Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1969 Oct 31 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

HC I [Debate on the Address - Pensions and Education] (Short speech)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: House of Commons Intervention
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [790/549-55]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 1258-1317. MT spoke at c554.
Importance ranking: Trivial
Word count: 2349
Themes: -
[column 549]

12.58 p.m.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

I do not intend to follow the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) in his attempts to persuade the Minister of State to discuss a White Paper that has not yet been laid before us. Nor am I going to follow him into the somewhat complicated and tortuous fields of pension legislation.

However, I cannot forbear to say to the hon. Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) that his attitude on housing indicates the sheerest effrontery that I have ever heard. Whenever Opposition spokesmen speak of the housing achievements of this Government, they always conveniently overlook the fact that last year we achieved the highest figure for local authority and private housing that has ever been achieved since the war. The hon. Gentleman never replies to the point which we put to him and which we shall continue to put to him, that the fall in local authority building now is directly the responsibility of councils run by his friends and, in fact, many local authorities which are now building houses and which have changed hands from Labour to Tory are carrying out programmes which were laid down by outgoing Labour councils. If may do a little advertising for something which will, I hope, come before the House next month, I ask the hon. Lord to read with care and interest the forthcoming report on housing subsidies which my Estimates Sub-Committee has investigated. He will find there some of the reasons why our housing situation still presents some of its difficulties.

I read the Gracious Speech with pleasure because it puts before us much that is overdue in both long-term and short-term policies. We shall await the unveiling of some of the legislation with interest, because a good deal of it is still, of necessity, shrouded in mystery. All of us on this side understand both the economic and psychological effects of rising prices on the people, and the disastrous effect of action taken, often against the advice of trade union leaders, on both earnings and productivity. In [column 550]the mind of most of my constituents, the main failing of this Government has been their unwillingness—surely not their inability—to deal with rising prices. If we had a properly planned economy, which we have not, prices would be controlled. Even some capitalist countries have decided to control prices. So why do not we?

I am glad, therefore, that there is a promise in the Gracious Speech of legislation to deal with the question of rising rents. But I have been concerned by what is written in the Press about my right hon. Friend's intentions. If he intends to allow local authorities to raise rents by 7s. 6d. or 10s. a week without first applying to him, there will be a great deal of opposition from these benches, since that, clearly, will not prevent the increase in rents spoken of in the Gracious Speech.

Another thing which I can never understand in the whole context of rising prices is why my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State has never attempted to mobilise the most important section of the community, the women, to deal with the problem, particularly where women are the greatest spenders, that is, on the everyday things which mothers with families have to buy. I am sure that, if she were to mobilise the support of women, much could be done to persuade them to be more critical and more effective in the way they purchase the sort of things which they have to obtain every day.

All of us on both sides are glad that the Home Secretary is to introduce legislation to deal with the growing menace of drug addiction. We must be much tougher with those who break into premises and steal drugs which they can then sell on the black market and with those who offer drugs to children in schools, to young people in youth clubs and to young people anywhere. We must deal also with the irresponsibility of doctors who over-prescribe. We have not dealt satisfactorily with that yet, and neither have we dealt satisfactorily with the treatment of drug addicts or with the after-care of those who have had treatment in hospitals. The situation is serious in this respect, and one might have expected the noble Lord the Member for Hertford to mention this as a problem of great concern and one for [column 551]the solution of which much more aftercare and help is needed from society.

Last Session, we introduced legislation to improve and humanise the divorce law. The Gracious Speech promises that, during the coming Session, there will be further legislation to make financial provision for parties in divorce. My hon. Friend the Minister of State said nothing about that, though I had rather hoped that he would. If the Bill is merely to lay down procedures for the division of joint matrimonial property, there will be great disappointment on both sides of the House. The Government's reply in the other place when the Divorce Reform Bill was before it offered no hope for the divorced wife and children of the lower-paid worker. I am glad that something is to be done for widows, but there are other fatherless families in this country suffering poverty and deprivation. Fatherless families as a whole, including widows, are a section of society within which there is great deprivation and poverty in our affluent society.

What is needed is a proper allowance paid by the State in certain cases for as long as is necessary. In my view, the State should take over the responsibility of recovering from the husband in either divorce or separation whatever he can pay to support his family, and this burden should be removed from the divorced or separated wife. If these proposals are not included in the Bill, we shall try to amend it and have that principle accepted by the Government.

I welcome wholeheartedly the proposal in the Gracious Speech regarding equal pay, but I regret that it will not be effective for another six years at least. This is a long time for women to have to wait for justice. I should like to see a firm date set early within the lifetime of the next Parliament, and I hope that the trade unions will stand firm on the question of equal pay, not allowing special strings to be attached. Women have a special function in society, and the laws which protect women in industry must not be diluted in order to achieve equal pay.

I am pleased to welcome the foreshadowed legislation requiring local education authorities to prepare plans for the reorganisation of secondary education on comprehensive lines. As one who has urged this in the House on many occa[column 552]sions, I am delighted that at last—I regard it as long overdue—the Government are to take steps to see that the handful of local education authorities which have defied the Government so far will be asked to put their house in order.

I am sorry that my own local education authority is one of that small number which have made it necessary for the Government to introduce a Bill, and I regret, too, that the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), the other Member for Wolverhampton, is not in the Chamber today to defend the action of the Tory-controlled Wolverhampton council in this matter.

