School Building (Minor Works Programme)

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

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 15th April 1965

At the end of his remarks the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Chataway) said that this would be a valuable debate if I dealt with certain matters in my speech. I do not think that he intended to imply that it had not been a valuable debate so far, but, in fact, it has not. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have raised a serious matter, but they have not tackled it seriously. What they have been attempting to do is to take up this new pose, which they have been trying so desperately to take up during the last week of a new militant Opposition, and they are scraping the barrel for any issues which they think will help them to attain that end.

The problem of minor works is of real importance, but, because of the way in which it has been presented to the House this morning the issue has been distorted beyond all recognition. It is nauseating—and I think that people outside the House who care about education will take the same view—that these crocodile tears have been shed by the party opposite who presided over us for so many years with such complacency, and without regard for the parlous state of school building.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, North spoke not only about school building, but about other election promises which, he said, we had broken. He said that we had broken a promise to take students grants out of the means test procedure. If he looks at the Labour Party's election manifesto, he will see that there is no mention there of taking students' grants out of that procedure. Many of us on this side of the House, myself included, are on record since October last as saying that we would like to take them out of the means test procedure, but the hon. Gentleman will not find that it was included in our list of priorities to be dealt with in a five-year period of office; so I think that the allegation made by the hon. Gentleman should he nailed straightaway.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the teacher training programme. He will be aware that we have announced an expansion of teacher training colleges which amounts to almost doubling the numbers in colleges in eight years, accepting the recommendations of the Robbins Committee which the late Government has not accepted by the time they went out of office.

The hon. Gentleman attacked us for being mean about teachers' pay. I would not want to comment on this in detail, because the matter has gone to arbitration, but I must point out that the offer was one of 12½ per cent., way outside the norm of incomes which has been recognised as the basis for the price review body. The hon. Gentleman said that it was a good thing that there was now arbitration to settle these matters. He will be aware that during 13 years of Conservative government there was no arbitration to settle them. It has existed only during the last few weeks, since the Royal Assent was given to the Remuneration of Teachers Bill, introduced by the Government in the autumn.

I could go on giving examples of what has been done. If we are to have a debate on education, let us have a serious debate on the real issues.

One of the most extraordinary accusations made by the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) was that it took us five months to publish the school building survey. He will be aware that the school building survey relates to 1962. He will also be aware that the late Government refused, over a very long period, to publish it at all, and had no intention of publishing it because it was embarrassing to them in view of their record in office.

I take that as the starting point in a discussion on minor works. In this country, in round figures, we have about 29,000 schools. Taking the 1962 figures, which have been improved slightly since, but only slightly, in round figures 17,000 of those schools were found to have sanitation mainly out of doors. Approximately 6,000 of these schools have no central heating, 9,000 have no staff rooms and between 10,000 and 11,000 have seriously substandard sites.

This parlous state of school building was inherited by us after years of Conservative neglect. I can well understand that people who care about education —people on education committees and teachers' organisations, and so on—will nag and prod us, as a Government, as they did our predecessors, for larger building programmes. But it does not come well from hon. Members opposite, after we have been in office for about six months, to make the kind of speeches to which we have listened this morning. The minor works programme must be seen in its proper contexts. It must be seen, first, in the context of the grave economic crisis that we inherited from the last Government—the crisis that the hon. Member for Lewisham, North rejected as "a threadbare argument about the balance of payments". I can only say that there is nothing threadbare about a balance of payments deficit running at about £800 million a year.

Secondly, we inherited from the late Government an increased school-building programme. If the hon. Member wants to do so, he is welcome to take credit for that. It is true that in the last 12 months or so before the election took place, and with the election expected at any time, the late Government decked out their window for the election. The hon. Member said that we fought the election on their education programme. What happened was that in the last year they moved closer to what we had been advocating for many years, and announced an increase in school-building. They made a very big increase in the major school-building programme, from the rate of approximately £60 million a year at which it had been running to a new rate of £80 million a year. This was long overdue, but was, nevertheless, a substantial increase. But it was an increase which depended, as all the other promises did—in regard to hospitals, road building and the rest—on the country's attaining a rate of economic growth which it had never had in 13 years under a Conservative Government.

In that context it was a reckless programme. Nevertheless, despite the economic crisis, we have maintained it, and I say deliberately that a Conservative Government, bearing in mind their past record, would have cut these programmes, faced with the balance of payments deficit. We have stuck to them and have not cut any of them.