HC Deb 08 May 1970 vol 801 cc788-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fitch.]

2.11 p.m.

Mr. A. G. F. Hall-Davis (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

A year ago William Higgin was a member of a happy family with a secure future. Mr. Higgin, his father, was hard working, successful and prudent. Ben Cragg Farm, near Ulverston, Lancashire, was, and is, evidence of his success and careful investment. The buildings are in good order, the land is in good heart, the stock is of high quality and traditionally commands good prices at the local auction market in Ulverston. This happy state of affairs was not achieved without great effort. Mr. Higgin often worked until nine at night, as do many farmers. Whenever he was home from school his son William worked with his father, and, in addition, a farm lad worked full time, for this farm, Ben Cragg, by the standards of the Furness area is not a small one.

In the early winter, in a few dark hours the whole outlook for the Higgin family changed. In November, after a short illness, at the age of 45 Mr. Higgin died. He left a fine memorial, his farm. He also left only a widow and a 14-year-old son, William, to carry on. I suppose they could have said that it was impossible, and sold up, but farmers in Furness are not like that, and William and his mother both had farming in their blood.

Not all farmers' sons want to follow their fathers, but those who do often take to farming like a duck to water. William Higgin is one of these. When his father was alive, he knew already that farming was to be his life, too. When his father died, he was determined to carry on. It was a brave decision, taken with full knowledge of the difficulties that he would have to surmount. It is a 160-acre farm, carrying 160 animals, with a dairy herd of 50 milkers.

I believe that that was a decision which entitles William to the sympathetic understanding and support of the House and of the Ministers who are responsible for administering the laws which we enact, and therefore I welcome this opportunity to bring before the House the case of William Higgin, because I believe that within the law room exists for a flexible administration of its provisions, as I shall endeavour to show.

The purpose of our education system is, and always has been, to open the road for the young to a full, satisfying and successful life. In this case, without flexible and understanding administration we shall put at risk the boy's chosen career, and perhaps not only destroy his life's opportunity, but take away from him the opportunity to carry on his father's life's work and see flourish what his father will not now he able to see.

For William Higgin, every hour spent on his farm this summer counts. In farming nothing stands still. Stock and land require constant attention. When William's father was alive he ran the farm with the help of a farm lad and with William helping when school and studies allowed him to do so. Since Mr. Higgin died the most help that his widow has been able to obtain has, with the exception of one short period, been one farm-hand, for the farm lad who formerly worked with and for Mr. Higgin, like many of his age, decided to take a job in the town. This difficulty in obtaining help is entirely understandable to those who know the district. Farm labour to very difficult to obtain in this area. Many farmers are being obliged to concentrate their activities on what they can undertake by themselves and with their families.

It must also be recognised that most men seeking employment would regard work on a farm of this size and stocking level, with no adult male owner, to be a more onerous and more responsible job than they would wish to undertake. This, I suggest, must put the Higgin family, the livestock, and the efficient management of the farm at risk until William leaves school in July, and when he does leave he will do so with the ironical knowledge that leaving with him will be boys almost six months younger than himself.

I have raised the question of this young man to ascertain whether the Minister has the administrative power to assist this boy within the scope of the existing legislation. I believe that the Minister has the power, and I believe that it derives from The Schools Regulations, 1959, Regulation 12(1). Although I am sure that the right hon. Lady is familiar with it, I shall, if I may, read it to the House. It says: Leave of absence shall not be given to enable a pupil to undertake employment whether paid or unpaid, during school hours, except— and this is the significant provision— (a) in accordance with arrangements, approved by the Minister, permitting employment temporarily in the interests of the general welfare of the community. I believe that in the next two months there will be critical periods on this farm when it will be in the general interests of the community for William Higgin to be given leave of absence from school. I believe that the phrase general welfare of the community is capable of that interpretation. The significant point about this phrase is that the adjective "general" is used to qualify the noun "welfare", and not to qualify "community".

The Concise Oxford Dictionary—and I apologise for appearing a little pedantic, but there is a great deal at stake for individuals in this matter—defines community as a body of people living in the same locality. If the phrase had been "general community", I should have accepted that the intention of the regulation would have been related to the community at large. As it is worded, I believe that it can, and should, be viewed in the context of a local community, for what is the community if it be not local?

