Social and Educational Services (Cheshire)

Petition – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th July 1979.

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2.30 p.m.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe

During the general election campaign the Conservatives made a great deal of play of the changes that they intended to bring about in the way that our public services are financed. They made clear that their intentions were to shift from a system of direct taxation to a system of indirect taxation and to give a large amount of income tax back to a grateful public. Even this week we have been told that because of the Government's generosity in the Budget there can be no complaints if the current review of Government expenditure results in cutbacks in some public services.

In Cheshire we have one advantage that is not given to all counties, though it is given to rather more than is convenient. It is that we have a Conservative-controlled county council, and it announced recently that because it has gone well over its budgetary estimates it intends to cut £8·5 million off the public services supplied in Cheshire. Of that shortfall, £4·5 million will come from the education services.

A leading teachers' spokesman has already described the proposed cut as a declaration of war against the children of Cheshire. I am not sure that the Government have yet taken on board what is going to happen. We hear a great deal from the Conservatives about standards in education and the need for improvements in the three Rs. The Secretary of State for Education was apparently even suggesting at one point that we should lower the school leaving age, presumably because he felt that that would provide better fodder for the Government's economic policies.

If a cut of the size contemplated by Cheshire county council is made in a buudget for State education, the services will be materially damaged. I want to make clear that the cuts will be resisted not only by the unions concerned but by the parents of the children involved. Let the Minister be under no misapprehension about that.

Education is not quite like any other service. If a child in the State system is deprived of books, training and graduate teachers, and if a handicapped child is deprived of specialist teachers, they are being deprived of their future. In no circumstances can that be made up to them. It is vital that we should do nothing to make it more difficult for us to train our children for a highly complex, competitive and dangerous future.

Let us look at some of the suggestions of Cheshire county council. One hardly needs to say that the council is immediately freezing recruitment. The council is already making itself extraordinarily unpopular with surrounding counties because it has developed the bizarre policy of refusing to recruit from outside the county. Action is already being taken by other education authorities. The freeze on recruitment will result in posts that become vacant through natural wastage not being filled.

The council also intends to do away with teacher training and the advanced courses that are essential if our teachers are to keep up with advances in education. That policy can only damage the interests of the children.

It is also bizarre that Cheshire county council is prepared to see no alteration in the amounts available for uniformed police but proposes that in-house training for teachers and firemen should be abandoned—and that in a world where there are more complex safety standards being introduced all the time. Presumably it is all right to be suffocated by noxious fumes or burnt to death in Cheshire, but it is not all right to get mugged in the street. Those are the sort of priorities which the council is making clear that it intends to follow.

The council also intends to put up the charges for the use of schools. That will affect voluntary organisations, youth clubs, charities and all those who most need the facilities provided in schools. In addition, the council intends to increase the fees for adult education in a way that will prove to be an immediate bar.

I have had a number of letters from constituents who are appalled at the proposed charges for services such as the adult literacy sscheme. It is not difficult to work out that those who cannot read or write will not automatically find themseves among the highest paid members of the community. They have benefited greatly from the literacy scheme. It has been an enormous success in my constituency.

When the previous Government suggested that the money made available for the scheme should be discontinued, I made immediate representations to the Departments concerned and was given tremendous backing from the teachers in the constituency, who were able to make a foolproof case for retaining the service. The then Government accepted that the scheme was so useful that nothing should be done to put it at risk.

However, Cheshire county council intends to put up the price so much that, unless I am gravely mistaken, it will be virtually impossible to find people to follow the courses. Inevitably, they will say that they cannot afford the money.

There are other, much more dangerous aspects to the proposed cuts. A secondary modern school in my constituency had appalling facilities. I was so concerned about the physical conditions in the school that I had long talks with the appropriate Ministers in the previous Government.

I pointed out that the school had 16 mobile classrooms, on every piece of ground connected with the school. There were also intolerable problems inside the school. A private, if somewhat unscientific, examination of the children's circumstances showed that more than 30 per cent. of them came from families with five or more children and 25 per cent. came from one-parent families. The children desperately needed good education and good facilities.

The Department of Education and Science suggested a revolutionary plan, namely, a joint use scheme in which the borough council would provide facilities not just for the children but for other users in the area. So the Victoria Street scheme was born.

Cheshire county council, as the education authority, inevitably had a part to play, but it has recently decided to refuse to pay for the specialist staff to open the facilities that are of most use to the school. The DES and the borough council have made tremendous efforts to improve the facilities, but the county council is reneging on its part of the bargain.

