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Commons Chamber

Volume 978: debated on Tuesday 12 February 1980

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House Of Commons

Tuesday 12 February 1980

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Isle Of Wight Bill Lords

Read a Second time and committed.

Stevenage Development Authority Bill (By Order)

Greater London Council (General Powers) (No 2) Bill (By Order)

London Transport (No 2) Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time upon Tuesday 26 February.

Oral Answers To Questions

Defence

Army Officers

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what percentage of commissioned officers in the Army was educated at public schools.

:Details of the number of serving Army officers who were educated at independent schools are not available. The Army encourages applications for commissions from suitable canditates from schools of all types.

Is the Minister aware that, while about 5 per cent. only of all pupils go to public schools, in the year 1977–78 55 per cent. of candidates accepted for Army commissions were ex-public schoolboys? Is it therefore surprising to see the kind of Right-wing indoctrination that goes on in Camberley? Does not that illustrate the militant tendencies of the public schools and their ability to infiltrate the British Armed Forces?

I utterly repudiate the biased and prejudiced comments of the hon. Gentleman. The reaction from his own colleagues appeared to be that they laughed at such comments as much as we did. New entrants to the Army are divided roughly half and half between State schools and other schools.

Does my hon. Friend agree that good officers come from a wide variety of background but that those who come from public or grammar schools often show outstanding qualities of leadership?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. The Army, of course, draws no distinction between applicants from State or independent schools. We are rightly concerned with the high standards expected of officers.

While it is important that we get a good spread of officer material from all kinds of educational establishments does the Minister agree with me when I say to my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) that, if he thinks the situation is bad now, it is a lot better than it used to be?

Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is one thing worse than a snob, it is an inverted snob?

Order. If that is so, I want to say that I went to Tonypandy grammar school.

Nato

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he next intends to meet his North Atlantic Treaty Organisation colleagues.

:I expect to meet NATO Defence Ministers at the Eurogroup and Defence Planning Committee meetings in May.

When my right hon. Friend meets his NATO colleagues will he raise with them the dangerous situation that may arise as a result of the uncertainties in Yugoslavia following the illness of President Tito? Will he discuss with them at the first opportunity the possibility of an unfortunate outcome to those difficulties and uncertainties?

:We shall consider that possibility when the time comes. The meeting is some way off. I remind my hon. Friend that the Prime Minister has said that we shall do everything we can to see that the independence of Yugoslavia is maintained.

:Will the Secretary of State tell his colleagues at NATO that the failure to ratify SALT 2 is as harmful to the people of America and the NATO countries as it is to the Soviets and that America should be urged to consider that fact?

I believe that the hon. Gentleman knows the position of the Government on that matter. We hope that SALT 2 will be ratified. That is also the hope of the Opposition. There has been no change in that matter

:Will my right hon. Friend tell his colleagues at NATO and in this House what is the planned increase in defence spending by his Department over the next five years?

:The House knows that the Government attach great importance to the NATO aim to seek to achieve a 3 per cent. increase per year in real terms. We believe that to be a most important objective.

Will one item on the agenda be the question of possible nuclear leaks from URENCO, in Almelo, Holland? Is not that of great concern relating, as it does to Pakistan and NATO policy?

I doubt whether the Defence Planning Committee is the proper body to deal with that matter but I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Royal Navy (Recruiting)

3.

asked the Secreatry of State for Defence if he is satisfied with present recruiting levels for the Royal Navy.

Not yet. Recruitment into the Royal Navy over the last year continues to show an encouraging increase over that which was achieved in the previous 12 months. However, there is still a shortage in some categories and we have a number of measures in hand that are aimed at improving the position.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. However, will he tell the House whether there is sufficient skilled and technical personnel not to prejudice the procurement of the Chevaline programme in relation to our Polaris submarines?

As far as I am aware that is so. However, one shortage is in the artificer ratings, although I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that, this year, there has been a larger number of entrants into artificer categories than in any year since 1964.

:If the recruiting level of the Royal Navy is increased will there be enough ships for it to sail in?—What proposals does the Minister have to increase ship building?

There are such proposals and the details will be contained in the Defence White Paper that is to be published in the near future.

:Will the Minister say a word about the campaign that was begun last autumn to encourage technicians to enter the submarine branch of the Royal Navy? Will he also say a word about nuclear watchkeepers?

:The matter has been going well. I am not complacent about nuclear watchkeeprs in the submarine branch but the position is better than it was, not least because of financial incentives. A particular problem in the submarine service is that concerning junior seamen grade officers. Nevertheless, that is also improving and we are keeping a close eye on the position.

Nato

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he next expects to meet his North Atlantic Treaty Organisation colleagues.

When the Secretary of State meets his NATO colleagues will he make it clear that many people in this country do not believe that the British economy will bear a 3 per cent.per annum increase in defence expenditure? Will he also make it clear that, despite the howls of outrage from his Right wing, he has no plans further to increase defence expenditure?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the attention of the House to the state of the economy. Of course, we have also to draw the attention of the House to the threat that we face. We believe, notwithstanding economic difficulties, that a further effort on defence is required. The whole Alliance takes that view and I personally would prefer that the increase should be greater than it will be. Despite economic difficulties, further effort on defence is un- doubtedly required and that is why we attach such importance to it.

When my right hon. Friend meets his colleagues in NATO, will he discuss the report that the Soviet Union used chemical weapons producing nerve gas in its occupation of Afghanistan? Will he look in to the ways in which NATO forces can defend themselves against such weapons?

I am unable to confirm or deny whether chemical weapons were used in Afghanistan. However, the protection of our forces against horrific chemical warfare is thought to be better—certainly as good, although SACEUR believes better—than any other army in Europe. That should be of reassurance to the House. What is alarming is the existence of the chemical capability by the Warsaw Pact countries. It is a horrific weapon and causes great anxiety. It is not sufficiently criticised and we are considering what should be our attitude towards it.

:When the Secretary of State meets his colleagues in NATO, will he remind them that assurances were given in this House and elsewhere that the decision to deploy cruise missiles would be accompanied by a new initiative in arms control? Is he aware that the paltry five-point statement that was issued in December neither contained anything new nor did it reveal an initiative? Will he invite his colleagues to pursue arms control with the same zest and animation with which they are pursuing the deployment of cruise missiles?

Clearly, events in the world since that decision was taken have produced a cold climate for detente and arms control. However, that has in no way altered the importance that the Government attach to arms control. Offers remain on the table. So far, what has been put there has been rejected effectively by the Warsaw Pact countries. It is unfortunate and, although it is an important part of our policy, unless and until the other side is prepared to follow a policy of balanced and verifiable reduction it behoves us to be extremely cautious.

The House will have noted that the right hon. Gentleman takes a cautious view about the prospects for increased defence spending and, surely, that is right. Nevertheless, can the right hon. Gentleman say what new options increased defence spending would have created for Afghanistan or for the stabilising of the regime in Iran, the failure of which has created special problems for us in the Middle East? Surely, the right hon. Gentleman does not believe that defence spending itself is a soluton to what are, essentially, political problems.

:I do not believe that I have pretended at any stage that a further spending on defence would have been specifically directed to what happened in Afghanistan, the events in Iran or the Middle East. The question is the total capability that NATO requires to deter a potential aggressor in the light of the growing strength of that potential aggressor. I could not be specific vis-a-vis the events in Afghanistan, and it would not be right for me to be so.

Raf Strike Command

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is satisfied with the cargo and troop-carrying capability of RAF Strike Command.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force
(Mr. Geoffrey Pattie)

No. It is for that reason that the fuselages of 30 of our Hercules aircraft are being extended to give extra freight capacity.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that American Galaxy and Starlifter aircraft had to be used to carry our helicopters and other heavy vehicles for the use of our peace-keeping force in Rhodesia suggests that there is a gap in the capability of RAF Strike Command in the requirement to reinforce or to deploy rapidly?

I should tell my hon. Friend that the RAF was in a position to undertake that airlift capacity from within its own resources. The key question as to why it did not is one of speed. The extra heavy lift that United States' aircraft provide was needed. Therefore, we went for the quicker option of getting our forces in place.

Does not my hon. Friend accept that speed is normally a factor in reinforcing any situation and is likely to remain so in the future? Will he tell the House the percentage of the airlift that was carried out by the RAF, commercial companies under contract and by the United States and the extra cost that would be involved if, in order to meet the speed requirement, the RAF had the resources to carry out such an airlift?

First, no civilian aircraft were used. The United States undertook two Galaxy sorties and 21 Starlifter sorties. I do not have percentage figures but I shall write to my hon. Friend on that matter. Of course, it would be desirable for the RAF to have the full range of aircraft available, but the decision was taken some years ago to reduce that option.

Manpower

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the expected reduction in industrial and non-industrial staff within his Department.

I aim to reduce by April 1982 the number of United Kingdom-based staff in my Department by 15,000 from the provision at1 April 1979. Half of this reduction is expected to come from the recruiting ban imposed by the Government last summer. That reduction has been made permanent. The remainder will come from those measures announced in the House on 6 December 1979 by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, as part of the review of the size and cost of the Civil Service.

In addition, I have commissioned studies to establish whether there is scope for saving in the Royal dockyards, research and development establishments and supply management. I am determined to ensure that my Department's business is carried out in the most efficient way.

Will the Secretary of State concede that part of the supposed reduction is likely to be cosmetic as a result of the Government's desire to reduce numbers in the Civil Service? Will he ensure, particularly in relation to the naval dockyard at Rosyth, that the allocation of overheads, the screening of personnel and the security risks involved in employing outside contractors, are reviewed?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's interest in and knowledge of Rosyth. I am aware of the points that he has raised. It is possible that some posts may be saved. However, that depends upon the tenders that have now been put out. I shall certainly bear in mind those important points.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is great concern in Portsmouth and Gosport about the un-intentional rundown of Portsmouth dockyard, as a result of the lack of skilled manpower? Will my right hon. Friend give special flexibility to the management of Portsmouth dockyard, so that it can recruit the necessary men?

