HC Deb 29 October 1956 vol 558 cc1196-206

After subsection (1) of section sixty-eight of the principal Act there shall be inserted the following subsection :— (1A) Provision shall be made in the said order for the appointment by the advisory council of a special committee to advise the Secretary of State on the regulations governing the awards of bursaries, scholarships and grants by local education authorities based on regular annual review which shall be made by the committee. This special committee shall include representatives of interested educational organisations, student bodies and parent-teacher associations ".—[Dr. Dickson Mabon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

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

The Committee will recall that in Section 68 the Act deals with advisory councils but does not specifically prescribe a committee of this nature for that purpose in the Statute. During the debate on the Education Estimates in June last I made several inquiries of the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, and I received a letter from him telling me that there was a regular review. Whilst I received excellent replies on several other matters, I did not receive an answer to the question raised in this proposed Clause, namely, what is the regular review, how is it conducted, and is it regular in the sense of being conducted annually?

I have put down this proposed Clause in the hope that, if there is no existing machinery, this Clause would enable it to be set up. If there is such machinery existing I hope it will become widely known as a consequence of the Clause having been brought forward tonight.

The Lord Advocate

The matters which are particularly mentioned in this proposed Clause are of great importance, and if it was essential to have it in order that these matters could be considered by a special committee, we would consider the Clause favourably. However, as the hon. Gentleman and the Committee no doubt know, there is provision in Section 68 of the 1946 Act for setting up a council for the purpose of advising the Secretary of State on educational matters. Now these are educational matters.

In the Second subsection of Section 68, provision can be made for the appointment by the advisory council of special committees. That would give power, where the Secretary of State wished advice on the matters mentioned in this Clause, to have a special committee. It would seem to us to be rather a pity that these matters should be taken out for particular statutory reference and, as it were, should have a special statutory committee for themselves.

No doubt the Committee will recollect that the advisory council submitted a report on education authority bursaries in 1943, and it was in accordance with its recommendation that the Regulations of 1945, and of 1947, to 1955 were framed. So the position is that while we look upon these matters as extremely important, we feel that if the advisory council were revived, a special committee could at any time be set up for inter alia consideration of these matters, it would almost be invidious to give them special statutory precedence. For these reasons, I regret that we cannot accept the Clause.

10.30 p.m.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

In the interests of saving time I made my contribution very short, and I am afraid that the Lord Advocate missed the point. I was trying to say that provision should be made in the order. I am asking that a special committee should be set up to discuss bursaries, scholarships and grants. I have been informed by the Joint Under-Secretary that some sort of mechanism exists, but he has not said what it is, and very few people outside the Department know what it is. It has been said that this mechanism conducts a regular review. I should like to know how regular that review is.

Short of that, I suggest that there ought to be a special committee to take over this mechanism and to conduct a review which is regular and annual. The Lord Advocate referred to the committee which reported in 1943 on this matter. That was a committee which concerned itself with the principles of the award of bursaries and grants. What many of my hon. Friends, and many people outside this Committee, would like to see is a committee which annually reviews the grants given to students so that we will not have them coming here and treating the issue of the award of adequate grants as a political matter. It ought, like teachers' salaries, to be outside the scope of public political agitation. It ought to be dealt with by proper governmental machinery which looks at the matter and makes recommendations to the House of Commons to see that they are carried out. These are the major points which I do not think the Lord Advocate has dealt with, and I should appreciate a further reply.

The Lord Advocate

I appreciate the points which the hon. Member makes. If the advisory council were reconstituted it would be possible under the present statutory provisions to set up a special committee to deal with these matters. It is really a question whether or not it is desirable to set up a committee for those purposes. I will certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to what the hon. Gentleman has said but. be that as it may, this can be done without any additional statutory regulations—in other words, without putting the new Clause in the Bill.

The new Clause would be invidious. I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing the attention of the Committee to this most important matter, but I ask him to withdraw his Motion. The matter having been fully ventilated, perhaps the hon. Gentleman might feel that the Clause is unnecessary.

Mr. T. Fraser

The Lord Advocate has begged my hon. Friend to withdraw the new Clause now that the matter has been "fully ventilated." I hope that my hon. Friend realises that it has not been fully ventilated. I have heard reference today to the fact that the Joint Under-Secretary was a member of this most noted advisory council some years ago. I, too, was a member of the advisory council which submitted the report on bursaries, and I think I was a member of the sub-committee which made the report to the council on which the ultimate report was based.

