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Lancaster University: Minister's Visit

Volume 357: debated on Wednesday 26 February 1975

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3.2 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 what were the grounds for the cancellation on 21st February of the visit by the Minister of State for Education to Lancaster University and what steps they propose to take to ensure that freedom of speech is preserved in our centres of learning.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord's Question, because it gives me the opportunity to correct a misleading impression created by certain Press and radio reports on this subject. I did not myself cancel the visit. The facts are that I was to have visited Lancaster University last Friday to open Fylde College. However, the Acting Principal of Fylde College and the Vice-Chancellor of the University decided to cancel the opening ceremony and they therefore asked me to postpone my visit. On the second part of the noble Lord's Question. I am sure we can rely on the authorities of universities and colleges in this country, and also on the good sense of the great majority of our students, to ensure that freedom of speech is preserved in these centres of learning.

My Lords, may I say that I am thankful to the noble Lord for his reply, and am anxious that we should approach any problems that exist in a bipartisan manner. May I say that we are not all satisfied that there are—

Several Noble Lords: No!

My Lords, may I ask whether the noble Lord is aware that there is a general unease about the way in which initimidation of one sort or another—which may not have occurred in this instance—is used to prevent freedom of speech at universities? In so far as freedom of speech is curtailed, would he not agree that the function of the universities is also curtailed, and that it is therefore incumbent on the Government and society at large, as well as on university bodies, to see that this kind of situation does not go on?

My Lords, as the noble Lord inferred, I prefer not to comment on the specific situation which led the Vice-Chancellor and the Acting Principal to ask me not to go to Lancaster. I have already said that I deplore the situation which led the Acting Principal and the Vice-Chancellor to feel that they had to ask me not to come. More importantly, I always condemn any organisation whose purpose is to destroy our established freedoms and liberties. In this context, freedom of of speech is crucial and fundamental. Equally, I might add that I have always recognised the right to peaceful protest and demonstration, and I recognise that these are fundamental constitutional liberties. The emphasis is on the word, "peaceful.".

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord to accept that I share his views about peaceful demonstration, and it follows that a prevention of peaceful demonstration is a limitation of freedom of speech. But may I ask him to go a little further than he has, and to give his view on the question of whether personnel on the staff of universities who foster this kind of action, if such exist, are acting against the interests of the universities, and should continue in service there? May I also ask whether the same question could, if it was carried to extremes, apply to students in receipt of grant?

My Lords, I do not want to get into any witch hunting mood. The fact is that I prefer, and this side of the House prefers, to leave these matters to the good sense of the great majority of the staffs in our universities, and of the great majority of our students.

My Lords, in view of the Question that I asked the other day about student grants, may I ask whether the Minister can say categorically whether it was because of a disagreement with the students over grants that he was prevented from going to the university?

My Lords, I have already said that I prefer not to comment on why the Vice-Chancellor and the Acting Principal felt that they had to ask me not to go to Lancaster.

My Lords, is not the House entitled to some information on this matter? One understands that the noble Lord does not wish to comment upon the merits of any dispute that there may be, whether it is internal to the university or not. But here we have a Minister of the Crown asked not to attend an engagement that he has made. May we not know the circumstances in which an invitation of that sort is withdrawn, or is this House to be treated with complete contempt?

My Lords, I have said that I prefer not to comment on this specific situation. It is very difficult indeed, when one is, as it were, invited to dinner and then subsequently asked not to come. It is hardly proper under those circumstances to turn up.

My Lords, surely this is not a matter of ethics; this is a matter of Constitutional importance.

Several Noble Lords: Order, order!

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend, since the matter of freedom of speech has been raised, whether he would be good enough to define what is meant by "freedom of speech"? Is it interpreted objectively, or does it depend on prejudice aroused by the other fellow because you do not agree with him?

My Lords, that really is another question. I think that we all know in this House what freedom of speech means.