HC Deb 05 February 1942 vol 377 cc1355-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Dugdale.]

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Kilmarnock)

At the outset I must apologise to my right hon. Friend for not being in my place yesterday when there was an opportunity for a somewhat more lengthy discussion on this important subject. I am most grateful to him for coming here to-day and to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education. I want to give my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health an opportunity to make a statement which, in the interests of accuracy and of this whole problem, I believe should be made to the country. I have to bring my remarks into the narrowest possible time, and therefore I must cut out a great many things I had wished to stress.

This story really goes back two and a half years, and may I say to my right hon. Friend that I had no responsibility directly or indirectly for the policy over the last year and three-quarters. There has been a change in policy to which I should have been opposed had I been in office, whether I had been able to make any difference to it or not. Originally, the problem was to find relief for foster mothers in the reception areas after the first evacuation, and there were various circulars. The most notable one was that of 9th January, 1940, the last circular on this subject where the Board of Education appeared on top of the Ministry of Health on this question. But I do not approach this in a narrow or Departmental way. If I think that certain duties lie more appropriately with one Department, it is founded on a certain amount of experience and is a question of profound principle. If we are to make changes now, I want to be absolutely certain that we are making them on right lines, not only during the war, but if possible for the future. In that circular there are references to His Majesty's inspectors ascertaining the need, inspectors being consulted, that the superintendents should be trained experienced nursery school and infant teachers; they even safeguarded superannuation rights. There must be regular visits of doctors and nurses, also the co-operation of the welfare authorities; finally, the proposals had to be forwarded to the Board of Education for approval.

The whole matter was regarded from the point of view of education. The vital date was 6th June, 1941, when another circular was issued, and there were brought in senior Regional officers, the representative of the Ministry of Health, health visitors, even the Regional control of the Minister of Labour. The reason for this change was partly because the problem itself was beginning to change. It was no longer only a question of children in a reception area. It was now dealing also with the child of the munition worker, and there was a number of rather new problems. For example, in the first instance children between two and five were being considered; now it was the children from birth to five. That brought in the whole machinery of my right hon. Friend's Department, but in the process, and also because evacuation and billeting are in the hands of the Ministry of Health, as it were by a side- wind, a great many purely educational problems have got under the control of the Ministry of Health, and it is that to which I must take the strongest exception. I could go into that circular in greater detail, but I think there were a great many mistakes made. All the way through there was constant reference, for instance, to nursery training colleges but no reference to Board of Education training colleges, to which authorities were asked to apply. People used to ask me whom they should ring up. At least six different panels were mentioned. There were the W.V.S., who had a panel, and Toddington Manor, the headquarters of the National Union of Teachers, and three or four other places.

My right hon. Friend has now issued a third circular, which is far and away the most important of all. It came out on 5th December. I welcome certain things in this circular, and wish they had been done before—for instance, the 100 per cent. grant for nursery classes. This was a matter which was being dealt with very largely through the Ministery of Health, and, to some extent, the Ministry of Labour. They could give grants, and the Ministry of Labour proceeded with great ease to give 100 per cent. grants, whereas the Board in the past had always given 50 per cent. It is time that children, whether they are in evacuation areas or being billeted, whether it is a question of foster-mothers, of nursery centres or hostels for difficult children, were brought under one single control. I could stand here for some minutes and describe the absurdities that have resulted from dual control. I went last week to see what I thought was a hut for a nursery. It was not that, but a hut which was being built by a firm for children over five. I said, "Is there not some provision for children under five?" They said that they thought there was, but that it was to be done by another authority. There were two different sets of people building huts within 50 yards of each other, for children under five in one case, and for children over five in the other.

