HC Deb 23 May 1952 vol 501 cc854-61

11.52 a.m.

Mr. Charles Boyle (Salford, West)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 11, at the end, to add:

(2) For the purposes of section sixty-one of the principal Act (which defines the expression "in need of care or protection ") where a child or young person is for the purposes of the Education Acts, 1944 to 1948, of compulsory school age and a registered pupil at a school, the fact that he persistently fails to attend at that school, or that he attends thereat with persistent irregularity shall (without prejudice to the generality of the provisions of paragraph (a) of subsection (1) of that section) be evidence that he is beyond control. In moving this Amendment I recognise that there was quite a long debate upstairs on this question and that the Committee divided on it with 12 voting "Aye" and 12 voting "No." The purpose of this Amendment is to endeavour to get from the Government assurances that consideration will be given to the point of the Amendment in a future Bill that might be introduced.

Our desire was that truancy from school on the part of children might be regarded in certain circumstances, after a continual absence from school, as coming under the term "in need of care or protection." It has been the experience of many magistrates and members of education committees that some children are habitually absent from school. Yet, as the law stands, many months sometimes elapse before these children are brought before a juvenile court or, alternatively, before their parents are brought before an adult court. Children have suffered considerably because of this delay and many of them have lost valuable days of schooling.

During the Committee stage we endeavoured to get that put right so that such children should be regarded as in need of care and attention and thus could be dealt with almost immediately by juvenile courts. That, briefly, is the purpose of the Amendment. During the Committee stage the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education replied to our contentions in these words: The most important point is that there is a Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, which will certainly—subject to time and the other limitations of human life—be introduced at the earliest opportunity. The subject is one which has engaged the attention of my right hon. Friend. She is fully conversant with the arguments, and I will make certain that her advisers, and therefore she, are fully conversant with anything which has been or may be said today. Although I can hardly be in a position here and now—it would be almost a sort of breach of Privilege—to promise that something will be put into the Bill, yet I can say that the possibility of putting in a provision, which I think is the main point before us, has been, is being and will be most carefully considered in connection with a Bill now actually being prepared under the auspices of the Ministry of Education."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 29th April, 1952, c. 16-17.] That half-assurance hardly satisfied us and it was felt that such a promise did not meet what we felt was an urgent matter. The result was that there have been conversations behind the scenes and I understand that the Ministry of Education are now prepared to make suggestions that Section 40 of the Education Act, 1944, might be amended by the introduction of a Miscellaneous Provisions Bill under the auspices of the Ministry of Education.

If the hon. Gentleman who is here this morning representing the Home Office is in a position to speak for the Ministry of Education on this matter, and to assure us that our point will be contained within any such Bill, then I am sure we should be happy to withdraw this Amendment.

The purpose of putting it on the Order Paper was to drive our point more firmly home and in the hope that we should get the assurances we desire.

While we are not prepared to say that what is suggested through the usual channels is as good as our original intention, we feel that it is meeting our point to some degree. We have sympathy with the Government in their desire to get this idea into the right place, and if they think that the right place is an education Bill rather than this Bill, then we would be prepared to agree. I sincerely hope, therefore, that the Under-Secretary will be able to give the assurances we desire.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I beg to second the Amendment.

While I appreciate that a miscellaneous provisions Bill is likely to contain a provision of this kind, I hope it will be passed into effect before this Bill is placed on the Statute Book. This is an extremely important matter. It is not just a fleeting matter, but one which has attracted the attention of social workers for many years. You, Sir, will know, that the juvenile magistrates—

Mr. Ede (South Shields)


Mr. Janner

Well, we sometimes talk about criminal lawyers without meaning a lawyer who is himself a criminal, but one who deals with criminal matters. I hope that if the late Home Secretary—

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

The ex-Home Secretary.

Mr. Janner

Yes, the ex-Home Secretary—will look at the matter again, he will find that the style of description is not so imperfect as it might have appeared at first sight. Be that as it may, the magistrates in the juvenile courts have been especially selected because they understand the necessities of young people who happen to have strayed in one way or another from the ordinary path.

