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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 115: debated on Tuesday 28 April 1987

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Education And Science

Schools (Accommodation Standards)

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will undertake a review of unpublished reports of visits made by Her Majesty's inspectors to determine what recent trends are shown in the numbers and proportions of lessons seen where poor or unsuitable accommodation was considered to be restricting the quality of work; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Bob Dunn)

In their national survey reports Her Majesty's inspectors draw on evidence from all types of inspection, including those which do not result in published reports or have not yet done so. All such survey reports have commented on the state of accommodation of schools or colleges. Undoubtedly, future reports will do the same.

Why is the Minister so coy about publishing these reports, which are bound to show that teachers are coping remarkably well in appallingly deteriorating conditions? Is he aware that in Leeds there are a number of schools where teachers must double up because they cannot occupy accommodation? I know of one school in west Leeds, Christchurch primary school, where a temporary classroom which has been there since the war cannot be occupied during the winter because it cannot he heated. The report should be published.

I am somewhat mystified by the approach of the Liberal party in the House on this matter. There are many different types of inspections. Only some of those are intended to lead to the publication of reports. Those that are intended for publication are always published. The House must congratulate the Government on taking the decision in the early part of 1983 to publish the reports of Her Majesty's inspectors of schools.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his point about the Government making Her Majesty's inspectors' reports available. Has he seen the recent report which suggests that in inner London, while the majority of lessons were well provided for with small classes and excellent resources, the majority of science teaching lessons were regarded as unsatisfactory or very unsatisfactory? It is the quality of the teachers that counts.

My hon. Friend is quite right in what she says. Undoubtedly the usefulness of the inspectors' reports is that they can be a lever for the improvement of quality of teachers and that which is taught, and I recognise and welcome that.

Has the Minister had a chance to study the recently published report by Her Majesty's inspectors on education in Sheffield following a two-year investigation? It highlights much outstanding work. Some of that, notably in my own constituency, is carried out in the type of accommodation which other less impressive local educational authorities have long since left behind. What conclusion does he draw from that?

The conclusion that I draw from the publication of that report, the recent report on the London borough of Brent, and many other reports which have gone through our Department in recent years is that it is essential to inform people of the state, quality and levels of school activity in the communities in which they live.

Does my hon. Friend not have some difficulty in understanding the concern of the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) about overcrowding, bearing in mind that the alliance plans to restrict the charitable status of independent schools will drive a great many people who presently educate their children in the independent sector back into the state sector? Would that not increase the sort of overcrowding about which the hon. Gentleman is crying crocodile tears?

It is worth placing on the record the fact that all the Opposition parties are committed to doing tremendous damage to, or the destruction of, the independent sector.

Does the Minister not accept that there is overwhelming evidence from the reports of Her Majesty's inspectors of the steady deterioration of school buildings and of the major problems with which teachers are faced in having to work in inadequate conditions? However good the teacher and pupils, if we have buildings where the roof leaks and the windows are unsatisfactory it is extremely difficult to give one's best. What will the Government do about the problems in places such as Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford, with regard to the lack of funds for school buildings?

I share the concern expressed by the inspectorate and others, who have made clear their point of view about the poor physical state of many school buildings. However, that is not a new event. It springs from the gradual effects of neglect over the past 20 years. I remind the House that the problem in the London borough of Brent had nothing to do with the quality of school buildings; it was the quality of management and the quality of teaching.

General Certificate Of Secondary Education

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent representations he has received about the funding of the GCSE examinations; and if he will make a statement.

In the past three months we have received 150 representations about the funding of the GCSE examinations.

The Government have made substantial provision for the successful launch of the GCSE. We look to local education authorities to direct that provision in support of GCSE work in their schools.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that a sum of over £250,000 is being provided by the Government for GCSE examinations in Bolton—a sum fully in line with others being provided elsewhere for schools? Will he look into the provision of top-up sums for Bolton council to ensure that sufficient funds are available in total?

