HC Deb 18 July 1960 vol 627 cc205-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

11.47 p.m.

Mr. W. Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

I am very relieved to be allowed to deal with this very important subject, to which I am glad to see the Minister is here to reply. On 2nd June, I put a Question to the Minister of Education asking him about the activities of the security forces as they related to pupils at school. From the exchanges that took place in the House on that occasion, it seemed to us that the Minister made two statements which, at least by implication, widened the matter considerably, and thoroughly alarmed hon. Members on both sides of the House, besides teachers, parents and a wide section of the Press.

What he did was to admit that security forces approached headmasters of some boys and girls who had left school. Secondly, he implied that a headmaster could, as he called it, give advice on "the facts of life"—in this case the warning by the headmaster that the holding of certain political views might be damaging to their future employment prospects.

Subsequent to our discussion on that case, the headmaster of the school concerned, whilst denying that he had been approached by security officers about any boys at present in school, admitted that he had been approached by security officers. According to The Guardian of 3rd June, the headmaster said that security officers ring up to ask what a pupil's politics were while he was at school". He continued: It is a practice I do not hold with. In future, I will not reply to them. I will say only this about that case. I—I am sure many hon. Members share my view—am grateful to the headmaster, first for frankly acknowledging that secret police had approached him, and secondly for courageously saying that he would not reply to them in future. He gave an honourable lead to other members of his profession. I also agree entirely with his next comment, which according to the same newspaper was: Questions about the political views of boys of school age should never be put. The parents who thought inquiries were being made of children at present at the school were mistaken, though it was perhaps understandable that they should have thought so, because of the way the matter was handled. I leave that particular school there.

Two questions remain about the Government's security policy in general. First, do the secret police in fact make inquiries about the politics of children still at school? Secondly, if they do, can it be justified? Further, are the admitted inquiries—the Minister does not deny these inquiries—about former students justified?

My answer to whether the secret police do inquire about children still at school, despite the denials in this case on 2nd June, is that they do inquire about pupils at school. I have had considerable correspondence from various parts of the country. I have been to investigate one or two cases. I am completely satisfied that such cases have occurred. I had intended to recite to the House tonight two particularly lunatic examples of the activity of these security forces. I am always reluctant to mention schools and names, because of the embarrassing publicity to all concerned. As it happens, I am spared that decision, because it is no longer necessary to establish this charge.

Last Thursday I asked the Prime Minister if he will issue instructions to the appropriate Government authorities that no approach shall be made, save at the express direction of the Minister concerned in any particular instance, to any head master or mistress or other teacher to secure information or opinions about the political bent of any of their students"— that is, children still at school— or past students. The Prime Minister replied in a Written Answer: No. In 1952 the Government decided that special inquiries must be made to ensure the reliability of Government staff employed on exceptionally secret work. It would be impracticable for specific Ministerial instructions to be issued in each individual case, but the inquiries are made by officers on behalf of the Minister concerned."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th July, 1960; Vol. 626, c. 120.] On the basis of that Answer, it is clear that this meant that inquiries are made about the political bent of school children at present at school. Otherwise, I assume, the Prime Minister would have gone out of his way to allay the apprehensions of teachers, parents and students.

This is an extremely serious matter, calculated in my opinion to damage the integrity of our educational system in a free society. It will chill parents and teachers alike. It is a doctrine more fitting to a totalitarian society or the pages of George Orwell's "1984". When the original Question and Answer took place in June, the right hon. Gentleman had a very bad Press. Newspapers as diverse as the Daily Mail and the Guardian commented very adversely on the replies he made. The Daily Mail, in a leader on 4th June, headed "Spies in School", said: There is something absurd and laughable about the affair of the security men and the schoolboys. Do these M.I.5 men, or whoever they are, appreciate how ridiculous they appear, trying laboriously to discover whether a man is likely to become a spy by talking to his former headmaster or tutor? It would be interesting to know what kind of anwers they would have unearthed if they had tackled some of the masters or university tutors of our present political figures. The young Macmillan of 1914 must have seemed an exceedingly dangerous element. 'He keeps supporting Socialism in speeches in the Oxford Union', we can see the investigator writing in his notebook. 'Puts undue emphasis on his working-class great grandfather'". Of course, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition would have been quite beyond the pale, as he took an active part in the General Strike. I do not know what the Press will say when it understands the implications, as I see them, of the Prime Minister's Answer to my Question last Thursday.

