Debate on the Address [First Day]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th November 1954.

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Photo of Mr James Ede Mr James Ede , South Shields 12:00 am, 30th November 1954

I am quite sure that all who have listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Malcolm MacPherson) will agree that he has put the points which he wished to place before the House both briefly and with a knowledge that entitles him to the respectful attention of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Education when he has considered these matters.

My own view is that my hon. Friend has raised one or two things which have long needed discussion, and I wish particularly to bring to the attention of the Minister of Education the problem of the use of the most highly skilled staffs in all our institutions of higher education, for it is certainly on the solution of that problem that our capacity to deal with some of the matters raised in the Gracious Speech will depend.

It is quite wrong that a man of the high qualifications mentioned by my hon. Friend should be employed in teaching elementary mathematics to junior classes when there are students needing education in the higher branches with which he is capable of dealing. I do not deride junior mathematics. Indeed, I sometimes have great suspicions of people who can juggle with the integral calculus like a juggler throwing up plates at a fair.

In these days, especially, there is a need in our secondary and technical schools, and in our technological institutes, for the full employment of all persons with the highest qualifications. Even if it needs some rearrangement of timetables and the sending of pupils occasionally from one institution to another during the period that such a teacher is available, that, I think, is one of the things that those in our educational institutions must contemplate as being among the necessities of the very near future.

Do not let it be forgotten that we are now beginning to deal at the secondary and higher education levels with the heavy birthrate by teachers drawn from generations of a much lower birthrate. Therefore, if we had established any sort of equilibrium—and I do not want it to be thought that this had been done with any scientific skill—in previous years in dealing with the allocation of highly-skilled teachers to the population, it is quite clear that the system will now be placed under a very severe strain, and that if we are to do what we should do for the rising generation we must take that into account.

This Gracious Speech is more remarkable for what it leaves out than for what it contains. The Government have failed to mention three or four matters, about some of which they expressed grave concern themselves not so very long ago, and others of which have cropped up during the last few months. For example, in last year's Gracious Speech Her Majesty informed us: My Ministers will give further consideration to the question of reform of the House of Lords. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said on 3rd November, last year: There is no harm in consideration. The Government of which the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister was such a distinguished Member, promised to give that consideration, I think, in 1910. Since he has been considering it for 43 years, a year or two more will not do any harm. It looks as if the Government are as far from action as ever."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd November, 1953; Vol. 520, c. 18.] I wonder how much consideration has been given to the matter during the past year. Is it true that some of the coronetted denizens of the primaeval forests of the country have intimated that the House of Lords is very well as it is? While it remains, I agree with them; but the astounding thing is that there is no mention of this matter in Her Majesty's Gracious Speech.

There has been some concern about the activities of chief constables in prosecuting small and comparatively innocent lottery promoters. We know why these things are run. While Surrey, winning the county championship three years running, does not need such help, some of the county cricket clubs have been kept going in recent years only by the promotion of these innocent forms of "try your luck." A Private Member's Bill was introduced under the Ten Minutes' Rule and was unanimously given the approval of the House. I hoped that there-would be an indication in the Queen's Speech that this quite innocent form of gambling would receive some protection from the law. I hoped, also, that we might be hearing the result of the Government's consideration of the Report of the Royal Commission on Gambling and Betting. It is about time that we heard something from them.

On 18th March this year, the House was discussing the Luton Corporation Bill. I see the hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill), although he is not technically in the House and, therefore, he cannot interrupt me. I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is here. The present Minister offered to stay and listen, but he would have had to break a very important engagement and I said that I really would not ask him to do that because he was not the Minister on 18th March. The right hon. Gentleman who then held that office said on that occasion: I feel confident at least of this, that it will be possible for a statement of the Government's intentions"— that is, in regard to the future of Private Bill legislation for the creation of county boroughs— to be made early next Session, and that is why I am asking the House not to give a Second Reading to the Luton Bill. He then makes reference to the Ilford Bill, which had been sent to Committee, and continues: This is the last time that I hope either I or my successor will ask the House to refuse approval to a Bill giving county borough status to a local authority solely on the ground that a new prospect is just around the corner. One of my hon. Friends, who does not agree with me on this matter of the promotion of county boroughs, asked me afterwards what I made of that statement. I said, "What I make of it is the certainty that the right hon. Gentleman will not be Minister of Housing and Local Government in the next Session of Parliament." I am not quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman has landed where his ambitions soared at the time when he made that statement, but, at any rate, he has landed his successor with this problem.

