HC Deb 13 September 1939 vol 351 cc733-41

Order for Second Reading read.

8.19 p.m.

the Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

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

Part I applies to the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, and the colleges and halls within those universities, and the Colleges of Winchester and Eton. These are the institutions which are dealt with by the Universities and College Estates Act, 1925, which this Bill proposes to amend in certain particulars. Part II applies only to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and to the colleges within those universities, and it provides for alteration of procedure applicable to those institutions as laid down in the Oxford and Cambridge Act, 1923. I want to make it clear that the Bill simply deals with institutions covered by the two Acts. It is similar to an Act which was passed during the last War in March, 1915, leave to introduce the Bill being moved by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was then Attorney-General. May I read a passage from his speech which is as true to-day as it was then: Every part of the community has made a ready and a full response to the call of the country for men to join the armed forces of the Crown, but nowhere has the response been more prompt and spirited than in our ancient universities." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd February, 1915; col. 179, Vol. 70.] When Lord Oxford, who was then Mr. Asquith, as Prime Minister moved the Second Reading of the Bill he gave certain details as to what had been done. I shall not trouble the House with any details, but I would like to pay a tribute to the evidence which we have had of the response in the institutions and of the work that has been done in organising their effort in one capacity or another. The result of war conditions on these institutions will of course be a very substantial loss of revenue; fewer students obviously mean less in university and college fees and dues. Part I of the Bill reproduces corresponding provisions of the Act of 1915 and enables the various bodies concerned to draw on the future for the needs of the present.

Mr. Dalton

As I understand it, Part I applies to universities and colleges at large, and Part II to Oxford and Cambridge only.

The Attorney-General

That is not quite correct. Part I applies to Oxford and Cambridge and to Durham, and to the colleges of Winchester and Eton. Those are the institutions dealt with by the Act of 1925. Other universities, which of course have similar problems, will also require legislation, and they are already in touch with the appropriate Departments. Their needs will be considered and dealt with in the appropriate way. There has to be a separate Bill dealing with these institutions which are covered by the Acts to which I have referred. Clause I enables the institutions to bororow not only the capital charges, but for making good any deficiencies in revenue due to war conditions, and Clause 2 enables the period of repayment of existing loans to be extended in appropriate cases. I think that that sufficiently explains the effect of Part I.

Part II, which applies only to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, alters the procedure for the making of Statutes, that is to say college or university Statutes, which is laid down in the Universities (Oxford and Cambridge) Act, 1923. Under that Act universities and colleges, in order to make any alterations or amendments in their Statutes, have to go through a somewhat cumbrous and elaborate procedure before the Privy Council. That procedure cannot be got through expeditiously and it also involves certain expenses. This Bill, therefore, like the Bill in 1915, confers on those universities and colleges power to make emergency Statutes dealing with the various matters set out in Clause 5. I can, perhaps, take one or two as examples, and the House will see the general nature of the provision. In Clause 5 (a) an emergency Statute may be made for postponing, until any date not later than the end of the period of the present emergency, the election or admission to any office in the university or in any college. That is to say, a college, under its Statute, may have power to appoint a certain person to the office of tutor or professor. Owing to the shortage, or absence, of students it may be quite unnecessary to fill that office until the end of the emergency. That would require an alteration in the Statute. This will enable that alteration to be made, subject to certain safeguards, in an expeditious and cheap manner.

If one looks down the various provisions, I think they are all matters which may well arise as the result of the effect of war and are a proper matter in respect of which this power of making emergency Statutes should be conferred. They follow in their main outlines the Act of 1915. I have received communications from the Burgesses of Oxford and Cambridge and there are one or two quite minor points to which they have drawn our attention. They can be dealt with, if necessary, in Committee, but I do not think that they are points that I need trouble the House with at the moment.

8.29 p.m.

Mr. Dalton

We have not had long to look at the Bill and there may be complexities not visible on the surface, but on the surface it appears to be common sense. I gather, however, that there are other universities not covered by this, and I hope we can be assured that they will be treated not less considerately in so far as their differing circumstances may require it. I think the Attorney-General said that other legislation would be brought in later to deal with them.

