HL Deb 28 January 1974 vol 349 cc77-111

6.18 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. Its purpose is to allow the Secretary of State, when disposing of village schools which are no longer needed as such, to offer the building to the local community at a price which takes into consideration its original charitable contribution, rather than, as is often the case at the moment, that the building be put on the market and sold to the highest bidder. I hope to explain why. I am in a bit of a quandary as to what leave out of my speech.

Since first raising this question of our own village hall and school, I have been inundated by letters from all over the rural countryside. Practically all the examples cited were different, but they all had one or two things in common. First, they represent a protest against what is considered to be a very real injustice inflicted by Act of Parliament on individuals or small, poor groups of individuals. In some cases a local landowner had given a school hall which, in the course of years, had become not merely a school but the meeting place for all other rural associations and the centre of village life. In the majority of cases, as in the case of my own village, which I shall presently cite in detail, the school or other benefaction (be it a hospital or anything else) was often the result of a combined effort of a group of local people for the good of their neighbourhood. But whether it was a group or an individual making the original gift, the principle is the same. You offend the sense of justice of the average Briton if "Big Brother" Government legalise what people consider to be robbery.

If I might put it in the words of the noble Viscount, Lord De L'Isle, who wrote to me on the subject (because his words are better than mine), this is what he said: Government Departments simply love engrossing property which was originally the result of private charity. The legalised tampering with wills is another example of the withering away of the individual's rights. This argument was much used in the debates on the museum charges legislation recently.

Under the 1944 Act, and subsequent ones, the diocesan boards of finance sell to the highest bidder; to compete with which at present-day prices is impossible for small communities, even in cases where they have applied for and received the necessary grants. When I first raised this subject I thought it concerned only my own part of the country but letters from Kent, Yorkshire and elsewhere proved that I was wrong. I particularly appreciated one that I received from the honorary treasurer of St. Mary the Virgin Church at Souldern, near Bicester. He told a story similar to my own, where they had lost their fight; and I quote from what he says: The building had been erected wholly by private subscriptions of the local inhabitants, and the endowments given by private donors. All attempts in 1968 to rescue for the benefit of the village the proceeds of the subsequent sale of the buildings and investment of the endowments, foundered on the rock of the existing legislation, resulting in a sum exceeding £8,000 leaving the village. He goes on: Whilst no blame can be attached to the diocesan authorities, we are anxious to see the present rule amended to help other communities threatened with a similar fate, and the purpose of this letter is to wish you every success in the presentation of your Bill to Parliament, the progress of which we shall anxiously follow. If it were possible for the village to help you with your crusade in any way, it would, I am sure, readily respond. My Lords, I call that a very Christian letter, displaying a spirit not shown by the behaviour of many of those who run the Church's financial affairs and who do the Church's reputation no good. Perhaps I might quote two personal examples as an illustration of my point. Fourteen years ago I inherited a resident agent and £150,000 death duties. The position was grim, so my agent went around to all my farmers and negotiated a fairly substantial increase in rents. When he came back I was rather amazed at his success and asked him how he had done it. He said: "Oh, that's easy. I told them I should be retiring soon and was thinking of recommending to his Lordship that he use the firm of Clutton and Drew". As many of your Lordships may know, they were then very efficiently managing Church lands and, as they say locally, squeezing the pip until it squeaks. About six years ago, a friend of mine came to Devon and negotiated to buy an old rectory that they were selling. Having agreed a price on the Friday, they got another offer on the Saturday and "gazumped" my friend for £2,000 when he went in on Monday. I protested in vain on his behalf. I was selling a surplus farm house at the time and had had an increased offer on what I had agreed to sell for under the same circumstances; but I could not do what they did. I could not have continued to live in the neighbourhood if I had behaved in the way they had.

I have searched in vain for any argument in favour of retaining the present arrangement. The best one is that money obtained by selling these school halls will go to another church school elsewhere. This argument would hold water only if the authority had always owned the hall as part of a composite whole, but where they have not and where the local inhabitants have built the hall themselves for their own village, then by most people's standards this can only be viewed as legalised theft. Some of these transactions are not all that legal but a great many small village communities cannot afford the fees needed to fight Government-backed Departments. The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, is better equipped than I to make this point.

Some donors, of course, were more far-seeing, as at Tetcot, where the local squire wrote it in that if it were no longer used as a school then it should return to him or his heirs. This happened, and so the present owner was able to ensure that the hall remained as a village centre. I should like to give you chapter and verse in our own particular case. It is identical with hundreds of others (some already lost) and doubtless more to come, as more and more modern and more centralised primary schools are built. In 1856 a Mr. James George John Templer (I am told he is a fourth cousin, three times removed, of the Field Marshal) gave a plot of land 33 ft. by 33 ft. to the rector and church wardens of Ideford. It was to be used to build a school hall for a day school and a Sunday school and, be it noted, for adult education, as was specifically stated. There is the deed.

While this deed was being prepared the locals, headed by my ancestor, collected a sum of money to build the hall, just down the road from the church and opposite the vicarage. So, on the land given by Templer was built the school hall with money donated by the inhabitants of the parish for the purpose of, be it repeated, in the words of the Deed "educating the children of the parish of Ideford and adults, not elsewhere in the county, not elsewhere in the diocese". The great-grandson of James Templer (also a James Templer) writes: I can only say that my great-grandfather, who was by no means a wealthy man although he was fortunate to own some land in the district, would turn in his grave had he known that the contribution he made towards the setting up of the Ideford school would in due course be appropriated by the authorities and then sold off to the highest bidder without any regard to the needs of the local community. Whilst I appreciate that my great-grandfather was by no means the highest contributor … he did contribute the only asset he had—land. He goes on to write: To sell the land now under the powers vested under the 1944 Education Act could only be described as immoral and little short of legalised plunder. To go from the donation of the land to the providers of the building, I am one of eight direct descendants of the original eighteen donors who still live in the district. I am informed that my ancestor gave the highest donation—perhaps that was why he was one of the first managers of the school, as was his son later. I can assure your Lordships that our ancestors in 1856 had the intention of assisting the parish of Ideford, not the Diocesan Board of Finance. I am certain also, ours being very much a chapel or nonconformist area, that by no means all of the contributors were members of the Established Church. My ancestor was of course Catholic.

Over the years this school became the social centre of the village. The parish council meets there, and always has done, as do the women's institute, the model aero club, the dressmaking club, the keep-fit class, the parish whist drive. Those are the regulars, most of them weekly. The Sunday school has to meet there, as provided for in the original deed. The school is also used for harvest suppers, bazaars, coffee mornings, and the like. Perhaps most important socially is the weekly youth club meeting. The teenagers have nowhere else to go except home. Surely if you are going to go back to the early deed, half of those people meeting at the school come under the heading of adult education. Of course, the original trustees were supplanted under the 1944 Act by the Diocesan Board of Finance. They claim to be interested in furthering religious education. By disposing of the hall in Ideford they will be doing the opposite in one more rural community, if only because it is the only place where Sunday school can be held when the new vicarage has been completed.

