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Teachers' Dispute (England And Wales)

Volume 84: debated on Tuesday 22 October 1985

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3.46 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the teachers' dispute in England and Wales.

Intense efforts have been made in recent months by the Government to bring this damaging dispute to a satisfactory conclusion. I regret to say that they have, so far, been unsuccessful. Some of the teacher unions have chosen to continue to disrupt the education of the pupils in their charge rather than accept—or even to discuss—the offer made to them. I deplore this, the damage it causes, and the example it sets.

In August, the Government offered the prospect of an additional £1,250 million for teachers' pay over four years from next April, a sum equivalent to an extra 4 per cent. on the present pay bill rising to an extra 9 per cent. by the fourth year. On 12 September, the employers made an offer constructed upon the conditional Government willingness to see this substantial extra investment on teachers' pay. Under that offer, all teachers stood to receive increases in April and November. Those on their scale maxima would have got additional increases in either September or next March. The average end-of-year increase would have been over 8 per cent. in addition, one in five classroom teachers would have benefited significantly from the additional 70,000 promotions planned from September 1986. All of this would have been on top of any normal annual increase negotiated from April 1986.

All classroom teachers at present on scale 1 or scale 2, even without promotion, could have looked forward to £10,500 a year plus whatever is negotiated each year on pay. In return for these proposals, which would have brought real benefits to the education service, as well as substantial improvements in pay for large numbers of teachers and in promotion prospects, the teachers were asked for a clear commitment to the professional fulfilment of their duties and an acceptance of a pay system which would have offered relatively greater rewards to promoted teachers and to those holding senior leadership posts.

The teacher unions took just 20 minutes to reject this offer. Since then some unions have been engaging in forms of industrial action explicitly intended to cause the maximum disruption to the education service at the minimum cost to the teachers involved in the disruption. This is deplorable and underlines why we so urgently need an agreement to define more clearly the teachers' professional responsibilities.

Since then I regret to say that the employers, by a small majority, have been willing to make offers relating to pay alone. Even before the teacher unions confirmed that their demands far outstripped the employers' capacity to pay, I repeated the Government's position. We refuse to provide any additional resources for a "no strings" pay deal which would be a reversion to the discredited approach where negotiations on pay are separated from negotiations on pay structure and conditions of service. Separation has for years meant, "You pay us now and we will talk about reform later." Simultaneous negotiation of all elements provides the only credible way forward. Notwithstanding the passage of the original deadline, therefore, the Government remain ready to consider whether additional resources could still be approved within the £1,250 million envelope for 1986–87 and subsequent years provided the conditions for reform are met. The Government are also willing to set aside resources from within the total of £1,250 million to help employers cover the cost of supervising pupils at midday. I have discussed that proposition with the employers, and it is agreed between us that officials should now clarify the way ahead.

The Government will continue to make every effort to see a bargain struck, which would provide improved pay and prospects for teachers in return for a better career and promotion structure, the clarification of teachers' duties, and an end to the disruption.

Our objective is to improve the standard of teaching in schools and the quality of our education system. That is why we have agreed to the commitment of such substantial additional resources towards improving teachers' salaries. But we are not prepared to release the resources without simultaneous action on teachers' duties and the pay structure to ensure that the nation receives a fair return for the extremely large investment.

Whenever the Secretary of State makes a public statement, he makes the dispute harder to solve. Most hon. Members will agree that nothing he has said this afternoon has done anything to bring a settlement of the 1985 claim any nearer, particularly his remarks about teachers.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition value the work of the teaching profession? Will he acknowledge that throughout the past few months the Labour-led local authorities have been doing everything in their power to reach a settlement, and that the main obstacle to a solution is the Government's unfair and inconsistent public sector pay policy? Has the Secretary of State noted that even his Conservative predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle), has admitted that the Government's approach to teachers' pay is unjust? Will the Secretary of State now recognise that the best way out of the chaos that he has created is to establish an independent inquiry into teachers' salaries with a remit to report as soon possible and with a firm commitment from the Government to fund its findings.

