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Teachers' Dispute

Volume 86: debated on Wednesday 13 November 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on progress made in solving the Scottish teachers' dispute.

I refer the hon. Member to the statement I made in the House on 22 October.

Since the Government are embarking on a brainwashing national exercise to persuade us that we are on the brink of a marvellous, prosperous era, does the Secretary of State not think it appropriate to allow the teachers of Scotland a share of that prosperity by setting up an independent review board? With the impending Christmas season, would it not be a nice Christmas present for parents, teachers, children and Scottish education generally if he were to concede that request?

I am glad to welcome the hon. Gentleman's conversion to the message that is being sent round from this side of the House. I have been trying hard to persuade the teachers to accept more money on any reasonable terms since December last. The tragedy is that a very large number of teachers have not yet appreciated how much the offer of extra money that I made them in August involves or could involve. I hope very much that they will pay more attention to that.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many teachers in my constituency would like a first phase interim pay settlement linked to negotiations on contracts of service?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us that the teachers suggested when I met them in late September that that might be a way out of the dispute, but that is not a realistic proposal, amounting as it does to a request for a very large increase in pay now with nothing in return for the public. We have to remember that the public must expect to get decent value for the money that they spend on teachers.

Is the Secretary of State aware that at the all-party meeting held last week in the House of Commons during the teachers' lobby of Parliament, the spokespersons of all parties got a fair hearing, with the exception of the Tory party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Fletcher) who got such a belting from the teachers that I, as the neutral chairperson, had to come to his rescue to allow him to be heard? Is that not indicative of how much the Tory party is isolated and completely out of touch with the opinion of teachers, parents and the general public in Scotland? Will the Secretary of State now face up to his responsibilities and set up an independent pay review to bring about an end to the damaging dispute, which has been dragging on for well over a year?

If I were the hon. Gentleman and had been in the chair at the meeting, I would be ashamed to admit that everyone had a fair hearing except my hon. Friend. As chairman, the hon. Gentleman had an obligation to ensure that my hon. Friend had better treatment than that.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have told his former colleagues in teaching and his constituents who are in teaching to look very hard at the offer made to them. It was an offer, over a four-year period, of extra money from the Government amounting to 10 per cent. over and above the annual increases negotiated in the normal way. There are many workers in many other industries who would be very glad to receive such an offer.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents are doubly hit by the EIS targeting of Lenzie and the primary school feeders of Kilsyth? Does he think that it is any accident that the bulk of the targeting action is directed against children who go to schools in the constituencies of Conservative Members of Parliament? Does he agree that it is as morally indefensible as the targeting of schools in his constituency and those of his ministerial colleagues? Will my right hon. Friend remind the EIS that, since the dispute must be solved by negotiation, the best thing it can do for Scottish education is to respond to his invitation to come back and talk?

My hon. Friend is correct. Whatever happens, the dispute is bound to end by negotiation. I do not think that anyone would disagree when I say that I have played my part in trying to get negotiations going between the parties as quickly as possible, and I again urge them to do so.

I express my deepest sympathy to my hon. Friend about the effect of targeting on schoolchildren in his constituency. Having suffered severely from targeting for most of last year, we have discovered in our area that it is extremely counter-productive, as all parents of almost all political persuasions think that it is a grossly unfair practice.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is real concern in Scotland among parents and teachers that he is no longer able to maintain an adequate education system? There is particular concern that he will not be able to ensure that there is proper provision for pupils not only to take examinations but to be fairly assessed and marked. Will he acknowledge that the statement he has just made and the one that he made last week at the Scottish Council are a misrepresentation of the Government's position, and that the offer he has mentioned would not even guarantee teachers a cost of living increase for the next four years?

If the hon. Gentleman, as a Member of Parliament with every access to information, thinks that that is a proper description of the offer, we are indeed in a bad position. One of the chief difficulties is that very few people seem to have bothered to find out what the offer amounts to. The hon. Gentleman's description of it is totally incorrect. The offer to the teachers was of extra Government money over four years amounting to 10 per cent. over and above the annual increases negotiated. That has no relation whatever to the description given by the hon. Gentleman.

The teachers are perfectly aware of the offer on the table, and they have determined repeatedly that they are not willing to accept it. When will the Government recognise the determination of the teachers in the campaign and come forward with a new initiative to settle the dispute?

I am looking all the time for any way forward in the dispute. Most of the teachers' representatives would agree that great efforts have been made by the Scottish Office and themselves to find a way forward. I am in no doubt whatever that teachers feel that they are under-remunerated, under-appreciated and badly treated. That is why I have been trying since December last year to find a way of paying them more money. It is time that the vast majority of teachers responded and came to discussions to make use of the offers.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the teachers are in their present position because they were treated so badly under the Labour Government?

As I pointed out to the deputation last week, if the teachers are concerned about the erosion of their position since the Houghton awards, more than half of the erosion happened under the Labour Government.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the 10 per cent. to which he refers is 10 per cent. of the first year's salary, and not—this is the impression that he giving—10 per cent. of the third or fourth year's salary. It is very important that that should be made clear. The Secretary of State said at Gleneagles last week—and he has repeated it today—that he appreciates that the teachers are fed up and feel that their value to society is not being recognised. What will he do about that in practical terms? If he sits down and does nothing, as he has been doing over these past months, the promise and commitment that has has given on his own behalf and on behalf of the Scottish Examination Board, that the examinations next year will go ahead, will simply be incapable of fulfilment. The examinations will not go ahead unless he gets the dispute settled quickly.

No amount of fancy arithmetic alters the fact that the extra money offered from the Government is £125 million over and above the annual increases that will be negotiated year on year by the normal machinery. That is what has to be understood.

As regards the examinations, I go a long way with the hon. Gentleman in what he says. There is no doubt whatever that if the boycott by all the teachers of the examination process really does take place, while the Examination Board will do everything it can to run the examinations, such a boycott is bound to cause considerable damage to the examination system. That is an additional reason why all concerned ought to try their best to change their positions to resolve the dispute. I shall certainly do all I can to bring that about.