HC Deb 29 October 1956 vol 558 cc1073-84

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 7, to leave out "have power."

The Chairman

I understand that this Amendment and the following Amendments in the name of the hon. and learned Gentleman go together.

Mr. Hughes

Yes, Sir Charles. This is a very important Clause because it involves the safety of school children, and it should be fully implemented. The object of my Amendments is to change it from permissive to mandatory. I put this point on Second Reading, and the Lord Advocate opposed it on grounds which I hope the Committee will regard as completely inadequate.

I submit that what is worth doing is worth doing well. The defeatist submission of the Lord Advocate was that what is worth doing may be done at one's option and in a half-hearted manner or may not be done at all. Such fainthearted defeatism should not be applied to the protection of children, who need and deserve all the protection that we, as legislators, can give them. We are all agreed about the aim and object of the Clause, and we want to protect children going to and from school.

The difference between us is that the Government want to give local authorities an option as to whether they will afford children that protection or not, while I take the view that different local authorities may vary in their desire to protect children and in the distance to which they will go in doing so. The Committee will agree that there are good and bad local authorities and education authorities. The object of my Amendments is to keep up the standard of protection of children to that of the best authorities.

I invite the Committee to look at the unconvincing argument adduced by the Lord Advocate on Second Reading, when I presented my argument. He said that it would not be appropriate that a local authority should be forced to carry out all the work that it could carry out. Why not? If a local authority is expected to carry out certain work, why should it not do all that work?

If a place is dangerous to the lives or limbs of pupils, the Bill should put education authorities under a statutory obligation to make it safe and keep it safe or else the Bill may be a dead letter. Also, the Bill might become a dead letter in certain cases according to the sense of good citizenship of the local authorities. There may be unequal administration over the country where there should be equal administration; where there are good local authorities pupils may be protected, but in other places they may not be.

My Amendments accord with precedent, but the argument of the Lord Advocate does not. Earlier education Acts have in the main been in mandatory terms. The great Education (Scotland) Act, 1946, is in the main in mandatory terms. Section 1 begins : It shall be the duty of every education authority to secure that adequate and efficient provision is made … That is mandatory. Sections 2, 3, 4 and 5 are mandatory. The Lord Advocate will find that they are as mandatory in the main as the provisions which I seek to incorporate in the Bill. Other education Acts are couched in mandatory and not optional terms. To make them optional or permissive would limit and destroy their effectiveness. To leave this Bill permissive will spoil its effectiveness.

The Teachers (Superannuation) Act, 1956, one of the progeny of the present Government, was also in mandatory terms. Why have the Government departed from the idea of mandatory terms in the very necessary, laudable and desirable case of the protection of little children? The argument adduced by the Lord Advocate on behalf of the Government on Second Reading was absurd, inconsistent, unfair, unequal and chaotic. It would penalise good education authorities and put a premium on bad education authorities.

The Lord Advocate took as his illustration potholes in roads. According to his argument, some roads are to be made safe by repairing the potholes, but other roads are not to be made safe by repairing the potholes. When the Lord Advocate presented that argument, he must have forgotten his sense of humour. The Lord Advocate is very ingenious, very careful, diligent and exhaustive, as the speech which I am criticising shows. He went over the arguments very carefully, but some of the arguments which he adduced in reply seem to indicate that he had temporarily lost his sense of humour, or perhaps he was joking when he talked of selectivity among potholes.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not quite put it in that way, but his argument amounted to that. It was that some potholes were to be repaired if dangerous to children and other potholes were not to be repaired if dangerous to children. Selectivity among potholes is really a ridiculous doctrine for any serious and learned Lord Advocate to present. Does he not know that a chain is as strong as its weakest link and that a chain of repaired potholes is as dangerous as the one pothole that is left unrepaired?

The Lord Advocate said on Second Reading with regard to this : If it was suggested that a local authority must by law repair all these potholes, one would be trying to do an operation which was quite out of keeping with the necessities of the situation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd October, 1956; Vol. 558, c. 591.] It must be obvious that the very reverse is the case. To repair some potholes and not others, to repair some dangerous roads and not others which have to be traversed by the children, provides a trap for the unwary. It would, in my submission, be better not to repair any of them, so that pupils and other people traversing those roads would know that they were dangerous and would proceed with great care, instead of traversing roads where there were a number of potholes that had been repaired and one pothole that had not been repaired. That one unrepaired pothole would be a trap for the unwary.

