HC Deb 23 July 1974 vol 877 cc1281-3
11. Mr. Dixon

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is his current policy about addressing meetings at universities in view of the ban on freedom of speech by the National Union of Students.

Mr. Prentice

I will consider invitations to speak from student organisations which have clearly dissociated themselves from the National Union of Students' ban.

Mr. Dixon

I welcome the continued robust attitude of the right hon. Gentleman, but can he say what advice he has given to his colleagues in the Cabinet on this point?

Mr. Prentice

A number of my right hon. and hon. Friends have come to similar decisions and have told me so, while others may have done so privately without telling me. It is not for me to advise my right hon. or hon. Friends, or any other citizens, which speaking invitations they should accept.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that there is a great difference between tolerance for extreme Right-wing opinion, which should be allowed, and tolerance for racialism, which is a quite different matter?

Mr. Prentice

I took the opportunity to make clear in a letter—which I published—which I sent to the President of the NUS that I was diametrically opposed to the extreme Right-wing organisations and that I abhorred racialism. I also stated to him—I believe that on this I carry most hon. Members with me, including my hon. Friend—that we should respect the right of people to state views, regardless of whether we share those views or strongly disagree with them.

Mrs. Knight

Will the right hon. Gentleman ignore the ridiculous contribution from his hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) and recognise that in many circumstances the fact of senior Members of Parliament on the Government side refusing to address organisations which close their minds to the other side of the argument operates an effective sanction which can only be for the well-being of the universities concerned?

Mr. Prentice

I hope that the decision announced by a number of people—not only politicians but others—that they will not speak to some students' unions and that they dissociate themselves from the NUS ban will have some effect in helping other students' unions to change their policy. A number of individual students' unions have done so and have dissociated themselves from the NUS ban. I hope that others will take the same decision.

Mr. Bryan Davies

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that it is time we stopped this sanctimonious criticism of the NUS? Is it not the case that Her Majesty's Ministers and leading members of the Opposition Front Bench speak from time to time to a whole range of organisations of people with whom they differ greatly in attitude? Is it not clear that the way to tackle what many of us on this side of the House regard as the erroneous position of the NUS on this issue is to refute the matter in open debate in the universities?

Mr. Prentice

I do not think anyone will accuse me of sanctimonious attacks on the NUS. I regard myself as a friend of the NUS. It has on occasions been good enough to reciprocate that sentiment. However, on this particular issue the NUS has, I believe, gone down the wrong road and I thought it right to make a personal decision on the matter as many others have done.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I fully support the Secretary of State in his personal stand on this matter, but is it not also essential that moderate students should get the opportunity of hearing moderate speakers? Will he take steps to publish in the OFFICIAL REPORT a list of those unions which have responded to the deprivation of his oratory—bearing in mind that on all matters save, unfortunately, education, he has reasonable views—so that hon. Members can know whether it is right to follow his example in particular cases?

Mr. Prentice

I am glad the hon. Member thinks that I have reasonable views. I am sorry that I cannot reciprocate the compliment. As for publishing a list of certain student unions, I do not have that information available and I do not think it would be right for anyone to seek such information. It is for the student unions to run their own affairs. It is not for us to compile lists. If I receive an invitation to speak to a students' union, I inquire from those issuing the invitation what is the attitude of the union to the ban.

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