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In Northern Ireland we rejoice in the fact that, while the community charge, for example, was tried out as a pilot scheme for the rest of the United Kingdom, we were relieved of that particular problem. We had rather hoped that the same might be the case in respect of nursery vouchers. No more of that; it has already been mentioned.
I turn to a number of other issues. I see in them an extraordinary paradox in the way that the Government have approached matters. For example, take the matter of the PFI. I cannot for the life of me see why a developer should want to take on simply the provision of buildings. If they should take on not only the provision of buildings, but, as the noble Baroness has indicated, possibly almost all of the other services except for teaching, what precisely will the argument be to ensure that teaching should never come under that particular requirement?
Is one not simply moving in the direction of indicating that we should be talking about private schools? If the building, the maintenance, the management, the domestic services, the meals, security and all these other matters are to be dealt with in this way, including, presumably, secretarial staff, a librarian and an assistant in the classroom, how long will it be before in fact we are actually talking about a fully private school?
Of course, if one does not do that, then why on earth should private developers get involved? It has already been asked how far the PFI has gone in Northern Ireland. To my knowledge, in health, for example, where the issue has been available, there has not been very much progress, other than a car park provided at the Royal Victoria Hospital and one or two other bits and pieces. That is because, as private companies have looked at it, they have said that unless they are providing the whole package and the whole service, there is not a great deal in it for them. There has not been much progress in PFI in Northern Ireland in health, and I doubt very much if there will be very much progress in education either, unless one moves down the whole road.
If that is the current Government's intention, would it not be better to indicate that is the case? When people enter into programmes without knowing the whole story, they sometimes become very disenchanted with it. This is the case in the whole question of the local management of schools, for example. We find many people coming on to the boards of governors of schools--I see this at home in Belfast--with the intention of supporting teachers, not sacking them; with the intention of building and developing schools and services, not presiding over their deterioration and demise. Now in Northern Ireland they find themselves with recent cuts in education, with the calculation that perhaps 500 teaching jobs are at risk, with 15,000 children having to be moved into other classes to cope with the problem. These people, who came forward
In the case of choice, of open enrolment, which is another matter dealt with in this order, we find that parents are encouraged to look around to find the best school for their children. But then of course if that means travelling a distance, the Government says: "We have to introduce a charge for the transport". What does that mean? What it means is that only those who can afford to pay for their children's transport can pay for the opportunity of choice that has been introduced by the Government.
That is not in any way to say that good things are not happening. I know from representations in regard to Grosvenor Grammar School, Belmont Primary School and St. Bernard's Primary School in my own area that capital developments have taken place there. I am not one who is not prepared to give credit where it is due. There have been very good developments.
However, I fear there are serious problems in all of the areas referred to in this order, whether it is PFI, nursery vouchers, or open enrolment and the transport charges that come in its wake and make the choice that is proclaimed available only to those who can afford to pay for it. I have the deepest of reservations not about some of the hopes and desires for choice and greater benefit and the introduction of more moneys into the system but for the outcome of this order.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: I wish to say a few words about nursery vouchers. I realise that the question I am going to put is really a question for the accounting officer at the Northern Ireland Office. We are on the eve of a general election, as we all know. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, has made the position of a potential successor government clear; namely, that they would not pursue this scheme. The question arises, therefore, as to whether, once the Prime Minister announces the dissolution of Parliament, any steps will be taken to enter into new contracts in this area. If a successor government were to be elected and were to find that their predecessors had, notwithstanding the clear expression of their view, continued cheerfully to sign a contract when a large number of people in this country believe there is likely to be a change of government, that in my view would be a wholly improper way to spend public money.
What I am asking the noble Baroness to tell us is the following. What is likely to be the decision of her department in relation to the signing of any new contracts before the last date of this Parliament; namely, the 21st or 22nd May? Will she confirm that no new contracts would be signed in this area which would take effect after that date? Otherwise, in my view, the expenditure which would then arise would be an entirely improper way of committing public money. Perhaps she will confirm that that would be the position.
As regards savings resulting from the harmonisation of holidays, I regret I can bring no further detailed news. The boards are presently examining the scope for making savings and are discussing the practicalities of that with schools. It is not possible to say what savings will result until those discussions are complete, but it is hoped that the boards will have completed their discussions within the next few weeks and that such savings as may arise will be identified.
Noble Lords discussed the private finance initiative in education. In common with developments in education in Great Britain, no PFI contract has as yet been put in place. However, there are whole new areas of activity in education comprising projects of a smaller size which lead us to believe that progress can be made in that area. The Department for Education in Northern Ireland has established six pathfinder PFI projects, two in further education colleges and four in secondary schools. One of the FE projects--the North West Institute of Further and Higher Education--has reached the stage where three private sector consortia have lodged their bids for this £7 million capital project and a preferred bidder is scheduled to be selected by June 1997. The other FE project--the Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education--which is valued at £10 million has just formally been launched. The four schools projects are expected to be formally initiated following several months of detailed planning and preparation under EC procurement regulations. These will be launched in a few weeks' time.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, asked about opportunities for the private sector. We believe that buildings which are utilised for only part of the year offer opportunities for use outside school hours in this respect. I certainly have faith in the value of education in Northern Ireland. If there were an outcry that such measures would cover teaching, no one would wish to take that on.
As regards PFI, what has not been achieved has not been for want of trying. Much will happen in the next few months. Noble Lords asked what priorities rank above nursery vouchers. I got the feeling that they might have welcomed the postponement which we are proposing but they were not so gracious as to make that statement. The reason for the postponement is that it is important to ensure that we have the resources to meet the commitments to which we are already committed. That was the reason for the decision to postpone the measure; namely, to ensure that resources are available in the classroom. We had not envisaged that our decision would give the Opposition Benches such pleasure as we reached that decision reluctantly. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, that the contract has been arranged with Capita that Northern Ireland negotiates an opt in clause to the national contract when required and not before. Therefore nothing will be spent until such point as the vouchers are introduced. In the view of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, Capita will not receive income in the future from that project but we hope that will not be the case.
The value of the planned vouchers remains the same regardless of the setting--whether nursery schools or playgroups--in which they are used. Children will qualify for vouchers for one, two or three terms depending on the date on which they reach their fourth birthday. As noble Lords would expect, providers in all settings must meet the requirements in respect of staff qualifications and accommodation set out under the scheme before they can become registered voucher redeeming institutions.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, mentioned the disappointment of people who had joined governing bodies in order to participate in them. I regard this matter from a slightly different point of view. Due to the current pressure on law and order budgets in Northern Ireland it is not possible to bring more resources to this matter. We have discussed resources with the boards and the governing bodies and the people who are involved at the sharp end in making the relevant decisions. We are grateful to people who give up so much of their time to become involved in education.
The noble Lord was concerned that transport costs would limit parents' choice as regards the schools their children could attend. I do not feel as nervous about this matter as he does as there is an enormous number of good schools available in Northern Ireland. However, we have to be practical. We could allocate far more resources to education if we were not faced with bills for rebuilding schools that have been burnt down in periods of violence. Ministers take no pleasure in being subjected to pressures in allocating resources. The best way to ensure that more resources are available for education is a resumption of the cease-fire and an end to violence in Northern Ireland. This debate concerns an enabling measure in the education sector. I believe it will bring benefit to education in the Province of which we are all so proud.