HC Deb 23 June 1977 vol 933 cc1730-2
17. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress is being made towards an integrated education system in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Carter

My noble Friend the Minister of State, Lord Melchett, will be speaking on this subject in another place later today. I would not wish to anticipate his remarks.

Mr. Bennett

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a great step forward in Northern Ireland if the education system were integrated? How soon does he expect to see progress made?

Mr. Carter

There are differing views in Northern Ireland about this whole issue. It is an issue on which both sections in the community have different views. My noble Friend has instigated discussions between all the elements involved. Irrespective of what we are trying to do in secondary education, we shall continue to consider ways and methods of extending the principle of integrated education, which to some extent already exists.

Mr. Grylls

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what is the Government's view on integrated education, and especially their response to the Bill that is to be introduced in another place this afternoon by Lord Dunleath? Will he tell the House why an important statement on secondary education was made not in the House of Commons but outside? Why did that happen?

Mr. Carter

It happened because in the judgment of my noble Friend it was right that he should make that statement in the House of Lords. I am aware that some people have said that the statement should have been made in this House. The plain fact is that we have not heard such criticism from Northern Ireland Members or from anyone in Northern Ireland. My noble Friend, who is responsible for education, thought that the right place to make it was in the House of Lords.

Mr. Fernyhough

As I presume my hon. Friend knows what his noble Friend will be saying in the House of Lords, what inhibits him from telling Members of this place what his noble Friend will be telling those in the House of Lords?

Mr. Carter

The subject is the responsibility of my noble Friend. Although I could tell my right hon. Friend in general what my noble Friend will be saying in another place, I could not be as specific as perhaps he might want me to be.

Mr. Neave

Surely the point is that the hon. Gentleman's noble Friend Lord Melchett made the statement to the Press last week in full. Why did he not wait to make it in Parliament?

Mr. Carter

That was on an entirely different subject, the 11-plus. My noble Friend will be making a general statement on education policy this afternoon.

Sir Nigel Fisher

Do the Cowan Report proposals mean two sets of comprehensive schools, one for Protestants and one for Catholics? If so, that is expensive as well as divisive. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is extraordinary that shared schools, the only constructive education suggestion in the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, are barely mentioned in the Cowan Report, although incidentally, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that is the subject of Lord Dunleath's Bill that is to be introduced in another place this afternoon, which I hope very much the Government will not oppose?

Mr. Carter

I cannot anticipate what my noble Friend will be saying in another place. The hon. Gentleman's views on integrated education are well known, but he must know that in Northern Ireland the subject is a matter of deep controversy. One side has one view and the other side has a completely different view. The Government have an impartial role. If we see signs in the community that there is a pressing requirement for greater speed towards integration, we shall encourage it.

Mr. Kilfedder

Does that mean that the hon. Gentleman will not act in matters that are controversial? Surely the present Home Secretary promised a conference on integrated education over a year ago. The Government are dragging their feet on this issue as they are on divorce and family law reform, which is urgently needed in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Carter

I do not think that that is a fair accusation. My noble Friend and his predecessors did all they could to pursue integrated education and to discover the precise state of affairs. As for saying that we have burked the issue because it is controversial, if the hon. Gentleman considers other aspects of education he will remember, for example, that we have announced the abolition of the 11-plus. That is a clear indication that in education we are prepared to grasp the nettle even though it may be controversial.