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Education And Science

Volume 982: debated on Tuesday 1 April 1980

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Educational Arrangements (Wandsworth)

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what discussions he has had with Wandsworth council about possible changes to educational arrangements for Wandsworth.

I am surprised to hear that. Is the Minister aware that the continued uncertainty about the future of educational arrangements in London is damaging to the interests of pupils, teachers and parents? Wandsworth council has not even sought to consult the Minister on this proposal. Will the Minister put an end to the discussion by saying that he does not intend to change the future educational arrangements of London?

The hon. Gentleman said that my answer surprised him, but he will, of course, realise that he asked whether I had had discussions with the council, which I have not. It is right, as he knows, that I have received a representation from the council asking that it should become a borough with responsibility for education in its area. I have not yet made any decision on that. I am aware that it is a highly controversial issue, but the Government have not yet reached a decision on Wandsworth's application.

Order. Before I call the next Member, I must say that I am not sure which hon. Member has Wandsworth in his constituency.

I am sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Speaker. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the reason why Wandsworth and Westminster and Kensington councils have asked to run their own educational services is that they are dissatisfied with the growing cost of ILEA, and are equally dissatisfied with the poor educational results obtained by ILEA schools?

I am, of course, aware of the many criticisms that have been made about ILEA, including the two specifically mentioned by my hon. Friend. I am grateful to him for the public debate that has arisen following the report written by him and some of my hon. Friends. However, the Government have still not reached a conclusion on the matter.

Is the Minister aware that as this is a question about Wandsworth and not Marylebone, the fewer discussions that he has about it with anyone, the better? Will he note that virtually every education authority in my constituency has almost unanimously condemned these wrecking proposals, and that no one seems to believe in them, except the leader of the Wandsworth council?

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have had a substantial number of representations with regard to the Wandsworth council proposal and with regard to the proposals of ILEA as a whole, the majority of which have been opposed to the proposals of Wandsworth city council, but a certain number have been in their support. I am still considering the matter.

Mathematics Teachers

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what percentage of mathematics teachers in secondary schools have mathematics degrees; and how this compares with 10 years ago.

The 1977 survey of secondary school staffing in England and Wales, which is the latest date for which such information is available to my Department, showed that 26 per cent. of mathematics teachers had degrees or equivalent, with mathematics as the main subject. A further 45 per cent. had studied mathematics at university or in other higher education. Comparable figures for 10 years ago are not available, but results from a survey in 1965 suggest that the corresponding figures then were roughly 15 and 30 per cent.

Does my hon. Friend feel that the figure of 26 per cent. is low, bearing in mind the results of a report published this morning, which showed that a considerable proportion of mathematics teachers were unable to teach mathematics to A-level, and that an unacceptable proportion of them were incapable of teaching mathematics to O-level? Does he feel that the Department of Education and Science should take much greater action to ensure that that figure of 26 per cent. is increased?

I am certainly sympathetic to those matters. No one could fail to be disquieted by what has occurred during the past 10 or 15 years. However, perhaps I can reassure my hon. Friend. The figures that I quoted were from the 1977 survey. It is our intention to monitor this aspect annually, and that has begun. Over the past few months we have brought to the attention of the agencies involved the importance that should be attached to this subject.

Is it not the fact that the main problem has nothing to do with mathematics graduates but is due to the fact that many schools have gone over exclusively to so-called "modern mathematics" and eliminated the more traditional mathematicians? That may be all right for children who wish to become mathematicians, but it is no good for those who will leave school at 16 or 18.

The hon. Member may have a point. However, the question relates to the supply of teachers of this subject. I do not want to be drawn down the path of standards and differentials of teaching.

Overseas Students

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the total number of overseas students attending universities and colleges on advanced further education courses in the present academic year; and what estimate is now made of the total number of such students in the next academic year.

The total number of such students in the present academic year is not yet known, but in 1978–79 there were 59,000 at universities and on advanced courses at maintained, grant-aided and assisted establishments of further education in Great Britain. I cannot predict at this stage what the total number will be in 1980–81.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the president of the Association of University Teachers that numbers of overseas students in universities will decline by about half by 1983? Will he confirm the report that appeared on Monday in The Times that the Government will allow students from the EEC to be charged at the home rate, at a saving of up to £4,000? If that is so, does he accept that the new non-discrimination protocol, signed under the Lomé convention, must require that the Government extend a similar facility to students from the New Commonwealth and from the ACP countries? Does he further accept that if the Government fail to do so they will be guilty of the grossest discrimination against the poorest students?

