HL Deb 25 March 1980 vol 407 cc606-10

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they can confirm that the Libyan Government has purchased school premises in Chelsea; whether they are aware of the purposes for which these premises will be used; and whether they are satisfied that this transaction is fully consistent with local and national interests.


My Lords, the position, as I understand it, is that the Libyan Embassy has bought the old Kingsley School in Glebe Place, Chelsea, and intends to use it for educational purposes. The school was sold by the Inner London Education Authority last year to a third party who in turn sold it to the Libyans. This is a matter of essentially local interest and as such is for the local authority. Her Majesty's Government see no reason to regard the transaction as such as being inconsistent with the national interest.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, but may I ask him if he would not agree that this is not simply a matter of local interest? Is he aware that these premises have been bought by a Government which has a certain reputation in international affairs, especially in connection with its support for international terrorism? Is the noble Lord further aware that these premises are suitable for all kinds of users? Is he satisfied with the use that is proposed for them? And, perhaps the most important question of all, can Her Majesty's Government give an assurance that these premises will not be given diplomatic immunity?


My Lords, whether or not the premises are suitable for the purpose specified is for the local authority itself to decide. It is for the local authority to decide whether an educational establishment is suitable for education. But if at any time there is evidence to suggest that the premises are being used for improper purposes, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, suggests, then I would agree with him that then, and only then, would be the time for any appropriate action. Beyond that, I think that the Government at this stage cannot go because it is still very much a matter for the local authority at this time.


My Lords, in view of the fact that the Minister, in answering a most responsible Question from a most responsible source, a Question which is echoed in the minds of some of us in this House, said that these educational premises will be deemed to be used for educational purposes, would they not, even though they are to be used for private education, be subject to a form of periodic inspection as to what goes on there?


My Lords, in answering the previous question I did not cover one point which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. He asked whether or not the premises would be given in effect diplomatic status. The answer is, no, they would not. We do not regard schools as the premises of a diplomatic mission. However, turning to the point which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts—namely, whether this was something which should be watched—any local authority which grants planning permission or user permission for any purpose presumably always has an obligation to ensure that it is used for that purpose. Should there be any complaint which would lead to there being evidence to the contrary, it would indeed be a matter in the first instance for the authority, and if it were another kind of matter it would then be for the Government to consider.


My Lords, can the noble Lord the Minister say how they define" educational purposes" in Libya? Does it mean indulging in mischief all over the place—causing trouble? Is that what they mean by "educational pur- poses"? Had he not better keep an eye on them?


My Lords, I do not know how they define "educational purposes" in Libya, but for the purposes of this approval it has to be how we in this country define them. One can understand the concern—one properly does—but one of the penalties which we pay for being the kind of society we are is that in fact we do allow things to be worked equally for whoever is here; and so long as they conform, then we will always go along with them.


My Lords, can my noble friend say who sold these premises to the Libyan Government?


Yes, my Lords. At the end of the day it was the Inner London Education Authority which sold the school.


My Lords, is not the noble Lord aware that emissaries are being sent to this country from those who are practising, encouraging and training people in terrorism, in order to persuade the population here to take up their cause? Is not Libya a place which is well known to be the centre of terrorist organisations? Why do they want a special school? Has the noble Lord inquired? And is it not a national matter rather than a purely local one?


My Lords, as I said in answering the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, it would become a national matter if the use were contrary to normal educational standards as we know them. Then it would be something quite else. But for somebody to apply and to be given permission by a local authority to use premises for educational purposes is the way in which our system works, and at the moment we have to go along that way.


My Lords, what do the Government understand to be the declared object of this request? Is it to educate the Libyans in London, or what?


My Lords, my information is that the premises are to be used as a school. Who is to be taught there and, indeed, if it comes to that, what is to be taught there, I am not in a position to say, and I am sure your Lordships would not expect me to be. It may well be a question which my colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office may have to speak about. However, so far as I am concerned, an application was made for the school. Permission has been given for that purpose, and that is as far as I can go.


My Lords, speaking as an ex-resident of Chelsea and as one who knows it rather well, would the Minister feel able to give us an assurance not simply that the Government would look after this question after something had happened but that they would arrange in some way to keep an eye on these people, who have a baddish reputation for the kind of things which we fear, so that we are not suddenly told that it is too late?


My Lords, I should have to say that the responsibility for "keeping an eye on" the use must be that of the local authority. They are the ones who are giving the permission and presumably they are the ones who have ascertained the validity of the application, and theirs is the responsibility.


My Lords, the Minister has said that these premises are to be a school. Can we at least have an assurance that at that school there will be no assisted places under Clause 17 of the Education Bill?


My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for dealing in the way that he has with an extremely complicated and knotty question. I should also like to thank him for his categorical assurance that these premises will not be given diplomatic immunity. May I ask him one final simple question for information only; namely, as the local education authority has the duty to inspect regularly private educational establishments as well as public educational establishments, can the Government give an assurance that they will discharge their responsibility in respect of this particular school?


My Lords, I can certainly say that we shall take careful note of the point made by the noble Lord and I am sure it will be passed on to the appropriate authorities.

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