HL Deb 12 June 1890 vol 345 cc670-5

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


My Lords, I regret very much that I have not been able to bring this Bill under the consideration of your Lordships' House at an earlier period of the evening, because it is one which I trust will appeal to your Lordships' sympathy and assent. The House has been during a considerable portion of the evening considering the manner in which youthful offenders should be dealt with—that is to say, devoting its attention to the welfare of children of criminal, or, to say the least, not of the best character. But the Bill which I present this evening is for the benefit of another class altogether, namely, children suffering under natural affliction, in that they have been born blind or deaf and dumb. Your Lordships will recollect that in 1885 a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the whole question of the condition of blind and deaf-mute children in the United Kingdom. Of that Commission my noble Friend Lord Egerton of Tatton was Chairman, and I regret to say that a telegram has been just received from the noble Lord stating his inability to be present this evening, because his countenance and knowledge would have been of the greatest possible value in any discussion which may arise on this measure. Now, my Lords, the Bill of which I now move the Second Reading is founded mainly upon the Report of that Commission. That Report deals not only with the question of the education of blind and deaf-mute children, but also with the treatment of adults, and the different systems which are now in use with regard to the care of such afflicted persons in after life not only in Great Britain: but on the Continent. The Bill to winch I ask your Lordships' assent this evening refers only to the educational portion of that Report. In the main, the Report made three recommendations in reference to the education of blind and deaf-mute children. One of those recommendations was that the compulsory clauses of the Education Act should be extended to these children; the second recommendation was that the school authority should have power to defray the expenses of the education of such children at the different institutions in the country, of their boarding out, and of their journeys to and from such institutions if they happen to be at a distance, away from their own parishes, and the third recommendation was that in the case of these children there should be an increase in the education grants. With regard to the first of those recommendations, namely, that the compulsory clauses of the Education Act should be extended to these children, I should not like to say that even under the present Act those compulsory clauses do not extend to this class of children. My impression is that under the existing compulsory clauses the School Board Authorities might be bound to find means for the education of these afflicted children, and that when those means of education have been found and provided, that the compulsory clauses should be put into effect as regards them. But, on the other hand, I believe there may be some doubt whether under the interpretation of these clauses those provisions can be carried so far. I am inclined to think, too, that further doubt may be cast upon their possible interpretation in that way by the 69th clause of the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872. There is a provision there that fees may be paid for the education of the blind; but there is no such provision with regard to deaf mutes. That would, I think, go far to show that a special provision is required. But, whether there is any doubt on the question or not, I think that it is quite obvious that even if these compulsory clauses were intended to be put into effect, it would not be found possible to do so. It has, in fact, been found impossible to give effect to them, because, scattered throughout Scotland there may be very few of these children in certain districts, and in order to provide for them it might be necessary to send them to some central point where means could be provided for their education. Even if it were possible for the School Boards to deal with them under the clauses I have mentioned it would not be desirable, because I think the whole tone and tendency of the Report of the Royal Commission goes to show that, especially as regards the deaf mutes, they would be better educated and cared for in scattered institutions than they could be directly under the School Boards. One of the objects of this Bill is to remove any doubt with regard to the compulsory powers being intended to apply to the education of these children, but, coupled with that compulsion, it is absolutely necessary to give to School Boards powers, which they do not now possess, of providing funds for sending these children to such institutions, and for boarding them out and defraying the expenses of their journeys. I am quite willing to admit that these powers are somewhat novel, and that, under certain circumstances, some slight cost might be incurred. The powers are novel in two respects. First, there is the power enabling School Boards to contribute to schools already established. The second power, which is new, is that which enables an Educational Authority to pay for board and lodging. If there is any risk in establishing a new principle by this it ought, I think, still to be done; but I do not think there is any such risk, because these powers are so strictly limited to cases of blind and deaf mute children that they cannot possibly