HC Deb 14 January 1913 vol 46 cc2031-42

The subject I desire to bring before the House—which need not take very long—refers to a question I put to the President of the Board of Agriculture this afternoon, and also asked him on the 1st January. To put it briefly, my question was, why the right hon. Gentleman refused to allow the enclosure of a small bit of waste land at the back of a school in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The right hon. Gentleman replied:— I refused my consent because, in my opinion. a proposal to enlarge the premises of a privately-owned school affords no justification for the enclosure of common land. Of course, that is a very plausible reason, and to hon. Gentlemen who do not know the circumstances of the case it may seem a good answer to give. I think when I have given the circumstances of the case they will agree it is one which requires considerable explanation, and is something approaching a public and very grave scandal. The school in question, as no doubt hon. Members have guessed, is a Church of England school. It is in the middle of a common, so that no extension is possible without encroaching on the common. The Board of Education have required the enlargement of the premises, the enlargement of the playground, and the improvement of the sanitary con- venience, and the local education authority of the West Riding of Yorkshire have actually approved and passed the plan under which this encroachment was necessary. In consequence of that the Lord of the Manor applied to the President of the Board of Agriculture for his sanction to the enclosure of 340 square yards of the common, which aggregates something like seventy acres. It is a large common, and anybody who knows the district knows there is no question of shortage of land for the building of houses or anything of that kind. The Lord of the Manor applied for this enclosure on 10th June. There are many precedents, as the House knows, for the enclosure of commons in matters of public utility, and I need hardly remind the House that the Commons Land (Regulation) Act, 1876, says, that in considering an application for enclosure the Enclosure Commissioners, whose functions are now vested in the right hon. Gentleman, shall take into consideration the question whether such application will be for the benefit of the neighbourhood. In this case the commoners and the ratepayers were all agreed in desiring to see this improvement of the school, partly influenced, no doubt, by financial reasons, because unless these schools could be brought up to date, and unless the requirements of the Board of Education could be satisfied, there was no alternative but to have a new school. Hon. Gentlemen who do not care about the feelings of a locality and who are always ready to undertake any philanthropy at other people's expense, think that does not matter; but in this case I maintain the right hon. Gentleman had to consider what was the opinions of the Commoners, the ratepayers, and the general public in the district.

There is no chance of extension except on common land, because this school was built in the middle of the common. The Board of Agriculture did not at once refuse. They took a long time to consider the matter. I venture to suggest that if the real reason of the President of the Board of Agriculture for refusing the application was that he objected to the enclosure of common land for the purpose of enlarging the premises of a privately owned school, it would not have taken him five minutes to have come to that decision, but he waited, a long time, and, such was the attitude of the Board, that the managers were led to believe it was favourable, and they have actually built the extension, and it is now completed on the ground which the President of the Board of Agriculture refuses to allow to be enclosed. That, at any rate, proves that in the early stages the Board gave no evidence of their desire to oppose this. When the premises had been completed the President of the Board of Agriculture suddenly sent down and said he refused his consent. I can only imagine the clue to the reason which inspired the right hon. Gentleman lies in a letter received from the Board on 16th August, and which I will quote to the House. On that date the Board of Agriculture wrote to the solicitors saying they were in communication with the West Riding County Council, and they trusted to be in a position to communicate further on the subject at an early date. There is something rather mysterious about this, because when the chairman of the West Riding Education Committee was asked last Wednesday as to whether he had had any communication with the Board of Agriculture in this matter he absolutely denied having had any communication with them whatever. His answer was that he had had no communication with the President of the Board of Agriculture, and, regarding the other members of the committee, he had spoken to several, and they knew nothing about any communications having taken place. I can only suggest that these conflicting facts—the letter of the President of the Board of Agriculture and the statement of the chairman of the education committee—show that there is something mysterious about this transaction, which only suggests that the right hon. Gentleman has been unfortunately got at by the education committee, which for many years has been notoriously hostile to the further existence of denominational schools. Everybody in the West Riding knows that fact; indeed, many members of the education committee openly glory in it.

