HC Deb 11 December 1979 vol 975 cc1209-39 10.20 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May we have guidance on whether the appropriation order can last for one and a half hours or three hours?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)

The order can last for one and a half hours from now.

10.21 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Hugh Rossi)

I beg to move, That the draft Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 8 November, be approved. This order will be made under paragraph 1 of schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members, in accordance with our usual practice in these matters, have been kind enough to give me warning of the major topics that they wish to raise during the debate. What I propose to do, with the leave of the House, is to make some general observations relevant to these topics before I come to specific items in the appropriation order, leaving it to my ministerial colleagues to intervene on matters of detail within their areas of responsibility.

The Government fully recognise the special needs and circumstances of the Province. In our election manifesto we acknowledged that Northern Ireland industry would continue to require Government support. That commitment was ratified in July when, following the statement that the geographical extent of the assisted areas and levels of assistance available in Great Britain were being reduced, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced that he had no plans to change the level or forms of assistance in Northern Ireland.

The package currently on offer in Northern Ireland remains highly attractive and compares favourably with what is on offer elsewhere. It is carefully designed to lead to the creation of as many new jobs as possible, and we have recently had a number of successes in attracting new companies to Northern Ireland, for example, American Monitor International Limited with 250 jobs and the National Supply Company (UK) with 150 jobs.

While attempting to attract overseas capital to Northern Ireland, we also recognise the need to encourage local firms to invest and expand. I therefore take this opportunity to remove a misconception. Locally generated projects are, and will continue to be, backed every bit as generously as those originating from outside. Recently two local companies demonstrated their confidence in the Province's future by expanding their operations. The Burlington (Savile Row) Shirts Limited and Cooneen Knitwear Company Limited have both announced 200 extra jobs. It is particularly encouraging that these additional employment opportunities are in areas of high unemployment.

We are still not complacent with our performance in that area and have therefore initiated reviews of both the industrial development incentives and the institutional framework within which they are administered. These reviews are now complete and the reports have beers submitted to Ministers. They are presently receiving consideration and it is hoped that they will provide a sound basis for future decisions about the handling of industrial development in the most efficient and cost-effective way.

It is part of our policy that the Government should not hold assets which can be disposed of profitably to the private sector, thus releasing resources for other purposes. At the moment, an internal examination is being conducted of the land and property holdings of all Northern Ireland Departments to ascertain what is surplus to current needs and may therefore be sold off. One immediate outcome of this review relates to the premises at Donegall Square North, Belfast, which are currently used by the Department of the Environment's water service. Although it has historic links with water administration, this building is not being used economically for office purposes and it occupies a prime site of great commercial importance in the city shopping area. As soon as other suitable accommodation for the staff now working in the building has been identified, offers will be invited for its purchase for commercial use. Any such use would, however, have to be fully compatible with its status as a listed building of architectural and historic merit.

This policy is also consistent with our proposals for the sale of Housing Executive houses. We intend to offer Northern Ireland tenants the same opportunities as those in Great Britain to buy their own homes. Discounts of up to 50 per cent. of current market value will be available to long-standing tenants. We hope that this policy will ease the burden on the Housing Executive, which will continue to make a major contribution to Northern Ireland's housing needs, particularly in inner Belfast, where considerable new building in redevelopment areas will be required.

My preceding remarks illustrate our concern with the economic and social situation in Northern Ireland and our intention to ensure that the available funds are used to the best effect. But it is also important to remember that Governments also act as agents for change in ways which make a marginal claim on resources but which may significantly affect people's lives by altering the framework of law within which their activities are conducted. I regard this as a very important part of the Government's task, and I should like to mention briefly three areas where changes in the law are being contemplated or are already being actively promoted.

The first concerns the law on liquor licensing in Northern Ireland. As many right hon. and hon. Members will know, an interdepartmental review body has been looking at this complicated subject. It has presented its report and I am impressed by the thoroughness with which the body has discharged the remit given to it. I hope that the report will be published before Christmas. I would stress that the Government are in no way committed to accepting the recommendations in the report but will be seeking the views both of right hon. and hon. Members and of the general public who are concerned about this important subject.

The second matter is the law on gambling. Again—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but could he identify the section in the Supplementary Estimates to which he is drawing attention?

Mr. Rossi

It comes within miscellaneous administrative matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understood from reading the draft order that we were to be prohibited from discussing housing, as there is nothing on housing in these Estimates. Yet the Minister has referred to the most contentious and controversial event in Northern Ireland, the selling of Housing Executive houses. May we during this discussion talk about the sale of Housing Executive houses?

Rev. Ian Paisley

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The sale of houses in Northern Ireland by the housing trust comes, I understand, under the Department of the Environment. There is no reference to environment at all, as far as I can see, in this order. I should like clarification of the matter. I also proposed to raise it as I felt that when Northern Ireland Members spoke they would be restricted to the order. I should like to know whether there will be sauce for the goose as well as the gander.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the subject of the sale of houses arose, presumably that would appear in the Estimates as an increased appropriation in aid and would therefore not be discussable in any case.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am grateful for the assistance of the right hon. and hon. Members. That is precisely why I asked the Minister a question.

Mr. Rossi

I am, of course, entirely in the hands of the House. If the House does not wish me to pursue these matters, I shall certainly not do so. The only question is this. I understood, on taking over this particular responsibility, that, irrespective of the narrowness of what might appear to be the appropriate debate on an appropriation order, in the past right hon. and hon. Gentlemen indicated to Ministers the areas that they wished to discuss. Ministers tried to be as helpful as possible and broach those matters. However, if right hon. and hon. Gentlemen do not wish to discuss these matters, I am quite content to give a few detailed figures on the order and sit down. I am as perfectly happy to take two minutes as I am to take 20.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Perhaps I can help the House. The Minister and the House must confine themselves to the autumn Supplementary Estimates and must not refer to anything that is outside this document.

