Schools: RAAC - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:56 pm ar 1 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Rogan Lord Rogan Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:56, 1 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on securing this debate about an important matter which was clearly high on the political agenda last autumn but no longer has such prominence. One can only hope that this indicates that the problem is being properly addressed. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in that regard from the Dispatch Box.

As your Lordships will be aware, the issue of RAAC in school buildings is UK-wide. However, thus far, it has been found at just one school in Northern Ireland, Cairnshill Primary School in south Belfast. That discovery, in November, prompted the Department of Education in Northern Ireland to speed up surveys at 180 schools across the Province, with 120 schools having already been inspected at that point.

My understanding is that no further evidence of RAAC in Northern Ireland schools has yet been found. However, while this news is most welcome, there can clearly be no room for complacency, in order to properly protect pupils, teachers and staff at the almost 1,100 schools in the Province. Had RAAC not been discovered in any school in Northern Ireland, perhaps local residents could rest a little easier. But, by the simple laws of probability, one case would suggest that there are likely to be more instances yet to be found.

Sometimes it is easy for us to be slightly overcritical, and we perhaps do not praise public servants as often as we should. In that vein, I am advised that staff at the Department of Education and the Education Authority in Northern Ireland have been thoroughly professional, swift and helpful throughout the inspection process. I place on record my sincere thanks to them for their attention to detail and professionalism. Given the absence of Ministers at Stormont since the RAAC issue emerged, I suggest that they deserve even more credit for their efforts. I know that schools, parents and, indeed, teaching unions are grateful for what has been done. I hope that the possible appointment of an Education Minister to a reformed Northern Ireland Executive in the coming days will help rather than hinder their efforts.

In the meantime, I ask the Minister this: what contact have she, her ministerial colleagues or her officials had with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland to ensure that what can be done to guarantee safe school buildings across the Province is being done?

Also, the topical Question by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, which is the subject of this debate, rightly refers to the need for

“the swift deployment of financial assistance for necessary maintenance and construction upgrades” caused by RAAC in schools. However, I imagine that the operation to find RAAC, and carry out remedial work where required, will also be costly.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans repeatedly and rightly stressed the consequences if funding is not allocated properly and on time. Can the Minister therefore assure me, particularly given the parlous state of the public finances in the Province of Northern Ireland, that any RAAC-associated overheads incurred by schools and funding bodies in Northern Ireland will be fully reimbursed by His Majesty’s Government?