It does not end even there. Almost every service that is of use to my constituents will be damaged. Adult education in Crewe will be virtually halted by the proposed rise in fees. Discretionary grants are to be phased out. Obtaining such a grant from the county council has always been a major undertaking, because it is probably one of the meanest county councils in the country and one of the least inclined to give discretionary grants.

If these discretionary grants are to be phased out altogether, it will be virtually impossible for anyone going for either further education grants or specialist grants to get any support from the county council. I do not merely speak about the straightforward educational facilities that exist in my constituency. There are colleges of further education in my constituency that hold courses for old-age pensioners, and TUC health and safety courses about safety at work. These courses are very fully subscribed to and will undoubtedly be damaged by the increases in charges that have been called for.

The county council intends to put up the cost of home helps. At least the county has said that it does not intend to cut them back any more, as it has already made a cut in home help services throughout the county. The county council claims to have taken the same percentage in cuts from everybody, but it fails to admit that there are areas such as mine that have an ageing population which requires more home helps, and therefore more facilities from the social services than other areas.

The county council proposes to close some of the residential and day-care centres and to put up charges for those who use them. That is the most extraordinary economy that anyone could devise. The reason for community care is that if one keeps an old person happy, healthy and moving about in the community, as opposed to occupying a bed within the National Health Service, one is actually saving the Exchequer a great deal of money.

Health care has moved more towards the maintenance of the sick, handicapped, and the old in the community because it makes economic and social sense. If day-care centres—of which Crewe has several excellent examples—are closed it will harm the elderly because it will isolate them in their homes and deprive them of facilities. It will give those old people the impression that they do not matter. The closures will lead to more money being spent nationally because those people will have to be put into hospital, where they will require full-time care.

Therefore, we are already in a situation in which the old will be materially affected. There will be no holidays for the handicapped, or transport for handicapped children from their homes to special centres. That will be cut back and in some cases, apparently, abolished There will be no day care for children under five yet that service make a tremendous difference to the families concerned.

I have received a letter from the Leonard Cheshire homes in Sandbach, which states that although an excellent occupational therapists' room is provided in the home, and fully used by the residents, the suggestions of Cheshire county mean that no teachers will be available to use those facilities. The people concerned will therefore be more isolated than they were previously.

Crewe needs its social workers. When there was a social workers' strike, it became painfully obvious just how much of our health care was underpinned by their work. However, there is to be no recruitment of social workers in the coming year. I spend much of my time in my constituency fulfilling the role of a social worker—as many Members of Parliament do—and it will be intolerable if the social workers so desperately needed are not provided.

There are joint ventures, such as the joint sports centres. The county council suggests that, where possible, it will hand them back to the local boroughs and where that is not possible it will close them. I cannot understand how people who eternally make emotional speeches about vandalism and the irresponsibility of the young can have the effrontery to close facilities that are now working properly, such as a joint sports centre. For example, because of a few problems with the floor, the county council intends to close a sports centre on a large housing estate in my constituency, where every facility is fully used.

That action will deprive the very children about whom they complain of the facilities that keep them off the streets and stop them breaking up various houses and local authority properties. Cheshire county council has announced a first wave of cuts which it admits is just a tiny proportion of the amount it will try to take out of the facilities that it will provide next year. If what is suggested now actually happens, we will not have a State education system in Cheshire and presumably we shall be sitting out intents and doing our work on slates, with bits of chalk.

If the cuts go ahead, and, on top of that, the Government ask for the £4,000 million cuts that are mentioned, the Government must heed this warning. The ordinary parent pays a large amount of his rates towards the £2 million that Cheshire county council spends on keeping a tiny group of children in independent schools. That parent will not at the same time be told that his child must take a much lower standard of education because the county council is only interested in a tiny group of privileged children and not in the State school or State child. If that happens, the Government will face considerable difficulty.

It will not just be Members of Parliament and the trade unions involved that will not accept that; it will be parents and children themselves, because one cannot consistently cheat a whole generation of schoolchildren and get away with it. The social costs will be very great and I will fight to the death before I allow that to happen.

2.47 p.m.

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

I felt that the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) poured far more gloom, despair and despondency upon the scene than exists. Before turning to the services in Cheshire, I shall give the House some economic background.

