HC Deb 10 March 1977 vol 927 cc1656-731

4.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James A. Dunn)

I beg to move, That the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st March, be approved. This order is being made under paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974 and is the first this year of the annual presentation of orders which make available the funds required for the services of the eight Northern Ireland Departments.

The order serves to appropriate not only the published Spring and Further Spring Supplementary Estimates for 1976–77 but the sums required on account for 1977–78 which will keep Northern Ireland Departments in funds until after the 1977–78 main Estimates are published, when Parliament will be asked to approve appropriation of the balance of the funds required.

I deal first with the Spring and Further Spring Supplementary Estimates by which total additional provision of £48.4 million is sought. This sum, together with main Estimates provision of £1,038.5 million approved by the House in July and Autumn Supplementary Estimates provision of £60.8 million approved in December, brings the total sought for 1976–77 to £1,147.7 million. This sum is within both the public expenditure allocations and the cash limits for Northern Ireland Departments. Total provision for 1975–76 amounted to £1,028.4 million.

The bulk of the £48.4 million now sought is required to meet pay awards and increased costs. Any real increases in public expenditure brought about by policy decisions have been more than offset by real savings elsewhere. The services for which these extra funds are required are set out in Part I of the schedule to the order; more detailed information can be found in the two Supplementary Estimates volumes, copies of which are available in the Library.

I now draw attention to the more important elements of real expenditure. There are two matters which I wish to mention at the outset. The first is the provision for price restraint. Three million pounds is needed for payments to Northern Ireland gas and electricity undertakings. Two million pounds of this is for payments in respect of revenue loss due to compliance with the national price limitation policy, and £1 million for interest charges on the revenue loss for the period for which compensation amounts are outstanding. The NIES deficit for price restraint purposes for 1975–76 has been agreed on the basis of audited accounts at £24.6 million, which is higher by £2.6 million than that estimated six months previously. Total revenue account losses incurred by the various gas undertakings are up from a forecast £2.5 million to a probable £3.5 million.

The second matter is a provision for housing. The present level of public expenditure provision for housing in Northern Ireland will permit spending in Belfast on new building, redevelopment, rehabilitation and improvement and support for housing associations at an annual average rate in excess of £25 million. This rate of spending permits the commitment of around £130 million over the next five years.

Right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate that it will be a formidable task to ensure the completion of such a major programme, but it is the wish of the Government to stimulate rapid progress. To the extent that this will demand additional resources for Belfast by means of a shift within the overall expenditure provision for housing in Northern Ireland, it can be achieved without detriment to the interests of those in housing need in other parts of the Province by a revision of new construction programmes to reflect the latest population assumptions, particularly within the Belfast region.

The largest part of the increase in real expenditure is the £6.5 million required to meet payments under the Meat Industry Employment Scheme. These schemes exist to ameliorate the worst effects of the green pound differential by maintaining throughput in Northern Ireland meat plants and were reintroduced when the Irish Republic's green pound was devalued further in October 1976. An additional £2 million is required to meet the cost of completing payments under the Special Land Improvement Scheme. The closing date for receipt of claims for payment under this scheme was 30th September 1976, the scheme having actually terminated in July 1975. An additional £2.1 million is sought to pay for new construction and maintenance work on roads and bridges.

Under the system of cash limits currently in operation, total voted provision for services subject to cash limits may not exceed the Vote expenditure element of the Northern Ireland cash limit, which for 1976–77 stands a £536.3 million. The cash-limited portion of total estimated expenditure for 1976–77 is £19 million within this figure at £517.3 million.

I turn now to the sums required on account for 1977–78. These have been calculated on the same basis as that used for United Kingdom Departments—that is to say, they represent with minor exceptions 45 per cent. of the total Estimates for the current financial year. The total sum sought on account is £502.6 million. Details are provided in Part II of the schedule to the order.

These are the main features of the order to which I wish to draw attention. I commend the order to the House. I shall of course, try to answer any questions that right hon. hon. Members may wish to raise in the debate, and if for any reason I am unable to do so I shall note the points and write to the hon, Members concerned.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

I am sure that the House would like me to thank the Under-Secretary for the way in which he has introduced the order. We agree that there is a need for this additional money for the purposes that he has described.

When we debated the Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, on 9th December, I raised a number of questions with the Under-Secretary which I think arise on this order as well with regard to individual classes. He replied to me on 14th February. I shall come to that shortly. I should like to make one or two general observations arising out of what the Under-Secretary said about the economic situation in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to industrial investment, because this arises from what he said about the amount being made available.

There is, of course, very welcome and encouraging news about private investment as well in Northern Ireland. Synthetic Industries Incorporated, for example, has announced its intention to invest £5 million in a factory at Newry, and Gallaghers is investing an additional £8 million. I understand that the Post Office is spending £58 million on expanding and modernising its telephone service in Ulster. That is good news. Firms such as Berkshire International, Hughes Tool Company, Goodyear, the Ford Motor Company and Courtaulds have also announced important expansions. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will tell us a bit more about that. The Opposition are anxious, as are other hon. Members on both sides of the House, to encourage private investment as well as to spend public money for the special cases of Northern Ireland

. The Under-Secretary mentioned Class V, relating to housing. Certainly this money will he required in view of the rate of inflation in house prices in Ulster. According to the Belfast Telegraph of, I think, 15th October, house prices in Ulster have leapt by 23.7 per cent., as compared with the average in the rest of the United Kingdom of 9.6 per cent There is no doubt that Northern Ireland has been more badly hit by inflation than any other part of the United Kingdom Perhaps the Under-Secretary would comment on that matter.

Certainly we fully understand what the Under-Secretary had to say about that part of the order relating to housing construction and house prices. It certainly seems to us—I shall come to a point about industrial investment shortly—that Northern Ireland does not present quite as depressing a picture as it did in the autumn of last year, though the picture is still very mixed and there are a number of important firms that are in difficulties. None the less, we welcome the Government's special treatment of Northern Ireland and congratulate the Secretary of State on having instilled a sense of urgency in dealing with these problems.

However, there are two points that I raised in the last debate and to which the hon. Gentleman replied on 14th February. The first is this. In spite of what has been said, we have no indication of the Government's thinking on the Quigley Report, especially relating to the costs of energy in Northern Ireland.

The costs of energy are a very serious problem there. There seems to be a totally inexplicable delay in making public the findings of the Shepherd Report on the electricity industry and in pressing forward the study on the gas industry in Northern Ireland. Will the Under-Secretary say something about those matters? They are urgent. The latter study includes making available natural gas in Northern Ireland. What is the position there? Is it not fundamental to the problems of the gas industry in the Province that this subject should be studied and that there should be some statement about it?

Referring more specifically to the hon. Gentleman's letter, with regard to ship building—this is Part II, Class II(1)—I asked him on 9th December about diversification in Harland and Wolff. He told me on 14th February, I can add little to what was said in reply to your question about diversification at Harland and Wolff. Scope for diversification is limited". He pointed out the difficulty which I fully understand, of specialised equipment and traditional skills in the shipyard.

He said: I can assure you that several possible lines of activity are being actively explored. I pointed out from this Bench on 9th December that there were very good equipment and good engineering shops available at Harland and Wolff and that I thought that the time had come to find new forms of diversification for this firm. Is anything being done about this? Would the hon. Gentleman make a further statement at the end of the debate?

The other point I made about Harland and Wolff was one in which I had taken an interest for a long time. It is the possibility of a defence contract for the firm. The hon. Gentleman will recollect that he replied to me in this vein: The Ministry of Defence is well aware of the capability and desire of Harland and Wolff to undertake defence contracts. There is unfortunately little prospect of naval work of any magnitude coming forward and I cannot therefore hold out much hope of the shipyard benefiting". We have already debated the Government's policy on defence at some length and we possibly can imagine some of the reasons why there may be difficulties in providing defence work as a result of their policies. Surely they can give priority to Harland and Wolff in this matter. They consider Northern Ireland to be a special case, and they have taken steps in their decisions with regard to cuts in public expenditure which have avoided the worst consequences for Northern Ireland. Therefore, will they again give priority to consideration of a defence contract for Harland and Wolff?

Perhaps the Under-Secretary, who opened the debate most lucidly and who explained to us the amounts of money which have to be raised, will deal with those points. I have nothing further to say at this stage. We welcome the order.

4.32 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

This debate on the Appropriation Order is one of the three debates in the year equivalent to the three Consolidated Fund debates for the rest of the United Kingdom—debates which give hon. Members the opportunity to ventilate some of the matters which are of most concern to them and their constituents.

It is a pity that the Secretary of State himself is not able to be present, at any rate for the first of these debates which we are having this afternoon, as the subjects mentioned and the emphasis given to them are a useful indication of at any rate some of the places at which the shoe is pinching. I hope that it will be possible for the Secretary of State to attend some part of the debate.

It has proved convenient in the past that the debate should as far as possible concentrate upon certain subjects made known in advance to the Minister who is replying. Without of course being able to rule out the raising of other points by hon. Members, the subjects which were notified by my hon. Friends and myself were Class I, agriculture—remoteness grants, under Subhead 3, and drainage under Subhead 5; Class IV, roads; and Class V, housing, with special reference to Belfast.

I propose to restrict myself to two of those subjects and to make the majority of my remarks in the context of drainage—major projects. I fear that the Under-Secretary must think from the growing volume of my correspondence with him on this subject that I am getting water on the brain. Certainly I find that month by month the relative importance of land drainage in my correspondence with my constituents and amongst their varied anxieties continues to increase and I see no sign at present of that increase coming to an end.

Water—water supply and water power—has been fundamental to the economy of Northern Ireland for centuries. It is fascinating as one descends one of the main waterways such as the Upper Bann to notice how in a former century the industrious and prosperous population extracted the last ounce of energy from the water power in their area—each time, wherever a sufficient fall has taken place in the river, there comes another installation, another place where a mill was active. In my own village of Loughbrickland, even a small stream worked within the space of little more than a mile a saw mill, a corn mill, a flax mill, and a scutching mill. Those mills are now all gone. Economic change has rendered water power and its remarkable utilisation in Northern Ireland completely obsolete, and that brings me at once to one of the causes of our current drainage problems.

The water supply which was once so accurately and skilfully controlled for the purposes of yielding power is no longer utilised for that purpose. So the old installations have fallen out of use and out of repair, leaving behind them in many cases a pattern of drainage which is not apt to current needs and requirements, and often incidentally a pattern of ownership which makes it difficult for the reforms and improvements which are necessary to be effected.

Clearly, there are other causes too at work. One of them no doubt is development in various forms—certainly housing, and other developments too—in the river basins, which has increased the flow of water from the surface and thus placed an increasing burden upon the capacity of the watercourses. But whatever may be the sum total of the causes at work, one thing is quite certain. That is that the area suffering from insufficient land drainage—certainly in my constituency, and I suspect that it is not unique in this respect—is not diminishing but in creasing.

I have to tell the Minister that week after week I find myself in places in my constituency where those who utilise the land can actually show me bogland which, within their memory, and even within very recent years, was either grazed or cultivated. So the situation is not static; it is not slowly improving; in many parts of the area about which I speak it is in fact deteriorating.

It is the natural anxiety which this creates, as well as a sense of outrage—perhaps I am not putting it too high in using that word—that land fundamentally fertile and valuable should be out of use in Northern Ireland, that leads me to make this the main subject with which I shall detain the House.

The essence of the problem over most of South Down is centred upon the three main watercourses. Of course, on the seaward side there is a more complex and subdivided system of drainage. That, too, has its own problems; but they are on a minor scale, not for those affected but in proportion to the whole question of land drainage in Northern Ireland.

The three watercourses, an interest in which I share to varying degrees with my colleagues, are the Clanrye which flows out through the Newry River—an interest in which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker)—the Upper Bann, in which I also have a shared interest with him to a lesser degree—and of course that monstrous river of Northern Ireland, that bitch of a river, if I might dare so to describe it, if the expression be not too ungrateful towards a source of fertility—the Lagan, in which I suppose a majority of the hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies have a very lively interest.

The fundamental fact of the situation is that what flows off the land and what can be drained from the land, over a great part of my constituency and further afield, must be conveyed to the sea through one of these three water courses. That is something which is difficult for the individual farmer to realise. It is hard to explain to those who complain about the inefficiency of land drainage in their immediate area, where they see the actual damage and experience the results, that the remedy of the fault depends on works 30 to 50 miles away, which are immensely complicated and expensive.

I am asking this afternoon that the whole picture of the future improvement of the land drainage system—in the eastern part of Northern Ireland at least—should be laid bare for the House and the public by the Government. There must be a clearer picture, so that hon, Members, let alone the public, can see how the development will proceed over the coming years. Of the three watercourses that I have mentioned the Upper Bann is by far the least problematic. While I shall not say that further minor improvements in that catchment area are not necessary, it is the other two that raise the greatest problems, and it is about these that I shall address specific questions to the Under-Secretary.

It is almost two years since the Under-Secretary's predecessor provided me with a statement of proceedings for the radical improvement of the lower reaches of the Lagan upon which depend so many agricultural and other improvements in a large part of the eastern half of the Province. He told me in a letter of 25th April 1975: It has been decided to make use of the latest available computer based techniques in analysing the behaviour of the river and its reaction to heavy rainfall. The Hydraulics Research Station and the Institute of Hydrology have been commissioned to prepare computer programmes which will enable the Department to simulate the behaviour of the whole river channel when alterations are made to improve particular reaches. The Department will also be enabled to assess the overall effect of treating the flooding problem by different means. He concluded that passage of his letter by saying the preparation of these programmes is now well advanced. If it was "well advanced" two years ago, I submit that the Government should be prepared to say now how their thoughts are crystallising and what specific plans have been decided upon for the management of the crucial lower part of the course of the River Lagan. This is something that hon. Members representing Belfast seats need to know just as much as those representing areas higher up the Lagan. I appreciate that the works involved will be major and very costly; but there is no reason why the outlines of these works as they have emerged from the studies should not be made known to the public through hon. Members.

In this matter, as in many others in Northern Ireland, information is the essence of leadership. People are inherently reasonable. In Northern Ireland they have learned to be patient as well. But they will be reasonable and patient only if they have information which enables them to understand how their particular problems are part of a general picture, and how the larger problems are to be dealt with by the Government. So I call for information, in this debate and subsequently in a fuller and more publicly accessible form, about the state of study, planning and decisions on major works on the lower course of the Lagan. If the Minister can add an indication of the dates on which a physical start can be made on these works, so much the better.

