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Race Relations (Universities)

Volume 939: debated on Friday 25 November 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Graham.]

4.1 p.m.

I have been a Member of the Select Committee on Race Relations for a number of years, yet this is the first time that I have had to raise a matter of racial prejudice on the university campus.

I think that there are three parts to this problem which can poison race relations and which should trouble every person in the country. The disease of racial abuse is not confined to any one part of Britain or to any one college. I shall first relate examples of where students are intimidated and abused secondly, where students are prevented from collectively forming societies as members of the Jewish faith; and, thirdly, where the tactics of extremists are now likely to extend their campaign to isolate the blacks and the Irish as well.

The campaign of racialism against the Jews began, oddly enough, at the United Nations in November 1975. A majority vote equated Zionism with racism—no matter now how that vote came about. Then National Union of Students, policy sought to deny platforms to racists and Fascists. Then, of course, the dirty tricks began as the extreme Left—mainly the Socialist Workers Party—Arab students and extreme Right-wing sympathisers put these two factors together and on this basis attempted to ban university and polytechnic Jewish societies on the grounds that as they were pro-Israel and as Zionism is racism, according to the writ, Jewish societies should accordingly be denied platforms and union facilities, such as finance.

I have given a great deal of time, thought and inquiry to this matter. I have evidence to suggest that a deal was struck between these very unusual groupings and that a large sum of money was acquired to build up a major propaganda campaign. I have evidence, which I shall pass to the Minister, showing literature circulating, which contains words of hatred towards Jewish students and urging actions so that they would be systematically isolated and denied the normal rights of student action that I understood as a student some years ago.

There are examples from many parts of the country. At York the Jewish Society was asked to deny that it was Zionist. Of course, it refused. At Salford, a visiting rabbi was banned from speaking on the campus. There the battleground has existed for some considerable period.

In London, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, a motion was passed in October, proposed by the Socialist Workers Party and the General Union of Palestinian Students, which contained the phrase,
"to remove funds and facilities from societies who organise support for the State of Israel."
There has been widespread defacing of posters and many have been completely removed.

At the North London Polytechnic there has been a long-standing policy mandating the union to "campaign against Zionism" and thus not allow Zionist activities. This policy was recently ratified by the passing of a motion containing the phrase
"to refuse facilities for Zionist propaganda."
The North-East London Polytechnic passed a motion calling for the removal of funds or facilities from any organisation organising support for the State of Israel. The debate was accompanied, I am assured, by anti-Semitic remarks, and other abuse was hurled at Jewish and pro-Jewish speakers.

At Middlesex Polytechnic an anti-Zionist motion was passed, after which anti-Semitic remarks and swastikas were drawn on Jewish society posters. I have seen myself an anti-Semitic cartoon that appeared in the union's magazine Mouthpiece.

Nevertheless, there is an attempt by responsible officials in some of these unions to fight back. No doubt that is one of the things that will be done in this House. I have been assured in the last hour by the president of this union that he wishes to be dissociated from this particular cartoon and the circumstances associated with it, and he was speaking not only for himself but on behalf of his officers. Action is intended to be taken there.

Nevertheless, there is other sordid news. For example, Teesside Polytechnic, Bangor University and Swansea University all have policies which would restrict the activities of Jewish students, but there are also personal cases of tragedy, sadness, intimidation and abuse. Mr. Michael Copeland, National Director of the highly regarded Bnai Brith, Hillel Foundation, told me yesterday:
"We have evidence of physical threats and other forms of intimidation being used against girl students at one London college. Again, this week before a debate at Leeds University, Jenny Goodman, a Jewish second-year student, was hit in the face by a Palestinian student before a debate on anti-Zionism, which was won by the Jewish students. An amended motion produced a seven-to-one majority in favour of Israel."
We do not know whether these are isolated incidents or whether it is part of a network that is spreading. I can give many other examples, because we are talking about 15 universities. Jewish students who would not otherwise be politically active are obliged to spend an inordinate amount of their time away from their studies to defend their democratic rights as members of student unions.

