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University College London Bill Lords (By Order)

Volume 972: debated on Tuesday 30 October 1979

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Order for Second Reading read.

7 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am honoured to be invited to move the Second Reading of this Bill by the University of London, University college, London, and University College hospital medical school, which are its promoters. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South, (Mr. Dobson), in whose constituency University college and the medical school reside, felt unable to do so for reasons that I fully understand and sympathise with. I will be referring to them. In these circumstances, the university asked me, as an hon. Member for a university constituency, who has a particular interest in higher education. I am glad to have the opportunity of assisting a university and a college for which I have high regard.

There is another connection. One of the principal purposes of the Bill, which is to achieve the reunification of University college and the medical school, stemmed from the Royal Commission on medical education of 1968, which was chaired by my eminent constituent, Lord Todd. The Commission envisaged this reunion, and extensive deliberations culminated in a report which was accepted by the councils of the two institutions and by the University of London, which fully accepted this principle.

I should emphasise that this principle is fully supported by the staff and the students of the two institutions and that no petitions against the Bill have been laid. It is, in short, a wholly agreed measure of great benefit for the two main institutions.

University college hospital grew out of the university dispensary which was opened in 1828 and was managed by the college. But, in 1907, it was felt that when University college was incorporated into the University of London, the medical faculty teaching attached to the hospital could be more conveniently carried out by a separate body. For this purpose, the school was formed, as such, in 1907. Even before the Todd report of 1968 the feeling had grown that this formal separation of two institutions which are physically and geographically so close together was not in the best interests of either.

The difficulty lay in the fact that since 1907 University college had been incorporated in the University of London and had lost its previous separate corporate status—a major factor in the decision to establish the medical school as a separate entity. But this separate status was reacquired by the college's Royal Charter in December 1977, and this fact, combined with the arguments in the Todd report, opened the way for the formal reunification of the college and the school. The discussions about this reunification were harmonious and successful, and this Bill is the result.

University college, London, as the House is fully aware, has a most distinguished record. Among its most respected and influential lecturers was the late Hugh Gaitskell. When, in 1931, he attempted to begin the UCL Labour Club, he discovered that it was contrary to the college statutes to hold political meetings on the premises, with the result that the UCL Labour Club had its first meeting in a nearby pub. It did not surprise me, on reading Philip Williams's biography of Hugh Gaitskell, to discover that he did not regard this as an outrageous infringement of political liberty. As we all know, there are many worse places than a pub in which to hold political meetings.

One of Hugh Gaitskell's most devoted friends and admirers at the time—who, if he had been alive, would be supporting this Bill strongly—was Frank Barlow, whose death during the recess has deprived not only the Parliamentary Labour Party but this House of a widely respected, deeply liked and admired personality. He was a dear friend of mine for over 20 years. His friends were grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for the recommendation of the award of a knighthood, which gave pleasure to his family and to his political opponents as well as to his friends. I hope that his widow will receive some consolation from the knowledge of how greatly and how widely he was respected and liked in this House and how much his many friends miss his companionship, wise advice and decency.

Clauses 3 to 10 of the Bill and the schedules meet the altered situation in which the college now has corporate status. Clause 11 gives legal effect to the agreement by all the authorities concerned to reunify the college and the medical school. It had been intended that this would come into operation on 1 October this year, but this was not possible because of objections by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shore-ditch (Mr. Brown), who is the parliamentary consultant of the National Association of Local Government Officers.

The reason for the hon. Member's objection to the Bill stems from a dispute between NALGO and the Central Council for Non-Teaching Staffs in Universities on the employers' refusal to include national appeals machinery in the procedure agreement under discussion in the council. The matter is complex and obviously highly controversial. The situation reached the unfortunate position in which the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch felt that unless the employers altered their position he must block this Bill and all university Bills in the House. As a result, the greatly desired and highly desirable reunification has been delayed for reasons wholly unconnected with the objectives of the Bill, to the regret, I know, of the hon. Member and also of the hon. Member in whose constituency the university resides.

I would like to emphasise that I fully understand why the hon. Members have taken up this position. I am the last person in this House to criticise any other hon. Member for making use of the procedures of the House to pursue a particular campaign. I occasionally have twinges of conscience—very occasional ones—when I reflect on the occasional havoc that I was able to cause in the last Parliament, which I now deeply regret and look back upon with humiliation, hoping that hon. Members do not study Hansard too closely to discover some of the devices that I used.

