HC Deb 22 April 1887 vol 313 cc1673-87
MR. H. GARDNER (Essex, Saffron Walden),

who had on the Paper the following Notice of Motion which, by the Rules of the House, he was unable to move:— That this House is of opinion that steps should be at once taken to secure to Parliamentary Candidates the right of holding political meetings on convenient occasions, in all such rooms as belong to schools in receipt of Parliamentary Grants, said, that the object he had in view was to give the rural voters in county constituencies who had now such great power in their hands the opportunity of hearing both sides of the question at Parliamentary Elections. He did not propose that political meetings should be held in schoolrooms when there were other places available for the purpose; but there were villages, hamlets, and out-of-the-way places where the greater number of rural electors resided, and where there was no place of any description in which people could meet. In his own Division there were 80 villages, and in only five of them was there a place in which you could possibly hold a meeting. The majority of his constituents were agricultural labourers not having more than 12s. a-week, and it was impossible for them to go into towns as the richer electors could do to hear the candidates. He knew of a case in which an agricultural labourer walked seven or eight miles, after a hard day's work, in order to attend a political meeting. It was a great hardship that rural constituents should be put to so much inconvenience when schoolrooms receiving a Parliamentary grant were standing empty. If they refused to lend the schools in villages, the rural elector was denied the opportunity of listening to the political views of the candidate. He would also point out that the refusal for the granting of these schools was principally in the hands of the adherents of one political Party. He had no intention of making any attack on the clergy; but they could not shut their eyes to the fact that one of the lessons of the Election of 1885 was that the rural clergyman had got completely out of touch with his parishioners. In support of this view, he would refer hon. Members to a letter written to The Times on December 10, 1885, by the Bishop of Chichester, who thought that the result of the county poll ought to teach the lesson that the agricultural labourer justly resented his virtual degradation in the Church which was his own. It was, however, to this class that they practically left the regulation of the schools, and it was they who had the power of saying whether they should be used or not. Sometimes when the use of these schools was granted, the concession was surrounded with harassing conditions to the Liberal candidate. In many instances the schools were granted in a very one-sided fashion. They wore granted to the Tory candidate, and utterly denied to the Liberal candidate. As an illustration of the harassing conditions under which the use of schools was permitted, it was a fact that when the question of Disestablishment arose towards the end of the Election of 1885, clergyman laid it down as a condition that the Liberal candidate should not say a word on Dis- establishment, although the Tory candidate had been there before him and had spoken on that subject. He had taken the trouble to glean some information from his hon. Friends in regard to the refusal of the schools. In the Election of 1885 he found that out of 30 counties there had been an absolute refusal of these schools to the Liberal candidate in 24 of them. It might be said, however, that there were alternatives to the use of those schools. Political meetings might be held out-of-doors, in barns, tents, or in chapels. No doubt, this was true; but he reminded those who urged this view that Elections did not always occur in convenient seasons of the year, and that it was not always convenient to farmers to lend the use of their barns. Besides, there was not a large number of farmers who professed the Liberal faith, and when they saw the use of a school in receipt of Government aid refused to the Liberal candidate, they were not likely to be so generous as to offer the use of their barns to their political opponents. It was inconvenient to travel about a county constituency with a large tent, and many persons entertained religious scruples regarding the use of a chapel for secular purposes. They were, therefore, forced to recognize the necessity of using these schools for political meetings, and he held that the State, having granted money in support of these schools, had a right to devote these buildings to any useful purpose it chose. The principal precedent on which he based his case was the 6th section of the Ballot Act, which embodied the principles he had just expressed. He contended that the right of the State by that clause to demand the use of schoolrooms in receipt of Parliamentary grants for polling stations was founded upon the fact that the schools were supported by the money of the taxpayer. There must be some sort of appeal or arbitration when questions arose in regard to the use of the schoolrooms for these purposes. He did not wish the Committee of Privy Council on Education to be the arbitrators in those cases; but as the matter was a purely local one, he should be inclined to put the responsibility on the Local Authorities, to which it was proposed to confide powers connected with the provision of allotments for labourers and other functions. It might be said that the schools ought to be employed for educational purposes only. But he contended that the State, which contributed towards their support, was entitled to insist that they should be used for any other purpose beneficial to the neighbourhood in which they were situated. On the other hand, he asked to what greater educational use could the schools be put than being made to subserve the political education of the newly-enfranchised agricultural labourers? He maintained that it would be unwise and imprudent to place any hindrance in the way of the masses acquiring the instruction which would enable them to form an accurate judgment on the political questions of the day.

