HC Deb 26 February 1897 vol 46 cc1283-95

13. Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £153,044, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1897, for Public Education in England and Wales.

*MR. F. A. CHANNING (Northampton, E.)

wished to draw attention to the amount assigned to School Boards under Section 97 of the Education Act. The amount was £19,680. It seemed to him that that sum was inadequate to meet the undertaking given to School Boards by the Education Department under the Circular of 1881. According to. Return obtained by the right hon. Member for Rotherham, the total amount due last year to School Boards in the country under Section 97 was in England £27,523, and in Wales £7,192, making a total of £34,715. The Vote passed last year for this item was only £26,400. That left a deficit to be made good by Supplementary Estimate of £8,315 on the year. The Circular of the Department of 1881 gave an undertaking to School Boards that they should be entitled to a grant under Section 97, not only for the current year, but also for the year immediately preceding. He found that the amount of unclaimed grant for last year under the Section in question was, in England £10,388, and in Wales £4,334, or rather more than half the grant due in the Principality. The total of unclaimed grants for last year, therefore, was £14,722. The payment, therefore, of these grants for the second year, under the Circular, together with the deficit of £8,315 on last year, made up a total of nearly £4,000 greater than appeared in the Supplementary Estimate. That was the first point on which, he wished for an explanation. Then there was the further point—that the amount of unclaimed grant was a minimum amount. It was probable that other School Boards had come on the list for these grants, so that the amount might be still greater. It had been the policy of the Department to keep the School Boards directly concerned in the dark about it. The subject, he might say here, was not at all one of a party character, for successive Vice Presidents of the Council of both parties had pursued the same course. No information was given to those necessitous School Boards that they were entitled to claim the money. He contended that Section 97 of the Act imposed no time limit whatever in respect to this grant. According to the wording of that section, any School Board which could establish the fact that. 3d. rate on their assessment would not produce 7s. 6d. per head of the children in average attendance, was entitled to the grant to have that amount made up, and as the section laid down no time limit the Boards could claim it for any past year. Since the matter was discussed last year a good many claims had been sent in to the Department based upon this view of Section 97, and the Department were asked to take the question into consideration. The Vice President dealt with it in a frank spirit last Session, and admitted that the circular of 1881 did not constitute a statutory bar to the claims for arrears—that if a School Board could show a legal claim the circular would be of no value to set aside that claim. Well, a number of those claims having been sent in, the Department consulted the Law Officers of the Crown, and afterwards addressed a letter to the School Boards informing them that the Law Officers had advised the Department that such claims "should not be entertained." Very considerable importance might attach to the wording of that legal opinion, and he invited the Vice President to give the Committee some further explanation as to its precise meaning. He was placed at some disadvantage by the discussion taking place on that day, because he had a question on the Paper next week, asking the right hon. Gentleman for some explanation of a case relating to a particular School Board, the Sutton-in-Ash-field Board, in which the terms of the Circular of 1881 were set aside by the Department, and in which the Department assigned to the Board in question, not only the amount due under the section for the current year, and for the school year immediately preceding, but also the arrears for a third year. In this instance, therefore, the Department admitted the principle and the right of claim by the School Board. In the particular case to which he referred, the School Board, as he understood, became aware of their ability to make the claim under Section 97. They sent in their claim for arrears, and, as he was informed, the officials of the Education Department replied that the circular of 1881 barreil all such claims, and that, therefore, the Department was not legally in a position to entertain any claim except that for the current year. The School Board thereupon drew the attention of the Department to the wording of the Act, and to their position as a necessitous School Board, as deputation from the Board then waited on the Department at Whitehall in 1885. And, finally, the Department said that, after considering the case, they would admit the arrears claim of the Board for a third year, the three years being 1883, 1884, and 1885. Now the matter was one of importance to a large number of people in many parts of the country. The total amount of such arrears claimed by the poor School Boards concerned was not small, and, supposing the opinion given by the Law Officers of the Crown was not so clear and decided as to constitute an absolute bar to the claims, he thought those School Boards were entitled, as a matter of right, to the generous consideration of the Department. ["Hear, hear!"] They had been practically kept in the dark, as he had said, with respect to the claims, and there was a large sum now fairly due to them. Even if the claims for arrears could not be recognised by the Department in view of the opinion expressed by the Law Officers, still he urged that the position of the School Board in question constituted, under the circumstances, a strong reason for the Department dealing with them in a broad and generous spirit. ["Hear, hear!"] He had quoted one instance in a which the Department had recognised the claim for the arrears, and he saw no reason why the same consideration could not be extended to School Boards in many other necessitous districts. He begged to-move the reduction which stood in his name.