I am happy to confirm what my hon. Friend has said. Last year the Government provided a total of £112,900 for GCSE expenditure in Bolton. This year the Government are providing for expenditure of £60,700, through education support grants for books and equipment. We have also provided £95,000-worth of expenditure for training Bolton's GCSE teachers. I undertake to continue to review top-up expenditure.

The Secretary of State keeps on telling us that there is adequate funding for GCSE, but everywhere we hear—from parents, teachers and local education authorities—that there is a desperate situation in the making with too little—[Interruption.]

We hear that there is a desperate situation in the making, with too little funding being provided too late and beginning to blight the future of 600,000 children. To resolve this matter, will the Secretary of State take action similar to that which he took in the face of public concern about Brent, by calling for an HMI report to be produced urgently to look into GCSE funding in, say, 100 representative schools across the country?

I have no need to do that. Her Majesty's Inspectorate judges that these courses have got off to a satisfactory start and that pupils are generally enthusiastic about their GCSE lessons. HMI has said that on average there are sufficient material resources in schools at this stage.

How much additional money are the Government providing in the current year for GCSE, and how much does that work out per child in the fourth or fifth year on average? Can the Government take action to ensure that the local education authorities do not purloin any of this money for other purposes? Will he ask them to provide an assurance that they are spending that money for the purpose for which it was intended?

This year the Government's plans provides for the spending of £100 million of GCSE non-teaching costs—that is, for books, equipment, materials and ancillary staff. We shall continue to monitor carefully the resources that local education authorities target to their schools in support of GCSE activities.

Is it not the case that only £25 million is being hypothecated for the GCSE examination? Is not the real truth that head teachers and parents alike recognise that the GCSE examination is under-funded and under-prepared and that there are far too many reports coming in of inadequate supplies of books, equipment and material, as well as shortages of teachers and lack of training? Is it not the case that if we are to rescue this examination from being a damaging failure the Secretary of State must take immediate action?

This examination and its funding are the best endowed of any examination in recent history. We will, of course, continue to monitor the direction of funds by local education authorities to the funding of GCSE activities, but that, of course, is a matter for them.

City Technology Colleges

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what features of grammar school education he envisages the new city technology colleges adopting; and if he will make a statement.

My intention is that city technology colleges should develop new ways of improving the quality of education in a number of urban areas drawing on examples of existing good practice in maintained and independent secondary schools, including grammar schools.

Having always admired the work and dedication of staff at all our grammar schools, may I say how much I am encouraged by the news that Leicester is likely to receive a city technology college. I urge my right hon. Friend to give the go-ahead for that college as quickly as possible, as I know how much the students will benefit by the type of system that my right hon. Friend so ably presented to the House. It will certainly encourage all our young children to get on and develop.

I am glad that my hon. Friend is pressing me for a city technology college in Leicester. I very much hope that it will be possible to find sponsors for one—certainly it might be possible to find sponsors elsewhere in the east midlands. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome such a college, as it will increase the choice for parents, which is presently limited, for free education from 11 to 18.

Order. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) is seizing his opportunity.

The hon. and learned Member is very grateful for his opportunity to ask the Minister whether he thinks that Leicester, along with other cities, would be much better served if it had adequate educational resources. That would ensure that we have enough nursery schools, enough facilities for our primary and secondary schools and proper education for older people instead of being starved of resources, the means for which have been cut by this awful Government.

The only opportunities that the hon. and learned Gentleman can seize are those created for him by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels). The resources available for city technology colleges are not at the expense of local education authorities' expenditure. The money that has been provided for CTCs is extra money. Therefore, the local education authorities will not lose money through the establishment of such schools.

Would my right hon. Friend care to say that the new CTCs, like grammar schools, will be places of excellence, hard work, discipline and respect for teachers and the opportunities that they present—especially in my constituency, where planning permission has already been granted by the Labour-controlled authority for a CTC 0on Teesside?

Yes, I have been very glad to hear that my hon. Friend's local authority is prepared to provide a site for a CTC in Langburgh. I think that that decision shows the authority's foresight. At least one local company is prepared to come forward—I suspect others will do so—to provide the private funding. I am sure that, as a result of that CTC, the quality of education and the choice available to the parents in my hon. Friend's constituency will be enormously increased.