From the Lagan I pass to that equally problematic river, the Clanrye, which has the misfortune to describe an exaggerated "S" shape in its passage through the lower part of County Down on its way to discover the Newry River and so through Carlingford Lough to reach the sea. Here again, virtually no improvement can be made in land drainage over a large area—something like 100 square miles—unless and until the capacity of the exit of the Clanrye through the Newry River is radically improved. It was over a year ago that the Minister provided me with an indication of the present state of play.

In a most interesting and comprehensive letter of 11th February last year he indicated the alternatives which were available—all the possible major projects for clearing an adequate channel through Newry to the sea and thus unlocking the problem of drainage in the area that I have described. He said that it had been decided already that the proposal to create a single channel, by linking the canal and the river in the town of Newry, was accepted by the Departments and the district council as the most acceptable from all points of view.

This course would involve major replanning of the centre of the town of Newry.

I say in parenthesis that there is a great deal in the town of Newry—once elegant and happy—that is worth preserving; but the preservation of what is worth preserving is only possible if there is to be fundamental renewal in other parts, and I regard the scheme for the improvement of the Newry River in the town of Newry as the key, not only to land drainage, but to a radical change in the psychological as well as physical outlook of the town.

So the Minister explained a year ago that there was a great deal of planning work to be done in the town before the way was clear for the works to begin. He used this expression: It is not anticipated that actual work on the ground will commence before 1978/79. But 1978–79 is now the next financial year after the one we are considering in the Vote on Account. Therefore, it should already be possible for the Government to give quite specific indications of where we are going in handling the watercourse of the Clanrye and the Newry River. They should be able to hold out a general time scale over which the works are expected to be spread, and to give some estimate of what the works will involve and the expenditure required.

There was a time when works of this sort used to evoke a local pride and interest and an almost personal commitment on the part of the local population who witnessed them. This was of no small importance in securing the steps necessary for such works to be carried out—the agreements, wayleaves, and so on—and also the support for the massive expenditure which is going to be necessary.

That brings me to the general plea which I want to make to the Minister. I carried on a debate in the summer of last year, in the form of question and answer, with the former Secretary of State and with the hon. Gentleman about the possibility of producing some sort of presentation which would be available, and available in a publicly intelligible form, showing the whole picture of the potentialities of land drainage in Northern Ireland, and giving an indication of the stages by which the major works of improvement were expected to be carried out.

I cannot say that the then Secretary of State responded very readily to my proposition; but I think that there was perhaps one justification for his reluctance to accept the proposal in the form in which I put it—namely, that if one has a plan which is too cut and dried, too carefully dated, one can be pretty certain that it is going to be the victim of what is called "slippage", and that it may in the end result in causing more disappointment than satisfaction.

But it is not a dated, phased plan of that kind for which I am calling this afternoon, though there are contexts in which such a plan has been quite a valuable instrument—perhaps I might be forgiven for referring to the Hospital Plan for England and Wales, first edition, 1962. But what is more important at this stage is something more general. It is an indication of the major schemes which are going to be started in the next two or three years, and of the scope which those schemes will afford for widespread improvement of land drainage over large areas of the Province. I see no reason why, in trying to answer the specific questions that I have addressed to him, the hon. Gentleman should not show the public the picture of what ought to happen, in the next five years, to transform the situation in the basin of the Lagan and in the basin of the Newry and Clanrye rivers.

In some respects, the Northern Ireland Office is very anxious, perhaps sometimes too anxious, to go in for glossy propaganda presentation. I think we all get a document, monthly or fortnightly, wrapped up, for some reason, in cellophane—one can never discover which end to start opening it—which contains most glowing descriptions of the efforts that the Government are making at development in various aspects of the life and economy of the Province. Agencies such as the Housing Executive are all too ready to clothe their reports in literally the most highly coloured covers and presentation.

What I am asking for is a little, only a little, of that sort of effort in order to inform and to enthuse the public in the context of land drainage. It will aid the task of the Drainage Division—to which I pay tribute, as I have done to the readiness of the Minister to concern himself even with the minutiae of land drainage when it is brought to his attention—in explaining the necessity to defer projects which those concerned know are so neces- sary higher up-stream. It will help the Drainage Division to make those concerned content with minor works for the time being when major works are clearly necessary. It will show the public as a whole the prospect of a really great improvement in the utilisation of the land in the eastern part of the Province as a result of the big schemes which we know the Government have in mind, and which have got to be carried out, or substantially carried out, before the end of this decade.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will respond in the spirit in which I have put the proposition to him, both when he replies to this debate and also subsequently in the management of the public relations of one of the most important parts of the Department of Agriculture. the Drainage Division.

I now want to refer briefly to just one other subject in the list—the road service, and that in one context only. I am not sure whether Northern Ireland Ministers are fully aware of the great differences and inequalities between the relationships which hon. Members seeking to represent their constituents are able to build up with the officials, the bodies and Departments respectively concerned with different subjects. I can assure him that there is an enormous range from the most inaccessible and circuitous on the one hand to the most direct and personal on the other. I am not seeking to attribute blame. I am just identifying the facts and making a plea for an improvement which will be very much in the interests of Ministers themselves as well as of right hon. and hon. Members and their constituents.

There is no area of administration in Northern Ireland where communications—in my experience anyway—are more circumlocutory, circuitous and impeded than the work of the road service. Clearly, the same instructions which have enabled the Housing Executive and its local district and area managers to be in direct personal touch with hon. Members, and which enable us to be in collusion, I almost said, with many other branches of the administration at a level below Stormont and the Under-Secretaries of State themselves, have not reached the road service.

I think it will be the experience of all my hon. Friends that the remedying of a minor road defect, let alone the question of a major road scheme—you may be astonished to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that these things can be handled in Northern Ireland only by a responsible elected representative in the person of an hon. Member of this House—that all these matters have to ascend to the empyrean of an Under-Secretary of State in order that they may thence descend again, with ultimate blessing or otherwise, upon the hon. Member concerned and his complaining constituents. This is quite unnecessary.

We have in pursuance of our duties to bring forward matters small and large. If they are large, then, in proportion to their importance, we shall naturally address ourselves to a member of the Government, if necessary to the Secretary of State personally. But it is clearly absurd and inconvenient that all correspondence on this subject should have to be handled at ministerial level. So much of it could be dealt with more swiftly, more understandingly and more to the satisfaction of those locally aggrieved if there were some direct relationship—across the wires, as it were—at the grass roots, at road level, between the appropriate part of the road service and hon. Members of this House.

The hon. Gentleman might strengthen his hand by speaking to his fellow Under-Secretary, who deals with questions of roads and who receives an average of a letter a day from me on that subject—and I send on to him by no means ail the complaints which reach me. I should be obliged if the hon. Gentleman would address his mind to this matter and see whether we can have an administrative simplification in the Department. That would cut out a great deal of useless work and unnecessary writing and enable what must be done sooner or later to be done much more promptly and with much more satisfaction.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I was slow to react when you called me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I had some doubts about taking part in this debate, as by doing so I am lending some credibility to what I regard as the parliamentary charade of this procedure.

At Question Time today I put to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that the Northern Ireland Committee should meet at Stormont. I am sorry that he rejected that suggestion, because I believe that the parliamentary proceedings relating to Northern Ireland would be helped inestimably if the Ulster people could sit in and listen to what is being said about the Province and their problems. We have many words from the Secretary of State, as we did from his predecessors, but talk is cheap. I remember his immediate predecessor admonishing the people of Northern Ireland, and particularly the politicians, for not doing their job. But how can Ulster politicians do their job if they face the attitude which the Ministers and the Northern Ireland Office adopt?

The previous Secretary of State now occupies a grander office as Home Secretary. I suppose that that proves that nothing succeeds like failure. I hope, though I fear vainly, that the present Secretary of State will do something to restore parliamentary democracy to the Ulster people.

I regret to say that Northern Ireland suffers worse than any other part of the United Kingdom from our economic position. The sum of £3 million allocated for price restraint is not adequate to help the Ulster people. Any public money spent on price restraint is to be welcomed, as is the setting up of the consumer advice centres, although their efficacy in keeping down housekeeping costs for the average busy housewife is very doubtful. In 12 months Northern Ireland has seen food prices rise at a faster rate than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The position is even worse than that would suggest, as the price base of 12 months ago was already significantly higher than Great Britain's over a range of domestic foods.

The large potato harvest has filled the gap left in Great Britain by last year's drought, but today potatoes are more expensive than ever. The same is true of meat and pork products, especially bacon. In a land of egg producers, eggs are 50p a dozen and are providing minimal profits for the producers.

Pay policy has also impinged more heavily on depressed areas than elsewhere. The margin between the supplementary benefit scale rates and the typical weekly wage of an unskilled man or woman has already disappeared in families with four children or more. Yesterday I heard of two brothers, one in a job and the other unemployed, both with the same number of children. The man who was working had only £2 more per week than his brother who was receiving benefit. That is not the way in which the workers in the Province or anywhere else in the nation should be treated. It must have an adverse effect.

The situation is worsened when most of the money earned in overtime by the average worker is taken away in tax. That is no incentive to higher productivity. The high rate of taxation on incomes is now a burden which will have to be reduced if the country is to get up off its knees.

The few exceptional cases of eight-child and 10-child families—where benefits could be more than £60 a week—receive the publicity. But the sad cases are the one-parent families, the widow or wife separated from her husband and in a low-wage job. Many are employed only part time for 20 or 25 hours a week. Family income supplement helps, but the rates have been overtaken by price rises.

With shopkeepers having to struggle with very highly rated property and astronomical rates bills, as well as energy bills, they have little scope for reducing the price of goods. The various rent and rate rebate schemes for Housing Executive tenants help in extreme cases, but we must also remember the real hardship in older private housing areas, where many elderly people are living on pensions or fixed incomes. They suffer, and it is sad to see some of them in their homes asking what they can do in view of the constantly rising cost of living.

The young people also fare badly. New private houses and bungalows are heavily mortgaged, and the mortgage repayments are a nightmare for the newly married. Perhaps the £325 housing subsidy for owner-occupiers could be increased to reduce the initial burden of the amount which the prospective owner must pay. An increase would help young people setting up home.

I have made the point before, but it is worth repeating, that more resources should be directed into wealth-earning and wealth-creating activities. Food processing is a fertile field for development in Northern Ireland. Our only natural resources are land, grass and the water about which the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) spoke. This is an ideal combination for the development of food processing in the Province. The industry would be backed by the Queen's University, Ulster College and the Agricultural College's courses on food technology. More needs to he done in this area.

It is a shame that the Belfast Food Products firm was allowed to go into liquidation a few years ago. There should have been an investigation into the working of the Pig Marketing Board. I had a plea from a former Chairman of the Board, Mr. Swain, who has often told me of his search for someone who would arrange for an investigation since he believed that the Board was directly responsible for the death of the firm. It is not too late for the Government to grant the request for an investigation. If, as the Board says, there is nothing to hide, it should agree, but it does not. The Government should do something in this sphere In the past the pig producers, as well as others have suffered as a result of the Board's activities.

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is at least one case before the Northern Ireland Ombudsman which will reflect on the lack of expertise if not the lack of integrity of the Pig Marketing Board, and that the outcome of those investigations may well assist the person to whom my hon. Friend has referred?

Mr. Kilfedder

It is heartening to know that the Ombudsman, who, we must admit, has limited powers, is investigating at least one case. The Government have a duty to taxpayers to investigate the entire working of the Pig Marketing Board during the past 10 years.

The year 1976 saw the closure of some other food processing firms such as Colin Glen and already this year two or three of the big meat packing companies have gone on short time. Here our natural assets are being damaged by EEC rules and regulations.

We had a statement today from a Northern Ireland Minister saying how much the Common Market was doing for Northern Ireland. I know that a fair bit of money comes to Northern Ireland from the Common Market's Social Fund and Regional Fund, but the Government at Westminster then deduct that amount from the money which goes to the people, the industry, and the workers in Northern Ireland. That is a sad situation. It seems that there is a certain amount of Government deceit in the matter. I am sorry that Northern Ireland does not have a direct representative at Strasbourg in the European Parliament. An Ulster representative would be able to expose the humbug that sometimes falls from the lips of Northern Ireland Ministers.

5.12 p.m.

Mr. McCusker (Armagh)

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to Part II, Class 1, No. 4, dealing with expenditure of the Department of Agriculture on fishery services, amounting to £1,029,000. Can the Minister tell us exactly what that money is used for?

I congratulate the Minister, and through him the Department of Agriculture, for the work that the Department has done in the last 10 years in its fishery work. As someone who is not the slightest bit interested in angling or fishing it was revealing for me to obtain the angling guide for 1977 produced by the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and to realise how much the Department has achieved in the past decade. It has brought more than 70 waters into use, developing them and making them available to the public. To a layman who is not interested in fishing this seems to be a farsighted and imaginative approach, to bring improved fishing to local people who are interested, and also to attempt to exploit fishing as a tourist attraction.

It was, therefore, rather disquieting to see in the Press this week an attack on the Department of Agriculture by the Ulster Angling Federation. I do not know whether the attack is justified, but when the federation passes a unanimous vote of no confidence in those responsible for the statutory management of fisheries in Northern Ireland—and they include the Department of Agriculture—and accuses them of lack of machinery for consultation with other bodies, failure to act on pollution, and inadequate stocking programmes, it really worries someone like me who has only a general interest.

The angling guide is a very impressive document and contains an impressive list of the achievements of the Department of Agriculture. If I take up fishing in later life perhaps I can look forward to an enjoyable retirement in some of the places listed in the guide. Undoubtedly the attitude of the federation has been caused by what it considers to be large increases in the costs of fishing, due to increases in the costs of permits and rod licences.

It seems that it now costs £12 a year to fish in these waters. All I can say is that £12 a year for an enthusiastic, able-bodied working fisherman is not a lot of money. It works out at only £1 a month or 25p a week, which does not appear to be excessive. However, I am told by a colleague who is a fisherman that fishing does not take place all the year round, so perhaps it does not work out in those simple terms. It does not seem that £12 is unreasonable for the facilities available, except for one category of people to whom I wish to draw the Minister's attention.

