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Education (Northern Ireland) Bill (Hl)

Volume 387: debated on Thursday 24 November 1977

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4.2 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. During the last Session of Parliament your Lordships were good enough to permit me to introduce an identical Bill, and you were also good enough to give it an unopposed Second Reading. On that occasion there was a debate which lasted very nearly two hours. A total of 10 noble Lords made valuable contributions by participating in the debate. In view of the fact that that was as recently as the 23rd June last, and of the fact that the subject was covered so fully then, I do not intend to weary your Lordships by once again going over the ground then so well covered. I would merely recall, for the benefit of noble Lords who may not have been present then, two or three points—which in my view, were of importance—made by my noble friend Lord Melchett.

First, he said that the Government's policy is to encourage integrated education where there is a local wish for it, but that any attempt to force integrated education on Northern Ireland could only be counterproductive. He also said, as reported at column 815 of the Official Report,
"We wish to encourage integrated education, but we will not force it on people. I believe that that is the right policy and one that would be agreed by the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland".
In so saying, my noble friend was underlining the major point that I had been trying to make when speaking immediately before him, and I was extremely grateful to him for having so done. He also reiterated another point that I had tried to make, and that was that none of us are so naïve as to think that the introduction of integrated education would be any kind of panacea, or instant solution, to our problems in Northern Ireland, but rather that it would be a very significant step in the right direction of long-term improvement in community relations.

My noble friend went on to say that he had some doubts on the particular provisions in the Bill for keeping open the schools which would become redundant, were not the number of pupils increased as a result of their becoming integrated. My impression was that his misgivings fell roughly into two categories. First, there were the procedural and administrative difficulties which would arise, and I appreciate that these exist, and that as such they would require considerable thought in order to be overcome. I am glad that the terms of reference of the Independent Working Party which he has set up, include the words
"… the Government's wish to ensure that integration where it is desired should be facilitated and not impeded, and to make recommendations".
No doubt this body will be giving careful consideration to the problems which my noble friend has in mind.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, he was afraid that the proposals in the Bill could be used as a means of keeping open a school which should properly be closed, and that public money would thus be wasted on retaining an old building in poor condition which has no realistic prospect of ever becoming a viable school, whether or not integrated. I appreciate that there could be opportunity for abuse in this respect, and that attempts could be made to keep the odd school open on the pretext of a desire for integrated education.

Realising this, the Bill leaves the Minister with absolute discretion to act on, or, alternatively, to ignore, the expressed wishes of parents. I would therefore respectfully invite the noble Lord to table a suitable Amendment for consideration at the Committee stage of this Bill, provided of course that it is read a second time today. He, I know, has a very deep understanding of all the problems and implications of education in Northern Ireland. He also has access to the most highly qualified professional advice that is available—an advantage that I do not have. I should, therefore, be more than pleased to give serious consideration to any Amendment which he, or for that matter, any other noble Lord, may wish to move, provided of course that it is not contrary to the spirit of the Bill with which my noble friend has stated himself to be in accord.

For those who feel keenly about any project or aspiration, I suppose that there is always an element of frustration when a Bill has to lapse through lack of Parliamentary time. But on this occasion it has possibly been no bad thing. In the intervening period we have had the benefit of very interesting and very useful public debate on the subject of education in Northern Ireland as a whole, and in particular on integrating education.

My associates in the All Children Together movement, and I, have been keeping our eyes fairly closely on the correspondence columns of the Northern Ireland Press, and we have noted with interest the views which have been expressed through that medium. They seem, roughly, to fall into two categories. Those who favour the principle of this Bill would appear to be people who have acquainted themselves fairly well with its purpose and implications. Those who do not favour it seem to be suffering from some lack of perception as to what are in fact the rationale and the implications. There are exceptions, of course, to both those categories, but this tends to be the main pattern.

