With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about school closures in Scotland.
Regulations were laid yesterday which had the effect that, where an education authority proposed to close, change the site of, or vary the catchment area of, any school where the number of pupils at the school is greater than 80 per cent, of its capacity, that proposal shall be referred to the Secretary of State for his consent.
The House will be interested to know that since 1885 the Secretary of State for Scotland has had the power to review all school closures. Until 1981 any proposal to close any school in Scotland had to come to the Secretary of State for his consent. At that time, the House approved a change in the regulations, which left two categories of school for which the consent of the Secretary of State was required if a closure proposal was made — denominational schools and rural schools where the alternative was more than a certain distance from the school to be closed.
We all recognise that a number of education authorities are currently faced with substantial overcapacity in their schools. Understandably, some authorities are contemplating proposals that will involve the closure of a considerable number of schools. This will allow them to use their resources more effectively.
However, that task must be carried out in a balanced and sensitive manner. It is a clear priority of the Government—I would hope of both sides of the House —that education should reflect the interests of children and the wishes of their parents. The Education (Scotland) Act 1981 already places a duty on the Secretary of State and education authorities to ensure that pupils are educated in accordance with parental wishes.
It is therefore reasonable to expect education authorities to take into account parent demand in considering proposals for school closures. Clearly, no one can be surprised when an authority proposes to close half-empty schools. But where a school is full, or nearly full, and by that fact demonstrates that it is good value for money to its community, I believe that it is only right that there should be scope for further review of a proposal to close such a school.
In his statement, the Secretary of State referred to the need for a balanced and sensitive approach. Would he like to comment on the fact that Strathclyde education authority had no intimation of the regulations and that there was no consultation of any kind? The education authority had to gather what it could from press sources. When it finally sent a car to Edinburgh to obtain a copy this morning, it was told that it could have only a photocopy because the Department itself had only one copy.
As a matter of etiquette in the House, is it not deplorable that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, North (Mr. Adams), whose constituency will be closely affected by the decision, has not even been done the courtesy of being sent a copy of the Prime Minister's letter to the headmaster of Paisley grammer school? Surely that would normally be the order of the day. Is this a balanced and sensitive way in which to deal with the matter?
This is an extraordinary initiative, with serious implications for the way in which we conduct our business —implications that go far beyond decisions on any one school. The matter has been presented in the press, and, I suspect, by the Scottish Office machine, as a dramatic personal intervention by the Prime Minister. More fairly, it can be seen as high-handed and arbitrary and designed simply to court popularity. Is a genuine review about to take place, or does the Prime Minister's letter to the headmaster of Paisley grammer school prejudge the issue? It is very important to know that. If it does prejudge the issue, what does the Prime Minister know about the schools in Paisley? What does she know of Merksworth, Stanely Green, St. Aeldred's, St. Mirin's and St. Margaret's? What does she know about their catchment areas and the likely knock-on effect of the apparently arbitrary decision that she has made about Paisley grammar school? Will she at least ensure that there is a ministerial visit before decisions are made about the future of those schools? I do not mean a ministerial visit to Paisley grammar school alone but to the other schools, too. If an education authority had made a decision on such an arbitrary basis, without any proper consultation, it would almost certainly be in the courts—and rightly so.
Is it not a very dangerous precedent that a school should be singled out at a distance of almost 500 miles on the basis of the number of letters received by Ministers? Why should the balance of responsibility, as carefully adjusted by the Government in 1981, now be altered without consultation or rational debate apparently on impulse and on the narrow calculation of political advantage?
This is not an argument about one school, and I note that the Secretary of State did not mention a particular school. The fate of Paisley grammar is a legitimate matter of concern for the community itself, but the decision should be made in the proper context. Even if we took the Government's view on the merits of the matter, we would remember the old and relevant adage that hard cases make bad law. It is outrageous that we should be legislating apparently on the whimsical basis that one particular school has caught the attention of the Prime Minister. How many schools are likely to be referred to the Secretary of State as an immediate result of the passage of the regulations, and are they all in Strathclyde?
What criteria will be applied by the Secretary of State? In the regulations he refers to the percentage capacity of the school, but there must be other wider-based considerations — social considerations, educational priorities and the interests of the communities involved.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman guarantee that there will be consultation with all interests before he makes his final decision, and that, at least, he will meet the criteria set down for consultation that is imposed on local authorities by the 1981 regulations?