I am acutely aware of the problems that have arisen in that dockyard and in others due to the rundown of skilled manpower. A number of those in skilled grades have left to take better paid jobs. That is a cause of great anxiety. I assure my hon. Friend that that is one reason why the whole subject is being reviewed. I am expecting the result of the study at the beginning of April. Having received it, I hope to make decisions that will result in more efficient productivity in the dockyards and better service to the Royal Navy.

How many of the 15,000 jobs to which the Secretary of State has referred will be transferred from the public sector to the private sector with the result that there will be no real savings?

I cannot give a specific answer to that question at the moment. I have never made a secret of the fact that a number of jobs will be transferred from one sector to the other. The question is whether that can be done at a more economic cost. That is an important element of the argument.

Can the Secretary of State assure us that any redundancies will be spread fairly between industrial and non-industrial staff? With reference to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Evans), in what areas is it possible to increase defence expenditure and yet reduce staff?

If it is possible to fulfil our responsibilities at a more economic cost, a change should be considered. Indeed, if there are no strong objections to it, such a change should be carried through.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that Chatham dockyard is now equipped to carry out work on the most up-to-date vessels? There are no manpower problems at Chatham. Will he, therefore, give an undertaking that Chatham dockyards will not suffer from cutbacks?

I have no such intention at the moment. I shall obviously consider the study before I come to any final conclusions. Obviously, the Royal dockyards fulfil a crucial function on behalf of the Royal Navy. It is in the interests of all that that work is carried out as efficiently and as effectively as possible. That is why the study is in hand.

Queen's Flight

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he has yet taken a decision on whether to reequip the Queen's Flight with modern aircraft; and if he will make a statement.

I have as yet nothing to add to the reply that I gave to my hon. Friend on 21 January.

Is my hon. Friend aware that that was a disappointing reply, particularly as this prestigious Flight is equipped with 15-year-old turboprop planes? Does my hon. Friend agree that one of its roles is to display the latest and best of British aviation to potential foreign buyers?

I do not know whether that was the original role of the Queen's Flight. It is certainly not its present role. The issue is being carefully considered. However, the whole cost will fall on the defence budget, and there are many other competing claims.

Does the Minister agree that, while the Government are presiding over a national economy of sackcloth and ashes, it is the height of absurd extravagance to spend a single penny on that Flight? During the past 12 months, on how many occasions have aircraft from this Flight been used for social purposes, to fly privileged personel to areas where they can shoot defenceless birds out of the air?

I somehow thought, Mr Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman might seek to catch your eye. During the past year the Queen's Flight has not been used for the purposes described by the hon. Gentleman. I shall remind the hon. Gentleman that 35 per cent. of all flights in the Queen's Flight are for the purpose of transporting non-Royal persons, such as Service chiefs and Government Ministers—no matter which Government are in power. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman should not take this opportunity as another excuse to parade his prejudices.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Queen's Flight is of the greatest help in the prosecution of Government business, especially in Northern Ireland? How on earth would the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon)—who served as a Minister in Northern Ireland—have fitted into the tiny old-fashioned aeroplanes with which the Flight is equipped?

My hon. Friend is right. The Queen's Flight is of great assistance to the Government.

Will the Minister confirm that the Queen's Flight consists not only of Andovers, but of the HS 125 and helicopters? VC 10s are also available for long-range Royal flights. Does he further agree that it would be a misappropriation of defence funds—particularly of the RAF's budget—to spend more on the Queen's Flight, when there are so many other deficiencies, particularly in air defence?

:The hon. Gentleman is attempting to draw me into areas of internal Ministry of Defence debate, based on his previous experience. We must look at the subject of the present study, and the various other aircraft used for VIP flights. We shall consider whether new equipment is needed. At some point, the Andover aircraft will have to be replaced. It is simply a question of whether they are to be replaced by British equipment. However, that must be the case.

Soviet Strategy (Europe)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what recent assessment has been made by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Powers regarding Soviet intentions towards the use of military force in Europe; and whether he will make a statement.

NATO assessments conclude that the foreign and defence policies of the Soviet Union aim at moving the balance of power in its favour. In the light of this, and the continued build up of Warsaw Pact forces, NATO must make continued efforts to ensure that the Alliance forces remain an adequate deterrent to aggression in Europe. The Government are determined that the United Kingdom will play its full part in these efforts.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that peace can be maintained in Europe only if the NATO Powers remain strong and united? Does he further agree that we should insist upon the territorial integrity of all countries in Europe that are outside the Soviet sphere of influence?

If the Warsaw Pact countries were to increase their defence expenditure well above present figures, would the Secretary of State announce that the Government would review the 3 per cent. increase that he mentioned earlier?

NATO's strategy is to act as a deterrent. We have never sought to match the full capability deployed by the Warsaw Pact countries. Warsaw Pact forces outnumber ours in terms of tanks, manpower and in several other ways. We need an adequate capability to deter. At present, the Soviet Union is increasing its military output at a substantially higher rate than NATO. If that were to continue, and if we thought that it was leading to a dangerous imbalance, we would review the situation. Our present intention is not to increase at as great a rate as the Soviet Union, but to ensure that we have an adequate capability to deter aggression and to preserve peace.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in the realm of conventional forces and of theatre nuclear forces, the Soviet Union already possesses a dangerous imbalance of strength? Does he further agree that in most cases that imbalance amounts to two or three times the size of our own forces?

:Yes, such an imbalance does exist. There is also a growing imbalance in the nuclear field. The purpose of our nuclear capability is to maintain an adequate force with a retaliatory strike capability to deter an aggressor in the first place. We are constantly watching the balance between the two sides. We are aware, as I said earlier, that that balance is moving towards the East and that causes increased concern.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that his reply ignores the rest of NATO's armed forces? Will he ask his NATO colleagues at least to negotiate Mr. Brezhnev's offer to reduce his SS20s if we do not proceed to deploy cruise and Pershing 2? We have three years before deployment takes place. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we should use it at least to negotiate that offer?

:As the hon. Gentleman will know, there was no response at the MBFR negotiations. The offer made by the United States of withdrawing 1,000 warheads has not been taken up by the Soviet Union. The climate for a balanced and verifiable arms reduction appears to be unsatisfactory. That is not our fault. We are still trying to negotiate, and we hope to carry it through. Unless negotiation is undertaken on an even-handed basis by all sides, there is every reason for us to be cautious.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the build-up of Soviet military strategy in Europe is far in excess of what is necessary for that country's self-defence? Will he make clear the Government's determination to repair as speedily as possible the damage done to our defence capability by the Labour Government?

I do not believe that the forces of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact are necessarily thought of in a self-defence role. On the whole, they are rather thought of in terms of offensive action. The Soviet Union's approach is totally different.

We want to increase our defence capability throughout the Alliance, and make our contribution. The increased imbalance is of great concern. At the same time, we would be wise to remember that we cannot go faster than the strength of our economy, and that is why we cannot increase our strength as quickly as some of us would like.

Reserve Forces

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether the recruitment in the reserve forces of the Crown has increased as a result of the improvement in pay and conditions recently introduced.

Recruiting for all the volunteer reserves is generally encouraging. As I informed the House during the debate on national service on 1 February, recruitment for the Territorial Army, which constitutes the bulk of our volunteer forces, has shown a sustained improvement, with the strength having increased by some 2,500 since August last year.

:I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, which will give great encouragement to the vast majority of the House. Does he recall the statement that his right hon. Friend made to the House regarding the improvement in conditions and service of the reserve forces, to the effect that certain reserve forces such as the Royal Marines Reserve, will have their liability for call-up merged with the Territorial Army, and transfer of QO2 to QO1? When will that be done?

My hon. Friend is a distinguished member of the Royal Marines Reserve—

:My right hon. Friend is right about the importance of speeding up mobilisation and reinforcement. Legislation may be required to bring the call-up requirement of those elements of our Armed Forces absolutely into line. I shall write to him on the details.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many of us on the Labour Benches welcome the figures given? The Territorial Army is the closest approximation to a citizens' army that we can hope to achieve. Will the Minister confirm that we can meet our existing commitments, even in times of military pressure, within the framework of our professional Army, Regulars and Reservists, without recourse to the idiocy of a return to national service.

:We debated that matter on 1 February. At present it is our judgment that there is no need to return to national service. We believe that we can meet our defence requirements by building up our Regular forces and our reserve forces. Both were allowed to run down during the previous Administration and need to be built back to proper strength.

Her Majesty's Forces (Mobile Capability)

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence, in view of the growing Soviet threat to the stability of South-West Asia, what additional strengthening he intends to make of Her Majesty's Forces' mobile capability.

Her Majesty's Forces already have the capability to deploy world-wide to meet various contingencies. A Royal Navy task group deploys every year outside the NATO area. The current operation in Rhodesia has demonstrated the ability of the Army and RAF to respond to a non-NATO task. All three Services have a regular programme of training and exercises with friendly countries. However, in the light of recent events in Afghanistan, we shall continue, in consultation with our Allies, to keep under review our Forces' capability for operations outside the NATO area.

Does my right hon Friend agree that, due to the shortage of appropriate transport aircraft, our mobile capability outside the NATO area is, to say the least, limited?

In certain circumstances one could wish that that capability was larger. On the other hand, we must keep our capabilities in proportion. In order to carry troops to Rhodesia, for instance, in a short space of time, we required the use of substantially larger aircraft from the United States, which seemed to be a sensible use of Alliance resources. The Alliance exists as a partnership, and the resources of each partner should be used as required in each situation. It does not mean, however, that we are satisfied with the present level of our transport. We are looking into the matter, and it may be possible modestly to extend our capability.

:Does the Minister agree that the large-scale type hovercraft would provide an additional mobility capability for our Forces in the South-West Asia area? What does the Minister intend to do about procuring some?

:I am bound to agree. Again, it is a question of resources. Recent tests and experiments have left no doubt that the value of those hovercraft is substantial.

In my right hon. Friend's designation of friendly countries does he include the People's Republic of China?

I think that I would, yes. Certainly those who are not against me are for me. We are taking some trouble to establish a friendly and sensible relationship with the People's Republic of China.

