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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation




 
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Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman:

†Mrs. Joan Humble

†Atkins, Charlotte (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab)
†Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
†Chapman, Ben (Wirral, South) (Lab)
†Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
†Davies, Philip (Shipley) (Con)
†Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Ogmore) (Lab)
†Levitt, Tom (High Peak) (Lab)
†Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
†Rooney, Mr. Terry (Bradford, North) (Lab)
†Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Shapps, Grant (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con)
†Smith, Angela E. (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
†Wright, Mr. Anthony (Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Nerys Welfoot, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee


 
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Monday 4 July 2005

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Draft Colleges of Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Colleges of Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

Mrs. Humble, I welcome you to what I understand is your first outing as a Committee Chairman. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] From the reaction of all my colleagues, you can tell how warmly welcomed you are. I am sure that your good judgment, wisdom and humour will help us to get the most out of our deliberations.

The draft order is designed to remove an outstanding legal anomaly and to establish Stranmillis university college as a legally distinct corporate institution, which will bring it into line with other institutions in Northern Ireland. There are two teacher training colleges in Northern Ireland—St. Mary’s university college and Stranmillis university college. Both those colleges are academically integrated with Queen’s university Belfast, which means that although both are financially and organisationally separate, for academic purposes they are colleges of Queen’s university Belfast. Those arrangements are unaffected by the provisions of the order.

The unique status of Stranmillis university college and its relationship with the Government goes back to 1922, when the college was founded as a non-denominational institution by the then recently established Ministry of Education for Northern Ireland. The college was established to provide state-funded teacher training in Northern Ireland alongside that already provided by St. Mary’s college Belfast. For that purpose, the Ministry purchased Stranmillis house and grounds, which is about 3 km from the centre of Belfast. In 1996, most of the campus was declared a conservation area. The grounds and buildings remain Government property, and the board of governors of the college is directly appointed by the Minister with responsibility for employment and learning.

Stranmillis college was established by section 1(3) of the Ministries of Northern Ireland Act 1921. Initially, it was subject to the direction and control of the Minister, who remained responsible for the administration of the service. Since the 1930s, it has in practice been run by an independent body under the management of a board of governors. However, the board of governors does not operate on a statutory basis. The current board has been appointed by the Department for Employment and Learning on an
 
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extra-statutory basis and as an interim measure, to advise and assist the Department on the running of the college. The college remains subject to the direction and control of the Department.

There is a need to regularise the legal status of Stranmillis, as the position of the college is inconsistent with that of other higher education colleges in Northern Ireland. The other higher education institutions, while diverse in terms of origin, size and organisation share the following characteristics: they are legally independent corporate institutions and they are accountable through a governing body that carries ultimate responsibility for all aspects of the institution.

An appraisal of the options for changing the legal status and governance of Stranmillis concluded that incorporation provided the best method of securing an appropriate statutory basis for the college. Incorporation allows the college to become a legally distinct institution that is, through its governing body, accountable to the Department. It is for that reason that the draft order is before us.

Last year my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), now an Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, launched a policy consultation on the proposals to establish Stranmillis as a legally distinct corporate institution. Following the consultation, the draft proposals were issued for public consultation. That consultation closed on 19 May 2005. All consultees welcomed the proposals.

Part II of the draft order provides for the establishment of a body corporate to be the governing body of Stranmillis university college, a college of the Queen’s university Belfast. It also provides for the transfer of responsibility for the management of Stranmillis to the new governing body and outlines the respective functions and powers of the governing body and the Department.

More detailed provision on the transfer powers is contained in schedule 1. The schedule provides for the making of instruments and articles of government that will contain provisions for the constitution and functions of the governing body. The governing body will become responsible for all aspects of the management of the college, which includes the economical, efficient and effective use of all the college’s resources and expenditure. The governing body will thus become the employer of college staff and the owner of the estate, including buildings, land and equipment. It will also be responsible for all services, including financial systems and the maintenance of the estate.

One of the most crucial aspects of the order is that it gives the college the legal basis from which to submit an access agreement to benefit from higher variable fees from September 2006—the same time as other institutions in England and Northern Ireland.

Certain safeguards have been included in the draft order to protect the public interest in the acquisition and disposal of land and other property. Such matters will be subject to the prior consent of the sponsoring Department. The college’s responsibilities in respect of the use of and accountability for public funds will
 
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continue to be subject to a financial memorandum between the Department and the college and to such other guidelines and requirements as may be promulgated by the Department from time to time.

Part III deals with the necessary amendments to the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 in respect of the functions and powers of the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Education and colleges of education generally. Schedule 2 outlines the membership, eligibility and proceedings of the governing body. The membership will reflect the sector norm and all members will be appointed under the guidance of the Commissioner for Public Appointments by ministerial minute.