Mr. Rossi

Of course I accept your ruling at once, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I make two observations? First, in conformity with the ruling which you have just given, may I say that on previous occasions, when hon. Members have given notice of subjects which they hoped to raise in these debates, they were subjects which were within the particular Votes appearing in the appropriation order. Secondly, on the point of order—I hope that this might be of some satisfaction to the Minister of State—may I point out that to deal with these matters on appropriation orders, as we are obliged to do in Northern Ireland, rather than upon a Consolidated Fund Bill, as applies to the rest of the United Kingdom, prevents hon. Members and Ministers from giving a more rational survey of the financial and administrative position. This is therefore perhaps something which should be considered by the Government on a larger scale.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is as may be. However, tonight we are discussing the autumn Supplementary Estimates. The matter mentioned by the Minister might be raised, for instance, on an order containing a vote on account or something of that kind, but not tonight.

Mr. Rossi

May I reply to the right hon. Gentleman, Mr. Deputy Speaker? I am most grateful to him, particularly for his second point. It was because of his second point that I understood, obviously mistakenly now that I have the ruling from the Chair, that the convention had grown so that the matter could be treated in a wider way than perhaps it would otherwise be treated. I shall move on immediately. I must seek other opportunities of making the announcements which I hoped to make this evening and which I thought would be of interest to right hon. and hon. Members and people in the Province.

I turn immediately to the details of the draft order. The main Estimates of Northern Ireland Departments for 1979–80 amounted to £1,642 million and were appropriated by the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 and the Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which were approved by this House on 7 March and 26 July 1979 respectively.

The main purpose of the draft order now before the House is to authorise the issue out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund of a further £33 million and the appropriation of this sum for the purposes indicated in the first schedule. The making of this order would bring the total 1979–80 provision to date for voted expenditure by Northern Ireland Departments to £1,675 million—about £153 million above the aggregate Estimates provision for 1978–79. The cash-limited element of the provision now sought is within the approved cash limit for Northern Ireland departmental services. The draft order also repeals certain appropriation enactments, and those are detailed in the second schedule.

I should like to take this opportunity to explain briefly the relationship between the Estimates and the public expenditure survey. The making of the proposed order would bring the total Estimates provision for Northern Ireland Departments for the current financial year to about £1,675 million. The provision for Northern Ireland departmental services this year in the recently published White Paper on public expenditure is in the region of £2,000 million. The difference between the two sums is mainly accounted for by the fact that certain items of public expenditure are not voted annually by Parliament and consequently do not appear in the Estimates volumes. The best example is expenditure from the national insurance fund on contributory benefits such as retirement pensions. To complete the picture, I should mention that even the £2,000 million is not the end of the story, because it does not include expenditure in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland Office, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Army. When those items are taken into account, the grand total is nearer £2,300 million.

The services for which additional funds are being sought in the draft order are set out in the autumn Supplementary Estimates volume, copies of which are available to right hon. and hon. Members in the Library. I should like to draw attention to some of the main items in the Estimates.

In Class I, Vote 2, a net addition of £16.9 million is being sought for the continuation of certain agricultural support schemes. About £13.4 million will be used to enable Northern Ireland meat plants to compete for fat cattle and pigs, and that will help to maintain about 4,000 jobs. About £4.9 million will be used to cover payments under the milk aid and feed price allowance schemes. These increases are partly offset by a reduction of about £1.4 million in the provision for the special land improvement scheme.

In Class VIII, Vote 2, the additional provision of £1 million being sought is accounted for by increased grants to the Queen's University of Belfast and the new University of Ulster. The increases follow recommendations by the University Grants Committee.

I turn to the Department of Health and Social Services. The additional provision now sought in Class X, Vote 2, noncontributory benefits, is £11.7 million, which is primarily to fund the recent up-rating of benefits. The largest increase is £9.6 million for supplementary benefits, though there are also an additional £800,000 for attendance allowance and £400,000 for mobility allowance, plus, for example, the Christmas bonus which was paid last week.

At a time when the growth in public expenditure is being curtailed, the increases are clear pledges of the Government's intention to continue to help the less-well-off members of the community.

Our concern does not stop with the measures that I have just described. As already announced, we shall be assisting the poor with their fuel bills this winter. The higher cost of most fuels in Northern Ireland is being recognised in two respects. The rate of heating additions under the supplementary benefits scheme is already higher there than in Great Britain and a payment of £15 each will be made next spring to all Northern Ireland householders on supplementary benefit and to those receiving family income supplement, rent or rate rebates and rent allowances.

In Class X, Vote 4, which provides for the administration expenses of the Department of Health and Social Services, £1.6 million of the £2.1 million being sought results from pay increases. The remaining £½ million arises from a revision of the forecast of appropriations-in-aid.

I commend the order to the House. I apologise if I have wandered too widely. I was seeking to be helpful. If questions which are not permissible are asked or if answers are not provided, I or my colleagues will reply by letter.

10.40 pm
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

In general we welcome the order. We recognise the importance of the proposed funded amounts but we wish to make some observations about those amounts. I am grateful for the ruling that this is a narrow debate, and I hope that my contribution will be in order.

I return to a theme voiced on several occasions during similar debates—the way in which we debate these orders. On a number of occasions we have said that we are at a great disadvantage because of the confusion which surrounds these debates. Until the Minister speaks, we do not know the background and detail of the sums involved. When I was the Minister responsible for introducing a similar debate in March this year, I was pressed from all sides of the House to ensure that such debates made more sense. I saw the force of the argument and undertook to examine ways of finding a better method of presentation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) returned to the subject when we last debated the order, and yet once again we are in a fog. I hope that the Minister will consider this matter. His experience a few minutes ago may help him to understand the position and encourage him to consider how we may have a more meaningful debate next time.

