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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: When we were having our discussions in relation to the benefit payment card, I discussed that point. The problem is that not everybody has a bank account. We may then start to go down the road of forcing somebody to have a bank account.

The noble Earl is quite right that the problem is greatly helped if the payment is carried out by ACT. But equally the money has to be collected from the bank. I am pleased to hear that the noble Earl thinks that the banks have sound systems in place--apart from

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American ones. My personal experience does not lead me to quite the same confident position which the noble Earl has adopted. But he has a point about the advantages of ACT with regard to someone who cannot get to the post office to collect his benefit either through the existing system or a future system. The problem is that individual circumstances are so varied it is difficult to make hard and fast rules.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I thank the Minister for his sympathetic reply and the comments he made. I believe that all parties agree with the noble Earl as regards the point he raised about proxy votes and use of them. I did not think that we should achieve such agreement on the rest of the amendment. I am pleased that we have gone so far in the meeting of minds.

I should be pleased to hear the results of the Minister's discussions with his officials so that we can reassure those many organisations which work in this field that action is being taken. That would be extremely helpful. I shall make sure that the Minister receives information about particular cases so that he will be able to refer those to his officials.

I was pleased to hear the Minister say that he will consider the point raised by my noble friend Lord Carter. In the light of the progress made on the amendment, I beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Lucas: I beg to move that the House be now resumed. In moving that Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before five minutes past eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Finance Bill

Brought from the Commons, endorsed with the certificate of the Speaker that the Bill is a money Bill, read a first time, and to be printed.

Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill

Brought from the Commons, endorsed with the certificate of the Speaker that the Bill is a money Bill, and read a first time.

Education (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1996

7.4 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd December be approved.

The noble Baroness said: The order will provide for the introduction in Northern Ireland of a grant scheme for pre-school education; clarify the open enrolment

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provisions of the Education Reform (N.I.) Order 1989; make provision to allow changes to be made to the existing arrangements for home to school transport covered by the Education and Libraries (N.I.) Order 1986; and introduce some technical amendments to educational legislation to remove impediments to one type of contract which may be appropriate under the private finance initiative. It also makes a number of minor miscellaneous amendments to existing legislation.

The order was considered by a wide range of educational interests in Northern Ireland. All of their comments were carefully considered and as a result, a number of minor changes have been made to the draft order. I am grateful for the interest shown by those who took the trouble to respond.

I believe that it would be helpful to the House if I say a few words about the main provisions of the order. The draft order contains enabling powers for the introduction in Northern Ireland of a grant scheme for pre-school education. This scheme has already been the subject of corresponding legislation in respect of England, Wales and Scotland. While plans to introduce the scheme in Northern Ireland in September 1997 have had to be postponed for the moment, the Government remain committed to the introduction of the scheme as soon as the necessary resources can be made available. While this is a national scheme, it is intended that the detail of its operation in Northern Ireland will reflect local circumstances there.

The existing provisions relating to the admission of children to grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland are revised by this order, although there is no underlying change in open enrolment policy. The general principle remains that the intention of the legislation is to enable parents as far as possible to realise their preferences in terms of the schools they would like their children to attend.

Specifically, the new provisions will clarify that parental preference is constrained by the physical capacity of schools; that schools, other than in specified circumstances, should admit pupils up to the limit of their enrolment number; and that schools admissions criteria can be applied only where a school is oversubscribed with applications.

The main new change is the proposal to prohibit schools from using the order of parental preferences as part of their admissions criteria.

Amendments to the transport arrangements proposed under this order will enable the Department of Education to take the lead in determining the transport arrangements which are considered necessary for facilitating the attendance of pupils at grant-aided schools and relevant students at institutions of further education. Such transport would continue to be provided free of charge for those pupils and students eligible for transport assistance.