Jewish sixth-formers are now being deterred from making applications to join those colleges which are known to be conducting campaigns to ban Jewish societies. I have spoken to heart-broken undergraduates at Salford and York as they found it almost impossible to continue their studies due to the abuse and the pressures of the sustained campaign directed against them simply because they were of the Jewish faith. Shades of Nazi Germany! It does not take a great deal of research to realise that part of the racial campaign in Nazi Germany against the Jews in the early 'thirties took place at the source of learning—the colleges and universities. It seems odd that we have so easily forgotten that.

Let us examine the reaction to these matters. On most political issues with which students are not directly concerned, they are generally apathetic, but it would be fair to say that most students are opposed to the banning of Jewish students. Indeed, most banning attempts have been successfully overturned.

Most of the politically aware students, such as the Labour, Tory, Communist and Liberal students, have actively supported the Union of Jewish Students and its local societies. The anti-Zionist campaign is still an insidious example of thinly-veiled anti-Semitism. It is no less anti-Semitic and anti-democratic to equate Zionism with racism but to stop just short of banning Jewish societies, as the trend now appears to be.

Zionism is not racism. It is a national liberation movement of a people who for centuries have been persecuted and desire to establish in Israel a State where the Jews can live in peace and harmony with the Arabs. It is racism to deny to the Jewish people the right to self-determination while advocating it for other people, such as the Palestinians.

An additional point was recently put by Sue Slipman, the new President of the NUS, in an article in the Morning Star, the Communist Party daily, on 20th May 1977. She said when dealing with the campaign against Zionism:
"The situation has been made even more complex in the colleges as some ultra-Right forces (essentially as opposed to the Palestinian people as they are to be Jews) have used the situation to begin distributing anti-Semitic material. While this problem has emanated from differing definitions of Zionism, it has proved convenient for anti-Jewish racists to jump on the bandwagon … It is all very well for sections of the Left to argue that their intention is to see justice done to the democratic cause of the Palestinians; but if a result of their good intentions is to deny rights to Jewish students, a re-examination of their methods is necessary."
That was the view of the President of the NUS.

Now that the racial prejudice germ has taken root other groups can be victims. There are several examples I have discovered in the last few weeks, but time prevents my giving them in detail. Let me mention one case at Birmingham University The Brum Student is the official newspaper of the Birmingham Area National Union of Students, which has representatives of 26 colleges on its committee. It would be hard to think of anything more calculated to stir up racial hatred than an advertisement which appeared in that newspaper. It has a background containing a swastika, with all the implications of the Nazi period. The caption suggests that blacks and Jews should be returned from whence they came.

I shall not give way. I have been waiting three months for this debate.

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows the procedure if another hon. Member does not give way.

I do not know what the editor of that newspaper thought he was doing. From the rest of the newspaper it would seem that his general stance is anti-racist, but it is that item which comes over the strongest and it is what people will remember as the paper's message. The editor is at best naive if he thinks that publication of this gutter filth is by itself enough to stir up the fight against it. To publish is to condone. Only the strongest and most specific condemnation of this material could exempt him from complicity.

The argument against the National Socialists and the National Front is not about freedom of speech but about the freedom of the individual. The defence of all those individuals whose lives are made miserable and sometimes dangerous by racialist propaganda and the feelings that it stirs up is threatened when editors fail to exercise their responsibilities.

I believe that both Birmingham University and Aston University are represented on this area NUS committee. I have therefore written to the vice-chancellors asking them to investigate the involvement of any of their students in this publication. We are in a very serious, indeed desperate, situation if material of this kind can appear in any journal which asks to be taken seriously.

