HC Deb 06 July 1923 vol 166 cc797-804

Order for Second Reading read.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of EDUCATION (Mr. Edward Wood)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The Bill which I have to invite the House to read a Second time is one of a strictly limited scope. It makes no provision to improve the system of education as commonly understood or impose any additional charge on the public funds. It merely seeks to adjust the expense and to put it on to the shoulders of those who are responsible. It is a statutory obligation at the present time, as hon. Members are aware, that the local education authority should provide free education for all children in their area. The difficulty which in this Bill I am trying to meet is that there are some parts of the country where there are a good many children who are in an area but not of it, the cost of whose education falls on the area in which they may happen to be.

There are two principal classes of such children with whom the Bill deals. There is, first, the class of child the educational responsibility of whom falls upon the guardians. These must be maintained in the workhouse or in some institution by the guardians or else they must be boarded out by the guardians, a practice which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. Secondly, there is the class of child who has been taken by charitable institutions like Dr. Barnardo's Homes. Hon. Members are well aware of what happens. The boards of guardians and the charitable institutions, acting in pursuance of the principles which are now generally accepted by all sections of opinion, get these children out of the workhouse and out of the towns and cared for in the rural districts. That, from their point of view, is a very laudable object, but it tends to cast considerable obligations on the areas on whose shoulders the liability and burden thus falls. The result of it to-day is to relieve the education rate in the large towns at the expense of the education rate of, in many cases, the less wealthy country districts into which the children are sent. If I might give one example, and one only, to the House, let me quote a case brought to my notice the other day of a large charitable institution that proceeded in this way, and the result of whose action in bringing a large number of children into an area was likely to impose a burden on the local authority of something like 3d. in the £ on the rates. That, of course, is a very serious thing. I think the point, therefore, I am trying to meet is, as I will show in one moment, to place this burden on the shoulders where it ought naturally to fall, an idea that I think is very generally accepted. The principle on which this Bill proceeds is that the right authority to pay for the duty of educating the child is the authority to which the child belongs. Clause 1 endeavours to define this. In respect of Poor Law children there is no difficulty in ascertaining the area to which they belong. Every Poor Law child has a place of settlement, and though in the past the ascertainment of the place of settlement has often proved a very difficult matter, it is a fact which has to be ascertained for other purposes in connection with every Poor Law child, and, consequently, that place is adopted in this Bill as a test determining the area to which a child belongs. The difficulty is slightly greater in the case of children housed in charitable institutions. Very many of them are orphans, and those who have parents often have no settled place of residence, and it may happen that the residence of the parents is not in this country. Therefore the test suggested in this Bill is, I think, a common-sense one and one that is likely on the whole to work more smoothly than any other. It has been suggested that a child in a charitable institution shall be regarded as belonging to the last area in England or Wales in which he resided for a continuous period of six months before entering the charitable institution. In other words he may be regarded as belonging to the last area that would have been responsible for his education if he had not entered a charitable institution. If that test fails the Board of Education is required to determine to what area he belongs, having regard to all the circumstances of the case. It is believed that this affords the most satisfactory solution of a very difficult question.

Clause 2 is really consequential on Clause 1. It deals solely with children attending certified schools for blind, deaf, defective, and epileptic children. The Bill draws a distinction between day scholars and boarders in special schools. As to day scholars attending a special school in an area other than the area in which they reside, the provisions of the law are by this Bill assimilatd to the provisions already existing in the Education Act, 1921, as respects children attending public elementary schools in an area other than that in which they reside; but as regards boarders the principle is different. The principle of Clause 2 in this respect is that an authority is not responsible for providing boarding accommodation for children in a special school unless the child belongs to their area, in accordance with the test laid down by Clause 1. For obvious reasons the expense of establishing boarding accommodation is a much more serious undertaking. I propose that the Bill shall operate as from 1st April, 1923. I have chosen that date because it is the beginning of the financial year, and because, before that date, I had been in negotiations with the various authorities concerned. I hope for a general measure of agreement between those receiving and those paying, and therefore it is the more convenient to take that date.