12 noon

It is important that in the case of truancy, the matter should be left in their hands also, because they take especial care to investigate every case and see what the home conditions are of the child concerned as well as the other prevailing circumstances in respect of that child. The fact that magistrates who sit in the petty sessional courts and deal with truancy matters are not always acquainted with the circumstances—I would almost go to the extent of saying that the vast majority of them are not acquainted with dealing with juvenile cases in the ordinary way—is itself something which ought not to prevail. They cannot, and in most cases do not, know the best way of dealing with the child who has transgressed by remaining away from school.

I believe that both the Home Office and the Ministry of Education appreciate that fact and will be prepared to deal with it in a proper manner. My only fear is that the matter may be so delayed as far as a miscellaneous provisions Bill is concerned that it may not reach the Statute Book for a very considerable time. If so, I hope that the Home Office and the Ministry of Education will agree that that Bill should be brought into force as speedily as possible and will see their way at a later stage to introduce this provision.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I think it would be convenient if I speak now. There was a long debate upstairs in Committee on this question. A great deal of interest was taken in it and, as has been said, the Division which resulted was a tie, at 12-all. I think it is fair to say that that was not in any sense a party vote. In fact, Members of both parties were on both sides.

Since the Committee stage there has been further discussion on this matter, and I think that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education has had some personal discussion with the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl), who moved the Amendment upstairs. Unfortunately, neither of them is able to be present today—they are, so to speak, paired for the occasion-and my hon. Friend has asked me to apologise for his absence. I think, however, that I can say all that is necessary to be said about the Amendment this morning.

The position now reached in the preliminaries for an education Bill is such that I am authorised by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education to say that an Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is now in course of prepara- tion. It is the Minister's intention to include an Amendment to Section 40 of the Education Act, 1944, the effect of which would be to enable a local education authority to bring children directly before a juvenile court on the ground of failure to attend regularly at school.

The Minister expects to present the Bill this session-that, I think, answers the point made by the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner)—and the House will have the opportunity of effecting the desired Amendment to the appropriate law and of thus meeting the point which the hon. Member for Widnes and those who supported him in Committee upstairs advocated so clearly. I think that that fully meets all the points that were raised, and I hope that with that assurance the hon. Member will be willing to withdraw his Amendment.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I hope that if the Minister of Education does that, she will not do it in quite this form. This is a lot of nonsense. If one troubles to read the Amendment, it means that the fact that mother keeps Jimmy at home, is evidence that Jimmy is beyond control.

Mr. Janner


Sir H. Williams

Certainly. It is assumed that because the boy is persistently absent from school he is beyond parental control.

Mr. Janner

The hon. Member is dealing with this matter in a vacuum. The body which deals with this type of offence would not send a lad who has been kept away from school for a few days to a juvenile court. The hon. Member must give them some credit for being able to decide what are suitable cases.

Sir H. Williams

I think that the vacuum is in the hon. Member's head. The Amendment says that if a boy is persistently absent—

Mr. Janner

Yes, "persistent".

Sir H. Williams

—or is persistently irregular—which is a curious combination of words, anyhow—that

shall — be evidence that he is beyond control. The fact that a boy does not turn up regularly at school is to be evidence that he is beyond the control of his parents.

It may be entirely due to the action of his parents that a boy does not attend. That is all that those words mean. They are most unsuitable words for the purpose which the hon. Members have in hand. If the Minister of Education does something like this, she does it very much better than the hon. Members opposite have attempted to do it.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I should like to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) has said. Whatever the merits or demerits of the idea underlying this form of words, the form of words itself is extremely undesirable.

