HC Deb 28 July 1953 vol 518 cc1224-40

9.36 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Moyle (Oldbury and Halesowen)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 6, after "Commissioner," to insert "shall consult and."

There is substance in this Amendment, because it seeks to link the local authorities more satisfactorily with the county councils. By "local authorities" I mean the rural district councils and the borough councils within a county council area. On the Second Reading of the Bill, and from the Explanatory Memorandum, I gathered that the county council would be the administrative agent and that the police of the county area would be the main advisers to the county authority in respect of the school crossings and the appointment of school crossing patrols.

Therefore, instead of placing, as the Clause does, the responsibility on the rural district council or the borough council to make representations to the county authority, we suggest that it would be much more satisfactory if the county council, having the advice of the police, had imposed upon it, as this Amendment suggests, the obligation to consult the local authorities within its area excluding, of course, the county council, because it has equal powers with the county council as far as this Bill is concerned. This would remove any sense of grievance on the part of the local authorities and would discourage a tendency on their part to appeal to the Minister from decisions taken by the county council, particularly if those decisions are taken without prior consultation with the subordinate authorities concerned.

For those reasons I hope the Under-Secretary of State will consider this Amendment favourably, and, if the words in which it is framed are not satisfactory, will undertake to consider sympathetically the points I have submitted to him.

Colonel Ralph Clarke (East Grinstead)

I hope that the Amendment will be resisted. There is a great deal of difference between shall have regard to any representations, which is the wording in the Bill, and shall consult and shall have regard to, which is what the Amendment suggests. One has first to consider who these local authorities are that are referred to. They are defined, I think, in Section 305 of the Local Government Act, 1932. They include borough councils, rural district councils, urban district councils and parish councils. The total in the country would come to something like 8,000, which is a large number.

I understand that by the Amendment the county councils would be under an obligation to write to all their local authorities and ask whether they had any suggestions to make. This might provoke a great deal of correspondence and applications that normally would never be forthcoming. Any self-respecting local authority that was written to in that way would feel under an obligation to make a suggestion, which, in the ordinary course, they might never think of making. As a result, a greatly increased amount of administrative work would be required by the county councils, which might lead even to additional staff; and in these days, when everyone is doing his best to keep down the rates, that is highly undesirable.

The more serious aspect is that considerable delay might be caused in getting the patrols put on duty. A good deal of correspondence and formality would have to be gone through, and if there were a great number of applications, more than were really necessary, priorities would have to be established. By the wording of the Bill—" having regard to any representations "—every necessity would be met.

County councils are responsible bodies. I have been a member of one for a great many years, and I know that they would do all that was necessary, that no application would be ignored and every application would be given full consideration. The present form of the Clause would avoid the submission of a number of cases that were not founded on any need and which, if put forward, would waste a lot of time. The wording of the Clause is amply sufficient, and I hope that the Amendment will not be accepted.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

The Amendment seems to me to be so sensible that I hardly think it necessary to make a speech on it, for so sensible a Minister as we have on the Government Front Bench will immediately see how eminently sensible it is. What we ask is that before the position of the patrols and the time at which they operate is determined, the county council should consult the local authority in whose area the patrols are to be situated, whether that authority is a non-county borough, a rural district council, an urban district council or a parish council.

People in their own localities are very jealous concerning the safety of their children, and they might be expected to know their own localities and the danger spots and at what time of day they were the most dangerous. Therefore, those people should know best where the school patrols should be situated and at what time they should come into operation. For that reason, we ask that before the final decision is taken, the local authorities should be consulted. They are more likely to make a proper decision and to convey it to the county council than would be some official of the county council by studying a road map or by making occasional visits in a motor car to the area.

9.45 p.m.

There is nothing whatever derogatory to the dignity of a county council in the proposed Amendment. After all, there is nothing undignified in consulting a rural district council, or an urban district council. I think that the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) has greatly exaggerated the amount of additional correspondence which would be entailed if the Amendment were adopted. It would only mean a letter from the rural or urban district council asking to send a few representatives to county hall to consult the officials of the county. The additional correspondence would be very small indeed.

