Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, among the tiny band of us who pursue the affairs of Northern Ireland in this House there is always a welcome level of mutual courtesy which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, reinforces each time he stands up. Perhaps I can do my bit by thanking the noble Baroness for the way in which she presented the order. She is busy, but always has time for us and is clear and helpful in her presentation.
22 Jan 1996 : Column 857

An order of such importance underlines the need for progress on the political track of the peace process. It is not acceptable that matters of this importance to the people of Northern Ireland should be dealt with by a handful of Members in this House. How much better it would be if Northern Ireland legislators debated key Northern Ireland proposals like this in a proper devolved body of their own. In that context, though it is a long way removed from the order, perhaps I can take the opportunity to wish good fortune to Senator Mitchell and his colleagues in the last days of their deliberations. A lot depends on their progress and we look forward to their report.

I welcome the wide-ranging consultation done by the Government. It has been extremely useful. On the whole, it means that the order is a sound order, though I have several anxieties and points that I should like to raise with the Minister.

First, in relation to Articles 36 and 37, the noble Baroness knows my enthusiasm for the cause of integrated education in Northern Ireland. There is steady progress. There are now 28 integrated schools in Northern Ireland, including nine secondary schools. However, only 2 per cent. of pupils are taught in integrated schools; but there is growth of two or three schools a year. I believe I am right in saying that currently three schools, Rathenran Primary in Antrim, the Hilden Primary in Lisburn and the Kircubbin Secondary in County Down, are awaiting ministerial approval. I hope that that comes through. The order allows boards of governors to have only one positive resolution, rather than two, before the issue of integrated status can be put to the parents in a ballot, which makes it slightly easier for a school to achieve integrated status.

I take this opportunity of pressing the noble Baroness on the question of funding for integrated schools. The transitional costs of becoming integrated, of increasing the number of governors to make them more representative in providing a balanced school make-up, and so forth, are not always minor matters and need to be considered. I hope that the helpful change in Articles 36 and 37 can be taken as a development whereby the Government are moving from being neutral towards the schools to being actively in favour of them. However, I suspect that is not the case. The noble Baroness may like to comment on that in her reply.

The most important part of the order is the question of special needs, about which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, spoke. He is right to pay tribute to those involved in special educational needs. Special needs require special dedication from both teachers and parents. I welcome the recognition in Article 8 that it is better for pupils with special educational needs to be educated with other pupils rather than to be set aside or segregated. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I am somewhat suspicious of the funding for special needs education.

Article 8(2)(c) says that special needs funding must be compatible with the efficient use of resources. I am certainly in favour of efficiency, but that sounds
22 Jan 1996 : Column 858
suspiciously like a Treasury insert into the Bill. I hope that in supporting the order we are not supporting staff cuts where fewer teachers teach more pupils or fewer books serve more students. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that we need regular auditing and review to be sure where the money is spent. If there is any doubt about that, we should consider the ring-fencing of special needs education which, from these Benches, we support in England and Wales.

We welcome the special needs tribunals and particularly the assurance from the Minister of State that it will be conducted "with the minimum formality" and that legal aid will be available. Quangos have a habit of persisting; it is easier to set them up than it is to get rid of them. The Minister went on to say that the tribunals would establish a number of precedents and then, at some point in the future, will be used far less. We need to keep such a system under review. If the tribunals become redundant we shall need to think again. If they establish a set of precedents we shall need to consider those as well. I suggest that we review the working of the tribunals after two years.

Perhaps I can also press the Minister on the question of special needs and the issue of consultation with parents. Article 5(2) gives the Department of Education in Northern Ireland discretionary power to consult such persons as it thinks relevant. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that includes, crucially, parents.

I agree with everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in relation to corporal punishment. Throughout Europe the practice of corporal punishment in schools is rightly seen as brutal and medieval. Can we not take the violence out of education as we encourage others to take the violence out of politics?

Finally, on the question of the history syllabus, Schedule 3 sets out the need for history to be taught at key stages 2 and 3. What progress, if any, is being made towards at least an element of common history syllabus for Northern Ireland? It must be true that until the two communities in Northern Ireland—the two main communities—can begin to accept each other's history and therefore a history they share, the prospects for a lasting settlement are not good. That mutual understanding—reciprocal acceptance of each other's history—should start at school. When the noble Baroness replies perhaps she can say whether she sees that as a desirable aim and what the Government are doing to promote it.