One of the principal areas of misunderstanding—and, of course, one cannot expect every member of the public to read Parliamentary debates in full—was that a significant effect of the Bill would be to dilute religious education in the schools. In the previous debate, on the 23rd June, I did my best to make it clear that that was far from being the case. My colleagues and I believe that religious education in schools ought to improve rather than deteriorate, and in our view this Bill should bring nearer our aspiration to have really full-blooded religious education. There are those who have argued that segregated education is desirable because a school ought to be an extension of the home and of the Church. I agree that the school ought to occupy this role, but, far from integrated education detracting from it, in my view it ought to promote it. Hopefully, indeed, a neighbourhood might become non-sectarian as being an extension of a nonsectarian school. The important thing is that there should be a truly representative management committee, and that there should be available clergy and laity of adequate quality to provide really first-class religious education.

As I have said, divergent views were expressed through the correspondence columns of the Press, but it is significant to note that, whereas education is still 98 per cent. segregated in Northern Ireland, recent surveys have shown that, while between two-thirds and four-fifths of the parents interviewed (the samples having been taken from all denominations) favour integration, the number who oppose it remains fairly consistent at about 12 to 13 per cent. That is an interesting statistic.

It is because of the public discussion which has been generated and the fact that this Bill has again to be read a second time and gives the opportunity for misconceptions to be clarified that I welcome the chance to do that today in your Lordships' House. During my winding-up speech, I shall welcome the opportunity to answer any questions that noble Lords may wish to ask during the course of the debate and to fill in any areas which I may have overlooked—though, as I say, in the interests of brevity I did not want to cover the same ground as was covered before; nor, indeed, did I want to get entangled in any of the more technical and legal aspects which could perhaps be more properly dealt with in Committee. To summarise, I genuinely think that this Bill (which, I agree, could possibly well benefit from amendment in its later stages) would, if passed, constitute a significant step out of the dark ages for Northern Ireland, and I would therefore appeal to your Lordships to give it a fair wind today. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Dunleath.)

4.15 p.m.

My Lords, first I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, on once again introducing this Bill on integrated education. I think he is extremely brave, because very often when a Bill is first introduced and time in that Session of Parliament then runs out it is either forgotten or dropped altogether. So I congratulate the noble Lord, and should like to say that there is an old saying that most of us know:

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again".
The noble Lord has indeed done that, and has just taken us very quickly through this important Bill on education in Northern Ireland once again.

During the last debate we had on this Bill it appeared from all corners of the House that there was a unanimous decision that this Bill should go on to the Statute Book. It was agreed by all, including Members from the different religious denominations, in your Lordships' House. It has also been agreed by the Second Council of the Vatican that this integration in Northern Ireland should go ahead. But, of course, even if this Bill does go ahead—and I hope it does for the noble Lord's sake and for Northern Ireland's sake—it will still be a very long time, many years, before much of it can be effective or we can see a result. Nevertheless, it is a small step forward, a step in the right direction, and I think that in our last debate we all agreed on that. One of the most important instruments or media to counteract violence and crime is, I believe, education, and it is catching them young and integrating them that is all-important, and what this Bill is about. Unfortunately, while they are mixing with others of different religious denominations when they are at school during the day, when they are outside, in their homes, it invariably breaks down again, so there is a problem which will exist for some time.

I do not intend to go any further than what I said last time. We had a good debate then, and many spoke on it. But the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, who I much admire, and who we all admire, for his patience in his particular job—he always has a smile, though it must be very disheartening at times—told the House that he had set up a working party to investigate this problem. I did not give him notice of this question, but if he says "Yes" or "No" I shall be very grateful; or if he writes to me afterwards I shall be very grateful. What I should like to ask him is this: How far has his working party progressed, and when will the House hear a report from that working party on what they have been able to achieve?

