HL Deb 22 October 1985 vol 467 cc989-95

3.50 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble and learned friend.

With the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science about the teachers' dispute in England and Wales. The Statement is as follows:

"Intense efforts have been made in recent months by the Government to bring this damaging dispute to a satisfactory conclusion. I regret to say that they have so far been unsuccessful. Some of the teacher unions have chosen to continue to disrupt the education of the pupils in their charge rather than accept—or even to discuss—the offer made to them. I deplore this, the damage it causes and the example it sets.

"In August the Government offered the prospect of an additional £1,250 million for teachers' pay over four years from next April, a sum equivalent to an extra 4 per cent. on the present pay bill, rising to an extra 9 per cent. by the fourth year. On 12th September the employers made an offer constructed upon the conditional Government willingness to see this substantial extra investment in teachers' pay. Under that offer all teachers stood to receive increases in April and November. Those on their scale maxima would have got additional increases in either September or next March. The average end-of-year increase would have been over 8 per cent. In addition, one in five classroom teachers would have benefited significantly from the additional 70,000 promotions planned from September 1986 All of this would have been on top of any normal annual increase negotiated from April 1986. All classroom teachers at present on Scale 1 or Scale 2. even without promotion, could have looked forward to £10,500 plus whatever is negotiated each year on pay. In return for these proposals, which would have brought real benefits to the education service, as well as substantial improvements in pay for large numbers of teachers and in promotion prospects, the teachers were asked for a clear commitment to the professional fulfilment of their duties and an acceptance of a pay system which would have offered relatively greater rewards to promoted teachers and to those holding senior leadership posts.

"The teacher unions took just twenty minutes to reject this offer. Since then some unions have been engaging in forms of industrial action explicitly intended to cause the maximum disruption to the education service at the minimum cost to the teachers involved in the disruption. This is deplorable and underlines why we so urgently need an agreement to define more clearly the teachers' professional responsibilities.

"Since then I regret to say that the employers by a small majority have been willing to make offers relating to pay alone. Even before the teacher unions confirmed that their demands far outstrip the employers' capacity to pay, I repeated the Government's position. We refuse to provide any additional resources for a "no strings" pay deal which would be a reversion to the discredited approach where negotiations on pay are separated from negotiations on pay structure and conditions of service. Separation has for years meant "you pay us now and we will talk about reform later"—simultaneous negotiation of all elements provides the only credible way forward. Notwithstanding the passage of the original deadline, therefore, the Government remain ready to consider whether additional resources could still be approved within the £ 1,250 million envelope for 1986–87 and subsequent years provided the conditions for reform are met. The Government are also willing to set aside resources—from within the total of £ 1,250 million—to help employers cover the cost of supervising pupils at midday. I have discussed this proposition with the employers and it is agreed between us that officials should now clarify the way ahead.

"The Government will continue to make every effort to see a bargain struck which would provide improved pay and prospects for teachers in return for a better career and promotion structure, the clarification of teachers' duties, and an end to the disruption.

"Our objective is to improve the standard of teaching in schools and the quality of our education system. This is why we have agreed to the commitment of such substantial additional resources towards improving teachers' salaries. But we are not prepared to release the resources without simultaneous action on teachers' duties and the pay structure to ensure that the nation receives a fair return for this very large investment."

My Lords, that concludes my right honourable Friend's statement.

Baroness David

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement, although I must express profound disappointment at the Statement itself and, indeed, its tone. The Secretary of State is proposing nothing new, nothing constructive, to help to bring this very worrying dispute any nearer to a solution. I fear that the attitude he takes up with the teachers can only alienate them. We should like to express our sympathy to the teaching force, which is a very professional body coping in a situation where resources are all too scarce.

As reports from Her Majesty's Inspectors and only yesterday from the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations make all too clear, it is not surprising that morale is low. The Government's inconsistent policy in the public pay sector must make the treachers feel undervalued. The local authorities have tried to help bring the dispute to an end by trying to reach an agreement on this year's salary claim, but unfortunately this has not happened. As the situation has developed, can the Secretary of State sit back and let the education service disintegrate before his eyes, because there is no doubt that the education service and the children are now suffering badly?

