Draft Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

Fifth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 4 February 2003

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Draft Education and Libraries
(Northern Ireland) Order 2003

8.55 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.

I apologise to the Committee if I am blinking—being here at this early hour is a bit of a shock to the system. However, we move with the times. I apologise, in particular, to those who attended the Committee last Monday, and I appreciate the fact that they had accommodated to the problems that I experienced. As a result, we are here today to consider the draft order, which was tabled last Monday.

The draft order was laid before the House on 7 January 2003, and I want to begin by going straight to the heart of this important legislation. It includes an enabling provision to allow the Department of Education in Northern Ireland to introduce one common funding formula for calculating the budgets of all schools funded under local management of schools arrangements. Like all good Departments, however, the Northern Ireland Office is taking the opportunity to include provisions on a range of other matters.

The draft order was originally introduced as a Bill in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 24 June 2002, and the Second Stage took place on 2 July. Indeed, the Committee stage had begun, and the Education Committee had commenced its evidence sessions. Unfortunately, due to suspension, the Committee did not have an opportunity to produce a report of its findings.

The provisions in the draft order are virtually identical to those in the Bill. However, it incorporates a few minor amendments to address some of the points made during the Assembly stages of the Bill and technical issues such as commencement dates. The amendments do not alter the policy behind the legislation that was introduced in the Assembly but seek to increase its clarity.

Hon. Members may find it helpful if I briefly set out the background to the need for a common funding formula. Local management of schools was introduced in Northern Ireland in April 1991, and seven different LMS formulae are currently in operation. There is one for each of the five education and library boards—it applies to all controlled and maintained schools in each board's area—as well as one for voluntary grammar schools and one for grant-maintained integrated schools.

Although the seven formulae have some common features, there are differences in the factors used and

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the values attached to them. As a result, schools of similar sizes can receive quite different levels of resources purely because their LMS budgets are calculated under different formulae. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that it is indefensible, inequitable and, indeed, impractical to have seven different LMS formulae for the allocation of resources to schools in Northern Ireland. The introduction of one common funding formula will ensure that schools with similar characteristics receive similar levels of funding, regardless of their location or type.

I should add that the common funding formula approach received widespread endorsement in the major consultation exercise that took place in the latter half of 2001. Although the formula's make-up has not been agreed, there is general agreement that a common formula should be put in place.

The original intention was to implement common-formula funding with effect from 1 April 2003, but the legislative timetable has proved such that the draft order will not be made in time to facilitate that. Consequently, it will be necessary to continue with the current arrangements for a further year. However, that will allow a proper time scale for giving notification of schools' budgets, facilitate further consultation with the education sector on the construction of the formula and enable the Department to work with Education and Library Boards on the better alignment of the mechanism by which it allocates resources to them.

I do not propose at this stage to comment on all the provisions of the order. Instead, I shall outline some of the issues addressed, but I shall, of course, be happy to respond to hon. Members' comments on any of the other provisions at the end of our debate.

The order introduces a best value regime in respect of services provided by Education and Library Boards and repeals fully the provisions of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 relating to compulsory competitive tendering. That approach is similar to the way in which best value will apply in local government in Northern Ireland, which was agreed by the Northern Ireland Assembly last year. Although best value was introduced on a statutory basis in England and Wales in April 2000, this is the first opportunity to make similar legislation in Northern Ireland. However, the Education and Library Boards have been using the best value regime on a voluntary basis since May 2000.

The order also incorporates a number of provisions which are directly concerned with the protection and welfare of children, an area which the Committee will agree is of paramount importance. The key features include a duty on the board of governors of all grant-aided schools—that is, schools that receive public funding—to safeguard and promote the welfare of registered pupils while in the care of the school. There will be a duty on boards of governors of grant-aided schools to ensure that there is a child protection policy at their school and that it is implemented. I am assured that all schools, as a matter of good practice, have a child protection policy, but there is wide concern that reliance on good practice in such an important matter is insufficient and I share that concern.

