HC Deb 29 October 1956 vol 558 cc1109-14
Mr. Rankin

I beg to move, in page 3, line 9, to leave out subsection (3).

The provisions of the Clause mean that an attendance order, once issued, follows the child throughout its school life. In addition to that, the Clause gives school management committees the power, which they do not at present possess, of being able to summon children directly to the juvenile courts, and I do not think that that is a good thing either.

In his reply on Second Reading, the Lord Advocate stated that information about a child's school attendance was conveyed to the new school under present practice, and that it was not, therefore, such a very serious change. My recollection is that when a child leaves a school and goes to another, his attendances, both actual and possible, are shown on his medical card which accompanies him. My retort to the Lord Advocate when he put up that defence was that that was a school practice which we all accept—the card goes with other cards, and it is not singled out—but the Clause means that the potential delinquent will go to his new school almost with a brass band playing and flags flying. He will be singled out because an attendance order has been issued against him. He will go to the new school as a marked person. If the Lord Advocate's argument were sound, that the Clause makes no difference, then he destroys his own argument. If the Clause makes no difference, why insert it in the Bill?

However, I oppose the Clause because I feel that it does make a difference. I have indicated that it is a case not simply of doing what the Lord Advocate has said, making the child's actual and possible attendances known, but of singling out the child, for he carries with him to his new school an attachment as a result of which he will become a person known to have a record, and that is not a good practice to establish.

Also, school management committees are now to have a much greater power than at present; that of directly taking children to the juvenile courts. I believe that this springs from the power given under subsection (3). The argument is that this will speed up the process for dealing with truants and persistent absentees. That may be true, but if we want to do that, we ought not to do it at the expense of the child himself. It is surely possible for us to speed up methods of dealing with habitual offenders other than by attaching stigmas to them.

The period of a month usually given as a warning by school management committees could easily be reduced to a fortnight. There is nothing sacrosanct about the period of which is now allowed to elapse before further steps are taken to deal with the offender. I am sure that we could speed up our methods without advertising to the new school the child's previous absence, for that is unfair to him.

I hope that since Thursday the Lord Advocate has thought over the problem. It stretches through the whole Clause. I feel that if subsection (3) is deleted the rest of the Clause will not have much effect, and it is because of that that I hope the Lord Advocate will accept the Amendment.

5.45 p.m.

The Lord Advocate

I have great sympathy with much of what the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Rankin) has said about the stigma. We should all like to see a fresh start, particularly in the case of a juvenile, as often as we can. On the other hand, we must see that our educational system is carried out.

At present, if a child, with his parents, moves from one education authority area to another at a time when an attendance order is in operation, the attendance order lapses. It does not seem to us to be reasonable to allow the attendance order to lapse and then to have to take out a new one. After all, an attendance order is not so much a stigma on the child as it is on the parents. If the Amendment were accepted, we should be left in the present, position, namely, that if the child did not continue to go to school after the move a new attendance order would be necessary.

Mr. Rankin

At that point the Lord Advocate has destroyed his whole case, because the attendance order is issued conditionally, being subject to the child not doing something. The child is thus carrying an attendance order before he has committed any crime at his new school. To save himself, the Lord Advocate has to say "if something happens" when nothing may happen.

The Lord Advocate

The hon. Member suggests that merely because a child transfers from one education authority to another it is obvious that no attendance order will be necessary. That is not necessarily so. If the child goes to a new authority with an attendance order, which will no doubt be amended or endorsed, and then attends the school as he is supposed to do, the attendance order can be annulled.

The hon. Member referred to what I said on Second Reading, that the record goes with the child. There is no additional publicity merely because the new authority is in a position to endorse or amend the order than there is if the record, without the attendance order, is sent. The new authority know all about the attendance order having been made. At the present moment it lapses, but as a question of convenience it is much better that the attendance order should continue. In all the circumstances, I invite the Committee to reject the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Miss Herbison

I beg to move, in page 3, line 20, to leave out subsections (5) and (6).

