HL Deb 14 October 1981 vol 424 cc404-13

4.26 p.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Education (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place Her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Earl of Mansfield.)

On Question, Bill read 3a.

Clause 14 [Renumeration of teaching staff]:

Lord Ross of Marnock moved Amendment No. 1: Page 49, line 39, leave out ("21") and insert ("14").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it might be convenient to discuss Amendments Nos. 1 and 2, both of which stand in my name, together. They deal with the arbitration procedure following a breakdown in negotiations in respect of teachers' salaries. The clause sets up a new salaries and conditions of service committee. The Secretary of State is represented on that committee and if the negotiations fail to reach a satisfactory conclusion, it is the Secretary of State who is one of the people who agrees to arbitration, and he is the person who then sets up the arbitration and lays down the procedure—in consultation of course—and decides on the arbiters. That is a fairly lengthy procedure and one would have thought that the Scottish Office and the Secretary of State would have a fair idea of what they want to do about the pay settlement.

However, we then have the position that when the arbiter reports and makes an award, the Secretary of State is given 21 days in which to intimate whether he will accept or reject the award. In my view, that is far too long. Remember, the negotiations may have been going on for one, two or three months. To wait for another 21 days for the Scottish Office or Government to make up their minds to reject or accept the award is too long to wait; I suggest a fortnight is long enough. After all, this is not something which will have come to the Government anew. They will have been in on the negotiations and know all about the arbitration—in fact, the procedure will have been set up and determined by the Secretary of State—so I suggest that 21 days within which he must make up his mind is too long, and I suggest 14 days.

But it does not end there. If he decides to reject or set aside the award, he then has another fortnight before drawing up the order and putting it before Parliament. The negative procedure is involved and so the order has to lie for 40 days before it can become effective, in order to give Members of another place, and indeed Members of your Lordships' House, an opportunity to object and pray against it. So we have the position that after the intimation of an award, 75 days could elapse before the changed salaries are paid. If the Secretary of State decided to set aside the award, he has powers in the Bill to make changes.

Anyone who knows anything at all about the build-up of expectation and the frustration felt while awaiting the outcome will realise that the period is far too long, and I am surprised that the Government have gone ahead with it. I know that the subsection states "within 21 days" and "within 35 days", but I still think that the maxima are far too long. So I suggest that we cut each period by seven days, and in that I think I have been fairly generous to the Government. My Lords, I beg to move.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, what we are talking about here is a decision on the part of the Secretary of State to overturn an arbitration award, and following that the implementation of his decision by the laying of an order before Parliament. As the Bill stands, it allows 35 days for the complete process: three weeks for the decision to be taken and another two weeks for the laying of the order. That is the maximum, as the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, very fairly said. The noble Lord's amendments would reduce the overall period to four weeks by shortening the period during which the award is to be under consideration. I do not suppose that the noble Lord would claim that two weeks is too long for the second stage, during which the order has to be drafted, printed, and laid.

If that is so, the debate really comes down to the question of whether three weeks is too long for consideration. For reasons to which I shall come, I claim that it is not too long. During previous stages of the Bill we have examined different aspects of a decision to overturn an arbitrator's award. Not for one moment am I suggesting that the amendments in any way follow those that we talked about during previous stages of the Bill. But what did emerge from our previous debates was, first, that it would be an extremely important decision that would be made. It might well be a finely balanced decision.

Secondly, it would be a decision to be taken not by the Secretary of State acting on his own, but by the Government as a whole in the light of economic and other factors, which would almost inevitably call for consultations between departments. Your Lordships might recall that in Committee we discussed the motivation behind the laying of such an order and then said that I thought that the national economic situation would be the obvious factor to cause the Secretary of State to come to his conclusion. A few days later we debated the matter again and the House came to the conclusion that such decisions, if taken, might very well be in line with what I might call general Government policy.