Any delay in this Bill is on my side at the moment, so I will not go any further or say anything more except to congratulate the noble Lord again for being very brave a second time. I hope that, once we have heard from the Government what Amendments we are to expect in Committee, this Bill will be able to go through your Lordships' House as smoothly as possible. Equally, I should like to feel that, in another place, the Government will be able to find time for it to be put on to the Statute Book. I look forward to the Government's reply, and once again I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, on reintroducing this Bill.

4.20 p.m.

My Lords, first I should say that we welcome this second chance that the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, has given us to give this Bill a Second Reading. I do not propose to repeat much of what I said in the debate last June. I deliberately painted a gloomy picture of the scene in Northern Ireland over the last few years and, alas! as it still is in many ways today. I spoke from what I have been told and from what I have read. I have never had the pleasure of visiting Northern Ireland but that does not lessen my desire to help the people of that country wherever help may seem to be sought. I spoke of the all-too-apparent bitter divisions between many of the Catholics and Protestants and of how the children may be brought up to hate and distrust each other, and how many of them seldom have a chance to learn to work and play together and to respect their neighbours as lovable human beings and not as evil ogres. I spoke as one convinced by the courage and reason of the All Children Together Movement in pressing this Bill which seeks to facilitate integrated education as one measure which they believe will in the long run lessen the tension and make for a happier land. No one believes—and the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, has mentioned this—that this will be an immediate panacea, but that does not mean in itself that the Bill should not be passed now; it should and not further delayed.

I was deliberately emotive in our last debate, but I do not want to go over all that again. The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, has repeated the significant statement that he made then that 98 per cent. segregation in education still exists but that more than two-thirds of parents have declared that they favour integration. The noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, from his personal experience, cast doubt on the value of these figures and is sceptical of much early progress being made. None the less, I understand that he still believes that this Bill should be on the Statute Book in case the climate of opinion changes at any time. It cannot be said too often that there is no compulsion in this Bill. It is only an enabling measure for those who want more easily to have their children of different denominations educated together.

I repeat that in that earlier debate I painted a gloomy picture, but I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, will bear with me if I now quote, as something more encouraging, from the newspaper of his Alliance Party for September 1977. In an article entitled "When it Stops" came these words:
"Most would agree that the biggest bonus of the troubles has been the increase in community awareness, the realisation of the value of good neighbours, the many links forged between the different Churches and groups almost unknown to one another and the many sterling qualities which have been brought out by the challenges of emergency and danger. At no time in our history have there been such numbers of social and community workers beavering away, so much honest realisation of, and facing up to, our inherited problems by individuals in all groupings".
Such comment gives one hope for the future and calls for admiration of those who are so courageously
"facing up to … inherited"—
and often, one might add, almost over-whelming—
"problems".
The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, is held in respect for his dedication to his task by many who work with him. He himself has said—and I repeat once more what the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, has said—that:
"all surveys of public attitudes that are available show a large majority in favour of integrated education".
I think it is true to say (and I shall accept correction if I am wrong) that so far no speaker, either now or in June, has opposed the theory of integrated education. The doubt comes as to whether it could and would work out; and whether, therefore, this Bill should be enacted.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has, as reported in the Daily Telegraph of 29th September, suggested, I believe, that sixth form colleges might be one answer. At the age of 16 students from Catholic and Protestant comprehensives would meet together for the first time. Unfortunately, I and my colleagues believe that this would often be too late. I accept that the Catholics and Protestants mix at universities and that young men and women of different beliefs often wish to marry. But I am told that all too often there is bitter opposition from the parents. Surely integration at an earlier age would help to bring both children and parents closer together!

We on these Benches would like to see this Bill, modified if necessary, on the Statute Book. We should like, but I fear are unlikely, to see the Government take it over and push it through. We believe that it is owed to those who are optimistically working for an ideal which pessimists say is unworkable. We supported the Second Reading of this Bill in June and I think that my noble friend Lady Seear will support me when I say that we support it again now.

4.25 p.m.

