HC Deb 29 July 1876 vol 231 cc60-72

[BILL 155.]

(Viscount Sandon, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Assheton Cross.)

COMMITTEE. [Progress 28th July.]

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)


, as he had promised the hon. Member for South Leicestershire to meet possible evils to which he had called his attention, he would propose a new clause, so that there might be no doubt whatever that the public money earned by the schools was expended for the purposes intended by Parliament. The clause was as follows:— (The conditions of a Parliamentary grant to include application of incomes to purposes of public elementary schools only.) The conditions required to be fulfilled by schools in order to obtain annual Parliamentary grants shall provide that the income of the schools shall be applied only for the purposes of public elementary schools.


thought the clause would meet the object in view.

Clause read a second time, and ordered to be added to the Bill.


moved the following new clause:— (No prosecutions to be undertaken except with the authority of at least three members of a School Board, School Attendance Committee, or Local Committee.) No legal proceedings for non-attendance, or irregular attendance at school, shall be commenced in a court of summary jurisdiction, by any person appointed to carry out the compulsory bye-laws of a School Board or Local Authority, except by the direction of not less than three members of a School Board, School Attendance Committee, or Local Committee, who shall have previously investigated the circumstances under which it is proposed to take such action. The hon. Gentleman said, the object of the clause was to carry out the intention of the Act of 1870 with regard to prosecutions—that they should not be resorted to until every other means of inducing the attendance of the children had failed, and only then after very careful inquiry into the circumstances of each case by persons who, from their local knowledge, were thoroughly competent to perform the duty. In the metropolis and in large towns the need of such caution was greatest, since the circumstances of individuals were less likely to be known there than elsewhere. Hence, in some of the London districts, divisional committees of the ratepayers had been formed, who were admirably fitted for the discharge of these functions. Speaking at the opening of the new offices of the London School Board, after describing the method of persuasion to be employed by the visitors, Sir Charles Reed said of the divisional committees— After that, it rests with the ratepayers themselves, who constitute the divisional committee, to decide whether the superintendent shall take any case before the magistrate, so that the public authority shall give decision. Therefore, I think the Board, having placed the power in the hands of the ratepayers, may fairly say that they have sought the very test tribunal. In every division of London we have ladies and gentlemen who are united in this benevolent work: they investigate at great pains every case, they see every parent, and they direct every step; and the question is carried before the magistrate, subject to the committee of the Board, at their instigation. There was also a resolution passed by the London School Board on the 19th June, 1872, to the effect— That no prosecution in any division, to enforce the bye-laws for compulsion, be carried on, except by the authority of the divisional members, or a majority of them, who shall be solely responsible to the Board therefor. Now, the sentiment contained in that speech, and the policy laid down by that resolution, was all that could be desired; but what he complained of was, that the practice of the Board had not been in accordance with its professions, for by a Return that had been presented to the House he learned that out of 2,154 cases that had gone before the magistrates in the Greenwich Division, with which he was naturally chiefly concerned, only four had been investigated in the manner prescribed by the resolution he had quoted, whilst, in some 50 cases, the preliminary investigation had been left to the superintendent of visitors. A resolution of this kind was an instruction to the members of the Board, and it was highly unsatisfactory to find some of them, within one month of its passing, deliberately arranging to violate it, as was shown to be the fact by the Return. Up to the 17th of March, 1875, the divisional committee of ratepayers had some voice in the matter, though not nearly so much as was represented by Sir Charles Reed in his speech; but after that they had been superseded, apparently without reason given. During the time the committee exercised their functions, prosecutions had been going on at the rate of about 500 per annum; whilst, after their dismissal, the rate increased to nearly 700—an increase of something like 40 per cent. The general result of all this had been, that a great outcry had been raised in the division, the magistrates had complained publicly of the want of care exercised in inquiring into the cases brought before them, and there was great danger of education becoming unpopular amongst those whose sympathy it was especially desirable to have, if something were not done in the way of a remedy. Now, the clause he (Mr. Boord) proposed was declaratory of the intention of the Act of 1870; it was, as he had shown, in close agreement with the declared policy of the School Board, and he therefore trusted it would meet with the approval of the Committee.


