HC Deb 10 October 1939 vol 352 cc255-65

7.49 p.m.

Mr. Lees-Smith

I beg to move, in page 1, line 13, after "but," to insert "such sections or any of them."

This Amendment should, of course, he read together with the second Amendment. They are intended to implement the Amendment of which I gave notice when I was discussing this Bill on the Second Reading yesterday. The matter is very simple and can be put shortly. The Bill that we are discussing suspends the Education Act, 1936, until, broadly, the end of the war. We have accepted that suspension, but we wish to be free when it comes to an end to propose that the Clauses with regard to beneficial exemptions shall be left out and that there shall be a clear-cut raising of the school age to 15. I predicted yesterday that, as a result of the war, there would be a great change in our perspective as to the best treatment of children, and I am confident that one result of that change will be that it will be generally agreed that if you are to develop fully the potential qualities of children of 14 the best place to do so is in a school. My views on that subject were reinforced by the nature of the Debate which followed. We want to be able to raise that issue, but the Bill as it is drafted would not enable us to do so. It merely says that the Act of 1936 shall be brought into operation as the Board of Education may by order determine. That means that the Board of Education will make an Order, and that will be the end of the matter. There will be no opportunity for any debate or division in the House. This Amendment and the consequential Amendment which follows would make a simple alteration. There would be a draft Order introduced by the Board of Education which could be discussed by the House and modified by the House. In those circumstances we should be able to ask the House to discuss the particular point I have mentioned and to come to a decision upon it.

The Chairman

I take it that the right hon. Member wishes this Amendment and his consequential Amendment to be discussed together? I think that would be for the convenience of the Committee.

Hon. Members


7.53 P.m.

Mr. Tomlinson

I hope that the Government will accept the Amendment. It simply asks that the House should be given an opportunity to discuss whether or not a particular Section in the Act shall operate. Everybody who is familiar with the working of the Act realises that this was a blot on what might have been called a fairly good Education Act, and it is with the object of attempting, when the time arrives, to remove that blot that the Amendment has been put forward. Unless the Amendment is accepted, the Government of the day will be bound to take up the attitude—and one would not blame them—that the question is too big, and that if a new Education Bill was introduced the whole question would have to go into the melting pot. The Amendment makes it possible for the Government of the day, when the time arrives for the Act to be put into operation, to say without any loss of dignity that this question can be discussed. It has not been suggested that the present Bill has been introduced because there is any desire to limit the opportunities of children or that there is a need for child labour. The only reason for its introduction is that there are not facilities for giving the education which is required by children between 14 plus and 15. It seems to me that when the war comes to an end, when the evacuees have returned home, when all the work that has been done by education authorities in the country to make provision for these children is available again, that an opportunity should be given to all children to take advantage of the education which will then be available. That can only be done quickly if the Amendment is accepted and the House of Commons is in a position to come to a decision on the matter. For these reasons I hope that the Amendment will be looked upon favourably. It does not prevent the Government doing anything at the moment they want to do, and it leaves the door open when the time arrives.

7.55 p.m.

Mr. Edmund Harvey

I desire warmly to support the Amendment. Yesterday hon. Members on all sides of the House expressed a hope that this regrettable Bill made necessary by the event of the war should in the end open up the possibility of a further advance in education. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board said that the Board were determined to exploit the situation to the full, but, unfortunately, other people will exploit the children, and it is necessary that we should take account of this. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary on behalf of the Government will be willing to keep the door open for the Government and this House to have an opportunity of making the Act a much better Act than it is to-day. It is a very simple thing that is being asked. It is not asking for an immediate decision but that a way should be left open to Parliament when the Act is brought into operation to bring it into operation in fullness, giving the largest possible benefit to the children. I am sure that the heart of the Parliamentary Secretary is with the purpose of the Amendment, and I hope he will be able to accept it. We do not know the nature Parliament will take when this emergency is over. The Parliament which during the war passed the great Act of 1918 was succeeded by a Parliament which, to put it mildly, took a less keen interest in education, and the results were not what the framers of the Act of 1918 hoped they might be. I hope that this occasion will be taken to mark the intention of Parliament, even under this grave emergency, to do the best when the time comes for the children of this land.

7.59 p.m.

Mr. Kingsley Griffith

I want to add my voice and hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to accept the Amendment. The conditions under which the Act was passed, like nearly everything in our lives, are now in the melting pot. Nobody knows in what way England will emerge, and for that reason the Amendment is necessary, so that when the time comes Parliament will have an opportunity of reconsidering the question and giving the very greatest number of children the best possible facilities for education.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. Collindridge

I do not think the Parliamentary Secretary appreciates fully the sacrifice that some of us are making in accepting generally the idea put forward in connection with this Bill. Some of us who represent mining constituencies have in view not only that the raising of the school-leaving age was helping our children educationally, but that those children were being prevented by the raising of the age from entering the very dangerous occupation of mining, wherein so many of them would be subject to accidents, fatal and otherwise. If the Minister would accept the Amendment it would fill us with some hope that at the earliest opportunity, when this emergency is over, this privilege will be restored, which will help our children educationally and prevent them from having to enter the mining industry. I hope on that account the hon. Gentleman will look favourably on this idea, and will think of the generous way in which Members of the Opposition are receiving the principle of the Bill.

