HC Deb 09 March 1981 vol 1000 cc679-731 7.20 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Alison)

I beg to move, That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, which was laid before this House on 20 February, be approved. The order is being made under paragraph 1 of schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974.

This draft order provides for the appropriation of both the 1980–81 Spring Supplementary Estimates and the sums required on account for 1981–82 by the Northern Ireland Departments. These Spring Supplementary Estimates represent for the most part relatively small adjustments to the spending plans of Northern Ireland Departments for this financial year. The House will recall that the major increase in the 1980–81 Main Estimates was effected through the Autumn Supplementary Estimates, covered by the Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, which was debated and approved by the House in December last year.

Detailed information on this draft order is to be found in the Estimates volume and the Statement of Sums Required on Account, copies of which have been placed in the Vote Office, and in the explanatory memorandum which I have circulated to right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies, Opposition spokesmen on Northern Ireland affairs, and others who took part in the last Appropriation order debate. These publications are broadly self-explanatory, but there are, nonetheless, a number of important items in the present draft order to which I should like to draw the special attention of the House.

First, I should like to mention some of the principal features of the supplementary provision that is being sought. Under the heading of Functioning of the Labour Market"— that is, Class II Vote 4—hon. Members will see that additional provision of £7.7 million is being sought for the temporaiy short-time working compensation scheme. Expenditure on this scheme was originally estimated at £3.3 million, but due to the continuing difficulties experienced by Northern Ireland industry as a result of the recession demand for grant assistance under the terms of this scheme has risen considerably and it is now estimated that the scheme will cost some £11 million in 1980–81.

Here I should mention that the decreases shown under Class II Vote 4 in the Spring Supplementary Estimates volume largely reflect earlier reallocations which it was not possible to show in full in the Autumn Supplementary Estimates because of the Estimates conventions, rather than fresh reductions. The balance represents some internal reallocations within the Department of Manpower Services programme to meet changed circumstances.

Under Class VII, Vote 1,"Protective Services", Members will see that £100,000 is being sought for additional costs arising from the firemen's pay dispute. The House will recall that it was necessary, because of the possibility of industrial action by firemen last November, to make emergency arrangements under which the Armed Forces would provide a skeleton fire service using the Green Goddess appliances which are held for Civil Defence purposes. As a result, the 30 appliances held in Northern Ireland were put in a serviceable condition and deployed to the Army. The Supplementary Estimate is required to meet the costs involved.

On those Votes for which the Department of Education is responsible, token supplementary provision is sought to cover the additional requirements for the pay of teachers in schools and in institutions of further education. A reassessment of these costs shows an additional requirement of £1.6 million in Class VIII, Vote 1,"Schools", although no actual increase is necessary in the total voted provisions because of reductions in provision for capital grants to voluntary schools.

Hon. Members will remember that these reductions were detailed when the Autumn Supplementary Estimates were presented with the Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, but again under the conventions it has not been possible until now to incorporate them in an Estimate. My noble Friend who is responsible for education in the Province considered it particularly important to retain the number of full-time teachers in the current academic year and the supplementary provision sought is necessary to meet the increased cost of the original allocation of teachers.

As hon. Members will, however, be aware, some marginal savings are being sought through a revision of the rules governing the appointment of substitute teachers, and these are currently the subject of detailed discussions with the teachers' unions. The revised assessment of the cost of teachers' salaries in institutions of further education, shown in Class VIII, Vote 2,"Higher and Further Education", is for £0.3 million. In this Vote offsetting savings arise on student support, on which the uptake of awards has been less than expected.

Turning to provision for health services, hon. Members will see that supplementary provision of some £9.2 million is sought under Class IX Vote 2, Family Practitioner and Other Services". These services are, of course, demand-determined and not subject to cash limits. The greater part of the additional provision sought relates to the payment of fees to medical and dental practitioners and to pharmacists. The increased expenditure on those services is partly offset by a reduction of £150,000 in the planned expenditure on welfare foods, for which demand has proved lower than originally expected.