MR. JAMES ELLIS (Leicestershire, Bosworth)

said, he felt bound to express his approval of, and join in, the recommendation of the hon. Member for the Saffron Walden Division of Essex (Mr. H. Gardner). Representing a largo County Division he (Mr. J. Ellis) could confirm what his hon. Friend had said as to the great inconvenience arising from the refusal of the village schoolroom as a place in which to hold Liberal political meetings. On the other hand, he knew of many cases in which the use of the school was allowed to both political Parties, and where the clergyman of the parish very wisely took the chair alike at Liberal and Conservative meetings, conducing thereby very largely to the orderly character of the meetings; and, though in most cases his political opinions were Conservative, he lost nothing by taking the position. In considering the Education Question, many thought the compromise made by Mr. Forster was made too much in the interest of the Church; but they were willing, for the sake of the education of the people, to subscribe to the schools. In his business connection, he (Mr. J. Ellis) subscribed to five village schools, and was, though a Nonconformist, on the managing committee of two of them. Acting thus, with many others, for the common good, he could not but feel the unfairness of using the school for the convenience of one political section only. In many cases the only choice lay between, holding the meeting in the school or in the large clubroom of the public-house, and to hold a meeting at a public-house was extremely undesirable, He did not believe for a moment there would be any harm in adopting the Resolution. He should like to see all schools which received a Government grant made the recognized meeting place for the villagers when they wished to assemble for any reasonable purpose. He would not have the room given up for entertainments; but it should be a recognized thing that the committee should allow the use of the school as a village hall, instead of compelling the villagers to have recourse to the clubroom of the public-house. He trusted the House would accept the view of his hon. Friend, and he could not believe that anyone would wish that only one side should have the advantage of putting its view forward in the rural districts, nor did he think the Conservative cause would gain by the use of the power by its paritzans of denying the Liberal candidate a hearing.

BARON DIMSDALE (Herts, Hitchin)

said, so far as he knew the schoolhouses were never refused to him or to his opponents. He believed there was no real difficulty; but he was not prepared to interfere with the discretion of the local managers, nor did he accept the principle that schools provided out of the rates for educational purposes could be demanded for any purpose that was required. If they granted that, the privilege would not long be con-fined to Parliamentary Elections, and it would probably lead to endless difficulty.

SIR JOHN SWINBURNE (Staffordshire, Lichfield)

said, his constituency extended 20 miles each way, and on one occasion he proposed to hold a meeting in a village at the extreme point of his Division. The landlord, who bears a name well known and respected in this House, owned the whole village, including the school-house, and he declined to give the use of the school unless he received a guarantee that nothing should be said touching the Disestablishment of the Church of England. He (Sir John Swinburne) declined to give such a guarantee; he was refused the use of the school-house, and he was never able to hold a meeting in that neighbourhood. He could not see why this privilege of using the schools should be denied to either side.

MR. PICTON (Leicester)

said, he un-stood that the object of the Motion be- fore the House was to exclude political distinctions as regards the use of the schools. He thought it would be generally admitted that the managers of schools which received grants from the State should give the same advantage to one political Party as they might have given to another. He could not imagine that hon. Members on the other side would object to that view. As to the danger of any disturbance occurring, he thought that objection had been thoroughly met by the argument that inasmuch as the school had been already granted with safety to one political Party there would be no danger if it were used by the other political Party. There was also a further argument against this objection, and that was that if any damage were done to the school a guarantee should be given that the damage should be made good. But if he quite endorsed, from the political point of view, the Resolution moved by his hon. Friend the Member for the Saffron Walden Division of Essex (Mr. H. Gardner), on the other hand, from an educational point of view, he must allow that he felt some difficulty. The Resolution, as it stood, would go so far as to require all managers, including all the school boards, whether in urban or rural districts, to allow the use of their schools for political meetings. Now, it was a literal fact that just in proportion as the buildings were well adapted for school purposes, and furnished to that end, just in that degree were they ill-adapted for public meetings. Take, for instance, the buildings of the School Board for London. If this Resolution were to pass, the buildings of the School Board for London, which were for the most part divided into class rooms, could be utilized for the holding of political meetings. In some of these schools there were central halls, and buildings of this character had been found eminently adapted for public meetings. But, on the other hand, there were schools without central halls, and where that was the case the buildings would not be suitable for political discussions. A largo meeting in suck buildings would be very inconvenient. He confessed, also, there was some difficulty in supporting the Resolution precisely as it stood, because, whether the school was suitable for political meetings or not, the Resolution would compel its use. It had been argued that a discre- tion should be allowed in the granting of the school. But he contended that if the school was to be used for political meetings at all it should be given to one side as well as the other. Any objection against giving a school to the Liberal Party should also be valid against the Conservative Party. There should be fair play to both sides; and so far as that was sought by the Mover of the Resolution he (Mr. Picton) would be prepared to join his hon. Friend in the Division Lobby.

