HL Deb 16 July 1969 vol 304 cc267-74

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Hughes.)

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments.

Clause 8 [Power of Secretary of State to require education authority to fix a single school commencement or leaving date]:

Lord DRUMALBYN moved Amendment No. 1: Page 9, line 17, at end insert ("and except where he is so satisfied, on the application of any education authority, the requirement shall be made by regulations;").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Clause 8 deals with the power of the Secretary of State for Scotland to require education authorities to fix a single school commencement or leaving date. The Clause inserts a proviso into Section 33 of the principal Act, the 1962 Act, which says: … if in relation to the area of any education authority the Secretary of State is satisfied, either of his own accord or on the application of that authority, that, having regard to all the circumstances, it is desirable that a single date for commencing school attendance, or a single school leaving date, should be fixed for that area, he may require the authority to fix for the area a single date for commencing school attendance or, as the case may be, a single school leaving date;

We discussed this at an earlier stage but, unfortunately, the Amendment I had put down would not have done what we wanted to do. It is eminently reasonable that, if an education authority asks the Secretary of State for a single school commencement or leaving date to be fixed and the Secretary of State agrees, he should require the Authority to fix a single date. But if the Secretary of State thinks that he himself, "of his own accord" as it says here, should simply require an authority to fix a date for its area, it is arguable whether he should be able to do so without reference to Parliament.

What we on this side think is not justifiable is that, if the Secretary of State wishes to fix a single school commencement or leaving date for the whole of Scotland, he would be able to use this clause to do this, as he could do, so far as I can see, by simply requiring each local authority, one after the other, to introduce a single date. We think that undoubtedly the Secretary of State should come to Parliament by way of placing an Order, so that we could discuss it and agree or disagree with it as we see fit. I suggest to the House that there is a danger of educational matters being treated too much as an educational preserve into which nobody else should trespass at all.

It can be said that, so far as school commencing dates are concerned, this is primarily a matter of organisation, although a great many parents are affected. It cannot be said that the question of a school leaving date is only a matter for educational interests. That seems to me to make it all the more important that the Secretary of State should come to Parliament if he wishes to take action which will result in a single school leaving date being introduced for the whole of Scotland.

From my own experience in the Education Department and the Scottish Office, I myself would have been very surprised if such a power had been asked for by the Department, and I am quite certain that I would not have agreed to it when I was there. I do not see why this should be done by the present Government; nor do I think from my experience elsewhere that this would have been done in any other Department. There is a danger that this is being made too much of an educational preserve. It is not very much to ask that in such circumstances as I have envisaged, or even in circumstances where the Secretary of State is imposing his will on one area, the Secretary of State should make regulations which would be made by Statutory Instrument, and that Statutory Instrument would be laid before the House. This is all the Amendment asks for and I commend it to the House. I beg to move.


When the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, withdrew the Amendment which he put forward at the last stage to seek to accomplish this purpose on the grounds to which he has referred, that it was technically defective, he indicated that he would come back to it again at this stage, and if I recollect rightly I said I thought it was unlikely that I would change my mind at this stage. I must admit that, having read the Amendment that was put forward, and having listened to what the noble Lord said, my forecast of my attitude proved to be correct. It would be quite new to seek to involve Parliament in matters of detail of this kind. Twenty years ago the Education (Scotland) Act 1949 empowered the Secretary of State to require an education authority to fix for their area two or more fixed dates for commencing school attendance, and three or more fixed dates, by reference to which, dates for terminating school attendance should be ascertained. There was nothing in that Act about regulations or orders to govern these matters and nothing at all about prior consultation; nor was anything of the kind suggested in either House when the 1949 Act was under consideration.

The noble Lord might well say that this is the other way; that it is one thing to have two or more and it is a totally different thing to reduce it to only one. The important thing is that what we are seeking to do is to prevent a mythical foolish Secretary of State in the future from doing something silly, and it did occur to Parliament in 1949 to have regard to the fact that they might have an irresponsible Secretary of State who might regard two or more, or three or more, as being the justification for having a multiplicity of commencing or leaving dates. Might I suggest that the one is no more unlikely to foresee than the other.

The noble Lord has referred to his own past experience in the matter and he must know that the very wide powers given in the 1949 Act were not so abused by the Secretary of State; nor did the noble Lord or his friends when they were in office see any risks in this matter. They did not seek to amend the Act in order to lay on any future Secretary of State the restriction which he now proposes. The only Amendments of substance which have been made to the Act of 1949 were made in 1962 and then by the present Bill. They have both been designed to ensure that the number of leaving and commencing dates should be reduced in the intersts of the education of pupils. It seems to me, as I have said already, inconceivable that a Secretary of State would act irresponsibly in reducing the number of leaving dates to one.

However, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that some future Secretary of State does wish to act in a foolish way. The implication of the noble Lord's Amendment is that he could be obliged to act by means of an Instrument subject to annulment. There are other means open to Parliament, and other restraints which Parliament can impose on any Minister who acts in an arbitrary or unreasonable way. He can be questioned and his actions debated, and if need be censured in this House or another place. In my view, the pressure that Parliament can exert through these means would in practice be at least as effective in curbing a mythical foolish future Secretary of State as the formal annulment procedure. If a Secretary of State did something of this kind which was not generally acceptable to the people of Scotland, he could not for one moment think that, because there was no need to lay an Order before Parliament, the matter would be completely hushed up. The possibility that there is no such Order to be annulled would probably create an even greater number of means of getting at the Secretary of State than the simple procedure which the noble Lord calls for.

