Previous Section Home Page

Column 424

to ensure that children who have suffered as a result of the troubles, poverty or unemployment and everything that flows from them should be the subject of positive discrimination in respect of the distribution of resources now available as a result of the peace dividend.

8.49 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East): Paragraph 4(5) of schedule 3 to the order states:

"In this paragraph and paragraph 5 `hospital' does not include special accommodation within the meaning of the Mental Health (Northern Ireland) Order 1986."

That set me thinking, because I recently received correspondence from constituents about a child with mental illness. I support the measures in the order, in that it will give greater protection for children and consider their needs. However, in the Northern health and social services board area, children under 18 suffering from acute mental illness such as schizophrenia are not provided with proper accommodation in which to undergo psychiatric treatment. The hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) covers my area, and I make it clear that I make no criticism of the professionalism of the staff who care for people who suffer from mental illness and require psychiatric treatment and care. Their devotion and dedication to patients, young and old, are appreciated by patients later and, during the period of their illness, by patients' parents and relatives.

A 14-year-old constituent of mine had to be placed in Holywell hospital's adult acute admission ward, and later spent one month in the adult male intensive care ward because no alternative in-patient facilities designed and staffed to manage the degree of disturbance presented by seriously ill young persons were available in Northern Ireland.

Skilled and qualified psychiatric nurses should not be expected to treat seriously ill children in wards designed for seriously mentally ill adult patients. I ask the Minister to seek to provide for the children of Northern Ireland special and appropriate accommodation for their medical and psychiatric care. That could be done on an all-Northern Ireland basis, which would be more conducive to early recovery of children suffering from mental illness and undergoing treatment.

I invite the Minister to bring together officials of all health boards in Northern Ireland, to seek funding for specific accommodation in the treatment of mentally ill children. Provision of discrete areas within an adult hospital may be feasible, but it is not considered desirable or best practice. I trust that the Minister will not forget my brief comments but will endeavour to make even better provision.

8.53 pm

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): Some years ago, I spent a memorable holiday in that beautiful country of Ireland. As often happens, there was an Irish promotion week. One shop I visited had labelled everything that one could imagine. There was Irish cheese, Irish butter, Irish cream, local bread, Irish potatoes and shamrocks all over the shop. They had tried desperately to label everything. Some wag had put up an enormous notice, which read, "Think Irish. Buy French beans."

Column 425

The order reminds me of that notice, because the Government thought about Irish children, but when it came to drawing up the order, they failed to consider the special needs and difficulties facing the Irish people, believing that a rehash of English and Welsh legislation would do.

Northern Ireland's population has a larger proportion of children than any other part of the United Kingdom. It urgently needs concerted help and support, and has been waiting far too long for the order. The Government have rightly been criticised for the delay of five years since the implementation of the Children Act 1989. The stresses and strains of family life in Northern Ireland are apparent for us all to see, yet there have been inexplicable delays and lack of Government commitment to presenting the order.

My hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and the hon. Members for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron), for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs), for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) raised many concerns. I shall therefore deal with only a few issues, including several not yet mentioned.

The decision that the functions of health and social services boards may be discharged by trusts led many hon. Members to question who will be legally responsible when things go wrong, how consultation will be undertaken and who will be involved. There is obviously a need for accountability when dealing with complex legislation, and that is especially important when children's lives are at risk.

Why could not an article have been added to prevent all child minders or anyone paid to care for children having the right to smack children? The order offers the Government the opportunity to protect some children while they are busy, as the result of a recent court decision, producing guidelines that will allow child minders to smack. A National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children leaflet, recently distributed with Government approval, states that children should not be shaken or smacked. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the age at which a small child can be smacked by a paid child minder. Nothing in the order tells us that.

The lack of independence of guardians ad litem has been frequently raised with me. Clearer guidelines on their duties could have been issued. There is great concern for their independence as well as for an extension of their services and perhaps use in criminal courts. The procedures for children to give evidence in courts are far from satisfactory. There is growing demand even from the judiciary to implement the recommendations in Judge Pigot's report on video evidence, and for children's evidence to be taken outside the realms of a court. The identifying of children in court should have been prevented by earlier legislation but continues. Stronger wording should be used, to prevent that happening in all courts.

