HC Deb 23 October 1984 vol 65 cc553-8 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Sir Keith Joseph)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the timing of the first direct elections to the new inner London education authority.

The Government announced earlier this year that in the light of the consultations which they had carried out they had decided that the new ILEA to be formed on the abolition of the Greater London council should be directly elected. During the passage through Parliament of the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984, it was also decided that the term of office of the existing GLC members — from whom the bulk of the ILEA membership is drawn—should be extended from May 1985, when elections would have been due, to April 1986, the proposed date of abolition. We have been considering how best to secure continuity for the administration of education in inner London through the transition.

The Government have concluded that the first direct elections to the authority which will succeed ILEA should be held in May 1986 to coincide with the London borough elections. We propose that the new corporate body which is to take over the functions of ILEA from 1 April 1986 should be established, like the new joint boards, in September 1985 in order to prepare the budget and fix the precept for 1986–87 and make other necessary preparations.

From its establishment until the elections in May 1986, the new body would be composed of the present members of ILEA — who will, of course, also continue to constitute the existing authority as a special committee of the GLC until 1 April 1986. Later elections would also coincide with those for the borough councils.

Unlike other services for which the GLC has a responsibility, the functions exercised by ILEA will be exercised by a single directly elected body. The new authority will differ from the existing ILEA only in the method by which it is constituted. In these circumstances, it is appropriate to place the responsibility for the preparatory work which the new authority will need to undertake on the existing members of ILEA.

This provides the best guarantee for continuity of administration and a smooth transition to the new arrangements and is consistent with the Government's decision to enable GLC members, including those who are members of ILEA, to continue to perform their functions until 1 April 1986.

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, may I say how glad we are to see the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although we welcome the 1986 elections for ILEA, they should be taking place a year earlier? Does not he accept that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and that there should be a democratically elected GLC? Is he aware that the decision to cut £75 million from ILEA's budget in 1985–86 is a bit of educational vandalism and political spite and that it breaks his commitment which I heard him make last summer to London parents to protect their children's education? Does he realise that, according to a recent MORI poll, eight out of 10 Londoners support ILEA's educational spending and the level of rates needed to pay for it, and that we are, therefore, greatly looking forward to the May 1986 ILEA elections?

Sir Keith Joseph

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind personal reference.

The abolition of the GLC and the continuation of ILEA in a directly elected form are consistent with Government declared policy, subject to the decisions of the House. We believe that some economy in ILEA's expenditure is compatible with the protection of education for the children of inner London.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the new arrangements for direct elections will subject ILEA's policies and spending to the stark strong scrutiny by the electorate that they deserve? Is he aware that, although it is important to have high staff to pupil ratios in urban areas, ILEA's staffing ratio is very high and some schools cannot spend the capitation imposed on them? I regret to say that, but it is true.

Sir Keith Joseph

We cannot guarantee that a directly elected body will strike a more sensible balance between financial prudence and the needs of education, but we think that it is more likely to do so. Many people will agree with the substance of my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

We welcome the direct elections, which are a tribute to those who fought to retain an element of local democracy. However, does not the Secretary of State accept that elections suggest an element of responsibility and of power over expenditure? In particular, we should like to know who will pay for these elections. That was not mentioned in his statement.

Sir Keith Joseph

Questions about elections are for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his statement is welcome and that it is pleasant to hear that the elections will coincide with the borough elections? Will he confirm that those who understand these matters and who serve on ILEA — unlike those Opposition Members who have spoken so far, who do not even come from London—know that £60 million a year could be saved without doing any harm to education in London?

Sir Keith Joseph

I am very grateful to have the support of my hon. Friend, with all his experience of London matters. Many well-informed people would agree with his comments.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Will the Secretary of State explain why the Tory party is frightened of holding ILEA's elections next year, when they were due to be held? Will he confirm that under Thatcher's law—which is what we are faced with—the iron rule will be that, no matter whom the people of inner London elect in May 1986, they will be forced to have a Tory budget under the rate-capping law?

Sir Keith Joseph

It is sensible to hold the elections for ILEA at the same time as the borough council elections to avoid calling out the voters twice. As his right hon. and hon. Friends do habitually, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), leaves out of account the ratepayers and the jobs and businesses that depend upon the rates. If the present ILEA rate call continued, yet more jobs would be driven out of London. That is why it is so important to have some restraint on ILEA expenditure.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

When my right hon. Friend discusses these matters with the Home Secretary, will he bear in mind the example of the New York school board, elected by proportional representation and with a multi-ethnic background? Will he also bear in mind that in London at least that form of election would break the stranglehold by the far Left on the education of our children?

Sir Keith Joseph

I cannot undertake to raise that matter with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary with the same fervour as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire).

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the major customer of the GLC supply service is the inner London education authority? In view of that, and since the supply service gives excellent value to ratepayers in inner London and elsewhere, would it not be sensible for the supplies department's functions to be maintained and taken over by ILEA? Would not that fulfil the Government's financial wishes?

Sir Keith Joseph

I have heard praise for the purchasing effectiveness of that department, but it will be for the interim ILEA to make decisions on such matters.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Will the new ILEA comprise people other than those who are elected? Will co-optees be done away with completely, and will that be a forerunner for other education authorities throughout the country?

