HC Deb 11 December 1978 vol 960 cc113-88

7.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ray Carter)

I beg to move, That the draft Appropriation (No. 4) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 23d November, be approved. The order will be made under paragraph 1 of schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974.

The Main Estimates of Northern Ireland Departments for 1978–79 amounted to £1,299 million and were appropriated by the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 and the Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which were approved by the House on 6th March and 7th July respectively. A summer Supplementary Estimate for £33 million was embodied in the Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 and approved by the House on 17th July.

The main purpose of the draft order is to authorise the issue out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund of a further £129 million and its appropriation for the purposes indicated in the autumn Supplementary Estimates. The making of the order would bring the total provision to date for 1978–79 for expenditure by Northern Ireland Departments to £1,461 million, some £143 million above the total Estimates provision for 1977–78. The cash limited element of the 1978–79 figure is within the Northern Ireland approved cash limit. The sum being sought is also within the approved public expenditure survey allocations for Northern Ireland Departments.

The order also repeals earlier appropriation enactments, and these are detailed in the second schedule to the order.

The services for which additional funds are being sought are set out in the first schedule to the order and more detailed information may be found in the autumn supplementary estimates, copies of which are available in the Library to right hon. and hon. Members. I should like to draw the attention of the House to the main items in the order.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The Minister referred to the repeals in the second schedule. May we take it that these repeals are taking place merely because the full effect of the orders is spent and that all the sums that the orders allocated have been consumed? Is it simply that these are spent orders, or is there any other significance in the repeals?

Mr. Carter

It is my understanding that this is a consolidation measure and that the one measure replaces all the previous items to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. However, in summing up, I shall give him a definitive statement.

The House will recall that in the Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 a token provision of £1 million was made for expenditure on a scheme to aid milk producers. The ending of the former milk guarantee scheme has made this new scheme necessary. To supplement the existing token provision, some £11 million is now being sought in class I, vote 3.

A further £43 million is being sought in class II vote 1 for industrial support and regeneration, bringing the overall total under this Vote for 1978–79 to £112 million. Most of this extra provision will be disbursed in the form of industrial development assistance to new companies which are being established in Northern Ireland and to existing companies. Financial assistance to the Northern Ireland Development Agency is to be increased by £6 million. The Government regard the increased requirements for these services as an encouraging sign that industrial investment in Northern Ireland may be on the upturn.

Class II, vote 5, which provides for the functioning of the labour market, shows an additional requirement of £11 million. The temporary employment subsidy has been extended to 31st March 1979 and the temporary short-time working compensation scheme has recently been introduced. It is estimated that an additional £6 million will be needed to fund these measures alone. Further sums are also being sought for training by employers, Enterprise Ulster and the youth opportunities programme. This reflects the Chancellor of the Exchequer's announcement in his Budget Speech of additional funding for measures aimed at reducing unemployment, particularly among young people.

A further £19 million will be needed in 1978–79 for schools—Class VIII, Vote 1. Almost £10 million of this is accounted for by the pay award to teachers from 1st April 1978. The remaining £9 million arises from the decision to do away with the concept of grammar school scholarships. Grants are now made direct to voluntary grammar schools by the Department of Education. There will be offsetting savings on the scholarships formerly paid by the education and library boards.

In Class IX, Vote 1, £9 million out of the £14 million sought is required to cover agreed pay awards for staff employed by the health and social services boards. A further £3 million arises mainly from various measures taken to alleviate unemployment.

In Class X, Vote 2, an increase of £12 million is being asked for, £11 million of it being for supplementary benefits. An extra £8 million is required for family benefits, in Vote 3, due almost entirely to the Government's decision to raise the child benefit allowances from 14th November 1978.

These are the principal features of the order to which I draw attention. I shall, of course, try to answer any questions which right hon. and hon. Members may raise during the debate, and if for any reason I am unable to do so I will note the point and write to the right hon. or hon. Member concerned.

I commend the order to the House.

7.18 p.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

We agree that the expenditure is necessary. However, these are substantial Estimates and I shall refer to expenditure under certain classes, especially Classes II and VIII; assistance to industry and expenditure by the Department of Education.

On 7th December 1978, at Question Time, I asked about orders for Harland and Wolff and diversification of production in that company. The Minister will remember that I expressed regret at the absence of defence orders. I do not think that the firm has received a defence order for some years. In reply, the Minister of State said that, although 400 jobs had been saved as a result of diversification, there were not many defence contracts going around any of the shipyards."—[[Official Report, 7th December 1978; Vol. 959, c. 1610.] Two days later, I read in the press that the assault ship "Fearless" and the cruiser "Kent" were due for refitting. It appears that there has been an industrial dispute at Portsmouth dockyard, according to this press report, affecting the naval refitting programme. As a result, tenders have been invited for refitting from commercial yards. Will the Minister, when he replies, comment on this in regard to Harland and Wolff? Will he confirm that "Fearless" was built by Harland and Wolff and that the company is equipped to overhaul it? Could not the company, therefore, be favourably considered for this work? The same point applies to the cruiser "Kent", which is to be refitted by contract at Wallsend on Tyne. I do not suppose that that arrangement can be altered, but it is regrettable that it should not go to Harland and Wolff, as I believe that the company also built this ship. Will the Minister confirm those statements when he replies? It is quite an important matter, and people would like to know about it.

I next refer to the last Appropriation debate, which took place on 7th July 1978, and to Question Time on 13th July 1978, when I raised the question of the need for an economic plan for the Province. The preparation of a plan is referred to by the Northern Ireland Economic Council in its recent report. the annual statement of work 1977–78, at paragraph 10.

On 7th July, I asked about the nature of this new plan, since I supposed at that time that the Secretary of State was relying on the Quigley report of 1976, which the House has never debated. The Secretary of State wrote to me on 31st July 1978, stating that the council was not referring to Quigley but to work by the Economic Strategy Group in Belfast.

I hope that we can have a little more clarification about these matters this evening. The House has very little idea of the Government's general strategy thinking about the development of the Northern Ireland economy. If the new plan is treated with the same degree of secrecy as the Quigley plan, the position will remain very much the same. There are certainly few signs at present that the Government are preparing to revise their position. I should like to see the Northern Ireland Economic Council acting rather more publicly and openly, in the manner of the equivalent body in England, the National Economic Development Council, stimulating debate and discussion among interested parties.

It would be helpful if the Secretary of States would publish in full such advice as he receives from the council, so that the progress of the new economic plan can be properly assessed. I thought it was a pity when he told me, in the letter of 31st July to which I have referred, that he would not be publishing the report by the Council on Agriculture. I do not know the reason for it, but it is a pity, because the council has made it clear that it wishes to play a full part in the preparation of any plan or strategy for the Province. Perhaps the Minister will deal with those points when he replies.

I now turn to the subject of job creation, which was mentioned by the Minister in his opening speech. The Northern Ireland Economic Council, in its annual report, stated in paragraph 20 that the present rate of job creation still falls far short of the level which will be needed to have any significant effect on the core problem of unemployment. From 1972 until last year, the number of new jobs created in Northern Ireland had declined. When the Minister of State answered a Question on the subject on 13th July 1978, at column 1707 of the Official Report, he gave the impression that the tide had definitely turned. He stated that 1,200 jobs had been promoted in companies new to Northern Ireland in the first half of this year as compared with a half-yearly average of 225 between 1972 and 1977.

I should like to hear a little more about this. While it remains true that unemployment has only recently begun to fall within the Province after a sharp rise, contradiction in the private sector has been offset by expansion in the public sector. There remains an acute need for the provision of a large number of additional jobs in the private sector with sound long-term prospects.

The Minister referred to the Northern Ireland Development Agency. We hope that the increase in the financial limit of £50 million, which the Secretary of State announced for the Agency last Friday, will make a major contribution in this field. Will the Minister, when he replies, say whether it will be the subject of a further order, and whether there will be a statement or a debate on the matter?

I know that the Northern Ireland Office is fully aware of the difficulties which are encountered by those seeking to attract industries to Northern Ireland because of the tax system of the Republic and its tax holiday on exports. I understand that discussions have been held with the European Commission on this point. Will the Minister make a statement about the likelihood of securing changes to end the disadvantage which Northern Ireland suffers at present in that regard? Is Northern Ireland extracting the maximum from the package of incentives introduced last year by the Secretary of State? I am sure that the House would like to hear about those matters.

I turn fairly briefly to Class VIII, education. We discussed this rather fully in July but I should like to ask for some further clarification of the Government's policy for Northern Ireland. Secondary education in Northern Ireland is very good, and the system provides for more parental choice, in my view, than the English system does.

On 2nd October 1978 I received a letter from the Department of Education and Science, written on behalf of the noble Lord Lord Melchett, which stated that, while the Government are committed to the abolition of selection at 11-plus, they have no intention of imposing a uniform organisation of secondary education on all areas. They had given responsibility for local planning to eliminate selection to the area boards, and they relied on the co-operation and good will of all concerned.

In view of what we have been discussing in the past, that statement is very important, but none the less it needs some examination. Probably what the noble Lord means is that he is not intending to impose a system by law. I think that we are all aware in this House that there is no law which obliges controlled or voluntary schools in Northern Ireland to change to comprehensive. Equally, it is not unlawful for the noble Lord to attempt to persuade them to do so, and I have never said that it was. But the Education Act 1976 does not apply to Northern Ireland, and consequently the Secretary of State has no power to demand proposals from local authorities, nor have they a duty to reply. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is the law.

The importance of what I am saying can be seen in regard to the quotas which, through the area boards, the noble Lord set for some of the secondary schools, mainly the grammar schools, last year. Under his so-called "revised transfer procedure ", he proposes to set new quotas for the coming year of entrants.

The Government, under the Education Bill dealing with England and Wales, are proposing a scheme for "planned admission limits" under which the intake number for each school is set year by year. The Conservative Opposition spokesman for education, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle), on the Second Reading of the Bill, criticised these proposals on the ground that they interfered with parental choice and a number of other matters.

What is the relationship, if any, between the quotas which the noble Lord is setting in Northern Ireland for entry to schools and the system which appears in the Education Bill, described as "planned admission limits "? We would certainly criticise that system. If the system is meant to apply to Northern Ireland, it should be pointed out that the Minister, as he will know, cannot set quotas for schools against parental wishes, and it would be highly unpopular if he were to do so. In Londonderry last year, having set quotas, the Government had to climb down in the face of parental protest and let a few more children into schools of their choice, exceeding the original set quotas. I know that the Minister has recently visited Londonderry on this very question. Do the quotas have any basis in law, and what is the authority for imposing them? That is an important point, and the House would like to know about it. It is one on which both communities are agreed and united. They agree that quotas are not popular and they are not a satisfactory system.

I should like to make two further points before sitting down. I know that Nor- thern Ireland Members wish to raise other questions.

Lord Melchett has set up working parties on education. I should like to ask one or two questions and be assured about certain matters. Are the working parties working to clear terms of reference? Are they clearly independent of Government advice or persuasion? It would be better if they were. Will they make a full report on completion of their work without necessarily making interim reports? I think that the public should know the contents of those reports. We want parents to understand the Government's purposes.

I repeat what I have said on several occasions about education in Northern Ireland—namely, leave the good schools alone and let them prosper. The Government sometimes do not realise the strength of feeling on education in the Provinuce. It unites the two communities perhaps more than any other aspect.

If the noble Lords wants to do something constructive about education in Northern Ireland, I make four useful suggestions. First, there should be no change of schools, except in accordance with local wishes. Secondly, there should be renewal and vitalisation only of those secondary intermediate schools which really need it. Thirdly, we should inject greater technical training into some of those schools. Indeed, we should convert some of the secondary intermediates, not to comprehensives, but to technical schools. The noble Lord said that he did not want a uniform system, though I take that to mean that he wants all schools ultimately to go comprehensive. But some of these schools could become technical rather than comprehensive schools.

Finally, the noble Lord should respond to parental choice. He should not continue the quota system without full justification to the House. There should be an increase in school places in areas where there are now deficiencies. I believe that is true of Belfast and other areas. Those are all the points that I want to make on education.

The Opposition, like Northern Ireland Members, are concerned about energy policy for the Province. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Good-hart) will refer to that matter in replying for the Opposition. Having made those points, I should be grateful for an answer in the Minister's reply.

7.33 p.m.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)

Under Class II, Vote 4, my colleagues and I wish to raise problems concerning the future of energy policy in the Province. I have been asked to speak about the gas industry.

It is almost two years since we first debated the future of the gas industry. At regular intervals since then we have been assured that, within weeks, the Minister would tell us that the Government had reached a decision one way or the other. Of course, after those weeks elapsed we heard the same story and a few weeks later we heard it again. Last week, during Northern Ireland Questions, the Minister told us that he would give us in early January the Government's decision on the future of the gas industry. I hope that in early January we shall not be told again that we must wait for another two or three months for that decision.

During the intervening two years the industry has slithered closer and closer to the brink of destruction. It is now much weaker than it was two years ago. It has lost consumers. With the uncertainty and debt growing like an albatross around the necks of the various undertakings, we are getting to the stage where a number of the concerns are close to the point where rescue operations will be of no avail.

I do not need to draw the Minister's attention to headlines in local and national papers in Northern Ireland expressing the anger and concern not only by individual consumers but of local councils and other bodies at the imposition of the 10 per cent. increase on the price of gas. I appreciate that very good arguments can be put forward by the Minister and his officials to justify the 10 per cent. increase. However, if we are to believe the Minister, we are within three or four weeks of being made aware of the Government's vital decision. Surely, therefore, it would not have been too much to ask that the increase be held back until we knew what was to happen.

During this period we have suggested —and the 13 various undertakings agree with us—that immediate steps should be taken to unify the industry and make it into one cohesive unit. We have argued that if there is to be a future for the industry that will be necessary anyway and that we might have used the time to do that If there is to be no future for the industry, it will be easier and cleaner to kill it off if it is one unified industry rather than 13 individual undertakings. I hope that the Minister will indicate the Government's thinking on the whole issue of a unified gas industry in the Province.

Some people might ask "What are people in Northern Ireland moaning about? What extra are they asking for again? Have they any good argument when they complain about the price of gas?" The Government conceal the situation by saying that the price of gas in Northern Ireland compares favourably with the price of oil, electricity or coal. We repudiate the suggestion that the price of gas in Northern Ireland should be compared only with the price of other fuels. We contend that the price of gas in Northern Ireland must be looked at in the context of the price of gas in the United Kingdom. Those who think that there is no problem may think otherwise when I give certain figures.