I must take the equality provisions of the Northern Ireland Acts into account when considering whether the nominations to the governing body in respect of the three main Protestant Churches can continue. Although there is no separate category in schedule 2 under which I can specifically designate representatives of the Protestant Churches, it is important to point out that Church representatives will not be excluded from membership of the governing body and that current members may continue in office until their terms expire. I acknowledge the interest of the Churches, and my officials are in productive discussions with them to find a solution within the parameters of the order and the equality legislation. There is a need to resolve the issue in a way that is compatible with the requirements of the legislation, but I make it clear that the issue does not arise from either the proposed incorporation or the order itself. It is a direct result of equality legislation and would have arisen with or without the order.

In the past, the Board has been responsible for the management of the college and for securing the efficient, economical and effective use of all its resources and expenditure. That role will not differ substantially once the college has attained incorporated status. I commend the way in which the board of governors has managed the college on our behalf to date.

I referred briefly to the composition of the governing body and explained that the changes do not arise from the proposed incorporation or from the provisions of the order. The impact of the proposal on the nine equality categories that are identified in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 has been assessed and, having considered all available evidence, my view is that the proposal to incorporate Stranmillis university college would not have an adverse impact on any of the nine areas.

With the legislative safeguards in place, incorporation of the college will not adversely affect employees or students, or delivery of academic provision. Incorporation will not impose any changes to the existing staff-student interface, there will be no change to the terms and conditions of staff employed at the college or to the academic provision, and none of the changes will affect the students. It is worth noting that the staff and students fully welcome the proposals.


 
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Incorporation is about establishing the college as legally distinct from the Government and similar to other providers of higher education in Northern Ireland. The legislation will enable it to plan more effectively to the future benefit of the staff, students and wider community. It is my intention that, subject to the approval of both Houses, the order can be made at Privy Council in July. That will give time for preparations to be made so that the transfer can be effected from 1 October 2005. I hope that those comments explain the reasons behind the proposals in the order, but I shall be pleased to answer any questions that hon. Members may have.

4.38 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): May I say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble? You and I were colleagues on the Work and Pensions Committee throughout the last Parliament, so I know that you are a wise and a fair parliamentarian and that this Committee is in extremely good hands.

I note from the explanatory memorandum to the statutory instrument that the Government find themselves in a happy position in that all nine consultees on the incorporation were in favour of it and the three people who responded to the consultation on the order were also in favour. It is certainly true that this is a non-controversial statutory instrument, and the Opposition do not intend to vote against it. However, I would be grateful if the Minister responded in her summing up to several specific questions.

My first question relates to the cost of the order. I note that there will be an extra £60,000 of expenditure in respect of insurance premiums, which will fall to the relevant Department. Will the Minister explain to the Committee what the impact of that £60,000 will be? In other words, will some other expenditure not be spent in order to account for that sum, or will the Department run with lower reserves? Speaking as a chartered insurer, I would be interested to know whether the Minister has any detail on whether the Department will find itself relieved of claims for which it would have been liable as a result of premiums being paid. Is there some possibility of relief of financial obligation for the Department?

The explanatory note states that a preliminary equality impact assessment has taken place, to which the Minister referred in her opening remarks. I see that it has nine categories, and I wonder whether the Minister would explain what they are. I tried to think what the categories could be, but I failed to come up with as many as nine. It would be very helpful to the Committee if the Minister let us know what the categories are.

Article 6 of the order says that the governors must “have regard to” students’ learning difficulties. It strikes me that “regard to” is a slightly vague term and I wonder whether the Minister would explain exactly what that means. Is it something that the equality impact assessment would refer to? It could be seen as
 
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a weak term as far as students with learning difficulties are concerned, so I would appreciate some further detail on that.

Will the Minister explain what impact she expects the change to have on the life of the college? I note that the college will be accountable to the Department through its governing body, as opposed to being legally part of it. Her predecessor, the hon. Member for Brent, North, who has now taken up other ministerial responsibilities, announced the change in somewhat negative terms. He said that there would be no change—that pay and conditions, current and future students and academic provision would not be affected. Does the Minister believe that the change will have any positive impact on the life of the college?

Finally, I would be grateful if the Minister enlightened the Committee as to how the governors will be appointed. I am conscious that she touched on this area in her remarks. Schedule 2, paragraph 2(1)(a) states:

    “not less than one half of the governing body shall be persons appearing to the Department to be, or to have been, engaged or employed in business, industry or any profession.”

Again, “appearing to the Department to be” is a slightly curious phrase. I wonder whether there have been any cases of people masquerading as business men ending up on the governing body when, in fact, they had had a completely different career.

The Minister commented on some of the concerns of the Protestant Churches in Northern Ireland, but given that there is no specific provision for clergy or people from religious bodies to be represented would it be possible for her to say a little more in that respect? I note that the Presbyterian Church has sought clarification on behalf of the main Protestant Churches. Given the history of Stranmillis university college, that would be welcome.

