HC I: [Debate on Address]
|Document type:||public statement|
|Document kind:||House of Commons Intervention|
|Venue:||House of Commons|
|Source:||Hansard HC [967/227-239]|
Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
I believe that nobody who listened to the Prime Minister's speech yesterday could possibly have doubted the strength—indeed, the passion—of her ideological commitment. I mean that as a genuine compliment. The distaste for ideology affected by some of her Cabinet members has always seemed to be dishonest or wet, or both. I assure the Prime Minister at once that there is no one on this side of the House who will regret that the political battle lines were drawn clearly and precisely by her yesterday for the rest of this Parliament.
Those battle lines—the rival positions of the major parties—are further apart today than at any time since the Second World War. Those sections of the Gracious Speech which deal with health, education and social security—I agree with the Secretary of State that they must be taken in the context of overall Conservative policy—demonstrate how wide and deep is the gulf between the two parties. The proposals in those passages invariably and consistently support the strong at the expense of the weak and help the rich to the detriment of the poor.
I believe that they stem from the Prime Minister's definition of freedom, a condition which she seems genuinely to believe will come about as a result of the policies which she presents. She thinks of freedom as the absence of interference by the State. All the policies by which she proposes to implement that philosophy turn out in the end—as they must—to favour the haves at the expense of the have-nots.
Apparently, the Prime Minister can construct a moral defence of a system which allows—indeed encourages—one man to buy himself a privileged place in the queue for hospital beds and thus denies another man the right to obtain the quickest treatment that the Health Service can provide. The Prime Minister 228will find it difficult to discover a quotation from St. Francis of Assisi that justifies that sort of behaviour.
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwhich West)
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how, after five years of disappointment under the Labour Government and after getting rid of £44 million extra to the Health Service from pay beds, the Eltham and Mottingham hospital in my constituency, which was nationalised at the start of the National Health Service, is threatened with closure after all the compassionate words from Labour Members?
Of course I can explain that. We have not been able to devote sufficient resources to the Health Service over the last five years. The divide between the parties is that of those of us who knew that public expenditure cuts had to be made and made them with reluctance and those now in the Government and Cabinet who regard them as good in themselves and believe in them as an article of policy and faith.
I should like to return to the philosophy of the right hon. Lady, about which I am sure we shall hear a great deal during the lifetime of this Parliament. I believe—this is supposed to be a compliment as well—that she will imprint it clearly upon her Cabinet and her Government. Knowing that the right hon. Lady is inclined to accuse those who disagree with her of conversion to Marxist tendency, let me put my criticism of her philosophy in its proper democratic context. Her error was explained 30 years ago by Professor R. H. Tawney, who said:
"It is assumed by the privileged classes that when the State holds its hand what remains as a result of its inaction is liberty. In reality, what remains for the mass of mankind is tyranny"
—the tyranny of private wealth and private power, but tyranny nevertheless.
I must tell the Prime Minister that her definition of freedom, with all the damage that it will do to those whom the Labour Party traditionally represents, is a concept in both principle and practice which we shall fight through the lifetime of this Parliament.
I have already given one example of the privilege which the Government, on their own acknowledgment and confirmation this afternoon, intend to extend within 229the Health Service. The second example, a grosser one, is to be found in the whole paragraph of the Gracious Speech concerning education. It contains four specific promises. Each one in the context of overall education policy can only help, and is designed only to help, a minority of our pupils and their parents.
Here is the first. No one, I believe, not even in the furthest recesses of the Tory backwoods, pretends that the selective secondary system is better than non-selection for the 85 per cent. of our children who do not qualify for grammar schools. I believe—and I hope that I can demonstrate this before my speech is over—that the academically gifted boy or girl has nothing to lose and much to gain from education in a comprehensive school. But, even if I am wrong, the central issue which divides us concerns the majority of our school population.
We believe that the country's education system ought to be based on the principle that all our children and all our young people are of equal worth. equal merit and equal value. A system which segregates and separates, the system which the Gracious Speech seeks to defend and extend, is bound to operate to the benefit of a small and, I believe, a decreasing minority.
I hope that throughout the life of this Parliament we shall be spared any more nonsense about grammar schools and comprehensive schools coexisting side by side. I promise that this will be my only quotation from the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, but since this is one of the few things that he got right in the past five years I think it worth repeating—it is his view, not ours:
"One cannot have grammar schools alongside comprehensive schools, or the latter will be nothing but misnamed secondary modern schools."
Therefore, let the Secretary of State for Education and Science say frankly and honestly that in those areas where the grammar schools are to be preserved the secondary modern schools will be preserved as well for 80 per cent. or 85 per cent. of our children.
