HC Deb 29 March 1956 vol 550 cc2428-40

3.56 p.m.

Miss Elaine Burton (Coventry, South)

I am speaking as one who has a very firm belief in the work of the Council of Europe, as I think the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs knows. I believe in it in the first place because I think it is a useful sounding board for European opinion and it is also a place where Members of the Parliaments of all the European countries can make very useful contacts.

Both those facts are important in themselves, but also, since I have had the pleasure of being there, I believe that it is a place where concrete jobs can be done. I grant that they may be small jobs, but they are none the less valuable for all that. I feel that the more real small jobs that we do the greater will be the influence of the Council of Europe. I think that as a result the Council will become more capable of doing the really big jobs.

Many of us believe that that can only come about by influencing public opinion, by public opinion knowing more about the Council of Europe—in fact, by bringing the Council of Europe into the homes and the lives of the ordinary people of Europe.

I know that in this House one has only to mention the word "culture" for the Beaverbrook Press to reach for its gun, but I am feeling very peaceful today and I am hoping that the only gun which we shall hear as a result of this debate will be the gun which is used for starting athletic events.

Last July, at the Council of Europe, we were having a debate on the Report of the Committee on Cultural and Scientific Questions. Many of us there remembered that the Council of Cultural Experts was the first committee of its kind to be established by the Council of Europe. I thought then, and I still think, that excellent work has been done in that field.

However, I feel also—and I want to stress this—that there has been a tendency to cater too much for educationists, key personnel and civil servants. I believe—perhaps as being none of those three—that too much emphasis in that direction is not going to be good for the future of the Council of Europe. I know that such schemes are necessary, but I do not believe that, however good they are, they will set the world on fire with enthusiasm, nor do I believe that they will make young people feel that they want to know more about Europe and about the Council of Europe. It is that point that I want to emphasise today.

Various suggestions were made in that debate in Strasbourg last July, and certainly I would agree that we must have microfilms of manuscripts and an exchange of documents and lecturers. Certainly it is useful that civil servants shall know the workings of national and local governments in the member countries. But that would take far too long to reach the ordinary people. There is an enormous fund of good will in this Council of Europe. I believe that if Europe could realise it, too, there would be no limit to what the Assembly could do.

At Strasbourg some first-class booklets and pamphlets about Europe and the Council of Europe have been brought out, but I shall never believe that through those books alone, however good they may be, or even mainly through those books, shall we make the ordinary citizens of Europe feel that this is a living organisation with interests that they can share and with interests which actually appeal to them. We must do something more.

There are critics of the Council of Europe. I am afraid that in many cases they are people who have not had the pleasure of working there. There are some organs of the Press which are also critical. The main criticism levelled at the Council is that it is a place where people talk, where people have their heads in the clouds and where nothing gets done. I do not believe that to be true.

To make it clear that it is not so, I should like to see much greater emphasis laid on what I would describe as the more human aspect which is likely to appeal to the ordinary person. Probably the development of Eurovision will have a great effect in this respect. I think that films of everyday life in the member States would help, and I very much want to see the organisation of European journeys by train or boat, not only for students, but for groups of all types of people. As the Joint Under-Secretary knows, I submitted a proposal to the Assembly on those lines last October, and it was passed by an overwhelming majority. These are living things. They are projects which touch the life of the ordinary people in all our countries.

At the conclusion of my speech in July I suggested the development of the sports side of the countries in the Council of Europe. That would have three effects. First, it would improve the standard of our young athletes. Secondly, if, as of course we should, we made it the responsibility of each country to see that the youngsters who were good enough to compete were able to do so, it would mean that not only those who could afford it would be able to make the journey.

Thirdly, it would result in a growing interest in Europe and the Council of Europe, not only among all the young people who aspire to compete, but also among their families and their friends. That suggestion met with approval, and we were able to carry it a stage further in October last. In fact, in view of the wholehearted and, I think I may say, unanimous approval of the delegates, it was obvious that the idea would be welcomed.

During the past six months we have been exploring possibilities, as the Joint Under-Secretary knows. I should like to pay tribute to him first for the help which he has given me in this matter. Secondly, I think that this is the moment lo pay another tribute—I am sure the Joint Under-Secretary will be the first to agree with me—to two organisations and their secretaries for the very considerable help which they have also given me. I refer to the British Amateur Athletic Board and Mr. Crump and the Schools Athletic Association and Mr. Butler. Without the help of both we should not have got very far.

The suggestion that I am putting to the Joint Under-Secretary today is that we should have a European junior athletics festival. Such a festival would be limited to those under 17 years of age on 1st January in the year of the actual festival, and the competitors must still be at school.

Predominating equally with the athletics aspect would be the educational one, because such an event would mean that all the young people would have the opportunity of seeing for themselves life in other countries. I am convinced that it would do much to promote good will among the nations of Europe.