The committee of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child strongly criticised the British Government's lack of social expenditure. It is estimated that 39 per cent. of children in Northern Ireland live in poverty--much higher than the average for the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland also has the highest level of

Column 426

unemployment and the lowest disposable household incomes. Are the Government prepared to put money into doing something about it? As my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, the health and social services boards have estimated that, to implement the order and provide the necessary training, they will need £20 million for child minders and day care, £6 million for children with disabilities, £3 million for child protection and £2 million for children leaving care--a total of £45 million. That sum does not take into account the changes in court services, which will also be very expensive. Will the Government provide all that money?

If the Government really want to do something to help, they should consider carefully the United Nations committee's report on the effect of the emergency legislation on the children of Northern Ireland and its criticism of the outrageous power to hold children as young as 10 for seven days without charge. The Government should also examine children's complete lack of confidence in that system. The need for support for the teaching of the Irish language was also mentioned. So much has been done to keep alive the languages and traditions of Wales and Scotland; why has not the same been done in Northern Ireland?

The UN committee was also disturbed by reports of physical and sexual abuse of children, as has been mentioned. It was concerned about secure training orders and children placed in training schools in Northern Ireland. It also mentioned gipsy and travelling children, especially with regard to their access to basic services such as education. The report discussed the need to establish an independent mechanism for the monitoring of the Children Act 1989 and the convention on the rights of the child; the need for children to have a greater voice in decisions affecting them; and the need for urgent race relations legislation in Northern Ireland. Those are just a few of the matters mentioned in the UN committee report, which should have been considered when the order was finally drafted.

I have been brief to allow the Minister time to respond. Many things could have been done to improve the Children Act 1989. It is not good enough virtually to repeat the legislation that came into force more than five years ago. Times have changed and flaws in the legislation have been identified. The Government should have taken this opportunity to strengthen the Act and to think about the needs of the Irish people. My advice to the Minister when he embarks on his one-year consultation is, "Think Irish, not French beans." 9.1 pm

Mr. Moss: We have had a very good debate. Of course, this is the final debate on the order which, as was rightly pointed out, has been gestating for a considerable time. The order is lengthy and complex and its preparation has involved a great deal of work. The Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland, the Office of Law Reform, the Department of Education, the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland court service have also been involved. The order was first published in July 1993, with a longer than usual consultation period of three months. We were then asked for an extension, which we gave, until the end of November 1993. The order was debated in

Column 427

February last year in the Northern Ireland Committee by many hon. Members who have contributed to this evening's debate, and many changes were suggested. Baroness Denton invited all members of the Northern Ireland Committee to discuss amendments to the order with her. Some took her up on that invitation and, has been said several times, she listened carefully and suggested about 11 amendments. One of the main issues raised this evening was that of resources. Among those who mentioned resources were the hon. Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron). We accept that implementation of the order will have resource implications for boards and trusts in Northern Ireland. It will replace the existing legislative framework and, of course, account needs to be taken of the resources already deployed and of the development of child care services already in hand.

It is recognised, nevertheless, that additional resources will need to be deployed in certain areas over a period, before and after the order comes into operation. Much of the expenditure involved will not begin to arise until the next financial year 1996-97, when we envisage the order coming into operation, and will be spread over a number of years as services develop in line with boards' and trusts' child care trusts plans. Even before that, however, a large number of staff in the health and social services boards and trusts will require training, a point raised by, among others, the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster. Those involved in the voluntary sector will also require training and the Department of Health and Social Services will provide support for that.

Resources will also be required in relation to the new requirement to appoint guardians ad litem in care and care-related proceedings. Additional funds of up to £2 million will be made available in the current year to cover training in the new legislation and the start-up costs for the guardian ad litem service.

Reference has been made to the fact that the Government have less than wholehearted support for resource provision in Northern Ireland in the sphere of health and personal social services. Resources are limited but, even in the face of competing priorities, the Government have increased resources for HPSS every year. Overall expenditure on HPSS in Northern Ireland will total £1,510 million in 1995-96, an increase of 5.4 per cent. in cash terms or 2 per cent. in real terms over the 1994-95 forecast outturn. Hon. Members who referred to my calculator now know what I was doing.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Did the Minister also calculate why, when it is Government policy to shift to care in the community, there have been cuts in the south and east trust area for Belfast?

