School Building (Minor Works Programme)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th April 1965.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Christopher Chataway Mr Christopher Chataway , Lewisham North 12:00 am, 15th April 1965

I shall come presently to the point that troubles the hon. Gentleman. The fact is—and he will not deny this—that estimated expenditure on minor works for 1964–65 is £21·85 million. The hon. Gentleman must not shake his head, because that was an Answer given to me by him and his Department. That is estimated expenditure for 1964–65. Estimated expenditure for 1965–66 is £21 million. On the lowest estimate, therefore, the amount by which the minor works have been cut is £850.000.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government's decision caused real distress in the education world. It will mean particularly the withdrawal of freedom to local education authorities to spend on mini-minor works. It will mean that modernisation of many of the worst and oldest schools will be stopped. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes gave the figures for his own county. Others of my hon. Friends have given figures for Hertfordshire and for Somerset. There are many others which I could give. I have a letter from Kent giving a most distressing picture of what the cut is likely to mean in that county. In the few minutes that remain to me, however, I do not want to repeat figures which will be known to the Minister of State.

I want the hon. Gentleman to understand the depth of feeling which exists about this matter. Hon. Members opposite would understand it better if they were to look back over the yawning chasm that now divides present Government education policy from Labour Party pre-election promises. They must understand that it does not relate only to school building. University students are rightly disgruntled at the way their reminders of Labour's pre-election promises to abolish the means test on grants are brushed aside.

We on this side always said before the election, and we still say, that the means test should not be abolished in the years immediately ahead, but many students thought that Labour speakers meant what they said. So did hundreds of people in the adult education world. For all the massive promises of the present Minister of Housing and Local Government, the Minister of Land and Natural Resources and the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works, the grant is smaller this year than the average annual grant over the last ten years. It is no wonder, therefore, that the National Institute for Adult Education and others are somewhat disillusioned.

Last May, the present Minister of Housing and Local Government held a Press conference to announce official Labour policy on teacher-training. He said that on this issue the Labour Party found itself divided from the Robbins Committee and that We propose to bring forward to the years 1965–1970 the increase in training which the Government has postponed until 1969–74. It is important to remember that that was a Press conference announcing a formal statement of Labour Party policy after a high-powered study group had looked at the problems of teacher-training. It was a solemn declaration of party policy.

In office, the Government have done nothing of the kind. Instead, they have rather quickly produced a target for 1973–74 in advance of the recommendations of the Advisory Council and they have picked about the lowest figure they could for 1973. We will not say whether it is right or wrong until we see the Report of the Advisory Council. All that can be said is that it bears no relation to the statement of party policy given last May.

Again, there was hardly an election speech by Labour candidates, from the Prime Minister downwards, which did not promise vastly increased pay to teachers. Now, negotiations have broken down on an offer of £43 million, which, in real terms, is just slightly less than the Eccles 1961 award of £42 million, about which the party opposite made impassioned speeches for the following four years. It is somewhat ironic that the figures should be almost identical. The present Government may well be thankful that they now have a sensible arbitration machinery, thanks to the action of their Conservative predecessors. I for one hope that that arbitration machinery will produce a settlement that will be satisfactory to both sides.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) said, it is Maundy Thursday, and I, too, feel the need to be charitable. I am bound to say in fairness to education Ministers that this startling contrast between present performance and pre-election promise is not confined to their Department. There probably never has been a Government in this country which bought a small majority with such a reckless spate of promises. In no field, however, were the promises more prolific than in relation to school building. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes has given examples.

I hope that when he defends himself today, the Minister of State will not defend the cut in minor works by boasting that he has not also cut the Conservative major building programme. That has been the line taken in one or two speeches made by the hon. Gentleman and by the Secretary of State. To hear them, one would sometimes think that they had fought the election on the Conservative education plans. One would think that they had gone to the electorate, pointed to the £300 million school-building programme that had been successfully carried through during the last Parliament and argued that the further increase to £80 million annual programmes from 1965 was a reasonable advance. Of course, hon. Members opposite did absolutely nothing of the kind.