Surely the only sensible solution is to set up a completely independent inquiry with an independent chairman respected by all parties to the dispute. There should be a remit to report as soon as possible. The Government should commit themselves to funding whatever the independent committee on inquiry recommends. That would seem the only sensible, the only possible, way forward at this stage. It is what I had hoped might be in the Statement. Instead there is merely a reiteration of the Secretary of State's position, which we in fact already knew.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, from these Benches I should like to join in thanking the noble Earl for having repeated this Statement. We certainly deplore the way in which the dispute has dragged on for so long at the expense of schoolchildren.

There are a number of unhappy points about the present situation. As I understand it—and I confess that I am no educationist—the Secretary of State for Education has a duty to provide education under the 1944 Act and it hardly seems to me to have been helpful that at the weekend he should have suggested that prosecutions should be brought aimed at seeing that teachers fulfil their duties. Nor does it seem to me to be helpful—and the noble Baroness, Lady David, has already made some reference to this—that parents should be having to find so much money to fund essential school equipment.

However, in a situation like this one is anxious to say nothing that will make the situation worse and to be as positive as possible. Let me, therefore, welcome at least on point in the Statement—that is, that the Government are willing to set aside resources to help employers cover the cost of supervising pupils at midday; and we welcome the point that this proposition is to be discussed with the employers.

For the rest, I hope that the House will forgive me if I revert to a point that I have made before in the interests of a long-term solution. It appears that the teachers are looking for a settlement now which offers them the promise of an eventual return to the position which they occupied in what might be called the pay league table immediately after the inquiry conducted some years ago by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. However—and here I may be viewing things rather differently from the noble Baroness—is it not part of the overall problem that when matters relating to the pay of a particular group, in this case teachers, are examined in isolation, attention is concentrated on the situation from the viewpoint of the group concerned rather than from that of others affected by it? Does not the present impasse strengthen the case for disputes in the public services generally in the last resort to be settled by a single independent standing body whose findings could be overturned only by resolutions to that effect by both Houses of Parliament?

4 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I think it is customary for me to say that I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady David, and to the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, for the way in which they have received the Statement. However, I find it difficult to say that in the case of the noble Baroness because, although I have always found her extremely reasonable both inside and outside the House, I must admit that today I find her totally unreasonable. The noble Baroness has launched an attack upon my right honourable friend and upon the education service. I should point out that spending on each pupil is at its highest ever level, and pupil-to-teacher ratios have never been better than they are today.

The noble Baroness said that my right honourable friend has done nothing constructive about this dispute. In the course of negotiations in January the employers offered 4 per cent. or arbitration; in May they offered 5 per cent. or arbitration; in July, informally, they offered a phased deal worth 5.85 per cent. in the year and 6.43 per cent. next year, conditional upon agreement on reforms; and on 12th September they offered a package of pay improvements—pay, promotion, structure reforms and agreement on teachers' duties—worth 5.85 per cent. in the year and 8.06 per cent. in 1986–87. On October 14th, informally, they offered a no-strings pay rise worth 6.9 per cent. in the year and 7.5 per cent. by the year end. All those offers have been rejected by the teachers. As the Statement says, the last offer was rejected in 20 minutes. Certainly the teachers are not putting forward a constructive approach; it is coming from my right honourable friend.

The noble Baroness also asked about an independent inquiry. My right honourable friend has said that he is prepared to consider that. However, it would have to cover conditions as well as pay. In fact, the employers, who I understand are mostly made up from friends of the noble Baroness, proposed this but the unions threw it out. I do not know where we go from here, but it is untrue and unfair to blame it all on my right honourable friend.