It seems to me, that, while we are agreed about the aim and object of this Clause, to leave it permissive would destroy that laudable aim and object. In my submission, therefore, the Clause should be made mandatory, so that the education authority would be obliged by statute to carry out the duty which the Clause in its present form would in a faint-hearted way seek to put upon it.

The Lord Advocate (Mr. W. R. Milligan)

May I, first, thank the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) for the few kind things that he said in his speech and disagree with him on the rest? The hon. and learned Gentleman, on Second Reading, made an impassioned appeal for the safety of little children. I entirely agree with him that it is essential that we should on every possible occasion make our roads, streets and schools as safe as possible for such children. He said today that most of the 1946 Act was mandatory. I quite agree. But that does not mean that every provision in the Act is mandatory, or that every subsequent provision made in connection with education should necessarily be mandatory.

I wonder whether the Committee fully appreciate exactly what lies behind this and subsequent Amendments of the hon. and learned Gentleman. May I tell the Committee how this Clause would read if the Amendments proposed were accepted? It would then read : Subject to the provisions of this section and with the approval of the Secretary of State an education authority shall for the purpose of reducing the risk of accident to pupils going to or returning from school or other educational establishments in their area and under their management or while actually present at such schools or establishments do all necessary work to maintain and improve the safety of any private road which is used by these pupils or which is in the vicinity of such a school or establishment, and shall provide or arrange for the provision of safety barriers at or near the entrances to such schools and establishments. The Committee note that if these words which are suggested should be incorporated in the Clause were included, it would be the education authorities' duty, subject to the Secretary of State's consent and subject to it being necessary, to repair and maintain every private road along which any child went to school. I do not think that the Committee would seriously think that it would be realistic to impose a duty of that kind on every education authority throughout the country. In certain cir-circumstances I fully agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that mandatory powers are necessary. In other circumstances, and I think that this is one, it is more appropriate to give local authorities—and education authorities are responsible bodies—the opportunity of doing what they themselves want to do, and that is what they are being given here.

We do not propose to hang the Sword of Damocles over every local authority and say that it must repair all private roads where necessary where children are going to school. In the past, the local authorities have found that in certain circumstances it is not competent for them to do certain repairs to bridges, roads and the like. They are accordingly now asking for authority to do that, and that is what this particular part of the Bill is inviting them to do.

I would, in conclusion, merely point to a strange situation which would arise here if, in accordance with the terms of the hon. and learned Gentleman's Amendment we were to make this obligatory and yet leave in the Bill—and there is no suggestion that the words should be taken out—that we have to get the consent of the proprietor or occupier. I invite the hon. and learned Gentleman, in the light of my explanation, to withdraw the Amendment or, if he should wish to divide the Committee on it, I invite the Committee to reject it.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

The Lord Advocate is certainly making a great deal of pother about very little. Surely the question is whether the work to be done is necessary to make the roads safer for children. That is the test. The picture of miles of private road having constantly to be repaired, which the Lord Advocate has conjured up for the benefit of the Committee, is not a very accurate interpretation of what the responsibility of the local authority would be.

What, in fact, would result, if the Amendment were carried, would be that local authorities would be compelled to do these things if they made the roads safer for the children. Surely it is not a bad thing to compel a local authority to do everything that it can to make the roads as safe as possible for the children. The Government are spending thousands of pounds on conducting a campaign, "Mind this Child," and the Secretary of State said last week in this House that he would like to see that campaign carried into the homes, applied to accidents in the homes, and other forms of accidents.

What is the good of the Government spending thousands of pounds on appealing to people to "Mind this Child" if, at the same time, they refuse to say that a local authority should take the steps necessary to make the roads to the schools safer? That is all that my hon. and learned Friend asks for in the Amendment. The picture painted by the Lord Advocate is really a travesty of what would happen. I suggest, therefore, that the Government ought to look at this matter again.

4.0 p.m.

A local authority has power to make provision if it wishes, but, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, there are many local authorities to whom the prime consideration, particularly today, is the rate burden. Quite a number of worthy projects are stopped because of the rate burden. While I do not want to discuss whether the local authorities are right about that, I do suggest that in the matter of the safety of children, in which the lives of children are concerned, it should be the second consideration.