There may be some who do not think it a bad thing for rural parishes to lose their centres, and for the younger, poorer element to go to towns for their entertainment. If such do exist I would point out that the only bus service to the nearest town—Newton Abbot—from the village itself is twice weekly in the afternoon only. I cannot do better than quote the letter of our rector, sent to Venture, which is the diocesan monthly magazine. He has something in common with the noble Lord the Minister, in that he was in the Services before being ordained. He says in this letter: By legislation concomitant with the Education Act of 1944 the schools were taken over by local education authorities with a proviso made in the Acts that if and when closed as a day school the trusteeship would then revert not to the original trustees but to the Diocesan Board of Finance who were to sell and use the proceeds to further religious education in the diocese. This infamous proviso I am creditably informed was the result of negotiations between the Minister of Education (Mr. R. A. Butler) and Church representatives. This was because the Minister insisted that the Church should capitalise on her assets if she wanted certain rights within the State framework. On being informed that most village schools were not 'owned' by the Church the Minister took the step of ensuring that when available the Church as a body did own them by inserting the proviso —'All other trusts and wills are hereby revoked'. All this happened in 1944 when the nation was still at war, and may possibly account for the lack of contemporary comment. He added the recommendation that his superiors should consult the Second Book of Samuel, Chapter 12, verses i to vi. I commend them to the Minister.

The 1944 Act has of course been repealed by the 1973 Education Act. However, Section 2 of the 1973 Act carries on the same function: hence this Bill to modify that section allowing the Minister to bear in mind the fact that locals paid for the thing in the first place. Of course in this case the parish should have its hall free, but in a Bill such as this one has to cover other eventualities; and since there are other cases where additional buildings may have been added since 1944 it is only right that the locals should pay for the addition.

We do not just sit back and moan, my Lords. Although we have only about 52 families in the parish, we have already collected over £4,000. But it is pathetic having to pay for one's own heritage. Last August I asked a local valuer friend what he thought this building would fetch on the open market. He said, "Roughly £15,000." Since then a similar site with no building on it in the village has gone for £13,000. If we get a grant of half that sum there is still more required than a small, poor parish can find. And for what? As I said in a supplementary on my Question of last July, a holiday home for some Midlands tycoon with more brass than brains. Some may say that we can get a grant. We have applied for one. I am told that we may get £5,000. But your Lordships all know what happens with grants: they get held up; and I do not see our being able to raise more than the £4,000 which our small, rural community has raised so far. I personally call this grant business compounding bribery with theft.

I had thought of mentioning all the places that have been and are threatened in this manner, but it is too long a list; and many of them have slight variations which, to be fair, one would have to mention. But what I do want to make quite clear is that this is the reverse to being an isolated case. I can give your Lordships five locally: Woolsery, Loddiswell, Ashreigny, Wembworthy and Holbeton. Year by year, larger primary schools have been built, and year by year larger areas centred on one school and these smaller schools have been sold off despite local protest. We have a close-by example at Ashford. My Lords, remember what happened at that village near Bicester, for all of you who live in the country, or know the country set-up, could find somewhere near at hand that is threatened or has been threatened. It is a bitter pill for these, the smallest and poorest communities in the land, to have to scrape together in order to buy back at to-day's inflated prices that which was theirs in the first place. Be warned by those words that I quoted of the noble Viscount, Lord d'Lisle: Government Departments simply love engrossing property which was originally the result of private charity. It is time they were stopped. But more serious still is the social evil of stealing the heart of a small community. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Clifford of Chudleigh.)

6.39 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, for having made clear the purpose of this Bill. This is clearly not a political Party issue; I hope no one is going to ask me this evening, or anybody on this side, what is my Party's line on the matter, for I have no Party points to make, and no Party points to score. The noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, is understandably incensed when the village where he lives is threatened with the loss of a building which for a very long time has been the centre of community activities, as well as being the village school. As I understand it, his object is to provide that before a disused school is offered for sale on the open market the local community shall be given the opportunity of acquiring it at a price or rent to be determined by the Secretary of State for Education and Science, or the Secretary of State for Wales, having regard to the contributions to the endowment of that foundation by the local community.

The principal aim of this Bill is to ensure the use of such buildings in the future for community purposes. May I say that I have every sympathy with that, and I think it is clear that that sympathy is felt in all quarters of the House this evening. My Lords, what the reference to the "contributions to the endowment" means, I am not too clear; I do not see how that might be interpreted or how it would apply. However, that is a matter that could be cleared up. I think that at some stage we should give some thought to those who might have been responsible for the maintenance or improvement of the premises, and no doubt other circumstances may need to be recognised.

What has happened at Ideford, where the school is no longer required for fulltime compulsory education, as the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, has said, has occurred in many parts of the country. It is generally in the rural areas where the closure of the school brings the threat of the loss of virtually the only place where the residents can meet as a community. In Surrey, where I live and serve on the county council, a number of village schools have been closed in like fashion. They are schools originally provided by the Church or by donors to a Church endowment. A dozen or so such schools have suffered that fate in the last few years. In Surrey, the local education authority, the county council, have acquired a number of the schools in order to provide a centre for community or village activities—such as a youth centre, somewhere where individual youth clubs can meet, or for some educational purpose. The last such school we acquired was at Bletchingley, and it is now serving a useful purpose as an institute of adult education. It is available for other purposes as well, not least as a polling station, if we need it.

As I understand the position, the Surrey County Council have bought these premises at what are known as "market prices", although they have done it by way of private sale. In Surrey, we have had no great difficulty in reaching an agreement with the Church authorities to acquire the premises privately at the rates I have indicated. If one is going to make progress in this way, then it seems to me that what is required is co-operation and understanding between the local education authority, the diocesan board or whoever is responsible for the management of the foundation or trust, and the local community. Quite clearly—and here I have regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, has had to say—the buying of these premises by the local community, particularly a small community such as his own, becomes an impossibility. I think I am right in saying that Ideford has just over 50 households. But to take the figure of £15,000, if you get a grant for half, which means raising £150 a household, that is clearly out of the question. I do not know if any effort has been made to acquire the Ideford school in the way that I have indicated we have made progress in Surrey. If that were to fail, I believe there is an opportunity for the new district councils that were elected almost a year ago now, if they find they have the resources, to acquire these buildings as they become available to fulfil a community role. I have no idea whether anybody down in Ideford has thought of trying to find such a solution.

