HC Deb 09 December 1980 vol 995 cc881-97 10.14 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Philip Goodhart)

I beg to move, That the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, which was laid before this House on 28 October 1980 in the last Session of Parliament, be approved. Before I describe the scope of the order, I hope that I shall not be too far out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I welcome the appointment of the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) as the Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland. When I heard the news last night my first instinctive reaction was one of spontaneous delight. I am glad that his long and distinguished service in the Province has been recognised by the leader of his party. In between the 700 flights that he made while a Minister there, he made many friends in Northern Ireland, who, I am sure, share my delight at his appointment.

I do not wish to guide the Leader of the Opposition in any way, but I am sure that many will hope that this does not mean that the hon Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) will now be moved down from his responsibilities, for both in substance and in shadow he has served Northern Ireland well.

The order makes several amendments to the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, which is the principal enactment governing education in Northern Ireland. It also repeals certain redundant nineteenth century legislation.Of the various articles in the order, article 3 is the most significant. It will have the effect of replacing the duty on education and library boards to ensure chat sufficient nursery schools and classes are available in their areas by a discretionary power to provide nursery education. It will thus bring the Northern Ireland legislation into line with that for Great Britain—into line, that is, with the provisions of sections 24 and 25 of the Education Act 1980, and with what has always been the position in practice.

I should like to stress that the removal of the duty on education and library boards to secure the provision of education for the under-fives does not reflect any lessening of the Government's commitment to the value of nursery education in Northern Ireland. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that between September 1979 and September 1980 650 additional places were provided in nursery schools and classes, bringing the total there to almost 6,200. An additional 100 places will be provided later in this school year.

Another important factor is the number of other 4-year-olds in Northern Ireland schools. These currently number nearly 17,000, which, together with the 4-year-olds in nursery schools and classes, means that 77 per cent. of the 4-year-olds in Northern Ireland are provided with an early start to their education.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Is there a Government policy on the question of 4-year-olds who are Catholics or Protestants going to their nursery schools together? Do the Government have any view on this matter?

Mr. Goodhart

It so happens that the number of 4-year-olds who go to classes in controlled primary schools and those who go to classes in maintained primary schools is almost precisely the same. With regard to the provision of nursery school education, some children are in Protestant nursery schools and some are in Catholic nursery schools. I am assured that there are some mixed nursery schools as well. It is a matter of parental choice.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that there is no such thing as a Protestant nursery school? There are State nursery schools but not Protestant nursery schools.

Mr. Goodhart

I readily accept that point.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

Is it not disgraceful that infants between the ages of 3 and 5 years should be divided on religious lines? Will the Minister give the percentage of 3 to 5-year-olds in Northern Ireland who have places in nursery schools or nursery classes?

Mr. Goodhart

As I said, about 77 per cent. of 4-year-olds have primary or nursery school places. About 40 per cent. of 3 to 5-year-olds receive pre-school education.

It remains the Government's objective that when resources permit provision should be expanded to a level that ensures its availability to all nursery-aged children whose parents wish them to have it. Section 12 of the 1980 Act also provides that the discontinuance of nursery schools in England and Wales is subject to the approval of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. A similar amendment is unnecessary for Northern Ireland, because the existing provisions of article 11A of the 1972 order already require the approval of the Department of Education to the establishment or discontinuance of a nursery school or class.

That brings me to the removal of some of the Department of Education's supervisory powers over education and library boards. Hon. Members will appreciate that as boards are financed entirely from central funds it is not possible for them to have the same freedom of action as local authorities in England and Wales. However, articles 4 to 6 represent a modest relaxation of detailed control. Article 4 frees from departmental control the amount of fees that may be charged for board and lodging at primary, intermediate and special schools. This, in fact, is a purely technical point. Article 5 removes the requirement that library fines and certain charges for library services be authorised by regulations. Borrowing of books will continue to be free of charge. An Order in Council would be needed to change that. Article 6 removes the Department's detailed control over boards in respect of their organisation of and participation in education conferences.

