HL Deb 08 February 1984 vol 447 cc1218-24

8.21 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The sole purpose of this very short Bill is to empower the Secretary of State to control the use in educational establishments in Scotland of specified materials or apparatus which might be a potential serious risk to health. The power would be exercisable by regulations subject to the negative resolution procedure.

The present situation is that in the terms of a circular issued to education authorities in 1968 the Secretary of State's prior approval has to be sought before certain radioactive materials or types of apparatus may be used in an educational establishment. This system has operated for many years without giving rise to any difficulties. However, in the course of a recent examination of the detailed arrangements laid down in the 1968 circular some doubt was cast on the legal position. This Bill is intended to remove that doubt by giving the Secretary of State a specific power in this regard. In other words, the Bill is designed simply to give statutory cover to what is already the practice. I should add that the proposed power is parallel to one already contained in Section 27(1)(c) of the Education Act 1980 in respect of educational establishments in England and Wales.

The core of the Bill is in Clause 1, which introduces a new Section 19A into the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. Subsection (1) of the new Section 19A empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations: requiring his approval to be obtained for the use in…educational establishments…of…materials or apparatus which could or might involve a serious risk to health". This provision is so drafted as to enable the Secretary of State to specify in the regulations, first, the materials or apparatus for the use of which his approval has to be obtained; and, secondly, the educational establishments to which the requirements apply.

Subsection (2) of the new Section 19A makes it clear that the power to make regulations includes a power to differentiate among educational establishments. Thus, for example, the regulations might require the Secretary of State's approval for the use of specified materials in some educational establishments but not in others.

I know that we shall all be at one in wishing to ensure that there are adequate powers of control over the use in establishments where our young people are being educated of materials or apparatus that might involve a serious health hazard. I therefore commend this Bill to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. (The Earl of Caithness.)

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, I think we are all grateful to the noble Earl for taking on the task of seeing the Bill through this House. I must say that it puzzled me a bit whether we required this Bill, bearing in mind that it is not all that long ago since we had a consolidation of all the statutes, following the consolidation that took place in England, to which the noble Earl referred. We had the 1980 Act, which is referred to in the Bill, and we are now adding to it a new Section 19A. If I remember correctly, Section 19 gave the Secretary of State the power to regulate the premises, and the equipment in the premises, of educational establishments in Scotland. But quite apart from that, what has happened to the Radioactive Substances Act 1960, and, following therefrom, the Radioactive Substances (Schools, etc.) Exemption (Scotland) Order, which I presume comes under that Act? It seemed to me to be perfectly clear there that the Secretary of State had power to regulate, first of all, the purchase—and purchase is not mentioned in this Bill—of dangerous substances for schools, and then to regulate their use.

The noble Earl mentioned a circular of 1968. I thought that the definitive circular was in 1963. I have a copy here which was provided by the Scottish Office. If I have been misled, the House will know who to blame. It is Circular No. 689, which I was promised faithfully was the circular that mattered. Let us not make a secret of it: I received considerable help from the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, in respect of this. However, I must say that I am surprised that he is here, bearing in mind that from our papers today we all expected to see the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin. I know that he is busy studying the Roads (Scotland) Bill, the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Bill, the Tourism (Overseas Promotion) (Scotland) Bill and all the rest of it, so we appreciate why he is not here. I have never regarded the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, as an expert on education, anyway.

The position is that we have been working away, but now we are told that there is a certain amount of doubt about it. What has happened to these particular pieces of legislation? I know that there have been changes in education and changes in the local authorities which are in control of some of the establishments concerned. There has also been a growing emphasis on technological education. Probably we are developing a greater knowledge of the substances and the dangers involved. It has always been clear from the circulars that we were deeply concerned, particularly about young people under the age of 16 and the possible effect on them of perhaps coming into contact, either in open or closed conditions, with dangerous substances. The circular was very strict indeed in respect of that, and in respect of possible contact with the dangerous substances listed. It was concerned not just with that but with the accumulation over a year. It laid down a very safe limit in respect of that.

The circular also dealt with exemptions, where substances could be used in certain establishments. It was again fairly clear in respect of the limitations upon the risks and the hazards. We probably know more about the hazards now, but I still do not know why the Bill is necessary, bearing in mind these other factors. It may well be that we shall get a little more information on this when we come to the Committee stage. I do not blame the noble Earl for this kind of thing, and nor do I expect the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, to clear up the whole thing right away.