The amendment also enables boards to provide transport assistance for those pupils at grant-aided schools and relevant students attending institutions of further education, for whom transport is not considered necessary. Provision is made for boards to make charges for any transport provided and for charges to be remitted

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in certain circumstances. This provision is an enabling one and the department and education and library boards are currently investigating alternative ways in which savings might be achieved. The new power is, however, necessary should further savings in transport costs be judged necessary to protect classroom expenditure.

I should stress, however, that the Government consider that free transport will always be necessary for pupils of compulsory school age who are unable to gain a place in a suitable school within statutory walking distance of their home and there is no question of such pupils having to pay for transport.

The order also introduces some technical amendments to education legislation to remove some impediments to one type of contract which may be appropriate under the private finance initiative. Previous powers were drafted at a time when such contracts were not envisaged and some adjustments are necessary.

The PFI may apply in a wide variety of ways in the education sector but one particular possibility which is being explored is the provision of school accommodation under a contract whereby the private sector would design, build, finance, operate and maintain the school premises and provide a variety of associated services. In theory this could include all aspects excluding teaching.

The existing powers in respect of voluntary maintained schools need to be adjusted because they prescribe that the education and library boards must provide some of these services for these schools. Also they prescribe separate funding mechanisms for recurrent and capital grant for voluntary maintained and voluntary grammar schools which would be difficult to apply in respect of a PFI contract. No changes are needed to existing powers to facilitate PFI contracts in respect of controlled schools or further education colleges.

I must stress that these powers will only come into operation if and when a contract is agreed between the relevant contracting authority and the individual school and is approved by the department. This will only arise if a contract is affordable and represents good value for money, also if it incorporates the important principles of risk transfer which are central to the PFI.

These are the main provisions of the order, which I believe will help improve the education system in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd December be approved.--(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness, the Minister, for introducing this order with her characteristic clarity and care. She will not expect us on these Benches to welcome with any enthusiasm whatever a document which extends to Northern Ireland the drab and dreary prospect of nursery vouchers--heretofore graciously innocent of them--the main burden of this order.

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Those of us concerned with the progress of the Nursery Vouchers and Grant Maintained Schools Bill in your Lordships' House day after day and night after night last year take no delight in contemplating the advent of those dismal dockets in the Emerald Isle. Nevertheless, the extension of the scheme has been formally proposed and we must live with it as best we can for what we can only hope will be the briefest of all possible periods. It is the policy of my party to honour such vouchers as are issued, but to issue none of them ourselves if and when we become the Government.

I have read this order carefully and I have also read, with profit, the debate upon it by the Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation in another place. That debate raised many questions which were not answered, and I should be grateful if the Minister could elucidate at least some of them.

First, her honourable friend was asked about uniform holiday arrangements and the savings in transport costs which they might make. He replied that he was waiting for the boards to tell him the exact savings that could be made through the co-ordination of holidays. Can the noble Baroness tell the House what he has managed to discover?

Commenting on the private finance initiative provisions in the order, her honourable friend said:

    "It is early days for the PFI".
That drew the response from a Member of the Committee that it has been government policy now for five years, yet comparatively little has happened in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister tell us what has actually been achieved by the PFI in Northern Ireland?

Turning to the vexatious vouchers themselves, her honourable friend the Minister of State told the Committee that plans to introduce the voucher scheme in Northern Ireland in September 1996 had to be postponed to maintain and protect mainstream school and other education priorities. That phraseology is intriguing. What priorities were so urgent that the implementation of nursery vouchers had to be delayed for them, and when will the first nursery voucher now be issued?

Her honourable friend was later asked whether the voucher scheme would have the same value, regardless of whether there are qualified staff and regardless of whether the standards of accommodation were those required to meet educational criteria or those for child care. His reply was opaque, and I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could introduce an appropriate transparency.

He was also asked if he had signed a contract with a company called Capita to administer the scheme, worth £300,000 over a three-year period. He did not say yes; he did not say no. He did not say anything. Can the noble Baroness assist us with the relevant information and tell us whether any money has yet been spent on that contract or any similar one, which an incoming Government might have to cancel?

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