While we are on the subject of the new freedom—those were the words, "the new freedom", used by the Secretary of State—I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman could tell us how it will operate in practice as well as in 230theory. For instance, if the new council in Tameside decides that it wants to convert its secondary schools to comprehensive schools, will the new freedom apply to it, or does the new freedom operate in only one direction?
Mr. Mark Carlisle
Of course I shall answer. The Tameside council will be free, if it wishes, to submit a section 13 proposal under the 1944 Act, and it will be looked at in the Department. It will be dealt with in the Department in exactly the same way as applications under that Act are always dealt with.
Some of us have memories of the Prime Minister objectively and honestly looking at proposals for comprehensive reorganisation between 1970 and 1974.
The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)
The Labour Secretary of State for Education and Science [ Shirley Williams] lost her seat.
Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East):
She was a better woman than you.
I show more foresight than most of the lads around her.
A disaster area.
Order. If the hon. Gentleman continues like that, I shall ask him to leave the Chamber.
A disaster area she will prove to be.
If the hon. Gentleman continues like that, I shall have to ask him to leave the Chamber. That is no way to conduct our affairs.
I do not want to defend my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds), but I think you ought to know, Mr. Speaker, that the Prime Minister, speaking from a sedentary position, was offensive about Mrs. Williams, and many of us, I think, took great exception to it.
I want to pursue the question of the new freedom which the Secretary of State revealed to us, because the new freedom exists for councils to choose which sort of secondary education they prefer, but 231it does not exist for them to decide whether they want to take part in the assisted places scheme. I wonder whether, between now and half-past nine, the right hon. and learned Gentleman could explain to us the philosophical criteria which exclude one of those areas from proper freedom but do not exclude the other.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)
It is a matter of parental choice.
What is the right hon. Gentleman now? Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, yes. The Chancellor of the Duchy says that it is a matter of parental choice, but let me remind him again that in the boroughs where grammar schools are preserved and secondary modern schools are preserved with them, the idea of parental choice, even under the new freedom, will be an absolute myth, as I shall demonstrate. If the Secretary of State is not capable of producing an explanation of why freedom works in some cases and not in others, we shall be driven to the conclusion that freedom works only when it is freedom to do what conforms with Conservative prejudices.
I now turn to the aspect of the matter of which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster reminded me. The second item in the paragraph on education in the Gracious Speech gives the promise to ensure that
"parents' wishes are taken into account in the choice of schools for their children."
Opinion in education is, I understand, divided about the desirability of that. For my part, I am passionately in support of it, but I know very well that, in practice, it works only in a comprehensive system. In areas where the 11-plus or the 13-plus survives, for most families the idea of parental choice is a cruel hoax.
In the past 48 hours I have looked up both the figures for and the practices of selection in Redbridge, Essex, Bolton, Bexley and Buckingham. If the House wishes, I, or my right hon. Friend who will speak later, will describe what happens in those authority areas, but let me at this point put the principle in brief.
A tiny proportion of the children obtain grammar school places. In Essex, 232for instance—what is called old Essex, that is, Colchester and thereabouts—2 per cent. go to grammar schools. Virtually all the rest go to the local secondary modern school—good or bad, overcrowded, understaffed, old or new. The local secondary modern school may be called a high school, or it may even be called a comprehensive school, but secondary modern school in reality it is, and there is virtually no choice as between one parent and another or one pupil and another regarding the school to which children are allocated. Moreover, those secondary modern schools often have worse facilities, are more overcrowded and are more understaffed because of the financial benefits heaped upon the grammar school in their immediate vicinity.
That, I believe, demonstrates our major objection to a selective system which divides young people and their education. It widens the gap between the provision in those selective schools which are regarded as superior and those other schools which are regarded as the ordinary run-of-the-mill establishments to which ordinary run-of-the-mill children go.
Exactly the same principle governs our objection to the existence of private treatment within the National Health Service. Whether there is a division and distinction within what ought to be a universal public service, the treatment enjoyed by the favoured minority improves and the service provided for the rest deteriorates. In fact, while the rich can buy something private and better, the public Health Service will never be good enough. Whilst the children of the influential go to different schools, sufficient resources will never be devoted to the maintained system. That is especially true in an era of scarce resources, when we cannot—I admit it again; I admitted it to an hon. Member below the Gangway who asked me a question and then left the Chamber—devote as much of our national income to these public services as we would wish.
It is against that background—a background which I admit is one where not as much money as many of us would hope can be spent on health, education and the social services—that I want to ask the Government some specific questions on the funding of health, social security and education. 233
First, on health, the Gracious Speech says:
"A Bill will be introduced to facilitate the wider use of private medical care."