The remainder of the order is of a technical or administrative nature. The purpose of article 7 is to make it clear that, in the case of educational maintenance allowances and boarding allowances, payments may be made to parents and, in the case of students' awards, payments of fees may be made direct to the institutions they attend. This, of course, already happens in practice. Article 8 will regularise the situation where by expenditure on free books for non-fee-paying pupils at controlled grammar schools has been on an extra-statutory basis since September 1978, when grammar school scholarships were abolished.

Essentially, article 9 is a restatement of existing law, which enables the Department to prescribe in regulations the rates of salaries and allowances payable to teachers. The Examiner of Statutory Rules has expressed doubts as to whether the existing provisions allow the Department the necessary discretionary powers to decide exceptional or individual matters, and an additional paragraph — paragraph (4)(b)—has therefore been inserted to deal with the Examiner's criticism. This makes explicit provision for salaries and allowances, in cases where it is proper to do so, to be calculated upon a basis determined by the Department.

To sum up, these three articles—articles 7, 8 and 9—are technical amendments, which do not represent any change in either policy or practice.

The other articles tidy up the statute book by removing unnecessary provisions.

I commend the order to the House.

10.26 pm
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I echo the Minister's remarks about my right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon). Having served with my right hon. Friend in the Northern Ireland Office, I know that he will do a first-class job. I am sure that the House would like to wish his predecessor—my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John)—well in his exacting new job.

At first glance the order may appear to be an updating and progressive measure, bringing Northern Ireland into line with twentieth century education practices, especially if we look at article 10, which is to repeal no fewer than four nineteenth century Acts. Indeed, one is 167 years old. But on closer examination the order is seen to be more one of retrenchment and retrogression in educational services, certainly in the main article, article 3.

There is one bright spot that we should applaud. One of the main provisions in the proposal when first published is no longer before the House. Thanks to the good sense of hon. Members on both sides of the House, but more particularly the good sense of Members of another place, the school transport proposals have been withdrawn. If that article had remained, the hardships already experienced by families in Northern Ireland would manifestly have been made worse.

Before I turn to the principal effect of the order I should like to refer to article 5, which is ostensibly a technical rearrangement of the powers to impose fines for overdue books. I question whether giving individual education and library boards the power to levy fines, and removing the role of the Department of Education in such decisions, will not lead to an increase in those fines.

All the boards in the Province have made drastic cuts in their budgets this year. Under the article, what is to stop them from raising money from fines and other library service charges? For example, the Belfast education and library board has already reduced its spending this year by £2½ million, and there has been a 16 per cent. reduction in travel expenditure by the Western education and library board.

Clearly, the boards are suffering from a cash crisis as a result of Government policies. Consequently, I should like an assurance that the new power given to the boards will not result in prohibitive increases in library fines and general library charges in an attempt to raise additional funds. Any backhanded taxes on the use of books by the people of Northern Ireland, who are already starved of leisure resources, will be strongly resisted by the Opposition and, more important, by the library users.

I turn to the principal effect of the order, resulting from article 3. I was surprised and bemused by the Minister's comments about the Government's intentions on nursery education. He told us that the Government's aim was not to downgrade nursery education. On the contrary, they would have us believe that the provision of nursery places is high on their list of educational priorities. I believe that the converse is true.

It is plain from article 3, which replaces a duty on education and library boards to provide nursery places with a mere discretionary power, that the Government have not the least intention of increasing the number of nursery places. Instead they are providing a channel whereby the boards can reduce the number of nursery places when the exigencies of cash limits and cuts force them to curtail services to the public.

I believe that behind the order lies a multitude of sins. I totally reject the false logic that the abolition of a legal obligation, however loosely that obligation has been applied in the past, will lead to an increase in the number of nursery places. Once discretionary power replaces an obligation, the encouragement to provide education facilities for the under-fives is largely removed, especially in this difficult economic climate.

In saying that, I join the Minister in welcoming the fact that the number of nursery places provided in Northern Ireland has increased by 650 in the year up to September. That followed an increase of 625 the year before. I draw different conclusions from the Minister. I believe that is clear evidence that the obligation to provide nursery places has had an effect in Northern Ireland, despite the unrelenting curtailment of public expenditure by the Government. But I have grave doubts about any further increase in the provision of nursery places within the province. Without the force of obligation, the education and library hoards will be faced by no statutory obstacle when planning cuts in nursery services.