My Lords, like previous speakers, I am conscious that all the arguments in favour of this Bill were rehearsed in the summer. I only want to add a very brief postscript in support of the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, and those who are working to get this Bill on to the Statute Book. Those of us who believe strongly in shared schools from a very early age—and I underline "very early age", for it has to start when schooling starts; it is too late when attitudes have been formed—do not want to embarrass the Government by placing on the Statute Book legislation which would complicate their already vastly complicated task. At the same time, the enormous courage of the people who are working towards shared schools—and this is physical and psychological courage in terms of the kind of society in which they have been brought up and the views and attitudes of the Churches that they support—needs our utmost support.

This Bill, as drafted, simply makes it possible for the shared schools for which they are working to come into being. It does not require the Government to take action; it merely enables that action to be taken when parents in the schools have themselves demonstrated that they want this to happen. For this reason, I want very much to support what the noble Viscount, Lord Long, has said: that we want to get this onto the Statute Book and we hope that the Government will find time for it, not only in this House but in another place, so as to see that it really becomes part of the law of the land, if only to encourage the people who are working in what must be the right direction. It is to make a plea that the Bill should not get lost in this House or in another place that I want to add my voice in its support.

4.28 p.m.

My Lords, a short while ago, I was criticised by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, who I regret is not in his place, for intervening in your Lordships' House on a matter pertaining to Northern Ireland. One of the reasons for this, was, apparently, that I live in the Republic of Ireland and, he said, am a citizen of a foreign country. I do not think that I should have to say, but I do say, first, that I have dual citizenship, so I am also a citizen of this country, and, secondly, that I have received a Summons from the Queen to attend this House. I think it would be more disrespectful to ignore that than to ignore the advice of the noble Viscount. The noble Viscount seemed to resent anything that I was doing in the affairs of Northern Ireland. One of the things I am doing happens to be of some relevance to what we are now discussing and my experience may be of interest to the House.

I am well acquainted with more schoolchildren in the North than perhaps anyone except the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, himself because, for the last eight years, the children we are talking about, from some of the worst ghettos of Belfast, such as Short Strand, Ballymurphy and other such areas, have been coming at my invitation to my home and have had the freedom of my lands and my waters. I have been proud and pleased to welcome them. I think that I may possibly have contributed from this place in the Republic of Ireland quite a considerable amount to the happiness of the school days of those children whom we are now discussing. This work that I have been doing with the youth leaders in Belfast has led me, I would suggest, to perhaps the worst areas in Belfast and to more personal danger than the noble Viscount is likely to find in Enniskillen.

I am not content merely to have these ghetto children, these wonderful kids who, despite this shocking environment and these disgusting conditions are such splendid, completely trustworthy boys and girls, come to Killegar and treat it as a second home, but I go to where they come from, I go to the Short Strand and to Ballymurphy. Has anyone in this House ever bothered to go into the slum areas and seen the filth and the degradation of violence? When I hear it said that I am not qualified to make an intervention on Northern Ireland, I should like to make it known that I am doing as much as any other noble Lord—and a great deal more than most.

The point I want to make is that when we started this scheme of bringing children from the slums of Belfast for a week of peace and quiet in the Republic, it was our principal aim that it should be an integrated scheme, that we should have children of both denominations, and both should be equally welcomed. In so far as that has been humanly possible, it has been done. But unfortunately, owing to intimidation on one side—and I do not intend to say on which side—by the paramilitary forces, among the parents, among the adults, it has proved very nearly impossible to bring people from both sides of the religious divide. I deeply regret that.

In my meetings with youth leaders in Northern Ireland I have spoken to them about the other holidays that have taken place under different auspices where children of both denominations have gone on holidays to England or France. Once they get out of that urban environment, once they get away from their parents, their teachers and their priests, and they can be themselves, there is no problem. They form relationships and friendships. Religion becomes irrelevant and there is never any trouble at all. They make their friendships; they come back to Belfast; and I have spoken to boys and girls in the Short Strand who have made friends with kids from the Shankhill. In no way can they see one another; in no way can they continue their relationships. They want to do so; but will their parents, the paramilitary leaders, or the priests let them? No, my Lords. That is what I have learned from my safe haven in the Republic where the bombs go off much more frequently than they ever do in England, or Fermanagh for that matter.