I have considerable personal sympathy for the NALGO position and the arguments. While I cannot become involved in this dispute, I hope that it can be amicably resolved in the appropriate way and not at the expense of further delays to the Bill. I am glad to inform the House that, following discussions over the past week, the promoters have asked me to make the following statement to the House:
"The promoters appreciate that the motive of the objector to the University College London Bill springs from his concern to secure the best possible conditions of employment for members of trade unions. The promoters naturally share this concern. In the opinion of the promoters, the question of the establishment of national appeals machinery in relation to the grading of non-academic staff, should continue to be a matter for discussion between the trade unions and the Universities' Committee for Non-Teaching Staffs. The promoters are party to normal voluntary collective bargaining, with the objective of determining the terms and conditions of employment of non-academic staff. It is therefore the promoters' hope that the two sides would be able to reach agreement on this issue."
I understand that this statement is acceptable to the hon. Member and I should like to thank him for the characteristically open and fair manner in which our discussions have been held. I hope that this statement will now enable this most valuable Bill to proceed.

The medical school is, in modern circumstances, too small and inadequately financed for independent existence, particularly in its research programmes. The reunification makes financial, administrative, academic and practical sense. Five years of discussion have preceded this Bill and have resulted in total agreement. I am sure that the House would wish to join me in conveying our warmest good wishes to the university and the college for a long, happy and successful partnership.

7.10 p.m.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) for the courtesy and friendship he has shown to me during the difficult period since he undertook to present this Bill on behalf of the promoters. I very much appreciate his studied attempt to find a solution to our difficulties. I also thank the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), who has discussed this issue with me many times. He has done his best to achieve a satisfactory solution. The Minister of State has also discussed the issues with me, in an impartial manner, in trying to discover what my motives were and what was my objective. After all the help that has been given to me, I accept entirely the statement that the hon. Member for Cambridge made tonight and I have told the promoters that I accept it.

I join in the tribute to the late Sir Frank Barlow, who was also a friend of mine. I supose all of us in this House can claim him as a friend. He discussed this matter with me in July, when he too asked about my motives. I explained them to him in some detail and also why I believed it was not possible for me to let this Bill—or any other Bill—go through unless there was some sign of justice and fairness for the 60,000 nonacademic staff employed in our universities.

I latched on to this Bill particularly in relation to clause 11(4). It seemed to me originally that perhaps we could have a statement concerning appointments which would establish a system of national appeals on grading.

Perhaps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my duty to the House requires me to explain briefly why I have chosen to block this otherwise worthy Bill and the pangs I feel, since I have always thought that University college and the medical school were of outstanding excellence. It hurt me to do something which would in any way destroy any agreement on reunification. My objections stem basically from the fact that in 1970, after many months of joint discussions between the universities and the trade unions, an agreement was reached to set up a central council for non-teaching staffs in universities. Its duties were said to be
"essential for consultation on issues of national and general importance to preserve good industrial relations and to provide a formal disputes procedure."
From that moment there have been continuing discussions between the trades unions and the employers. The employers have made it abundantly clear from the word "go" that they have no intention of implementing that objective, deciding when the central council was set up. The discussions were almost ceaseless until July 1977, when, after long and protracted negotiations, the trade unions formally went into dispute with management on the procedure agreement.

The employers again refused to agree the right of national appeal where there was a failure to agree locally on individual gradings. This was on the ground that such a right would infringe the individual autonomy of the university. When the dispute had been determined ACAS was asked by the trade unions to look at the situation to see whether there was any possibility of its mediating. In May 1978 ACAS said that, given good will between the employers and the unions, a resolution of this difficult problem could be found. The employers simply refused to take part in such a solution. After that ACAS could go no further.

I was brought into the discussions in June 1978. I asked to see all the papers on the case and came to the view that there was a very serious example here of the university vice-chancellors being unwilling to do what one would believe was right in normal, decent industrial relations. Having read the papers and discussed the issue in depth, I invited both the chairman and the secretary of the employers' side of the central council to a meeting in this House to discuss in detail the kind of progress I thought could be achieved. It was a very disagreeable meeting. The chairman of the vice-chancellors' committee made it quite clear that he had nothing but contempt for this place, and for any other place; and if I thought I would get his help he made it clear that I would not.