But surely the Secretary of State must now know how damaging and divisive the city technology colleges will be. He has been told that by every major organisation and every reputable expert in the education world. Indeed, recently the director general of the CBI, John Banham, called the city technology colleges an "irrelevancy". What has the Minister to say about that? What has he to say about the more interesting experiments conducted on the Boston pattern to achieve a better relationship with industry, not a divisive one?

Many companies have come forward to support the CTCs.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Name them."] I shall shortly he in a position to announce a third CTC. I assure the Opposition that sponsorship for others has been pledged and, in the course of time, we shall be announcing further CTCs.

On the question of starving resources, I remind the Opposition that I do not agree that the CTCs will drain off the teachers. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) should appreciate that the numbers for teacher training this year have shown a dramatic increase. Overall there has been an increase of 14 per cent. in applications for later this year. There has been a 42 per cent. increase for mathematics teacher training, 80 per cent. for physics teachers and about 92 per cent. for craft design technology teachers. That shows that many young people want to go into the teaching profession.

Does not the opposition to this concept indicate the cultural divide between us, because we on the Government side are looking for choice and variety and all the Opposition parties want just one option—the local authority? Is my right hon. Friend aware that in some authorities commercial and planning pressures are being placed upon those who would help this system? I find that utterly disgraceful.

My hon. Friend is right. Those who oppose the principle of city technology colleges do so because they want to maintain the monopoly of the local education authority. We want to provide choice and variety—significant and real choice for parents. The city technology colleges that we have launched point the way to many other types of schools that we have in mind for after the election.

School Closures

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the current criteria and practice relating to the closure of schools in rural areas.

My right hon. Friend considers all proposals for the closure of schools on their merits, but he would expect local authorities and voluntary bodies, in formulating their proposals, to take account of the general principle set out in the White Paper "Better Schools" concerning the size of thresholds at which schools of different types can economically deliver a satisfactory curriculum. They must also take account of the wider considerations, including the distances to be travelled to alternative schools in the event of closure and of the age of the children making those journeys.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he realise that there is a great deal of discontent about, and indeed outright opposition to, the closure of many small rural primary schools? Does he further realise that many of these schools have built for themselves sound reputations with generations of children and that they are a social focus of village life? Will the Minister take it on board that there needs to be a flexible examination of each case, because at present, particularly in Suffolk, there is a great deal of opposition and discontent about these closures?

As the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) knows, I have the responsibility for meeting hon. Members from all parts of the House who bring deputations from the communities that they represent about proposals for school closures and amalgamations. The strength of feeling in urban and rural communities is not lost upon me. Under the law, the task to which we have to respond is to consider individual proposals on their merits. I can gladly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we do just that.

In view of the great importance of the village schools that are under threat, can my hon. Friend assure the House that he will treat these as special cases? Moreover, in future will he make arrangements to ensure that no closure will be permitted without specific ministerial consent?

Yes, Sir. There has to be ministerial consent to any proposal in any event, and I have to recognise the degree of support that rural schools may command in local communities. However, we have to consider the educational and financial arguments for closure, as well as the arguments that closures may affect the local community.

Is the Minister aware that in Cornwall over 100 rural schools face closure under present Government criteria? Does he not agree that it would make more sense to change those criteria so that the wider community in the villages is taken into account in deciding the future of those small rural schools?

The hon. Gentleman may care to spend some time reading our draft circular entitled "Providing for Quality". That circular talks about the desirable minimum sizes of different types of school. It was never intended for that minimum size level to be interpreted as narrowly prescriptive. The circular makes it clear that a true assessment of the viability of an individual school must take account not only of its size but of the ethos of the school, the quality, balance and expertise of its teachers and, of course, its non-teacher support, as well as links with neighbouring schools and the community.

