HC Deb 14 May 1953 vol 515 cc1529-39

A local education authority proposing to delimit the district from which a school shall receive pupils shall give public notice in the area of their intention and the managers of any school affected by the proposal, or any ten or more local government electors for the area, may within two months of the first publication of the notice submit objections to the local education authority which shall then hold a public inquiry into the objections and give reasonable consideration to them and take such action thereon as appears to them to be appropriate.—[Mr. Hayman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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

I am very grateful to the House, particularly to the Leader of the House and to the Minister, for their great kindness in moving a Motion to permit me to ask the House to consider my new Clause. I apologise that I was not in my place, and that I was elsewhere within the precincts of the House on the business of the House, when the Clause standing in my name was unexpectedly called.

On the Committee stage of the Bill I did sponsor a Clause somewhat similar but rather more comprehensive, and that it was withdrawn on the promise of the Parliamentary Secretary to look into, first, the advisability and, second, the possibility of some form of public notice being given when a local authority proposed to introduce a zoning scheme. As no Amendment has been tabled by the Minister, I have tabled this one.

I do not wish to detain the House for any length of time. The zoning scheme is an arrangement made by a local education authority when a school is full or likely to be overfull and the authority wishes to delimit the area from which the scholars are to be drawn. There has always been this difficulty but it has been accentuated in post-war years, owing to the lack of building of houses during the war, damage to houses during the war and destruction of houses during the war, and for other reasons which are well known to Members.

In 1950, the Ministry issued a manual of guidance to govern the application of zoning schemes and the transference of children from one school to another. They said that there was no justification for prohibiting transfers generally. I should like to emphasise that phrase in the manual of guidance because there are so many people in the educational sphere who feel that when a parent makes an application for the transfer of a child from one school to another it is something capricious. I do not wish to support the capricious transfer of any child, but I feel that we ought to make perfectly clear as a House that parents are entitled to apply for the transfer of children from one school to another if the circumstances seem to warrant it, and the manual of guidance supports that view.

Section 76 of the Education Act says that pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. There are some reservations to that phrase but that is the principal phrase of the Section. I think that it is one of the items which governed the minds of all Members when the Education Act, 1944, was before the House—the right of parents to have their child educated in accordance with the parents' wishes.

9.45 p.m.

Section 68 of the Act gives power to the Minister to prevent unreasonable exercise of the functions of a local education authority on complaint by any person or otherwise. We are here concerned with something of real importance to the people. The individual citizen should be protected from oppression of any kind. The House has conferred on local authorities such immense powers that at times we scarcely realise that there is the possibility of oppression by a local authority.

A local authority has immense financial resources at its disposal. A parent may object to a decision by a local education authority, particularly in the case of transfer or the zoning of an area. The local education authority could summon the parent and the parent would have to go to the Court of Appeal to reverse any decision against him at the lower court, and perhaps even to the House of Lords. If it is a point on which it wants the decision, the local education authority can put the whole of its financial resources against the parent.

I asked the Minister in a letter if there was any legal precedent or authority in this respect to back up the manual of guidance. I gathered from the letter that, although an eminent lawyer supported the view of the Ministry, a case has never been decided in the courts, and until a case has been so decided none of us can be very sure about the real application of the law or the principles enunciated in the manual of guidance.

I am not suggesting that a local education authority would be deliberately oppressive, but local education authorities tend to carry on the bulk of their administration in committee and behind closed doors, so that the general public have little realisation of what is going on. Many local education authorities have general meetings only four or six times a year, and at each meeting there may be 70 or 80 pages of printed matter to be disposed of. The members of a committee of a council are often unaware of what is happening in another committee. A local education authority may decide to zone an area for a certain school and most of the members of the local authority who are not on the committee itself may not know what is going on. The proposal may then be passed and the public may never know anything about it because it is unlikely that the matter would be deemed worthy of notice by the Press at the quarterly meeting.