It is not because I am in disagreement with him about the desirability, if this matter does arise, of it being capable of careful examination; it is because I do not wish in this Bill, any more than in other Bills, to see something put in which serves no useful purpose. For these reasons I hope that the noble Lord will feel that perhaps in another way he has helped to make it more difficult, perhaps impossible, for any Secretary of State in the future to do the sort of thing which he seeks to safeguard against even though this Amendment is not made to the Bill.


I thank the noble Lord for having replied in such a reasonable and disarming way. I think he felt, reading between the lines, as one might say, of what he said, that there was a real difference between having two or three school leaving dates and one. If you had only one school leaving date the effect would be that a great many people would come on to the labour market at one particular time, and only one time, in the year. This is not only an educational matter. That is why I thought it was appropriate that, if the Secretary of State wanted to avail himself of this power here, it would be well for him to have an opportunity to lay a Statutory Instrument before the House and so give the House an opportunity to debate it.

I quite appreciate that if he acted without consultation or without sufficient consultation it would be possible for him to be censured. With respect to the noble Lord, I still feel that this would have been the more normal course. I feel that different considerations applied in the 1949 Act, although I dare say that if we had looked back we should have found that the Opposition suggested that this should be made a matter of reference to Parliament. But, in all the circumstances, I certainly should not wish to press the Amendment, even though the Division Bell might bring a great majority to my rescue, because I realise that the Government have made up their mind, and if I did this the only effect would probably be to have the other place disagreeing. That being so, on a matter of this character I am very ready to rely on the assurance which the noble Lord has given; and I have to confess that a great deal of what he said was common sense. I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 2 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Lord HUGHES moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 43, line 17, at end insert— (". In section 91 (incidental expenses of education authorities)—

  1. (a) in subsection (1), for the word 'duties' there shall be substituted the word 'functions';
  2. 272
  3. (b) in subsection (2), at the end there shall be inserted the following paragraph:—
'(d) expenses incurred by the parent of any child in connection with any medical or dental inspection, or any medical or psychological examination, of that child, or by any young person in connection with any medical or dental inspection of that young person, under any provision of this Act'.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the effect of this Amendment is to ensure that the Secretary of State has power to make regulations sanctioning the payment by an education authority of expenses incurred by a parent in connection with medical and psychological examinations under Clause 10 of the Bill, or by a parent or young person in connection with medical and dental inspections under the 1962 Act and Clause 9 of the Bill. The first part of the amendment, which changes "duties" to "functions", is necessary because authorities have powers as well as duties in this field (for example, powers to require parents to submit their children to medical and dental inspections), and the word "functions" covers powers as well as duties. The second part of the Amendment is the substantive part specifically defining the expenses which can be authorised by regulations.

In the course of the discussion of the Amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, put down with the same intention on Report, he expressed his concern that the scope of Section 91 might not be wide enough to cover payments to parents escorting children to medical and psychological examinations in connection with their ascertainment for special education and on similar occasions. In reply, I said that the Government proposed to make regulations under the section to cover those payments. I also pointed out that the noble Lord's Amendment was not quite wide enough, because it did not cover them all.

I never lightly pass over Amendments of this kind put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn. It will therefore not surprise him to know that I have given a lot of consideration to this matter since the last stage. We are all agreed that these payments ought to be made in appropriate circumstances, and none of us would wish the power of authorities to put them through to come into question because of any technical flaw in the Statute. Although we think it is most unlikely that any regulations which we may propose to make would be challenged, I have decided that it would be wiser to make assurance doubly sure and to put their powers beyond all possible doubt. For these reasons, this Amendment has been tabled. It covers all the medical, dental and psychological examinations and inspections which may be held under the Bill or under the Act. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, for having raised this issue in the first instance, and I am sure that this Amendment which really has been inspired by him, will be welcomed by your Lordships as an improvement to the Bill. May I say, in relation to the last Amendment, that I was not in any doubt about the noble Lord merely withdrawing it because of the scarcity of support that he had on the Benches opposite. I understand that there are massed battalions elsewhere which would have rallied to his aid.


My Lords, I do not wish to delay the House, but I should like to express my gratitude to the noble Lord for having gone into this matter so fully to meet the point that I had in mind, and, indeed, for having gone even a little further than that.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


My Lords, I think that in some respects this Bill is the better for the careful consideration which it has received in this House. That is only what we are entitled to expect. I should like to thank, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, for the close scrutiny to which he has subjected the Bill and for the suggestions that he has made for its improvement, evens though I have not always felt able to accept them. In one important respect, however, the Bill has been marred by your Lordships. I refer, of course, to the decision taken in Committee to permit the continued payment of fees by parents in those education authority schools where fees were being charged last November. I will not say any more than that it may well be that another place will find it difficult to accept that the necessary reform which was embodied in the Bill should be postponed. That was the only point on which there was serious disagreement in your Lordships' House. The Bill, as I said on Second Reading, is a very useful reforming measure, and it is with pleasure that I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Hughes.)


My Lords, I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, in commending this Bill to the House. As he says, there was one major point of disagreement. We would not agree that our Amendment mars the Bill. I should think that it saves the Bill from a great mistake, and I remain hopeful that another place will agree wi: h us rather than with the noble Lord.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.