Actual events have been proposed, but it is not necessary that I should detail them here. There are fourteen for boys and eight for girls. The suggestion is that two competitors should be sent for each event, plus a relay team. That would give us an overall total of about fifty competitors per country as a maximum, plus officials.

We suggest that it is obvious that the festival should be held in one of the member countries of the Council of Europe, and I think that the Joint Under-Secretary would agree that it would seem appropriate that the first one should be held in Strasbourg, as the home of the Council of Europe. Indeed, last autumn I was able to have talks with many representatives of the sporting organisations in Strasbourg, every one of whom welcomed the idea. I believe they welcomed it particularly because they are hoping to have a grand new stadium ready for use in Strasbourg this year, and they thought that such a festival would be a very fitting event with which to open it.

For Britain to send a team such as I have mentioned to such a festival would mean travelling expenses of about £12 per person; accommodation would cost about £1 a day; that is a total of approximately £17 per head for five days. which we thought would cover the total time spent in travelling and at the festival. If we take an outside figure of £20 per person, that means a total of £1,000 for fifty people, which is a small sum when we look at the scale of Government expenditure today.

I would stress to the hon. Gentleman, although I know he realises it, that these figures are not mine; they have been worked out for me by people who have done the sort of thing which I am proposing. They are realistic figures, and I give them to him as being quite correct. In order to help the hon. Gentleman when he replies, I ought to explain the background of the position. It would be difficult to carry such a venture forward—as he and I know, being interested in athletics—unless one had the support of sporting organisations.

The view of the British Amateur Athletic Board, as conveyed to me in writing, was that it was essential that this should be a meeting concerning athletes who were still attending school. If athletes outside that category were included, the meeting would have to be under the auspices of the International Amateur Athletic Federation and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Federation could not support it. The policy of the Federation is, first, that it must control any large-scale meeting of an international character, and, secondly, that it cannot organise meetings which are open only to part of the European nations which are members of the International Amateur Athletic Federation. I accept both those points entirely.

The second main point concerning the British Amateur Athletic Board is that the Board would not wish to organise a large-scale international meeting or to take part in any such meeting where prestige considerations would be involved. It would be quite prepared to see the Schools Athletic Association undertaking the organisation and raising a team. Indeed, I was assured at the end of last year that the British Amateur Athletic Board would not fail to give the official blessing which was necessary, but, if the meeting were to be extended to athletes outside those normally within the scope of the Schools Athletic Association, the Board itself would have to select and manage a team, and that it would not be prepared to do.

I was very grateful for having these possible obstacles brought to my notice. I believe we should probably have failed to realise these difficulties but for the assistance given by Mr. Crump and Mr. Butler, for whose help I am most appreciative. It may be apt here to quote a paragraph from a letter I received from Mr. Crump of the British Amateur Athletic Board, in which he says: I feel quite sure that if this Schools International Athletic Festival could be brought intobeing with no questions of National prestige being involved, it would act as a considerable incentive to schoolchildren to take a great interest in their athletics and, of course, I, like you, have no doubt whatsoever as to the value of these international exchanges. If I can be of arty further service to you in this matter I hope you will not hesitate to let me know. In addition, as I think the Joint Under-Secretary knows, the Schools Athletic Association has assured me that it agrees with the proposal, and that it is prepared to support and to help with it. The Committee on Social Questions at Strasbourg, on whose behalf this work is being done, has very willingly accepted the recommendations arising out of the points made by Mr. Crump of the British Amateur Athletic Board, so we have got that aspect cleared out of the way. The proposal for this European junior athletics festival will come before the Council of Europe next month.

The question of expense is important. There has, of course, never been any question that either of the two organisations mentioned should in any way contribute financially to the scheme; that has been made clear to them from the beginning. It will have been noted that we propose that the festival should be part athletics and part educational. As well as being, we hope, beneficial to the youngsters taking part, there was another reason for that. It seemed to me that if we stressed this double aspect, there would be at least three ways in which the question of expense could be met: first, from the Council of Europe; second, from the Ministry of Education; or third, from each local authority involved, for in this country any local education authority could grant-aid a local competitor in a team under the School Journeys Association.

For good measure, I would suggest to the Joint Under-Secretary a fourth possibility—that is, the British Council. I have looked up the Charter of the British Council, and I find in it words to the effect that the developing of closer cultural relations between the United Kingdom and other countries is one of the objects that it sets out to achieve. I must, however, make it clear that I have not raised this matter with the British Council. I merely put it to the Joint Under-Secretary as a fourth possibility for raising money.

The festival would cost under £2,000 for the United Kingdom team. Even if the officials are included, it would cost at most £1,500. The hon. Gentleman will remember that I mentioned a figure of £1,000 without the officials, so I think a figure of £1,500 with the officials is certainly the maximum.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Lord John Hope)

That is what it could cost for this country?