I think this Bill, although not in the nature of sensational reform, is one which does meet what a good many hon. members connected with local administration know is a real and practical difficulty. I should not have introduced it if it were not that my own experience, and the experiences I have had since I came to the Board of Education, have convinced me that this matter is causing a very real degree of educational friction and difficulty. In the second place, I could not have introduced it unless I thought it was a substantially agreed matter. The matters with which it deals are extremely technical. There are one or two consequential Amendments in simplification of the Act of 1921, with regard to which I do not think it is necessary to occupy the time of the House at the present moment. Technical matters of this sort, when we are agreed on the general principle of the Measure, I think may very well be dealt with in Committee, and if the House decides to give this Bill a Second Reading, I hope that hon. Members will be willing to co-operate and lend their assistance to make this a workable Measure in Committee. As to the general principle of the Bill, I do not think there is any substantial difference of opinion.


I do not rise to oppose this Measure on the Second Reading, but I would like to point out that it has only been very recently placed in our hands, and I have a certain amount of apprehension as to some unexpected results which may possibly follow from this Measure. The right hon. Gentleman who has moved the Second Reading must realise that practically this Bill is an extension of the law of settlement which happens to have a very unfortunate history. It was introduced in an extremely modest way as a perfectly harmless and innocent reform calculated to do financial justice between one area and another, but the result over a long period of years has been as disastrous as it could possibly be. The right hon. Gentleman will realise that if a child is in the area of a local authority that authority has the responsibility. Unfortunately we have in London and other big towns to make heavy charges on those people coming from outside to attend our higher educational institutions. We have to charge, in London, a higher fee for our polytechnics to those people coming from outside our borders, and that is an unfortunate result. In the case of this Bill the effect is just the opposite. This is a case of ouside districts complaining that they are used as a dumping ground for children sent into their areas for obvious reasons of health, and they complain that these children have to go to their public elementary schools. On the face of it nothing seems more reasonable than to make, in such a case, the financial adjustment provided for in this Bill.

Let us consider for a moment the effect of this Measure on the boarding-out system. I do not know whether this Bill has the cordial approval of the Minister of Health, but I know that his Department has been pushing the boarding-out system as the proper method of dealing with orphan children under the Poor Law. I am not an enthusiastic supporter of the boarding-out system, but I know that there is a great consensus of opinion on the part of people who have studied the subject, that boarding out in the country is the best way of providing for orphan children under the Poor Law. Boarding out comes under this Bill, and the boards of guardians which are not willing to pay the higher price for maintenance of a child in a cottage home can decide to keep it in the workhouse because it is cheaper, and such boards of guardians will be discouraged from sending their children out into the country to be boarded out on that account. I notice that in Sub-section (4) of the Bill charitable institutions, where there are fewer than 12 children, are exempt, but unfortunately the cottage which receives only one child is not exempt. This is not a very large question, but I think it might be expedient to exclude individually boarded-out children. There is another argument I would like to put forward in this connection. A child boarded out in a cottage is practically part occupier in the same sense as a lodger, and really contributes towards the rent and rates of that cottage, and consequently is entitled in return to what is provided out of the rates.

Those who take the view that these children are outsiders fail to remember that they do actually contribute to the local rates. Take, for example, the big charitable institutions like Dr. Barnardo's Homes. Here there are a great many children to be educated, and there might be some reasons for suggesting that something should be paid for their education in that particular area. There should, however, be some recognition of the fact that that institution is a very large ratepayer in the district, and it should not have to pay its own share towards the rates and at the same time be charged for the education of the children as if they were not paying anything at all. In many districts these large institutions are very often by far the largest ratepayers in the district in which they are situated. I suggest that these charitable institutions ought to have some credit for the rates they pay when you are estimating what sum is due from them towards education. I am aware that all these points can be met by Amendments in Committee, but I wish to ask the Minister for Education whether he could not consider, in consul- tation with the Minister of Health, what may be the unforeseen and unexpected results of the re-introduction of the law of settlement by cutting out a number of water-tight compartments which must introduce restrictions to the free mobility of people in those districts.

