HC Deb 26 February 1985 vol 74 cc307-14

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

1.29 am
Mr. Michael Knowles (Nottingham, East)

My hon. Friends and I wish to bring to the attention of the House and the Government an injustice. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science has agreed that my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo), for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) should be permitted to speak during the debate. The matter is causing deep anxiety throughout the county. We are using our position as Members of Parliament in the most classical way possible, that is, to appeal for justice for our constituents. We want to know what the Government propose to do to defend children in Nottinghamshire against the petty, spiteful and cruel actions of the Labour party—the majority party—on Nottinghamshire county council and its education committee. The decisions of that committee have rightly received both local and national publicity.

The committee decided that no child who attends a school in the independent sector should make use of the council's facilities. That applies to school milk, swimming pools, swimming lessons, playing fields, music colleges, the county orchestra and band, the drama workshops, the summer residential workshop and even the Saturday morning junior schools at two colleges of further education. The decision was supposedly made on principles.

The Nottingham Evening Post has been making a powerful case. It states: Education Committee chairman Fred Riddell made it quite clear: 'Private schools are a divisive factor in education and give special privileges and unfair starts entirely unconnected with merit or need,' he said. The Post respects entirely the right of people to hold that view but we reckon the policy itself is cruel and misguided because it hits politically innocent children and that's not a fair fight. That sums up the feeling of the people of Nottinghamshire. It has certainly been reflected in the letters that I have received on the subject, the majority of which have come not from those directly affected, but from people who are struck by the unfairness and injustice of the decision.

Because of the public outrage in Nottingham the education committee has had to water down its policy a little, for example, for music. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham. South wishes to speak about that. One set of parents went to court and obtained an injunction stopping the adoption of a recommendation that affects 30 pupils. That is a minor number compared with the many pupils still affected.

The supposition that all parents of pupils who attend independent schools are wealthy is nonsense. Even if that were true, the policy is morally repugnant. Parents who can pay for their children's education pay for the other facilities through their rates and taxes, and pay for that education twice. The policy proves that policies based on hatred and envy are bound to have vindictive and callous consequences.

I shall give an example that will make that point clear and give the lie to the so-called justification that the decision is based on principle. Sutherland House is a privately owned non-profit making school for 28 autistic children. The fees are paid for by three education authorities, which make joint use of the school, because they do not make separate provision. That policy is correct. Nottingham county council pays for the fees of 18 of those children.

Even those handicapped children whose fees are paid for by the education committee are being denied access to swimming pools. What kind of principle is that? It declares war not only on children but even on handicapped children. Some friends of mine have an autistic child, and I know the damage that can be done, simply because of the nature of the handicap, by someone showing coldness and indifference. It is difficult enough to bring those children out, and the damage that could be caused to them by such a decision is outrageous. It makes my blood boil.

The people of Nottingham look to Her Majesty's Government to protect them against such petty, tyrannical decisions. The real question to the Minister is: does he have any power? If it is not made clear that Parliament will not tolerate such actions, I predict that they will spread to every Left-wing Labour education authority in the country. If people think that I exaggerate, they should consider what has happened with local government finance. They cannot say that this will be confined to one county. We have a duty to make it clear that some actions plumb the depths of moral turpitude and cannot be tolerated. This is one such action. We ask for — we demand — action against those who declare war on children.

1.36 am
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

I support my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, East (Mr. Knowles), for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) and for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) in this debate. There are two elements of principle involved. First and foremost, all the parents of the children in Nottinghamshire contribute through their rates to the services and facilities which are enjoyed, only in a reasonable way, by the private sector. Children in the state sector have not been denied the use of playing fields, swimming pools and other facilities when they required them. Schools which do not have such facilities have been able to use others by the use of sensible timetables. I was a member of the education authority that was responsible for introducing joint-use facilities. Our philosophy was that it was an intelligent use of resources to develop the community use of capital equipment in our comprehensive schools to the maximum possible. That means that they must be used by all the children who are not in the public sector, because they have been provided way in excess of the minimum demands of the state sector.

I wish to make a special case for music. Of all the spiritual and developing sciences, music is the one that knows no class barriers. The ability to play musical instruments is not restricted, and cannot be defined within a rigid state sector. It is incredible to think that young musicians, from whatever background, and from all sectors of education in Nottinghamshire, cannot come together and continue to provide what has been the jewel in the crown of Nottinghamshire education—the county youth orchestra, which has given untold pleasure to many people who have attended its concerts in the county and in the Royal Albert Hall. Who knows when one listens to an orchestra what the background is of the child who plays the flute, the oboe or the violin, and who cares anyway? What matters is that those young people play together and excel in the presentation of the finest and most sophisticated art in our culture. The idea of this narrow, mean, arbitrary decision that children cannot come together on the basis of their ability to combine and play the great works of music defies description.

There should be—if there is not, the Minister should tell us—a legal way for the parents or the Government to define the use of facilities which are paid for through the rates and which, therefore, should be available to all the children of Nottinghamshire, based purely on their talents, not on the school which they happen to attend.