I appreciate that not everybody will do what we have done in Surrey. After all, not every county is like Surrey. A county may not be developing, not getting an influx of new residents in the way we are. Some of them, as in Devonshire probably, have in prospect a static community or even a reducing community, but they still need a centre for community activities. I suggest it might be of great value if the Department of Education and Science—this is a field where the Minister tonight can surely exercise some influence—had a look to see whether in such matters full use is being made of the facilities available under the Physical Training and Recreation Act, and any other legislation that can be used. It may be that the situation cannot always satisfactorily be met by the kind of approach I have been speaking about. It may well be that the Bill could be used as a vehicle in this way. Where the procedures I have touched on do not apply, and where there is no procedure in regard to which anybody can say, "This will serve where the other methods have failed", then I think this Bill affords an opportunity for the matter to be examined in depth.

My Lords, I support this Bill's going to Committee. I hope it will be given its Second Reading so that it may do so, and so that we may go very thoroughly indeed into its provisions to test them and examine in depth a very real problem. Democracy depends upon communities having an opportunity to meet together for collective activities. I do not think anybody familiar with rural England will underestimate the tremendous importance of retaining these old schools which have given such good service in the past. Their role is not finished. They probably have an equally important role to serve in the future as they have played in the past.

The noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, has drawn attention to the need and the possibility for adult education in Ideford. I believe we shall find an increasing need for premises that can be used for adult education, not merely in the evening but during the daytime, too. My Lords, I hope that we shall give this Bill a Second Reading. It may be faulty in many respects; it may not be the correct answer. But I believe that we should have more time than we have this evening to go into the matter as thoroughly as a Committee stage will permit.

6.50 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will not only accept the customary request for indulgence at my inexperience in making a maiden speech, but also recognise that the matters before us could raise very controversial issues of Church and State and demand some attention to legal and technical detail. It is my hope that I can make a modest and sympathetic contribution to this debate without posing too many large questions or tying myself up in too much detail. Between 1965 and 1970 I lived in a small Oxfordshire village and was elected chairman of the parish council, which to date is my chief political achievement. This, like a number of other bodies, met in a church school which was facing closure. It was a vivid experience of the local community, and I well remember the day when we were visited by the hapless education official and, as the debate raged, the clerk whispered to me: "Don't worry, sir, until hand-to-hand fighting breaks out." Now as Bishop of a diocese and chairman of my education committee I am sometimes able to see things from what in those days we would have called "the other end". I hope therefore that I can claim real sympathy with the intentions of this Bill and yet some understanding of the disquiet which its publication has aroused.

In Section 86 of the 1944 Education Act, the arrangements made for the disposal of the proceeds from the sale of Church of England schools were described as devised for the purpose of enabling that denomination to participate more effectively in the administration of the statutory system of education. So Section 86 enabled frozen educational assets to be released and redeployed within the local diocese in ways consonant with the declared intentions of the original benefactors. This, together with the so-called, perhaps unfortunately called, Barchester Scheme of partnership in savings between a diocese and local school managers, has enabled the Church to participate in the statutory system of education in a measure which has justified the intentions of those who framed the 1944 Act. The 1973 Act has rewritten Section 86. The administration of educational trusts is now to be shared between the Department of Education and Science and the Charity Commissioners. There is more flexibility, in that assets may be redeployed not only for Church schools but for other educational and religious enterprises within the statutory system—and I totally agree with what the noble Lord has said about enterprise in areas such as adult education. All this is welcome development, and the enlightened forward planning of the voluntary contribution in this field depends on the continuance of the policy of 1944 re-stated in 1973. The sudden introduction of a new principle which might seriously threaten the balance between voluntary subscriptions and public expenditure would need to be watched.

I do not believe for a moment that it is the intention of the noble Lord in promoting this Bill to disturb this balance. I believe he is moved by other and powerful considerations. He knows that "our school" means something real and significant to those who attended it, who subscribed to it, and still frequent it on a number of mixed occasions. When it comes to be sold it is eminently reasonable that representatives of the local community, however one interprets the meaning of that ambiguous phrase, should have the chance to buy it. It would seem, however, that such an option could be a regulation or requirement of the Secretary of State without the necessity of new legislation. In fact, a normal practice of the D.E.S. in satisfying itself that the best price for such a sale has been offered is to require advertisement; and it is a short step to be satisfied that representatives of the local community have had reasonable opportunity of making their offer. Such representatives are usually the first to react to the advertisements, and the rich variety of local bodies in most cases would make unsatisfactory to the point of impossibility any other procedure.

It might be said perhaps in passing that old schools are sometimes unsuitable for community use. I often wish that more consideration might be given to adapting parts of a parish church to community use. With imagination, rearrangement and good will, much could be achieved. I know one parish church where a disused ringing chamber is being suggested as an admirable gymnasium. However, where it is really desirable that school buildings should be used for general community purposes, the Church would want to help to make it possible without at the same time endangering its educational contribution at the present time.

The Bill suggests that the price or rent should be determined by the Secretary of State. This obtains at present in so far as permission to proceed with the sale must be given by him. No new legislation is needed. The new suggestion is that we should have regard to the contributions to the endowment of the foundation by the local community". I believe that this well-intentioned phrase is likely to defeat the most competent administrator. The cost of the school built a hundred years ago would no doubt be about one-hundredth of its market price to-day. What was the local community which subscribed? Often subscriptions came from elsewhere. How would account be taken of all that has been done to maintain the school since it was built: from the diocese, from the national society, from the local education authority? I believe it is more constructive to encourage the local community to buy or rent such a property for a sum negotiated with the diocese and approved by the D.E.S., and to explore the possibility of help on something like the two-pocket principle; from the D.E.S. and the L.E.A. and from the diocese. The noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, in the instance which he has outlined to us has shown that it is surprising what lucrative results can follow from genuine, patient and persistent application.

There is a further point about this phrase "the local community". When larger units of community are perforce being adopted, there is an understandable but not always realistic impulse to return to what was local. But does "local" mean in 1974 what it meant when endowments were given in 1840, 1870 or even 1920? I would submit that this is rarely the case. The impetus for school building can be shown to have had two main historical motives; to advance the cause of the Established Church and, secondly, to enrich the lives of the communities—often the poor in communities which were small, isolated and self-contained. It does not need to be underlined that these social conditions have been shattered in countless ways. In my own diocese the interrelation of village and local new town is thoroughly complex, and sometimes this is of undoubted social and educational benefit.