What will the right hon. and learned Gentleman say to the parents of children whose schools may be threatened by the impact of his decisions, and which may face closure as a result of any reprieve on which he decides? Will they be consulted in the process?
The reference to the maximum number attending in any one of the previous 10 years appears to be linked to the calculation of capacity. It has been put to me by a number of senior people in the Education Department that it is possible that a school which in any one of the previous 10 years had met that criterion would be automatically referred to the Secretary of State under the regulations. I do not think that is the position, but for the avoidance of doubt—it would bring many schools immediately within his authority—we must have an answer.
This is a sad way to conduct government. It will maximise confusion and bitterness when some schools survive and others do not; arbitrary dividing lines are always cruel. It is government by impulse and by whim, and I am sad to say that that is normally the mark of an authoritarian regime.
Is the Minister concerned—the Under-Secretary with responsibility for education may laugh—by what today's The Scotsman said:
If, as Mr. Forsyth said, closing Paisley Grammar would be an act of vandalism, then the regulations devised to prevent it are a greater abuse of local democracy.
The Glasgow Herald described it as:
A dismal day for what remains of local democracy … unacceptable arbitrary assumption of power …
The Evening Times refers to,
The Alice in Wonderland world of the Scottish Office.
It further spoke of
The naked demonstration of the Prime Minister's hatred of local government.
I shall give the Minister one last quote from the debate on primary education in Scotland and ask him to comment. It says:
If education authorities are properly to fulfil their accountability to the public, they must take whatever steps they consider necessary to rationalise the provision of school education. Therefore, schools closures, which occur in urban as well as rural areas, should be considered as part of a larger canvas and should not be seen as a discriminating or random measure.
We are committed to the principle of reducing direction from the centre". — [Official Report, 4 April 1985; Vol. 76, c. 1367.]
That was a quotation from the then Minister responsible for education, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), who, I suspect, is here to support something that is discriminating and random in its scope. What he said on that occasion is as it should be, but as it no longer will be. The conscience of the right hon. and learned Gentleman should be in tatters. I suspect that he may have been told and not consulted.
I am astonished by the synthetic indignation of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). He has tried to suggest to the House that this is an attack on local democracy, when the powers represented by the regulations tabled yesterday give the Secretary of State less power in respect of school closures than my predecessors had for 100 years, and, indeed, less than was held during the period of office of the Labour Government.
If that minor extension referred to in the regulations tabled yesterday is an attack on local democracy, we should remember the powers that the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan) had to require his consent for the closure of any school in Scotland — powers that had existed since 1885. The hon. Member for Garscadden tried to identify the mark of a dictatorial Government. I suggest to him that the mark of a dictatorial Government is a preference for bureaucratic tidiness over the wishes of parents with regard to schools.
The hon. Gentleman asked why the Prime Minister did not send a letter to the hon. Member for Paisley, North (Mr. Adams). The hon. Member for Paisley, North made no representations on the matter, unlike the rector of Paisley grammar school and 2,550 members of the public.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that the regulations are concerned only with one school. He had the grace to admit subsequently that nothing in the regulations or the treatment identifies a specific school. Indeed, there are almost certain to be other schools that will come within this category.
I shall come to that in a moment.
Neither I nor anyone else can tell the hon. Gentleman how many schools will be affected. It will be for education authorities to decide in the first instance whether they propose to close a school that is full as a result of the wishes of parents. I hope that it will be relatively rare that an education authority, against the wishes of parents, will even wish to contemplate closing a school that is entirely full. That is a fact that the hon. Gentleman should appreciate.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether any decision had been reached. No decision has been reached because there is a requirement that the education authority, as with other categories of school that fall within this category, must come to its own view. If it is a school of the kind referred to in the regulations, it is submitted to the Secretary of State, as it was for 100 years, including during every period of Labour government.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, as one who has had the support of Secretaries of State to retain country schools, both denominational and non-denominational, in my constituency against the wishes of the education authority, I believe that it is right that he has taken back these important powers? Will he elicit from the Opposition whether they want Paisley grammar school kept open? I suspect that, from the manner in which they are talking, they do not.
I agree with my hon. Friend; there is some confusion as to exactly what the Opposition's position is on this matter. If there is no confusion, no doubt we shall soon discover the answer.