VISCOUNT CRANBORNE (Lancashire, N.E., Darwen)

said, he thought that managers of schools were ill-advised if they refused the use of their schools to both political Parties, and did not treat both equally alike. He had little doubt what the effect of their doing so would be. The school grant did not give a right to control the use of buildings, many of which had been built and were largely supported by private funds. If political meetings were to be regarded as educational, Inspectors would have to attend them to judge of their character. He had been present at many meetings which could not be properly described as having anything educational about them. He knew a village hall which had a licence for dancing and entertainments; it had been built by one political Party for political objects; and was it to be said that because it received a licence from the State it was therefore to be available for all political meetings? He could not admit that educational grants gave the State the right to interfere with anything but the efficient conduct of the school receiving them. There would be an insurmountable difficulty to the working of the Resolution in the appointment of a body to decide what meetings ought to be allowed in a schoolroom. Meetings could not be limited to election times; indeed, political education was carried on between elections rather than at election times, when speakers were apt to indulge in exaggerations which did not promote political education. How was it to be determined what wore or were not political meetings? He looked forward to the time when the Primrose League would he able to demand the use of any public elementary school in the country for holding a concert three times a-week for the purposes of political education. [Laughter.] Well, there was a Ladies' Liberal League, which had signalized itself in a marked manner last night: and was it to be allowed to have a concert three times a-week in all the Church schools? He had attended a large number of meetings, which were partly concerts and partly political meetings, and he did not know whether one political speech constituted a political meeting or not. The position was a sound one that managers must have the entire discretion as to the use that was to be made of school buildings.

MR. QUILTER (Suffolk, S.)

said, that, during his candidature in Suffolk, he had had to stand hours in the rain because of the refusal of schoolrooms for his meetings. At a village in the centre of the property of the Leader of the House (Mr. W. H. Smith) the schoolroom had been with difficulty hired from the school board; but the local clergyman refused them the use of the oil lamps, so that they were left in darkness. In another case, a letter was addressed by a clergyman to his opponent, beseeching him to visit a benighted district, and offering him the use of the schoolroom; but when he (Mr. Quilter) applied to the same clergyman for the use of the schoolroom, he received a peremptory refusal, accompanied by the expression of an opinion that the schoolroom should not be used for any Party purposes whatever. Both Parties were not treated with the equality recommended by the noble Viscount opposite (Viscount Cranborne), and in many districts schoolrooms were the only rooms in which meetings could be held.

SIR RICHARD TEMPLE (Worcester, Evesham)

said, it was most inexpedient that the London School Board should be compelled to grant the use of its schoolrooms for political meetings. He said this, as he believed, in agreement with what had fallen from the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Picton). He submitted that voluntary schools were not made public property because they received money from the Government under the system of payment by results. These school buildings had been built with private money, and were maintained by private resources. The disposal of them should be arranged by the founders, their heirs, assigns, or representatives. Those who were left in charge of the buildings might fairly be trusted to exercise their judgment and discretion as to whether public meetings should be held therein or not. But he earnestly deprecated any compulsion being applied to them, which would certainly be distressful and unpopular. It would be unwise to discourage them by such means, because upon their care, vigilance and sympathetic supervision, the success of these institutions depended.

MR. BARTLEY (Islington, N.)

said, he thought it would be very undesirable to allow schools to become the centres of political work at elections. As an educationalist, he was not in favour of schools being used in any sort of way in connection with politics.

MR. ILLING WORTH (Bradford, W.)

said, that the question of the relationship of these schools to the State was settled by the statement of his hon. Friend (Mr. H. Gardner), that Parliament had set them aside during election times for the purposes of the Ballot. What was the fact with regard to public meetings? In every nine cases out of ten these so-called national schools were used for Conservative purposes, and refused to the opposite Party. In towns like Bradford, a Division of which he represented, the school board gave the greatest facilities to all political Parties, and simply made a small charge to cover the expenses involved in allowing the schools to be used for meetings; and now that there had been an extension of the suffrage, there was a new reason why they should insist upon the use of national schoolrooms by all Parties. In the country districts, however, the case was different. In some rural constituencies there were no public rooms except the schools, and the candidate and electors were sometimes forced to meet in the cold outside, on account of the dog-in-the-manger policy of managers. In half the parishes of this country the schools were not available except to one political Party. The land belonged to a comparatively few gentlemen, and they had it in their power to prevent the erection of buildings. Therefore, it was all the more necessary that the schools should be available. He thought his hon. Friend had done the community good service by bringing forward this matter. He (Mr. Illingworth) contended that every school which received a State grant should be equally available to all Parties. The schools were national schools, and that they should not, therefore, be set apart for the use of only one of the political Parties of the State.

