HL Deb 23 May 1905 vol 146 cc1089-105


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the measure which I venture to submit for your Lordships' consideration this evening is, in my humble judgment, as simple as it is necessary and as necessary as it is simple. Its object is to enable the people of a district, when there is no other suitable provision in the neighbourhood, to hold public meetings in the rooms of public elementary schools in order that they may be able to hear the views of their candidates for Parliament or for the local bodies of the district in which they live. I venture to hope that I shall be able to show your Lordships in the first place that the measure is necessary; secondly, that its principle has had the direct sanction of both of the great Parties in the State; and thirdly, that it can be carried into effect without damage to the educational value of the schools or financial loss to the ratepayers or the school managers.

In order to show your Lordships that the measure is necessary at the present moment I shall have to trouble you with a short history as to how the necessity came about. The necessity far this measure arose in consequence of the Franchise Act of 1884, when, for the first time, agricultural labourers became the majority of the rural electors in county constituencies. Previous to that time the majority of the electors in those constituencies were farmers, or other well-to-do people, and their candidates or Members were accustomed to take advantage of the farmers' ordinary or some similar occasion in order to address them; but when the agricultural labourers became electors it was necessary for candidates to go into the various villages in order to come face to face with those who were to have the power of returning them to Parliament; and when I mention to your Lordships that in a large agricultural constituency which I had the honour of representing for many years, though it comprised eighty villages, there were only five places which it was possible to hire in which to address meetings, I think it will be seen that in that constituency at any rate the rooms of the elementary schools were the only places available for meetings.

A difficulty arose in 1885, because it was found in some of the villages that while the managers granted the use of the school to one of the candidates they objected to letting it to the other political candidate, or else put such conditions upon its use by him as to make it practically prohibitory. In the autumn of 1885 the question of disestablishment, which had not previously been very much before the electors, suddenly came to the front, and in a constituency which I myself know well the Conservative candidate went down to a certain village, obtained the use of the school, and made an attack on his opponent with regard to his views on disestablishment, although that opponent had never put disestablishment in the forefront on his programme. Yet when the Liberal candidate asked for the use of the schoolroom, the vicar granted his request on condition that in the course of his speech he did not mention the word disestablishment, and so the unfortunate man had to go down to that village to answer an opponent who had attacked him a week before, and the main point in the attack was to be barred.

I want to say at once that I bring no accusation whatever against Conservative candidates. On the contrary, I am quite certain that they are just as anxious as we should be that their opponents should have full opportunity of putting their views before the electors. Nor do I bring any sweeping charges against school managers generally. I believe the class to which I refer are in an absolute minority, but at the same time in the small out-of-the-way places which this measure would practically affect, political hostility is often of a bitter nature, and it is in those places that it is necessary that agricultural labourers, who, after all, are not the best educated of the electors generally, should have an opportunity of hearing both sides of those great political questions upon which Parliament has given them the right and the duty of voting. And here I would mention a fact, which I would venture with all humility to commend to the right rev. bench. It is this, that the chairman of the managers is in many cases, if not in most cases, the vicar or the rector of the parish, and as I do not believe for a single moment that the majority of the clergy take such a view as I have pointed out of refusing their schools to particular political candidates, I think it is very hard that on account of a few political zealots there should be an injustice done to the clergy at large. It is on that account that I would ask, with all submission, for the support of the right rev. Prelates to my Bill.

There have been several Resolutions and Bills brought in on this subject. There were Resolutions in the House of Commons in 1887, in 1889, and in 1892. In 1887 and 1889 interesting discussions took place on the subject, but no vote was taken. But in 1892, on the eve of a general election, I was fortunate enough to persuade the House of Commons to unanimously pass a Resolution of which this Bill is the embodiment. More than that, with the assent of the present Prime Minister a Bill was brought into the House of Commons by the Government which was practically on all fours with this Bill. But, as your Lordships know, a general election shortly afterwards took place and the Conservative Government had not the opportunity of placing the Bill on the Statute-book, as no doubt they very ardently desired. It may be said that the succeeding Gladstonian Government ought to have brought in a Bill of their own on this subject. I do not know that it is necessary to remind your Lordships that during the somewhat strenuous Government of 1892–5 the House of Commons was occupied with a good many very large and far-reaching measures, and owing to the gallantry and eloquence of the Opposition of the day those measures took considerable time to debate. That may form an excuse for their not having dealt with the matter in a special Bill; but, as a matter of fact, the principle was embodied in the Local Government Act, 1894, which is generally known as the Parish Councils Act. Therefore I claim that the Government of 1892–5, busy as they undoubtedly were, yet embraced the only opportunity at their disposal of placing this principle on the Statute-book.

