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Column 375I will not support the closure of school surplus places in Bedlinog. If there was a Bedlinog in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Conwy, he would not support the closure of the school. We heard quick and easy words from the English Secretary of State for Education yesterday. I should like to see her going round doing away with surplus school places.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) was right. One of the other curious consequences of the Government's reforms is that it is more difficult for a county education authority to plan and reorganise its education system in the way that the Secretary of State supports. If a school is threatened with closure, the automatic consequence is that that school will seek grant-maintained status. Will the Secretary of State for Wales support the closure of schools by the county education authority or will he be tempted politically to say, "At last I have an application for grant-maintained status before me, and I do not have many: I have tried everything under the sun--I have made schools have recounts and treble recounts to try to get grant-maintained schools off the ground, but for some reason they do not seem to get popular support from staff, teachers and parents."? If the Secretary of State can persuade the county education authority to threaten to close some schools, he can then come as a saviour and have a brand new collection of grant-maintained schools. If that is the right hon. Gentleman's cynical ploy, he should admit it. If it is not, he should agree that his policies have made it infinitely more difficult for there to be planned management of the development of education within any county.
Mr. Redwood: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in view of the enormous popularity of grant-maintained schools with the children of shadow spokespeople, to have enough places for the rest of the people who want to go to such schools we need to have more of them?
Mr. Rowlands: I have never indulged in the politics of personality in any shape or form and I will not lower my tone and my contribution to the right hon. Gentleman's level. We are talking of schools in our communities that have no wish to become grant maintained. The only possibility of an application for grant-maintained status has been when there has been a threat of closure, after which the Secretary of State has come forward as a saviour. Is that the thinking behind some of the proposals? If it is, it is a cynical ploy and we are right to reject it.
It is not a matter of just hanging on to the education that we have. We desperately need new investment in our schools. The county of Mid Glamorgan has obeyed the exhortation of the right hon. Member for Conwy and taken £8 million out of the balances to cover some of the £12 million deficit. Despite raiding £8 million from its surpluses, the county has had to make two cuts. It cut £1.5 million from the schools formula budget. I do not present that as a draconian cut, but I believe that it is damaging the local management of schools. The one Government reform that I have strongly supported is LMS, which has been a success story. Headmasters, headmistresses and staff have taken to the concept of LMS and have managed to make it work. It is sad that as a consequence of this financial arrangement counties may have to put pressure
Column 376on school formula budgets, as Mid Glamorgan has attempted to do, while desperately trying to avoid the worst impact.
The other cruel cut in Mid Glamorgan is a cut of £1.5 million in the centrally controlled building maintenance budget. The Secretary of State and other Conservative Members frequently portray the money held back at county level as being used to finance a bloated bureaucracy. That is a standard accusation. If it is true, the matter should be looked at--I accept that--but when the right hon. Gentleman makes such sweeping statements he should look more closely at what has been kept back centrally.
I give the Secretary of State one example. In my area--I do not know whether this is the case in other areas--many schools do not want to take on the responsibility of financing school transport. The county has offered to transfer that responsibility, but most of the local schools have said that they do not want to take on the headaches and administrative costs of school transport. Parents are very worried about how their children get to and from school. There is an understanding between most schools in the county and Mid Glamorgan county council that that area of expenditure should not be transferred.
Another responsibility is major external repairs to buildings. It is not that the county council is in some wicked way holding back money from the local schools: on the whole, schools have wanted responsibility for big external repairs to remain at county level. There has been a tragic cut of £1.5 million in Mid Glamorgan. I come back to my Bedlinog school. Because of the age of the building, the external wall of that much-loved school, which is strongly supported by parents, teachers and children, is in desperate need of substantial repair. The same point could also apply to Vaynor and Penederyn high school.
This expenditure is vital to schools that are old fashioned, but which have many years of life left in them if investment in repairs and maintenance is made now. There is no reason to think that an old building is dead and must be knocked down. As I have said, that creates a form of dereliction. I am afraid, however, that as a result of this financial settlement, much essential building maintenance may be postponed. The postponement of such investment has disastrous consequences on the whole fabric of some of the old but characterful schools in our community. I hope that the Secretary of State will think twice when he makes sweeping allegations about the counties' centrally held funds.
