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Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this very important debate on the Children (Northern Ireland) Order. As the noble Lord, Lord Fitt—who painted a picture of the situation in Northern Ireland as no one else could—said, there are special needs. We are determined to meet those needs.

I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that already we have been able to benefit from some of the limited reduction in spending on security by working with the long-term unemployed and directing some money towards educational buildings. I hope that there will be much more money available which we can redirect. We have the commitment of the Prime Minister that that money can be used in Northern Ireland.

As both the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, pointed out, the number of children who are particularly disadvantaged and vulnerable is higher in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in Great Britain. That means that we must ensure the excellence of the programmes of support that we provide.

It was questioned why it had taken so long to bring the order forward. I have sympathy with that comment; but I point out that we have tried to ensure that we took on board the views of everyone concerned. The original consultation period was the usual one of three months. Owing to requests for more time, that was extended. In addition to the public consultation, the draft order was also the subject of debate in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee in February last year. That committee meeting resulted in many changes, which again went to consultation, and, as I said earlier this evening, were incorporated into the draft order. I hope that it will be recognised that the delay has been beneficial.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the question of pre-school support in Northern Ireland. One of the major areas of pre-school support in Northern Ireland is child minding. That is why we were especially concerned with ensuring that support would be available through the withdrawal of fees. He will, I know, be pleased to hear that an early years programme, which was announced by the Minister for Health and the Minister for Education earlier this year, brought forth another £1 million for the programme working in that area.

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I had the great good fortune to be Minister for Health in Northern Ireland for the first term of my appointment there. I must say that I had some pangs on withdrawal from the portfolio. However, that appointment left me absolutely convinced that Northern Ireland is not a guinea pig as regards integrated health and social services; rather it is a leader. It is interesting that several areas in England are now studying the practice. It allows greater exchange of views and, I believe, strengthens the safety net in which people find themselves from time to time because the whole team works together. Having seen the commitment of trusts in Northern Ireland, I would argue, although perhaps on another occasion, about the deficiencies to which the noble Lord referred.

Of course, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, mentioned, family support is absolutely crucial. The great advantage of family support is that in many instances it can be in the format of preventive care so that we avoid the heavy cost involved in circumstances where we have not been able to help. Family support will be a major plank of our policy.

I am also delighted to tell the noble Baroness that we have already put in place, with funds, programmes for stress counselling in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that, with the pressures of the ceasefire removed, the stresses have not gone away; they are different.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked whether we shall train the judiciary in the way that has been implemented in Great Britain. At an early stage officials in Northern Ireland identified a need for a co-ordinated training programme to be implemented prior to the order coming into operation. Training will be made available, with the co-operation of a Judicial Studies Board, to members of the judiciary, a juvenile lay panel, and court staff who will be involved in applications under the order. Training of the lay panel has already commenced. There will be funds. In the 1995-96 budgets existing funds of up to £2 million will, in part, cover the new legislation training. The start-up of the guardian ad litem service also requires funds.

All noble Lords were concerned about the resource implications and the resource availabilities for the children order. The Government recognise the considerable implications for resources that the order will involve. The order will replace existing legislative framework and note needs to be taken of the resources already deployed, which will need to be redirected, and of the development of childcare services already in hand.

Nevertheless, although the figures vary between groups, it is recognised that additional resources will need to be deployed. They will be phased in. We cannot run with the order before we walk. It would be wrong to do so. Equally, it would be wrong for me to stand here and indicate that there are bottomless pits. Everyone in your Lordships' House knows that there are no bottomless pits of resources. However, I reassure noble Lords that we believe that it is one of the most important areas for the future of Northern Ireland.

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I join with all noble Lords who paid tribute to the voluntary groups in Northern Ireland. I believe that one of the reasons that we are able to deliver such a high standard of care and support in areas of need is because of the great strength of the voluntary groups. As the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, pointed out, they are always short of funds. Nevertheless, I doubt that there is a more generous nation than the people of Northern Ireland in contributing to those voluntary groups.

Perhaps I may assure your Lordships that officials recognise not only the value of consultation with voluntary groups and others involved in child care but also the absolute need to involve them. There is need to learn from their skills and to bring them on board. The order will not benefit children unless there is partnership and teamwork; and we most certainly recognise that factor.

The question of monitoring was raised. The management executive in Northern Ireland, assisted by the social services inspectorate, will monitor the implementation of the order, in particular Article 18 which requires boards and trusts to support families in need. The outcome will be reported in the annual report. The requirement is that the Department of Health and Social Services shall consult with the Lord Chancellor, the Department of Education and the Department of Finance and Personnel, before the report comes to publication. I am unable to ascertain whether it will be brought to the House. However, I shall find out and write to my noble friend.

The department is also funding a new research centre with Queen's University in Belfast specifically to undertake evaluation and research following commencement of the order.

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Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that there will be steps to provide legal representation in disputes between parents; and in the more difficult cases the Official Solicitor remains available to protect the interests of the child in the High Court.

I thank noble Lords for the support for the order and the recognition of why it is so important to Northern Ireland. It gives me great pleasure to commend the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Children (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1995

6.26 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th January be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

War Crimes (Supplementary Provisions) Bill [H.L.]

6.27 p.m.

Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.

        House adjourned at twenty-eight minutes past six o'clock.

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