The Attorney-General: I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not want to press me too far, but I can give him an assurance that the sort of points with which the Bill deals, as far as other universities require them to be dealt with, as they will, will receive consideration. Obviously, the general intention will be to give other universities and colleges the same latitude which has been given to Oxford and Cambridge and the other institutions covered by this Bill. Whether and in what cases legislation may be necessary and in what cases the matter can be dealt with without legislation, I cannot say at the moment; but if in particular cases legislation on similar lines is necessary, subject to discussion between the university concerned and the Department, that legislation will be introduced..

Mr. Dalton

I am allowing the Bill to go with rather few comments at this stage only because I assume that it is a mere legal chance, as it were, that the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham happen to need this kind of Bill; and I am taking it for granted—and if later on it turns out not to be correct, we shall have some criticism to make—that all other universities and university colleges will be treated not less favourably than these, in so far as their separate situations may require it. I assume that is so clear that I need not press the matter further.

There is a general point which I think it will be in order for me to raise here, and perhaps we may have a reply from the Attorney-General when I have made a few further observations. It is a financial matter which affects universities at large, including Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, and it concerns the University Grants arrangements. Certain proposals are made here which partake of the nature of unsound finance. One of the things they are allowed to do is to treat capital as income. Within limits that may be justified by surrounding circumstances, but I hope the Government are not going to force any university or university college to eat its capital merely because they are going to cut off sustenance through the University Grants Committee. Clearly, there is to be no full university life in any real sense of the term during the war. There will be only the ghost of a university life flitting through this country, but nevertheless, it is worth while keeping in that ghost a semblance of life until such time as the war shall end and the youth of this country shall again enter into what is left of its heritage. Therefore, I ask for an assurance that there are not going to be pettifogging economies by wav of the University Grants Committee. I should feel happier—and I am sure others share my feelings—if we could be given a definite assurance that it is not at present contemplated that the University Grants Committee shall be cut at this stage. It is a comparatively small sum which they get compared with the vast expenditure on war and on many other peace-time purposes, and I hope that the Attorney-General may be able to tell us that, for the time being, at any rate, the University Grants will be maintained in their entirety until we can see a little more clearly just what the next stage is in the wartime life of the universities.

The provision of Part II of the Bill are eminently sensible. Many of the appointments which otherwise would be due to be made clearly need not be made in war time, for obviously with a greatly diminished number of students smaller staffs will be necessary. Large numbers of the staff will be fighting or serving the country on the home front, and it would be ridiculous to require that all these appointments should be filled up as if there were no war. In the same way, other provisions seem to me to be sensible, and if we can be assured that there is no discrimination between the universities covered in this Bill, and other universities, university colleges and similar institutions, and that their financial difficulties will not be further aggravated by economies in the University Grants Committee's provisions, then I, at any rate, for my part am content to allow the Bill to have a Second Reading.

Mr. Pickthorn

I do not wish to take the time of the House for more seconds than are necessary to thank His Majesty's Government for finding time to bring in this Bill, which is, I think, clearly necessary. I do not think there can be any doubt that it is on the right lines. It follows almost exactly the previous Statute, about which there have been very few complaints. I do not think there can be much in the Bill which needs amending, or which can be seriously criticised.

8.37 p.m.

Mr. Edmund Harvey

I was very glad that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) raised the question of universities other than Oxford and Cambridge. Durham is the only one of those included in the Bill, but other universities, less fortunately endowed with possessions than the great universities, will be in a serious financial position owing to the war emergency. I was also glad that the Attorney-General made it clear that the good will of the Government would be with any measure necessary to put them in an equally favourable position. As Question Time to-day, the hon. Member for London University (Sir E. Graham-Little) raised the particular question of the constitution of that university which would require legislation, or at least an Order in Council to deal with the difficulty which he had in view. Obviously, in regard to some of these universities there will be administrative difficulties which will need either an Act of Parliament or an Order in Council under the Emergency Powers Act. The reply to the hon. Member for the London University to-day indicated that if the other universities wished it, they might promote legislation. I am sure it will not be putting them on an equality with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge if they are to have the burden of promoting legislation themselves and if the Government do not undertake, as they have undertaken in this case, legislation on their behalf.