Our present system of handling educational resources which has a local—that is a diocesan—basis often provides a more realistic unit for dispersal of funds where they are needed but in a context still recognisably local. Sometimes this redeployment can be closely associated—a middle school in Bedfordshire will in part be serving a village whose closed school endowment has enabled it to be built. So if this Bill has the positive aim of making money more freely available for general and unspecified community purposes, it is bound to be negative in affecting seriously the principal source of income for maintaining the participation of the Church in the statutory system of education. Some will always continue to question this dual system, but Church participation in the maintained system should not be allowed to die of starvation or collapse. It should continue or be ended on grounds of principle which should be faced. We cannot justify an education Bill which states a principle and then undermines its application.

The intentions of the Bill are undoubtedly good and I recognise the extreme difficulty of resolving the hypo, thetical question: would the original benefactors now prefer their money to be used educationally or locally? It may well be that in the early days of the application of Section 86 the diocese produced schemes with too narrow an idea of religious education and with too little regard to the local community. I hope the Government will be able to give some assurance to the noble Lord that what he desires can be kept in mind in the operation of the 1973 Education Act as it stands, and that your Lordships will regard that as a better solution than the passage of a Bill which is fraught with many uncertainties.

I believe the passage of this Bill into law would make for local difficulties, administrative confusion and possible damage to the participation of the Church in a systematic way in the maintained system according to the principles of the Education Act. I believe that the intentions of the Bill can be largely realised by regulation or requirement on the one hand and by realism, industry and good will on the other. I like to think that the noble Lord and I are united in a concern for the health of local communities and for the encouragement of that local and voluntary effort of which our schools within the maintained system are still an effective symbol.

7.4 p.m.


My Lords, it is my honour to follow the right reverend Prelate and I am sure that all noble Lords present will wish to congratulate him on a most constructive maiden speech and to say that we hope to hear him often in this House.

There are several points about this Bill which I should like to emphasise. The cost of the building that we have been discussing was almost entirely provided locally. The Diocesan Board of Finance have contributed practically nothing: they have helped in the management, but what they have done towards the construction and maintenance of the building is very small. Precisely why they should acquire this valuable property for nothing is extremely difficult to understand, or to justify. We all know that the Diocesan Boards of Finance are hard pushed for money. It would be beneficial if they were to reflect on the mistakes they have made in the past, and not many years ago, by selling redundant vicarages and the like which, if they had kept them, would now be Worth many times the sum which they then obtained. If the Diocesan Board of Finance had to regain what they had paid it would be a different story. But if they are going to sell this property, as we believe is possible and likely, for a sum in the neighbourhood of £15,000 it sounds to me very like robbery—all with the best motives, of course. But why should the inhabitants of this village have their property, or what was their property, used for religious or other education here, there and anywhere?

Many people who are concerned with drafting and administration fail to realise the importance of local feeling, and it is a great mistake to say "Oh well, people can go to the neighbouring town for what they want in the way of education, drink or otherwise". Bus services are very poor in many parts of Devon, and I think the same can be said for other places. Merely saying that the village people can go elsewhere for their meetings and their pleasure is more what one might expect from the other side of the Curtain. I have the greatest pleasure in saying that I propose to support this Bill wholeheartedly.

7.9 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support this Bill, and if there is a Division I shall support it in the Lobby, unless my noble friend on the Front Bench, Lord Sandford, is prepared to tell us later that the Government are prepared in the very near future to go into the whole question, which in fact extends much wider than this Bill. The reason I make that proviso is because I am not quite certain that in these days of inflation the Bill will do what the noble Lord, Lord Clifford, wants and what I want. I do not think that the Bill goes far enough or wide enough. So as far as I am concerned, the position is that if I can obtain an undertaking that something is going to happen which the Government are going to deal with in the near future I may well abstain: if I do not receive that undertaking I shall most certainly support this Bill as a first step against what I believe is something rather scandalous.

It is not very different in detail from the Crichel Down case, except that in this case it is robbery by Act of Parliament. And of course we are not dealing only with what we may loosely call "church schools" (that is the usual phrase) for which, of course, the diocese now wants some money when they are sold. Even in those cases there are endless varieties of endowment, trust, and so on; and except under the 1944 Act (which is the nigger in the woodpile) it is difficult to alter trusts. It can be done under that Act. But there are other schools which the community or individuals have founded for a particular village that do not in fact come under a diocese at all.

May I give one example why I say this ought to go much further. My great-grandfather built a school for a local hamlet, a small village, about six farms, a dozen cottages and a small pub. When he built it, he did not endow it as such, but leased it to the village who wanted it, at the enormous rent of one shilling a year, and the lease ran as long as the building was used for educational purposes. Then, under one or other of the Acts—I was going to say the 1944 Act, but I am not sure whether it was that one—it was taken over by what is now the Ministry of Education, but which may then have been called the Board of Education.

A good many years ago the Ministry of Education closed it after some years; they were not using it any longer as a school. It was still under lease. At that time, the village asked my predecessor whether they could get it released by the Ministry because they wanted the building as a men's club, and wanted to put a billiards table in it. At that time the answer from the Ministry was, "We will not release it because there is a great deal of reorganisation of schools going on and we might want to use it again as a school in the near future; meanwhile you can put in a billiards table and call it a men's club, but the original arrangement stands." This went on for a few years. The next thing any of us in the locality knew was a notice in the local paper that the Ministry was putting it up for sale by auction. I at once said they had no title to this, having the original deeds myself. It was on lease to the village, and the very long lease expired if the building ceased to be used permanently for educational purposes, and reverted to the estate. Those were the terms of the lease. The Ministry replied, "Oh no, you have lost all your rights, and so has the village under the 1944 Act". I think it was that Act—I am speaking without papers—but at any rate it was under a particular Act.

My Lords, I took counsel's opinion. This is why I am asking the Government to do something about the whole of this matter. Counsel's opinion was that the law in this matter was uncertain, and that if I took it to court, I had a 40 per cent. chance of winning, possibly only 30 per cent. If I won, the Ministry would undoubtedly go to appeal, but if I lost I would pay the whole costs. This was a few years ago, so the inflated values were not there; counsel advised me that the property was not really worth what it might cost to go through the courts. So I did not proceed with the matter. I came up to London, went to the Ministry, and saw two of the Ministry lawyers who were very patronising and, I thought, rather unpleasant. I lost my temper, and we did not actually part on very good terms. I did not tell them I was not going further, but suggested that if they sold it I might sue them for the money. We parted on those terms.

I believe they were uncertain of their title because they sold the property, and to my utter astonishment sent me a cheque in part compensation—so long as I did not pursue the matter further, of course. I cannot be sure, but I think that they were uncertain of their title. I believe that in some cases the diocesan title is doubtful, and sometimes, quite often, that the Ministry title is doubtful also. I intend to support this Bill unless the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, says that the Government are urgently going into the matter to try to put the law right. At the moment, I repeat, a lot of this is robbery by law.

