HC Deb 26 May 1936 vol 312 cc1872-9

An employment certificate shall not be granted to any local authority or any Government Department.—[Mr. H. Macmillan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.35 p.m.


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

The effect of this Clause, if it were embodied in the Bill, would be that whatever other employers might do in the way of employing boys or girls at the age of 14, the Government, in their capacity as employers, and the local authorities, in their capacity as employers, should not follow this practice and should accept the view that, as employers, they would be doing a better public service by making 15 the age at which they normally recruited their labour. All through the public discussion of this Bill it has been the general view that the school-leaving age should be raised to 15. There is the view that in special circumstances exemptions should be allowed, but there is also the generally held view that employers, especially large employers, would do a useful service if they made it their ordinary custom to substitute 15 for 14 as the age at which they recruited their juvenile labour. If that is the agreed view of the House, I think perhaps the Minister might see his way to accept this Clause.

4.37 p.m.


I beg to second the Motion.

I think it is essential that this first effort at planning by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. H. Macmillan), after considerable Parliamentary experience, should be brought into practical effect, though I notice that his plan did not go as far as attracting support from any other hon. Member of the House. I would like to emphasise the fact, already mentioned by him, that both local authorities and the Government should set the highest possible standard of employment in this country, and if the general opinion of this House and, I think, of the party to which I belong is that we should aim where possible at raising the school-leaving age to 15, it would be very detrimental if any local authority or the Government themselves were at any time to be taking on people below that age. I cannot conceive how the Government could do that, unless through a Service Department, which I imagine, from what the Minister said just now, would probably be adequately safeguarded; but if this is the position of the Government, I think it would be as well to lay it down, if not by means of a new Clause, at any rate by the opinion of this House, that no authority, whether a local authority or the Government themselves, should employ people at a very early age.

4.40 p.m.


I think the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) has come rather too quickly to the conclusion that there are no supporters of this Clause because it appears on the paper in the sole name of the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. H. Macmillan). There is, I believe, a very considerable measure of opinion behind this Clause in this House. The hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees, in moving it, used studiously moderate language, and I have no wish to depart from the admirable example which he set in that respect. There is common agreement, I think, among all education authorities and in this House that if there is to be any very substantial educational benefit from this Bill, it will not be from the Bill itself or from anything which is in the Bill, but rather in the response which public opinion outside may make to it. It is clear that there has been developed throughout the country a very large body of opinion in favour of raising the school-leaving age to 15, without exemptions, which was not known to exist before. Many employers are, I think, strongly in favour of adopting that course, and some, I know, propose to do it here and there.

It would be of very great importance that the Government and the local authorities should set that example. There are Departments, as has been suggested by the hon. Member for Torquay, in which they could carry it into effect without any such Clause at all, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Education could tell us whether he has been in consultation with the Post Office, for example, to know what lines they propose to adopt when the Bill comes into operation. No doubt he will have been in consultation with his right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General in regard to the employment of boy messengers, who are not at present, I believe, taken on under 14½. I imagine that the Post Office would not find any difficulty in raising the age to 15, and it would be satisfactory if an example of this kind were set by the Government and if it were followed by other employers throughout the country, many of whom, with little encouragement, are willing to go the whole hog in the matter. I support the new Clause.

4.43 p.m.


I think again it might be convenient if I were to intervene now, though I am sure hon. Members will realise that it is with no desire to bring the Debate to an end when I resume my seat. The Mover of the Clause will forgive me if I make it plain that the Clause only appeared on the Paper this morning. He was good enough to discuss with me briefly yesterday the purpose with which he moved it, but, of course, the House will realise that in the circumstances it has been impossible for me to get any information with regard to the effects or difficulties which the Clause, if passed, might possibly bring about. I have been able in the short interval to get some information about Government Departments, but first of all perhaps it would be as well to say that I am in entire sympathy with the purpose of the Clause. I have noticed that where at present by-laws are in force raising the school-leaving age, any local authority which has been working those by-laws with a desire to reduce the number of exemptions has started by getting into touch with employers and trying to encourage and persuade them not to take children before the age of 15. I will certainly encourage local authorities all over the country to adopt the same procedure when this Bill becomes law. I quite agree that the position of these local authorities in dealing with the employers in their district would obviously be impossible if they or the Government themselves were in fact recruiting under the age of 15. I am afraid I cannot accept the new Clause, because I have a rooted objection to accepting any Clause which it has been impossible, owing to lack of time, to find the scope of or to know if there may be some unforeseen difficulty arising out of its acceptance.

With regard to Government Departments, there is no recruiting under 15 outside the Service Departments and the Post Office. In regard to the Service Departments, the majority of cases fall under the category that we were discussing on the last Clause, that is to say, they are recruited for some technical work, and it counts as full-time education. The only exception are the band boys, and in their case, as a result of discussion, the War Office authorities have intimated their decision, on the appointed day, to raise the age of recruitment to 15, thus falling into line with the country as a whole. The only case, therefore, that remains is the Post Office. The Post Office, I understand, recruit a considerable number of boy messengers and a small number of girl probationers under the age of 15, although here—and I think it is a very good earnest of the desire of the Post Office to co-operate—in the areas where by-laws have been operating they have themselves raised the age of recruitment to 15.