A great deal of thought was given to the subject of bursaries in 1943 by the council, but it is difficult to come to a conclusion about bursaries. We have never had an opportunity since then of having a discussion in the House of Commons as to what form the bursaries should take, what machinery should be employed to determine how they should be administered, their extent, and so on. We had no opportunity during the passage of the 1945 Act; we had no opportunity in 1946. This might have been our opportunity, but when one looks at the clock and at the state of the Amendment Paper and bears in mind that this job must be completed tonight, one realises that it is obvious that we are not to have an opportunity to discuss these matters in 1956 either. I do not know when we last had an opportunity. There certainly has not been an opportunity in the fourteen years during which I have been a Member of Parliament. My hon. Friend has shown that there is a need to have a regular review of this matter. There is no evidence that there is such a review and we have not had an opportunity of discussing how such a review should be conducted, and what amendment of the Statute, if any, is necessary.

I wish we could have had more time. I wish that I could have had more time to discuss this matter. I repeat that I was a member of the advisory council which issued a report in 1943. We have had no opportunity of discussing these matters in Parliament. This Amendment of the Act passed by the Caretaker Government is the first opportunity given in this House, but the Government, by bringing this forward so late in the Session, have made sure that once again Parliament is denied the opportunity, and education in Scotland is denied the opportunity, of the services of the Scottish Members of Parliament.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I hope that my persistence in this matter will be forgiven. I am perfectly willing to co-operate and withdraw the Motion and Clause if the Lord Advocate will augment the information given by the Joint Under-Secretary and say that there is a regular review and some mechanism for carrying out this regular review. I should like to know what is the mechanism and how regular is the review in the process of the departmental work. Neither of these questions has been answered and I do not feel inclined to withdraw until I get a reasonable answer to those very fair questions.

The Lord Advocate

Perhaps I might explain shortly to the Committee what is the present practice, call it a review or whatever one will. It is to collect information about bursar's outlays and publish our regulations in draft. This affords an opportunity for interested parties to comment on any proposals made and amendments are made where reasonable.

For example, my hon. Friend had a meeting with the Scottish Union of Students. I have not the actual date when that took place. The regulations are also subject to debate in this House if a Prayer against them is put down. That is the present practice. The information is gathered together departmentally, and when it comes out in the form of regulations an opportunity is given for comment and my hon. Friend has meetings. I think that will give the Committee at least the overall picture of what happens today, without the particular detail which the hon. Member raised.

Mr. Ross

Surely the practice outlined by the Lord Advocate is the very thing to which we object and what we want to get away from. As I understand it, the desire of my hon. Friend is to replace that very clumsy and rather invidious procedure. It is not very pleasant for Members of Parliament, nor, I am sure, for the Secretary of State, to be badgered every year or eighteen months on the basis of political influence to do this, that or the other thing, for students or for other people. There should be a committee dealing with this matter that would come between the Secretary of State and the students concerned.

I understood the Lord Advocate to say that there was such a committee and that there was no need for this additional piece of legislation. He now says that there is no such committee. It does not meet. It is all a collection of information, made in some way or another about which we do not know, regarding the expenses of students. The Secretary of State draws up regulations which, like all other regulations, are open to the usual kind of advice which he gets ; and eventually they come before this House to be dealt with. We want to get away from that. This is an eminently sensible proposal and we have no reason for turning it down.

Miss Herbison

I hope that the Lord Advocate and the other Scottish Ministers will give some further thought to this matter. The Lord Advocate said that under Section 68 of the 1946 Act—that is, the Section dealing with advisory councils—the Secretary of State can, if he so desires, set up a sub-committee of the advisory council to deal with this matter. My hon. Friend has tried to find out from the Lord Advocate what obtains at present, but I do not think that any of us is very clear about it from the Lord Advocate's answer.

It seems to me that he spoke about draft regulations. What happens before the Secretary of State makes those regulations? We know what happens afterwards. They go out to interested bodies, and comments are asked for on them. Then the Secretary of State decides what line he will take. Surely it is a very simple thing for the Lord Advocate to give us an assurance tonight that if the new Clause is not necessary at least the Secretary of State will reconstitute the advisory council and give it a remit because, according to Section 68, that is what happens.

