HC Deb 17 March 1891 vol 351 cc1238-47

Resolutions [16th March] reported.

First four Resolutions [see pages 1089–1096] agreed to.

Fifth Resolution [see page 1096] read a second time.

*(5.15.) DR. CAMERON (Glasgow, College)

I rise to move the reduction of this amount by the nominal sum of £1,000 on the Vote to account which it embraces for Scotch Education. I do so for the purpose of obtaining from the Government an assurance that in the expenditure of this money they will take care that the control of Parliament over the finances of the nation shall not be set at naught, and that the law shall not be disregarded. I do so in consequence of a remarkable Report which has been made by the Auditor General on the Scotch Education Vote. According to the Education Act of 1870, which is stated by the Auditor General to be binding in Scotland, no school is eligible for the annual grant in which the ordinary payment for the scholar in respect of elementary education exceeds the sum of 9d. per week. A further definition in the Scotch Act excludes schools in which the major part of the education does not consist of elementary instruction, but instruction in Latin, Greek, mathematics, natural science, and generally the higher branches of knowledge, from being deemed to be primary schools, and enacts that they should be deemed to be higher class schools. Now the Auditor General explained in his Report that from certain circumstances that came under his notice he was led to suspect that a number of public schools in Scotland received a share of this education grant which did not come within the definition of primary schools for which the grant is intended. I believe that in some previous year the Auditor General brought the subject under the notice of the Committee upon Public Accounts. Friction has existed for some time between the Department of the Auditor General and the Scotch Office on the subject; but at all events, according to this Report, the matter has now been brought before Parliament, and is to be found set forth in the Appropriation Accounts. It appears that a stated case on the subject was laid before the English and Scotch law officers, and that on the 3rd of May last the opinion was pronounced by a majority of them to the effect that, though the average amount of fees paid afforded a guide for determining the scale of fees, it was a question to be determined in each particular instance by whether a large number of scholars did or did not pay more than 9d. a week. Immediately on this opinion of the Law Officers being placed before him, the Auditor General applied to the Scotch Office, and said that as a matter of fact was involved it would be necessary before he could pass the accounts that in many instances a joint investigation should be carried on between his own Department and the Scotch Office, and that the inquiry should be undertaken locally into the real facts of the case. The Scotch Office, however, refused to accede to this request. Later another request of the same kind was made to the Office, and on that occasion they acceded to it, under protest. But shortly afterwards the Office withdrew from their agreement to the proposal, and the matter was left standing where it was. The Auditor General has pointed out that by their withdrawal, as the Estimates have been prepared and his Report brought before Parliament, any possibility of investigation has been thrown over for a number of weeks or months, and the whole matter delayed for another year. Now, the Auditor General, although he was not able to get the facts of the case in a number of schools which he suspected, and where the returns were stigmatised by him as erroneous and misleading, examined for himself the prospectuses of a number of schools and the admissions and explanations sent up by them. In the cases put before him by the schools themselves he surcharged the grants in the case of 15 of them, and he said he could not pass grants to the extent of £12,000 odd in connection with a number of schools which in his view were not within the class of schools to which this grant in aid of primary education should be made. I know different views are held in this House as to whether it is desirable that those public School Board schools should be carried on in the style which the Auditor General refused to pass. The Auditor General tells us that in certain schools, of which he gives the prospectuses, a very efficient course of higher education is provided, with readings in the higher classics. I know many hon. Members consider that it is desirable this class of education should be encouraged from educational grants, while others hold a different opinion. I am not going into that question, how- ever. What I maintain is that it is a matter of Constitutional importance, when Parliament passes an Act prescribing the way in which certain money is to be expended, when the Government refer to their own Law Officers the interpretation of that Act of Parliament, and when it receives from them an explicit interpretation, that hon. Members should have a right to demand that the Government shall not go outside the law in giving away public money to purposes for which it has never been provided for by Parliament. To some of my Colleagues from Scotland it may not much matter if they get a little more out of the Imperial Treasury, but I do not regard the matter in that light at all. I know that some hon. Members from Scotland are so exclusively nationalist in their sympathies that if they could get an extra £15,000 out of the Treasury they would accept it with gratitude; but it must be remembered, in connection with this, that any unfair distribution of the ordinary grants to education in Scotland carries with it an unfair distribution of the extraordinary grant, which is limited in amount, and every school in Scotland not entitled to that grant which participates in it diminishes by that extent the amount divisible among the other schools legally entitled to participate. I have no desire to interfere with the discretion of the Committee on Public Accounts, or in any way to forestall its deliberations. My object in bringing forward this matter is a purely practical one. This is a Vote on Account, and it refers to money which will be distributed next year, and I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury whether he will give a pledge, if the House grants this £100,000 on account, that until the question is settled no portion of it shall be allocated in any case in which the Auditor General has any doubt as to the legality of the grant. If the contention of the Auditor General is correct, those payments are illegal, and it would require an Act of Parliament to set the matter right. What I contend is that while the law remains as it is it should be administered. If, on the other hand, it is disputed that the law is as laid down by the Auditor General on the dictum of the majority of the Scotch and English Law Officers of the Crown, then I contend that, pending an investigation of the matter by the Committee on Public Accounts, and pending the submission of this House of some remedial proposal by the Government, no portion of the money should be paid in grants with regard to the legality of which the Auditor General has any doubt. I ask the Treasury to give that assurance, and beg to move the reduction of the Vote.