Mr. Moss: The hon. Gentleman can write to me about any specific lack of resources in a particular trust and I shall certainly look into that. However, I can say in all honesty that I am not aware of a lack of resources for community care in any trust in Northern Ireland.

I was talking about overall expenditure. In Northern Ireland, it has increased an impressive 55 per cent. in real terms since 1979-80.

Column 428

A number of hon. Members also mentioned the key issue of implementation.

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way before he finishes with the issue of resources. It is very important that we heard that £2 million is being made available for the setting up and implementation of the new legislation, but what about the figure suggested by those who work in social services in Northern Ireland? They believe that, in the years to come--perhaps three, four or five years ahead--and in view of the experience of England and Wales, on a pro rata basis more than £40 million extra will be required specifically to implement the order.

Mr. Moss: The hon. Gentleman gave some figures in his speech. I added them up, and they came to £29 million. A sentence later, the total had risen to £45 million. I have seen the same briefing from various parties as the hon. Gentleman, and it seems to me that the figure grows and grows, like Topsy.

The honest answer is that we do not know exactly how much the measure will cost to implement. What we are saying is that we are starting to spend the money now. The hon. Gentleman will know how Government spending is organised: each year, the public expenditure survey takes on board the bids from each Department for the necessary expenditure. We shall build into next year's HPSS public expenditure round sufficient bids to implement the policy during the intervening years, but it will take at least a year for many of the regulations to be published and consulted on. We already have a mound of paper which will be submitted for consultation fairly soon.

To those who ask for commitment, I can give the commitment that we intend to press on as quickly as possible to organise the regulations and ensure that the order is up and running in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Murphy: Although exact comparisons cannot be made between London boroughs and towns and cities in Northern Ireland, surely the Northern Ireland Office is taking account of what has happened in England and Wales over the past six years. Surely it can examine the figures and make a proper comparison. Clearly, the Minister cannot specify the cost of implementation to the nearest million, but surely some figures will emerge. There is no question of a "bid"; the order presumably has the backing of the Treasury and the entire Cabinet, and if it is to be implemented the money must go with it.

Mr. Moss: It does not work quite like that. We shall, as usual, be making our bids in the public expenditure survey round for next year and the year after; we shall make proper costings, and we shall take the experience of England and Wales into account in the implementation of the Children Act.

We also recognise that the implementation will have an impact on a wide range of agencies. That point has been raised by a number of hon. Members. It is intended that the implementation will be carried out under the overall direction of a project board comprising representatives from the Department of Health and Social Services, including the management executive, the chief inspector of social services and the Northern Ireland court service.

In addition, there will be a broadly based implementation steering group, which has already been set up to co-ordinate the plans of the wide range of

Column 429

agencies with key roles in the order's implementation. That group includes representatives from the health and social services boards, the voluntary child care sector, the Department of Education, the police and the legal profession.

I remind hon. Members that it took about two years to bring the Children Act into operation here in England and Wales. We hope to proceed at a faster rate in Northern Ireland.

Rev. Martin Smyth: The Minister mentioned the Department of Education. Is that Department not fairly remote from the work base? Should not the group include representatives of the education boards? There have been hold-ups in the provision of access to ordinary schooling for children in need.

Mr. Moss: That is an interesting point. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in these matters, and that many of his amendments have already been accepted by my noble Friend the Under- Secretary of State. We shall begin consultation on the regulations fairly soon; if he wishes to make his point to us then, we shall consider it in more detail.

The hon. Members for Mid-Ulster and for Belfast, South mentioned the exclusion of abusers from the family home. We accept that there is widespread support for the principle of a court order that would exclude an abuser, or an alleged abuser, but we pointed out in the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that it would be difficult to ensure not only that the rights of a person against whom such an order might be made are protected but that the order achieves the desired outcome. Reference was made to the Children (Scotland) Bill, which is currently being debated. The Scottish Office issued a White Paper suggesting that a provision for the exclusion of abusers be included in that Bill.

The Scottish Office experienced extreme difficulty in drafting an appropriate clause, and that is now the subject of considerable discussion in Committee. It is unlikely that it will survive in its original form. We sympathise with the points that hon. Members have made, but it is extremely difficult to draft an appropriate measure while retaining a vestige of human rights for the person who may be excluded from the family home.

