HL Deb 16 July 1984 vol 454 cc1242-55

7.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Lyell)

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1984 be agreed to. This order, which was laid before the House on 7th June 1984, amends the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1972; and it incorporates in that order the procedures, contained in the Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1978, whereby certain grant-aided schools may become controlled integrated schools. The order enacts various recommendations contained in three important reports: first, the Astin Report on the management of schools in Northern Ireland; secondly, the Benn Report on voluntary schools in Northern Ireland; and, indirectly, the Warnock Report on the education of handicapped children and young people in Great Britain.

The order received considerable attention in Northern Ireland. It was considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly and commented on by some 150 other bodies and individuals. My honourable friend also met deputations from two of the Northern Ireland political parties. Arising from this wide-ranging consultation, 10 changes of substance have been made. The order is, as your Lordships will see, fairly long and detailed. Therefore I hope your Lordships will forgive me if at the outset I speak only to the broad principles of the order.

The Government announced in March 1981 that they had accepted most of the recommendations of the report of the working party on the management of schools in Northern Ireland. This will be more familiar to your Lordships as the Astin Report. The most significant of the Astin recommendations was that parents and assistant teachers should be represented, as of right, on the boards of governors of all grant-aided schools. These recommendations were given a general welcome, although views differed as to the proportions in which the various categories of membership should be represented on the boards of different types of school.

The Government's proposals for the future composition of boards of governors were first announced in September 1981 and they were translated into legislative form in the proposal which was published on 1st July 1983. It was obvious from the comments which were received that in particular transferors' representatives on the management bodies of controlled schools and the trustees of voluntary schools remained dissatisfied with their share of the total memberships of their respective boards of governors.

In the light of the views which were expressed, the transferor representation on the smallest board of governors of controlled primary and intermediate schools has been increased from three to four. This increases the voting membership of those boards to nine. In the case of the smallest board of governors of a maintained school and of a voluntary grammar school which has entered into an agreement with the department, or an education and library board, the number of members representative of the trustees or foundation governors has been increased from five to six. This increases their voting memberships to 10. I would add that there has been no change in the required numbers of parent and teacher governors.

Parents and assistant teachers who will be elected to the school board of governors by fellow parents and teachers must be given a responsible role in school management. The importance of that role, I am sure your Lordships will agree, cannot be enshrined in legislation. It is a role which must be developed by all members of the school board working together to further promote the welfare of the school and its pupils. We hope that the new school boards of governors will take the opportunity which is presented by this legislation to contribute in what we hope will be a meaningful way to the efficient management of their schools.

Aside from changes in the composition of boards of governors, the order implements a number of other recommendations contained in the Astin Report. To take one example, Article 25 requires school authorities to prepare schemes setting out the procedures for the suspension and expulsion of pupils. This article expresses the working party's concern about the urgent need for clarification and greater precision concerning suspensions and expulsions. As all of your Lordships will be aware, this is a very difficult area. Education and library boards have a statutory responsibility to ensure that children of compulsory school age are provided with suitable education and also to ensure their attendance. Voluntary school authorities do not have such responsibilities. Because of the contrasting nature of the different school authorities it is important to establish procedures which will, so far as is possible, be common to all grant-aided schools.

To achieve that end, Article 25 which is before us this evening will empower the Department of Education to prescribe certain fundamental matters which must be common to all schemes. Article 34 of what was the published proposal but which in fact is now Article 33 of the draft order contained a provision which would have given an education and library board the power to appeal to the department where it considered the board of governors of a controlled school was acting unreasonably in not giving consent to the redeployment of a teacher. The provision was based on a recommendation of Astin, but it was strenuously opposed by controlled school interests on the grounds that it was unacceptable that there should be a statutory provision whereby controlled schools could be required to accept teachers from voluntary schools while voluntary schools retained absolute control over their own teaching appointments. In the light of these views, my honourable friend concluded that the provision should be removed from the order.