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There will be a duty on all grant-aided schools to address the problem of bullying through their discipline policies. Hon. Members should note that, for the first time in Northern Ireland, the legislation includes a requirement for schools to consult pupils in the development of their anti-bullying policies. That development is entirely consistent with our broader agenda to create an inclusive society and will allow young people to participate actively in the formulation of strategies to tackle a problem that directly concerns and affects them.

The order also consolidates and amends the Education (Corporal Punishment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. The main effect is to extend the abolition of corporal punishment to independent schools—that is, schools that do not receive public funding. That change is required to ensure compliance with a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.

I am sure that all hon. Members concur that the provisions to which I have referred are important steps to safeguard the welfare of all our children while they attend school.

On a different subject, the order will introduce a new power to make regulations to enable the Department, in exceptional circumstances, to remove from office all voting and co-opted members of the board of governors. It would not apply, however, to the principal of a school who is a non-voting member. It is designed to deal with circumstances such as when a school is failing to provide adequate education for its children, but I assure hon. Members that it is anticipated that the use of that power would occur only rarely.

As I said, the main purpose of the order is to introduce an enabling provision to allow the Department to introduce a single common funding formula for the calculation of schools' budgets. That will eventually remove the inequities in the present system and I am sure that it will be welcomed. The remainder of the order deals with a range of issues, some of which are significant for our young people and others more technical or minor.

I have not covered every provision, but I hope that I have focused on the most important ones and I shall, of course, be happy to respond to any points that hon. Members raise.

9.4 am

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): May I celebrate my debut in serving under your chairmanship, Miss Begg? It is a first for me and a very pleasurable one. I see that the sun shines upon our work this morning.

I do not intend to delay the Committee; I will content myself with three observations and four questions. Hon. Members may have heard me refer to the three observations in relation to previous Northern Ireland statutory instruments.

Broadly speaking, I look for the following virtues in Northern Ireland orders. First, the orders should ensure that the law in Northern Ireland is as close as possible to the law in England and Wales. There is a serious reason for that. We live under an important discipline in the United Kingdom: a citizen is deemed

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to know the law and ignorance of the law is never a defence. The minimum amount of regional variation in the law is desirable from first principles.

The Minister may wish to comment on that. In my reading of the order, I certainly have not detected any serious, savage or worrying departures from the provisions in England and Wales. However, it would be of comfort if the Minister were to comment on that matter.

The second test that I apply to Northern Ireland orders on behalf of the Opposition is as follows: what evidence do we have as to what the elected representatives in Northern Ireland thought of the measure before their institutions were suspended? That is an important consideration because, as an English Member of Parliament, I have no wish to second-guess the properly and duly elected Members in Northern Ireland or say what is best for them. It would be unseemly for an English Member of Parliament to tell them what is good for them. The Minister told us that the Bill had had its Second Reading and gone into Committee, therefore there is probably a sufficient foundation of opinion from Northern Ireland to enable us to judge how they felt. We must also take account of consultees. Not least in education matters, there are always people who should be consulted for the benefit of their experience and views. To recap, my second test is: what do the elected parties and consultees think of the legislation?

My third, and probably slightly less serious, test is: does the order create a new ombudsman or commission in Northern Ireland? I have always been of the opinion—I say this unashamedly—that, whatever the ills of the Northern Ireland community may be, a shortage of institutions is not one of them. I want to contain the proliferation of ombudsmen and commissions. That is my general approach.

The Conservative party is uneasy about the fate and fortune of grammar schools in Northern Ireland. I do not want the Minister to be under any misapprehension about that.

Finally, I conclude with four questions. With the benefit of a little time for inspiration before she replies to the debate, I know that the Minister will endeavour to answer them. First, what role would the Assembly, as opposed to the Minister, play in determining the content of the LMS funding formula and scheme? Secondly, what are the implications of imposing on boards of governors the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of pupils registered at the school, at all times? Thirdly, what sanctions are envisaged to give schools and teachers effective sanctions to deal with bullies?

Fourthly, in requiring them to adopt the common funding scheme, will the Department have any obligation to take note of views expressed either by education and library boards or by boards of governors?

Unless the Minister provides me with totally unacceptable answers to those questions—and I do not think that she will—I extend to the order the general good will of my party.

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9.10 am


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