HC Deb 30 November 1926 vol 200 cc1150-60

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 27th September, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


There is a point that I am very anxious to raise to-night. At Question Time I put to the Secretary of State for Scotland a question asking if he had given his approval to a by-law of the Kincardineshire Education Authority permitting children 10 years of age to be employed on farm work. The answer I received was a somewhat involved one, and I did not appreciate its full significance at Question Time. I am, therefore, taking this, the earliest opportunity of getting a full explanation from some representative of the Scottish Office as to what exactly they are proposing to do in Kincardineshire. The answer I received started with a sentence which seemed very satisfactory, namely: The answer is in the negative. The rest of the answer, however, went on to prove that the reply was not in the negative, but that the intention of the Kincardineshire authority, with the approval of the Secretary of State for Scotland, was, once the necessary formalities had been gone through, to permit children of the age of 10 years to be employed in agricultural work in Kincardineshire. We shall be prepared to. excuse the lateness of the Under-Secretary, who I sec has just arrived, if he comes forward with an adequate defence of this horrible action that his Office appears to be taking in this matter, or with a statement that they are not going to proceed any further with it. I should have thought it was impossible at this time, when there are a million and a-half adults going about unemployed, a proportion of them even in agricultural districts, that any Government would have been prepared to assent to dragging children of 10 years of age out of the schools to do hard manual labour in the fields; but as I read this answer, that is the exact thing that the Secretary of State for Scotland is prepared to permit. I regret very much that this should have taken place in Scotland. I do not think there can be any place in England where a similar thing is done, and I am sure this is the first step in this direction under this Tory Government in Scotland. I want to see, if I possibly can, by directing public attention and the. attention of the Scottish Office to the serious nature of the step they are taking that, if it is not stopped in this instance, the spread of it to other parts of the country will not be permitted.

The by-law previously was that under certain conditions children of 12 years of age were permitted for certain periods to take part in seasonal agricultural work. I think even that was quite wrong. The School life of the average child of the working class from five to 14 years of age is too short already without it being eaten into by arrangements of this description.

I know education authorities in Scotland have power to grant such exemptions, but I know in Glasgow under the education authority no permission would be given for children to engage in employment under the age of 14 during hours when the schools were actually open. Permission under these by-laws is given in Glasgow for children to do spare time tasks, such as delivering newspapers or milk before or after School hours, but even when that limited permission is given the education authority insist that every child who is going to do that must have a permit from them, he must have a certificate from his Schoolmaster to show that his educational attainments are of an advancement suitable to his age, the School medical officer conducts an examination to see that he is physically fit, and then the educational authority insists that the person who employs him shall provide him with suitable covering, waterproof or something of that kind, as a protection against the weather. Here we have in Kincardineshire the suggestion made by the Scottish Secretary, as this answer states, provided the ordinary procedure is complied with relating to a few advertisements in the local papers, that he should allow children of 10 year, of age—imagine the shame of it—to go into the fields to do hard agricultural work. If it was in their leisure time it would be a shame to cat into their play hours, but this proposal permits farmers to take the children from School and turn them out into the fields to do potato lifting and jobs of that description.

I am not going to ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman to give me his personal opinion on this. It would finish his career on the Front Bench if he gave his view on the course of conduct the Government are permitting. I am asking him to give me some official justification for this at a time when children leaving School have to go for months and sometimes years without being able to get into a job. What possible justification is there for driving out the kiddies at 10 and making them wealth producers? It is shocking and disgraceful. I do not know any defence, but I should like to hear what the hon. and gallant Gentlenman has to say. I want to say that I invited the hon. and gallant Gentleman to make a statement upon another matter, upon which I am sure he would have made a reasonable speech, but, ha view of the lateness of the hour, I did not consider that I was justified in raising it.


acknowledge gratefully that the hon. Gentleman gave me notice of his intention to raise this matter, and I apologise to him for the unintentional discourtesy of being a moment or two late in entering the House. I am not going to engage in a discussion on the general principle which this matter raises. The Scottish Office to-day, in the answer given by the Lord Advocate, pointed out that in this matter they are merely allowing a case to be stated for subsequent decision by the Secretary of State for Scotland. All that the present position amounts to is that the statutory education authority, which is specifically responsible for education in Scotland and not as in England, a committee of the county council; an authority who are elected with no other aim and object than that of the education of the children of the county, put up a case to my right hon. Friend for allowing certain seasonal work being Voluntarily engaged in by a certain section of the School population. My right hon. Friend, in correspondence, pointed out the objections to the course which it was intended to pursue, and the Secretary of State for Scotland, after pointing out this objection, has allowed the matter, so to speak, to go for proof.