I told the chairman that he was being rather foolish in his approach. I told him that I was so seized of the argument and that his response was so unacceptable that I would block every university Bill that came before this House until such time as the vice-chancellors' committee studied the issues carefully and entered into negotiations with the trade unions to implement the agreement of 1970.

The vice-chancellors appeared to be saying that they were God. I do not believe vice-chancellors are God. There may be other gods, but university vice-chancellors are not among them. It seemed to me that the national appeals procedure should be followed. To that extent, I justify my harassment—and my future harassment—of Bills on this subject. Despite the truculent attitude of the representatives of the vice-chancellors, I made it clear that the blocking of this Bill was a tragedy. I had sought their help to try to unblock it and it was only the intervention of the hon. Gentleman, of his right hon. Friend and indeed, the Minister of State which gave University college the opportunity of reviewing the situation.

The publication of the promoters' statement is a declaration of intent which will be very well received by their own staffs and certainly by staffs in other universities. I say to the vice-chancellors' committee that the only thing I can be charged with is having honoured the statement I made to its chairman in 1978. Is that so bad? Am I such a bad fellow for doing what I said I would do? I accept that University college was not privy to those discussions because, apparently, the vice-chancellors' committee studiously avoids relationships with its constituent bodies and does not tell them what is going on.

I give three examples of why I believe I am right to pursue this case. Let us take Sussex university. An applicant there assessed her own job and came to the conclusion that it was at too low a grade in relation to other universities and the work being done in them. She asked for a new grading. She met local management according to procedure and everything went well. A disagreement was recorded and then the university said it was not prepared to accept the grading that she wanted. They jointly agreed, however, that the matter should go to national level on appeal to the joint committee. There was a hearing at national level and a letter to the secretary of the employers' side of the university committee for non-academic teaching staff was on the agenda. The appellant was brought to London and sat around for three hours while the committee deliberated. She was then told there was no machinery to deal with her case.

The young lady in question does not complain any more. Sussex university got round her little problem. It had a simple device by which it decided to give her more than she asked for in a grade that it recognised. By this fiddle she got far more than she asked for even though it was said there was no national appeals machinery for achieving such a solution.

Birmingham university is another example. It has a representative on the national employers' body. He signed the request for a number of appeals to be heard at national level. The letter was on the agenda of the national joint negotiating committee. Then that representative voted against the appeals being heard because there was no machinery. Locally that representative signed a letter asking for the appeals to be considered. Nationally he decided that there was no machinery and he killed the request.

There is a similar example from Southampton university. The personnel officer of that university sits on the national body. He signed a request for the national committee to consider a particular issue involving his university. He ensured that it was defeated at national level. That is dishonesty. There can be no justification for it. The arrogance and truculence of the vice-chancellors is beyond belief.

I cite Bristol university as another example. I pay tribute to the Opposition Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks), because he works hard for his constituents, although he cannot always express his opinions in the House. On his behalf I looked at the work being done by the vice-chancellor of Bristol university. I do not wish to argue whether my right hon. Friend is right or wrong, but he is the elected Member for Bristol, South and he has a right to express his view. He judged that Bristol university was interfering unreasonably in National Health Service procedures in Bristol. My right hon. Friend argued that the vice-chancellor of the university did not understand what was happpening. He attempted to point out the errors of the vice-chancellor's ways. He tried to explain what he thought about what was happening.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South received a letter from the vice-chancellor, Sir Alec Merrison, which stated:
"I have warned you before that you were asking us to undertake what would necessarily be a long historical research into the records of bodies now defunct."
A vice-chancellor had the temerity to warn my right hon. Friend! Who is this man? Is he asking God to move over? His attitude is unbelievable. One of the vice-chancellor's staff wrote a letter to the local newspaper without signing his name. In that letter he discussed why my right hon. Friend was right. What did the vice-chancellor do? He upbraided the author of the letter and, in a letter to my right hon. Friend, said:
"The reason he remained anonymous was simply cowardice and unsureness of his ground—powerful motives for anonymity throughout the ages, and ones which I find particularly disagreeable."
What right has Sir Alec to do that? What right had he to call a coward a man who wrote to his local newspaper to support his Member of Parliament? His attitude is symptomatic. Sir Alec is the big wheel. We have to discuss with him such issues as are before the House tonight. Do we really believe that Sir Alec will give the consideration necessary to ensure that 60,000 people are properly represented and have their say about their gradings? My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South continues to fight his corner in Bristol. More power to his elbow. Bristol must be proud of him. University college generously has indicated that it believes that this matter should be investigated. With the help of ACAS, there will be a solution to the problem. If meaningful negotiations do not begin immediately, I shall ensure that this issue is aired. Each time a university brings a Bill to the House it will have to face continuing scrutiny until justice is seen to be done to the 60,000 people who have the right to question their gradings.