It may be said that in consequence of the Bill which was brought in by the Conservative Government and the unanimous Resolution of the House of Commons of 1892 the necessity for this measure, after all these years, has practically passed away. It is, of course, impossible for me or any private individual to obtain accurate information with regard to what has taken place throughout the whole of Great Britain, but I have been able to obtain some information with regard to the home counties, and though I do not pretend for a single moment that the information I have received is entirely complete, yet it goes to show that in the limited area of the home counties during 1904–5, at the by-elections that have taken place and at other elections, there have been eighty-four refusals of schools when they have been applied for, and that, I venture to think, is a very large number. I would also mention that there are cases among those I am referring to in which the schools have been refused to both political candidates. Then there have been cases where the charges for the hire of the schools were so high as to be practically prohibitive, and the managers of the schools have been able to avoid the obloquy of direct refusal of putting a prohibitory charge on the schools.

Then there are cases, not at all uncommon, in which the managers do not like the political opinions of the persons who apply for the use of the schools. I do not wish for a single moment to gibbet any particular place or any particular person, and if I venture to give some instances of replies that were received in answer to applications for schools I do not intend to mention names, but the authority, of course, is at the disposal of the noble Marquess or anyone else who desires to see it privately. One of the refusals was to this effect. A rev. gentleman wrote that the Conservatives had had a meeting at the "Red Lion," and he added— I presume that is available for you, too. I venture to think that advocates of temperance on both sides of the House will agree that a public-house or an inn where wine, spirits, and beer are sold is not a very desirable place for a political meeting. The heady wine of politics is sufficiently exciting in itself, but if it is leavened by the beer of the "Magpie and Stump" it may have disastrous effects. The vicar of another place wrote to this effect— Not being myself a Liberal, but, on the contrary, a staunch Conservative, I cannot accede to the request contained in your letter. Well, my Lords, that is very much to the point. I should have preferred that his answer had been of a more judicial character. Then there is a case which concerns a member of His Majesty's Government, and the story I am going to tell is immensely to his credit. A meeting was held by this gentleman, who was the Member for the constituency, and shortly afterwards his Liberal opponent applied for the use of the same school, but it was refused to him, and the gentleman to whom I refer intervened on behalf of his Liberal opponent, obtained the use of the school for him, and the meeting was held.

But what a condemnation of the system that very fact is! The amusing part, however, is the result, for the clergyman said there should be no political meetings, held in the school at all for the future, I think I have said enough to show that there is, even at the present moment, a necessity for this measure.

The principle of this Bill has the direct, sanction of both political Parties. I have referred to the unanimous reception by the House of Commons of the Resolution moved in 1892, to the Bill which was brought in by the Conservative Government of that day at the instance of the Prime Minister embodying that Resolution, and, finally, to the Local Government Act of 1894, which received the assent of your Lordships' House and the House of Commons, endorsing the principle. The Bill of 1892, which, as I have said, was brought in by a Conservative Government, was practically on all fours with this measure. It provided that schoolrooms might be used for meetings in respect to elections to Parliament and the local bodies free of charge. I would emphasise the words "free of charge," because a noble Lord who criticised this measure pointed out that there ought to be some charge for the use of the schoolrooms. My answer is that when I originally drafted the Bill I had considered putting in a limited charge, but when I read the Conservative Bill of 1892, which, as I have said, was sanctioned by the present Prime Minister, and found that it provided that the use of the room should be granted without any charge, I felt that it was impossible for me to do other than follow that example.