I come now to my second question, can these inquiries be justified? Here my answer is an emphatic no. Of course I admit the need for security forces. Of course I know that every Government has certain secrets which other Governments try to get and a Government of any political complexion has a duty to defend them, but can the political views of a boy of 15 to 18 be any guide to what views he will hold in future? Let us consider how that would apply to the House of Commons. On the basis of the political views we held when we were 15, 17 or 18, there would be some considerable changing from one side of the House to the other. Some hon. Members with possible ambitions to enjoy Government secrets would be denied them if the test of what political views they held when they were 17 applied to them. That goes for hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Does not the Minister think it wrong to ask teachers about the political views of children? What qualifications have teachers or 'headmasters for answering such questions? Certainly teachers are entitled to be asked and qualified to answer questions about pupils' and former pupils' academic ability and general character, but on politics their views are no better and no worse than those of Aunt Mary or anyone standing at the corner of the street. The Minister is asking them for judgments on the political views of their pupils and former pupils, which are secretly communicated and concealed from the pupils and parents. Yet those secret decisions might be enough to ruin the investigated one's future.

Only today I was talking to a school teacher who told me that one of his pupils, a boy of 13 with an interest in science and whose master thought a suitable boy to take science, said he wanted to change his subject. "Why?", he was asked. He replied, "Because I fear that if I go ahead with this, when a get a little further I shall have to conform to certain ideas of the Establishment and certain social ideas, and I do not want to be so confined". That is a very serious matter.

May I quote an extract from a letter which a schoolmaster has written on this subject, in which he says: Security checks, as we now know on the authority of the Minister of Education, are extended to cover a man's childhood career at school. What he says and does in his childhood and adolescence may be observed by his teacher, and used subsequently in evidence against him. The teacher paid by the State is in certain circumstances expected to act as a Government spy". I note the very sane observations of the gentleman who wrote to the Manchester Guardian on 21st June. He noted with alarm that at a mock election held at his son's school during the last General Election the Communist candidate had a resounding victory. He continued: Is there any machinery whereby M.I.5 can be asked to record that the franchise was limited to the senior forms so that at the material time my son had no vote? Or must I rely on the headmaster's memory? Or may I assume that he has now a dossier in which such vital facts are duly noted? I seem to recall that at such an election in my own school I gave my vote, spoke in support of and planted bombs on behalf of the Communist candidate. Fortunately my objective was not the Ministry of Supply but the Ministry of the Church". It is signed "The Rev. K.H. That is A sane letter which puts this matter into perspective.

I ask the Minister to end this monstrous intervention in educational life which in my view is calculated to turn the minds of youth from a critical analysis of modern problems into a servile acceptance of the standards which they think might be to their ultimate benefit. I ask him, too, to assure teachers that they will not have to answer such questions about their pupils.

If, despite all these arguments, the Government insist that this form of security must go on, at least he should end the sinister secrecy, confront the accused with the allegations and give him a chance to disprove what are often the nightmare lunacies of faceless men who think that every radical in dissent against the status quo is a potential traitor to his country.

Let the Minister also think of the position of the masters, mistresses and other teachers which will follow the lead given them by the headmaster to whom I referred tonight. Will he give an assurance that headmasters and teachers generally will be perfectly within their rights if they refuse, as I hope most of them will refuse, to answer questions about the political views of students or former students? If the Minister does not give a satisfactory answer, I warn him that my colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party who are specially interested in education, and the party as a whole, will return to this very serious matter when Parliament reassembles in the autumn.

12.4 a.m.