I say to the vice-chancellors "Stop being feudal barons. Stop behaving like nineteenth century employers. Set up a proper national appeals machinery." That can only enhance good relationships in a vital sector of our academic life.

7.26 p.m.

I intervene briefly because I have an interest—albeit not a financial interest—as a member of the court of London university, which is the governing body for financial matters. There is a general agreement in the university that the reunification of University college and the University college hospital medical school will be of benefit financially and administratively not only to those institutions but to the university as a whole.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) for the references that he made to my interest. We have discussed university Bills on other occasions, even in Strasbourg and Luxembourg. The hon.

Member has the good of London university and its colleges at heart. We all understand why he has intervened. I am glad that the hon. Member has withdrawn his objection to the Bill in the light of the assurances given on behalf of the promoters. Those assurances are sincere.

The hon. Member's objective, about which he spoke with such passion, is to draw attention to a vital aspect that is causing widespread anxiety. It is not directly related to the purposes of the Bill. We are dealing with the operation of the national appeals machinery for nonacademic staff. I agree that this must be examined carefully in other places and in other ways. I support the promoters' undertakings. We all hope that the two sides will, in due course, agree. In those circumstances I trust that the House will proceed without much delay and give a fair wind to a valuable Bill.

7.30 p.m.

University college is in my constituency. I welcome this measure because, of all the medical schools and colleges in Britain, the University college and University college hospital medical school have been amongst the most integrated in their courses. It is clear that the provisions of the Bill will help to improve and strengthen that integration and will be of benefit to the medical school and the college.

Originally I was invited to introduce the Bill, and that I agreed to do. However, in the end, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) introduced it and did so extremely well. The most distinguished politician born in my constituency was Mr. Benjamin Disraeli. I add in passing that he referred to the Tory Party as an organised hypocrisy. He also said that in politics one should never apologise and never explain. In relation to my eventual non-introduction of the Bill, I am not prepared to apologise, but I propose to explain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) made clear to me details of the dispute which he has explained to the House. I met representatives of University college and had subsequent meetings with representatives of NALGO. I wrote to the college asking whether it would be prepared to give, or enable me to give on its behalf, an undertaking broadly on the lines of the undertaking that the hon. Member for Cambridge has eventually been able to give. It refused and said that it was not on. In those circumstances, I was reluctant to introduce the Bill and we reached the parting of the ways.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge, who, with the assistance of other right hon. and hon. Members, managed to persuade the University college to give the undertaking. That means that the Bill can proceed and that some progress has been made towards resolving this festering sore in university industrial relations.

If University college complains about the delay, I am afraid that it has only itself to blame. If the undertaking given by the hon. Member for Cambridge is acceptable now, it must have been acceptable months ago. If there are lessons to be learnt, I learnt one. It is quite clear that if Back-Bench Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, stick out on Private Bills, they can achieve considerable changes in the direction that they wish to go. I find that rather promising, because I am not impressed by the influence of Back-Bench Members over other matters in the House.

I hope that other universities and colleges which may be contemplating promoting Bills will draw lessons from this one. I hope that they will voluntarily move towards improving their industrial relations. It is ironic that we have a bad industrial relations problem on the nonacademic side of universities at the same time as several universities run courses on industrial relations.

I welcome the Bill. I am glad that it is going through at long last. I am only sorry that it did not go through earlier.

7.34 p.m.

I support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown). It may offend some people that a Scottish Member should speak on a London Bill. I promise not to make a habit of it. However, I feel strongly about events in the universities over the past few years, especially their refusal to concede a system of national appeals.

It has been pointed out that in 1970 a central council for non-teaching staff in universities was set up. The universities strongly resisted that move and its formation was achieved only through the intervention of the TUC and the then Minister of Labour. The agreement to set up the central council was based on a working party report in 1969. That working party represented the vice-chancellors, the TUC and the trade unions. The object was to establish a national machinery for consultation, promotion of good industrial relations and provision for a formal disputes procedure.