It seems entirely crazy to consider listing a school such as Paisley grammar school for closure. I hold no brief for the way in which that decision was arrived at by Strathclyde education authority. The Secretary of State must surely accept that it is far better to leave these consultation processes to the local level to enable democratic decisions to be taken. It cannot be right for Government to come wading in with heavy tackety boots, as they did yesterday, to impose the change in regulations. He must accept that that high-handed behaviour raises all sorts of suspicion in people's minds. For example, if he does not know how many schools are to be caught by these regulations and are now listed for potential closure, how did he know to set the capacity level at 80 per cent? How did he know that it was necessary at all if he does not know the detailed figure, apart from one or two highly publicised cases? How does he know that these regulations are required for the vast majority of other schools that will be covered by them?
I am puzzled by the hon. Gentleman's question. He prayed against these regulations, I understand, but he now tells us that school closures should be left to the education authorities as the final arbiters. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman takes the same view of the current controls that the Secretary of State has for proposals to close schools in rural areas.
As the local Member involved, I extend my thanks to the Scottish press for giving me the letter that the Prime Minister sent to the rector of Paisley grammar school. The Prime Minister did not extend me the same courtesy.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the debate that took place in the House in which, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who was asking about decision-making in local authorities, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), said:
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's anxiety, but I believe that the decision must be made by the local authority. It must take account of all the factors involved, and it is responsible to all the electorate of the area."—[Official Report, 4 April 1985; Vol. 76, c. 1365.]
Does the Minister still hold by that or has he changed his mind? Is it simply the case that any local authority that does not agree with his diktat or takes any kind of decision that he does not approve of on any subject at any time will either be abolished, as we have seen in England, or simply have its powers taken away?
As the hon. Gentleman started his question by telling us that he has such good relations with the press, he might like to put that question to Mr. Neill himself, and no doubt he will find out.
With regard to the substantive part of the question, as the hon. Gentleman knows, until 1981, in the case of all schools, the consent of the Secretary of State was required before closure could be contemplated. Since 1981, two categories have still required the consent of the Secretary of State — certain denominational schools and certain rural schools. We have added one other narrow category. Therefore, the number of schools that have to come to the Secretary of State before closure is a tiny proportion of the number of schools that had to go to my predecessors in the last Labour Government.
May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on an excellent decision and his speedy response to the representations that he received from my constituents and myself about that particular school, although, of course, his regulations raise a more general point.
Does he agree that the difference between now and 1985 is that in 1985 nobody thought that an education authority would try to close a very popular school as a deliberate political challenge to the parents' charter, which is precisely what has happened? Does he further agree that the longer these questions go on the clearer it becomes that the proposal to close Paisley grammar school is being made on non-educational grounds and basically for political reasons? Is it not the height of absurdity for the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) to demand ministerial visits to schools when at the last Scottish Question Time he denounced the visit of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) to that school as a disgrace and an outrage?
My hon. Friend is certainly entitled to make that final remark, which I think is entirely valid.
Without commenting on any individual school, I can understand and indeed totally support education authorities which, faced with half-empty schools, are coming to the difficult and painful decisions that are required, which will lead to the closure of a significant number of them. Obviously, if schools are half empty and if, despite the parents' charter, parents do not wish their children to attend those schools, closure may often be a sad inevitability. But it must be sensible, when dealing with schools that are packed to the roof and when parents have expressed an overwhelming desire that their children should attend those schools, that there should be an opportunity to review a decision or proposal put forward by a local authority before a conclusion is reached.
I cannot believe that privately, whatever they may say publicly, hon. Gentlemen can seriously believe in their heart of hearts that it is unacceptable and unreasonable — when the Secretary of State has power to review denominational schools and certain rural schools—that a school which is full and which parents are passionately anxious to have their children attend should be subject to review. That seems to me to be something that should not flow from the ideology or policy of the Labour party. If it does, this is indeed a sad day.
The Secretary of State really must pay a little attention to the truth from time to time. His description of Paisley grammar is totally wrong. He knows perfectly well why there is a high poll in that school. He knows perfectly well why they are fighting against moving to a new school in Merksworth. It is because they would be sharing with kids from working-class housing estates. The Secretary of State knows it very well.
Secondly, he might come to terms—[Interruption.]