I congratulate the Government on Class I, Vote 2, which continues the previous Government's policy of giving support to agriculture, especially to the farmers who are most vulnerable to outside pressures. I refer to the meat industry employment scheme and the milk aid scheme. It is right to retain the level of assistance in those respects.

The Government must not be complacent about the growing problems of the farming community and the processing industries. Is the Minister aware of the result of a computer exercise by the Ulster farmers' union based on the model of the Northern Ireland farm? It shows that, taking into account the trends, including the downward trend in the supply of store cattle from Eire, Northern Ireland needs 70,000 more cows than it had at the June 1979 census if the 1974 productivity level is to be achieved. It further indicates that since the 1979 census cows have been slaughtered at a high rate. A survey of a substantial sample of markets, over a six-week period between September and October of this year, showed that sales of farm fat cows for slaughter were 94 per cent. higher than in the same period last year.

In general, Northern Ireland does not suit the arable alternatives to grass. The best use for land in Northern Ireland is for growing grass for cattle and sheep, as I am sure the Minister knows. The shortage of cattle is clearly of serious concern to the farming community in Northern Ireland and requires urgent remedial action by the Government.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin), when Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, initiated a review of marginal land in the United Kingdom to assess whether there should be an extension of the less favoured areas policy where there are payments, as the House knows, to encourage the keeping of beef cows.

What has happened to that survey? Has it been completed? If so, what was the outcome? If not, what are the obstacles? It is important to the farmers in Northern Ireland. They want a substantial extension of the less favoured areas policy. Such an extension would most certainly encourage the expansion of the herd of beef cows in Northern Ireland that is essential to maintain productivity on the farms and in the processing industry.

I ask the Minister to make some encouraging noises tonight for the agriculture and allied industries. Most of all, those industries want him to give them some confidence for expansion and to dispel the uncertainty that has surrounded them over the past few years. I believe that they deserve some encouragement from the Government.

I turn to Class II, Vote 2, which is related to the expenditure of the Department of Manpower Services. At a time when the industry of Northern Ireland needs all the assistance it can get, it seems crazy that under the perverse heading "Industrial Support and Regeneration" we see the last sum to be paid out for selective employment payments. Already we can see the effects of the removal of that payment, especially in the small industries of Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will give his own assessment of this piece of Government folly. With unemployment rising so sharply, this must be a significant factor.

On Class II, Vote 6, I ask the Minister to spell out exactly where the £196,000 is to be spent under the fuel discount scheme, which, I understand, is being phased out. Will the claimants be the elderly and the disabled? Perhaps the Minister could be more specific than is clear from the order. This Vote also covers the salary requirements of the Department of Commerce. I understand that part of the money will be allocated to the Northern Ireland Consumer Council, which, I understand, has a small staff but does a good job. Perhaps it could do an even more valuable job if it was seen to be more independent of the Government and of that particular Department. In the eyes of the community, the council must be clearly seen as independent and we should not fudge the edges. I hope that the Minister will have something to say about this because consumer advice is of enormous importance to the people of Northern Ireland.

There is a general need for the Government to do something more to ensure that there are adequate funds available to assist the people of Northern Ireland. After all, they are living in the most socially deprived region in the United Kingdom. They live in an area where the cost of solid fuel, gas and bread is much higher than it is in Great Britain. I could go on listing the disadvantages to the consumer in Northern Ireland. The list is almost endless.

How does the Minister see the future pattern of consumer advice and protection developing? Outside of the consumer council—I said that it had a small staff; it has a staff of one—there are only three consumer advice centres in Northern Ireland run by the local authorities, with help from the Department of Commerce, in Londonderry, Belfast and Newry. I hope that I am wrong, but there are rumours that the grants to these bodies are to cease. I hope that the Minister will dispel those rumours.

Also on this subject, perhaps the Minister will say whether the Government propose to increase grants to the citizens advice bureaux in line with Government policy in Great Britain. I hope so, but I hope that it will not be at the expense of the advice centres and of the consumer council. Perhaps the Minister will be forthcoming on that point.

I turn to Class VIII, Vote 2, where a sum of £1,038,000 is being sought. I cannot help thinking that more is needed. I believe that special help is needed for Northern Ireland universities. Looking at their geographical locations, in Coleraine and Belfast, there are many problems. The staff at the universities have problems when travelling to conferences. They also have problems in connection with their research facilities because of the cost of buying equipment. It is well known that in Northern Ireland laboratory and computer equipment is more expensive than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Has a comparative study been made of the universities in the rest of the United Kingdom as distinct from those in Northern Ireland? Such a study may be revealing and it may be a way of ensuring that the universities in Northern Ireland get a better deal than they get now.

Another area of concern is the declining number of students in those universities, especially in the new university. Able school leavers are seeking university places in Great Britain. Some 30 per cent. of the total number of those eligible for university places go to Great Britain. The brain drain takes on a new and frightening meaning in this context. Having gone to Great Britain, they are not coming back in great numbers to take their rightful places in society in Northern Ireland. That must worry the Government. I hope that something will be done about that.

That is coupled with even more alarming evidence. A recent survey carried out by Queen's University shows that over the past 10 years only 8 per cent. of that uni- versity's entrants came from semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds. In the same period, 57 per cent. of the intake came from the two highest social groups in Northern Ireland. That pattern, says the survey—and I am sure it is right—is a direct result of the social, economic and educational factors prevailing within the Province. What do the Government propose to do about that disturbing trend?

We shall almost certainly want to return to this subject at some length, but, within the confines of the order, debate is limited. I hope that on some future occasion we shall be joined by Northern Ireland Members of Parliament who, I am sure, must be as concerned as we are about this trend.

Finally, on Class X, Votes 2 and 4, we welcome the amounts relating to the non-contributory invalidity pensions, the invalid allowance, the mobility allowance and other allowances. But will the Minister explain the decrease in Votes 2 and 4–£286,000 and £522,000 respectively? In this area we should not be happy with any decrease at all. They may be explained to my satisfaction, but at the moment I can think of no good reason for them.