Miss Burton

I was dealing only with the cost of our own team because I did not imagine that the Foreign Office would pay the cost of all the teams. I thought we might have more chance of success by asking simply for the meeting of the cost of our own.

The amount of good will that such a festival could do in Europe would be almost impossible to measure. To my mind, it would do more good than all the White Papers, or the blue books or memoranda that we receive from the Council of Europe. It would bring the Council of Europe home to ordinary people of Europe, and I hope that we shall have the support of the Government in bringing it about.

4.13 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)

I promise not to detain the House for more than a few minutes. We ought to be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) for raising this matter and giving us the opportunity to discuss it. My hon. Friend was herself an outstanding athlete. If my memory serves me correctly, she was world sprint champion in 1920. It is gratifying that she has been able to dovetail her experience at the Council of Europe—to which in the last two years she has made a great contribution, which is acknowledged on all sides—with her interest in athletics.

I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State will be able this afternoon to say that he accepts in principle the ideas that my hon. Friend has put forward, and that he will persuade his right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, who sits on the Council of Ministers at the Council of Europe, to push the scheme through.

I do not want to deal with cost because I am sure that a matter of £1,500 would not cause any anxiety to the Government. I want, however, to indicate my belief in the necessity of a much greater interchange of young people throughout the European countries especially. I believe that international relations in the long run will be based far more upon personal associations and friendships than upon anything else, and that as travel facilities year by year become much easier there will be a much greater movement of ordinary people among the peoples of other nations. It seems to me that the Council of Europe could undertake this task better than any other international organisation.

I was one of the United Kingdom representatives on the Council of Europe for three years, and I know the tremendous amount of work which it has done, but nothing has yet been done about what my hon. Friend has suggested. It will be a good thing if it can be done. I am glad that my hon. Friend stressed the point about the age of these young people. If we can give these young people the opportunity to travel abroad and to meet people whom we refer to as foreigners, they will realise that foreigners are like ourselves, and that, by and large, they believe in the things in which we believe and want the same things we want; and thus we shall move more rapidly to a better understanding between nations. This is really an important matter, and this kind of interchange between people cannot start at too early an age. I hope that the Council of Europe can be given this additional task to fulfil.

It must be remembered that people who do not believe in democracy are using young people throughout the world to further their ends. They invite young people to all sorts of festivals for the purpose of pursuing political ideologies which we do not accept. It seems to me wrong to leave the approach to youth entirely to organisations of that sort. My hon. Friend has indicated a real opportunity of doing what is worth while not only towards improving the standard of athletics in the various countries but also in respect of that interchange between peoples that I regard as highly important. I do hope, therefore, that the Joint Under-Secretary of State will feel it possible to give the scheme his blessing, and to persuade his right hon. and learned Friend, who sits on the Council of Ministers, to impress it upon the Council of Europe.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend, having done her term of two years, will not herself be attending the meetings of the Council of Europe. I should not like to see the work which she has already done lost and come to nothing. It is a project which the Government can assist, and, indeed, it is now the Government who should assist it. I hope that they will agree that what my hon. Friend has suggested is worth while, will give it their blessing, and will try to further it.

4.17 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Lord John Hope)

I should like at the outset to join the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) and the right hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) in the tributes that they have paid to what the Council of Europe has done so well; and I would add a personal tribute to the hon. Lady for what she has herself done in this work.

She and the right hon. Gentleman have presented the case with the accent on youth and enthusiasm and on personal contact. In that I am with them all the way, and in spirit I am 100 per cent. in favour of this idea of the hon. Lady's. Indeed, when she first broached it at Strasbourg some little time ago, I thought then that on its merits it had tremendous possibilities. My enthusiasm for it was, I dare say, partly engendered by the fact that I myself some years ago took part in athletics occasionally, although I at no time attained the distinction that brightened those days for the hon. Lady and many others.

I was interested in what the hon. Lady told us about the help and encouragement she had been given by the British Amateur Athletic Board and the Schools Athletic Association. She mentioned Mr. Crump, the honorary secretary of the former body, the British Amateur Athletic Board, and she quoted him as having said that his organisation—I think these were the words—would not fail to give this scheme its official blessing, although he made clear the limits to which that blessing would have to be confined. He said to her that the scheme would be an incentive to schools in their athletics.

As recently as 27th March Mr. Crump did in fact give us his views at the Foreign Office on this plan. I have his permission to quote a number of the things he says. Although there may be some misunderstanding, I think that undoubtedly in some very material ways the British Amateur Athletic Board must have changed its mind since Mr. Crump was in touch with the hon. Lady. I do not want to suggest that what I am going to quote ends the matter, because I do not think that it should or does; but it does cast at least a temporary cloud across the outlook.