As recently as 1902, when a debate took place on this subject during the discussion of the Education Bill, a Member of the other House moved a clause by which the schoolrooms would be at the disposal of Parliamentary candidates, and the Prime Minister said:— He was not saying that a provision of the kind, made universal— in that proposal it was restricted to voluntary schools— Could not be so safeguarded as to make it a reasonable and proper addition to the Statute-book, but he ventured to suggest that it should be introduced as a separate Bill and at a time when the House would have an opportunity of discussing it. I have introduced it as a separate Bill this evening, and I venture to hope that your Lordships will find time to discuss it if it be necessary so to do. When Mr. Balfour accepted the Resolution of 1892 he said— We are all agreed on both sides of the House that it is in the highest degree desirable that these schools, in districts where no other public place of assembly is obtainable, should be open to every side of politics. I have every hope, therefore, that His Majesty's Government will accept this Bill. It can be adopted without interference with the use of the schools for educational purposes, and without loss to the ratepayers or the managers of the schools. It is laid down that any expense incurred shall be borne by the person in whose behalf the school is taken, and he will also pay for any damage that may be done. Moreover, except during elections, the use of the schools in these villages is to be limited to twice a year. Therefore, I claim that the Bill contains adequate safeguards. I do not know what the attitude of the Government will be, but I am sanguine that they will accept the Bill. If they do not I shall be curious to know on what ground the noble Marquess will base his refusal. If he opposes it on principle he will be opposing a principle which has been affirmed by his own Prime Minister and by his own Party in both Houses of Parliament. I venture, on my part, without hesitation to commend the measure to the common sense and justice of your Lordships' House and of the country.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a"—(Lord Burghclere.)


My Lords, my noble friend who has just sat down, in the course of his exceedingly interesting, pointed, and lucid speech, appealed specially to the Episcopal Bench in the hope of obtaining their support for the Bill which he asks your Lordships to read a second time to-night. I am not empowered to speak as the representative of the Bishops generally on this subject, for we have not had an opportunity of jointly considering the measure; but, speaking for myself, and simply for myself, I wish to say that I believe the principle of the Bill to be sound, and one which your Lordships ought to accept. The noble Lord, in speaking of rural schools, presumably had in his mind the schools which are now described as "non-provided," and formerly as "voluntary," but he did not touch at all on the question of the ownership of the buildings in which the school work is carried on. It was, perhaps, not necessary for his argument that he should do so; but I would remind your Lordships that, while the buildings are largely used for public purposes—and those purposes are largely dependent upon public funds—the buildings still remain private property, and that fact has to be borne in mind when considering the difficulties with which this subject is surrounded. But, in whomsoever the actual ownership of the schools is vested, I maintain that they ought, in fairness, to be available for such purposes as this Bill describes, under careful restrictions against possible misuse and with definite limitations: the condition being carefully observed that they ought not to be so used except in places where no other suitable building is available. Holding that principle to be sound, I am prepared to vote with the noble Lord in favour of the Second Reading of this Bill.

But I desire to point out that the Bill will require a great deal of consideration in regard to its details before it can, without harm, become an Act of Parliament. It gives so great an extension of the right which now exists on the part of the public to the use of school buildings for other than educational purposes, that difficulties of no inconsiderable kind might, to the detriment of education, arise in some villages. I believe that those difficulties ought to be faced and can be overcome. The noble Lord stated that except during elections the use of the schools in these villages was to be limited to twice a year, but the Bill provides that after reasonable notice given by any Member of Parliament, county councillor, or member of any public body elected by the ratepayers of the area in which such district is situated, or any Parliamentary candidate, or candidate for the county council or other elective body for such area or district, the schoolhouse may be used in pursuance of the candidature of such person on two occasions during the year, which is a very different matter. There might be a very large number of individuals in the course of the twelve months who might wish to take advantage of this Bill.

I am all in favour of facilitating the ventilation of public questions on all sides, both in town and country. I believe that by carrying out that principle alone can we expect to advance the popular intelligence on public questions; and, holding that opinion most strongly, I am prepared to go as far as possible to meet the necessities of the case. The noble Lord who moved the Second Reading of the Bill spoke of the measure as being as simple as it was necessary. Necessary it may be, but simple in working, I venture to think, it certainly is not as at present drafted; and I believe a great many of the provisions will require much careful consideration before they can be satisfactorily placed on the Statute-book. I do not think that the safeguards which the Bill provides against the harassing use of the buildings are sufficient. The noble Lord quoted letters which had been received; from the chairmen of boards of managers, before, I think, the passing of the recent Education Act.