A gas consumer in London tonight is paying 18.5p per therm for the gas that he uses. A gas consumer in Belfast tonight is paying 46.6p per therm for the gas that he uses. The consumer in Belfast is paying almost three times as much as the consumer in London. An industrial concern in London pays less than 10p per therm. An industrial concern in Belfast pays 31p per therm. The commercial tariff is 16p per therm in London and 46.9p per therm in Belfast. We suggest that there can be no justice in Northern Ireland until those lower prices are offered to gas consumers in the Province.

When pushed, the Minister gave as a reason for delay: However, every move that I made seemed to bring me up against another brick wall."—[Official Report 7th December 1978; Vol. 959, c. 1611.] He said that he hoped to make a rapid decision but that every time that it appeared that he would be in a position to make a decision he came up against a brick wall. If he has come up against a brick wall in dealing either with his colleagues or with the Treasury, it is because they are not prepared to look beyond the Province. They want to contain the problem within the boundaries of Northern Ireland. Each decision seems to be made in the context of Northern Ireland, not of the United Kingdom.

For example, why should the Kilroot power station, which is a big factor in the decision on the future of gas, be considered a Northern Ireland liability or asset any more than the Drax power station should be considered a Yorkshire liability or asset? If they are assets or liabilities, they are United Kingdom assets or liabilities.

We have heard hon. Members say "But you cannot get gas at the price that we have it on the mainland. After all, you have other things over there which will do instead." If the Minister of State were here, I should suggest to him that, in his own words, there is a surplus of energy in Yorkshire as well as in Northern Ireland. There is a surplus of coal in Yorkshire. But no one suggests that Yorkshire cannot have natural gas. Yorkshire is exporting coal.

If we have an excess of energy in Northern Ireland, we should adopt the same attitude. We could export our surplus electricity to our profit. We have done it in the past. We have sold millions of pounds worth of electricity to the Republic. According to news emanating from the Republic, there have already been massive power cuts there this winter. I am quite certain that the Republic cannot look too confidently to the remainder of the winter without envisaging many more. If we had that standby capacity in Northern Ireland, ready to sell into the Republic, I am quite sure that during the next three or four months we could make many millions of pounds which would be to the advantage of the Northern Ireland electricity industry and its consumers. Indeed, there may well be advantages for the electricity industry and its consumers in the South. No one objects to our buying store cattle from the Republic. That business has gone on for generations. I therefore hope that no one will object to the suggestion that we should sell electricity to the Republic if we have the extra capacity.

Our case is worth repeating. It is simply that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, that United Kingdom assets are Northern Ireland assets, and that we are entitled to a share of the national resources of this country. The Northern Ireland Economic Council had no problems in coming to that conclusion. If the Minister will not accept the case from me, perhaps he will accept it from the council. Paragraph 32 of the council's" Recommendations on Energy Policy in Northern Ireland "stated: The prospect of securing the future of the gas industry in Northern Ireland is therefore closely linked to gaining acceptance of the proposition that the fuel resources of the North Sea are national assets, to the benefits of which all parts of the United Kingdom have title. The pursuit of this proposition is essentially a political consideration; but it seems to Council that for this purpose the United Kingdom should be regarded as a unit. We have noted that areas of the United Kingdom as remote as Northern Ireland from the North Sea sources have received supplies of natural gas as of right. We note also that the financial position of the British Gas Corporation is extremely healthy, and that recent statements (e.g. in the Green Paper on Energy Policy) give grounds for expecting that supplies of North Sea gas will be available in substantial quantity into the next century. I hope that that will be brought to the attention of the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis), who last Thursday suggested that by the time it took to build a pipeline from Scotland to Northern Ireland supplies of natural gas would be almost depleted. At the most, it would take two and a half to three years to complete the pipeline, if the decision was taken tonight. When completed, many years of gas supplies would be left for the whole of the United Kingdom. I trust that Northern Ireland will benefit from its 20 years of the share.

How much will this cost? Of course every day that it takes to reach a decision pushes up the cost. However, it is estimated to be in the region of £50 million. That is not a small sum of money, and none of my colleagues would suggest that it is. It is approximately the same amount as it will take to set up the De Lorean car plant. I wish that venture every success. But in this case we are not talking about 2,000 jobs possibly being created. We are talking about 2,000 jobs which are already in existence being threatened and which will be lost if Northern Ireland does not get natural gas. There is no doubt that it would take as much as the £55 million which De Lorean is receiving to get those 2,000 men back into employment. Of course, that does not take into account the decided advantages to the Province in having energy at this particular cost.

We are asking that the Government make a decision which will safeguard those 2,000 existing jobs and perhaps add to them. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments about who in Northern Ireland uses gas, such as the low income groups, families on family income supplement and the poorest members of our community. Such people would automatically receive a boost to their standard of living without any further handouts being given.

For once I must welcome a comment from the Commission of the European Communities. A letter signed by Mr. Richard Burke states: The final decision is essentially a matter for the Government of Northern Ireland, in conjunction with other interested parties but the Community institutions would be very ready to consider loan assistance for any viable scheme which the Government decided to implement. I know perhaps better than most hon. Members would be prepared to concede that here we are talking about getting back a little of our own money. But this is as good a scheme as any for getting back a little of our own money. If the Minister has not already been contacted by Commissioner Burke, I hope that he will study his recommendation and that when he announces his decision in early January he will be able to tell us that he has put in a claim for a sizeable proportion of the costs.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. William Craig (Belfast, East)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) said, we on this Bench decided to select energy as the principal topic in the discussion. In every sense of the word it is a burning question and like all burning questions, it can be very expensive. I shall not follow my hon. Friend in his remarks about the gas industry, although I support him strongly in what he said. I should like to draw the attention of the House to the problems facing the coal industry, but before I do so I should like to spread the net a little wider.

The Estimates make reference to a grant of funds to the Northern Ireland Development Agency. Development is one of the big problems confronting the people of Northern Ireland, and I am sorry to say that I do not find the survey which one makes an optimistic one. Indeed, when I look at job opportunities in Northern Ireland, I am full of pessimism. I do not share the Minister's feeling that we are turning the corner, with a marked improvement in industrial investment. I have a suspicion that if many of the temporary aids—such as the temporary employment subsidy for which we are granting further money tonight—were removed from the Northern Ireland scene tomorrow the level of unemployment in the Province would jump to about 20 per cent. That is a horrifying picture for any community.

One appreciates that in the present economic climate it is not easy to encourage new ventures, but, in my opinion, the temporary aids at present given to Northern Ireland are creating a totally unjustified sense of complacency, not only in Government but in the community at large. To use a phrase which was resurrected some time ago by a distinguished personage, I think that the Northern Ireland Development Agency should pull its finger out. I am not satisfied that what is at present happening in Northern Ireland call be called imaginative development.

Northern Ireland will have no future if the effort is concentrated on creating enterprises to take in each other's washing. More than anything else, Northern Ireland needs to concentrate on introducing new technologies, particularly higher technology. We are now talking about micro-electronics, and that is the sort of thing on which we should be setting our sights in Northern Ireland.

I shall not indulge in knocking the De Lorean car project, although I have considerable doubts about its long-term future, even conceding that it has a short-term future. But that is the sort of assembly exercise—a Meccano industrial operation—which will more and more be attracted to the Third world. It will not be able to operate from communities such as the United Kingdom. It seems to me that much of the development in Northern Ireland is of that Meccanotype assembly operation.

The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) touched upon something which is very close to my heart, representing Belfast, East as I do, and that is the problem of our ship industry. From what his right hon. Friend said last week, the Minister will have noted that, for instance, he envisages a further rundown of employment in the engine works and foundry at Harland and Wolff. That is one of the sectors of the shipbuilding industry that should be capable of diversifying its activities. I find it horrifying that we envisage a further rundown of the manpower of any section of Harland and Wolff. Indeed, I believe that it has already been reduced to such an extent that it cannot be a viable proposition. One should be concentrating on attracting greater manpower into the engine works, and into the foundry in particular.

With all the pipeline projects that are in progress in Northern Ireland surely more of that pipework can be manufactured in Northern Ireland. The capacity to build engines can be related to industries other than the shipbuilding industry.

There is one other hardship that I wish to highlight this evening. For more than a year handicapped people, dependent on transport provided by the health services, have had to stay indoors because of a dispute involving the drivers of the vehicles. I find it particularly sad that a section of the community which gets so little out of life should have been penalised for so long. It is not for me to enter into the merits of the dispute between the employers and the drivers. It is totally reprehensible that after 12 months nothing has been done to help people who are totally immobile. If the regular service of the boards themselves cannot be used, surely some arrangement can be made with local taxis, minibuses or contract hirers. People who are crippled with one disease or another should be given much greater priority than has been extended to them over the last 12 months.

I come back to the main subject of this evening's debate. The coal industry in Northern Ireland is the greatest source of energy open to Northern Ireland. Sometimes, I am frightened by Northern Ireland's dependence on the coal industry. I wonder whether the Government realise just how massive that dependence is. Sixty-five per cent. of our homes are heated by coal, 14 per cent. by electricity, 15 per cent. by oil, and 6 per cent. by gas. As far as I can ascertain in terms of new housing developments, coal will be used in 80 per cent. of the new homes. This percentage would appear to be increasing rather than diminishing.

Northern Ireland is extremely dependent on coal. While we can say, in Northern Ireland terms, that it is the cheapest fuel in Northern Ireland, it is only in those terms that one can say it is cheap, because it is a very expensive fuel in Northern Ireland. It is dearer than it is in the United Kingdom, except for parts of South-West England.

This difference in price is growing quite alarmingly. I shall give some examples. In June 1977 the price of group 2 coal in Belfast was £44.64 and in London it was £43.80—a difference of approximately £1. In Manchester the price was £36.70, a difference of £8. In Leeds it was £33.80, a difference of approximately £10. In November 1978 in Belfast the price was £56.32 and in London it had risen to £52.75—a difference of almost £4, compared with a difference of £1 in June 1977. In November of this year the price was £44.75 in Manchester, which is a difference of £12 from the Belfast price. In Leeds it was £42—a difference of £14. So the gap is widening, and it is a gap which we should see closed.

A particularly strong case can be made on behalf of the consumers of coal. Looking at the problems of sources of energy in the future, one can say that the United Kingdom has useful, workable resources of coal for at least 300 years, whereas the reserves of oil and gas are limited. I do not think that I am overstating matters when I say that in 20 years' time the United Kingdom will depend on coal and nuclear power. Therefore, it is important from the consumers' point of view that the coal industry in Northern Ireland should have a long-term strategy which considers the needs of the majority of consumers by assessing the resources of all fuels in order of value.

The Government, clearly have not done this. They have supported electricity with the sum of £450 million, which has either been given or is promised. On the other hand, the gas industry has received about £10 million. It is interesting to consider these figures. They would supply the coal users of Northern Ireland at today's prices with free coal for 10 years. No benefit has been given to the consumers of coal in Northern Ireland. Winter fuel heating discount has been given to users of electricity and gas, but not of coal. I believe that there is a special case for treating all fuels alike. Consumers must have equal opportunity to benefit.

In making the case for coal, I want to make it clear that I am not arguing for a total or an increased dependency on coal. I am arguing that coal should be treated on the same basis as other fuels. Having regard to its particular importance to Northern Ireland, I ask the Government to consider an urgent policy for a reduction in the cost of that source of energy to Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Armagh made a valid point when he said that we are a part of the United Kingdom. One of the advantages of being part of the United Kingdom is the right that every citizen or every part of the United Kingdom has to call upon the resources of the nation, not as supplicants but as citizens claiming something as a matter of right. For a long time Northern Ireland has been denied the right that other parts of the United Kingdom take for granted. We now, not as a matter of special pleading, claim to be treated the same. We say that this is a matter of simple justice. Political differences or constitutional arrangements should not interfere with that fundamental right.

There is no other way of stimulating the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland in terms of consumption, or of job opportunity, than having a sensible energy policy that compares reasonably with nearby competitors. I believe that Northern Ireland can, at very little cost to the taxpayer, have its energy costs reduced in a most dramatic way.

There are all sorts of problems that the Government must face when they are framing fundamental policies of this kind. It always astonishes me that when we get involved in this kind of planning all sorts of loose ends seem to be flying about about. When I was inquiring into the sources of energy in Northern Ireland, it struck me that whether one wanted to heat one's house by electricity, gas, coal or oil—whatever the source of one's central heating—one would be inhibited by the grave shortage of copper piping. That is something which I have stumbled across by accident, but it is a serious problem to all those who are planning new housing estate or developments in Northern Ireland. Deliveries that are due have now been postponed until at least February 1979, and that is in spite of the world being searched for alternative sources of supply. Scandinavia has been tried, and so have Canada and Italy to try to make up the deficit.

It would seem that the present position is that those who have regular orders for, say, 40 tons are having their deliveries reduced to 6 tons—that is if they are getting any supplies at all. Although this is not directly related to the main argument, I ask the Minister to see what can be done to alleviate this serious problem.

I hope that when we come to consider similar Estimates on these subjects a year from now, my colleagues and I will not feel it necessary to raise the matter of energy costs as a special case. We have had many promises but very little action in recent time. The people of Northern Ireland and their representatives will not only be dismayed but will be rather angry if something positive is not done on this subject within the next 12 months. Within the next few months we hope to hear of a long-term well-thought-out energy policy for Northern Ireland which will enable us to compete with equality in the markets of the world.

8 p.m.

Mr. John Dunlop (Mid-Ulster)

should like to draw the attention of the House to Class XI, under which a sum of £14 million is allocated for expenditure by the Department of Health and Social Services, and where one sees the phrase "certain other services ". I think that that might apply to hospitals in Northern Ireland.

I propose to comment briefly on the smaller acute hospitals over which there hangs a threat these days. This threat emanates from the policies of the Minister's noble Friend in another place who administers health and social services in Northern Ireland. I want to put forward some claims for the smaller acute hospitals and the vital role that they play in the Province, particularly in that area known as the west of the Bann and in the far western area of West Tyrone and Fermanagh.

Those who are campaigning against the eventual closure or rundown of the smaller acute hospitals are not against the present plan for the building of large specialist hospitals in Antrim and in Coleraine. They recognise the possible need for them, but what they are against is the plan to run down and finally to decimate the smaller acute hospitals.

I mention especially the Mid-Ulster hospital in Magherafelt and the Tyrone county hospital in Omagh, which serve large rural areas. In the Mid-Ulster area, a population of 60,000 to 70,000 are served by the Mid-Ulster hospital, which has one or two special features. One is that it was the first hospital in Western Europe to have an intensive care unit. It was the pioneer of that phase of hospital treatment. This unit has meant the difference between life and death to people seriously injured in road accidents and the victims of terrorist activity in South Londonderry and South and East Tyrone. Often death would have been the result in many cases but for the availability of the Mid-Ulster hospital and the extra care given in the intensive care unit. I repeat that this has meant the difference between life and death. This is a strong argument for the retention of a hospital such as the Mid-Ulster hospital, Magherafelt, and the Tyrone county hospital, Omagh.