In the social security sector, the draft order incorporates. provision for additional expenditure arising from an increase in the number of unemployed. An additional £5 million is sought in respect of supplementary benefits under Class X Vote 2,"Non-Contributory Benefits", while the additional £0.5 million included under Class X Vote 4,"Administration", reflects higher administrative and staffing costs.

I turn now to the other element in the draft order, namely, sums required on account for 1981–82. These amount in total to £944,360,200, and it is necessary to have these sums made available to Northern Ireland Departments by the beginning of the incoming financial year to enable services to continue until the balance of the 1981–82 Main Estimates are debated and approved along with the next Appropriation order, probably in early July. The sums required on account for 1981–82 are calculated on a standard formula of 45 per cent. of the total provision for the previous financial year, except in a few instances where it is known that expenditure plans will differ significantly from this pattern. They do not, therefore, indicate the total provision that will be sought for 1981–82.

As hon. Members will know, the Main Estimates will provide the detail of the spending plans for Northern Ireland Departments for 1981–82.

I believe that I have referred to the most important features of the draft order, but I know that right hon. and hon. Members may well wish to raise other points. I am obliged to those hon. Members who have given me and my colleagues advance notice of the matters that particularly concern them. I and my colleagues who are present will try to answer as many questions as possible at the end of the debate. Those questions which, through lack of time, remain unanswered will, as usual, be dealt with in correspondence later.

I commend the draft order to the House.

7.30 pm
Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

Looking at the Treasury Bench, I think that the altercation with the Civil Service has at least done something. It has kept all the Ministers with us today, even if it has not allowed some of the hon. Members from Northern Ireland to be present. I do not know whether that is the reason for the empty Benches opposite, but other people have made an effort to be here.

It is sad and ironic that we should be debating the allocation of a mere morsel of funds to Northern Ireland at the time when unemployment and social distress have reached an all-time high in the Province. The explanatory memorandum, for which we thank the Minister, shows that the paltry additional expenditure is caused chiefly by the costs of unemployment in Northern Ireland—in other words, the costs of the problem created by a Tory Government.

The Opposition welcome any additional funds made available for public expenditure in the Province. This sum is so minuscule when compared with the overriding problem of low living standards, high levels of unfit housing and, above all, unparalleled levels of unemployment, that it will make noticeably little impact on the daily lives of the citizens. At the last count, just short of 100,000 were without a job. That figure is probably higher than that when one takes into account the unregistered unemployed and others.

The official figure of 17.3 per cent. means that Northern Ireland has the dubious distinction of having the highest regional rate of unemployment in the United Kingdom. In my time as a Minister in the Province I was told that to translate Northern Ireland figures into United Kingdom terms one would have to use a multiplier of 40. I admit that I used that formula when I wanted to use it and discarded it when I did not. But if we were to translate that figure into the rest of the United Kingdom on the multiplier always used in financial circles, the resulting figure of 17.3 per cent. would mean 4 million unemployed in the rest of the United Kingdom. We should visualise what would happen in our constituencies with an unemployment rate of 17.3 per cent.

After the meetings of the weekend, I do not know whether we have stumbled on to the Prime Minister's secret of what is an unacceptable level of unemployment before she acts or reacts. I wonder whether 4 million is the going rate for the rest of the United Kingdom.

We should consider the gravity of the situation all round. In certain towns—I see that the hon. Members representing those areas are present—the problem is much worse. Strabane, Cookstown and Dungannon, for example, have unemployment rates in excess of 30 per cent. We should not complain of regional policy and the cost of jobs when there are such terrible figures in Northern Ireland. One should consider the whole balance sheet when cribbing at what is happening in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that if the hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) were here and there was an unemployment rate of 35 per cent. in his constituency he would not be so critical of some of the things that happen in Northern Ireland.

It is against such a backcloth that we are debating the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order. Before I turn to the detail of its specific inadequacies it is relevant and necessary to say a few words about the political climate within which the debate is being held.