In secondary education, is it not a fact that comprehensive schools in rural areas, such as Ongar comprehensive school in my constituency, can survive on an entirely different basis of form entry than that which applies to schools in urban areas? As the alternative can frequently be extensive bussing of children from these rural areas, will my hon. Friend give some consideration to altering the basis upon which closures of rural schools are agreed or disagreed?

I am happy to take that on board. I remind my hon. Friends that our policy allows each set of proposals to be made on its merits. The policies of the Opposition parties would require closure, the elimination of any form of variety and a move to an 11 to 16 comprehensive system with tertiary colleges at their head. We draw back from any embrace of such a restrictive policy.

Does the Under-Secretary recognise that I gained the distinct impression, after a meeting with the parents of children of the South Brent primary school in Devon, that they would like to see that 110-year-old school closed and a new one provided? Will he ensure that the local authority gets adequate financial assistance to enable it to provide that new school?

On these matters and on all other matters relating to the South Hams constituency, I advise the hon. Gentleman to see my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen).

Schools (Governing Bodies)

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he expects to publish proposals for the transfer of greater financial responsibilities to the governing bodies of schools; and if he will make a statement.

I intend to bring forward legislation in the next Parliament to give all secondary and bigger primary schools control over their own budgets.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the excellent article by the chief master of King Edward's school, Birmingham, in The Times this morning, which pointed out that independent schools for many years have benefited from the sort of governing body that my right hon. Friend is now proposing for state schools? Does he agree that state schools have nothing to fear from a system that has benefited independent schools, while at the same time enabled them to retain the benefit of good local authority management?

Yes, Sir. Good schools have nothing to fear from delegation. In fact, delegation will give schools the power to get things done. The article in The Times this morning points the way forward. Where this is already happening in local authorities, head teachers and deputy heads are finding an enormous improvement in the quality of management of the school. I see no reason why, in the course of the next five years, every secondary school and all the large primary schools should not have control of their own budgets — and by that I mean the total amount of money.

Should the Secretary of State be in a position to influence these matters after the coming election, will he assure the House that before he tinkers with budgetary control he will give a guarantee from the Dispatch Box that every school will have sufficient resources to carry out its responsibilities to our children?

I certainly give that assurance. The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that I have increased education expenditure this year by 19 per cent., which is the largest increase from one year to another. My hon. Friends might well have an early opportunity to put our education policy to a wider test.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that at the same time as he provides greater financial decentralisation for schools, there will still be an important role for local education authorities to provide educational back-up to schools, particularly weak ones, in most parts of the country?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. Local education authorities have the duty of managing the system of education at the local level. They have responsibilities and will continue to have them — for example, for the provision of the school premises, for the salaries of school staff, which delegation schemes have recognised, for special training, for in-service training and generally to help those schools that are not so well managed. I agree with that.

What is the average level of discounts offered by educational suppliers to local education authorities for the bulk purchase of books and materials? What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with educational suppliers as to whether those discounts would be available to individual schools if they were responsible themselves for purchase and payment? Could he also tell us what discussions he has had about the extra pay that might be necessary for head teachers to carry out these extra responsibilities and what extra staff schools will need if they are to have this purchasing and budgetary responsibility?

I deplore the Opposition's negative approach to this proposal. There are 21 education authorities already experimenting along these lines, and where they have been implemented delegation schemes have invariably saved money at a local level. It would be up to the local headmaster, the deputy head and the governing body to make their own decisions about where they purchase, from whom they purchase and all the other matters concerning the running of the school.

Student Grants (Parental Contributions)

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what guidance his Department offers as to the level of parental contributions expected from studens awarded maintenance grants.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. George Walden)

Parental contributions are assessed in accordance with the mandatory awards regulations. The scale of contributions is published early in the previous academic year and information about parental contributions is included in guidance which is published annually and is freely available.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. However, does he agree that the booklet of guidance to which he referred defines the grant as the sum needed for the basic maintenance requirement of a student? Neither he nor our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have disputed the evidence given by officials to the Select Committee that the total grant is now insufficient to meet the needs of a student. Surely it is misleading to imply that if parents are assessed for a contribution, that contribution together with such grant as is paid would be sufficient to meet a student's needs. Is that not unfair, both to the student and to the parent? Will my hon. Friend ensure that the next issue of the booklet of guidance makes the position much clearer?