Amendment proposed, to leave out "£3,917,003," and insert "£3,916,003:"—(Dr. Cameron.)

Question proposed, "That '£3,917,003' stand part of the Resolution."


The hon. Member may rest assured that the matter will be carefully considered by the Treasury. There is no Parliamentary work which is more carefully done than this, and the special attention of the Public Accounts Committee will be drawn to the point.

(5.32) MR. CALDWELL (Glasgow, St. Rollox)

The Accountant General has gone into elaborate detail to show that the School Board Returns are practically fallacious. The whole gist of the Report is that Returns are made which have the effect of deceiving him, and he asks that an officer of the Education Department and one from his own Department should be sent into the localities to inquire whether these Returns are correct or not. I venture to say that no Government Department would refuse such an appeal from the Accountant General; yet the Scotch Education Department refuse to assist in making such a local investigation. Why? Because they know that these Returns are fallacious, and that the Government have been defrauded by them. What interest can any Department of the Government have in refusing to make a local inquiry which would have no other effect than to show how the facts stand? There is no use in having an Accountant General at all if he is not to have the means of ascertaining whether the Returns presented to him are true or false. If it were only the Government that was being defrauded I do not suppose that any Scotch Member would say one word about it. It is not, however, a question in which the Government alone are concerned. In Glasgow the question assumes an important aspect. There the School Board says: "We have not got sufficient money from the Government to free all the compulsory standards, so that it is necessary to have certain fee-paying schools to make up the deficiency." In the case of the school at Lenzie the accommodation is for 560 children, and the average attendance is only 201. Why is that school more than half empty? It is on account of the school fees, which are so high that the children have to walk a mile and a half to go to the free school, and some of them find it cheaper to pay the railway fare to Glasgow than to attend the fee-paying school. It is, therefore, not merely a question of defrauding the Revenue, but one in which the people in the localities suffer. It is only those who can afford to pay exorbitant fees who can send their children to school in these localities. The refusal of the Scotch Education Department to accede to the Accountant General's request that a local investigation should take place, is due to the fact that they know perfectly well the effect would be to upset many of the Returns sent in, and to show that schools are receiving grants which they are not entitled to. I hope, therefore, whatever course the Scotch Education Department may have taken in the past, the Government will back up the Accountant General in this, that there is nothing to conceal, and that there is no reason why, if a fair inquiry is asked for, any obstacle should be imposed in the way of that inquiry.


The hon. Member is hardly well advised in referring to a question which is at present sub judice. There is no indisposition on the part of the Government to get at the true facts of the case, but it is not a matter of plain sailing. In the first place, it is not quite clear what set of facts it is necessary to have in order to ascertain whether a grant is earned and is payable by the Education Department or not. The wording of the Act is such that it gives rise to difference of opinion among the Law Officers, and a certain amount of consideration is required in order to arrive at a proper standard as to what school is and what is not entitled to receive the grant. One view is that a certain proportion of schools must pay less than 9d. before the school can receive the grant, but there are other competing views. Counter proposals were made in correspondence between the Education Department and the Accountant General, and no agreement was come to, but I have no doubt the merits of that difference will be stated before the Public Accounts Committee, who will form their own opinion. The question involves large public interests in the distribution of the grant, and deserves dispassionate consideration.

*(5.45.) SIR G. TREVELYAN (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I think from the view expressed just now by the Secretary to the Treasury, it is obvious that this is not the moment to enter into a discussion of the merits of this question, but I think the hon. Member for Glasgow deserves credit for having brought this matter forward, because so strong a Report has not been made by the Controller and Auditor General to the House of Commons on any other subject in any part of the Estimates. My hon. Friend has long been opposed to these fee-paying schools as a matter of public policy, and he asked the House of Commons clearly to understand that, so far as judgment has hitherto been passed on the question in concern, the result of this defect in public policy has been that considerable financial abuses had occurred. We understand from the Secretary to the Treasury that the whole question will be inquired into by the Public Accounts Committee, and that it will be seen whether the Scotch Education Department should have responded to the invitation of the Comptroller and Auditor General and whether the Public Accounts Committee wish them to respond to it now. I was not surprised to hear that the Treasury pay the greatest respect to the opinions of the Committee on Public Accounts, and that there is not the least probability, or even possibility, of money being paid on account of any Service of which the Committee may disapprove.