We have missed a trick. We should have asked the Secretary of State to come to the Mid Glamorgan orchestral concert which is held every January. Perhaps we shall get him to come to the last one, next January, in St. David's hall. There are some 2,500 parents present, so children have the chance to play before an audience as big as the audiences for Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones. The hall is packed out and the places could be sold all over again. It is a tremendous and wonderful success story of the past 15 years.
One of the success stories of the time during which I have represented the constituency has been the growth of orchestral music in Mid Glamorgan. We were always able to sing and we always had choirs, but there was a strange absence of orchestral tradition in our community. In Merthyr, we have a youth orchestra of 160 youngsters who practise every Friday evening between 4.30 pm and
Column 3776 pm. My daughter and son belonged to that orchestra and never missed a rehearsal on a Friday night; they would then go out for the night. They would go to the rehearsals with 'flu, no matter how ill they were. We now have a magnificent county orchestra.
With the new unitary policy, we must be careful that we do not destroy these collective arrangements. The orchestra is funded by the county. Its success depends on the centre at Ogmore, where the children go for five or six days. That visit is paid for by money held centrally. It is not bureaucratic money, but money held centrally and used to make a county orchestra from the smaller building bricks of the Merthyr, Bridgend, Rhymney and Pontypridd orchestras. The Secretary of State makes sweeping statements about centrally held funds. Some of those centrally held funds support the activities that I have described, which could be in danger as a result of a poor financial settlement and, unless we are careful, local government reorganisation.
We should not just be trying to hang on. An area in which we should be spending money is nursery provision. Curiously, as a result of being an old county borough, Merthyr has considerable nursery provision. One of the historic successes of this old county borough is that it developed nursery education fairly comprehensively. As the borough's boundaries are now rather different, there are areas, including areas in the Rhymney part of my constituency, which have no nursery provision. We have the nonsensical position where Abertysswg has no nursery provision but lower Rhymney has full nursery cover and upper Rhymney has no formal nursery education.
What has happened to all the Government's plans for nursery education? Where is the great initiative that was supposed to come from the Prime Minister down for the development of nursery education? Where is the Secretary of State's nursery provision? And where, in this financial settlement, is the extra money needed to fill the gaps in nursery education in the communities that I represent?
When I say nursery education, I mean education. I do not believe in too much play. I started school at the age of three and learned to read at that age. Like many others of my generation, I believe that the learning process opens up the real world for children, so I favour old-fashioned nursery education. I should like to see the gaps in nursery provision in Wales filled. I hope that filling those gaps will be one of the missions of the new county boroughs of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. I feel that I am spitting into the wind when I write to county education directors and ask why they make no provision in next year's budget for filling those gaps in education and they turn round and say that they are just about hanging on to the nursery provision that they have now.
Before the Secretary of State decides that the proposals are fair, generous and wonderful, he should realise the pressures on the ground in what we all agree is one of the most vital services for the future--our education service.
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I am delighted to have a chance to participate in this debate, not least because I listened to the Secretary of State's announcement on 14 December, which turned out to be some sort of Budget for Wales, when the bad news for local government finance in Wales was first revealed. I had hoped that the battering he had on that occasion would have lent him
Column 378some strength in Cabinet discussions and given him a chance to return with better proposals today. Sadly, my hopes have been dashed in that regard.
My hopes were raised again when we debated the local government settlement for England; I had hoped that the Secretary of State would have taken the warning that the country felt that the amount of Government money going towards local government resources was inadequate. Sadly, that, too, seems to have passed him by, as has the rumpus that erupted recently between school governors and parents who are trying to get their children educated in our schools. They feel extremely sore about the effect of this Government's actions on the education system, not only in England but in Wales. I am sorry that the Secretary of State has chosen to take no notice of what has happened in this Chamber or outside it since he made his announcement on 14 December last year.
Unfortunately, the settlement means that people, particularly teachers, are likely to be thrown on the scrap heap. In effect, therefore, the settlement will waste resources, be inadequate for Wales's needs and probably cause a reduction in local government services in Wales.
I shall concentrate on education, because, not surprisingly, it has been a major subject of debate today, not least because it plays such a major part in local authority finances. Wales has a particular problem with the education system because of the sparsity of population in its rural areas. We are all aware that sparsity of population is not yet fully taken into account in the formulae that the Government use to decide on standard spending assessments and grants to local authorities. I hope that the Government will face that problem before we reach this occasion next year, because it needs to be dealt with not only in Wales but throughout the country. I return to the point made earlier about school closures. In sparsely populated areas, the closure of a school, even if there are empty places, presents particular difficulties. The Government have not yet fully understood that point, so it needs to be made again. School closures in sparsely populated areas present financial difficulties when the nearest school is some distance away. Social difficulties arise when children's education is disrupted and family arrangements are also disrupted as parents find that they must take their children to a different school. They also have financial consequences for the community as a whole.
