Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:43 pm on 19th March 1997.
I am grateful for the opportunity to inform the House about the difficulties that are being caused to all schools in Vale of Glamorgan by the incompetence of the Labour-controlled Vale of Glamorgan council.
At the end of last month, schools were told that the council was about to impose budget cuts of £3.13 million on education. The effect on schools would be catastrophic. Some schools would face cuts of as much as 15 per cent. It was not surprising that about 200 worried parents, teachers, governors and pupils appeared at my advice surgery in Llantwit Major on Friday 28 February expressing their demand that the savage proposed cuts be reversed by the council and seeking my help to achieve that end. Since then, I have visited various schools and have had discussions with head teachers, staff, parents and governors.
I was appalled to find that there seemed to have been little or no consultation with any of those people about the necessity for such a high level of cuts or about the way in which savings could be effected in administration or elsewhere in the council's budget. On 4 March 1997, I faxed a letter to the chief executive of Vale of Glamorgan council, the director of education and the leader of the council, Councillor Shaun Stringer. I suggested that, before the budget was fixed, a series of consultative meetings should be held throughout the vale so that everyone could have a say on how best to protect their children's future.
I also requested sight of the council's budget to enable me to work constructively with the council to identify potential savings which could be used to relieve the heavy burden of cuts on schools. Unfortunately, the reply from Councillor Stringer was less than helpful. He stated:
I have no intention of disclosing or, indeed, discussing the Council's budget with you at any time, as I consider you to be part of the problem and in no way part of the solution.
I am appalled at the unwillingness of the leader of the council to co-operate with the local Member of Parliament in the best interests of all the people, of whatever party, whom I and the vale councillors represent. Councillor Stringer's negative attitude contrasts unfavourably with that of council leaders in the former Vale of Glamorgan borough council, including Councillor Stringer, who showed a more positive attitude in those days to working with their Member of Parliament for the benefit of the community, even if that Member of Parliament was of a different political persuasion.
Is my hon. Friend aware of a similar scandal in my constituency? Conwy county borough council has told deliberate lies to the schools in my constituency in order to cover up the reason for cutting school budgets. It has calculated the expenditure required for schools and deducted from it the income that schools expect to receive from nursery vouchers. Where in any accounting practice does one deduct income from expenditure and use the net figure to calculate the budgets, which will inevitably show a cut that they should not show?
I was not aware of that circumstance, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing it to the attention of the House. I am sure that everyone will be interested to learn about that further example of duplicity and incompetence on the part of a Labour-controlled authority.
Perhaps I should not have been too surprised at Councillor Stringer's petulance, as he appears to have been equally unhelpful to the head teachers in the vale, who were given a similar brush-off. I understand from them that, at meetings on Monday 3 and Tuesday 4 March, they were told that the proposed cuts were all the fault of the Government and that not an extra penny could be found for school budgets. If that is the way in which the leader of the council treats top professionals when they are seriously worried about education standards for children in their care, it should come as no surprise to me that he puts party politics before the interests of children.
Within 24 hours, Councillor Stringer was singing a different tune. I presume that he was overwhelmed by the strength of public opposition to his proposals. First, it was announced that the council would put back into the schools budget approximately £2 million. It was planned to raise half that figure by confiscating the reserves of schools and redistributing them. The effect would have been catastrophic for thrifty schools which had created reserves. Some of them were planning to spend their reserves in order to keep on teachers or other staff who would otherwise have been made redundant as a result of the cuts. The effect of the revised proposals would have been to punish thrifty schools—a typically "old Labour" idea. Unfortunately for Councillor Stringer, but fortunately for the schools, it was pointed out to him that the proposals were illegal. The proposed budget cut, which had been reduced by about £2 million, was immediately increased again by about £1 million.
It has been impossible for me to establish precisely by how much school budgets are now to suffer. There is an atmosphere of confusion. Councillor Stringer appears to be making policy on the hoof. My telephone inquiries this morning have revealed that the best estimate of the final level of cuts is about £1.7 million. I have no doubt that head teachers throughout Vale of Glamorgan have spent many anxious evenings poring over their school budgets, deciding who will have to be sacked in order to balance the books.