I think that the hon. Gentleman has asked four questions in that one supplementary question. I shall try to deal with them in order or at least attempt three out of four. I do not accept his view about the likely drop in the number of students, and I remind him that, according to UCCA returns, applications are 10 per cent. down on last year and only 3 per cent. down on the year before. As regards his second question, I have today answered a written question from the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) that concerns students from the EEC countries. As regards the third and fourth questions, I do not accept that the effect will be as stated by the hon. Gentleman.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Labour Government attempted to reduce the numbers of overseas students by means of a quota system because there had been a large increase over the past 10 years, and that this attempt was to no avail?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The situation today is that despite the intention of the previous Labour Government to impose a declining quota, the numbers have increased. Against a figure slightly in excess of 35,000 overseas students in the universities at present, only a figure in excess of 29,000 is covered by recurrent grants.

A home student is defined as someone who has been ordinarily resident in this country for the previous three years.

In England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so far as I know, but I shall confirm to the right hon. Gentleman whether I am right. An overseas student is someone who has not normally been resident in this country for the previous three years.

How can the Secretary of State justify the Exchequer spending £5 million on subsidising students from the EEC while at the same time people from Third world countries are denied places in our universities as a result of the extortionate increase in students' fees?

What The Times said yesterday was that if the Government were to agree that those from the EEC countries should be treated as home students, the cost in the final third year would be £5 million. The answer to the hon. Gentleman, who I thought was a supporter of the EEC, is that there is a draft directive before the EEC that recommends that all students from each EEC country should be considered as home students throughout the EEC.

I accept that our primary duty is to our own students, but, bearing in mind the importance of overseas students to our economy and to good international relations, if the figures prove to be substantially lower will my right hon. and learned Friend reconsider the issue?

If the situation turned out to be totally different from that which the Government believe it will be, we would, as with any other matter of policy, look at the issue again. There is no question of our not wishing overseas students to come to this country. The fact is that their numbers have increased by more than 300 per cent. in the past 10 years, and we do not believe that the British taxpayer should be expected to sudsidise them to the tune of £100 million a year, irrespective of either the income or the country of origin of the individual student.

School Leaving Dates

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is his policy on school leaving dates.

After full debate Parliament passed the Education (School Leaving Dates) Act 1976, which determined the present arrangements. My right hon. and learned Friend is keeping the operation of these arrangements under review, but has no present plans to amend the law.

What discussions has the Minister had with the DHSS about the changes in the Bill that will take away the rights of school leavers to supplementary benefit, particularly as this may encourage many school leavers to leave at Easter rather than in the summer? Does he agree that if they will be £140 worse off by staying on at school for a further six weeks, that will cause educational problems?

These matters are constantly under review between the Department of Education and Science and the DHSS. I have nothing to add at the moment. The hon. Gentleman has raised several points that have frequently been raised on both sides of the House and in Committee. However, at present I have no further observations to make.

Will my hon. Friend consider a more flexible approach to school leaving dates, so that school leavers can leave in the term in which they become 16 if they have a permanent job or apprenticeship to go to?

That matter is constantly under review. My right hon. and learned Friend has made that clear on more than one occasion. The Department has received a number of letters over the years and requests for greater flexibility in the system. Any amendment to the 1976 Act would require legislation. I am at present chairing the 16–19 review—we hope to report in the autumn—and it is actively considering that aspect.

While the matter is under constant review, will the Minister, believing as he does, and as I think we all do, in the devolution of power from central Government, allow for an element of discretion to be used in the rigidity of implementation of the raising of the school leaving age?

Headmasters can now apply a certain amount of flexibility. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is getting at, and many people feel that while pupils are still working towards examination results at 16, an alternative permutation might be more attractive and for the benefit of the country. However, it should be made clear that the Government have no plans to reduce the school leaving age.

Does my hon. Friend recall the various statements made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), when he was the Opposition spokesman on education, suggesting that it would be advantageous to open various doors, through the 16-year-old leaving age, provided that pupils remained in some form of continuing education?