Trade unionists were concerned when it was discovered that the universities were not prepared to face up to that commitment. The trade unions' case for a national appeals machinery is based on the fact that the terms and conditions of employment in the universities are negotiated nationally in the technical staffs' joint committee, the clerical staffs' committee and the manual and ancillary staffs' committee. The criteria for job gradings are determined at national level. The agencies jointly responsible for determining these criteria are the employers' side and the appropriate trade unions.

It makes nonsense of national negotiations if there is not the follow-through that exists throughout the public sector and the appropriate mechanism to monitor the agreements that have been reached. The original agreement set up by the central council was based on the understanding that an individual gradings appeal system would be set up. The original procedure agreement contained provision for individual national appeals.

The employers refused to hear any appeals, on the basis that no machinery existed to deal with the grievances. It is my understanding that the principal point made in support of their case is that it would offend their autonomy and would in some way reduce the autonomy that they say they enjoy. That argument could be offered with equal force by the local authorities. They often, quite rightly, assert their autonomy, yet they have national gradings, agreements and machinery for the reconcilation of disputes. That in no way diminishes their autonomy. That is equally true of the gas and electricity supply industries.

The National Health Service, which in some ways has much in common with the universities, has a similar mechanism for reconciling disputes. Yet the universities are refusing to do this. That is regrettable. Not only does it detract from the quality of their industrial relations but it damages staff relations in the long term. I know that we shall hear much this autumn about industrial relations. I shall be reminding Conservative Members that the universities are behaving in this way and are turning their faces against the introduction of a procedure that is commonplace throughout the public sector.

7.38 p.m.

I welcome the opportunity to say that the Government have no objection to the Bill having a Second Reading this evening. We had no objection when the Bill was introduced in the House of Lords and we have no objection now. [Interruption.] I welcome the Opposition Chief Whip's saying that it is a handsome gesture on our part.

I remember reading that the University college was once known as "the godless institution in Gower Street" because it was founded by many Nonconformists and Non-Unitarians. My only personal connection with it is that it houses the Chadwick library, which contains all the papers—not the bones—of a gentleman named Chadwick, who was heavily involved in public service development in the 1830s and 1840s. I spent many an afternoon going through those papers. I trust that others have gone through them since, as they are very illuminating.

The original objections to the Bill voiced by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) are honestly and firmly held. At the beginning the hon. Gentleman made clear his position to the university vice-chancellors. Any delay that has followed has come not from a misunderstanding of what he stated, but from an inability somewhere to close the gap between the university vice-chancellors and the unions involved at national level.

We are all delighted that some bridge has been built. I am glad to say that I had a little to do with that at a meeting with both sides over lunch. What better way than over lunch to meet the university vice-chancellors and indicate the strength of feeling of the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, who maintained that he was not going away, but was going to remain here? As he and I occasionally make arrangements to be or not to be here, it is vital for me that he should remain for my general stability.

It is a pleasure to see the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I recognise that the industrial matters cannot be settled inside the House, but at least a lesson has been learnt. We trust that these matters will be settled outside the House, so that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch will not feel so strongly that he must object to any other university Bills. We have certainly made some headway there.

The Murray committee of inquiry into the governance of the University of London recommended that King's college and University college should be encouraged to apply for independent charters. University college was granted its Royal Charter in November 1977. The University College London Bill provides for the transference of rights, properties, liabilities and so on from the univesity to the college and for the reunification of the college with the University college hospital medical school.

It was wise of us to debate this matter tonight. It seems that we can now give the Bill a Second Reading without objection from either side of the House. I trust that similar arrangements may be made for future university Bills.

7.41 p.m.

By leave of the House, I shall reply. It was no part of my task to defend the vice-chancellors' committee, particularly not the vice-chancellor of Bristol university. I am glad that my relationship with my vice-chancellor at Cambridge was rather different.

Finally, I want to emphasise two points. First, the undertaking is given in total good faith. I hope that it will be the beginning of a much better relationship than existed in the past. As I emphasised before, I have strong personal sympathy with and understand of the action taken by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown). The undertaking is given in good faith.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson), in whose constituency the university resides, fully supports the Bill. I hope that it will now have a good and quick passage through the House, so that this reunification may be completed as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.