HL Deb 08 April 1981 vol 419 cc528-30
Baroness Elliot of Harwood

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 what action they are taking to prevent the circulation in schools of inflammatory literature by politically extreme organisations.

Baroness Young

My Lords, the Government deplore the introduction of politically extremist literature into schools. It is the responsibility of local education authorities and of schools to deal with any attempts to distribute such literature in schools, and they should inform the police if they think that an offence may have been committed.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply, may I ask whether she is aware that in a world in which there is so much violence, both here and overseas, and in which there are so many violent groups, Right just as much as Left, there is a danger of having politics infiltrated into the schools by various methods which one would deplore? It is to be hoped that the Government will keep a very close eye on the subject, because it could be dangerous.

Baroness Young

Yes, it is, my Lords, and I think local education authorities and head teachers are aware that it is an offence to publish or distribute written matter which is threatening, abusive, insulting or likely to stir up hatred against any racial group in Great Britain. Where a teacher or local education authority has reason to believe that the material offends against that provision, they should report the matter to the police.

Baroness Bacon

My Lords, can the Minister tell me whether or not what she has mentioned applies to literature distributed at the school gates? Is she aware that only a few days ago I came across an instance where fascist literature was being distributed by people at the gates of a comprehensive school in my area? What is the legal position in such a case?

Baroness Young

My Lords, if the material offends in the way that I have described, it is of course a matter for the police. Although the promotion of an extreme political opinion itself does not constitute an offence, people engaged in political activities outside a school might none the less be guilty of a criminal offence if they are obstructing the highway or acting in a manner conducive to a breach of the peace.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, surely this is a little absurd. Is not the object of education to try to set the pupils' minds alight, to make them receptive, to give them the chance to receive or to reject? Are we really going to try to protect them from the writings of such people as my noble friend Lord Shinwell, who was a highly inflammatory demagogue in his time?

Baroness Young

My Lords, we have to distinguish between two important aspects of this question. The task of political education in schools is not to recommend particular opinions but to describe to pupils, and teach them about, the workings of a democratic society. The distribution of literature of the type that I have described is an offence and falls within a quite different category.

The Earl of Kimberley

My Lords, has my noble friend any knowledge of the fact that sometimes it is a question of word of mouth, rather than literature, inasmuch as pupils in schools are strongly advised to support bodies such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament?

Baroness Young

My Lords, it is not for Ministers to make a judgment on what teachers say in schools about their particular opinions. However, it is vital for us all to acknowledge the importance of professional judgment among teachers and local authority representatives, and I believe that the overwhelming majority of them use their professional judgment wisely in these matters.

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