7.14 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise for not having put down my name to speak, but what I am going to say can be said very briefly. I should think that the preservation of the local community and the sanity which it provides to-day is of paramount importance, especially in these troubled times. Therefore, I am not convinced that in this particular instance it can rightly or best be done by the Church under the powers and provisions of the Education Act. Nor do I believe that the benefactors, were they here to-day, would have thought so. It is quite clear that their descendants do not.

7.15 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that most of your Lordships will sympathise, as I do wholeheartedly, with the aims of my noble friend Lord Clifford of Chudleigh. I also had a great-great-grandfather who endowed a school; we seem to have had very generous and farseeing ancestors. In this case, the story ended happily, and so I need not worry your Lordships any more with that case.

My Lords, I intervene only for a few moments because I have had the good fortune to have lived for the greater part of my life in a country district, and during my life I have learned of the enormous value of a village hall. Apart from anything else, it provides an opportunity for the expression of local democracy in many forms, and is absolutely essential to a village if that village is to stay alive and respond to the various wishes and desires of people living in villages nowadays. Two of the most excellent movements that I have seen working in my village are the Women's Institute and the Young Farmers, both of which use village halls. There are also the youth clubs. Another purpose, which is not an ignoble one, which is served by village halls, is that of providing places where political meetings might be held during elections. The most magnificent speeches I have ever made have been made in village halls! It was my custom at the five Elections which I have contested to make 105 speeches in village halls; or rather, I attempted the same speech 105 times. There is yet another use of village halls. I remember many ploughing match dinners held in village halls, a number of which were attended by our local Bishop, which gives me the opportunity of saying how much we have enjoyed the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate this afternoon.

My Lords, the aim of this Bill is one which is wholly good. It is a tragedy that a village is denied the use of a building which has become an integral part of the life of that village. But what I am very doubtful about are the actual proposals of this Bill. It seems to me fraught with practical difficulties. I think the difficulty the right reverend Prelate mentioned, of going back to the actual contributions or intentions of the founder, is very difficult indeed. I agree also with my noble friend Lord Derwent; I doubt whether the Bill goes wide enough as it stands. Exactly the same situation can occur in the case of schools, owned by the local education authority, which are no longer used. Therefore, I should like to see a Bill covering not only the Church schools, but other schools which are no longer required as schools which have been maintained for the use of the village at large. It seems to me essential that these schools, whether owned by the diocesan board, or whatever it is, or the county council, when they are available for sale should be made available to the village community in one way or another at a price which is within the capacity of that community to pay. I think that is what my noble friend is seeking, and it is an aim that I would strongly support.

What I should like best to see therefore, is my noble friend Lord Sandford and Lord Clifford putting their heads together to see whether they could devise a Bill which went rather wider than this (because I am afraid that the description of the Bill at the beginning limits its scope) to meet both these cases in a way that would achieve the object which I believe every noble Lord in this House would like to see.

7.20 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to support my noble friend Lord Amory in what he has said. Of course, the right reverend Prelate, whose speech we enjoyed, stands on Section 86 (I think it is) of the 1944 Act. I took part in the Committee stage on that Bill, and there sitting on the Front Bench below me was the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and the late Mr. Chuter Ede—you might say Caesar and Mark Antony. They were pretending to be very good friends over this. They produced the agreed syllabus, like Caeser's uninspiring sister Octavia, and that was supposed to cement an alliance between them for ever. We on the Back Benches did not like Clause 86; we thought that this was an arrangement that would be very difficult to carry out in the future. What happened—I can only speak of my own county—was that a great many of the church schools went controlled and some remained aided schools; the village then turned to and found the money either to improve the school or to improve the teacher's house. We did it since the 1944 Act. I really do not know who first contributed the land or the money for the village school of Chute, which the noble Lord, Lord Somers, knows very well. But it is since 1944 that we have put up the money. That money has been largely subscribed by people who do not go to church; but they did think the village school was something of real value to our community. Several thousand pounds have been subscribed on two different occasions for major construction. Supposing our school was closed—indeed, there was a threat to close it, but it did not come off—it really would be a tremendous up-set for the village if the school was put up for auction and all that we have put into it in the last 30 years went into the diocesan pool.

I think the real trouble arises from inflation. Because the value of these buildings has risen so greatly a small village cannot possibly find the necessary money. The noble Lord, Lord Clifford, spoke of £15,000. I think our village school, with the excellent teacher's house and everything, is much more likely to fetch £30,000, far beyond what we could pay. This is the situation with which I think the Department ought to try to deal. The community is really a very Christian thing. That is why people have supported the school all the time. They believe that our village and other villages should, so far as possible, have a life of their own, and should see each other and should help their neighbours in that way. It is not really right to destroy one of the main assets of community life. I say that not because the Church are not right legally; they are. They have got this section of the 1944 Act and they are perfectly justified in doing what they do. I do not call it wrong. They are standing on a right. But in my view this right is no longer something which should be exercised if the result is that the local community is simply debarred from the chance of buying. Therefore, I think my noble friend would do well to look at the spirit of the noble Lord's Bill and give us some time to think this out, because, as the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, said, there is more to it than just the problem brought forward in the Bill. I hope he will do that, because I think to negative the Bill with no assurance of that kind would create great difficulty.

7.25 p.m.


My Lords, I did not put my name on the list of speakers, but I am tempted to say one or two brief words in this debate because about 45 years ago I did buy a village school.


My Lords, the noble Lord has trumped us all by having bought a school himself.


I did. I was a gracious kind of squire in the village and I thought it my public duty to buy the school. We are talking about village life. There is a grave danger that many of our villages in many parts of the country are dying. I think the villages play a very big part in the salvation of our national sanity. As your Lordships are aware, I have spent most of my working life on newspapers, and I thought it desirable, in order to balance the sanity of my outlook, that I should go to live in a village. So I bought the old rectory, I bought the village school, and I indulged myself on my days off—in those days I was working at nights—by following the local hounds. And a good time was had by all. Of course, when I left the village I sold the school—though I sincerely hope that does not convert me into a property speculator.

One aspect of this debate has been that we have tended to get tied up in technicalities. I hope that we can brush those aside for the moment, leaving them to be ironed out in the Committee stage, and consider just the main central essentials of the Bill. We all know that big reorganisations are taking place in education. We know that more and more of the village children are being conveyed by buses, or otherwise, into centralised schools and that more and more of the village schools are closing down. I do not want to see these old village schools murdered. They really are the central focal point of the village. One noble Lord has spoken about the women's institute, men's clubs, billiard tables and so on; and life in some of these remote villages can indeed be very dull unless there is a central place to which husbands and wives, sons and daughters, can go in the evenings—the church sewing class, the women's institute, boy scouts, girl guides and similar organisations.