At the moment, juveniles, under 16 years old, do not have to pay £12. They can obtain a permit for £1 and a licence for £2, thus giving the under-16s fishing for £3 a year against the £12 for adults. For one category of people, the old-age pensioners, £12 is a substantial sum, especially for someone who has, perhaps, enjoyed fishing in his active life and has looked forward to enjoying it even more in his retirement, and for whom £12 represents a whole week's income. If it is thought proper to exclude juveniles from having to pay the full £12 the Minister should consider whether it is appropriate to grant some relief to old-age pensioners. I know that at a time of economic restraint I am asking for something that the Minister may, perhaps, find difficult, but I hope that he will consider the matter. Pensioners in Northern Ireland are not as well off as pensioners in the rest of the United Kingdom. They do not have concessionary fares. In fact, they have to pay higher costs for other services, as has been mentioned on many occasions. Such a gesture as I ask for would be much appreciated by that section of the Northern Ireland fishing fraternity. I hope that the Minister will consider my appeal. I also want to draw attention to Part 2, Class VIII, No. 4, dealing with Department of Education expenditure on youth, sports and allied services and community relations, amounting to £4,922,000. I ask whether in that sum or in the other sums listed under that class provision is made for the £10,000 a year grant to the Educational Guidance Service for Adults provided by the Northern Ireland Council of Social Service. The guidance service has been providing a very valuable service to the Northern Ireland community for the past 10 years. The very commendable work that it has been doing, much of it pioneering work, has attracted attention in places far afield from Northern Ireland. The service has been referred to in a variety of reports and bulletins, including one by UNESCO. The Open University Committee on Continuing Education, in a report recommending the setting up of a national counselling service for adult students. went as far as to say that the Northern Ireland Educational Guidance Service for Adults deserves particular mention. The tragedy is that in trying to tidy up things in Northern Ireland some people believe that it is time to get rid of a service which they do not control and do not own. These people think that it is time that the service was trimmed off and tidied up, in the same way that two years ago the youth employment service was tidied up. In fact we destroyed it. We were told that the youth employment service was being turned into a multiservice placement organisation which would deal with people from the cradle to the grave. We objected, and said that the service was being destroyed, and that no adequate replacement was being put in its place. That has turned out to be true.

People have told me that vocational guidance for youth in Northern Ireland, formerly provided by the youth employment service, is not the same standard as it was prior to the destruction of the youth employment service. If the Government go ahead with running down this service, which they can do simply by refusing to grant-aid it, they will be destroying a very valuable service for which there is no replacement.

It is sad to read in the final paragraph of the 1976 annual report the following words: The Council greatly regrets that the Government is apparently unwilling to make use of the accumulated knowledge and experience of the Educational Guidance Service; however, other parts of the United Kingdom will doubtless be starting experiments, in the belief that an Adult Counselling Service would be of value in community development; and already there are signs that the lessons of Northern Ireland's experience will be helpful elsewhere, if not at home. It has been a most rewarding ten years for all taking part and, the Council believes, helpful to many of those using the Service; it is glad to record in this, possibly the last Report, the following comment, taken from a letter from a London Community Centre ' reading of your Service was like seeing an oasis in the desert '! That is the obituary of the Educational Guidance Service for Adults as provided in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland Council of Social Service.

The guidance service in 10 years has processed—if that is the correct term—more than 4,000 clients. It has been costing the Education Department over the past few years £10,000 a year. There are numerous front organisations for what charitably could be called community workers who are really organisations for terrorists which are not short of money. It is a tragedy to deprive a worthy organisation such as the guidance service of £10,000 when to do so is to destroy it.

It has been indicated to the service that it might be allowed to continue as a specialist agency, but it cannot do that without assistance. The organisation is frantically looking around for sources of aid, but it needs a continuing supply of money from the Department of Education. It does not know, however, how much the Department will offer it for the coming year. Will the Minister say whether there is an allowance for this expenditure within the global sum that I mentioned earlier?

We understand that the Belfast Education Board and the other education boards may be trying to develop a replacement service, but they have made no great progress in this direction. They do not have the specialist staff needed to man such a service. There is no point in destroying the guidance service in the way that the youth employment service was destroyed, unless an alternative to it is available.

5.23 p.m.

Mr. John Carson (Belfast, North)

In a recent statement to the Belfast City Council the Minister responsible for the Department of the Environment said that a new and better Belfast could arise. In common with every public representative in Northern Ireland, especially those from Belfast, he was rightly concerned at the decline in Belfast housing.

I should like to comment on some of the projects and actions which are needed to help to solve the vast housing problems of inner Belfast. One of the most important things to be done in the area is to defeat the terrorists. They have inflicted much violence and terror in and around inner Belfast, and to such an extent that, in fear of their lives and concerned for their families, people have vacated homes in which they have lived for many years. The bombing and the shooting have forced them to leave these areas and have brought about a decline in the housing there.

I was pleased that the Minister was prepared to establish a steering group to deal with this matter. The figures relating to the Belfast area make shocking reading. They show that of the 123,120 houses in Belfast, 29,750, or 24.2 per cent., are totally unfit. Only 59,110, or 48 per cent., are described as sound, and about 15,710 houses need such basic amenities as baths, inside toilets and hot water.

More than 40 per cent. of Belfast's houses were built over 60 years ago, and some are 110 years old. It is clear from the figures that many people are asked to live in deplorable conditions in inner Belfast. I congratulate the Under-Secretary on the efforts he has made to acquaint himself with the problems that face the people there, and on the time that he has spent in conference with the elected representatives in the Belfast City Council and with the tenants' associations to find some means of solving this great problem.

I am, however, worried about the steering group that the Minister has set up. Alderman Miles Humphries, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, is a member of it. I have nothing against him. He is a member of my party. However, he has such a big heart that he can say "No" to nothing. He is chairman of a great many committees, however. He is Chairman of Northern Ireland Railways, of a firm of vehicle body builders, of the police authority and of other bodies. How can someone with so many commitments devote the time that is needed to tackling such an enormous problem as the Minister described to the Belfast City Council? The Minister should have another look at the constitution of this group and should consider the time it will have to spend examining the housing problem of inner Belfast.

I come next to the chairman of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Mr. James O'Hara. Mr. O'Hara has failed to keep his own house in order. He has been part of the charade which has been the means of granting contracts. Enormous amounts of public money have been spent to such an extent that this has been a cause of police investigation. How can Mr. O'Hara, who has failed as Chairman of the Housing Executive, ever hope to be part of a steering group to bring stability to the housing needs of inner Belfast?

Mr. O'Hara has not only failed to keep his own house in order, but is biased against public representatives. This bias has been demonstrated repeatedly. An example was when he came to open a house which was renovated at No. 9 Upper Meadow Street. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) was excluded. When the Chairman of the Housing Executive handed over the keys of the house—he must have been thought of as royalty—for some reason he failed to inform the publicly elected representatives that he would be performing that duty. He opened the house at 10.30 in the morning, and I received a letter at 2 p.m. telling me when the keys were to be handed over. I immediately telephoned his secretary who said that for security reasons no one was informed beforehand. Who does Mr. James O'Hara think he is? Even Ministers when they are to visit an hon. Member's constituency usually inform him beforehand.

I do not believe that the matter was kept quiet for security reasons. I think that Mr. O'Hara thought that, because the house was in the New Lodge Road area, I would not be acceptable there as a public representative. I can tell Mr. O'Hara that I had been in that area many times dealing with constituents' matters. For his information, many people in that area accept me as a Member of Parliament and come to me on many occasions for advice and for help with their problems.

How can Mr. O'Hara be tied up with public functions, having tigers in the zoo named after him, opening houses, performing major functions in Belfast, and America, and chairing many companies, when he is biased against some public representatives? How can the Minister ever have the support of the public and its elected representatives in dealing with this steering group?

I thank the Minister for visiting the Belfast City Council, for talking to its representatives and for visiting the different constituencies with myself and councillors to see the problems. It would be much better if members of the city council, the people who know the problems of such areas as the New Lodge Road, the Ardoyne, Shankill Road, Tigers Bay and Duncairn Gardens, were made members of the steering group. If that were done, I believe that the Minister would find much more satisfactory means for solving some of Belfast's housing problems.

One of the reasons for the grave decline in Belfast housing was the failure of the present Government to implement the Porter Report, which has been before us for two years. It will not be implemented, nor will it come before the House for legislation until some time in 1978. Yet to deal with the Housing Executive properly over the past two years the Ministers responsible for housing in Northern Ireland have had to ask for legislation for rent increases for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

It has been suggested to me that this might be means by which the Housing Executive and the Government could force landlords out of business. Private landlords have been losing many thousands of pounds over the last few years through taking small rents and having to spend vast amounts on repairs and upkeep. The Housing Executive could step in if a landlord felt that he had lost money, that the property was not viable and that he could not maintain it. He might decide to give the Executive the property for nothing. I think that thought is behind the decision not to legislate on the Porter Report on the private rented sector.

The Minister has reminded us that it was not only the responsibility of the Westminster Government. The Stormont Government were equally guilty of rent restriction, and they bear a big responsibility for the decline of houses owned by private landlords in inner Belfast.

There is another reason for the decline. I have taken a close interest in this because the inner part of Belfast is the biggest part of my constituency and it a working-class area. I was brought up in a working-class area and I know the problems that face people and I know their difficulties. Some areas have been earmarked for development and have even had vesting orders served on them by the Housing Executive. The people there say "There is no future for me in this street. My house has been vested in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive". They then move to other places.

Yet year after year the Housing Executive fails to comply with the vesting order or to put it into effect. We have large areas of empty houses or bricked-up houses and waste land which has been vandalised and infested by vermin because the Northern Ireland Executive has failed to live up to its obligations and the promises given to people that it would pursue the vesting order and rebuild.

I attended a meeting on Monday night in my constituency with the architect and members of the Housing Executive. We discussed an area which was vested in the Executive. The Executive had promised that rebuilding in that area would start in June 1976. But the architect said that they would not proceed with it, because they did not have the finance. I asked whether he could give a guarantee about when work would start, but I was told "No". I asked whether he had any idea when rebuilding would start and was told that there was a good possibility that it would start in October 1978.

Many people moved out of that area and were promised that in a year's time they would be able to return. Two years have passed and people have yet to see a brick being laid. They were told that the houses were being vested in the Housing Executive and that they would be rebuilt for the people of that district.

This is just one of many things that have been happening. I sympathise with the Minister in his difficult task. I see the problems and the responsibilities facing not only the Housing Executive but all the elected representatives. I hope that the Minister will listen to those representatives and to the members of the Belfast City Council. I hope that he will put them on the steering group and that he will listen to the tenants' associations. I hope that he will involve the people promptly so that houses can be built for people in Belfast, which would help to alleviate their fears and problems.

Rehabilitation is another problem facing the people in my constituency, and it will have been a problem to all hon. Members who live in Belfast. On a recent visit to my constituency the Minister said that North Belfast and West Belfast were the two areas of the city that most needed rehabilitation, and I hope that the programme, which was widely welcomed, will be stepped up quickly and efficiently.

There are areas in my constituency that should be declared action areas, although I have to tell the Government that one of the curses of action areas, leisure centres and similar projects is that they are helping to create segregation in Belfast. The Government say to themselves that if they do something in a Protestant area, that will keep the Protestants happy and another project in a Catholic area will keep the Catholics happy. The Government would do better to look at the worst parts of the city and judge the need of the people there, irrespective of their class or creed.

I hope that the Minister will heed the advice of elected representatives and keep a close watch on the rehabilitation schemes. Looking back at the rehabilitation of the Moyard and White Rock areas of Belfast and the deplorable misuse of public money in these schemes makes one afraid for the future.

Last month I asked about the cost of rehabilitated properties at Moyard before and after October 1975 by the Andersons town Co-Operative Limited, O'Neill Brothers and Broadway Building Works. The Minister gave me some very revealing figures. Before October, 1975, the Andersonstown Co-Operative charged £11,049, O'Neill Brothers charged £10,920 and the Broadway Building Works—and I ask hon. Members to note this carefully—charged £15,996—nearly £16,000 to rehabilitate a property. At the current rate of inflation, that figure would be about £25,000 today.

After these details were brought to light by myself and my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Belfast, West, a police investigation was started and we have some interesting figures for the cost of rehabilitation after October 1975. The Andersonstown Co-Operative charged £7,283, O'Neill Brothers £7,376 and Broadway Building Works, which had previously been charging nearly £16,000, was now charging £6,623.

This was all part of the rehabilitation scheme. I draw the facts to the attention of the House because public money was involved and the Minister has emphasised how difficult it is to find finance to continue housing projects in Belfast as he would like. Here we have a Housing Executive that was giving out public money as if the money came from a never-ending spring. I leave hon. Members to guess what the people who received that money did with it.

The principle of rehabilitation schemes is good and we supported the rehabilitation of many properties in Belfast, but we demand that programmes should be closely scrutinised and that there should be no waste of public money. The houses in Belfast should be rehabilitated speedily and at a reasonable and proper cost.

We still have 6,000 squatters in Belfast. What steps are the Government taking to stop squatting? There is almost 100 per cent. squatting on the Twinbrook housing estate. As soon as houses are completed—and sometimes even before the doors are screwed on—the squatters move in, but there have been no prosecutions or attempts by the Housing Executive to remove them.

I should like to draw the attention of hon. Members to a directive issued to the area offices of the Housing Executive. It says: Legal proceedings should only be instituted where there is no danger to staff and where, in the opinion of the local police, it should be possible to execute a decree. That directive relates to only one part of the community in Belfast. That is the tragedy of the situation. If we do not deal with this matter properly, we shall have people saying that certain parts of the community are squatting and that nothing is being done about it. As public representatives we condemn and advise against squatting. In certain areas of my constituency I have told people to get out of houses because they should not have possession unless that has been granted to them by the Housing Executive. Yet there is a directive that action cannot be taken against squatters.

We have mentioned some of the tragedies, offered remedies and suggested actions that could helip the inner area of Belfast. I grew up in my constituency. I speak as someone who has been and still is involved in local government, in youth work, with senior citizens and who has always worked with people. I speak from vast experience.

The system of paying rates and rents in Northern Ireland is less than satisfactory to tenants. I have suggested before that statements of accounts should be provided to all tenants at six-monthly intervals. I have met many people who have been told without warning that they are in arrears with their rents. The Housing Executive should send out six-monthly statements to tenants to let them know the current position.

Inconvenience and frustration are caused to tenants in their attempts to get the necessary maintenance and repairs done to their dwellings. The Minister should listen carefully. A complete overhaul of Housing Executive maintenance procedures is urgently required not only in Belfast but throughout Northern Ireland. The maintenance of Housing Executive property is deplorable.