No; during the years 1904 and 1905.


The letters the noble Lord quoted were from the chairmen of managers respecting the use of buildings, and the writers of those letters were clergy in charge of parishes. Now it is doubtless true that there are a good many men who in matters of this kind are not very far-seeing, not very widely sympathetic, and possibly not very wise; but this is not confined to one class of men or to one side of politics. I could mention case after case of obstructive action taken at this moment by authorities with respect to schools which provide that kind of religious education which Parliament in its wisdom allows to be given; and I venture to think that a candidate for a county council who, like one who came the other day under my own observation, was a large employer of labour and declined to employ anyone who came from a Church of England school, would not be at all careful to avoid difficulties in the demand which this Bill would enable him to make on those in charge of the school buildings. Again, in the Bill there is a very invidious distinction drawn between secular and religious instruction, for there is this proviso— Provided that such public meeting shall not be held at such times or in such manner as to interfere with the hours set apart for secular instruction. I maintain that religious instruction is an inherent part of instruction as a whole, and must be placed in no such secondary or insignificant position as would be implied by the proviso as it stands. Very emphatically shall I—if the Bill goes forward as I hope it will—vote against the retention of any such distinction. The noble Lord gave us no explanation of that very remarkable and somewhat prominent distinction, and I should be curious to know on what ground it is made part of the Bill.

I am merely pointing out difficulties of detail and not in the least opposing the principle of the Bill. But the difficulties are not imaginary. For example, there is a provision in the third clause that if any question arises under the Act as to what is reasonably suitable or convenient it may be determined by the Board of Education. I daresay the Board of Education is as good an authority to refer educational questions to as could be found, but I should feel a little sorry for the Board of Education in London if it had to decide such local problems as whether or not there was any building in a parish suitable for the purposes of a particular meeting. That is not necessarily an educational question at all. For example, suppose there is in the village a public hall which can be hired for, say, ten shillings. Does that charge render the building unsuitable or unavailable, or inconvenient, and necessitate falling back upon the school. Or again, is the existence of a chapel which has hitherto been used for political meetings an adequate provision of another building? Those are the kind of details that will require to be carefully considered before this Bill is finally passed into law; but as regards the large principle embodied in the Bill, I believe it to be laid on sound lines, and I see no reason why such facilities should not be made practicable everywhere, provided the necessary limitations, which cannot be beyond our wit to devise, are carefully thought out and worded.


My Lords, the noble Lord has introduced this Bill in words of a most practical character, and his speech showed that he has the interests of the measure thoroughly at heart. The House also heard from the most rev. Primate a speech of a broad-minded character and one which will be of practical use in considering the important details in the future stages of the Bill. Lord Burghclere has been a consistent supporter of the cause of affording facilities for the holding of public meetings in schools. I am not going to follow him back to the year 1884 as to the facilities afforded to agriculturists for listening to political speeches, but I quite agree with him that the extension of the franchise has entirely altered the system of addressing electors.

I noted with interest how Lord Burghclere alluded to the fact that in 1892 he, as a then Member of the House of Commons, was responsible for a Resolution which was passed through that House without opposition from the Government of the day. The noble Lord did not exaggerate in the slightest degree the manner in which that Resolution was received in the House of Commons, but when he went on to say that the Bill introduced afterwards by Sir William Hart Dyke was on all fours with the Resolution for which he was responsible I am afraid I must differ from him on one point. The Bill of Sir William Hart Dyke was based on the speech he made when he accepted but criticised the Resolution of Lord Burghclere. In that speech Sir William Hart Dyke pointed out that there must be certain safeguards, and in the Bill which he introduced all those safeguards were provided to which Sir William alluded in his speech on the Resolution. Moreover, the Bill of Sir William Hart Dyke did not interfere with schools which were under private ownership. It is there that the difference comes in between the Bill of 1892 and the Bill which Lord Burghclere is now asking your Lordships to pass. In the speech in which Sir William Hart Dyke criticised the Resolution of the noble Lord he laid great stress on the fact that those who were responsible for the school must have security for damage done to the premises. I think that last objection has been met sufficiently by the noble Lord in the Bill now before your Lordships, and therefore on that question I will say no more.