The right reverend Prelate, whose speech was, if I may say so, admirable, but nevertheless filled with technicalities, suggested that there were other possibilities open to us apart from the one proposed in the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh. This is not only a Church matter. There are other interests involved, apart from the diocesan finance authorities. There are private foundations, the loyal villagers in olden days who thought the school was necessary, and in some cases the local education authority. Although the Bill talks about the sale of these schools to representatives of the local community, and although some doubt has been cast upon the vagueness of that expression, I do not think that need worry us unduly. It is something we can straighten out in Committee. It may very well be that a group of "well-heeled" ladies and gentlemen in the village will put up the money. It may be that the local authority will purchase it and turn the premises over for use as a community centre. But I feel that this Bill is aimed at, even if it does not hit the target, bringing alive some of our villages which are under threat of dying. And I hope that as such we shall give it a Second Reading this afternoon and then go into further details at the Committee stage.

7.30 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad to start by joining other noble Lords in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Saint Albans, on his maiden speech. I am particularly glad to do that to the Vice-Principal of my old college and the Bishop of my old diocese.

The Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford, is concerned with a fairly narrow point of charity and education law, but Lord Clifford himself, and all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, are rightly and properly concerned, as I am, with the importance of conserving much-cherished centres of village life when old Victorian church schools cease to be needed for education. In a moment I shall come to the Bill, but I should like to deal first with this broad and important issue. I apologise in advance if this speech, which must be fairly lengthy, goes on rather longer than I should have liked in order that I may deal thoroughly with this question.

My right honourable friend and I are of course aware of the central part played by village schools in the fabric and social life of villages. A number of local authorities with responsibility for large numbers of rural schools have given fresh consideration to their policy, particularly since the publication in 1967 of the Report of Lady Plowden's Committee, Children and their Primary Schools. That Report has given further impetus to the three-tier organisation of education into first, middle and high school, instead of the traditional division into primary and secondary. There may well be cases where the village school can be retained as a first school For children from the age of five to eight or nine, possibly with nursery provision, while older children are taken to middle school providing more opportunities than could be given them in a small village school. One of the counties which has produced a report on this matter and this development is Devon, and I should like to quote to your Lordships what the Devon report said about primary schools: The small school for 25–35 children, with its two classes each of 12–17, allows a maximum of individual attention, and if regarded purely as an establishment for the traditional teaching of the three Rs it has certain (if expensive) advantages. But, my Lords, the aims and methods of modern primary education go far beyond this. There has been and still is, a trend, with which many of us are familiar, in teaching away from direct and regimented instruction towards teaching techniques of discovery and development designed to develop the child's interest and understanding through his own efforts involving the use of books and apparatus on a much larger scale than hitherto. Cultural activities such as music and drama, physical education and games; new developments such as the teaching of science (and sometimes French), and the new approach to mathematics, are all more satisfactorily organised with larger numbers and in classes with smaller age ranges. It is uneconomic to attempt to do any of that in a small village school, and this is what in the first case leads to proposals for their closure.

Nevertheless, to quote further from the Devon report: Where it is appropriate the building which is vacated when a small school is closed should be made available for local use as a village hall and centre. I think that most of us would agree with that comment. I would add to this that the framework of the law certainly secures that no Church school of the kind we have been discussing can be closed without proper deliberation by all concerned at every level. Section 13 of the 1944 Act requires the proposal for closure to be advertised by the local education authority, and provides a period for objections to be lodged. It also requires the Secretary of State, before any decision is taken, to weigh all the relevant facts.

I would assure your Lordships at once that all those facts and objections are weighed, and when decisions to close village schools are taken they are not taken solely on narrow educational or economic considerations.


My Lords, I should like to be quite clear on this point. Is the Minister saying that objections can be made other than to a Section 13 notice? We need to be clear on this.


My Lords, I was saying that objections are provided for in the operation of a Section 13 notice. All that I was saying was in the context of Section 13. Old Victorian school premises are not by any means all suitable for use as community centres. The cost of renovation and of improvements needed to provide a standard of accommodation suited to present day needs may well make the project more costly than a new purpose built centre, although I entirely agree that in places like Ideford there is always a deeply rooted, natural, sentimental attachment to the old village school, and when it is no longer required as a school the local community naturally wish to acquire it so that it continues to be used as a centre for village activities. That is all fully agreed, and indeed endorsed.

My right honourable friend and I are fully aware of the important part played by village halls and community centres in the social, cultural, and recreational life of any community, particularly a village community which does not have access to facilities available to those of us who live in towns. Furthermore, our Department is empowered to make grants towards the capital cost of the voluntary provision of this nature and in fact made allocations of grants totalling £900,000 in 1972–73 and nearly £1½ million in 1973–74.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but what was that grant for?


My Lords, it is in support of the capital cost of voluntary provision of the kind that we are talking about.


My Lords, I am being stupid. Is this a grant towards the purchase of the property when it is available for sale?


No, my Lords, I am coming to the actual Bill itself. What I am doing, because I thought that the current of the debate had indicated that it was important for me to do it, is to reiterate the importance that the Department, and my right honourable friend, attach to the continuance of centres for village life; church schools, while they are in existence, or other centres if they have to be provided. Your Lordships will know that under the present grant arrangements, which have been in operation since 1972, any local voluntary organisation wishing to purchase a site for a village hall or community centre, or to acquire an existing building for such a purpose, may apply to the local education authority and other local authorities for the area for assistance towards the cost of purchase and building work. It is the responsibility of the local education authority to select the projects to be assisted. The local organisation need not have to meet more than 25 per cent. of the total cost and, within the resources made available to it by Parliament, my Department is prepared to make a grant up to a maximum of 50 per cent. of the total cost. Your Lordships will see, therefore, that we have powers to help in this field, and we make good use of them year by year to provide good centres of village life.

So much for the broader issue of retaining old and providing new centres for village life, and the framework of the law under which they may be either conserved or provided. Now I shall turn to the legal issues that arise in respect of the noble Lord's Bill itself. I would admit, before doing so, and confirm that this is not a field in which either the Department of Education and Science or the diocese want to find themselves cast in the role of Shylock, sticking firmly and strictly to the legal letter of the law. The apparent intention of the Bill we have before us is confined to schemes made under the Endowed Schools Acts as extended by Section 86 of the Education Act 1944 between April, 1945, (when Section 86 came into force), and April 18, 1973 (when Section 86 was repealed along with the Endowed Schools Acts).

I would remind your Lordships that all schemes made under these provisions have three things in common. They are concerned with endowments for the provision of religious education in voluntary schools, mainly those of the Church of England. They appoint the appropriate diocesan authority as trustee of those endowments, to be applied for the purposes of the schools so long as the schools are maintained by the local educacation authority, and afterwards to seal the land and other property comprising the endowments and to apply the proceeds of sale to the provision, enlargement and improvement of aided schools in the diocese. That is the law.