I hope we may have an assurance from the Attorney-General that, whether by Order in Council or by legislation, the Government will take the responsibility of easing the difficulties of the other universities—difficulties which have arisen from exactly the same cause as the difficulties with which the Bill deals—and that they will do so without putting on those universities the burden of expense and care which would be involved in promoting legislation in present circumstances. I am also glad that a plea has been made that, whatever happens at present, there will be no cutting down of the grants which are given through the University Grants Committee. If the universities have to use their capital for current expenditure in the first instance, it would be a most unfortunate thing for the future life of the universities, and the younger universities are in even greater need, financially, than those of Oxford and Cambridge. I hope that the Attorney-General may be able to give an assurance on those two points.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. Mander

I do not desire to raise any objection to the Second Reading of the Bill, the more so because the hon. Member who represents me in this House, though not always to my complete satisfaction, has given it his blessing, but there is one point about which I should like to ask the Attorney-General. I notice in Clause 4 a reference to "any College in the University," and in Clause 7 there is a definition of what a college is. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain why it is necessary to state that Girton and Newnham Colleges are colleges? Is it that they are women's colleges, or what is the reason? There are one or two men's colleges, too, which have to be brought in and denned as such, but I should have thought that such well known colleges as Girton and Newnham were recognised as colleges at Cambridge and that it was unnecessary to say so in this Clause.

8.41 p.m.

Mr. Sexton

I want to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) and other hon. Members have said, to the effect that the economies proposed in this Bill should be equally applied to all universities. The older universities are more richly endowed than some of the newer ones, and, therefore, it would not be right to pare down the other universities and colleges which are not included in the term '' older universities." I would like to press on the Attorney-General and the House the question about the reducing of staffs. So far as possible I think the staffs ought to remain as fully manned as they can be. It is true that there will be fewer students, but those fewer students will certainly be more valuable after the war, because there will be so few trained university students leaving the colleges and the universities that they should be pearls of the purest water, and they will have a very great opportunity in the time to come, we hope, to spread the knowledge and extend the influence which they themselves have received at their colleges. I would also emphasise the grave danger of colleges and universities having to eat into their capital to carry on, and, therefore, I join with the hon. Members who have emphasised the fact that the grants should be maintained at least to the highest point at which they are now.

8.42 p.m.

The Attorney-General

With regard to "other universities," as I said, they have their own problems and, I understand, are in contact with the Departments concerned. I could not, therefore, give any definite assurance as to any particular point of procedure in dealing with them. I gave expression to the general intention and desire, and I will ask the House to be content with that, because at the moment I do not desire to take it further. With regard to the University Grants Committee, that too is a matter which is quite outside of and unaffected by this Bill. The reason for this Bill depends on the fact that so far as Part I is concerned, under the Act of 1925, to which I have referred, the finances of these institutions are under the Minister of Agriculture, whose name the House will see on the back of the Bill, in respect to the raising of loans, and their position is dealt with by that public Act, and, therefore, an Amendment of that Act is properly included in this Bill. That is the reason why the University of Durham is dealt with in this Bill, because that is included under that Act. As to the position of the other universities, London University has its own Act and some are under charters, and their legal position is therefore different. Therefore, I cannot, I am afraid, this evening give a specific assurance as to how their problems will be dealt with. I should like to thank the junior burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) for what he said about this Bill, and the hon. Gentleman opposite who expressed general approval, and I hope the House will now see their way to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Mr. Mander

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman answer my question about women's colleges?

The Attorney-General

I beg the hon. Member's pardon. I think the reason for that difference is that, as he knows, the women's colleges are more modern foundations than the other colleges, and not only so, but their legal basis is in fact different. They have, I think, all of them, charters, and that is why in an earlier Clause of the Bill will be found the word "charters," because it is not in the Act of 1915. Therefore, to prevent any difficulty where it is intended to include the newer bodies on a different legal basis, it is thought right to put them in these terms in a definition of the Bill.

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

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow. — [Major Sir J. Edmondson.]