I do not wish to be accused of unnecessarily tolling the death knell for nursery education in Northern Ireland, nor am I being unduly alarmist about a substitution of words, but there is clear evidence that the operation of discretionary power in the Education Act 1980 relating to mainland Britain has to date acted to the detriment of the nursery service. I am sure that hon. Members representing constituencies on which it has already had that effect will testify to that.

It is too early to project for next year the exact number of available nursery places on the mainland. However, the indications are that there will be a serious and sustained reduction in the nursery service.

Last August the Secretary of State for Education and Science approved two closures—one in Coventry and the other in Hereford and Worcester. For the coming financial year significant cuts are proposed in nursery education on a wider scale, notably in East Sussex, which has already projected the closure of all nursery schools and classes by 1982–3. In Northamptonshire, one in three nursery places will face the axe. Somerset plans to deplete the nursery service by as much as 50 per cent.

That sort of evidence leads me and my colleagues to conclude that the operation of a discretionary power regarding the provision of nursery education has only one tangible outcome: a gradual but inevitable reduction in the number of available places in nursery schools and classes. All the indications show that the removal of an obligation to provide nursery places is operating to the general detriment of nursery education in mainland Britain.

Can the Minister give an assurance tonight that similar circumstances will not prevail in Northern Ireland within the next six to 12 months? I doubt whether he can give such an assurance. I believe that if he were to do so it would be wishful thinking on his part, because article 3 has and can have only one meaning: that the future of the nursery education service in Northern Ireland will be none other than one of depletion and rundown. Unquestionably this constitutes a back-banded and back-door public expenditure cut.

In this matter our concern is given both purpose and direction by the dire social needs of the people of Northern Ireland. The Opposition have reiterated times without number—I am sure that hon. Members present are sick of hearing it—that Northern Ireland is unique in the scale of social deprivation that prevails upon its people. The Province has a higher rate of unemployment, at 15.9 per cent., than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It has higher energy costs, higher prices, lower wages and larger households than any other part of the United Kingdom. In short, the nature and proportions of poverty are manifestly larger than in any other region. As there are more poor, so there are more disadvantage children entering schools. Nursery schools are one answer to the ever-expanding problem.

However, in Northern Ireland only 4 per cent. of children under the age of 5 receive nursery education. A mother in England has four times the chance of day care for her child, including care in pre-nursery school groups, and 18 times the chance of putting her child into a nursery school. A report published under the aegis of Lord Melchett in 1977 called "Day Care and Education for Children in Northern Ireland" states chat for every 10,000 children under 5 in Northern Ireland there are 447 nursery places. For every 10,000 children under 5 in England there are 1,152 nursery places. The increases in places in Northern Ireland in the last few years are a drop in the ocean. A total of 38,000 places are required to meet the need. The situation in the Province is a disgrace. Every effort should be made to remedy it.

We are far from alone in our criticism of article 3. The education and library boards have expressed grave concern, as have the trade unions, particularly the teaching unions. The parents' associations have also voiced serious doubts about the implications of article 3. The Minister cannot be unaware of the strong advice from the Northern Ireland Department of Education's specially commissioned working party on social priority schools. That report clearly and positively states that nursery schools have an important part to play in areas of deprivation and social priority.

Institutions and churches have declared that they are in favour of increased nursery education. I refer to the Church Board of the Presbyterian Assembly, and the South-East education and library board. The Official Unionists, through their spokesman, William Bell, an ex-mayor of Belfast, say that it is outrageous that there should be any curtailment of nursery services The SDLP has said that a U-turn is involved, and the Republican clubs have made similar statements.

The greater level of poverty in Northern Ireland necessitates a greater level of nursery education. Article 3 will not lead to such an increase. The reverse is true. The available evidence on the operation of a discretionary power for the provision of nursery schools in mainland Britain clearly suggests that a depletion in service is likely to result if a similar change is made in Northern Ireland. Whatever the doubts now, the education boards will soon regard nursery education as less essential than some other education provisions. To remove the reqirement to ensure that sufficient nursery places are available and to replace it with a discretionary power will remove for good, under present economic circumstances, any possibility of nursery services being improved.

Article 3 is bad news for nursery schools in Northern Ireland. It is bad news for the Province, which has to bear such a heavy burden of economic and social deprivation. For those reasons we shall withhold support for the measure.