said that, the promises contained in the circular of 1881 would be fulfilled to the letter, and every Board School would receive the amount to which it was entitled. The hon. Member seemed to think that the Estimate of £19,680 would prove to be too small to meet the claims of the School Boards, but he would point out that the Estimates had been carefully prepared by officials of experience, and it was believed that the sum asked for would meet all such claims as would mature and become payable before March 31 next, and that was all they had to do in those Supplementary Estimates. With regard to arrears, that was not a question for him, but rather for the House of Commons and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Committee of Council had no jurisdiction at all. The Committee of Council had intrusted to them by Parliament certain sums of money, and they were bound to pay them according to law. When they were in doubt as to the payments they ought to make, they fortified themselves with the opinion of the legal advisers of the Government. In this particular matter the Committee of Council had consulted the Law Officers of the Crown, and, as the result of the advice which they had received, they came to the decision that they could not entertain applications from necessitous Board Schools for grants beyond the current year and the preceding year. Of course, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer saw fit to put on the Estimates a sum of money for paying all the arrears, it would be the duty of the Committee of Council to make the payments accordingly; but, as the case now stood, they were not able to pay out of the sums voted for the current year more than the grant for the current year and the arrears for the year preceding. The right hon. Member referred to the case of the School Board of Sutton-in-Ashfield, where two years' arrears were paid. He thought that must have been a payment made by. Liberal Government, because he did not think such a payment was ever made in his time. If the hon. Member would put a Question down for next week, he would answer it, and if there were any particular reasons why Sutton-in-Ashfield was treated different to other places, he should be glad to give him an explanation. So far as the Government was at present advised, while they would fulfil to the letter the engagements of 1881, and while they would ask Parliament in the coming year for sufficient provision to meet the case of all School Boards which applied for the arrears to which under the circular of 1881 they were entitled, they considered that the provision which was now being asked for was ample to fulfil those obligations, and he hoped, therefore, the Committee would vote that sum.

MR. HERBERT LEWIS (Flint Boroughs)

said the statement of the right hon. Gentleman that this was a question for the House of Commons and the Chancellor of the Exchequer was a most important one. He would venture to ask the House to consider it very carefully, because it affected the interests of a very large number of Boards of the poorest character all over the county. He certainly thought this was a case in which sentiments of equity ought to prevail, and if the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown precluded the Committee of Council from dealing with this matter according to an equitable view of the case, then the House of Commons, as the right hon. Gentleman had himself said, could take the matter into its own hands. He could not believe that the Government would, at a time like the present, refuse such a reasonable request as was now made. He felt a special interest in this question, because a very large proportion of these arrears were, unfortunately, due to the School Boards in Wales. He trusted the right hon. Gentleman would, on that ground, bring the weight of his influence to bear on the Chancellor of the Exchequer in order to have these grants made. If the Government declined to take this course, he hoped the House would take an independent view of the matter.

