HL Deb 04 February 1981 vol 416 cc1216-21

3.59 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Baroness Young)

My, Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science on the outcome of the Government's inquiry into the future of the Inner London Education Authority:

"The ILEA is the largest local education authority in England. Among such authorities its composition is unique. It precepts freely and without restraint on the ratepayers of the inner London Boroughs and the City of London. In practice it spends much more money per pupil than any other English authority without thereby achieving a satisfactory performance for many of its schools, particularly its secondary schools as was shown in the HMI report on ILEA. The purpose of the inquiry was to see whether this situation could be improved by altering the constitutional arrangements for providing education in inner London.

"The fundamental issue for the inquiry was whether ILEA should be broken up. There is a case for giving some responsibility for education to the inner London Boroughs. There is also a case for retaining a single authority in the light of London's past development and its system of local government. But the overriding factors are educational and financial. The weight of educational opinion, including the voluntary bodies and the Churches, is that the problems of inner London call for a single authority of adequate size and with adequate resources to administer its schools, as well as further and higher education, and the careers service; and that responsibility for the schools should not be separated from the rest of education. The Government share that view.

"This does not mean that the single authority has to be extravagant. That was one of the lessons to be drawn from the HMI Report. The Government's public expenditure plans require local authority current expenditure on education in England to go down by about 7 per cent. in real terms between 1978–79 and 1981–82. ILEA has not made the response which could reasonably have been expected from an authority whose expenditure exceeds its needs by far more than any other education authority, on the basis of assessment used for the distribution of block grant. It is apparently planning to spend next year almost as much in real terms as it did in 1978–79 although between 1978–79 and 1981–82 ILEA's pupil numbers will fall by some 13 per cent.

"In that event ILEA would be likely to receive very little grant in 1981–82. The reason is simple. The block grant system ensures that an authority which acts irresponsibly cannot do so at the expense either of the taxpayer or of the ratepayers of authorities beyond its boundaries.

"The long-term retention of the single education authority for inner London is justified only if the authority shows that it call give the children and students of inner London a good service in all phases of education at an acceptable cost. It is up to ILEA to put its house in order. It must recognise that the right to precept entails the obligation to spend responsibly. If ILEA systematically abuses the rating system by unchecked extravagance, additional financial controls will be needed. The Government are now considering what further measures they would take to meet that situation".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness David

My Lords, I must thank the Minister for reading the Statement and express our pleasure because the decision to keep the structure of ILEA as it is has been made. After that I would say that the Statement is an extremely hostile, threatening and ungenerous one. It is one of a long series of hostile statements the Tory party have put out about ILEA. They have wanted for a long time, since the Prime Minister was Secretary of State, to break up that authority, but they have lost out on that policy when they have gone to the electorate. Now, having failed to impose their will and get the structure changed, because of the sheer weight of evidence against them, they appear from the threats in the Statement to be trying to impose it by means of the block grant. Their attitude can be judged by the emotive language used in various parts of the Statement; for example, "precepts freely and without restraint".

Would the Minister agree with ILEA's Chief Education Officer's report to his committee, which said that if they limited the expenditure to the level prescribed in the grant they would be unable to fulfil their statutory responsibilities under the education law? Would the Minister agree that parents will be very concerned by this Statement, a major Statement on education where the word "children" appears only once and in a throwaway line in the last paragraph. There is here a real and unpleasant threat to the education of children in London. I wonder whether I might ask the Minister if this is the Statement which the Prime Minister approved after the report of the noble Baroness's Committee had to be rewritten, we understand, quite a number of times?

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I, too, would like to congratulate the Government on deciding not to break up ILEA. We on these Benches only wish they had similar sense about some of their other policies. We are sympathetic to them on that, and we are also I think more sympathetic to them than the Labour Front Bench seem to be about the whole question of the responsibility of ILEA. I would ask the Government what plans they have to make ILEA more responsible to the electors of London. Will they consider the possibility of having separate elections for the authority, preferably by a sane method of election?

4.6 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, if I may answer those questions, first I am glad of the welcome the noble Baroness, Lady David, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, have given to the Statement. I deeply regret the attitude the noble Baroness, Lady David, has taken in the suggestion that the Statement is in some way hostile to ILEA. The truth of the matter is that we now have for the first time a great deal of information about ILEA, particularly the report from the inspectorate, which makes it clear that particularly ILEA's secondary schools are not doing as well as they should—this despite the fact that the capitation allowances in ILEA are almost twice those of other authorities in the country, and the expenditure per pupil in ILEA is almost twice as much as in authorities with comparable problems, such as inner Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester. Yet the results are not satisfactory.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has asked me what steps we shall take. This, I think, is the right and responsible attitude, and I think it is very important for all those who care about the education of children in London to support those within the authority who are trying now to meet the criticisms of the inspectorate's report in order that the education of the authority will be improved. What has become clear is that simply spending money is not the answer to that problem.

Baroness David

My Lords, I would make one further comment. I said that this Statement is ungenerous, and I think the Minister's comments—

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I think the noble Baroness is out of order, because there was a question to be put from the Cross-Benches by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Potterhill.