10.39 pm
Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I shall concentrate on article 3, which removes the duty on education boards to provide nursery schools in Northern Ireland. It makes nursery school provision different in law from primary school, secondary school and higher education provision.

It was right of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) to remind the House that we are debating this order against a background of dire social need, heavy unemployment and a lower standard of living in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

At present, an education board in Northern Ireland is required, as a duty, to provide whatever primary and secondary schools are needed in the area. The board is also required to meet the demand for further education, whatever it may be. Where a board fails to carry out those functions it could be in dereliction of either a duty or a responsibility.

However, under article 3, an education board will have neither a duty nor a responsibility to provide nursery education in future. A board does not even have to submit a scheme for nursery education, as it does for stationery and books in controlled schools, as mentioned in article 8, or for further education under article 26 of the original 1972 education order.

Despite the fact that until now there was a duty on education boards — it is right to stress this point—to ensure that sufficient nursery schools and places were provided in Ulster, today there is still a deplorable lack of nursery provision. There are countless parents who seek unsuccessfully for a place for their child in a nursery school or class. That situation cannot be tolerated.

There must be about 40,000 children in Northern Ireland within the 3 to 5-year-old age group, yet according to an answer given to me recently there are places for fewer than 40 per cent. of those children. Of course, the ambitious 1975 programme, which the previous Tory Government launched and which should have provided 150 nursery schools in a period of three years simply failed to materialise. The reason is clear. Since 1975, there has been a reduction in the amount of money available for education in the Province. That is an indictment of a Government who are prepared to invest billions of pounds in nuclear weapons rather than in the children who deserve the best that we can provide for them.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Oh, really.

Mr. Kilfedder

The hon. Gentleman may disagree—

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I do.

Mr. Kilfedder

—but it is much better to invest in life and the future than in the possibility of nuclear destruction. For example, billions of pounds have been spent on a replacement for Polaris.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

What life will we have if we have no defence?

Mr. Kilfedder

The situation with regard to lack of nursery schools was made bearable by the provision of nursery places for children under 5 in some primary schools. That was possible where there was spare accommodation and teachers. However, even those nursery places are now endangered—I should like the Minister to deal with this point—by the savage public expenditure cuts in Northern Ireland, as a result of which fewer teachers will be employed by the education boards. I want an absolute assurance from the Minister that those nursery places will be increased during the next 12 months.

Whether or not the duty to provide nursery education is compulsory or discretionary, it is clear that none will be provided without Government money. It is not the fault of the education boards, because unless they are provided with money from the Department of Education they cannot provide the nursery places or the schools.

But there is one hidden and perhaps unintended advantage in removing the duty on a board to provide nursery education. Regrettably, the intransigence of some clergy has stopped the development of non-denominational nursery schools in Northern Ireland. Like primary and secondary schools, existing nursery schools are now dominated and separated along traditional sectarian lines. I regret that very much.

It was bad enough to have the entire school-going population in Northern Ireland separated at the age of 5 along sectarian lines. Now we have children separated at the age of 3, and the next move, logically, would be the separation of maternity wards into two religious groups. I had hoped that at least nursery schools would escape the denominational blight.

Perhaps the amendment in this order provides the opportunity at last to wean away nursery schools from sectarian control. As I see it, the new situation created by the amendment means that education boards will no longer be under a duty to provide nursery schools, and that where they do so provide nursery schools it must be in non-sectarian, non-denominational schools, and any Church-owned or Church-controlled nursery school will, as I interpret the amendment, henceforth be regarded as an independent school.

I should like the Minister to deal with that very serious point.

10.45 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I shall be the third hon. Member intervening in this debate to offer a welcome to the new Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland — silent though he remains, perhaps wisely, on this first occasion. During his lengthy service in Northern Ireland under the previous Administration, he won golden opinions and is still warmly remembered for his qualities of common sense, determination and good will. In whatever the right hon. Gentleman did there was no mistaking his real and lively desire to serve the people for whom he had responsibility.