The new Clause would require local education authorities to give public notice of their intention. Local authorities have to give public notice of their intentions in other matters, and this would merely be one more; but the Clause would afford a protection for the parents, for there would be a period of two months in which objections could be lodged to the proposals of the local education authority, and if objections were lodged it would be necessary for the local authority to hold a public inquiry.

I wish to mention a case which occurred in the constituency of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson), where it was sought to introduce a zoning scheme of which there was no public notice. In the end parents appealed to the Minister. Seven children were involved, and the Minister decided that three of them would be permitted to go to the school from which they were debarred, but that the other four could not enter the school. I mention this case because it is a recent instance of the kind of thing I have in mind.

I should also like to say how important it is, and how that was emphasised only yesterday when upstairs in a Committee on a Private Bill I found that a Clause had been inserted by the promoting authority giving it powers to make agreements with penalties in the case of children leaving secondary schools in certain circumstances. We have had two Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Acts since 1944, and this is the third Bill of this kind before the Committee. Even now, in this Bill, the Minister has not thought it desirable to give local authorities those powers in a general way. They are seeking to obtain them by means of Private Bills, which I think is rather objectionable. There the position stands.

It shows how necessary it is for us in this House to do all we can to preserve the freedom of the individual. After all, we pride ourselves that the long history of Parliament has been in the main concerned with that object. We are all agreed that there should be no oppression of any kind if it can be avoided. On that matter the Clause seeks to require the local education authorities to give public notice of their intention, to allow a period for objections to be lodged and then to hold a public inquiry if such objections are lodged.

Mr. Blackburn

I shall not detain the House for more than a minute, but I should like to support the new Clause which has been moved by my hon. Friend. This is not likely to give rise to the same sort of debate as that which has just concluded, but it includes an important principle. Both sides of the Committee are indebted to the Leader of the House for his intervention which made this debate possible. If more of the same spirit of co-operation were shown at other times the business of the House would proceed more smoothly. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hay-man) is keenly interested in the liberty of the individual. He has put forward his case and I do not think any good purpose would be served if I repeated the arguments which he has advanced. I only rise to support this new Clause.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

I do not intend either to detain the House for very long, but the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) mentioned a case which arose in my constituency, and I strongly suspect that that was the real reason why the new Clause was moved.

Mr. Hayman

No, I based it on other experience besides that.

Mr. Wilson

The particular case happened in my division and I took it up on behalf of my constituents. I had every sympathy with them, but I never had any suspicion that they were suffering from any form of injustice at the hands of the local education authority, because the particular case really arose from the difference in popularity between two schools.

The parents, for a number of reasons, wanted their children to go to one school rather than the other. It was a matter of convenience and of the safety of access to one of the schools and also, perhaps, because the head teacher of the more popular school was a sister of the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson). I could not help suspecting that quite a number in my constituency who are not my supporters wanted their children to go to the school for reasons unconnected with education but connected with prestige. The teacher in question is a lady whom I have met on a number of occasions. She is no doubt very competent, but it was not a question of deliberate injustice on the part of the local education authority and I do not think an inquiry would have made a difference. It was merely that a large number of parents wanted to send their children to the one school and they could not all get in.

Mr. Picktborn

I do not think it my cue at this stage to spend any unnecessary time upon, and still less to enter into, the civil war in a neighbouring duchy. We are grateful to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) for the moderation with which he has made his proposal and for his account of what zoning is and of how it comes to arise at this stage. The hon. Gentleman introduced a Clause at an earlier stage and I then said that my right hon. Friend would look into the advisability and possibility of some form of notice.

I think I may take it as generally agreed that zoning is sometimes necessary and, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, it is rather particularly so just now, with the distribution of the school population as it is. We have taken the trouble to inquire about this matter since the Committee stage: my information is that local education authorities in general take steps to inform parents, sometimes by meetings, sometimes by sending somebody round to knock at doors, sometimes by letters, occasionally in the local Press. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will not think we are being unreasonable or stick-in-the-mud if I say that we have not been able to convince ourselves of the necessity for legislation in this matter.

