Orders of the Day — Health, Education and Social Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th May 1979.

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Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson , Camden Holborn and St Pancras South 12:00 am, 16th May 1979

It is customary in a maiden speech to pay tribute to one's predecessor and have a quick trip round one's constituency. I have no sense of obligation in paying tribute to my predecessor, Lena Jeger. She was a most doughty fighter for democratic Socialism and a powerful advocate of the interests of the people I hope to represent. She first came into the House in 1953. She delayed her maiden speech until 1954, when she took the unusual step of talking about defence and foreign affairs, and did so most effectively. She was later told by the late Herbert Morrison that as a woman she should confine her activities to more womanlike topics. She upbraided him, pointing out that if husbands and children were killed in war it affected women as much as men. It was a lesson for Herbert Morrison and should be one for everyone in the House.

The hon. Lady was a doughty fighter for many causes that were not popular when she took them up. She was a great supporter of the Cypriot people in their efforts to establish a democratic State in Cyprus, she was a stout defender of nuclear disarmament, and, despite what she said to Herbert Morrison, she stoutly pursued a large number of what might he described as women's issues at a time when they were unpopular and she was ridiculed for pursuing them.

I am the first Labour candidate since 1945 not to be "Jeger for Labour" in Holborn and St. Pancras, South. Lena Jeger succeeded her beloved husband, Dr. Santo Jeger, whose name is still revered by the older constituents, and rightly so. It is claimed that Boadicea is buried in our constituency under platform 9 at King's Cross station. Hon. Members, particularly on the Labour side, who came across Lena Jeger when her dander was up must have felt like the Romans when Boadicea's chariot wheels came towards them as she was leading the British. In my time I have suffered a severe dressing-down from her and I am sure that it did me good.

Turning to a trip round the constituency, it is curious that what others regard as odd services we regard as major industries and employers. The area includes the Inns of Court, full of tax lawyers and other lawyers who are well off. We also have large centres of learning such as the university that provide a great deal of employment, and a substantial number of great hospitals that provide employment and do a great deal for the sick. The three main line railway stations of King's Cross, St. Pancras and Euston are probably the major employers in the area. It is with great pleasure that I tell the House that I am honoured to be sponsored by the National Union of Railwaymen, the better to represent those people who work at and travel through those stations.

Although it may touch on controversy, except for those who live in the Inns of Court and who used to live round the great squares of Bloomsbury, most of the people in the area that I represent—those in Covent Garden, King's Cross, Somers Town and at Euston behind the stations—lived, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, in appallingly squalid conditions. Those conditions prevailed because of the free market. The services on which those people had to rely for housing, health and education were provided by a free market or, to be more correct, were not provided because the free market was not interested in them. Their ancestors' conditions were greatly ameliorated by churches and charities.

It was no accident that Great Ormond Street hospital, University College hospital and the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital were established in the area that I represent by people of a charitable disposition because they knew that those services were needed. I say to those who are talking of introducing a private element into medical services that the motives behind that are very different from the wholly laudable motives that led to the establishment of Great Ormond Street, the EGA and University College hospitals. The motives behind the establishment of hospitals such as Wellington are profit-making. They provide no teaching facilities for doctors or nurses, and their establishment is a parasite that draws on publicly trained nurses and doctors.

That principle applies also to housing. The disgusting housing conditions in which people lived in the area that I represent were ameliorated initially by housing trusts. Public expenditure by the local authorities over the years is the only thing that has established decent housing in the area. Therefore, the people I represent have much to fear from any erosion of public expenditure on housing, health or education, particularly in our area where so many people are dying to get their hands on the real estate that they see our area as representing.

Although I did not intend to talk about education, having listened to the debate I shall do so. My children go to a local school. Like all the other primary schools in Inner London, it is comprehensive. All the children of the area go to that school. There is no testing. They have adequate and enthusiastic teachers, and children of all races, creeds, colours and levels of intelligence get a fine standard of education. Last Friday I received from the Inner London Education Authority a letter telling me that our eldest daughter would not get into the mixed secondary comprehensive school that we thought was best and that she preferred. We are sad and she is upset, but I believe that we are in a position to choose a school for her amongst a number of other mixed or single-sex comprehensive schools in our area. I am happy to be able to exercise that choice and do what I can to get her a good education, but also to ensure that the children who have less encouragement at home than my children will also be able to get a good education.

To the extent that there are shortcomings in the area that I represent, they are because the Inner London Education Authority proceeded too slowly—not too fast—in eliminating the relics of the grammar school system. Some of the comprehensive schools are more popular than others because until recently some of them were grammar schools and therefore attract ambitious parents more than others that have been comprehensives for a long time.

During her speech yesterday, the Prime Minister referred to the average cost of educating a child at school. She gave the impression—and of course I may be wrong—that she thought that the figures were too high. She said: The average yearly cost of educating a child in primary school is now £324. In a secondary school for children below 16 it is £455, and in the sixth form, £800 per pupil."—[Official Report, 15 May 1979; Vol. 967, c. 80–1.] I was amazed to hear that because I think that those figures represent a good bargain. It is a bargain for any ratepayer or taxpayer to get that sort of service from very dedicated teachers. I hope that the Government do not intend to reduce those averages by cutting down either on the standard of buildings or on the number or quality of teachers provided.

The Prime Minister did not mention in her speech the cost per child of a local authority being forced to finance a child's attendance at school outside the local authority system. The Conservative candidate in my constituency in the election was a schoolteacher at Harrow. I made it my business to find out fees at Harrow school. I understand that, depending on the kind of service one wants, one can pay between £2,000 and £3,000 a year at Harrow. Although people decry the public sector, in this case, at least, it seems that the public sector provides a decent service at far less cost than the private sector.

At the beginning of my speech I referred to the doughty and dedicated qualities of my predecessor, Mrs. Lena Jeger. I have gone to schools only as a consumer, either as a pupil or as a parent; I have no other connections with the education system. But wherever I have gone, particularly in the Inner London area, I have always found large numbers of dedicated teachers battling to provide a decent standard of education for everyone in the public sector. I hope that the Secretary of State will quickly resolve the present dispute in the teachers' favour in order to ensure that teachers are given every encouragement and opportunity to provide the sort of education which our children need and which they are longing to provide.