I mentioned earlier the Benn Report on voluntary schools. Your Lordships may be aware that this recommended that voluntary grammar schools which become non-selective should have the choice of either having their revenue expenditure financed under the maintained school system or continuing to receive their recurrent grant direct from the Department of Education. Your Lordships will see that Articles 7 to 11 enable a school to exercise that choice and, if it wishes, to change its initial choice. The Benn Report also contained certain other recommendations which the Government accepted for the simplification of the present complex system of recurrent grant distribution to voluntary grammar schools. Your Lordships will see that Article 30 provides for its replacement by the block grant system.

May I now turn to the provisions in the order which amend the law on special education in line with the amendments which have already been made in Great Britain. Those amendments were based on recommendations of the Warnock Committee on the education of handicapped children and young people. While the committee was concerned only with Great Britain, the Government believe that many of the changes in the law which have been made in Great Britain are also relevant to Northern Ireland. In particular, there is no reason why the concept of special educational treatment for children categorised in one of 10 particular types of handicap should not be replaced by the new wider concept of special educational provision based on the special educational needs of individual children. The strong arguments which the Warnock Report put forward for this change of emphasis apply equally to Northern Ireland. The real need is that the teacher should have a clear statement of what is required to meet the needs of each child with serious learning difficulties.

There is also no reason why parents and children in Northern Ireland should not have the same protection in the arrangements for assessments and making statements of special educational needs as has been considered necessary in Great Britain. Parents of course have always been closely involved in the decision-making process where it was thought that their children might need special education; but this legislation makes specific provision for parents to be able to make their views known, and above all to talk to the professionals who are involved.

The order also includes the statement of principle that wherever possible children with special educational needs should be educated in ordinary schools. The integration of such children in ordinary schools has been a feature of special education in Northern Ireland for many years; but the Government hope that the statement of principle enshrined in legislation will provide a further stimulus. Clearly not all children with learning difficulties can be educated in ordinary schools and there will continue to be a need for separate special schools for some children.

These changes make up the bulk of the draft order that is before us this evening. There is also a large number of miscellaneous amendments. Of these miscellaneous amendments, perhaps I might draw your Lordships' attention to Article 27. This re-enacts existing legislation relating to the provision of milk, meals or other refreshment at grant-aided schools and institutions of further education and makes the service subject to arrangements approved by the Department of Education, instead of regulations, The arrangements to be approved by the Department of Education will, among other things, lay down requirements for the standard of school meals to be provided. Provision is also made in Article 27 to require facilities to be provided for pupils to eat food which they have brought with them to school.

If there are any other matters on which your Lordships would like information, I shall do my best to deal with them. I shall be keen to hear the views of the House and will do my best to answer any questions. I commend the order to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th June be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

7.20 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, on the 6th July when the House debated the Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1984 my noble friend Lord Underhill, anticipating the evening when this very lengthy, diverse and complex order would come before your Lordships' House, once again voiced criticism of procedures of Government which rely on Orders-in-Council which are not exposed to detailed scrutiny and which are unamendable. Indeed, this is the essential criticism which is constantly levelled against the use of Orders-in-Council in the Government of Northern Ireland. I believe that this criticism is relevant in the context of this order.

I have also been reading the Report of the Northern Ireland Assembly on the proposals as they then were which lead to the draft order. Generally speaking, the parties who gave written or oral evidence to the Assembly's Education Committee are broadly in sympathy with most of the new articles. I think it is appreciated that some of the articles create valuable new rights for parents and for teachers. But we have also picked up evidence of concern. There are grounds of concern about one or two of the provisions in the order. There is profound concern that the Government have missed a great opportunity to grant to severely mentally handicapped children the right to education in schools alongside their non-handicapped peers. I propose to return to this point.

The changes which the noble Lord the Minister has described in the management structure of the schools as recommended by the Astin Report are clearly supported although as the noble Lord expects there are reservations on numerous points of detail such as the total membership of the Board of Governors or how it should be comprised. There is particular welcome for the principle that both teacher and parent governors will be elected by secret ballot. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House when these proposals will be implemented.

There is also support for the provision to establish procedures to govern the suspension and expulsion of pupils referred to by the Minister—again, another Astin recommendation relating to a very difficult area. But we have picked up comments by a number or parties who argue that the procedures, although obviously welcomed, are no substitute for effective counselling and guidance, but the latter would of course involve additional expenditure.