If individual parents feel that they have a valid grievance, they can appeal to the Minister. I do not think they have difficulty in knowing that they can appeal as, indeed, was shown by the instance given by the hon. Gentleman. This is a matter in its essence as local as it could be, and it is also highly temporary. I do not think L.E.A.'s do it as a rule if they can avoid it. A procedure which would be formal and would take at least two months—in cases where there was difficulty it would take longer—is plainly to be avoided unless it is really necessary.

We have not been able to persuade ourselves that it is necessary and we hope that the hon. Gentleman may believe that our inquiries into this matter have been fair-minded and effective. We will undertake to issue a circular to local education authorities reminding them of what I have been saying, and of their duty to make sure that any such proposition is publicly understood, and drawing their attention to Sections 68, 76 and 100 of the principal Act, the Regulations under it, and to the Manual of Guidance. The speech of the hon. Gentleman will also draw their attention to this point.

We believe that to do more would be to take a rather large steam hammer to crack a not enormous nut—although I would not belittle its importance. We hope that the hon. Gentleman will believe that our intentions in that matter are right and that our judgment should be trusted so far.

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I wish to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for the full answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman). This is a matter which does from time to time excite very considerable interest in a particular locality. Let us be quite certain that, keen as may be the rivalry between, say, Eton and Harrow, it is nothing to the difference in status between two rate-aided schools in a particular locality. When zoning takes place and the line is drawn so that it excludes the children of some family from going into the school which is regarded generally as the "posh" school—I think that is the term generally used—very great local grievances do arise.

I have had experience of it, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not mind me saying that I know from conversation I have had with him that he has had experience of it. He knows from a practical point of view the kind of difficulty that arises. I am glad to hear that the Ministry propose to re-circularise local education authorities on this point. I wish it were more clearly understood sometimes that Section 68 exists because there are occasions when local education authorities and school managers do exercise their powers in matters of this kind in ways that sometimes appear to inflict social distinction and injustice. It can never be too clearly understood that if there is a vacant place in a school for any child of the appropriate age for whom the vacancy exists and that child is presented at the door of the school and the parent resides in the area of the local education authority that child cannot legally be refused.

My hon. Friend has done a service by raising this matter again. I would suggest to him that he might find it possible, in view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, not to proceed further with this Clause as we accept the word of the Parliamentary Secretary that local education authorities will be reminded of the responsibilities which fall on them in this matter.

Mr. Hayman

I wish to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for the way in which he has received my proposed new Clause and for the promise he has made. My chief aim was to draw attention to the matter because I felt very keenly about it. I have known cases in my constituency as well as the case which occurred in a neighbouring constituency. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

10.4 p.m.

Mr. Pickthorn

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

I do not think there is a Third Reading speech left to be made—not that I am suggesting for a moment that we should have had the Third Reading earlier, as that would be impertinent to my colleagues and disorderly to you, Sir.

Mr. Ede

That discussion was all on a subject left out of the Bill and, therefore, could not be discussed on Third Reading.

Mr. Pickthorn

Exactly, that is what I meant. I think that whatever disagreement there may have been about Clause 1 there were very few disagreements about any other Clause. I think we are almost unanimous in believing that all the Clauses will do good, and I think we are unanimous that Clause 1, even if some of us think it might have been better, is nevertheless a distinct improvement on conditions as they stand. In these circumstances, I think we may all hope that we have not wasted each other's time.

Since I was rebuked on one occasion during the Second Reading for appearing rather lukewarm, because I said there was no great system, or scheme, or principle in the Bill, I may point out that I did not mean to be lukewarm, but that it is a Miscellaneous Provisions Bill— something in the way of a rag bag—and could not be presented as a single matter of great principle or systematic arrangement. I have much more understanding, I hope, of the Bill now, and I think it is a useful Measure. I commend it to the House and hope they will not think me perfunctory if I do not make a more argumentative speech.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Edward Shackleton (Preston, South)

The passage of this Bill has been, I think a humanising experience for the Parliamentary Secretary. We found the warmth of his last remarks very acceptable, more acceptable than his remarks at an earlier stage. I would correct him on one point. He said that we had had a lot of Third Reading speeches earlier. Of course, they were essentially Second Reading speeches, because they referred to something which was omitted and to which unfortunately I cannot refer to now. We have emerged from what has been a fairly stormy passage, and I am sure that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary will welcome the comparative calm of the Third Reading harbour, if the Parliamentary Secretary will permit me to use such a flight of fancy.