said, it would be a very serious matter to embody this clause in the Bill. The proper judge in these cases was the magistrate, and nothing could check unnecessary prosecutions more than if the magistrate were to say that there were no grounds for them. Great caution on the part of the school boards he admitted to be necessary.


said, it was exceedingly desirable that those cases should be investigated with great care by the school boards before the parents were subjected to inconvenience and annoyance by being summoned; and if there was an impression in the country that school boards were acting with harshness to the parents, an appeal would probably be made to Parliament on the subject. But he was unwilling to hamper the action of the school boards as well as that of the new school attendance committees, by any direction of so stringent a character as this. Public opinion, he trusted, would exercise a salutary check on the conduct of school boards in this matter, if they had not used sufficient caution and care. He hoped it would get to the school boards through the ordinary channels, that both his right hon. Friend and himself were of opinion that great caution was necessary; but he must repeat what he had said in the House on the various occasions when attacks had been made on the action of school boards in the matter of compulsion, that he believed they had generally shown a rare discretion, delicacy, and judgment in the exercise of this difficult duty which Parliament had imposed upon them.


was sorry his noble Friend could not accept the clause. Looking at the way in which prosecutions had been conducted, not by the London School Board only, but by school boards in general, he could not think that the state of the question was altogether satisfactory. It should be remembered that the class of persons affected were those least able to protect themselves, and that all that was asked was that no prosecution should be ordered, without due consideration by at least two responsible persons. He suggested that his noble Friend might prepare a clause to meet the difficulty, and bring it up on Report.


said, that the London School Board, of which he had been a member, had invariably exercised the greatest care before summoning parents; and if upon investigation a clear case was not made out no further steps were taken. There were very few instances in which the magistrates had censured the school boards. The adoption of this clause would inflict injustice upon the school boards.


, on behalf of the poor in rural districts, urged the noble Lord to re-consider his decision, and to bring up a clause of a milder character on the Report than the one before the Committee, in order to protect parents from hardships, which were not at all unlikely to arise.


said, it gave him great satisfaction to hear the noble Lord refuse to accept the clause. The conclusion he had arrived at during the progress of these discussions was that, though there might be a few exceptions, the House, as a whole, was deeply anxious to secure the education of the mass of the population. But what, he asked, was likely to be the effect of a clause which threw doubt on the discretion with which school boards had exercised the powers intrusted to them? If cases which appeared hard did occur, they could only be cases where parents were neglecting the education of their children, and those were the very cases which the House had in view in framing this measure. He did hope that no such restriction would be imposed on the local authorities, but that, trusting to their discretion, the Committee would enable them to exercise without interference of any kind the compulsory powers which had already been granted. He concurred most cordially in the opinion that school boards and local authorities generally ought to deal tenderly with parents in inducing them to send their children to school. There might have been instances in which the feelings of parents had not been regarded in the spirit which the Committee would desire; but, upon the whole, the evils that could result from prosecutions to parents who neglected the education of their children were far less than those which might be apprehended from placing such a restriction as this upon the action of school authorities.


hoped the hon. Gentleman would divide the Committee on his clause. The beadles who enforced school attendance were the most bumptious of men, and there were many cases to his own knowledge in which there was no occasion whatever for taking out a summons. In his own borough every case brought before the magistrate cost 8s., the greater part of which had to be borne by the rates.


was unable to give an opinion as to whether the clause was quite sufficient to secure care in instituting prosecutions; but he thought hon. Members must all agree that it was very unfortunate when the prosecutions were instituted unnecessarily, and now it would be additionally unfortunate since persons might have to travel eight or ten miles or more to the petty sessions where the cases would be heard. There would be not only this hardship, but also the loss of a day's work. As to whether it would be desirable to have exactly the number of persons to investigate cases, he was scarcely prepared to give an opinion upon that point; but, at any rate, the investigation should be by a competent authority.


urged that the local authorities would not allow the Inspector to bring cases unnecessarily before the magistrate, because if they did they would be cast in costs.


said, he hoped the noble Lord would re-consider his deci- sion. By having a committee of two or three persons to investigate the cases beforehand the hands of the Inspector would be strengthened.


