HL Deb 31 October 1996 vol 575 cc432-3

3.5 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they believe this is the right time to be reducing education funding in Northern Ireland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, education spending in Northern Ireland has increased in real terms by 9 per cent. since 1991–92 to its highest ever level in 1996–97.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that information about past levels of spending on education in Northern Ireland. Can she confirm that it is stated in Northern Ireland: Expenditure Plans and Priorities, published this year, that in the coming two years expenditure will be held static in nominal terms? That means of course a cut in real terms. Is she aware that the feeling which the Chairman of the Convocation at the University of Ulster describes as deep dismay is shared at every level of education in Northern Ireland: primary, secondary and university? Does she not agree that investment in education, particularly in Northern Ireland, is good for social stability and economic progress, and that spending cuts will send the wrong signal at the wrong time? Will the Government think again?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord that investment in education is a crucial factor in social stability, and in particular, from my own point of view, in the economic growth of the Province. I think that the noble Lord looks at the question of money as opposed to the question of value for money. I believe that what we are doing for education in Northern Ireland is proved absolutely right by the fact that 41 per cent. of our young people go on to further education compared to 31 per cent. in Great Britain, and that the number of school leavers with two or more A-levels rose in 10 years from 18 per cent. to 30 per cent. People in Northern Ireland are very proud of their education, and that pride shows in the results. As everyone knows, we are in a tough public expenditure round and it would not be for me to give speculative guarantees.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Minister has correctly pointed out that more people from Northern Ireland go on to university education than in the rest of the United Kingdom. But is it not the fact that 40 per cent. of that higher proportion are obliged to leave Northern Ireland for a university education, and of that 40 per cent., 80 per cent. do not return? Have the Government any present plans for increasing the number of university places in Northern Ireland?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that leaving Northern Ireland for a university education is necessarily a bad thing. The resultant gain in experience can only be to the benefit of Northern Ireland. The noble Lord asks whether the Government have any plans to encourage more of those who leave to return. One of the main planks of the inward investment programme is to provide more jobs for them to return to. The one thing that will ensure that they return with their families to Northern Ireland is success in the peace process.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the very high performance of school children in Northern Ireland in difficult circumstances deserves the congratulations of the House? Does she further agree that that high performance is largely due to the fact that Northern Ireland retained its grammar schools and was not subject to the so-called progressive education which caused such ravages in this country in the 1960s and 1970s?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, one of the great joys of being in your Lordships' House is that one can bow to expertise in a field way above one's own. I do so.