I shudder to think what would happen if those two hospitals were run down to mere casualty stations if there were serious accidents in the area and patients had to be transported all the way to Antrim. That would be a serious matter. There are mountainous areas around Drapers, town and Omagh, where road conditions and communications are very poor. The prospect of transporting seriously injured people over long distances to a central hospital in Antrim is simply not to he contemplated. Indeed, there is grave concern among general practitioners in these areas because of the threat that hangs over those hospitals. Once again, I insist on the need for their retention.

Some time ago I said in this House, and in Committee, that perhaps a fraction of what is to be invested in the large area hospitals would help further to equip the smaller acute hospitals and perhaps offer better rewards to specialists and consultants to encourage them to come to these hospitals to give of their skills in areas which need them. Some time ago I had a short conference with the British Medical Association in Belfast, at which I heard of certain surgeons and doctors who spent their month's holiday going to one of the Commonwealth countries or to the Continent of Europe, taking their families with them, giving of their skills, receiving remuneration therefor, and coming home, with all expenses paid, with about £1,000 in their pockets—perhaps to go towards a new motor car—for one month's work. That was a vital factor. It was an eye-opener for me. I believe that something should be done about the rewards that are offered to people for their skills in these needy areas.

One other feature of the Mid-Ulster hospital is that it has a successful training school for nurses. I wonder whether the House is aware that the nurse of the year in 1977, in the whole of the United Kingdom, came from the Mid-Ulster hospital. That came about only because of the wonderful training that she had had there and the way that she exercised her skills in that hospital. She was competing against nurses from the whole of the Kingdom, and she obtained the first place. The question of the training school there needs to be looked at. One of the threats that hangs over this hospital is that the nursing school will be withdrawn and the vital role that has been played there for so many years will be taken away.

I shall not detain the House for much longer. I thought that I would mention these factors to emphasise that the general public, giving their opinion through their local councillors, are very much against the threat to the smaller acute hospitals in Northern Ireland. They have shown that they do not want this rundown to happen, and they cannot contemplate the loss that it will mean to the area of Mid-Ulster, around Magherafelt and further west in Omagh and County Tyrone if these hospitals are run down to mere casualty stations and people are deprived of vital medical and surgical help.

It is frightening to think of what would happen in the Omagh area if there were another bombing attack such as that which happened a couple of weeks ago, when many people were injured by flying glass and debris because of insufficient warning being given of the bombs that half wrecked Omagh. Many people were treated at the local hospital. Some of them may have had to suffer serious and lasting disability had they had to be carted away to Altnagelvin hospital in Londonderry. That was the nearest big hospital, and it would be the nearest hospital for such cases in the Omagh area.

Therefore, in looking at this expenditure of £14 million for health and social services and "certain other services ", I advocate that serious thought be given by the Minister to the matter that I have raised. I hope that he will prevail upon his noble Friends to think again about the smaller acute hospitals and come to the vital decision to retain their services and improve their equipment, and thus meet the vital need that exists in those areas.

8.10 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I want to take up the theme developed by many other hon. Members in the debate—the cost of energy in Northern Ireland. I point out to the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) that, while mainland Great Britain may have coal reserves of some 300 years in total, quite a large part of those reserves is locked, one hopes for ever, inaccessibly under the Vale of Belvoir, so I hope that he will not take that part of the reserves into consideration.

We have heard graphic figures in the debate. Last July, I wrote to the Library for some statistics in relation to the cost per therm of fuels used by industry in Northern Ireland in 1977, the last year for which figures are available. Those figures bear out the figures that we have already had given to us in the debate about the cost, for example, of gas, which to the domestic user in Northern Ireland is about three times the cost in Great Britain. The cost per therm of industrial fuels is slightly over three times as much. In Great Britain in 1977, the cost per therm was 9.26p whereas in Northern Ireland it was 30p.

Over the whole range of fuels, whether gas, coal, heavy fuel oil, gas oil or electricity, the cost in Northern Ireland is considerably higher than the cost in the rest of the United Kingdom. The House must recognise that this has a debilitating effect on Northern Ireland industry. It must make the whole of Northern Ireland industry less competitive if it has to absorb in its manufacturing costs these much heavier overheads which are not encountered on the mainland.

It is apparent that the cost per therm of gas in Northern Ireland is about three times what it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. Last summer, a number of us suggested that the Government should see whether some of the big supplies of natural gas which have been found in Morecambe Bay, at the top of the Irish Sea, could be piped direct to Northern Ireland instead of being piped ashore to Great Britain. We put down an early-day motion to that effect. I have learned since then that the Morecambe Bay reserves have proved extensive, and one hopes that prospecting is going on further into the Irish Sea with the possibility that, if a discovery is made even nearer Northern Ireland, the obvious solution will be taken of piping a supply of gas directly ashore to Northern Ireland.

We have all heard estimates of the cost of getting natural gas to Northern Ireland, but the proposals I have seen in almost every case involve a rather circuitous route, sending North Sea gas through Scotland and then across to Northern Ireland, a far longer route than piping it direct from any discovery in the Morecambe Bay area or further west on to the mainland of Northern Ireland.

If one is perhaps deterred by the massive cost of piping this gas direct from Scotland to Northern Ireland, possibly a more direct, cheaper, shorter and just as effective way of connecting Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom gas-piping system would be by piping the gas ashore to Northern Ireland straight from the northern Irish Sea gas fields which are also being exploited.

The right hon. Member for Belfast, East spoke of the cost of coal in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister say something about the prospecting that was due to start on 5th December in Coalisland? I understand that his Department has a programme to spend about £250,000 a year on drilling for coal in various parts of the Province. That does not seem a very understand that the drill being used is a ambitious programme, especially as I very large Canadian-type drill. Has this programme begun on schedule? Is the Minister thinking of giving effect to the recommendation, which has been made elsewhere, that the proposal to close down certain coal-fired generating stations in Northern Ireland be postponed?

Another matter which I want to touch on and which is related to the cost of energy to industry in Northern Ireland is the position of the Northern Ireland Development Agency. We have tried to make energy the theme of this debate, because energy is probably the biggest problem for Northern Ireland at the moment, but I feel if we do not seize the opportunity to ask about the Agency we may be losing an opportunity that we should not lose. A couple of matters about the agency have been worrying me for some time.

The Agency was set up about two and a half years ago. I understand that the accounts for the year ended 31st March 1978 were published on 1st December, although they are not yet available in the Library. I understand from the press that the accounts show that over £16 million has gone into purchasing equity shares in the new De Lorean motor car factory, and we all wish that venture every success.

I presume that that £16 million was in the 1978.79 accounts, since, I understand, all that is shown for investment in companies during the year ended 31st March 1978 is £6.75 million in 19 companies. However, as I have said, the accounts are not in the Library and it is therefore difficult to comment in detail. I point out, however, that the latest available accounts for the Agency are those for the 11 months ending 31st March 1977. They were not published or received until 16 months later in July 1978. We are still waiting for the accounts for the year ended 31st March 1978. The long delay in the preparation and presentation of the Agency's accounts should be looked into and possibly eliminated.

Can the Minister tell us how the equity shares in De Lorean are structured? I have not seen it explained in detail yet, and I await his answer with great interest.

I have with me the Agency's accounts for 1977. The information they supply is meagre. They show, for instance, that £6.8 million was written off during the year. Northern Ireland Development Agency interests in various companies are listed. In the case of wholly-owned or mainly-owned companies, why cannot the individual accounts of those companies be published? Has the Minister considered that? If not, why not? There may be a good reason, but where, as is the case with the Northern Ireland Development Agency, five or six companies are wholly owned or mainly owned, there seems to me to be no reason why full public accountability cannot be maintained and the accounts published and made known to all concerned. The report should be broken down company by company in future so that these matters can come under proper public scrutiny.

My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) referred to Harland and Wolff. I echo what he said. Surely the Minister can use his influence with the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that defence contracts are placed with Harland and Wolff. If that cannot be done, if it cannot secure defence contracts, for the construction of new vessels, why cannot it secure a contract for the major repair and refitting of, for instance, one of our "Fearless" class vessels or other naval contracts?

It is very difficult to comment sensibly on Harland and Wolff in this debate, because the accounts for 1977 have not yet been published. We shall shortly be in 1979. It makes it very difficult for hon. Members who try to take an interest in these affairs to take part in a debate such as this when we cannot at least have accounts that are only a year old. If the latest accounts available are the 1976 accounts, we are talking about the company's financial situation as it was nearly three years ago, which is rather like talking about history instead of looking to the future.

I wish that the Minister would say something about expediting Harland and Wolff's accounts in future. We have the right to see the 1977 and 1978 accounts in rapid succession in 1979.

The economic plan for Northern Ireland has been mentioned at the Dispatch Box by the Secretary of State on another occasion. I am not critical about the plan, but I am curious. It has been held out to us as something to look forward to, something that the House will find interesting and encouraging. Can the Minister satisfy our curiosity and tell us a little about the plan tonight and say when we shall learn the full details of it?

Can the Minister also say anything about any restructuring of the Northern Ireland Economic Council that may take place at an early date? I echo what my hon. Friend said in asking whether such restructuring would be on the lines of our little Neddies in the United Kingdom.

With those few points, particularly emphasising the theme of energy, which is critical in Northern Ireland, I welcome the order.

8.23 p.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister realises just how the procedure which we are following illustrates the way in which in general the Government and to some extent the House have allowed our financial procedures to become unsatisfactory—in fact, to become chaotic. Every hon. Member will recall the row we had last week, when, on an Opposition Supply Day, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was nominally moving a motion to stop debate on exactly the same sort of matters concerning other parts of the United Kingdom as we are now discussing in relation to Northern Ireland.

In the case of Northern Ireland we have a draft order. It is understandable that every hon. Member from Northern Ireland and hon. Members from elsewhere wish to discuss it. Indeed, I think that technically we are discussing a motion that it be approved, a motion that I think could conceivably have been amended to delete particular items. That is not possible on matters affecting the rest of the United Kingdom.

I hope that my hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench will convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Cabinet generally that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members for Great Britain—and, I believe, many of those for Northern Ireland—desire that we should all be allowed to discuss the details of public expenditure in our respective parts of the United Kingdom.

There is not the slightest doubt that such a procedure as this would be more helpful than that which we followed last week, which was described in the Press as a shambles, and the procedure under which tomorrow night we shall be allowed to discuss a Consolidated Fund Bill for United Kingdom expenditure, some of which relates to Northern Ireland and some of which relates to the rest of the United Kingdom. There is not the slightest doubt that we shall be told tomorrow that we can discuss anything we like on Second Reading but that in the Committee stage, taken immediately afterwards, the Bill is unamendable. What is clearly needed is a revision of these rather archaic procedures for the discussion of public expenditure.

In the case of Northern Ireland there are special problems. Hon. Members may have seen a Written Question about the Northern Ireland electricity service that I asked recently. I asked whether it was obliged to prepare accounts and publish them. I received a reply saying that a statement of accounts—a subtle difference from "accounts", as I understand it—is to be found in the annual report. I also asked whether it was obliged to have them audited, and, if so, by whom. I received a reply, dated last Thursday, that they were audited by a private firm of auditors.

I was also told that, although the accounts were not laid before Parliament, they were placed in the Library of both Houses. I cannot reiterate too often that that sort of specious reply has had its day. The difference between an item's being placed in the Library of the House of Commons and being laid before Parliament is that in the former case the Comptroller and Auditor General is not allowed to audit it. That difference should have been stated in the reply. Anyone who thinks that he will get away with a cheap, specious reply that "It does not matter. They are not laid before Parliament. They are placed in the Library ", wants to look up the Exchequer and. Audit Acts. He probably has, and he probably thought he would get away with it. As soon as possible, the Northern Ireland electricity service and everything else in Northern Ireland that is in a similar position should be brought within the jurisdiction of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

We know from last week's debate that the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General are weak and that his staff are underpaid and underqualified. But he is the best we have at present. Until we are allowed to replace the present Exchequer and Audit Acts, it is no use our allowing these newly created organisations in Northern Ireland to become quangos, escaping from the control of the Comptroller and Auditor General and this House.

8.29 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. We should be thankful that the Government want to keep controversial matters out of the House as this means that we are given more time for Northern Ireland business. At times the crumbs from the rich man's table extend to Northern Ireland Members. Tonight we are having a debate at a reasonable hour, which means that we have time to discuss these important issues.

I put on record that I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). I have been very alarmed to see the way in which public money has been spent in Northern Ireland without any public scrutiny at all. In the old days, there was a proper committee in the Stormont Parliament which acted as a Committee of this House acts. These matters were laid on the table, civil servants were examined and expenditure was put under scrutiny. That cannot happen today. Some of the organisations which now get large chunks of money do not come under the scrutiny of the Comptroller and Auditor General and therefore are outside the terms of scrutiny of this House.

The electricity service in Northern Ireland acts like a dictator. It is a vicious villain to those who pay their electricity bills. If one pays an electricity bill in Northern Ireland, for every £100 worth of electricity one pays an extra £5 to make up for the people who do not pay. The electicity service has taken a decision that those who pay their debts will pay for those who do not pay their debts.

I do not pay the extra £5 in every £100. I deduct it from my electricity bill and I hope that the electricity service will take me and many others who do the same to court, because we will not pay for the electricity we have not burned. Can any Government Department put a levy on a person for paying his debts?

The Minister says that decisive steps will be taken and that people who do not pay will have the supply cut off. Then workers in the electricity service say that they will not go into certain areas or take action within those areas. These are the Republican areas, where there are some of the worst debts. These arc the "no-stay" areas. They used to be called "no-go" areas. The fast vehicles of the British Army drive through them but do not stay. No electricity man will go in and put his head on the gibbet for this Government or any other Government. Therefore, those people go on burning their electricity and laughing.

Also, they have a way of bypassing the meters. I shall not tell the House how that is done in case someone gets the bright idea to do it as well. However, it is well known to the people of Northern Ireland and there are simple ways of bypassing the meters. One may ask, what happens when the inspector comes round —what does he do? But he does not come around. He is not permitted to go into these areas. As a result, many accounts are estimates, and if the truth be known they are very low estimates.

