Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:34 pm on 26th October 1993.

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Photo of Mr Roger Stott Mr Roger Stott , Wigan 7:34 pm, 26th October 1993

On behalf of, I hope, everyone in the House, I should like to congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on a personal milestone. Fifteen years ago today you entered the House as the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford. I offer you my sincere congratulations on staying the pace and I wish you a happy anniversary as a Member of Parliament—I hope that will ensure that I am called again.

The order contains no fewer than 54 articles and five schedules. To describe this legislation as wide ranging would be an understatement. The Government appear to have cobbled together a series of individually important education changes and thrown them all into a general document, and allowed very little time in which the provisions could be comprehensively scrutinised or debated.

Many Members from Northern Ireland make a point consistently about the awful practice of using Orders in Council. We are not allowed to amend the order. As on most other occasions, it is rather like the curate's egg—in some parts it is good and in other parts it is very bad. Under those constraints, I shall attempt to highlight some of the Labour party's concerns about the Government's proposals. There are many concerns, but I have time to highlight only a few.

I am told that the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the Under-Secretary of State, is building a reputation as a listening Minister. Only last week during Question Time, the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) said:

The Minister is establishing a reputation already as a listener".—[Official Report, 21 October 1993; Vol. 230, c. 376.] The Minister needs to work harder on that image because, although he may have listened to the disquiet expressed during the consultation period on the draft order, he has paid scant attention to the many contributions that his Department has received. It has received contributions from organisations such as the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers and the Northern Ireland Council of Trade Unions. Each of those organisations, which represent those working day to day in Northern Ireland schools and colleges, have expressed serious reservations about the Government's proposals.

The Minister has refused to heed the warnings from the professionals in favour of pursuing his Government's rigid dogma. Instead of attempting to tackle the crisis of confidence in the Government's botched education reforms, he has decided to implement compulsory competitive tendering, a move opposed by all the organisations to which I referred.

Part II of the order makes provision for the contracting out of public services. These are measures which have already been introduced in other parts of the United Kingdom, as we know to our cost, and they have had disastrous consequences for those working in the public sector. The experience of compulsory competitive tendering in the rest of the United Kingdom has meant that in the past year alone 49,000 men and women have lost their jobs in local government. Under the compulsory competitive tendering regime, many now have poorer conditions of employment and, for the second year running, they have had no pay increase. To repeat such an abysmal experience of job losses and worsening conditions of employment in Northern Ireland, a region already seriously trailing the rest of the United Kingdom, would be nothing short of a disaster.

The Opposition want to see efficiency in those defined activities contained in part II of the order. That includes the cleaning of buildings, catering and the maintenance of grounds and vehicles. Improved efficiency means maintaining value for money and a high-quality service which is often best provided directly. However, for those services which are eventually provided, it should be for the relevant board to make the decision.

The Labour party does not want Northern Ireland's schools to experience the corner-cutting, slap-dash decline in quality of service and working conditions and, worse, the decline in jobs, that is all too familiar under compulsory competitive tendering.

I wish to ask the Minister some questions. Will he give further details of how contracts will be handled under the new arrangements? Will contracts be phased, and, will all the services listed in part II under article 4 be tendered for on the same day, or will boards be given different commencement dates? What procedures will the listening Minister establish to ensure that full consultation takes place as to the way in which contracts will eventually be phased?

Included in the restrictions and conditions in part II is the requirement for a board to invite tenders. Will the Minister confirm that when the required number of invitations to tender has been issued the board will be under no further obligation to invite other contractors to tender?

Most important, the Minister will be aware that by putting previously public services out to tender in Northern Ireland he leaves the process open to particular and sinister abuse by organisations seeking to extend their influence into the listed activities contained in part II. Will the Minister assure the House that if a board has major reservations about a particular contractor, it will be able to exercise total discretion and use such reservations as a relevant factor in the evaluation of that contractor's tender?