1.40 am
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

I shall be brief, since my hon. Friends have already highlighted this nasty, vindictive Socialism against innocent children in Nottinghamshire whose parents have exercised their democratic rights and have chosen to educate their children outside the maintained sector.

Parents of children at independent schools pay their rates and taxes like anyone else. They pay, as residents of Nottinghamshire, for the maintained schools, the libraries, swimming pools, parks, sports fields and everything else, as much as other ratepayers. It is petty, stupid and a mistaken class hatred to deny children who attend independent schools access to facilities within the state schools. Let us not forget that the independent schools make their facilities available to children from state schools, often at no charge.

The Labour-controlled council is saying, "We can play in your garden, but you cannot play in ours." The facilities which were withdrawn were available to all—I think of free milk—or on the basis of talent for a given course like those provided by music schools. The results from those schools have given us the internationally renowned Nottinghamshire county concert band and the Nottinghamshire county youth orchestra which have given pleasure to thousands of people at home and abroad.

If the Socialists are out to destroy that fine record, how far do they intend to take their vendetta? Will the children next be denied access to libraries and other public facilities maintained by ratepayers and taxpayers just because their parents choose to pay for their schooling personally?

The implementation of this callous policy against children will save only £1,800 according to the figures supplied by the county treasurer. Does the Labour-controlled council not recognise that the parents of a child being educated in the private sector have already contributed on average over £1,000 each to the state maintained sector? In Nottinghamshire, totals £6 million.

A divisive policy against children to save £1,800 must rank as the lowest form of Socialism around. It has already sunk to a pretty low depth in other directions. However, the electors of Nottinghamshire will have the opportunity in May to reject this Labour-controlled council and all that it stands for.

A final thought. How would the Labour council cope if all the parents of children at independent schools exercised their democratic right in the other direction, and sent their children to maintained schools? Let the finance officers work that one out.

1.44 am
Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

On 15 January I tabled a question in answer to which the Minister told me that the Government deplored such discrimination and that under existing legislation they would take action if they were satisfied that any authority was acting "unreasonably" in the sense that that word had been interpreted in the courts. No one can doubt that judgment in respect of Nottingham, in view of my hon. Friends' remarks and of the mass of representations made to the Minister on which I hope that he will comment.

I had cause previously to speak in somewhat uncomplimentary terms of the chairman of the Nottinghamshire education committee. On this occasion, I think that Councillor Frederick Riddell has surpassed himself. Rich as our language is, I can find no adjective to describe him that will be allowed under our rigid parliamentary language rules. So politically motivated is the decision that the councillor, not the director of education, has signed the reports placed before the county council.

The new rules are a catalogue of vindictive acts against children whose only crime appears to be that their parents have decided, after paying all their dues and taxes that they dare, with what is left, send their children to a private school. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Knowles) pointed out, not all parents pay. The daughter of one of my constituents has a free place at a Nottingham school. That girl is severely disabled, and her one great joy is music. The degree of caring of that Labour authority is such that she was to be thrown out of the orchestra. The authority has now relented.

It is still true that private pupils who are not currently members of the music schools will not now be permitted to apply to those schools. They will be precluded also from applying for auditions for the county orchestra or concert band. The parents are prepared to commence proceedings, if they must, against the Nottinghamshire county council on the basis that, while there is no duty on the county council to provide music schools, if it does, the council must exercise that duty reasonably. No reasonable county council reasonably advised could take the decision that Nottinghamshire county council has taken.

There are 30 privately educated pupils in the 762 playing places in the four schools of music; 36 privately educated pupils in the 310 special tuition places; three private school pupils among the 82 members of the orchestra, and five private school pupils among the 75 members of the band. All those places are won on excellence and audition.

The parents of those private school students would have grounds for calling for a judicial review on the administrative decision. I put it to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that parents should not have to do this themselves—we are here to plead for them and to defend their rights.

This action towards music is not the only crass act of this Labour council. A school in my constituency has used the adjacent playing field for 50 years. The school currently pays £4 an hour for the use of that pitch. A school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East pays £1,000 a year for the use of a swimming pool. The county council has said that it will save £1,800 by its decision on music, but it has forgotten to tell the ratepayers of the fees that it will lose from the playing fields and the swimming pools. Those losses will swamp the gain. It is a paltry gain for so nasty a policy. As for the policy maker, they did not call him "Flogger Fred" as a schoolmaster for nothing.

My colleagues are concerned about the knock-on effect in other counties. We believe that democracy does not imply the dismissal of minority views and interests. If the local authority cannot temper its dogma with some common sense, it is the duty of this place to do it.

1.48 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Bob Dunn)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Knowles) obtained this Adjournment debate, because it gives me the opportunity to acknowledge and pay tribute to his efforts in representing the interests of his constituents. I have noted the points raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, East, for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) and for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) about the actions of the Nottinghamshire local education authority in withdrawing a range of local authority facilities and provisions from pupils at independent schools. I accept that they, like many of their constituents, feel strongly about the matters they have raised. I shall do my best to respond as far as possible to the various aspects of this case in the time I have available.