5.52 p.m.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) rightly said that this was an opportunity that is rarely given to hon. Members from Northern Ireland to express their views on the difficult matters that arise in their constituencies. There is an old saying in Northern Ireland—"It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good". Perhaps we have been afforded this opportunity to bring these matters to the attention of the House because of the failure of the devolution Bill to make progress.

Some of the matters that we raise may sound insular and parochial, but I do not see too many hon. Members from the United Kingdom in the Chamber and I am sure that those who are here will not be offended by our parochial approach.

Many matters that affect Northern Ireland hon. Members have already been raised. I shall add my expression of anxiety to theirs. The order is similar to the Consolidated Fund Bill. I draw attention to Schedule 1, Class II(5) which relates to expenditure for the Department of Manpower Services for the seriously disabled, industrial rehabilitation and training. I can speak with knowledge of the aid that is given to the seriously disabled in Northern Ireland: such services are non-existent.

In the rest of the United Kingdom much concern is felt and help is given to those who are seriously disabled. They are assisted to find employment. However, in Northern Ireland, where there has always been a serious unemployment problem, employers, perhaps naturally, do not give jobs to those who do not possess all their physical faculties. They tend to discriminate in favour of those who possess all their physical and mental capabilities. The problem of the disabled who are seeking employment in Northern Ireland is therefore exacerbated.

I know many hundreds of people who are signing the unemployment register or seeking employment knowing that they will never get a job in Northern Ireland. They are in receipt of invalidity benefits and supplementary benefits. The Ministry of Health and Social Services as at present constituted in Northern Ireland is not fully aware of the extent of the problem of the disabled. The disabled are not being given the help that they would get in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Class IV(1) of the same schedule refers to expenditure on road services, including lighting, parking and road safety. In Belfast road lighting is non-existent. The situation is particularly bad in north and west Belfast. The reason given for lack of lighting is that it is a security problem and that the Army, police and security forces have objected to lighting being provided. But people living in those areas pay rates and taxes and are entitled to the same consideration as anyone living elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

People in my constituency have been killed because there is no lighting. Accidents have taken place. The Minister will probably say that it is a matter for the security forces but he must pay attention to the problem particularly as it affects old people. Thep pay their rates and taxes and are entitled to adequate lighting.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson) and I represent the most poorly housed constituents in Northern Ireland, apart from those of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. West and south Belfast have suffered over many years from inadequate housing. That has resulted in a tendency to create ghettos for Protestants or Roman Catholics and for Loyalists and Republicans. That has exacerbated the problem. The Minister is not yet fully aware of the extent of that problem.

I attended the ceremony for the handing over of the keys at No. 9 Upper Meadow Street. I am not sure whether I was invited or whether I gatecrashed, but I got there somehow. I think it was just after the ceremony had taken place. I found it hard to believe that the addition of a bathroom unit to a small house in Upper Meadow Street, with two small bedrooms, a hall and a kitchen, should cost £8,000.

I believe that I know the builder who did this installation. I think that £8,000 was far too much to pay for this bathroom unit. This is an area which must be developed in the next 20 or 30 years. I do not believe that the Housing Executive has adequately inquired into whether it would be better to knock down these houses and rebuild rather than attempt to rehabilitate the houses.

For many years Belfast was regarded as having a higher standard of living per wage packet than any other part of the United Kingdom. This was brought about because of the lower price of housing. As hon. Members have said, those days have gone. Housing in Northern Ireland is just as expensive, in some cases more so, as in any other part of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is the hon. Gentleman telling the House that a bathroom costs £8,000?

Mr. Fitt

Yes. What I saw at No. 9 Upper Meadow Street was a bathroom unit. I understand that it can be built in a factory and lowered into the back yard of the house. The bathroom unit and the plastering of walls, which was all I saw, cost £8,000. I think that was quite a lot of money.

Mr. Gow

What the hon. Member has said is absolutely unbelievable. It is possible to build a three-bedroom council house in this part of the United Kingdom at a total cost below £8,000.

Mr. Fitt

I hope that those in authority in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Minister will take note of that. The figures I am quoting are accurate. They were given to me by people in authority.

Mr. Carson

I can support what the hon. Member says because I visited these houses and made a thorough investigation of the position. I am sure that the hon. Member would agree that we have investigated the situation. That was the price for putting in the bathroom.

Mr. Fitt

I realise the extent of the terrible housing problem we have in north and west Belfast. However, if that is the lowest possible cost at which we can rehabilitate a two-bedroomed house, the overall cost will be so enormous that the country will not be able to afford it. I believe that I know the builder who carried out this renovation. I do not believe that he can in any way be put into the category of builders mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Belfast, North. The hon. Member gave us figures for the cost of rehabilitation of flats in the west Belfast area. These are now at £7,000 and £7,500 whereas formerly they were £10,000, £15,000 and £16,000.

Everyone accepts that there were unscrupulous builders, aided and abetted by gunmen in para-military organisations, who were holding the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to ransom. These people would not allow bona fide builders and workmen to come in. They were employing their own men. I hope that we can be told at the end of the debate that police inquiries have reached the stage where prosecutions are pending against some of these people.

No elected Member from Northern Ireland will have any sympathy for these builders who were employing such tactics or those para-military organisations which were employing such builders. It led to the making of outlandish profits of a Chicago-gangster standard. It meant that the para-military organisations supported the builder who carried out the work at his own price and let the property to a tenant who supported the para-military organisations.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Belfast, North who attempted to restrict this type of activity to west Belfast. This happens all over Belfast, as does squatting. Squatting is not confined to one area. There are squatters in Westland Road and in Glencairn and other parts of north Belfast. Equally, there are many squatters in west Belfast. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Housing Executive, aided and abetted by the military and the police, could evict a squatter from Westland Road or Glen-cairn? I do not think it would be possible.

Mr. Carson

I hope the hon. Member will agree that I did not say that this happened only in west Belfast. I said that it happened on a larger scale in the Twinbrook area. I can assure the hon. Member that there have been cases brought before the courts from the Westland Road area.

Mr. Fitt

I accept that. But there have not been any evictions. I have never supported the illegal taking over of public housing in Northern Ireland.

Those who represent Belfast constituencies will be aware of the major public relations campaign taking place to publicise improvement grants. We hear and see it every evening on local radio and on television. We read about it in the local newspapers. We are told that up to a maximum of £2,800 will be paid by the Housing Executive to assist in the rehabilitation and improvement of homes. All I can say is that this money is being spent. The facilities which exist in the Executive are not sufficient to cope with the volume of advertising.

The Housing Executive has a small room on Linenhall Street. There are five or six chairs on one side of a table and a similar number on the other. I have been in there twice recently. It was like going into a hen roost. There was nothing but cackling and shouting about bathrooms, houses, floors, upstairs windows and roofs. There were people saying "Were you talking about the bathroom?" and being told "No. I was talking about the roof" No one seemed to know what anyone was talking about. I stood back in absolute amazement. I went up to someone who seemed to be a little more senior than the others and asked "How in the name of God do you put up with this?" She said "Oh, Mr. Fitt! I am on the verge of a nervous breakdown."

There should be more private facilities for people who seek grants from the Executive. They are entitled to privacy. They do not want other people sitting listening to them.

After the avalanche of advertising took place last September one person that I know of made an application for an advance. He went to the Housing Executive yesterday morning in Belfast and was told that his application was still being processed. That was six months after the original application had been made. If the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is sincere about wanting people to spend money—people may get a grant but they still spend some of their own—to bring their house up to a fit standard, there should be far better back-up facilities.

I come back to social services. Under Class VI sums of money are being made available to the DHSS for social security and administration. For a number of weeks the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) has made allegations in this House about scroungers. He has claimed that people are prepared to exist on social security rather than work. The hon. Gentleman made allegations against 782 people and the Minister in charge of pensions replied that not one of those allegations could be substantiated.

I understand that a small number of those allegations related to people living in Northern Ireland. I have said in the Stormont Parliament, in the Assembly and in the Executive, as well as on the Floor of this House, that I do not consider there to be any significant number of so-called scroungers in Northern Ireland. I believe that people will work if work is available. I have been in touch with the. Minister in charge of social security in Northern Ireland and I am hoping to elicit information from him that will support my view that no one in Northern Ireland wants to make himself a burden on the social security system if and when he can get employment.

The benefit allocation scheme was referred to earlier by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) and the hon. Member for Belfast, North. That system came into being as an organ of a Unionist Government in Northern Ireland. It was not a legislative measure passed by this House or by any Labour or Conservative Government. I find it difficult to believe that any section of the community in Great Britain would allow such a measure to be passed.

Mr. McCusker

Will the hon. Gentleman then say who imposed the 50p surcharge on those people who were withholding the rents?

Mr. Fitt

We are at the beginning of a long road and we shall eventually come to the end of it. I was saying that this particular innovation was brought about in the dying days of a Unionist Administration at Stormont. Under that scheme it was permissible to withhold money from social security benefits for those who had stopped paying rents for political reasons, namely, because they were opposed to internment. There were hundreds if not thousands of people in Northern Ireland who were not paying their rents, not because of any political reason, but because they did not have the wherewithal to pay them. They were living in very poor conditions and the reason for their inability to pay was their standard of living, the inequality of opportunity, and the non-availability of employment.

The benefit allocation system overstepped its own regulations. The criteria enabled the benefit allocation system to pay the current week's rent and then to take so much off the arrears. Whether it was by some over-zealous or enthusiastic civil servant I do not know, but all of a sudden we began to realise that the Housing Executive was withholding twice and three times as much as it was entitled to do. If a resident of Hull, Birmingham, Coventry, Barnsley or Liverpool happened to be in rent arrears with the local authority, what steps would be taken? Would not the local authorities have resorted to the usual process of the law and taken that person to court rather than taking the money out of sickness benefit, or family income supplement, or other social security benefits?

The hon. Member for Belfast, North said he felt that anyone in arrears should be able to go to the Housing Executive and ask "How much did I owe at the end of last week?" That is his entitlement. But in reply to a question I was told that 25 per cent. of the cases referred to benefit allocations from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive had to be returned to the Executive because of erroneous and incorrect information. That information was incorrect not only to the extent of £2.50, or £5 or £7.50, or £10, but was incorrect to the extent of hundreds of pounds. I believe that those who are in debt to the Housing Executive are entitled to ask for a true assessment of their debt.

The hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) asked who imposed the penalty of 50p. I shall not evade that question. I was a member of the Northern Ireland Executive between January 1974 and May 1975. We were faced with the possibility that an Executive had been created in Northern Ireland which represented the whole population. Some people did not think so and that is why the Executive was brought to an end. We believed that the Executive was a power-sharing Government and that steps were being taken to end the inequalities and injustices which had existed up to that time. In that situation there was no reason why anyone in Northern Ireland should have refused or stopped paying his just debts to the local authorities.

Although I did not take the decision, my colleagues in the Department did. I believe that the Executive was justified in taking that decision. I shall not be given wholehearted support by the Provisional IRA or the para-militaries in Northern Ireland for having stated yet again that I believe that was justified.

I do not believe that there is any reason now—and this is much more important—for anyone to withhold his rent from the Housing Executive or from local housing authorities. Internment has gone. It was ended by my right hon. Friend the present Home Secretary and he must be given credit for that. The situation in Northern Ireland now, unsatisfactory as it may be politically—I hope that it improves, that somehow agreement will be reached and that there will be devolved government—is such that there is no reason now for anyone in Northern Ireland saying "I will not pay my just debts". I believe that everyone should, especially those in receipt of social security for they are being given rent allowances and they can be given rebates to help them out of their difficulties.

On these appropriations, although we have had an opportunity to put forward our points of view—and they may be 11 to one or 10 to two—Ministers will be aware from the volume of representations to them verbally, by telephone and by letter that there is still a very serious social and economic problem in Northern Ireland. I only hope that what is said in this debate will make the present Ministers more aware of the extent of the problem with which we have to grapple in Northern Ireland.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. William Craig (Belfast, East)

When it comes to spending public money we have to scrutinise the use of it very carefully. We all have the temptation to ask for more to be spent on our special hobbyhorses, though I do not believe that any responsible politician now sees that as a credible form of politics. We are in a new era of politics. There is no longer the business of advocating progress on the basis of people getting something for nothing. Our task is to see that people get value for money and that the people's money is spent wisely.

Sometimes I think that, because of the disturbances in Northern Ireland, we are tempted to let too many things go by without proper scrutiny. I am satisfied that, on the whole, administration in Northern Ireland is bad and that there is a great deal of waste and extravagance. We have already heard about one or two items which highlight it. I am not sure whether it is the system of government which is responsible for it. The system of government is not satisfactory. None of us who are public representatives feels that we can discharge our duties properly in this respect, but, even with a bad system of government, we should be able to get a better performance, and I want to address my remarks to one area especially, although I am sure that this exercise could be done right across the board of government.

Before I go into the business of being critical it is only fair and proper that I should pay tribute to the hard work and endeavour put in by the Ministers in their respective Departments. I have a constituency interest in it because, in my constituency, we have a wide variety of problems ranging from economic ones to social ones. At all times, the Ministers have been more than ready to look at them, and it is not for want of trying that the performance has not been better. Although Ministers may be dismayed by some of the criticisms which will emerge during the course of this debate they should draw some comfort from the fact that their efforts have not been entirely unavailing.

We recognise, for instance, the generosity shown in salvaging Harland and Wolff. Some may say that too much money was put into propping up that industry, but, whatever be the balance of judgment, it is good to be able to record in this House that the workers and the management of that industry have produced a remarkable improvement in the capacity of the yard. Difficult though the future may be, if this rate of improvement continues we shall feel that what has been clone for Harland and Wolff has been worth while. The same may be said of Short Brothers. The improvement in productivity and efficiency is entirely commendable, and that little firm is surviving exceptionally well in a most difficult market. But it is all dependent upon people giving value for money. I hope that the productivity in each sector will continue to increase.

I return to where I legitimately see some deficiencies. It is in the administration itself. In Northern Ireland, since we have had what is called direct rule, we have seen an enormous proliferation of public bodies of one sort or another. I cannot believe that there is any other small province in the world that has so many bodies, institutions, organisations and committees. It is the biggest and most unproductive industry in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Gow

I should not want the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) to believe Northern Ireland to be alone in having a surfeit of committees, commissions and civil servants presiding over its affairs. We on this side of the Irish Channel suffer precisely the same disease.

Mr. Craig

I was not unaware of that, but I suggest that we head the league.

