HC Deb 19 March 1993 vol 221 cc583-90

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

I know that it is customary for the Minister to say nice things about how it has been good that an hon. Member has won the ballot. I shall reciprocate in advance by saying that I have every sympathy with any Minister who must defend the education policies of Brent council and that no one will hold it against him.

Brent council, which has a track record for absolutely abysmal mismanagement and incompetence, used to be under Labour control. I condemned the Labour council when it was incompetent. Therefore, I feel that the complaints that I now make about the Conservative-controlled council are not simply partisan. I was prepared to attack a Labour council when it was failing in the area. I should be failing in my duty to represent the views of parents and teachers in the area when we see devastating proposals for reductions in the education service if I did not speak out now.

I originally put my name forward in the ballot for Adjournment debates when the issue was narrower—simply a proposal to close Chamberlayne Wood primary school. That underlines what the matter is about. The Conservative-controlled council has only one objective—to get re-elected at the municipal elections next year. Therefore, it wishes to reduce spending in order to be able to go into the election saying that it has reduced council tax. Since the Conservative party gained control of Brent council, there has been a consistent pattern of reducing education provision to achieve this.

Undoubtedly, hon. Members will recall my Adjournment debate more than a year ago on the closure of one of the most popular secondary schools in Brent, William Gladstone school. Parents were happy to send their children to that school. Its academic standards were improving and more children were going to it every year. However, the local Conservative council decided that the site could be sold off. The site was pleasant and faced a park, and its sale would bring in a good return of money. Therefore, the opposition of parents was overridden and the school was closed.

In the correspondence that I had with the Secretary of State for Education, it eventually transpired that the advice given to the Secretary of State by Brent education authority was inaccurate. If we had had accurate figures, the Government would probably have rejected the closure proposals. But, as we discovered in the previous Adjournment debate, there is no way in which we can reverse the closure.

Brent council had barely got agreement for the closure of William Gladstone school when it proposed to close four primary schools. The council overlooked the fact that a general election was coming in a few weeks and, in the uproar from literally thousands of parents who saw popular local primary schools being closed all over the borough, it backed off. Once the election was out of the way, and having dropped the proposals before the election, the council came back with the proposal to close one of the schools, Chamberlayne Wood, in my constituency.

I strongly suspect that we have a rolling programme. The council decided that the proposal to close four schools at once would magnify the opposition four times. Rather than close four schools at once, the council has decided to close the schools one at a time in an annual rolling programme. It will flog off the sites and help to keep the council tax down. At any one time, the council can cope with an uproar in just one of the many wards in my constituency.

I wish to spend a few moments talking about Chamberlayne Wood school because I know that the decision is with the Minister. I hope that he will not rush to reach a decision before he has had chance to visit the school. Chamberlayne ward has the fastest increasing birth rate in the south of the borough. It has increased more than 25 per cent. in the past 10 years. The source of that information is the London Research Centre.

All the local primary schools show a bulge in rolls, with lower numbers at the upper end, reflecting a time when schools in Brent were less popular. The infant and nursery schools have full or almost full rolls. The alleged reason for closure was the number of access places in the borough. However, once the local parents and teachers began to campaign, the borough council was forced to admit that the figure was grossly inflated. It had to reduce the alleged number of access places by 32 per cent., after calculating them more accurately. Brent's figures always seem to be inadequate.

Most of the access places tend to be in the top years of the schools. As the birth rate bulge works through, we shall not have surplus places. Local parents like Chamberlayne Wood school. They continue to send their children there. There is a waiting list of children for September 1993. The nearest school in the catchment area is a Church of England voluntary-aided school. Yet the majority of the children at Chamberlayne Wood school are non-Christian. They would face a long walk across two main routes of traffic into central London. That is clearly not suitable or acceptable for primary school children.

Many of the families in the area do not have cars. They are not particularly well off. Therefore, it would be a particular problem for parents to send their children to more distant schools. My fear is that, like so many other parents such as those of children at the soon to be closed William Gladstone school, parents will end up sending their children outside the borough.

Chamberlayne Wood school is on Brent Conservative council's hit list because it intends to move another school to the site. But Manor day school is for special needs children. As everyone would agree, such children need a small, quiet and safe environment. Yet Chamberlayne Wood is surrounded by busy roads. It is large and noisy and has numerous stairs and passageways—a typical, old Victorian school. There is no safe vehicular access. No one in their right mind would wish to send special needs children to that school.

However, if Brent council can clear the Manor day school site, it could be one of the most desirable sites for private housing development in the borough. It would turn in a nice little profit which would once again undoubtedly help to keep the council tax down in the run-up to the election. That is the underlying reason for this rolling programme of school closures.

