Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:46 pm on 26th October 1993.

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Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 7:46 pm, 26th October 1993

One of the great problems that faces Northern Ireland is the way in which legislation passes through the House. Here we have this massive order—77 pages of it—so how can we possibly deal with it in one and a half hours, particularly when no one is permitted to table an amendment to it?

Consultation is all very well, but we were elected to the House and we have the final responsibility for scrutinising legislation and seeking to amend it. This huge order has many ramifications, as outlined by the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) and by other hon. Members in their interventions in the Minister's speech. The order should be subject to a great deal of care and attention, because parts of it disturb us and because it is difficult to understand the real meaning of other parts. I had great difficulty understanding it.

The order consists of 57 pages dealing with 50 articles, and another 20 pages dealing with schedules. The schedules repeal parts of many Acts, but they also significantly amend many others. It seems that the new way of passing legislation is to introduce a schedule to a particular order, and then to make some vast change to a previous Order in Council. Anyone who wishes to take part in the debate will find it difficult to deal adequately with what is before us tonight.

A provision in the order states that a maintained school can return to the voluntary sector. I shall ask the Minister again, how many schools qualify for that option? It has been mentioned that if a school were a voluntary school in 1967 it would qualify, but how many such schools in the Province are in that category and could take that option? How many are Roman Catholic maintained schools and how many are now generally called state schools? How many schools belong to some Protestant body and could be named as Protestant? We need to know who can opt out. and how far that net could be cast.

I shall not deal with the issue of compulsory competitive tendering because I largely agree with what has been said. I know that CCT meant large redundancies in the Housing Executive in Northern Ireland; now we see that the Housing Executive is not capable of dealing with matters on its new basis, about which I am especially worried.

I should like to address some religious aspects of the order. The hon. Member for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) asked how much of the order was opposed by the Protestant Churches—the Church of Ireland, the Irish Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church. The Minister said that some parts of the order were opposed by those Churches. Will he be more forthcoming and tell us exactly which parts?

Article 47 deals with collective worship and complaints about religious education, which is of grave importance in Northern Ireland. Do parents still have the right to make a complaint about the type of religious education that their child is offered? Do parents have the right to withdraw their child from that sector of religious education? Will the Minister give us a categorical assurance that practices that have arisen in some schools, whereby teachers tell children that when they get home they should not tell their parents where they were taken that day and then take the children to religious services other than their own religious services, will no longer occur?

I am absolutely opposed to that practice. Parents have the right to decide what religious service their children attend and they have the right to withdraw their children, from religious instruction, education or whatever it is called—even if it is for mutual understanding, which think is the correct term—if they so desire. That principle should be upheld. I want the Minister to tell the parents of Northern Ireland whether that principle will continue to be upheld because I anticipate great dangers in that matter.

I believe in a non-sectarian school system and believe that there should be a one-school system in Northern Ireland that is supported by the public purse and that should not be tied to any religious denomination. However, ministers of the various Churches whose children also attend school should have the right of access at certain times to the desired type of religious instruction for their children. If we began to move towards that approach, there would be a great difference in our education system. I want the Minister to explain what the amendments in article 47 mean and what their practical effect will be.

Will the Minister also tell us about the disciplinary procedures which are suggested in the order that concern those who attend various schools? Article 39 outlines the requirement to set up disciplinary arrangements in schools. Will the disciplinary arrangements that are to be made by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools give the children in those schools the right of appeal to a tribunal which, it is suggested, is to be set up by the board?

The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools wanted to close one school in north Antrim, but the parents of the children at the school wanted to keep it open. When it came to a decision, the CCMS closed the school in opposition to all the families. When the families tried to lodge an appeal, the Minister concerned said that the council had made the decision, that was that and the school had to close.

That example covers one aspect of the right of appeal, but I am concerned about the idea of expelling children from the school. I understand from the order that if a child is expelled, the parents will have the right to appeal to a tribunal set up by the board. Will that right also cover the schools that come within the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools? I cannot find reference to that in the order. Perhaps I have read it incorrectly, but it seems that the appeals systems should be the same in both areas of education, especially when the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools moves towards full Government payment for all the services that it is to provide. If it is to be responsible for the entire subsidising and payment of all Catholic schools that opt out for this approach, surely the schools should come under the same tribunal disciplinary board. Will the Minister help me on that issue so that I can understand the order correctly and exactly determine what will happen?

Will the Minister also further explain how much schools will have to pay for library services? I fear that we are in an era leading to schools that were previously serviced by libraries having to pay in future, and that could be a heavy expenditure. I do not know how the system worked before, but I should like to know how the Minister envisages it will work in future and what price will have to be paid by individual schools for the service. On such serious matters of administration, and knowing the Government's attitude towards demanding payment, I should like to know how heavy that expenditure will be.

Will compulsory competitive tendering as it applies to the obligations entered into for the building and re-equipping of schools be applied to schools under the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools? Does it cover both sections or do the Catholic maintained schools not have to enter CCT? The Minister needs to make that point absolutely clear.

I know that many hon. Members want to take part in the debate. I have already made my protest about the shortness of the time available. I shall conclude because I do not want to prevent any Northern Ireland Member from having the opportunity to speak. I hope that if the Minister does not have time to reply fully at the end of the debate, he will promise to answer our questions by letter so that we have a firm answer to our queries.