HL Deb 19 December 1906 vol 167 cc1473-82

Order of the day for the Second Reading reud.


I have to apologise for not having been able to bring in this Bill last night. At the time that it ought to have come on I was engaged upon business which, as events have turned out, might as well have been left alone. I will endeavour to be as brief as possible in introducing this Bill, although the matter is one of considerable importance, and one which it would not be respectful to introduce to your Lordships' House without a few preliminary observations. This question of the feeding of school children, and of whether legislation should be brought to bear upon it, and if so, what legislation, is one which has been before the country for some considerable time, and it is one of those questions about which people have been apt to say that something ought to be done, without having any very clear idea of what particular action, should be taken. The matter has been reported upon by a number of different Committees and Commissions. In 1903 the Royal Commission on Physical Training in Scotland drew attention to this question of feeding school children, but did not recommend that the rates should be employed for the purpose. Then that well known Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration which sat in 1904 made suggestions which, speaking generally, are very much on the lines of this present Bill. Then there was another Inter-Departmental Committee in 1905, on Medical Inspection and Feeding, which also dealt with the matter, but its terms of reference did not allow it to argue the question as to whether rate aid should be applied or not. Then in the spring of the present year (1906) a Select Committee of the House of Commons at on the whole question. They went exhaustively into the matter; they examined twenty-eight skilled witnesses, including experienced officials, members of the late Government, school teachers, and a great number of people who, in one way or another, were distinguished experts on this question; and it is upon their recommendations that this Bill is based, which I will ask your Lordships to read a second time.

It is important to remember and, in view of some of the provisions, extremely important to remember, that this Bill is purely permissive in character. It con-contains no compulsion of any kind, and I hope that fact may reconcile your Lordships to such provisions as you may consider to be of a novel character. Of course the question is mainly and largely urban. It is in the great cities that the question is most urgent; but still there is some demand for such provision in the rural districts, and I think it is a fact that the association of county councils expressed themselves favourably disposed towards the adoption of some measure of this kind within their areas.

The Bill proposes to create a system of what we may call school restaurants, and, as your Lordships, I daresay, know, even at present there is a very great amount of feeding of poor school children by voluntary agencies. I confess that until I had looked into this matter I had no conception to what an extent this was done. In London there are 299 schools, according to the last Report, in which, in the course of one winter, 30,000 children were fed. At one time, in the course of the winter, 80,000 meals a week were given in this way. Then last year in West Ham about 750,000 of such meals were given; in Birmingham 600,000; in Bradford, Liverpool, Salford, and Hull about 200,000 each, and also, in some smaller places, such as Reading, Gloucester, and Wednesbury, a very considerable number of meals were provided. That means a vast amount of voluntary, most excellent, but still unregulated work, and it is also, of course, important to remember that in no case, in those voluntary arrangements, is any of the cost recovered, from the parents. It is proposed by the first clause of the Bill that the local education authority may take steps for providing meals for children by associating themselves with such committees as have carried on the work heretofore, called School Canteen Committees, and they— May aid that committee by furnishing such land, buildings, furniture and apparatus, and such officers and servants as may be necessary for the organisation, preparation, and service of such meals. That services, and the apparatus, buildings, and so on, it is proposed should be paid for out of the rates. The second clause deals with the question of payment, and I think there will be a general disposition to agree that where payments can be recovered from parents who are able to pay, it is desirable that that should be done, in order to maintain the sense of parental responsibility; and it is proposed, therefore, to take power to recover both payments provided by voluntary subscription, and also payments made out of the rates, which appears to us to be a very distinct advantage. And it certainly does seem from experience in some cases that there are a very large number of parents who were quite willing to pay a fee if called upon to do so. In the cripple schools in London a good deal of feeding of this kind is done, for obvious reasons. The poor little cripple children cannot go home to their meals, and in the schools in London a great number of meals are provided in this way. Last year there were 167,000 such dinners given in London for Defective Children Schools. The parents paid of the cost nearly £1,400, and the-Dinner Fund was only drawn on for £179. That is very satisfactory evidence of the willingness of the parents to pay, because none of that money, as a matter of fact, could have been recovered by legal process.