The farce of this year's council budget is even worse. There has been a major series of reductions in educational provision and many educational psychologists have been dismissed. Only half the establishment is now available in Brent. The thing really began to take off when head teachers and chairs of governing bodies came together because it transpired that Brent council spent £12 million less on education than the Government recommended.

I am happy to abuse the Government, but here is a Conservative council spending less than the Government would prefer it to spend on education in the borough That fact caused considerable uproar in the borough. It was magnified when it became apparent that the Conservative council proposed further education cuts in the coming year's budget. That led my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) to ask the Government to step in to prevent what was happening. In reply to my hon. Friend on 27 January, the Government declined to take the opportunity to investigate how education was provided in Brent.

Lest anyone thinks that those dreadful old lefties the hon. Members for Brent, South and for Brent, East are complaining again, I should add that the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson), a well-respected Member of Parliament and in no sense a closet leftie, is responding to tremendous pressure and complaints from parents of children at schools in the north of the borough.

I shall read a letter from Kingsbury High School Guild—the parent-teachers association—to the leader of the council. The school is in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Brent, North and the letter reads: I write on behalf of the Committee of the Kingsbury High School Guild which met last evening to hear a report from the Headmaster, Mr. P. Snell concerning the prospect of an unbelievable cut of £320,000 from the Kingsbury High School budget from 1st April 1993 which is additional to the effects of the cuts in central services you announced last October. We are shocked that your Council seeks to withdraw funding from the Local Management of Schools formula which your administration championed as the salvation of Brent schools. We are totally convinced that the cut of £160,000 from the 'split-site' factor after a majority of Kingsbury High School parents voted in favour of an application for Grant Maintained Status was a vindictive act—we call on you to reinstate this element. We remind councillors that, although Kingsbury High School may be given Grant Maintained Status, parents are aware that Brent Council largely decides the funding it will get and those same parents vote in local elections. We entirely support the Kingsbury High School Governors in their refusal to consider redundancy of staff believing, as they do, that the school requires its full complement of staff to ensure the delivery of the curriculum. We are in sympathy with the Governors for the task they now face to curtail the planned and much needed maintenance and development programme of the school to cover the cut in revenue. We are especially concerned that your administration has decided not to allocate the full amount of the Standard Spending Assessment share for Education and call on all Councillors to ensure that this is done for the benefit of all schools in Brent". A campaign built up, because the decision was affecting all schools in the borough. A major and successful demonstration took place in Brent, with speeches from myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South and a message of support from the Conservative right hon. Member for Brent, North, who said that he was totally opposed to those policies and was on the side of the parents.

I must reiterate that Brent is spending £12 million a year less on education than it should do to comply with the standard spending assessment. In the run-tip to the budget, Brent was proposing to slash another £5.5 million, which led to all governors in the borough meeting and discussing a mass resignation, on the ground that they no longer believed that they could carry out their lawful duties to provide a proper education service to conform to the national curriculum if the cuts went ahead.

I have endless letters here, which I do not have time to read, and which spell out how the cuts would affect different schools in my constituency, such as Anson and Salusbury road. The pattern is repeated across the borough. The letters are not merely from Labour-voting parents, because parents and teachers of all political persuasions have united against the council. The council's Labour opposition demanded a special meeting of Brent council to discuss the situation. It was remarkable that when the council should have met to discuss the issue, one particularly erratic Conservative councillor tabled a proposal for the reintroduction of female circumcision in Britain which managed to consume the entire evening with name-calling and some of the most vile accusations of a personal nature between members. The education cuts were agreed without debate after the guillotine had come down. Labour then demanded a special council meeting to discuss the cuts in detail, as there had been no discussion, and parents and teachers who had attended were disgusted with the way in which the matter had been handled.

The mayor told them that there would be a special council meeting, which would be held some time in the small hours after the council's annual budget meeting, at which it would set the council tax. That was a clever device which meant that people were not allowed to go along to see a proper debate. Effectively, no real debate took place because the financial decisions had been taken.

As I said, I have endless letters from school governors complaining about the proposals. At the last minute, the Conservative leader of the council, Councillor Bob Blackman reduced the scale of the cuts by £1 million, so the education cut was £3 million on top of the underspending that already takes place in Brent.