So, if the Secretary of State were to take such a decision, I suggest that inevitably he would do so in the light of discussions with other Government departments and Government colleagues. The award might come at a time of year when it would be very difficult to contrive very quick consultation, as is provided for in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ross. I suggest that it would be unwise to constrict the taking of such a decision by avoidably limiting the scope for reasonable discussion and consultation involving the Secretary of State and possibly other departments.

The motivation behind the noble Lord's amendments is possibly prompted by what he said in effect during Committee: that the total period of 35 days, followed by another period of 40 days, during which a prayer might be made against the order, would mean that the teachers would be kept waiting for more than two months before they knew their fate. Not for one moment do I think that that would happen. The Secretary of State's decision must be given within 21 days. As I said previously, it would probably be given much sooner, but that is the maximum period, and it would be at that point that the teachers would know that the decision was either for or against the award. If the decision was against the award, it could be changed only if Parliament dissented on the tabling of the orders. So for all practical purposes after 21 days the teachers would know exactly where they stood.

For the reasons that I have given I cannot commend the amendments to the House. Furthermore, we must remember that the procedure in existing legislation has never been used, and I do not think that there is any reason to suppose that the procedure will be brought into play much more frequently. But even if it were, bearing in mind that the pay negotiations would have lasted several months before the matter ever came to the Secretary of State to decide whether to overturn an award, I do not believe that it would be wise, or to anyone's real advantage, to turn what should be an important and well considered decision into a precipitated decision merely to save one week, which is what it would come to. It is for that reason that I cannot commend the amendments to your Lordships.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, the noble Earl's reply was not unexpected, but it is still disappointing. The suggestion that the Secretary of State would hear of the matter only after the award is a bit of nonsense and is certainly not confirmed by my experience over a fair number of years of negotiations with teachers. The point is that under the new procedure the Secretary of State is still involved in the negotiations. He is there, he is represented, and no doubt it would be then that he would put forward something that was in line with the general policy of the Government. The matter does not come new to him after the making of an award.

Many people would feel that the Secretary of State ought to have been tied by the decision of an arbiter. I think that in many instances we would have felt quite disturbed if a local authority as the employer of teachers had been given the same freedom to disregard the award of an arbiter. I think it quite wrong to suggest that it requires three weeks.

The general policy is known; the attitude of the Government is known; the whole financial position of the country is known. To suggest that it would take all this time to get the negotiations within the Government settled is, I think, a bit nonsensical.

There is more justification for saying that more time is required after the Government have said "No, we are not accepting the award", because there is also the power for the Government to introduce an order in which the Minister makes changes suitable to him. There may still be an increased salary for the teachers. So all they know within the 21 days is that the award is rejected, if we are being pessimistic about it; and thereafter the time that is needed—and this is why I agreed to another fortnight—is for the Government to see the various people concerned and for the Minister to make up his mind what he is going to do in relation to the varous scales. That takes more time; but, to my mind, the decision as to whether to reject or accept the award can surely be taken within a fortnight.

I am not going to press the matter, but I am putting the point which has been put to me by many techers, that the haggling has been going on for months and then there is the ultimate decision to place the matter before arbitraton. It is not right for the Government to hang on for three weeks after the award is known. I think we want a speedy decision by the Government in that respect. It should really come within days. It should really come within, at most, I should have thought, a week, rather than a fortnight as I am suggesting or three weeks as the Government are insisting. This is really inviting trouble in an area where we know quite well there has been a certain amount of anxiety previously in relaton to these matters. But if the Government are adamant—and I can understand it at this particular time that they are—I do not see why I should press my amendment. However, I have given a warning to the Government that in respect of this they will run into trouble from the teachers. That being so, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment, and I shall not move Amendment No. 2.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

4.43 p.m.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(The Earl of Mansfield.)