The right hon. Gentleman goes on: I confess that, in previous years, I hesitantly asked the House to reject this Measure. I ask the House confidently tonight to do so, because, before such Bills as this are due to be brought forward next Session, the Government will either have informed the House that they cannot introduce a Measure that will take the place of such Bills as this, or they will have announced in broad outline what their proposals are."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1954; Vol. 525, c. 712.] It is within my knowledge that the present Minister of Housing and Local Government is now conducting conversations—I think that that is as reasonably non-committal a word as I can use—with all the local government authority associations, and that he has managed to get them into one room together. The fact that they remain in the room and leave under their own power, is, I trust, a hopeful sign that something may materialise. I hope that the present Minister will realise the hopes that were raised by the speech made on 18th March last by his predecessor.

I trust that, before we get to that period of the year—it is not so very far away—when I understand that that Bill and certain others presented by non-county boroughs anxious for elevation in status will come before us, we shall have a statement that will enable the House to deal with those Bills on their merits, or that we shall have an assurance that the Government propose to take such steps as will put the matter on an orderly basis. In view of the statement made by the Minister in March last, it is to be regretted that no statement dealing with the subject has been made in Her Majesty's Gracious Speech.

We are pleased to see the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Education in his place, because any change in that office was bound to be for the better. I apologise to the Minister of Defence, whom I now see. I had been dealing with the statement he made on 18th March. Had I known that he was coming in I should have arranged my speech in a different order, but tomorrow he may have the opportunity of seeing what I said.

The Minister of Education comes to his office at a time when relations between the teaching staffs, the local authorities and the Ministry over which he presides are suffering from a state of tension that is without precedent in my very long recollection of that Department. I therefore welcome the statement in Her Majesty's Gracious Speech that In consultation with the teachers and local authorities, My Ministers will prepare a new scheme for ensuring a sound financial basis for teachers' pensions. One of the things that caused the utmost resentment towards the Bill which we may now, I suppose, call the old Bill, since there is to be a new scheme, was the fact that neither of these bodies was called into consultation at a time when the subject was still fluid. I hope that this statement in Her Majesty's Gracious Speech means that the Minister, with the local authorities and the teachers, will now examine the problem and will net bring to it any preconceived ideas that make it impossible for him to listen to the suggestions that the other parties to the discussion may make.

There are of course many sound financial bases for superannuation schemes. The sound financial basis of the Civil Service is that the Civil Service makes no contribution and the Government find all the money. That seems to me quite sound. At one time that was what prevailed in the teachers' superannuation relationships. When it was departed from, it was said by the Government of the day that the departure was purely temporary to deal with what was then regarded as a passing financial crisis. There is, of course, the local government superannuation scheme where the contri- bution of the employee is fixed and the local authorities have to make up whatever deficit may occur on the actuarial valuations.

One of the things that aroused most resentment during the early discussions on the Bill that we hope is now dead was the fact that the Minister at one time wanted to be able to raise the contributors' contributions by an order of this House, by delegated legislation. I want to assure the right hon. Gentleman—and I speak on this point with some authority—that both the teachers and the local authorities will be glad to enter into consultation on the basis that they are dealing with quite unbroken ground, that all ideas will be welcomed and that the matter can receive fair and full consideration.

During the past year this matter has not been without its difficulties. I want to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the statement that was made on 18th November this year by the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. G. Longden), who asked the Lord Privy Seal to remember that many on his side of the House considered the Bill—that is, the proposed Teachers (Superannuation) Bill—to be unfair. I am not at all sure that it was not the doubts as to the Lobby into which the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West and a number of his hon. Friends might have wandered, if the Bill had been taken for Second Reading, which secured its delay.