It is easy for the Government to think purely in terms of the cost of education to local government, but the cost of educating a child includes the cost of getting that child to and from school, not only for daytime work but for extra-mural activities. It is important for the Government to recognise that a saving for local government in terms of direct funding of a school may be counterbalanced--even overturned--by the extra costs to the community as a whole of moving children to a different school some distance from where they live.
Sir Wyn Roberts: Another factor that must be borne in mind is the quality of education that children receive. When numbers run very low, the quality of education suffers because it is impossible to maintain an adequate supply of teachers.
Mr. Rendel: It is interesting that that argument is often advanced by Conservative Members, many of whom pay large sums of money to ensure that their children are educated in small classes. The suggestion that the quality
Column 379of education necessarily worsens when school sizes go down is not valid. It has certainly never been proved. In Powys, for example, attempts have been made to increase school sizes to about 1,000 pupils. Those attempts have not proved successful and some of the best-quality education is given in schools with only about 500 pupils.
The problem of nursery education was rightly discussed by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). It is a significant factor in terms of education in Wales. As we know, it presents problems throughout our nation but particularly in Wales, where clear gaps exist in nursery provision, especially in the state sector. We should all seek to fill those gaps. I admit that there are some good voluntary and charity nursery schools that are well worth their place in the education system and I hope that the Government will see their way to encourage such schools. For example, the Malldwyn family centre has proved highly successful; if the Government could copy such schools, it would be well worth while. Such nursery schools allow children to get a decent education while allowing parents to live their lives as they wish. That cannot happen in parts of Wales with an absence of nursery provision.
Care in the community is a major and growing part of local government financing, so it is right that the Government now see the need to put more money into it. Many of us have believed for some time that the care in the community policy is right in principle, but we have seen what a shambles has been made of it in practice. The money that is provided for care in the community always has to catch up with requirements a year or two late. Any hope that the Government might have that the extra money put into care in the community this year means that there will be a real increase in spending is damned by the obvious fact that that money is needed simply to plug the holes in the care in the community programme that have become evident in the past few years. The claim that so much more is now provided for Wales as a result of the Government's settlement must be countered with the contrary claim that the settlement merely represents a catching-up exercise.
The transitional costs of introducing care in the community are not being met. The most serious problem relates to the most severely handicapped adults. An attempt has been made to shut many of the older institutions that used to care for those people. That has caused enormous anguish to those who will be forced to care for them in the community without adequate resources. If one listens to the parents of those who have reached adulthood, but are so severely handicapped that they cannot properly care for themselves, one is immediately aware of the difficulties that they face in looking after their adult children in the community. One must therefore accept that the Government still have a long way to go before they can claim that they have properly funded their care in the community policy in Wales.
A particular problem for Wales this year is that it is rapidly moving towards the election of the new shadow authorities for the new unitary authorities. This year's settlement must obviously provide for the costs of those shadow authorities and, happily, to a large extent it does. It is also setting the trend for the future of those authorities, because those authorities have been given a
Column 380guideline as to how they should plan for local authority expenditure once they become fully fledged authorities in their own right. It is sad that they will have to plan for a base of spending well below the real needs of the people of Wales. It is sad that, in effect, they will have to plan for cuts in services well below the level of need.
The settlement is a sad reflection of the Government's lack of care for Wales. It shows what happens when the man in charge is more interested in bribing the voters of south-east and southern England with tax cuts than in looking after the real needs of, and providing services to, the Welsh people. Wales deserves better.
Mr. David Hanson (Delyn): The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) mentioned the sparsity of the population in Wales, but perhaps he should have referred to the sparsity of Tory speakers in the debate. It seems that only the Opposition are interested in the settlement and its effect on Wales. The Opposition have made a healthy contribution to the debate and we will continue to do so during the remainder of it.