These subsections make a considerable change in the present procedure. At present the education authority may decide that parents should be taken to court if they persistently keep a child away from school. Under Section 38 of the principal Act, the court may decide, whether or not it has recorded a conviction against the parents, that the child should thereafter appear at a juvenile court. The process, first, is that of the local education authority taking the parents to court, and the court thereafter deciding that the child should come before a juvenile court. Under the provisions of subsections (5) and (6) of the Clause, the child may be ordered to a juvenile court without the parents first having appeared in court. That seems to us on this side of the Committee a very bad thing indeed. I have always felt that children should, where-ever possible, be kept outside law courts.

I think that a child who appears before a court regularly may not in adult life have the same respect or perhaps fear of courts that most of us would like children to have. There is also a stigma attached to the child who has to appear in court. In speaking on the previous Amendment, the Lord Advocate said that the stigma was on the parents more than on the child, and for that reason he was trying to persuade my hon. Friend not to press his Amendment. Subsection (5) is quite definitely putting a stigma on the child before every other means has been used to make the child's attendance at school regular. It seems that not only legislators but anyone interested in the well-being and welfare of children ought to realise that before a child is taken to court for any cause at all, far less than for non-attendance at school, every effort should be made in other ways to remedy whatever is at fault. It is because we feel that this is a very great departure from the provisions under Section 38 of the principal Act and because we wish to protect our children so far as possible from any stigma, that we feel very strongly that subsections (5) and (6) should be deleted.

The Lord Advocate

On the occasion of the Second Reading, I agreed with the hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) as to the undesirability of children being brought into court where that could be avoided. Obviously, one wants where possible to keep children away from the atmosphere of the criminal courts. As the hon. Lady knows full well, the juvenile courts are designed for the care and protection of the child. The child goes there under the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act, 1937, for example, if it is in need of care and protection. In other words, the child does not go there necessarily because it has committed any offence, as it may have done if it were going to a criminal court.

The object of these particular subsections, which the Amendment is designed to remove, was to meet a situation in which we thought that it was desirable that the local authority should be entitled, and the Committee will note the words : … if satisfied that it is necessary so to do for the purpose of securing the regular attendance of the child at school"— I particularly stress the words : "if satisfied that it is necessary so to do"— … direct that the child be brought before a juvenile court. The Bill in its present form does not say say that the local authority "shall." Here again, as in many other parts of the Bill and in the 1946 Act, discretion is given to the local authority as to whether or not it shall take the child to the juvenile court. At the moment it cannot do so.

Mr. Woodburn

The Lord Advocate seems to be explaining this matter in very technical terms. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) has put a case which seems to require more human reasons. Education has been going on in Scotland for over fifty years. It has managed up to now without these provisions, and I should like to know what are the circumstances which have arisen now that require these entirely new provisions to be put into Scottish education legislation. Has there been some difficulty arising or has some one merely been sitting in an office and just wondering whether he could make any alterations to the Bill? There must have been something that inspired these provisions. Can we be given the reasons behind them?

The Lord Advocate

Certainly. The right hon. Gentleman asks me why this provision has suddenly emerged today and how we got on without it in the past. There are among others, two particular circumstances which this amendment of the law is designed to meet. The first is to meet the case where the parent has done his best to make his child attend school—the wayward and the difficult child—and it is felt desirable that the education authority should be entitled to bring the child before a juvenile court instead of prosecuting the completely innocent parent.

The second circumstance is where a parent has previously been prosecuted and convicted but that experience has not had the result of making him see that his child attends schools regularly. In that case, it seems to be idle to go on prosecuting the parent and more sensible to try a new approach. This provision would allow the education authority to bring the child before a juvenile court but it is not—I stress this—obligatory on the local authority to do so. It is to enable it to do so if necessary. In other words, the authority can say "If we think that this new approach is a good one, let us proceed by it rather than wait until we have had to prosecute the parents." That is the reason. I think it is perfectly human, and the intention is for the benefit of the child, as are all these approaches to the juvenile courts.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.