I have listened with some interest to what the hon. Gentleman has been saying about this complex situation. Will he answer one or two questions in the course of his remarks? Is it true that in this year's financial settlement Vale of Glamorgan council will receive less money than it did last year? Is it true that the council, the heads and all the teaching unions—the National Union of Teachers, the National Association of Head Teachers, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, UCAC—the Welsh teachers' association—the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Secondary Heads Association— have agreed a concordat under which no teacher will be made compulsorily redundant and no class size will be increased? That is the result of consultation between the vale and all its teachers. The head teacher who represents all the head teachers has written to the Western Mail saying that reports of things such as the hon. Gentleman is now saying are a load of rubbish and that they are disconcerting the teachers—
I will not say that I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the situation. Vale of Glamorgan council has known, or at least the Labour leadership has known, for several months that the council was running over budget in education. It should have taken some pre-emptive action as long ago as last November to deal with the overspend, instead of confronting schools at the last minute before the budget is due to be fixed, with the appalling prospect of ghastly cuts. If a deal has been stitched together which will ensure that no teacher losses will occur, that is wonderful news for the people of the vale, but until it is confirmed by the council, I remain extremely sceptical about it.
Indeed, if the cuts are not to be made, why is it that, as recently as 5 March, we were faced with a proposal to sack about 45 teachers? I can only speculate that what has happened is that the Labour leadership has experienced such a barrage of criticism and abuse from the public, who are rightly extremely upset about this politically motivated punishment of their innocent children, that the message has got across that such behaviour is unacceptable. Why is the council's Labour leadership so blind to the realities of life and the importance of children and education that it has only just woken up to the strength of public concern?
My school visits have revealed the widespread anxiety about the increased class sizes that will result if teachers are sacked. One head of department at a secondary school pointed out that it is often not possible to sack the weakest member of staff, because there may be a shortage of teachers in his or her specialist subject area; thus, excellent teachers may be lost. Some school buildings are very poor, with cramped portakabin classrooms which will be physically overcrowded if four or five extra children have to be crammed into a class.
I am furious that Councillor Stringer is attempting to shift the blame for the incompetence of his own council in arranging its budget on to the Welsh Office. I have read Councillor Stringer's "Budget Update 1997—Council Tax News", in which he falsely claims that the council is faced with "massive budget cuts". That brings me to the other point raised by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths). My inquiries at the Welsh Office have revealed that the standard spending assessment for Vale of Glamorgan council has been increased by 1.8 per cent. to £95,846,000. Under provisional capping principles, the council can increase its 1996–97 budget by 4 per cent. to £97,404,000.I understand that Vale of Glamorgan council does intend to spend up to its capping limit. It is therefore a fraud on the electorate for Councillor Stringer to claim that the council is faced with massive budget cuts and to imply that the Welsh Office is to blame.
Even allowing for inflation, there is only a tiny reduction in Welsh Office funding, which is entirely consistent with the Government's policies of expecting the public sector to achieve efficiency savings. Everyone in the private sector has to do that. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bridgend continues to speak from a sedentary position, but a tiny reduction in the budget is hardly the massive reduction claimed by Councillor Stringer. It is the height of irresponsibility and incompetence for Vale of Glamorgan council, which is totally dominated by Labour councillors, to produce a budget that will hurt all the children in Vale of Glamorgan by damaging their education prospects while, at the same time, trying to blame the Government.
If the hon. Member for Bridgend is correct to say that, now, none of the damage in terms of teacher losses is to take place, why have the parents, teachers, governors and children of Vale of Glamorgan been frightened witless by misleading information?
No, we have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman—he was wrong on both the points he raised, and I must press on with my speech.
I am well aware that Councillor Stringer claims to have received a rough deal on the disaggregation that followed the abolition of South Glamorgan county council. Perhaps, instead of bleating about that a whole year after South Glamorgan council was abolished, he should address his remarks to his Labour colleague Councillor Russell Goodway, who appears—if Councillor Stringer is to be believed—to have negotiated a better deal for the people of Cardiff than Councillor Stringer managed for Vale of Glamorgan.
I fought long and hard for the abolition of South Glamorgan county council, because it did not give to Vale of Glamorgan the priority that it deserved. It was a remote authority, excessively top-heavy in bureaucracy, which deprived the people in the vale in order to spend money on the pet schemes of the majority Labour group in Cardiff. That was why I wanted to get rid of that council and have our own unitary authority in Vale of Glamorgan and, of course, I welcome the fact that that has happened.
What worries me now is that Vale of Glamorgan council seems to be making mistakes similar to those made by South Glamorgan county council. We all recall that South Glamorgan council was near the top of the league for receipts for education spending, but near the bottom of the league for the amount actually spent on education. When the figures are published, I shall be interested to see how much Vale of Glamorgan council is spending on administration and what proportion of the education budget is actually getting through to the children who matter most.