This is a matter that was frequently discussed when we were in Opposition, and it has been discussed during the past few months. The issue is under review, and I cannot tell the House any more than that at the moment.

The Minister has said on several occasions that the matter is under review. Will he clarify for the benefit of the House exactly what is under review? Is it simply the technical arrangements such as those referred to by Conservative Back Benchers, or is he considering the proposal of his hon. Friend to reduce the school leaving age to below 16? Will the Minister say when his review will be complete?

The hon. Lady perhaps was not listening, because I thought that I had made it clear a few moments ago that the Government have no plans to reduce the school leaving age. As the hon. Lady knows, the review is part and parcel of the 16-to-19 review which we began last year. I should not wish to be held to this in fine detail, but I hope that we shall have a report out by the autumn of this year. The options of allowing early leaving to enable pupils to take up apprenticeships or offers of employment, or to embark upon courses of further education, have been considered, and my right hon. and learned Friend intends to keep an open mind in these matters.

Clegg Commission Awards

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the expected cost in the financial year 1980–81 of the awards made by the Clegg Commission in the area of education since its inception.

The only recommendations made so far which affect the area of education cover local government manual workers and university manual workers and technicians. These are expected to add £90 million or just over 1 per cent. to the cost of the education service in 1980–81. Full account has been taken of these costs in the 1980–81 Estimates and the rate support grant settlement.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but is he aware that despite the fact that wage rates in the private sector for cleaning and catering staff are lower than in the public sector, these staff have still received an award from the Clegg Commission? Does my hon. Friend agree that that makes nonsense of so called comparability? Does he accept that the Commission was set up only to enable the previous Government to give by stealth wage increases which if given openly would have breached their incomes policy? Is it not time that the Clegg Commission was wound up?

I appreciate my hon. Friend's strong feelings, but the Clegg Commission is not the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science, nor are the negotiations that followed its award. There are separate bodies that carry out the negotiations.

Will the Minister accept that even after the Clegg Commission has reported an dits findings have been implemented, many hundreds of thousands of workers in education are still very low paid? Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the disgraceful failure of many Oxford colleges to implement the findings of the Clegg Commission because they say that they cannot afford it?

My answer to the hon. Gentleman is the same as that given to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend). Bodies are set up to negotiate wage rates and they go through normal procedures. They are not determined directly by this House.

Will my hon. Friend urge our right hon. and learned Friend to publish at the same time as the findings of the Clegg Commission are published an estimate of the consequential redundancies that will flow from their implementation? Will he urge his right hon. and learned Friend to follow that up by urging his colleagues in the Cabinet to make the learned professor redundant as soon as possible?

Despite press reports, I was informed at 12 noon today that the report of the Clegg Commission regarding teachers had not reached Whitehall. I am also informed that it will be confidential until it is printed by Her Majesty's Stationery Office and published as a Command Paper. Publication is expected between 14 and 16 April. On its publication the responsibility returns to the Burnham committee for primary, scondary and further education and local authori- ties and employers will have to take note, in their negotiations, of the effect of that settlement on their expenditure and the rate support grant.

Professional Association Of Teachers (Burnham Committee)

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he will arrange to have the Professional Association of Teachers officially represented on the Burnham committee.

I have instituted a review of the composition of the Burnham committee with the aim of making any necessary changes by the start of the next school year.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the PAT is the fastest growing teachers' body, showing an increase of over 100 per cent. in the past 12 months? It now numbers nearly 20,000 members. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Burnham committee would be far more representative if the PAT was included on it?

My hon. Friend would not expect me to prejudge the outcome of the review that I have instituted. Part of that review is to try to get a correct account of the membership of the various unions involved in the teaching profession.

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that that association represents less than 5 per cent. of teachers eligible to be members of it? Will he accept that, with the threat to education from the Government's policies, there has never been a greater need for the teaching profession to speak with one voice, and that any fragmentation or distortion of teacher representation will be a great disservice to education generally?

The right hon. Gentleman, of all people, will know that the one thing that the teaching profession has never done is to speak with one voice. I repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr). As the basis of my review of the composition of Burnham, a proper count will be carried out of the number of primary and secondary teachers who belong to the unions involved.

When my right hon. and learned Friend comes to the conclusion of his review, will he set a percentage that a union will need to meet to get representation, so that unions such as the Professional Association of Teachers do not have to chase a moving target?