One wonders what type of case the Amendment is assumed to be trying to catch. The mere fact that a child is persistently irregular in attendance at school is itself to be evidence that the child is beyond control. That is extremely hard on the unfortunate child, who may have parents who are beyond control, whose parents may have forced him to go out to work and thereby remain away from school. The mere fact that an attendance officer appears before—

Mr. Royle

I should like the hon. and learned Member to realise that what he is suggesting, and what the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) suggested, is already provided for by the present statutes. As far as parents are concerned, they can be brought before the court. We are now trying to make provision in the case of children.

Mr. Doughty

I entirely agree that parents can be, and frequently are, rightly, brought before the court, but what the Amendment seeks to do is to say that when a child is brought before the court, the mere evidence of the attendance officer that the child has been persistently irregular in attendance at school shall be evidence in itself that the child is beyond control. That is the wording of the Amendment. It can mean nothing else.

In fairness to the mover and seconder of the Amendment, I do not believe that that is what they meant. I believe that their intentions are excellent, but that their wording is entirely wrong. When the Minister of Education looks into the matter, I hope that she will produce a Clause which satisfies the proposers of the Amendment but not in these very words, because I think they are badly drafted.

Supposing that a child is sent out by his parents to deliver newspapers or anything else. That child may be persistently irregular at school, although he is extremely easy to control. The child would be brought before the court, the attendance officer would give evidence of irregularity in school attendance, and the child would, therefore, be assumed, unless contrary evidence is called, to be beyond control, and would be sent to an approved school. Presumably, that is a very undesirable combination. That is the wording of the Amendment. I am not criticising the idea of the Amendment but the wording and I hope that the Minister will reject this form of words.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I assume that when my hon. Friends put the Amendment down they were trying to strengthen the law in regard to persistent truancy from school. While there is a good deal to be said for the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) and his neighbour, the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), I think that we can fairly direct our minds to the purpose rather than the actual wording of this Amendment. I gather that my hon. Friends did not expect to find this would be accepted today.

There was a time when I wondered whether the absence of truancy did not indicate a degeneracy in the spirit of adventure in British youth. In the days when I was a pupil at school truancy was very frequent. Although I had never the pluck myself to be a truant, I did know youths who gaily took a week or a fortnight off persistently. They turned up, or were occasionally brought by their parents, to the door of the school and then, without any hesitation, draped themselves over the headmaster's desk to pay for the pleasure they had had. I recollect one such youth, a schoolfellow of mine, who in that way prepared himself for a very gallant act in the First World War which earned him the Médaille Militaire of the French Government. Certainly, those who obeyed the law and attended school regularly never earned such high distinction.

I am glad to hear that it is probable that there will be early legislation to deal with this matter. I think that one of the things by which the Education Act, 1944, has rather fallen short is in the powers for securing compulsory school attendance. I can speak for the framers of that Act, I hope. We did give considerable attention to this matter and endeavoured to devise a scheme for securing attendance at school which would not carry some of the stigma of offenders which the old law carried.

I am inclined to think that we made the law rather too difficult to enforce and too easy for persons who are determined to evade it—I am now talking about parents rather than pupils. But, undoubtedly it has also made the task of dealing with the persistent truanter rather more difficult than it was. I sincerely hope that this legislation will be brought before us. In fact, I can assure the Under-Secretary of State that if this is put in front of the Transport Bill and the Steel Bill it will have the very lively support of hon. Members on this side of the House because this, at any rate, will be a Bill which will do a little good instead of doing a great deal of harm.

I think my hon. Friends can be reasonably satisfied with the assurance that they have received. I would have been a little more satisfied with it if I could have had the assurance of the Leader of the House that he agrees that this is to be legislation during this Session, but I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will be able to convey to those concerned that there has been interest in this matter this morning and that a desire for early legislation on this point has been very clearly expressed. I hope that we may see this legislation during the current Session and that it will be framed so as to enable the persistent truant to feel that the law has at last caught up with him and that recent evidences of juvenile ingenuity in just keeping clear of the law are not to be allowed very much longer.

Mr. Royle

We find the statement of the Under-Secretary most reassuring, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.