HC Deb 15 November 1917 vol 99 cc616-24

A candidate at a Parliamentary election shall be entitled, for the purpose of holding a public meeting in furtherance of his candidature, to the use at reasonable times between the receipt of the writ for the election and the day of the poll, of a suitable room in any public elementary school in receipt of an annual Parliamentary grant situated within the constituency for which he is a candidate.

Provided that this enactment shall not authorise the use of any room used as part of a private dwelling-house nor authorise any interference with the school hours of an elementary day or evening school nor, in the case of a room used for the administration of justice or police, with the hours during which it is used for these purposes.

A charge may be made to cover any actual and necessary expenses incurred by the local education authority, or by the managers of the school, in respect of the preparation of the room for the purposes of the meeting, and for warming, lighting, and cleaning the room.

If by reason of the use of any room under this Act any damage is done to the school-house, or to the furniture, fittings, or apparatus, the damage shall be defrayed by the person by whom, or on whose behalf, the meeting is convened.—[Mr. P. A. Harris.]

Brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."

A careful study of this new Clause will show that it is not a very ambitious one, but it contains a very sound principle. It will simplify the duties of managers of schools. Managers of schools always have to be asked for the use of the school building, and they are put in a difficult position in deciding what is a reasonable charge for the use of the building. They have the responsibility of safeguarding the interests of their subscribers, and in the case, at any rate, of voluntary schools, of the people who have contributed to the cost of the building.

4.0 P.M.

When a charge is made there is a tendency, to criticise the amount as excessive. An election should not be used as an opportunity of increasing the revenue of the school, but managers should be entitled to charge actual out-of-pocket expenses, and any expenses caused by the alteration of the buildings for the purposes of a public meeting. There is no question that a school is the right place for meetings to be held. Licensed premises have always been specifically excluded from use as places for public meetings. Therefore, in country villages, at any rate, schools are the only places where meetings can be held. It is besides a sound principle to establish that part of the purposes of school buildings is to provide a place for holding meetings at election time. In the old days when a very large sum was allowed to candidates for election expenses the charge for school buildings was not a serious matter, but now when the amount is very much reduced, it does become important in large constituencies, where the population is scattered, that candidates should not mulcted in large amounts for the use of halls for meetings. In some constituencies where there are sixty or seventy villages which have to be visited, and this expenditure for places of meeting and the cost of advertising the meeting and of organisation have to be paid, it is very important if the amount now allocated for elections is not to be exceeded, that candidates should not be liable to find large sums for lease of buildings. The new Clause contains ample provision to meet all necessary cost incurred by the owners of the buildings.


I beg to second the Motion.


I trust that the Government will accept this Clause. It is a most useful addition to the Bill under which election expenses have been so drastically reduced. In counties the figure is probably about half the figure that it was before, while at the same time the electorate on the average will be doubled. So, necessarily, in every direction economies will have to be effected in election expenses. To some extent that has been done by allowing the candidates one free postage, but it is also a fair thing to say that schools, which are mainly supported out of public funds, whether taxes or rates, should be in this country at the disposal of Parliamentary candidates for the necessary purpose of public meetings without any payment except out-of-pocket expenses. All contingencies are carefully provided for under this Clause which follows a Section of the Local Government Act of 1894, which enables these schools to be used for the purpose of parish council and district council election meetings, and similar purposes.


If the Government accept this Clause they will be putting those who manage these schools in an invidious position. Every candidate will want to have the use of these schools because he will get it free of cost. At the present moment there is great competition for the use of public elementary schools. We all want to get them. There is only a certain number of these schools, and they are very hard to get when wanted, especially if the contest is in a county constituency. Therefore we badged the people who exercise authority over these schools. It is up to these elementary school managers to allocate these schools to particular candidates. That puts these people who have to make these decisions in a very delicate position. I know myself that in a certain number of schools those who are running the schools were against me in politics, and I found it hard to get the schools, whereas my opponent found it very easy. That is going to happen more in the future. We are going to have more candidates. They are going to be humbler candidates, men with less money to spend. In every division there will be at least four candidates for the seat. Of those probably two, or perhaps all of them, will be men looking to save every penny they can on the limit of election expenses under this Act. All this will increase the difficulties, and I hope the Government will not accept the Amendment.