If only it could be left to the children, we should have nothing to fear. The problem is the parents, the older generation, this terrible polarisation and entrenchment that is taking place. If the noble Lord's Bill can make the smallest impact and begin to break down the terrible division that exists and which is at the root of the whole evil, then his work will have been more worth while than I am capable of saying.

4.34 p.m.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Dunleath has said, this Bill is identical to the one that received an unopposed Second Reading in this House in the last Session. I therefore intend to be as brief as possible, but some things of relevance to integrated education have happened in Northern Ireland during the past few months, and I should like to tell your Lordships about them.

On the principle that lies behind this Bill, the Government's attitude is clear. The Government believe in the value of integrated education. We believe that increased contact between the two communities in Northern Ireland can and does improve community relations, and any increased contact among young people clearly has particular scope for altering or softening attitudes received from parents or the community at large.

We believe, as I think do all supporters of integrated education, that this is not something that can be imposed on unwilling or hostile communities, parents or children. To some extent we have to recognise that developments like integrated education, which we hope will change attitudes, are themselves only going to be possible when attitudes have altered. Given this, I think we all recognise—and my noble friend Lord Dunleath said so in introducing the Bill this afternoon—that the changes we want to see will come, at least at first, slowly and steadily, rather than overnight.

I should also make it clear, as I did when we last discussed this Bill, that the Government recognise the right of any group—and I am thinking in particular of the Churches—to maintain voluntary schools, and, as long as parents want their children to attend such schools, and as long as they are of an acceptable standard, we recognise the right of voluntary schools to receive substantial grant-aid from public funds.

Since we last discussed this Bill there have been a number of opportunities in Northern Ireland for the Government to demonstrate their support for integration in practical ways, and these we have been glad to take. I have now established the working party under Professor Astin to which the noble Viscount referred, which is looking into school management, with the following terms of reference:
"To consider the arrangements for the management of schools in Northern Ireland with particular regard to the reorganisation of secondary education and the Government's wish to ensure that integration where it is desired should be facilitated and not impeded and to make recommendations".
The noble Viscount asked me about the time scale on which this working party is operating. As he said, it has a very complicated area to investigate and I would not expect it to come to conclusions in the near future, and certainly not within a time-scale which will affect this Bill and its passage through Parliament. It has recently issued an invitation to the public to produce evidence for the working party. It will obviously take some time both for that evidence to be put to the working party and for it to consider it and make its recommendations. As the Bill we are discussing makes clear, it is in the arrangements that the Education and Libraries Order lays down for school management that the main legislative impediments to integrated education lie, and that is why the Government attach particular importance to Professor Astin's working party.

Since we last debated this Bill, I have also published the promised feasibility study on sixth-form colleges. The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, referred to this and to remarks which I have made. I hope that this study will stimulate further discussions of a concept which has attracted considerable interest in Northern Ireland. The study points out some of the advantages of separate sixth-form provision, in particular the range of academic opportunities which such colleges can provide. In many places in Northern Ireland, these educational advantages will exit only if a sixth-form college caters for all pupils in an area irrespective of religious denomination.

I certainly accept, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said, that we need to see action taken through the whole age range; but I feel that the advantages of sixth-form colleges, if they were introduced on any substantial scale in Northern Ireland, would be that one would see a substantial degree of integration happen quite quickly. We are all agreed—and the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, made this clear—that the provisions in his Bill, which would apply to secondary and primary schools, are not likely to make major changes in the education system, at least in the near future. I am, however, well aware of the great significance which many people attach to the integration at the other end of the age range. I have published a discussion paper on day care and education for the under fives. One of the important issues discussed in that paper is integration.