The code of practice under which we are working is non-statutory. It says so in the circular to which I refer if not in the one to which the noble Earl referred. It states: The code of practice was issued by the Minister of Labour". By the way, the 1960 Act made it clear that as far as Scotland is concerned "Minister" meant the Secretary of State. It goes on: It gives authoritative guidance on the subject of radiological safety, and while it carries no statutory authority"— and the important words are "carries no statutory authority". It may well be that at this stage we do require to have statutory authority.

However, we must bear in mind what is said about the financial effects of the Bill—we are not going to spend any more money on it. There does not seem to be any great importance placed upon it. The only change that I can see is that under this enabling Bill the regulations will be published and issued by the Secretary of State, and therefore they will have statutory backing. If the statutory backing means that there is an offence created, there ought to be penalties, but there is no indication of that within the Bill—unless that aspect, too, is to be provided for in some other powers. One of the weaknesses of an enabling Bill such as this, which is fairly blank, is that we just do not know, and I should like to ask the Government whether before the Bill leaves us we shall be given any indication of what the orders will contain, and the extent to which they will depart from, say, the guidance given in the present non-statutory code of practice.

What we want to look at is the question of the definition of "educational establishment". We are told that it is in Section 135 of the 1980 Act. Well, we are all familiar with that. I can remember when the previous Act went through. It made clear that an "educational establishment" meant a school, a junior college, or certain further education establishments. But then one has to go to the definition of "school". This is where the original Act was much simpler because a school is there defined as a public school, a grant-aided school, or an independent school. What is clearly not included is a university, or, believe it or not, a theological establishment. So I think that this point could be simplified by going direct to the real definition of "educational establishment".

I do not think that there would be anyone on this side of the House, or indeed anywhere in the Chamber, who would object to what is proposed. We are conscious of the dangers, and we want to ensure that those who are involved in educational establishments and laboratories—the teachers, the pupils, the laboratory assistants and the students—should be protected, and we shall be grateful to hear from the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government why it should now he considered necessary to depart from the present position. It may well be that in bringing together all the education statutes something was left out and some eager beaver in the Scottish Office—and there are plenty of them these days—discovered it. I certainly welcome the Bill and I express our thanks to the noble Earl for introducing it.

8.33 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, certainly I, too, wish to express my thanks, and I believe that of the whole House, to my noble friend who has moved the Second Reading of this short, but we hope very useful, Bill. The glory of introducing the Bill is indeed my noble friend's, and I hope that he will forgive me if I briefly amplify one or two points. The purpose of the Bill is simply to make it possible to regularise an arrangement which has existed for a good many years—since 1968, when the circular was issued—albeit on an extra-statutory basis. This involved the Secretary of State's specific approval being required for the use in educational establishments in Scotland of certain—not all—particularly hazardous materials and apparatus.

The noble Lord, Lord Ross, made some particularly kind references, and I owe him a number of apologies. First, he mentioned that I had tried to give him some help, while it is clear that I did not give him enough help, and I must apologise to him and indeed to your Lordships. I am appalled that the noble Lord does not have the relevant circular—oh, he now says that he has. I thought that the noble Lord made mention of 1963. Perhaps I misheard, because——

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, I apologise; my eyesight is not as good as it was.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I would certainly sympathise with the noble Lord; my eyesight is weakening. The copy that I have is slightly dogeared, but I think that the date 23rd September 1968 lies upon it, and I believe that it is Circular No. 689. It was this circular which gave rise to the difficulty.

The noble Lord, Lord Ross, was quite right to point out—and again I must apologise to your Lordships—that the name of my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin appears on the list of speakers, and I am trying on his behalf to explain the Government position and to give some assistance to my noble friend Lord Caithness. I shall certainly be glad to pass on the good wishes of the noble Lord, Lord Ross, to my noble friend Lord Gray in regard to his preparation of the increasingly important and interesting tasks which await us later this week and early next week.