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with our capacity for simultaneous parachute drops? Will he take account of that in reviewing the situation?

I am not sure that I am satisfied with anything. That capability is being studied.

Northern Ireland

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a statement on operations in Northern Ireland.

The Armed Forces continue to demonstrate high levels of courage, skill and resourcefulness in carrying out their task in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In the first month of this year, 68 people have been charged with terrorist offences, including 12 for murder and eight for attempted murder. Sadly, one regular soldier and four UDR soldiers have been killed in 1980 by terrorist activities, which continue to be directed primarily at members of security forces. However, three bombs totalling over 1,000 lbs have been defused by ammunition technical teams and there have been significant finds of weapons and explosives.

Apart from the Regular Army, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Ulster Defence Regiment deserves the thanks of Parliament after a decade of endurance, tedium, danger and cowardly murder, and, in particular, intimidation of its Roman Catholic members? Will the Ulster Defence Regiment receive a bounty no less than that received by those in the Territorial Army in time for the tenth anniversary of its splendid service?

I am delighted to underline in every detail the highly proper remarks and tribute paid by my hon. Friend to the Ulster Defence Regiment. It performs a valuable service. I absolutely refute any suggestion of sectarian bias in the regiment. Bounties for the Ulster Defence Regiment are being studied, and I hope to make an announcement soon.

Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind the need to strengthen the defence capability in frontier areas, particularly in view of the muderous assaults mounted against the security forces in County Fermanagh?

It is not for me to decide on the deployment of forces. That is for the GOC.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, in those fairly rare cases where a member of Her Majesty's Forces is badly injured, compensation will be interpreted in the most humane and understanding way possible?

While joining with the Minister in his commendation of the Army, the UDR and anyone else in Northern Ireland on security duties, may I press him to say something about the possibility of long-term units? There was a suggestion that there would be long-term units in Northern Ireland to save rapid turnover.

We are moving towards more resident battalions. Indeed, a fifth was introduced at Aldergrove in September 1978. Planning is in hand for a sixth resident battalion, which will mean a reduction in the overstretch and turbulence for the other soldiers involved.

Self-Loading Rifle

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what consideration he is giving to the replacement of the SLR rifle at present in use by the Army; and if he will make a statement.

It is our intention to begin equipping the Army with a new rifle in the mid-80s. The calibre will depend on analysis of the results of the recently completed NATO small arms tests but will be smaller than that of the existing weapon.

:Is my hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be warmly welcomed by the Army? Is he also aware that a proportion of the SLR rifles in use by the Territorial Army at present are in very poor condition and not suitable for resisting an enemy using modern weapons? Will my hon. Friend consider whether the replacement of those rifles can be speeded up?

My hon. Friend mentioned the SLR, which was introduced in 1956. Production ceased some 12 years ago. A continuing system of base repairs, together with the very latest repair techniques, is needed to ensure that the most economic use is obtained of these weapons. This is one reason why we are moving towards the new weapon as quickly as possible.

Will the Minister tell us at what stage standardisation will be reached? Does he agree that the movement of political decisions should be enhanced to bring about the standardisation which the Armed Forces so badly need? Does he also agree that standardisation will reduce expenditure?

I am very much in favour of standardisation within the NATO area and I have already referred to the NATOtrials. Whatever calibre is finally adopted, one can be certain that it will be standardised throughout NATO.

Is my hon. Friend aware that on the last occasion that a NATO rifle was adopted, the British contribution got very short shrift from our Allies? If there is to be further consultation, will he press our case very hard?

:Certainly. There is no doubt at all that the United Kingdom tender in the NATO trials is performing, extremely well.

Training (Overseas Personnel)

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the criteria laid down for the acceptance for courses of military or other training in Great Britain of members of the armed forces of a foreign country.

Our policy on the provision of military training for other countries is primarily governed by defence, foreign policy and economic considerations. There are also, of course, such practical considerations as the availability of places and the qualifications of the individual students.

Remembering that the son of the former president of Nicaragua. President Sumoza, was trained in this country, and that currently Argentinian and Indonesian forces are training here, can the Minister assure the House that human rights considerations in the home countries are taken fully into account before trainees are accepted here? Can he also assure the House that none of the trainees will be given courses in interrogation techniques, which many of us would regard as a euphemism for torture?

I am not aware of any courses being given in interrogation techniques. We try to take all these factors into account. In my original answer I indicated all the principal considerations. There are no Chilean students under training in Service establishments.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that staff courses, and particularly senior staff courses, are often more effective when they are confined to British nationals, since discussion and criticism can be more uninhibited?

While I am sure that that is true, it does also seem to be the case that our defence is strengthened by widening our training capabilities for military personnel of other countries. That does not mean to say that all courses, or all staff college courses, apply to countries other than our own. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Armed Forces do not seek such candidates for their training courses and that they are sometimes embarrassed by the numbers who apply? Will he also confirm that there has been no relaxation in the criteria governing such entrants?

There has been no such relaxation. The applications for courses continue at a high level because our training capability is regarded very highly around the world. Very often we have a choice of students, and we make that choice on the basis that I gave in my original answer.

French Minister Of Defence

14.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had with the French Minister of Defence regarding European co-operation in defence matters

Monsieur Bourges visited me in London on 28 January, and we discussed current strategic issues of concern to the West and defence equipment topics, including collaborative projects.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are possibilities of limited, although real, extensions of co-operation in this field between Britain and France for the benefit of this country's defence and the improvement of Anglo-French relations?

I certainly would say that. Links between France and NATO have been strengthened in the last five years, and French participation in joint exercises has grown. I am encouraged by those closer links, and am doing what I can further to encourage them.

Prime Minister (Engagements)

Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 12 February.

In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen.

Will my right hon Friend take time during her busy day to convey a message to the water workers, urging them to seek a moderate and sensible pay settlement? Will she also convey to them that strike action to shut off the nation's water supply and endanger sewage treatment cannot be tolerated?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Already, most of us believe that water charges are very high and I hope that those who are demanding more will remember that that "more" will have to be met by people who have far less than a large number of the workers themselves.

Does the Prime Minister understand that the workers in the water industry are simply trying to recoup for themselves what they have lost because of the raging inflation that has been created by this Government's policies?

The hon. Member knows that the amount which has been offered is in excess of the retail price index, even taking account of the increase in VAT which occurred last July. Those pay increases will go through into the increased price of water. I do not know what the hon. Member's postbag contains, but in mine there are already a large number of complaints about the high water rate.

Will the Prime Minister take time to consider the plight of the engineering industry? Is she aware that many engineering companies will soon run short of steel, even though stocks of steel still exist? Have the Government any plans to ensure that pressed steel can reach those companies which need it?

So far, as my hon. Friend knows, most of industry has coped extremely well, in spite of the shortage of steel. One of the factors which those on strike must consider is the effect of their strike on their fellow workers in other industries. I hope that that will weigh heavily with them in the decisions they take to get back around the negotiating table.

:Will the Prime Minister ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to send a circular to all local authorities containing the text of a model speech which may be made in council chambers and which can be sure not to incur the displeasure of the Secretary of State and, therefore, the use of penal sanctions against local authorities?

Will the Prime Minister consider inviting the Leader of the Opposition to join her in sending a message of congratulations to the employees of the Sheerness Steel Company on the Isle of Sheppey, who have refused to be intimidated by mass picketing and who have democratically asserted their right to carry on working, despite some pretty unpleasant experiences inflicted upon them by some pickets from outside? Is she aware that their courage and determination have earned the respect and admiration of the whole local community?

The workers in Sheerness have rightly exercised their lawful right to go about their business and to continue to earn their living for themselves and for their families. I do, indeed, congratulate them. It is notable that private sector steel, existing in the same world as the British Steel Corporation, is able to make a profit and to contribute to the cost of health, education and all the other things of which we want more in this country.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 12 February.

Will the Prime Minister take time today to study the financial crisis at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Glasgow? Is she aware that children's lives are at risk there because lack of finance is jeopardising life-saving operations? Is she also aware that Dr. McAllister, a doctor in that hospital, has said that what the Government are doing verges on cruelty? Will the right hon. Lady tell the House how her Government's mean and contemptible economic policy can, on the one hand, give tax handouts to the rich taxpayer and, on the other, threaten the lives of children in my constituency and other constituencies in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman knows that, in general the amount of money, in real terms, allocated to the National Health Service has not been reduced. Indeed, this Government had to increase the cash limit to provide for increased pay to the nurses and the National Health Service auxiliaries. With regard to that particular hospital, the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to send me a letter indicating his concern. We understand from the health board that there has been no cut in the financial allocation that it has made to the hospital.

Has my right hon. Friend heard the result of the Leyland ballot in which the workers have apparently refused to accept the pay offer? What result does my right hon. Friend think this will have on the future of the company and its car sales?

I hope, naturally, that the workers will not take industrial action. That ballot was not to take industrial action. British Leyland has severe problems on its hands in view of its high stocks and the inability to finance any more stocks. As my hon. Friend knows, about £1,000 million of public money has already gone into British Leyland. I hope that, in view of their excellent production record last month, everyone will together consider how to go forward and get the company back into profitability.

If the right hon. Lady is sending messages, will she send one of congratulations to the firemen in my constituency and along the South Coast who are having to deal with a dirty job, namely the chemicals coming ashore from a ship called the "Aeolian Sky"? Many of my constituents are worried about what is happening. The problem has almost caused fatalities. Will she instruct her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade to take action quickly to deal with the wreck?

I know of the great concern that exists if pollution from ships comes ashore. I shall contact my right hon. Friend.

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 12 February.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the suggestion that the profit-making private sector of the steel industry should take over some of the assets of British Steel and show it how to operate with the good will of its workers and at a profit?

It is noteworthy that the private sector of steel is operating at a profit in the same world in which the British Steel Corporation is making very heavy losses. There would be no objection whatever by the Government if the British Steel Corporation wished to sell off some of its plant that might otherwise be closed. Indeed, I think, it would be an excellent solution.