During Question Time today I drew attention to the remarkable £6.5 million which the Housing Executive had allowed to fall into arrears in rents and rates. If we look at public bodies as a whole in Northern Ireland—the electricity service, the rating division, the Gas Board and the Housing Executive—we see that the total sum of money in arrears at the end of the financial year 1975–76 was £30.2 million. If the expenditure of public money is of the importance that we are told by the Government today any Administration which sits back and allows that amount of debt to accrue is worthy of censure. It has been going on for too long. In the financial year 1973–74 the amount was £20.1 million. In 1974–75 it was £25.3 million. As I say, in 1975–76 it was £30.2 million, and the trend is still upwards.

I was most dismayed when the Minister, in terms of the Housing Executive, felt that he could justify the change to the BAB system. I believe that, as a result, the arrears in the Housing Executive will continue to escalate. It is not a system which imposes the undue hardship that is alleged. It is a system which says to people "If you find that hurting too hard, go to the Housing Executive and enter into a voluntary agreement". By doing that, a person immediately qualifies himself for rent and rate rebates. In fact, it was the first thing to start making people think in terms of entering into a voluntary agreement. It is dangerous to be a prophet in these matters, but I say with some confidence that, as a result of the Government's decision, the Housing Executive is on to a hiding to nothing.

The Minister should think not only of what we in Parliament are saying about it. What about the thousands of people who, week in and week out, have to make sacrifices to pay their rents? Now, when I am told that these arrears are not resulting in some reduction in the standard of services to these people, I find it difficult to believe. The Housing Executive cannot be the same with £6.5 million arrears. It is bound to curtail or to cut back on something, unless, unbeknown to the rest of us, the Government have dumped a nice little subsidy in by the back door, which I doubt. All elected representatives from Northern Ireland will support me when I say that we want to see a much more determined effort being made to deal with the massive sums there are in arrears.

I shall concentrate my remarks on housing. At the outset I welcome the Minister's statement of 13th December that redirects the emphasis on housing towards Belfast. In no way do I doubt the Minister's sincerity, but I doubt the credibility of the policy. There is talk about spending £136 million over the next five years. Is that possible? If we bear in mind the performance of recent years, there is not a snowball's chance in the hot place of doing that. Each year we have examined the Housing Executive's performance to ascertain the number of completions. Each year there has been an all-time low. We are told that the bottom of the curve has been reached, but the next year we find that the number of completions has declined even further. I make the prophecy that completion rates for the present year will reach another all-time low.

In the face of that record, are the Belfast people going to believe that a massive facelift can be implemented? The Minister will know that in my constituency there is an acute problem. Despair is growing as a result of the increasing delays in the building and finalising of housing schemes. Till something is done that provides evidence that results are being obtained, there is not the slightest use of setting grandiose targets, as the people will become even more disillusioned.

I hope that the Minister's steering committee may be able to do something to tackle the deficiencies that obviously exist in the present set-up. Security presents a problem for the Housing Executive in Belfast but I am not prepared for it to become the scapegoat to cover the present lack of performance. The steering committee, chaired by the Minister, might be able to do something, but I am pessimistic, because the committee seems to be composed of the same old faces, the same people who have failed abysmally in the past few years to get anything done. I am afraid that the new committee will be merely another cog in the wheel of bureaucracy, another committee to report, another time-consuming body, another mini-Housing Executive. I ask the Minister to chew the matter over to see whether he can make it a more convincing and credible body.

I welcome the Minister's statement about encouraging home ownership. I welcome the fact that he will encourage option mortgage schemes and will help as many tenants as possible to become home owners. However, I have received from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive nothing that leads me to the view that it believes in such a policy. I know that at Larne it has embarked upon a new equity share scheme, which I hope will be extended to other areas, but that is only toying with the problem. One of the weaknesses in the Northern Ireland set-up is the very small percentage of home owners in the community. Ministers should initiate an urgent crash programme. There are difficulties about taking houses out of the public stock to create home ownership, but I believe that a proper balance can be struck. In doing so, we can help the people and relieve the Housing Executive of an enormous maintenance burden.

My interest in home ownership does not arise merely from my wish to see tenants purchasing their own houses. I want to see a much more dynamic policy that will enable people to build their own houses or to buy them from new. I accept that there are problems. As we have disrupted the whole administrative machine of Northern Ireland and we have no adequate planning system. The character of no area can be guaranteed. This is an argument that has been advanced by the Polglass scheme. An inquiry has been set up to justify a massive breach of the stop line policy. That sort of decision is necessary if we are to have a planned area with character that people can rely on and invest in with confidence. No one is going to go out of his way to build a house only to find, through the ineptitude of bureaucracy, that a slaughterhouse is positioned not too far away or that inferior housing is being provided in the area.

I should like to see the Government reviewing their strategy and having more expertise in their planning. There are far too many people performing a planning function in Northern Ireland who are no better qualified to do so than I am.

What is happening about Queen's University? Are we to have a planning department in the university? Are the Government continuing with their bursary scheme? I understand from the university that the Government are likely to withdraw their assistance from what I believe to be an important facility—namely, providing the planning skills that we need.

I should like to see a greater emphasis placed on the housing mix. I am now talking about the public sector. Are we doing enough for our own people? Are we building the right sort of housing? I am thinking of my experience in East Belfast as we start to rebuild the Newtownards Road end. I believe that people are best housed in ground floor conditions. There is not enough flexibility in the sort of housing that is being built to allow us to get the maximum out of our developments to assist old people. There could be much greater variations of the upstairs portions to assist families, leaving the downstairs portions for old people.

We all welcome the grants that are now available for home improvements, but is the system not too complicated for most people? It is a ponderous system of form filling. Even most lawyers find it a problem to wade their way through the system. Surely we do not need elaborate bills of quantity and copies of drawing that are so confusing to the ordinary applicant. The system should be capable of being simplified.

I understand from applicants in my constituency that once a grant has been approved there is great difficulty in getting a small builder to undertake the work without advance payment. Is it possible for the Department to consider some system of part-payment as work progresses? I well understand that in these days small builders need a steady cash flow, but is it possible for the Department to devise some way of guiding people to a suitable builder for the job that is in hand? It would probably be embarrassing for those who are dishing out grants to take the responsibility of suggesting who should do the building, but there is a real need in my constituency for some device to be made available to those who need suitable builders to undertake building works.

I have concentrated on housing because I believe that is at the root of any sound, healthy community. It is a source of dismay to me that Northern Ireland, which in years gone by was making so much progress, should find itself losing ground every year in this respect. The troubles violence and instability of the political system are no excuse. I believe that a much better record is within our means, but it will not be reached till we have a whole new look at who is to be responsible for housing.

In retrospect, it was clearly a grave mistake to divorce public sector building from the local authorities. They were, clearly, the best people to decide what was needed for the character of their own districts. The housing Trust, as an independent agency, worked far more efficiently than the Housing Executive, and benefited from its liasion and relationship with local authorities. The sooner that the Housing Executive is dispensed with in its present form and elected representatives take over responsibility for directing their own affairs the better we shall be able to commend the Minister on future appropriation orders, if the Government last long enough to bring in another such order.

6.42 p.m.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I agree entirely with the first statement made by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) that it is our duty in this House to question every piece of paper which comes before us involving the spending of such huge sums of money as are laid out in this order.

I also take note of what the right hon. Gentleman said about housing. We are all aware that, whether in Belfast or London, Glasgow or Cardiff, bad housing and urban deprivation inevitably bring a rash of hooliganism and vandalism which, in Northern Ireland, turns into what we now call terrorism. I think that it could lap into some of our cities on this side of the Irish Sea. Indeed, it has done just that in Glasgow with its very high murder rate since the end of last year.

The order concerns the spending of £500 million of public money and the ability of the Department of Finance to raise a further £275 million. These are vast sums by anyone's standards. I shall concentrate my remarks on two references to Class II expenditure. In one instance, so accurate is the order that the amount to be spent on industrial training, industrial relations and other labour market services has been reduced by £42,600. No doubt, for its efforts in reaching such a remarkable achievement the Department of the Comptroller and Auditor General is also to be docked.

Mr. Powell

That figure represents a decrease in the appropriations-in-aid. That is to say, an extra £42,000 will be required.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his guidance. I was giving credit where no credit was due.

The main Class II expenditure to which I want to turn appears on page 6: For expenditure by the Department of Commerce on provision of land and buildings, selective assistance to industry and shipbuilding, including the repayment to the Consolidated Fund of certain issues made from it to the Capital Purposes Fund, £4l,022.000. I take that figure because it includes selective assistance to the shipbuilding industry and to industry generally. It gives me the opportunity to ask the Minister to tell us more about the way the money is to be spent and, in particular, about the Government's overall industrial strategy for the Province.

Earlier today we had Northern Ireland Questions. The Minister of State told us that unemployment in the Province was now running at 10.7 per cent. of the population. That is approximately 5 per cent. more than the United Kingdom average. I know that unemployment is variable in the sense that it is not made up of one group of people who have lost jobs in one sector. In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, jobs have been lost in various industries not only for cyclical reasons but because of the recession which has affected the rest of the United Kingdom and Western Europe.

It is also true that people are not perhaps anxious to go back to work unless the conditions and wages offered are better than the money they can get from social security. Whether one calls that abuse or common sense is a matter which I leave to others. Be that as it may, the fact is that people do not necessarily rush into any job that is available simply because it is available. They ask themselves a number of qualifying questions before accepting them.

Therefore, when I see grants for assistance to industry and shipbuilding, to the Department of Manpower Services and so on, I ask myself the question: what is the Government's overall attitude to unemployment? Indeed, what is their industrial strategy?

We are all aware that Ulster is going through as bad a recession, if not worse, as most parts of the United Kingdom. Some hon. Members may have seen an article in the Financial Times by Mr. Giles Merritt headed "Britain's poor relation" In that article he sets out the amount of financial assistance that the Province has received. Among the facts which he used to illustrate the overall argument in his article were that before 1969 Northern Ireland enjoyed a higher growth rate than the rest of the United Kingdom, that it now has an active work force of only 36 per cent. of its 1½ million population compared with 43 per cent. for the rest of the United Kingdom, that public spending per head was higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom, and that social security took about 24 per cent. of Ulster's public budget. Between the end of the war and 1976, some 72,000 new jobs were created in the Province. But from now on a much greater creation of new jobs will be needed. Indeed, I want to come to that figure later.

Mr. Merritt made the point that the engineering production index, which in the spring of 1967 stood at 112, now stands at 100—its 1963 level. Lastly, he made the point that the British subvention had risen from £313 million in 1973–74 to £600 million in 1976.

One might say that it is not the lack of public money which is causing Northern Ireland's difficulties. One might also argue that, looking at those figures, unemployment, which seems to be chronic in the Province, is now coupled with a falling-off in the productive capacity of manufacturing industry. I think that the Secretary of State was right in his foreword to the report by Dr. Quigley when he said that there were "long-term structural weaknesses" in the economy.

On the other hand, in the Minister of State's answer to me today he made it clear that the Government are not sitting back and letting the school leavers and younger members of the work force simply stay on the dole but are providing the training centres that will make sure that that work force will be valuable when the opportunities arise for it to be put to work. I think that all of us have said many times how much we know and appreciate the skills of Ulstermen. Reference has been made to Harland and Wolff, a world-wide name, to Short Brothers and Harland and so on. All the same, at the moment Ulster is uncertain about its industrial and economic future. I hope, therefore, that I may be allowed to contribute a few remarks on the subject.

If the Secretary of State is right—I think he is—and there is long-term structural weakness in the economy, one might wonder why, since Dr. Quigley's report came out in September 1976, the Government have been so remiss in not making any statement about their intention over that report. The Minister will know that the shipbuilding industry is given a special pride of place in what Dr. Quigley has to say. He goes so far as to say that, unless the industry's future can be given rather more certainty than appears to exist at present, planning the economy of Northern Ireland will be very difficult.

In those circumstances, can the Minister say something more about this £41 million? Will he perhaps follow up the remark by Mr. Giles Merritt in his article that the pressures on the Secretary of State include the need to come forward with proposals for the Harland and Wolff shipyard by the early Spring? I had the good fortune to hear the Chairman of Short's, Sir George Leach, speak in this House earlier this week. As the right hon. Member for Belfast, East said, Sir George pointed out that Short's is doing remarkably well, but he made the point, which has been stressed more than once during the passage of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill, that Short's is concerned about being outside the great grouping of the airframe industry which is about to take place.

Indeed, Sir George went so far as to wonder whether the insularity which the company now has would cause it to fall out of the aircraft industry altogether. He saw no sign of that so far, but clearly that concern was in his mind, as indeed was the concern that finding itself part of a Province which lacked a Government and perhaps the administrative institutions possessed by other regions would lead its customers to wonder whether Short's was really as close to the British Government in every sense as other aircraft companies, both in the test of the United Kingdom and in Western Europe, and whether that might affect its future. Again, he could see no sign of it, but the doubt is there. Therefore, it behoves the Minister to say something on the matter.

All of us who heard the Minister of State, Department of Industry talking about the money to be provided for British shipbuilding were curious that Harland and Wolff had to be left out. The right hon. Member for Belfast, East raised this matter and received an ambiguous answer about how exactly Harland and Wolff would be treated. I stress these two companies because they are both State-owned and important employers of labour.

I want to enlarge the point to encompass the industrial structure of the Province. It is not for me tonight to attempt to go through the Quigley Report. It is a remarkable piece of work. It is detailed. Its analytical breakdown deserves the study of all of us, and I hope that time will be found for a debate on it, and on it alone. However, it is incredible that a report which was once held up as the economic strategy document that the Government had been waiting for should now, apparently, be pigeon-holed and nothing more said about it.

Dr. Quigley and his committee put forward their ideas about the future of Northern Ireland's industry. They do not mince their words. They say quite simply that action must be taken, that if we think of United Kingdom equiva- lence—and why should we not?—135,000 new jobs must be created in the Province by 1980. The committee sets out various tax suggestions to encourage investment in the Province, such as a tax holiday on export profits and other tax concessions. It suggests also an increase from 40 to 60 per cent. in the maximum capital grant.

All the suggestions of the committee are worthy of consideration, and all have at their root the need to encourage investment and to encourage foreign companies to think of Northern Ireland as somewhere that it is worth putting up a factory and employing the work force.