I shall consider what my hon. Friend has said, but I must point out that the last review of Burnham was implemented only at the beginning of 1979. I thought it right to review its composition again at the beginning of the new school year, as I promised the Professional Association of Teachers I would.

Handicapped Children (School Admissions)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if it is proposed to give the parents of handicapped children the same rights and duties over school admissions and an appeals procedure as are contained for ordinary children in the present Education (No. 2) Bill.

The Government are concerned to ensure that parents of handicapped children should be fully involved in decisions affecting the education of their children. In his statement to the House on 3 March, my right hon. and learned Friend referred to the Government's intention to deal with these matters in future legislation. I am also pleased to inform the House that since then the Government have in another place introduced an amendment to the Education (No. 2) Bill extending to handicapped children the provisions of clause 8(5) relating to the publication of information.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, but is he aware that parents of handicapped children have become a little cynical about the promises of successive Governments? They have had promises for a change in legislation for a long time. What is needed is positive action. What happened in the House of Lords is a step in the right direction, but can my hon. Friend assure us that the Government will proceed with measures to put that into effect as soon as possible?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The Gov- ernment propose to publish a White Paper in the early summer outlining proposals for legislation, which will come about as soon as possible. It is intended in that legislation to give parents of handicapped children the same rights regarding information, consultation and appeal as exist for other children under the Education (No. 2) Bill. We hope that such legislation will be on the statute book at the same time as the Education (No. 2) Bill.

Does the Minister accept that the main worry of parents of handicapped children concerns facilities? Will he make clear to education authorities that, whatever other cutbacks there may be in public expenditure, there should not be any in regard to facilities for handicapped children?

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's opinions will be echoed on both sides of the Chamber, namely, that whatever measures we have to take at a time of economic stringency, the needs of handicapped children should he given the highest priority.

Is my hon. Friend aware that some of my hon. Friends warmly welcome the amendment that has been tabled following the late-night debate in the other place, and particularly the impassioned pleas by Lord Vaizey and others that handicapped children should have the same educational facilities as other children? Will my hon. Friend give the House a firm assurance not only that the Government will seek to build on that development but that, following the point made by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley), facilities for the handicapped will be improved year by year?

I am sure that everyone agrees with my hon. Friend. We hope to propose in the White Paper to give the same rights of consultation, appeal and involvement to parents of handicapped children, which is desired strongly by both sides of the House. We hope that legislation for handicapped and other children will come on to the statute book at about the same time.

Does the Minister agree that there is genuine concern on both sides of the House that the provisions in clauses 6 to 9 of the Education (No. 2) Bill do not apply to handicapped pupils? Given that on Report the Minister gave many assurances, will he explain why, in another place, the amendment accepted by the Government was limited, and why he could not accept an amendment about appeals? Why does he say now that we need further legislation on this matter? Why cannot he accept this in the Education (No. 2) Bill?

I well remember the impassioned feeling in the House on Report. It was felt throughout the Chamber that something should be done to help the parents of handicapped children. My right hon. and learned Friend said on 3 March—and it was said also in another place—that such proposals could not be tagged on to the Bill. There are special requirements on distance and in many other ways, and the intention is to give the same rights wherever possible on appeal, on consultation and on the information that we have already put into the present Bill, which returns to the House tomorrow. It is not an attempt to reduce the rights. We wish to ensure that the rights are such that they can be carried out to give full opportunities to the parents of handicapped children.

"A Framework For The School Curriculum"

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations or comment he has received so far on his paper "A Framework for the School Curriculum", and if he will make a statement on the progress of discussions.

My noble Friend the Minister of State met the local authority associations in mid-March in the first of a series of consultative meetings with national bodies in the education service and outside. Written comments on the curriculum framework proposals have been received from a wide range of bodies and individuals, and more are expected.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend say whether his proposals are being welcomed generally? Will he state how he proposes to implement the outcome of the discussions in practice in schools?

I am glad to say that our proposals have been generally welcomed. As to their implementation, I hope that as a result of the consultations that have begun agreement will be reached between the various bodies on what should form the basic curriculum in any school. On the strength of that, we propose to issue another document later in the year setting out guidance.