Before the right hon. Lady says more about water workers, will she comment on the circular issued by the Scottish Office suggesting that local authorities such as the Borders regional council should discharge raw sewage into the river Tweed in order to save public expenditure?

Will my right hon. Friend take time to consider the case of a member of my union, ASTMS, working as a nurse in British Steel who has felt obliged to resign her job after pressure exerted on her after refusing to contribute to strike funds? Does she not agree that incidents of this kind bring the trade union movement into disrepute and make it doubly difficult for the Government to proceed with their moderate proposals for trade union reform?

I agree that incidents of that kind bring the trade union movement into disrepute. They demonstrate the need for this Government to strengthen the law and get ahead with trade union reform.

Will the Prime Minister find time today to confirm that her Government have no intention of giving extra Government time to the Abortion (Amendment) Bill nor to extend any Friday sitting beyond the usual time for that purpose?

I understand that we are likely to be on that subject for one more Friday yet or perhaps more.

Has my right hon. Friend seen recent press reports that certain people have been claiming social security benefits to which they have not been entitled? Will she confirm that early Government action will be taken to curb this waste of taxpayers' money?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is trying to make certain that people do not get social security benefits to which they are not entitled. It should be made clear that those who take them fraudulently are reducing the amount of money available for those in genuine need.

Q4.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 12 February.

Will the Prime Minister take urgent steps, including consulting the front-line Presidents, to seek to make sure that Lord Soames no longer has to rely on the forces of the previous Rhodesian Administration and is, thus, able to avoid arrests such as that of Garfield Todd and many others which endangering the ceasefire and may lead to the sort of breakdown that many of us have feared? Is he aware that this could produce a blood-bath which I am sure all Members of the House would regard with horror?

The arrest of Mr. Garfield Todd is a matter for the police and I cannot comment upon it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Of course, I cannot comment on it. The arrest of Mr. Todd is a matter for the police and the law must take its ordinary course. The actions of Lord Soames, who is Governor of Rhodesia at present, are governed by the Lancaster House agreement and he is sticking to that.

Will my right hon. Friend take time, in the course of today, to reflect that on the Order Paper there are no fewer than four early-day motions affecting the future of rural post offices? Does she agree that the Government ought not automatically to take on board every half-baked idea from their advisers which would affect millions of the under-privileged in this country without the fullest debate and decision in this House?

Any suggestions of this magnitude would be submitted to full debate and decision of the House, but not all ideas are half-baked and some of the half-baked ones can be fully-baked.

Will the Prime Minister take time today to reassure the people of Merseyside, who are being made redundant, and to say when her economic policies will allow the entrepreneurs, who are supposed to have been released from the shackles of high taxation by the last Budget, to start investing in Merseyside? Is the right hon. Lady aware that the Government-inspired amendments to the County of Merseyside Bill [Lords], which will come before the House on Thursday, have been designed to take away the powers of Merseyside county council to encourage industrial investment in Merseyside? Will she see that those amendments are withdrawn?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a general point about investment and increasing the role of small business. This country is getting through because of the vitality of many businesses in the private sector that are making profits. If they were not, we should not have the resources either for health or education or for the vast loss-making nationalised industries that need an ever-increasing amount of money.

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to look at the plans for the future of the Commonwealth monitoring force in Rhodesia? Bearing in mind the rising tide of violence, has it not become imperative that those soldiers should be withdrawn after the votes have been cast, but before the result is known?

My hon. Friend knows that the soldiers are there to monitor and not in any way to keep order. The order is kept by virtue of the Governor requesting the forces to go where there is any report of disorder, but I do not think it would be wise to give any undertaking now about the future of the monitoring force.

In view of the Prime Minister's well-deserved tribute to the small businesses of this country, may I ask whether she is aware that the Secretary of State for Employment made a speech recently in which he said that the biggest handicap from which those businesses had to suffer was a 17 per cent. minimum lending rate? What has gone wrong with her monetary policy?

The fact that we had a very high increase in public expenditure this last year—[Interruption.] Surely the former Chancellor of the Exchequer the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) is not arguing with that. It is a matter of fact. It is in the public expenditure White Paper. As the Leader of the Opposition knows, we have had to attempt to reduce that expenditure. When it is reduced and when we can get the borrowing down, interest rates will come down. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman so many times, we shall be grateful for his support. There seems to be some competition between the Leader of the Opposition and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

As minimum lending rate was put up to 15 per cent. in June, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer told us that it would be only a few weeks before it came down again, what has gone wrong with the Government's policy, now that we have had a record MLR of 17 per cent. for two months? Is the Prime Minister proud of herself?

First, it was 14 per cent. and not 15 per cent. Let that 1 per cent pass. These 1 per cents. never seem to concern the right hon. Gentleman. He does not care a tuppenny damn about some of them. Never mind.

We need to get public spending down further, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, and the process of a nation which has been living beyond its means coming to live within its means is a distinctly uncomfortable one. We shall pursue the policy of reducing public spending as a proportion of the national income.

So that means that small businesses can expect no help at all from the Government?

On the contrary. It means that this Government are the only one who are likely to pursue a policy that brings the nation to live within its means—a policy totally rejected by the Labour Party.

Standing Orders (Business Of The House)

Yesterday, the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) raised a point of order concerning private business procedure. I have given careful consideration to the substantial points that he made in his statement to the House.

Private business Standing Orders, which regulate the details of Private Bill procedures, have, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us, always been treated as an aspect of private business. It would be no light matter for me to change this long-established practice of the House.

In my judgment, it is the House itself which ought to decide the matter on a motion if it is felt that such a change as the hon. Gentleman indicated is necessary.

Adoption (Scotland)

3.34 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to adoption of children in Scotland; and for connected purposes.

Order. I think that it would be fairer to the hon. Gentleman if I asked him to wait for a moment. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so as quickly and quietly as possible?

Let me say at the outset that this is not a party political matter. Indeed, I have received support for the Bill from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am sure that men of good will, irrespective of their political views, would give support to easing the plight of so many children who are in the care of local authorities.

A colleague of mine in Glasgow once said that in order to adopt a child in Scotland one needed the wealth of Onassis, the wisdom of Solomon and the strength of Hercules. That was an exaggeration, but it is no exaggeration to say that there are many obstacles in the path of prospective adopters in Scotland. That is a tragedy when we consider how many totally innocent children, especially older children aged between 8 and 15, we have in the care of local authorities in Scotland.

The object of the Bill is to remove one small obstacle from the path of prospective adopters. I do not pretend that the Bill will change the world or remove all the obstacles in the path of prospective adopters, but I hope that it will remove one small one.

I also hope that the Bill will bring to the attention of the House and the public the plight of so many unfortunate children. In Strathclyde alone, with a population of 2½ million—representing about one-half of the population of Scotland—we have 5,000 children in the care of local authorities. That figure is not untypical of the figures in the rest of Scotland and Great Britain. Of those 5,000 children, about 3,000 are in residential establishments—children's homes. That is a terrible indictment of contemporary society and of the uncaring, un- feeling and selfish attitude that is abroad in society.

I hope that the House will support the Bill to show that we care about those children and firmly stand by the principle that they, like all other children, have the right to enjoy the love and affection of parents and the stability of a normal home background.

There are three basic and, I hope, simple points to make in connection with the Bill. First, I want to remove the financial burden put on prospective adopters by the legal costs of adoption in Scotland. Most lawyers in Scotland, like those in other parts of the United Kingdom, are reasonable people and legal costs generally amount to £100 or £150. However, as a former chairman of the Strathclyde adoption committee, I know of instances where lawyers have charged £400 or £500 to present a petition to the sheriff court on behalf of prospective adopters. Clearly, that must be stopped.

In addition, a couple wanting to adopt a child are not covered by the National Health Service. They have to pay a fee of £25 or £30 to their general practitioner, although, again, there are one or two rogues who charge as much as £100. That must also be stopped. A petitioner must also pay the statutory fee of about £25 to the curator ad litem.

While the average cost of adoption in Scotland is probably £150 to £200, there are many instances in which costs can go as high as £500 or £600. There are many examples of that. Clearly it is a barrier, a break, an obstacle to ordinary people who apply to adopt a child. One could go down any street, in any of the cities, towns and villages of Scotland and ask people whether they thought that adoption was cheap, or whether it was reasonable, or whether they could afford it. The consensus would be that the average person could not afford adoption.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. There are still 3,000 children in the care of local authorities in Scotland who have not seen the outside of a children's home for five or 10 years. That is intolerable. The House must rule that adoption should be available to all people, irrespective of their means.

I hope that the House will adopt the Bill and not simply make noises about it. I hope that we are determined enough to stretch out a hand to those 3,000 children in Strathclyde and to the 2,000 or 3,000 children in other parts of Scotland. I hope that we shall not merely talk about it. I hope—unlike what happens in the case of most Ten-Minute Bills—that we shall give some weight and time to this important legislation and ensure that it is enacted. At the end of the day, if it takes only one child out of care it will be worth it.

I specifically propose that there should be a £50 limit on the fees charged by solicitors. In other words, there should be a charge of not more than £50 for presenting a petition to the sheriff court.

I also suggest that medical fees should be borne by the National Health Service. At present, a person has to pay a fee to a general practitioner when he is examined as a prospective adopter. I should also like the local authority to bear the cost of the curator ad litem.

Those are three basic, simple points. They will not change the world, but they will make life a little easier for one or two children.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Allen Adams, Mr. Raymond Ellis, Mr. Ron Brown, Mr. Harry Greenway, Mr. William McKelvey, Mr. Michael Ancram, Mr. Ernie Ross, Mr. John Maxton, Mr. Norman Buchan, Mr. Andy McMahon, Mr. Michael Martin and Mr. Norman Hogg.

Adoption (Scotland)

Mr. Allen Adams accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law relating to adoption of children in Scotland; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 14 March and to be printed. [Bill 145.]

Education (No 2) Bill (Allocation Of Time)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before you put the motion on the allocation of time and the report of the Business Committee, will you inform the House by what means the report of the Business Committee of 11 February is made available to it. It is not available in the Vote Office.