I have too high an opinion of the abilities of the right hon. Gentleman to believe that this is merely a matter of pedantry. I do not believe he was prepared to take the line that this enclosure was a matter of such importance as regards safeguarding the interests of the commoners and of the public, and it was absolutely necessary to refuse the permission. There must have been some other motive. The extension of the school was. absolutely necessary, owing to the requirements of the Board of Education. It could be effected in no other way, but the right hon. Gentleman has deliberately refused' to allow it to be done, and he has simply done so on the pedantic ground that it is not in the interests of the commoners. There must be something more than that, and I am taking this opportunity to raise the question in the hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have a chance of giving some better reason than he has hitherto done. What are the alternatives? Either to have the children cramped in an undesirable school or else have the expense of a new school forced upon the ratepayers. I venture to think the right hon. Gentleman must have some better reason for the action he has taken than that he will not agree to alienate the commoners rights in the interests of a non-provided school. There is another motive, and that is that he is taking a hand in this campaign against denominational schools. In so doing, I think he is degrading his high office in venturing to-use such an opportunity as this in dealing with a matter more proper for his colleague the President of the Board of Education to adjudicate upon.


Do the managers propose to give an equivalent to the public for the land taken, and, if so, in what way?


How can they?


I am not aware that the Board of Agriculture ever made any such suggestion. In this case no compensation is possible. The school is situate in the middle of a common, and it is impossible to secure an extension in any other direction.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Runciman)

I am not at all anxious to evade the question: which has been raised by the hon. Gentleman, and I rise at once to reply to the charge he has made that in the performance of my public duty I have been actuated by corrupt motives. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, No."] Certainly the doctrine on which the hon. Member leans is that no minister can carry out his public duty towards commoners without at once laying himself open to the charge that there was something mysterious, that there was something corrupt, and that there was something oppressive in the action that he took.


I never said that.


That is the charge the hon. Member makes.


He never said that. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, he did."]


Yes, the hon. Member said that I had an improper motive, that the ordinary allowance which is made for public men being actuated by public spirit should certainly not be extended to me, that I was carrying into this question, which had nothing whatever to do with my Department, some corrupt reason or other, and that I had been "got at" by representatives of the West Riding Education Committee. There is not a word or a syllable of truth in any one of those charges. If the hon. Member thinks it is such an important matter I will tell him the whole story. The formal application and the consent of the enclosure of a portion of this common came on 14th June. Let the House know perfectly clearly what the application was. This is a privately owned school. It is without a playground. The intention was to enclose a portion of the common in order to provide a playground for this school. I have taken the line since I have been at the Board of Agriculture that no common has to be enclosed at any time unless the reason for that enclosure is overwhelming. That certainly was not an overwhelming reason. That was a formal application. The ordinary forms were gone through, and in July an official letter was sent explaining that three months' notice must be given. Then there came a communication from the West Riding County Council. The hon. Gentleman says there is some discrepancy between? what has been said by the chairman of the education committee of the West Riding and what I have said in this House. I do not know what the chairman of the West Riding education committee may have said. I have only his word for it. But I will say this: That as he has read his statement to the House there is no discrepancy. In so far as the West Riding education committee is Concerned I have had absolutely no communication with any member of that committee from start till finish. The communication which I had in the first instance from the West Riding County Council came from the general purposes committee.


It is the same body.


It is not the same body. They have different interests. The general purposes committee of the West Riding County Council wrote asking the Board to refuse their consent because— They are desirous that nothing should be done to take* away the benefits now enjoyed over the common. That is the only communication made by the county council. It came in no way from Mr. Dunn, who is chairman of the education committee. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that this came from Mr. Dunn?


What have the education committee got to do with it?


I believe him to be a member of both committees.


Now the hon. Member believes that he is a member of both committees. He based his charge on the fact that I had been in corrupt communication with the education committee of the West Biding County Council—a very flimsy charge. The official letter sent to the county council pointed out the reasons for the application, and asked for any further observations that that local authority might have to make on the matter, which was nothing more or less than the ordinary procedure. The county council wrote saying that the county committee objected to any enclosure, except on grounds of pressing public necessity.