I protest on behalf of the honest people in Northern Ireland who are paying their bills and who are doing the right thing. After denying for years that there was any charge, and after telling hon. Members that such a suggestion was bunkum, the electricity service at last admits that there has been a charge—£5 for every £100. This is a ridiculous situation. Has the Minister the power to stop it? Has the electricity service more power than the Minister? Will it become the practice in Northern Ireland that honest, upright people of integrity who pay their bills as soon as they get them will be discriminated against simply because they are honest and pay their bills? It is time that we had a statement from the Minister to the effect that, come what may, people who are consuming electricity and refusing to pay for it will have their electricity supply cut off.

In an area which is not Republican, a person who fails to pay an electricity bill within three days will have the supply cut off. This has happened in my constituency to people who have always paid promptly but who, due to an oversight, have failed to meet their debts.

A constituent of mine telephoned me the other day saying that two men had come to her door to tell her that her electricity bill had not been paid. She replied that it had been paid. They cut off her electricity supply. Shortly afterwards, she got back the stub of her cheque. She informed the electricity service, and she was told "We are very sorry. The computer made a mistake." The word of an honest, decent person of integrity could not be taken. All her back record was perfect. She has been discriminated against and harassed. It did not seem to matter how many people she had in her family. At the weekend, she had no electricity and no opportunity of getting it turned back on. But if someone lives in a "no-stay" area, he can burn as much electricity as he likes and no one will be the wiser. If he decides to bypass the meter, even if the day ever comes—

Mr. English

When the hon. Member gets an opportunity, perhaps he would care to check whether the private auditors who audit this service have ever been instructed that, in addition to all that they normally do to audit a private company, they should investigate matters such as this, because they are, after all, taking the place of the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is not allowed to act.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I shall communicate that to the auditors. Certainly I am extremely angry about what is taking place. Today we have been informed that the debt of the electricity service has gone up by £4 million this year. It is bound to go up because what effort is being made is restricted to the areas which are not deepest in debt. There are, of course, Protestant people in those areas who do not pay their electricity bills, and they are to be denounced as loudly as those in other areas who do not pay. Everyone should pay, but they should not be asked to pay the extra which is being demanded of them.

I am prepared to make an issue of this. I shall make it my business to let as many people as I can know about this practice. I have said it on radio and on television and I repeat it in this House. It is a scandal that some people are refusing to pay their electricity bills and that decent people have to pay for them. The electricity service says "It is only £5 in £100. What is that? It is a small matter." Yet we had denials for a long time that it was taking place. Now we have got to the truth of the matter, and now the electricity service is screaming about £4 million. I do not know what it will be next year, with the cost of electricity going up, with the state of affairs in Northern Ireland what it is and with the bombers back on the streets.

The centre of Armagh is a shambles, and many other towns are suffering in the same way. We heard in this House about the great advance that was being made by members of the British Army. However, those same members of the British Army could tell right hon. and hon. Members that matters will be very serious between now and Christmas. There will be more bombings and more killings. Prominent members of the public in Northern Ireland have been visited by the special branch of the RUC and warned that there will be very serious assassinations before the turn of the year. Men are being told to watch themselves. How they watch themselves in Northern Ireland is more than I can understand.

This House should realise that, whilst we discuss these matters tonight, the most pressing of our problems is the deterioration in our security and what is happening in Northern Ireland. That is the vital issue that we need to be concerned with, when people are being murdered and businesses are being bombed out of existence.

Nothing that is said from these Benches will influence the Government on the gas issue. We have had many promises about this. Are the Government aware that the longer they dilly-dally the greater burden they will place upon the people of Northern Ireand? Are the Government aware that if we do not have this pipeline, or a subsidy to make our gas the same price as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom, a vital industry in Northern Ireland will close down?

We have heard much about encouraging new jobs in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Office must tell us whether its main objective is to save jobs or to create new jobs. Many business people in Northern Ireland ask "Why do not our businesses, which have been in existence for as long as Northern Ireland, receive the encouragement to which they are entitled, when other firms from elsewhere are taken by the hand? "

I regret that I have to raise the matter which I am about to raise, but the time has come for me to raise it. A Northern Ireland man experienced a breakthrough in construction. He invented a new type of brick. The building industry newspapers have carried various articles on the development. It is said that it can revolutionise the building industry.

When that man came to me, I took him to the Department responsible in the Northern Ireland Office. The officials said "This is a wonderful invention ". A few days later the man received a letter from those officials saying that they did not believe that it could be developed in Northern Ireland. They advised him to sell it across the water.

This was a Northern Ireland man with a Northern Ireland invention. He has now had substantial offers from the Benelux countries and the Republic of Ireland. After many meetings with the Department's officials, no substantial offer of help has been made to him.

That letter raised my wrath. To say to a man that an invention which could be of benefit to Northern Ireland should be sold elsewhere is serious. I fear that much of industry's planning is done on the assumption that people from outside Northern Ireland are more reliable than those who have been in the Province for years and have proved not to run fly-by-night companies.

I hope that the Minister can tell us about the Strathearn Audio Company. How many millions of pounds have been given to that company? I understand that it is now to be closed, after all the money that has been put into it. How does that company stand? Will it be wound up, reopened and the debt forgotten?

We all welcome efforts to create jobs for the people of Northern Ireland. The devil finds plenty for idle hands to do. People who are employed have self- confidence. When they go out in the morning and come home in the evening they can lift their heads high. Nothing demoralises a person or family more than the curse—or cancer—of unemployment.

I am not happy about some aspects of the De Lorean venture. It should be made clear that it is not situated in an unemployment black spot. One would think that this company was placed in West Belfast. It is not. It is in the Dunmurry area. I asked Questions in the House and the Minister admitted that it was in the Dunmurry area. The employment figures in the Dunmurry and Lisburn areas are among the highest in the Province. We need to keep these matters in mind. I know that De Lorean hopes to bring employees out of the black spots into this area, but let no one in the House be side-tracked into thinking it is placed in a black spot. It is not.

We need more information about NIDA's interest in this project and more information about what NIDA is doing in other fields. I understand that the Government have given another £50 million to NIDA. I wonder whether there has been any indication from the company or from the Government about how that money is to be used.

As transport is covered by this order, I should like to urge serious consideration of the transport links between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Fares on the shuttle flights of British Airways are ever going up. A return ticket is to cost £74, which is higher than some transatlantic single fares on which one gets at least two meals. I came to this House today by shuttle. The plane burst four tyres and could not return. We were led to believe that on the shuttle service there would always be a back-up plane. Today, a relief aircraft had to be brought from Edinburgh, and all the passengers had to wait.

I am not a prophet or a son of a prophet, but I believe that the trip will soon cost £100 return. It seems that no protest can stop this rise in fares. British Airways has a monopoly. Flights from Heathrow have become more accessible, with the introduction of the train service to the airport, and British Airways are taking advantage of this. If the airline brought down the fares, more people would travel and there would be more business. It would make British Airways far more viable.

I should like to mention the jetfoil project about which the Northern Ireland Development Agency was at first very chary. What happened? We found that there was an exchange of information between NIDA and its counterparts in the Republic. Lo and behold, the Republic decided that it was a good idea and has gone ahead while we are still dragging our feet. With all due respect to NIDA, its first priority should be Northern Ireland. If it can pass out some tips to Dublin, that is well and good, but its first priority should be Northern Ireland.

A jetfoil service would be most helpful with the rates that could be offered on a return journey to Great Britain. This is a matter that should be urgently considered not only by NIDA but by the Ministry of Commerce and the entire Northern Ireland Office. We need different links with the mainland. We should not have to depend on British Airways.

A prominent business man was going over who has brought many business men from foreign countries and helped investment in Northern Ireland. He had three newspapers and the security man would allow him to keep only one. I do not know whether he took The Guardian from him, but he certainly took two newspapers.

I once had a hard-back book and the security man said that I could not take it. I followed the example of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and tore the covers off, saying, "You keep the covers and I will have my book to read." I was once followed past the security gate when I had a Bible in my hand. The security man said, "You are not taking that on the plane." I said," It would be a good man who would take the Bible off Ian Paisley. Would you like to try?" He said "You run on, then."

That sort of thing, which happens at the London end, not the Belfast end, discourages people. Many people have said "Is it not ridiculous how we are treated on these flights? "

When we reach London, we are told that our baggage will be waiting for us immediately we disembark. I have waited as long as 35 minutes for hand baggage. Sometimes one gets it in 15 minutes, and if one is very good it might be only 10 minutes. But all the passengers have to queue up two or three deep at a board fighting for their plastic bags and cases.

This is the sort of service we get. British Airways says that the shuttle is wonderful, but it does not help Northern Ireland to be served in this way. The Northern Ireland Office needs to take this matter in hand.

Hospitals have been mentioned. It is sad that the Minister responsible for education and for health and social services is answerable in another place. As I have said before, these are two of the most important Departments governing the everyday life of our people. Yet the Minister responsible cannot be questioned personally in this House. Surely other Departments could be given to a Minister in another place.

Both these Departments are being reorganised. Education is being completely overhauled on comprehensive lines. The hospital service will be completely overhauled and many hospitals will be closed. Is it part of the Government's overall policy that the man who takes the decision should not be answerable to this House? With due respect to the Under-Secretary, he cannot answer many of our questions because he did not make the decisions.

Moreover, in this country, if a Minister takes a decision about which people are unhappy, there is always a final appeal to the Prime Minister. We are attempting to secure a meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the hospitals that fall within the jurisdiction of the northern board. We have asked the right hon. Gentleman to meet a deputation of elected representatives from all the councils in the area and of those people connected with the hospital services. This request was made by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux), who is leader of the official Unionists in this House. It has also been made by me as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. So far we have had no response to the request. Why is the Secretary of State not prepared to discuss with the elected representatives a matter that has caused great grief in these areas?

The Mid-Ulster hospital has been referred to, but other hospitals are also affected. There is the hospital in Antrim —I am not talking about the new hospital. Another affected hospital is at Newtownabbey. I read an account in the press of a protest by the hon. Member for Antrim, South and the people there. There are the Larne hospital and the Waveney hospital, Ballymena.

My concern is that a decision, once taken, was subsequently overthrown. The previous Minister responsible for hospitals in Northern Ireland, who has now moved to the Department of Health and Social Security, said that the plan was for the Waveney hospital to be the basis for the special acute hospital in that area but that limited acute services would be provided in the other hospitals. This is a most important matter because it is almost impossible to take emergency cases from some areas to Antrim.

I oppose the present procedure. I believe that the land that was earmarked in Ballymena for this hospital should have been used for that purpose and that all the statements that were made should have been honoured. That has not happened. The board decided that there would be acute hospitals in the area, but at its next meeting, by some jiggerypokery, that decision was reversed. I attended a meeting with the Minister on this subject. Also present was the mayor of Ballymoney, who was a member of the board. She asked the Minister when the decision was changed, and I suggested that the mayor should know that, but she said that she did not even though she was a member of the board.

So a change was made, and we cannot discover when, about the future of this new hospital. I understand that a tree has been planted where the hospital was to have been built, so I suppose that progress is being made. An American leader once spoke of the working class of America being crucified on a cross of gold. My constituents will be crucified on the tree that has been erected in this area.

Some acute services will be available at Coleraine, but certain other treatments, especially for children, will be available only in the new Antrim complex. That means that constituents of mine who live in Portrush and who need treatment for their children will have to travel to Antrim for it. We parents understand the strain on a family when a child is ill and undergoing a serious operation. Yet parents are to be asked to travel long distances. This policy is not a good one, but it is the one that now applies.

I met the Minister in Ballymena and we met the medical staff of the Waverley hospital. He said "You should be very pleased that I have come to speak to you. You are getting more time than I give to others." The Minister should know that he is not Lord God Almighty, although he might take the title of "Lord ". I wish to tell that Minister that the people of Northern Ireland want their voices heard. If he is not prepared to listen to them and to answer their case, why does not the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland say "I must meet these people "? The Ballymena district council, the Larne borough council and the Magherafelt borough council have met to discuss these matters. At one of the meetings the mayor of the town of Larne took the chair and strong words were spoken. There were constant calls for the Secretary of State to meet the people.

Perhaps the Minister in replying to the debate will say whether his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intends to meet us. It would be far better for those people to realise that the Secretary of State does not intend to hear their pleas so that at least they will know where they are and will not waste their time trying to meet him.

I wish now to turn to the topic of education and to ask the Minister a few questions. Who are the members of the curriculum committee for Northern Ireland, when were they appointed, and what powers do they exercise? There is great concern in Northern Ireland about the type of reading material that is being placed in the schools of Northern Ireland. This complaint has been made by many public bodies and responsible citizens throughout the Province. I do not think that young children should be allowed to read four-letter words, nor do I believe that they should be given reading material that contains the seeds of perversion. I am totally opposed to any such course. I have asked Questions about this matter and so far I have been given little satisfaction. We need to know the names of those who are responsible for allowing this literature to be placed in schools.

I understand that there is to be a recommendation to the curriculum committee to change the basis of religious education in primary schools. A body has been set up for this purpose, and I should like the Minister to tell me who set up this organisation. Will he also say who called the recent conference, how the members were appointed to the committee, and what decisions were made? Was it decided at that conference to change the religious teaching in the schools, and, if so, will that decision stand? Furthermore, what schools have been chosen as guinea pigs for the introduction of this scheme, what is the general idea of the scheme, and what is the motive behind the idea to take out of schools the authorised version of the scripture?

Is it a fact that, in so far as this matter affects the Northern Ireland Office and educational matters, there are to be no more grants available to any religious body that wants to set up a voluntary school in the Province? Have such grants ceased in respect of religious bodies? Is it a fact that the maintained voluntary schools—particularly the Roman Catholic schools—will continue to receive grants and be able to set up schools? Will the Minister confirm that, if any other religious body wishes to set up a maintained voluntary school, it will not be permitted to do so, except when the board considers there is need for such a school?

Perhaps the Minister would be good enough to answer those questions. I agree that if someone wants to set up a religious school he should pay for it. I agree with that principle, and I believe that there should be one principle governing schools. There should be a State system of education with religious instruction outside the school, given to children by ministers of their own denomination. If any other group wishes to set up a school, it is entitled to do so, but let it run its school and pay for it.

Let me make perfectly clear that I do not want grants to be paid to any religious body. The religious body that I happen to lead is going to set up a religious school, but it will pay for it. I want the Minister to spell it out tonight. Is this the law as it stands, and are we to have discrimination whereby another body can say it would like to do this but it will be prohibited?

I think that it would be a far, far happier situation if religion, of the various denominations, were to be taught, outside any religious curriculum that might be drawn up by any academic body, outside these particular schools.