There is widespread disappointment at the failure of the Government to make additional resources available to ensure that parts of the order are effectively implemented. This comes out very clearly in the comments on special educational provision based on the special educational needs of individual children. Again, the same message comes through in the comments on the principle that children with special education needs should wherever possible be educated in ordinary schools. These principles are of course widely accepted, and, to some degree, applied in Northern Ireland.

But one cannot substantially increase the level of integration without new resources being made available. If the new resources are not made available the ideal envisaged by the order will not be achieved. Indeed it has been said by some witnesses that the department is raising expectations of both educationalists and parents of children with special needs which cannot be achieved, at least in the short term, as the additional funding is not being made available. Indeed, one organisation which gave evidence suggests that the implementation be deferred until extra finances are quantified and made available for the purpose, but I do not know that we would go along with deferment. I appreciate that the Government consider that the provisions can be achieved without additional resources, but I am bound to say that that has been challenged by witness after witness.

I wish to refer in some detail to the widespread criticism of Article 16 which gives effect to the new Article 25E which relates to "children unsuitable for education at school", and which I accept is not a new provision. It is a restatement of the existing law. But this is the article which has attracted the strongest criticism and it is therefore clearly one of the most crucial provisions of the order.

The noble Lord the Minister referred to the Warnock Report, but 10 years after the publication of the Warnock Report parents of mentally handicapped children and teachers and voluntary organisations with a special interest in the mentally handicapped child find it difficult, unbelievable, that in one corner of the land the education department of central Government still accepts that there are children who are unsuitable for education at school and that this order should be a vehicle for perpetuating the exclusion of severely mentally handicapped children from the educational system. What is relevant in England, Wales and Scotland is equally relevant in the conditions of Northern Ireland. There are parents of mentally handicapped children in Northern Ireland supported by teachers and others who condemn the whole philosophy embodied in Article 25E. They go beyond that. They consider that it constitutes a denial of a human right and they are determined that this injustice should end.

My attention has also been drawn to a research study carried out in 1982 and 1983 by Eamon Dwyer of Ulster Polytechnic, and Mr. Swann of the Open University, into the education facilities provided by the Health and Social Services boards for the mentally handicapped children in Northern Ireland. I have not read the report. I have not seen a copy of the report, but I am advised that its authors came to the conclusion that the mentally handicapped children whom they saw were seriously disadvantaged. They exempt the staff from criticism but conclude that the facilities were inappropriate and inadequate, and presumably this will have retarded the child's development.

In another place on 26th June Article 25E came under heavy fire. In the opinion of many people, the Minister in the other place failed to deal adequately with the criticism of Article 25E. Some will say, and I will elaborate on this, that his reply was possibly misleading. The Minister claimed that the Assembly had recommended that the responsibility for the education of a mentally handicapped child should remain with the Department of Health and Social Security. However, I have been unable to identify authority for that view. Perhaps when the Minister replies he can guide us to the authority for his claim. I have been told that the Assembly's Health and Social Services Committee had argued in favour of the status quo—but they would, wouldn't they!

I wish to know whether the opinion of the Health and Social Services Committee has been adopted by the Assembly. If it has been adopted by the Assembly, it would appear to me that the Assembly is pursuing conflicting ends, or conflicting policies; unless, of course, the recommendation of the Health and Social Services Committee has been overtaken by that of the Education Committee. It is beyond dispute that the Education Committee of the Assembly strongly recommended that the responsibility be transferred to the schools, and as I read the report of the Assembly this recommendation was adopted by it. In his letter to the Assembly of 10th November 1983 to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—a letter which is reproduced as a foreword to the report of the Assembly, ordered to be published on 9th November 1983—the Speaker of the Assembly told the Secretary of State: The Assembly has recommended the amendment of the proposed new Article 25E to provide a right to education for all children". It seems to me that that is the position adopted by the Assembly.