The hon. Members for Belfast, South, for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) asked whether we would learn lessons from the Children Act of England and Wales. The Government consider that the legislative base provided by that Act is sound. A number of issues, of course, have to be addressed during the implementation of the order in Northern Ireland, but, as I have said, we are confident that the primary legislation provides a sound basis and there are no plans to reform the fundamental principles of the Children Act. Work on the regulations and guidance which will flow from the order is proceeding in the Department. In carrying out that work, much regard will be taken of developments in England and Wales in the implementation of the Children Act. The hon. Members for Mid-Ulster and for Belfast, South raised the definition of disability, which they felt was rather stigmatising. The definition provided in the order follows that used in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1978 and is repeated in the Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1989. Changing the definition may give rise to anomalies

Column 430

and it would be inappropriate to use a definition for disabled children that differs from that used in legislation affecting disabled people generally.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Moss: If I must.

Rev. Martin Smyth: The Minister said in his opening speech that he would be brief to allow us to speak. He has plenty of time now to answer the points that have been raised. The Minister is, of course, acting on advice, but it is the same advice that the same Department tendered to his predecessor in 1989, when I was steering the Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Bill through the House. If that Department has not learned anything from 1989, it is time that there was a shake-up.

Mr. Moss: My colleagues in the Department probably heard that as well as I did. [Interruption.] I am not blaming anybody. The hon. Members for Belfast, South and for Newcastle-under-Lyme asked about guardians ad litem and what steps we were taking to ensure their independence. We recognise the key importance of those people and that there should be a representative of the child and his or her interests in certain proceedings under the order. The creation of an effective guardian ad litem service will be essential to the successful operation of the children order. Detailed arrangements have yet to finalised, but it is envisaged that the service will operate as an independent body, quite separate from the health and social services boards and trusts.

I shall also address one or two individual comments. The hon. Member for Torfaen asked how we will monitor the children order. I assure him that the management executive, assisted by the social services inspectorate, will monitor the implementation of the order. The hon. Gentleman also asked about trusts being less accountable for their actions than boards. The health and social services trusts are statutory bodies established by the Department of Health and Social Services and remain fully within the health and personal social services department. Trusts exercising delegated functions will be fully accountable for their actions to appropriate boards and, ultimately, to the Department and the Minister.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South raised two other issues--one about Kidscape. The regional strategy for 1992-97 contains a target that Kidscape, a self-protection programme for children, will be introduced in every primary school by 1997. The Department is confident that that target will be met. The hon. Gentleman also asked about waiting lists for the registration of child minders. It is true that in some places the processing of applications for registration is delayed, but, overall, that is not the case. Boards and trusts actively encourage people to apply for registration. In the past five years, for example, the number of registered child minders has risen by 57 per cent.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West asked about care units in training schools. The order makes provisions for the creation of separate care units in training schools. We emphasise that those care units will be quite separate from the parts of the complexes that accommodate children who have committed offences.

Column 431

Last, but not least, the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) raised a specific point. It is true that a teenager was recently treated in Holywell hospital as the hon. Gentleman described, but that was a most unusual case. The circumstances will be reviewed to eliminate the likelihood of similar admissions in the future. I commend the orders to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Children (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 12th January, be approved.


That the draft Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 12th January, be approved.-- [Mr. Moss.]


Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.) , That the draft Northern Ireland (Loans) (Increase of Limit) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 18th January, be approved.-- [Mr. Willetts.]

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 102(9) (European Standing Committees),

Road Vehicles

That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 8958/94, relating to recording equipment in road vehicles; and supports the Government's view that, while there is a need for alternative recording equipment, further development work is needed to prove the security of any new system before any change can be agreed.

Column 432

European Social Policy

That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 9069/94, relating to the future of European social policy; and shares the Government's view that future Community social policy must centre on the need to tackle unemployment and facilitate the creation of new jobs, taking account of the principle of subsidiarity, the need to respect the diversity of Member States' institutions and traditions, and the importance of enhancing the competitiveness of Community businesses; takes note of European Community Document No. 4075/94, relating to the application of the Agreement on Social Policy, of European Community Document No. 11115/94, relating to a Resolution on the future of social policy, and of European Community Document No. 6230/94, relating to European Works Councils; and welcomes the fact that that acts adopted under the Agreement on Social Policy are not applicable to the United Kingdom under the terms of the Maastricht Treaty.--[ Mr. Willetts .]