The Government have never claimed that the amount provided in grants is sufficient to meet all student needs. We have claimed on a number of occasions, quite rightly, that it must represent a balance between those needs and what the taxpayer can reasonably be called upon to pay for. My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The booklet is revised every year, and the wording is being re-examined.

As the Minister has admitted that the total level of grant is not sufficient to meet a student's needs, from where does a student with poor parents get the rest of the money?

The hon. Gentleman is clearly not very familiar with the grant system—

—because pupils with poor parents are the pupils who have the highest level of grant. Whether or not pupils have poor parents, they are able to use their spare time in holidays to earn other income. If we believed that the present system was fully satisfactory we would not be carrying out a review, the purpose of which is to improve the position of all students.

Since my hon. Friend last answered questions in the House, has there been any greater clarity attained or confusion reduced among the so-called alliance parties on the matter of student loans?

I am now perfectly clear about the alliance's position. There are two policies. The first policy is that of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who is in favour of loans. The second policy is that of a more abstract entity that is known as the alliance, which claims to be against student loans. I should like to take this opportunity to commend the position of the right hon. Member for Devonport, who has a habit of reminding people of the importance of probity in politics. I am sure that the whole House will join me in commending the stand that he is taking on principle and not retracting the speech that he made on 14 February 1986 in favour of student loans.

Teachers (Pay And Conditions)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he expects to appoint members of the interim advisory committee on teachers' pay and conditions; and if he will make a statement.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that it was the divisions between the teacher unions and the outdated majority voting system that killed stone dead the Burnham committee on teachers' pay and conditions? Will he accept that there is an urgent need for a post-interim advisory committee on teachers' pay and conditions to he set up as soon as possible and that it will have to he different from the previous Burnham committee, for example, in not having a majority voting system?

I have made it clear that the proposals that the Government have put forward are of an interim nature. We want to find a permanent machinery for the determination of teachers' pay and conditions. The proposals that I have seen, which are tentative so far, are in fact a revamped Burnham. The president of the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association, Mr. Frank Groarke said in his address to the conference at Easter that some unions use the Burnham committee as a recruiting tent rather than as a negotiating body. I am not prepared to go back to a revamped Burnham. I want to find a way forward to determine a permanent machinery for the determination of teachers' pay and conditions, because I can assure the House that neither I nor any holder of my office wants to be the determiner of teachers' pay and conditions.

Does the right hon. Gentleman remember that, in response to a question from me last Thursday, the Prime Minister said that the Government would

"use the coming years to secure a new negotiating arrangement"?—[Official Report, 23 April 1987; Vol. 114, c. 790.]
The two major unions, which represent the vast majority of teachers, met because of that answer and were outraged at what the Prime Minister had said. I do not know whether the Prime Minister tells the right hon. Gentleman, but she must have received a joint letter from those two unions today, in which they say that if she will discuss—[Interruption.]

I am asking a question Mr. Speaker. Does the right hon. Gentleman know that the Prime Minister has received a letter today in which those two unions make it clear that if she will agree to negotiate properly about next year's wage arrangements they will see her, but they want a promise first, and that is the only way in which our children can have an uninterrupted education?

I am aware that a letter has been sent to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asking for a meeting between Mr Jarvis and Mr. Smithies and my right hon. Friend. I can see no reason why my right hon. Friend should see those two union leaders, because six weeks ago I invited them to see me and they declined to do so. Those are the only two union leaders who have not seen me. The other four union leaders have discussed with me the draft order before the House, which I understand might be debated quite soon. The other two leaders have refused to come in and make their views known. I have made it clear that I do not want to be the determiner of teachers' pay and conditions. All interested parties will find it difficult readily to agree on a permanent machinery, but there must be no going back to the form of negotiations under Burnham.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the interim committee, as its name suggests, is of temporary duration and that its maximum life will be until 1990? Will he further confirm that the committee is designed to provide a breathing space between the demise of the Burnham committee and the introduction of new negotiating machinery? Will he repeat to the House his invitation to union leaders to meet him to discuss new machinery for negotiating teachers' pay and conditions? Will he confirm that two and a half years is a long time and that that period should be reduced?