Secondly, the right hon. and learned Gentleman might reflect upon the truth when he says he does not know the figures. Every one of us who has looked at the material — and since he has brought in these regulations he had better have looked at the material— knows the figures and knows that 80 per cent, was chosen in order to save Paisley grammar, and nothing else.
Thirdly, he might reflect that there is more than one school in Paisley. There are six non-denominational secondary schools in Paisley. His support for Paisley grammar and the Prime Minister's intervention are condemning the other five. That is the truth of the situation.
Finally, if the Secretary of State wants educational grounds, let him think what effect this disruptive policy has on the whole of comprehensive education in Paisley. The person who raised the question was the Minister himself, who rejected the concept of intervention only in 1985. This has been a squalid and arbitrary intervention by the Prime Minister and her little "Wooden-Top" henchman on the Front Bench. Her interference has been increasing, is increasing and ought to be diminished throughout our social, political and educational affairs.
The hon. Gentleman has yet to explain why a power that was available under all Governments for 100 years is unacceptable when it is reintroduced under the present Government.
The hon. Gentleman says that he will explain it. The fact is that he has failed to explain it despite his intervention with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his current intervention. The fact is that the hon. Gentleman may have certain doctrinal objectives when it comes to education, but the Government believe that, when we are dealing with the schools that children attend, the wishes of their parents are a major consideration.
The Secretary of State has behaved in a despicable way. It was his Government who removed the need for school closures to be referred to the Secretary of State and they did so on the hypocritical pretence, as we said at the time, of giving powers back to local authorities. In reality it was to avoid being associated with unpopular and difficult decisions. Over the last few years Ministers have been urging education authorities to go ahead more quickly with school closures. Now we have the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, who has probably never been in Paisley in her life, intervening in this arbitrary, authoritarian but also highly selective way, leaving all the unpopular decisions still to the local education authority. These regulations are, like the Secretary of State himself—unprincipled and dishonest.
I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will recollect that at one time the then leader of the Labour party regarded a week as a long time in politics. Apparently now the time scale has narrowed to 24 hours. Does he not remember that yesterday the Opposition were complaining about the closure of Newbattle, despite the fact that it is practically unattended? It must not be closed because it is unionised. Now they are complaining about keeping open Paisley grammar school — which they probably would not complain about if it were called a comprehensive school — which is full. Does that not demonstrate their ideological hypocrisy and the fact that they are interested not in education but only in a minor ideology in which the people of this country, and certainly the parents of this country, have no interest?
Will the Secretary of State reflect a little upon what the Prime Minister said the other day at Question Time when she was asked to meet some nurses? She said that she had an excellent team of Ministers who would meet the nurses initially. In this instance, why has she usurped what has been the normal convention of the House? I hope that all hon. Members will have regard to the Prime Minister's method and approach of writing direct to the headmaster of a school, bypassing the Secretary of State's Office and having no consultation with the local authority. Will the Secretary of State reflect upon his position among this so-called excellent team of Ministers?
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that what is causing the irritation and synthetic anger on the Labour Benches is the fact that the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend have proved that they are closer to parents' wishes than the local authority in question? Does he further agree that this is a good example of how Conservative Members are prepared to listen to parents and take into account children's interests far more than the doctrinaire Socialists on the Opposition Benches who will sweep aside parents' wishes to fulfil their ideological requirements? Is that not relevant to the future role of our education policy?
Absolutely. We shall never apologise for, or be embarrassed by, giving the greatest attention to the expressed demands of parents, shown by the way in which they exercise their rights under the parents' charter.
If we turn the Secretary's of State's words back on himself, has he not created a bureaucratic tidiness and a bureaucratic straitjacket which is a recipe for conflict and has little to do with education? What is his Office prepared to do if a school, meeting all the other criteria, has only 79·5 per cent, capacity? Will he close those schools? What consideration will he give to education?
The power under these regulations does not mean that the Secretary of State will always refuse his consent for the closure of a school. It gives the Secretary of State the right to review a proposal to close a school, just as he has such a right in respect of denominational schools and some rural schools. When I am asked, "Why 80 per cent?", I hope that Opposition Members will accept that there must be a difference when dealing with a school that is full, or virtually full, compared with a school that is half empty. Whatever figure had been given, no doubt the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) would have asked exactly the same question because, basically, he is against people's wishes being taken into account on these matters.