HL Deb 04 March 1970 vol 308 cc327-31

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why compulsory primary education is not introduced in Hong Kong, having regard to the estimated number of 80,000 children within the ages of 6 to 11 who are not attending school.]


My Lords, I am not sure where the noble Baroness has obtained the figure of 80,000 children not attending school. It is the declared aim of the Hong Kong Government to provide places for all children between the ages of 6 and 11 years who seek primary education. It is also the aim to provide free education for such children. Progress towards free primary education continues. Standard fees in Government and subsidised primary schools were substantially reduced in September, 1969. They are now 27s. 6d. a year (2s. 3½d. a month) in urban areas and 13s. 9d. a year in rural areas. There is provision for the remission of fees in whole or in part, in cases of need, and grants for text books and stationery are made to all holders of free places.

Substantial progress has been made in creating sufficient accommodation available for children in the relevant age group. In September, 1969, there were 609,300 places in Government and subsidised schools, compared with 650,000 children in the group. By March, 1971, the total number of places is expected to rise to 682,000. The children then likely to be of the relevant age are estimated to number 645,000.


My Lords, in view of the fact that my noble friend wondered where I obtained my information, may I ask whether he is aware that I obtained it from the Memorandum of the Civic Association, addressed to the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir David Trench, so I think he will agree with me that my figures are correct. Having heard the figures that my noble friend has already given about what the Government intend to do, may I ask whether he will now give me an answer to my Question, which is this. Is it a fact that these children are deprived of education, although the Memorandum says that there is adequate accommodation for them? Is it not a fact that, in consequence, the unscrupulous employers of Hong Kong are using them as child labour?


My Lords, my noble friend is quite wrong in the last assertion, because, as I perhaps can show her later on in another room, we have adequate legislation to deal with the labour front. The noble Baroness said that the figures she referred to came from the Memorandum of the Civic Association. I recognise that that is a responsible body. But it is difficult to say what is the true figure, because the last census was taken some seven years ago and there have been major changes in the population since then. The best assumption I have indicates that the figure the noble Baroness refers to is very much exaggerated. In regard to the Answer I have given, I am trying to indicate that the Hong Kong Government are seeking to provide, and are in fact succeeding in providing, a primary school education for the children of Hong Kong.


My Lords, my noble friend must forgive me if I press him, because although my facts are absolutely correct—he does not deny them and agrees that the Civic Association are a responsible organisation—he does not say precisely why my proposal is not implemented and why the conditions for the children in Hong Kong now are more or less the same as conditions were for children in this country over a hundred years ago. Does this situation help the picture of Britain in the eyes of the people of Hong Kong?


My Lords, the conditions in Hong Kong are not what they were in Britain a hundred years ago. The Hong Kong authorities have made major advances in the field of education. May I merely add that expenditure in this field in 1963–64 was some 181 million Hong Kong dollars, which represented 14 per cent. of Government expenditure; this year, 1969–70, the estimate is some 416 million Hong Kong dollars, representing some 19 per cent. of Government expenditure.

We have made major efforts in the field of Hong Kong. To bring in compulsory education at the present moment I think would merely be an act on paper. The great problem is that there is a continual movement of families in Hong Kong moving to the new resettlement areas, and legislation of this kind would not be effective. Therefore, at this moment I would not advise the Hong Kong Government to bring such legislation forward.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that as recently as last September, when I was in Hong Kong, the difficulty about this whole problem was that the mothers and the fathers would not send their children to school for two reasons: first, they cannot afford the fees; and, secondly, they send them out to work to implement the family income? In the booming economy of Hong Kong and Kowloon, would it not be right to make education compulsory?


My Lords, I have seen these statements made, and perhaps on occasions in earlier days I also made them. But the fact is that in Hong Kong now there are over one million children at school. The number of children who do not go to school is questionable. although I recognise that some parents take the steps that my noble friend has suggested. I say that it is the intention of the Government of Hong Kong to ensure that primary education is available for all children when they have the places available, which is a situation they are very quickly reaching; and I should have thought that then would be the time when one could take action against parents who wilfully deprived their children of education.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend this question? While it is true that these amounts in fees seem small in this country, is he aware that they are a terrible cost to those who are on low wages in Hong Kong, and that the provision for those who are poor fails in Hong Kong, as it nearly always does, under the means' test process? Furthermore, in view of the fact that in most British colonies when the State has become responsible for education that education has been free, and has been one of the benefits of our colonial administration, and in view of the rich revenue of Hong Kong, why cannot this benefit be established in that territory?


My Lords, we had a debate relating to this subject in 1967, and I should be quite happy to have another full debate on this particular subject. It is not easy to deal with it by question and answer. I think my noble friend must recognise that in 1945, at the end of the war, we had only some 4,000 children in school—this was because school buildings had been destroyed. Now there are over one million children at school. I know of no other country that has dealt with the problem as efficiently as Hong Kong. If there are any families who are not able to pay this very small fee we have made it known by the circulation of leaflets and the use of radio and television exactly what services are available for these children.


My Lords, may I ask whether it is not unjust to harry the present Minister at the Box in isolation on this matter when in my view he has done more than any Minister in either House for many years to bring some realisation to the Hong Kong Government of the need to attend to these problems?


My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in view of the enormous influx of population into Hong Kong, many of us, certainly on this side of the House and I hope in all quarters, are filled with admiration for the achievement of the Hong Kong Government?


Hear, hear!