HL Deb 23 July 1914 vol 17 cc107-13


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a small measure which is in sequence to the Mental Deficiency Act of last year. Your Lordships may remember that that Act made provision for the care of all mentally defective persons, except children who were illegitimate. It was considered that those children should remain under the supervision of the local education authority and not be transferred to the care of the Board of Control. Local education authorities have at present power to educate children of this kind in special schools or classes certified by the Board of Education, and the principal object of this Bill is to convert that power into a duty. The Bill, however, contains various provisions to relieve the local education authority from any excessive financial burden in connection with the performance of this duty, and there are also clauses which deal with the rights of parents. There are three clauses in the Bill—Clauses 5, 6, and 8—which deal not only with mentally deficient children but also with epileptics.

Perhaps it would be convenient to your Lordships if I dealt with the various clauses seriatim. The first clause imposes on the local education authority the duty to educate mentally defective children over the age of seven, but your Lordships will see that there are three provisos which make important limitations. The local education authority need not educate a child in a boarding school if suitable provision can be made in some other way, as, for instance, in a day school. The second limitation is that they need not educate a child in a boarding school unless Parliament provides half the money, including half the loan charges. The third limitation is that they need not establish a boarding school unless there are 45 children in their area for whom boarding school accommodation is required. Clause 2 provides that if the number of children in the day school falls below 15 the authority may discontinue the school and make some alternative provision for the children. Clause 3 provides that the authorities must consult the parents and give effect to their wishes as far as possible in determining how the child should be educated; and on the question of religious instruction Section 8 of the Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf) Act, 1883, makes provision for observing the wishes of the parent. Subsection (2) of Clause 3 is practically directed against the erection of unnecessary schools. The authority is not to build a school of this kind if it can get what it requires in schools provided by other authorities or by private individuals.

Clause 4 allows, in cases where the area is too small for many children to need provision, the local education authority to hand over these powers to another authority so that they may provide for their own children and those of the smaller authority at the same time. Clause 5 makes a distinction between day schools and boarding schools. A parent who is not- providing education for his mentally defective child may be required to send the child to any day school which is within reach. The child, however, cannot be taken away from its parent and sent to a boarding school unless the parent consents or the consent of the parent, is unreasonably withheld, and it is provided that the parent, shall not be held as behaving unreasonably if his object in refusing to consent is really to benefit the child; so that the only case in which the child could possibly be removed from the care of the parent would be in those cases where the parent was not consulting the best interests of the child.

Clause 6 is due to representations which were made to the Board of Education that the head teacher is very often able to give valuable advice as to the future treatment of the child. The clause provides that the head teacher is to be consulted upon the condition of the child and the best way of educating him. Clause 7 provides that when a certificate has been granted it is not to be brought up against the child in after life; it prevents hint from being prejudiced thereby. Finally, Clause 8 provides which authority shall be responsible for the education of a child which moves about from place to place. In Committee I may have two small Amendments to move, but I do not anticipate that there will be any difficulty in securing the general assent of your Lordships to this Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Earl Beauchamp.)


My Lords, we are obliged to the noble Earl for the lucid account which he has given of the provisions of this Bill, all the more so because your Lordships have had very little time in which to consider it. The Bill was only presented to your Lordships' House the day before yesterday, and we are already engaged upon the Second Reading. I do not make any complaint, because I know that at this period of the session it is not very easy to give prolonged time for the consideration of a Bill, and if there is to be time given it is better that it should be between the Second Reading and the Committee stage than between the First Reading and the Second Reading. At the same time, this is one further illustration of the great difficult which your Lordships rest under as being the Revising Chamber. I believe that is what we are now looked upon as, yet we are given very little time in which to do our revision work.

The noble Earl, feeling no doubt the difficulty of the situation in which he stood, availed himself of the well-known defence that, after all, the Bill is only a little one. I am afraid I cannot quite share his; view that the Bill is of such small importance. It is an important. Bill, important because it deals with a very important subject and because it is in some of its clauses one further invasion of the liberty of individuals, which may be necessary but ought always to be approached by both Houses of Parliament with the greatest care. I think we should have been interested had the noble Earl given us in greater detail some account of the working of the Act of 1899, because, as he has told your Lordships, there is an Act already in operation, an enabling Act, enabling local education authorities to establish these schools if they think fit. The noble Earl did not tell your Lordships in how many cases this has been availed of, and what the result, has been. As a matter of fact, one or two great centres have availed themselves of the Act of 1899 almost, to the full extent of the necessities of the case. I believe both London and. Glasgow have done so, and it would have been very interesting for your Lordships to have been told what the number of defective children was, what cost had been thrown on the authorities in providing for them, and what results had followed from their activity. All that would have been very valuable as material for your Lordships to consider before this Bill is carried into law.