MR. SYDNEY BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)

said he was sorry to hear the somewhat uncompromising line which the Vice President had taken up in this matter, because he was sure there was no desire on either side of the House to make any party capital out of the subject. He hoped that the Vice President would, on looking at this matter more carefully, see his way to make some suggestion to the House by which these poor districts might be able to claim the money to which they were unquestionably legally entitled. He understood the position the Vice President took up was that the Law Officers had advised that the claims beyond the current year and the year before were not legal. He could not say, judging by the terms of the circular letter, that the opinion expressed by the Law Officers was a very strong one, and he thought that, considering that public attention had been drawn to the matter, and that there were now a considerable number of these claims, they might fairly ask the Vice President to give his further and special attention to it, and see if the decision the Law Officers had arrived at might not be modified or altered. If it was not modified or altered, then they might press the Vice President, to see whether, by legislation, or in some other way, he could not come to some just and satisfactory solution of this matter. If the arrears were paid beyond the current year and the past year in one case, it was done either legally or illegally. He could not think for a moment that a Vice President, whether he was. Conservative or Liberal Vice President, would commit an injustice, and if it was an illegality, it ought not to be permitted. It must be assumed that the Committee of Council, since they took legal advice, acted in a proper and legal manner; but if they were able, in the case of a single school, to give arrears beyond the past year, then it was clear that, under certain circumstances, they could do so in other cases. If, when the Vice-President came to consider the matter, he found that in one case arrears had been granted, that would go far to destroy the value of the legal opinion on the ratepayers' claim. The right hon. Gentleman would, he hoped, deal with this matter in a just, and even generous, spirit. The point of the case was, that it was not brought to the knowledge of these districts that they were entitled to this money, and there ought not to be any legal quibble in the way of their obtaining the grant.

*MR. CARVELL WILLIAMS (Notts,) Mansfield

did not think the Education Department came out very handsomely in the discussion of this question. It appeared that the School Board were entitled to the money from the Education Department, but were kept in ignorance of the fact, and when, later, the Boards made the discovery, the Department said that, though the ratepayers of a few years ago were entitled to receive it, the ratepayers of the present day were not. The facts being what they were, and especially if the statement made in regard to the school at Sutton-in-Ashfield was correct, then the Department might well strain a point in favour of the schools. He hoped that two assurances would be forthcoming, first, that the Sutton-in-Ashfield case would be inquired into, and, if the facts in regard to it had been correctly stated, a similar course would now be pursued; and secondly, that in coming legislative proposals on behalf of Board Schools this matter would be satisfactorily dealt with. He did not think it was becoming in a great Department to do anything which bore the appearance of sharp practice, and this term might, he thought, be applied to the way in which this matter had been dealt with.


said the Committee had been told that an opinion had been given by the law officials, but the right hon. Gentleman did not convey to the Committee the exact terms of that opinion, and this, he thought, should be done. The question was, whether School Boards were entitled to these arrears or not, and upon this the Committee were entitled to some guidance. He called the attention of the Committee to the section under which the claim was made. When. School Board satisfied the Education Department that certain conditions obtained, such School Board was to be entitled to this particular grant. Thus the legal claim was established; and, he supposed, a School Board could, within the year, sue the Department or the Treasury for the amount. Was that so or not? The words were specific—"shall be entitled"—and if it was as legal obligation at all on the part of the Treasury or the Education Department, then, certainly two years was not the limit of the claim, the Statute of Limitations allowed six years. No statute imposed a limit of two years. The Committee were entitled to know what specifically was the opinion given by the legal advisers of the Department. It was not a case of a claim against the Crown by a litigant; it was the claim of a certain district to a certain sum of money under a statute, and in such a case, and on the public service, the Committee should know exactly what the opinion was. It might save the locality from indulging in litigation against a powerful Department, having at command the resources of the State. Such litigation might be crushing on a locality in which, perhaps, a shilling rate meant only a few hundred pounds. In the public interest he asked the right hon. Gentleman if he was prepared to lay the opinion of the Law Officers on the Table?


could not undertake to lay on the Table the opinion of the Law Officers. It was the universal custom, as he knew, having been. Law Officer himself, not to make these opinions public. Why it should be he did not know. In other countries it was not so. In the United States he believed the opinions of law officers were published. In this country it was never done; and it was not for him to act counter to the universal custom.

