HC Deb 24 November 1977 vol 939 cc1742-3
12. Mr. Townsend

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what future action he is going to take to weaken the sectarian base of Ulster's educational system.

Mr. Carter

The Government's firm policy is to encourage integrated education wherever there is a local wish for it. There is, of course, no question of the Government attempting to force anyone to act against his will, nor of withdrawing public financial support from denominational schools. But the Government have been glad to take every opportunity to encourage school authorities to consider integration. This has been done in the recently published discussion paper on pre-school provision, in the inspectorate's feasibility study of sixth form colleges, and in the setting up of a working party on school management arrangements, which is to look particularly at the implications for integration.

Mr. Townsend

Is the Minister aware that, over the years, opinion polls have suggested a very high measure of support in Northern Ireland for integration? The latest poll suggested about 86 per cent. support among both Catholics and Protestants. Will the Government now get a move on and come forward with some firm and effective proposals?

Mr. Carter

I am aware of the sincerity with which the hon. Member puts his question, but opinion polls in Northern Ireland can produce one answer and practical experience quite another. Whilst we are prepared to support the principle, wherever it appears to come forth, generally speaking we see no reason to tamper with the existing system.

Mr. Powell

Is it not difficult to seek to dissuade citizens in Northern Ireland from availing themselves of the right which we vindicate for them in Great Britain of having their children educated in a religious environment if they so wish?

Mr. Carter

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. I doubt whether most Opposition Members or, indeed, Members on the Government Benches, would advocate changes in Northern Ireland which they would not advocate in their own constituencies.

Sir Nigel Fisher

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what the Government's attitude will be to the Private Member's Bill on this subject, to be reintroduced today by Lord Dunleath in another place? Will he explain why the Government seem to be keen on introducing into Northern Ireland legislation on comprehensive education but strangely reluctant, or slow, to do anything about the far more divisive sectarian segregation in the Province?

Mr. Carter

Comprehensive education and the principle embodied in it are possible. The other route that the hon. Gentleman would urge us along is not possible. My noble Friend will be replying to the debate in the House of Lords today. We are in favour in principle, but that is as far as we and he will go this afternoon.