HL Deb 06 May 1948 vol 155 cc700-12

5.5 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, as your Lordships know, great legislative measures often need to be tuned up after they have been tried out, just as it is usual for any complicated machine to need minor adjustments and alterations after a period of trial. At the design stage it is impossible to foresee and solve all the problems which arise in practice. In the same way, operation of the Education Act of 1944 has revealed a need for correction, adjustment and amplification in some parts of the wide field which it covers. Some two years ago, this House considered an earlier Bill amending the 1944 Act, and the measure before us to-day is similar. It aims not at altering the principles of the original Act, but at simplifying the administration of that Act by removing a few difficulties and doubts and by filling in a few gaps which experience has shown to exist. There is, therefore, no unifying theme running through the Bill as a whole, and as it would be tedious to describe each clause separately in detail, I propose to confine my remarks to those which I think are of most importance.

Clauses 1 and 2 are intended to go some way towards bringing the administration of Charitable Trusts into line with the new system of education outlined in the 1944 Act. In exercising his powers under the principal Act, the Minister of Education has an administrative responsibility for certain endowments which are partly educational and partly non-educational. There are, for instance, endowments for youth welfare, community centres, libraries and some technical colleges which receive grant from the Ministry, either direct or through local education authorities, and it is vexatious that these institutions should come partly within the scope of the Ministry of Education and partly under the control of the Charity Commissioners. Clause 1 of the Bill will enable this mixed type of endowment to be brought entirely within the purview of the Minister. Lest it should be thought that the Minister is seeking by this clause to assume arbitrary powers over a new field of activity, I would emphasise that subsection (1) of Clause 1 provides for the jurisdiction of these partly educational charities to be transferred from the Charity Commissioners by Order in Council. Naturally, before an Order in Council is made, the Charity Commissioners will have full opportunities to express their views and to influence the final decision.

The law affecting Charitable Trusts has in other ways fallen behind our progress in educational administration. There are many endowments whose funds cannot at present be used for the benefit of education in accordance with the wishes of the founders, because the State and the local education authorities have gradually assumed responsibilities which 100 or 150 years ago were left to private benevolence. For instance, endowments which were founded to enable poor children to obtain a secondary education have become redundant, because fees have been abolished in all maintained schools and local education authorities now have wide powers to provide scholarships and other forms of financial assistance. Clause 2, therefore, is intended to enable the Minister of Education to make new schemes for endowments of this kind, and to apply the funds to the education of adults, as well as of children. I should like to stress the fact that the clause does not apply to any endowment for a university or similar institution, or for any school which is not maintained by a local education authority. School endowments will, however, continue to be regulated by the terms of the Endowed Schools Acts, in so far as they are not amended by this clause.

Clause 3 is necessary because the principal Act as it stands lays it down that the dividing line between primary and secondary pupils is the age of 12. It has come to our notice that this, strictly speaking, makes illegal the general practice of local education authorities, which is to transfer children from primary to secondary schools between about 10½ to 11½ years of age; the average is a little over 11. The clause does not lower the age at which children can be transferred. It merely brings the law into line with existing practice. Clauses 4, 5 and 6 will, I think, be generally welcome as simplifying the day-to-day administration of education. Clause 4, among other things, relieves schools and local education authorities of a mass of paper work connected with the registration of children at school and with the withdrawal of children from school. It is estimated that many scores of thousands of forms will be saved by the operation of this clause. Clause 5 amends and consolidates the law concerning the powers of local education authorities to provide clothing for pupils at schools and for young people attending establishments of further education. Clause 6 deals with the financial arrangements in cases where local education authorities provide for children whose parents do not live in their own area. The new procedure laid down in this clause for those cases where the parents or legal guardian cannot be found, or lives abroad, is, I understand, generally acceptable to the local authorities.

Another problem of administration which was not adequately covered in the 1944 Act is the difficulty of applying the statutory building regulations without modification in every case where a new school is provided. For existing schools the Minister already has power to modify the statutory requirements. The purpose of Clause 7 of this Bill is, first of all, to make more precise and more practicable the powers which the Minister had in the original Act in relation to existing schools; and secondly, to give him a new power to deal with new schools in a similar way. The clause has been very carefully drafted so as to confine the Minister's exercise of these powers to cases where it would be unreasonable to expect complete conformity with the building regulations on account of site difficulties, or shortages of labour and materials. It is obviously unreasonable to suppose that in thickly populated areas, such as London and many other cities, it will be possible to obtain for every school the amount of land which is specified in the building regulations. Therefore, both for existing schools and for new schools to be provided in the future, the Minister ought to have power to accept a lower standard where it is quite inevitable.