The Secretary of State for Education and Science has confirmed that that means the encouragement of queue jumping. May we be assured absolutely that it does not mean the introduction of some of the more bizarre notions for financing the National Health Service which the Secretary of State for Social Services provided for the House during his days in Opposition? Lest to some new hon. Members some of those ideas seem so improbable as to be inconceivable, I ought to say that I have the reference to each of the occasions when he suggested financing the National Health Service by the insurance principle, when he suggested hotel charges for hospital patients, and when he suggested visiting fees for general practitioner services. May we be assured that they have been dropped and forgotten for ever?
Whilst we are pursuing those assurances, may we have some other reassurance on social security funding and benefits? The first concerns the upgrading of pensions. I do not think that I am being unfair to the Secretary of State for Education and Science when I say that not only did he not begin to answer the questions but as far as I could make out he did not begin to understand it. I ask it again, therefore. We, the Labour Government, instituted and accepted a legal obligation to increase pensions in line with either price increases or earnings increases, whichever were the greater. During the general election campaign the Government appeared to accept only the inflation uprating. If, as we hope, earnings rise faster than prices, under their scheme the pensioner will not receive any share of the growing national wealth and prosperity.
I know from a television performance in which the Secretary of State and I took part on Friday 4 May that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is inclined to cavil about the nature of the uprating promise that we made. To avoid a tedious semantic argument, therefore, let me put the question in very simple terms. Will the Government accept the same pension obligation as the Labour Government accepted? Do they accept—[Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentle234man is cavilling already. Do the Government accept that they have a duty to forecast increases in earnings and prices and then increases pensions to the highest level of those forecasts? If they accept that duty, will they promise that they will do what we did? When their forecast is in error, will they make it up the next year as we ensured it would be made up this?
Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)
On that very topic, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I wrote to the Department and asked whether the 1.9 per cent. would be made up when the next arrangements for pensions were introduced? I was informed that they would be considered in April but that no undertaking could be given. It was not until the election campaign began that the former Prime Minister announced that it would be made up.
I am happy to confirm all that the hon. Gentleman said. It was considered in April, we agreed to do it, and we announced it. I am sorry that he missed the announcement.
On this area of social security, I deal next with the child benefit. We proposed, when in Government, to increase the level of child benefit to £4.50 in the autumn. Will the Government do the same? I hope that they will. Indeed, to be consistent with the image which they created during the election campaign they ought to increase it by more than that, because they belong to the party of tax cuts and there is now no way in which tax cuts can be organised to provide benefit to large low-income families. If the Government believe that financial reductions ought to benefit the community as a whole, as part of their fiscal policy for helping the lowest paid, especially the lowest paid with large families, they ought to increase child benefit by more than £4.50. We have not yet even been told whether they will do it up to the amount that we promised before the general election.
That leads me to the funding of the education service. The Secretary of State for Education and Science begins his tenure of office with two major advantages. The first is the service which Shirley Williams bequeathed to him, which is in better shape in almost every way than it was at any time during the 235last 25 years. I give only one example. Class sizes are now the lowest on record.
Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)
That is due to the birth rate.
I was going on to make much the same point. Hon. Members who have been attending will recall that I told them of two advantages. Mrs. Williams was the first. The second is the fall in the school rolls which she, I am sure, would happily echo, as I do standing in her shadow. That was one of the reasons why she was able to make the progress which was a spectacular part of our history when we were in office. During the time of our three Secretaries of State, especially the one who abolished the grammar schools and now serves in the Conservative Cabinet—[Interruption.] I am told that he is not in the Cabinet. I am sure that he is working on that. The advantage of falling rolls was undoubtedly an advantage to Shirley Williams, and it is an advantage to the present incumbent of the office which she held with such distinction.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that when he was last in the position that he is now as Opposition spokesman, in July 1973, he moved a motion of censure on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in which he attacked her vitriolically for reducing the number of teacher training places from 119,000 to 60,000, and he said that the difference between a Labour Government and a Conservative Government was that a Labour Government would not use a fall in the birth rate to have public expenditure reductions? Since his own Secretary of State then reduced the number of teacher training places not to 60,000 but to 32,000, is not that typical of the two-faced nature of the right hon. Gentleman?
I remember vividly all the statistical arguments that I had with the right hon. Lady at that time. As I prepared my speech earlier today, I wondered whether I should refer to the one in which The Times, the Financial Times, The Times Educational Supplement, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph all said that she had been proved conclusively wrong. I am not sure whether Opposition spokesmen are entitled to put 236cuttings in the Library. If they are, I shall put in the Library the cuttings relating to that occasion, because I remember it with a great deal of pleasure.