Fortunately, on page 32, the committee says: The best package that can be offered in Northern Ireland is still better than in the Assisted Areas in Great Britain. That at least is something, but bearing in mind the fact that Northern Ireland has to carry the scourge of terrorist violence, which is enough to put many investors off, the Government should be saying whether they plan extra assistance for the Province.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) will forgive me for mentioning one other suggestion that the committee puts forward. On page 57 of its report it says: We suggest that Northern Ireland should be 'adopted' by the EEC as a region with special problems, deserving sharply focused study and attention and a range of carefully concerted measures. I doubt whether people in Northern Ireland mind where the assistance comes from. The suggestion is at least worth careful consideration by the Government.

I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) said about the companies which, we have heard, will either be increasing their investment in the Province or will be setting up there. I should like the Minister also to say what success the Northern Ireland Development Agency has had in attracting new business and how many new jobs can be directly traced to its efforts.

The right hon. Member for Belfast, East said that Northern Ireland is plagued with committees, study groups and all sorts of do-gooding organisations. No doubt he is right—he knows the Province much better than I do—but the NIDA at one stage sounded like an institution which would be of great assistance both in creating new industry and in rescuing companies in danger. Since then we have heard little about it, and I shall be grateful if the Minister will tell us something.

Lastly, can the Minister say something about the activities of the Northern Ireland Agent in London? I asked the Library for a copy of his annual report, but apparently there is no such document. I understand that Northern Ireland is fortunate enough to have offices not only in London but in Western Europe and even in Japan. Have those offices really added either to the exports from the Province or to the inflow of investment and new industry which certain other regions have enjoyed?

I think, for example, of the Japanese zip fastener factory at Bridgend in Wales and wonder why it was not attracted to Northern Ireland. It is the type of industry that might provide the right employment in the Province. But be that as it may—and no doubt there are good reasons why that company did not go to Northern Ireland—I should like to know just how successful the Northern Ireland Development Agency has been.

I end by reminding the Minister of the points that Dr. Quigley set out as being the conditions for development in the Province: First, a swift return to the kind of environment which creates business confidence. I want to say how much I admire the business men in the Province who go about their business as if the terrorists did not exist and as if the present campaign against them was not proceeding. I hope that the Government will give business men all protection possible.

The other conditions were set out as follows: Second, a sustained upturn in the national economy. We must all wish for that. Third, the introduction of measures of the kind discussed in this Report, to retain Northern Ireland's competitive position in a purely economic sense … Fourth, finding means of releasing the dormant initiative of the people and arousing interest and participation in a strategy for growth. I fear that the Government will take no action or will take action too late. I fear, too, that Northern Ireland will be allowed to become an industrial backwater of the rest of the United Kingdom. Perhaps my fears are groundless, but while the Government say nothing about Dr. Quigley's report, while they produce no Green Paper, let alone a White Paper, my fears will continue.

7.2 p.m.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

There are many aspects of the order which have already been touched upon this evening. I shall restrict myself mainly to that part of it which deals with agriculture in Northern Ireland and specifically with the remoteness grant which we have enjoyed for many years. This is a relatively small sum of money which in the past three years has been running at £1.9 million per year. It is decided triennially. The period runs out on 31st March of this year.

The grant has been extremely useful in a very large number of small ways in Northern Ireland. It has been used for cattle and seed headage payments in an attempt to have more even marketing throughout the year. It has been used for seed potato virus testing. It has been used for orchard grubbing. It has been used for silage payments. It has been used as an excess on top of the fencing grant. It was used at one time to establish the lowland cow breeding herd in Northern Ireland. That herd was established two years before a similar scheme came into being this side of the Irish Sea.

Above all, the grant has been used to support the Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust, which has carried out many projects in Northern Ireland which have usually been at the frontiers of agricultural knowledge. I regret to say that not all of these projects have been successful. Some should not have been embarked upon at all, perhaps. Some which were embarked upon, such as the grass-drying plant in my constituency, were becoming relatively successful when the vast increase in oil prices rendered the whole thing totally uneconomic. However, it was still worth doing because it was within a hair's breadth of success and would have been a success had it not been for the increase in the price of fuel oils.

For all these reasons, I should like the Minister to tell us in his reply whether it is intended that this aspect of agricultural support will continue for Northern Ireland. I submit that it must be continued. It is vital to the long-term welfare of the agricultural community that these small schemes, and especially the money that is given to the Agricultural Trust and has been given to it in past years, should continue in the future.

We should like to know, if possible, what the position will be for the next three years. I suggest to the Minister that this evening is as good a time as any for him to tell the House and the people of Northern Ireland what the position will be; or, if it is decided that the remoteness grant will not be continued, will he tell us how the money that came to Northern Ireland agriculture by means of the remoteness grant in the past will be replaced to agriculture in the future?

I had intended to say a few words about the Meat Industry Employment Scheme in Northern Ireland, which is important to the agricultural industry there. However, after the very helpful reply that I received from the Minister this afternoon I have decided to leave well enough alone and hope that the promise that was held out in his reply will be fulfilled.

Next, I should like to speak for a few moments about the seed potato industry and, indeed, about the potato crop in Northern Ireland. The Minister will be aware that, while Great Britain suffered from drought and from very poor growing conditions for the potato crop in the past two years, the same was not true of Northern Ireland to anything like the same extent. This led to more reasonable crops and certainly to very excellent returns to the growers.

I believe that that is leading many people to expand their production and their acreage in a way that I consider to be most foolish from my experience of this very capricious crop. I should like the Minister to draw the attention of the farmers in Northern Ireland who grow this crop to the end result of overproduction, because there is, to say the least, a very inelastic demand for potatoes, and if things go wrong this year—all that needs to go wrong is for us to have a normal year—we shall be faced with a very large tonnage of potatoes lying in Northern Ireland with no market for them. That will bring great hardship for those who foolishly embark upon increased production and especially to newcomers to growing this crop, of whom there are many this year.

I hope that the Minister will give full publicity to the inherent dangers of over-production of potatoes. I know that publicity has been given to this already, but I believe that it has not sunk in to the necessary extent to avoid disaster and long-term deleterious effects on the production of this crop in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) talked about angling. He confessed that he—foolish man—is not an angler. I am. I have fished for trout, for salmon and for all sorts of fish since I was about six. If my hon. Friend comes and stays with me for a couple of days, I will teach him to fish.

I should like to say a few things about the anglers of Northern Ireland for whom the Department of Agriculture bears a responsibility. I think that there is no one in the House who knows more about angling than myself. The complexity of the subject is appalling. It looks very simple at first sight, but a closer study convinces one of its complexity and there are more and more highways and byways and little streams to get lost in than one could believe possible.

I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that licence fees have been increased this year. I live in the Foyle area. I consider that the fishing there is first-rate. Up to now it has been very cheap, and it is still very cheap really. However there is one aspect of it to which the Minister should give his attention. This is the fact that for the first time fishing for freshwater trout in the Foyle stream requires a licence. I do not think that that is justified, because the trout fishing there is very much a by-product of the salmon and sea trout fishing.

The Minister knows perfectly well that the Foyle Commission has never spent any money on trout farming. The trout that exist in the rivers and streams there are purely "wild" trout which receive no care from anyone. They exist by the grace of God more than by anything that has been done for them by man. Because of this, I cannot see any justification for imposing licences on people who fish for trout. Whether the Minister knows it or not, the average trout fisherman fishes one or two days a year or a few evenings. The main sport is salmon fishing, and the fishermen all go after salmon when they appear in the river. I do not believe that imposing a trout licence will do anything at all to help the salmon fisheries, the angling community or the very poor relations that exist between the Foyle Fisheries Commission and anglers in the Foyle area.

I draw the Minister's attention to the difficulties facing the salmon fisheries in the Foyle. I remember as a youth that the continual cry among anglers was that there was too much netting, too much pollution, too little protection and too much poaching. The angling community said that for more than 30 years. Then the Foyle Fisheries Commission brought in some Canadian experts to carry out a very careful investigation. After a couple of years the experts reported. They said that perhaps too many fish were being taken by netting and perhaps there was too much pollution, not enough protection and too much poaching. The anglers had been saying that all my life. I do not think that the commission was justified in bringing in those men, and the general opinion is that it was simply a whitewashing job. All they did was to tell the Commission what any person with the slightest common sense could have told it by going down to the river and having a look.

The Fisheries Commission is a cross-border body. Lawlessness has appeared on the Foyle system and the netting is appalling. I ask the Minister to take on board the fact that it is the duty of the law enforcement bodies in Northern Ireland to support the Foyle Commission. There have been cases recently of bailiffs being fired upon by poachers. These people should be tracked down and gaoled, otherwise it will be only a matter of time before someone gets killed. No one wants to see that sort of incident in this very rich fishery, which is faced with many problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Armagh referred to the good work done by the Ministry in providing angling in Northern Ireland. That is true, but only up to a point. If the Ministry is providing this sort of angling, one must look at the whole angling scene and not at that which is restricted to still water lakes. We must make some attempt to find out whether there is some way in which angling in Northern Ireland could be brought under, perhaps not central control, but control by the people who actually use the facilities.

Also, perhaps there could be some way in which public money could be made available to anglers in Northern Ireland in the same way as it is made available to other sports and recreations. Colossal payments are made to other sporting bodies, but not to the angling community or to other field sports. Why should not anglers enjoy public money as well? Angling is a sport in which large numbers of people participate. One has only to go out at the weekend to see that there are very many people fishing in the rivers and lakes.

There seems to be a very great dragging of feet in regard to pollution. There was a very careful examination of the Castle River, a small river in my constituency. Is that formal investigation to be followed up, particularly in relation to farm pollution? The law relating to farm pollution must be tightened up and some effort made to meet the problems there.

Close to my home is the Caugh Hill filter-house, which is the main filter-house for Londonderry city. It washes its filters several times a day and the resultant washes go straight into the river. Originally, with the old filter house, there were settlement beds, but these seem to have fallen into disuse. The new filter-house has been going several years and it is time something was done about it to ensure that it complies with the legal requirements. If a private individual were behaving in this manner, he would soon be taken to task.

The Ministry will be aware that the bounty on foxes has been taken off in Northern Ireland. As a result, there are many foxes which cause a great deal of damage to farms. This aspect should be looked at again with a view to reducing the number of foxes in Northern Ireland. Also, something must be done about killer dogs in Northern Ireland. I receive a tremendous amount of mail regularly from farmers who suffer from the problem of these dogs. There seems to be no real urgency in the efforts to tighten up the law here.

I and my hon. Friends have noted that as a result of very frosty conditions this year there has been a tremendous breakup of road surfaces all over Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will assure us that necessary funds will be made available to repair the damage before it gets any worse.

7.17 p.m.

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

I shall concentrate on Class V in the Appropriation Order, and in passing I shall touch on Classes VIII and IX. We heard a little time ago that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was reviewing its points scheme. All hon. Members from Northern Ireland regard this revision as a very important undertaking. I would like to know when the Housing Executive hopes to produce its amended scheme. I hope that when the new scheme comes out it will reflect the feelings expressed by United Ulster Unionists at Westminster.

I wish to raise the question of the plight of elderly people who live in homes that are far too large for their needs in the twilight of their lives. Because of the present points scheme there is a real difficulty in getting elderly people re-houses, and it is very painful to watch elderly folk trying to negotiate not just one staircase but two or three when their health is not at all suited to the kind of building in which they live.

I urge the Minister to ponder on the possibility of the Housing Executive buying such houses and not reletting them, because that is an abuse of public funds, but widening the scope of home purchase. I am quite sure that that kind of approach would facilitate the needs not only of elderly people but those of young families as well who would be encouraged to own their own homes. This might be done by employing an ownership scheme such as the one which now exists in Larne. We must look again at the plight of elderly people who either own or rent homes that are too large, and this must be done quickly.

That leads me to the point about the housing mix. In the immediate post-war years, the percentage of old-age pensioner accommodation on the average estate was about 3 per cent. Today, the demand in any given area is much higher than that. Again, I underscore what my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) has said about housing mix.

I return to a point which I raised yesterday morning in Committee—the comparison of public sector house-building costs in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It was interesting to hear the comments of an hon. Member from the official Opposition when he stated that, in his estimation, a house on this side of the Irish Sea could be built for less than£8,000. I think he may have been over-optimistic, but I would like comparisons to be published as quickly as possible because I fear that the heading in one of yesterday's newspapers was not far from the truth in saying that the Housing Executive was being taken for a ride to the cleaners. This is public money, our money, and we have the responsibility to ensure that it is being deployed in the best possible way.

There is also the possible overstaffing of the Housing Executive's premises and offices at College Square East. It would be interesting and helpful to know the number of people employed there, the categories into which they fit and the salaries paid in those respective categories. I would be disappointed if we could not immediately take steps to prune the size of that part of the organisation, which would be of great benefit not only to administration but in releasing a not inconsequential amount of money for house repair, house building or whatever else.

I believe that much of the work, which is spread over far too large a number of people in those premises of the Housing Executive, could be done far more expeditiously by district officers. This would, for example, also help in the matter raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) when he referred to the debacle which he witnessed in the home improvement scheme. I am sure that district officers could be called in aid to assist in this kind of work.

There is also the question of the unsuitability of some houses in Belfast for use as flats. There is no existing legislation which can preclude the use of certain houses as flats. I believe that if this problem is not tackled in the near future it will exacerbate the deterioration in the fabric of houses in the Belfast area. I think of the Lisburn Road and Ormeau Road areas in my constituency. There, many small houses of the type that we call two-up, two-down, with a small kitchen and perhaps a bathroom stuck in the middle, are being used to house eight, nine and sometimes 10 people, mainly students.

I recognise that students must have somewhere to live, but it must also be recognised that most of them do not have a commitment to the area in which they reside for three or four years and that, because of the overpopulation of these houses, the fabric of the conurbation begins to reflect the lack of concern and of commitment I ask the Government to consider introducing in the very near future certain basic amenities and certain basic proportions to be met before they will allow particular houses to be used as flats.

I turn now to the question of comprehensive redevelopment areas. Much has been said in this debate and in previous debates about delays in getting redevelopment areas under way. Yet greater delay is experienced in dealing with what are known as comprehensive redevelopment areas, where in time not only will old houses be replaced by new but where there are industries and a need for the realignment of roads and so on. I am thinking of one area in particular, the Woodstock Road area, which is amongst the worst housing areas in the whole of Northern Ireland. Yet there is still an unnecessary delay in redeveloping it.

We are told that it is a comprehensive area, but what is the reason for the difficulty in aligning the thoughts of Belfast Council, which is always involved in comprehensive area development, and those of the Housing Executive? The people there know what they need and want. They have conveyed as much clearly to both Belfast Council and the Housing Executive, yet there is still further delay in the scheme. I ask the Minister to study the problem and perhaps, at an early stage, resolve it.