GURNEY suggested whether it would not be possible that the Education Department should issue a Minute requiring that more care should be taken than at present. Hon. Members all felt the almost indiscreet way in which in some districts these summonses had been issued, and there was nothing more likely to make school boards unpopular. It would be a very easy thing before proceedings were taken to get the signatures of two or three persons who had investigated the matter.


urged that it would be a very grave thing to produce the impression that the House of Commons thought the school boards had misused their power. It was very remarkable, considering what the difficulties were, how few unnecessary cases had been brought forward; and generally, when both sides had been heard, the school board had come well out of it. Before the Committee weighed down persons desirous of doing their duty with their disapproval there ought to be an inquiry by a Committee or Commission into the subject.


joined in the appeal which had been made to the noble Lord to see whether he could not on the Report bring up a clause which would prevent poor persons from being harassed by unnecessary prosecutions. No one could read the newspapers without seeing that cases of the greatest hardship had occurred.


said, he happened to be a member of the school board of Salford, and in that borough and in Manchester every case was investigated by members of the school board. If gentlemen undertook the duties of a school board they were bound to perform them.


said, he was a member of the school board for the town which he represented (Worcester), and that the greatest care was taken and every investigation made before parents were summoned before the magistrate.


believed that the mass of school boards took every care before taking out summonses. He did not think that the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Boord) intended to cast any slur on the school boards, but he felt sure that the clause would go much further in fact than was generally desired. He would before the Report consider the suggestion of his right hon. and learned Friend the Recorder (Mr. Russell Gurney), and see whether it would not be possible for the Department to do something in the moderate way which he had suggested to meet the wishes so largely expressed. If he could, he should be glad to do so; but he could give no positive pledge on the subject..


replying to the observations that had been made, said, he was afraid his anxiety to save the time of the Committee had led to an omission in his opening remarks. He was not amongst those who bore the school boards any ill-will, and he wished to disclaim any feeling of prejudice in bringing this matter forward. He believed the London School Board had done very good work, and would continue to do it in the future. All he wished to secure was that proper precautions should be taken to protect parents from hardship being inflicted through the indiscriminate exercise of a very stringent power. He thought he had shown that such precaution had not always been taken. In reply to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster), who had said that if this clause were passed, it would be necessary to prove in each case that there had been an investigation before it could be brought before the magistrate, he said that would no doubt be so; but he had in his mind a case that had been recently tried in which the magistrate took precisely that view of the existing law, and, on it being shown that no investigation by the members had taken place, dismissed the summons with costs against the school board. He agreed with the noble Lord that it would be unfortunate if the opinion gained ground that there had been recklessness in these matters, and it was chiefly on that account that he had proposed this clause. The hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. M'Arthur) opposite had said that it would be impossible to get three members together to do the work; but he would ask whether the due investigation of such cases was not part of the duty of a school board? The argument that it would be impossible to get three men together to perform so obviously essential a duty, was the weakest that had been produced, and, in reality, tended to show the need of the clause. In reference to the statement of the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Rowley Hill), he would only say that he wished the system that prevailed there was carried out universally. He was exceedingly sorry that his noble Friend had not seen his way to make any definite promise; and unless he could give an assurance that something would be done in the direction indicated by the clause, he (Mr. Boord) would feel compelled to press it to a division.


replied that he could not go a step further in regard to pledging himself in the matter than he had done, and that he thought his hon. Friend ought to have accepted the assurance already given that the question would be considered, and he would have another opportunity of bringing forward his Amendment, if he was not satisfied with his proposal, on the Report.


denied that he had said it was impossible to get three members together to do the duty referred to by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Boord); he had merely contended that in large districts like Lambeth, which covered an area of 11 square miles, and constituted one district, it would be impossible that cases occurring in all parts of that large area could be investigated by any committee.


said, he hoped that as the Vice President of the Council had promised to consider the subject the hon. Member for Greenwich would not press the clause at present. If the noble Lord did not do anything to meet his views, he could move the clause on the Report, substituting two for three.


begged to tender the thanks of the public and his own to the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Boord) for having brought forward this point. He thought it essential that some such provision should be made, and trusted that the Government would see their way to the adoption of a clause similar to that under discussion.


withdrew the clause, stating that he would re-introduce it, with some modification, on the Report.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

  1. Schedule 1. 1,138 words
  2. cc71-2
  3. Schedule 2. 322 words
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