HC Deb 16 October 1918 vol 110 cc106-15

Whereas it has been the custom in the public schools of Scotland to give instruction in religion to children whose parents did not object to the instruction so given, but with liberty to parents, without forfeiting any of the other advantages of the schools, to elect that their children should not receive such instruction, be it enacted that education authorities shall be at liberty to continue the said custom, subject to the provisions of Section sixty-eight (conscience clause) of the Education (Scotland) Act, 1872.—[Mr. Munro.]

Brought up, and read the first time.


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

The new Clause, which stands in my name, refers to an important topic, namely, the question of religious instruction in public schools in Scotland. That is a topic which has caused a good deal of discussion during the recent Recess, and some concern was expressed by the Churches regarding the provision of the Bill as it stands. I was very anxious, if possible, to meet any legitimate apprehensions on the part of the religious community in Scotland in this matter, and accordingly I gave notice that I proposed to move on the Report stage the new Clause which stands first on the paper. I was very glad to find that without any conference with those connected with the Churches in Scotland and the Educational Institute, who had been concerning themselves in the matter, they asked me to put down an Amendment practically in the same terms as that of which I have given notice, and indicated that if that Amendment or new Clause was accepted by the Government, their opposition to the Bill in this regard would be withdrawn. Perhaps it might be convenient that I should read to the House an extract from a letter which I have received from the Secretary of the Education Committee of the Church of Scotland in this matter. He writes me on the 10th October, and I should say that this letter has a bearing upon subsequent new Clauses on the Paper, one in the name of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dumfries Burghs (Mr. Gulland), and one in the name of the hon. Member for Cen- tral Glasgow (Mr. Macleod). Probably they will be satisfied with the concordat which has been arrived at. The Secretary of the Church of Scotland Education Committee writes me that at a meeting of the representatives of the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church of Scotland and also of the Educational Institute held in Edinburgh on 8th inst., it was after full discussion unanimously agreed that you should be asked to insert a Clause in the Education (Scotland) Bill to the following effect: 'That it be explicitly provided that subject to the Conscience Clause (Education Scotland Act, 1872, Section 68) education authorities shall have the liberty and power in the matter of religious instruction in all public schools which school boards have had in schools under their charge.' I was further instructed to say that if you can see your way to insert such a Clause in the Bill the religious question will in the opinion of the Joint Churches Education Committees and the Educational Institute be settled. As I have said, the Clause which I have the honour of moving is in substance an echo of the Clause which, in virtue of this direction, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Glasgow has put upon the Paper, and therefore I take it that so far as those for whom he speaks are concerned, and I also take it so far as those for whom my right hon. Friend opposite speaks are concerned, the Clause which I have put down meets the opposition which had threatened to develop to the Bill. May I just add that I do not want, if possible, to reopen controversies which have now, I hope, been settled, but, perhaps, I should say that the purpose of the Clause which I have moved is twofold. In the first place, there was a Preamble in the Act of 1872 which the Churches had always since that date regarded as a very insecure foundation upon which to rest the direction for religious instruction in the Scottish schools. They thought that the Preamble had less effect than an enacting Clause in the Act of 1872 would have had. Whether that be so or not, I am not concerned now to argue, but what I do suggest to the House is that my Clause, which proposes to make an enacting Clause the Preamble of the Act of 1872, entirely meets, I hope, any apprehensions which were founded upon that score.

In the second place, the apprehension was expressed that the Conscience Clause of the Act of 1872 and the Preamble of the Act of 1872 would not be imported into this Bill. I do not regard that as a well-founded apprehension, but, in order that there shall be no doubt whatever about it, I propose by this Clause to re- enact in terms the contents of the Preamble of the Act of 1872, so that the Preamble now becomes a definite Clause in this Bill.

