HL Deb 19 June 1981 vol 421 cc819-21

11.14 a.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

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 support they will give to the first religiously integrated school, Lagan College, which is to open in Belfast in the autumn of 1981, and whether they will take steps to encourage further integration.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, Lagan college is being established as an independent school, not as a grant aided school. The founders are the All Children Together Charitable Trust. I have told them that Her Majesty's Government will give them whatever assistance they can consistent with that status.

As to the second part of the noble Baroness's Question, Her Majesty's Government will favour practical proposals for integration wherever they are put forward with the general support of the parents concerned. Nothing would be more counter-productive, however, than to try to force integration upon people opposed to it.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord very much for his Answer, perhaps I could pursue the matter a little further. I think it must be agreed that there is at the moment no provision in Northern Ireland for parents wishing to educate their children in integrated schools. Is the noble Lord aware that it is generally accepted that if children are educated together the fear and tension and mistrust which so tragically divides the two communities in Northern Ireland might diminish? Would the noble Lord give a more positive assurance that he will grant this school maintained status at the earliest possible time, and that, pending that, he will provide parents of children passing their 11-plus exam the same facilities for any Government grant for which they would qualify at any other school?

Lord Elton

My Lords, on the first part of the noble Baroness's question, I remain entirely convinced that it is proper to ascertain the wishes of the parents in each individual case rather than relying on generalised opinion polls which apply to a large mass of the population, and that it would be quite improper to overrule the wishes of parents as to the sort of school to which they want their children to go.

On the second part of the noble Baroness's question I can say that any application for grant-aided status from the school would of course be considered under the normal statutory procedures for such applications. The Government would, however, need to have regard to educational considerations as well as the integration factor, and it must be borne in mind that we are just entering a period of substantial decline in secondary school enrolments. It would be necessary for the school to demonstrate that there was sufficient parental demand to enable it to become a viable all-ability secondary school in an area where there is not likely to be any shortage of secondary school places in other sorts of school.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, in wishing to support my noble friend in her plea as strongly as possible, I wonder whether I could ask the Minister these questions: Does the noble Lord know that children of both persuasions go on holiday in groups together, that there is never any trouble, that they relate extremely well to one another; but when they get back into the ghetto atmospheres of the cities there is no way in which they can continue to see one another and continue these relationships? Is not that tragic?

Secondly, would the noble Lord agree that the main opposition to the integration of schools in Northern Ireland comes not from the parents, as he suggests—and I would add, not only in Northern Ireland, but, lamentably, in the Republic of Ireland, as well—but from the priests on both sides? Does he not consider this lamentable?

Lord Elton

My Lords, with regard to the noble Lord's first question, I am well aware of the admirable work being done by various organisations running joint holidays. Indeed, I provide the money for quite a number of these. In so doing, I very much support those which have a follow-up service so that children are not swept apart permanently after they return to their homes.

On the second part of the noble Lord's question, whatever the origin of the feeling, the fact remains that a very large majority of parents with children in schools appear to wish, and assert that they wish, them to be in schools of the kind already provided. All I can do, and do willingly, is offer assistance to those existing schools which wish to change their status with the support of the parents of the children concerned.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, in view of the present determination in England to establish joint Roman Catholic Church schools under the grant-aided system, and in view of the fact that very distinct conversations are going on with the Churches in England on this matter, could I have an assurance that the experience they are learning in this country will be conveyed to those on the other side of the Irish Sea?

Lord Elton

Gladly, my Lords, and I should say that there is no intention on the part of Her Majesty's Government to deny to citizens in Northern Ireland the same rights of conscience as exist elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, having some experience of how carefully Answers to Questions are worded, I should like to ask the Minister how far the word, "favour", commits the Government?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I think that the Government are without fear or favour.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, while welcoming the very moving precedent given by this school, may I ask whether it is not possible in suitable places—it may be a few in the first instance—to establish public schools which are non-denominational and which teach ethical principles rather than those of any particular Church?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we are in a semantic difficulty, in that the words "public school" mean different things in different places. If the noble Lord means a school that is privately funded, then that is the sort of school that the Lagan College proposes to be. If he means a school that is funded by the public, then I would refer him to the Throne Primary School in Belfast, which has been approved as a controlled integrated school. That status will apply from a convenient date in the next school year.