There is no reason why the interim advisory committee should continue to operate until 1990. I wish to confirm that to the House. Later this year I want to meet the teachers unions, the local education authorities, churches and parent-teacher associations to try to find a permanent machinery. There are many models, ranging from a joint negotiating committee to a review body. Suggestions have been made that specific recognition should be given to the position of heads and deputy heads.

The Secretary of State has constantly asserted the importance of an interim measure. Does he agree that consent is an important element in all educational processes? Why did he not set up a tribunal of mutally acceptable persons to determine the interim procedure for negotiations? Would that not have produced a better atmosphere and been the most responsible thing for him to do?

I did something rather better. I brought a Bill to the House, which was debated in this House, and in the House of Lords, without any guillotine or restriction on debate. All proposals were put forward during debates on that measure. As to the negotiating rights that are being claimed at the moment, one of the unions which is most strident in claiming those rights, the NAS/UWT, has for the past year sat on the sidelines and refused to take a constructive part in the negotiations, which were suspended, and organised disruptions while the negotiations were continuing.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there is a world of difference between the appalling image of the teaching profession that is put across by the Easter conferences, or some of them, and the reality of the many good and moderate teachers who are doing good work in classrooms in Norwich and up and down the country? Will my right hon. Friend describe the ways in which he will help to restore the confidence of those good teachers in the way ahead in these negotiations and talks?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. At the Easter conferences we saw on our television screens a parade of militants. The majority of teachers are dedicated people. They are rightly held in high regard by the community. What we saw over the Easter weekend was a meeting of union activists. The disruption and chaos that are talked of should not be exaggerated. Before Easter, about 1 per cent. of schools were disrupted. Although that is small, it is unacceptable, because any disruption is unacceptable. Disruption is unjustified. Teachers will receive an increase of 16 per cent. this year and at the end of May will have substantial back-pay increases of several hundred pounds in their pay packets.

Is it not the case that in their letter to the Prime Minister today the teacher unions offered a way out of the present impasse and showed the way to peace in our schools? They made it clear that if the Government were prepared to agree to the restoration of negotiating rights for the 1988 pay round they would call off their action. Will the Secretary of State tell the House that either he or the Prime Minister will immediately arrange a meeting with the unions to discuss their constructive new initiative?

Six weeks ago I invited the leaders of the two unions to see me, but they decided not to come in. I saw the leaders of the other unions and they expressed their views about the new negotiating machinery. I reiterate that I am willing later this year to meet the teacher unions and the local education authorities, which, I understand, are sending me proposals, because I wish to reconfirm that in no way do I or the holder of my office wish to be the determineor of teachers' pay and conditions. We need a new permanent machinery, but so far the proposals that have been put to me are nothing more than a revamped Burnham.

Contrary to the bluster and histrionics of the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) and the teacher union conferences, will my right hon. Friend confirm that his moderate approach is the best way to obtain peace again in our schools, which will be supported by the vast majority of moderate and sensible teachers, provided that there is a real commitment to the restoration of negotiating rights as soon as possible?

I confirm that fewer than I per cent. of the profession are likely to disrupt schools this week. That is deplorable in view of the settlement that has been made. I confirm, as I said earlier, that we must find a more permanent machinery. That will be difficult in view of the different opinions of the various union leaders, but I shall persevere and try.

Does the Secretary of State realise that, almost certainly, he has within his hands the power to end this disruption if he will stop mouthing words and take action—[Interruption.]

—almost any action to begin to restore to teachers their rights to negotiate pay and conditions? Does he not realise that if he will not do that many in the country will draw the conclusion that he is cynically and deliberately playing into the hands of the militants for votes, scarificing peace in our schools for Tory advantage in the ballot box.