I think that the hon. and gallant Member has also grossly exaggerated the amount of delay which would be caused. The delay would be no more than the time required for fixing a meeting between the representatives of the minor local authorities and the representatives of the county councils. It may be better to have a little delay if the result is more satisfactory in fixing the patrol at the proper place and the proper time. The usefulness and sensibleness of the Amendment speaks for itself, and I am sure that the Minister will accept it.

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

I am sorry that I shall have to disappoint the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle). Subsection (4) of Clause 1 is a compromise provision satisfying, I understand, neither the County Councils' Association nor the Association of Municipal Corporations, I understand, also, that they agree that the matter should continue as it stands, although that might be putting it too high. I think that all our purposes are common in this discussion. The main objection is to formal consultations. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) said, the result of the Amendment would necessarily be delay.

At present, if the Commissioner of Police or a county council receives representations from a parent that a patrol is urgently needed and is convinced that that is so, it is possible to take action immediately. But, if statutory machinery for prior consultation were brought into being, it would be necessary to obtain the approval of the interested authorities before anything could be done. This Amendment requires consultation.

Mr. Moyle

Not approval.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

It requires consultation and, in some cases, that might mean waiting for a meeting of the appropriate committee of the local authority, which might even be a matter of weeks. That would have to be carried out before action was taken. The present arrangements allow the school crossing patrol authority to take action immediately, if it is required, while allowing interested local authorities to make representations and those representations have to be considered. That seems a preferable way of dealing with the matter since it is more likely to allow the patrols to be appointed where they are needed without any delay. I ask the Committee to accept the wording as it stands, not as satisfying every party but as a reasonable compromise which looks like working.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 8, at the end, to insert: Provided that if any such authority is aggrieved by a decision of a council of a county or of the said Commissioner they shall have the right of appeal to the appropriate Minister. I happen to have in my constituency a very live road safety committee which has taken a tremendous interest in school crossings and the excellent work that school crossing patrols can do. So much has been their interest in the matter that I thought when I saw the Bill that the least I should do would be to consult that committee as to whether this Bill would be adequate having regard to their special knowledge of this problem. They have replied to me telling me that they regard this as an excellent Bill on which they congratulate the Minister for introducing it and another place on having passed it and sent it here. They feel, however, that there is a flaw in the Bill which is dealt with in my Amendment.

They feel that it ought to be possible that a local authority such as that of which they happen to be a part should have the opportunity of going beyond making representations to the county council or, in the other case, the Commissioner of Police. They feel that in a question such as this, of which they have, as was pointed out on the previous Amendment, a very peculiar knowledge, they should have the right, if their representations are rejected by the county council or the Commissioner of Police, to submit an appeal to the Minister about any decision by the county council or the Commissioner of Police which they regard as a wrong one.

I think that the wording of Clause 1 (4), in so far as it instructs the county council or the Commissioner of Police to have regard to any representations made by the local authority, is the right way in which to act. But while it is right that that should be done, I feel that it does not go quite far enough and that we should go a little beyond what is contained in the Bill. This point was very well made in the Second Reading debate, when the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) said: In Heston and Isleworth we are fairly well satisfied with what has been done by the Commissioner of Police, but there are a number of cases where we have made applications for school crossing patrols and they have not been granted. Will it be any easier to get patrols in the future than in the past? I was sorry to hear an hon. Member opposite say it will not be any easier, but one would hope as a result of this Bill that it will be."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th July, 1953; Vol. 518, c. 841.] The point he was making was quite obviously that in some cases the local authority do not agree with the Commissioner of Police in respect of the setting up of school crossing patrols. I feel that we ought to provide for the local authority to have a right of appeal to the Minister. This is a decision which should be taken as near to the ground as possible. No one is in closer touch with local conditions than the local authority concerned.