The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, asked about my noble friend's call to employers last week on television to take disciplinary action against teachers or to take them to court. The distinctive feature of the dispute is the ability of those taking industrial action to minimise the consequences to themselves of the action that they are taking. At the same time they aim to cause the maximum possible disruption to the education service in which they are employed. In those circumstances, I firmly believe that my right honourable friend was quite right to question whether their employers should adopt a more robust approach to refusals to undertake duties which the great majority of people—teachers included—have been doing anyway for a long time, and which many of them consider to be a normal part of their job.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, on a matter of clarification, the noble Earl used the figure of £10,500. Who and what proportion of people in the teaching profession will receive that under the new agreement?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the answer is that no one will because the teachers have turned it down. However, that was the offer which would have resulted to the basic teacher on scale 1.

Lord Alexander of Potterhill

My Lords, for 30 years I had some responsibility for the negotiation of teachers' salaries. I am glad to say that we did not have a strike. I accept that difficulties can arise—indeed, difficulties did arise. They were precisely similar difficulties to those which have now arisen, and they arose when the teachers' salaries had fallen behind other people's salaries for several years. It was in that situation that the Plowden Committee was set up. The teachers received an increase of 30 per cent. to try to restore the position to that which was appropriate. However, in the Plowden Report there was a recommendation which I regarded as being of great importance to try to secure that a similar situation would not occur again. It was the establishment of an independent review body. We have independent review bodies for nurses, doctors, dentists, policemen, the services and judges. Why not one for teachers? That recommendation was rejected by the Government.

That proposition has been put to the Government again—not once but many times—and it has been consistently rejected. When the Prime Minister was taking through the other place the proposals relating to the judges and senior civil servants, she made a point in support of her case that there had been independent review bodies' reports on nurses, doctors, and dentists, all of which had been accepted. Seven days before that, the Government had rejected the establishment of an independent review body for the teachers. I wonder whether the noble Earl the Minister can tell me why.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I think that the answer is: once bitten, twice shy; and twice bitten, damn foolish. I believe that the noble Lord. Lord Rochester, referred to the Houghton Report. This is a report which the teachers are always quoting, saying that in 1974 their pay levels were brought up to date. At that time this was in the expectation of (and I quote the report): Professional standards of performance in return". That report was followed by the Clegg Report some six years ago, which again set large pay levels, having taken into account: The wide range of extra curricula activities which are part of the professional obligation of teachers to pupils, parents and schools". Both times the contents of the teachers' job were not set down in contractual terms. For years and years there have been talks on them, and still we have reached no agreement. I think that the answer to the noble Lord—who I greatly respect and who I know extremely well as we worked together for many years—is as I have said: once bitten, twice shy; twice bitten, look jolly carefully at it.

Lord Jacques

My Lords, is this not another case of confrontation at very high cost? And in this case the cost is being borne by the children.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, in a nutshell, yes I think it is. However, I believe that the confrontation is coming from the teachers and not from the Government.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, does my noble friend appreciate that many people outside think that the teaching profession is doing enormous damage to teachers and to their claim to professional status by indicating a willingness to damage the education of children in their care in pursuit of their own financial interests? In those circumstances does my noble friend not think that to give them a separate review body of the kind suggested by the noble Baroness opposite would be exceedingly badly received by public opinion generally?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I very much agree with what my noble friend has said. Of course, my right honourable friend is only too well aware of the enormous damage resulting from this dispute. The education of many millions of children is suffering; their parents are suffering; and damage is being done to the educational service, which will take a very long time to repair. Both the Government and the employers—and I stress this again to the noble Baroness, Lady David—have made great efforts to find an honourable settlement. However, goodwill is needed on both sides.

Baroness David

My Lords, will the Minister agree that ultimately the education service is the responsibility of the Secretary of State, and that when things have come to as bad a pass as they have, surely it is up to him to make a further move and do something?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the only something that he can do is to produce a lot of money and give it to the teachers. The Government are not prepared to do that without some commitment from the teachers that they will sign some form of contract which clarifies conditions of service.

Lord Alexander of Potterhill

My Lords, is it not a fact that the Secretary of State has an absolute power of veto in the Burnham Committee? Is it not a fact that the employers wished to make an offer which the Secretary of State banned them from making, and that that is what started the trouble?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I simply do not know. I know that there was a disagreement between the employers and my right honourable friend on the last offer they made; but the offer was made and the teachers refused it.