Now that this order in its previous form has been eviscerated by the removal of any reference to school transport, naturally much of the discussion has centred upon article 3. I do not feel, however, that a case can be made out by those who argue that the cause and case of nursery schools and nursery places is damaged by the abolition of what must always have been a bogus "duty" to provide "sufficient" places.

The Minister informed the House that in the previous year and the year before there had been a substantial increase in the number of such places. So presumably previously sufficient places were not being provided, although there was a statutory duty to do so, and the statutory duty has done nothing whatsoever to secure it. More than one speech in this debate has drawn attention to the continuing inadequacy of nursery school places—the fact that there are no more than 40 per cent. of the children aged between 3 and 5 and 77 per cent. of those aged between 4 and 5 in such places. Yet it must be assumed, on the basis of the statute as it stood, that those places were sufficient. Those who argue that those places are insufficient are in fact saying that it was perfect nonsense to have had a duty written into the law which is not written into the corresponding legislation in this part of the kingdom.

I should have thought that all hon. Members know perfectly well what is the real sanction upon failure to provide nursery places and what is the pressure which will, I am certain, result in a continued expansion of the number of such places, even under present conditions. It is the determination of parents to secure such places for their children. Those who represent rural areas will be aware of the unceasing pressure exerted by parents upon them and upon others to secure places for their children. Indeed, primary education in the rural areas would be severely lamed if there were not this really very substantial provision, admittedly, mostly not in nursery schools which are no doubt more appropriate to urban areas but in nursery classes in the primary schools.

In short, my hon. Friends and I do not believe that the progress which is necessary will be in any way interfered with or halted—it might even conceivably be the other way round—by the removal of a meaningless duty to provide a meaningless quantum of nursery places.

A word of welcome should be offered to that part of article 9 which takes account of the criticism levelled by the Examiner of Statutory Rules for Northern Ireland at previous regulation-making. The examiner labours diligently in the service of the House and of Northern Ireland. Prom time to time we take a number of his reports together and ventilate them in the Northern Ireland Committee. Obviously that can be done only at relatively long intervals, but his careful examination of orders and his determination to ensure that order-making powers are not misused are of valuable assistance to hon Members in doing what, in the last resort, is our duty, namely, to see that the powers of subordinate legislation are not abused. We should welcome the fact that he has scored the hit that is recorded by article 9.

On article 10 the Opposition spokesman referred to the nineteenth century enactments which were being repealed as spent. He did so with a somewhat derogatory reference to the provision for education in the nineteenth century. Even if it is not necessary for his education, it is desirable to place upon the record that in the middle of the last century public education in the island of Ireland was a whole generation in advance of public education in this country. Those who are familiar with Northern Ireland will be aware that throughout Northern Ireland can be seen the monuments of that provision in the admirable primary schools, built to a similar but not to an invariable pattern, many of them attractive pieces of architecture, which were erected in order to provide public education at a time when that was scarcely dreamt of in this island.

Mr. Dalyell

In England and Wales.

Mr. Powell

I am sorry if I have infringed the susceptibilities of the inhabitants of another kingdom. I could have gone further and drawn attention to the fact that in Wales intermediate and secondary education was long in advance of the corresponding education in England. I was letting this part of the kingdom off lightly, however, and I apologise to Scottish colleagues.

Mr. Pendry

I think that the right hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. I said that at first glance it might appear that this was a progressive measure, but that on further examination it proved not to be so.

Mr. Powell

The hon. Gentleman can be regarded as having made his amende honorable for having failed to take the opportunity to indicate that there was once a period—perhaps still is — when State education in Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole was setting the pace for other parts of the United Kingdom.

I refer in conclusion, for it is a significant and constitutionally important matter, to the apparently minor articles 4 to 6, which reduce, as the Minister explained, the supervision of the Secretary of State over the administration and performance of their duties by the education and library boards. I am not sure that the trend which is evinced on an extrememly small scale by articles 4 to 6 is one that should be welcomed.

The Minister rightly said that the status of those boards is different from that of local education authorities in the rest of the kingdom in that they are 100 per cent. agents of the Minister in performing the duties and rendering the services for which he is answerable to this House, but perhaps I may illustrate by a certain example what I mean by the real constitutional importance of the point involved.