It is a fact that most of the existing pre-school provision in Northern Ireland is segregated on religious lines, mainly because of the extent to which housing is segregated. But the paper emphasises the Government's belief that there are substantial advantages in integrated provision for the under-fives where this is feasible and locally acceptable. I am now waiting for comments on this document, and hope to make a full statement on Government policy on provision for the under-fives when views have been received.

May I now refer to something which my noble friend Lord Kilbracken said in the course of his remarks about the attitudes of young people in Northern Ireland. On all my visits to those areas to which the noble Lord referred—the Short Strand, Ballymurphy and indeed other areas of Belfast, for example Tiger Bay, the Shankhill—all of which, of course, contain appalling conditions which the Government are doing a great deal to try to put right, but not nearly enough, as I would readily accept—and in all the discussions I have had, particularly with sixth-form pupils, I have been very struck by the extent to which they have said they were interested in meeting with children of the other denomination, whatever it happens to be, and would welcome increased contact. This is borne out by schemes such as the holiday scheme whereby the Government in Northern Ireland give grant aid to enable children of different denominations to go on holiday together.

The noble Lord referred to holidays in England and overseas. We are now concentrating our grant aid on holidays in Ireland in an effort to get more children for the same amount of money benefiting from such holidays. Of course, the cost of travelling anywhere abroad, and to England, has gone up a great deal. I am glad to say that last summer the number of children benefiting from these holidays increased substantially, and I am currently looking at policy for next summer in the hope that we shall be able to make more resources available for these schemes.

I have made clear that the Government support the principle enshrined in this Bill, and I agree with my noble friend that school management is at the heart of the issue. The Bill is consistent with the Government's view that integration should take place by agreement and in response to local wishes. Given our support for the principle of the Bill, it might well be asked why the Government themselves are not introducing legislation along these lines. As noble Lords know, throughout the period of direct rule we have seen it as our job to take the greatest care to consult with local people before making major changes in the law in Northern Ireland. Consultations on the re-organisation of secondary education went on for nine months after the publication of a major Consultative Document, and for over four years after the first working party recommended reorganisation, before any decision was made. To take another topical example, our proposal to legislate on seat belts in Northern Ireland follows a report produced in Northern Ireland by an expert committee representing all the major interests concerned with road safety in Northern Ireland itself.

We certainly recognise that the Order in Council procedure for Northern Ireland legislation requires that the greatest care is taken by the Government to consult widely before legislation is introduced. As I have already said, I have recently appointed a distinguished working party to look at school management in Northern Ireland, and that working party has just issued, as I said, an invitation to interested organisations and to the general public to give evidence. Clearly, the Government must wait for this working party to report before we introduce our own legislation, and once the working party has reported clearly we shall have to introduce our own legislation. However, I do not believe that this need precludes changes being made in the meantime by Private Member's Bills, particularly where the provisions are entirely permissive, as in this case.

Having, I hope, made my position clear, I have the usual rather negative task of Government Ministers at the Second Reading of Private Member's Bills: that of raising some of the practical or drafting difficulties which we sec in the Bill, and to which I have no doubt your Lordships will wish to return at Committee stage. Again, I shall be brief because I raised most of these points the last time we discussed this Bill, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, referred to most of them in his opening remarks.

As my noble friend made clear, my main concern is with the proposals in Clause 1(1), (2) and (3). These are the provisions which would allow redundant school premises to be kept open as integrated schools rather than being closed down. The idea is certainly imaginative, but I think it would lead to serious problems. One major difficulty relates to the circumstances in which schools are normally closed down. Whether this is because the population in the area has declined or because the premises are very old and have outlived their economic life, it is seldom the case that such a school could usefully and economically be kept open in any circumstances. Of course, here we are talking mainly about very small, very old, rural primary schools. If a school were kept open, it would probably be duplicating other provision. That would be expensive; but I do not want to over-emphasise the cost aspect of the problem, because I would be more concerned about the problems of abuse of the provisions in the Bill.