MR. F. S. STEVENSON (Suffolk, Eye)

said, that, speaking for a large agricultural Division, he begged to give his hearty support to his hon. Friend. It could not be disputed that political meetings in small country parishes were of great educational value, as they led people to discuss public matters.


said, that this could be only regarded as an academic discussion, as no Division could be taken on the question. It had been discovered by hon. Members opposite that they were under special disadvantages as regarded meetings in rural districts. He frankly and freely admitted that that was not a circumstance at which he rejoiced. In politics, as in other things, fair play was a jewel, and he did not defend those who allowed the school rooms under their control to be used by one Party, and denied the use of them to another Party. What he objected to in the Resolution, however, was the extreme vagueness of its wording. He thought there were excellent reasons for that vagueness, because the more closely you went into the matter the more dangerous did it appear to make compulsory the granting of schoolrooms for the purpose. The Education Department had interfered very little in this question, except so far as to indicate that schools, at all events, should be neutral ground with regard to politics. Board schools were the property of the ratepayers, and with respect to them the Education Department said it did not rest with the Department to determine for what purposes other than education School Boards might allow the schools to be used; and if any ratepayer objected to what was done, his objection was to be decided by a Court of Law. Voluntary schools, on the other hand, were essentially, and to a great extent, private property; and, therefore, the Education Department did not indicate to the managers what their wishes might be. He had said that the wording of the Resolution was vague. What was the definition of a "Parliamentary candidate?" [An hon. MEMBER: See the Ballot Act.] An hon. Gentleman said it was defined in the Ballot Act. But it was well known that when the Corrupt Practices Act was under discussion, a lawyer of great acumen, the Attorney General of the day, having been challenged again and again as to when, as far as the Penal Clauses of the Act were concerned, a candidature began, could not answer the question; nor was any other legal mind able to answer it. If it was impossible to say when a candidature began, what the hon. Gentleman (Mr. H. Gardner) proposed would lead to all manner of disputes. Nothing could be more unjust to managers than to make those schools the arena of constant Party strife and conflict. Again, how were they to define what "a political meeting" was? A meeting to advocate temperance principles, or a meeting of the Salvation Army, might drift into a political meeting. Then, what on earth was "a convenient occasion?" That would be defined in one way by the candidate, and in another by the school manager. His hon. Friend said that it could be decided by the Local Authority, or by arbitration. It would come, then, to this—that if any lecturer or chance passer-by chose to call himself a candidate, it would be in his power to throw the district into all kinds of strife. The majority of the House would hardly be prepared to accept proposals of that kind. He was sure it was the wish of all Parties that political elections should be conducted as peacefully as possible, and he therefore objected to the Resolution on this ground, if on no other, that it would foment and encourage Party strife. The hon. Gentleman indicated that because Parliamentary grants were given, therefore the buildings were pro tanto, to the amount of the grant, public property. He disputed that proposition poto cœlo. If the hon. Member looked carefully at the discussion which took place on the Ballot Act, he would find that no indication was given by Mr. Forster at that time, that polling at elections should take place in those schools on account of these grants. Parliament, at that time, viewed with extreme jealousy any extension of the use of the schools which could injure the educational purpose for which they were designed. In this connection, he read the 17th clause of the Ballot Act in regard to schools in Ireland, and maintained that the proposal to compulsorily grant the use of voluntary schools for election purposes throughout the year would be inflicting a hardship on the owners of private buildings, many of which stood within private grounds. Therefore, he thought that the proposal in every respect would be a hazardous one and harmful not only to the cause of education, but to the peace and good order of the neighbourhood, and unjust as regarded schools which might be called private buildings.


