HC Deb 02 March 1995 vol 255 cc1175-7
9. Mr. Betts

To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will agree to fund fully local authorities and schools for the cost of the teachers' pay settlement in 1995–96.

Mr. Aitken


Mr. Betts

Does the Chief Secretary accept that the only help that the Chancellor has so far offered to schools and councils facing education budget cuts is that they can enter into sale and lease-back deals with their own assets? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that sale and lease-back deals under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 have to be offset completely against the credit approvals of local authorities and therefore cannot add one penny to their revenue budgets?

If that is true, is not the advice so far offered to schools and local authorities unhelpful and misleading? What will the Chief Secretary do to help schools, governors and parents facing massive increases in class sizes, or will he, like the Chancellor, stand on one side while education standards in our schools decline because he and his colleagues will not fund the pay settlement for which they are totally responsible?

Mr. Aitken

I am certainly prepared to tell the hon. Gentleman what I would do to help schools in Sheffield. I would encourage Sheffield county council to stop being extravagant and profligate with taxpayers' money. I would stop it wasting money, by keeping open 12,000 surplus school places. I would be very critical of a council that, when it was under the hon. Gentleman's leadership, wasted tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on the world student games for Sheffield. Instead of coming up with bright wheezes for spending taxpayers' money, it is about time that Sheffield and a few other councils got their act together and kept taxpayers' money under good tight control.

Mr. Devlin

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Cleveland, one of the most left-wing authorities in the north of England, has announced that it will fully fund the teachers' pay increase from its own reserves? If a well-known left-wing authority such as Cleveland can do that—like Sheffield, it has built up enormous debts—why cannot other authorities do that?

Mr. Aitken

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his praise, which comes from an unexpected quarter, for a council that is doing the right thing. All over Britain there are schools with current cash balances of more than £700 million, and local authorities are awash with cash of about £2 billion. Against that background, it is ludicrous for some councils to claim far too easily that they cannot possibly afford to fund what is admittedly a tight local government settlement to help schools.

Mr. Clapham

Is the Minister really aware of the pressure on local authorities? For example, in Barnsley over the past five years we have had to absorb a 57 per cent. increase in the number of children on free school meals, a 54 per cent. increase in the number of children who receive grants for clothes and a 200 per cent. increase in the number of children needing special education. Clearly, the local authorities need help—

Mr. Fabricant

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The microphone is not working and we cannot hear.

Madam Speaker

I am sorry, but I can hear the hon. Gentleman quite clearly, although it seems that no one else can. Will the sound effects people please increase the sound for Mr. Clapham?

Mr. Clapham

Given those facts, is the Minister prepared to review his decision?

Madam Speaker

Did the Minister hear the question?

Mr. Aitken

I heard the question, more or less. The answer to it is that the hon. Gentleman has provided only half of the true picture. Of course the local government settlement is tight, but in Barnsley, for example, there are unspent school balances of about £3 million, there has been a standard spending assessment increase of 30.4 per cent. over the past five years, and expenditure per pupil is at the rather satisfactory figure of £1,570. Even allowing for inflation, that is roughly three times the amount spent when the Labour Government were in office. The schoolchildren of Barnsley have not had a bad deal from the Government.

Mr. John Greenway

Cleveland county council, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), is not alone in the north-east in having had the foresight to plan for the teachers' pay award. North Yorkshire county council provided in its budget for a 2.5 per cent. increase in pay, and although finding the extra £300,000 will not be easy, it will not mean the kind of cuts in the classrooms that we have heard about from the media. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that local authorities that have done the right thing this year will not be starved of cash next year, and that their patience with the Government's policy will be rewarded with a better settlement in future?

Mr. Aitken

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his North Yorkshire local education authority on having done the right and responsible thing and cut their cloth according to what was necessary to deliver good standards of education. On my hon. Friend's second point, of course we acknowledge that this year's local government settlement has been tight. I hear what he says about ensuring that neither in North Yorkshire nor anywhere else are schoolchildren subjected to unreasonable pressures—but we do not believe that we have put unreasonable pressure on this year. The local government settlement is tight but fair.

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