The Minister of Education (Sir David Eccles)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths) has raised this subject, because it deals with liberty and the rights of the individual, and the House ought to be particularly careful on these matters. It also give me an opportunity, now that the hon. Member has raised it on the Adjournment, of commenting on and I hope clearing up obvious misunderstandings which have arisen on a delicate matter, yet one in which, I think, the main issues are pretty clear.

I feel that I must first comment on the events which led to the debate. As the hon. Member said, in his original Question, asked in the House on Thursday, 2nd June, he made two allegations about what had happened at the William Ellis School in North London. I am glad to say that, on investigation, both of those charges turned out to be incorrect.

The hon. Member first alleged that the headmaster had been asked about the political leanings of boys now in his sixth form, and secondly, that the headmaster had tried to influence the political views of his pupils. By checking on these facts, which the hon. Member could have done—as I did immediately the question appeared on the Order Paper—he would have found that both allegations were unfounded.

Mr. W. Griffiths

No; I have deliberately moved from this individual case to the wider principles, and the right hon. Gentleman must not say that I have found that both of these things are untrue. I still say that the headmaster did ask the boys about their political views, and also warned them of the dangers of holding certain views; and I also say that the parents were speaking the truth when they told me so.

Sir D. Eccles

In my judgment, the hon. Member is quite wrong in that allegation, as I think I shall be able to show in the process of my reply. I would like to deal with the general principles, because there does seem to be a good deal of doubt, both about the responsibility of officials acting on behalf of the Government in this matter, and the responsibility of head teachers.

I want to deal, first, with the responsibility of Government staff employed on secret work. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reminded the House last Thursday, in answer to a Question by the hon. Member, that the Government introduced in 1952 a new procedure to ensure the reliability of Government staff employed on exceptionally secret work. That, as we know, especially concerns work involving access to secrets associated with atomic energy. It was then decided that special inquiries should be made about those holding, or applying for, such posts. Since then, particulars have been sought from those persons holding these posts, and those applying for posts, and also from other people, so that the Minister might decide if the staff was fit to be entrusted with such secret information.

Any person considered unfit, including, for example, members of the Communist Party, or of a Fascist organisation, or those associated with such bodies in such a way as to raise legitimate doubts about their reliability, are barred from employment of this nature. After a few years the House was concerned to know how the system was working, and in 1956 a conference of Privy Councillors from the two main political parties was set up. It found that there was nothing organically wrong or unsound about the Government's security arrangements. That conference dealt with the public services generally, and the House was told, in Cmd. Paper 9715, that the conference recognised that in certain areas of the public service, notably the foreign service, the defence field, and the atomic energy organisation, the need for stringent security precautions was greater than elsewhere.

These are the considerations which make it necessary, on occasion, to put inquiries to headmasters in order to secure information about a candidate for a post coming within the categories which I have just mentioned.

I emphasise this point. It is entirely untrue to say that inquiries are made in any general sense about the political views of pupils in a school, and I hope that this will dispose of any suggestion that there have been efforts or attempts to influence the political views of boys who are past or present students.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West) rose

Sir D. Eccles

I am sorry, but I have only eight minutes left.

I should add that inquiries about candidates are not made by officers of M.I.5 or of the Special Branch. They are made by departmental officers specially appointed for the purpose, but it would not be practicable, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, for specific Ministerial instructions to be issued in each individual case, partly because, very often, more than one Minister is involved. All this was known to and approved by the House when the Atomic Energy Act was put through.

I come now to the responsibilities of headmasters when faced with questions of this kind. No head teacher or teacher may seek to indoctrinate pupils with this or that political view. If he does, he is guilty of professional misconduct. That is clearly understood and endorsed by both sides of the House, and I have no evidence whatever that the headmaster of the school with which the hon. Gentleman has been concerned has acted with anything but complete propriety in this or in any other respect.

On the other hand, I do say to the House, as I said before, that a headmaster has some pastoral responsibility to his pupils, and if, from his knowledge of the world—some features of which we all regret—he thinks that pupils are behaving in ways that may damage their subsequent careers, he is entitled to tell them so—

Mr. Hale

What are those ways?