MR. SAMUEL EVANS, (Glamorgan, Mid)

on looking at the section of the Act, did not come to the conclusion at which the Law Officers arrived. Notwithstanding that precedents were against the publication of Law Officers' opinions, the Committee were entitled to ask the grounds upon which the opinion was given. It was plain that the proviso had been tacked on in Committee, and did not touch the first part of the section at all. There was nothing in the proviso to imply any limitation for any term of years. He invited the right hon. Gentleman to inform the Committee what his view of the section was, just as if there had been no Law Officers' opinion. The right hon. Gentleman had in view the interest of the Committee of Council, and he was perfectly certain the Committee of Council and the right hon. Gentleman would desire to pay these arrears, if allowed to do so by law. At the present time especially he should think they would be anxious to do so, for they were proposing to assist some classes of schools to a surprising degree. He did not think that the universal practice prevented the right hon. Gentleman from stating the grounds on which the opinion of the Law Officers was given. They constantly gave legal opinions to Members, but perhaps they were on a different footing to opinions given to the Government. There must be some remedy for the recovery of these arrears: the limitation of the recovery must be clearly expressed or necessarily implied from the provisions of the Act itself. The reason he asked the right hon. Gentleman to state his opinion was, that he believed the proper form for. School Board to adopt for recovery would be by Petition of Right to the Crown; and, no doubt, a School Board would be guided, in a large measure, by the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman.


suggested that the Vice President of the Committee of Council should take the opinion of all his colleagues on the point, and call them together to give it. ["Hear, hear!" and laughter.]

MR. H. J. WILSON (York, W.R., Holmfirth)

pointed out that, though the ratepayers changed, the School Board was a continuing body. He hoped the Attorney General would tell them why it should be lawful to recover one year's arrears and be illegal to go beyond it.

MR. COURTENAY WARNER (Stafford, Lichfield)

said there had been a hard case at Tamworth, where the School Board lost one year's arrears through the Education Department not making up its mind. When the Board tried to recover it subsequently they found they could not do so.


said that during the time he had had the privilege of holding the office he did there had not been the slightest difference of opinion as to the production of the opinions of the Law Officers. Under no circumstances had they been produced unless it was thought some public purpose would be served. He had heard Mr. Gladstone on more than one occasion refuse to produce the opinions of his Law Officers, and it would be absolutely impossible for the Law Officers to fulfil their duty of advising the Government in confidential matters if their opinions could be produced. The Vice President of the Council had been. Law Officer himself and knew what was the rule. Coming to the other point raised, no one could read Section 97 without coming to the distinct opinion that it was intended that the grants should be annual grants in respect of annual expenditure, and that School Boards could not be allowed to claim several years' arrears which, for their convenience, they had accumulated. The condition as "to the satisfaction of the Education Department" was intended to enable the Department to make reasonable and proper rules and enable School Boards to show that contributions to proper annual charges only were being asked for.


asked whether the Circular of the Education Department in 1881, promising a second year's arrears, was not a departure from the legal doctrine which the Attorney General had laid down?


said he had carefully considered the Circular referred to. Prior to December 1881, there was not the strictness in regard to the matter that there ought to have been, and the Department, in the reasonable and proper exercise of its rights, laid down the Regulations which had been in force ever since.


submitted that there was no insuperable difficulty in the way of the Department issuing. Circular tomorrow, saying that owing to the circumstances they would consider the arrears not only for the immediately preceding year, but for the two or three previous years. The intention of Parliament clearly was that poor districts should have these sums of money allotted to them for the provision of school buildings, clearing off the sinking funds, and meeting all the necessities of education. There was a poor village in his own divison where agricultural land had been going down in a value, while the school rate had grown up to 1s. 11d. in the pound. That School Board had been for many years past entitled to receive this amount, but was not aware of it. It seemed to him that, whatever might be the legal position, there was the strongest moral claim on the part of such. Board to have those arrears considered, as it was clearly the intention of Parliament that these sums should be given from year to rear.


