On rising to address the House for the first time, I trust that I may enjoy that kindly indulgence which is usually bestowed upon a new Member on an occasion of this nature. I have noticed in recent months that the tone of a number of speeches of Private Members, including New Members, has been somewhat critical of the Government and that the Government have from time to time been charged with a variety of alleged sins of commission and omission. I am, therefore, very glad that on this occasion I am able to run counter to that tendency and offer my sincere congratulations to the Government and to their advisers of the Scottish Education Department on the production of a small but useful Measure of social reform. Social reform is one of the most important subjects which animate the mind of those Members who sit on these benches and who are disciples of that great Victorian statesman, Benjamin Disraeli. No doubt some of the hon. Members present to-day will recall that, in one of his most famous public speeches, delivered at the Crystal Palace in 1872, Disraeli laid down as one of the principles of our national policy that we should aim at the elevation of the condition of the people. I suggest that this Measure, though admittedly it is a comparatively small one, is following in the true Disraelian tradition in that it will bring relief and assistance to many of our less fortunate fellow citizens and will enable their children to reap fuller benefit from our educational system.
As the Secretary of State has pointed out, the Bill is a short and simple one, and I should like to congratulate the Government upon the clarity of the language in which it is written, as so often Parliamentary Bills are couched in language which is almost incomprehensible to a layman. Furthermore, as the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State has remarked, the Measure before us to-day is pleasantly free from reservations and restrictions, and it does in fact give to the local authorities full power to use their own intitiative without the hampering influence of red tape or undue control from the centre. I hope and believe that that trust will not be abused and that, while local authorities will carry out the terms of the Bill to the fullest possible extent, nevertheless, they will at the same time exercise a wise discretion in regard to the free disbursement of food and clothing in order to prevent the possible growth of any malpractices. As the Secretary of State also pointed out, Section 6 of the 1908 Act, which this Bill will supersede, is out of date and cumbersome, in that it was necessary in individual cases to prove malnutrition before the local authority could arrange for the long-term feeding of the children concerned, and in fact the more enlightened local authorities have long since adopted the Nelsonian tactics of turning the blind eye to the existing Measure and have adopted procedures of their own. To that extent, then, the new Bill really regularises an irregular practice in operation in many parts of Scotland. I hope that once this Bill becomes law the Scottish Education Department, by the use of diplomatic pressure, will see to it that the local authorities in those areas where the old practice is still in use will come into line as rapidly as possible. I stress that point at this moment because in the midst of a great war and furthermore, with the full brunt of winter coming upon us, it is of the greatest possible importance that necessitous children should be clad as warmly as possible and should receive food and milk in adequate quantities.
Turning to the new provisions incorporated in this Measure, I comment on the fact that children of five who are not enrolled at schools are now to come under the education authority, and I welcome that proposal, which fills a gap in the existing procedure. I also welcome the proposal that meals should be supplied to necessitous children on non-school days. Here, again, I am glad to say that that provision has already been anticipated in a number of areas, including that of the Edinburgh Education Committee.
There are two questions which I would like to put to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State, and perhaps he or the Under-Secretary of State, in the reply to the Debate, might comment upon them. The first is: Under this Bill will it be competent for a local authority to provide clothes or food for children who are attending nursery schools, whether those nursery schools are maintained by the local authority or run by private bodies? My second point is this: Supposing, unfortunately, through fire or damage caused by enemy action, the kitchen premises of some private school, such, as, for example, a large merchant company school in Edinburgh, be put out of action, will it be competent for the local authority to provide meals for the children attending that private school? I shall be glad if perhaps the hon. Gentleman will comment on that in his reply to the Debate.
As a former member of the Edinburgh Education Committee, I should like to extend a very hearty welcome to this Measure. We in Scotland, and especially in my native city of Edinburgh, are proud of our traditions in the educational sphere, and it will be much appreciated in Edinburgh and in Scotland generally that, despite the distractions of the times caused by the war, Parliament has still found time to pass into law this very useful little Measure to further the cause of Scottish education.