HC Deb 06 May 1875 vol 224 cc158-60

asked the Vice President of the Committee of Council on Education, Whether he has considered the letter of "An Eastern Counties Farmer," in "The Times" of April 30, in which he complains that no steps are taken to enforce the provisions of the Agricultural Children Act, and states that, wishing to obey the Law, he refuses to employ those of his labourers' children whose employment would be contrary to the Act; but that his neighbours, finding that "there is nobody to see the Law carried out," do employ their labourers' young children, and that his own labourers declare that they will leave his service "to work for some farmer who will break the Law and employ their children;" and, further, that his best men have already left him for this cause, and that he will be compelled to yield; and, whether, considering the inequality with which it appears that the Act presses upon those who obey and those who systematically ignore it, he will take the necessary measures to secure obedience to the Law?


Sir, I have read the letter of "An Eastern Counties Farmer" in The Times on the subject of the Agricultural Children Act, and I consider that such statements from practical men of the working of the present law are very useful, and will assist us to arrive at a satisfactory mode of treatment of this grave matter. From various quarters we are receiving unofficially more and more information, and I gather that, while in some parts of the country the Act is at present practically inoperative, in others it has been really effective, and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire (Mr. Pell) has recently assured me that in his county, where the magistrates in quarter session determined to enforce the Act by means of the police, the law may be considered to be almost universally obeyed. I must remind my hon. Friend that the weak point of the Act—the absence of an enforcing authority—was patent to everyone in the House when this Bill was passed; but owing, I imagine, to the difficulty of fixing upon a satisfactory authority, the House, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster), who was then responsible for the conduct of all educational legislation, determined that the experiment should be made without an enforcing authority. The Act has only been fully in operation for about four months, and it is the decided opinion of Her Majesty's Government that a wise solution of this difficult question is much more likely to be obtained after a year's experience of the working of the new law than by hasty and premature amendment of it. To enable the Government to form an opinion of the various ways in which the Act has been worked in every part of the country and of how it has operated, our information being at present very partial, full Reports will be received from Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools at the end of the year, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has requested the opinion of magistrates in quarter sessions upon it. I shall avail myself of every other source of information which is available respecting this important subject.