I had occasion recently to urge upon the noble Lord Elton, who is the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland, the desirability of so rearranging priorities of capital expenditure that it would not be necessary to close the learner swimming pool in Downpatrick—an apparently not unimportant, yet not so very major, matter. I received a reply from the noble Lord, from which I shall quote one or two sentences. He said: I consider that the Education and Library Boards, as the education and library authorities for their areas are in the best position to assess the relative merits of competing local needs and demands, and to decide their own priorities within any guidance given by Government and within the financial resources available. After further argumentation, he concluded: In this case I am satisfied that the Board has acted reasonably in its consideration of the matter and I am prepared to accept its judgment of the relative priorities. I would like the House to linger for a moment on those concluding words I am prepared to accept its judgment of the relative priorities. What Minister, writing to an hon. Member of the House or answering a debate in the House, would say of the civil servants in his Department that they had considered the matter very carefully, that they had weighed it up, and that he was prepared to accept their judgment of the relative priorities"? No Minister could say such a thing. He would immediately be told that the responsibility was not theirs, but his. That is exactly the position of the Secretary of State in Northern Ireland in relation to every aspect of the education and library service. He is responsible, whether he likes it or not, for the priorities. He is answerable for the decisions that are taken—not only in general, and not only for the broad totals within which the Treasury obliges him to work, but for the decisions that are taken within those totals. He cannot pass that responibility off by saying that the boards are the authorities. The boards are not the authorities in the sense of education authorities in this part of the United Kingdom.

Of course, the boards are composed, for the most part, of admirable people who are well informed, well intentioned and who contribute of their best. That is not the point. The point: is that they are in no position to take responsibility. They have no responsibility to the electorate and they have no responsibility for expenditure. That is not their fault: it is the fact of the position. In so far as decisions on the expenditure of this public money and on the provision of those services in Northern Ireland are taken by boards, those decisions are, in the literal, constitutional sense of the term, irresponsible decisions.

I do not believe that a Minister is entitled, therefore, to shelter behind the views and the judgments of a board. If he cannot accept those judgments and justify them in his own person, he should change them. If he accepts them, he should justify them in his own person without reference to the board.

There is one remedy, and one remedy only, for that constitutional gap. It is that the boards should be given responsibility in the same way as the corresponding local education authorities in this part of the kingdom have responsibility, namely, by the majority of them at least being elected and, consequently, responsible to the electors, and by the expenditure which they control being in part raised upon their authority. Without local election and without local finance there can be no responsibility on the part of local bodies.

I hope that you will not feel, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is too large a matter to have been ventilated within the scope of the order. In three of its articles the order is expressly for swearing the responsibility of the Department to supervise the actions of the boards. That may be satisfactory from the point of view of economy and convenience of administration, but the House should be aware that there is an important constitutional principle involved which falls to be dealt with within the contract of Northern Ireland. It falls to be dealt with by giving to the people of Northern Ireland educational administration upon the same basis as education is administered on this island.

11 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I associate myself with the remarks of those who have preceded me in congratulating the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon), who has taken on responsibilities for Northern Ireland as the Opposition spokesman. The people of Northern Ireland know the right hon. Gentleman. They know of his labours, of his energy and of his good will towards them. Although I have had personal differences with him in the past—no doubt I will have in future—I welcome his appointment. We regret that his appointment means that his colleague, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John), will speak no longer for Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman took a keen interest in the Province and set out to ascertain the views of all parties in the Province.

I cannot accept the thesis of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) that because the statutory obligation on the boards was not fully carried out it will help them to carry out their responsibilities if we make them discretionary. The figures that have been placed before us—namely, 500 places in every 10,000—indicate that there are not sufficient places in nursery education in Northern Ireland. If the boards were not prepared to shoulder their responsibilities and to discharge them when they had a statutory obligation to do so, we cannot expect them to become over-excited, to take off their coats and to roll up their sleeves when they operate on a discretionary basis.

The figures for the 3 to 5-year-olds are serious. They reveal that Northern Ireland has been neglected in nursery education and will be more neglected in future. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) spoke of the black backcloth of the social environment in Northern Ireland. It should be known to hon. Members that many mothers who would like to stay at home to look after their young children are forced to go out to work to try to bring up the family budget to a level that will enable them to bring some comfort to their family. This is an important issue that should not be passed over.