The hon. Gentleman rightly gave his teachers his advice to accept the offer on the table and to stop the disruption, as did my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle), who was my predecessor in this office. Regarding the idea of an inquiry, as far as I know the teachers rejected it out of hand.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have never described the Government's approach to the teachers as unjust, and that, like my right hon. Friend, I deplore what is happening in the school rooms today, and believe that the National Union of Teachers is completely wrong in being unwilling to sit down and discuss the terms and conditions of service together with pay? The point that I wished to make, and which I now make, concerns the long-term and my belief that we must get away from annual disputes.

In those circumstances, will my right hon. Friend consider the establishment of a pay review board for teachers, such as we have for doctors, nurses and other professions, and accept that it should take account of the salaries paid to people with comparable abilities and qualifications in other occupations?

I accept that a substantial number of teachers are not willing to disrupt education and are not doing so, but I must ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether he thinks that the behaviour of the majority of teachers is such as to make my right hon. Friends in government look kindly on the idea of a review body, especially as the majority of nurses, for instance, will not neglect the interests of patients.

We, too, regret that there is nothing new or optimistic in the Secretary of State's statement. Does he remember explaining in "Better Schools" that it is the duty of the Secretary of State to secure the well-being of education? While he is talking about LEAs possibly suing teachers in courts of law, is he satisfied that he is carrying out his own legal obligations.

Yes, I am so satisfied, though I always consider on its merits any complaint put to me. On the substance of the hon. Gentleman's question, I must remind him that successive authorities from Lord Houghton onwards, including successive Governments and employers, have said that we shall not get better schools until teachers accept explicitly the conditions of service.

Instead of arguing among themselves on the teachers' panel, thereby prolonging the dispute, should not the unions and employers approach ACAS to try to get help to create a new negotiating machinery, in the absence of which classroom disruption continues and there is an increasing risk that the introduction of the important new system of examinations will have to be postponed?

But my understanding is that the employers have been to ACAS, and I think that ACAS has seen representatives of the teacher unions, so far in vain.

When will the Secretary of State admit that he and his Government, in their sheer intransigence, are directly responsible for a moderate section of the community having to take industrial action? The right hon. Gentleman says that he is doing his best for teachers and schools, but will he read the report of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations which reveals that schools are drifting into a state of chaos and that we have not seen such inadequate buildings and poor conditions for children and teachers for many years? When will the Secretary of State put some new money on the table to get the teachers back to work?

I regret that the growing of a beard does not seem to have changed the hon. Gentleman's attitude. In fact, the Government have put, on condition. a very large sum of extra money on the table.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the great tragedy of the strike is that the children of this nation are suffering so badly? That includes ordinary children, disabled children and children taking examinations. Does he agree that teachers are sick of the strike, children are sick of the strike and parents are sick of the strike? It is wrong for the leadership of the NUT to use its controlling majority to prevent other unions that wish to negotiate their members back to work from doing so. Will my right hon. Friend do all in his power to get the NUT leadership to negotiate, negotiate and negotiate again for the sake of the children of this country and their future?

I think that very large numbers of teachers, including some who are disrupting, must be very, very sad indeed at the damage that they are causing to pupils. Let there be no doubt that the disrupting of children's education is the fault of some teacher unions and their members.

Does the Secretary of State not understand that the tone and content of his statement will anger all teachers, whom he has once again run down and insulted, and that it will also depress the local authorities? If he is serious about a settlement, will he offer local authorities a disregard for penalties? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that last week's inadequate 6·9 per cent. offer would cost local authorities £193 million in penalties? If the right hon. Gentleman will not find the money and will penalise local authorities if they try to find the money, how can he expect a solution to the problem?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with his hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) that the teachers should have accepted the offer and ended the disruption.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on standing firm on this difficult issue? Is he aware that the teachers are suffering no financial penalty from their industrial action? Has he any advice which might rectify the problem?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have no brand-new advice, but I remind the House that unless the teachers' unions accept that they should be bound by the conditions that have been absolutely normal for generations of teachers we shall not have the best schools that we want for all our children.

Is not the Secretary of State aware that the frustration felt by teachers, pupils and parents is becoming more and more directed at the Government for not taking a firm lead in trying to sort out the problem? Is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman took a positive initiative to try to bring people together to find an answer now before a generation of children suffer?

The Government have provided—on condition—£1,250 million extra money which the teachers' unions, led by the NUT, rejected after 20 minutes. After all, the disruption is being caused by some teacher unions. Do let the House remember that. It is they who are refusing to sit down and discuss.