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, these are our last few words on the Bill. This is an important Bill, but to my mind it does not do justice to the needs of education in Scotland. There is the first part, which is a new parents' charter—choice for the parents! In actual fact, as I think is already well known in Scotland, this may well be limiting the amount of freedom of choice that there is to parents in respect of schools they select for their children, because for the first time we list a certain number of barriers. Before that there was full discretion to local authorities, which they used, and I think that in most cases they were able to meet the wishes of the parents.

Another factor comes into this, of course. The choice of school depends on the number of schools, and here now we have given a new power to local authorities to be able to close non-denominational schools without the consent of the Secretary of State. Of course, if you start closing schools you reduce the choice, and so this great extension of freedom of choice becomes illusory. For instance, there was the case that I instanced before, where at the present time the local authority in Aberdeenshire is closing seven schools, and the people who are annoyed about it are the parents. So you cannot proclaim a great extension of freedom on the one hand and at the same time, by closing a number of schools, reduce that freedom. So let us have no great heralding of the great new departures and the freedom of choice.

On the clauses that relate to the Warnock Commission—that is, children requiring special educational facilities—I think that what is being done there is to be commended, and I am sure that anyone who is interested in the handicapped and in their proper education and proper treatment will welcome it. But we must remember that the Government have already said that they are not going to spend any more money. I think we are in danger of misleading people as to a great advance here. I spoke about the business of dealing with the children before they go to school, where the power is given to the education authority and the duty is placed upon it to make sure that everyone knows about this so that they will be able to bring in children for medical examination even before school time—because the earlier these faults are discovered the better it will be. But, if the Government have not given local authorities the money to do this, and the money to make the necessary educational provision, we are in danger of deceiving the public about great advances that are not there. This is one of the things that I think the Warnock Commission asked for—that there should be more money spent in this way.

There is one very small point. We spoke about the demands on parents that they must bring their children forward for medical examination in respect of special educational needs. Of course, there is a fine of £50 now. A year ago that fine was £10. I do not know whether I am right (but perhaps someone will inform the Minister of State) that in the main legislation which we are amending by this Bill—I think it was passed through this House in April of last year—there is now a fine of £50 in respect of parents who, without reasonable cause, fail to submit their children for examination in respect of special educational needs. But we have not changed that in the case where, in ordinary education, it is thought desirable the child should be brought for medical examination. That remains at £10. I think there is a bit of a failure there.

On the question of the assisted places scheme, there is still a gap in our knowledge about how this is going to work, and that gap should have been filled by virtue of the fact that we are already working this scheme. This scheme is being worked under the power that was previously given to the Secretary of State to make grants to schools—the grant-aided schools, we call them. So we have the advantage of having all the regulations already before us. We have had them before us for quite a long time. In the Bill there is no indication of how the children are to be selected for the assisted places scheme, but if we look at the regulations we there find something indicating eligibility. There is the question of finance. In other words, the parents are required to put forward their relevant income and to see whether they meet the means test or the needs test.

But there is one other thing in the regulations, and that is that a person being given the assisted place shall be, in the opinion of the school, capable of benefiting from the education provided at the school. That is in the regulations, which I have here. That phrase used to be in the Bill, but it has been taken out of the Bill. So where does it come from? And is it justifiable to have that in regulations when it is not in the Bill? That is the position we are in now, at Third Reading. Having taken that phrase out of the Bill we are left with regulations for a scheme being applied in respect of which this phrase is used.

I do not know whether the department have looked at the legality of what they are doing, and certainly it may well be that there is such a wide power given in the regulations to the Secretary of State that this is all right. But it brings me back to the point to which I have not received an answer, the point as to how the Government will work this scheme and how the children will be selected. We are told that the one thing they will all have in common is that they will all be poor. There are 500 children presently being educated, given the benefit (according to the regulations) of this education. How were they selected? How many applied? Why were these particular 500 selected for this private education that we in Scotland do not regard as the highest form of education but which is going to cost the country several millions of pounds? And the Government simply leave it at this: that they have nothing to do with the selection of the children, that it is entirely up to the school.