Again, according to subsection (2) of that Section, the advisory council may set up a committee to deal with some special aspect of educational matters. Bursaries and grants are a special aspect of educational matters, and the subsection says that this committee will be formed partly of persons on the advisory council. and the remainder shall be persons having special knowledge or experience of the subjects of the respective remits … It seems to me that those things which are being asked for in the proposed new Clause give an idea at least of the type of people whom we think ought to go on to this committee.

All we are asking from the Lord Advocate now is that if he cannot accept the Clause he will at least give us an assurance tonight that the advisory council will be reconstituted—because here is a most important job for it to do—and that immediately it is reconstituted a remit will be given to it to set up a committee to deal with this matter.

The Lord Advocate

We have listened with great interest to all that has been said by hon. Members opposite on this matter and will give it the most anxious consideration afterwards, but I cannot here and now commit my right hon. Friend either to reconstitute the advisory council or, if he did so, to set up any particular sub-committee. The substance of what has been said tonight will be most anxiously considered, but I am not in a position to give the undertaking asked for by the hon. Lady.

Mr. T. Fraser

We cannot accept that answer. This is the only opportunity we have had for very many years to discuss the state of our educational legislation for Scotland. We have not had the advisory council—upon the existence of which the Lord Advocate depended in his first reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon)—for a number of years ; the body upon which both the Joint Under-Secretary and I were members at one time. We ought to have it.

If we had a Government which had any interest at all in public education in Scotland we would have this council. It is because we have a Government with no interest in this subject that we have not got it at present. We shall not allow this matter to pass this evening without the Government giving us some assurance that the advisory council will be reconstituted and that this matter will be the subject of consideration by that council. The Lord Advocate is not able to say that he cannot commit his right hon Friend ; the Ministers sitting on the Front Bench looking after the Bill are the spokesmen for the Government at this time.

10.45 p.m.

There are at the moment three Scottish Ministers sitting on the Government Front Bench. Surely three Scottish Ministers can take it upon themselves, if they think it a reasonable request by the Opposition, to give an undertaking that the advisory council will be reconstituted. If the Government do not intend to have the advisory council reconstituted, they should have put down an Amendment to take out Section 68 of the 1946 Act. Then they would be saying that as they were not going to reconstitute the advisory council there was no point in leaving Section 68 in the Act which we are amending by this Bill.

Therefore, let the Lord Advocate or the Joint Under-Secretary tell us now, if they want to make progress, that the advisory council will be reconstituted and that the matter will be seriously examined. The Joint Under-Secretary will appreciate the time, thought and study given to this matter by the advisory council in 1943 and will know that this House has not given any time or study to the matter since we had that Report.

I should like to have had the opportunity of giving some thought and consideration to the matter, but there is no such opportunity to do so at this late stage in the Parliamentary Session. However, there is time for the Joint Under-Secretary or the Lord Advocate to give us an assurance that after thirteen years the advisory council will be enabled to have another look at the matter.

I do not want to detain the Committee unduly, and I hope that the Ministers do not either. They can facilitate its proceedings if they will only give us the assurance for which my hon. Friend so reasonably asked, namely, that the advisory council will be reconstituted.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) and I were, of course, members of the advisory council in the early days. He is quite right when he says that we gave considerable thought to this very business of bursaries and issued a Report in 1943 or thereabouts. That Report laid down a policy which we have been following ever since and which, in fact, is reflected in the Regulations that we issued in 1945, 1947 and 1955. There has been no alteration in the policy. If the Secretary of State for Scotland should require further advice on bursary policy then, of course, a further remit to the advisory council would indeed be given.

As the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) knows, I have met the students more than once. We had some very pleasant meetings and the students put their problems to me. Incidentally, when I invited them to send me cases of difficulty, the only case they sent me was that of a law student, the point which we discussed earlier on. I am very ready to meet the students again.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I do not think that the advisory council should be reconstituted to discuss policy, but to discuss the regulations based on the present policy. That, I think, is where the confusion arises. As we know, we had amendments of the Regulations in 1947 based on the 1943 declaration, in 1949, 1953 and 1955. How were these arrived at? My contention is that they ought to have been arrived at by a committee of this nature objectively reviewing the facts as they became available and that regulations ought to have been made on its findings and not, I suggest, on the departmental mechanism as suggested by the Lord Advocate.