I understand that it is on the back of the Notice Paper that was published this morning. Like me, the hon. Gentleman looks to the front.

Education (No 2) Bill (Business Committee)

Ordered,

That the Report [ 11 February] of the Business Committee be now considered.—[ Mr. Mark Carlisle.]

Report considered accordingly.

Question, That this House doth agree with the Committee in their resolution, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 43 ( Business Committee) and agreed to.

Following is the Report of the Business Committee:

That the following provisions shall have effect in substitution for the provisions of the Resolution of the Committee that was reported to the House on 7th February—

  • (1) the order in which proceedings on consideration are taken shall be New Clauses, amendments to Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clauses 2 to 7, Schedule 2, Clauses 8 to 16, Schedule 3, Clause 17, Schedule 4, Clauses 18 and 19, Schedule 5, Clauses 20 to 22, Clause 24, Clause 23, Clause 25, Clauses 26 to 31, Schedule 6, Clauses 32 to 37 and Schedule 7 and New Schedules;
  • (2) the allotted days which under the Orders [29th January and 11th February] are given to the proceedings on consideration and Third Reading shall be allotted in the manner shown in the Table setout below and, subject to the provisions of those Orders, each part of the proceedings shall, if not previously brought to a conclusion, be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the third column of that Table.
  • Table

    Allotted day, proceedings and time for conclusion of proceedings

    First day

    New Clauses, 8.30 p.m.

    Amendments up to the end of Schedule 2, 10 p.m.

    Amendments up to the end of Schedule 3, 11 p.m.

    Amendments up to the end of Clause 18, 2 a.m.

    Second day

    Amendments up to the end of Clause 24, 6.30 p.m.

    Amendments up to the end of Clause 25, 9.30 p.m.

    Remaining proceedings on consideration, 11 p.m.

    Third Reading, Midnight.

    Orders Of The Day

    Education (No 2) Bill

    [FIRST ALLOTTED DAY]

    As amended ( in the Standing Committee), considered.

    New Clause 1

    Nursery Education: England And Wales

  • '(1) A local education authority shall have power to establish nursery schools, to maintain such schools established by them or a former authority and to assist any such school which is not so established.
  • (2) A local education authority shall not by virtue of section 8 of the Education Act 1944 be under any duty in respect of junior pupils who have not attained the age of five years but this subsection shall not effect the power of an authority under section 9(1) of that Act to establish, maintain or assist a school at which education is provided both for such pupils and older pupils, including a school at which there is a nursery class for such junior pupils as aforesaid.'—[Mr. Mark Carlisle.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    3.40 pm

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

    Sub-amendment (b), in subsection (2), leave out "five" and insert "four".

    Sub-amendment (a), in subsection (2), at end add—

    '(3) A local education authority shall not charge for any education in nursery schools or classes'.

    Sub-amendment (c), in subsection (2), at end add—

    '(3) This section shall not take effect earlier than 4th May 1984.'.

    Sub-amendment (d), in subsection (2), at end add—

    '(3) A local education authority shall provide nursery education for any child in its area where
  • (a) his family is in receipt of supplementary benefit or family income supplement; or
  • (b) he is the child of a one-parent family; or
  • (c) his family is in receipt of an income below that prescribed as a qualification for nursery education by the Secretary of State in regulations.'
  • New clause 2— Nursery education: Scotland

  • '(1) An education authority shall have power to provide for their area school education in nursery schools and nursery classes.
  • (2) The duties of an education authority under section 1 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1962 shall not apply in relation to the provision of school education in nursery schools and nursery classes.
  • (3) This section applies to Scotland only.'.
  • Sub-amendment (a), at end add

    '(4) An education authority may not charge for any education in nursery schools or nursery classes.'

    Government amendments Nos. 62, 63, 20.

    Amendment No. 90, in clause 12, page 13, line 23, at end insert—

    '(10) The Secretary of State shall not approve any proposal to cease to maintain any nursery school or to make a significant change in the character of a county school by the closure of a nursery class thereat, where such nursery school or class is in existence at the passing of this Act, unless the local education authority proposes also to make satisfactory alternative provisions in nursery schools or classes, as the case may be'.

    Government amendments, Nos. 62, 63, 64, 73 and 78.

    This new clause and the amendments deal generally with the provision of nursery education in England, Wales and Scotland. They are important. It is because of their importance that the Opposition asked that the timetable motion should be amended to allow further time for discussion—a request to which the Government were happy to accede. It is also the cause of our having an extra two hours to debate the Report stage of the Bill.

    Taken as a whole, the effect of the new clause and the amendments is to make clear that local education authorities in England and Wales have a power but not a duty to provide education for those children who are under compulsory school age. At the same time, they provide that where separate nursery schools exist they cannot be closed other than by the use of what was known as section 13 procedure—clause 12 of the Bill—namely, the publication of the intention to close and the opportunity for local people to object.

    Finally, since the intention of the main clause is to make clear that there is a power but not a duty on local education authorities to provide education, equally it converts into a power the duty applied in the Act for one local education authority to pay another authority if that other authority is providing education for a child.

    That is the purpose of the new clause and the group of amendments. Taken together, these provisions are not intended as, nor should they be taken as, a reduction of interest by the Government in the provision of education for children under 5 years of age. We are still anxious that local education authorities should make as much provision of education as possible, consistent with the available resources.

    I should like to explain to the House the reason why the Government consider it necessary to bring forward the new clause and the amendments. The House will remember that during the course of last year the Oxfordshire county council proposed to close all the nursery schools and nursery classes then provided in the county by a later date, and instead to replace that provision with an alternative provision of education for children under 5 years of age. The chief education officer was asked to put forward a scheme for consideration by the council.

    The resolution passed by the Oxfordshire county council started a good deal of controversy, particularly on the question whether or not the county council was able to do that, and whether there was a duty or merely a power to provide education for children under 5. The Department of Education and Science had already examined the legal requirements relating to nursery education. It is clear that over the years—certainly until some people had the benefit of hindsight—everyone accepted that the provision for nursery education was a discretionary power for local education authorities. It is equally clear that there is a statutory duty to provide schools for children under 5, but it is also a fact that that statutory duty is extremely unclear.

    The Secretary of State said that everyone assumed otherwise. There is one exception—Lord Butler. He said clearly that it was his intention to make it a duty for local education authorities to provide nursery education. He said that those provisions were written into the proposed measure in 1943. It is now 1980–37 years later.

    What I said was that until I announced the intention to put forward the new clause, no one—that is why I referred to the benefit of hindsight—had said that there was other than a discretion. I do not thnk that even the noble Lord, the framer of the Act, had publicly announced previously what he said after I published these amendments with regard to the power.

    There is a statutory duty to provide education for children under 5 but the statutory duty is extremely unclear I should like to explain to the House what I mean by that. The provisions with regard to the duty on local education authorities to provide education for those of compulsory school age are to be found in section 8 of the Education Act 1944. Those powers provide that
    "It shall be the duty of every local authority to secure that there shall be available for their area sufficient schools".
    Under that provision, sufficient schools have to be made available
    "for providing primary education, that is to say, full-time education suitable to the requirements of junior pupils".
    That duty is clear, and is specifically laid down in terms of the provision to provide sufficient primary schools for the area. That duty is defined by saying that the primary schools shall provide
    "full-time education suitable to the requirements of junior pupils".
    When we look for the definition of a junior pupil, it is apparent that the duty applies to those under 5 as well as to those over 5, since the only definition of a junior pupil is any pupil under the age of 12.

    But since there is a duty to provide sufficient schools for children under 5 as well as over 5, and since there is no requirement on parents of children under 5 to send their children to school, it is impossible to say what that level of provision would be held to be.

    Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the same position exists with further education, and that although there is no compulsory requirement to receive further education there is still a duty laid upon local authorities to provide further education? In that sense, the position governing further education and that governing nursery school education are absolutely evenhanded. To cut out the provision for nursery school education would therefore be quite illogical. There is no problem with further education. Why should there be one with nursery education?

    :I do not accept that argument. I was trying to explain why I believe that it has come about that, although there is a duty of the kind provided in the 1944 Act, no one has ever looked at or debated the matter of nursery education other than in the terms of there being a general power. We are dealing with children below compulsory school age and there is no requirement on the parents to send such children to school. Although there is a general requirement to provide sufficient schools, it is impossible to say what the level of provision should be.

    I should like to proceed a little further on this aspect, otherwise I shall be accused of giving way too often and of taking up too much time.

    Equally, there is clearly no duty, nor has there ever been a duty—although this has been misunderstood by many people—either to provide nursery schools or education in nursery classes. The only reference to nursery schools or to classes is that which provides that the authorities, in carrying out their duty to provide sufficient schools for those under 5, should have regard—it goes further than that—to the need for securing it by the provision of nursery schools.

    The legal position, is that there is a duty to provide sufficient schools to meet the educational demands of the people in the area, but clearly there is no duty to attend the school. There is also no duty as to what form of school it should be, whether a primary or a nursery school or a nursery class. There is a responsibility, in carrying out that duty, merely to have regard to the possibility of nursery schools.

    If no specific duty is imposed, how was it that Lord Hailsham came to the conclusion, when he was Minister of Education in 1957, that the county of Somerset had a duty to provide, and has had to sustain that duty ever since?

    The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The one exception to my statement—that the whole of the debate has gone on the basis that it was a power and not a duty—was when Somerset announced its intention to do what Oxfordshire announced its intentions to do, namely, to close its schools. It was pointed out to Somerset—the papers have since been looked at—that it was the view of the Department, and has always been the legal view within the Department—although perhaps I should not mention it here—that there is a duty. It was the conveyance of that view to Somerset that made Somerset change its mind about what it intended to do.

    The problem is the imprecision of the duty. In many cases it is felt that only the courts can decide. Other than in the case of the warning to Somerset at the earlier stage, there has never been any attempt to enforce the duty upon any local education authority. The whole debate has continued on the general assumption that there is merely a discretionary power.

    I do not believe that a lack of clarity surrounding this duty would help anyone other than, perhaps, members of my own profession, who might earn considerable sums in arguing in every case what was meant by the necessary degree of provision in an area where there is no duty on the parent to ensure that the child attends school.