If we do not know about it in advance, will the Government give us information in the future as to who are the 500 and how they were selected? Was there any examination? There is no need for examination, according to the statute, but there may be need for examination according to the regulations based on Clauses 73 and 74 of the main statute. Shall we be given any information as to the spead of the incomes of the parents? Is it the poorest who are getting priority, or is it not? I think one of my noble friends on this side asked what was the relevant income; and the relevant income is that which is defined by the Finance Act as, virtually, gross income. But, additionally, it is reduced by £600 for every child in the family who is dependent upon the parents. You could, therefore, have a fair income. I worked it out that you could have £8,000 a year before you are ruled out of this.

According to all that has been said, the poorest children were those who were going to be affected by this. I do not think that that will happen. I should like to get information from the Government, not in particular form but in general form, as to the type of child who is benefiting from or being given the advantage of this—because that is the new phrase in the statute—or given the opportunity of attending these schools and as to the occupation, the profession, of the parents. I think it would be an eye-opener and would allow us to judge whether this statute meets up with what was suggested by the Government.

I approve of what the Government have done in respect of teachers' salaries and the conjunction of the two committees into one. But I still think they are courting considerable difficulties by the powers they have taken for the Secretary of State in respect of arbitration and the time they have taken. One of the most difficult things over recent years has been the whole question of teachers' salaries. I do not want to see a resurrection of the kind of troubles we had some time ago. I wish the Bill well. It is probably well meant but it falls far short of the needs of education today.

My Lords, there is only one other matter. When we had another discussion the other day about changes in the universities, the Minister of State volunteered the information that in the right to appoint the principal of certain universities, including my own, Glasgow, the change had been made that instead of the Queen appointing them they are going to be appointed by the university court. He said that it had been an anomaly. It is not an anomaly; it is something that has gone on since the year 1571 inder the nova erectio. It is more a tradition than an anomaly. I notice that Edinburgh had the good sense to say, "No", to the Government when they wanted to make the change apply to them as well. However, the universities agreed to it, I believe. I hope that they have no second thoughts in future about whether they were wise in doing so.

My Lords, I am certainly not going to divide the House and, with those few criticisms, will allow the Bill to go forward. I hope that the other place in due course will attend to the amendments, and we have made some amendments and improvements to the Bill during its passage through this House.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I should like to echo what I think the noble Lord, Lord Ross, at least implied and that was that we have had a number of interesting and, at times, constructive debates during the passage of this Bill through this House. I am grateful to noble Lords opposite who have made a number of suggestions, some of which have now been incorporated into amendments. The improvement of the Bill has come about through the earnest efforts of noble Lords on both sides of the House and to them I am grateful.

I am not going to go through all the features of the Bill. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Ross, has said in effect about the rights of parents in the future. These new provisions put beyond any doubt the rights of parents to ask that their children should attend the school they choose; because, as the House knows, the duty of the authority is to comply with such requests, except in certain specific circumstances which are set out in the Bill. Another innovation is the system of appeal; that is to say, the independent appeal committees which will hear references from aggrieved parents; and, over and above that, a second stage of appeal to the sheriff for the benefit of parents who remain dissatisfied with the decision of an appeal committee.

I regard that as a distinct improvement, but I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, who exercised our minds in relation to the publicity which might be given to parents who were the subject of such an appeal. I am glad that such appeals will be heard by the sheriff in chambers. That will be a significant safeguard, particularly to those parents who take advantage of that procedure.