said, that the House would agree with the right hon. Gentleman in his commendation of the moderation with which his hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Gardner) had brought this subject forward. He had made out his case. In many places, the refusal of the schoolroom for the purposes of a meeting prevented the holding of the meeting unless in the open air. If a room was available and suitable for a meeting of one political Party, surely it ought to be equally available and suitable for the opposite Party. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir William Hart-Dyke) had contended that the hon. Member (Mr. H. Gardner) was not justified in arguing that the fact that schools received grants from the State was a reason why they should be used for public purposes. But Mr. Forster had used words in the House to the effect that it was no more than fair that buildings which were in receipt of grants and supported by the school pence of the locality should be used for certain public purposes for which they might be required. The right hon. Gentleman gave the go-by to the point that these schools were used under the Ballot Act. All they asked was, that the same principle should be recognized in other election purposes. He called attention to the fact that the original proposition of Mr. Forster in 1871, when he first brought in the Ballot Bill, was that it should rest with the managers to say whether or not the school should be used. It was owing to the action of a Member of the present Cabinet, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bristol (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) that the clause was made compulsory. The House of Lords in 1872 struck the words out; and when the Bill came back Mr. Forster proposed to agree with the Lords' Amendment. The right hon. Member for West Bristol, however, protested against that, and succeeded in re-inserting the words. He doubted whether the right hon. Gentleman opposite was, in principle, greatly opposed to the proposal of his hon. Friend; and if a Bill were brought in to carry it into effect, provisions could easily be framed for meeting the objections of detail which had been raised. The right hon. Gentleman had laid down the doctrine that the voluntary schools were private property; but he would hardly be prepared, he (Sir Ughtred Kay-Shuttleworth) thought, to press that doctrine to extreme lengths, particularly after the passing of the Ballot Act. Again, there would be no great practical difficulty in defining who was a candidate. No doubt, if the proposal was adopted, it would be necessary to restrict the use of the school room to bonâ fide public meetings, and not to let it extend to committee meetings. Again, the schoolroom should not be used on evenings when the evening school usually met. And, further, the proposal might be limited to Parliamentary Elections. In towns, where other halls were available for meetings, it would not be necessary to do more than require that if a school were used at all for political meetings, it should open to both sides. When the use of the schoolrooms for the meetings of one side did not interfere with education, surely it was only fair and reasonable that they should be equally available for the meetings of the other side. He would not advocate the proposal if he thought that this use of schools would interfere with their educational usefulness. But believing that such facilities for meetings would promote political education, he should have been glad, if his hon. Friend had been able to go to a Division, to vote with him.

MR. DE LISLE (Leicestershire, Mid)

said, that he would like to say a few words upon this subject of using elementary schools for public or Party gatherings. It had been argued by hon. Gentlemen opposite that the public had a right to the use of schools receiving grants for the purpose of holding political meetings, and it was denied that there was any right of private property in such schools. He objected to that view of the matter altogether. There were three distinct categories of schools. The Board Schools, which were public or ratepayers property; the Church schools, which belonged to the Established Church, which was in a very true sense nationalized three centuries ago; but the schools of the Roman Catholics and other Nonconformist Bodies were really their own private property. He knew, from his own knowledge, that the Roman Catholic schools in his district were owned by his own family, and were, in fact, part of their private property. In the same way, the Roman Catholics generally, the Wesleyans, and the Baptist Nonconformists were the owners, the private owners, of their own elementary schools; and therefore they did not stand on the same ground as other schools referred to by the hon. Gentleman who had brought the subject before the House. He (Mr. De Lisle) admitted that the case was somewhat different in regard to the schools of the Established Church, which took up a middle position between the ratepayers' schools and voluntary schools, properly so called. Indeed, those schools were claimed as national property, though there were voluntary Church schools that wore, in reality, private property. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir Ughtred Kay-Shuttleworth) stated that the managers of denominational schools accepted grants and school fees, and thereby gave up their private rights in their schools. He (Mr. De Lisle) took quite a different view. The Parliamentary grants were made in order that the schools might be kept up to a certain standard of efficiency; and so long as the schools were kept efficient, and did all that the Government Inspectors expected them to do in return for the Parliamentary grant, he maintained that the State had no ground to claim further rights against private property in elementary schools beyond the efficiency stipulated for. Therefore he agreed with his noble Friend (Viscount Cranborne), that the ground set up by hon. Gentlemen opposite was meretricious, because it ignored the rights of property. After long struggles and trying times, the voluntary schools had been got into a state of prosperity, and it would be hard to expect the Nonconformists to give up their rights in such schools. He, for one, should oppose such a proposal as that brought before the House by the hon. Member. The rights of independent bodies, strictly so-called, were ignored in the present Resolution; and he thanked his right hon. Friend the Vice President of the Education Department (Sir William Hart-Dyke) for the able way in which he had defended the rights of the voluntary schools.