I do not want to proceed if I have been misinformed by this answer. It says that the Secretary for Scotland is prepared to sanction that by-law prescribing the minimum age of 10 years for seasonal employment, subject to review in the event of an advertisement in the Press revealing a serious body of objection to it. It is not a question of stating a case; it is a statement that he is prepared to sanction the employment of the children.


I think my hon. Friend and myself are laying emphasis on two, separate parts of the sentence. My hon. Friend lays emphasis on the first part, that the Secretary of State for Scotland would be prepared to sanction a by-law prescribing a minimum age of 10 years, whereas I lay emphasis on the second part, "subject to review in the event of advertisement of the proposed by-law revealing a, serious body of objection to it." I say that the case has been put up to the Secretary of State for Scotland by the body who are responsible for education in the county, and my right hon. Friend says he will allow the matter to. be canvassed in the columns of the Press. of the district. If this canvass reveals a serious body of objection to it, he will not be prepared to sanction the proposed by-law.

I do think that on that the Secretary of State for Scotland has a perfect right to say that he has allowed the matter to go to proof, that he has allowed the matter to be considered in public and that he has intimated that if no serious body of objection is revealed by public advertisement and discussion in the public Press to the proposed by-laws, then, with the combined sanction of the statutory authority and with the additional sanction of no body of objection having been revealed it would be very difficult for him, not merely as Secretary of State for Scotland but as the authority responsible for agriculture and responsible for the carrying out of the will of the people, democratically expressed, to put up an objection to such a proposal merely from the official point of view.


What about the parents?


The parents elect the education authority for the specific purpose of looking after the interests of the children. Suppose for some reason the attention of the parents of the children has not been drawn to this proposal. The advertisements of it in the public Press, and the discussion which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) has drawn to it by discussion in this House will surely ensure the full can- vassing of this proposal before the responsible people, the statutory authorities, and, what is still more important, the parents who are responsible for the upbringing and education of these children.

As to the general question whether any of these young persons should be allowed or should not be allowed to take part in seasonal employment in agriculture, that would lead us into a very wide Debate, upon which it would be wrong of me to embark at this time. The hon. Member raised instances such as the delivery of milk and the delivery of newspapers They are not exactly germane to the present discussion. These merely mechanical occupations, as the hon. Member himself would be the first to admit, are not in any way comparable to certain seasonal agricultural occupations. One of the great criticisms which is brought against the present education system is that by carrying it out as a mechanical system alike for country and town it gives but little opportunity for seasonal occupations in agriculture which afford to the country dweller opportunities for employment which are not in any way comparable—[Interruption]. Hon. Members interrupt, but this is not a mere quibble. The delivery of newspapers in the morning and the delivery of milk in the morning are occupations which are not in any way comparable to that of the country population taking part in the seasonal flush of labour which does occur during the Harvest period in the countryside. I am not willing to debate that between 11.20 and 11.30 at night in this House. Let us take it that the general question of agriculture and the seasonal occupation of the countryside child at certain times in the occupations of the countryside are held over for discussion at another time. The junior Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston) has frequently held up to our admiration the agricultural system of the State of Denmark, and he has commended it to the attention of the authorities, both agricultural and educational, in this country. I think he will he willing to admit that in the State of Denmark—


There is something rotten now in the State of Denmark!


It may be that there is something rotten in the State of Denmark. Even so, the State of Denmark, rottenness and all, has been commended to our attention by the hon. Member for Dundee.


Have I ever said that in Denmark there were children taken from School at the age of 10?


Let me point out to the hon. Member for Dundee and also the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood), win) represent two great agricultural centres, that Mr. Duncan, of the Farm Servants' Union, has pointed out repeatedly in the columns of his own newspaper that one of the things in the State of Denmark is that children are allowed at an earlier age and for a longer period to be away for seasonal occupations than would be permitted in this country. I point that out as an indication of the fact that there are questions involved which cannot be discussed in a matter of ten minutes, on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House.