The Government fought the general election on a total commitment to reduce direct taxation and to give priority to the regeneration of the British economy. It was always recognised that in order to achieve these objectives we would need significantly to reduce public expenditure. The hon. Lady knows that the general election was fought upon those lines and the country took its view on 3 May.

The Conservative Party and many other people appreciate the need for a reduction in the role played by the State. To a large extent, that means a substantial reduction in the proportion of the national product spent by the State. The Government are still working out the implications of these policies in the context of public expenditure as a whole for 1980–81 and subsequent years.

However, for the current financial year, 1979–80, the Government had to take swift action. The hon. Lady knows that the worsening plight of the economy allowed no time for a systematic revision of policies. The Government, therefore, cut, in broad terms, some 3 per cent. from the expenditure for which they are directly responsible. In the joint departmental circular of 27 June, local authorities were asked to try to follow suit. That was backed up by the reduction announced in the Budget Statement of some £300 million in the level of rate support grant for 1979–80 to local authorities in England and Wales.

It is a fundamental concept of the present system of local government finance that, notwithstanding the fact that 61 per cent. of local government expenditure is met by central Government through the rate support grant, it remains for individual authorities to decide, and to defend at local level, their own priorities for expenditure in the light of their own assessment of needs and circumstances. The hon. Lady knows that very well from her experience in Government in the 1960s. By the same token, it is for individual authorities to decide how they will effect necessary economies, and it would not be proper for me to comment on the particular choices that authorities make.

However, the House may reasonably expect me to say something about education expenditure as a whole. I shall come in a few moments to the details of the social services and education expenditure in the Cheshire county. At about £7 billion currently, education expenditure accounts for roughly half of local authority expenditure on all services. Education clearly cannot, therefore, be insulated from the general requirement to reduce expenditure, but it is not our intention that the service should suffer disproportionately.

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

The hon. Lady says "50 per cent.", but I shall examine the statistics shortly.

Indeed, it is our policy—this was indicated admirably in the Queen's Speech—that standards in the education service should be maintained and, wherever possible, improved. I really believe that the hon. Lady was painting a somewhat irresponsible and gloomy picture about the events that will occur in Cheshire as a result of our action.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe

Will the Minister note the fact that the figures and the comments that I have been using have come exclusively from Cheshire county council and this is the council's own assessment of the effects of the cuts?

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

I accept that. At the same time, however, I was complaining to the hon. Lady about the gloomy picture that she was interpreting from those statistics. I shall examine them in a few moments.

The rate support grant settlement for 1979–80 assumed that there would be scope for some modest growth in education expenditure nationally. For some authorities, therefore, restraint in the current year could mean abandonment of previously planned increases but, nevertheless, the maintenance of existing standards. I am interested to hear the point of view about standards expressed by the hon. Member. I understand that the chairman of the Cheshire education committee takes the view that education standards in Cheshire can be maintained despite the cuts.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe

Mrs Dunwoody indicated dissent.

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

My impression is that the quality of provision in Cheshire is extremely high in all sections of education—primary and secondary levels and special. The authority has a reputation for innovation—that record stands—and has been co-operating in my Department's 11–16 curriculum project. Seven schools in Cheshire are directly involved. I can report that benefits are already being derived from this co-operation. For example, the authority is looking at time-tabling and reorganisation within its schools aimed at protecting a balanced curriculum at a time of falling rolls and expenditure cuts. I should have thought that that was a most commendable and acceptable platform. This is a direct spin-off from the 11–16 project. I am certain that the hon. Lady knows more about that than I do, in view of her representation in that area.

Comprehensive reorganisation will also be completed. The council voted strongly in favour of going ahead with its very carefully planned proposals. I understand that these will be implemented in September this year. The authority is continuing its practice of providing an additional four teachers to each new comprehensive school in the formative period.

Pupil-teacher ratios in the county are good. In primary schools the ratio is 23:1; in the 10 to 16 age group, it is 16·9:1; and in the 16 to 18 group the ratio is 10:1. The overall pupil-teacher ratio in Cheshire of 20:1 is well in line with the national average, and is slightly better than that of other authorities in the North-West of England.

