HC Deb 29 January 1986 vol 90 cc940-4
8. Mr. Dalyell

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the teachers' dispute in Scotland.

Mr. Rifkind

I am in no doubt of the urgent need to get a resolution of this protracted and damaging dispute. I believe that that can be found only through negotiation between teachers and employers on the basis of the resources which the Government have already said they are prepared to make available in return for a suitable agreement on teachers' duties and conditions of service.

Mr. Dalyell

The Secretary of State was reported as saying to parents at Balerno high school that there had to be some compromise. What does he have in mind as regards compromise?

Mr. Rifkind

I can tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what I had in mind. In response to the wishes of the unions, the Government indicated in an unprecedented way that they were able and willing to make £125 million available on top of whatever was negotiated in the normal fashion. I believe the union response to that proposal was depressing and unjustified.

Sir Hector Monro

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, although we have been arguing for about 18 months, there is no sign of a welcome from the Educational Institute of Scotland for the very generous offer of £125 million that my right hon. and learned Friend has said he will make available? In view of the fact that many parents are reaching the stage of despair about their children's education, will he make a last effort to get the EIS to meet him to resolve salaries and conditions of service through the proper channels?

Mr. Rifkind

The proposal which the Government made would, if accepted, add an average of about £1,000 to a teacher's salary on top of what might be negotiated otherwise in the normal fashion. I have received a request from the Churches, which have been helping in this matter, to come and see me, and I have said that I will be very happy to see them.

Mr. Steel

To what extent is the settlement of this dispute being held up by the lack of a settlement in the parallel dispute in England and Wales? In the course of seeking a compromise, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman talk further to his colleagues in the Treasury about securing more for the current year's settlement? Is he aware that the Scottish Examination Board says that it will be one-third short of the number of markers that it needs, which surely brings into danger the whole academic year for many of our pupils?

Mr. Rifkind

We all welcome the prospect of an end to disruption in England and Wales. We have to note that the agreement seems to have been reached on the basis of no new resources being available from the Government in addition to those already promised. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the position concerning examinations in Scotland is very worrying. The Scottish Examination Board is doing all in its power to minimise the problems that will be caused, and the Scottish Office will be giving full support to efforts of that kind. Nevertheless, one cannot avoid the inevitable conclusion that if this disruption continues it will be impossible to provide a normal examination service.

Mr. Henderson

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the wisest decision of the EIS in the past year has been to hold its annual conference in St. Andrews next week? Is he aware that I will be addressing that conference? Is there any message that he would like me to give to the Scottish teachers on that occasion?

Mr. Rifkind

I am delighted that my hon. Friend will be addressing the EIS conference in his constituency. I hope that he will put to the EIS the very clear view of the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland that, whatever view they take of the merits of the dispute, this disruption of our schools and the threat to Scottish examinations is not justified.

Mr. Strang

Now that the initiative of the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church has been cautiously noted by the EIS, and the management side has agreed to a continuing commitment to an independent pay review, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that he probably has a better chance now than his predecessor had of resolving a dispute which is seriously blighting the future of many Scottish schoolchildren? Will he, therefore, make every effort to come forward with a positive initiative or response when he meets the Church leaders on 10 February?

Mr. Rifkind

The views which Mr. Pollock is reported to have put to his colleagues in the EIS were, as the hon. Gentleman says, noted rather than approved, and Mr. Pollock himself expressed considerable disappointment at the response of his colleagues. Naturally, I will listen with great interest to the Church leaders. I must emphasise that this, as we all know, is a dispute not just about pay but about conditions of service. It has to be pointed out that all the local authorities in Scotland, Labour-controlled as well as Conservative, have emphasised to the teachers that any final package must include conditions of service as well as pay. It is not just the Government, not just Conservative authorities, who are saying that. Labour authorities are saying it as well, and that is a very important consideration.

Mr. Canavan

Instead of merely repeating the bland statements of his predecessor, when will the Secretary of State get it into his head that the surest way of bringing to an end this very damaging dispute is to set up an independent pay review? In the meantime, will he investigate one aspect of the examination boycott, namely, the alleged inconsistencies in the marking of SCE examination papers, possibly caused by the methods used by the examination board to recruit markers, some of them scabs and blacklegs with dubious qualifications and little, if any, experience of presenting pupils for Scottish examinations?

Mr. Rifkind

I have every confidence in the Scottish Examination Board. The hon. Gentleman is showing disgraceful contempt for many honourable people who have given time and energy to assisting Scottish youngsters in the pursuit of their education. The hon. Gentleman really should substantiate his disgraceful allegations, or withdraw them.

Mr. Fletcher

Even allowing for the responsibilities of local authorities in this matter, will my right hon. and learned Friend lay his best proposals for teachers' pay and conditions of service on the table, if only to make it abundantly clear that the responsibility for this damaging and protracted dispute lies with the EIS?

Mr. Rifkind

The Government have put their proposals on the table. Eighteen months into the dispute, the EIS and teachers' unions have yet to put forward a claim, and that itself is a most extraordinary position to be in.

Mr. Ewing

Is the Secretary of State aware that for the first time he has conceded today that the examinations are in serious jeopardy? So far his predecessor has given the impression that the examinations would go ahead uninterrupted. Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman became Secretary of State, has he approached the EIS and other teaching unions with a view to discussing this serious dispute? Will he be a bit more flexible about conditions of service, against the background of the introduction of the standard grades and Munn and Dunning? Surely the right hon. and learned Gentleman will concede that even teachers find it difficult to know what their conditions of service will be until the introduction of the standard grades and Munn and Dunning have settled down. That will take some considerable time, so may we have some flexibility on that point as well?

Mr. Rifkind

The teachers' unions have said that they would like me to meet the delegation from the Churches. I have already said that I shall be doing so, and a meeting has been arranged.

The Government have always been flexible on conditions of service. We have not sought to lay down in advance what the final detail of a package must be. What we have said, and what the local authorities, including Labour local authorities, have said, is that this must be part of a package and must be negotiated.

My right hon. Friend the previous Secretary of State for Scotland never gave a categorical assurance that examinations would not be affected, because he was not in a position to ensure that that would be the case. The extent of disruption will be determined, not by myself or, indeed, by the hon. Gentleman, but by the extent to which members of the teaching profession refuse to carry out their normal responsibilities. That is something in their control and not in that of the Government.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I give notice that I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

Mr. Wilson

Will the Secretary of State take an initiative in this matter? When he was appointed to his present office he took the view—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order."]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I should not have called the hon. Member, but I have. Please carry on.

Mr. Wilson

Will the Secretary of State take an initiative in relation to the education dispute, because one of the grounds on which his appointment to his present office was welcomed was that a new incumbent might be able to take steps which his predecessor could not? Does he understand just how deeply feelings run in relation to this matter and that we look to him for some initiative?

Mr. Rifkind

Not only do I understand how deeply feelings run, but I share those feelings. No one who has the best interests of Scottish education at heart can simply look with equanimity at the major problems that are being caused, not simply in regard to examinations, important though they are, but in relation to the long-term damage being done to the education system as long as the dispute continues. That is why I have said that a compromise is necessary. There will be no victors and vanquished in this dispute, and it is necessary for the unions as well as others to show a willingness to achieve an acceptable package, acceptable not just to themselves and the Government, but to the local authorities, which are their employers.