Sir Keith Joseph

My hon. Friend is right in connection with the elected body itself, but the new ILEA will be subject to the general law which requires an education committee. That education committee will be subject to the normal procedures for the co-opting of members. The holder of my office has to approve the composition of the education committee.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the present policies of the Labour inner London education authority are overwhelmingly popular? [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] They are. Surely the Secretary of State must be aware of that, because otherwise the elections would take place sooner.

Is the Secretary of State aware that no elections will hide the fact that his deliberate attempt to cut education expenditure in inner London by £75 million will be seen by the majority in inner London as an attack on the education of our young people?

Sir Keith Joseph

It is surely a sign of flabby budgeting by ILEA that in the last financial year ILEA had an underspend of £24 million. That is about one third of the reduction in expenditure which the Government are asking of ILEA for next year. Between the two years the child population in the area will have fallen still further.

I do not accept that a judgment about ILEA is summed up by what the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) said. The tragedy of ILEA is that, despite the zeal and commitment of most of its teachers and their pioneering work, expenditure is out of proportion to the results achieved for the children.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that inner London ratepayers are annoyed because their local borough rate is inflated by the ILEA precept? Will he consider making the rate demand under the new ILEA direct, thus making a fine distinction?

Sir Keith Joseph

I agree with my hon. Friend. Moreover, the ILEA rate has a direct effect on the number of jobs available to the people of London. The Government will so what they can to ensure that the reality of ILEA's demand on the ratepayers will be brought home to them.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

If the newly elected ILEA will not be free to carry out the wishes of the people of inner London, as expressed through the ballot box, what will be the point of having a directly elected authority at all?

Sir Keith Joseph

The new ILEA will be free to make its own decisions on how to spend the very large sum of money from ratepayers of which it will dispose.

Mrs. Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement of direct elections, but how does he think the other 104 education authorities will view the fact that money for ILEA will not be in competition with money for other services administered by local government and, therefore, will not be subject to the same pressure in relation to choice and priorities?

Sir Keith Joseph

I cannot give my hon. Friend a totally satisfactory answer, except to say that some people in the education service will wish that there were a sole source of finance entirely devoted to education.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Is the Secretary of State aware that no directly elected body can possibly be truly democratic if the crucial decision about the overall level of spending available to it is taken not by that body but by the Secretary of State for the Environment under his rate-capping proposals? Will the right hon. Gentleman persuade the Secretary of State for the Environment to withdraw his deeply damaging designation of the ILEA as a rate-capped authority and his demand for cuts of £75 million?

Sir Keith Joseph

The hon. Gentleman forgets that local authorities function through powers given by the House which, through its approval—despite divisions—of the rate-capping legislation, is democratic and which controls the spending of some local authorities.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Will my right hon. Friend be kind enough to reassure the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) that, while the cost of primary education in Northamptonshire is half that of ILEA, the standard of primary education in Northamptonshire is somewhat higher and that, therefore, any cut in expenditure in London would probably lead to an increase in standards?

Sir Keith Joseph

I am known for my strict impartiality and fairness on such subjects and I must point out that, difficult though the problems of Northamptonshire are, ILEA faces considerable problems which may justify some increase in spending on education. However, I repeat that the spending on education by ILEA is disproportionate to the results achieved.

Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

Will the right hon. Gentleman use his considerable influence in the Cabinet to remove the financial stranglehold being placed on London and give the elections some reality? The consequence of the freedom that ILEA has enjoyed in the past has been to make it the finest education authority in the world.

Sir Keith Joseph

I am not flattering the hon. Gentleman when I say that he cannot really believe that. The evidence is that the education of children in London, however good the intentions, is just not as good as we would all want.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Who will be in charge of ILEA in the five or six weeks between the abolition of the GLC, which includes most of the members of ILEA, and the new elections to ILEA?

Sir Keith Joseph

The interim ILEA, which will have been constituted from the then existing members of the authority in September 1985.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

It is widely recognised that the concession of direct elections represented a major defeat for the Government's proposals. At the 1986 elections in Nondon, the Conservative party will be soundly thrashed, and will deserve to be thrashed.

Education is an important service and it has been decided that direct elections should be held for the administration of that service. But London-wide planning, housing, transport and health services are also important services. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Government are not prepared to have direct elections for the administration of other important services across the whole of London?

Sir Keith Joseph

The Government's decision to hold direct elections for the new ILEA was a result of the consultative process that they deliberately carried out. The Government believe that the education service is quite different from other services.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, because of his statement, there will be no London-wide elections until 1986? Is that because his party refused to contest the recent GLC by-elections and is afraid of the defeat that it would face if elections were held next May, as they would be if the original plan for GLC and ILEA elections was carried out?

Has not the right hon. Gentleman denied the people of inner London an opportunity to give their verdict on the £75 million cut that he is trying to impose on the ILEA?

Sir Keith Joseph

The answer is no. The decision by the Conservative party not to contest the recent by-elections was a proper reaction to their stunt character.

Mr. Radice

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he will not receive support from any Conservative Member of Parliament serving an ILEA authority—other than, of course, from my Member of Parliament, who has characteristically shown himself to be out of touch with the views of his constituents? Is it not clear that those Conservative Members are fearful of what might happen at the 1986 elections?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has wholly failed to make a case this afternoon for cutting the ILEA budget by £75 million? Has he not reneged on his word to London parents given during a meeting this summer which we both addressed?

Sir Keith Joseph

The fact that ILEA failed to spend £24 million of its budget shows the flabbiness of its budgeting. I have every reason to believe that the ILEA can meet the requirements of London education despite ratecapping.