Before I leave the housing question I want to state, in the interests of fairness, that, although much has been said about the difficulties of housing in Northern Ireland, we should record that Northern Ireland's production of new homes since the inception of the State compares very favourably with the production of new homes in any other area of the United Kingdom. We must state clearly that Stormont Governments in past years played a very responsible rôle in housing provision.

If the inner city is now found to be in a dreadful situation, that in some ways can be traced to there being the kind of industry which obtained at the turn of the nineteenth century and to the kind of immediate housing needed for the textile industry. It is not by any stretch of the imagination the fault of past Stormont Governments. I believe that their housing record is very good, and we should not allow that point to pass by default.

I turn now to Class IX. I understand that some 2,522 blind people are registered in Northern Ireland. They have a particular problem when it comes to paying the charges for directory inquiries. I understand that a new charge has been levied quite recently for the use of the directory inquiry service. Obviously, blind people who have to use the telephone find themselves very much disadvantaged. I am told that the charge is about 12p. If that is so, one can imagine the sizeable bills of blind people who have to use the service. Will the Minister look at the possibility of having the directory inquiry service charge waived in the case of blind persons? I do not pretend that I am able to spell out in every detail how the hon. Gentleman could do that and at the same time eliminate the possibility of abuse, but I believe that it is something to which he should address his mind. It would certainly be appreciated by blind people in Northern Ireland.

I turn now to Class VIII. The Minister will have heard the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) when he mentioned removing the £10,000 grant given in past years which helped to keep in being the educational guidance service for adults. My hon. Friend also very wisely referred to the removal of an agency in Belfast that was very useful in the past, and pointed out that the agency has not been replaced.

I doubt whether the functions now undertaken by the education guidance service for adults will be undertaken by any replacement agency, in which case the education system of Northern Ireland will be the more impoverished. I urge the Minister to look carefully at this mattter before he or the Secretary of State makes up his mind. I hope he will assure us that the matter will receive the attention it merits.

7.31 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

The hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) and for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), during their fleeting appearances in the Chamber in this debate, stated yet again the limitations normally imposed on us on these occasions, even when dealing with an order as important as this one.

Nevertheless, I and my colleagues were delighted that the two hon. Gentlemen I have mentioned availed themselves of the opportunity to participate in the debate. I hope that they will be generous enough to recognise that the comparative freedom that we have in this evening's timetable is due to the fact that my right hon. and hon. Friends voted against the timetable motion and thereby created this opportunity for them. I hope that when they read these words they will regard this as clear evidence that benefits did accrue to Northern Ireland in that way and in many other ways, and consequently that when great decisions of this kind are taken in future they will pay heed to our advice and guidance and join us.

I want to deal briefly with the question of drainage, which is referred to in Part I, Class I, No. 5. I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) has said in regard to major operations. As he has indicated, we have a common interest in the basin of the River Lagan. Many of my constituents and constituents of my right hon. Friend have suffered as a result of the neglect of that waterway.

I refer specifically to an item of which the Minister will be aware because I have had correspondence with him on the subject. The reason why I raise it this evening is that somewhere along the line matters have got out of hand. I refer to the Flush River Urban Drainage Scheme, to use the title allocated by the Department of Agriculture. The Minister has done his best to be helpful in this matter, but somehow or other his agents on the spot have fallen down on the job

Residents of an estate known as Thistlemount Park are suffering because their properties are being flooded. They have been flooded on occasions in the past, but the situation has been greatly aggravated as a result of the activities of the Department of the Environment, which is constructing a new roadway running parallel to the river. A most extraordinary arrangement has been arrived at whereby the stream has been piped very efficiently both upstream and downstream of these properties but the section of the stream at the rear of the properties has been left open.

I do not see the justification or the sense in that. It is all very well for the Department responsible to say that piping the stream through Thistlemount Park is unnecessary for drainage, but the very title given to that scheme—the Flush River Urban Drainage Scheme—clearly refers to something that is no longer agricultural drainage. The Minister stated in a letter—and I agree with him wholeheartedly—that this is a new urban drainage scheme. Storm water will inevitably flow from the waterway because there is no other outlet for it.

Being rather ignorant on technical matters, I consulted some of the engineers on the spot. I suggested that, rather than divert the stream, it might be simpler to take it in a straight line and pipe it all the way. But they knew better. The engineers said that they would divert it downstream of these properties and that this would help matters. It is not unknown for hon. Members in this House even to attempt to make rivers flow uphill. I am not certain whether that is intended in this case, but I am certain that the danger to these properties has been increased. I hope that I shall have the co-operation and assistance of the Minister on this subject in the not-too-distant future.

I turn now to Class IV dealing with Department of the Environment expenditure on roads. I wholeheartedly agree with the suggestion that we really need to come to sensible working arrangements with road service representatives in our own localities. I have a very good working arrangement with the officer in charge of most of the area of my constituency, but other areas are nowhere near as good. I am afraid that the channels of communication extend, as has already been described, all the way from Westminster across Whitehall to Stormont Castle and then down the chain of command and that the reverse is the case when the reply is sent on its way. It would be in the interests of the Minister and his colleagues to clear from their desks all this nonsense. It would make for far greater efficiency and greater speed in dealing with these matters. It has worked successfully with other Government Departments and I cannot see why we could not safely embark on this experiment.

Of course the Minister wants a long-term answer, and I and my hon. Friends are proposing a short-term answer. The real answer is to restore the missing upper tier of local government, and then the Minister and all of us would be absolved of these problems because they would be dealt with by representatives who were elected to discharge their duty, as would happen in Great Britain or anywhere else. The 12 Northern Ireland Members—or, at least, the 11 of us who attend the House—are at present acting as upper-tier local councillors as well as Members of Parliament. That is why we all apologise for overloading the Minister's "In" tray. It is an unavoidable duty which we have to discharge in the interests of our constituents.

I turn now to a matter that the Minister of State, who has just entered the Chamber, will remember from his time at the Department of the Environment, namely, the proposed Shore Road-M2 extension. The last time he was good enough to give me an estimate, the cost was approaching £3 million. It has been said that money has been earmarked for the infilling operation as a start to the scheme, but I am dreadfully worried that we may get no further than the infilling operation.

That operation, as the Minister of State knows very well, would completely spoil the environment of that area of Whitehouse Park. I plead with the Government to take another look at this and to ensure that if they embark on this scheme—which I do not support because I have never seen the necessity for it—they must make absolutely sure that the resources are there to complete the scheme and that we are not left with a white elephant. Since it is on the shoreline, perhaps it would be more appropriate to describe it as a stranded whale

I wish to refer to another vexed aspect of the question of roads, this time involving the problem of access to Ballycort Gardens in Ballyclare, Co. Antrim. The problem arises from the fact that houses in a privately-owned estate were purchased on the understanding that the access would be from what was then the main road. At some stage, some planner somewhere in a back room decided that the only access should be blocked up and a new access made through an adjacent housing estate.

I hasten to assure the Minister that there is no element of snobbery in this controversy. It is not in the interest of any of the residents of either estate that the whole volume of traffic, not only of residents' vehicles but of service vehicles which have to go to the houses, should he channelled through a comparatively narrow road. It is wrong to restrict the residents to one access. I hope that now that the legal details have been supplied to the Department, which I admit were not in its possession when it made the decision, reason and common sense will prevail in the matter.

I wish now to turn to Class IX dealing with health and social services. The sum of £12.75 million has been set aside for the development of various institutions and health and social service functions with a projected sum of £102 million on account. I hope I am right in assuming that part of that sum will provide for the preparation of plans for new hospitals. I am thinking of the promised new area acute hospital for Antrim. When we last debated these matters it was felt by all of us at the time that, because of the cutback in capital expenditure, there might be a delay of about 10 or 12 years in the building of the hospital. Now, it fortunately appears that these estimates were on the pessimistic side and we can expect planning operations to begin in the near future.

On 8th January 1976 the strategic planning team set up by the Northern Health Services Board made a firm recommendation that the new acute general hospital should be sited in the town of Antrim. It set this out on page 99 of the report and gave the very sound reasons on which it based its decision. Those reasons have not been demolished by any of those who on emotional grounds have sought to change the minds of the Minister and the Department.

Unfortunately, a great deal of resentment has been caused by the Northern Board appearing to reject the siting recommendation and instead opting for the rival centre of the town of Ballymena. I do not question the right of the board to make this decision—that, presumably, is what it exists to do—but it is curious, is it not, that the decision was reached by the board at a time when it consisted of about 18 members from the northern part of Co. Antrim, and only 11 members representing three constituencies—the northern part of Belfast, the southern part of Londonderry and most of south Antrim?

It seemed curious that there was then not one representative on the board from the general area of Antrim town, in which the new hospital was to have been sited. It is therefore scarcely surprising that they opted for the area in which most of them resided and in which most of their interests lay. I gather that the board may now be having second thoughts. I hope that it will come to a much wiser decision, but I am confident that the Minister's noble Friend will discount and resist any biased views in making his final decision. It will be his decision ultimately, taken in the light of what is in the best interests of all the people in the area which the hospital is designed to serve.

I do not support the hysterical demands which have been made as a result of the controversy for the abolition of that hospital board and various other boards, so that their functions may be taken over by the Department of Health and Social Services. That would merely add to dislocation and create all sorts of chaos. In my opinion—an opinion which is shared by my right hon. and hon. Friends—the proper remedy would be the re-establishment of responsible democratic control of such bodies. I believe that that could best be achieved by an elected regional council which would quite quickly be in a position to strike a balance between the geographical and social interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, without being influenced by any tiny clique in one part looking after its own selfish interests.

If the Minister has any doubt about how that could be achieved, let me give him a word of advice. I hope that he will not mind my presuming to do that. I would not be too hopeful about the possibility of unanimous agreement being reached in Northern Ireland. The Minister is long enough in the game of politics to know that it is not in the interest of political parties ever to agree unanimously on anything. On the rare occasions when they do, the rest of us had better look out.

Therefore, I suggest that the Government should gauge the climate of opinion in Northern Ireland and sound out the people at the receiving end—although they are not receiving very much at the moment from local government. The views of the people will be expressed at the coming local government elections. The Government might then put forward a proposal which would amount to presenting people in various political parties with a clear choice. It would be "Do you want better government in Northern Ireland, or will you go on refusing it?" If the Secretary of State makes that kind of offer, he will put them in a position where they simply cannot refuse or reject what he is offering.

7.48 p.m.

Mr. Dunn

The House will appreciate that the questions that have been asked today cover a wide range of extremely complex subjects. It is not my intention to try to deal with them all, irrespective of the amount of time that is available to me. I wish to make further inquiries about some of the questions, and I shall write to hon. Members about certain matters. If I slightly sidestep some of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) it is not because I refuse to take his advice. I listen to advice from all. However, he leads me on a path which I do not wish to tread tonight, or at any other time in the near future. We shall have to wait and see what happens in May before we consider whether to continue.

Mr. Powell

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that, inevitably, he will be writing to hon. Members to deal with many of their detailed points. May I say to him, without criticism, that on the previous debate it took two and a half months—I noticed a similar interval in the case of the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave)—for comparatively simple and straightforward answers to be given? I am sure that this is not the Under-Secretary's fault, but I am equally sure that he will wish to give instructions to his officials to be sure that the interval on this occasion is much shorter.

Mr. Dunn

To hold a letter for that long is not only inefficient but discourteous. I have made that known to those who were responsible for the delay. I do not intend to stand at this Dispatch Box—I hope that those who are listening will convey this to their colleagues in the Civil Service—to be justly criticised for something which is no fault of mine. If an interim reply cannot be given within three weeks, and a final reply in as many weeks again, the matter must be extremely complex and that should be explained with courtesy and promptness. It will not be my fault if letters are delayed again. If they are, those responsible will hear from me much more loudly than they have in the past—and I am generally a tolerant and courteous man.

Many questions have related to the Quigley Report. One or two hon. Members made reference to it, following the lead given by the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave). The Quigley Report was published last summer and it has been circulated widely. Numerous papers and commentaries on the report have been received from various sources including three political parties—the Northern Ireland Labour Party, the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland and the Democratic Unionist Party. There have also been individual comments from members of a wide range of organisations representative of the life and activity within the Province. Officials have been giving this matter considerable attention and it is being considered by my right hon. Friend and other ministerial colleagues.

Some of the points in the report need to be looked at over a longer period and in greater detail than has so far been possible. My right hon. Friend is most anxious that the new economic council, which he hopes will be set up shortly, will assist him in this examination. I am sure that the House will agree that it would be advantageous and wise to allow the new council to make its representations before decisions are made upon the strategy that could be recommended in the report. We must get this matter right. While the report goes far into some of the fundamental and lasting problems of the Province, we must not jump too quickly until we have taken account of all the advice that we shall receive.

The rise in house prices in the private sector reflects the reduction in the number of new houses being built. The scarcity has caused its own internal inflation. Once some incident occurs in an area, there is an urgent desire to move out, for reasons which we understand, and therefore other problems of scarcity are created. In the public sector the Department of the Environment has a cost yardstick related to that used in Great Britain. It fully monitors the price of houses and keeps them under constant evaluation. Cost-benefit analysis is a continuing process.

The hon. Member for Abingdon also raised the question of industrial and commercial investment, both public and private. He will be fully aware of the public investment which has been generated in the Province. I have no doubt that he was referring to any further investments which would be made in existing industries, Harland and Wolff in particular.

For private investment Northern Ireland enjoys a status equivalent to that of any special development area. In some respects it has been treated more generously than the areas which already possess special development status, particularly Merseyside. Northern Ireland has distinct advantages over Merseyside, and I speak with some little knowledge. To encourage the establishment of new industry—we recognise that my hon. Friends in the Department responsible for this have done everything possible to attract new industry—officials of the Department of Commerce have undertaken a massive exercise to encourage potential investors.

The disincentive to investment is more often than not the way in which news is presented about violence, destruction, death and maiming in the Province. This has a consequential effect upon investment. We do all we can to overcome this, but it is not an easy task. One can understand the difficulties which my hon. Friends responsible for this have to face. I am sure that the House would wish to express their appreciation to my hon. Friends for their endeavours and the continuing determination they show in that regard.

I turn now to Harland and Wolff and the question of diversification and possible defence contracts. We recognise the need for diversification and my hon. Friend the Minister of State has been actively pursuing the potential for this. Harland and Wolff has facilities designed specifically to build ships. If it were possible to attract that type of trade, I am sure that everyone would agree that that would be the right and proper thing to do.