As was pointed out on a previous Amendment, no one knows better than the local authority the nature of the roads, the times at which these crossing are used, the volume of traffic and the danger to their children, etc. Certainly the local authority will know very much better than will someone in the county council office perhaps 20 or 30 miles away. There would be some satisfaction to the local council in having a right of appeal on a matter which they feel deeply affects them and their constituents. It would give a warning to the county council or the Commissioner of Police, as the case may be, because of a possibility of an appeal to the Minister, to give careful consideration to all the representations that are made to them.

I recognise the point that there might be to some extent a cluttering up of the Ministry with appeals from local authorities; I can see the difficulty. In view, however, of the nature of the problem with which the Bill is concerned, and the safety which we think will be increased as a result of these school crossing patrols and the representations which may be made by those whose knowledge I regard as being exceptional, and whose work is first rate, I hope that the Minister will give favourable consideration to the Amendment.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I must disappoint the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion). The effect of this Amendment, as he said, would be to give to non-county boroughs, to urban districts or rural districts, and I think also to parish councils a right of appeal to the central Government. It does not seem appropriate that the central Government should be empowered to interfere in this manner. Someone has to be responsible and that responsibility has been placed on the county councils and other authorities by the Bill. They have a duty to listen to representations which are made. I must ask the Committee to reject this Amendment.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

That is a very disappointing reply, which does not deal with the facts. So far as the Metropolitan Police are concerned there is an appeal to this House, because the Home Secretary is responsible for the acts of the Commissioner of Police If a non-county borough or other local authority in the Metropolitan Police area are aggrieved by a decision of the Commissioner, they can have the Secretary of State questioned in this House. I have been Home Secretary and know what are his duties.

We have spent today discussing the problem of safety on the roads. We have appealed to everyone to join in a campaign to try to reduce road casualties. Many people who are vitally interested live in villages such as those about which we have heard today. It may be, because the village school has an in-inadequate playground with no proper approach, that they would desire one of these patrols. We ought to recognise that these local people are closely connected with the children of the area. Perhaps some members of the local authority have children at the school and they should be given an opportunity of appealing to the Department if they are turned down by the county council.

Feeling runs high after an accident. As a member of a local education authority I know how parents feel alarmed about their children being subjected to dangers on the roads. I should have thought this a matter where, if an application is turned down, the aggrieved local authority should be able to make an approach to someone responsible, a Minister of the Crown, to get the matter dealt with properly and to ensure that their point of view shall be heard. That should be done in order to give local public confidence to the working of this Measure.

Amendment negatived.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I beg to move, in page 2, line 22, to leave out subsection (7).

This is a formal Privilege Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

10.0 p.m.

Lieut. - Colonel W. H. Bromley-Davenport (Knutsford)

I should like the Government to give some further indication as to the effect of subsection (4) which obliges the county councils to … have regard to any representations made to them … by local authorities … in the county … I have received from parent-teacher associations in my constituency representations saying that they have heard rumours that the Cheshire County Council may not provide school crossing patrols and that they will not provide them where the parent-teacher organisations consider them to be necessary unless they are compelled to do so. Moreover, they cannot be compelled to do so under the Bill.

I know that there may be misunderstanding about the position but, as it is obviously desirable that all county councils should take advantage of the provisions of this Measure as soon as possible, this Clause should not be allowed to pass until we have had further assurance from the Government on this aspect. In other words, I wish to repeat the question put by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) during the Second Reading debate. What steps will the Government take to stimulate the local authorities to take action if necessary?

Colonel J. H. Harrison (Eye)

I should like to ask about subsection (3) which deals with the provision of the requisite training of persons to be appointed. I should like an assurance that the people employed in this part-time work will not be those who could be fully employed in industry or agriculture. This is especially a job either for pensioners or disabled people. Will the Under-Secretary give a directive to the county councils that they should not employ people capable of full-time work?