Thirdly, schemes are made by order in council after a procedure which permits the submission of objections and suggestions to the Department after publication of the scheme in draft and the submission of petitions of objection to Parliament after the subsequent publication of the scheme itself. That is the procedure.

I come to the reason for this Section. Almost all these schemes relate to Church of England endowments, and Section 86 was in fact designed to deal with Church of England endowments. The reason is that the great bulk of church schools provided by the Church of England in the 19th century were provided on trusts restricted to the particular village or parish in which the school was situated; and under the Charitable Trusts Acts (which applied to them until the enactment of the Charities Act 1960) on the closure of the village school, their endowments would have to be applied in the village or parish for other purposes of religious education. In practice, my Lords, this meant that endowments hitherto applicable within the maintained sector of education were lost to that sector and applied for the benefit of village Sunday schools and the like.

Section 86 was specifically designed to enable the Church of England to deploy these endowments, hitherto restricted to one locality and to the teaching of religious knowledge, throughout the main sector over the whole of each diocese, and was part of the general arrangement made by the Act in 1944 for the provision of denominational education in the maintained sector. This specific provision was endorsed by Parliament as recently as last year, in Section 2 of the Education Act 1973. Your Lordships will readily appreciate from what I have said that Section 86 made a very limited exception to the ordinary law of charity then embodied in the Charitable Trusts Acts. Under that law a trust for the provision of religious education in a particular area had to be applied in perpetuity for the purposes of religious education in that locality. Section 86, as it was in practice applied by the Department, simply extended the geographical area within which the particular endowment was applicable. It did not alter in any way the essential purposes to which the endowment has to be applied. In this respect it left unchanged (and I think it is important to remember this) the fundamental principles of the law of charity under which a trust for religious purposes must not be diverted to purposes which are not religious and trusts for educational purposes must not be diverted to purposes which are not educational.

Now, my Lords, the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, adds a proviso to paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 1 to the Education Act 1973. That paragraph contained transitional provisions dealing with the schemes under the Endowed Schools Acts 1869 to 1948 which had been made by the Secretary of State but not yet approved by the Queen in Council when those Acts were repealed on April 18, 1973. In the event no schemes under those Acts had reached that stage when the Acts were repealed. As a result, paragraph 2(1) is without content; and I must make it clear to your Lordships that the Bill before the House is now completely without effect.

Having said that, my Lords—and I have been speaking strictly of the legal position—I should like to consider more fully the proposition which the noble Lord had in mind in promoting this Bill. This is that where the local community have contributed towards an endowment to which one of these schemes have applied, representatives of the community should have the right to purchase the property comprised in it at a price which reflects that contribution. First, my Lords, I share the doubts of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Saint Albans and my noble friend Lord Amory about whether this proposition would be workable. Granted that many of the schools held on these trusts were built with the assistance of public contributions, how does one now distinguish between a contribution by the community and a subscription made on a personal basis by an individual who lived in the area? Nor is it clear how the amount of these contributions is to be determined after this lapse of time—many of these schools were built more than 100 years ago and we certainly have no record in the Department of the amount of public subscriptions made towards the buildings. Even if these difficulties could be overcome, it is not easy to see on what principle the market price which the diocesan board would expect to get for the property now ought to be diminished, particularly when one bears in mind the fact that many of these schools will have been maintained for over 40 years as non-provided schools, for nearly 30 years since then as controlled schools and in all cases for the last seven years at the expense of the ratepayers of the whole county.

Quite apart from these practical difficulties there are objections of principle to the concept of the Bill. The Bill infringes the fundamental principle of the law of charity already referred to. In so far as it requires a deduction to be made from the true value of the property, it diverts a sum equivalent to that deduction from the purposes of religious education for which it is properly held, to secular, non-educational purposes. The Bill offends also against the principle embodied in Section 86 of the Education Act 1944 and endorsed by Parliament as recently as last year, that the endowments now vested in the public system of education should be retained within that system.

There are also difficulties of application at Ideford itself. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Clifford, has the specific case of Ideford in mind to-day. We should therefore ask how the principle involved in the Bill could be applied on a sale of the site and buildings. We do not know how much, in terms of money, has been contributed by the inhabitants or former inhabitants of the village; we do know that they must be taken to have made their donations for the purposes of a school in which education is provided in accordance with the doctrines of the Established Church; and we do know that for rather more than 70 years of the 120-odd years in which the school has been in existence, the cost of maintaining it has been borne out of the rates.

We now come to the particular scheme under Section 86 of the Education Act 1944 which has regulated the foundation since 1950. That is five years after the war ended and after about three years of discussion. That particular scheme was published in draft in 1949 and copies of it were sent to the rector, the head teacher and the local education authority. In addition, notices of the intention to introduce the scheme were published by the local authorities, including the urban district of Newton Abbot, and in local and national newspapers. As regards this particular school, no representation was made to the Ministry of Education.

The whole scheme, revised in the light of such representations as were made about another part of it was settled in 1950, when it was published again and advertised again. The statutory provisions relating to the scheme enabled petitions to be presented to Parliament, both on the merits and on the law. Again, not one representation was made about this particular village school. So when the scheme was finally approved by Her Majesty in Council, the Department had no reason for thinking that there was any local opposition to it. At the same time as the scheme was introduced, an Order was made also under Section 86, which had the effect of barring the reverter of the land to the estate of the original donor (no claim having been made to the land on behalf of that estate). The claim on behalf of the successor in title of the original grant law at this point could have prevented the site from passing into the hands of the diocesan authorities at the closing of the school but none was put forward.

While I think the situation at Ideford is therefore closed, I should mention that as we understand it the county council have indicated that if the representatives of the local community cannot raise sufficient money to buy the present school site and buildings the authority might be prepared to lease an adjoining piece of land, on which a temporary classroom has been erected, for village use. This is perhaps the most hopeful line to pursue in this particular case, though it is not for me to intervene more than that in the affairs—


My Lords, I am afraid the noble Lord has been misinformed. The land to which he is referring and the temporary classroom which was erected thereon do not belong either to what was the school or to the county council, they belong to a doctor. If this school is sold there is no way to get to that classroom except through the doctor's drive. It is a very small drive and he already has a notice in front of it saying, "Keep Clear", because he has to go in and out. I am afraid that that offer does not hold good.


