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 Mr Ken Maginnis Mr Ken Maginnis , Fermanagh and South Tyrone 7:46 pm, 26th October 1993

The Minister will be aware of my reservations about participating in debates on Orders in Council. I shall not repeat what I have said on many occasions. Suffice it to say that I hope that we are getting to the stage when my protestations and those of my colleagues about Orders in Council will no longer be necessary. In the light of the present situation in Northern Ireland, it is especially important that those who are being asked to eschew political violence and to adhere to the democratic path should not find anything in the procedures of this House that will disillusion them or make that plea seem meaningless.

Part II deals with competition. Article 4 defines the activities currently carried out by the education and library boards in Northern Ireland that the Government have initially earmarked for compulsory competitive tendering—cleaning, catering, ground maintenance, and the repair and maintenance of vehicles. Can the Minister elaborate on paragraph (2) and tell us which other activities are likely to be added to the list for CCT and what he envisages the time scale to be?

Will the Minister accept that the added burden of responsibility on the boards for managing changes in the education service is such that they would benefit from more time to phase in and monitor CCT, bearing in mind the restrictions and conditions with which the boards must comply in respect of those activities?

Article 7 requires boards to publish in at least two local newspapers and at least one trade publication a notice giving details of functional work that they intend to carry out. In the absence of any suitable widely circulating trade-related journal in Northern Ireland, would it not be more effective to require publication in all three Northern Ireland daily newspapers?

Articles 9 to 11 deal with accounts, financial objectives and reports for the financial year in respect of defined activities. Are the accounting arrangements outlined compatible with the current basis on which board accounts are prepared—that is, on the basis of receipts and payments rather than on income and expenditure—or will alternative accounting procedures be required as a result of CCT?

I note that under article 11 a board will be required to publish a report for the financial year by the following 30 September and that a copy must reach the Department by 31 October, after which an auditor will be appointed by the Department and will give his written opinion both to the Department and to the board. The financial report will be open to public scrutiny on request at a time and place published by the board, and copies will be available on request—and on payment, I believe. That is welcome and is a further step in public accountability, as is the requirement that a copy of functional work specifications within a defined activity, whether the work is being carried out by the board or not, will be made available to interested parties.

I welcome the statement in article 16(3) that before making an order under article 16 the Department "shall consult the boards". But that statement will be taken with a pinch of salt and would be more welcome if it could be guaranteed that the Department would engage in meaningful consultation. We have had many examples of fairly meaningless consultation—on health matters and planning, for example—in which representations to departmental officials have too often been ignored.

There is no reference in the order to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, although CCT will almost certainly have serious implications in terms of the continuity and security of employment of board personnel. Difficulties will arise in the event of boards' bids being undercut and awarded to those who win contracts by engaging staff under poorer conditions of employment and at lower wages than those currently enjoyed by board employees.

What checks and balances can the Minister offer in the likely event of unscrupulous contractors having the opportunity to cut corners in a way that may bring the most undesirable people into close contact with vulnerable young children? The boards know what is required, but by maintaining their standards they will end up competing on an uneven playing field.

Part IV deals with amalgamations of institutions of further education. It has already been recognised that the Department of Education has the power to determine which institutions should be amalgamated, and progress on that issue has been made by voluntary arrangement and agreement between the boards of governors and the education and library boards. The Department should seek to ensure—this is especially important in a constituency such as mine—that students in rural areas do not become further disadvantaged by finding themselves at too great a distance from the institutions at which further education courses are provided.

It must be nonsense to propose that any new centre of higher education planned for Northern Ireland should be situated where it would almost certainly fail to attract the widest possible cross-community student enrolment. One hopes that the Minister will look carefully at the implications of some of the proposals being made in that respect.

On compensation costs for premature retirements, with the proviso: Where there appears to a board to be good reason", the board or the Department in certain circumstances may direct that

  1. "(a) a specified amount shall be deducted from the budget share of the school in any single specified financial year; or
  2. (b) a specified amount shall be deducted from the budget share of a school in each financial year for such period (not exceeding 10 years) as may be specified, in respect of premature retirement compensation costs of the board in relation to a member of the staff of the school."
I do not know what that means. Will the Minister elaborate on that and give us an example of a good reason for deducting such costs from the budget of a school or a college?

On article 33, new article 119A is to be inserted in the 1989 order about the formation of companies in connection with institutions of further education. Can the Minister advise whether there are any restrictions on the period for which loans can be granted before repayment is required? Is the governing body or company when formed permitted to seek external finance in the commercial market, or will loans be restricted to a governing body to company arrangement?

Will the proposed changes in article 36 to article 6 of the 1986 order mean that boards will be committed to providing home tuition immediately a child ceases to attend achool? Will the proposed changes make it more difficult to get a child back to school, where that is a better option?

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) earlier intervened in respect of the change to article 12 of the 1986 order reducing the number of boards of governors on which members can sit from five to three. The restriction will, I fear, cause difficulty in arranging for each school and college governing body to have a serving board member, thereby providing a direct link between the board and its schools and colleges—a retrograde step.

Will the Minister clearly indicate that there will be flexibility on that issue and that there is no hidden agenda to limit further the direct representation by board members on behalf of schools and colleges? The order seems to be full of ambiguities and there are many matters that are not clear. I hope that the Minister will realise that, if we had a Bill passing through the House, we would have had a much fuller opportunity to clarify the situation and perhaps put right any deficiencies.

In conclusion, I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that, through the order, he is taking the opportunity in schedules 4 and 5 to correct a deficiency in the Education Reform Order 1989 relating to grant-maintained integrated schools. We have had that deficiency for four years. I think that the Minister will agree that that is not good enough. I hope that, in future, Bills will be introduced so that such things do not occur.