Mr. Ede

It is a pity that the hon. and gallant Member for Knutsford (Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport) did not support the Amendments of my hon. Friends on this side of the Committee. They would have secured for his parent-teacher associations through their local authorities, the right to have some say if the Cheshire County Council should adopt the line which he mentioned which I sincerely hope they will not adopt. I speak as one who is not without responsibilities in connection with county councils. If any body adopts the attitude before they consider any case that they will not have any of these school patrols, then we have wasted all our time in the House of Commons today. All the speeches have been wasteful and merely hot air which will have no effect.

We have spent today saying that we must give public opinion a shock. Certainly it would get a shock if it was thought that any county council would say before it had considered a case, that in no circumstances would they appoint one of these school patrols.

Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport

I did not say that the Cheshire County Council would refuse to do this. I merely said that the parent-teacher association had had rumours to that effect. I am certain that the rumours are not true. I want to know what action the Government will take if something of that sort should happen, though I do not think that it will.

Mr. Ede

The hon. and gallant Gentleman does not believe that the rumour is true but he wants some assurance in case he should have come to a wrong judgment about the common sense of his own county council. I will leave the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite to deal with that, but I do want to make it quite clear that, from this side of the House, we feel that these powers now given to county councils should be used with a sense of responsibility, and that they should, wherever possible, meet the legitimate demands of the population of the county which they serve. While I regret that our Amendments were not accepted by the Government, I sincerely hope that they will be proved to have been unnecessary by the action which county councils throughout the country will take.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The question raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Knutsford (Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport) is whether the parent-teacher association will have any power to make representations. The answer, of course, is that they will have no power under subsection (4), and that is the intention. It would clearly be impossible to give any power to organisations of that kind, and we should have to have a schedule to the Bill 100 miles long if it was thought desirable and we attempted to do so. If, in fact, parent-teacher associations cared to make representations, no doubt, they would be considered either through the ordinary machinery of the appropriate county council, or, indeed, through the bodies referred to in subsection (4). That seems to be the proper way of dealing with that matter.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Colonel J. H. Harrison) asked if the Government would give a directive that patrols should not employ persons otherwise capable of full-time employment. I think it is probable that very few councils would wish to employ such persons, and that very few such persons would wish to seek such employment, but the intention is to give the responsibility to the councils, who are responsible bodies, to decide who it is appropriate to employ in the circumstances of the case. It would be quite wrong for the Government to seek to interfere with their discretion in such a case as this.

Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas (Leicester, North-East)

The hon. Gentleman has not answered the question, namely, what the Government would do to ensure that the county councils do, in fact, exercise their powers under this Bill, which is what we want to know.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

As I said during the Second Reading debate—and I do not know that this is really appropriate on the Question "That the Clause stand part of the Bill "—this debate will bring the matter to the attention of the county councils. There is no question at all that county councils will not take the proper action.

Perhaps I may say, since the matter has been raised, that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) asked me the total number of authorities using patrols at the present time. He asked me if the 32 additional patrols I mentioned in my speech were included in the sum of 73, or whether they were extra to that number. I told him they were included in it, but I find on inquiry that the 73 were using patrols at the end of 1951, so that the 32 authorities which came in in 1952 are additional to that figure, and therefore, 105 education authorities were already using patrols at the end of 1952. There are further authorities who have come in since, so that the position already is that a very large majority of authorities are using patrols even before this Bill comes into operation. I have no doubt that they will all, in fact, use the machinery which is envisaged.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

I did not support the Amendment from the other side of the Committee because I thought that, on balance, it might slow up what we all want to achieve if we gave power to local authorities and outside organisations to intervene. I should like a more categorical statement from my hon. Friend, however, on how the Government would act if county councils were reluctant to take up the powers given them in this Bill.

