Draft Education (Northern Ireland)Order 2006

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Mr. Hanson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and I welcome the fact that there is academic excellence in Northern Ireland’s schools, but I do not want to welcome the fact that people are determined to access it at the age of 11. I hope that, through debating this order today, I will convince the Committee to support my aim.
Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the Minister for once again taking an intervention. Will he kindly explain for the benefit of everyone in the Committee and the Public Gallery why, given that this Government are going full-steam ahead in trying to re-establish the Assembly by 24 November, we are sitting here this afternoon dealing with an un-amendable Order in Council? Why can the Minister not leave it until after 24 November?
Mr. Hanson: The hon. Lady will know that I have great sympathy with the point that she makes about the Order in Council procedure, and we have had discussions along those lines about every such order that I have introduced. She knows that the Government have taken the view that the order’s provisions will come into effect on 1 August. But, because of the controversy, we have indicated that, if the Assembly is reconstituted before 24 November, it can, in this instance, determine the commencement date—or otherwise—of the controversial provision on selection. We have said clearly that if the Assembly is not reconstituted by 24 November, this specific selection proposal will come into effect on 25 November and will be operational from that date, for the future implementation of proposals in later academic years.
I know that this is a controversial matter, but I give the Assembly the right and opportunity to determine the implementation date of the elements relating to selection. I hope that the Assembly is back in place by 24 November, and I know that the Committee shares that hope. If it is back in place, the power will lie, rightly, with those members of the Committee who are Members of the Assembly to vote to determine whether that proposal is pursued.
Sammy Wilson: Will the Minister explain to the Committee why, if it is right to allow the elected representatives of Northern Ireland the right to determine the shape of the education system that pertains in that part of the United Kingdom before 24 November, it is not right for them to have the same opportunity after 24 November? Why is that date so significant that, before it, they have such a right, but after it they do not?
Mr. Hanson: I remind the hon. Gentleman that, as he and other members of the Committee know, this matter has been under discussion for six years. There have been reports from Costello, and the Assembly Committee has given consideration to this issue. For six years, there have been discussions—with my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), and with the current Minister with responsibility for education in Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston.
This Government must continue to govern on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, in the absence of an elected Assembly taking office and there being an elected Executive. As every member of this Committee who represents a Northern Ireland seat knows, I want the Assembly back in place and up and running, and to be the locus for consideration of these matters. If the hon. Gentleman is back in the Assembly by24 November, he can determine the future of selection policy, but if it does not reconstitute, we have a duty to govern, and govern we will.
Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Is it not rather unfair to schools’ teaching staff to have to wait until the magic date of 24 November to know whether this place takes that decision, or whether it is taken in a Northern Ireland Assembly?
Mr. Hanson: The decision on the implementation of that aspect of selection is not within my gift. The right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), whom I am pleased to see has joined us today, even though he is not a member of the Committee, has the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister tomorrow to discuss these matters. In theory, it is possible for the Assembly to be reconstituted in one, two or three weeks’ time. It is possible for it to be reconstituted before the start of the next school term. [Interruption.] I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle is nodding in enthusiastic agreement with me—that is a welcome change in these Committees.
I understand the position adopted by the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), but we have to continue to govern in the absence of an Assembly. I very much want it to be back in place by 24 November and if it is, it can determine these matters; if it is not, the Government will determine them and we have made our position very clear.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Presumably, by implication, this afternoon’s proceedings would not be taking place, or would be taking place in an entirely different way, had the Assembly been reconstituted by the parties of Northern Ireland. As a Great Britain member of this Committee, I certainly would not have wished to determine these matters, had the Northern Ireland parties found ways to reach an agreement to resume normal working.
Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend supports what I am saying. I very much regret the fact that I am the Minister dealing with this issue today, albeit not with Executive responsibility. I regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston is the Minister with such responsibility, and that she—as I do in other areas of Northern Ireland affairs—is taking decisions that rightly and properly are the responsibility of elected Members.
I remind my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) that the Assembly has been suspended for approaching four years. If the Government take the view that we should not take any action on any such matters, there will be continuing drift. I want the Assembly back and I expect it to return. I encourage the right hon. Member for North Antrim—
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Encourage the IRA.
Mr. Hanson: I encourage all parties to bring the Assembly back. I simply say to my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire and others that if that happens, the power relating to the effective aspects of this order will lie in the Assembly’s hands.