I want to speak about the comprehensive system of education. Three working parties were set up to deal with this matter. Can the Minister tell us whether these working parties have reported? If so, where are their reports and what did they recommend? Could he also tell us what is happening in the various boards concerning the implementing of the Minister's decision that Northern Ireland should go comprehensive? Perhaps he would care to spell out what is happening, because we are told that the boards will make the decision. Are the boards to act on the recommendation of the working party?

We also have the matter of the selection procedure, where pupils are selected for grammar schools when there are no places available for them. Certain grammar schools indicated that they could take in these pupils but the Minister decided that they could not. I have a Roman Catholic grammar school in my constituency—at Ballymena—and it needed more places, and rightly so, because there were pupils waiting to get in. The same thing happened at the Cambridge House school in the town.

Who decides how many pupils should go to these schools? Or is this an attempt to decide who goes to a grammar school only after considering that there must be enough pupils to go to the secondary school, or the high school or whatever the comprehensive school is called? Are we to say to these pupils that, even though they have been selected, they cannot get a grammar school place? This does not help the parents or the children, and I think the Minister must look at that.

I raise again the question of the selection procedure presently being adopted. This puts the onus of selection on the schoolmaster. In a small community, where the schoolmaster is well known to everybody, this puts a very difficult task on his shoulders because he must decide how the children are to continue their education. The Minister must look at this matter very carefully.

It does not seem to me that the limited examination is very much different from the 11-plus. This means that we have all kinds of problems arising in education in the Province. The Minister needs to tell us the way in which the Province is going, how the decision will be implemented, and what is the effect of the working parties set up by him. I should have thought that he would have waited until these working parties had reported before making any decision. But evidently he sets up working parties that do not report, or have not yet reported—or if they have we have not heard what their reports are—and has then made the decision beforehand. That seems to be pre-empting the whole business.

I turn next to the problem of cement supplies in the Province today. Is the Minister aware that the whole construction industry is slowly grinding to a halt in Northern Ireland? It is having extreme difficulty in keeping going. Further, is the Minister aware that the Blue Circle monopoly on the supply of cement to the Province makes it impossible for the Province to get supplies when Blue Circle is in difficulty?

What is the Minister doing to bring supplies of cement in from elsewhere? When supplies are available in the Republic, why cannot cement get into Northern Ireland? Is the Minister proposing to bring cement from Great Britain to help us in our present problem? I read that the Minister had sent a telegram to the Blue Circle company. I wonder what reply he received, and I wonder what he is doing in general regarding cement supplies.

In conclusion, I refer to planning matters. Many of us were delighted when we saw the Cockcroft report. Then we had the documents which the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland issued in response to that report and the new regulations for rural planning, and we all got a shock. If there are some hon. Members who have not yet had a shock they will get it in due course, because we have discovered that there are to be areas of special control.

I was at a planning appeal the other day. The planning officer brought out a map. On that map a certain boundary was drawn, and he said "This is an area of special control." But in the planning document from the Department we were told: In defining the Areas of Special Control the Department will seek the agreement of district councils to the boundaries. I have discovered that the district councils are only in the process of discussing these areas of special control.

Moreover, we were informed by the Ministry in its document that if an area is within two miles of an urban boundary where there is a population of 10,000 the old rules will apply. I wonder how much of Northern Ireland comes in under that. We are told also that where there is a population of, I think, 2,000, the distance will have to be one mile from the boundary in that district. Over the whole of Northern Ireland I suspect that there are not many places left after those two stipulations.

Is the Minister prepared to adjourn all the hearings until these matters are clarified? People are coming to planning appeals and maps are produced showing special control areas. They have not been discussed with the council, yet on that basis planning applications may be turned down. The commissioner who hears them has no option but to turn them down in keeping with the policy set out. But Cockcroft said: The Committee does not accept that rural planning policy is administered in a sympathetic and understanding manner. What will happen when the old rules apply to the special control areas? Will there be more sympathy and more understanding, or will people have to keep rigidly to the boundary which has been set down?

This is an extremely serious matter. I understand that as a result many planning appeals have had to be called off this week in the Province. The presiding commissioners have told those involved in the appeals that they do not know the whereabouts of the special planning areas and that they have not been discussed with the district councils. It seems that the maps have not been agreed. The commissioners have said "We are not able to make a decision, and we advise you to adjourn your case." It is only right that they should take that view. The Minister needs to clarify the issue tonight so that we know where we are going. The Cockcroft report was eulogised. It received a great welcome. We now find that it is not so welcome in many areas. It seems that we are reverting to the old policy that the Cockcroft committee condemned.

The debate deals with bread and butter issues in Northern Ireland. When we deal with controversial issues, we almost always have full representation on both sides of the House. However, when we turn our attention to matters that bear on the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, there is always a reduction in the representation. Some of us come to the House to speak for the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. I trust that tonight our words have not fallen upon deaf ears and that some of what has been said will be of help to those persons in Northern Ireland who are struggling honestly to pay their debts, keep within the law and do what is right and proper for themselves and their families.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) did us all a great favour when he reminded us that the purpose of the debate is to scrutinise Government expenditure. The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the imperfections of the machinery that we possess for doing just that. All too often we find ourselves discussing sums that have been spent rather than being allowed to express our thoughts about future expenditure and, occasionally, to save money and so help the taxpayers whose representatives we are.

Tonight I raise only one issue—I do so under Schedule 1, Clause 2, Vote 1—namely, the grant to the Department of Commerce to the tune of £43 million. The Department and the Northern Ireland Development Agency are providing the largest amount of money that is going into the De Lorean car project, which has already been referred to by a number of hon. Members. I shall make that single issue the subject of my speech.

I am sure we are well aware that the De Lorean car project is to be built in a Government-financed factory on the Twinbrook industrial estate at Dunmurry.

The sum being provided from public funds amounts to £52.8 million. That sum is given by way of grant from the Department of Commerce to the tune of £18 million, plus £9 million in employment grants and loans of £6.7 million, leaving aside the equity investment of the Northern Ireland Development Agency of £17.7 million.

Clearly, a large amount of public money is being provided for the project. It is as large as the amount of public money that has been pumped into Chrysler UK by the Government. The difference is that Chrysler UK is an international car firm making a whole range of models, whereas the De Lorean project centres on one car, the DMC 12, of which only a handful of prototypes exists. It can be described as the dream child of one man, Mr. John De Lorean, an American citizen. It is to be borne in mind that public money will provide two-thirds of the working capital for the project.

I hope the Minister will forgive me if I press him now to answer many of the questions that I know are in the minds of hon. Members, answers that many of us have sought from other Ministers in his Department.

I start by saying that Mr. John De Lorean has an enviable reputation in the American car industry, having reached a considerable level of seniority in General Motors. But, just the same, an investment of £52.8 million is of a size which seems to me to require a lot of scrutiny. It requires scrutiny in terms of what it is to be spent on, which is the setting up of a car works on a green field site in Belfast. More than that, it requires the training of a work force, which at present has had no training at all, in constructing cars to take on the task of assembling this very exciting, very glamorous and, one might say, very advanced sports car.

I repeat that Northern Ireland has no history of making cars, apart from the fact that a tiny bubble car was marketed by Short Brothers and Harland about 20 years ago, though not with much success. Yet here we are with a green field site and with what one might describe as green labour which is to be trained to do the job on which we are spending £52.8 million. One might wonder, in those circumstances, what it was about this project which produced such swift acceptance from the Northern Ireland Office, with so little disclosure to Parliament and with apparently so few safeguards written into the agreement with Mr. De Lorean.

If I add here that I am in no sense wishing to knock the project, I hope the Minister will recognise that I am trying in some small way to produce some of the scrutiny that I think should have been made available following a ministerial statement at the very beginning of this Parliament. But, be that as it may, I think it is necessary to ask a number of questions, and perhaps in doing so at least to ask whether the Secretary of State's avowed policy for industrial development in Northern Ireland is the right one.

We have already heard comments from the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) about his concern that some of the technology being introduced into the Province is much more in terms of putting things together than in developing the skills of the people. I wonder whether the De Lorean project does not to some extent fit into that category, so that at the end of the day Northern Ireland will not have acquired a new industrial skill but will have been given a more limited task.

The Secretary of State, when discussing the sort of projects that he wanted, said that he wanted to develop a fresh criterion completely for finding jobs in West Belfast, in Newry and in Strabane. He went on: If you are going to deal with the problem fundamentally, you have got to have Government commitment. It's not the cost per job, it's the challenge before us and how we tackle it. Certainly the De Lorean project underlines the Secretary of State's statement that the criterion is not the cost per job, because the Government commitment works out at £26,471 per job that is likely to be created. So it must be the challenge. Of course, it is a considerable challenge that the Secretary of State and his team are taking on. Quite apart from the fact that they are building a 55,000 square feet factory for the company, starting a new industry, and, as I have already said, training a whole work force from scratch, they are hoping that by this expenditure, by this Government commitment, they will create a new industry in which 2,000 people will find employment.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. He indicated earlier that he had some doubt whether the establishment of this factory would prove to be a going concern because there was a lack of skill among the labour force and a lack of experience in the production of motor cars. He then went on to argue that no new skills were being provided. Surely, if the first is true the second cannot be true, for when the project has been established and there is a trained labour force producing motor cars the people concerned will have obtained certain new skills. Is that not the case?

Mr. McNair-Wilson

Had the hon. Gentleman been following the exact train of my argument—or perhaps I expressed myself badly—he would have heard me refer to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Belfast, East—I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when the right hon. Gentleman spoke—and ask whether the doubt that he cast on some of the new projects being introduced into Northern Ireland would produce the high industrial skills on which the Province's future would depend. I wondered whether the De Lorean project would be in that category—no doubt the Minister will tell us—or whether it will be a nuts and bolts job. It is a matter of great concern to the Province as to which it is. I wait to hear the Minister's view. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he will hear me develop the point a little more fully than I have hitherto.

The Secretary of State has taken upon himself a considerable challenge. He has also taken upon himself a high-risk challenge. That point was made clearly by the Minister of State in two television programmes which I saw, in which he was asked whether the venture could be described in those terms. In one programme he described it as "risky" and in the other as "high risk ".

But Mr. De Lorean was there before him. As the Minister knows, in the prospects which Mr. De Lorean filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States of America, there is this statement: Only investors who can afford a total loss of the minimum investment of $25,000 should apply. That may not sound a large sum when investing £52.8 million of other people's money, but it is a warning to those who might be tempted into a risky investment. Clearly, Mr. De Lorean felt that it was worth putting those words in his prospectus.

If I had read those words, and if I were one of those responsible for this investment of £52.8 million of other people's money, I should have heard the alarm bells ringing. I should have wanted to be sure that the investment that I was about to make was as copper bottomed as I could make it. Therefore, I hope and pray that that desire for assurance was in the minds of the official of the Department of Commerce, of the Northern Ireland Development Agency and of the Northern Ireland Office when they agreed to place so much money in Mr. De Lorean's hands.

I then find myself asking: if they were seeking that assurance—surely they must have been—why did it take only six weeks for them to decide that this was the basket into which they wished to out so many of their eggs? Indeed, the Belfast Telegraph, only 13 days after Mr. De Lorean first met the British Government, was able to say that a massive new factory was to be built in Belfast. How did it know? Did it guess? Did it pick up a rumour? Or had some little bird flown its way and said "The Government are on to a good thing. This is what is likely to happen "? I do not know. I hope that the Minister will tell the House why only six weeks elapsed before the Government were prepared to hand £52.8 million to Mr. De Lorean.

I then find myself asking: granted that there were only six weeks, would it not have been reasonable in those six weeks to have an independent feasibility study carried out by someone other than Mr. De Lorean into his project? Would not that have been a fairly basic safeguard to adopt before spending so much money? But apparently the Government believed that such feasibility studies as had been carried out were adequate for them to make their decision.

As the Government know that Mr. De Lorean has had this project on the go for nearly five years, that he has been to many other places with it, that the Puerto Rico and Eire Governments fought shy of final involvement—and both were offering considerably less than our Government—why after only six weeks and no independent feasibility study did they feel so sure that they could commit quite so much money?

There is then the worrying factor—the one that I must express—that, having given the money, the Government had to ask the Lotus car company of Norwich to step into the transaction, apparently to do some fairly major engineering on the project and to assist with the creation of the production engineering in Belfast. I understand that Lotus is to make some pre-production prototypes and to test them. Does the involvement of Lotus suggest that the original car, the DMC 12 which Mr. De Lorean put before the British Government, was a sound and viable machine, or does it rather suggest that although the car looked good in engineering terms it did not quite measure up to what was needed and, therefore, a skilled car manufacturer such as Lotus —it could have been another company—was required to get the engineering right and so make the whole project viable?

Such information as I possess is totally unable to give me the sort of answer that I want. The Minister may say that, when negotiating, Mr. De Lorean told them that he would need the help of another car manufacturer. If that is the case, clearly my doubt and concern do not exist. But if it is not the case there must be doubt about the whole project, and it is a sort of doubt which I should have thought the Government would want to get out of the way before committing quite so much money.

Having referred to the unreasonable haste of the Department of Commerce and the Northern Ireland Development Agency in entering into this project, if The Guardian is to be believed, in the teeth of Treasury opposition to it, and bearing in mind comments in the national press which, to say the least—the Minister will know this as well as I do—are sceptical about its success, I wonder why the Government feel that they can wait 30 years to get their money back. No doubt the Minister will be able to tell me on what their plans are based and why the Government are so sure that this is a winner.

I hope and pray that this sports car project will be the success that at least its backers say it will be. I say that for two reasons: first, that the creation of a new industry, albeit a nuts and bolts one, in a Province which has such a high unemployment rate must be to the good of those people, and, secondly, that the sum of £52.8 million has been earmarked for that project which might have been spent on other projects, such as the one referred to by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley).

I feel that I must pose a number of questions to the Minister. I do not know whether he can answer them, but if he cannot perhaps he will do me the courtesy of a written reply. My questions are fairly limited. They are simply to ask how many of the 400 dealers—that was the number that Mr. De Lorean claimed he needed to sell the car in America—have been signed up and how many firm orders have been obtained for the car. Can the Minister say how far the Government's financial assistance will carry the project if sales are slow to materialise? Can he say what percentage of the car's components will be British-made? Is he satisfied that the car will not damage sales prospects for British-made sports cars? Can he tell me who is to undertake the personnel training of the work force? Lastly, is the factory equipment likely to be purchased in the United Kingdom?

If one felt that a large share of this £52.8 million was, in one way or another, to find its way back into British industry, one might feel that the risk was not quite as considerable as it seems at the moment. No doubt the Minister will be able to satisfy me on these matters either tonight or later.