Sir D. Eccles

—but when he does this he obviously runs the risk of being misrepresented—as indeed, has happened in the case that has been brought to our attention. The headmaster has been misrepresented by the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange. That, however, does not alter a head teacher's right to inform pupils about facts of which they may not have knowledge. I would entirely agree that in doing so a head teacher must carefully avoid advocating this or that political view himself.

The headmaster also has the right and duty to maintain discipline and good order in the school. While he must not influence the political views of his pupils, he must be free to discourage or suppress activities that he considers may be damaging to the good government of the school. It is clearly neither possible nor desirable for the Minister to attempt to lay down any rules as to the circumstances in which a headmaster should act in this context. The freedom of head teachers and class teachers from direction in the daily running of the school is one of the cornerstones of our educational system, and I do not think that hon. Members would want to see that principle eroded.

This brings me back to the question of the liberty of the subject, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange maintains is being threatened. I can only say that the procedures for determining whether a particular candidate is suitable for a certain limited category of posts have been generally agreed by both sides of the House—

Mr. Hale

By whom? They were not agreed.

Sir D. Eccles

The procedures in themselves are not a threat to the liberty of the subject—

Mr. Griffiths

Does the right hon. Gentleman know what the procedures are? We do not.

Sir D. Eccles

The procedures are well known. There have been Press reports that questions are asked about the affiliations of a particular person. It can happen—but, I suppose, rarely—that a boy in a sixth form applies for a job with the Atomic Energy Authority. He is not going to university. In that case I—am sure it is a rare one—it is necessary, and the boy knows it well, as he is applying for a job which entails knowledge of secret information, to make inquiries about him. All hon. Members, on both sides, know that we have these procedures.

Mr. Griffiths

Of the headmaster?

Sir D. Eccles

The inquiries must be made. The headmaster is only one of the people—

Mr. Griffiths

About politics?

Sir D. Eccles

The inquiries must be made—

Mr. Griffiths

In secret?

Sir D. Eccles

—whether the boy—[Interruption.] He knows that it is part of getting the job. Everybody understands that. The individual is very well aware that the information will be sought from those to wham he is well known. It remains true that any headmaster, being asked questions about an applicant of Whom he has knowledge, is free not to co-operate if he does not wish to do so. He is under no compulsion to answer if he does not feel that it is his duty to do so.

I regret the necessity for these procedures as much as any hon. Member. If hon. Members care to refer to our debate in March, 1954, on the Committee stage of the Atomic Energy Bill, of which I was in Charge, they will find that over and over again I said that we on this side regretted that these procedures had to be adopted, but that in a world which fears war one cannot avoid what is really a necessary evil. On the other hand, I said then, and I repeat now, that it is not part of the duty of a free society to give men who aim at the overthrow of its institutions a sporting chance to do so.

Mr. Griffiths

Will boys in the sixth farm overthrow society?

Sir D. Eccles

If boys in the sixth form have applied for a job which entails secret information, they must be vetted just the same as if they were 20 or 30 years of age.

Mr. Griffiths

What were the Minister's views at 16?

Sir D. Eccles

The whole point is that the boy has applied for a job in which it is known that secret information will be made available to him. He must, therefore, like anybody else applying for such a job—

Mr. Hale

Does he know what is said against him? Does he have the chance of reply?

Sir D. Eccles

It is a question of getting the information from all sources and building up a case. These things are carefully done by fair means. I assure hon. Members that although we may, at this point in our history, have to take strict measures to protect the security of our country—and there is nothing between the two sides of the House on that—

Mr. Hale

This is a purely Communist method. It is trial in secret.

Sir D. Eccles

—the basic freedom of the schools and of the pupils in the schools remains fully protected.

I assure hon. Members that I dislike the idea that we have to have checks upon people who are going to serve the State in any capacity, but if part of their duty brings them into contact with information which would be of the highest value to any potential enemy, it must remain, in the present state of the world, our duty to see that people do not get access to such information unless they are reliable. In order to carry out that duty, we are bound to ask certain questions about them.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

In the time, which is available—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.