I welcome the order but look forward to the Minister's reply on the specific matters that I have raised.

10.55 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I wish to raise some matters on this order of which I have given prior notice. I want to raise an agricultural matter under Class I and a selective employment matter under Class II.

I welcome the subsidy to the meat industry. I should like, however, to press upon the Minister the need to investigate the great disparity between the meat plants in Northern Ireland and their opportunities and the meat plants in the Republic as a result of the intervention policy. In the Republic, a larger percentage can go into intervention than is permitted in the Northern Ireland meat plants. This is causing serious trouble and a serious rundown in our meat plants.

I should like the Minister to say what decisive steps he is taking to safeguard what is left of our meat processing industry. This is a matter of concern to all hon. Members with agricultural constituencies and to those in the centres where the meat plants operate. The Minister can perhaps tell the House what steps he is taking to ensure at least parity with the Republic in order to safeguard vital jobs. We cannot afford to see our meat plants run down. We need the industry and the employment that it provides.

I want to refer to the apple producers of County Armagh. I know that this is a subject in which the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) is interested. As the Minister knows, the Killyman factory was erected, through a large EEC grant, for the production of pure apple juice. It had a good run and proved helpful to the Bramley apple producers in County Armagh.

A derogation was then introduced to the EEC rule under which the addition of citric acid to sweet apple juice was permitted. This cut out the market for the pure apple juice produced at Killyman. As a result, the Killyman factory has come almost, if not completely, to a standstill. The apple growers have no outlet for their apples.

I raised this matter in Strasbourg yesterday. It is an EEC matter. I received an assurance from the Commissioner that he would recommend to the Council of Ministers that this derogation should be rescinded. That would be a great help. But this morning, on the radio, another Member for a Northern Ireland constituency, Mr. John Taylor, accused all Northern Ireland Members of this House of being responsible for this situation, having pushed a measure through the House. It is impossible for hon. Members to know everything that goes through the House. I am sure, however, that no Northern Ireland Member would wish to do down the apple growers of County Armagh. I have no recollection of such an order. Perhaps the Minister will say whether it was a negative order. Did we have any say at all in the matter? Will he also say how he proposes to save the factory?

It is essential that the Minister should put pressure on the Minister of Agriculture, who sits in the Council of Ministers. I know that the Minister can throw his weight about in Northern Ireland. I hope he will see that our Minister is forthright in supporting the Commission's recommendation. Jobs are at risk. I trust that the Minister will do something about it. It is hardly fair for Members of this House to be blamed for something about which they did not know. We should like to see this matter rectified.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

No one ever believes John Taylor any more.

Rev. Ian Paisley

It is very nice of the hon. Gentleman to say that. I am not saying it. It would not do.

All that I am saying is that it is important to save these jobs in Northern Ireland. I trust that they will be saved.

I draw attention to Class VIII in regard to the Department of Education. There is a lot of controversy in Northern Ireland about teacher training places. We are told that there are far too many. Now that the Minister is giving these grants for teacher training to the two universities, I should like to know the position in regard to the other teacher training places. If he will be concentrating his grants on the two universities in this matter, what does he have in mind for the other teacher training establishments?

I welcome what is to be given in supplementary benefits. Of course,;£15 is a very small amount today, especially in the circumstances of Northern Ireland, with the terrible cost of energy and other difficulties for those who are drawing supplementary and other benefits. Has the Minister looked realistically at this matter? What does he have in mind for future grants to these people, who are in dire straits and dire need?

I have one last question about this obnoxious Northern Ireland Assembly, which I thought had gone completely out of existence. I see that its appropriation-in-aid has been increased by £2,000. I understand that a new Clerk has been appointed to the Assembly—the Assembly that does not exist. Is the £28,000 mentioned to do with the work that the Clerk does? Perhaps the Minister could list the Clerk's duties.

I understand that the previous Clerk had very little to do, and he was appointed as chairman of the liquor investigation, which comes under Class III—regulation of trading practices. I am very glad that the committee has reported. Many of us appeared before it when it was taking evidence. I am glad that the Minister is to ensure that the report is published. I also welcome the fact that he will be taking further representations about the report's recommendations. I am glad that he is not tying himself to abiding exactly by the report.

I should like to hear the Minister's comments on the Northern Ireland Assembly. The previous Clerk, Mr. Blackburn, was held in very high esteem by those who worked with him. I think that my former colleagues in Stormont would agree with me about Mr. Blackburn. Mr. John Kennedy, who has got the appointment, is also held in very high esteem by those who know him. Of course, we have nothing against these individuals, but we would like to know exact details of the expenditure under this heading.

11.3 pm

Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)

I should like to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) about the apple juice processing factory at Killyman. The Minister responsible for agriculture knows of my interest in the matter. I wrote to him some months ago. He said then that his hands were tied because of the derogation and because of action taken by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food here. I welcome the fact that this derogation is now to be removed. I hope that the Minister will act urgently on the matter and ensure that the situation in Killyman improves.

I suppose that we are lucky, if that is how one describes the fact that there has been a poor crop of Bramley apples this year and the fact that production is only half of what it was last year. The demand that one might have expected on the basis of last year's production has not materialised, so there is an opportunity to do something without damaging the industry too much. I welcome the work that has been done at Strasbourg. I hope that the Minister will now act on it.

I turn to Class VIII—expenditure by the Department of Education. The burning education issue of the decade, which affects all levels of education, is selection at 11-plus, when children move from primary education to secondary and higher education. I appreciate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. If the hon. Gentleman considers the details of the expenditure, he will understand that the subject that he is now discussing is not included.