In the debate in the other place on 26th June, the Minister was also told that the Children's Legal Centre in London was then canvassing whether Article 25E should be challenged before the European Commission of Human Rights as being in breach of the fundamental human right guaranteeing the right of a child to education. Indeed, the Children's Legal Centre had informed the Minister in May that it considered that the article violated the convention. But, again, nowhere has the Minister dealt with this claim put forward by the Children's Legal Centre.

A parent in Northern Ireland told me on Saturday that he has the firm intention of going to the European Commission of Human Rights to challenge the article. Will the Minister inform the House whether his department has taken legal advice on whether or not this article is in breach of Article 2 of the First Protocol, which is the article which provides that no person shall be denied the right to education? If the department has sought advice, may we know what advice was tendered.

It is appreciated by all that it is too late in the day to amend the order and that the order cannot be delayed, but there is a wide group of parents and educationists in Northern Ireland, and here in London, who wait with great interest to learn whether the Government are prepared to reconsider Article 25E with a view to bringing in amending legislation which will bring the law in Northern Ireland on this subject into line with the legislation of England, Wales and Scotland. We would hope that there is at least a commitment to undertake such a review at an early date. If the Minister can come forward with an encouraging word, this debate will have been worthwhile. With the reservation I have mentioned, but an important reservation, we from these Benches give our support to the order.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, we, too, welcome the order as a whole and thank the Minister for his exposition of it. I think that the weight and complexity of the order and the complexity of the explanations which the Minister was able to give without in any way being able to go into detail is some evidence as to the unsatisfactory nature of law-making as it refers to Northern Ireland at present. I do not think anyone denies that. The longer the present situation goes on, the more it is incumbent upon us to find some way in which Parliament deals with these matters whereby we, too, can have a say in what we are supposed to be passing.

The whole question of education in Northen Ireland is, of course, a fraught one which has been discussed in your Lordships' House from time to time. All of us want to see a much greater rapprochement between the communities in Northern Ireland. Many of us feel that this can best be tackled at a fairly early age through the education system. We know the difficulties which have been met in doing this and that the problems we meet there are merely in miniature the problems which we meet in the Province as a whole. However, again this is one of the areas where I think we must not miss the opportunity of reminding the Government that if we are to produce, in the long term, peace and justice in that unhapy part of the United Kingdom great steps forward will have to be made, and they will have to be made in many other fields as in this one.

We know that there are already experiments in joint education, but it is time, I think, that the Government tried to take some new initiative. It is too often the case that the initiatives in Northern Ireland are of the major kind, such as, "What are we going to do now about getting all the parties together round a table?" or, "What are we going to do about major governmental machinery?", and there is not enough concern about what can be done on a smaller scale. I think that it is in the area of education that we must undertake such an initiative.

Clearly we do not have the time to debate the details of this particular order, nor a real opportunity to amend it; and since we do not have that opportunity there is not the incentive to go into great detail tonight, but there are one or two matters which should be mentioned. Part II deals with school management and it is a good step forward that the aim of this part of the order is to increase parental representation on the school boards of governors. The closer we come to the English system, the better. I do not necessarily feel that about everything in this order and, indeed, we feel that it is good that there should be differentials between various parts of the United Kingdom on various matters. However, in this particular matter the United Kingdom appears to have taken a considerable step forward and the Government themselves have this very close at heart. It would be a good thing if we could progress as fast as possible towards the English system.

In that connection, I certainly pay tribute to the Northern Ireland Office for the way in which it has stuck out for the election of parent and teacher governors, since some people opposed that, preferring nomination. Nomination would have led to much abuse by the vested interests of the Province, as it is always liable to do, and this is a step forward.

Part IV concerns, "Education of Children with Special Educational Needs". I go along with many of the criticisms that have just been made about that matter. I think that it is a great pity that the care and education of some disabled children are left under the control of health boards, when in this country we have made major steps forward through the Warnock Report. Once again, I suspect that a system more in line with that which we are bringing into force in England would be preferable—although as we have said in England, so again I should like to repeat what has already been said about Northern Ireland: we realise that one of the problems is financial resources.

It seems to me that from this side of the House we cannot too often say that in such matters priorities must be set and financial resources found. If we are challenged to say where the financial resources should come from, I do not think that any of our parties would be in difficulty in pointing to resources from the Government's present programme. That is not the problem. The problem is what one puts forward. The whole question of the care and education of handicapped children demands the greatest possible care and provision of resources.