In education we cannot afford to have people cut off from its advantages in that way. Whether it is technical, higher, or secondary education, it is vital to success that facilities should be available in the whole area of the country, and not localised to a particular area, and anything which makes rings round these areas and obstructs the free use of these institutions is a very considerable drawback. This is confined to elementary schools. It might just as well be extended to secondary schools, to technical schools, and even to the universities. With regard to the elementary schools, it is extremely difficult to make a balance-sheet between the rural area just outside and the municipal borough itself. Nowadays, the inhabitants of the one work in the other, and merely go home to sleep in the rural area. We have hundreds of thousands of such cases in London. They live in the rural area, and they are ratepayers in the rural area, but, as a matter of fact, they use the educational institutions of London. If London is to be asked to pay towards the education of children coming from outside London, then you might just as well ask that they should receive a subsidy in respect of those who reside outside in the rural area. It would be most regrettable if we embarked on that course, and I do suggest that the right hon. Gentleman may be setting going influences which, just as in the case of the law of settlement, are not expected and which may have very calamitous results.

Is there no other way in which it can be done? The right hon. Gentleman is the paymaster of these local education authorities. He is handing out to them a large and, some would say, an enormous sum every year. He is paying half the expenditure. Might it not even now be better so to manipulate that large grant-in-aid as to make them realise the superior interest of complete freedom and mobility as between one educational institution and another. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider again whether he cannot accept Amendments in Committee which would limit the harm which I fear he may be inadvertently going to do.


I desire in half-a-dozen sentences to thank my right hon. Friend for introducing this Bill, and to say that, as far as my information goes, he is quite accurate in saying that it is a sincere attempt to bring a Bill before the House of Commons on which there has been substantial agreement among the large and varied kinds of local authorities. I agree with the right hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Webb) that any variation of the law in these matters of delicate financial adjustment has to be considered with regard to its indirect effects as well as with regard to its precise provisions. I also agree that the law of settlement is not likely to be resurrected, and that the mutual benefits between one area and another are matters of great complexity and are eminently adapted for discussion in Committee rather than for debate on the Second Reading of the Bill. But the illustrations given by the last speaker, which were mainly drawn from the case of London or very large cities and the rural areas surrounding them, are not the only considerations which will have to be taken into account. I happen to live in a county, and am a member of the education authority of that county which we are all told in the geography books has a greater number of other counties touching it than any other county in England, and we are constantly up against the problem of making proper adjustments of rating between persons living in one county and using the educational institutions in another. I think this Bill has a proper object, and that the principle, which will require great care in application, is sound. I quite agree that it may want certain modifications in Committee. I trust that the House will pass the Second Reading now, and will let it go to a Committee as soon as possible. I am sure that it is one of those Measures which in Committee will be considered absolutely free from party predilections and, without being a very great reform, will be an honest attempt to do as far as possible what is needed, in a way which can only be arrived at by thrashing out the details in the light of our varied experience in different parts of the country.


I only want to say a few words following up one of the points made by the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Webb), namely, the indirect effects of this Bill. I am rather apprehensive lest this Bill will lead to boards of guardians who have homes outside their areas ceasing to send their children to the elementary schools and carrying on schools of their own. I have been chairman of the home of a board of guardians outside the area of that board, and our policy was to send our children as ordinary pupils to the elementary schools rather than to have a Poor Law school of our own. I am rather apprehensive whether this Bill may not lead to a reaction. I do not think it is going to affect us in London, because the education rate falls on the whole of the county, and boards of guardians are not likely to consider that very much. The same thing, however, occurs in smaller areas where the areas of the board of guardians and of the education authority are co-terminous, and I am afraid that it may operate in that way. I would like to support the point that this wants very thoroughly looking into as to its indirect effect, and to ask whether there is not some possibility of getting the same financial adjustment required without putting a premium on keeping the children away from the elementary schools.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.