I support comprehensive education because I passionately want to see all the children in my constituency having the opportunity of the best kind of education. If the best kind of education happens to be the kind of education which the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames mentioned when he was chastising the Prime Minister for what he had said, that is, if it is a grammar school level of education, then it should be offered to a far greater number of children. I support comprehensive education because it cannot be offered or provided otherwise. It is a matter of enormous regret that some local education authorities are prepared to play politics with our children's education.

If the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames says, as the Leader of the Opposition does, that we are imposing our will on local education authorities, where is the imposition of will? The Government had this proposal in their election programme of 1964 and again in 1966. In 1964, we were returned as the Government, admittedly with a small majority, but it was still our policy and those who voted for us then knew it. In 1966, we were returned with a much greater majority, with the same policy in our election programme, and people knew it. We are carrying out the programme on which we were elected to power, as is our duty.

In Wolverhampton, the education authority's scheme is that the two single-sex grammar schools there should be preserved for all time. We have a number of “Cinderella” secondary modern schools which have not been improved at all, and somewhere in between those [column 553]two extremes there are some so-called comprehensive schools. Many of them are in good post-war buildings, but by the very nature of things they cannot offer true comprehensive education so long as there is this pernicious creaming off of the small section of top ability children into the two single-sex grammar schools. This does not work. Teachers' organisations throughout the country are solidly in favour of comprehensive education. I have had an enormous number of letters and petitions and have met deputations from teachers and parents in the Wolverhampton area complaining about the hotch-potch that the Wolverhampton authority has introduced.

What does the right hon. Gentleman say? What will the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) say about local education authorities that are thwarting the express wishes of parents and teachers in their area?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

At most local elections, including that in my borough, this was a major issue. In the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, where this was a major issue, Conservative councillors were returned for 59 of the 60 seats. The view of parents and electors in the Royal Borough is therefore very clear.

Mrs. Short

The right hon. Gentleman is not answering the question I put to him about my area. What would be his reply if he were Secretary of State for Education and the local education authority was thwarting the will of the people and the teachers?

Hon. Members

Leave it to the electors.

Mrs. Short

They made their decision at the last General Election, as they will do at the next, when they support a Labour Government again.

It is bigoted selfishness that prevents a sensible proposal being put forward by the Wolverhampton authority, the Birmingham authority and the other seven authorities that are defying the Government. My right hon. Friend has all my support in bringing forward the Bill. It is the same kind of bigoted selfishness that compels the Tory-controlled education authority in Wolverhampton to throw off all the Labour managers and governors. One of the Labour councillors made a speech last March at a prize-giving at a [column 554]so-called comprehensive school saying that all the schools should be like that and then there would be a much greater opportunity for Wolverhampton children to obtain scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge. Perhaps this explains why the Tory-controlled Wolverhampton education authority did not really want to see proper comprehensive education.

The Leader of the Opposition has chosen this issue as one of the main planks of his opposition to the Government, and he comes forward in his rusty armour as defender of privilege and the 11-plus, and the destroyer of a modern educational system, which comprehensive education is. I think that he is on a losing ticket. Both he and the hon. Member for Finchley have said that comprehensive schools are all right provided they are purpose-built. This means, if it means anything, that we must postpone the introduction of comprehensive education anywhere until we can afford to spend many million of pounds on scrapping existing secondary schools, which may well be very good and in very good buildings that can be expanded and adapted to decent-sized comprehensive schools. It means that we must ignore all this capital stock and postpone comprehensive education until we can go ahead and build a large number of new purpose-built schools. The hon. Lady and the Leader of the Opposition know perfectly well that this is a nonsense.

The hon. Lady also said in her first radio interview after she was appointed that comprehensive schools were all right on large estates, implying that what she regards as second best for secondary education is all right for large council estates.

Mrs. Thatcher

No.

Mrs. Short

The hon. Lady said “large estates” , and in this country they are large local authority estates, not large private development estates. So she is saying—and this is typical of the Opposition—that second best is good enough for the workers of this country. She has a great deal to learn and a great deal of study to do before she is accepted as a believable spokesman on education.

If the hon. Lady is saying, “We will allow some comprehensive education. We want to maintain the grammar [column 555]schools, but we are opposed to the 11-plus examination” , how would the Opposition then select the children to go into the grammar schools? If they believe in keeping comprehensive schools and perhaps building new ones, but at the same time keeping the grammar schools, how are the comprehensive schools likely to build up viable sixth forms? How does the hon. Lady intend to attract the best academically qualified staff to the comprehensive schools if the grammar schools are allowed to exist alongside them? If she says, “We will keep the grammar schools, but have no 11-plus” , what kind of selection procedures would she adopt to allow the parental choice that her party makes great play with?

Perhaps she would also tell us what parental choice existed for children who went to the secondary modern schools under the tripartite system, because the numbers of children entering grammar schools varied greatly in different parts of the country. The average was 20 per cent., so 20 per cent. of the bright children—drawing a line roughly coinciding with the number of grammar school places and not the innate ability of the children tested at the time—went into the grammar schools. The other 80 per cent. went to secondary modern schools, so where was the choice when Conservative Governments were in power?

I hope that we shall be told today that we shall have the Bill very quickly. I want to see it as the first introduced this Session, because we need it. If the Opposition intend to oppose it hook, line and sinker, both here and in another place, they will expose themselves as the defenders of an outmoded, Victorian, divisive education system.