When you come to Clause 3 you approach rather more debateable ground. In Clause 3 the rates are called in. It is there provided that under certain circumstances a local authority may spend out of the rates such sum as may meet the cost of provision of food. That is a very carefully guarded clause. The object of the Bill is that the rates should in no way supplant the voluntary subscriptions, but that they should supplement them if it can be shewn that voluntary subscriptions have entirely broken down, and the local authority may apply to the Board of Education for leave to make this provision out of the rates. The Board of course, would inquire into all the circumstances, but in no case may the amount reach more than a rate of a halfpenny, and absolute necessity must be proved, and also that no other funds are available. Of course, while a halfpenny rate is allowed, it would very often mean that only a very small fraction of a farthing would be required, because, as your Lordships know, in London, the halfpenny rate produces a very large amount, and what it is contemplated might happen under this Bill is that after allowing for all the voluntary agencies, there might be a deficit of £4,000 or £5,000, which would be a fraction of a farthing on the rate of London, which the Board of Education might sanction the payment of out of the rates.

Now it is argued, of course, that it is very dangerous bringing in the rates at all, because the moment you do so, the voluntary subscriptions will cease altogether. That may be so, and, if so, it is of course an extremely regrettable circumstance. But it is not quite easy to see why a combination of voluntary effort and rate aid should not be possible. It is done to some extent, as I daresay some of your Lordships know, in other countries, and it seems tome that if people could only be brought to see that the rates may exercise a very valuable function in just supplying what is short in voluntary benevolence, a valuable service would be done, because I daresay it has often occurred to many of us that at no distant date something of the kind may be necessary in regard to some of our great hospitals. Everybody knows what a struggle it is for the hospital work—particularly, of course, of London—to be carried on. They are anxious, if possible, and very naturally, I think, to avoid recourse to public funds, but still it may have to be done some day, and if people can only be educated into believing that you could not have a better arrangement than for the State to find the absolutely necessary balance over and above what is provided by charity for such purposes it would be, I believe, a very valuable addition to the means by which great public objects of this sort are supported, and I think it is worth an effort to try and secure that, if possible.

I might remind your Lordships that the Bill which is now no more, the Education Bill, contained a clause (Clause 24) which was received with unanimous applause by your Lordships—namely, a clause which authorised the education authority to assist—I forget the precise word, but certainly the word "assist" was there—to assist voluntary associations providing meals of that kind for children. That was precisely the same principle, and it was not then hinted that, because the education authority was called in to assist, necessarily the people would cease to provide for children in that way. The object of this clause is that where a number of meals are given they shall only be given in case of real need.

I come to only one other point which is of some importance, and which I daresay may find favour with noble Lords on the Opposition side of the House. It is stated that if you are going to give free meals to anybody you ought to give them, not through the Education Department but through the Poor Law guardians. But that would not be at all easy to administer. There are a great many more Poor Law areas than education areas, and these areas are by no means coterminous. A child may often be living in one Poor Law area and attending a school situated in another. This is not a Local Government Board measure at all, but an Education Bill. The contention is that the provision of these meals is not a question of dealing with pauperism, but an incident or episode in the education of the children. These canteens are intended to be a part of the school. They are not intended to be workhouse kitchens; they are intended to be a part of the school; and we believe that a great deal of good may be done in them, not merely by feeding children who are starving, but by feeding the children who are stupidly fed at home in the manner which, as some of your Lordships, I daresay, know, obtains to an extraordinary extent among many of the poor. It is not at all an uncommon thing in these schools to find children who simply will not eat the kind of meal—porridge, for instance—given to them there. Unless they are given pickles, or something of that kind, of a high flavour, they refuse to look at any food at all. Therefore we hope that these school kitchens may have a distinctly educative influence. As regards this question of the board of guardians, I may remind your Lordships that in the spring of 1905 a Resolution was moved in the House of Commons empowering local education authorities to ensure the feeding of children, and, where possible, to recover the cost. Then a very highly respected Member of the House, Sir George Bartley, moved an Amendment to the effect that the Poor Law guardians and not the local education authority should provide the food. He, however, was defeated by 100 to sixty-four, although I believe, as a matter of fact, the Government of that day supported him in the minority. That, I think, shows that there was a very strong feeling, even in the House which represented the views of noble Lords opposite, in favour of this particular provision, and I am very much afraid that if any attempt is made to substitute the Board of Guardians for the Board of Education in this matter it will be fatal to the Bill, which received an astonishing amount of support in another place. I do not remember the exact figures, but I know the minorities, though tolerably active in the discussion in the other House, were exceedingly small, ranging I believe from about fifty downwards.


It was at three o'clock in the morning.


But the majorities were considerable although the House was sitting at a late hour; and, had there been substantial opposition, hon. Members, even at three o'clock in the morning, would have opposed the Bill. If there are any other points to be raised we could deal with them in Committee. I hope noble Lords will not object to the Committee stage being taken to-morrow, notwithstanding the late period at which, unfortunately, the Bill has been introduced.