I visualise quite a number of local authorities who would would not be very willing to enable themselves of the powers under the subsection because they might be involved in a little money. That seems to me to be quite wrong. I cannot see that any great harm would be done in saying to a local authority, "You must take the necessary action to ensure the safety of the children." That is a very little thing to ask.

The existing powers are somewhat loose. A local authority may do the work if it wishes. After it has made up its mind, however, it must then wait for the Secretary of State to decide whether the work should be done, because the Clause uses the words : Subject to the provisions of this section and with the approval of the Secretary of State.… I should have thought that a local authority was the best judge to decide on the safety of children going to school, and I cannot see any point in these words.

In circumstances such as exist today, under the present Government, we would find that the Secretary of State would be stopping some of this expenditure because the Government could not afford it as it entailed capital expenditure which they -did not at present deem advisable. That is the kind of excuse we are getting from the Government concerning quite a number of worthwhile schemes. That would be a very wrong approach from the Secretary of State in a matter affecting the lives of children.

We are dealing with children who might be killed or maimed for life or suffer some other form of permanent injury. In view of all this, I suggest to the Lord Advocate that before refusing the Amendments he should find better reasons for refusing them, because those he has put forward this afternoon are not very good.

Amendment negatived.

The Lord Advocate

I beg to move, in page 2, line 3, to leave out from "on" to the end of line 5 and to insert : any road, the authority shall—

  1. (a) if it is a public road, obtain the consent of the authority responsible for the maintenance of such road ;
  2. (b) if it is a private road, consult the authority responsible for the maintenance of public roads in the area in which that private road is situated".
The Committee will note that by the Bill in its present form in the case of public roads consultations must take place between the local authorities and those interested in the roads and the education authority. Representations have been made that it would be desirable that consultations should take place between those interested in the neighbourhood of a private road, because it might well happen that the private road would soon be taken over and it is desirable that any new barriers and the like that are put up should be erected in accordance with the most appropriate planning so that they may be put up permanently and not have to be altered if the road is taken over at a later stage.

Amendment agreed to.

The Lord Advocate

I beg to move, in page 2, line 8, to leave out "Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation" and to insert Secretary of State ".

This Amendment has been made necessary by the transfer of functions as a result of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken over certain road responsibilities in Scotland.

Amendment agreed to.

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

Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray (Berwick and East Lothian)

I should like to raise a small point that was raised on Second Reading, whether the Clause could be taken to include the making of a new path or a new bridge and not only the repairing of one that already existed.

On Second Reading, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate said in his reply that The answer to his "— right hon. and gallant Friend's— question—whether a brand new road or footpath could be made under this power—would be 'No', if it did not exist at all. My right hon. and learned Friend went on to say : Of course, if something which was a path was already in existence—and it is almost certain that there would be a track—it could be improved or repaired."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd October, 1956 ; Vol. 558, c. 591.] I take that as meaning that the Government would like to be able to use this power rather freely, but that there is no statutory authority for doing so.

I wonder whether it would be possible, even at this stage, for an Amendment, which I think would be non-controversial, to be introduced to include the word "provide" as well as "improve". In line 11, subsection (1) uses the words to do work to improve the safety of any private road whereas line 13 states : and to provide or arrange for the provision of safety barriers … If we can provide the new safety barriers, why can we not provide for a new little path or small bridge?

I do not want to make much of the point but, as I said on Second Reading, in quite a few housing schemes, particularly new schemes, there is an opportunity for a track to be made across perhaps a field, thereby affording a short cut to school. It would do no harm and would not be opposed by the owner of the field. It might be necessary to build a little bridge over a ditch and in this way the children could go direct to school without encountering the dangers of the main road. It seems to me that if such a thing could be done—and in certain cases it could—the Government ought to make it possible.

For that reason, I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to give his attention once again to the point.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

I want to refer to other methods which might avoid the expense which could be incurred, and which might be very heavy, under the provisions of the Clause. I do so because I have an actual case which illustrates the point I want to make.