In view of the great damage being done to the school curriculum by the cuts in education funds, will the Secretary of State say whether he is prepared to drop the £30 million assisted places scheme for public schools and use that money for State sector education?

First, I do not accept the promise of the hon. Gentleman, who speaks for the Liberal Party. Secondly, £30 million is a figure that he has plucked out of the air. Thirdly, I believe that the fact that we are seeking a 6½ per cent. reduction in expenditure over the next five years on secondary and primary education at a time when the school population is dropping by 13 per cent. is totally compatible with maintaining standards.

Truancy

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the latest estimate of the level of truancy in maintained schools in England and Wales, and if he will introduce measures to reduce this figure.

The most recent survey of attendance in all maintained middle and secondary schools in England and Wales, carried out in 1974, showed that just over 2 per cent. of pupils were absent without a known legitimate reason on the day of the survey. A selective survey in 1977 confirmed this figure. Responsibility for action to combat truancy rests primarily with local education authorities. Last year, however, my Department published the results of a survey by Her Majesty's Inspectorate about helpful practice in dealing with truancy and behavioural problems, which we hope will be of assistance to LEAs and teachers.

Will my hon. Friend give more details about the good practice dealing with truancy? Will he say whether that includes the establishment of special units to deal with persistent truants?

On the latter aspect, it is for the local authorities to decide on how many units are required. Her Majesty's Inspectorate produced two reports in 1978 which reviewed closely the effect of truants and their behaviour in special units. It is not a role of the Department of Education and Science to develop the units directly.

On the good practice aspect, it is the intention of my Department to coordinate a conference towards the end of the year, which will involve the Department, the inspectorate and the local education authorities. Its aim will be to iron out some of the remaining problems.

Is it not a fact that truancy in schools compares very favourably with truancy in the House? Would it not be helpful to consider the problem in a sensible manner and realise that when we achieve a better teacher-pupil relationship—the opportunity to do so now presents itself because of falling school rolls—teachers will be able to teach that much better? We shall be able to handle the matter in a civilised manner, instead of in the backward manner of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery).

It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman indulged in that unnecessarily harsh assessment of an important question. The hon. Gentleman has had experience of truancy both in school and in the House. We shall leave it to him to assess it on his own judgment. Let us hope that his assessment is better balanced than his question.

The matter is closely under review by my Department. It takes the matter seriously, and the local education authorities are responding. I hope that the seminar in which the Schools Council hopes to be involved later this year will be an integral part of the review of our conference.

Is my hon Friend aware of the activities of the National Union of School Students, which, with local Labour Party support in my constituency, is encouraging pupils to play truant as well as distributing obscene literature and disrupting classes? Will he consider recommending to local education authorities that that obnoxious organisation is banned from schools?

I think that the House will deplore that sort of action if it is happening in my hon. Friend's constituency. Such behaviour is to be totally deplored. It is a matter for initiative not by my Department but by the local education authority.

Will the Minister tell the Home Secretary and other members of the Cabinet that it is no use increasing expenditure on police if the Government, through the local authorities, intend to cut expenditure in education welfare services which tackle truancy at its roots? Truancy is the initial cause of a great deal of crime.

That question should be tabled to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. On the question of expenditure on this important aspect, I hope that local authorities will be able to judge precisely what is required in their communities and deal with the position accordingly.

Handicapped Children (Special Education)

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he proposes to seek to repeal section 10 of the Education Act 1976.

I announced to the House on 3 March that the Government intend to issue a White Paper outlining proposals for early legislation for a new framework for special education substantially on lines recommended by the Warnock report. Section 10 of the Education Act 1976 will be examined in this context.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his reply will meet with a widespread welcome among those who believe that throughout the educational system handicapped children should be treated in exactly the same way as physically healthy children. Will he assure us that he will speed up the legislation once the White Paper has been issued and discussed?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I believe that our proposals on Warnock have been widely welcomed. As I said in my statement on 3 March, we hope to produce the White Paper early this summer and to legislate at the earliest possible moment. My hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot anticipate the contents of the next Queen's Speech.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that for years we have neglected children who require special attention and special teaching facilities? When will the Government ensure that children who suffer from all sorts of handicaps, such as speech difficulties, will be supplied with teachers in sufficient numbers to help them to become normal citizens?

I can only repeat what I have said. The Government have announced their acceptance of the general principle of the report of the Warnock committee, which was established by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in 1973.