I have not tried to run away from the fact that the falling rolls are the cause of the condition which the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) described and were an enormous advantage to the Government who came into power in 1974. It is an advantage which can be looked at in two ways. One way is that it is an opportunity to improve the system, and I was delighted that the Secretary of State described it in exactly those terms today. The other way in which it can be looked at is as an opportunity to reduce public expenditure, and I must tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that that is the way in which it was looked at throughout the election campaign.
I was told that during the election campaign the Secretary of State had said that education and science was an area in which savings might be made. If that is not the case, I shall withdraw the allegation at once. But whether he said that or not, there is no doubt that the present Financial Secretary, who probably is now in Treasury Chambers increasing VAT, said in a broadcast on 24 April on "The Money Programme" that one of the main areas in which public expenditure could be cut and in which savings could be made was education.
I hope that the new Secretary of State will resist that idea to the uttermost. Even if he is successful in that endeavour, all of us on the Opposition Benches accept that there will not be the funds available to do many of the things that he wants to do, and certainly many of the things that we want to do. It is in that context that we find it absolutely astonishing—indeed, absolutely disgraceful—that the only major area of new expenditure is £50 million to subsidise free places in independent schools.
That is not a vast amount of money, but I ask the House and the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider the other things that might benefit from £50 million—remedial teaching in inner city schools, the teaching of English as a second language, the whole range of positive discrimination to help schools in deprived and depressed areas and more in-service training for teachers who can then qualify in subjects where there is 237now a chronic teacher shortage. None of those things, according to Conservative criteria, has deserved that extra £50 million. Instead, we have this shabby little concession to Conservative prejudice—subsidised places in private schools. Whatever happened to the idea of one nation? When was one nation officially removed from the Conservative philosophy?
I am sure that we shall be told—indeed, we are told in the Gracious Speech—that those places will be provided
"for assistance to less well off parents".
I take it that by "less well off" the Conservative Party means the poor. There is a good deal to be said for calling the poor the poor. I assume that this is supposed to be the escape hatch by which the clever and the industrious ascend to the middle classes. Indeed, the Secretary of State described this provision in exactly those terms. I hope that he will examine the history of other escape hatches of that sort in the past 50 years—Fleming, under which working boys were to go to public schools, the entire direct-grant system.
We have all been embarrassed by a single example of the working-class boy who is hawked in front of us to prove how democratic the public schools have become. In fact, all the assistance schemes basically help children who would have gone there anyway but who nevertheless, because of the schemes, receive added assistance from the State. That is certainly what happened during the period in which the direct grant system was in operation. I have no doubt that it will happen when the new scheme is instituted.
That is the practical objection. There is a much stronger objection in principle. It is that the very notion of a superior element within the system—and everything that the Secretary of State said this afternoon suggested that there was this superior element to which all should aspire and which a few might attain—encourages the belief that most boys and girls can be forgotten as they go through the generality of the educational process.
In fact, that will not happen, despite all the things that were said by the Conservative Party during the election campaign about comprehensive education. 238The Secretary of State will understand that those who sit on the Opposition Benches feel that there is much to regret from those three weeks, not least the result. After the result, the most regrettable feature of that campaign seems to me to be the appalling campaign of denigration which was waged against comprehensive schools. [Hon. Members: "Where?"] Have right hon. and hon. Members already forgotten the poster which said "Educashun isn't working"? What was the message that it was supposed to convey? It was supposed to convey the message that the comprehensive system had failed.
That message was repeated by Conservative candidate after Conservative candidate, and for all I know it is believed by some Conservative Back Benchers. If they believe it, I hope that the Secretary of State will contradict them. If he needs any evidence, I hope that he will look at the press notice put out by the Department which he now runs on 22 September last year. It proved conclusively that the comprehensive schools were producing better education, better academic results, better all-round standards than we had ever known in this country.
The achievement of the comprehensive schools on behalf of our young people and the country is largely the achievement of the philosophy of the Labour Party and the Labour Government.
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
That is why they lost the election.
Some things endure. Let me give the hon. Gentleman a quotation to prove it. I do not often repeat the words of the Secretary of State for Industry, but one of his more endearing aphorisms concerned what he called the Socialist ratchet—those things which Socialists have done which cannot be reversed, those changes which we have so made that the clock cannot be put back. One of those changes is the non-selective system of comprehensive education.
The Conservative Party may do the system damage. It may harm the prospects of a generation of boys and girls in some of the boroughs that follow its prejudices. But the general improvement in education standards which the comprehensive schools have brought about, and for which the Labour Party is responsible, 239will endure and will remain one of our great achievements over the years.