Mr. McCusker

If I had been given enough time, I think that I could have justified the comments that I wish to make, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The quality of those moving on to higher education and teacher training, for example, depends largely on what happens at 11-plus and at successive stages.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

What the hon. Gentleman is saying may be appropriate for another occasion. At present we are dealing with the sum of £1,038,000, and only matters that contribute to that sum are relevant.

Mr. McCusker

I could contend what a leading teachers' union in the Province has contended, that if the transfer procedure currently in operation in Northern Ireland continues, at least six secondary schools will be closed in Belfast, with all the ramifications that that will have for teacher training and resulting redundancies. On other occasions we have had the opportunity to discuss, within certain limits, issues which were not specifically covered. I understand the calling to order of a Member who has strayed well beyond the limits that are set down, but I hope that a discussion on selection at 11-plus will be permitted. However, I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I need go no further than that.

Mr. McCusker

Call someone else then, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

11.7 pm

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I refer to the expenditure by the Department of Education on higher and further education. I hope that I shall not fall foul of the Chair. I take up remarks that I made recently in the House on religious segregation in schools. It is sad that in the area of higher education in Ulster, the only sector that has stood out against the principle of non-denominational provision is teacher training.

I shall deal with teacher training, the universities and the role that they have to play. Separate colleges for Roman Catholic and Protestant students who intend to become teachers is one of the least attractive aspects of our Irish heritage. Whatever defence is put forward in favour of the system in the Irish Republic, it should never have been permitted to last so long in Northern Ireland.

The existence of separate sectarian teaching colleges, supported by public funds, is a denial of the fundamental right of youngsters to be educated in a free and liberal atmosphere. Everyone in the House should seek to ensure that youngsters may grow up without their minds being bruised by a form of education that forces them to regard themselves as part of one division or another. It is sad that that position still exists in the Province.

Fortunately, there is evidence that teacher training colleges are losing out to the university department of education and to the Ulster polytechnic, which are not sectarian controlled. The continuing decline in the number of primary schoolchildren and in the number of students to be admitted to teacher training colleges provides a challenging opportunity to the Government to tackle the issue of separate sectarian institutions for the training of teachers. It is worth considering the figures because they are revealing.

In 1973, of the 1,388 students admitted to courses at teacher training institutions, only 701 were admitted to teacher training colleges. The remaining 687 went to the universities and to the polytechnic. In 1977, four years later, of 920 admissions only 388 went to the three colleges of education—Stranmillis, St. Mary's and St. Joseph's. The colleges used to accommodate 1,800 students at Stranmillis and 400 to 500 each at St. Mary's and St. Joseph's, the two Roman Catholic colleges.

I do not know how many of next year's 620 students will go to the three teacher training colleges, but I surmise that it will be under 300. No one can justify on any grounds the present maintenance of buildings and staff for the purpose of admitting only 300 students. The total intake will be fewer than that at Stranmillis only a few years ago, and that has now to be spread among the three colleges.

At a time when the money available for primary and secondary education and for technical institutions is so short, and at a time when the Government are having to impose a charge for school transport and a greater charge for school meals, the taxpayers' money is being squandered by keeping three outworn and outdated teacher training colleges in existence. There is scope—I hope that the Government will pay heed to this—for saving several million pounds each year by abolishing all three colleges. The two universities and the polytechnic scheme are responsible for the training of all teachers. Those millions of pounds could be spent each year directly to help young people. Public money has always been the crux of the issue. When the Churches became involved in the 1870s after the Royal Commission, the Churches wished to use taxpayers' money for the maintenance of religious schools. It is sad to reflect that the good secular national system of education that existed in Ireland prior to 1870 was abandoned by those who wished to further religious education.

I asked some questions of the Minister some weeks ago about expenditure by the Ulster polytechnic, an issue raised by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), the Opposition spokesman. It appears that £100,000 had been paid to lecturers at the polytechnic in travel costs, subsistence and expenses. Surely that figure cannot be justified. I hope that the Government plan to investigate it fully and consider how it can be reduced. It could be halved. Is any part of that expenditure included in the £1,038,000 that is mentioned in the appropriation order?

Finally, I refer to the expenditure by the Department of Commerce on consumer protection. There are matters that require detailed investigation. We are at the Christmas season, when the public are being bombarded by advertisers presenting items that they may purchase for their homes or for their children.

I was astounded to hear that last week a well-known supermarket firm—it has branches throughout the Province—had its staff busily engaged on adding 10p to the price of most of the items on sale. I cannot believe that this is permitted under existing law. Perhaps the Minister will look into this matter. It means that that supermarket firm, with branches throughout the Province, is cashing in on Christmas by adding an extra 10p on food and other items. I believe that the matter ought to be investigated. I did not see this with my own eyes. I have been told about it by someone, and I believe that I can rely on what she said. However, I shall give the name of the firm to the Minister and perhaps he will investigate this case. Indeed, there may well be other cases where people are being overcharged.

Surely, if the items have already been purchased by the firm, they should be sold at the original price displayed on those articles, and the price should not be increased. More attention should be paid to consumer protection, because I believe that the people of Northern Ireland are not getting a fair deal from the manufacturers.

11.17 pm
Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

The terms of this debate place us at a great disadvantage in that we are restricted by the way in which the order has been drawn up. An even greater restriction is the time that has been allotted to the debate, because there are 10 Northern Ireland Members present and I am quite certain that each would want to debate at some length what is contained in the order.

I am sure that I can speak for most of the Northern Ireland Members—I hope that they do not think it impertinent of me—when I say that each time such Estimates are before us we look at the issue to be discussed and the first question that hits us is whether it creates job opportunities or whether it will bring about job losses. With Northern Ireland's sad history, that is of paramount importance to each constituency representative here.

The Minister mentioned the public expenditure that will be entailed. If the debate were not so restricted, I would pose a lot of questions on that issue alone. I recognise that many of my colleagues from Northern Ireland wish to intervene, so I shall be as brief as possible.