Similarly, it is obviously sensible that the Ministry and the local education authorities should be able to make use of the many large houses which are to be found up and down the country for such purposes as special schools. These buildings can often be adapted to make admirable schools, but they do not necessarily conform strictly to the letter of the building regulations. Clause 7 will make it legal for the Minister to allow local education authorities to seize the opportunities which those places provide. I do not think that any of the other clauses of the Bill, or the Schedules, raise any matter of great principle, though they are all extremely useful in order to enable the spirit and intention of the 1944 Act to find expression in practice. I hope the House will be prepared to give a Second Reading to a small but very useful measure. I beg to move.

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

5.16 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Walkden, has said, when a large measure like the Education Act, 1944, goes upon the Statute Book it will be found necessary, as time goes on, whatever care was taken by Parliament during the passing of the Act, to make some modification. We all know the care that was taken over the Education Act, 1944, not only by the Minister who was primarily in charge of it, Mr. Butler, but also by his Parliamentary Secretary, the present Home Secretary, when they worked together on that Bill. Some of us were then members of another place, and we know what care was taken with the Bill when it was before the other place. This is not an easy Bill to discuss in principle, because it is a kind of hotch-potch of various small points—some quite important—which need to be cleared up. I suppose the only principle underlying it is that if one finds in practice that it will work better with some amendment, then the amendment should be made.

I will just touch on one or two of the clauses, as the noble Lord, Lord Walkden, has already done. Under Clause 1 the Minister can now take over from the Charity Commissioners, or from the trustees of the charity, both solely educational endowments and endowments that are partly educational and partly trusts for other charitable purposes. In a great number of cases it is probably right that that power should be given. But at the present time, when the Bill comes before us, there is no right of any public protest, at any rate by the Charity Commissioners, or by the trustees of the particular charity concerned, if they think that the Minister is going too far in taking over a particular charity. This point was raised in another place on the Second Reading, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Education was quite sympathetic. He said: Theoretically, we might, at the Ministry of Education, be too greedy, and attempt to filch by means of Orders in Council too many endowments from the Charity Commissioners; and so it is reasonable to suggest that some impartial person should be empowered to decide which endowments should be transferred. By that, I presume, he meant in the case of dispute.

Apparently, no way of doing that was found in the other place, because the Bill comes before us without provision for such an impartial person. I think it would be right to see whether there may not be some way of carrying out that intention and remedying that possible defect. I do not expect that any person or body would have many cases to deal with, but it is always a check on officials in a Ministry if they know that in the background there is the possibility of appeal to an impartial person. It might well be—because I can see some difficulty in having these matters taken to the Chancery Court, which would normally be the Court to deal with the alteration of trusts—that there would be some difficulty in that. I had noticed, of course, that these are Orders in Council to be made by the Minister, but are not the kind of Orders in Council which can be prayed against by either House of Parliament.


Under Clause 12 there is provision that they may be annulled by either House of Parliament.


I think the noble Lord will see that that applies to regulations. It will be possible to pray against regulations made under this Bill in either House of Parliament. I think if the noble Lord consults those who are in a position to advise him, he will find that an Order made under this Bill cannot be so prayed against. I suggest that it might be a good thing (I do not expect the noble Lord to reply now; I am only making the suggestion, and it can be raised again on the Committee stage) so to alter Clause 12 that the Order made under Clause 1 can be prayed against in the same way as the regulations. That would give an opportunity to the trustees of one of these charities, if they thought they were being unfairly dealt with, to bring the matter to public attention, either by communicating with one of your Lordships here or with some Member of another place who could voice their grievance. That might well be a suitable way of getting over the difficulty.

With regard to Clause 2, it may be said that it is quite right chat a lot of these old endowments should be reviewed, to see whether the money available in them cannot be used more effectively than as originally provided for under the trust which created them. But I hope that kind of thing will not be done on too extensive a scale, because if it becomes known that the wishes of generous persons who set up these charitable endowments and trusts have been completely overriden it may stop other people devoting some of their money in these excellent ways. They will begin to say that, although they may lay down the terms of the trust, a Minister may step in and take the money for ordinary purposes, which, in a lot of this school work, means merely in relief of taxation; and in such circumstances the money would not be used for the particular purpose which the donor had in mind.