    When the Secretary of State quoted the part of the Act relating to the fulfilling of the duties, he did not state that he was quoting from section 8 (2). In that subsection. paragraph (b) relates to where the pupils have not attained the age of 5 years, but paragraph (c) refers to

    "the need for securing that provision is made for pupils who suffer from any disability of mind or body".
    Is the Secretary of State now saying that if a local authority does not wish to pursue the provision of special schools, it should have the option so to do? Surely he agrees that the wording in the Act is precisely the same for each sort of school.

    Yes, but I am saying that there should be a clear duty on local authorities to provide sufficient schools for children of compulsory school age who need special schools, in exactly the same way as there is a duty on local authorities to make provision for primary or secondary schools. The words that the hon. Gentleman read out show that the duty does not necessarily have to be carried out by providing special schools. It can be done by saying that there will be places in the ordinary schools. But in carrying out their duty to those who have illnesses, mental or physical, the authorities are required to have regard to the need for special schools.

    I was saying that there has never been an attempt to enforce the provision. I do not believe that it is wise to leave the law unclear on this matter. It is necessary to make it clear, and in the amendments I am attempting to bring the law into line with what it was always thought to be.

    Whatever the framers of the 1944 Act intended—I refer now to Lord Butler—there is no doubt that, under pressure of resources those intentions have not been carried out. In fact, the education for those under 5, which existed on a considerable basis at the time of the passing of the 1944 Act, as a result of having been provided during wartime, then began to wither away, and that process continued for the next 20 years. It was not until 1966, following the report of the Plowden committee, that interest in nursery school education appears to have been revised as a matter of public debate.

    As the House will know, the Plowden committee recommended that education for children below the age of 5 should be available to all those who wish for it. The committee considered that that meant a provision for 90 per cent. of children of the age of 4, and for 50 per cent. of those of the age of 3 although largely on a part-time basis. 4 pm

    It was six years later, in 1972, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science, first turned that recommendation into a commitment in her White Paper "Education: A Framework for Expansion". It was the commitment of the Government at that time that those targets—if I may put it that way—set by the Plowden committee should be reached by 1982.

    Under pressure of shortage of resources, there is no doubt that the target figures for the expansion of the education of under-fives have long since been abandoned. The nursery school building programme for which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister provided when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science was reduced rapidly. It was implemented for two years, it was halved for the year 1976–77, and that half was divided by a further two-thirds for 1977–78. What had been a building provision of £21½ million in 1974 had fallen to a building provision of £2·7 million by 1977–78.

    The rate support grant circular put out by the previous Labour Administration for the years 1976–77 and 1977–78 specifically advocated restricting the number of under-fives going to schools as a means to cut expenditure. At present we have about 650 nursery schools, about 4,400 nursery classes, with 19 per cent. of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in those schools or classes, and a further 20 per cent. of under-fives in the ordinary classes of primary schools. The figures and the reasons that I have given are intended not to make a purely party political point but to show that, however anxious both sides of the House may have been to meet the Plowden committee recommendations both have had to accept—when it came to the implementation—that it could be done only within the resources available. I do not believe that there is any point in keeping in existence a shadowy duty that is probably unenforceable and, in present circumstances unattainable.

    The Government believe firmly in the value of nursery education for all young children, and that remains our long term aim. It is especially valuable for the handicapped and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. They must have priority in the provision of resources in the short term. More than 70 per cent. of existing nursery provision is in areas social need. As a result of a provision made over the years through the urban and inner city programmes, priority has always been given by the Department in its nursery building programme, to such areas.

    The Government will continue to support nursery education projects in all these programmes. The allocation from the Department's 1980–81 nursery education building programme will be announced shortly.

    We have provided within the 1980–81 rate support grant settlement for expenditure on under-fives, including those in primary schools, to remain at roughly the present level. While I cannot anticipate the expenditure White Paper for future years, I am confident that we shall be able to maintain a substantial provision for the under-fives, especially if local authorities can find ways of reducing the individual cost of educating a child.

    That could be done. The House knows that, as a result of the drop in the number of children in primary schools, there is substantial vacant capacity or over-capacity in such schools. If local authorities could make use of those classrooms, released as a result of falling primary school rolls, it would be a means of providing for the education of the under-fives that could be achieved without the need for expensive adaptations. It has been put to me that the Department's regulations on the standards for school premises inhibit that, and I am asking my Department to consider whether they are too tough on nursery education premises.

    Is not the probability of the fulfilment of that desirable end—of taking up places made vacant by the falling number of primary school rolls—diminished significantly by the removal of any form of direct responsibility which the right hon. and learned Gentleman is proposing in the new clause?

    Another matter should be taken into account. There is a significant difference between a position in which the objectives of nursery place provision are not met because of shortages of resources—whether under a Conservative or a Labour Government—and a position in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman is actively removing any obligation being imposed upon local education authorities to make such provision. Does not the latter position, which he is now introducing, change the whole nature of the Government's attitude towards the provision of nursery places?

    I do not accept that. The provision that I have described, and the build-up that has taken place, has been at a period when the local education authorities thought that there was no statutory duty on them. It has not been suggested that they have been acting in the belief that there was a statutory duty rather than discretionary powers. We have found that a considerable number of local authorities have already put in bids against the nursery building programme for next year.

    As hon. Members will know, I was asked by the Association of County Councils to consider the introduction of charges for nursery education, and my Department has examined carefully the implications of such a measure. While it is possibly true, as some argue, that a modest charge for nursery education could in some cases help to tip the scales against reducing existing provision, I do not believe that it would lead to the opening of new classes or schools or wider provision.

    Clearly any scheme for charging for nursery education would have to exempt those in receipt of supplementary benefit and family income supplement. Any State scheme for the provision of education for under-fives would have to be subsidised and any extension of that provision, even with the right to charge, would lead inevitably to increased expenditure.

    As I have said, 70 per cent. of the existing nursery provision is made in areas of special social need. I believe that any system of charging—limited as it would have to be in practice to nursery schools and classes rather than reception classes in primary schools—would bring in little income. It would risk depriving of nursery education children who are in the greatest need of its benefits. I have concluded, therefore, that in the present circumstances, it would not be right to introduce charging for nursery education.

    The amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) is otiose because under section 61 of the 1944 Act it is clear that no charging could be made unless I provide specifically for it in the Bill.

    I think that the Secretary of State said specifically that it would be illegal for any authority to charge for places in nursery schools or classes, and that there must be a change in the law to make that possible. Is that correct?

    That is exactly what I am saying. Section 61 does not allow charging for State education.

    I do not believe that changing the duty to provide education for the under-fives to a power will in itself cause any reduction in the provision of nursery education. If the resources cannot be made available, the existence of a statutory power will not, as I have attempted to show, do anything to increase that provision. Resources, and not whether it is a power or a duty, are the key.

    It is certainly not my intention that this clause should be seen as an invitation to local authorities to abandon nursery education. The bids that we have received suggest that a substantial number of local authorities are anxious not only to maintain existing provision but to expand it, in spite of the present pressures on local authority finances.

    I am, however, aware that one or two authorities are considering the closure of some or all of their nursery provision. While that is a course of action that would obviously be regretted, locally elected councillors must decide for themselves on these matters.

    That would have been legal. I am, however, proposing to place one additional safeguard on such action. I propose to bring the closure of nursery schools within the scope of clause 12, which has not applied to nursery schools in the past. This amendment is an essential part of my overall proposals on nursery education.

    The amendment to clause 12 is designed to ensure that, if a local education authority proposes to cease to maintain a nursery school, it shall be required, in precisely the same way as in the case of a primary or secondary school, to publish its proposal, giving two months for objections to be submitted. In fact, the full provisions of clause 12 will apply, and, unless there are no statutory objec- tions, the decision to approve or reject the proposal will be taken by the Secretary of State as in the normal way.

    I apologise for taking some time in explaining the effect of the new clauses, but I commend them and the amendments to the House.

    The Secretary of State rightly said that this was an important new clause. We think that it is one of the most important amendments that has been tabled, and we are disturbed that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has seen fit to seek to write in such an important new clause at this stage in our proceedings. Indeed, I suggest that it would have been more appropriate had the Secretary of State decided to introduce a completely separate Bill on this specific point, because the House does not have sufficient time to discuss this matter fully before the Bill makes further progress.

    The new clause makes a fundamental change to the Education Act 1944. The Secretary of State tried to play down that change, and tried to argue that the new clause simply seeks to clarify the position. We do not think that that is the case. We believe that the new clause will have dramatic effects which the Secretary of State has refused to admit.

    The right hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to the decision of Oxfordshire county council. Since this issue was raised, Oxfordshire county council has got a good deal of the blame for the fact that the Government have been considering a change in the law with regard to this clause. Oxfordshire decided that it would try to close its 12 nursery schools and 16 nursery classes, thus depriving 1,500 children of the right to nursery education. We must remember why Oxfordshire felt it necessary to embark on that policy in the first place. It was not because people in Oxfordshire suddenly decided that nursery education was a bad thing. It was because the Secretary of State and his colleagues in the Cabinet decided that local authorities had to make substantial cuts in their expenditure. The pressure for this change came not simply from the county councils but from the Government themselves, and the Government should take responsibility for the changes that are now being introduced.

    4.15 pm

    The Secretary of State said a great deal about the need for clarifying the 1944 Act. Indeed, most of his speech concentrated on that point. If we look at what has been said over the last few weeks, we find that everyone agrees on what the 1944 Act meant. The legal advisers at the Department of Education and Science agreed. The Attorney-General agreed and Lord Butler agreed. Everyone is now convinced that the 1944 Act placed a duty on local education authorities to provide nursery education.

    The fact that many local authorities failed to provide those facilities, because of lack of resources or for whatever reason, does not alter the meaning of the law. It seems that the law was quite clear. It is important to realise that the new clause does not clarify the law but changes it. That is what the Secretary of State has chosen to do.