Part V is headed, "Miscellaneous and Supplementary". One thing that I do not think has been mentioned so far, and that is in Article 20. In England and Wales pupils cannot transfer to further education until they have reached their 16th birthday. In Northern Ireland pupils have been able to transfer during their 16th year—once they are 15. The Government have been changing that over the past few years voluntarily, and the order puts that into statutory effect. We are far from clear that that is a step forward. The flexibility of the old Northern Ireland system was probably a good thing. I know that it is a contentious matter, as are all matters concerning the age of compulsory education. But I think that there was not necessarily a case for changing the Northern Ireland system to that of the United Kingdom.

One other small point arises on Article 33. In England and Wales teachers can be compulsorily transferred when a school is being closed, if the only alternative is unemployment. Compulsory transfer means that the local education authority has to accept the teacher. The option of a central appointment is not available in Northern Ireland at the moment. Under the order the decision to employ a teacher can only be taken locally. We on these Benches are always supporters of local decisions and local control, but I feel that there should be some fall-back position whereby teachers in that situation need not necesarily find themselves out of a job. It is really a query to the Minister as to whether there cannot be found some way forward from that.

Although I have one or two major queries and one or two minor ones, on the whole this order is a considerable step forward. There has been wide consultation in the Province and there is a wide measure of agreement. We certainly welcome it and congratulate the Government on what they have done.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench in the matters that he so ably raised concerning the education of mentally handicapped children in Northern Ireland.

If I may digress for one moment, I have a little matter that I should like to put to the House. This is the first opportunity that I have had to speak across the floor of the House with the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, since his appointment as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I know that this is a little belated, but as I come from Northern Ireland I should like to join with others and place on record my earnest good wishes to him for a happy period in office, and success in dealing with the many problems of the Province. I understand that he is tackling his responsibilities in the Northern Ireland agricultural community with great enthusiasm.

One point was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies arising from the order on which I wish to press for action. It concerns the plight of the mentally handicapped children in the five-plus age group, for whom at present there are not adequate places in suitable educational establishments. I understand that the officers of the Belfast Active Group have written about that immediate issue to the Northern Ireland Department of Education and to the Inter-Departmental Working Group on the Education and Training of Mentally Handicapped Children.

I recently met the parents of some of the children in that five-plus age group. The Minister and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office, particularly Mr. Patten and Mr. Scott, will not need to be reminded by me of the great weight of distress, anxiety and concern that lies on the parents of those children. I feel sure that a little ministerial action and administrative rearrangement could alleviate that distress. May I ask the Minister to use his good offices to invite Mr. Nicholas Scott and other ministerial colleagues of his urgently to undertake the review mentioned by my noble friend on the Front Bench of the situation of the mentally handicapped five-plus age group in Northern Ireland? I wholly support my noble friend's remarks in connection with the order.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I rise for a moment or two to support my noble friends in their attitude to and criticisms of the order. I take the opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his assuming those heavy duties. I am sure that they will not get him down. I think that he has a natural buoyancy which perhaps is the most valuable quality one could possess in Northern Ireland. I am sure that he will restrain any tendency that he has to win any contest by physical means—I am referring to his exploits on the football field—when he is dealing with the inhabitants of Northern Ireland. I am delighted to see him here.

I am only sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is, as it were, incarcerated on the Woolsack, so that he cannot say what, I am sure, he would wish to say about the situation of the mentally handicapped. A discussion of the mentally handicapped without his contribution is rather devoid of its main attraction. I should like to think that he would sympathise with what has been said. I am rising only to say ditto to what has been said on the subject of the mentally handicapped by my two noble friends. But amid all these congratulations I should like to press the noble Lord as to why the Government have not gone further. What is the explanation? Is it something to do with resources? In his opening remarks, the noble Lord gave us the impression that the Government were trying to give effect to the Warnock Report. He certainly said something about the Warnock Report, but it may have been rather cryptic. I think that we are entitled to ask what the hitch is. Why cannot what is being done in England be done in Northern Ireland? I end by repeating my wish that the noble Lord will have a very successful reign.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, may I first of all thank all your Lordships who have listened to my exposition of a field with which until three months ago I was not entirely familiar. I regret that I am still familiarising myself with some of the more detailed aspects of Northern Irish education let alone the Warnock Report and other points of interest which have—I think, detained, is probably the wrong word—fascinated the House this evening.