I understand that Clause 3 arises because some local educational authorities have been extremely stubborn, and have insisted on keeping all their primary school boys and girls rigidly in the primary school up to the age of eleven or twelve, even though in some cases it would be quite right and proper that a particularly bright young boy or girl should go on to secondary education earlier than normal age. By this rigid adherence to an age limit the authorities can keep the children at the top of the primary school, perhaps for two or three terms, far in advance of the rest of the class, when in the interests of the child it would be much better that he or she should be moved rather earlier. If this clause is making the system more flexible, there are great advantages in it.

I would like to ask the noble Lord a question on Clause 2, where paragraphs (a) and (b) provide an excuse for parents not sending a boy to school. The Bill refers to a child who is prevented from attending school:

  1. "(a) by his being ill or by other circumstances beyond his parents' control; or
  2. (b) by his parents having been then resident at a place whence the school was not accessible with reasonable facility;"
and says: … the parent of a child shall not be under any duty to cause him to receive full time education … Does that widen the defence that a parent now has for not sending his child to school? It is extraordinary that some parents, who have free education for their children, should be so stubborn in keeping their children away from school. The Bench on which I happen to sit were concerned only a short time ago with a case in which a parent had been fined (and under the old clause the maximum fine was only £1 a time) a total of £50 in the last seven or eight years on a succession of children whom he just will not send round to the local school. I am wondering whether this new draft will in any way widen the line of such parents' defence. If so, I think we should look rather carefully at the words before we make it easier for some of these stubborn parents to keep their children at home. Often, of course, the elder girl is kept at home because the mother likes her about the house to look after the youngest child, but it is not in the least fair to that child, who ought, like everyone else, to have a chance of a good education.

With regard to Clause 9, I think the drafting of it may have to be examined. It appears from that clause that the court have to assume, without any real proof, that a child is of compulsory school age. I refer to Clause 9 (1) which says: For the purposes of a prosecution of the parent of a child for an offence against Section thirty-seven or Section thirty-nine of the principal Act … in so far as the child's having been of compulsory school age at any time is material, the child shall be presumed to have been of compulsory school age at that time unless the parent proves the contrary. I should have thought that the school attendance officer would have to show that, in his belief at any rate, the child was of compulsory school age. I should have thought also that there ought to be some initial measure of evidence before the Bench, before the onus was completely shifted to the parent.

Coming now for a moment to Clause 5, I am glad that the provisions in regard to the supply of clothing have been consolidated in this way. I particularly like the provision that allows the school to provide the clothing needed for games and other forms of physical exercise. In the ordinary way, in these days there is little excuse, except the need for clothing coupons, for any parent sending a child to school not properly clothed. In passing, may I say that I notice that the local education authority can require parents to pay cash when clothing has been provided, but there is no provision for making them surrender clothing coupons. I must say that if I were one of these parents I should be inclined to send my child to school in a rather ragged condition, in the hope of possibly getting a few more clothes than the President of the Board of Trade allows coupons for in the ordinary way.

I think that Clause 7, which is the clause dealing with building, is obviously right, in view of building difficulties in the times in which we live. Apart altogether from the housing programme—which is progressing all too slowly—in another measure that is now before your Lordships' House, the Criminal Justice Bill, we are making provision for all sorts of places such as remand homes and detention centres; and we know that the effectiveness of the educational reform provided for in the 1944 Act is being held up, in some places substantially, by the lack of appropriate school buildings. It seems to me that it is better not to wait for the best, but, if necessary, to lower our standards a little and make alterations to some of the existing schools, even though they might not quite comply with the regulations or be up to the standard everybody would like to see. Quite a number of people received part of their education at some of our older public schools in classrooms that certainly would not satisfy the best standards of the Ministry of Education, but I do not think any of us is any the worse for it. One has to do the best one can in the circumstances. For instance, if some of the big houses in which the owners can no longer live, can be acquired for use as schools, it will be an excellent policy to adapt them, especially if they have a certain amount of pleasant ground which can be used as playing fields.