I will give just one example. At Question Time on 7th May last year, I suggested that the Labour Party were not committed to higher building programmes than the then Government for 1965–68. The present Minister of Land and Natural Resources, who was then the official spokesman on education for the party opposite, jumped to the Dispatch Box to say: The Parliamentary Secretary"— that was myself— should know that he is quite wrong. We have discussed the school building programme in previous debates and made quite clear that we regard the present Government programme as wholly unsatisfactory and inadequate."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1964; Vol. 694. c. 1442.] That was a reference to the present 1965–68 building programmes.

It is against this background of what one must call really wholesale vote purchase that we discuss the minor works cut today. There are three excuses that the Minister of State has given in the past that I hope we shall not hear again. The first is the threadbare balance of payments argument. The decision to slow down school improvements has nothing to do with the Government's organised financial panic of last autumn or with the run on the £ that was then precipitated. Mini-minor works really are not paid for in American dollars or German marks. The Minister of State will know this.

I hope, in this connection, that the hon. Gentleman will not suggest that in 1961–62 there was a general cut-back on education because of an economic crisis. This is a suggestion which one sees made. I notice, incidentally, that it is made by one of Labour's supporters who writes the Peter Quince column in this week's "Teacher". It is worth recalling that education expenditure at the time of the economic crisis 1961–62 went up in a year from £943 million to £1,084 million. an increase of nearly 15 per cent., because this is a general line of argument that is too often wildly advanced from the benches opposite.

Secondly, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not try to justify this action on the ground that local education authorities have been tackling their mini-minor works programmes with growing efficiency and eagerness. Of course expenditure on mini-minor works has been rising. Of course, they spent more in the past year than was expected. If we give freedom to local education authorities to get on with jobs costing less than £2,000, we have to recognise that any estimate that we make of their expenditure is bound to be a guess.

I think that it might have been reasonable, in the face of this growing expenditure, not to increase the sum allocated to minor works costing between £2,000 and £20,000; but to withdraw the freedom to carry through the smallest jobs is a very serious blow to the schools, and, as my hon. Friends have said, will be a particularly serious blow to the older primary schools, many of which face no prospect of complete rebuilding for many years to come.

Thirdly, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not reproduce the rather bogus egalitarian argument to which my hon. Friend referred. It is just not true that the more enterprising authorities who do a lot of small jobs of this kind thereby necessarily reduce the resources available to other authorities. The small local firm which does this sort of job simply is not large or mobile enough to do the same work in another authority's area. It is sheer nonsense to argue that the freedom to do mini-minor works distorts the distribution of capital spending.

Rather than repeat any of those excuses, I hope that the Minister of State will address himself to the problem that is left. Having sold the pass on mini-minor works, the Government cannot, I appreciate, for this year, introduce mini-minor works freedom for jobs under £2,000. What I want to urge is that freedom be given below some figure, say £1,000. There are, I think, the strongest administrative arguments for this, quite apart from the fact that without some such dispensation there to be, as chief education officers have stressed, a halt to many school improvements, and enormous frustration. At present, anything that is in the nature of improvement is capital expenditure. That means that the smallest improvement has to go through the elaborate procedure of getting into a mini-works programme. If there is to be a new washbasin where there has not been one before, it has to get into the mini-works programme. If there is to be a new lavatory fitting where there was not one before, it has to get into the mini-works programme. The installation of the most modest little hot water system has to get into the mini-works programme.

Those jobs make no calls on the building industry. They are carried out by the sort of firms which do the decorating, maintenance and repairs for which authorities still have freedom, because they are not capital expenditure. To quote Sir William Alexander again, he says that a job of this kind does not involve the architect's department; it does not involve the kind of contractors who are concerned with major projects. It involves the local plumber and local joiner, who do not undertake building schools, but who can replace dry closets. This is an important consideration, and I urge the Minister of State to think very carefully about it and to set a limit—I have suggested one as low as £1,000—below which local education authorities should have freedom of action. If the limit were as low as £1,000, it should not he necessary even to estimate the expenditure and to calculate it in distributing the total minor works figure.

We have wanted today to register some of the deep disappointment that there has been over the Government's action with regard to minor works. This will, I think, have been an extremely valuable debate if the Minister of State agrees to the modest proposals which I have put to him. This is, I suggest, an opportunity to relieve some of the frustrations which have been caused by the Government's decision in February both to cut the total minor works allocation, and to reduce the freedom for local authorities to spend under £2,000. Some action is needed, and the proposals which I have put to the hon. Gentleman would, I believe, be of real value to local education authorities in the short term.