Question agreed to.


Doveridge Bypass

9.20 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I beg leave to present a petition given to me by Councillor Percy Brindley on Monday. It is about the Department of Transport's decision to postpone its plans to build the Doveridge bypass. The petition reads:

To the House of Commons

The Petition of residents of Doveridge and the surrounding area declares that the decision to delay the construction of the A564 Stoke-Derby link road means that the failure to build it puts them in continuing danger and the Petitioners urge the House to press the Secretary of State for Transport to reinstate this road, otherwise known as the Doveridge Bypass, into the roads programme immediately. And the Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray. To lie upon the Table.

Column 433

Horticultural Colleges

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Willetts.]

9.21 pm

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise matters connected with a subject rarely debated in the House-- horticulture. It is a topic close to my heart, first because it is a major industry in my constituency, but secondly because I am aware of the problems associated with the industry through my work as chairman of the Conservative parliamentary horticulture and market sub-committee, as vice- president of the Capel Manor horticulture trust, as a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, as an honorary member of the Institute of Horticulture, and, finally, as parliamentary consultant to the Horticultural Trades Association, which has, of course, been properly registered in the Register of Members' Interests.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to a matter that should be of concern to hon. Members: further education students training for a career in horticulture are at an unfair disadvantage compared with most students training for work in other industries. Commercial horticultural production is an industry of great importance to the United Kingdom, with a total value of about £1.8 billion per year. There is also considerable scope for import substitution, especially in the provision of ornamental trees and shrubs used in landscaping schemes and in private gardens. The British garden, park and rural landscape are part of our heritage, and contribute enormously to our tourist industry and to our leisure industries. Not only do our urban landscape schemes enhance the visual appearance of our towns and cities, but the trees that they contain improve air quality, filtering out dust and traffic pollution and reducing noise. The horticulture industry therefore makes an incalculable contribution to the British way of life, beyond what can be measured in purely financial terms.

This important industry relies upon a relatively small number of further education graduates--about 1,500 a year. A relatively modest slice of the UK's further education budget--a mere 0.32 per cent.--would sustain the education needs of an industry which makes a major contribution to the UK economy and to the environment. It has long been recognised that horticulture is best taught in colleges with appropriate facilities, and excellent colleges do exist. The nature of the industry demands that such colleges, with their workshops, glasshouses and outside growing areas, should be located in rural areas. A relatively high proportion of students will also be attracted from rural areas, which inevitably means that most students either travel long distances to attend courses or seek residential accommodation.

Each horticultural college draws its students from a wide area, frequently from throughout the United Kingdom, and is equipped with extensive residential accommodation. That distinguishes the colleges from a typical further education establishment, which is situated at the centre of a public transport network in the centre of an urban area and draws upon day students who travel from home.

Column 434

If the centres provided by horticulture colleges--modern horticultural units with the latest technology in keeping with the highly specialised nature of the industry--are expensive to install and run, the teaching methods employed are also costly. Small teaching groups are required because of the safety demands of the training. That those additional costs are inevitable has been recognised by the Further Education Funding Council tariff advisory committee, which recommended a higher level of funding for courses. Despite that recognition, the facilities and the centres of excellence which contain them are in danger of being lost because the courses are hardly viable. That is due to a combination of two factors. The first is the small number of horticulture students, when taken over the country as a whole. I stated earlier that there were about 1,500 horticulture further education graduates a year. Within that number is an enormous diversity, with graduates in landscape construction, landscape maintenance and green- keeping, and a substantial number of general horticulture graduates.

The commercial production industry--which has the greatest potential for import substitution and export development--relies on about 200 graduates per year being supplied by a handful of courses. The second, and more significant, point is that there is an increasing incidence of potential students being denied the resources to attend courses. Student fees and maintenance grants are part of local authority expenditure, and students in further education rely on discretionary awards. Although local authorities have an obligation to provide such awards in practice, funds are often not available for all who demand them.

In each successive year, there is an increase in the number of eligible students who are unable to obtain adequate awards. Statistics from 1992 show that nearly 7 per cent. of students eligible for discretionary awards were unable to take up courses in land-based subjects because grants were not available. In addition, the level of some awards was insufficient to allow the student to commence his or her chosen course. I do not have more recent statistics to hand, but all the evidence points to a deterioration of the situation since then.