9.35 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

No doubt the Under-Secretary will be present on Wednesday at the opening of the new road between Quarry Corner, Dundonald and Newtownards, in my constituency. Perhaps, instead of return- ing to the delights of his Stormont home, he might take the opportunity of driving from Newtownards to Millisle and from Newtownards to Portaferry, and on other roads in my constituency, so that he may find out for himself, at first hand, the deplorable condition of the roads. If he drove over those roads, I am sure that he would find reason to complain, as do many of my constituents who have to travel on them every day.

Much has been said in this debate about energy supply and the cost of electricity, coal and gas in Northern Ireland compared with the cost in Great Britain. I have often protested before about the financial burden placed on ordinary people in the Province, where the average wage is lower than that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Seemingly it is no use complaining to the Under-Secretary and the other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. They do not have to pay for electricity, coal or gas for heating their Stormont homes. They never see such a bill. Therefore, they cannot understand the hardship that has been endured by so many Ulster people as a consequence of the high price of fuel and lighting.

In addition, the rents of many people in private housing in Northern Ireland are now being pushed up. People on limited incomes, though thrifty enough to save and not be, therefore, a burden on the State, find that their rents have jumped. For instance, in one case the rent has increased from £55 to £320 a year—a colossal jump. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), on behalf of his group, welcomed the rent order when it was debated in Committee, but I hope that he and they now realise the difficulty that rent increases present to many people, particularly retired people.

I know of one case—and it is only one of many—of a lady who is 84 years of age living on her own. The rent of the home in which she has lived for a very long time has been increased from £26 a year to £213 a year, not including rates. She has no bath in her house and there is only an outside lavatory, and little or no work has been done on that small house. No wonder she is pathetically upset about the situation. Her rent has suddenly taken a tremendous leap. This is an unfair and intolerable burden on people in Northern Ireland who have lived virtually all their lives in one rented house.

I now turn to education, Class VIII. The Secretary of State has not yet made an announcement about his plan to encourage 16 to 19-year-olds to stay on at school rather than join the unemployment queue. I have urged this for some time—indeed, before it was suggested in England. Such an announcement was made in England, where the scheme is to be confined to areas of special deprivation and social need. All of Northern Ireland, on the basis of the Government's own reports and those of bodies such as the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the Housing Executive, is an area of special need, and such a scheme should be introduced immediately to help young people between the ages of 16 and 19 in the Province.

The chief officer of the Western education and library board has claimed that the present clothing grant for school uniforms is not large enough. The amount has not changed for six years and is only £15. No one is likely to find a school uniform for sale for that sort of money nowadays, and it is time that the amount was increased. If a school insists on its pupils wearing uniform, the education boards will have to step in with a clothing grant that is reasonable to help those families who cannot afford the cost.

Not enough priority is given to the training of engineers and applied scientists for productive industry in Northern Ireland. The technician-engineer has a vital part to play in the manufacturing and service industries in the Province. We are constantly hearing of the low standard of recruitment to industry in general and to management in particular, yet too few of the many courses available in Northern Ireland are oriented towards manufacturing industry and fewer still are specifically directed towards the needs of the industrial manager. Special financial incentives may have to be offered to attract the best of the fifth-formers and sixth-formers into undergraduate and postgraduate engineering courses of direct relevance to industry.

In Northern Ireland we have a microcosm of British industrial society. We have about 75 companies with over 500 employees, and five of these have over 2,000 employees each. In addition, we have the nationalised industries of elec- tricity and transport, gas undertakings, harbours and airports, and every year a number of young men and women enter those enterprises. But during the present trade depression perhaps these enterprises cannot take on any more than they are doing. But times will change, trade will improve and there is hope, despite the many Jeremiahs and their dismal predictions about the future of Northern Ireland. The ordinary undergraduate grant is not sufficient to attract enough good students into industry-based courses.

What is needed is a higher maintenance element in the ordinary undergraduate grant. Education is a transferred service under the Government of Ireland Act and the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, although after some of the recent antics of Ministers at the Northern Ireland Office Ulster people might be forgiven for thinking that it was the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science in London. Therefore, there is no legal reason why Northern Ireland engineering students should not be given a bigger grant than other students. I should like to hear from the Under-Secretary of State tonight that the Government will help in this way.

I regret that the distinctive contribution which technical colleges could make in towns throughout Northern Ireland—Londonderry, Coleraine, Portadown, Lisburn and Newtownards—seem to have been curtailed out of fear of reducing the number of students at the Ulster polytechnic. Perhaps the contribution to technical education at the advanced level that the technical colleges are well equipped to provide but are not providing could be examined by the committee of inquiry into higher education.

The future demand for trained and well-qualified manpower should be looked at now. Certain figures have been worked out for the demand for teachers for the next 10 years. The time has come when the Government and industry, working together, should be planning the numbers of skilled manpower for Northern Ireland industry for the 1980s. The order refers in Class II to assistance in respect of certain sandwich courses ". That is in the expenditure of the Department of Manpower Services. The sandwich course has been a successful feature of technical training in Northern Ireland. We now have sandwich courses at the more advanced levels as well. The great difficulty today is in finding places in industry for the sandwich course student. Industry in Northern Ireland has responded well to the call for work experience in the job creation programmes and the youth opportunities programmes. However, industry's response to the much more important call for more sandwich course places has been less good. I should like to hear from the Government tonight that they intend to help in this matter so that we prepare the young people to help bring greater prosperity to Ulster in the very near future.

Perhaps the burdens of three years of strict pay policy have reduced the attraction of industry for the technologists and the scientists. Certainly they have been leaving Northern Ireland in considerable numbers in recent years. That is no credit to the present Government or their predecessors, who are also responsible for not keeping these valuable people in the Province.

It is no mere chance that the aircraft firm of Short Bros. and Harland had a poor response to its advertising for 350 technicians recently. Apparently, there are very few to be found in Northern Ireland, yet they used to be there in large numbers. The Lockheed Corporation, in the United States and Canada, took many of them 10 to 15 years ago, when the aircraft industry first started to go downhill in Northern Ireland.

Many of the difficulties can be traced to the heavy burden of taxation that Northern Ireland has to support. The management of industry must be released from being left with too little of the profits that industry makes to invest—I do not mean to go just into its pockets —in the training of the technicians of the future. If Northern Ireland industry is to provide for the future, it needs to have more control of its funds to stimulate experimentation and innovation. Northern Ireland industry must plan now for the creation of wealth for all in Northern Ireland tomorrow.

The South-Eastern education board has decided to build a new headquarters at Newtown Breda. No mention is made in the order of the capital cost. Perhaps the Under-Secretary can assure us that the money will be made available so that this necessary work can go ahead as quickly as possible. It will take some time to design the building. I hope that it will be worthy of the board and of the region. We do not want to see buildings of the low standard that already exist in Northern Ireland, buildings put up in recent years, such as Dundonald House, which is a disgrace, and similar places. We want buildings that can match the attractive and sound buildings that were built when Ulster was first created.

9.50 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Like the lot of the policeman, the lot of the junior Minister to whom it falls to reply to a Northern Ireland (Appropriation) Order debate is not a happy one. I have been reflecting on some of the reasons for this as I have sat during the last two and a half hours watching the Under-Secretary of State under the steady hail of scores of questions, some detailed and some less detailed, of the majority of which he could not have had any notice. Some of them, if I were not absolutely confident of the vigilance of the Chair and of those who advise it, I would have assumed lay outside the scope of the order—

Mr. Speaker

Was this before I returned to the Chair? If it was after, I plead guilty.

Mr. Powell

As a matter of fact, it was before you returned to the Chair, Mr. Speaker. We say, and technically this is correct, that for Northern Ireland the debates on the Appropriation Order are the equivalent of the Consolidated Fund debates for the United Kingdom as a whole. But in fact our debates on Appropriation Orders must serve several more purposes than those served by the debates on the Consolidated Fund.

Our debates are made to serve the purpose of Supply Days, on which individual major subjects can be raised deliberately on the choice of the Opposition and can be debated consecutively and with a considered reply at the end. To some extent also these debates must replace—and the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) and the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) brought out this point—the examination which is given to Estimates in the Sub-Committees of the Expenditure Committee. Also we tend in addition to use the appropriation debates sometimes for asking questions of so detailed a character that they do not differ from Questions put down for Oral or Written Answer.

Is there any way of escaping from the unastisfactory character of these debates, valuable though they are in other respects, and much as we would regret losing the opportunity and the time?

First, we must find a way in which both sides—Government and Back Benchers—can have more notice of the fact that such a debate is to take place on a particular day and of the subjects intended to be covered in any detail. The fault lies partly with hon. Members and partly with the arrangement of the business of the House, which from time to time springs an appropriation debate on Northern Ireland Members at five or six days' notice. Many of the detailed matters which we raise by parliamentary Questions are known to the Minister and his Department two weeks before. In the context of these debates we have the absurdity of questions being fired across the Floor of the House, for which there is no possibility of the Minister obtaining an answer there and then. Although answers are most sedulously given in written form, a written answer by way of letter addressed to an hon. Member is no substitute for an answer given across the House, where it can be heard by all who are interested and can be considered on its merits.

We must also develop the other resources. We must see how Northern Ireland Estimates can be brought within the scope of the Estimates Committee. We must ensure that the accounts which in Great Britain are examined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and thus fall within the purview of the Public Accounts Committee, are in Northern Ireland subjected to the same sort of examination and not to mere private auditors as happens in some cases.

In this debate we have to some extent concentrated upon the major subject of energy supply in Northern Ireland. However, most hon. Members who have taken part have also raised less important matters, and I want to begin by doing the same, although my remarks relate to a subject of which I have given precise notice in advance to the Minister. It concerns primary education and is the matter of the under-fives in the primary schools.

The present state of affairs is unsatisfactory, especially for the small and rural schools which are so preponderant in the Province. I take the example of a small primary school which has 133 children —as a matter of fact, a voluntary maintained school in my constituency. It is a four-teacher school—principal and three teachers; that is to say, on the rule-of-thumb allocation, it is a school which rates a total staff of four. Amongst the 133 children, there are 19 who are under five.

It is the pressure of attempting to give those 19 under-fives a proper introduction to their full school life which is placing an almost intolerable burden upon the limited staff of that school. If the school's intake were larger, it would be possible to follow the general advice put forward by the Department of Education that under-fives should be taken in only in the term at the end of which they will attain the age of five, so that there would be three intakes in the course of the school year. But in the school of which I am thinking, which is a quite normal case, that would result in an intake of five, nine and five respectively in the three terms. Clearly, no useful work can be done with a class which is recruited over three terms in those proportions. An attempt was made to arrange a biannual entry; but—I understand that the Department's inspectors agreed with this—even that proved to be unsatisfactory.

So we have to attempt to do what is really the work of five teachers with only four. Incidentally., I make no complaint of the necessity for the Department of Education to maintain the due ratio between staff and the number of pupils, though of course it applies that ratio only to the number of pupils over compulsory school age; that is, over five.

I raised this case, as I have done others, with the noble Lord the Minister and was glad to learn that at any rate the problem had been recognised and that there was to be a new policy. In a letter to me dated 11th October, he said: a policy statement will very shortly be published outlining the Government's new policy and objectives in providing services for the under-fives, including the policy of 4-year-olds at primary schools. That is precisely the matter that I am bringing before the House. He continued: Following publication, the Department will be having further discussions with the school authorities to determine the best way forward in meeting the new objectives…I would certainly expect some improvement for the 1979–80 school year. I was gratified to learn that there was to be a new deal for the under-fives in the primary schools, but I was still in the dark as to what it was.

So I made further inquiries and engaged in further correspondence, with only this result—and I quote from a letter of 30th November from Lord Melchett, which states: I can only repeat that the teaching posts were allocated earlier this year "— that is, the four teachers allocated to that school— in the light of the then existing policy on 4-year-olds. Thus one policy has gone, but another has not yet come and this school and others are still coping with the consequences of a policy already superseded by a new policy which we do not yet know.

I gave the Under-Secretary of State notice of the precise point in which I was interested. If a policy statement was shortly to be issued on 11th October, we should be seeing it before long, if not already. If there is to be relief for schools coping with this problem by next September, and if there have to be discussions about detailed application in the meantime, it is high time that this policy was promulgated. It is a pity that it has not been promulgated already.

I understand that it will not be possible in the first school year to expand the teacher ratio sufficiently to cope under the new policy as well as should be possible subsequently, but we should be making a beginning. Teachers in the school that I have in mind, and others who are in like circumstances, should know by now what is to be their future and the precise manner in which they can expect to do more than at present for the school entry which will pass through their hands.

I turn to the main topic in the debate for most Northern Ireland Members, namely, the supply of energy in Northern Ireland, upon the price and availability of which, literally, everything else depends. The tripod which we have erected has three legs—gas, which was dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker), coal, which was the principal subject of the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig), and electricity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Armagh voiced what is by now not merely a genuine but a crying complaint. The future of the gas industry in Northern Ireland has been about to be the subject of a decisive statement for nearly two years. Over and over again it has seemed to us that the Government had been about to reach a conclusion, but always that prospect has receded into the indefinite distance. We are still waiting to know whether the gas industry in Northern Ireland, which is almost expiring in obsolete conditions, is to die altogether or is to have the only vital future which is possible for it—a future like that of the gas industry of Great Britain, based on natural gas.

The hon. Member for Harborough made an interesting intervention which drew attention to the possibility that there might be proved sources of natural gas in the Irish Sea. Indeed, if that were the case natural gas would become even more the source of choice for the Northern Ireland gas industry. But the Government cannot go on waiting for something to turn up. They cannot go on waiting for all the various factors to be cleared. They never will be cleared. Constantly, new possibilities will emerge. A decision in principle on the future of the Northern Ireland gas industry cannot be put off until all is certain, for that date would be the Greek calends. We need a connection between the natural gas supply which is enjoyed in Great Britain and the gas industry in Northern Ireland. There is no other feasible solution except a pitiful pauperdom whereby the gas concerns of Northern Ireland—I think there are 13 of them, one in my constituency, in Newry —limp on from year to year in miserable conditions in which they hopelessly attempt to edge up the prices while money to make up their losses is doled out to them by the central Government. Et simply cannot go on: it has already gone on for too long.

There is no reason why the future of the gas industry in Northern Ireland should be regarded as having a serious impact upon the importance of coal as a source of energy in the Province. Hon. Members not acquainted with Northern Ireland who heard the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East must have been surprised to learn how important coal still is in the economy, and particularly the domestic economy, of the Province. They must have been surprised even more to learn that, even at the prices he quoted, coal is still domestically the cheapest source of energy for heating and cooking. In fact, an operation is now being undertaken by the Housing Executive to take out the all-electric supply in many new estates and replace it with solid fuel appliances.