The noble Lord, Lord Ross, raised one or two points, and I hope that my noble friend Lord Caithness will permit me to try to give a brief explanation of why we believe that the Bill is needed. The Bill is designed to give statutory cover to the existing practice which is set out in the circular, and this is aimed at safeguarding the health and safety of pupils of all ages—young and not so young—and, let us not forget, the staff of schools and colleges, and indeed the establishments which are detailed under the definition in, according to my notes, Section 135 of the 1980 Act.

Circular No. 689 indicated that the prior approval of the Secretary of State was required before certain radioactive substances or types of x-ray apparatus, which are detailed in the circular—I am afraid that my scientific knowledge certainly would not bear much examination tonight, but if the noble Lord has any queries I shall attempt to answer them, though probably tomorrow—may be used in the educational establishments. The arrangements have operated since 1968 without, so far as we are aware, giving rise to any difficulty at all.

In concluding his welcome to the Bill the noble Lord, Lord Ross, suggested that a little oversight might have been found and he gave rightful praise to the Scottish Office. A number of eager beavers expressed doubt about the Secretary of State's legal powers in this particular regard—the powers that are detailed in Circular No. 689. The Bill that has been so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Caithness is intended to remedy the position by inserting in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980—which the noble Lord, Lord Ross, recalled so clearly and so succinctly—a specific power for the Secretary of State to provide by regulation for his approval to be obtained for the use in educational establishments of materials or apparatus which are dangerous to health. I would add to the comments that I have made that, as was spelled out by my noble friend, the proposed power is parallel to one which is already contained in Section 27(1)(c) of the Education Act 1980 in respect of educational establishments in England and Wales.

The noble Lord, Lord Ross, raised I think one other query about Section 19 of the 1980 Act, and I shall attempt to give an explanation of why we believe that the powers that we are seeking in the Bill are not covered by what is provided for under Section 19. Section 19 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations that prescribe standards and general requirements for the premises and equipment of educational establishments under the management of education authorities. Such regulations may prescribe different standards for requirements for different classes of educational establishment.

In this way, Section 19 to which we seek to add the requirements of Section 19A by the Bill enables the Secretary of State by regulation to exercise a general control over the use of materials and apparatus in educational establishments or, indeed, in any particular class of educational establishment. But what it does not do is empower the Secretary of State to grant or refuse approval after due assessment for the use of particular materials or apparatus in a particular establishment. If we take a small example, this might refer to a particular class of research in one or perhaps more than one educational establishment, possibly a college or school.

The proposed new Section 19A spelled out in the Bill which we hope will be inserted in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 would enable the Secretary of State to exercise a more detailed and specific control of the sort that has been exercised for the last 15½ years in practice on an extra-statutory basis. I am able to stress to the noble Lord, Lord Ross, that there has not been any difficulty at all in this respect. The noble Lord in his concluding remarks suggested that there had been a legal loophole. I thank him for that suggestion. It is a legal loophole that I understand was found by a very eager beaver and competent solicitor. It is that lacuna that we seek to rectify.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, before the noble Lord concludes, it is not an oversight. Circular 689 states clearly: while it carries no statutory authority". That has been known for a long time. What I really want to know is the present standing, in view of what the noble Lord says over this, that and the next thing, of the Radioactive Substances Act 1960 which specifically mentions the Secretary of State and also the Radioactive Substances (Schools, etc.) Exemption (Scotland) Order which applied to educational establishments under that Act. Can the noble Lord give me some information so that we can have a sensible Committee stage of the Bill?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I shall willingly obtain the information succinctly requested by the noble Lord, Lord Ross. I can perhaps communicate with him in writing and I shall, of course, be in touch with my noble friend.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ross, for his kind words on this Bill and for the help that he has given, and also for the support that I have received from my noble friend Lord Lyell. My noble friend covered most of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ross, and the other points that we shall be dealing with. There was one matter which my noble friend did not pick up. The noble Lord, Lord Ross, suggested that there might be penalties for the Secretary of State who abused the powers with non-statutory backing. I think that I am right in saying that it was the noble Lord himself who introduced Circular No. 689 and I would hate to see him suffer any penalties.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, it was non-statutory.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, that applies to all Secretaries of State. It is right that we give it the necessary statutory backing. I believe that the Bill is positive. It will be a help to our educational establishments in Scotland, and I ask the House to give it a Second Reading.

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