Lord Alexander of Potterhill

My Lords, following the Statement, with which I personally find myself in very substantial agreement, I merely wish to ask the Minister whether the danger in the situation relates to a precepting authority. Is there any possibility of moving at some time, if there are to be ad hoc local education authorities, which ILEA is, to a position of insisting that they should raise their monies directly from the electorate and not by precept?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am very glad of the welcome that the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, has given to this Statement, particularly in view of his long connections with the education service. He asked two questions about future financing. One of the possibilities that has been considered is the question of direct elections. Certainly this is a matter which has attracted a lot of interest. The fact is that if one had a single authority only concerned with education, directly elected, with the right to precept, it would never have to measure its expenditure on education against other services' expenditure, which other local authorities have to do, and there is no evidence that it would be less extravagant in its behaviour than ILEA is. One of the difficulties of ILEA is its right to precept, and the fact that the electorate does not always recognise that those who are elected to it, the GLC members, are not only GLC members but also members of the Inner London Education Authority; the direct relationship which occurs in other county councils does not always occur in ILEA.

We are concerned that its right to precept has been used in this extravagant way. We very much hope that it will bear in mind what has been said over all these matters, including the decision to retain it as a unitary authority, and that it will try, as indicated in the Statement, to behave in a less extravagant way in the future.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I should like to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, who, I understand through leaks, was in fact one of the people who fought for the retention of the ILEA as a single authority. If that is the case then I should like to thank the noble Baroness. I should also like to know whether this is the final debate that we shall have on this matter or whether we are to see the famous report of the inspectorate? As chairman for a period of years of the governors of a school where we certainly do not even have inside lavatories yet—and we are very typical of many London schools—I am extremely puzzled to know how the inspectorate found that we exceeded our needs and, indeed, that we displayed unchecked extravagance. Those arc very emotive words and if the inspectorate actually found that to be the case I think that those of us who work within the ILEA are entitled to know in what particulars they found both those statements to be true.

Baroness Young

My Lords, the inspectorate's report was, of course, sent to the ILEA as, indeed, is always the case with inspectorate reports. However, a copy of it was placed in the Library of another place and in the Library of your Lordships' House. It is available for people to read who would like to do so and I have no doubt that it has been distributed to the schools in the ILEA.

The basic facts of the costs of the ILEA are well known to anyone who studies either the CIPFA statistics on local government or the particular local authority expenditure. But there is no question at all that the latest unit costs available—those for 1978–79—indicate that in an ILEA primary school it costs £542 per head and over the whole of England the average is £371. In Birmingham it is £350 per head, in Liverpool £388 and in Manchester £439. It would, therefore, seem that the ILEA is considerably more expensive when compared with authorities with similar problems. I think that the point that the noble Baroness has raised indicates a false sense of priorities on the part of the ILEA. It has clearly had a lot of money to spend and it has not spent it on elementary matters like seeing that all school lavatories are inside the building.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Baroness whether, in carrying out this review of the expenses of the Inner London Education Authority, she will bear in mind that this authority provides certain smaller services which deal, in effect, with the country as a whole. Perhaps I may quote my own case as an example. For the past six or seven years I have been having—until the lady retired—lip-reading lessons at the City Arts Centre. I understand that that is supported by the Inner London Education Authority and that it also acts as a training centre for lip-reading teachers throughout the country as a whole. I should be very loath to see any restrictions put on the Inner London Education Authority which would make it sacrifice what I would call these special national aspects of education.

Baroness Young

My Lords, in that connection I should like to point out that one of the aspects of the inspectorate's report which paid tribute to the ILEA was its higher and further education, where it was generally regarded as satisfactory. And, although the particular point that the noble Lord raises is somewhat wide of the Statement, nevertheless it reflects the services which are provided in the capital city in this particular way.

I should also thank—and I apologise that during my answer to the previous question I omitted to do so—the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, for her very kind remarks about myself. I should simply like to say that in the course of this inquiry I have learnt a lot about the ILEA.

Lord Pargiter

My Lords, as regards the Minister's reference to precepting, I should like to know whether, if that is to be considered, it will be considered as a whole and certainly not against one particular authority, when we bear in mind how many precepting authorities there are in the country as a whole?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as the Statement indicates, this would be primarily a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to look at in the context of a review generally of these matters.

Lord Marshall of Leeds

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness on the Statement which she has repeated. I had the job of producing a report on the government of Great London in 1977–78 and I came to the firm conclusion, after hearing a vast amount of evidence, that the ILEA was financially unaccountable and that the only privilege that the GLC had was to pick up the tab at the end of the day when they received the ILEA precept. We now know that something will be done about financial non-accountability. I also came to the conclusion that the ILEA was democratically not accountable. I wonder whether the noble Baroness can tell us whether the Government have plans to put that matter right also?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Leeds, for his kind remarks about myself. First, as the Statement indicates, we hope that the ILEA will put its own house in order. It has an opportunity to do so and if it reduces its expenditure it will, of course, gain through the block grant mechanism and receive more Government grant. We hope very much that, before it takes any irrevocable decisions, it will consider what it does in the light of the Statement that has been made and in the hope that it will be able to achieve the educational improvements that we should all like to see in the interests of the children of London and in the interests of a great many ratepayers on whom the very high ILEA rate bears very heavily. I think particularly not just of the domestic ratepayer, but of the industries in London which, of course, have to contribute very heavily towards this end. The Statement makes it clear that we believe that the right way to proceed is that if the ILEA is unable to meet the financial requests that we have asked of it, we shall be reviewing the financial arrangements. That is as far as I would go at this stage.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, in view of the fact that we have spent 18 minutes on this Statement and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, has been waiting so patiently, perhaps we may return to the debate.