I have been driven to speak by the scurrilous attack that the Secretary of State for Wales--let us remember that he is the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)--made on my county of Clwyd and the effect that that settlement will have on it. I should also like to respond to the Secretary of State's interpretation as to what Clwyd should do about that settlement. I have been in the House for just three years, but I was struck by that vitriolic attack on Clwyd. Perhaps it was meant to boost the right hon. Gentleman's virility on the near empty Conservative Benches, but I am sure that it failed in that objective.
Apart from that attack on my county council, the Secretary of State for Wales expressed his strong concerns about the tactics used by my constituents--the schoolchildren of Maes Garmon in Mold. Last year, they had the temerity to go to a meeting held by the Secretary of State in north Clwyd to protest about the effects of the spending assessment and grant allocation on local education authority spending. The right hon. Gentleman described their actions as politically motivated and he implied that, by putting across their strength of feeling, they were almost deranged. As for their political motivation, I should tell the right hon. Gentleman that those schoolchildren came to my surgery to lobby their Labour Member of Parliament, just as they lobbied Labour councillors. They felt so impassioned about the effects of any cuts in the education budget on their school and its teachers that they felt that they had to lobby the Secretary of State for Wales. What was his response? It is not apparently part of Tory party democracy of the late 20th century that people should be able to lobby the Secretary of State about the effects of spending cuts on their schools.
I should like the Minister and the Secretary of State to tell me how many schools in Clwyd they have visited in the past year. In the past year, how often have they expressed their concerns about education to local councillors? How often have they written to Clwyd Members drawing their attention to the concerns that were expressed by the Secretary of State in the Chamber this afternoon? On all three counts, the answer is that they have taken such action on very few occasions. I certainly
Column 381never received a letter from the Secretary of State expressing concern about the level of balances in Clwyd. The Minister might like to respond on that point.
The blunt fact is that the settlement is a very difficult one for local schools, the local education authorities and all local government services in Clwyd. The Secretary of State has argued that Clwyd should consider its management costs and be prudent with its balances: apparently, it should consider reducing its overall expenditure so that it is more in line with the expectations expressed in central Government diktats from the right hon. Member for Wokingham.
The Secretary of State offered no suggestion on the level of balances that he wants Clwyd county council to set. He mentioned £5.5 million as the current balance; the county council's budget this year is £271 million. Is £5.5 million a prudent balance on that level of expenditure? Although some money may be taken out of the balances--I am sure that the county council will do that as a result of the settlement-- does £5.5 million represent a prudent balance? What is a prudent balance? Perhaps the Minister will tell us.
Is it prudent for Clwyd county council, in its final year of existence, to plunder its balances so that, next year, the new authorities of Flintshire, Denbighshire and Wrexham have to go back to the Secretary of State and say that they have no inheritance from the former authority? They will tell him that no balances were passed on to them and that they are therefore in a difficult position. We have heard many Members of both Houses talk about selling the family silver. If we spend that family silver as a short-term measure to shore up Clwyd county council and to overcome its current problems, when it has only a £5.5 million balance from £271 million expenditure, what will happen next year? What will happen to Flintshire, Denbighshire and Wrexham, when the undoubted central aim of Government policy is to reduce public spending? What will happen when, next year, the Government reduce the settlement still further and impose a stricter cap?
Mr. Hanson: I hope that my hon. Friend is right because my constituents deserve a better settlement than that offered today. Clwyd county council has made it clear that, this year, as a result of the settlement, it will have to make cuts of £8 million in the services it provides centrally--a cut of approximately 4 per cent.--if it is to keep within the Government's set capping limit. I take my council's word on that, because it has examined the issue properly. My authority was not elected to make cuts of £8 million in services and it has no intention of doing so. It has no mandate to do that, because I remind the Minister that 32 of the 66 members of that authority are Labour and only six represent the Tory party. Four out of five Clwyd Members of Parliament are Labour Members and none of us was elected on a mandate to make cuts of £8 million.
Mr. Hanson: The hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), the Under-Secretary of State, is out on duty today, when he should be in the Chamber to answer for the Government's policies. This year, Clwyd
Column 382county council, my local county council, will be confronted by an £8 million cut in expenditure. That money cannot be made up simply by prudent management. It cannot be made up simply by raiding the balances and selling the family silver for future years. It must be made up--unless there is an increase in the cap or, even better, perhaps an abolition of the cap or an increase in grant--by direct cuts in services in my county.