The hon. Gentleman could not have heard me. I have invited these two union leaders to come in and they have declined to do so. I want to find a permanent machinery as soon as possible, but the hon. Gentleman should not disguise from himself the great difficulty when the different unions have different interests and different views on what such machinery should be.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the NUT in Leicestershire has called for the reinstatement of the teacher who was sent to prison for dangerous drug offences? Does that not display an attitude to teachers' conditions which no responsible parent would share?

I read a report of that and I find that request quite deplorable. Those who have been convicted of dealing in drugs should not in future be allowed to be in charge of children.

General Certificate Of Secondary Education

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a further statement on the progress of the GCSE examination.

Last September some 600,000 pupils started courses which will lead to the first GCSE examinations in the summer of 1988. These courses have got off to a satisfactory start. The vast majority of teachers are committed to making a success of the new examination and the majority of lessons are deemed to be of an adequate quality and standard.

How can the Minister stand before the House and give such a complacent reply, which is so obviously at variance with the views of the majority of people in education, who believe that there has been insufficient preparation for the GCSE and that insufficient resources are available for the examination? How does he equate the £100 per student figure which the Secretary of State claims is the figure, with Lancashire county council's figure, which is nearer £30?

Opposition Members ought to behave better than that. Continually to run down a major and successful change in the examination structure of this country simply will not do.

Prime Minister

Engagements

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 28 April.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Will my right hon. Friend find time to come to Wolverhampton and explain that strict control of immigration is essential to any improvement in race relations? Will she stress that the number of people coming to this country for settlement from the New Commonwealth and Pakistan has dropped from 34,000 in 1980 to 22,500 in 1986? Will she, further, allow the Opposition parties the opportunity to explain how their proposed repeal of the present system of immigration control, and its relaxation, is likely to improve race relations?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the numbers coming to this country through immigration have dropped. It is our intention to remain firm on immigration control. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should question the Opposition about their proposals to repeal the Immigration Act 1971 and the British Nationality Act 1981, which are the heart of our immigration control.

Will the Prime Minister tell us whether she is actively opposed to any increase in the rate of VAT or any extension in its scope?

There is no way in which a Government of any political colour can say that they will never increase either value added tax or income tax. It was a Labour Government who extended the standard rate of VAT to petrol and snack foods. In November 1974 that Government put a new value added tax of 25 per cent. on petrol, and later extended the higher 25 per cent. rate to television sets, radios, electric domestic appliances, cameras, jewellery, boats and caravans. There is no way in which a responsible Government can say that there will be no increase whatsoever in any particular tax.

I did not ask the Prime Minister to make guesses. I asked her whether she is opposed to an increase in the rate of value added tax, yes or no? Is she opposed to an extension in the base of VAT? Does the Prime Minister accept that as she said in 1979 that the Government had no intention of raising VAT and then increased it by 87 per cent., the people of this country are rightly concerned when she dodges in the way that she does?

I call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the entire record on value added tax. — [Interruption.]

VAT was introduced at the standard rate of 10 per cent. The zero rate covered food, fuel, new housing, public transport, young children's clothing, and so on. On 1 April 1974 the Labour Government extended the base of VAT to petrol and snack foods. Just before the next election they cut the standard rate to 8 per cent. Following that election they raised the rate to 25 per cent. on petrol. Following that, they raised the rate to 25 per cent. on television sets, radios, electric domestic appliances, cameras, jewellery, boats and caravans.

The right hon. Gentleman is trying to distract attention from his party's colossal public expenditure, and it was the Labour Government who put up value added tax.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the bogus election propoganda—[Interruption.]

Order. There is so much noise that I cannot hear whether the question is in order. I hope that it is.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the bogus manifesto on the Conservative—

Is my right hon. Friend not aware, too, that the Labour party has put forward this manifesto as it has no policies of its own?

We are used to smears and scares from the party in opposition. May I give the House an example? During the last election campaign the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that if the Tories were allowed to win the election they would within five years put an end to the National Health Service—[Interruption.]