Class II relates to the Department of Manpower Services and the Department of Commerce. The Department of Commerce is responsible for attracting industry to Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Minister mentioned that the Department had been able to attract two factories within recent weeks. I congratulate him on being able to do so, but he must offset that against the number of factories that have closed down throughout Northern Ireland, and particularly in my constituency, during the past year. Therefore, any job attraction that has been achieved by the American company Strathearn Audio is grievously offset by the number of people who have lost their jobs. One can think of Hughes's bakery, which was forced to close down a number of months ago. As a result a number of people lost their jobs, and they will not be offset by the jobs that have been attracted.

Can the Minister give us any hope that in the coming weeks or months he will be able to take any tangible steps to alleviate the terrible scourge of unemployment in my constituency of Belfast, West and, indeed, throughout Northern Ireland? Can he say how many employers in my constituency are in receipt of the selective employment payments that are mentioned in Class II? Could they be extended to make it possible for employers in the constituency to increase their work or labour forces?

Class X covers expenditure by the Department of Health and Social Services. There are two questions that I should like to ask the Minister. Will he indicate how many people in the DHSS are employed in the implementation of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act? When that Act went through the House with all-party support, it was fervently believed that it would generate good will and help for the chronically sick and disabled. I have been disappointed by reports I have received that the Act is not as helpful as it should be. I ask the Minister to ensure that the Act does not become pigeon-holed and that it is put into operation. Thousands of disabled people in Northern Ireland were expecting to receive benefit from the Act.

Are the same criteria used for the payments of attendance allowances in Northern Ireland as are used in other parts of the United Kingdom? I have appeared at tribunal after tribunal trying to get an attendance allowance for somebody who I believed deserved it. It would appear that the criteria for granting it are so restrictive that the person has to be lying absolutely useless for 25 hours a day to receive it. The benefit is in name only—far more people are refused the allowance than receive it. People's expectations are being built up, and nobody wants to claim an allowance that he does not think he is entitled to.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

The hon. Gentleman said that he has attended a number of tribunals. Will he give the House details? I find that the most difficult thing is to get a tribunal to determine the granting of an attendance allowance.

Mr. Fitt

The doctor should attend at the patient's house and a number of questions on a form are answered. However, most people are not aware of the answers which should be given which would entitle them to the benefit, and I have never heard of a medical practitioner attending a patient and saying that the patient was entitled to the allowance. Cases always go to appeal.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Appeals are heard on points of law only, which makes the matter much more difficult.

Mr. Fitt

The benefit is meant to help those who are unable to help themselves. The literature on the subject leads people to believe that they are entitled to the benefit when they are not. Much despair and disappointment are caused when the benefit is refused. To some extent, the same arguments apply to the mobility allowance.

I ask the Minister to be more humane and compassionate He is dealing with those who cannot do things for themselves. Therefore, I press him about those allowances. Also, I ask him to give me, as the constituency representative, an indication of steps that he hopes to take in West Belfast to try to alleviate the chronic scourge of unemployment.

11.24 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down South)

I associate myself entirely with the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) about the restricted time available for the debate. Even though these winter Supplementary Estimates are narrower than the other Estimates in the annual cycle, one lesson to be learnt is that it is unwise to deal with a renewal order and an appropriation order on the same day.

I support what the hon. Member for Belfast, West said about the extraordinarily, baffling phenomena of applications for attendance and mobility allowances which have been refused, particularly in instances when they are refused although medical evidence is presented that is difficult to disagree with or doubt and which would have suggested an opposite result. The Minister in charge should institute a review of the whole working of application and adjudication on these two subjects.

I wanted to refer only to Class XI— For the expenditure of the Northen Ireland Assembly. It may be surprising to hon. Members not closely interested in the affairs of the Province that the Assembly set up under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 is still in existence, hence this entry in the Estimates. It is in a state of suspended animation. It is, as it were, suppressed and kept underground by the 1974 Act, but it is there all the time, ready to revive at any moment, even if it is not being held in terrorem. That is a decision of the Government that is raised by this entry in the Supplementary Estimates and which ought to be challenged.

I notice that the Secretary of State, in the debate on 29 November, said that it would be profitless to discuss returning precisely to that system"— that was, the system which obtained in the first five months of 1974 —in fact the Assembly referred to in Class XI, Vote 1– because it was not acceptable then and I am sure that it would not be acceptable now."—[Official Report, 29 November 1979; Vol. 974, c. 1502.] Whatever one may disagree with in the mouth of the Secretary of State, one is obliged to admit that fact. In that case, the question immediately arises that presumably the Government envisage removing from the statute book—and it was referred to earlier today by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford)—at any rate the portions of that Act that concern the Assembly and the Executive. Remarkably enough, however, that appears not to be the case.

A question was put to the Minister of State in the same debate on 29 November by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South as to whether the Government therefore proposed to remove the ghost—and it is rather a substantial ghost—from the statute book, with the fear and doubt that it still causes. The Minister replied that that is not a topic on which to make pronouncement when we are talking of the attempt to construct a new political or constitutional Act. I cannot imagine a more difficult thesis to sustain than that the status of the existing constitutional Act is not called into question when one is discussing what the future constitution ought to be, especially when the Minister stated that, whatever it will be in the future, it certainly will not be the Assembly for which additional provision is made under Class XI of these Estimates.

The Minister of State continued—and this will be my last quotation from him: There is no point in the conference discussing the long-term constitutional future of Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend has said, that would be pointless and unproductive."—[Official Report, 29 November 1979; Vol. 974, c. 1610] To an extent I would try to put a gloss upon those words in terms with which I would find it possible to agree, for if anything effective is to be done I think that there are two rules which the Government ought to have in mind. First, they must so proceed as to minimise and not maximise disagreements. Secondly, they must so proceed as to minimise and not maximize anxieties, especially needless anxieties about the future.