Those cuts will fall, by and large, on the education committee, because the education committee makes up most of the cost of Clwyd county council's expenditure. The county council has already considered making large cuts and has cut the central non-schools budget; nevertheless, it must make £3.5 million of proposed cuts, which in my county means the loss of nearly 300 teachers. Cuts in the non-schools budget have been made. Those cuts are now falling on the delegated school budgets, as governors are realising.
As my hon. Friends said, the reaction to those cuts is not an uprising of politically motivated people. I have received hundreds of letters from worried parents who do not blame the county council. They are streetwise parents. They know where the responsibility lies and they all, individually and collectively, have said to me, "Please go to the Welsh Office and ask it to review the grant, or, at the very least, we are willing, as ratepayers in Clwyd, to pay more on our local council tax by a higher cap to allow us to spend money in investing in our children's future."
As recently as last night, I presented a petition to the House on behalf of a school in Carmel in my constituency, signed by 2,000 parents who specifically asked for a review of the grant and the rate cap. I have received 200 letters from parents from one school in Northop Hall in my constituency. They are not politically motivated by unions. They are genuine parents who send their children to Clwyd schools--as I do--and whose children need investment in the future. Those parents want a proper settlement that reflects their aspirations, yet my county is confronted with a cut of £8 million, which will translate into £3.5 million in the education budget. Clwyd county council social services have reviewed their budget recently because of the settlement and, as a result, must plan cuts of £1.4 million in a budget that is already unable to sustain the demand, statutory and real, that hits it. They are considering "rationing" services or charging for them, which would have a significant impact on the people in our community, whom I represent, to whom we try to deliver top- quality services. It will almost inevitably hit the most disadvantaged people in our community with the most difficult problems, who need the support of the county council. It makes any idea of a comprehensive, co- ordinated approach to community care a pipe dream, because that reduction in funding will hit hard the county council's ability to deliver locally based services.
The highways committee has considered services and has already identified £400,000 of cuts in the local maintenance budget for roads in Clwyd. I drive on roads in Clwyd continually and I can tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that work certainly needs to be done, and that cut will really have an impact on our local services.
In answer to the Secretary of State, of course Clwyd county council has considered, and will continue to consider, its central core services--the services provided at shire hall in Mold in my constituency. The county council has already considered about £400, 000 worth of
Column 383savings in central departments, and I am sure that it will consider further. No Labour authority is about inefficiency. If there are genuine inefficiencies, I hope that the Secretary of State will write to me and tell me about them, so that I can write to the county council and ask it to review them. Let him put it on the record today. When the Minister replies, Mr. Deputy Speaker, let him tell the House, and tell me as the local Member of Parliament, the savings that Clwyd county council can make. If he is to go down the road of considering budgets and determining what is waste and what is not, let him tell Members of Parliament who represent Clwyd what should be cut from the budget to make the savings and compensate for the loss in grant that will confront us. I look forward to hearing his response to those questions.
All that is from a Government who, while the settlement continues, continue to plough money into grant-maintained schools throughout Wales--enormous amounts of capital spending--and recently announced a £20 million good schools initiative. In my opinion, the £20 million would be far better spent by local authorities in Wales rather than in response to a central diktat of what is a good school from the Secretary of State for Wales.
On the funding of schools, perhaps the Minister will tell us why the small schools initiative of England does not translate to Wales, and why small schools do not receive similar financial support to that which such schools receive in England.
My local authority would wish many steps to be taken today. I shall therefore be forced to vote against the settlement unless those steps are announced in the Minister's reply. The county council would certainly want the cap to be raised, so that additional resources might be raised locally by local taxpayers to pay for services that local taxpayers want. People have consistently voted for better spending and improved spending on education; if the Minister cares to visit Clwyd, he will find that many people in my community are willing to pay more in the absence of proper Government spending to achieve that level of services.
The Minister needs to consider many technical aspects of capping. In Clwyd, matters such as the Dee crossing and the Bryn Estyn case place additional costs on the county council, but are not, in the opinion of the county council or Members of Parliament who represent that county, adequately reflected in the calculation of the standard spending assessment.
Obviously, the council cannot achieve cuts of £8 million in 1995-96 without seriously reducing services. Let me remind the Minister that those serious reductions follow £22 million of reductions in county council spending in the past three years alone. The county council cannot do that without further serious cuts in services. The settlement is detrimental to the people of Clwyd and to the people whom I represent.