8.2 p.m.

Mr. R. Morgan

After the speech that I made yesterday I feel that I must support the Amendment. I talked yesterday about the exemptions, and it seems to me that if we have to postpone this Act, as we are going to do, we ought at least to have a chance of putting it forward again without that invidious distinction. If this is to be held up for three years, surely there must be very grave and good reasons why we should re-examine the whole terms of the Bill. It is very difficult at times to understand what is the real meaning of this very cleverly worded Amendment. If I read it aright, it will give an opportunity of reviewing the Act when it comes into force. After a lapse of time, when we ought to be able to say this is overdue by one, two or three years, we ought to be able to say that there are certain provisions which were made to ease the passage of the Bill and they ought to go. The least we can do is to ask the Government, when it comes before the House, to give us a chance of looking through the whole of the Bill and saying, "It is high time now that Clause so-and-so should not operate." If I have read the Amendment aright, I feel quite certain that I shall have to support it. In the light of the interpretation that I put on it, I think we ought really to ask the Government very seriously to consider the proposal made by the Opposition.

8.5 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education (Mr. Kenneth Lindsay)

I should like at the outset of my remarks to call attention to the Title of the Act. It is: An Act to modify the Provisions of the Education Act, 1936, in relation to the coming into operation of Sections 1 to 6 of that Act. The purpose of the Amendment, as the right hon. Gentleman's speech showed, was to make it possible, when the time comes for raising the school-leaving age, to repeal by order those Sections of the Act which relate to exemptions for beneficial employment.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

Should it not be put the other way? The object is to enable the Minister, or the House, to restore part of the Act without restoring the whole Act.

Mr. Lindsay

That depends entirely on the nature of the modifications. I think I put it frankly when I said to repeal those sections of the Act; it was made perfectly clear by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith) that the object is to get rid of the exemptions. The only question is whether this is the way to do it. I put it to the Committee that to tack on to a suspensory Bill a vital alteration in principle is not the way. I know that there are Members on both sides who dislike the exemptions. We have had experience in the last few years of the complications which local education authorities have been up against in trying to work exemptions. But that does not seem to be the point. The point is whether any action can be taken in regard to the matter and, if so, what action it should be; and this, it seems to me, should be left to the consideration of the Government when the war comes to an end and the Act is restored. I put forward one quite practical Consideration. The Board could not possibly bring the Act back without at least six months' notice to local education authorities. An enormous amount of preparation would be required and there would be very considerable discussion between the Board and local education authorities, which would afford perfectly good opportunities for promoting amending legislation. I should myself like to look at the whole question afresh, but at present all we are doing is to suspend the Act in its present form. I am willing to see if it is possible to get an Amendment drafted to get the general principle reviewed at the end of the war but to tack on to a suspensory Bill an important modification in a principle which was freely debated and accepted by the House is not, I think, the best method of procedure.

I do not wish to be pedantic in the middle of a war on procedure, but that is the view of the Board and I should be very sorry at this stage, when most of us are in agreement that we want to raise the school-leaving age in the best possible way, to see a Division over a purely suspensory Bill. Therefore, I appeal to Members on all sides of the House—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says "appeal in vain." I think it is not quite fair to put to the Committee, as has been put by some, that this is not an important modification. I should have thought that was agreed by anyone who had been through the battle for raising the school-leaving age; certainly those who sat on the committee must know that it was very keenly contested. Therefore, to push this important point of principle into a Bill of this sort does not seem to me to be the best way of conducting Parliamentary procedure. If it is a question of having the matter raised and if it is feared that this will be done by Order, the House having no chance of discussing it, my reply is that I think there are plenty of ways in which that could be dealt with. Indeed, I should be willing to draft an Amendment straight away to meet such an emergency. Therefore, I hope that hon. Members, with that assurance and the very full explanation that was given yesterday, will agree—

Mr. Lees-Smith

The Parliamentary Secretary said that he would be willing to draft an Amendment straight away. Will he let us see it during the course of the discussion?

Mr. Lindsay

I want to be clear as to the purpose of the Amendment. Its purpose would be to bring this matter before the House again, but not to allow for a modification; in other words, it would allow a negative, it would allow discussion, but it would not allow modification. [Interruption.] That is why I think it is much more honest to say exactly what we mean. What hon. Members opposite want is to make, in a suspensory Bill, an important modification of principle. I am afraid that the Government would not be prepared to accept that without further discussion after the war.

Mr. Jagger

May I correct a very grave misstatement of the hon. Gentleman? We want only to make it possible to discuss the matter.

