Orders of the Day — Education Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 19th January 1944.

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Photo of Colonel Sir Henry Evans Colonel Sir Henry Evans , Cardiff South

For many years I have often heard the hypothetical question put not only in this House but outside as to what did Gladstone say in 1870? I am very glad indeed to learn from my hon. Friend who preceded me what he did in fact say about this most controversial matter. There are many things in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Thomas) with which I find myself in complete agreement. He did, however, suggest in his opening remarks that the question of an agreed syllabus was one for compromise. It may well be amongst the Anglican section, the Church of England, but I think this is a matter on which there has been so much misunderstanding in the Debate so far. On the question of the agreed syllabus there could be no compromise at all so far as the Catholic Church is concerned. It is clear from everything said in the Debate by the representatives of the Government ever since the White Paper was introduced into the House in July, in the Press and on the radio, that the fundamental difficulty so far as the Catholic Church is concerned is as alive to-day as when the matter was first mooted.

It has been suggested amongst other things that it is the Catholics who are anxious to perpetuate the old dual system. Speaking for my own part, I do not share that view. They did not wish to perpetuate the old system, In common with my hon. Friend who preceded me I have refreshed my memory and have been looking up the Debate in 1902. There is not the slightest doubt from the speeches which were made on that occasion that that compromise was forced upon them. Catholics to-day, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes), in his most eloquent and persuasive speech, pointed out, Catholics are as anxious to be part of the national system of education in this country as any other non-Catholic subjects of His Majesty. They are anxious to enjoy the same facilities that other children receive; to see their children as well educated and equipped for life as the non-Catholic child. They oppose the financial Clauses of this Bill, but they do not do so on educational grounds. They do not do so on political grounds but purely on moral and religious grounds. It is impossible for them to accept these proposals without doing violence to their conscience. In fact this has been recognised—unfortunately it has not been met—by the President of the Board. In the Debate on the White Paper which took place in this House in July last he used these words: I have not been able to concede the full demands of those who desire complete liberty of conscience." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th July, 1943; col. 1836, Vol. 391.] The fact unfortunately remains and that is the basis, the fundamental basis of our difference with my right hon. Friend. There is an element which should never be banished from our system of education. Here in Great Britain we have freedom of thought as well as freedom of conscience. Here we have been the pioneers of religious toleration. But side by side with all this has been the fact that religion has been the rock in the life and character of the British people upon which they have built their faith and cast their care. This fundamental element must never be taken from our schools. That, Sir, is the fundamental belief of the British Catholics. That is the policy they support and the words I have used are those of the Prime Minister in his broadcast of 21st March, 1943. In a nutshell what is the fundamental Catholic claim? I take my side with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Keighley. The first thing I want to see removed, and I believe the majority of my constituents wish to see it removed, is the Cowper-Temple Clause in the Act of 1870. I am sorry indeed to see that my right hon. Friend has not taken the opportunity to repeal that Clause in the present Bill now before the House. It should be repealed because Catholic education is not inimical to the State. Indeed, it instils submission to lawful authority. One is reminded of speeches made in the past by Cardinal Hinsley and Cardinal Bourne in times of great national crisis.

Our policy in a nutshell is that where there are enough Catholic children to fill a school—and a school which would in any case exist—then that school should be Catholic in religion. That is the simple basis of our claim and that is all. It is the system, as the House has been reminded by other hon. Members, which has been in existence in Scotland, Ireland and in Holland. We realise that in Ireland it was introduced not for the protection of, or in the interests of, the Catholics but for the Protestants. I have never heard a Member from Northern Ireland say in this House that the system has not worked well. The adoption of the Scottish system would end religious controversy in this matter once and for all. As things now stand the President of the Board of Education, while sincerely endeavouring to give education a new start, will, in my judgment, tend to increase rather than diminish that unfortunate difference of opinion.

There is, however, at least one fact on which the House must be agreed—that this is not a political question. In view of that I hope that when the Debate takes place on the financial Clauses of the Bill the House will be afforded a free vote and that Members will be able to vote according to their religious conscience in the same way as they were afforded that facility when the Prayer Book of the Established Church was under Debate in the House some years before the war. Personally, I did not vote on that occasion because I did not feel myself competent to do so but the votes of Members were cast on grounds of religious conviction not on political grounds and as far as I am concerned when the time comes that is how my vote will be cast. What, in fact, are the Government saying to the Catholic parents to-day? "If you do not wish to accept the agreed syllabus, if you do not wish to accept our proposal of 'Pooled Christianity' under the Bill you can of course have your own way, but at the prohibitive cost of not less than £10,000,000 over a period of 25 years." In the 25 years before the war, as the hon. Member for Ipswich has pointed out, the Catholic community had an educational debt of £3,500,000 and even to-day not all of that money has been repaid. Now there is the suggestion that an additional huge sum of £10,000,000 should be added to the weight around the neck of the Catholic community.