I listened very carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Enfield, and could not discover any argument against this Clause. Precaution was taken in drafting to meet all the objections which the hon. Member tried to raise, and if he gives a little more careful study to the Clause he will see that every question which he has raised has been met. We are not asking that managers should have to throw open their schools all the time to would-be candidates. The Clause limits it to the time after the writ is received. In existing circumstances, with the large reduction which has been placed on the amount of money that candidates may spend, these schools should be at the disposal of the candidates. The hon. Member says that managers would be in some difficulty in selecting the candidates to whom they would give the schools. I take it that managers would grant the applications of those who applied first and arrange the dates as soon as the application was made. Under this Clause, if it shown that they are being used for some definite purpose in connection with their legitimate objects, then candidates cannot have them, but anyone who has had the difficulty of fighting a large county division with sparsely populated districts knows how serious this question is. Another point. We are not asking that the caretakers of the school should be called upon to do an amount of work—cleaning up, and all that—for nothing. We say let a fair remuneration be paid to the caretakers for the labour which they will be called upon to do if the school houses are opened. All we want is that remuneration should be fair and legitimate, and not—as I do not believe many managers would do, though some might—that there should be an extortionate charge made so that the candidate may be debarred from the use of the school. Precaution is also taken in this Clause to deal with the question of damage to the school, so that the candidate for whom the meeting is held would be responsible for damage, and would have to pay for it. This is a thing which is wanted by all parties in the House, and it is just one of those Clauses which may have been overlooked in drafting the Bill. I trust sincerely that the right hon. Gentleman will accept it.


I hope that the Government will accept this Clause. As it is drafted the Clause may require some slight addition, because as it stands only one candidate may have the use of the room. It ought to be all candidates. Some arrangement will have to be made to see that all candidates have an equal chance. I am sorry that the promoters of the Clause did not put that in. I believe that the whole country is in favour of the principle of the Clause. Those of us who happen to be in one part of the country with one class of school may suffer, while those who are in another part with another class of school may have an advantage, but, taking all over the country, it is a proper proposal. I do not ask for any privilege for one part or the other, but it is a convenience to 'the public. Public money keeps up these buildings, and the public have a right to the use of the schools when they want them for this purpose.


There is undoubtedly, I think, a strong feeling in favour of this proposal. There are many parishes in large rural areas where there is no reasonable place of meeting but the school house. I have been in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Education, as the guardian of these schools, and I find that he shares that feeling. The schools receive public money, and there should be no objection to putting them at the disposal of the public for this purpose, provided, of course, that they are available for all. As my hon. and gallant Friend has said, there may be some difficulties about this Clause. There may be the case of a man with no possible chance of obtaining substantial support and who may never be nominated, or put the other side to the trouble and expense of a contest. Yet this Clause would give him the right to use the schools. But there is, as the House knows, a similar Section in the. Local Government Act of 1894, authorising candidates to use schools for the purpose of parish or district council elections, and I am told that in actual working no difficulty his been found in giving effect to that provision. Therefore, it seems to me that the advantages outweigh the obvious disadvantages.

As the Clause is drafted, I do not think that this right is confined to one candidate. No doubt it may be somewhat invidious for managers to say which candidate shall have the use of the school on any particular evening, but it would be reasonable to hope that they will feel that they have a public duty to perform, and that they will act fairly by the candidates. I am disposed to think that somebody, such as the Board of Education, ought to have the power to decide in these cases if there is any dispute. It could be done very rapidly. In the Act of 1894 there is a similar Clause in that direction. I must reserve the right for the Government to propose, if they think fit, in another place, that a provision of that kind should be added to the Clause. I think that a slight Amendment is required to the Clause in order to throw on those using the schools the obligation of repairing and cleaning them, not only for the meeting, but for use as schools when the meetings are over. That is not yet provided for by the Clause, and therefore if the House gives it a Second Reading, I shall move to insert after the word "room" ["room for the purposes"], the words "before the meeting," and after the word "meeting," the words "and after the meeting for school purposes."


May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the very conciliatory speech he has made in accepting the principle of the Clause. I will not say a word in favour of it, because it has been accepted, and I do not want to delay the Committee. May I make a suggestion as one who has fought a good many elections in a very scattered constituency? Will it be possible for the Board of Education to be consulted in all these matters respecting applications for the use of schools? One knows that in the constituencies, when you apply to the managers of schools for permission to use the schools, in ninety-nine cases out of 100 it is granted, but, in some instances, there might be some obscurantist who would withhold consent. I do not think it would be possible for the managers to consult the Board of Education, because naturally in these matters rapidity is everything. I trust my right hon. Friend will consider that point.


I join in thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his acceptance of this Amendment. One' thing I would like to make clear, and that is that school rooms shall not be available on the polling day. In a great many parts of Scotland the school is the polling station, so that it ought not to be used on that day for any meeting.