Village Schools

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many proposals for the closure of village schools he has approved since taking office.

Since taking office my right hon. and learned Friend has approved proposals to cease to maintain 23 rural primary schools.

Is my hon. Friend aware that proposals have been made for the closure of further village schools in Staffordshire, and that many of these proposals are extremely unpopular? If the proposals are eventually submitted to my right hon. and learned Friend, will full weight be given to the genuine public disapproval of the proposed closure of these schools before any final decision is taken?

I am aware of my hon. Friend's strong feelings. The only proposal to close a primary school in Staffordshire that is with us is a long-standing one from the Elms County primary school at Elmhurst, near Lichfield. None of the other proposals has come to us. If they come to us, they will follow section 13 notices. Obviously my right hon. and learned Friend will consider the proposals carefully, bearing in mind the effect on the rural communities from which they come, their popularity, the travel that is involved and standards within schools. He will have also to bear in mind the economic aspect of the schools' continuance.

How many proposals to cease to maintain village schools has the Secretary of State turned down since the Government took office?

In 1979, 61 proposals for primary school closures were approved, of which 26 were rural schools and 35 were urban. At the same time, one proposal for the closure of an urban primary school was turned down.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are many villages with growing populations in the South-East where there is a demand for the opening of secondary schools? In my constituency there is a large village with more than 500 children who have to travel about eight miles to schools in different directions. Will my hon. Friend give serious consideration to helping the county council to open a secondary school?

When decisions are made on the closure of rural primary schools, the forecasts of the number of children in the area will be taken into account. Similarly, if a county council proposes the opening of a new secondary school to take account of the increased population in the area, it will be seriously considered by my right hon. and learned Friend.

Higher Education (18 To 19-Year-Olds)

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what estimate has been made of the demand for places in higher education by the 18 and 19-year-old age groups in 1984 and 1985.

No precise estimate of demand exists, but if provision is made in 1984 and 1985 at the current level the number of young new home entrants to higher education should represent about the same percentage of the 18-year-old age group as now—around 12 per cent.

Is the Minister aware that his answer is astounding that no estimate exists only three or four years before these students are to go into higher education? Is he also aware that the excuse about falling numbers that he is now making for primary and secondary schools will not apply in the years to which he has referred because rolls in those years will be reaching a peak? Is he aware that he should be financing staff, equipment and buildings now to provide for the future?

No estimates exist because estimates have been constantly wrong when they have been made. There has been a tendency always to overestimate. The number of 18-year-olds going on to higher education has fallen year by year as a percentage of that age group. The percentage of 18-year-olds going on to higher education fell every year during the administration of the previous Labour Government. The number obtaining A-levels was not what had been expected. The number obtaining A-levels and wishing to go on to higher education fell. The percentage of 18-year-olds going on to higher education during 1974–75 was 13·6. By 1978–79 it had fallen to 12·4 per cent.

Is the Minister telling the House that he is making no calculation, and has made no public expenditure forecast, of the numbers going on to higher education during these years? As the Secretary of State said recently that universities could recruit as many Saudi Arabians as they could get hold of, is he including overseas students in any forecasts, or has he ceased to do that?

The estimates exist in the projections that were announced last week, when we said that we were engaging in level funding for the maintained and university sectors. That means that it is likely that similar numbers will go to universities and polytechnics in 1984 and 1985 as are entering those institutions now. By the autumn we shall know what the foreign student intake is to be. Even if the fall in intake was 5,000, not one penny less of Government grant would go to universities this year.

"Frederick Russell" (Refit)

14.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on progress in the refitting of the Natural Environmental Research Council's vessel, "Frederick Russell ".

The work is on schedule and is expected to be completed during the first quarter of next year.

Does the Minister realise that many people regard as indefensible the decision to have this British Government-owned vessel refitted in a Belgium yard, where there is a subsidy of 80 per cent. on the money borrowed at a 1 per cent. rate of interest and a two-year moratorium on payment? Is he aware that it is felt that the work should have been undertaken in a British yard?