Though the two great centres I have named have used the Act of 1899 to its full extent, other great cities have not done so. I will not say that no others have, because I do not possess the information; but certainly a great many others have not fulfilled the hopes which were entertained when that Act was passed into law. I think the Government should have made out a case for compelling local education authorities who have not used the enabling Act to do their duty. I do not know in how many cases that would have been necessary, but I think the case could have been made out. But the Government, who love compulsion, as hardly any Bill is submitted to your Lord ships by the present Government which is not a compulsory Bill, are not only going to compel the local education authorities but they are going to compel the parents. I admit that in its passage through the House of Commons this provision in the Bill was largely safeguarded by the action mainly, I think, of the Opposition. I say that it was mainly by the action of the Opposition that the provisions throwing compulsion on the parents were safeguarded, because I think very little help was given by the Labour Members. The Labour Members, like the Government, are all for compulsion. The people who really look after the liberty of the poor are to be found on the despised Tory Benches. The Liberal and Labour Members do not care for the liberty of the poor at all, and it is to be remembered that this Bill only affects the poor.

I do not say that the Government cannot make out a case—I hope the noble Earl will make out a case at a future stage—for putting this compulsion on the poor. But I wonder why the Government do not try a voluntary Act first. Why should they not have compelled the local education authorities, who, I agree, need compelling, to provide the schools, and then see whether the parents would not have availed themselves of them. Why should not the parents have been quite willing to send their defective children to be educated at these special schools? I see no reason to think that the great majority of them would not have done so, and where the minority did not do so I see no reason to believe that they would not have very good ground for their refusal. At any rate I am surprised that as a first step the Government did not leave out the Compulsory clause so far as parents are concerned. But that has not been done. We hope that at a later stage of the Bill the noble Earl will tell us upon what evidence the Government have acted in declining to make this Bill a purely voluntary one so far as parents are concerned.

I make these few criticisms as regards what the Bill contains, but before I sit down I should like to make one criticism as to what the Bill does not contain. The Government have confined this Bill to mentally defective children. Why have they not addressed themselves to the much more urgent problem of physically defective children? That is a much mow urgent problem, because the education of physically defective children—I refer to those who are blind or deaf or similarly physically defective—is likely to be much more useful than the education of mentally deficient children. Such physically defective children are in the full possession of their mental faculties and are quite as capable of learning and of being educated to earn their own living as any individual fully equipped with all the senses and physical capacities, but because they are physically defective they will hereafter he placed in a very unfortunate position in earning their own livelihood. It is therefore of great importance that they should be taught. As I say, they are quite its susceptible of a full education as any other child is, and I regret very much that that part of the subject has not been approached.

I should like to know why the Government have not included physically defective children in the Bill. It is not as if they did not know how many physically defective children there are, because in the two great centres to which I have referred—London and Glasgow—where the problem has really been attacked and where the physically defective children have been dealt with equally with the mentally defective children the necessary statistics have been collected; and as we may assume that the case of London is typical of the whole, there is no reason to suppose that we cannot ascertain the proportions of physically defective children to the whole population of the country from looking at the statistics of London. Therefore the figures as to the number of these children were at the Government's command and also the figures as to the cost of educating them, because all that has been worked out in London, and it is perfectly well known how much it costs on an average to educate a physically defective child and a mentally defective child. The education of physically defective children is more expensive, I know, but the difference in cost is not at all prohibitive; it is comparatively small. I should have been much happier had the Government made their Bill a little less drastic in respect of compulsion and a little fuller in respect of the scope of its operations. It would then have been, I think, a sounder Bill. However, so far as it goes, with the slight criticism which I have made upon it, undoubtedly the Bill will be a valuable measure, and I shall he glad to see something of the kind placed upon the Statute Book, and shall, of course, not oppose the reading of the Bill a second time.

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