What has happened as a result of the precipitate action of the Government in invoking a constitutional conference is that they have done the opposite in both cases. They have taken a course that is bound to maximise antagonisms, because all will be duty bound who participate in such an exposed and public activity—and this is no criticism—to state their position as trenchantly and fully as possible, and to be seen by those they represent to be pushing their position to the utmost of which it is capable. So it is a device for maximising differences. It is a divisive device which minimises the chances of tolerance for whatever steps might be proposed.

Secondly, it has the effect of maximising anxieties, for if one lays out virtually, although not quite, the whole range of constitutional possibilities and the Government come forward, as they have done, and say "We don't care which it is, we are quite neutral as between these alternatives—except, of course, that we are not going to have the 1973 Act, though we are not proposing to take it off the statute book"—then everyone is in a state of suspended animation. Everyone expects that there will be a change. Everyone expects that there will be a major change. It is in the nature of circumstances in the Province that everyone fears a change which will be adverse, the most adverse, to his safety, to his hopes and to his aspirations.

I think that this entry in the schedule to the appropriation order, by recalling to the attention of the House the fact that an admittedly unworkable constitution, condemned by all concerned, is for some reason being kept in existence, capable of being reactivated at any moment, is a reminder of the dangers, the risks, not dissociated from risk to life and limb, which can be caused and, my hon. Friends and I believe, are being courted by the precipitate constitutional initiative recently taken—we hope it will not proceed very far—by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

11.32 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I intend to raise only two or three questions. I should like to return to the theme of unemployment raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), particularly under Class II. I hope that the Minister in his reply will give us some indication about the Belfast shipyard of Harland and Wolff. We are approaching the yuletide and the new year is ahead of us. It will probably be a pretty bleak year for a number of my constituents. Rumours are now coming from the yard that 1,200 jobs are in jeopardy. I ask the Minister, if he can, to give us an indication of the truth of the rumour.

Will the Minister also indicate, in relation to his review and monitoring of the position at Harland and Wolff, whether he believes that the work force has increased productivity, whether he is satisfied with the increase that has taken place, whether he is satisfied that the relationship between the work force and the management has improved, and whether he is happy with the work of the management of the yard. Will he also indicate whether there are any orders in the pipeline and whether there is any hope that he can offer to my constituents at this time?

With regard to the attendance allowance, raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, West, I also press the Minister to review this matter most urgently, because it affects a large number of people who have been left outside and are still in great need of this benefit. This applies to a number of gentlemen who like to be independent and do not like to say that they cannot feed themselves, cannot wash themselves and cannot go to the toilet themselves. Therefore, through embarrassment, if for no other reason, they do not give the answers that should be given. Perhaps the Minister will indicate whether he is also prepared to deal with this matter.

11.34 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Giles Shaw)

It might be for the convenience of the House if I endeavour to answer some of the points raised by hon. Members concerning the activities of the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, under the portions of the appropriation which refer to them.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) raised in great seriousness the question facing the agriculture industry. This was echoed by comments made by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). This concern is probably shared throughout this House. The outlook at present is not particularly bright, in view of the difficulties which have affected agriculture over the past year or so.

The hon. Member specifically asked about the state of the cattle herd. He asked for Government action. Since we last debated the appropriation orders in this House, there have been alterations in the rates of the meat industry employment scheme; there have been reductions in the shading to help the producers; and there have been changes in the intervention buying policy, which have been of immense importance during the flush season of October and November, when we bought into intervention at the rate of 600 tons a week, which was a new development. There have been changes in the hill cow and sheep subsidy and, although I expect that they are not fully acceptable in that they do not go as far as hill farmers would wish, they are, nevertheless, significant increases. There have been other attempts to improve confidence in this industry, the most significant of which has been the attempt by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture to seek a further devaluation in the green pound of 5 per cent.

I recognise that what the industry needs is a feeling of confidence. I met the Ulster farmers' union yesterday and I am convinced that we have to make clear to it that the Government are determined to improve the conditions for this vital industry, which employs 10 per cent. of the Province's population. Actions already taken are indicative of this, but I accept that we must do much more to get rid of the lack of confidence in the industry, which has been the main reason for this decline in the breeding herd.

I also recognise that we cannot put matters right swiftly. It will take time. The fact that the breeding herd has fallen so low and the fact that milk yield this year will, most unusually, be down compared with the 5 or 6 per cent. growth year by year which we have had up to now, indicate the state which the industry has reached. I pledge that I shall do everything can to ensure that we restore a state of confidence to the industry. I have also asked that a member of the marketing team which the Minister of Agriculture has appointed shall visit the Province shortly. I am also pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will come to see for himself the conditions in the Province next month. I believe that it is vitally necessary to involve him.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North and the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) raised the question of the apple juice co-operative at Killyman. I am delighted to think that there may be some changes in the EEC directive on this matter, but I do not think that hon. Gentlemen should be too disheartened about not having been involved with it originally. That is not something which should concern the hon. Member for Antrim, North. As I recall, this arose from the fruit juice directive of the EEC, and if that had passed through the Committee which scrutinises secondary legislation it would most likely not have involved a matter of political substance and may well not have appeared before the House but would have proceeded by the normal route.

If that is so, what we have to do is ensure that this directive does allow us to continue the use of apple juice and results in the removal of citric from the permitted substances. I must remind hon. Members that citric acid has been widely used in the United Kingdom. It will take further negotiation and explanation between myself and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture to clarify precisely what derogation the EEC is offering. Hon. Members can rest assured that I shall undertake those discussions with some urgency.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde raised matters concerning consumer protection. This subject was also raised by the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder). I ask the hon. Member to let me have particulars of the double pricing which he appears to have found taking place in stores. It is a practice of which I totally disapprove, and I would wish to have information from him.