When a school is due to close, there is often very strong opposition in the local community to the closure taking place and, of course, there are existing procedures for considering such objections. In effect, the provisions of this Bill would give objectors another way of blocking a school closure. Even though, say, for practical reasons of geography or local feeling, there might in fact be absolutely no prospect of an integrated enrolment at a school, parents in the area might well wish to see it given a purely nominal standing as an integrated school, if that meant it did not have to close.

I do not think these objections I have would be removed by the fact that the poor Minister who had responsibility for education would be able to exercise some discretion. I think it would be almost impossible in practice for a Minister, faced with a majority of the parents concerned and with a majority of the management committee, which would be required under this Bill, to then say that the school must nevertheless close because it was too small, too old or because of some other reason. I think myself that if the noble Lord wishes the Bill to be practical and feasible in operation he should consider dropping these first three subsections of Clause 1 at the Committee stage.

Of course, Clause 1 also provides for other circumstances in which a school could become a controlled integrated school, and the same problems do not arise there. Under these provisions the school would become an integrated controlled school if the trustees, in the case of a voluntary school, or the transferor's representatives, in the case of a controlled school, so request. In that event parents of children attending other schools in the area might also be consulted.

Since the Second Reading of the previous Bill, my officials in the Department of Education for Northern Ireland and I have been giving more careful thought to the detailed proposals in the Bill; and one or two items have occurred to us, to which I should like now briefly to refer. The Bill places the onus of producing a scheme for consulting parents on the appropriate area education and library board, but it is not clear just how widely the net is to be cast in consulting parents. The Bill talks of parents living within a reasonable area; but that is a very broad phrase, and I hope that my noble friend might consider drawing this a little tighter when we come to the Committee stage. Given that this is an issue where there is considerable scope for local dispute and controversy, I think the local education and library board should have more specific guidance than just those whom Parliament wants them to consult.

Clause 3 of the Bill applies the general provisions of the Education and Library (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 to controlled integrated schools, in the same way that the order currently applies to controlled schools. However, my noble friend clearly expects that, since the 1972 order was not framed with schools of this sort in mind, not all of its provisions will necessarily be appropriate. The clause therefore provides that the provisions of the 1972 order shall not apply if "the context otherwise requires". I am afraid that a general "let-out" of this sort would give rise to endless practical difficulties and I am not clear what provisions would be applied if the provisions of the 1972 order are not going to apply and are deemed inappropriate.

I think my noble friend will have to consider taking the 1972 order in its entirety, except where it is specifically replaced by provisions in the Bill which is before us today. Any other course seems to me to demand an impossibly complex Bill, or to lead to too many uncertainties to be workable. There is a final minor point. A number of controlled schools in Northern Ireland are operated under grouped management committees, where one committee is responsible for several schools, and I think it would be desirable to have some clarification of how the Bill's provisions would be applied in such cases.

I apologise for going into so much detail on the Second Reading of a Bill which we have recently considered. But, as I said, there are some practical points which I hope my noble friend, having heard me make them this afternoon, will be able to consider before we come to the Committee stage, when we shall no doubt go into them in more detail. May I repeat that the Government support integrated education where this is locally desired, and the fact that this Bill has been put forward by a Member of this House from Northern Ireland, on behalf of a number of people in Northern Ireland, is evidence that it has local support. I am sure that the difficulties I have mentioned, only one of which seems to me to be really substantial, can be looked at in detail at the Committee stage. In the meantime, I have no doubt that the House will again agree to give the Bill a Second Reading.

4.51 p.m.