It will be necessary to discuss with the Post Office the possibilities with regard to these categories, but there is, I believe, one difficulty. The Post Office pride themselves on never recruiting boys or girls for these classes unless they can guarantee them work after the age of 18. There would be, I think, some difficulty if the age of recruitment were reduced by one year in that people would be reaching the age of 18 in three groups instead of four. There might, therefore, be some temporary difficulty in regard to their absorption. That is the kind of problem that we shall have to discuss between now and the appointed day, but I think the fact that in the by-law areas the Post Office, of their own accord, have raised the age of recruitment is an earnest of their desire to help.

With regard to the local authorities, I can give the House no information. I do not know whether there is any recruitment by the local authorities before the age of 15 and, if so, for what reason or in what service, or what difficulties would have to be overcome before the age could be raised to 15. But I am sure that hon. Members later on in the Debate will be telling me how much the local authorities desire the raising of the school age without any exception. Therefore I am sure that so far as the local authorities are concerned they will be ready to help. I wish that I had had more time to make inquiries. It may be found that there is no problem for the local authorities. Although I have every sympathy with the objects of the new Clause, and while I would do my best to encourage it, I cannot ask the House to accept it at such short notice, when I have not the information on which they ought to come to a decision.

4.49 p.m.


I am glad that the Minister does not propose to accept the Clause in the form in which it has been moved. None of us on these benches would object if the school-leaving age could be raised not only to 15 but 16, if that could possibly be done, but the Clause would not attain the object that we desire. Under the Clause, it is not simply a case of asking Government Departments but also local authorities to set an example, and the effect would be to deprive the children of the poorest parents of an opportunity of the best kind of employment. As long as the exemption provisions of the Bill are applied, a child can secure exemption at 14 years of age for beneficial employment, but under this Clause they would be debarred from entering municipal or Government employment. Therefore, it would mean giving a premium to the children of well-to-do parents, who could keep their children at school longer than the age of 14, and they would have the benefit of having these places reserved for them, because the children of the working classes would have been debarred by leaving school at 14. Let local authorities and Government Departments set an example in regard to conditions of labour and remuneration, but do not let us shut the doors to any opportunity of employment that is available. To accept the Clause would do an injustice to the poorest children who would have to seek employment at 14 where the circumstances of the parent required it. By all means raise the age to 15 or 16, but if the age of 14 is to be retained, then let the children of the working classes have the same opportunities of beneficial employment as any other children.


One recognises the difficulty of the Minister in considering the Clause at such short notice, because it involves a certain amount of inquiry, but I would ask him to consider it further, and, if he approves of it, to see that some such Clause is introduced in another place.

4.52 p.m.


I would reinforce the plea made by the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Sir J. Withers). The adoption of the Clause would provide the kind of example that could be shown by the House, and it would convince the large employers of labour that 15 is the appropriate age at which to recruit their labour. I do not share any of the misgivings that are felt by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Riley). If we pass the Clause and it would mean that no child could be recruited into the municipal service prior to the age of 15, all children would stand exactly on the same level. These jobs are now so much sought after that it would encourage many a parent to keep his child at school if he felt that on attaining the age of 15 the child would be able to enter municipal service. There is nothing in the Clause to prevent a local authority or a Government Department saying to a child, before the child reaches the age of 15: "On the attainment of your fifteenth birthday—birthday by Act of Parliament, not biologically—on the day that you are free from compulsory attendance at school, a job will be waiting for you." That is frequently done in the secondary schools, where a child cannot leave until the end of the school year in which he has attained the age of 16 years. I hope that between now and the time when the Bill is considered in another place—much as I dislike leaving things to be dealt with by another place—the Minister will get the views of the local authorities. I am sure that there is no local education authority that has to work the Bill that will be in a very comfortable position if it does not operate this Clause. Here is an example that the House could set to the whole country, and give encouragement to every enlightened employer of labour.

4.54 p.m.


I thank the Minister for his speech, and I apologise for the short notice he has had with regard to the Clause. I should like to ask leave to withdraw the Clause, because we have heard the Minister clearly state the Government view and the line that is likely to be pursued by Government Departments. He also indicated that the local authorities may be encouraged to take this view, but if it should be found that it might be more useful to provide for this matter by legislation, there will be an opportunity, which no doubt he will take, in another place to see that such a provision is inserted.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.


The first four Amendments, which deal with the same subject, are out of order. They would make a charge on the rates.


While I do not dispute your Ruling, and I appreciate the difficulty on the Report stage of raising anything in the way of an Amendment which it is suspected might add to the cost of the rates or the taxes, I would point out that the Amendment which proposes to add six months to the time when exemptions should come into operation, has aroused a considerable amount of interest outside the House, and a very large number of people attach importance to it. I think it could be argued that as the local authorities will have to make provision in case exemptions are not given, it will not necessarily add to the cost of the rates or the taxes.


May I approach the matter from a slightly different angle? In your Ruling you say that under the four Amendments it would not be possible to make exemptions, and therefore it would involve an extra charge. Under the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. H. Macmillan) exemptions would be permitted, and therefore I submit that perhaps that Amendment might stand.


It is a question of shortening the time for exemptions, and whether or not it would involve a charge on the rates. I have to interpret the rule as to whether or not the Amendment would or might create a charge on the rates.


Perhaps I might call attention to the fact that in the Committee stage an Amendment in regard to fourteen years and six months was admitted and discussed at some length.


The Ruling was that while Amendments which imposed a charge on the rates could be moved in Committee they could not be moved on Report.


These particular Amendments would make a charge on the rates, and are therefore out of order on the Report stage.

Viscountess ASTOR

Does that mean that we shall not be able to discuss the question of exemptions at all? That would take away the whole substance of the Bill.


They have already been discussed at great length in other stages of the Bill.