There is one other matter on which I want to touch before I leave the subject. On 20th May, 1954, after making his announcement about the business for the following week, the Lord Privy Seal said: Perhaps I may be allowed at this stage to answer the question which I am bound to be asked today, because I am asked it every week. It is in regard to the Teachers (Superannuation) Bill. At this period in the Session"— Then HANSARD reports that that was met with some glee on this side of the House. Hon. Members had better wait to hear the whole of my statement. At this period in the Session, most of our time must be devoted to the consideration of essential financial business and to the concluding stages of legislation. We shall thus be unable to proceed in the immediate future with the Teachers (Superannuation) Bill which, as it stands, would take effect from 1st July this year. From the point of view of assuring the ultimate solvency of the account a few months' delay is not vital but the House will realise that the longer the interval the greater will be the deficiency that will have to be met. It is, therefore, the intention of the Government to carry through the Bill as soon as the pressure of the Parliamentary timetable permits, and, in any case, before the end of the present financial year"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th May, 1954; Vol. 527, c. 2293.] If this is a new scheme, as described in the Gracious Speech, I do not think it will be possible for the consultations to take place in the kind of atmosphere which I have suggested if it is expected that the Bill must be placed on the Statute Book before 31st March, 1955. I am quite sure that if the statement in the Gracious Speech is to be taken in the way I have tried to take it tonight, as a suggestion that this is a matter on which consultation should take place between the three parties to all educational arrangements in this country, we cannot expect that it will be possible to carry those negotiations through in the time suggested by the Lord Privy Seal in May.

In view of the new words which are used, I do not suggest that anybody will feel bound by what was said on 20th May, and I therefore trust that this will not be a case of producing the old Bill and asking, "What is there in this that you do not like?" I am quite sure that if that is the way in which it is to be done, there will not be much hope of reaching agreement, and I therefore renew my plea that this shall be regarded as something completely new and that the Government, and the Minister in particular, will enter into negotiations on that basis.

In the two or three minutes which remain to me I want to say that I welcome the paragraph in the Gracious Speech which deals with the general education system, but it all depends on the way in which it is implemented as to whether the hopes one forms on it will be justified. I welcome, in particular, what I read to be a reference to the completion of the reorganisation of the rural schools. As President of the County Councils' Association, I was astounded when we collected from the various counties the statistics for the lack of reorganisation in those schools.

What we were told fully confirmed the statement made this afternoon by the seconder of the Motion for the Address, the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-East (Mr. Bullard), that, whereas the general run of unreorganised schools is 9 per cent., in his rural county 41 per cent, are unreorganised. I believe that there are a few other counties where the percentage is even higher. We cannot talk about implementation of the 1944 Act, or even approaching it, whilst so large a proportion of our rural population labours under that disadvantage.

I am quite certain that that is one of the things which leads to rural depopulation, for my farmer friends in various parts of the country tell me that the first thing an agricultural worker now asks when interviewed for a job is, "Where is the nearest school?" That is because his wife says, and quite rightly, "My boy and girl are to have the same educational chances as their cousin who lives in the town." While I hope to see a rural education in the rural secondary schools based on the immediate environment of the child, let us be quite certain that there are many things which, in the past, urban children have enjoyed which rural children have not enjoyed, but which they can enjoy within an education primarily based on their immediate environment and gradually spreading out, as their development proceeds, into more general matters.

I also welcome the reference to higher technological education. We still have a sufficient amount of inventive genius in this country to enable us to keep our position at the head of the manufacturing nations of the world for ingenuity and for quality. But, increasingly in the years that lie ahead of us, we shall need skilled people teaching and learning in these higher technological institutes, in which, in the past, we have been behind some of our great manufacturing competitors. The right hon. Gentleman can rest assured that anything he can do in that way to increase the skill of our craftsmen and to give the creative genius of our designers greater opportunities will have fullest support from this side of the House.

I do not like warning Ministers. Having been a Minister myself, I know that warnings are regarded sometimes as a quite unnecessary mentioning of their embarrassments. But the right hon. Gentleman has been quoted in the educational Press as having at one time said that his policy was to "treat'em mean and keep 'em keen." I know the right hon. Gentleman too well to believe that he will attempt to apply that in his present office. Let me tell him that what this country needs today is a generous and liberal outlook towards the human problems that are involved in our schools, for the growth of the population presents new problems. The crowding of our schools which is now occurring creates other human problems. Teachers and the local authorities hope that they will get from the right hon. Gentleman an understanding of their difficulties and a generous and noble lead towards the advancement of sound learning in this country.