4.45 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): The Liberal Democrats generally welcome the order, but there are a couple of small points that I want to raise with the Minister. The statutory instrument that we are dealing has been subject to a consultation process. As a new member of the Committee, I have been trying to find where responses to consultations are posted, as they do not appear on the departmental websites. The Minister said that all the consultees have welcomed the proposals. Although I understand that some people or organisations may wish to keep their responses confidential, it would be useful if the responses of those who do not feel that way were published on the various websites to help to inform our debates in Westminster.

In relation to schedule 1, paragraph 3, the Minister said that staff conditions would be the same after the change. Will she confirm that all employment rights will remain the same and that there will be no changes in pensions, holidays and so on? Were staff consulted about the change and how did they feel about it?


 
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I echo what the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said about the use of the term “learning difficulties” in article 6. Will the Minister elaborate on the meaning of the term? For example, are we talking about students who have dyslexia or those who are hard of hearing?

4.47 pm

Angela E. Smith: The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire was struggling somewhat with some of his questions, but I will do my best to address the points that he made. The £60,000 he mentioned is set against the total college budget of £5.2 million, which is currently carried by the Government, so there is no separate figure available. I am not aware of the details of recent claims: I do not anticipate any great change, but I will get back to him on that. The change will mean merely that liability falls differently.

The board welcomes the opportunity to take over the direction of the college. The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) raised the issue of pay and conditions. I apologise if it was not clear from my comments that there will be absolutely no change for the staff and the staff have welcomed the move. In fact, the present legal basis is somewhat dubious, with the college employing staff through the Department. The order regularises the position, which has been welcomed by the trade unions and the staff alike.

The hon. Lady also asked about the responses to the consultation. Normally, responses are published on the website as soon as possible, but we must be mindful of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The material should be published on the website or in another format.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked for the nine categories under equality legislation. I am happy to assure him that all nine were taken into account in the equality impact assessment. The categories are religious belief, political opinion, racial group, men and women generally—checking that there is no sexual discrimination—marital status, age discrimination, disability, persons with dependants, and sexual orientation. That covers quite a broad range. Under section 75 of the 1998 Act, that basis of assessment is common to all aspects of Northern Ireland legislation.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for listing the nine categories. I had guessed eight, but I was pleased to hear nine. Is not Northern Ireland legislation some years ahead of mainland legislation on equalities issues? Indeed, the Equality Bill, which will create an equalities commission for the rest of the country, deals with only six strands. Are there lessons for the rest of Britain to learn in terms of moving from those six towards the nine that Northern Ireland has, and perhaps in future having a general anti-discrimination and equalities rule that does not identify strands, but outlaws all unreasonable discrimination on any grounds?

Angela E. Smith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am impressed that he managed to get eight categories. There are lessons to be learned, including
 
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positive lessons and lessons from which to draw caution. Lessons will be learned about how the measure operates, so that we can consider whether it should be tailored specifically and improved, or accepted as it is. Perhaps I should not intrude on other Ministers’ responsibilities and on their legislation; however, we welcome the opportunity to consider those issues.

The other issue raised by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire was about the impact that the measure would have on the life of the college. He felt that the effects that were mentioned were negative. I do not think that my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North, was trying to be negative; he was trying to reassure those people who were concerned about the reasons for the order. It is being introduced to ensure that there is a proper statutory footing for the governance of the college. There will be no great difference after its introduction, other than our legitimising many of the actions of the college, particularly in terms of employment legislation, so it will give additional protection for staff. I would not say that the policy is negative; it is positive, which is why it has been generally welcomed.

One issue raised by the hon. Gentleman which has caused some concern relates to the Protestant Churches. We are engaged in discussion with them to find a way forward, however the issue does not derive specifically from this order. The issue of equality legislation and having designated places on boards of governors for the Protestant Churches came up when we received legal advice during the drafting of the order. There are historical reasons for such
 
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arrangements, but I assure the Committee that no Church representatives will be excluded from membership and those in post will serve out their terms of office. We hope to find a way that suits all parties to ensure that there is no problem. The issue would have come up with or without the order, as it relates to equality legislation.

I remind the Committee that such governing bodies are collegiate: no one on the governing body represents any particular interest. The hon. Gentleman asked about professional representatives on the body. It is important to have people from different professions to provide expertise, but once a person has been appointed to a governing body that person’s responsibilities and loyalties are as a member of that governing body. I assure him that we are in dialogue about the issue, and I hope that that addresses some of the points that he made.

The only other issue that I have not addressed was about the definition of learning difficulties. I assure the hon. Member for Solihull that it is addressed in legislation. The Further Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 has a definition of learning difficulty, and I can forward it to the hon. Lady. The definition is made quite clear in article 2(5), so learning difficulty is clearly defined in law.

I hope that I have done justice to the wise questions asked by hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Colleges of Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

Committee rose at seven minutes to Five o’clock.

                                                                                           
 
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