I recall to my mind that when the noble Lord introduced an Amendment into your Lordships' House on this subject during the passage of the Education Bill of 1902 I was privileged, under the direction of the noble Duke who was responsible for the measure, to reply to that Amendment. Lord Burghclere said with great truth that that Amendment was not altogether on all fours with the Amendment which was moved in the House of Commons. Mr. Trevelyan in the House of Commons proposed that the obligation to give these facilities should apply only to voluntary schools, but Lord Burghclere differed from that in his Amendment and his proposal embraced all schools. I remember pointing out at the time that even though the noble Lord felt so strongly that these facilities should be given, the Government could not accept that proposal as an Amendment to a Bill which was already overloaded, and following the example of the Prime Minister, I said that if Lord Burghclere felt so strongly on the matter he might introduce a Bill in your Lordships' House. Therefore I would be the last person to complain of the introduction of this Bill. But it does not follow because the Prime Minister in the House of Commons and myself in your Lordships' House suggested that a separate Bill was the proper way of dealing with this subject, that we agree with the whole of the provisions now before us.

The noble Lord in this Bill lays stress on the fact that where there is no other suitable building the school should be available for meetings of all sorts and kinds. He alluded to the Parish Councils Act which gave facilities for the use of these schools, but solely for parochial or district council matters. This Bill goes a great deal further. The noble Lord also laid stress on the fact that a certain number of those who were capable of granting facilities for meetings had objected to schools being used for political purposes. He referred to the home counties, but evidently the home counties are different from that part of the country in which I live. There we have always given the greatest facilities, and I have myself lent a hall for the purpose of political meetings at which I have been very much abused. Great consideration must be shown towards the owners of schools, who perhaps do not share the opinions of those desiring to hold meetings. Everyone has a right to his own views, and it might be objectionable to some that a school of their own should be used by a political opponent for the purpose of abusing them.

Undoubtedly the noble Lord has a stronger case now than before 1902, because the ratepayers now subscribe to the maintenance of the schools, which before enjoyed no assistance from the rates. On this ground the claim of the ratepayers, therefore, cannot be ignored. They have a right which they did not possess in years past to the use of the schools. But it must be remembered that many of the schools are the private property of individual owners, and although they now receive rate aid the requirements of the local authority are so heavy that the advantage they derive from receiving rate aid places them on no better floting than in 1902. These are matters which should be very carefully considered before we decide on giving virtually free access to the schools by Act of Parliament. I endorse what has been said by the most rev. Primate as to the lack of any provision in the Bill to prevent interference with religious instruction, and I consider it a most important omission. The most rev. Primate has declared himself in favour of the principle of the Bill, and on behalf of His Majesty's Government I have to say that we offer no opposition to the Second Reading. At the same time I think your Lordships will realise that there are many of the details of the Bill which will require most careful consideration. I therefore suggest that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee.


My Lords, I did not catch the last words of the noble Marquess, but noble Lords beside me tell me that he proposes that this Bill should be referred to a Select Committee. I think it is a very unusual course for a short and simple Bill like this to be referred to such a Committee. I admit that there may be clauses in the Bill which require alteration, but it seems to me almost unparalled to refer so simple a Bill as this to a Select Committee. I therefore hope His Majesty's Government will not insist on that course. The noble Lord in charge of the Bill will be ready to consider any proposals made to check injustice and to meet the criticisms of the most rev. Primate. In the circumstances I can only suppose that the object of referring the Bill to a Select Committee is to endanger its passing by causing delay.


