Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:22 pm on 26th October 1993.

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Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 8:22 pm, 26th October 1993

The hon. Gentleman is being a little disingenuous. He knows that the Dearing report has made certain recommendations as regards the curriculum in England and Wales, and that that report does not apply to Northern Ireland. That is why I, as Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland, have had to take decisions. If the hon. Gentleman reads carefully the words that I used, rather than those attributed to me in the first paragraph of the article, he will see that I said that there "could be" serious problems of overload and that because that suggestion had been made I had asked the Curriculum Council to look into the primary curriculum and, following consultation with schools and teachers, to make representations to me in April so that if there are problems, they can be resolved. I have made it clear all along that there is no difference between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and myself in this and that we are both looking for a system that works.

Inevitably, many hon. Members have commented on the procedures by which we take orders such as this through the House. I repeat that the Government are always willing to listen to suggestions for improving legislative procedures, but there are good reasons—and hon. Members know them—why Orders in Council are used for Northern Ireland, and any changes would have substantial implications, not least for the House of Commons. I think that it can be said in general—and this has also been said before—that direct rule, under which the present system has grown up, was introduced as a temporary measure and that we would all wish to see responsibility devolved back to Northern Ireland in matters such as education. That is what we are all striving for, in different ways and from different directions.

Unfortunately, by the very nature of the order, which is detailed and technical, it is difficult to get a theme running through my reply. A number of specific and detailed questions have been asked and I will try to respond to them. If I fail to respond to any tonight, I will try to answer them in correspondence once I have had time to reflect on what hon. Members have said. I give that undertaking to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who was right to see me nodding when he made that suggestion.

It was something of a disappointment to me, given that this is a major order covering many areas of education in Northern Ireland and matters of great importance to schools and children in Northern Ireland, that the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) should have majored on the whole question of compulsory competitive tendering. His speech was a little off target because what we propose in the order is already being done by a number of the boards, without any of the fearful consequences that the hon. Gentleman predicted would follow from the proposals. There are dangers in going over the top, which I suggest the hon. Gentleman did this evening, without having closely examined what is happening.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a number of specific and serious questions and I will answer them as best I can. First, he asked whether all contracts will be phased. It will be necessary to consult boards before drafting regulations, so that proper account can be taken of the expiry dates of contracts that have already been competitively tendered. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that full consultation will take place with each board to ensure that the competitive tendering programme is practicable and in the best interests of the education service.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the services listed in schedule 1 would become subject to competitive tendering as soon as the order became effective. The answer to that is no, because the Department intends that competitive tendering should be phased in over time. As I said, boards have already competitively tendered a significant proportion of the four defined services and, for that reason, the phasing arrangements will need to take account of the expiry of existing contracts. I repeat that the boards will be consulted fully on this matter.

The hon. Gentleman asked a serious question about whether the process might be open to paramilitary influence. Part III of the order contains important provisions, which will bring the education and library boards into line with the operation of competitive tendering in district councils in Northern Ireland. In particular, article 22 will allow my Department to specify information that contractors will be required to provide if they wish to tender for work. That provision is specifically designed to counter the possibility of fraudulent exploitation of the tendering process and to act as a filter for any attempts by non bona fide contractors to win contracts. That safeguard will be available as required to meet any such threat. We are conscious of the danger, but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that it is met in the order.