be extended under this measure to any other class of the community. I think your Lordships will agree that after so much consideration has been given to the subject by the Royal Commission, and it having been found absolutely impossible to carry out their recommendations in any other way, it is necessary to approve of these proposals. The third recommendation of the Commission was that additional grants should be given in the case of these children. On this point I have to say that it has not been thought necessary to make such a provision in the Bill; but should it appear necessary that such additional grants should be given, the Department is perfectly willing to give power with consent of Parliament, and under proper precautions, for grants to be given in each necessary case. Those propositions constitute the object of the Bill, namely, that the School Boards should be allowed to provide the education specially required for these afflicted children in the way which may be found most suitable to their needs, and that the compulsory powers of the Education Act should be exercised in regard to these children. The other provisions of the Bill I need not enter into; they are simply for the purpose of carrying out its object. I would, however, refer to Clause 5, which provides that in case of the non-attendance of a child at school it shall be admitted as a sufficient excuse that the child is a deaf mute under seven years of age. The compulsory school age in Scotland is five, but the Commissioners recommend that in the case of deaf mute children the compulsory clauses should not be applied under the age of seven. Then, by Clause 3, reference is made to children up to 16 years of age, but it is not proposed that the compulsory powers should be put in force over the age of 14. The clause only gives powers to School Boards to make contributions up to the age of 16. Another clause has regard to the religious opinions of parents, and it is provided that a child shall not be sent to an institution without the consent of its parents, and there is general power given to the Educational Department of seeing that these provisions are not carried out in a vexatious manner. With regard to the powers of charging the rates with boarding-out expenses, I think they will not be very far-reaching or involve great cost. Under the possible supposition that the School Boards are bound to provide for the education of these children, under the existing Acts that could not be done without incurring the great expense which must ultimately fall on the rates. The expense will not be very large, I think, if this Bill passes. As far as I know the number of blind children of school age in Scotland is 240, and of deaf mute children 781. But a large number of those children are at present at schools to which they have been sent by charitable persons, or in other ways provided for, and it may, on the whole, be said that only about half remain to be educated, and, therefore, about 500 children would come under the provisions of this Act. Of those 500 some are probably not fit subjects for education at all, either mentally or physically. Therefore, my Lords, even supposing these charges were considerable, for so small a number of children, no great addition could fall upon the rates. I do not think, therefore, in that respect I need expect any opposition from your Lordships' House. My Lords, I venture to think that although, as I stated before, the Bill is not a very large one, affecting, perhaps, not more than 500 persons in the whole, it is a measure which appeals specially to your Lordships' consideration. By the Royal Commission the condition of both blind and deaf-and-dumb children was inquired into. But those classes of children are essentially different from each other in the nature of their afflictions, and your Lordships will at once recognise that blind children are not cut off in the same way from outside influences and surroundings in the same way or to the same extent as deaf mutes, and, as a rule, their deprivation from loss of sight is often made up for by greater intelligence and greater quickness of perception in their other senses. In the Middle Ages your Lordships will remember that deaf mutes were generally treated as imbeciles. The first effort which was made to treat them as intelligent human beings was in Spain in 1570, when a charitable monk took four deaf-mute children, under his care, and made an attempt to give them an education. In this country a similar attempt was made a hundred1' years afterwards at Oxford with more or less satisfactory results. Since that time charitable institutions for dealing with these children have been established in all the countries of Europe, and different methods have been tried of treating them. But, my Lords, this is the very first attempt which has been made in the United Kingdom to provide by enactment that education shall be secured to these afflicted children. For that reason I am glad to have had the opportunity of bringing in this Bill as regards Scotland. If it should pass through Parliament this Session some legislative recognition will have been made of the fact that children, however afflicted, must be given an education which will enable their faculties to be^ more developed, and thus, so far, alleviate the unhappy condition under which, through no fault of their own, they are compelled to pass their lives. I beg to move that the Bill be read a seecond time.

On Question, agreed to.

Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House on Monday next.