Detailed policies for 1980–81 and subsequent years have yet to be decided. In the meantime, we have been considering in consultation with the local authority associations where priorities should lie and what the implications of certain policy decisions might be. Throughout these consultations our overriding aim—which the Government are sure that local authorities will share—has been to ensure that the essential elements of the education service are preserved and maintained.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe

Perhaps the Minister would answer one very simple question. There is Department of Education and Science money in the Victoria centre. Frankly, I do not accept many of the figures that the Minister has given, because he has given averages across the county as a whole and, as he knows very well, this means that some areas are much worse served than others. As there is DES money in the Victoria centre, which presumably now will not be fully utilised because of the attitude of Cheshire county council, what will be the Minister's attitude if that situation arises?

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

It is my intention to refer to the Victoria project towards the end of my remarks, but I want to get on to the subject of social services, because the hon. Lady raised several important points. I should like the House to know that we accept a great deal of the concern and we are anxious to ensure that the hon. Lady is well aware of the Government's policy.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe

More than the Government are.

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

So far as social services are concerned, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services recognises that any real improvement is dependent on improved economic performance. The better this can be, the more the old, the sick and the deprived will benefit. Through higher pensions and allowances, we are going the whole way to protect them in cash terms from the effect of the measures needed to get the economy right. The purpose of these measures is not just to improve the standard of living of the families of those at work but, when our policies have been successful, to raise the level of social provision for the vulnerable and the needy as well. The hon. Lady must surely share those objectives.

These policies inevitably involve cutbacks in public expenditure now. This, of course, must include local authority expenditure and, although it is too early to say what, in practice, the effect on the personal social services will be, my right hon. Friend has made it clear to local representatives that he does not expect these services to be exempt from cuts. Many authorities will, in fact, already have taken the wise precaution of reviewing their existing services and of drawing up contingency plans for a progressive reduction in expenditure which can be implemented to the extent necessary over the next few years, when it is known what order of cuts is required.

The particular points which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has emphasised as ones which authorities ought to have in mind during their reviews—and the general indications are that this is the case—are, first, the increasing importance of ensuring that all available resources, including professional dedication and skill, should be used to the best advantage, with increased efficiency wherever possible; secondly, his hope that authorities will do their utmost to protect services for the most vulnerable groups, such as the very old and frail, the seriously handicapped, the mentally disordered and children most in need of care; thirdly, the fact that the Government regard those parts of local authorities' child care services concerned with the prevention and treatment of delinquency as having the same priority as law and order services. This was underlined by the hon. Lady, and I hope that we can achieve some measure of agreement on that aspect. The fourth point is that there is still much scope for further encouragement of the voluntary sector and self-help by neighbours, family and friends.

State provision cannot be a panacea for all social ills, and there is unquestionably a need for a more fruitful relationship betwen the statutory and voluntary services and for the maximisation of the use of community resources.

I said to the hon. Lady that Cheshire was one of the first authorities to commit itself to community projects. I turn now, briefly, to the aspect of the Victoria community high school in her constituency. The hon. Lady knows that this is now under construction in phases in central Crewe. It will provide in the same buildings accommodation for an 11–16 school, for adult education and for leisure facilities for use by the community.

The first phase, now in use, provides in a remodelled building accommodation for the first two years of the school, a youth club and a family centre. Later stages will include teaching accommodation for the upper years of the school, a base for adult education and further community facilities. An important feature of the scheme is that because it is jointly financed from educational and locally determined resources this school and the community will obtain the maximum benefit from the deployment of scarce resources as well as from the use of existing buildings.

I should have thought that this kind of project demonstrated effectively that Cheshire is fully playing its part in recognising the importance of community provision and education in the county as a whole. I should have thought that the hon. Lady was being churlish when she suggested that Cheshire was one of the meanest counties in terms of public expenditure. It is interesting to note that her county spends a high proportion of its budget in education, about £145 million out of a total original budget of £231 million for 1979–80. This reflects the county's commitment, for this year's reduction is only 2·9 per cent. in education terms. This is some way below the national average.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe

The hon. Gentleman cannot skirt lightly over this matter. Whether he likes it or not, Cheshire county council will refuse to pay the wages of the specialist staff that will enable the facilities about which he has been talking to be put into operation. What will he do about that waste of the Department's money?

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

The hon. Lady must understand that this is very much a matter for the local authority. She knows from her previous involvement in Government that it is very much for the local authority to decide. As the Minister, I have no powers of intervention in that aspect. The hon. Lady should be gratified that this community project is now well off the ground. I hope that it will continue to play a fulfilling role within the community of her constituency. I do not believe that her case rests so far as Cheshire's contribution to the education and social services community of this country is concerned.