HL Deb 18 March 1980 vol 407 cc184-90

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a similar Statement to that being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science on school transport provision in England, Scotland and Wales.

As the House will know, decisions were taken last week by a Committee of your Lordships' House to delete Clauses 23 and 25 of the Education (No. 2) Bill. These clauses sought to empower local education authorities in England and Wales and education authorities in Scotland to charge for providing school transport. The Government have now had an opportunity to consider the situation and have decided it would not be right to seek to reintroduce the clauses. Such consequential changes to the Bill as are necessary to give effect to this decision will be tabled as amendments for consideration at Report stage.

As the House will also know, the Government decided last year that it was necessary for local authorities to reduce public expenditure and the rate support grant settlements for 1980–81 were made accordingly. It was the request of the Association of County Councils that, in making these reductions, local education authorities in England and Wales were to be free, if they wished, to introduce charges for providing school transport. In view of the decision last week and the Government's acceptance of that decision, the option to charge is no longer open to local authorities. But that in no way removes the obligation on local authorities to achieve the needed reductions in expenditure in some other way.

Baroness DAVID

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. We on these Benches—and I am sure many other noble Lords—will be very glad and relieved to know that the Government have accepted the decision of the House. Indeed, there was such an upsurge of feeling throughout the whole country that I think it would have been unwise for them to have ignored it.

So far as the obligation on the local authorities to find the money elsewhere is concerned, I should like to ask the Minister if she thinks it fair that, really having been led up the garden path about this transport clause, they should now have to find this money at the very last minute? Would it not be possible to make some supplementary allocation to the rate support grant?

Viscount SIMON

My Lords, I feel that the whole House will be grateful that the Government have reached this decision not to try to overturn a decision that was reached in Committee last week, one that my noble friends and I feel much more correctly reflects opinion in the country than did the decision of another place when they sent the Bill to us with Clauses 23 and 25 included in it.

As regards the concluding passage of the noble Baroness's Statement, I hope that, since we have been told that many local authorities, including, I think, all the local authorities in Scotland, had found it possible already to decide that they would not impose transport charges, it will not be too difficult for the others to meet the obligations that are being placed upon them.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I should like to comment on the two points that the noble Baroness, Lady David, and the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, have made about the consequences of the decision that was taken last week. I have been asked whether the Government think it is fair to ask local authorities to find the money. I think it is important to remind the House that the request originally came from the Association of County Councils, and it came about because the local authorities had been asked to make savings and the local education authorities asked whether they might be allowed to have a power to charge in these particular circumstances. One of the reasons for introducing the clauses into the Bill was to try to carry out that wish and grant them the power. I should make it quite clear that the cash limit for the whole year has now been set and that the concluding part of my Statement must stand.

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, asked about the position of local education authorities. I think that the whole House will be interested to know that at least 20 local authorities were planning to introduce charges, and we estimate that the saving of £20 million required would have been achieved had they gone ahead, and it would have been a saving in net expenditure. But I have no doubt that those who were contemplating charging will now have to find the savings in some other areas of their budget, and those savings will not be easy to find.

I should make it clear that one of the reasons why the Government introduced this was that they believed it was more important that the saving should come from the non-educational parts of the education budget; now that that is not fully open to them, savings will clearly have to be found in other parts of the budget, a decision that I personally regret.?


My Lords, I am getting a little tired of the Minister just referring to"the Association of County Councils ". There are other associations that have entirely different views from those of the Association of County Councils. Also, may I say that there are 104 authorities in this country, not just 20?

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, if I may reply to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, I am perfectly aware that there is an Association of Metropolitan Authorities, with which I have personally been connected, both when I was in local government and as a vice-president, when we were in Opposition. Therefore, I am well aware that they have expressed views—the London boroughs and the Scottish authorities. There are other associations. The Association of County Councils clearly asked for this particular power because they are the most directly affected by the open-ended subsidy. They asked for the power; the House has now taken a decision on this matter. It is only right that I should say what they had asked us to do.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness make it clear that it was the Association of County Councils in England and Wales and that this power was not sought by the education authorities in Scotland?