I can understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety, and perhaps that in his own constituency, that the work was lost. The refit of this 339-ton vessel will take place under a contract placed by the National Environmental Research Council. The council has a Royal charter. It is grant-aided by my Department. It is totally autonomous when it places a contract. Some of the figures and statistics quoted by the hon. Gentleman are not wholly accurate. I think that he is aware of the correspondence that has emanated from my Department. The hon. Gentleman has expressed his anxiety, but he must understand that value for money for the council is of prime importance.

Prime Minister (Engagements)

Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 1 April.

In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

How in Heaven's name can the right hon. Lady explain and justify increasing prescription charges to £1 when the £30 million that will be raised by the increase could so easily have been produced by adding another couple of pence to the price of cigarettes? Is this, as people suspect, part of party dogma and not financial reasoning? Will the right hon. Lady give an assurance that this is not a move towards increasing prescription charges to cover the whole of the cost of prescriptions? Will she give a further assurance that the Government will consider the possibility of extending exemptions, especially to those in receipt of invalidity benefit?

I explained to the House last week that by December the cost of a prescription would be £2·90 per item. It would not seem unreasonable, therefore, to make a charge of £1 for the prescription. Further, about 66 per cent. of prescriptions are already exempt from the charge because they go to groups who are exempt from the charge.

As First Lord of the Treasury, will my right hon. Friend continue on the path that she is going along so effectively of assisting small businesses by the special provisions in the Budget?

We shall certainly do so. The provisions in my right hon. and learned Friend's Budget for small businesses have been warmly welcomed by small businesses.

Why is it that the Government are prepared to increase prescription charges to £1, which is a tax on the sick, but to do nothing about the massive increases in profits that the banks are making as a result of the Government's policies? What is the Prime Minister going to do about that?

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my right hon. and learned Friend's statement, he would know that the leasing provisions that he proposes to introduce will affect the banks. During the coming year it is clear that manufacturing industry will need the services of the banks, and of sound banks.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 1 April.

Would my right hon. Friend like to comment on the letter in The Guardian yesterday, in which an official of the Society of Civil and Public Servants said that his members in the Department of Health and Social Security might decide to defy the law and not deduct the £12 deemed in the Budget proposals from the social security payments to strikers' families?

I saw the letter to which my hon. Friend refers, and I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services referred to it yesterday. The person who wrote the letter is not a member of the Civil Service, but it is clear that the basis of the standing and reputation of the Civil Service is that it serves the Government of the day, whatever the political complexion of that Government. Anyone who seeks to undermine that principle does a great disservice not only to the Civil Service but to the cause of democracy.

Will the Prime Minister be seeing the Minister of Transport among her colleagues today? If so, will she ask him to refrain from bringing forward the latest Government scheme to clobber rural areas, namely, the closure of vehicle licensing offices? Is she aware that the plan, if it goes ahead, will mean, in my constituency, that people, particularly motor traders, will have to do a round trip of 100 miles to register a car? Is it not time, after recent reverses in the other place, for Ministers in all Departments to wake up to the interests of the rural areas?

With all due respect to the right hon. Gentleman, there is such a thing as the postal service, even if the right hon. Gentleman may not like the service that it gives.

Has my right hon. Friend seen reports that, in the past two weeks, 5,000 people, including many women and children, have been killed by the Russians in Afghanistan? In the light of those deaths, will my right hon. Friend continue her efforts to get British athletes to take off their blinkers and realise that if they persist in going to Moscow they will simply be delivering themselves to be exploited by the Communist propaganda machine?

I have seen a number of reports in the press that purport to be eye-witness accounts of those who have had to flee from Afghanistan. They have indicated what they saw in that country. Some members of the football team have sought refuge in Europe. These are factors that must be taken into account by those considering going to Moscow. Their action would be seen by the Russians as giving some kind of approval to their foreign policy.

Will the Prime Minister take time to discuss with the Secretary of State, who is to take £12 not from strikers but from strikers' families, by what authority he instructed officers of the Department of Health and Social Security to deduct from payments to strikers' families money that they have not received from trade unions?

My right hon. Friend has made it clear that this matter will have to be introduced in the ordinary way in the House, through a Bill. I trust that it will go through in the ordinary way and that it will be approved by many people.

Will my right hon. Friend take time today to confirm that, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, she does not feel, and nor do her right hon. Friends, that it is necessary to seek permission from the Russian ambassador in London before visiting China?

I saw the report in The Times to which my hon. Friend refers. If true, it is a very sad state of affairs that certainly would not have suited the last Leader of the Opposition; but, then, she would never have had to apply.