I turn to the question of democratic rights. This latest campaign against the blacks and Jews by the political extremists and the Arab students represents a sinister attack on individual democratic rights. The implications of this are highly disturbing in that a precedent could well have been set whereby any ethnic group could be banned at the whim of self-appointed moralists. There is a distinct danger that the politics of the student unions of Britain could become as irrational and dangerous as those of the United Nations.

There are a number of areas in which the Government are involved in this matter. There is the question of the misuse of funds. First, all universities are subject to a degree of control from the Privy Council which issues them their charter and which has a responsibility to ensure that the precepts of their charter are adhered to. This is quite obviously not happening at universities such as Salford where, contrary to its charter, students are being discriminated against on ethnic and political grounds. The university authorities have been singularly unwilling to involve themselves in the defence of the Jewish students. Will the Minister consult the Lord President of the Council to investigate this matter?

Article 26 of the Salford University Charter states:
"No religious, racial or political test shall be imposed by the university or any person in order to entitle him to be admitted as a member, professor, teacher, member of the staff or student of the university or to hold office therein or to graduate thereat or to hold any advantage or privilege thereof, nor shall any preference, be given to or advantage withheld from any person on the ground of his religion, race or politics."
The Secretary of State for Education and Science also has a responsibility in that her Department has influence over the financing of students and student unions. Considering that it is the taxpayers and ratepayers whom we represent in the House who finance these institutions of higher education, cannot the Secretary of State lend assistance to those in higher education who are being denied some of its benefits as a result of such scurrilous tactics? Is she not obliged to take immediate steps to remedy this anomalous situation over which she should have exercised her responsibility long ago?

To many parliamentarians this attack on individual freedom and of expression will be unreal. In discussions that I have had with colleagues they have admitted their concern. A representative of the Liberal Party, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), wishes to be associated with my request for Government action. He has written to me on lines similar to those which he expressed in the debate on the Address. He reminded us that we should stand firmly behind those students who are trying to defend democracy and free speech in universities against those who would deprive Jewish students of their rights. He said:
"Whatever views one holds on Middle East questions, the protection of free speech should be accepted as fundamental in any academic institution. We in this House should make clear our support for those who, within the institution themselves, are carrying on that essential fight."—[Official Report, 4th November 1977; Vol. 938, c. 208.]
In conclusion, my intention today was to do two things. The first was to alert the British public to the dangers which exist through racial intolerance at academic centres; the second was to urge ministerial interest in an issue which can only cause discredit should it be allowed to fester.

It may be an uncomfortable subject to talk about but it would be a failure of this House if we failed to grant time and thought to the implications of contemporary campus life in Britain as experienced by many young Jews and perhaps ultimately the black community.

4.14 p.m.

I associate myself with the debate. I apologise if I sound a little hoarse, but I have a heavy cold. The banning of Jewish societies by student unions is both sinister and deeply disturbing. I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman) on his stirring and moving speech. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to take the opportunity to express their disgust at the anti-Semitic actions of 13 student unions in universities and polytechnics.

The effect of banning Jewish societies is withdrawal of their funds, the passing of anti-Semitic motions, and restraint on their activities. The hon. Member for Basildon explained some of the repercussions. However, I should like to make it plain that the majority of students either do not know about this or do not appear to be too concerned. A movement is growing and they are getting more knowledge and are moving into position to try to quell the anti-Semitic move. The prejudice comes from militant minorities, the troublemakers. The minorities are manipulating the silent majorities.

I am glad to say that Liverpool University has acted in an enlightened way, as it has often done in the past, and has thrown out a disgraceful motion to ban the Jewish society there. This course should be followed by other universities. I am glad that the National Union of Students' leaders appear to have little time for discriminatory actions of this sort and have made it plain that the student unions' charter provides that people must not discriminate against any student on the grounds of race, colour, creed or politics, or against the rules of natural justice. Student unions in universities and polytechnics which have so discriminated have flown in the face of the students' charter.