As the local paper reported, "Extra cash for schools still not enough". The Willesden and Brent Chronicle states: Parents and teachers fighting for the future of education in Brent describe the Tories' budget as a 'poorly contrived attempt to make less look like more'. They say nothing has changed and that schools are still facing a future with insufficient funds to maintain good standards. In announcing an extra £1m for schools, council leader Bob Blackman admitted that a delegation of headteachers…had persuaded him of the need for extra cash. He says there is now no need for any of the threatened 140 teacher redundancies and promised that any teachers who are laid off will be found new jobs by the council. But while the cash boost was the surprise element in Cllr Blackman's budget, it failed to put the smile back on the faces of school governors. They say schools still face a budget cut of 7 per cent. per child". As I have said, those are not just Labour governors but the totality of governors in Brent acting together. They are of all parties and many belong to no party. Alan Carter, the spokesman for the school governors, is quoted as saying: The council has failed to reinstate the £3m of cuts it has made. No allowance has been made for the 4.5 per cent. increase in school rolls or for inflation. Teachers will still lose their jobs. To make matters worse, local day nurseries are being closed and some have the threat of closure hanging over them. That means increasing pressure on schools. There is an almost vindictive quality because not only are there cuts but disabled workers are being picked out by the council. Four out of five disabled workers have been sacked and some have been verbally abused by management. One of the four, Mr. Omar Osman, was told by senior management that he could not have a cup of tea in the morning because he had only one arm and therefore had to stop work every time he took a drink. Others were similarly abused. Brent has now been criticised for having less than 1 per cent. of disabled people on its work force when it is required by law to meet a 3 per cent. quota. Such cuts mean that the most vulnerable people often suffer first.

Nothing has changed in terms of the education cuts. School governors were meeting last night because they are still dissatisfied and want change. They want the Government to act. Although it may seem amazing, I am prepared for the Government to step in and administer education in Brent between now and the elections next year, because they could not do worse. A team of inspectors put in to administer the education department would be beneficial and would have massive support because the borough has completely lost confidence in the councillors' ability to manage education.

In case the Minister tells me that his belief in local democracy is such that local councillors must be left to manage these things, I can tell him that the council has no legitimacy. The Conservatives did not win control at the last election, which resulted in a hung council. The then Conservative leader, Councillor Bob Blackman, zeroed in on four of the more feeble-minded Labour members of the council and offered them deals that got them to cross the floor. That created an administration.

I shall spell out the deals. To Councillors Amalu Johnson and Poline Nyaga he gave a £1 million community centre as well as large personal allowances and their own office and support staff. That persuaded those two to cross the floor. To Harshad Barot, who was being investigated by the council about the disappearance of a council grant for a voluntary organisation for which he was responsible, Councillor Blackman offered that the investigation by the council would be dropped. Harshad Barot crossed the floor.

In the case of Judith Harper, a Labour member who had become homeless and had refused the traditional offer of a flat on an estate, Councillor Blackman intervened and said that she could have a nice house on a leafy road in Barnet. Lo and behold, she changed her political persuasion.

I have not the slightest doubt that a Labour party which selected idiots like those in the first place deserves to be taken to the cleaners. I have said that to many of my colleagues who are responsible for selecting such characters, but a Tory council that bribes people like that in order to win power and then devastates the education service that it has a duty to provide has lost all respect and support.

In Brent it is commonly known that Councillor Blackman is the municipal Robert Maxwell. There is nothing so venal that it will not be done. Last year they raided the pension fund. Those people are not fit to run education in Brent and I repeat that, as a Labour Member, I should prefer to see the Government take control of education in Brent and remove it from the hands of these idiots, some of whom should be inside for fraud. The Government could administer it via the inspectorate until the elections next year.

2.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

It is traditional on such occasions to congratulate the hon. Member on obtaining the debate, but I am in two minds whether to do so today as I have been brought to the House at such a time on a Friday afternoon. I am sure that the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) will understand why I say that.

The hon. Gentleman has raised important issues. I am not sure whether it is for me, as a junior Education Minister, to respond to the hon. Gentleman's allegations about the murky dealings of the past and present in Brent council. I shall stick more closely to the education matters that he rightly mentioned.

I am forced to say that many of the provisions for which the hon. Gentleman asked in his last remarks can be found in the Education Bill that has just completed its stages in the House and has now gone to another place. That Bill provides a mechanism whereby schools that are failing, or have been allowed to fail, by a local education authority, can be taken over by a new, independent body—an education association—and improved. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look again at the Bill to see whether he may be able to support it when it returns to the House later this year.

I will not attempt to condemn previous administrations in Brent, although it would be easy for me to do so. The hon. Gentleman charitably and generously acknowledged that there were serious difficulties in the administration of Brent before the change of control. Much as I should like to do so, it is not my job today to seek to defend the present administration in Brent. However, it is making serious efforts to deal with the accumulated problems of the past and restore an element of responsibility and viability to local government in that part of London.

It is important that we all bear in mind the fact that the responsibility for the delivery of education remains very much that of the elected local education authority. That authority will have to account to the electorate for the discharge of its responsibilities in relation to education and other matters at future elections. That will be the case in Brent, as everywhere else.