Courses which are otherwise viable are therefore put in jeopardy. Discretionary awards can be denied to students for a variety of reasons, none of which relates to the education needs of the student. I shall cite a number of examples. First, despite their obligation to do so, some authorities do not make discretionary awards. Their justification for that is that their expenditure is fully allocated elsewhere.

Secondly, other authorities do not provide out-county awards where they consider that relevant courses are available in-county. That action demonstrates the local authorities' lack of appreciation of the diversity within the industry. Such authorities fail to recognise the need for the very specialised training facilities required for the various sectors of the industry. At present, different colleges specialise in different sectors. One might have excellent facilities for landscape construction. Another might have facilities for hardy ornamental stock production or garden centre operations. To combine groups of students into one general course is to destroy the excellence that currently exists.

Column 435

Thirdly, other authorities will not fund land-based courses. Therefore, effective use cannot be made of existing resources, not because further education funding is inadequate but because students are denied access. That results in the available courses being undersubscribed and threatens the continued viability of such centres and the specialised courses that they provide for the needs of horticulture. That will result in valuable national resources going to waste. Also, students entering further education are discriminated against vis-a -vis students entering higher education, who are entitled to receive mandatory awards. That is unjust discrimination. Students who enter horticultural further education are more likely to require accommodation or incur extensive travelling costs than more typical further education students. Thus there is inequality of opportunity between rural students who wish to train for a horticultural career and urban students who have easy access to local further education colleges. The current system of discretionary awards is seen to be unsatisfactory because it discriminates against students in the horticulture industry who wish to take up further education. The withholding of discretionary awards threatens the future of the excellent courses that are now available and the centres that provide them. The horticulture industry cannot tackle the problem alone. While the industry might in various ways help to support a limited number of centres of excellence, its efforts will be to no avail if students cannot obtain the grants that they need to attend those centres.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the considerable benefits of an efficient, well-run horticulture industry which provides well-trained staff and can hold its own against competition from any part of the world. Against that, he should consider the relatively modest cost of introducing mandatory further education awards for horticulture students in place of the current discretionary awards. I ask my hon. Friend to agree that such a change in the funding of students' awards in further education should be enacted. I look forward to his response.

9.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on her success in obtaining an Adjournment debate to raise this topic in the House. I thank her for her interesting, eloquent and informative speech. We would expect no less because we well understand her expertise in horticulture and we appreciate very much her work on behalf of the horticulture industry. In turn, she will know that my own family has been actively involved in horticulture for many years--indeed, for generations--and I can well appreciate personally the issues involved.

My hon. Friend's speech focused mainly on horticulture students in further education, but she also mentioned, to differentiate them, higher education students. Students on designated higher education courses, whatever the subject, will, of course, be eligible for mandatory awards and also for student loans. It is a matter of record that Britain's system of support for higher education students is one of the most generous in the world. For 1995-96, the total support available through grants and loans in this area will increase by 2.5 per cent., in line with forecast price increases.

Column 436

With regard to further education, my hon. Friend is right to say that students depend to a large extent on discretionary awards from local education authorities. Although local education authorities are required to make grants to eligible students attending designated courses, they may make grants at their discretion to students who are not personally eligible to receive mandatory awards or who are attending non-designated courses. The decision whether to make such a grant lies entirely with the authority concerned, as does the rate of grant payable and the method of assessment.

Although authorities are entirely free to decide on the allocation of discretionary awards funding, they must make clear the basis on which their decisions are made. The public can, of course, try to influence the discretionary awards policies and budgets of individual authorities. The Audit Commission's arrangements for the publication of performance indicators for each authority's services, including discretionary awards, are promoting informed comparisons of local education authorities' effectiveness in responding to local needs. There has been a good deal of concern recently about the supposed decline in the availability of discretionary awards. In fact, the evidence suggests that the system as a whole is holding up well. The Gulbenkian survey, published in April last year, found that the number of discretionary awards to further education students was forecast to rise by 32 per cent. between 1990-91 and 1993-94. Expenditure on those awards was also expected to rise by 14 per cent. in real terms over the same period. My Department's own statistics show that in 1992-93, local authorities in England and Wales spent almost £170 million on further education discretionary awards. Within that overall picture, I accept that there are wide variations in local authorities' practices. To some extent, that is a response to local needs and priorities; that is inevitable and should, indeed, be welcomed. But there is evidence that potential students' chances of obtaining an award are increasingly dependent on where they happen to live and that some authorities are effectively throwing in the towel on discretionary awards, as my hon. Friend has mentioned.