The Government are not helping by bringing forth this order. The original draft order was even more serious, because it would have taken away the free transport from children attending primary and secondary schools. We are grateful to the other place. Some people would like to abolish it. However, I am pleased that it has not been abolished and was able to deal with the matter. The people of Northern Ireland owe a debt to the other place. Bills have gone through this House in years gone by that were killed in the other place. I am glad that that provision was, too.

Promises have been made to rural schools in Northern Ireland that if they close certain privileges will be guaranteed and the children will be transported to the schools that they will be forced to attend. Those promises would have been in jeopardy.

We should emphasise that we are very concerned about the decision under article 3. I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South about article 3, but I agree about the other three articles. I, too, do not like the fact that the Minister seems to be contemplating passing the buck. He would be able to say in reply to representations that it was a decision of the board. Public representatives in Northern Ireland are sick, sore and tired of Ministers saying that this or that is a board decision. They cannot defend the decision when faced with the facts.

I do not agree that the people who comprise the boards are well informed and well intentioned. Many are neither. Those of us who have experienced rural schools being closed have been amazed to find board members who do not even live in the area, and some have never had a family. They are either bachelors or spinsters. They take great delight in closing down rural schools. Such people should not be on the boards.

It is amazing that if someone loses an election in Northern Ireland and happens to belong to the Alliance Party he will be nominated to the education board. I could give illustrations. A defeated candidate who is approved of by the Minister will have strings pulled to get him on to the board. That person is not elected, but gets on the board by a co-opting system. I totally oppose such practices.

The remedy is a return to proper devolved government in Northern Ireland. The system that resulted from the report should be tied in to a proper local structure.

11.7 pm

Mr. Goodhart

A number of hon. Members have referred to the article that got away—the article in the original draft, which related to school transport and charges thereto. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) reminded the House that the clause in the Education (No. 2) Bill was removed in another place. Perhaps those in another place were influenced not by the powerful speech that I made on Second Reading but by that of the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux). Anyhow, I would not wish to take credit from him on that point. He made a most powerful point.

There has been an alliance between the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman in casting doubt on the Government's intentions with regard to articles 4, 5 and 6. It has been suggested that we are trying to pass the buck without transferring real powers to the library boards. We are not trying to pass the buck, but we are trying to cut down on the passing of letters. It does not seem to be sensible that every item relating to a change in the fine for the non-return of a book to a library or every item for the arrangement of an education conference should have to be referred from the education and library board to the Department of Education, it is sensible to leave decisions on these matters to the library boards, and thus reduce, an excessive volume of administration.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) took leave of his normal good common sense when he suggested that the education and library boards were likely to make good any deficiencies in their financial allocations in the coming year by imposing draconian fines on those who were a little ate in returning their books to the library shelves. I think that one can trust the good sense of the ladies and gentlemen concerned. Perhaps one or two have been unsuccessful at district council elections at some time in the recent past.

However, most of the discussion on this order has naturally turned on article 3. The right hon. Member for Down. South was right when he said that the legal requirement to provide nursery places for every child in Northern Ireland—as for every child in the rest of the United Kingdom—as was the case before the passage of the Education Act 1980, was a bogus right, which no one had believed existed. However, there can be no doubt that once that legal obligation had become common knowledge the library boards and the Government would have been open to litigation. While the existence of this legal right would not have provided a single nursery school place, it might have provided a large number of legal cases, which would have taken a great deal of time to sort out.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde quite rightly drew attention to the fact that the need for education at the pre-5-year-old level is greater in Northern Ireland than it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom. He went on to parade some statistics, and suggested that provision for the education of the under-fives was grossly lacking. When one takes into account the provision that there is for under-fives in the primary schools, the position in Northern Ireland can be seen to be a great deal better than it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

In England, the provision for the under-fives is for 58 per cent. of the children, whereas in Northern Ireland it is for 77 per cent. The differential is most certainly in favour of Northern Ireland, and I have no doubt that when we consider the allocation for education in Northern Ireland For the coming financial year we shall find that that differential in favour of Northern Ireland will be maintained, and even expanded.

I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, which was laid before this House on 28 October 1980 in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.

  1. ANGUILLA BILL [Lords] 40 words