Since 1978 expenditure on the National Health Service has increased from £7·5 billion to nearly £20 billion this year, an increase of 31 per cent. after allowing for inflation. We have had the VAT scare before, when it has been alleged that we were going to put VAT on food. I gave an undertaking in 1984 that we would not put VAT on food. It was the party that is now in opposition that did that.

Will the Prime Minister agree that there can be no cover-up of treason and that the secret services cannot be allowed to operate as a state within a state? Would it not be healthier if, instead of spending time and effort trying to stuff various cats back into their bags, the Government were to make a frank statement to the House and set up a new inquiry into the operation of the secret services?

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, I have no ministerial responsibility for events before this Government came to office. There is nothing that I can add to the statement made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Sir J. Callaghan) in 1977, and Lord Wilson associated himself at that time with that statement. I believe that there was a Lib/Lab pact at the time, too.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if only half the promises of the Labour party were implemented there would be not only a massive increase in VAT but a massive increase in the standard rate of income tax?

I agree totally with my hon. Friend. The fact is that we are the party that reduces taxation, and the Opposition are the party that increases public expenditure and votes against the reduction of income tax.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 28 April.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Is the Prime Minister aware that when Lazard Brothers was advising Westland at the time of the takeover, a closely associated Swiss bank, Fils Dreyfus, took part in an illegal concert party to buy Westland shares? Is she further aware that that conspiracy to achieve her policy objectives looks even worse when one considers that her former Defence Secretary, Sir John Nott, is chairman of Lazards, and that one of her advisers, Mr. Gordon Reece, is a public relations adviser with that bank? In view of the nasty smell arising from that, does the Prime Minister agree that a Companies Act investigation should be set in motion urgently?

The hon. Gentleman knows that a decision was taken not to do that because there was insufficient evidence at the appropriate time. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence, which, I suspect, he does not, perhaps he will give it to the proper authorities.

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 28 April.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children holds its annual general meeting tomorrow? Will she join me in paying tribute to that organisation for the important and sensitive work that it undertakes on behalf of children? Furthermore, will she approach our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and give him every support and encouragement in introducing new ways to enable abused children to give evidence without added trauma?

I gladly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the NSPCC, which many hon. Members on both sides of the House have supported for many years. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will issue a paper next month on the use of video and other evidence to enable children better to give evidence about what happened in their case.

Has the Prime Minister had an opportunity to read yesterday's edition of The Independent and the serious allegations that are contained therein? Can she give the House an explanation of why the Government are trying to cover up those matters rather than trying to investigate them, as they should do? Does the Prime Minister not realise that—

I am trying carefully to do that, Mr. Speaker. Does the Prime Minister not realise that she is giving the country the impression that the Government regard themselves as the beneficiaries of past MI5 mistakes?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware, in spite of his attempt to get round it, that I have no ministerial responsibility for things that happened before I came to office. He will also be aware that there was a statement in the House that those events had been inquired into at the time, and that the previous Prime Minister, Lord Wilson associated himself at that time with the statement. He will be further aware that I have been the first to make statements on specific security matters when I have thought it proper to do so.

Q4.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 28 April.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents and the many other people who live around the Severn estuary by saying that, at least as far as she is concerned, the substantial risks that are posed to the environment, industry, ports and public health from the threat of the Severn barrage will be overridden only if there is a clear and overwhelming national need for such a barrage?

The studies of the barrage by the Severn Tidal Power Group are supported by the Central Electricity Generating Board and the Department of Energy. Those studies include environmental and regional issues and they will be discussed with all interested parties. Any future decision on the barrage will include consideration of all the relevant factors, including those two important factors.

The Prime Minister is undoubtedly aware of the turbulence and unease in the Province of Northern Ireland due to the increased terrorist activity of the Provisional IRA. She will now also be aware of the conclusions of the security conference that was held in Stormont castle last night. What new measures does she intend to introduce to combat the increased activity of the terrorists in the Province?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would and probably did join yesterday in condemning the vile and cowardly acts that took place against Lord Justice and Lady Gibson and other members of the security forces. I have been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and will continue to be in touch with him later this week. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that we do not make statements about extra security measures.