Another excuse offered by Labour councillors in the vale is that the formula whereby central Government resources are distributed to local authorities is unfair to Vale of Glamorgan. I point out that the distribution formula for 1997–98 was ratified by the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government Finance. I assume that that body is even more heavily dominated by Labour supporters than Vale of Glamorgan council, so I can only speculate as to why Councillor Stringer, as a Labour council leader who also happens to be the agent for the Labour candidate for the Vale of Glamorgan constituency in the forthcoming general election, has been so ineffectual in persuading the consultative council that Vale of Glamorgan is hard done by.
My hon. Friend the Minister will be well aware that we have some excellent schools in Vale of Glamorgan, with good teachers, parents and pupils. We also have some good and conscientious governors, although it is a source of great regret to me that, due to the policy of Vale of Glamorgan council, Tory governors have been largely excluded. It is also a matter of regret that most of the governing bodies have not supported the principle of grant-maintained education, which could have done so much to help all the schools in my constituency.
My hon. Friend will also be aware that schools in Vale of Glamorgan are performing better than the Wales average, with 46 per cent. achieving five or more GCSE grades A to C, compared with 42 per cent. in Wales as a whole. The average A-level and AS-level point score is 17, compared with 16 in Wales as a whole. The performance of 11-year-olds has put the vale among the top three authorities in Wales, with 52.5 per cent. achieving the key stage 2 performance indicator, compared with 45 per cent. in Wales as a whole. I pay tribute to the parents, teachers and pupils in my schools.
Unfortunately, I do not feel inclined to pay equal tribute to Vale of Glamorgan council, as that high level of achievement is unlikely to be maintained and improved unless the council spends more of its budget on education and finds ways of cutting administrative costs so that individual schools will receive more money.
It is appropriate for me to draw the attention of the House to some examples of profligate spending by Vale of Glamorgan council. It bleats about savage, but non-existent, cuts in its budget by the Welsh Office, when in reality it is spending money like water. I learned only today that the council is contemplating spending more than £1 million on refurbishing four leisure centres in the vale, at a time when, according to my information—I hope that I will be corrected—45 teachers face redundancy. The council has spent about £100,000 on a new foyer; it has built a new hospitality suite for councillors; and the new group room for Labour councillors has displaced officers, which has led to new office accommodation having to be rented. The council is spending about £60,000 on Barry Town football club. What makes me unhappy about that is that free tickets are distributed by the club to some privileged councillors.
Pagers, fax machines and mobile phones have been freely distributed. The leader of the Labour council receives a pager, a fax machine and a mobile phone. The deputy leader receives a fax machine and a mobile phone. The chief whip receives—
Order. This is a Back-Bench debate for half an hour. Sedentary comments from any part of the House are not acceptable.
The deputy leader of the council receives a fax and a mobile phone. The chief whip receives a pager, a fax and a mobile phone. The leaders of the minority groups get a fax and a mobile phone.
All chairmen of committees receive a pager, a fax and a mobile phone. If the council is so hard up, how can it be spending money on things like that? Where do its priorities lie? Of course we want better leisure facilities and so on, but can anyone seriously doubt that we could make some savings in those budgets to help the children of the Vale, who represent our future?
I appreciate the commitment of my hon. Friend the Minister to the principle of allowing local authorities to take their own decisions. Naturally, in a democracy, that is important. However, I recall too well that the Labour-controlled South Glamorgan county council and the neighbouring authorities failed to fund the police adequately. In the end, to combat rising crime, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, supported by the Welsh Office, took the dramatic decision to ring-fence police funding to ensure that the police received all the money that they desperately needed. The result has been 30 extra police officers in Vale of Glamorgan and a considerable drop in recorded crime during the past two years.
I have reluctantly reached the conclusion, as a result of the appalling mismanagement by Vale of Glamorgan council, that the only way in which we can ensure that our children receive the best possible education is to hypothecate education spending in the standard spending assessment and to conduct an urgent audit of authorities such as Vale of Glamorgan, to find out why they are failing dismally to run their affairs in a way calculated to protect our children's future.
The public in Vale of Glamorgan should know how much we pay our chief officers compared with the much larger South Glamorgan county council, which has been abolished, how top-heavy staffing levels are, what proportion of the education budget is spent on administration, what proportion gets through to the schools, and what proportion of the total budget is spent on education in comparison with other matters. I would welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister on that.
