HC Deb 02 August 1926 vol 198 cc2751-6

My task at. This late hour of the evening and at the end of an exhaustive Session will not occupy more than a very short. time. The question I have to raise is a very old one—namely, the comparative position of the voluntary and provided schools. It is a question I have raised before, and on one occasion a Resolution I moved on this question was carried unanimously by the House of Commons. A Resolu- tion which is carried without a single dissension may be regarded as a real historic and influential fact. I do not say it binds future Parliaments, but it shows the unanimity of feeling on what was once a very vexed question. As I view it, the present system, a double system, imposes a religious discrimination, which is contrary to the acknowledged spirit of the age, and in my particular case it involves also a class discrimination. It is well known that the men I represent in Liverpool, and the Irishmen I represent in England, Scotland and Wales, speaking generally, belong to the poorest section of the community. Surely it is class discrimination that they are called upon to contribute towards the creation of buildings which in the case of other and wealthier classes is defrayed at the expense of the ratepayers and the State. How were the schools of my own people in Liverpool created? I have described the conditions many times in this Rouse before and I have never described them without gaining sympathy of three-quarters, if not the whole House of Commons, except those who look at the school question from a narrow and sectarian point of view. The history of these Irishmen in Liverpool is well known.


On a point of Order. Is not this a subject which requires legislation and is it not, therefore, out of order?


If the right hon. Gentleman is merely suggesting legislation, undoubtedly that would be out of order but if he is going to suggest any means of meeting the case without legislation, it would be in order.


Upon that point of Order. Are these any means when the law is quite clear?


I am waiting for the development of the right hon. Gentleman's argument.


I must make a comment, not a hitter comment, on that interruption. Whenever I attempt in this House to obtain justice for the schools belonging to my countrymen, the hon. and learned Member has always been ready to embarrass me and trip me up instead of trying to help me. in a case which should be his as well as mine. Everyone knows how these schools were first built. My countrymen came to England, and especially to Liverpool and Glasgow, after a famine in Ireland. They settled down in the slums, and it is somewhat of a humiliation to me as an Irishman that, coining to the slums nearly a century ago, they are still in the slums. But, still, out of their miserable wages they paid a contribution, a small sum, though to them large, by which they built first the Church of their faith, and, secondly, the school in which their faith could be taught. That is the origin of these schools. The Noble Lord the President of the Board of Education, I am sure, has sympathy with that spirit of sacrifice. He will say, as he is entitled to say, that the schools thus created are inefficient, from the point of view of construction, and I have to admit the truth of that indictment. But when I see the comparative poor buildings in which these schools are housed I cannot help making the reflection that it is a sad paradox that, in order to preserve the faith of their children, these countrymen of mine have had to risk the healths of their children and their families.

That is the position. Look at the other side of it. A. big cotton spinner or shipowner, who make a hundred thousand pounds a year, has well-constructed, modern buildings to house his children not because the needs of his children are as great or greater than those of the children of the poor but because he has the good luck to accept conscientiously a form of religious teaching which would not be accepted by members of my own creed. I call that religious discrimination, social discrimination. Up to that point I have the agreement of every one in the House. I do not say how the Government can deal with this question. I have to watch this malignant enemy of the schools for which I am pleading, who is watching me with the perverted ingenuity of a lawyer. I would say to the Noble Lord that in this House there is not a single party which has not a majority in favour of my view with regard to these schools.


I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman, in whose paternal capacity in this House I rejoice, but I am rather afraid that the trend of his argument is to suggest building grants, which will, I fear, involve legislation.


I accept your paternal warning. I will only make an allusion to recent developments in the speeches of the Noble Lord. I will not suggest that this thing can he settled by general legislation. It would be absurd to ask any Government, whatever its composition or its majority, to enter on the morass of a reconstruction of the whole education. of children. All I would urge on the Noble Lord is that he will encourage these localities, including that which I represent, to come to terms among themselves and to be in a position one day to ask him—I do not think he will decline to do so—to give enabling powers which will enable them to settle this on a basis of mutual good will.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of EDUCATION (Lord Eustace Percy)

It has been made a little difficult for us to discuss this question without trenching on ground which would be out of order. 1 do not know that raising the subject under such conditions is exactly conducive to a clear statement of policy. I hope that we shall always discuss this question with a due regard and remembrance of both sides of the question. The right hon. Gentleman has pointed to the self-sacrifice of the Roman Catholics in this country, who have providedthese schools.


And many of the Anglicans.


I quite agree with him. The Anglicans, Roman Catholics and other communities have made great sacrifices to provide, preserve and maintain voluntary schools. Moreover, let us never forget that they were the pioneers of education in this country. It is to them, and not to the State, that we owe the great pioneering work of our national education. At the same time, let us not forget another fact. The right hon. Gentleman talks about religious discrimination in the present system. I think that those who think with him on this subject will stand a very much better chance of making their views prevail in the country' if they recognise the other fact that at the present moment the ratepayers of this country are bearing a very large extra cost on account of the provision of voluntary schools. It is because the ratepayers and taxpayers pay for the staff of these schools that these schools can be carried on. The maintenance of a large number of schools, in many cases small schools, means an expenditure on staff, greatly in excess of what would be necessary if one could organise all the schools of this country on a uniform basis, distribute the children among a number of similar schools, and distribute the staff. The maintenance of small schools means an extra expenditure on staff which is borne by the taxpayer and ratepayer and that means, and it ought to be recognised as, a regular contribution by the taxpayer and ratepayer to the principle that it is a good thing to encourage the provision of schools by voluntary religious bodies. Therefore I would ask my right hon. Friend—my right hon. father, if I might so call fiim—to bear that in mind before he talks too much about religious discrimination.

We all know we have a problem before us. The right hon. Gentleman has talked about the so-called black list to which I referred in Debate recently. It applies not only to voluntary schools, but to a large number of council schools as well. It does create a problem. The voluntary bodies, Roman Catholic, Anglican and others have already met it in many cases and are meeting it in more. They are providing money to put those schools right. In my Estimate speech I made an appeal. The black list is not a condemnation, but a challenge. I want from those responsible for these schools, whether they are local authorities or religious bodies, a definite plan of improvement. Where they think that the criticisms of the Board's inspectors are excessive and improvement not needed, let them say so. Opinions always differ. Let us have definite proposals and come to a definite plan. Let us not be frightened by the financial problem. I am perfectly certain it can be solved. The generosity and the self-sacrifice shown by the religious bodies in this country in the past, and the determination in the past of the ratepayers and of the taxpayers to provide for the children, taken together, ensure that we shall be able to solve this problem, but we will only solve it if we put all our cards on the table and show what we are prepared to do, what money we can raise, how far we can go. If every voluntary body in this country will do that, and will get down to the practical details, I am sure that we can solve this problem. If these joint considerations between the local authority and the voluntary body lead to the conclusion that further power should he given to local authorities in the matter, I have already stated in public to local authorities that I am prepared to consider any such proposal. Further than that I cannot go.


I wish to thank the Noble Lord for his statement.