I am in correspondence with the education authority which has carefully considered the question of a very dangerous main road which passes through Sten-housemuir. Children there who go to school by bus—there is now a new arrangement for a school some distance away, and they have to travel by bus—have to come out on to the main road, cross the main road and stand in the dangerous traffic area to catch the bus. The parents in the area have been making representations that this danger could be avoided by a slight re-routing of the bus. If this could be done, the children would not be involved in the dangers of the traffic on the main road.

That provokes me to raise the point in connection with the Clause, which provides that in such conditions in other areas the Government may be involved in considerable expense to provide another road or another method of reaching the school, such as the hon. and gallant Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Sir W. Anstruther-Gray) suggested, so that danger might be avoided by a sensible re-routing of the vehicle.

I do not know whether this question can be answered offhand, but I should like to know whether there are any powers to enable the Secretary of State to intervene in such a matter with a view to the licensing authority's making such conditions, when licensing a bus route, as will enable pressure to be brought on a bus company should the company be reluctant to do what seems to everybody to be the commonsense thing to do.

No one suggests that buses should have to go hither and thither all over the place to comply with my suggestion, but everyone will agree that if a slight, special change in the route of a bus or in a bus stop would contribute to the safety of the children, and would not affect the bus time-table, it is desirable that the bus company should make the change and act sensibly in the matter, or else that the licensing authority should agree to such re-routing as seems desirable.

I should like to know whether it is possible for the Secretary of State to intervene with the licensing authority, which is a quasi-judicial body and, therefore, cannot be instructed to do such a thing. However, I take it that it is not out of order to bring to its attention requirements other than the speed of the buses, shortest distances on journeys, convenience and so on, if, for instance, by slightly compromising convenience from one point of view convenience could be made also to satisfy the requirements for the safety of the children and, perhaps, also to contribute to the saving of unnecessary expenditure.

The Lord Advocate

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Sir W. Anstruther-Gray) raised the question of new roads, as the Committee will remember, during Second Reading. It had been considered carefully before that, and since then it has been considered carefully again. We feel that this Bill, as some hon. Members have already pointed out, necessarily has limited objects. It is not designed to introduce, as it were, an education committee as a new road authority to make roads and paths. The object of this Clause is to remove certain disabilities under which education authorities have been labouring.

As my hon. and gallant Friend will know, if a new path or a road is necessary then the education authority, either alone or in collaboration with another authority, is entitled to apply for compulsory powers and to acquire the land. In this case it would be, I think, to introduce a rather new conception, if the road should be made on land not acquired by the education authority. Though we have great sympathy with the suggestion put out, and can see certain definite advantages in it, we feel that in all the circumstances it should be left to interested authorities—they may be housing or may be education authorities—themselves to get together and, if a road or path is necessary, to acquire the land in the usual way.

As to the most interesting question raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn), I should not like at this stage to say that the Secretary of State has statutory power to intervene, but the local authority would certainly have a power to make representations to the traffic commissioners as interested parties. When an application goes to the traffic commissioners people can make representations.

The traffic commissioners, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, are really a quasi-court of law and are an independent body and cannot be given instructions, but I cannot see any traffic commissioners not paying very careful and sympathetic attention to a suggestion that a bus could be diverted, perhaps to make it quicker for the children to get to school or safer for the children to get to school, and I think that an application would be made, or that the traffic commissioners would be invited to consider that by the local education authority.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Woodburn

The circumstances could be such that, perhaps, the diversion of only one bus in a day would make all the difference. I am not sure whether the licensing authority may have certain rules laid down about what considerations it has to take into account when giving licences for the routeing of buses and whether, when it has routed a bus, it has power to make any variations in the route for, say, one bus during a day.

The circumstances could be such that it would be common sense for a bus, filled with school children, to stop at a place suitable for them though not a customary stopping place—to stop, say, at the school itself instead of a quarter of a mile away. Again, it may be better and safer for the children to board the bus at a spot not a regular stopping place, although during the rest of the day it would be more convenient for everybody else for the bus not to stop there, but elsewhere, or to follow another route.

That is the sort of thing I should like inquired into, because it may be that a licensing authority is bound by certain instructions as to what it may consider in giving its judgment, or it may be that, the rulings having been given, it is not possible for the bus company to alter the direction of the bus during the day without infringing the conditions of its licence.

The Lord Advocate

We will certainly look into that. It sounds common sense, and I think that we must be able to meet the point.

Question put and agreed to.

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