We are very grateful for the attention that has been given by all of your Lordships who have spoken and even by your Lordships who have not spoken but who have stayed with us during the discussion of this particular order.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, who opened the debate on the order this evening, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, both mentioned the problems of dealing with what is in effect a fairly weighty matter by means of an Order in Council. I am sure that they and all your Lordships will accept that it is an especially important and interesting subject this evening. However, I do not think that I can go more deeply into the method of legislating by Orders in Council at present. I am afraid we shall have to continue this method of dealing with legislation, for the foreseeable future at any rate.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, raised a number of questions. First of all the noble Lord asked about the implementation of various school management changes. The order requires boards of governors for all grant-aided schools to be constituted in accordance with the new provisions. We hope that this will be done by 31st December 1985. This will include the election of both parents and teachers to the boards of governors.

In the second group of his questions, the noble Lord asked about finance. His question was in particular directed at the new provisions for, and indeed the need for, special education. I would reply to the noble Lord by telling him that the provisions of the draft order largely replace and bring up to date what are existing arrangements. They are not expected to give rise to any additional expenditure either by education and library boards or by the Department of Education. I am sure your Lordships will be aware that the Government are satisfied that the provisions of the 1981 Act can be implemented without additional resources.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also asked me whether the boards might need to employ additional psychologists for educational purposes. I am given to understand that some local education authorities in Great Britain have appointed additional staff of this nature. However, I think the noble Lord would accept, and your Lordships who are specialists in this field would accept, that to make comparisons on this basis we should need to know the firm base from which the authorities started. If we take one example, we should need to know previous ratio of psychologists to pupils because, as your Lordships are aware, this may vary from one local education authority to another. The ratio of educational psychologists to school children in Northern Ireland is as good as the average elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We do not expect that the implementation of the new legislation before us this evening will create the need for additional posts, in this field at least.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, led the main part of the debate. He was followed by other noble Lords, especially the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, the noble Earl, Lord Longford and the noble Lord, Lord Blease. All were concerned with the education of mentally handicapped children. Perhaps I may just take a few minutes of your Lordships' time to try to spell out the particular position contained in Article 16, of the present order and Article 25(e) of the earlier legislation.

It all goes back to the responses which we received to the consultative document on the education and training of mentally handicapped children. These replies are still under consideration. I am afraid that no decisions have been taken about the future responsibility for the education of these particular children. The order that we have before us this evening simply makes it clear that the current arrangements for these children will continue. These arrangements are, of course, that education and library boards will determine the children who are unsuitable for education at school and they will refer them, for the attention which the children require, to the health and social services boards.

This particular term, which we have to define, of being "unsuitable for education at school", we have to read in the context of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. This itself includes a definition of a school for the purposes of the order. This reading of the definition into the Education and Libraries Order 1972 does not mean at all that the children—and especially these particular children—are being denied in any way the right to education. Rather it means far more: that they are considered unsuitable for the type of education provided in the schools which come within the scope and within the terms of the order.

I am sure that your Lordships will be aware that these children attend institutions called special care schools. I do not think that anyone, least of all those of your Lordships who have spoken this evening, would dispute that these children do receive education which is entirely suitable to their needs, and above all their educational needs, at these particular schools.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I interrupt at this point?

