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

I should like, if I may, to write to the hon. Gentleman about that point. I should like to check before giving an answer, but I can confirm the categorical assurance that I have given on the two points asked by the hon. Member for Antrim, North.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North asked about the closure of schools. There are well-established procedures for the closure of schools, including maintained schools, which require full public consultation and any objections are carefully considered before a final decision is taken by the Northern Ireland Office and myself. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) made a detailed and thoughtful speech. He is not in his place, for which he offered his apologies and I understand why he cannot be here. I undertook to write to him to answer the questions that I could not answer tonight. He asked whether competitive tendering would be extended to other professional services, as envisaged in Great Britain in the Local Government Act 1992. He asked me to identify such services. I refer him to the White Paper, "Competing for Quality", which sets out the framework for the development of competitive tendering within the public sector, including professional or white collar services. The policy applies equally to the education service in Northern Ireland and we shall consider the scope for extending the present programme in the light of a recent study by consultants. Of course, we shall consult the boards fully before embarking on this course.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the boards' present accounting arrangements would be adequate for the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering. Boards will be required to maintain detailed trading accounts in respect of all competitive tendering contracts. The Department will consult boards on the nature of those accounts and any changes required to present board financial accounts as a result of these provisions.

The hon. Gentleman went on to ask whether there would be a level playing field for all contenders in the compulsory competitive tendering process. The answer again is yes. Safeguards are built into the legislation to ensure that the private sector and boards' direct labour organisations are treated fairly and even handedly, which is important in any such system.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the limitation on membership of boards of governors, which several other hon. Members also mentioned. It might be helpful if I were to outline the type of exception that I have in mind. The first point to emphasise is that I would expect to make such exceptions only rarely. The purpose of the provision is not to provide a back door for making wholesale exceptions, which would merely make a well-balanced policy ineffective. However, I accept that there may be exceptional categories, individuals or circumstances which would warrant approval.

For example, one category that I shall be prepared to approve is where a school's instrument of governance specifies the holder of a particular office as a governor and where such an appointment could be made only by appointing a person to more than three boards of govenors. Similar problems may arise in schools where individuals are nominated from among the transferor interests on the board of governors of contributory primary schools. There may be individuals for whom it would entail serving on more than three boards of governors. A case might be made for an individual with particular expertise and the time available to share it with a number of schools.

Those examples make it clear that I expect the exceptions to relate to the particular circumstances and needs of the schools, and I would need to be convinced that the needs cannot otherwise be met. The important point is that the power to make exceptions exists, and I would exercise that power if a justifiable case were made.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone also asked me to ensure that amalgamations of colleges do not result in students in rural areas having to travel too far to receive further education. He made the valid point that were that to be the case, there would in fact be discrimination against such students. The amalgamations which have been announced and which are already proceeding will not result in the closure of any existing sites for the provision of further education. That should ensure that students in rural areas continue to enjoy easy access to further education. However, I shall certainly bear the hon. Gentleman's comments in mind.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned retirement compensation and asked what would be deemed a good reason to recoup it, as the provision allows. As I said in my opening remarks, the situation arises because of the concerns expressed by the Public Accounts Committee about the high cost of operating the scheme. A number of measures had to be taken to increase cost consciousness. They include placing a limit on the number of added years to be awarded and cash limits on awards for efficient discharge grounds. A board of governors that ignores such limits would give an education and library board good reason, as defined, to recoup excessive awards from the school budget. I hope that that example is of some help to the hon. Gentleman in understanding how what I admit is a somewhat obtuse provision will work.

At the end of his speech, the hon. Gentleman also asked about the provision of a university site at Springvale and pondered whether it would further sectarianise higher education in Northern Ireland. I must point out that higher and further education in Northern Ireland has an outstanding record for providing facilities that attract students from all sides of the community. The Government would not want that tradition altered, and cross-community support must be an important criterion in any analysis. Any facility would have to be accessible to all communities in Northern Ireland.