Is the Prime Minister aware that at a meeting this morning dock shop stewards throughout the country decided to make the strike in Liverpool docks in support of the steel workers a national one? Is not this another example of how the Prime Minister and Government policy have galvanised the trade union movement into taking action against confrontation policies? Will the Prime Minister change her policy to that of conciliation, and start by dropping the Employment Bill?

One of the outstanding things in the last few weeks of the steel strike has been the way that ordinary members of trade unions have kept on at their jobs and not come out in support of the main steel strike. Whatever the past may have held, I hope that the steel workers will go back to work today or next week and that by turning out steel of quality at the right time and at the right price we shall be able to recover many of the orders that have been lost.

Has the right hon. Lady had a chance to calculate the cost to the nation and the burden on the nation that follows from her refusal before Christmas to appoint a reasonable intervention in the steel dispute? Does she understand that her obstinacy in the matter has cost the country hundreds of millions of pounds?

The right hon. Gentleman, in Opposition, only ever has one reply to a strike. That is to buy it off. That remedy lasts only until the next strike.

The right hon. Lady talked about buying off strikes. Does she think that the appointment of the latest inquiry that has gone into the matter was buying off a strike?

This was, in fact, an arbitration, provision for which is contained in one of the agreements of one of the unions, which it could have had many weeks ago. The strikers might have been back to work much earlier. The union refused to have that arbitration even though the British Steel Corporation wished to have it.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that she is the person who refused to have the inquiry? She is the person who blocked the door to any intervention then. When will she accept her responsibilities in these matters?

I really must correct the right hon. Gentleman. He knows full well that what he says is not true. He knows full well—we have said so in this House a number of times when the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition was here—that the British Steel Corporation would have gone for arbitration or mediation, that it accepted going for arbitration or mediation some time ago, but that it took some time before the unions would accept the proposal. The right hon. Gentleman knows that. There is no point in persisting in a denial.

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 1 April.

Has my right hon. Friend found time to study the reports in The Sunday Times showing that the majority of people in this country support the theme of the Budget? Will she hold to her last?

I believe that the majority of people in this country support the Budget. They believe that it is the only way to get Britain out of its economic difficulties. They are urging us to stick to the path that we are determined to tread.

Is the right hon. Lady aware, following her discussions with Chancellor Schmidt, that suggestions have been made by Euro-fanatics that outstanding problems should be settled in one package? Is she aware that this would cause a great outbreak of rage in the country? Questions such as sheepmeat, fishing and oil have to be settled as separate issues. Will she confirm that that is her policy?

There is perhaps a certain amount of misunderstanding. It is not suggested that settlement on one particular issue should be bartered against another. Chancellor Schmidt put to me the argument that if we expect the Community to settle our problems in a certain time scale, there are certain problems that other countries might expect to be settled in a similar time scale. I have always said, and will persist in saying, that each must be settled on its merits. I do not think, for example, that the fish question could possibly be settled in that time scale.

When my right hon. Friend reflects, in the course of today, on the outcome of the steel strike, will she accept that the vast majority of people are more than satisfied that the Govern- ment have not been a party to the dispute? Will she further reflect that if only the workers had been given the opportunity of a secret ballot the issue would have been settled long ago?

I know that the workers have had to suffer for many weeks without having the opportunity to ballot over whether they wanted to go on strike or whether they would have accepted the earlier offer. I hope now, however, that work will soon be resumed and that we shall be able to recover the orders for steel which this country needs.

May I revert to the public opinion poll to which the Prime Minister referred and in which she took so much pleasure? Will she comment on the fact that the poll sought to purport that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was the most charismatic figure in the Cabinet? Does the Prime Minister think that something might have gone wrong with the computer?

I think that the public share my view that we have an excellent Chancellor of the Exchequer.

When my right hon. Friend next has an opportunity to speak to the Norwegian Prime Minister, will she draw his attention to the splendid job done by the RAF during the recent disaster in the North Sea?

I believe that the Norwegian Prime Minister has thanked us for the excellent work done by the Nimrods, the helicopters, the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and HMS "Lindisfarne". We all wish to join in the thanks for the splendid work that was done under such tragic circumstances. I am grateful to my hon. Friend.