Mr. Todd: Just to reinforce my point, surely the duty is for the parties of Northern Ireland to find ways to resume their responsibilities in these matters. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that until they do so there is no alternative to proceeding as we are. I agree that that is unsatisfactory, and it is much to my regret that I am spending the afternoon discussing these matters.
Mrs. Iris Robinson: Perhaps it would aid the hon. Gentleman’s clearer understanding of the situation if I explained that the reason why we cannot set up a devolved Administration—
The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Lady that it is the Minister who is speaking, and that one cannot intervene on an intervention. If she takes her seat and the Minister carries on, she might get a chance to intervene on him.
Mr. Hanson: Thank you, Miss Begg.
The dividing line is clear in Committee today. In the event of academic selection and the transfer at age 11 ending, as proposed, we need to ensure that an alternative measure is implemented. I want the matter to be addressed on the basis of informed parental choice. If a school is oversubscribed, boards of governors will have the opportunity to examine admissions criteria to determine who will be admitted. The criteria will be based on specific regulations such as siblings, feeder schools and other related matters, and not on the basis of selection. We want parents to make informed choices, and a wide range of information about post-primary schools will be available—for example, the pupil profile will provide parents with information about children’s achievements, progress and interests. We will look at different admission criteria, such as siblings and proposed feeder schools.
Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): In Kent, where my constituency is located, we are fortunate enough to have grammar schools. I am alarmed by the direction of the Minister’s comments, but other Ministers have assured me that there is no intention to impose on the people of Kent a change in the education system. What have the people of Northern Ireland done to elicit from the Government a determination to take away what they too want to continue?
Mr. Hanson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the debate. This is not about attacking grammar schools per se. We are talking about selection for those schools and how we ensure selection to those schools. In his constituency, some 4 per cent. of individuals are subject to selection. The Government have said that we will not stop that, but in Northern Ireland the whole system is subject to selection, which I believe undermines people, so we are taking action. As I have said, Northern Ireland Members have it in their hands to change that policy. If they are back in office by 24 November, the Assembly will determine the matter.
Mr. Hanson: If this is wrong, I am about to do the hon. Gentleman a disservice, but I think that he was late into this afternoon’s debate. I have already mentioned a list of organisations, including library boards, teachers’ unions and others, which support the measure. The measure arises out of a long period of discussion, including two home-grown reports commissioned in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman and I disagree about the matter, but I am acting as a last-minute replacement on behalf of one of my ministerial colleagues, who is indisposed through ill health today, putting these points on behalf of the Government.
Mr. Donaldson: The Minister has said that the whole system in Northern Ireland is subject to selection, but that is not accurate. In Craigavon, for example, they operate the Dixon plan, where there is selection but not until 14. In other areas of Northern Ireland, such as Cookstown and Kilkeel, comprehensive education is available. He is not correct to say that the entire system in Northern Ireland is subject to selection. Different systems operate in different areas, which is not dissimilar from the situation in England and Wales, so why is he seeking to impose one overall system on the whole of Northern Ireland?
Mr. Hanson: As I have said, the Government are committed to ending selection, because we believe that it disadvantages those individuals who are not selected.
Mrs. Robinson: I want to follow up the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea). The Government expect us to accept Sinn Fein-IRA in government, but people from that organisation murdered school bus drivers taking children to school; they murdered principals; and they murdered teachers. That is the difference between what is happening here and what is happening in Northern Ireland. The Government should stand up for the rights of children and teachers not to have terrorists overseeing education in our country.
Mr. Hanson: Having met victims of crime with the hon. Lady, I know how difficult it is for her and her party to reach an accommodation in government with representatives from Sinn Fein, and indeed other parties.
Mrs. Robinson: So do we.
Mr. Hanson: The Government want the Assembly back in place, and so do she and her party. Decisions such as that on selection are in the gift of the Assembly, but in the absence of the Assembly, we still have to govern strongly.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend think that the many organisations that agree with the Government’s proposals in Northern Ireland have considered the example of Scotland, where we do not have selection and where we have an excellent education system?
Mr. Hanson: There are examples in many parts of the United Kingdom of education where selection is not involved. There is a disagreement among Committee members that will be expressed in the course of the next two hours, and I want to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak.
Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): The Minister refers to several organisations that have expressed support in consultations for the Government’s intentions, but is not the best consultation exercise the one that took place through the ballot box at the last election? The majority of those who were elected in Northern Ireland did not stand on the ticket of prohibiting selection—we see many of them here today. Should not there be due deference to those elected Members, and is not the Minister simply seeking to frustrate the democratic will?
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