This winter, many old people, many retired pensioners living in one-person houses erected by the Housing Executive and by its immediate predecessors in the last five years, will suffer severe hardships from cold because they are unable to face the electricity bills which represent their only sources of energy for heat and cooking as well as for light.

This is a dramatic illustration of the importance of coal for Northern Ireland, which will continue far into the future. Hon. Members on the Government Benches—perhaps we may expect one day to see such an hon. Member on this side of the House representing coal mining constituents; it could happen if prospecting in Mid-Ulster turns up trumps—have no reason whatever to begrudge us access for our gas industry to natural gas on the ground that it would damage our demand for coal. Our demand for coal will be stable and rising for many years to come. They need have no fear.

Mr. English

If the right hon. Gentleman means literally that side of the House, I fear that temporarily the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Smith) sits on that side.

Mr. Powell

Perhaps I was thinking of Northern Ireland Members on the one side and supporters of the Government on the other. I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his correction.

One point which my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East made has, I think, been overlooked, and I commend it to the Government for careful examination. It concerns a scheme under which special assistance with fuel costs is provided every year for people on limited means. It applied first to electricity and was then extended to gas, but it does not extend to solid fuel. I can understand that on the mainland of Great Britain this is perhaps an acceptable anomaly. It is an indefensible anomaly when applied to Northern Ireland. When we consider that much the largest number of people in those age and income groups in Northern Ireland are dependent on solid fuel heating, it is indefensible that those in identical circumstances, who are supplied with gas and electricity, receive substantial assistance during the winter quarter while the majority receive none.

The third leg of the stool, the electricity industry, has not so far been emphasised in this debate, and it falls primarily to me to say something about that. In the last few days we have received the report of the Northern Ireland Electricity Consumers Council for the year ended 31st March. It mentions that a total of £376 million was involved in a Government package which has made possible substantial reductions in the price at which electricity is supplied in the Province. In economic terms that is not quite so much as may appear, since £250 million of that is the writing off of borrowings and another £26 million is the elimination of an accumulated deficit on current account, so that, while an admirable bookkeeping transaction, this does not represent any addition to available resources.

However, the remaining £100 million will, over the five years, be applied to the reduction of tariffs in Northern Ireland. For industrial purposes the electricity tariffs will place Northern Ireland industry and commerce roughly on a competitive basis with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is illustrated in a most interesting manner in the third appendix to the report, which I hope many hon. Members will read. Unfortunately, the same is not true of domestic supply. The domestic consumer in Northern Ireland—with his lower average income, as is often stressed—is still at a great disadvantage compared with the electricity consumer on the mainland.

There is no long-term answer here to the demand for fair and equitable conditions as between Northern Ireland and Great Britain other than physical connection. After all, it is upon the physical link that the equalisation of charges, or at any rate near-equalisation of charges, in Great Britain depends. The argument that we ought to be on fair terms in Northern Ireland carries with it the claim—I might say the demand—for a linkage between electricity in Northern Ireland and electricity in Great Britain.

I was delighted at the beginning of last week during energy Questions that, when I put this point to the Minister of State, he gave me a most forthcoming answer which I should like to put on the record. I asked him, on a Question related to electricity connection across "the Channel ", whether that included the North Channel. The right hon. Gentleman replied I expected the right hon. Gentleman to ask me that supplementary question. That is a useful lead-in, because one knows that he was not giving his reply this time off the cuff but that it represents settled Government policy. He continued: As I said on the last occasion when this matter arose, we are looking favourably at such a proposal ". Given the reticence which is commonly enjoined upon Ministers—and particularly upon junior Ministers—when no final decision has been obtained, if the Minister of State was willing to tell me that the Government were "looking favourably" at a proposal for a grid link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, I think we may conclude that we are on our way. Nor was I discouraged by his concluding sentence: Unfortunately, we have not got quite as far on that matter as we have on the matter that is before us in this Question."—[Official Report, 4th December 1978; Vol. 959, c. 1021.] As we had just been told that the link with France will come into operation in stages, the first in 1982 and the second in 1983, I think that we may look forward, by the middle of the 1980s, to the realisation of the only rational arrangement—namely, the embodiment of Northern Ireland in what will then be the United Kingdom electricity grid.

This will not be a one-way benefit. We have in Northern Ireland a new power station, which is not yet completed, which at present is fuelled for the most part by oil, although that could, if necessary, be adjusted. The station will have a capacity much beyond anything likely to be demanded in the foreseeable future by Northern Ireland. It would be a valuable asset to the electricity supply of the United Kingdom as a whole, if one could have on an adequate scale a two-way traffic, as it were, between generation in Northern Ireland and consumption in Great Britain, and vice versa.

I am not saying that the reference made by my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) to the sale of electricity to the Republic is unimportant. But I believe that our big sale should be in Great Britain. Our prospect of equitable conditions and of realising in this respect, as we are realising in others, our birthright as part of the United Kingdom, depends upon that link.

It is a little too much to hope that the Minister will be able to make the announcement tonight. However, we should be able to look forward to an early announcement which will give us the assurance of that electrical link, which, I believe, will be followed by a gas link, between the energy consumption in the Province and that in the United Kingdom.

So the same theme runs through this debate from the procedural observations with which I began to my conclusion on the subject of energy. It is to the full realisation of its status as an integral part of the United Kingdom that Ulster looks both for fair treatment and for prosperity.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

When this draft Appropriation Order was first tabled for debate, many economic experts were predicting that the Government of the Irish Republic would have joined the European monetary system at last week's Brussels meeting of Heads of State of the EEC. The same experts were predicting that the United Kingdom would stay outside. As we all know, Mr. Lynch's Government have decided, for the moment, not to join.

This is not the time to discuss the theoretical long-term impact of EMS, although I think that it might be in order for discussion under class II of the Ministry of Commerce Vote. However, this saga is not yet finished. The discussions continue, and we must still consider the practical implications of a split between sterling and the Irish pound.

There can be no doubt that the administrative impact on firms in Northern Ireland undertaking substantial trade with the Republic could be considerable. I have taken the opportunity to study a paper prepared by Mr. Poldermans, of the Investment Bank of Ireland, which is being circulated as widely as possible by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I wish to quote from one of its 14 complex paragraphs outlining the administrative problems which arise in Northern Ireland when and if there is a currency divorce between North and South.

Mr. Poldermans tells firms: All existing invoices, confirmation of order forms, tender bids, receipt books, quotations, terms of trade, price lists, etc. should be checked for references to currency. Clearly, the administrative problems are immense. The Northern Ireland chamber of commerce has suggested that the Government should institute a study of the implications of a possible currency split. It is suggested that Mr. T. S. Wood, who recently advised the Expenditure Committee on the EMS, might well be a suitable expert to undertake that study.

Fortunately, however, that is a problem for the future. The main economic problem facing Northern Ireland today has been summed up briefly and bluntly in the first report of the Northern Ireland Economic Council: Northern Ireland remains heavily dependent upon industries which are more likely to contract than to expand their workforce "— which means textiles and shipbuilding, which means Harland and Wolff.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) pointed out that Harland and Wolff had not produced its report and accounts for last year. I think that I can understand the reason. It is difficult for the company to produce a sensible report and accounts while there is still a dispute about payment for the two great tankers which are now lying in Loch Striven while the Coastal States Gas Corporation of the United States refuses to accept them. Plainly, that state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue for much longer, and I hope to hear from the Minister how soon one may expect the dispute to be resolved and how soon Harland and Wolff will be able to produce its accounts, since, clearly, this is a matter of fundamental importance.

Meanwhile, I entirely support the plea put by my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) when he urged that Harland and Wolff should receive some defence contracts. In particular, he drew attention to the fact that Harland and Wolff has an excellent refit capability which, alas, is grossly underused. One of the reasons for the underuse of that refit capacity lies in the fact that foreign crews and ship owners have been frightened away by the reports of terrorist outrages. How appropriate, then, it would be if HMS "Kent" and HMS "Fearless ", both built at Harland and Wolff, should now be refitted there.

There is another reason why the Ministry of Defence should be particularly generous in its approach to Harland and Wolff. In the last defence cuts but three—it may have been the last but four—the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland acquiesced in the removal of five defence establishments and some 2,000 defence jobs.

In a remarkable article on 18th June 1978 The Sunday Times suggested that the removal of those 2,000 jobs was part of an under-cover deal with the IRA and that that was a signal given to the men who were then negotiating with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that Britain intended in the long term to withdraw. I do not repeat the allegations made by The Sunday Times. However, Northern Ireland has not done well from the Ministry of Defence as regards civilian jobs. Therefore, I hope that it can look leniently at the refitting of the two warships at Harland and Wolff.

As every hon. Member from Northern Ireland has done, I wish to refer to the problems created for Northern Ireland consumers and Northern Ireland industry by the high cost of energy. As the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) has said, gas is three times as expensive in Northern Ireland as on the mainland. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) has reminded us that electricity is substantially more expensive for non-industrial and non-commercial consumers in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The whole tone of the debate and the whole tone of the report on energy policy produced by the Northern Ireland Economic Council are avowedly integrationist. They look towards the closest physical and financial links with the electricity and gas industries in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I find it difficult not to sympathise with the arguments that have been deployed so ably by right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland. I personally find them exceptionally convincing. On the other hand, there is some argument on costs. The hon. Member for Armagh suggested a cost of £50 million for the undersea pipeline and the other conversions. As the hon. Gentleman noted, and as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) noted, that is a sum that is somewhat less than that which the Government are committing to the high-risk project of the De Lorean sports car. There are, alas, other estimates of the total cost.

Two years ago, the British Gas Corporation made a study of the costs. Its estimate of the cost of connecting the pipeline and carrying out the conversions that would be necessary amounted to no less than £162 million. As I understand it, that figure has been confirmed to a friend of mine today by the British Gas Corporation.

There needs to be further clarification of the costs. I hope that the Minister will clarify the issue soon. There is an enormous disparity between the Northern Ireland Economic Council, which is a responsible body, which estimates £40 million plus conversion costs, and the British Gas Corporation, which is also a responsible body, which estimates £162 million in capital costs and support costs. I hope that the Minister will soon be able to give us some clarification of the figures produced by at least semi-official bodies.

Meanwhile there seems to be less criticism of the Northern Ireland Economic Council's estimate of £60 million for the cost of a physical link with the British electricity grid system. I note that Ministers seem to show greater enthusiasm for that project—I am sure that this will appeal to the right hon. Member for Down, South—because there seems to be a good prospect of getting a substantial EEC grant for it. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us tonight—or in correspondence if telling us is difficult—whether any preliminary discussions have taken place with the EEC in Brussels about the size, terms and timing of a grant for both the electricity connection and the gas pipeline. Clearly, until the Government have made up their mind about energy policy for Northern Ireland, it will be difficult for the economic strategy group—incidentally, we would like to know who is on the economic strategy group and whether it is to be part of the Northern Ireland Economic Council—to undertake its work on the economic plan.

Apart from the problem of depression in shipbuilding and the economic problems caused by the high cost of fuel, we have to face the economic problems created by the IRA. I have little doubt that the timing of the last bomb attacks in Northern Ireland was provoked by the Secretary of State's visit to America in search of investment. I have no doubt that IRA leaders believe that a prosperous Northern Ireland would be more of a barrier to revolution than a poor Northern Ireland.

Sadly, I note that the Northern Ireland Economic Council has had to draw attention to the fact that, for a number of years, managers have been reluctant to come to Northern Ireland. That is particularly true of firms using advanced technology of the kind specifically referred to by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig). The administrative skills of the people of Ulster are rightly famous, but no province of 1½ million people can be expected to provide management skills across the whole technological board, however good its educational system still may be.

The morale of Northern Ireland management still remains staggeringly high in the face of terrorist attacks and economic problems. I well remember meeting a group of Northern Ireland managers just after the IRA had carried out a series of attacks on senior managers specifically designed to disrupt industry. I was immensely impressed by their evident unflappability in the face of what then seemed to be a continuing threat. Last Wednesday, this House had an opportunity to say "Thank you" to the security forces in Northern Ireland. Tonight we have a chance to say "Thank you" to the responsible trade union leaders and to the managers who have kept the Northern Ireland economy afloat in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Carter

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) sympathised with me in my task of replying to the debate, which is something of a patchwork quilt affair. Quite apart from the legitimate matters which could be, and have been, raised, a few others have been lobbed into the arena, from rural planning to the European monetary system controversy. I do not quite know how they got in, but in Northern Ireland debates, whatever the subject, these things have a tendency to crop up.

First, in response to the right hon. Gentleman's interjection in my opening speech, I must say that he is quite right—the repeal is due to the fact that those moneys have been disposed of.

The debate concentrated itself into three principal areas, and I shall deal with those before returning to some of the minor points. I know that most hon. Members will not consider them minor points, but they will have to be in regard to my contribution. Where I cannot reply fully, or not at all, I or my noble and right hon. Friends will reply by letter.

The principal subject was energy. I have listened with great interest to what hon. Members have said about the energy needs of the Province. I assure them that their speeches will be read with great care by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State and will be taken fully into account along with the many other representations that have been made on this subject from all concerned. Hon. Members will know that an urgent review is now taking place within the Government of Northern Ireland's energy needs as a whole and that my right hon. Friend hopes to make known the results of that review as soon as possible in the new year.

It is obvious from the very different representations that the Government have received from different quarters that to decide how best to meet Northern Ireland's energy needs is no simple matter. It bears repeating that a decision about one fuel industry has implication for all the others. For example, when considering the proposal that natural gas should be supplied to Northern Ireland through a pipeline from Scotland, the Government cannot simply assess the costs and weigh them against other claims on resources, or consider whether this would be the best way from a national point of view of using natural gas. That would be difficult enough. But the Government must also look at the likely consequences for other energy industries in the Province.

In 1977, gas accounted for only per cent. of heat supplied to industry in Northern Ireland and under 5 per cent. of the domestic energy market, and to increase this market share significantly by introducing natural gas could be achieved only at the expense of other fuels.

For example, in 1977 electricity supplied about 11 per cent. of industrial and 16 per cent. of domestic needs. The capacity of the Northern Ireland electricity service is already expected to be substantially in excess of demand for many years and hon. Members will be aware that the service requires very considerable financial support from the Government to enable it to sell electricity at its current tariffs. A substantial loss of its market share to natural gas would increase the excess of electricity capacity over demand and increase the financial support that the electricity service requires.

Solid fuels, mainly oil, supplied as much as 62 per cent. of the domestic energy market last year. As a number of hon. Members and others have insisted over the past few months, the Government must take account of the likely effects of introducing natural gas on the financial position of the coal trade and on the 1,500 jobs involved in it in Northern Ireland.