We have lost the opportunity of embodying it in the Bill, and I am not sorry that we have, because I think that the harm would have been greater than the good had we accepted the Amendment. But I think that my hon. Friend ought to say that the Government will use all the influence they have to see that any county councils which are reluctant on grounds of economy or any other grounds to take up these powers will do so to the full. I think my hon. Friend ought to give the House that assurance.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

It is most unsatisfactory to leave this as it is. I was completely convinced by the Minister's answer on our first Amendment, and I accepted what he said that it would have resulted in delay. But the second Amendment is in a very different position. My right hon. Friend dealt with the position as far as the Metropolitan District is concerned. It means that in that district Questions can be asked in this House if the Commissioner of Police does not provide patrols where the people want them.

Why should we have that distinction between London and the rest of the country? Why should not the rest of the country equally have an opportunity of raising the matter with the Minister, not necessarily on the Floor of this House, but by appeal to the Minister if, in fact, the people in the locality consider that the county council is not providing them with the patrols they require?

That is all that is required. It would avoid the cumbersome procedure which we have in the case of the Metropolitan District of Questions and answers in this House, and it could be done simply by the ordinary channels going up through the county council to the Minister. Why should not that be done? We assume that the Government are serious about trying to reduce the fatal and other accidents on the road. If they really are serious about it, then the least they could do, where there is a responsible local authority which really is disturbed by the decision of a county council, is to see that the Minister should be sufficiently concerned to give the matter his personal consideration. That is all that is asked for, and I hope something will be done about it.

It is no good the Minister saying, "Oh, well, we do not propose to do anything to urge the county councils, or to ensure that they will carry out the provisions of this Bill. We are relying upon the newspapers to advertise the debates in this House to bring this matter to the notice of county councils." That is what he said a few moments ago. It is a ridiculous proposal to make.

Here we have a Bill whose object is to reduce the fatalities on the road, and for that purpose it is considered sufficiently serious to take up the time of the House to consider it. Why is it not sufficiently important for the Minister's time, on occasion, to be taken up when a local authority considers that the county council is not providing a patrol which ought to be provided? It is quite farcical, and the least the Minister can do is to give the House the assurance, for which he has been pressed from all sides, that if the Cheshire County Council—if there is any doubt about that council—or any other county council which turns down the provisions of this Bill in general, or refuses in any particular case to provide a patrol when the local authority requires it, that steps will then be taken to see that the matter is properly considered and that the county council does its duty.

Colonel Clarke

The hon. and learned Gentleman said that Questions could be asked in this House regarding the Metropolitan area, but not, apparently, in the counties. It is quite clear that questions could be asked in the counties. I think this synthetic indignation against county councils, who are most responsible bodies, is extremely unworthy of the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

It is not synthetic indignation. I am afraid that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is speaking from ignorance. The position is, of course, that Questions can be asked on the Floor of the House about the Metropolitan Police District because the Home Secretary is responsible for it. The Home Secretary has no responsibility, nor has anybody else, for the county councils under the provisions of this Bill. It could possibly be done on the Floor of the House if there were the right of appeal to the Minister. The Minister has the responsibility as it stands, and any question can be asked in the House and outside.

10.15 p.m.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The question which the hon. and learned Member has raised of the difference between the Metropolitan Police and the police elsewhere goes far outside the confines of the Bill. Where power is given to the Commissioner in the Metropolis there necessarily follows a different set of circumstances from those which arise outside London. When the Bill is passed, the Home Office will be sending a circular in the ordinary way to the authorities concerned. I do not for a moment believe that they will need any urging on this matter for the reasons that I have given.

In the ordinary way, on the passage of a Bill, there will be a communication from the appropriate Department to the authorities concerned. If any authority is laggard in this matter, that is due to the working of the machinery of local government in this country. We cannot have responsible local government if we are to say: "What are we going to do if they do not act?" We can only have responsible local government if we give them responsibility.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

The Minister seems to have a pathetic belief in the desire of county councils and county borough councils to carry out precisely the provisions of the Bill. This is an enabling Bill, and my hon. Friend proposed something which would give to the smaller local authorities who know their districts intimately a chance to put their points of view to the Minister if necessary, but there appears to be no appeal against the county council at all.