Mr. Lindsay

I see the hon. Member's point. What hon. Members opposite, and indeed hon. Members on all sides, have made clear is that they wish to see the exemption Clauses repealed. I think there may be a case for that. I am not saying there is not. What I say is that this is not the time to attach Amendments to a Bill, the whole object of which is to suspend the Act. One hon. Member said that great sacrifices were made by hon. Members opposite in agreeing to this Bill. I should like to say that hon. Members on all sides regret very sincerely that this had to happen. But as we have agreement, do not let us add to this Bill; if a change is needed, let us set about it after the war in a straightforward way. I believe that will be possible. We cannot possibly foresee what the conditions will be after the war, but at any rate, it is inevitable that some method will be found of bringing this matter before the House and that there will be a full-dress Debate on it.

8.14 p.m.

Mr. Ede

In listening to the Parliamentary Secretary's speech, I could not understand why he could not accept the Amendment. After all, here we have six Clauses. Clause 1 raises the school-leaving age; Clauses 2, 3, 4 and 5 are concerned with exemptions; and then there is Clause 6, which amends the previous Act and has nothing to do with exemptions. The effect of carrying the Amendment would be that any Government in office at the end of the war—and if one thing is certain, it is that it will not be the present Government—would be in a position to draft an Order that would bring back all the six Clauses or any of them. Suppose the Government at that time was a better Government than the present one—[An HON. MEMBER: "Impossible."] It could not be worse. Suppose that it was a better Government and that it proposed to bring back Clauses 1 and 6, it would then be open to the House to move that Clauses 2, 3, 4 and 5 should be brought back as well. On the other hand, if it were proposed to bring back all the six Clauses, it would be open to the House to move an Amendment to the Order so as to get what the House wanted. I cannot see why the Government should object to that.

None of us can foresee exactly what will be the condition of the country at the end of the war, but this is certain, that there will be millions of men to be demobilised for whom occupations will have to be found in civil life. Therefore, it may be very desirable that it should be possible quickly and clearly to exclude from the labour market as many juveniles as possible. I should think that certainly that will be the position at the end of the war. As nobody knows when that time will be, we should take every step now to leave the action of the House as free as possible. We do not divide on the principle to-night. We divide for the purpose of securing as great freedom as possible for the House of Commons, at the end of the war to deal with the matter on the merits of the case as they are then. All except two or three sentences of the Parliamentary Secretary's speech, when clearly he was carrying out orders, was really directed towards securing that position. I sincerely hope that the Government will reconsider the decision announced by the Parliamentary Secretary, and will accept our Amendment.

8.17 p.m.

Mr. Mander

The Parliamentary Secretary said that it was essential that an opportunity should be afforded for the House to have a full-dress Debate or this matter after the war. One of the objects of this Amendment is to provide such a full-dress Debate. A great sacrifice is being made by hon. Members in agreeing, in time of crisis, to suspend this very moderate degree of advance in education. It might very well have been that hon. Members on this side might have said to the Government, "We will agree to this suspension provided that you, for your part, will agree to the exemptions being taken out when the war is over." That would have been a reasonable attitude, but the Opposition did not take up that attitude, and were much more accommodating. All they say—and I entirely associate myself with them—is that an opportunity should be afforded, directly the war is over, for dealing with the question of exemptions, and that if the House thinks fit, it shall decide that exemptions shall go. Of course, we realise that at that time the House might take the contrary view, but we say that, considering the great advances that were made in the last war in the way of constitutional reform, the franchise and education, which naturally arose out of the sacrifices of war, it in reasonable that, in the matter of education, we should contemplate a very much further extension of education at the end of the war than was actually contemplated in the 1936 Act. I hope that the Minister will think the matter over and consider whether it is not possible for him to accept an Amendment

on these lines. We want to obtain agreement on these matters and not to have divisions. I suggest that we should adjourn the Debate now—[HON. MEMBERS: "No"]—if the Parliamentary Secretary were to say that he would consider the matter further. At any rate, whatever may be the proper Parliamentary procedure in the circumstances, I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will facilitate the adoption of some Amendment of this kind which would, I think, be in accordance, with the wishes of all who are interested in education.

8.20 p.m.

Mr. Spens

May I respectfully suggest to the Committee that in this discussion we are tilting at windmills? Here we are debating the method by which we should deal with Amendments to the existing Act after the war is over. This Debate is proceeding on the basis that all the schools in the country and the whole educational machinery will be in a position to put the Act back into operation at the end of the war. That is an optimistic way of looking at the situation, and one in which, I hope, the Opposition is right. But the view I take is that when the war is over the Government of the day, whether it be the present Government or any other Government, will have to bring in a Measure to meet the circumstances of the educational situation as it then exists. That will not be done by bringing back the Act which we are now suspending. It will involve a much greater Measure. I hope, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary will leave matters as they are and leave it to the Government of the day, after the war is over, to bring in the proper Measure to deal with the situation which then obtains.

Question put, "That those words be there inserted."

The Committee divided: Ayes, 81; Noes, 95.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Lindsay

I beg to move, in page 2, line 12, after "incurred," to insert: before the commencement of this Act by a local education authority. They are words which appear in the Bill underlined, and I move their insertion.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, with an Amendment; as amended, considered; read the Third time, and passed, with an Amendment.