These being the two grounds upon which the Churches were concerned, I hope and believe that their opposition has been entirely met by the Clause which I propose. If the House is satisfied with that explanation, I propose to leave it in the meantime at that. I hope my right hon. Friend opposite, in these circumstances, will not think that it is necessary to move the Clause of which he has given notice. If, contrary to my hope and expectation, he should feel it his duty to do so, it would then be my duty to discuss the question of the mandatory provision which that Clause includes. But inasmuch as the Churches of Scotland are no longer asking for a mandatory provision, and as they were the only persons, so far as I know, who opposed the Bill as it stood in this regard, I am very hopeful that my right hon. Friend will think it proper to withdraw his Amendment. I am most anxious to avoid, if I can, a repetition of the discussions which have taken place during the Recess. I am most anxious to avoid a repetition of these in the interests of time, if nothing else, on the floor of the House, and, accordingly, I feel I shall consult the convenience of the House if, without going into the matter in greater detail at this moment, I ask the House to give this Clause a Second Reading.


Like the right hon. Gentleman. I am sure everyone is anxious to avoid controversy on this Bill as far as possible, and to have the Bill passed at the earliest possible moment. As there is a Clause dealing with the subject in the name of the hon. Member for Perth (Mr. F. Whyte), who, I am sorry, owing to ill-health, is not able to be here to-day, and in the name of myself, of a somewhat different character, I may remind the right hon. Gentleman that that Clause was put down before we rose. There is also the other Clause in the name of the hon. Member for Central Glasgow (Mr. Macleod), which embodies the present views of the education committees of the two Presbyterian Churches. There is no disguising the fact that in Scotland there has been a great deal of uneasiness on this subject, and for that uneasiness the right hon. Gentleman himself is responsible, because of the present Clause 18 in the Bill. I do not want to enter into controversy, but I would remind him that it is the frame work of the Bill itself which has brought up this controversy, and there was a very strong feeling throughout Scotland that religious instruction should be mandatory. I am not going into the question of how many Presbyterians voted for and how many voted against, but he knows, and the right hon. Gentleman sitting on his right (Mr. Macpherson) knows, that there is a very serious feeling in Scotland on behalf of religious instruction. I do not say that anything has been done to show that this is in danger, but I can mention one little point. Since the War, in the schools in Edinburgh, which have been commandeered by the War Office, the one topic for which the time has been cut down has been the time of religious instruction, from thirty minutes to twenty minutes, which shows that, under the stress of Government pressure, such time may be curtailed.

I do not want, however, to bring up these points. I want to deal merely with the new Clause of the right hon. Gentleman. Of course this does not make it mandatory. It does nothing new, but merely puts in the body of an Act what has previously only been in the Preamble, and it is solely and entirely declaratory. I confess that, personally, I prefer the words of the hon. Member for Central Glasgow. The words of the right hon. Gentleman look, again, rather like a Preamble. I suppose there are many precedents for embodying a Preamble in the body of a Bill. So far as I am concerned, I have no intention of moving a Clause. I am quite sure it will not give satisfaction to everybody in Scotland, but I personally, and I am certain many of those for whom I speak, are anxious to avoid controversy, and therefore I am quite ready to accept the Clause moved by the right hon. Gentleman.


I am very glad indeed the Secretary for Scotland has seen fit to propose this new Clause, and I am authorised by the Joint Committee of the Established Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church to say that they accept the Clause as proposed by the right hon. Gentleman. So far as I am personally concerned I shall not propose the Clause that stands in my name. I should like to inform the House that public opinion has been very strongly—almost unanimously—in favour of religious teaching in all the schools. The Act of 1872 was not wholly satisfactory, although it worked up to a certain point. But religious instruction was only referred to in the Preamble, and had not the force of a Clause in the Bill. My desire—and, I know, the desire of a very, very large number—would be to make religious teaching in all schools mandatory, but many were opposed to that, and we were also aware that there was very strong opposition on the part of the teaching profession in Scotland owing to certain suspicions they had. In view of that, the Joint Committee came to the conclusion that it would not be expedient to press for it to be made mandatory, and agreed to accept the Clause as put down by the Secretary for Scotland. I merely want to add that the large Presbyterian majority in Scotland feel that they have very just grounds for the claim, in view of the concessions and privileges which are given to other denominations in Scotland, and therefore I do hope sincerely the House will see fit to accept the Clause proposed by the Secretary for Scotland.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause read a second time, and added to the Bill.