I leave the Secretary of State and the Minister with the thought that there are things that can be done by the Government to improve the situation in Clwyd. There is a will in Clwyd to find additional money from existing resources to help to offset the effects of the settlement, but, ultimately, people in my county want and demand good services. They want and demand maintenance of the existing level of services. If the Minister votes tonight to maintain the settlement, he will commit my county to
Column 384serious decisions on the future of schools, social services, highways, the infrastructure and the industrial development of Clwyd.
People in my constituency say that they do not want increased class sizes; they do not want reduced numbers of teachers; they do not want less spending on buildings, fewer books and less spending on the range of school matters. They do not wish old people to be forced to pay increased charges for their home helps. They do not wish the infrastructure of our local community to be run down. The one way in which I can reflect those demands is to vote against the settlement, and I shall do so with pleasure.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not in the Chamber at the moment. For some time, I had tried to obtain a meeting with him to discuss some important economic matters in the south of my constituency. I wrote to him in English, as I know that he does not like anything Welsh, but I could not obtain a reply. Eventually, I received a reply saying that he would see me after Christmas- -that is when he would be up in the constituency.
Nevertheless, the Secretary of State appeared in September on the set of the "White Knight" film. He has since referred to "White Knight" in speeches with worrying regularity. He even referred to "White Knight" in the Welsh Grand Committee. He sees himself as some kind of white knight. I should prefer to call him something else, but he is not here to meet that particular barrage just now and, in any event, time does not permit the full number of words that I should like to use.
The white knight syndrome typifies the right hon. Gentleman's style of politics. I am grateful for the revised settlement for the police, which is sensible and will serve the needs of north Wales very well; but we have seen the white knight syndrome in action, because the first offer was ridiculous and would not have afforded any level of policing. I speak as the son of a policeman and the brother of a policeman, and I am a qualified lawyer and have had many dealings with the police. As the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) well knows, the first settlement would have been a disaster for north Wales, hence the review of £3.3 million when the white knight came riding in with bags of much-needed money. It is a silly ploy to offer a couple of peanuts and then hand over half a bag of them. We can all see through it; the public can see through it and are clearly aware of what is going on.
The right hon. Member for Conwy and I have a common interest--apart from being two humans, our constituencies split the borough of Aberconwy. He said earlier--I think in reference to Gwynedd--that further cuts were good for the soul. I do not accept for one moment that further cuts are good for the soul given the consistent deep cuts in Gwynedd over four or five years. Those are not empty words--as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, there have been substantial cuts. To say that those cuts are good for the soul is little short of disingenuous.
Column 3851 per cent. cut, then a possible 2 per cent. cut might be good for the soul and might appeal to the Audit Commission. I also said that I did not think that the cuts would be called upon.
Mr. Llwyd: With the greatest of respect, if the right hon. Gentleman looks back over the past three or four years, he will see that such cuts have been made. I do not know why this year should be different from those years. I have attempted to make that point. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, but I do not think that it took us much further.
I agree entirely with the remarks of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), who spoke of the pressing need for nursery school provision. We in Wales have a great pride in our education system and have always seen the value of good education. I have one perfectly true story of what happened in my constituency five years ago. A gentleman came from a public school to teach a science subject in a secondary school in the south of my constituency. When he arrived at the school, he saw that the laboratory was a shambles. Gwynedd education authority had no money to invest in the school--I do not blame it for that, as it had other priorities all over the county and a small budget with which to meet the needs. The teacher rang a friend of his in the science department of a public school and asked him if he had any spare equipment. His friend said that it was just as well that he had rung as the public school was installing a new laboratory and his friend could have the old one.
That secondary school now has the best-equipped physics laboratory in Gwynedd. We are relying on scraps. There is a hidden agenda, and we know what it is. The Government want education for the rich and any old nonsense for the rest of us. They are in the business of establishing, yet again, a ruling class. We are not blind and we can see what is going on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones) mentioned the hidden problems of this year's budget. Care in the community is becoming an increasing drain on local authority resources. As the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) said, there is no doubt that the policy is welcomed in principle, but unless it is properly financed, it will not achieve what was intended.
The right hon. Member for Conwy mentioned one or two matters raised by Aberconwy borough council in its responses to the settlement. As he said, the strategic development scheme announcements were disappointing for the borough. I echo that sentiment and go further--there is no conceivable reason why the scheme should not have been allowed.
