HL Deb 23 July 1936 vol 102 cc204-8

Read 3a (according to Order).

Clause 4:

Limitation of power of exemption under Act of 1901.

4.—(1) Notwithstanding anything in the Act of 1901, an education authority shall not, after the thirty-first day of August, nineteen hundred and thirty-nine, grant under that Act exemption to any child from the obligation to attend school unless the exemption is granted for the purpose of enabling the child to give assistance at home and the authority are satisfied that by reason of any circumstances existing at his home it would cause exceptional hardship to require the child to attend school.

LORD SANDERSON moved, in subsection (1), to substitute "nineteen hundred and thirty-six" for "nineteen hundred and thirty-nine." The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move again the Amendment that I moved during the Committee stage. I do not know that I need repeat the arguments fully, but, put shortly, they were that it is most unfortunate that this country cannot ratify an International Convention on the minimum age for work in agriculture which has been signed by nineteen other countries—the International Convention of 1921—merely because we are insisting on exempting a very small number of Scottish children from school over the age of twelve for work in agriculture. This very small alteration in the Bill would enable us to ratify this Convention, but without it we shall have to wait another three years. So far as the children themselves are concerned the result of adopting the Amendment would be that Scottish children would be put in exactly the same position with regard to exemption in 1936 as the English children occupy in 1936: for another three years they would not be able to be exempted if they were over the age of twelve for home duties and agricultural employment. That would be the only difference, just as our children here cannot be exempted for those purposes. That is a very small alteration. Altering that "nine" into a "six" would make no difference really to the children of Scotland. It would be advantageous to the children of Scotland, would be good from an educational point of view and would enable this country to ratify the Convention to which I have referred.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, said in his reply on the Committee stage that the trouble was the difficulty of arranging accommodation for these, children. But there are so very few children—only 2,500 altogether—who have been exempted last year between the ages of twelve and fourteen, and of those only 1,105 have been permanently exempted. It cannot be impossible to find accommodation for those children in the schools of Scotland, supposing they are not exempted, when the schools are presumably adapted to hold all the children who may be in them. Nobody knows beforehand how many children will be exempted under this law, or whether any children will be exempted. The accommodation must be there, and it is such a small number. As the schools will have to be increased anyhow in connection with the Bill, it must be quite possible to find room for them during the next few years. The Government very much exaggerate the difficulty of building school accommodation in the country generally. After all, if it were a question of a barracks, an aerodrome or a munition factory, the country would be covered with them in six months' time. Why should the Government take two-and-a-half years to build proper schools for the children? If the Government meant business about education the schools could all be provided in a year at the most. I beg to move the Amendment.

Amendment moved— Page 5, line 11, leave out ("thirty-nine") and insert ("thirty-six")—(Lord Sanderson.)


My Lords, I am surprised that the noble Lord opposite should have returned to the charge after the similar Amendment which he moved in Committee and the reply he received from my noble friend Lord Strathcona. I must say that when the Bill was introduced I thought that the middle of 1039 was rather late for the Bill to come into operation, but the great majority of the county councils in Scotland, through their education committees, say that they cannot be ready before the middle of 1939. New buildings have to be erected, existing buildings have to be added to, and, as the noble Lord stated in Committee, new teachers have to be trained. It would be impossible to be ready to grant exemptions after the end of next month. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord will not press his Amendment and that my noble friend will resist it on behalf of the Government.


My Lords, I regret that owing to the insufficiency of the reply that I was able to give at short notice to the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson, on the Committee stage of this Bill, I have to trouble your Lordships with a further reply to this Amendment. He was, however, quite right to put it down, because I was not prepared then to deal with the important issue which he raised—what I call the Geneva Convention point—though I did endeavour, in my previous reply, to cover the other matters to which he referred. The noble Lord said that the Draft Convention would forbid the employment of a child under fourteen in agriculture, but as a matter of fact the purpose of the Convention is almost entirely satisfied in Scotland under present conditions. The number of children between twelve and actual age fourteen who go into agricultural employment in any year is probably at the most not more than 600. Most of these are over thirteen and many are released only for very short temporary periods. The total number of children between five and fourteen is about 750,000, and the number between twelve and fourteen at school is about 180,000. It is felt that the actual departure from the principle of the Geneva Convention is really so small that it does not justify alteration of the principles of the Bill. Also I should point out to the noble Lord that whereas the exemption in Scotland does prevent adhesion to the Convention at present, that objection will disappear in 1939 when this Bill comes into operation.

The other point to which the noble Lord referred the other day is really the difference in this matter between England and Scotland, and I want to take this opportunity of pointing out to him and other noble Lords that on the question of education there has been a desire in Scotland to keep the question of exemptions flexible. That was the case in the two previous Education Acts, and people in Scotland feel very strongly about the matter. The particular question he raised was whether exemptions between twelve and fourteen should be restricted now to the case of domestic hardship and none allowed between these age limits after the passing of the Act for any other reason, such as employment. For a long time the education authorities in Scotland have had the power to give exemptions between twelve and fourteen. They have exercised this power with discretion and the Department have found extremely few occasions on which to question the authorities as to what they have done. About half of the exemptions are given between the actual age of fourteen and the next following leaving date which is what is called the legal age fourteen, and which in some cases is as much as six months later. Of the exemptions below the actual age of fourteen, over 55 per cent. are of a temporary nature, the child returning to school later on.

If the Amendment were accepted, then under the leaving date provisions no child could be exempted for employment even between fourteen and the following school-leaving date; that is to say, the case of a child who might be over fourteen according to the date of its birth. The Government feel that the appropriate date to narrow the present exempting" power is when the higher age comes into operation. That would follow the principles of the 1918 Act, which provided that when the age was raised to fifteen, the exemption range should at the same date be changed from twelve-fourteen to thirteen-fifteen. The present Bill, I need hardly remind your Lordships, goes further than this in that it abolishes exemptions under fourteen altogether when the higher age becomes effective. To make the change now, abolishing all exemptions below fourteen except those for domestic hardship, would be a very sudden alteration in Scottish practice which would probably arouse considerable opposition, specially in the rural areas. If the three-year interval is given as proposed in the Bill, parents, who value these exemptions, will have sufficient warning of the new state of affairs. We think the abolition of the existing powers should be a matter of gradual adjustment rather than an immediate and drastic change. I hope, therefore, that with that fuller explanation which I have now been able to give, the noble Lord will not press this point, but will allow the Bill to pass as it stands.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much for his amplification of his former reply to my Amendment. Possibly I owe him an apology for not having given him notice that in Committee I was going to raise the point about the Geneva Convention, which is perhaps a litle bit outside the scope of the Bill, but I must say I do wish he could have extended his amplification to the acceptance of my Amendment. As he has said, there are very few children who would be affected if the Amendment were passed. Only 2,600 odd children between twelve and fourteen were exempted last year, and I think that if you took all those over fourteen and exempted them before the end of the leaving term there would only be about 5,000. That is not very many, and I think that could be easily arranged. The point is that by not accepting my Amendment the Scottish law is a stumbling block in the way of signing the Convention, and by not removing it we cannot sign for another three years. However, I have done my best, though I seem to be incapable of convincing the noble Lord. I do not think I shall succeed if I say any more, and therefore I will withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill passed.