I can assure the House that nothing will be left undone that can possibly be done in the search for future orders, and that progress is being made. I do not want at this stage to go into details about present negotiations. I am sure that the House will understand my reluctance. I have been advised that there is little prospect in the near future of Harland & Wolff receiving any defence contracts. I would be less than truthful if I did not say that in an outright and open manner. I know that that will disappoint the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig), because Harland and Wolff is situated in his constituency.

Energy costs present a problem that concerns us all. The Government are considering the subject and the difficulties arising from their consideration of the Shepherd Report. I am told that Departments are considering the report and are assembling it in a way that will allow it to be published.

It is not possible to give a definite date for publication, but it will be very soon. I recall that I said that in December. I believed then that it would be published soon, but a number of matters relating to the report have arisen since then, and those who drew up the report have been requested to re-examine and review some suggestions.

The review has brought some advantage for prospects within the Province, although hon. Members should not think that it is certain that there will be financial support towards energy costs in the immediate future. However, we shall do what we can in this matter.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and other hon. Members raised problems concerned with agricultural drainage. I have done all I can to see that where drainage problems arise, meetings have been held to examine, investigate and discuss the matter. One of our major problems is the level of financial resources needed to tackle some of the major drainage problems.

I could read a well-prepared brief on each of the subjects drawn to my attention by the right hon. Member for Down, South, but I think that he would prefer me to say that every effort is being made to deal with the problems of bogland, the River Lagan, the Clanrye—Newry River, although there are major drainage problems in the latter schemes.

We have to proceed with caution, because if work in the urban and agricultural land approaches to Newry were done carelessly, the right hon. Member and his constituents would be up to their necks in water in the centre of Newry. This is a major problem that cannot be easily overcome.

As I have explained before, hydrological surveys and feasibility studies have been undertaken and the results have been translated and put on to a computer in order to create a basic model. This model is now under intensive study so that we can see whether some of the major work which would be required can be undertaken quickly and so that we shall know in advance, by testing the material that has been gathered in the survey, whether it has other consequences of great magnitude. We want to get the right answers from the hydrological surveys and we wish to get the widest possible interpretation of the evidence so that we may study the proposals made for drainage improvements and so that the problems can be understood by those who will be affected.

It was suggested that drainage plans should be announced in a flexible five-year rolling programme. While I have some sympathy with that proposal, it is not possible to undertake it without taking on other burdens that would be associated with it. I am sure, for instance, that the right hon. Member for Down, South would defend the Department from any criticism if part of the provisional programme were not implemented, but others might not defend us, and it would be foolish for us to establish such a programme because some people might spend money in anticipation of benefiting and if the projects were deferred, that would rebound on the Department. It is in the interests of flexibility and of the Province as a whole that we should not establish a five or six-year rolling programme. It would be better for us to discover the results of our necessary intensive examination of the problem before undertaking any schemes.

Mr. McCusker

On that basis, how far ahead does the hon. Gentleman think that his Department should plan?

Mr. Dunn

Departments always make provisional plans, but it is not always wise to make them known to everyone, because if the provisional plans are not carried out, criticism falls on those who published the proposals, and, as I have said, I do not take kindly to providing material for hon. Members to criticise me on matters for which I am not responsible. It would not be to the advantage of the Government or the Province for us to make a statement about such plans too far ahead of their implementation.

Mr. Powell

The hon. Gentleman knows that in at least half the drainage problems that are raised with me and with which he assists I have to explain to constituents the ultimate limiting factors in these major schemes and the constitution of the basin. Surely it would be possible for that background and the authority for it not to rest solely, as at present, upon my transmission, ad hoc in each case, of a ministerial reply—with which I endeavour to associate myself rather than act just as a post office.

Surely it would be possible to provide a framework within which these problems could begin to be recognised and understood by the people who were directly involved without that incurring the dangers that the hon. Gentleman rightly indicates. I am really asking him to back me up by providing a general background and giving an authoritative statement of it.

Mr. Dunn

I should be pleased to give as much information as I could to the right hon. Gentleman, because I know that in him I should be well served. However, once these statements become well known, one arouses the potential criticism of everyone who owns land and there are immediate legal problems associated with them. It becomes a very complex matter and I ask the right hon. Gentleman to think about the problems and burdens which would arise from his suggestions.

There would be nothing wrong if I did use the right hon. Member for Down, South as a post office, but I do not. I pass information to him and he rightly feels that it is his duty to make the information known to his constituents. Every hon. Member operates in a similar fashion. The right hon. Gentleman's feelings might not be shared by all of his colleagues and I must take that into account before agreeing to publish plans far in advance of their implementation.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that there are difficulties. I shall do my best to respond at any time to any inquiry that he makes about drainage in his constituency.

Hon Members spoke about communication with the Northern Ireland Department and the problem of dealing in detail with some of the issues that their constituents bring to their attention. I was under the impression that hon. Members could directly correspond and ask for details about a particular issue as distinct from asking for policy statements or changes in policy. Asking for policy statements or changes in policy is not an appropriate matter to raise at that level.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South said that communication difficulties might be examined by my right hon. Friend and my colleagues to see if there are ways of improving communications. He wanted us to work out ways of short-circuiting the procedure. I can understand that there are delays, because we send letters to each other and hon. Members and Ministers often have to move to different places at short notice. That causes delays in responses to inquiries.

I shall bring the criticisms to the attention of my right hon. Friend and my colleagues. There may be a way of meeting the request. However I make a strong reservation: in no circumstances should local or departmental offices, or even headquarters staff, be held responsible for arguing the detail of policy. That is a matter for Ministers. I hope that that is clear to hon. Members.

Mr. Molyneaux

That was one of the first issues that I put to the Secretary of State when he took over in Northern Ireland. Under previous managements, if we wrote to the local office the letter was forwarded to the Minister and in due course we received a reply from the Minister. That was a nonsense. It is not surprising that we have reverted to the old practice of communicating directly with the Minister. We found it impossible the other way.

Mr. Dunn

We shall look at this and I shall ask my right hon. Friend to take account of what has been said today. I believe that something might be arranged.

It is parliamentary practice that one hon. Member never intervenes in the constituency affairs of another. That also applies to making personal visits, being on the spot to raise various issues, and arranging meetings in other constituencies. It must be clearly understood that no hon. Member should trespass into the area of another without that hon. Member's permission. Otherwise the scheme will break down. I expect hon. Members to [...]re that those who do not follow that custom and practice now will do so in future. If they do not, any experiment that might be tried will fail.

Hon. Members mentioned homes for married people. Yesterday a full and frank exchange on housing finance took place in Committee when my colleague who is responsible for housing answered questions. This is not an appropriate time for me to go over the matters that were raised yesterday and which were answered in detail by my colleague. He will take account of the comments that were made and will no doubt write to hon. Members.

The Department of the Environment is currently looking at ways of helping young people who wish to purchase a home. My hon. Friend has published papers on this issue and he has made suggestions to those who will be immediately involved—elected councillors, community councillors and other interested bodies. Whatever the outcome of these discussions, I am sure that my hon. Friend will take account of all opinions and consider option mortgages, equity sharing and special grants that could be applied to house purchase. My hon. Friend has been dealing with all those matters in the last few weeks and the House will wish to give him the opportunity to have further discussions.

I was asked who will be the members of the Belfast housing steering group. A large group is not necessary and it may be best for my hon. Friend to chair that group and for him to appoint people who can give him advice about the special issues involved. The group could then invite others in an ad hoc capacity to share in the discussions and to recommend action. If I were on the same benches as some hon. Members I should press with the same vigour for the involvement of elected representatives wherever possible. We share the same objective.

Hon. Members will appreciate that there will come a time, when plans have reached a formative stage and there is something positive to offer, when it will be feasible to aim for a large organisation. With such a complex task as the Belfast housing redevelopment scheme it is to everyone's advantage if, in the first instance, my hon. Friend deals with this in the way outlined. My hon. Friend is aware that he ought never to ignore the importance of consulting local councillors. As the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) will know, the Belfast City Council has been consulted and made aware of the proposals.

I come now to the subject of squatting and the Twinbrook Estate. I wish it was simply a question of squatting. But the para-military movement was in the area. Some people moved out because they had no option. Others move in for the same reason. We are not talking about squatting. We are talking about something entirely different. I shall leave the matter there for the moment. If hon. Gentlemen want legislation to take account of this situation, we must first deal with the para-military organisations. I know that I shall have the help of hon. Members in everything that is done to deal with this situation.

The subject of adult education counselling and the advisory service was also raised. My noble Friend has been in consultation with those concerned. Although the grant is due to end on 31st March, it has been proposed that it be continued for some little time, during which period further discussion can take place. While it may not be possible to carry on the work in the present context, it will no doubt be possible to gather the current expertise together and bring those who have served so well for so long within the ambit of the new arrangements. It is not always possible to have things continue as we should like. Circumstances change and financial resources are not readily available. We have to make priorities. I assure hon. Gentlemen that my noble Friend will be acquainted with their views. I am sure that they will be pleased with my noble Friend's response.

Questions were raised about the rent and rate arrears and repayments. There is no legal provision allowing us to withhold payment following any application that might be made for rate rebate. Hon. Members will not expect the Northern Ireland Department to act illegally. Any suggestion that we encourage further debt by granting rate rebate is therefore incorrect. Every effort is made to collect outstanding debt.

This subject has many complex facets. There is no perfect system. To avoid a harsh decision we have to know fully the circumstances of the individual debtor. Conversely, there must be some sympathy for those who may not deserve that sympathy. We are only human beings trying to administer the scheme. It is better not to make further difficulties for families who already have social problems. We must not create further difficulties, psychologically and socially. I think we have struck the right balance here.

Emphasis has been placed on the cost of housing rehabilitation. There have been statements on which, because of their nature, I would not wish to comment further other than to assure those who have raised points that inquiries will be made. I shall write to those concerned. The House will know that there has been a revision of the system of contracts, with some beneficial results. My hon. Friends are keeping the matter under constant review. We hope soon to be in a position to review the contracting system. I have responsibilities in the Works Department. We are looking closely at the issues involved.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) raised the subject of the registered blind, who are charged 12p for their directory inquiries. I do not know what can be done about this, but I can assure him that we shall bring it to the notice of those in authority and see what we can do. There is a difficulty in that if something is done for one part of the United Kingdom, it will have to be done for the remainder. Not to do so would be unfair. There may be other categories of people who would claim the same privilege. I agree with the hon. Member that this is a matter deserving of further investigation. I hope that the telephone authorities in the United Kingdom will take note of what has been said.

I can assure those hon. Members who raised the subject of the review of a housing list that the list is being reviewed by the Housing Executive. Notwithstanding some of the criticims that have been made of the Executive—I believe unfairly—it is continually seeking to improve its efficiency. Without help and support from others its achievements will be seriously diminished. Huge sums of money are involved. These matters cannot be treated lightly. It is easy to say that the Executive will never succeed. If we do not make the effort, we shall never have the opportunity to succeed.

I appeal to hon. Members who may have criticised what has happened in the past to look at this with a fresh mind and to give support to the Executive in the tremendous task that lies before it in the next four or five years. Initially there are bound to be problems and it is right to bring those problems to the attention of those concerned. But it is then up to us to provide some form of support and assistance to overcome those problems. It is often helpful if understanding and sympathy are shown even though one may not agree completely, chapter and verse, with everything that has been done.

Mr. Bradford

While accepting part of what the Minister says, may I ask whether it is not significant that the building record of the Housing Executive seriously decreased from the moment it took charge of public sector housing in the Province? Would the Minister care to comment on the relationship between the Housing Executive and those dealing with comprehensive areas, which is really the point that I raised?

Mr. Dunn

I shall bring all these things to the notice of those concerned and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman in great detail, as he would expect.

The Department of Agriculture has decided to provide for culverting the portion of the river to which the hon. Member for Antrim, South has drawn my attention. As usual, we are trying to serve in the best way humanly possible.

Among the other matters raised was one relating to special concessions for old-age pensioners for angling and fishing permits. I am not sure that these things can be so readily agreed or undertaken. As the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) knows, a system operates throughout the United Kingdom as a whole and unless concessions were given to old-age pensioners or retirement pensioners in the United Kingdom, there would be major difficulties about exercising any concessions in relation to angling and fishing permits in the Province.

We shall look at this matter without commitment. It may well be that there are some other ways in which this suggestion can be operated. But the Fisheries Conservancy Board also has a responsibility and has to pay from its own resources for the upkeep of angling.

If we did not have the resources, no doubt the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) would complain even further about the lack of angling opportunities. But we are torn between the devil and the deep blue sea. However, we shall not let the hon. Gentleman's request pass unnoticed. If it is possible to do anything in that regard, I shall consider it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Wm. Ross

I should point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) lives in the area of the Fisheries Conservancy Board while I live under the Foyle Board. They are two separate bodies. As a result, what affects my hon. Friend's part of the country does not necessarily affect mine.

Mr. Dunn

I was answering the point put to me by the hon. Member for Armagh when I mentioned the Fisheries Conservancy Board. If we "went too far", we would not be able to accept the case of the hon. Member for Londonderry, irrespective of whether the hon. Gentleman lives in Londonderry and fishes on the Foyle for trout or salmon.

The hon. Member for Londonderry referred to the foolish expansion of the potato crop and asked the Department of Agriculture to make a categoric statement about this. Statements have already been made about this matter. We cannot expect people to act in a way that will suit even the hon. Gentleman's beliefs. Warnings have been given. Farmers are not fools and they know the movements of crops. If I were to give an opinion about the wisdom of farmers, it would be that they know what is involved and they know how many pence make a pound and do not need to be told. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should expect us to keep on reminding them of their own follies. If they want to act foolishly, that is their decision and not ours.

With regard to the remoteness grant I can only assure hon. Gentlemen that at the moment this matter is under intensive discussion and it would not be proper for me at this stage to forecast what the outcome will be. The apprehensions that hon. Gentleman has brought to our notice are in our minds. We are discussing these issues with other colleagues involved and they have given their attention to some of the identical subjects which the hon. Gentleman has brought to my attention.

I hope that the House will agree that I have tried to answer a wide range of questions put to me by those hon. Members who continued to remain in the Chamber after they had made their contributions. If I have not covered all the topics, I repeat my undertaking that I shall write to the hon. Members concerned without any unnecessary delay. I hope, therefore, that the House will agree that this order deserves support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st March, be approved.