Aberconwy is not designated for European assistance in the form of grant aid. If what I have seen of Welsh Office applications to Europe for grant funding in south Gwynedd is anything to go by, its procedure is a shambles. I wonder when, if ever, we shall gain any form of credibility in the European Union. The application for south Gwynedd has been submitted to the European Union Commission three times. It was submitted in March and was bounced back, marked in red--we are talking about education--to show where the application had gone wrong. It was resubmitted in April or May and was bounced back marked in a different colour. Shortly after Christmas, this year, there was a meeting so that the directors general of the various departments could tell the
Column 386Welsh Office how to put a case together. We in south Gwynedd have waited almost 12 months to advance one inch, and have not yet done so. I suspect that that is one reason why the white knight would not see me earlier than next week, despite many attempts by me and those in my office to see him earlier. I am disappointed in the general level of proficiency in the Welsh Office vis-a -vis its contacts with the European mainland.
I shall develop the argument put fairly and squarely by the right hon. Member for Conwy about the concern in Aberconwy about the rent allowance costs, which are a heavy burden. I would be obliged if the Minister would look again at the effects on Aberconwy and other areas in Wales of that policy. At present, it is a drain and little else, and it should be shored up, otherwise other cuts will have to be made--where, I cannot say. I appreciate that the SSA formula recognises the incidence of rent allowance, but it does not deal sufficiently with its effects. Will the Minister respond to that point in due course?
The right hon. Member for Conwy mentioned the £3.46 million cut. Whatever the position and the mathematics, that represents a real cut. Gwynedd, Dyfed, Clwyd and other responsible authorities throughout Wales have avoided cutting their education budgets. Part of the reason for that is probably that we in Wales respect good education and what it can provide in a normal economy. This year, there is no doubt that Gwynedd's education budget will be cut. It is no use the Minister saying that it is because of this, that or the other; it is directly because the money allocated is insufficient to meet the county's needs.
Mention has been made of the further 1 per cent. cut in Gwynedd's staffing budget, the 1 per cent. cut in the total budget and a possible further 2 per cent. cut. Those are stark enough cuts in themselves, but when they come in the fifth year of cuts, the position becomes almost unmanageable. I am sure that many officers and members in local government in Gwynedd are fed up with being apologists for the Government. They are at the sharp end and have to deal with the cuts and try to explain them. They know that if a responsible administration were looking after a central, core budget, the cuts would not have to be made. But there will be a cut in Gwynedd's budget. It gives me no pleasure to say that. As various hon. Members have said, there are hidden problems in the budget in Gwynedd which involve community care and which will impact even further than has been suggested.
Dyfed county council is proud of its education system and of the way in which it has looked after its schools in the face of tremendous funding pressure. There is a link between Dyfed and Gwynedd, as both counties have a large number of fairly small primary schools. Those of us who come from rural backgrounds know how important village or town schools are to communities. The local authorities have recognised that fact and they have hitherto safeguarded their schools. However, they fear that they cannot hold out any longer; the dyke will burst any minute. Many dozens of villages throughout Dyfed, Gwynedd and Clwyd will suffer directly as a result of the settlement that has been offered.
As I mentioned in an intervention, Dyfed has recognised that it will have to cut its community education provisions. The nature of school meals will change and they will cost more. The local authority will be not be able to maintain school buildings. We obviously face difficult times, and it is not good enough for the Government to
Column 387say that we should cut the cloth accordingly. The cloth has been cut as much as it can be cut, and the Government must recognise that fact.
The Secretary of State recognised that there was a crisis in policing in north Wales. I had several meetings with him to discuss that subject, as did other hon. Members. We are now facing a crisis of equal proportions, and this crisis is not simply confined to the police; it extends to education, transport, social services and community care. I invite the Government to reconsider this savage settlement, which will do nothing for local government.
The new unitary authorities will be grossly disadvantaged. Many of us were involved in the legislative process last year, and we do not want to bequeath those authorities a legacy of failure before they have even commenced operations. The settlement must be reviewed if we are to adopt a responsible attitude to local government in Wales. 6.12 pm
Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd): It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). At the end of his speech he highlighted a matter which worries a great many Welsh people as we move towards the establishment of unitary authorities in Wales. In that respect, we are much further ahead than England.