    The right hon. and learned Gentleman made light of the effects of this change. The first effect is that councils such as Oxfordshire county council will try to go ahead with their plans. Indeed, many others may try to follow them. They may attempt either to close all their nursery schools and classes or to reduce provision dramatically. From now on, there will be nothing in law to stop them doing so. The Secretary of State reminded us of his other amendments to the Bill which bring nursery provision within the scope of section 13 of the 1944 Act. I think he will agree that that is a modified section 13, given the other changes that he is proposing in the Bill.

    The Secretary of State expects to be reassured by this proposal and by his other amendments, but I do not believe that they are reassuring at all. First, it has never been thought necessary to have a procedure for closing nursery schools, because it has never been previously considered possible that local authorities would embark upon the wholesale closure of such schools. It is only because local authorities are now proposing to do so that the new power is needed by the Secretary of State.

    The other more important reason why we cannot get any reassurance from the Secretary of State's other amendments is that, to have any effect, section 13 would have to be used effectively by him. The Secretary of State will have to be prepared to say to Oxfordshire county council "No, you cannot close your nursery schools or nursery classes". Neither this afternoon nor on any other occasion has the right hon. and learned Gentleman said whether he intends to allow local authorities to cut back their provision.

    My hon. Friend has just said that the Secretary of State had to make up his mind about whether he would give permission for the closure of nursery schools or classes. I listened fairly carefully, and I do not think that the Secretary of State actually said that in order to close a nursery class one needed to go through this procedure. That is one of the most worrying and disturbing aspects of this matter, because most of the expansion of nursery education over recent years has been in the provision of classes. I think that that leaves a major loophole, because classes can be dispensed with without any safeguard whatever. I hope that my hon. Friend will press that point further.

    My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and the Secretary of State is confirming that what he has said is correct. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman was so keen to clarify the law on this issue, I am surprised that he did not refer to the situation in nursery classes, because they will almost be left in limbo between the nursery schools and the infants' schools of which they are part.

    I was careful to say that the provision related only to nursery schools. I considered the question of nursery classes. The nursery class is merely another class within the primary school system, in most cases. Frankly, I do not think that section 13 is the appropriate procedure.

    Does that mean that the Secretary of State will sit back and watch local authorities closing nursery classes, if that is what they decide, without intervening?

    Under the provision the local authorities would be free to close nursery classes if they wished.

    Had I not brought in these powers, under the existing 1944 Act there was no reason to prevent Oxfordshire from closing its existing nursery schools without coming to me. Therefore, to suggest that Oxfordshire could not have done it previously but that it now can is quite wrong.

    What the Secretary of State said does not comply with what the Attorney-General said about the Oxfordshire position. Even so, that was not the point that I put to him. He says now that he has new powers under section 13 to prevent the closure of nursery schools. I asked the Minister whether he was willing to give an assurance that he would not approve the wholesale break-up of nursery education in any area. Will the Minister say "No, you cannot abandon nursery education", or will he stand by what he said about the situation in Somerset? Somerset asked whether it could close its remaining schools. The Minister was reported as saying that, although he would regret a decision by the LEA to close the schools, he would not invoke his statutory powers to enforce his view. That is the report of the situation that arose when Somerset sought advice from the Department. Will the Minister stand by his previous statement, or will he give us an assurance that he will not allow any authority completely to abandon nursery education in its area? That is an important point. If the Minister will not use his new powers under section 13, why does he want them?

    As the hon. Lady will realise, I cannot give an assurance in the terms that she requests. I can give the assurance that, in normal section 13 procedure, every individual case for a closure must be publicised. There will be an opportunity for people to object. The case must be considered on its merits.

    But at the end of the day the Secretary of State must make a decision whether to allow a local authority to close its nursery schools. The House would have been reassured if he had said that in general he was against local authorities closing nursery schools. He has not gone as far as that. We should welcome information about the criteria that the Secretary of State would use when he makes these decisions. Indeed, we should welcome more information about the Minister's general attitude towards nursery education. He made some bland statements this afternoon about being in favour of it. However, there is now doubt about how enthusiastic the Government are about nursery education.

    The Secretary of State referred to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the contribution that she made to the improvement of nursery education. We heard a great deal about the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for nursery education, not only in the White Paper, to which the Minister referred, but in parliamentary debates and statements such as this:
    "an historic step forward; giving new opportunities to parents."
    A great deal of elaborate language was used at that time by his right hon. Friend, but all that bold talk led to very little.

    We are now concerned about what is happening to Conservative policy on nursery education. We have been considering some of the statements made over the past few years in Conservative Party manifestos. There has been a great deal of change of emphasis and a reduction of keenness on nursery education. This is alarming. In February 1974 the Conservative Party made a direct commitment:
    "We shall…extend free nursery schooling throughout the country."
    That was bold and direct. By October 1974 the Conservative Party had slightly modified that commitment. Instead of promising to provide such education, it recognised the need for it. By the time that it came to the writing of "The Right Approach", the Conservative Party thought that there should be special assistance for deprived children. By the time of the 1979 manifesto there was little talk of nursery education—simply the note that every child should have the chance to progress. That is where the Secretary of State now leaves the situation.

    From 1974 until 1979 the then Labour Government reduced their provision for nursery education from £21½ million a year to £2·7 million a year, and specifically advised local authorities, as a way of reducing expenditure, to reduce the numbers of under-fives they took into their schools.

    We are greatly touched by the Secretary of State's deep concern. However, the majority of local authorities that refused to take up their nursery allocations were Conservative controlled and, by and large, Labour local authorities have a far better record on nursery expenditure than do Tory local authorities.

    Is it not a fact that about two years ago Mrs. Shirley Williams, the then Secretary of State, gave figures in this Chamber showing that 80 per cent. of Conservative councils had failed to take up their allocations for nursery provision?

    :That is a fact. Indeed, some Labour local authorities tried to take up their allocations in their place. That is why so many Labour authorities were able to do something in terms of expanding nursery education.

    We were talking about the progress, or lack of it, of Conservative philosophy on nursery education. I think that last October the Secretary of State, in reply to a question, stated that he hoped to be able, over the coming year, to increase the number of nursery places available in this country. We were slightly surprised because the Secretary of State said that he would increase the number of nursery places although reducing expenditure on nursery education. We are now waiting for the Secretary of State to tell us that abolishing a legal obligation to provide nursery education will also result in more places.

    If the Secretary of State were concerned about nursery education he would not be introducing this new clause at this stage. He said that he was in favour of nursery education but said little about the dangers of the clause. He said little about the damage that would be done if the clause were passed and local authorities took advantage of it.

    Does the Secretary of State realise the hardship that would be caused by a reduction in nursery education? Does he believe in the educational and social value of nursery education? Does he agree it is important that children from deprived backgrounds can take advantage of this better start in education? If he does, he cannot go ahead with the clause or allow local authorities to close their nursery schools.

    4.30pm

    The clause has been introduced to allow local education authorities to save money, but this is a false economy. Unless children get a good start in life more problems will be created both inside and outside the education service. We are concerned about what will happen in practical terms if local authorities take advantage of the clause. Some local authorities will close nursery schools. What will happen then to the buildings and the outstanding loans on them? Will the buildings be hired out to groups who want to run private nurseries? The demand will still exist. If that happens, and if fees of £90 or £100 a term are charged, many children needing nursery education will be deprived of it and there will be hardship.

    There is no alternative. Perhaps by the time the Bill comes back from another place the Minister will have modified it further by introducing an assisted places scheme to allow deprived children to attend nursery schools.

    The clause is extremely important. It could lead to the break-up of nursery education, and it will certainly cause a great deal of hardship to many children and their parents. Even if the Secretary of State were to accept all the Opposition amendments to the clause, we would still think that it was inadequate and should be withdrawn.

    We have tabled amendment (b) because we believe that nursery education should be available as of right to every 4-year-old. We know that there are problems in achieving that target, but, unless the target is written into the legislation and unless the Secretary of State is keen to see that it is achieved, there will be little pressure by central Government on local authorities to achieve it. The Secretary of State has a responsibility to encourage local authorities to provide more nursery education. That means taking legal steps to ensure that they do, as well as providing resources.

    The Secretary of State referred to amendment (a). The Opposition welcome the Minister's statement that he is unwilling to introduce charges for nursery education and will not do so, but the reason he gave is the wrong reason. He said that it would not raise much money anyway. We think that charges are wrong in principle and that the Minister should have said so.

    Amendment (d) provides for children who need to be compensated because they are deprived of certain advantages. We think that nursery education should be provided as of right for children whose families are in receipt of family income supplement or supplementary benefit or who are in a one-parent family. In Committee the Minister acknowledged that some children are in special need of nursery education. He therefore has a responsibility to ensure that that commitment is carried out by local authorities and should not just sit back and hope that it all works out well in the end.

    Amendment No. 90 provides that nursery schools in existence at present should not be closed. If the Minister is confident, as he says, that the clause will not lead to the early closure of nursery schools, I do not understand why he cannot accept the amendment. It puts into the Bill only what the Minister has implied. If existing nursery schools are to be protected, the Minister should be willing to accept the amendment.

    We hope that the Minister will accept our amendments but, even if he accepts them all, the clause will still be wrong. The clause attacks the most vulnerable children, the under-fives. It attacks the children who most need help. It is a false economy because nursery education is an important investment in the future.

    I hope that the Minister will think again about the clause and be quick to come to the House and say that he has changed his mind, and instead of removing the duty of local authorities to provide nursery education will reinforce that duty. If clarification of the 1944 Act is necessary, there should be a movement in the other direction, not in the direction that will result in the break-up of nursery education.

    After listening to the legal arguments about the precise obligations of local education authorities under section 8(2) of the Education Act 1944 and reading the articles written by the perceptive and intelligent correspondent of The Times Educational Supplementon this question, I am drawn irresistibly to the conclusion that the whole argument would have appealed enormously to Mr. Justice Cocklecarrot. In due course it may warm up the rhetoric of the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) but, with great respect as the lawyers say, I do not think it lit much of a fire under the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor), except for the good joke about the assisted places scheme.