The Government fund student unions in universities to the tune of £15 a head. In most universities, with about 3,000 students on average, the Government are giving, through the University Grants Committee, £45,000 to student unions. That means that taxpayers are funding these discriminatory actions to which the Government would be opposed. I should like the Minister to say what he proposes to do about it. Polytechnics are treated similarly, but the money comes not from the Government but from the local authorities.

I ask the Minister to make plain the Government's feelings. It will be no good his using powerful words; he must take positive action. He who pays the money can call the tune. I should like to ensure that he will warn unions which have passed disgraceful motions that the Government will not tolerate this action and that if they pursue them he will take steps to take the money away.

Double the number of universities and polytechnics have not banned the Jewish societies. None the less, Jewish societies have been picked out and marked as being unacceptable. That is the deeply disturbing and sinister element in what is going on in some campuses. I ask the Minister to do something dramatic and to let unions know that they have gone beyond the limits of what will be tolerated by our society.

4.18 p.m.


On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have a matter of information deeply concerning this debate that I wish to offer the House—

Order. This is an Adjournment debate, and the time is divided between the Member who has been successful in the Ballot and the Minister who is to reply—unless the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Litterick) has had permission to intervene from both of them.

I am afraid not. I have already given up some of my time to allow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) to speak. I had no idea that another hon. Member wanted to speak.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Moon-man) for raising this very important issue, and for the support that he has received from the hon. Member for Wavertree and, though he could not be present, from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). That in itself is significant: all three major parties in the House are associated with this Adjournment debate. Also, it is important that both my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and the hon. Member for Wavertree are members of the Select Committee on Race Relations. That gives the issue added importance.

I utterly deplore any attempt to deny freedom of speech or freedom of association, particularly in our education institutions. Former Ministers in my Department have emphasised the importance of these freedoms on many occasions when they appeared to be threatened, and I am glad to have this opportunity of associating myself wholeheartedly with the views that they have expressed.

I need hardly remind the House that freedom of speech and freedom of association are the essential bases not only of our wider society but par excellenceof our university system. The free exchange of ideas, however controversial they may be, is vital for the wellbeing of our educational system. We cannot tolerate, especially in universities and polytechnics, attempts by particular group of students to deprive other groups of these democratic freedoms simply because they do not happen to agree with the views of the others. Whatever may be the position in other parts of the world, it must clearly be understood that such restrictions can have no place in our society.

As my hon. Friend has said, the students' unions in several of our universities and polytechnics have voted to deny the use of student union facilities to societies of Jewish students who form part of those unions.

My hon. Friend and the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree have suggested that students have been apathetic and that the situation has arisen in that way. I am certain that they are both right. Reports suggest that these decisions have often been taken at union meetings attended by only a tiny minority of the students eligible to attend and vote. I give as an example a Press report that appeared in the Daily Telegraphon 3rd November. It stated that at the North-East London Polytechnic, to which my hon. Friend referred, fewer than 130 of the 4,000 students were present at the meeting, which voted by 66 votes to 55 to ban Zionist activities. Under its constitution the decisions nevertheless become binding on the whole union.

Similar motions have, I understand, been discussed and rejected by other student unions. I am in no doubt that the vast majority of students would, if they took the trouble to attend and vote, overwhelmingly reject them. Like the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, I am delighted that at my own university, the University of Liverpool, exactly that course has been taken. I think that applies to the university of my hon. Friend.

No, I cannot give way in an Adjournment debate.

As the House will be aware, Ministers have no powers to intervene in the conduct of student union affairs, and I am in no doubt that it is right that this should be so. It is an important part of our educational process that students should run their own affairs, should be free to make mistakes and, if they do, remedy them without interference.

There are two dangers that I must spell out to the House. First, students who are at the forefront of the fight against the abomination of the racial discrimination could themselves be tarred with the brush of being racialists by the actions of small groups. Surely any student would be ashamed of such a description ever being applied to him.