The local education authority decides on the number of school places that will be provided, and where they will be provided. It is in that context that the proposal relating to Chamberlayne Wood school, mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, is being considered by my Department at present. We will carefully examine the representations and objections, as well as the points raised by the hon. Gentleman today, before deciding what to do.

It must be for a locally accountable local education authority to make its judgments on what provisions should be made in its area, and in different parts of its area. It must decide whether schools should be enlarged or closed—as they occasionally must be—and whether new schools should be opened. Those are rightly decisions for the local authority, which must account to the electorate for those decisions.

The hon. Gentleman graphically described how he moves in a world of protests, angry meetings and representations—as he and I know, they are all part of the democratic warp and weft of local and central Government. In the knowledge of all the circumstances, the local education authority—in Brent and elsewhere—must take responsible decisions on the right and best way to deliver education locally.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned standard spending assessments—the formula whereby local authorities are funded, largely by central Government. Brent's SSA for all services has increased by more than 28 per cent. over the past three financial years. The education SSA—that element which is designed to indicate the amount that might be spent on education—has increased by more than 24 per cent. in that period.

The hon. Gentleman made great play of his claim that the authority was underspending on its education SSA. I have looked at the figures for Brent for the past few years. In 1990–91, the spend was 2 per cent. below the education SSA; in 1991–92, the spend was 1 per cent. above the SSA; in 1992–93—the year just finishing—the figure was 6 per cent. below it. However, the planned or budgeted expenditure for 1993–94 brings Brent's expenditure on education back in line with the education SSA.

Therefore, although there have been ups and downs in the past, the current figures show that Brent intends to spend on education the amount that it is estimated it should spend. It does the authority less than justice to claim that its plans for next year show a shortfall of the kind that the hon. Gentleman suggested. It must be given credit for what it is doing.

We can look at a number of comparisons. For instance, Brent will be getting 30 per cent. more per pupil in 1993–94 than the national average. Its "per-pupil allowances" are about 17 per cent. higher than the average for outer London boroughs. The overall picture suggests, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, that Brent's difficult problems and its needs, which many would say are greater than those in other parts of the country, are recognised in its funding arrangements, generally and for education. Brent is responding by making proper allowance for its education spend.

I hasten to add that this is a global picture. What the authority chooses to do within these global arrangements—for particular schools, for primary and secondary education, or for post-16 provision—is for it to decide. That is what happens in the rest of the country, and the same goes for Brent.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to imply that there was something sinful about a local authority trying to make sure that the council tax it would levy on its electorate was as low as possible. He is wrong. An education authority must strike a balance between the taxes it will levy on its populace and the money it will spend.

Given past activities in Brent—to do with expenditure, tax levels and so on—and given the incubus of the past that the administration of Brent has to deal with, it is fair to say that Brent is doing remarkably well. It is bringing the finances back to something approaching a balance, and it is exercising its judgment in respect of educational need in Brent.

Brent is examining the local management of schools formula, determining whether it is useful and how it will affect different sorts of schools, and how far provision can be made within it. Given the exigencies of the present, the problems of the past, the countervailing pressures of the level of the council tax and of justified educational expenditure, I am sure that Brent council would say that it was getting the balance about right.

It was wrong of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that central Government should step in when local people express dissatisfaction and take over the administration of local government generally or of education. That would fly in the face of all that I—and, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman—believe in. We should not try to get around local accountability by deciding that, if an authority fails to discharge its responsibilities to the electorate, central Government should step in and take over.

There is no proper mechanism for that, and the Education Bill provides for a more specific approach—a much more fruitful approach. The inspectorate judges whether schools are failing their pupils and their parents. If they are, the LEA or the school governors will be given an opportunity to correct the problems. If that does not work, the Bill, if agreed to by Parliament, would provide that an education association be appointed to sort out the problems in a school or group of schools.

One should not condemn an entire authority and then argue that central Government should step in to run the service better. We hope to provide the mechanism to deal with schools and groups of schools. The independent inspectorate would judge whether they were being properly run or were failing; if the latter, the mechanism for which the Bill provides would be used.

Although I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, and although we shall continue to look carefully at the individual school cases that he raised, I cannot agree with what he said today—that we should condemn wholesale what this local education authority is doing, that we should ignore its valiant efforts to deal with the accumulated problems of the past and that we should give no credit to it for what is being done.

The one thing about which I think the hon. Gentleman and I will agree is that it will be the electors of Brent who decide at the next election whether the council has properly discharged its responsibilities. I just hope for his sake that, when that election comes, the candidates of his party who are put up to fight it are a sight more impressive than the ones he so graphically described today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.