No one would hold a meeting on a polling day.


If the Board of Education has to deal with this question, I hope that they will consider it long before the election. There might be doubt as to the suitability of one room as against another, or there might be two rooms in one building, and an application for each of them, in which case it might not be advisable to have both meetings held at the same time. The central authority might be a long way from the locality, and I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that some local body, the local education authority, the county council education authority, rather than the Board of Education, might be trusted to do justice.


As to these political meetings, to be held in schoolrooms, I think the cost should not be deducted from the Parliamentary expenses, and I would ask whether it is not possible to include town halls in the proposal?


I would like to ask the Home Secretary whether he has considered the last provision in this new Clause with a view to some sort of deposit being made as a guarantee against damage that may be done. It is all very well to say that local government election meetings are held in the county council schools, or urban district or rural district schools, but in these contests there is never the same amount of heat that arises in Parliamentary elections, where politics are in issue. We are bound, I submit, to provide against contingencies. I have a very vivid recollection of addressing a meeting in mid-Devon, where brick-bats, very formidable brick-bats, were rained upon the roof of the building during the whole time of the meeting. It will be easily understood that the roof was not watertight after that meeting concluded. Therefore, it is rather a serious matter, and there is ground for the suggestion that some sort of guarantee should be given against damage that may be done. If the Board of Education will undertake to make good any damage in the event of the managers of the school being unable to recover, then at once my objection is gone; but the managers out of a grant, perhaps, of some £50 a year, in many parts of the country, are continually struggling to keep the schools going, the grants not being sufficient, and it does seem a serious obligation to put upon them, to leave them without the security which would be afforded by a guarantee against damage that might result.


In Scotland we have never had the slightest inconvenience, and no candidate at all has gone without the use of the schools. The use of them is very freely given to both sides. The hon. Member opposite raised the question about guarantees to the managers against damage to the school, and I should like to reinforce a very pertinent question put by my hon. Friend to the Home Secretary, whether, in the case of a riotous meeting, which results in damage to the school, the damage, is to be part of the election expenses. The damage is not entirely the fault of me candidate, yet that damage might result in very serious and important expenses, and the question is whether the cost is to be part of the election expenses.


I join with my right hon. Friend (Mr. G. Lambert) in thanking the Home Secretary for the way in which he has accepted this Amendment, but I want to protest against any reference being made to the Board of Education. It is obvious that the local education authority, who own and provide these schools, should be referred to, and the suggestion that it should be the Board of Education is impracticable.


We will consider all these points.


Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance on the question of a guarantee?


That matter can also be dealt with.

Question, " That the Clause be read a second time," put, and agreed to.

Amendments made: After the word "room " [" room for the purposes "], insert the words " before the meeting."

After the word "meeting," insert the words "and after the meeting for school purposes."—[Sir G. Cave]


I beg to move to leave out the words, "If by reason of the use of any room under this Act any damage is done to the school house or to the furniture, fittings or apparatus, the damage shall be defrayed by the person by wham, or on whose behalf, the meeting is convened."

I should like to ask the Home Secretary what will be the position, supposing unlawful damage is done by a person who objects to the candidate, causes a riot, and does damage to the school. If the candidate, under these words, is to be bound to make that damage good, it seems to me there ought to be some provision which would remove from him the necessity to pay for the consequences of the unlawful acts of other people.


I think, as between the managers of the school and the candidate, the candidate ought to be responsible for the damage, by whomsoever it is done. Of course, if there are riotious proceedings and the school is damaged, it may be that the cost can be recovered in another way, and the candidate might have nothing to pay; but, if the school is injured, I think the candidate certainly ought to be responsible.


Is not the obvious remedy to insure against this possibility of damage? The rate would be exceedingly small, whereas if the candidate were liable for the damage it might lead to very serious consequences, notably in the case of Labour candidates. Election riots are not unknown; it is possible that damage may be done to schools where meetings are held, and that damage might be a very considerable addition to the candidate's expenses. The Home Secretary rather suggested that the district or county in which the riot took place might be proceeded against, but the difficulty would be to find who was responsible. I throw out the suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman that insurance might be effected against such damage.


Is it necessary to discuss this? Is not the school in exactly the same position as any hall, and whatever the law is with regard to the ordinary hall would apply to the school.

Amendment negatived.


I beg to move, at the end of the Clause, to insert the words, " Provided that the cost of making good such damage shall not form part of the candidate's election expenses."


I beg to second the Amendment.


I do not think that we can put the words in at this point. It should be dealt with in another part of the Bill.


In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Proposed Clause, as amended, added to the Bill.