Lord Lyell

Please do.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the noble Lord may be going to answer my question but he has not yet answered it. Why should there be a different system in Northern Ireland from the one here?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I am only about halfway through my comments.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I see.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I hope to come to the noble Earl's point. I think that I have received specialist direction upon his particular queries and I hope to cover them. If I do not cover them, then before I finally sit down I shall certainly attempt to do so. However, perhaps the noble Earl will wait until I come to the final conclusion here. I hope that at least some of the argument will be laid bare.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, mentioned what has been said in another place. He mentioned various legal centres. I am certainly aware that the present position has been challenged. I think it has been challenged by the Children's Legal Centre as being possibly in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, I would say to the noble Lord and to the noble Earl that this is one of several comments which we have received in replies to the consultative document. We are considering in particular the detail as to whether this particular aspect of Article 16 needs further study, whether we can do anything further about it, or what might happen.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, mentioned the involvement of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We are aware that they were originally opposed to Article 25(e), but I am sure the noble Lord will be aware that that article simply clarifies that the existing law will continue to operate. The Assembly itself did recommend no change. That is the advice that I have. If we clarify it, it is that the responsibility for the education and, above all, the training of mentally handicapped children should be retained by the Department of Health and Social Security and its agents, the health and social services boards.

The Assembly also recommended that the Department of Health and Social Security and the agents, the health and social services boards, should be given the statutory duty of providing education for mentally handicapped children; that is education combined with special care. That is another very important matter which we are examining at present.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, raised the question of the Children's Legal Centre and its possible case. We are still consulting and discussing on this matter with the relevant departments. We have not yet obtained legal advice. We are in the course, naturally, of obtaining it among other consultations, but we have no definite legal advice as to how we shall respond to this putative case if it goes forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, asked me to comment on the encouragement of integrated education. We value his forthright encouragement. The policy of the Government is to encourage integrated education in Northern Ireland wherever there is a local wish for it. Certainly, the Government will welcome requests made in this field for controlled integrated status.

The noble Lord also raised what I think he called the flexibility of further education of children in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord will see that Article 20 provides the statutory base for the policy of ending the transfer of pupils to further education at 15 years of age by changing the law to ensure that, in future, further education may be provided only for persons over compulsory school age. The Government take the view that we are satisfied that the educational needs of pupils of this age would best be served by their remaining at secondary school until they are 16. But, in addition, the youth training programme is placing an additional workload on further education colleges. Indeed, the ending of transfer at 15-plus, if we can call it that, will release valuable resources in the colleges to enable them to cope with the extra demands being made on them possibly in other fields.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, also asked me about the fallback provision of the redeployment of teachers. During the consultation period on the draft order, we found that there was considerable opposition expressed to the provision about the education and library board's power of appeal. It was pointed out fairly forcibly to us that such a provision might significantly dilute powers of controlled schools' boards of governors and might lead to controlled schools being forced to accept teachers unacceptable to them. Some education and library boards also opposed the provisions on other grounds. The boards would wish to avoid what they would see as unnecessary and unproductive friction between themselves and local school management bodies, and, therefore, in practice, they would not exercise their powers of appeal.

As a result, the Government concluded that the likely effectiveness of the appeal powers with regard to the redeployment of teachers would not be sufficient to outweigh the strength of opposition expressed to us on this measure. We would stress, however, that without the provision for the power of appeal the article will provide for increased flexibility in redeployment arrangements in that it will extend the board's power of redeployment to cover teachers employed in other board areas as well as its own.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, raised a particular point. First, I thank him for his kind words, as, indeed, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for his kind welcome to my spell in Northern Ireland. I can stress to the noble Lord and to the noble Earl that if my first 100 days are anything to go by, I shall be more than happy; indeed, I am thrilled to be serving with such an excellent team and, above all, to know that I am trying to serve such marvellous people in Northern Ireland. It is more than rewarding to serve there, and, above all, to try and get right some of the detailed educational points this evening. The noble Lord, Lord Blease, mentioned the problem of mentally handicapped children. We shall, of course, consider the need for additional facilities for mentally handicapped children. We take on board the points that he has raised.

I hope I have gone most of the way, even if I have not covered every single point that has been raised by your Lordships. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, for warning me that he would be opening the bowling on Article 16. Thanks to him, I have had at least some more detailed reply available for him and for your Lordships. To conclude our deliberations on the order, I should like to stress that Northern Ireland has good reason to be proud of the quality of its educational service. The Government are convinced that the changes that the order will bring about are for the good of the educational service and, above all, for the good of the children and the young people of Northern Ireland. I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.