My Lords, I greatly regret that the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition cannot accept the considerate proposition made by the noble Marquess the President of the Board of Education to refer the Bill to a Select Committee. The noble Marquess told your Lordships that His Majesty's Government were favourable to the principle of the Bill, The principle of the Bill is no doubt a simple matter enough, but when you come to consider the proposed application of that principle you at once find yourself face to face with a number of points of detail of very great difficulty. I am sure those of your Lordships who listened to the speech of the most rev. Primate must have felt that the matter was by no means so simple as the noble Earl supposes. The principle of the Bill, I take it, is this, that it is desirable that Parliamentary candidates and others should be given an opportunity of making use of these schoolrooms in connection with their candidature when no other suitable rooms or places are available, and the noble mover has made it clear that that privilege is not one to be exercised constantly but only on rare intervals. But when you come to the manner in which that simple principle is to be interpreted the matter ceases to be so easy, and I cannot help thinking that the feeling of your Lordships will be that the difficulties in points of detail require the kind of examination which they will be more likely to receive in a Select Committee than in a Committee of the Whole House.


My Lords, I must say I listened to the earlier parts of the speech of the noble Marquess the President of the Board of Education with the greatest gratitude, but the sting unfortunately came in the tail. For my part I cannot understand why His Majesty's Government require a Select Committee on this Bill, when in the year 1892 they produced a Bill of their own on this subject in eight or ten days without a Select Committee at all. It is open to the noble Marquess and His Majesty's Government in Committee to move stock and block, as Amendments to my Bill, the very precautions they themselves brought forward in 1892. The proposal to refer the Bill to a Select Committee can only be explained by a desire indirectly to defeat the Bill. I am grateful to His Majesty's Government for accepting the principle of the Bill, which, after all, is the only question before the House on Second Reading, but the proposed reference to a Select Committee is a dilatory process and absolutely unnecessary. I do not wish to take up an unreasonable attitude, but I do make an urgent appeal to the noble Marquess the Leader of the House, seeing that the Government have accepted the principle of the Bill, not to persist in the proposal to refer it to a Select Committee. I am perfectly willing to meet the most rev. Primate and His Majesty's Government in any Amendments they may bring forward in Committee of the Whole House, which is surely the proper place for questions of this sort to be dealt with. I hope the Government will reconsider their decision and allow the Bill to be read a second time and considered in the usual way by the Standing Committee, which I think is better than any Select Committee, and the Committee of the Whole House.


My Lords, it is only by the indulgence of the House that I can say another word, but I should be sorry to have it supposed that the suggestions I had made were of a character to render necessary the reference of the Bill to a Select Committee. It may be that I may have led His Majesty's Government to suppose that I, for one, as possibly representing many outside, thought the Bill could only be adequately amended by a Select Committee; whereas, so far as I know, there is nothing in the Bill which may not be dealt with satisfactorily in the Committee of the Whole House, and in the Standing Committee; and I therefore venture to hope that the proposal to commit the Bill to a Select Committee may be reconsidered.


I must confess that I share in some measure the surprise expressed by noble Lords opposite at the proposal of the Government to refer this Bill to a Select Committee. The principle of the Bill is generally accepted; all that is required are certain Amendments in Committee which I cannot believe are of so complicated a nature as has been represented. Take one, for instance—the point as to religious instruction. The clause at present provides that the public meetings shall not be held at such times or in such manner as to interfere with the hours set apart for secular instruction. Surely the point raised by the most rev. Primate could be met by the simple omission of the word "secular." That is an instance of the kind of Amendment which would be required. I am afraid that the prospects of the noble Lord's Bill passing are not of the brightest in any event, but if it is referred to a Select Committee it will have but a small chance. I would add that there is considerable difficulty in finding Members of your Lordships' House to serve on these Committees, and that is an additional reason why the Bill should be considered in the Committee of the Whole House.


My Lords, I can assure your Lordships that nothing is further from our thoughts than to defeat the Bill either by dilatory tactics or vexatious opposition. We proposed the reference of the Bill to a Select Committee because we believed there would be a number of comparatively minute points which would be better disposed of by such a Committee; but in view of the feeling which has been expressed by some of your Lordships, and particularly in view of the appeal made by the most rev. Primate, by whose arguments I was certainly influenced in favour of the Bill going to a Select Committee, I propose not to press the Motion.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole, House.