In regard to Clause 8, which I do not think the noble Lord touched upon, I understand that hitherto, if a child was once certified as being so mentally deficient as not to be capable of education at school, the certificate stood for all time. Clause 8 now provides that in suitable cases the certificate may be cancelled and a different certificate issued. That seems to me to be a very sensible provision. In fact, by and large, except for the one or two points I have raised and about which we may have further discussion on the Committee stage, the Bill certainly has my blessing. I hope that it will be in fact another chapter completing the volume which was started by the Education Act of 1944. If, by means of this Bill, we can get more children in this country better educated, then it should have the support of all of us.

5.36 p.m.


My Lords, we welcome this Bill as a useful measure which does some tidying up of loose ends left in the existing Acts. Some of us will have Amendments to put forward on Clauses 2 and 4, but I do not intend now to develop arguments in support of those Amendments. I shall, therefore, reserve what I have to say on these points until the next stage.

5.37 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank both the noble Lords who have spoken for their welcome to this Bill. It is a miscellaneous bundle of proposed alterations in the law, arising out of the practical application of the 1944 Act. I should like to reply to some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, and I will gladly fall in with the suggestion made by the noble Earl, Lord Perth, that his points be dealt with when the Committee stage is reached. Lord Llewellin will agree, I am sure, that the advantage of Clause 1 from the administrative point of view is that it will reduce the authorities concerned in this matter from two to one—from the Charity Commissioners and the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Education. It should, I think, be remembered that the Charity Commissioners have themselves agreed to the handing over of those responsibilities which they will transfer to the Ministry of Education under this clause.


Of course, there are the trustees of the Charities concerned. We cannot look at this matter as though it were just a question of the Ministry of Education on the one side and the Charity Commissioners on the other. There are these third parties.


I accept that. I was only pointing out that, so far as the Charity Commissioners are concerned, everything that is proposed in this clause will be done with their consent. The noble Lord raised an important point about the procedure that has been suggested as regards Orders in Council made under this clause. He was anxious that such Orders should be subject to the veto of either House of Parliament. I think that that was his point.


It would not mean an affirmative Resolution. I thought this would be an appropriate way of appealing against the Minister's action rather than going to the courts.


We are all familiar with that procedure, which is the usual procedure with the great majority of orders made by Government Departments under Acts of Parliament. The noble Lord rightly pointed out that the procedure for making regulations under Clause 12 does not cover the making of an Order in Council under Clause 1. I understand that my right honourable friend the Minister of Education would be prepared to look again at this question of making Orders in Council under Clause 1, and a suitable Amendment will be introduced into the Bill. I hope that we may be able to satisfy the noble Lord on that point.

The noble Lord also made some other observations on Clause 2. I am glad that he agreed with the principle of the clause. It is indeed a fact that appeals to everyone that many endowments made a hundred years ago or more can no longer be used in accordance with the wishes and intentions of their donors. The result of this acceptance by the State of what used to be a responsibility of philanthropic individuals is that thousands of schemes have to be worked out in order that those funds can continue to play a useful part in our educational system The time has surely come to extend such schemes to include adult education, which has grown in recent years into one of the most important branches of our educational service. But, under existing legislation, the Minister has no power to use these funds for the furtherance of adult education, and this clause will give him the necessary enlargement of his present powers. The noble Lord has issued a warning which I am quite certain that my right honourable friend and those who work under him will take to heart. It is certainly not the Minister's intention to divert funds that have been allocated and earmarked by a specific endowment for a specific purpose to other purposes, if the original purpose can be carried out.

The noble Lord then asked a question on Clause 4. He wanted to know whether that clause would make it easier for parents to keep their children away from school, a most undesirable thing which I am sure we all wish to prevent. I can give the noble Lord a reply but I cannot give it to him now, because I have not had an opportunity to study the note which my advisers have placed before me. However, I will gladly give him my reply when this clause is reached on Committee stage. I am very glad also that the noble Lord opposite agrees with what I may call the emergency provisions in Clause 7. He accepts the necessity for giving the Minister power, in the case of new schools, to waive the standard requirements of building regulations. Of course, everyone hopes that this necessity will be only temporary, and that the new schools will be able at the earliest possible moment to accommodate the children at the standards to which we have been accustomed in times past. I will not weary your Lordships by speaking at any greater length now on what, as my noble friend has said, is a small but useful Bill. I will undertake to cover during the Committee stage any points which I have been unable to cover now, and to see that the undertaking of my noble friend, Lord Walkden, in regard to the Order in Council procedure is carried out, whether or not it involves actual amendment of the text of the Bill.

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