    I think it was Mr. Dooley who said that what is a stone wall for a layman is usually a triumphal arch for a lawyer. Those of us who are interested in the greater provision of nursery education must be concerned principally with how we get over the stone wall. Before attempting to effect that scramble I hope I shall be excused for trying briefly, and without the advantage of a legal education, to effect a passage through the triumphal arch.

    I was surprised by the legal advice given by the Department of Education and Science and I would be surprised if the Department were not equally surprised. If it means anything, it means that every local education authority in the country has been in breach of its statutory obligations for the past 36 years.

    If we go back to the tablets of stone—the 1944 Act—we see the first distinction between nursery, primary and secondary schools in the difference between the obligation upon parents of children over 5 to send their children to school and the lack of that obligation on parents of children under 5. If we go on to the second distinction—I imagine it was meant as such by the draftsmen of the Act—and look at section 8(1) we see that local education authorities are given a duty to provide secondary schools and primary schools. Subsection (2) says:
    "In fulfilling their duties…local education authorities shall, in particular, have regard to the need for securing that provision is made for…nursery schools".
    What exactly having "regard to the need" actually means is a question that suggests that we are back in Beachcomber country.

    If we look at the Committee stage of the 1944 Act we do not get much more wisdom on the subject. An amendment to clause 8 was moved which sought to shift nursery schools from subsection (2) to subsection (1). In resisting the amendment the then Parliamentary Secretary at the Board of Education said:
    "I think there is no doubt, after the former discussion, that the provision of nursery schools is a part of primary education. The Board are fully seized of the desire of the country that it should be expanded, but it does not appear that any substantial gain is made bringing it into 8(1)(a) and leaving it out of 8(2)(b)."—[Official Report, 15 February 1944; Vol. 397, c. 98.]
    As the last 36 years have shown, how wrong he turned out to be!

    The reason why the Parliamentary Secretary resisted that amendment from the then hon. Member for Kilmarnock, Mr. Kenneth Lindsay, was that the Board felt—a point that is made in Lord Butler's memoirs to which I shall return with enthusiasm later—that, however much nursery education was desirable, it did not think that it was absolutely essential. In those heady days of extremely valuable and constructive consensus politics at the end of the war—

    During the war, that is right. In the era of the Post-War Problems Committee it was generally felt that all good men and true would be in favour of creating Utopia as soon as the peace that was just round the corner came along. However, there were clearly some bits of Utopia that were thought to be more important and necessary than others.

    I turn now to the evidence of Lord Butler, that political genius and architect of the 1944 Act. He said recently—this is borne out by his speech on Second Reading of the Bill in 1944—that it was always the intention to impose a duty on local education authorities to provide nursery schools. But that was not how he put it in his memoirs which he wrote 27 conceivably law-breaking years later. In his memoirs, talking about his Second Reading speech, the noble Lord mentions the statutory duties imposed on local education authorities and goes on:
    "For children under the age of five, the aim"—
    note the use of the word "aim"—
    "was a sufficient supply of nursery schools".
    He goes on later in that chapter to set out the limited number of failures of the 1944 Act and he includes among them the failure to achieve that aim. For those of us who believe in the efficacy of nursery schools it seems, unfortunately, that the provision of nursery places for as many children as want them did not come within what Lord Butler would have called the art of the possible.

    4.45 pm

    After the 1944 Act, distinction was continually drawn between mandatory and permissive powers. As early as 1946 the Fabian Society—I dare say that it sometimes gets things right—was urging the then Labour Government to make the section 8 provisions mandatory rather than permissive. That distinction between mandatory and permissive has been drawn in various books and textbooks ever since. For example, that distinction is drawn in the excellent book on nursery schools by Tessa Blackstone. Wherever Tessa Blackstone's political sympathies lie, they are not, on the whole, with the Conservatives.

    Nor are they with the Foreign Office, as I suspect the characteristically urbane intervention by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) is suggesting.

    In 1951 four county councils decided that they would do away with nursery schools. Presumably they thought that the powers under the 1944 Act were permissive. We then come to the interesting case of the intervention of Lord Hailsham in the affairs of Somerset in 1957. Until this afternoon we thought that that would not be able to shed much light on the present position, as we were led to believe—again by that perceptive correspondent of The Times Educational Supplement—that the Department had lost the directive. We now understand that the dispute about whether Lord Hailsham was acting within the powers under section 68 of the Act on the ground that the local authority was behaving unreasonably or under section 99 on the ground that it was in breach of its statutory duty has been resolved, because he issued his directive under section 99.

    If that was so, it is all the more surprising that three years later in 1960 the Ministry of Education issued a circular telling local authorities not to provide any more nursery places. It is quite extraordinary that at that time the Ministry did not seem to think that failure to provide nursery places was the same as a failure to comply with the law.

    That is how things remained until, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said, the Plowden committee reported and until the White Paper of 1972, the excellent objectives of which, were, alas, scuppered by the failures of the economy.

    To summarise the position since 1944, at the end of the war, partly as a result of the experience of evacuation and the fact that many people had witnessed, for the first time, social and educational deprivation and under-privilege among too many children in this county, nursery education was regarded, in the words of "1066 and All That", as a good thing. But because in the 1940s there was a lack of trained teachers, a high birth rate and economic problems, because in the 1950s other educational priorities such as the reduction of class sizes, were established, and because of economic failure in the 1960s and 1970s, we never managed to turn that "very good thing," as some of us would argue, into nursery places for all those who wanted them.

    I do not agree with the hon. Member for Bolton, West. The new clause does clarify the position, though I accept that the present position is pretty miserable and both parties are responsible for it. The amendment to clause 12 is conceivably a small mercy for which we should be proportionately grateful. But what do we do now about the admirable objective of Lord Butler?

    The hon. Gentleman said that the new clause clarified the position. He did not explain how it does so. Will he explain how it clarifies section 8(2)(b) of the Education Act 1944? I do not know what he means.

    I have been seeking to argue for more than long enough that at best the situation since 1944 has been exceptionally confused. Since 1944 there has not been a statutory obligation on local education authorities under section 8.

    I began by saying that I was extremely surprised by the legal advice that the Department seems to have been given and that it is now applying. The clause clarifies a rather sad position for all who believe in greater nursery provision.

    The hon. Gentleman seems to be agreeing that, for example, Oxfordshire county council was not acting illegally when it chose in November to adopt a policy that would have meant the ending of nursery education in that county. If the county council was not acting illegally under the law as it was then understood, why was it necessary even to introduce what the hon. Gentleman calls clarification, let alone the much more accurate term that has been used by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West—namely, changing the law?

    The hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically obtuse. I have already said that if Oxfordshire county council was breaking the law at least four county councils were doing so in 1951. Probably every local authority has broken it since 1944. According to the hon. Gentleman's interpretation, the Department broke the law in 1960 in issuing its circular. The hon. Gentleman should make the intellectual effort to grasp that.

    Will the hon. Gentleman tender the same advice, possibly with a little less condescension, to his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General? On this issue the right hon. and learned Gentleman appears to have the same opinion as myself and almost everyone else.

    I am sorry to have stung the hon. Gentleman. He has been extremely kind and courteous to me in the past. I do not want to annoy him. He is the last person in the House to whom I would condescend.

    I began by using the most legalistic language. I dotted my speech with "great respects". I said that I did not go along entirely with the Attorney-General's advice. I do not want to put it any stronger than that. If the 1944 Act is as the hon. Gentleman claims, every local authority throughout the country has been breaking it for the past 36 years.

    I return to the objective of greater under-fives provision. I believe in its importance in educational and social terms. I have seen how much my own children have gained from it. It is a considerable pity—indeed, it is a great deal more than that—that more children have not had the benefit of nursery education.

    Nursery provision in my constituency is woefully bad. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, with some encouragement from my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, will help to put that right by giving early approval to the application under urban aid for another nursery class at Twerton. I am glad to see that I have the support of my right hon. and learned Friend.

    I do not wish to blame anyone in particular for the position in my constituency or generally throughout the country. That would be much too partisan an approach. Until those who believe in the importance of nursery education convince the rest of society that it should receive priority, until we convince a Government that nursery education should be an integral part of family policy, until we can convince a Government that it is necessary to have a family policy at all, and until we provide the resources to pay for it, the situation will not change. The present situation will remain irrespective of whichever party is on the Government side of the House. Until that new age dawns, and until we are able to change attitudes towards nursery education, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend and his Department will undertake certain initiatives.

    In addition to putting in a good word for the Twerton nursery class, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will try to persuade his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services of the need to try to pull together all the strands of provision for the under-fives. It is little short of a scandal that despite the report of a few years ago of the "Think Tank" on a joint approach to social policy, and despite the arrival and all too unfortunate departure of that excellent creation of the late Richard Cross-man, the co-ordinating unit for the social services in the Cabinet Office, we seldom take a broader view of education and social policy. We tend still to consider policy in departmentalised blocks. We seem never to recognise how one policy affects another and how one policy can support another.

    Secondly, I should like to see the Department of Education and Science encouraging local education authorities—I was glad to hear my right hon. and learned Friend speak about this—to take advantage of empty classrooms as a consequence of falling school rolls. I should like to see the Department encouraging LEAs to use to the best advantage all the resources that they now have at their disposal. There is a great deal of untapped voluntary effort. There is an excellent pre-school play group movement. As I have said, there are empty classrooms and nursery teachers and nursery classes.

    At the risk of being a shade controversial, and at the risk of seeming too much of an intellectual protege of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen), there is a resource that I should like to see the Government tapping in a more open-minded manner. In the next two days I should prefer to be supporting the Government in introducing a policy to give local authorities the authority to charge for nursery school provision rather than for transport, provided that there is adequate free provision for those in need.

    In the continuing absence—I imagine that it will be a permanent absence—of the money-bearing trees of which the hon. Member for Bedwellty dreams, we should be trying during a difficult economic period to do everything that we can to use all the resources available to make better provision for the under-fives.

    Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the £54 million that has gone on private education should have gone on nursery education?

    I think that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. He is wrong to say that £54 million has gone to private education.