explained to the Attorney General (who had been absent during the hon. Member's previous speech) that he had not questioned any opinion which had been given by the Law Officers of the Crown, but had asked what were the grounds for that opinion, as the matter did not seem quite clear from doubt. He would point out that the section appeared to divide itself into two distinct parts. The first part dealt with the conditions of the annual Parliamentary grant, and it did not appear to have any connection with the second part, which was in the nature of a proviso, and as to which he hazarded the opinion that it had been tacked on in Committee. The Attorney General said that only one year was recoverable here. He would ask the hon. and learned Gentleman this question a assume the Estimates were prepared for the year 1895–96, that would only contemplate a state of things up to the 31st March 1896. The school year for 1895–96 would be from September 1895 to September 1896. What was the date within which the School Board might claim the year's account if it should be limited to one year. Were they to be allowed to have another year from September 1896. If only one year was recoverable, was it recoverable at any time?


replied that all schools did not end their year on the 29th September, and it did not matter in the least whether the financial year of a school ended then, or on the 31st December, or on the 31st March. What was asked for by the Department was an account under the section in respect of the year, and which was recoverable, for the purpose of the Estimates. The Circular was issued in regard to the 29th September accounts, and provided that the account was a fair estimate for the year ending September 29 in any particular year. Then it could be made the subject of a claim for the purpose of the succeeding year's Estimate, and it was that which the Department hail no doubt in view when they stud they would allow a period of, practically speaking, another year, for the actual account to be made up; although the two years—the school year and the financial year—did not termnate on the same date, for practical purposes they would be treated as so doing, and the fact that the educational year ended on the 29th September created no difficulty. The Circular was to direct how the claims for the twelve months should be made up, and that was its only effect. The reason that difficulty had arisen was because there had been attempts to bring into the scheme for the one year the expenses or allowances which might have been claimed in past years.

Question put, a That a sum, not exceeding £153,034, be granted for the said Service."

The Committee divided:—Ayes, 42; Noes, 140.—(Division List, No. 52.)

Original Question put, and agreed to.

14. £10,000, Supplementary, Science and Art Department for the United Kingdom.—Agreed to.

15. £650, Supplementary, British Museum.—Agreed to.

16. £327, Supplementary, National Portrait Gallery.—Agreed to.

17. £20,110, Supplementary, Public Education, Ireland.—Agreed to.


said he did not wish to raise any of the contentious questions, but item J, he thought, required some explanation. So far as he understood the matter the Government seemed to have arrived at a satisfactory settlement of a question which had occupied a good deal of their time last Session and part of this. But he thought it would be satisfactory if the Secretary to the Treasury would explain what the settlement was, as it evidently required serious consideration before they could discuss it.


said this was only part of the whole contribution, which was about £108,000, including the payment to the Teachers' Pension Fund on another Vote. The whole sum was in respect of a the arrears of the grant for the last four or five rears, based on a capitation fee of 10s. The reason why the £12,600. in item J had been detached from the £95,000, which was to go towards the Teachers' Pension Fund, was that the convent and monastery schools had got no interest in the Teachers' Pension Fund, and it would be hardly fair to deprive them of their share of the arrears. The arrears in the case of all other schools interested in the Pension Fund would be devoted to putting that Fund on a sound footing.


asked if the Secretary to the Treasury could state whether or not the Pension Fund at present would be actuarially sufficient for the claims of existing teachers, because if the teachers understood that it was not sufficient to meet the claims of existing teachers it would modify their feeling as to the disposition of that money.


said he did not think he should be able to reply to the hon. Member on the present Vote, because the matter he had referred to was on a separate Vote, dealing with all the teachers who were not teachers in monastic schools.


thought it was not an unsatisfactory thing that they should have been able, by knocking somewhat repeatedly at the door of the Treasury, to extract something like £100,000, and hoped it was a foretaste of the other things which they were going to get by similar procedure.

Vote agreed to.

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