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I have never sought to say anything other than that it was the Association of County Councils in England and Wales, and I repeat that.


My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I think, referred to transport as being a non-essential part of education. Would she not agree that if one cannot get to school one cannot be educated? I should have thought that it was a very essential part.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I am sorry if the noble Lord, Lord Somers, did not hear what I said. I said it was a non-educational part of the education budget, not a non-essential part of it.


My Lords, I hope that those of us who were in the Lobby against the Government on this issue will not necessarily find any need to oppose the second part of the Minister's Statement. For myself, I wholly accept the need for the reduction in expenditure, which the Government have been seeking, but I remind the House that there are more people who do not teach in the Education Service than there are who teach in the classroom, and I am completely confident that savings can be made without detriment to the Education Service.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I am very glad to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, accepts the last part of the Statement, but he will recall that at Second Reading he suggested that alternative economies might be made in respect of teachers. It may be helpful to remind the House of the figures that I gave at Second Reading; that is, that the local education authorities spent only 3.5 per cent. of their budgets on administration in education and that over the last five years the cost of educational administration has fallen in real terms by £40 million, or nearly 10 per cent. It would therefore be difficult for them to find a great deal of extra money exclusively from savings in administration.


My Lords, this is the fourth time of asking. There have been suggestions that other services might have to be cut as a result of the decision which we took, or that rates might have to be increased. If I may say a word as one who has introduced six or seven county council budgets and a number of district council budgets in my time, all of these authorities have balances in hand. In my county council we had over £2 million which we used to carry forward every year, so the problem of defraying this extra burden that is going to fall on these councils will not be difficult at all. It will merely mean taking a slice out of the balance that is carried forward.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, while applauding her decision to accept the decision of the House here last week, many of us are very grateful to her for her efforts to reduce public expenditure, which is at the root of getting on top of inflation in this country?

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, for his remarks and say to the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, that of course it is open to local authorities that have balances to use them. What he and other Members of the House have to remember is that we are talking about £20 million this year. It is, of course, cumulative over the years, and there is a limit to how far even if one has balances one can use them. That is one of the effects of the cut-backs and the squeeze on Government and local government expenditure; local authorities have been using their balances. No doubt they can continue to do so, but they cannot live in that way and it is not really a course to be recommended in deciding public policy.


My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is quite correct in what she says, but the rateable value is also cumulative and is going up year by year; so that the stated stable number of pence in the pound of the rate will bring in an increasing income every year.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, would agree with me that rates are not a buoyant tax like income tax.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that some of us believe that the nation was rushed into this because of the euphoria connected with the Conservative Party having overwhelmingly won the election

A noble Lord: Not in Scotland!


My Lords, secondly, will she now ask her party and the Government to look again at the rural schools which could be left open and which could save transport charges for many of the people living in the rural areas of Britain.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know very well, no one can close a rural school unless a proposition to do so is put up by the local education authority. It then has either to be approved or otherwise by the Secretary of State. So a decision to close rural schools must come from the local education authorities themselves. However, I will not accept, for the reasons well given by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford, that there was no reason for us not to go ahead to cut back Government expenditure. The situation in this country remains very serious. The basic arithmetic about education and all Government policies remains the same, regardless of the decision taken in the House last week.


My Lords, allow me merely to draw the attention of the House to the fact that while it is true that only 3½ per cent. is spent on administration, there are 700,000 people employed in the Education Service other than teachers and only 600,000 teachers.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, the latest number of teachers that I have is approximately 470,000. I think it will drop slightly this year although I have not the figure in my head, but there are more than the noble Lord has said. Of those that the noble Lord has classed as non-teachers, of course there are included many people that he would regard as being essential to the Education Service, such as laboratory technicians, other people who help as assistants to teachers in the classrooms, and such people as school secretaries, without whom many schools would find it difficult to manage.