to try to find a way to provide the extra payments for the right hon. Gentleman's constituent. In seeking to remain on a par with the practice on this side of the water, it found that it could not in equity provide the extra payments.

I am sorry to have to give the right hon. Gentleman a disappointing reply. I have considered the matter with great care. I did so when he first wrote to me and I have done so following subsequent correspondence and in preparation for the debate. I am convinced that the Department behaved properly in coming to the conclusion that it did.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.