Why is this not a pressing public necessity?


The West Riding education committee then wrote saying that they think the managers should satisfy the Board that the enlargement is so essential as to justify encroachment. 11.0 P.M.

That is the only request that ever. came from the education committee. That is a request which might quite properly have been made by the hon. Gentleman himself.


You said there had been no communication.


I said there had been no request from the education committee that I should not grant the enclosure. I have stated clearly, frankly, and fully, every communication which has passed on the subject. Now we come to the autumn, and the suggestion is that because I refused to allow a piece of common to be enclosed I was trying to hit at a Church school. The principle on which the Noble Lord and his Friends would go is that any Church school which required land was entitled to take it from a common. There are too many public commons which have had land taken away from them in the past on principles such as this, and certainly so long as I am at the Board of Agriculture I shall not allow any others. If it had been a school owned by my denomination, which has voluntary schools, if it had been owned by the Catholics, it would have been in exactly the same position. If it had been owned by the county council—[Interruption.] Of course the hon. Member will not admit that anyone can say a single honest word except himself. If the school had been owned by the county council I should have given exactly the same reply. This common, it is true, is seventy acres in extent, and unless there is some more pressing necessity than is yet shown in this matter it will remain seventy acres. If there had been any idea on the part of those who own this school that the common should in any way be diminished in size, why did they not make an offer?


Why did not you ask them?


It was not my business to ask them. Those who were making the request should at least have made some offer of compensation, but they made absolutely none, and I can only repeat what I said at the beginning that in doing this my sole object was to prevent this common being diminished in size, and I hope the House will support any Minister who endeavours to retain the commons of Yorkshire or any other county of sufficient size for public requirements, not only for the sake of the present ratepayers, but of their successors. The suggestion is that because the present ratepayers wanted to use part of the common in such a way as to save their pockets—I think that was the account given by the hon. Member—that I, who am the guardian of these commons, was not to do anything whatever to protect the commoners of the future from the greed, or, if you like, the thrift, of the commoners of the present time. But the sole object of having the commoners' rights protected by a Minister who is answerable to this House is that the present commoners shall not be allowed to alienate the rights which belong not only to them, but to their successors. When the hon. Gentleman says it was only 340 square yards, what does that matter. That is the way in which commons have been diminished in size in the past—a strip here, a corner there, a little bit of a field here, and a larger field there. Bit by bit many of the commons have been cut down to a size which is quite inadequate for the requirements of the Commoners. When I was at the Board of Education there were frequently charges of improper administration made across the floor of the House. There was always the suggestion that the Minister was actuated by religious or anti-religious motives. Certainly, so long as I have been at the Board of Agriculture, I have never been actuated by any religious or anti-religious motives. I thank Heaven that, so far as my Department is concerned, religion does not come within its purview. I am quite content to administer my office in the best interests of agriculture, and of all those who are dependent upon agriculture for their livelihood. I am certainly not going to allow those who are dependent upon commerce, whether in this generation or in future generations, to diminish any rights by a single square yard for this or any other object not more important.


I am certainly not going to charge the right hon. Gentleman with corrupt motives. I must say, however, that he has used a great deal of fine language about common rights which is not applicable to the present case, where the use of a very small portion of a common, with the consent of everybody interested in the matter, was demanded in order that the children of the locality might have a place to play upon. That is the use which the right hon. Gentleman describes as a scandalous abuse. It was merely a small portion of the common that was applied for in order that it might be used by the children of a voluntary school. The school is built in the middle of the common. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] I do not know. Can anyone state any reason to the disadvantage of this school why it is placed in the middle of the common. It is there, and it is accepted by the locality, and the Board of Education required certain enlargements. Enlargements have been made at the request of the Board of Education.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of EDUCATION (Mr. J. A. Pease)

The Board of Education did not require any enlargement in this particular case.