I refer to the question of consumer protection and the consumer council. In our general review of such bodies, we are looking closely at the future of consumer protection and the right way in which such bodies may be established. This is in line with what is going on within the United Kingdom as a whole. My understanding is that the degree of independence from the Government of those bodies is just as great as that of the equivalent bodies in the United Kingdom. If the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde feels that that is not so, he is probably referring to the arrangements made by his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) for improving the degree of independence under his ill-fated measure on consumer protection, in which he sought salaries and administrative costs to be met by the Government and not by the industries to which they were then gazetted. I shall check on the matter. If the bodies feel that they are not as independent as they would wish, I accept the matter of principle that the hon. Member offers. If we have consumer councils, to be effective they must be seen to be totally independent of Government influence.

The grants for the three advice centres in Londonderry, Belfast and Newry—as with Great Britain—will be phased out. I understand that they will be closing on 31 March 1980. This is in accordance with the Department of Trade's policy in this matter. I understand that the centres in Belfast and Newry will be kept open by the district councils concerned. However, I am not able to give the information about the future of the centre in Londonderry. I shall gladly write to the hon. Gentleman if he will allow me to do so.

Mr. Pendry

Perhaps the Minister would answer my other point about money being allocated to citizens' advice bureaux.

Mr. Shaw

My understanding is that citizens' advice bureaux are not within the province of my Department. However, I shall ask for information to be made available to the hon. Gentleman. I understand that they come under the Department of Education in the Province. I shall write to him on the matter and seek to give him the information that he needs.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North referred to the disparity between the Republic and the North in relation to agricultural policy, the green pound, and so on. He asked why there were differences. The Province is part of the United Kingdom, which is a member of the Community. Therefore, inevitably, comparing the trading practices in agriculture which go on in the Province of Northern Ireland with those in the Republic—which is its own master in relation to agricultural policy—there are these disparities. There are many occasions when the agricultural community within the Province takes advantage of what it sees is available south of the border. Likewise, when the wheels turn the other way, it seeks to have the advantage from us.

There are checks and balances. The hon. Gentleman must not forget—as I suspect that he is most unlikely to forget—that there is this fundamental difference in the stature of the two authorities responsible for agriculture

I now turn to the comments made by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) on employment. This matter was reflected in the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). There will be no let-up in the drive to get more employment into West Belfast. There is also a project now in a high state of preparation which will also come to West Belfast. There are other prospects which are further back in the queue but which together suggest to me that we shall by no means leave West Belfast out of consideration. I recognise the importance that hon. Gentlemen rightly attach to future employment. My concern—as I expect is their concern—is to ensure that the employment there is long-term and viable, contrary to much previous history

Finally, on the mater of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which was raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East, rumour and counter-rumour are the language of what goes on in that shipyard. I cannot say to him that what he heard was either true or false. I do not like to deal in rumour-mongering in respect of that shipyard. We are determined to get more orders at that yard, but we shall be prevented from doing so by the extent to which the productivity achieved in the yard is found to be non-competitive. From my several discussions with the management and the unions, I believe that they are seized of the fact. It is by their efforts that we shall win.

11.45 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Philip Goodhart)

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) advocated in his reference to Class VIII, Vote 2, a comparative study of costs of universities in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. I am sure that my noble Friend who carries the responsibility for the Department of Education in Northern Ireland would be equally interested in the results of such a survey, but the responsibility for looking into the comparative costs of universities in the United Kingdom as a whole is primarily a matter for the University Grants Committee.

The hon. Member also referred to a decline in the number of university entrants in Northern Ireland from semiskilled and unskilled families. The problem is not confined to Northern Ireland. A similar decline is widespread in British universities, particularly in Oxbridge. The cause of the decline is a matter of substantial controversy in the education world and is not one which I can profitably enter into at this hour of the night.

The hon. Members for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) referred to the structure of teacher training. We recognise the importance and sensitivity of that issue when the number of teacher training places in Northern Ireland is declining. The higher education review group under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Chilver, the vice-chancellor of the Cranfield Institute of Technology, has been asked by my noble Friend to make a study of teacher training arrangements in Northern Ireland, and we hope to have its report within the next six months.

I can tell the hon. Member for Down, North that I am advised that there are no sums in the Supplementary Estimates for the Ulster polytechnic.

11.48 pm
Mr. Rossi

I shall reply briefly in the three minutes left. The debate has been wide-ranging, though not as wide as some of us would have liked. That is a matter that we shall have to discuss on another occasion.

I take the major point of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) about the difficulty of eliciting from the order what the figures mean. I assure the House that we shall see whether it is possible to produce for circulation an additional document that may give a further breakdown of the details and form the basis of a brief for the debate.

I understand the concern about attendance allowances which has been expressed by a number of hon. Members. I give the absolute assurance that the rules in Northern Ireland are the same as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is no differentiation in the rules or in their application. I have heard complaints in Britain, including some from my own constituents, that the rules are rigid and tightly drawn and that some people do not quite qualify. We have to accept that a dividing line must be drawn. If hon. Members know of instances of the rules not being applied properly or interpreted correctly, Ministers will inquire whether instructions can be given so that we achieve a satisfactory result.

Mr. Kilfedder

The rules have been interpreted strictly. The tradition in Northern Ireland is that relatives remain with the family. That is cheaper than putting them in homes.

Mr. Rossi

That is the point. I cannot do much about the rules because of the comparability. If our interpretation of the rules is different from that in Great Britain, that is our responsibility. We shall investigate instances which are brought to our attention.

Hon. Members have discussed the Assembly and its meaning. The estimate for the Assembly carries us to the end of the financial year. We are winding down the Assembly, but that does not preempt the outcome of the constitutional conference which I hope will take place successfully soon. I hope that all hon. Members will take part.

Questions put and agreed to.


That the draft Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 8 November, be approved.