As a former teacher in both the public and the private sector, I deplore what is happening in our schools. I welcome and applaud what he has just said? I seek clarification on one matter. Is my right hon. Friend aware that many teachers have objected to the 12 September offer on the ground that the £1·25 billion does not constitute new money, whatever they mean by that. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to clarify that aspect?

My hon. Friend is on to the legitimate point made by teachers, that the money being made available by the Government is that which is available for spending by local education authorities and which would be subject to a contribution by the taxpayer at the level decided for the year concerned for the taxpayer's contribution to the rate support grant. To that extent it is the same as any other money which the local authorities and local education authorities are entitled to spend with rate support grant support.

Does the Sectetary of State accept that if he and his friends maintain their attitude and refuse to move one inch towards a settlement of the dispute, and if the many tens of thousands of teachers of all political persuasions refuse to move the dispute will continue for a very long time? Does he accept that he will not be able to count this as one of his successes on which to look back when he retires?

Will the Secretary of State make one more effort to see whether an independent inquiry, with agreed terms of reference, can be instituted as a means of escape from this tortuous and long dispute?

The hon. Gentleman forgets that the Government have put forward a very large sum of extra money, admittedly on condition, in order to achieve that which successive Governments and Lord Houghton wanted — explicit conditions accepted by teachers. Surely that is an initiative which should not be dismissed and yet the hon. Gentleman did not even accept it as an initiative.

What advice would my right hon. Gentleman give to parents who believe that they are paying rates and taxes to provide, among other things, education for their children and who now find that that desire—one might even say contract —is being frustrated by militant teachers?

That is a difficult question to answer. The parents of the children who are suffering now are being asked — I hope for not much longer — to endure damage in order to improve education for all children, including their own, in the future if the employers, with the help of the Government, can reach the desired bargain. That is not much comfort to the parents of children who are on the verge of leaving school, but the employers' and Government's objective in seeking the reform so lengthily desired is a noble objective.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, appropriately, negotiations on terms and conditions of service should be between employers and representatives of the employees? In view of that, will he comment on the fact that the NUT has for many months been waiting for such negotiations to begin?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should take that line. In December 1984 the NUT walked out of discussions and in this last month, by a majority over the other teacher unions, the NUT ended any possibility of negotiations.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the majority of teachers understand all the details of the offer which has been rejected on their behalf? If he believes that they do not, can any other steps be taken to project the contents of the package to them?

I have come to think that most teachers now recognise the offer. I think that most teachers are apt to compare the offer with the rewards available to some, but not all, teachers if they moved to business and lived a life with many more risks than are attached to the award which they might receive.

Does the Secretary of State think that £8,000 a year is adequate pay for a married woman school teacher whose career has been interrupted by family responsibilities, whose qualifications cover two degrees and who has 14 years of teaching experience? That is the pay which many ordinary classroom teachers have to live on. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that unless he tackles the pay of the average classroom teacher he will not find a settlement to the dispute and education will never improve.

I think that I should revise my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) because the hon. Lady clearly does not know the circumstances. The employer's offer, with the help of the extra money made conditionally available by the Government, would raise the pay of those teachers to £10,500—a £2,000 increase.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, no matter what view one takes about how we came to the present impasse, it is beyond dispute that the children cannot possibly be responsible? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, no matter how badly the teachers feel about the Government, it is unjustifiable and grossly immoral for them to take their disagreement out on the children?

Does the Secretary of State realise the damage that is being done to the teaching profession? Is he aware that morale is as low as it is possible to be and that the problems that the dispute will cause will blight the future for children who are not yet at school? When does he intend to ensure that a settlement to the dispute is found?

I do not underestimate the damage that is being done by the teachers and by the teachers' unions, but if the Goverment were to enable peace to be bought with no reforms the disruption would start again relatively soon and better schools would not be available for all children.

Since my right hon. Friend's offer and position is continually distorted or undermined, will he consider communicating directly with teachers, however large a job that might be? Does he agree that the evidence from the miners' strike is that only when one communicates with individuals do they fully understand what is on offer?