I could give examples from all over the country of that sort of thing. In one place, when the original Board of Education circular referred to was issued His Majesty's inspector gave instructions to proceed, and within 10 days sanction was given by the town council. My right hon. Friend will know the place to which I refer. But after the fatal circular of June, 1941, an application was sent in July, 1941, and the date on which sanction was received was 28th October, 1941, a delay of three months. The sanction was cancelled in December, and it was learned that the head office was not satisfied with this particular "Giproc" hut. I have been in this nursery school more than once. It has been there nine months, it has existed through sun and snow, it has resisted the extremities of weather, and it costs something like half the price—I have the exact figures here—mentioned by my right hon. Friend the other day in answer to a Question. I know that he will talk about steel being required, but substitutes have been found, and there was no reason why they should not have proceeded with that excellent experiment months ago. The circular says that the huts will be ready in 14 days. I could tell of places which have been waiting for huts for months. The people concerned are industrial firms, whose names I am prepared to give, and also local authorities. It is not in any way wickedness on the part of my right hon. Friend, but this dual, or even treble, control, which causes these delays. In another place, in which I am particularly interested, three of these centres were set up under the original Board of Education circular. Since the new circular came out, the work has been handed over to a new authority, the voluntary workers have all faded away. They have lost heart. There have been quarrels between matrons and between the teachers, and in two cases there have been resignations.

Take Manchester, which the right hon. Gentleman has been visiting recently, and we find there that the increase in attendance at nursery classes since the original circular has been from 5,252 to 7,159 by simply using the method that is waiting there to be used. This was achieved before the 100 per cent. grant, and it will no doubt be done faster now. But they decided, in spite of the circulars of the Ministry of Health, to go ahead. My figures show that in Manchester, with all the nursery centres which are to be put down in February and March, and looking forward to the next four or five months, only 316 children will be covered by this method, compared with at least 2,000 in the nursery classes. You may well say, "Good luck to them both; they are each doing their own job, and why get worried about it?" This question should have been put in the hands of the education authority and left there, strengthened by 100 per cent. grant from the Board of Education. There is no reason why, at any rate last July, you could not have said, "You can open early in the morning for breakfast and keep open for late tea." That would be an extension of the education system which would have been normal and which many directors of education would have welcomed all over the country.

When we come to the last circular, I must ask my right hon. Friend whether he will make one or two changes. I do not approve of the machinery, and I know that my right hon. Friend can say that we are working towards some joint body, and that, after all, there are the health and the educational sides. I agree. I want to work for some joint authority, but I am very doubtful whether the control which is going more and more into the hands of the Ministry of Health is the right thing for the children themselves. You have a very distinguished Civil servant in charge of the joint machinery and two or three members from the Board of Education, and you have a contact committee, again, with a Civil servant in charge—all housed in the Ministry of Health. I would say nothing against Civil servants; they do a most remarkable; work when they are given a clear-cut policy, but it is not the job of Civil servants to devise the whole policy and to act in this way. That is why a number of us have come to the conclusion that there should be a junior Minister in charge of this whole question. There are nearly 3,000,000 children under five in this country, and the problems which are besetting them are serious and affect three or four different Departments. I am not satisfied with the regional machinery which my right hon. Friend has set up. I am not tied to regional machinery for the sake of regional machinery. I would ask him, point blank, what is the position of the new regional organisers or supervisers whom he is appointing in different parts of the country? What will their relations be to the senior regional officer of his own Department? I believe that time after time the regional officer in this connection has been the fifth wheel of the mach. If you take a county like Hertfordshire, where practically the whole question is under the control of the local education authority, you have a very much more effective machine.

I pay due credit to the right hon. Gentleman and the President of the Board of Education for going to Birmingham and Manchester together, but is it really the best use of time for two Cabinet Ministers to tour the country in this way? My time, is up, but I want to ask the Minister whether he will answer some of these questions and explain why to-day there are only 20 nurseries in London, some 24 in Scotland—which I cannot go into to-day—and only 223 in England. Is this really the result of all this elaborate machinery at the centres and in the regions? Is this the best way to do the job? Is this the result of really careful planning at the centre, or is it not rather a jump from step to step, usually at the prodding of various outside bodies? I believe that we should work, however difficult it may be now, towards a single joint authority for all children under five and over five, and I think the major responsibility should lie with those who are responsible for the whole growth of children and not for one particular aspect of children—their health.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Ernest Brown)

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Lindsay) really falls into the error of over-simplifying the problem. There is no question here of any difference between the President of the Board of Education or myself, or the Minister of Labour and myself. We are working together, each of us has his own function, and we all mean to do two things—first, to increase effective child care and. secondly, to have regard to the immense problems which have came upon the Supply Departments and the Minister of Labour by the increasing demand for married women to take their part in the industrial war effort. If the hon. Gentleman will think again about these principles, he will see that the wisest men have been asking for yeas for the closer working together, centrally and locally, of those who have functions especially concerned with the education of children on the one hand and with their health on the other. That is what we are achieving.