The Board of Education will always say that if a certain number of fresh children were to be introduced a fresh number of places must be provided. If there were more children coming to the school, the school would have to be enlarged and the Board of Education would very properly require, as laid down in the regulations, a certain size of school to be provided. In this case everybody, the lord of the manor and the commoners, were prepared to give this small indulgence to the children of the neighbourhood. The Board of Agriculture stepped in and said, "Here is a voluntary school that may be taken at a disadvantage if a playground is refused, and those who are hostile to the existence of voluntary schools may be able to displace one more voluntary school and put the locality to great expense of building and providing a council school." That is the situation. The President of the Board of Agriculture in his zeal for common rights, denies this little exclusion of commoners rights in respect of a very small portion of the common for the benefit of the children of the neighbourhood. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Agriculture is indignant because we suggest that he has been somewhat affected in his judgment by the fact that this is a voluntary school. He claims that he has never in the course of his political career shown any sign of hostility to voluntary schools. I must remind him that we have most of us in our minds the recollection of Swansea. That case has a long history, and to him a painful history in the Law Courts. We cannot help thinking that in the case now under discussion, where everybody concerned in the matter was anxious that the children in the neighbourhood should have part of the common to play upon, there is no reasonable ground for the refusal by the Board of Agriculture to meet the reasonable request that was made.


Perhaps the House of Commons is not aware of the facts con- nected with this particular case. The Board of Education took exception to the accommodation of this school on the ground that there was not sufficient space. This was a Church school for 172 children, and they reduced the accommodation to 143 children. Even with that accommodation for 148 children the playground was not quite adequate. But the Board of Education were quite prepared to recognise the school even with a somewhat less playground accommodation than under the Board's regulations is required. The Church of England managers desired to bring back their school from 143, which was approved by the Board of Education, up to the previous standard of 172. With a view to doing that they had to acquire additional space, and in order to acquire that additional space they took away commoners rights and extended their premises on to the common. I thought it due to the House to let them know what arc the facts.


I do not know that the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Education really makes any difference to the case stated by my hon. Friend. The fact is perfectly clear, that if the school was to have the number of scholars desirable in the interests of the locality that extension was necessary, and the fact is perfectly clear also that the President of the Board of Agriculture refused to allow the extension to be made. The only question for the House is to judge whether the President of the Board of Agriculture was right in doing so or not. He has endeavoured to show us that he was not actuated by improper motives, but at all events I think we are quite justified in accusing him of most arrant pedantry, and to try to make the House suppose, for a single instant, that he had refused the proposal in order to safeguard the common rights, is to my mind ridiculous. I think the House ought to have its attention drawn to the fact that the right hon. Gentleman gave himself away in his own answer when he said that even if this had been a proposal for a county council school, still in the interests of the commoners he would have refused to allow it. The excuse that he gave the managers of the school was that the commoners' rights could not be interfered with for the sake of a privately owned school. What did he mean by that distinction?


The Noble Lord knows that I was not asked with regard to that, and if I had been I would have given it the same answer.


I never heard a Government Department put its refusals on the flimsiest ground when they have a wide general principle upon which to base them. If his refusal had really been based on the fact that in any circumstances he would not take a single yard from any commoners' rights, then he ought to have said so. The fact is perfectly obvious to the House. The right hon. Gentleman has been actuated by a sympathetic feeling to those Radical Members of the West Riding County Council who are opposed to Church schools and as the President of the Board of Agriculture, and as administrator of the commons succeeding to the Enclosures Commissioners, which is not a political appointment, I think the House will agree that he grossly exceeded his duty.


I have been at some trouble since this question was raised to search for a very old map which I have in my possession at home relating to this common. It deals with the commons and public rights in ancient form, right from Wakefield through Pontefract, and through the district to the hon. Member's own estate, and it contains very interesting in- formation with regard to the enclosures of the landowners in that district, of which I believe his own family records will bear some evidence; and it is a heartrending spectacle to find that common after common has been enclosed, including Brompton Marsh, to a considerable extent, which was in the happy hunting grounds of the hon. Member who commands so very well his fox and hounds. The spectacle of these commons which have been stolen all along the road—

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Government business, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put.

Adjourned at Fifteen minutes after Eleven o'clock.