Here are some of the things Mr. Crump says: In the first place, I ought to say that the British Amateur Athletic Board and, in fact, most of the Governing Bodies of athletics in Europe, do not consider that an extension of international competition to cover the youth age-groups is in itself a practical or desirable thing. International competitions exist in plenty and already tax the organisational abilities of the Governing Bodies concerned, and inasmuch as large-scale international gatherings do inevitably tend to bring into the athletic arena matters of National prestige, it is felt that the present competitions are sufficient for the purpose. He then mentions that there is anyhow a European championship every four years, which is costly. A little later in his letter he says: The International Amateur Athletic Federation would, I am sure, set its face against giving permission for a full-scale youth international athletics contest between only a group of Nations constituting the Council of Europe, and in discussions I had last November on the subject of the proposed Strasbourg International meeting, I found opposition to the proposal from all the countries concerned. In saying, therefore, that the British Amateur Athletic Board could not give its wholehearted support to the proposals on the grounds of finance, undesirability, and difficulty of organisation, I do hope that the sponsors of the scheme will not fail to recognise that this is a considered view based on very long experience of international athletics. At a later point in the letter Mr. Crump does point out that if it is to be done at all it would have to be confined to schoolboys and schoolgirls. Of course, that is precisely what the hon. Lady always had in mind, I think, and certainly what I had in mind—that it should not go further.

Mr. Crump ends by saying: It is always the desire of the British Amateur Athletic Board to be as helpful as possible and if it were possible for me to give a more favourable opinion on the proposals to be considered, I assure you I would do so willingly. At this stage, however, I am bound to say that Mr. Abrahams and I are in agreement that a large-scale international athletics contest for youth would not be practicable and would not be desirable and, for our part, we hope that the greatest care will be taken before coming to a decision to give support to the staging of such a meeting. Coming, as it does, after the original encouragement which was certainly given to the hon. Lady, I find this opinion a little difficult, at first blush, to understand. However, this letter was received only yesterday or the day before, and I should like time to get in touch with the British Amateur Athletic Board and find out exactly what difficulties, if any, have cropped up since the early days when the hon. Lady was in touch with it.

Mr. Robens

Does the Minister think that perhaps there has been some slight misunderstanding, and that Mr. Crump, in referring to youth, is thinking of teenagers, when in fact my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) and the noble Lord are thinking in terms of school children?

Lord John Hope

That is a possibility, although Mr. Crump was absolutely clear at the time, because we talked about schools when we were in conversation with him earlier. If there is a misunderstanding it is a pity. I think that we were quite clear. The hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South was certainly quite clear. I heard her in discussion, and nobody disagreed. Still, I think that we can clear this matter up.

On the question of cost, the hon. Lady's figures do not come to as much as we have estimated. I will look at the matter again and, if I may, get in touch with her as to exactly what she meant by her figure of £1,500 as the outside total of this country's obligation. We made it a good deal more on the basis of an 18½ per cent. contribution, that is, if the Council of Europe is to be responsible.

Miss Burton

I am very nervous of saying anything in view of the noble Lord's reply, but it was one of the gentlemen whom I have mentioned who worked out the figures.

Lord John Hope

The hon. Lady need not be nervous of anything she says, because she says everything with such charm and conviction that nobody would mind.

We made the sum about twice as much. Even that would not come to very much. Nevertheless, it would have to be found, and of course that would be difficult. There are special difficulties in connection with the Foreign Office finding the money because, as the hon. Lady knows, it has never found money out of its Vote for sporting events, and if it started doing so it would be difficult to know where to stop. If there are any alternatives we will see whether anything can be done, but however small the sum, it would be difficult to get round the principle.

The hon. Lady has suggested several alternatives which might be tried. Her idea of the local authorities contributing at first sight has its obvious attractions, and certainly could be looked into. Her suggestion that the British Council might have a whack might be a little less popular in the quarters concerned. They are very stretched as it is. I will certainly look into the question of cost to see what we can do, but it will be difficult, and I do not want to give the impression that I am very optimistic about it.

In principle, I think that the hon. Lady has done a great service in having thought of this idea, which was her idea entirely. So far as its merits and the results which I am sure it would have are concerned, I can think of nothing more worthy to try to get on to the curriculum. Further than that I cannot go, but I am very glad to have been able to go so far to meet the hon. Lady's idea.

Miss Burton

I very much appreciate the Minister's attitude, and I know that the difficulties are not of his making, but I am completely dumbfounded. I have had the best contacts with these organisations and I have heard nothing about the development which the Minister has now indicated. I know that Mr. Crump had discussions with the International Federation in November, but is the Minister aware that Mr. Crump wrote to me at the end of December with suggestions for overcoming the difficulty and offering me his wholehearted support? Since then I have had nothing but assurances of his understanding, and therefore I am sure that there must have been a mistake somewhere.

Lord John Hope

I will try to clear the air.