In conclusion, I make no apology for making a political point. If that is the way in which Councillor Stringer and his new Labour colleagues treat parents, teachers, governors and children, it illustrates very well why new Labour should not be trusted in local government, or at Westminster.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney) has performed a valuable service by drawing the attention of the House to the budget plans of Vale of Glamorgan council. As the debate unfolded, he illustrated the need for much greater accountability on the part of local government.
There has been use in our press of the word "cuts". In today's Western Mail, at least two articles referring specifically to budget items in Wales use that word. In neither of those instances is it explained that the cuts are not cuts in spending but cuts in the aspirations of local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan said, the budget of Vale of Glamorgan district council has been increased.
It has indeed. In fact, the money available to the council to spend in the current financial year will increase to about £97,404,000.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the scandalous way in which Conwy county borough council has deceived parents in my constituency. The council claims that there have been cuts in its budget. Will my hon. Friend nail that lie once and for all? Will he tell the House, the country and my constituents how much more cash Conwy county borough council will have to spend in the forthcoming financial year than it is spending this year?
I can tell my hon. Friend that his authority is the one for whom the capping principles have worked out best. It is allowed the biggest percentage increase in expenditure in Wales—an increase of more than £4 million.
If there is to be accountability, there must be a clear assessment of the way in which the funding made available to each authority is used. It is for local authorities to decide how much money to make available for spending on categories such as education. Performance tables of local authorities have been published, and the Audit Commission issued a report on their performance in 1995–96.
Authorities in Wales have undergone wide-scale reform, with the creation of the new unitary authorities. An interesting aspect of the accountability of the old county council was that South Glamorgan county council was one of the best-provided authorities in Wales, and the United Kingdom, but spent on its secondary school pupils the fourth lowest sum of any United Kingdom county council.
That is what accountability should be about. Newspapers should analyse the spending plans of councils instead of unquestioningly accepting press statements issued by authorities, talking about cuts, and echoing them in headlines.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan said that he wanted sight of the budget of Vale of Glamorgan council. It appears that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has had sight of much more information than has been made available by the council to its elected representative. That is also a matter of accountability, to which our press might like to pay attention.
Just a moment. I want to draw attention to some figures first.
In the last financial year, Vale of Glamorgan council gave a far lower priority to education in its spending than did very many authorities in Wales. Parents of nursery and primary school children in Vale of Glamorgan might like to note that last year, on average, nursery and primary schools in Vale of Glamorgan received £85 per capita less than the Welsh average. Parents of secondary school pupils in Vale of Glamorgan might like to note that, per capita, £159 less was spent on secondary school pupils in Vale of Glamorgan than the Welsh average.
Those figures have been available from the council and in the Western Mail to be read by anyone. As early as 7 March 1997, the head teachers issued a joint statement with the council, saying that there would be no compulsory redundancies and no increase in class sizes. That has been in the papers too, and I cannot see how the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney) did not know about that.
I refer merely to the two stories in the Western Mail today. Both talk about cuts; neither talks about the increased budget for expenditure for each of those councils. The day that I see journalists putting the full story before the electorate in Wales will be the day that I withdraw the remark.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Bridgend got to his feet, because I have figures on the expenditure of Bridgend unitary council. He is the education spokesman for the Labour party in Wales, and he said today that parents in Vale of Glamorgan had nothing to worry about. Although spending in Vale of Glamorgan is significantly below the Welsh average, to observe the worst performance in investment in education per capita in Wales one need look no further than the hon. Gentleman's constituency. His friends and supporters provide the nursery and primary schools in his area with £233 per head less than the Welsh average. As if that were not bad enough, when those pupils get into secondary schools, the Labour-controlled council provides £339 per head less than the Welsh average.
From all this, it is clear that, when Labour councils are allowed to choose how much priority to give to education in their areas, they are all words and no action. Their action is confined to putting out press releases, organising marches and protests and talking about education underfunding. The only underfunding going on is the underfunding of schools by the Labour party, which controls so much of education in Wales.
As far as I am aware, the Labour party is offering only one pledge on education at this election. It is a pledge to skew resources from the parts of Wales where there are smaller classes to the parts where there are larger classes. It is no surprise to discover that the areas with the biggest classes are Labour authority areas, and the areas with the best investment in primary and secondary education are those not controlled by the Labour party. Those are the areas which, if Labour ever came to office, would be starved of resources: just as Labour has starved its own areas of resources.