The noble Lord, Lord Ross, criticises the Government in effect for, on the one hand, as he says, providing an element of parental choice and, on the other hand, for giving the education authorities what amounts to a much wider discretion in the management of their own affairs to the extent that they will no longer need to seek the approval or consent of the Secretary of State for Scotland as far as the majority of school closures are concerned. We take the view that the education authorities should tailor their pattern as far as the provision of school places is concerned to local needs and circumstances of parents and children in their area. We remain convinced that there are circumstances where the interests of parents have to be safeguarded and, therefore, there are built into the provisions these safeguards and in due course these will be brought forward in the form of regulations. The idea is that the interests of the parents will be well protected and that they shall have certain statutory rights of consultation before any proposed changes in educational provision can be implemented. This is part of the Government's general policy of making local authorities more responsible for what happens within their own areas. I do not believe that the fact that they will be given greater responsibility in the matter of school closures will have the slightest effect on the wishes of parents to place their children in the schools of their choice.

Then the noble Lord commented upon the provisions which have been written into the Bill so far as the Warnock Committee is concerned. It is not easy to write the proposals of the committee and the principles which that committee laid down, into a statute. There have of course been a lot of amendments and minor changes so far as this part of the legislation is concerned. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ross, because I believe he invented the term "record of needs" which was an improvement on the simple term "record". At the same time that is much more satisfactory than the path which the English have trodden in their particular Bill

I perfectly appreciate that the Bill is silent so far as the employment of resources is concerned. There again, we regard this part of the Bill as erecting a framework. It is for the local authorities to decide their needs and priorities and to make the best use of their own resources as they think fit. That of course is a matter for them. Another matter upon which the noble Lord, Lord Ross, touched was the assisted places scheme. As I have inferred from previous consideration of this Bill, nobody pretends that this assisted places scheme is more than the first step in something which we hope will grow. The response has been encouraging. The number of children, as I said on Report, who are likely to enter the schools—whether boarding or day schools—is likely to be in the region of 800 during this first year. That we regard as being a very good start. Of course—as the noble Lord wanted through one of his amendments—it would have been nice if enough money had been available to give many more children the chance of a boarding school education, but it is not. Therefore, we took the view that the chance of a place in an independent school should be given as widely as possible so far as the number of children are concerned and we had recourse therefore in our thinking to the greatest good of the greatest number.

The noble Lord complained at the lack of a cumbersome and bureaucratic machinery so far as selection is concerned. I hope that I have made it plain on more than one occasion—and I do it now for what I hope is the last time—that the concern of the Government has been to avoid any such cumbersome or bureaucratic scheme so far as the placing of pupils in these independent schools is concerned. How these schools choose the pupils who are to attend is entirely a matter for them. If they want to have what in my younger son's school are referred to as "egg heads" no doubt they will ensure that the children that come under this scheme are just that. On the other hand, if they want children who perhaps are (shall I say?) less brilliant but perhaps with more rounded personalities, then it would be a matter for them to ensure that the children they receive under this scheme are of that type and character.

It is a matter for the school to assess and to take into account bearing in mind the type of facilities which they can supply or apply to the education, welfare and benefit of the children in their care. The noble Lord said quite rightly that the assisted places regulations at the moment in effect stem from the 1980 Act. New regulations would of course be made under (I think it is) Clause 5 of this Bill and consideration would then be given to removing the phrase "benefit from" so as to conform with the Bill which has no such criterion.

The noble Lord asks what information is or will be available regarding the income of the parents of the children who obtain assisted places. As I told the House when we considered this Bill on Report, the information is not yet complete. But when it is, when all the returns are in—which I anticipate that they will be shortly—such information will be available on request. I do not think that it is the kind of information which we would put out generally.

There were other matters in the Bill such as the development of religious education which I regard as being satisfactory, as indeed do most of the churches and religious bodies in Scotland, but I do not wish to detain the House unnecessarily. I hope I have said enough to do two things: first, to show the Government's considerable satisfaction and confidence in this Bill which is going to be of the greatest importance so far as all the children of Scotland are concerned in the future. Secondly, I hope very much that I have said enough to convey the appreciation which the Government feel and I personally feel to noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock. They have stimulated the Government by their suggestions and arguments into considering many matters of this Bill again and yet again and have contributed to the improvement of the Bill as it has passed through Parliament on its passage towards the statute book. With those words, I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with the amendments.