With the exception of those questions, from these Benches we have pleasure in supporting the order.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their input and, as has been rightly said, their courtesy. Of one thing I can be certain: I have always spent considerable time pointing out to people, in relation to Clause 4 and opportunities for women, that it is always the quality that counts and not the quantity. The same can be said about our Northern Ireland representation in the House of Lords.
22 Jan 1996 : Column 859

I am constantly delighted by the commitment and the concern shown for the Province from the Benches opposite. That is something that is also respected and welcomed by Members from Northern Ireland. We seem to look at the overall as well as the individual legislation under review. Of course, we would like to see movement towards an opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to be involved in the legislation to a greater degree.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for the good wishes he sends to Senator Mitchell's commission. Anything we hope to achieve in Northern Ireland will be better achieved in an absolutely solid, peaceful atmosphere. In working towards a political solution, we bring benefit to the community as a whole. I shall take back to my honourable friend with responsibility for education those items on which noble Lords have expressed concern and where they would like to see further activity. I am sure that their views will be taken into account as we work forward.

Before I go into detail, perhaps I may say that one of the greatest treasures in Northern Ireland is the high level of education, which has benefited many. But at the same time as it benefits many, we have to be certain that we protect the individual who has less advantage. In bringing forward legislation on special needs, we are doing that.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, commented on the delay in bringing forward the provisions of the Education Act 1993. It is important that in Northern Ireland we have full and proper consultation. We have had that. It was extensive. I should not like to bring before the House Northern Ireland legislation on which we had not consulted. The noble Lord asked us to ensure that we consulted on the appointment of people to the tribunals. It is important that we listen. Changes have already been announced in appointments to public bodies in Northern Ireland. We have the advantage that it is easier in a Province of 1.6 million to talk to people quickly and to meet them quickly. The appointment of special educational needs tribunal chairmen and members will follow consultation with the Lord Chancellor and the chairman of the Bar. I shall pass on the noble Lord's comments to my honourable friend the Member for Devizes in another place.

The noble Lord referred to resources for special educational needs and asked how they are administered. Special education has recently substantially benefited from additional recurrent allocations of £2 million in 1994-95 and £3 million in 1995-96, plus additional teaching staff to the tune of £1.6 million. Among other things, that has funded a significant number of additional educational psychologists' posts, which is where it is estimated the greatest pressures currently lie. We increasingly have the benefit in Northern Ireland that people who would not have contemplated coming to the Province to take up a professional post are now able to recognise the quality of life. That also helps with the ability to fill posts. In the LMS funding arrangements allowance is made for pupils with special educational needs. That means that schools receive additional funding for such
22 Jan 1996 : Column 860
pupils. Under the financial delegation arrangements it is a matter for each school to decide how it makes use of these funds. The schools are accountable to parents at the annual parents' meeting. It is important that parents take responsibility. We encourage that. The provision made for pupils with special educational needs is looked at by the education and training inspectorate in the regular conduct of school inspections. Again I would stress that there is the benefit of closeness which allows us to be well aware of what is happening.

The education allowance under the public expenditure survey was good. The settlement for education gives an uplift of 3.5 per cent. and is still in real terms a plus of 0.7 per cent. Resources for schools are up almost 2 per cent. in real terms. The sooner we can take the costs of fighting terrorism totally off the agenda the more we can spend on the important matters of education, health and training. In the education and training areas we are already spending funds that were released from security forces' overtime. We should like to see it possible to take much more out of the security area to invest in the future of our people.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked about the volume of appeals we would expect in Northern Ireland. The record is extremely low compared with the number of appeals in England and Wales. For example, last year there were only four such appeals and the maximum number in any recent year has been 15. That compares with more than 1,000 appeals registered during the first year of operation of the tribunal for England and Wales. Our most generous estimate is that the appeal number in Northern Ireland may increase to some 50 a year under the new legislation because it rightly draws attention to rights which are available to parents. We believe that no problems are likely to arise in funding the tribunal at this level of operation. I assure the noble Lord that it is something of which we have been conscious. In bringing forward legislation later we can learn from practice here. We will be well able to protect the need to deal with them.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked about individual appeals and precedents. The essential purpose of the special educational needs tribunal is to determine individual appeals made by parents, not to establish precedents for use by boards. However, boards will take account of the tribunal's decisions in so far as these may affect and inform future decisions in similar cases. I shall ensure that my honourable friend takes note of the noble Lord's remarks. The consultation process required by Article 5(2) of the order will include all bodies, groups and individuals with an interest in special educational needs in Northern Ireland. We would find it difficult not to take those needs into account.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page