HC Deb 29 January 1997 vol 289 cc343-6
4. Mr. Alan W. Williams

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how many representations she has received (a) in support and (b) against the Government's proposed changes to the teachers' early retirement scheme. [11728]

Mrs. Gillan

My right hon. Friend has so far received 36 written representations from consultees on the Government's proposed changes to the early retirement arrangements for teachers, and a large number of individual responses.

Mr. Williams

Why do 80 to 90 per cent. of teachers want to retire early? Is that not a sad comment on the morale of the profession after 18 years of Conservative Government? Would it not be wiser for Ministers to sit down with local authorities and teacher representatives to work out solutions to the problem? Has not the Government's handling of it been inept, turning a problem into a crisis and the exodus into a stampede?

Mrs. Gillan

No, I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that the handling of the matter has been inept. I would go so far as to say that there is much common ground between the Labour party and the Government on the teachers' superannuation scheme. A great deal of misinformation and dissembling has been going on, which has scared and unsettled many teachers and retired teachers.

I want to assure teachers from the Dispatch Box that we have no intention of ending the early retirement scheme, and that we are carefully examining the responses to the consultation. All those will be taken into account by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in due course.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I thank my hon. Friend for modestly extending the consultation period. May I make a plea to her for it to be extended still further, to enable meaningful discussions to go on between the Government and all the teacher unions involved, particularly the National Association of Head Teachers, which undertook a constructive and positive lobby of Parliament last week? Does my hon. Friend accept that, if she can get Treasury permission, it would be more appropriate for the new arrangements to take effect from the new academic year in September rather than from 1 April?

Mrs. Gillan

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful question. I reassure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give careful consideration to the representations that have been made by the teachers unions, local education authorities and others, including the National Association of Head Teachers, and that she will make an announcement shortly. We shall consider all the options that have been placed before the Government.

Mr. Don Foster

Further to that answer, why cannot the Minister give a straight answer to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)? Why cannot she tell him and the House that she will extend the consultation period to enable a wide range of alternative suggestions to be considered? Does she accept that, although changes to the teachers' pension scheme are needed, her Department's handling of the matter has been nothing short of a public relations disaster, and that as a result it has further reduced the morale of all those in the teaching profession?

Mrs. Gillan

I consider a 12-week consultation period sufficient. No teachers, unions or representative bodies could believe that their representations had not been taken into account. If there are any further representations, we shall be pleased to receive them before the end of the week.

During the Committee stage of the Education Bill, I challenged the Opposition parties to make representations and to put forward their solutions to the problems with the teachers' superannuation scheme, but no such representations were forthcoming. Obviously, the Opposition parties have no solution to the problem, and we must act.

Mr. Nicholls

Does my hon. Friend agree that that is only part of the wider issue of teacher morale? Has she shared my experience that many teachers in the state sector believe genuinely, albeit wrongly, that the Government do not value their work? Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to say that her experience is the same as mine—that teachers in the maintained sector in my constituency are overwhelmingly first-rate professionals doing a first-rate job?

Mrs. Gillan

I have no problem agreeing with my hon. Friend's remarks. I draw the attention of all hon. Members to an article by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that appeared in The Times Educational Supplement last week, in which she stated: The whole country owes a great deal to teachers. Teachers are highly skilled: they are dedicated: they work very hard. The improvement in pupils' achievement, and hence the increase in the skills of the population, could not have been achieved without the help of teachers. No matter how often Ministers make such comments, the press never report them. We have never criticised the teachers and we seize every opportunity, from the Dispatch Box and from other platforms, to praise their skills and dedication.

Mr. Kilfoyle

May we now put to the Minister the questions that we asked in Committee, in the hope that perhaps today she will answer the most relevant one? Will she confirm that the Government have done a deal with local authorities to enable them to claw back the costs of early retirement from individual schools? Will she also confirm that on 18 December last the Funding Agency for Schools wrote to grant-maintained schools offering quite a generous settlement of 100 per cent. of retirement costs? Will she further confirm that the Government have a twin-track approach—one that is preferential to the grant-maintained sector and another for the rest of the teaching profession who are members of the teachers' superannuation scheme?

Mrs. Gillan

I shall not allow the issue of teachers' pensions to become an attack on grant-maintained schools. There is no doubt that the Opposition parties would abolish grant-maintained schools. How would that help the morale of teachers in those schools? The hon. Gentleman knows that it is untrue to claim that GM schools are receiving preferential treatment. The Funding Agency for Schools will support some premature retirements and the local authority settlement allows for a continuing programme of retirements at 75 per cent. of current levels. There is no reason why local education authorities should not continue to offer premature retirements under the proposals.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Will my hon. Friend confirm that her Department has received a large number of representations on this question and that it would therefore not be unreasonable to extend the consultation period somewhat? In light of the sheer volume of representations, will she consider that possibility, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)?

Mrs. Gillan

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Department has received a large number of representations, and I have signed more than 1,000 letters to constituents. However, I believe that a consultation period of 12 weeks and the courtesy that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has extended to organisations to come to see her and me is sufficient. I assure my hon. Friend that the points reasonably made during the consultation period will be taken into account.