My Lords, I should like sincerely to thank the noble Baroness and noble Lords who have been good enough to make such interesting and valuable contributions to this debate. The noble Viscount, Lord Long, made reference to a hope that the Government would be able to give time to the Bill. Naturally, I hope this, too. I sincerely hope that, eventually, the Government will find themselves in a position where they can give it Government time, particularly when it goes to the House of Commons. But my noble friend Lord Melchett has outlined some of the reasons why they are perhaps not yet quite in a position so to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, made reference to sixth form colleges being integrated, and I agree with that. But I think that it is too late by then. Preferably, integration should start at nursery school age and should then continue because, otherwise, attitudes begin to harden during the main opinion-forming period of a child's life, which is probably the primary and early secondary school age. Therefore, I quite agree that there ought, where possible and where desired, to be integration, right from nursery school through to the sixth form and then on to the technical college or university stage, where integration already exists.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, once again underlined—and I am grateful to her for having so done—that this is entirely an enabling Bill, and that its whole emphasis is on parental choice so that parents can have their children educated in the way that they want. The noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, made a sad but very penetrating comment, when he said that, in his experience (which accords with the experience of many others who have tried to do the same kind of good work) when children are taken out of their normal environment and mixed together they get on perfectly well. No one would know which one was Protestant, which one was Catholic, which one was Unionist and which one was Nationalist or Republican, and they integrate perfectly well. But put them back again into their own environment and the polarisation immediately resumes, whether it be, as the noble Lord said, through intimidation or just through the environment of the home and the children's friends and neighbours. That is a sad thing. It must be more than a matter of just taking them away for the odd fortnight; eventually, it will have to be throughout the whole school period. But I thank the noble Lord for his contribution.

I was particularly grateful for the interesting and constructive remarks which my noble friend Lord Melchett once again made. I think he more or less said that we could not rush this. He also said that we had to wait for attitudes to change. I would slightly challenge him on that. In my opening speech, I quoted statistics from surveys showing, according to the wording of the questions asked, that between two-thirds and four-fifths of parents interviewed were in favour of integration. I do not think that it requires very much change of attitude as regards the principle of the matter, although I agree that the mechanics of it may be more difficult.

My Lords, I think it would be most interesting to know whether the noble Lord has had any breakdowns of those figures; that is to say, whether approximately the same percentages occur among parents of both religions in their attitude towards integration.

My Lords, I cannot give any precise answer to that question. I think that, on the whole, there was a greater proportion of Roman Catholic parents who opposed integration, but, as I said earlier, the percentage opposing it was fairly consistent at 12 to 13 per cent. The percentage favouring integration varied fairly widely between two-thirds and four-fifths, largely because of the different wording of the questions, but, perhaps more important still, because of the large number of "Don't knows" and those mainly on the Protestant side, who did not feel strongly about the matter. So that is more variable. But I am afraid that I cannot give a precise answer to the noble Lord's question.

My noble friend Lord Melchett said—I think quite understandably—that the working party which he has set up has a very wide range of topics to consider, and one obviously could not hope for it to come up with an answer in the immediate future. But I should like respectfully to put it to your Lordships that perhaps that would be no impediment to our passing the Bill through this House at this stage, so that it would be ready when the working party is in a position to report. The Bill would be there on the Statute Book, and then the mechanics of it could be put into operation.

My noble friend also mentioned consultation. I made reference to the surveys, and I hope that his Department of Education will do its best, through suitable publicity, to encourage parents, members of school management committees, teachers and members of the public who are interested in education to make their representations to my noble friend's working party, in the same way as the public responded so well in making representations to the Standing Commission on Human Rights in the recent past.

My noble friend also made reference to school closure. I know that this is one of the matters which worry him most. I should not like to withdraw this at the moment and, if he would be good enough, I should much prefer him to get his experts to draft an amendment which he thinks would be more acceptable, to which I should certainly give very careful consideration indeed. I believe that this matter is cardinal to the whole principle of the Bill, and that is why I am not keen to withdraw at this moment. But I am open-minded in so far as any amendment is concerned. I have spoken for long enough and, as I said, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and to noble Lords who have contributed to this debate.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.