That is in the ordinary course.


Yes; in the ordinary course. Under the circumstances I must say I think my hon. Friend would do well to withdraw his Motion. I am, however, extremely glad he brought it forward, if for no other reason, because the other day a most important official of the Glasgow School Board declared that the whole thing was a mare's nest. I think the hon. Gentleman, as a Member of the House of Commons, is quite justified in calling attention to the fact that the Comptroller and Auditor General, a high officer of the House of Commons, has reported on this matter as the principal financial question of the year, and that the matter is not one to be regarded lightly.

(5.50.) MR. ANGUS SUTHERLAND (Sutherland)

As one who knows something about education, and the necessity for secondary education in Scotland, I am by no means sorry that the policy pursued by the Scotch Education Department has brought them into this difficulty. They tried to establish in connection with the education of Scotland a second grade system, under which there would have been odious distinction between classes of scholars attending the schools; and that was the origin of the difficulties in which they now find themselves. I trust that that is a policy which will be abandoned by the Scotch Education Department, and that they will revert to the ancient system which has existed in Scotland for centuries, under which there are no distinctions at all.

*(5.52.) MR. LENG (Dundee)

This controversy is of great interest to the School Boards who will be affected by the decision. In my constituency there is one school which alone receives a grant of £1,354, and it will be readily conceived that if this grant had been disallowed very serious inconvenience would have been caused to the School Board of Dundee. At the same time, I quite concur that this matter should be sifted. The School Boards have for some years past conducted their schools on the understanding that if the average fee does not exceed 9d. in the week the grants will be given. In Harris Academy, Dundee, there are 554 scholars paying more than 9d. a week; 196 paying exactly 9d.; 346 paying 8d.; and 108 paying 7d. per week. The fees above 9d. are stated to range from 10d. to 1s. 0½d. per week, while the reputed average fee is only 8.7d. Certainly the School Board in Dundee has conducted this school on the clear understanding with the Scotch Education Department that if they have an average under 9d. these grants would be given. Therefore, I think that whatever may be the decision as to strict legality, the inconvenience which will be caused by altogether withholding the grant should be avoided.

*(5.54.) MR. SINCLAIR (Falkirk &c)

I hope the hon. Member will withdraw his Motion; but, at the same time, I am not sorry—as other speakers have said—that the subject should have been brought forward. I should not have risen if some hon. Members had not taken it for granted that the feeling of Scotland is against these high fee schools. No doubt there is a feeling against them in some quarters, but it is by no means universal. These schools have done good work, and they continue to do good work. It must never be forgotten that our Scotch system of education is carried out under an Education. Act, and not an Elementary Education Act, as is the case in England. There' is no limit of fees in the original Scotch Act, but by an accident or slip of legisslation the 9d. limit, which is in the English Act, was introduced into the Scotch system. I trust the appeals which were made to the Government at the time when the fees were removed from the compulsory standards, to define for the future what should and what should not constitute the 9d. limit, will, in consequence of the present difficulty, be carefully reconsidered by them. I trust that during the present Session the Government will deal with this question by legislation.

(5.56.) MR. SYDNEY BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)

The point here is that a deliberate attempt has been made to deceive the Treasury and the Education Department in regard to the amount of fees charged in certain Board Schools, especially in Glasgow. The Lord Advocate just now said the case was not one of plain sailing, and that there is a good deal to be said on both sides. No doubt there is a good deal to be said on both sides as to the question of the average 9d. fee, and whether you should take it for the whole of the children or only for individual children; but what is charged by the Comptroller and Auditor General is that there has been a deliberate attempt made to evade the law and suppress the amount of fees that were being charged by false Returns and misrepresentation of the whole case. I hope the matter will be discussed fully by the Public Accounts Committee tomorrow. No doubt there will be a field day. I hope my hon. Friend will not divide the House, though it is the worst case ever mentioned in the Report of the Auditor General.

*(5.58.) MR. CRAWFORD (Lanark, N.B.)

I agree that the allegations that have been made against the action of some of the School Boards as to the making of these Returns are of a serious character; but that is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar is a Member of the Committee, as I am myself, and I am sure will agree with me in asking that these allegations should not at this stage be assumed by the House to have been proved. There will be extremely delicate questions which we shall have to consider in the Public Accounts Committee to-morrow, and I do not think we ought now to pronounce any judgment on them.

*(5.59.) DR. CAMERON

I never asked for the pronouncement of a judgment. All I asked of the Government was that, pending the decision of the matter, the Government should not use any of this money in this manner. We have received an assurance that the Government will give due weight to the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee, and will be guided by their Report. As, therefore, my object has been effected, I will not trouble the House to go to a Division.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Resolution agreed to.

Subsequent Resolution [see page 1176] agreed to.

Resolutions [March 16th] reported.