The Government are concerned by this evidence and are keeping the situation under review. However, unless there is evidence that a local education authority is in breach of its statutory duty--for example, by operating a policy of saying, "No awards, come what may"--it is not open to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to intervene in an individual authority's policies. It must be for the local authorities themselves in the first instance to respond as necessary to concerns about the availability of awards. I understand that the local authority associations are currently working on a voluntary code of practice, and I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming that development.

My hon. Friend's particular concern is with the position of residential horticultural colleges. I am certainly aware of the particular difficulties faced by students wishing to attend residential colleges because of the relatively high cost to local authorities of supporting them. She will appreciate that a similar problem arises in relation to the agricultural colleges. She may like to know that I am to meet two delegations soon to hear their views on the issue.

Column 437

My hon. Friend's proposed solution is simply to make mandatory awards available for students at those colleges. There are two difficulties with her proposal. First, it would require primary legislation, because the 1962 Act provides for mandatory awards to be made only to students on higher education courses. Secondly, it would be expensive. Even to extend mandatory awards only to full-time students at residential horticultural and agricultural colleges--I doubt whether my hon. Friend would argue that the two should be treated differently--would cost an estimated £30 million a year. To extend the student loans scheme, which would be the natural corollary, would cost another £8 million a year initially. More importantly, any such move would open the floodgates to other further education students who felt that they had an equally strong claim to mandatory funding. That could be enormously expensive and in the current public expenditure climate it is simply not a realistic option.

Of course, colleges need to ensure that students are aware of other sources of finance--notably access funds and career development loans. In 1994-95, the further education access fund will give more than £5.7 million to students in financial difficulties, which is a rise of almost 20 per cent. on the previous year. In 1993-94, 118 agricultural or horticultural trainees paid for their courses themselves using a career development loan. I also welcome the support for students provided by the industry.

In the main, the horticultural sector is holding up well. I am sure that my hon. Friend will also be pleased to know the promising trend in enrolments. Between 1992-93 and 1993-94--it is always difficult to get bang up-to-date statistics, especially at this time of year before the returns come in-- full-time equivalent enrolments in agriculture and horticulture colleges rose by 6 per cent., which is slightly higher than those for the further education sector as a whole, which were 5 per cent. College strategic plans show that enrolments in these colleges are expected to rise over the period to 1996-97 by slightly more than FE colleges as a whole. For full-time students, 39 per cent. in agriculture and horticulture compared with 23 per cent. in other further education.

Column 438

Thirty-four colleges in England offer horticulture and there is evidence of a growth in demand for the newer courses. Pershore college of horticulture in Worcestershire reports that it now fully expects to meet its present target numbers. Moulton college in my home county of Northamptonshire is an example of effective linkage between horticultural provision and industry. Many other land-based colleges have diversified their horticultural provision to reflect new market demands. They have successfully developed flexible provision related to garden centre management and management of the countryside.

The Further Education Funding Council is sensitive to the costs of such courses and gives a higher weighting to them in its funding mechanism. In 1995-96, the council will increase the relative cost weighting factor accorded to such courses by 25 per cent. Furthermore, in its work to develop the new funding methodology, on which it has consulted widely, the funding council found that considerable variations had existed between LEAs in the level of funding for FE colleges. The FEFC is addressing that by gradually converging its average funding per unit of activity. That means that institutions with historically low funding for their type of provision can expect to get more in future, and to flourish from it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those topics, which are of great importance to the industry. I hope that she appreciates that, in turn, we continue to review the position. We are grateful for the evidence that she has given today. I hope that she will report back to those in the industry that we are aware of the importance of their work and are doing what we can to help. In the meantime, by way of exhortation, I encourage colleges to build on their effective liaison with the industry, and to continue to develop training to meet its needs. I am sure that my hon. Friend and the House will join me in stressing the importance of a well-trained work force, both for the individual and the industry that it serves.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Ten o'clock.

Column 437

Written Answers Section

  Home Page