Anyone with any knowledge of the working of county councils know that they often feel that they know better than the people in the localities themselves. I could give instance after instance. In this very matter of the safety of children coming out from school a certain county highway authority denied the desire of the school managers—shall we say—for something to be done to prevent accidents to those children. We want more than a circular just emanating from a Department telling authorities that they have powers, which they can find out for themselves from the Bill. I hope that the Minister will do as my hon. and learned Friend has urged.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) and the present Chancellor of the Exchequer know better than anybody else in the House about the unresponsive attitude of our county councils, so far as delegation of powers is concerned under the Education Act, 1944. With the best intentions in the world and the desire to make the Bill work properly, my right hon. Friend and the present Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote into the Education Act provision for substantial powers to be delegated by county councils to divisional executives, to give them a real place in education. Examination of the powers not delegated by some of the county councils to divisional executives makes a complete farce of that Act.

Here again, we are placing complete reliance upon county councils to do the right thing. Serious differences of opinion may very well occur between local authorities and the county council. Who knows better than the local authority on the job whether or not there are serious dangers to school-children crossing the roads when going to or coming from school?

All that the Bill proposes to do is to say that the county council shall take them into consideration. That may even mean the county officers taking them into consideration and making a recommendation to the county council. It may very well happen that no single member of the county council will reside or even go within a mile or two of the school. In those circumstances he obviously cannot know the serious danger the children run.

Therefore, it seems to me that if this Bill is to be made to work, if we are going to attempt to protect the lives of the children, something much more serious must be sent out by the Secretary of State to the county councils, and that some means ought to be found for making it possible for the smaller local authorities, in the event of dissatisfaction with the county council, raising the matter elsewhere.

It may very well be that in future the Order Paper of the House will be cluttered up with Questions by hon. Members asking whether or not such and such a representation has had the consideration that it ought to have had. To save the Secretary of State a good deal of trouble it would seem to me that the Under-Secretary of State ought to give the assurance for which the Committee is asking.

Mr. L. M. Lever (Manchester, Ardwick)

I feel myself that we ought not to pass from this matter without stressing the dangers of leaving this Measure as it is. This Measure is intended nationally to safeguard our children who attend our schools. In view of the fact that it is intended to be a national Measure, I feel that the Clause should be made obligatory. I know from long experience, since the passage of the Education Act, 1944, whereby local authorities are empowered to adopt certain progressive measures, that some, being enlightened local authorities, have adopted them, and others, particularly county councils, have not.

I am not referring to Lancashire County Council because Lancashire County Council are a very progressive authority. They have become more progressive in the last two years than ever they have been. Let us hope that the progressive point of view will be maintained in the future with the support of the people. In Manchester this is already provided for, without any Act of Parliament. We do not need Acts of Parliament in Manchester to compel us to do anything proper so far as the safeguarding of the life of the children is concerned. If we have adopted these measures in Manchester and in Lancashire, why should not the children in other areas not also have the benefit of the adoption of these measures, and why should not the authorities of those areas be compelled to provide those facilities which we are seeking for our children?

I feel myself that to leave this to local option is not ensuring the purpose we have in this Bill. If the Government were serious about safeguarding the lives of the children there would be no ifs and buts about the matter. They would say the local authority shall provide the patrols. The fact that they are making it purely optional shows they are half hearted about it. Yet particularly in these days we are anxious to safeguard our child life, which is something about which we cannot afford to be half hearted. I am sure the Under-Secretary of State is anxious to safeguard the children universally, and I hope that, if possible, further thought will be given to this matter to make it obligatory upon all authorities to provide these necessary measures for the safeguarding of our children.

Question put, and agreed to.

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