Could a breakdown in the efficient management of Ben Cragg Farm be considered damaging to the general welfare of the community? Here again the application of the word "general" to "welfare" to me signifies a widening of the sense and not a narrowing of it. General welfare surely must be a wider application of the concept: for instance, stock sold because they could not he milked or reared; hay deteriorating because it could not be got in. The same dictionary defines "welfare" as "well-being", or "health and prosperity". If anybody asked my constituents, who comprise the local community of which the Higgin family are members, whether the sort of development to which I have referred would be damaging to the well-being of the community they would answer unequivocally and unhesitatingly "Yes". I hope that the hon. Lady, who, I know, has a warm heart, will give the same answer.

If she cannot do this, is there any way, by means of amending these regulations —

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

In an Adjournment debate an hon. Member cannot put forward an argument for changing the law—in terms of regulations or otherwise.

Mr. Hall-Davis

I thought, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that provided I suggested a change in regulations which fell within the terms of the governing Act I should be in order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is in order if it is within the terms of the governing Act. That is where the difficulty arises from the point of view of the Chair.

Mr. Hall-Davis

I hope that the comparatively few remarks that I have to make will show that my suggestions could be carried out within the terms of the governing Act.

I realise that it would be wrong for me, in this debate, to suggest any regulations that would contravene the general principle of the Education Act and that might be considered ultra vires, but there is one direction in which the Minister could move by regulation without being ultra vires.

Since the difficulties of William Higgin came to my notice it has seemed to me that the most sensible course would be to adjust his hours of study. It is not possible to adjust the milking times of the dairy herd, but it is surely possible for a boy of this age to adjust the hours of study. I understand that under the relevant Section of the principal Act—Section 68—the responsibility of a parent is to ensure that a child receives efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

The difficulty arises from the fact that paragraph 12 of the Schools Regulations provides that leave of absence shall not be given during school hours. I ask the Minister, in order to meet the case of William Higgin and those in like case—who, for reasons that the right hon. Lady will appreciate, will become more numerous in a few years' time—to consider laying before the House regulations that will allow leave of absence from school for all or some school hours, provided studies are pursued of a kind and of a duration to equate with efficient full-time education.

I believe that the Minister already has power to approve arrangements which would help William Higgin when we reach what, for him, will be the critical days of high summer that lie not far ahead, but any doubts on that score could be dispelled by laying new regulations before the House which would not be held ultra vires.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, especially in view of the difficulties that I had in the latter part of my remarks, and I thank the Minister for the careful attention that she has given to my speech. I know that, whatever the outcome, she cannot but view the circumstances of this young man with sympathy.

2.24 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Jennie Lee)

Certainly everything that has been said by the hon. Gentleman in this de-date will be carefully considered and analysed, but no Secretary of State in the Ministry of Education—indeed, no Minister—can make his own law. We deeply sympathise with the situation that has arisen in the Higgin family over the loss of the father. I have had the experience of working a small farm and I know just how difficult it can be to obtain labour. I can imagine what it must feel like to this young boy, who is already 15 years of age. My private view is that keeping a boy on at school against his will for a few months more will not do much for his education, but we must accept that we cannot make our own law.

This case has been very carefully considered by my Department. We had to take legal advice, and the legal advice that we have been given is that because William did not reach the age of 15 until after the beginning of February he remains of compulsory school age until the end of the present term. That is the rule that we have to follow. The Acts provide for no exceptions, and neither the Secretary of State nor the local education authority has any power to set aside the requirements of the Act. What we are asked to do is not within the power of the local authority, and the statute law would have to be changed. Only legislation could meet the point. We cannot deal with that question in this debate.

The hon. Member mentioned certain exceptions. That possibility has been gone into with the greatest care. One exception is where a local authority grants a licence under the Children and Young Persons Act allowing a child to take part in entertainments for limited periods. The other exception is in the terms of the regulations referred to by the hon. Member, namely, in accordance with arrangements, approved by the Minister, permitting employment temporarily in the interests of the general welfare of the community. As I have said, we have asked for legal advice on this point, and the advice given to us is that in William's case it is not a question of temporary employment; nor would it be in the interests of the general welfare of the community. The hon. Member has given his own interpretation of the law and how he would like it to operate. Unfortunately, after the most careful consideration we find that we are tied with this situation. I know that this lad will be leaving at the end of July with other boys who are almost six months younger, as the hon. Member has said, but as the law stands I am afraid that there is no way in which we could interpret his leaving school now as temporary.

Our legal advice is that, short of a change in the statute law, however deeply we sympathise with the situation in this family—and we do deeply sympathise—no power rests with the Secretary of State to alter that situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Two o'clock.