To-day, not to-morrow.


Yes, it is very much to-day, I am afraid. I hope that noble Lords will hand in any Amendments they may have to-night, or to-morrow morning, in order that they may be in the possession of noble Lords when the Committee stage is reached, I have some reason to hope that at any rate, if it be found necessary to move Amendments, they may be of a simple character, involving straight, plain issues—not so much verbal Amendments, but Amendments embodying the desire of some noble Lords to express objections on points of principle; and, as I have said, I hope we may be able to take the Committee stage to-morrow.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl of Crewe.)


No one, I think, will be disposed to enter to-night into any discussion with respect to this measure, but I venture to suggest that your Lordships have some ground for complaint that a measure of this importance should only receive a Second Reading at one o'clock in the morning two days before the close of an autumn Session. I do not think it a reasonable course to adopt in regard to a Bill of any kind; certainly not in regard to a Bill of this sort. It is not like the concluding stage of a Bill, brought in to wind up the session, but a new Bill, taken at the very last moment, when discussion is practically impossible. I therefore enter a protest against action of this kind. The noble Lord in charge of the Bill suggests that all our Amendments should be made of a simple nature. I have never heard such a suggestion made before.


I made no such suggestion. I merely expressed the hope that Amendments might deal with simple issues. Of course, if noble Lords desire to make elaborate Amendments they may do so.


the noble Earl suggested that Amendments should be of a particular kind.


I made no such suggestion at all.


You suggested that Amendments might be of a very simple nature.


I suggested it, owing to the nature of the case, and I did not wish, in the least, to interfere with the discretion of noble Lords. I might mention an instance. I know Lord Balfour is about to move an Amendment excluding Scotland from the operation of the Bill. He might do that very simply. Some other noble Lord might leave out Clause 3. But from the nature of the case it seemed to me that Amendments might be of a simple character, and not of the kind we had in the case of the Merchant Shipping Bill.


I accept what the noble Lord says, but I do venture to suggest that at this hour, at all events, we cannot enter into a debate on the Second Reading. I do not think it possible to do it. The only reasonable course to pursue under, what I venture to think, is an inconvenient arrangement for discussing an important Bill, is that, while of course we shall not debate it at this time of night, we should not suffer from that fact. I shall raise no objection to Second Reading tonight, on the distinct understanding that noble Lords will be entitled to discuss the Bill fully in Committee this afternoon.


I join in the protest of the noble Lord (Earl Cawdor). This Bill is certainly one of great importance—of much greater importance than anyone who listened to my noble friend opposite (the Earl of Crewe) would have imagined, and it will have, certainly, very far-reaching consequences. I trust that if we do agree to the Second Reading being taken to-night we shall not only have the opportunity of making any remarks we wish to make when we go into Committee to-morrow, but that if we propose any Amendments we shall not be told that we are precluded from doing so, because we have agreed to the principle of the Bill. I hope that may be generally understood.


I say exactly the same as has been said by my noble friends Lord Cawdor and Lord Avebury. I admit that the circumstances are exceptional, and if they had not been exceptional I should certainly have raised the question by moving to postpone the Bill for a month. This question is far too important to be hurried through like this. As your Lordships will have seen, I have an Amendment standing on the Paper to leave out Clause 7, and to insert a clause providing that the Bill shall not apply to Scotland. I shall not enter to-night into the case for my Amendment, but will only say that it is in my opinion a very strong one. In conclusion I have only to say that I hope the next stage of the Bill will be taken at a more reasonable time.


I am in an absolutely penitent frame of mind, and can assure the House that I entirely accept the stripes laid upon my back by the three noble Lords who have spoken. Of course, I am not responsible for the time at which the Bill came up from the other House, and I have already endeavoured to explain that it was really owing to accident that I was not able to take it last evening. Had I been able to do so it would at any rate have given a little more time for its consideration. I frankly admit, however, that your Lordships have reason to complain that in these last few days of the session a measure of this considerable importance should be put down for Second Reading. Of course, I entirely fall in with the course suggested by the noble Earl— which indeed I had intended myself to suggest—that we should not proceed with the debate to-night, but that noble Lords opposite should have an opportunity, when we go into Committee to-morrow, of saying whatever they wish upon the Bill. As a matter of fact, there is not a great amount of business before the House to-morrow, so that I hope due time may be devoted to the discussion of the Bill.

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