I thought that there was actually some committee in existence, but that does not appear to be the case. Departmental officials should solicit information and frame regulations based on that information. That, as I see it, is the problem. It is not a new bursary policy which we want, but rather a committee which will look at the administration regulations in the light of changing events.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

I understand and I thank the hon. Gentleman very much, but, with respect, I really do not think—and I put it to the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser)—that this is a matter to be referred to the advisory council. In 1943 the council did not attempt to go into the detail, the minutiae, of the matter and I do not think we should ask it to do that in the future.

There is no evidence that the policy behind the regulations is in question; I do not think it is. There has been criticism of the amounts and allowances, but those are matters of detail which are not suitable for reference to the advisory council. We take great care—it has been my personal job—to inquire into the actual costs that have to be met by students. It is not a case of snooping around asking for things sub rosa. We have gone to the university and to the various hostels, and we have found out the costs and brought all the facts together. There is no reason to hide them. We believe that our figures correspond roughly to the needs of the students.

On the broader question of the advisory council being brought into active existence, that matter can only be decided if we make up our minds that something ought to be inquired into. I do not see at the moment—although the situation may change in a matter of a month or two—any problem of the kind which the advisory council would be suitable to examine. As soon as we are confronted with a problem that needs examination by that peculiarly well-equipped body we will at once reconstitute it and ask it to help us. I have the greatest respect for the advisory council as I know the splendid work it has done. It is something that we should put into operation again as soon as necessary. I only ask the Committee to believe we do not see a suitable topic.

Mr. T. Fraser

The Joint Under-Secretary of State does not seem to appreciate that we have spent the whole day in Committee on an Education Bill to alter the law of education in Scotland. If this is not a topic for the advisory council there never was a topic. We ought not to have had the Bill without advice from the council as to the law of education for Scotland. If the Joint Under-Secretary thinks that there is no aspect of education, especially of bursaries, which could be examined by the advisory council, perhaps I might refresh his memory.

In 1943 we gave very careful consideration to whether bursaries should continue to be administered by education committees or to be under central control. We do not know whether we could trust all the education authorities in Scotland to give bursaries where they were needed. If young people have the aptitude to continue their further education they should be enabled so to do. We have been told of cases in recent years of young people gaining admission to universities to participate in the higher education only if they could get bursaries from the local authorities.

We ought to have machinery so that further education could go on. Are the recommendations that we came to in 1943 still the provisions which we should operate? We have to consider whether the disappointed applicant for a bursary should not have some right of appeal, and to whom. These matters have been put before the Joint Under-Secretary by students and by Members of Parliament, but the matter has never been inquired into at all. If there is a matter which is suitable for inquiry by the advisory council—in the Joint Under-Secretary's words—these are such matters, and the Secretary of State for Scotland should not hesitate to reconstitute the advisory council.

Any hon. Member who is at all interested in Scottish education must know that there are many matters arousing considerable anxiety, and some arousing considerable controversy, in Scottish education at present which badly need some independent, objective inquiry. An advisory council seems to be the appropriate instrument. It is lamentable that we have been carrying on for a number of years without the assistance of an advisory council. In the light of the further information which I have just given, there is a clear case for one. The matter is of such importance that it warrants the attention of an advisory council.

Some of the things which I have mentioned are well within the knowledge of the Joint Under-Secretary. They are matters of great importance to Scottish education if we are to make the best of the raw material that we have, the young people leaving our secondary schools. The bursaries of the young people now attending the secondary schools will be determined in the way I have stated. It is high time that we had the matter of bursaries investigated again.

There are many other educational matters which should be investigated by an advisory council. I hope the Joint Under-Secretary will say that the advisory council will be reconstituted at no distant date. That is not too much to promise us. My view is that there should always be an advisory council in being to which the Secretary of State could remit a matter at comparatively short notice, instead of his having to collect names and set up a council when he has a matter to be investigated.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I accept the assurance of the Lord Advocate that there are already sufficient statutory provisions. and, hoping that the Scottish Ministers will listen earnestly to the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.