You should not be so provocative.


I do not think the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston) would say that anything I have said is provocative.


You are only playing into his hands by interrupting him, and allowing him to get off the point.


We all know the strong concentration which is the peculiar prerogative of the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen). The extreme concentration and the unique perception of the point, which is the prerogative of the hon. Member, is not the privilege of all of us. Let us say this about the education authority of Kincardineshire. It put forward a case to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State said: "Although this case has been put forward on the full responsibility of your statutory position, I do not agree with it." The statutory authority then returned to the discussion, and said it wished to press the point, whereupon the Secretary of State said, "I will consider your case after it has been discussed in the columns of the public Press." It was then up to the opponents of the proposal to bring forward their criticisms. The whole question of seasonal occupation in agricultural areas is a matter which education authorities of great eminence have put forward, but I am not going "to discuss that now. The case now remains for discussion in the public Press, and it is as reasonable and as unprejudiced a forum as you can find anywhere, not excluding the House of Commons. The Secretary of State points out that any decision he may come to will remain for criticism in the House of Commons, it may be for reconsideration, and he will be prepared to defend any decision to which lie may ultimately come in the House of Commons.


You have five minutes yet.


I am prepared to sit down here and now if there are any criticisms which the hon. Member would like to make. I should like to hear them. I think I have stated a case to which no hon. Member can take exception. The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean) represents another agricultural centre.


Hon. Members on the other side of the House show their ignorance of the industrial position of Govan by forgetting that half of it is agricultural. I have at least five farms in my constituency, and the hon. and gallant Member for Kelvingrove (Major Elliot) has not even a dairy in his.


I was giving credit to the constituency of Govan for being an agricultural constituency, and the hon. Member himself reinforces my argument. The procedure outlined by the Secretary of State for Scotland is a public and democratic procedure to which no one can take exception. The decision, when it is come to, may be a matter for further review, but the procedure suggested is one to which right hon. Gentlemen or hon. Gentlemen in any part of the House cannot possibly take exception.


I think the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has made a most sorrowful exhibition of himself. As one of his colleagues who has some respect for him, I am very sorry indeed that he has been put into the position of defending the action of the Secretary of State for Scotland. What is revealed in the action of the Secretary of State for Scotland is not any consideration for the statutory authority of an education authority in any part of Scotland, but the abject and cowardly position that has been taken up by the Secretary of State for Scotland and which has been defended by the hon. and gallant Member to-night. If there could be anything more cowardly than the answer that has been given I would like to see it. The Secretary of State for Scotland has not the courage to stand up to the people in Kincardineshire who have asked to be allowed to employ children of 10 for work in their fields, and because he has not had that courage, he states that he will be willing to listen to any objections that may be put forward. Anxious to find a way out, he has not the courage to tell this education authority that he is not going to allow. this slavery to be imposed upon these children.

The hon. and gallant Member made play with the fact that I had, possibly, a little wider education than he has had. He has done that on previous occasions, but at least that wider education would make me always protest against children of 10 years of age being sent to work in the fields, and it would certainly prohibit me from standing anywhere to defend such an action. I am ashamed to-night of the words of the hon. and gallant Gentleman in defending the action of his chief and his Government in this matter, and the action of this education authority. The hon. and gallant Gentleman may have been impressed by my concentration in a way different. from other Members of the House but, at least, the people of Kelvin-grove will know the kind of Member they have and the people of Scotland will know the kind of Government they have. That Government, having imposed eight hours on the miners are now going to put children of 10 years of age into this most hard employment. This is to be done by hon. and gallant Gentlemen who themselves would not allow their own children at the age of 18 to undergo what they are ready to impose on the working class children of Scotland. I welcome the fact that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will have to answer for this matter in Kelvingrove. I am sure at no distant date, when a General Election does come, it will make that Division a certainty for the Socialist party in Glasgow. It will also mean the sweeping out of the country districts in Scotland of people like the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is signalising his accession to that office in this most miserable way.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, ME. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Resolution, of the House of 27th September.