I do not intend to go back two years. I have been in my present Ministry during this last year, and the hon. Gentleman will agree that the problem has changed, not merely in the way in which he has indicated, but in many other ways. If anybody had suggested to the local authorities in London this time last year that there should be a big expansion of war-time nurseries in London, the discussions would have proceeded on a very different basis from what they have been proceeding on during this last half-year. It is not only that you are now dealing with mothers in reception areas who are concerned with nursery centres for their children from the point of view of welfare, but there has also been an urge for wartime nurseries in evacuation as well as reception areas where mothers, who were able to go into factories, could not do so because certain of the arrangements for the care of their children had ceased in the first phase of the war.

I wish I had time to make a more comprehensive statement—

Mr. Cove (Aberavon)

And controversial?

Mr. Brown

Well, controversy if it is wholesome, is always good. Nobody welcomes more than my colleagues and my, self the fact that public attention is being given to this subject, because in our view, second only to fighting, working and winning the war is the care of children.

Mr. Cove

That is not the issue.

Mr. Brown

We have been meeting the needs. When I said the hon. Gentleman opposite had over-simplified the problem I meant that he talks always as though the education authority alone had the responsibility for children. That is not so. For instance, in the case of Lancashire, which he mentioned, even where the broadest conception of nursery classes is taken, as it is in Lancashire, and admirable work done—even where the age of admission to nursery classes is lowered below normal—there are still in the families of war workers children who are below that age. The Government have to provide, in the case of those women who, either because they want to help in the war effort or for economic reasons, wish to go to work, facilities not merely for the children who are in the normal way handled in the schools, but the children who do not go to school. There is, therefore, a multiple function. What has been arranged—with the agreement of all the Ministers concerned—is, first, the setting up of effective machinery at the centre for constant co-operation, and secondly—and let me say I was surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman's remarks on the subject of regional organisation, for in other spheres he has been pressing us to devolve these things to the regions—the devolvement of responsibility to the regions. We have arranged for co-operation on the regional level between the Education, Health and Labour Departments, and, as the hon. Member will understand, the authority in most cases is the corporation concerned, which has the final say as to which particular committee shall handle the problem from its own point of view.

The hon. Member talked about progress on war nurseries, and I want to say a word or two about that, though the hon. Member will understand that they are only one of the many forms of provision by which we are meeting the needs, Very considerable progress has been made, not merely with wartime nurseries, but also with nursery classes. I will give the House the latest figures, which will show how sharp has been the rise in the last few months. There are three problems—accommodation, staff and equipment. The problems remaining to be solved are nearly all of them problems of labour and materials. It is one thing to project a nursery and another thing to establish it and equip it with all the necessary labour, materials, and equipment. These are the facts with regard to wartime nurseries—not residential nurseries, of which there are 360 in the reception areas, all of them having children under five years in them. The number of wartime nurseries put into operation in October was 9, in November 22, in December 29 and in January 53. The House will see that there has been a rising curve.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

It is a small rise.

Mr. Brown

There is much more to be said than that, if only there were time. With regard to the numbers approved, in October we approved 57, in November 125, in December 133, and in January 114, a total of 429 in four months. New proposals were reported to us by the local authorities to the number of 48 in October, 162 in November, 136 in December, and 104 in January, a total of 450. There- fore, at the end of January, there were 276 wartime nurseries in operation, 374 more approved, 257 more projected, making a total of 907 compared with 457 at the end of September. If I were asked to make a forecast, I should say that we shall have a further 100 in operation during the month of February, and probably 150 in March. There is no reserve in our attitude to their provision; we shall provide as many as are needed now and as many as are estimated by the Ministry of Labour to be needed now for future requirements.

Mr. Cove

How many children are involved?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Member will see that when we project nurseries for 40 places, we reckon that at least 50 children will be accommodated over the 24-hour period. This is on top of a very large expansion in nursery classes, because in the areas reported to us by the Ministry of Labour on behalf of the Supply Departments as having a high demand for women workers, there were, at the end of January, 1,670 nursery classes with 48,587 children in them; 101 of these classes had been started in December and January. By the end of March—

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.