I have noted what hon. Members have said about domestic electricity tariffs in Northern Ireland. These are on average about 15 per cent. higher than the average in Great Britain, although it is worth noting that there are significant variations within Great Britain, too. The Government are looking at the prices of all fuels as part of their wider review of energy needs. As I have indicated, the finances of the NIES, and, therefore, its prices, are subject to what the Government decide about the future of gas and about the best allocation of the available public resources among the different fuel industries in the Province. There would clearly be disadvantages in subsidising one fuel industry to compete with another subsidised fuel industry in the same, limited market. It would be wrong to take action on any one aspect before we have decided on our overall approach. As I have said. the Government will make their views on this known as soon as possible.

The Government are acutely conscious of the problems caused in Northern Ireland, where poverty is more widespread than in the rest of the United Kingdom, by the higher prices of some fuels. They appreciate the desire of hon. Members and of the gas industry and others in Northern Ireland for an early decision on the future of the gas industry and other aspects of energy policy. But the Government are determined to look at the whole energy picture in the Province, not just part of it, and to make quite sure that our decisions for the future are based on the most thorough consideration of all the relevant factors. I should like to assure hon. Members again that the views they have expressed today will be taken fully into account by the Government as those decisions are taken.

Another subject that was referred to by hon. Members in a variety of ways was that of commercial and industrial activity in the Province. To maintain the competitiveness of Northern Ireland's incentives compared with those of its competitors, the Department of Commerce introduced significant improvements in its package of selective financial assistance on 1st August 1977. These included an increase in the maximum rate of capital grant on buildings, machinery and equipment from 40 per cent. to 50 per cent., an increase in the period for rent-free occupation of Government factories from three to five years, and the raising of the maximum period for the highest level of interest relief grant from two to three years.

Other Government initiatives taken to stimulate industrial development include measures to enable the Northern Ireland electricity service to reduce its industrial and commercial tariffs to bring them into line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom, and a new scheme of grants towards the cost of research and development projects. This current year has seen a step up in the campaign to re-establish Northern Ireland as an acceptable location for mobile international investment. The Department's overseas industrial promotion campaign has been significantly expanded with additional manpower, increased publicity, increased encouragement to inward investment missions and overseas promotional tours by Ministers

The recent announcements that four major American companies—AVX Corporation, General Motors, the De Lorean company and Coronary Care Systems—propose to set up new plants in Northern Ireland which will provide employment for approximately 3,500 workers, together with the earlier news that the Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Company (GB) Limited is establishing a new technical centre at Craigavon to carry out research and development for its general industrial products on a world-wide basis, are seen as evidence of the progress being made in the Department's battle to secure new inward investment.

During the first 11 months of 1978, LEDU has promoted more than 1,000 jobs in Northern Ireland, bringing the total number of jobs promoted by LEDU since its formation in 1971 to over 8,000. LEDU has shown itself to be attuned to the needs of small industry in Northern Ireland and has a proven track record. After its initial emphasis towards the promotion of employment in non-urban areas, LEDU has widened its attention to the scope for employment provision in Belfast. New staff have recently been appointed and should add considerably to LEDU's operational strength in the inner city.

The Northern Ireland Development Agency has now been in existence for over two years. In its first year of operation, a substantial part of its time was occupied in dealing with the problems of firms inherited from the former Northern Ireland Finance Corporation.

These firms have now been vested in the Department of Commerce, thereby leaving the agency free to consolidate its functions of strengthening and improving Northern Ireland industry.

Over the past year, the agency has developed a wide range of activities including the creation of a management bank to improve management expertise in Northern Ireland and the establishment of a marketing service to assist Northern Ireland companies to improve their marketing techniques. The agency is also developing its role of identifying products which could be suitable for manufacture in Northern Ireland, either through the promotion of joint venture arrangements between external companies and locally-based companies or the agency itself, or through the establishment of State industries by the agency in areas of high unemployment.

One of the companies I have mentioned, recently announced as entering Northern Ireland, is the De Lorean company. I shall reply in as much detail as I can, but if I do not cover all the points that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) raised, which were of a rather technical nature, perhaps he will permit me to respond by letter.

Agreement was reached with this company for the establishment of a car assembly plant at Dunmurry, located on the outskirts of West Belfast. The assistance which is being provided, as stated in response to a Question from the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) on 9th November, is £28.5 million as grants towards the cost of factory construction, plant, machinery and equipment, and towards initial operating costs, together with the loan capital of £6.75 million from the Department of Commerce and 17.75 million of equity capital from the Northern Ireland Development Agency. The plant, when in full production, will employ 2,000 workers.

Before the agreement to provide this assistance was made, very careful evaluation of the project was carried out by officials of the Department of Commerce and the Northern Ireland Development Agency, who had available to them a very full analysis of the entire project which had been carried out by two highly reputable firms of business consultants and a comprehensive market survey carried out by specialist marketing consultants. A further report was also directly commissioned by the Department of Commerce.

On the basis of this evalution, the Government decided that the project merited a high level of support. The Government have been criticised for offering assistance to what has been termed a high-risk venture. On the basis of their evaluation of the project, the Government do not accept that description. As with all commercial ventures, there are risks of failure, but these are judged acceptable when measured up against the potentially high benefits of the enterprise.

The location of the De Lorean project is in an area which suffers from extremely high unemployment. Social surveys in the West Belfast area have indicated that about 30 per cent. of male adults and an even higher percentage of young people are unemployed. The area also suffers from an extremely high level of social need. Currently, site works are nearing completion at Dunmurry. The main building contracts will be awarded early in the new year, with final completion dates early in 1980, when production of the car will commence. Virtually all the top tier of management has been recruited, and manpower and training plans are being drawn up.

The De Lorean car is a gull wing, two-passenger sports car, which will have advanced styling and safety features and good fuel economy. In order to provide corrosion resistance, the underbody will be constructed from moulded fibre-glass reinforced plastic compounds, and the outer skin of the car will be made of brushed stainless steel.

To date, two prototypes of the car have been built in the United States, and a recent agreement has been concluded for the further research and development work which is necesary to bring the car to the production line to be carried out by Lotus Cars Limited of Norwich.

The hon. Members for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) and Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) mentioned defence contracts for Harland and Wolff. That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, and I shall make sure that their observations are drawn to his attention.

The hon. Member for Abingdon referred to the awaited economic plan. We hope to see it published some time in the new year, when it will be the subject of debate—no doubt in the House as well as outside. The hon. Gentleman was concerned about job creation. I hope that some of what I have said about our commercial and industrial activities will have convinced the hon. Gentleman that we are determined to keep up the pressure on the jobs front.

One of the statistics that appealed to me when I was reading through my brief was the fact that, surprisingly, against the rather gloomy background of employment and unemployment in Northern Ireland, 10 per cent. more people are employed in 1978 compared with 1971. This is similar to the picture in the rest of the United Kingdom, but the harsh truth is that we are not running fast enough. We are not even managing to stand still.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the advantages that the Republic of Ireland might enjoy through the use of a tax holiday system. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our package in Northern Ireland is more attractive in total than anything the Republic can offer.

Mr. Neave

The hon. Gentleman means the August 1977 package, does he?

Mr. Carter

Yes. I am talking of the situation as of this moment. All our recent improvements in capital grants and various forms of rent relief, for example. add up economically—however one produces the sum at the end of the day—to be globally more beneficial than anything the Republic can offer.

The hon. Gentleman went on to refer to certain education matters. I answer in this House for my noble Friend. I can only stress, as I always do at Question Time, that we are seeking to go about the whole process of change on a voluntary basis. I hope that the day is not too far away when the hon. Gentleman will accept that. There is no attempt to use undue coercion. We seek to achieve this transition, which is in the best interests of the vast majority of students in Northern Ireland at the secondary stage, by voluntary means.

It is not a question of timing: we want to get the right result, and if it takes five years to achieve it, that is a price we feel worth paying if we can carry the whole community with us.

A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), raised the subject of education. Judging by comments in this debate and others in which I have taken part, together with the erroneous questions that are asked at Question Time, I think that it might be useful if we sent a progress report to all hon. Members, letting them know of the present state of play on the whole process of transition. I shall mention that to my noble Friend.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I apologise for having been absent for much of the debate, owing to an inescapable commitment.

As the Minister knows, I have studied this question to some extent. I was interested that he said "if we can carry the whole community with us." Those were very important words. Does he mean that he wants to enlist the support of the whole community before proceeding in the direction of changing the system of secondary education?

Mr. Carter

It may surprise the hon. Gentleman, but the vast majority of people agree with us. Clearly, we shall not wait for 100 per cent. support. By and large, at present the teachers' organisations and parents' organisations support us. We do not have the answer completely right yet, but we are seeking to find it.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Dunlop) and the hon. Member for Antrim, North raised the question of small hospitals. I cannot go into this subject in great depth tonight. It is a subject of continuing controversy. My noble Friend is prepared to listen to objections and views, and I have no doubt that if a delegation is sent to meet the Secretary of State, he will be prepared to see it.

Mr. McCusker

The Minister will appreciate that in both of these matters—education and hospitals—there is a difference between consultations with boards that are not elected and are riot responsible to anyone and consultations with elected representatives. I suggest that more heed should be paid to elected representatives, whether they are councillors or Members of Parliament.

Mr. Carter

I am always prepared to meet Members of Parliament and councillors and listen to their views. But one must weigh those views against other considerations. I shall pass the hon. Member's comments on to my noble Friend.

The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) raised, among many points bound up with energy, the publication of NIDA statistics and accounts. I am sure that there is no attempt to be secretive. If we can improve the quality of the accounts, we shall try to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) raised the problems associated with a debate of this kind which runs hot on the heels of a similar debate last week. I shall pass on his views to the Secretary of State, but he must realise that Northern Ireland business is at present debated in a unique way, and no one can be entirely happy with it. We seek to improve it.

I was unhappy to hear the hon. Member for Antrim, North advising people to break the law on the question of electricity bills. We have enough trouble on our hands in the Province as it is without Members of Parliament stalking around Northern Ireland and adding to it. The hon. Member referred to the question of non-payment of bills, which desperately concerns us all. He should know that we are now cutting off people at the rate of 400 a month. Therefore, it is mischievous of him to accuse the Government of not being prepared to take action. We are taking action, and I would hope that we would carry every Northern Ireland Member with us in attempting to deal with this problem in a constitutional way. It is outrageous of the hon. Member to urge people to break the law. I hope that he will reconsider.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the Minister saying that his Department is asking people to pay money that they do not owe? If a person wants to thieve from me, I shall resist that attempt. This payment is not due and the Government are asking people to pay something for which they are not liable.

Mr. Carter

The hon. Member is trying to crawl away from the mess he has created. He did quote one constituency case in which someone might have been given a bill inadvertently that he should not have received. That sort of thing happens in all our constituencies. The general point that the hon. Member made about people not paying is disgraceful.

Rev. Ian Paisley

It is thieving.

Mr. Carter

The hon. Member asked also about the members of the curriculum board. I shall write him a letter giving the information that he seeks.

The hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), in a rather cool and considered contribution, for a change, dealt with the difficulty that we are experiencing in Northern Ireland of not being able to obtain the number of professional and skilled people whom we need to administer and run the community. It is a problem which concerns both private industry and public departments. For once, the hon. Gentleman hit the nail very firmly on the head. We in Government are extremely concerned about our inability to attract into Northern Ireland and to generate within Northern Ireland professional and managerial people of the right quality and quantity.

The right hon. Member for Down, South asked about the under-fives. The Government's concern about the level of educational and social welfare for the under-fives in Northern Ireland is reflected in their policy document "Day Care and Education for the Under-fives in Northern Ireland." It has now been published. The document sets out a number of proposals as part of a new approach to providing services for the under-fives evolved after widespread consultation with all the relevant interests in Northern Ireland.

On the education front, the Government have reaffirmed their policy to provide nursery education for all those children whose parents wish them to receive it.

The initial programme will more than double the number of places in nursery schools and classes in the next five years, and school authorities will be encouraged to convert spare accommodation in primary schools for nursery education. This programme of positive action is required immediately in Northern Ireland, where existing provision falls below the average for the rest of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Member also asked about four-year-olds in primary schools, about which he has been corresponding with my noble Friend. There has always been a very high proportion of four-year-olds in primary schools in Northern Ireland—at present, about 70 per cent. of this age group. When one takes account of this, together with nursery places available, one sees that the overall education provision for three and four-year-olds in Northern Ireland already compares favourably with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Government recognise that the facilities, staffing and activities provided for four-year-olds in primary schools should be broadly similar to those available in nursery schools. These are matters which will be discussed in detail with the education and library boards and they are dealt with specifically in the policy document.

Mr. Powell

Does that mean that four-year-olds in primary schools will in future be taken into account in assessing the staffing needs of those schools?

Mr. Carter

I thought that I said we would seek to provide in those schools where we were catering for three and four-year-olds facilities which would be provided in nursery schools. I assume "facilities" to mean staffing, too. However, I or my noble Friend will write to the right hon. Member confirming or denying that.

The right hon. Member also asked about gas. To some extent, I dealt with that in that part of my remarks concerning energy. I thought that it was a bit unfair—even uncharitable—of him to say that we had not done very much about gas. In fact, we have written off £3 million of debt this year to keep the supply going. Although we might be said to be marking time, those people who currently are receiving gas have been assured of a continuing supply until a final decision is made.

The right hon. Member referred to the policy that I have been promoting in the area of public housing of converting houses away from electricity and gas to coal. The right hon. Member is very much in favour of that, as are people generally in Northern Ireland. Of course, people are in favour of natural gas as well. In a sense, I suppose that life is a matter of constant conflict. We are in some difficulty in Northern Ireland because people demand that which, from a Government view, has onerous public expenditure consequences.

Almost every hon. Member on the Opposition side has, at some time, urged the Government to cut public expenditure throughout the United Kingdom. I have no doubt that the right hon. Member for Down, South, who has taken a keen interest in these matters, would want us always to be mindful of public expenditure consequences.

The hon. Member praised managers to entice me into a discussion on the European monetary system. I shall not be tempted. He also referred to tankers which are at present the subject of arbitration. I cannot go further on that at present.

The hon. Member also asked about the Royal Navy. He asked why it did not use the facilities in the Harland and Wolff dockyard. I shall draw that matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Defence.

The hon. Member praised managers for keeping the Province going. I join with him in that, but equally the common man and woman in Northern Ireland should be praised for maintaining, in the face of appalling violence and destruction, a fairly civilised and fairly stable society—contrary to what people outside might think. I hope that this order will make a further contribution to stability in Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Appropriation (No. 4) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 23rd November, be approved.