I am worried about a whole range of subjects, and my hon. Friend referred to some of them. We face a serious problem with the maintenance of school buildings in the valleys of south Wales. School buildings are literally sliding down the hillsides because of the extensive mining that occurred in the past, and the cost of shoring up those buildings is often exorbitant.
A question mark hangs over the future of special needs education in schools in south Wales. Marvellous initiatives have been taken in special needs education--mainly instigated, not by the Government, but by staff and pupils. The "much despised creatures"--as they are described by the Government Front Bench--the administrators of education in Wales, have done a marvellous job trying to integrate children with handicaps into mainstream education. We aim to give everyone an equal opportunity in society and allow them their rightful civil liberties.
My children do not have fields to play in and I perceive a constant need throughout the urban centres in Wales for green spaces for our children in schools.
I am concerned about the state of our schools and the problems associated with their maintenance. Owing to the topography of south Wales and its industrial past, many buildings in Pontypridd will have to be grouted at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Many of the schools in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) have faced a real crisis. Old and newer mining operations have burrowed under schools and under whole communities. What might be a quite expensive repair bill for a household, can prove catastrophic for a school. As a result, ordinary care and maintenance jobs, such as painting walls and repairing electrical fittings or windows,
Column 388are often put off for many years in schools in south Wales. The money must be spent simply to keep the walls and the buildings together.
A school in my area, ysgol Gyfan Rhydfelin, had to nail doors shut because subsidence had forced the walls askew and prevented the doors from locking. It was a fire hazard and an absolute disgrace. We solved that problem, but only after quite a struggle. That school also has terrapin classrooms. Time and again, schools in south Wales solve their maintenance problems by housing children in temporary classrooms. The climate is invariably very wet and often very cold, and no child should spend his or her educational life under those appalling conditions.
Mine was the most lucky of generations because when I went to school in south Wales the schools had just been built. They were airy and light. People believed that children should not be trapped in concrete playgrounds, and the schools were surrounded by fields. They were marvellous places.
Those same schools which were built in the 1950s and 1960s are now falling apart because the maintenance costs simply cannot be met. The school maintenance budget in Mid Glamorgan alone has been cut by £1.5 million. There is no excuse for that, and I hope that the Minister will address the problem.
Special needs education concerns me enormously. Many schools in Wales have done a marvellous job providing special education. The special care unit at Bryncelynog school in my constituency has pioneered all sorts of projects. A little primary school at Pentyrch has transformed not only the lives of the disabled children who have now been integrated into mainstream education, but the whole school, because it has changed schoolchildren's views of those who have physical handicaps. That marvellous initiative must not be threatened in any shape or form by the Government's tight-fisted fiscal policies. Integration should continue and special needs must be met. The schools in the constituencies of my hon. Friends are crying out for speech therapists and for peripatetic physiotherapists, which would solve the problem of children taking whole days off school in order to receive physiotherapy treatment in hospitals. We are talking about our future wealth-creating base: our children. We cannot afford not to tap the potential of children with disabilities any more than we can afford not to tap the potential of those children who are lucky enough not to suffer any disability.
Finally, I return to the problem of the lack of green spaces in so many of our schools. My own children's school, Coedylan primary and junior school, has no grass for the children to play on; it has a small, concrete playground. That position is echoed throughout Wales.
There was a time when children could play on the mountainsides and in the streets. They cannot do that any more. Anyone with kids knows that parents are too paranoid and frightened to allow their children to roam on the mountainsides because of the stories that we hear. Children cannot play in the streets because there are too many cars. If I may be slightly flippant, I suspect that one of the reasons why the Welsh rugby, soccer and cricket teams have performed so badly in recent years--heroically perhaps, but pretty badly--is that kids are inhibited by the
Column 389fact that their whole sports lives are structured. The only time they ever indulge in sports is when they take part at school or go to a special coaching class on a Saturday.
If financial pressures are to be brought to bear on boards of governors, education authorities and schools, there must be no more sell-offs of school playing fields and green spaces. Those facilities have to be properly maintained and extended.
I am glad that the Secretary of State has returned to the Chamber. He has missed some marvellous speeches from hon. Members who have kids attending schools in Wales--as mine and those of my constituents do. He will have heard that there is what amounts to a crisis, certainly in the minds of many of us who observe what is happening in schools today. For that reason alone, I shall vote against the Government tonight. I hope that they listen to what has been said. It is extremely important because those children are the future of Wales.