My Lords, I was just about to say that I cannot get involved in the affairs of the county council or the Exeter diocese or Ideford village, but that is what I was advised was a possibility. I should like now, and I hope fairly briefly, to say more about the way forward on the general issues that this debate has so usefully raised. Section 2 of the Education Act 1973 reproduces the substance of the old law in the way in which it was in practice applied, by which I mean that it contains specific powers in place of the general powers which were narrowly exercised. In particular, it contains a specific power to divide a foundation between purposes "in connection with voluntary schools" and purposes "in other ways related to the locality served or formerly served" by the school. But in both cases of course the purposes must be purposes in connection with the provision of religious education in accordance with the tenets of the denomination concerned". It must be conceded—and the right reverend Prelate has already done this—that in the days immediately following the enactment of Section 86 of the Education Act 1944 schemes were made which paid far too little regard to the local village interests in comparison with the wider diocesan interests of denominational education. But the practice, which this provision in Section 2 now expressly recognises, has been for some years to give more weight to those local interests and that I am sure your Lordships all hope is a trend which will continue and your Lordships will, like me, be glad to have heard the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Saint Albans express the same hope that that is the way things will go. This dividing is done by dividing the realised assets of the endowment as between what may be called the diocesan and the parish or local village interest.

The exact proportions in which this division is made must depend upon all the facts of the particular case. As a general rule the practice has been to divide on an 11/14ths: 3/14ths basis, on the footing that the local interests had the use of the premises for 3/14th of the week—Saturday afternoon and the whole of Sunday. But this is simply a rough and ready rule not enshrined in the law but which is subject to variation depending on the particular facts of each case, and that is where there is scope for further consideration.

It would not be right for me to give any undertaking about the way in which this power would be exercised in the future beyond saying that every case will be considered carefully on its individual merits and that the diocese for their part, and the Department for its part, would not be unsympathetic to the representations made on behalf of local and village interests. But, of course, the more money that is set aside for these interests, the less will be available to the denominations for the provision of denominational education in the schools of the diocese in the maintained sector.

Thus, there are now three ways in which we might consider proceeding (and I apologise for the length of this speech). First, your Lordships might decide to assist the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh. But, as I have explained, this would achieve nothing since the Bill is completely without effect, and I do not believe that it could be modified at Committee or at any other stage to make it effective. Alternatively, the House might feel, as my noble friends Lord Derwent and Lord Amory clearly felt, that legislation is required to make a more fundamental change in the central principle governing the law of charities. As the right reverend Prelate, the Lord Bishop of Saint Albans said, this would have far-reaching effects and might well arouse no little controversy since it would necessitate major changes in the settlement between the Church and the State reached in 1944 and subsequently reaffirmed. But it could be done.

But there is a third possibility, my Lords, and that I would commend to your Lordships' attention—not least because it is the one that is possible within the existing legislative and administrative framework. First of all, public-spirited successors in title of the original grantors could, if vigilant in the exercise of their rights when applicable under the School Sites Act re-apply the school and site when it reverts to them to community purposes. In the case of the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, it was more a twelve-year delay in making that claim that caused the uncertainty than any other factor. But I will go into that with the noble Lord by correspondence if I may and on some other occasion.

Then there are the several constructive proposals made during the debate, and finally, the following one: that the school site, such as the one the noble Lord has in mind which does not revert, should first be sold in the open market as prescribed by existing law. If there were general agreement, it would then be open to the different parties involved to divide the foundation between the diocese and the local village interests and the way that is done is as I have said, valuable. This could be on the basis normally agreed, but there is scope, where all parities are agreeable, for changing the division of the proceeds in favour of the local interests. Should a division be made in this way, it might then be possible for the local trustees, in co-operation with other local interests, to apply for grant aid from the local education authority and subsequently from my Department either for the purchase of premises for the continued educational and community life of the village or for the construction of a new village centre of this kind. It would be wrong for me to leave the impression that there will not be many procedural and administrative hurdles to overcome, but this is a direction in which those involved in fostering the life of rural communities might well consider looking.

I must, however, emphasise that the initiative for such a course of action would have to spring from the village, the county and the diocese. I am sure your Lordships would agree that this is not a job which could be undertaken solely by a central Government. But we should be glad to play our part in fostering developments such as this. By offering a suggestion which I hope will be considered constructive both by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, and by my right reverend friend, I hope to convince the House that of the courses of action I have outlined this last has the most to offer. It is for this reason that I must ask the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, to withdraw his Bill which, as I have said, is not effective, and I very much hope that he will do so. If he does not do so, I recommend that the House oppose it bearing in mind, however, the assurances I have given about other, and I believe better, ways forward.

7.59 p.m.


My Lords, I should like first of all to congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his maiden speech. I hope we will hear him often, but that when we hear him in future it will not be on a subject such as this, in regard to which I disagreed with practically everything he said. He made the point, in talking about those of us who consider that we own this property already—before it was "legalised robbery by the Government", to quote more than one noble Lord this evening—that we could buy it. We call that bidding for one's own heritage—or that is what one of the newspapers said. He suggested that the donors or their descendants who are still there do not know was was intended. I have the list of the donors. I have what they subscribed although the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said, "Oh no, there is no way of finding these things out". An argument such as that is beside the point.

The noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, asked how we kept the hall going. We have done it by means of a local committee which was formed many years ago, but which has been resuscitated since the school stopped operating. Two ladies who live in the council houses at the rear keep it clean, and it is well maintained. There has been no question of the Diocesan Board of Finance spending any money at all on the place, although the local education authority have done so since they took it over. The main point which I should like to make in answer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, is that we have explored every means. We have an honorary solicitor, who was here earlier, who has taken counsel's opinion at his own expense and who has suggested a whole lot of steps which we should, or should not, have taken. I find any suggestion to the contrary somewhat irritating.

The expense to small communities of fighting cases such as this has been underlined. We in Devon well know the reputation for village hall speeches of my noble friend Lord Amory, who has now left, especially speeches to young farmers' clubs. The main point is that this is our only centre. I know of other places where there is an extra hall, but here we have no other meeting place. The pub holds only seven, which is not much use for the Women's Institute. This village centre is in danger of being lost. We have stopped that happening for a second time, and the rural district council has stopped the planning permission which is necessary before it can be sold and its use transferred from a hall to a dwelling. But we are now right at the last gasp and all that the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, can offer is a lengthy procedure from which we might eventually get something, by which time we shall have lost our centre, and I dare say that a lot of other villages will have lost their centres.

I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Saint Albans believe in the efficacy of prayer. I have it on good authority that at this very moment, not one hundred yards from the hall which we have been discussing, prayers are being offered for the saving of the centre. They are praying that the noble Lord and the Lord Almighty will react identically this day. However, from what I have heard from the noble Lord this evening, that is not to be the case. I admit that this Bill may not be a good one, but there has been no definite offer of any way of saving the hall. Therefore, I have no inclination to withdraw my Motion for the Second Reading and, indeed, I feel that if I did beg leave to withdraw the Motion the House would not let me do so.

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