The House welcomes this Bill, which does some real good. It is instructive to us to observe how an important Measure like the 1944 Act, which so often unfortunately has been called the 1944 settlement, reveals, at a later stage, matters which have not worked out as it was originally intended that they should. There has been a tendency on the part of Ministers of both parties not to upset what they believe to be a settlement. That attitude of mind tends to become dangerous, and it is very important that in future we should not talk about this Measure as the 1953 settlement. I hope it will give general satisfaction to many people who are actively concerned and whose needs have been met. I congratulate the Government on having seen it through the House and wish success to its effect.

10.7 p.m.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

I think I should express my appreciation to the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary for the inclusion of Clause 11 in the Bill. It deals with the enforcement of school attendance and originally arose on the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Act introduced by the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole). During the discussion on that Act the Parliamentary Secretary promised he would endeavour to introduce an appropriate Clause into this Bill. I have not previously dared to make any comment, because this rather storm-tossed ship might have foundered, and I was anxious it should not do so.

I would, therefore, take the opportunity now to thank the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary for the complete and handsome way in which they have met my point, and to express my pleasure that they have been able to include this Clause. I am convinced it will facilitate the enforcement of school attendance, and prevent a great deal of suffering to young children who have got out of hand and become maladjusted.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Mellish

Earlier in the debate I said some harsh things about the Minister, and I wish to take the opportunity now to say some nice things about her. We are grateful that the Bill will become an Act in the near future. I hope it will receive speedy approval in another place. It will confer great and well deserved benefit on a certain section of the community. We know, too, that this is a Bill to correct an anomaly and an injustice which no one had intended.

I should like to place it on record that this is not a final settlement. This is not the last time we shall hear of the denominational school problem. It would not be fair on the denominational schools to say that this means the end of the argument. I would make this plain on their behalf: if they have a just claim, they have a right to come to this House and ask for justice. To be told, as they have been told by certain people throughout this debate, that every time they ask for justice they will arouse certain antagonisms, is unfair. Speaking purely for myself, I will say that, irrespective of antagonism, we shall come forward when we think the time is opportune and ask for what we think is right for our people.

In the meantime, we are grateful to the Government for giving us the Bill. I should like, too, to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) for the part which he has played. Had we been the Government of the day we should have had the Bill and, with great respect, I think we should have had it much earlier.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. M. Stewart

I should like to concur in the Parliamentary Secretary's description of the Bill, and express the pleasure which we all feel that at last it has reached its Third Reading. As will now be apparent to hon. Members. in view of the length of the debate, there is one matter at any rate in respect of which many would have wished to see the Bill improved, but even without that improvement we feel that it is a valuable piece of work. It makes an alteration the necessity for which has long been recognised, and on which the late Mr. Tomlinson had set his heart.

We are grateful to the Government for the facilities they have provided for the Bill. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) that it would be idle to talk of a settlement. We trust that we shall have reached a balance which is better than the balance we have had.

I do not think we should forget that, besides dealing with that matter, there are other Clauses in the Bill to which we have given very little time today, naturally enough, but which are none the less very useful and valuable. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) referred to Clause 11 because I have a special affection for that Clause. Indeed, I urged the Government to raise it in status from a Schedule to the dignity of a Clause. I am grateful to the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary for acceding to my request.

I believe that in the immediate and more distant future there are a great many ways in which parents, children and local education authorities will feel the benefits which will accrue from this perhaps only medium-sized but none the less valuable and useful Bill.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.