Secondly, as my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman have said, if we withhold the privilege of membership from a section of the members of a student union, though the payment of the subscription is compulsory, we immediately throw into jeopardy the whole question of compulsory student union membership and all the benefits that I consider flow from that to the whole student community. Before I deal with any remedies, I think that those two immense dangers should be pointed out to the House. The danger of students themselves appearing to be racialist rather than anti-racialist and the danger to the whole fabric of the financing of the student union system by activities of this sort must be made clear.

My hon. Friend has given a number of examples, but the first attack on this form of racialism can come under the Race Relations Act 1976. That measure is now in force. Anyone who considers that he is being discriminated against on grounds of colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins can seek redress under its terms. I believe that Section 70(2) is the relevant section. The description given by my hon. Friend of the article at Birmingham would seem to merit at least attention being given to possible action under that section.

I am sorry. I have already explained the position to my hon. Friend.

The charters and statutes of many universities were mentioned by my hon. Friend. They include provisions designed to give protection against such discrimination. The Salford University Jewish Society has taken legal advice on the position under the Charter of Salford University, which he correctly quoted.

The question of legal action is still under consideration. My right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council is responsible for the charters of universities. My hon. Friend asked whether my right hon. Friend would take action and whether I would consult him. I shall certainly consult my right hon. Friend, but I think that, in the first instance, the validity of the charter of a university can be tested in the courts by a particular group before my right hon. Friend becomes involved in seeing whether the charter is being fulfilled. However, I undertake to raise this matter with my right hon. Friend.

I think that there is a much better way of resolving this problem. Cannot it be resolved much more satisfactorily than being dragged before the courts? Would it not be better if student unions thought again and tried to put right mistakes committed by a tiny percentage of their own membership? That is what I and, I am sure, all those who have taken part in the debate wish to see. In these circumstances, I am sure that hon. Members will understand my gratification on learning that the NUS executive has decided to seek powers, at the forthcoming NUS conference at Blackpool, to use sanctions, including suspension if necessary, against affiliated student unions which deny democratic rights to Jewish students.

I am sure that it is right that the NUS should take the lead in such matters. Only harm can result for student unions in general if they become involved in legal processes. It is also harmful for the reasons that I gave earlier. This is something that should be fundamental to the whole fabric and structure of the financing of student unions in this country.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science was as delighted as I was at the action taken by the NUS executive, and she wrote to Miss Sue Slipman, President of the National Union of Students, on 28th October saying:
"This is simply to say how pleased I was at the policy adopted by the NUS Executive towards student unions which denied democratic rights to their members under the guise of denying platforms for the propagation of Zionism. As you rightly said, if these unions do not change their minds they will be stigmatised as undemocratic and will lose all credibility."
I understand that the matter is to be discussed at the NUS annual conference next month. I hope very much that the executive will have the full support of all members of the union, and I feel confident that it will. I hope that that is the way in which the matter can be successfully settled.

The danger, as was indicated by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Wavertree, is of—I was going to use the word "escalation". It is a question not of escalation but of falling down the primrose path. This starts by saying that Jewish societies are Zionist societies. It is a thin veil. Clearly the evidence given by my hon. Friend, which indicated that black students are included in the propaganda as well as Jewish students, shows that if we prick the skin of this sort of thing the real nature of the racialism underneath quickly comes to the surface.

As a Minister of Education I do not want students to be involved in such tactics in this country. I sincerely hope that the NUS will adopt the proposed resolution. I also hope that individual student unions will, at the first opportunity after a resolution of this nature has been passed by an unrepresentative group, try to put the matter right by alerting the attention of other students at that university who would deplore attempts at racialism just as much as hon. Members do.

There are many difficulties in relation to grants. Many universities are not involved in this matter. There would be great difficulty in trying to withdraw or discriminate with regard to grants. I do not want to take that course of action. I want students themselves to put this matter right in their national body, the NUS, and in their individual democratic student union bodies at particular universities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.