I hear and take very seriously the strong outpourings of indignation and indeed outrage which have been expressed to me, not only here tonight by my hon. Friends but in letters from parents of children at independent schools in Nottingham. Those parents have expressed their annoyance and indignation to me in the strongest of terms. In response to my hon. Friends and to parents, this Adjournment debate provides me with the opportunity of explaining how matters stand.

Before I do that, however, I think that this would be an appropriate point for me to explain the Secretary of State's role in matters of this sort. Essentially it is to examine them, once they have been brought to his attention by means of a complaint or in some other way, to see whether they call for any action on his part under powers conferred on him by sections 68 and 99 of the Education Act 1944. Those sections relate to the exercise of powers and duties conferred by or under the Education Acts. The first relates to situations where an LEA may have exercised its powers or duties unreasonably; the second to matters where the LEA may actually be in default.

When dealing with such matters, we must begin by identifying the statutory powers or duties which are involved. In the present case, for example, we need to define the powers or duties under which Nottinghamshire has been providing the services now being withdrawn or under threat of withdrawal. That in itself is not straightforward with regard to the matters raised by my hon. Friend, because we are dealing not with one service provided under one power or duty, but a variety of different services provided under a number of different statutory provisions. Secondly, it is for the Secretary of State to establish whether his powers under section 68 or section 99 or both are relevant. Section 99 would apply where an LEA was in breach of its Education Act duties, whereas section 68 relates to the unreasonable performance of an authority's duties under the Act or the unreasonable exercise of powers under the Education Act. It may be helpful if I clarify one point here. The Secretary of State's powers enable him to investigate on "unreasonableness" grounds whether the action of the authority involves a decision to go ahead and do something new, or to stop something being done, or to vary the manner in which it is being done.

During the debate tonight, my hon. Friends have left me in no doubt that they think the Nottinghamshire authority has acted unreasonably. But here we are dealing not with what the ordinary man or woman would call unreasonable, but with what the law regards as unreasonable, since "unreasonableness" is a legal term of art. To fall within this expression it must be conduct which no sensible authority acting with due appreciation of its responsibilities would have decided to adopt.

Having established those matters, my right hon. Friend has then to investigate the authority's actions. It is this point which we have now reached, and officials are seeking from the authority a detailed account of the decisions it has reached and the reasons which lay behind those decisions.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

I am sure that I am not alone when I say that my colleagues and I are being drowned by the legal jargon. I appreciate the difficulty, but if from 9 o'clock until 5 o'clock Monday to Friday a swimming pool is reserved by the LEA and during a period when the local authority is not using the pool a private school rents and pays for the time, would it not seem to be unreasonable to refuse to rent the swimming pool to it?

Mr. Dunn

That is why my Department is conducting investigations with the authority. Once the complaints procedure has been started—which, as my hon. Friend knows, it has—it is a matter for investigation. I shall return to that point later in another context.

As soon as my right hon. Friend has received and considered the comments and documentary evidence that we have requested from Nottingham and has satisfied himself that he has sufficient information to enable him to form a view about the legality of Nottinghamshire's actions, he will conclude whether there is any evidence of unreasonable action or of a breach of statutory duties.

My hon. Friends referred to the activities about which their constituents have complained to them. Several activities are involved—school orchestras, school milk, in-service training, swimming pools and playing fields, drama workshops, Saturday classes and the withdrawal of certain facilities provided by public libraries to teachers from independent schools. On the latter point, since the transfer of functions to the Office of Arts and Libraries, this matter is for that Department and not for the Department of Education and Science. The Office of Arts and Libraries is pursuing that point separately.

My hon. Friends tonight have left me in no doubt that in their view this catalogue adds up to a policy decision on the part of the Nottinghamshire authority that has been taken for purely political reasons. I hope that my hon. Friends will understand, however, if at this stage I offer no particular view on the merits of the case that they have argued. That I do not do so is a measure of how seriously my right hon. Friend and I are treating the matters about which they complain. We are vigorously considering whether Nottinghamshire education authority has acted unreasonably in the exercise of its powers and duties, or is in default of the duties laid on it by the Education Acts. To that end, as I have already explained, we are seeking answers from the authority to enable my right hon. Friend to reach conclusions on that matter, as before he can do so he must satisfy himself that he has sufficient information to enable him to do so. However, my right hon. Friend is exercising powers given to him by the 1944 Act and, until such time as he is able to reach his conclusion, he is in a quasi-judicial role.

However, I fully recognise that the children and the parents of children at independent schools have had to face three months of uncertainty as to whether the various provisions that they have enjoyed in the past will continue to be available to them in the future. We are therefore treating these complaints as a matter of priority, and my meeting with Nottinghamshire Members later this week will no doubt be of further help in clarifying the issues involved. The Department and I will do our utmost to ensure that the parents and children have the Secretary of State's conclusions as soon as we possibly can.

It would be remiss of me if, in conclusion, I did not thank my hon. Friends for bringing this problem to the attention of the House in a robust fashion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Two o'clock.