I do not employ the teachers in the way that the National Coal Board employs the miners. I would have liked to be able to write to every teacher, but I neither employ them nor do I know all their names and addresses. I meet them on as many occasions as possible to ensure that I know their point of view and that they know mine. I am afraid that I cannot do what my hon. Friend suggests.

As a former teacher, I say to you that it is about time that you carried out your obligations to provide the resources necessary for the profession. Is it not about time that your Government stopped using the children as hostages for your own policies? Is it not about time that you stopped making emotive statements, such as that about using the law? We all know that you can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink——

The hon. Gentleman is forgetting the very large amount of conditional additional money that the Government have put on offer, and which the teachers unions, led by the NUT, have refused even to consider.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are many moderate teachers? During this year, will he do everything possible to help those moderate teachers to achieve a reasonable pay settlement, and to hive them off from the NUT as soon as possible?

Is the Secretary of State aware that today's statement will be seen as a kick in the teeth to an already demoralised teaching profession, which, besides facing a 34 per cent. erosion in pay is, according to the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, facing a decline in building standards, larger average class sizes and cuts in resources? In view of the right hon. Gentleman's unwillingness or inability to do anything, has he not abdicated his right to oversee the education system? is not 12 minutes past four today as good a time as any to announce his resignation?

The hon. Gentleman has joined the large number of those who are ignoring what the Government have already offered. The hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), rightly suggested that teachers should accept the offer and stop the disruption.

On a very serious note, is my right hon. Friend aware that to satisfy their industrial action some teachers are virtually releasing children on to the streets unbeknown to their parents? Is that not a disgrace, and irresponsible when we think about the dangers to children —especially in the light of what we have read during the summer.

Has not the right hon. Gentleman allowed the dispute to drift into a position that will be difficult to resolve? Is he taking no positive action? Should we not take into consideration the fact that the children are at risk and that their parents are very concerned about the quality of education and the quality of our schools? Into what is the Secretary of State leading our educational system? If he is convinced that his case is just, why does he not allow an independent body to justify his action?

But the Government and I have taken considerable action and have offered additional conditional money. It is the teachers' unions that have refused even to discuss it.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that one encouraging aspect of the present position is that the number of teachers joining the no-strike union, the Professional Association of Teachers, has risen to 300 a week? Will he commend those teachers for taking a truly professional attitude towards teaching?

As the parent of two children at home because of the strike in Birmingham this afternoon, I deplore the present position. However, has my right hon. Friend noted that many teachers are not wholly aware of what is actually on the table? More important, the parents do not realise what is on the table. Is it not possible to advertise in newspapers explaining the position?

I ask my hon. Friend to give me evidence of his suggestion, and in the light of that I will again consider advertising. However, I cannot commit myself because I should have liked to act with the agreement of the employers.

Although I deplore the tactics of the teaching profession and support my right hon. Friend's policy of funding increases only against agreed changes in contracts, does he agree that, judged by most objective standards, the teaching profession is ill-paid? Is that not leading to a substantial decline in morale, especially in moderate areas such as Lincolnshire?

It is because the Government concede that we need to recruit, retain and motivate teachers of the right quality and that a different pay structure is needed, that we put at the employers' disposal, with conditions, a substantial fund of additional money.

I wish to confirm that in Leicestershire there is some misunderstanding about my right hon. Friend's very fair offer. Will he consider not only advertising but writing to teachers? Could not a little more be offered on the condition that a no-strike clause be incorporated into the agreement? No one wants the children to be out on the streets.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the drop in morale among teachers, especially in Lancashire, and the feeling that the dispute is not approaching settlement? Does he not feel that, eventually, the drop in morale will work its way through to the pupils in the classroom and affect the standard of teaching? In November, when the structure of the Burnham panel is changed and the effective block of the NUT is removed, will he consider making further efforts finally to settle this dispute and to produce a long term solution to an intransigent problem?

The consultation process on my provisional decision to change the structure of the teachers' panel ends at the end of this month. The Government will then arrive quickly at a decision.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not unseemly for a Secretary of State, particularly with responsibility for education, to make animadversions against those of us who are virile enough to have grown fine bushy beards—rather better than that thin imperial thing there?

Does not the Secretary of State realise that none of us are unkind enough to make comments on the Struwwelpeter appearance of the Secretary of State?

Order. I think that I would be very unwise to make any comment. I must say that I think that beards suit the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) very well.