When the Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order was before the House last December, I attempted to raise the matter of the Anglo-Irish summit talks which had been initiated at that time. Three months later the House is still none the wiser about the nature and direction of those talks. Despite the Prime Minister's speech in Belfast last Thursday, the matter is still shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Today's debate is the first on Northern Ireland since the Prime Minister's visit to Northern Ireland to defuse the fears caused by the rantings of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). I am sorry that he is not in his place. I expected him to be here today. I am sorry that I have probably not done the right thing by offering him a note of courtesy.

I trust that in future the Prime Minister will accept, if not from the Opposition, then from her colleagues, the advice offered to her about Northern Ireland. If she had heeded our words and come clean on the Dublin summit talks, the clawback operation last Thursday would not have been necessary.

If the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State requires advice on Northern Ireland—sometimes I think that they are clearly in need of it—they need look no further than the Opposition Benches and take the examples of the events in 1977. Our experience then showed that one sure way of demolishing the ravings of the hon. Member for Antrim, North was to give some hope to the people of Northern Ireland. That is what we gave them in 1977—jobs, improved housing and health facilities. We were seen to be doing something for the people, which is a lot more than I can say for the present Administration.

The Prime Minister will never silence the undercurrent of fear by churning out the same ambiguous phrases as she did in her latest speech. The people of Northern Ireland want jobs and economic security. The order demonstrates the Government's total inability and lack of determination to meet that desire. I could offer more advice, to the effect that one of the Department's Ministers must go to the Department of Commerce to find, on a dusty shelf, a copy of the Quigley report. My advice would be for him to read it and send it to the Prime Minister. The Quigley report contains the thoughts about how Northern Ireland should proceed. Some of the comments made by the Prime Minister in her speech on the economy can be said to be flying in the face of the Quigley report.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough):

The right hon. Member has raised the issue of the discussions with Dublin. So that the House can be quite clear, does he believe that the Prime Minister is lying in her teeth when she says that the Union is not at risk as a consequence of the discussions, or does he believe the Prime Minister's assurance that the Union is not at risk?

Mr. Concannon

I do not believe in any such thing. What I have already said about the hon. Member for Antrim, North should be sufficient answer. My position is the same as it has been from the start, that if the Prime Minister had accepted the advice—not of the Opposition, but of many other people—and made a statement, the cavortings and rantings of the hon. Member for Antrim, North would not have been allowed to continue and fester as they have.

There are some hon. Members from Northern Ireland constituencies who have a perfect right to speak out against unemployment; some, because they have a slightly different philosophy, might do so with their tongues in their cheeks. But there are some hon. Members—we all know them—who have no right to question and argue about unemployment rates in Northern Ireland. The problems of selling Northern Ireland are very difficult and they are not helped by the antics of a few people in the House and elsewhere. Some of the disgraceful scenes that occurred this weekend between the lord mayors of Belfast and Dublin will not help us to solve the problems of the economic structure of the Province.

I turn to the main content of the order. Without hesitation I can say that this Budget is necessitated by the unemployment that pervades Northern Ireland. It is not a Budget for the unemployed—for if they are looking to the order for hope of industrial regeneration and secure jobs they will look long and hard in vain. Instead, we have an order that is clear evidence of the failure of the Government s economic experiment in Northern Ireland. In all, just over 60 per cent. of the additional funds being sought by the Government will go directly to pay for the increased costs of unemployment and short-time working which was not predicted last summer. Under Class II, Vote 4, the single most expensive item is the funding of the temporary short-time working compensation scheme. By that allocation and a jigging of the finances within the Vote, an additional £7 million is to be given to the scheme. The staggering increase from £4 million to £11 million shows just how totally incompetent the Government have been in maintaining normal economic life in the Province.

No wonder the initial estimate has been trebled, with 24,580 people on short time in the Province at the end of January with a total of about 108,000 unemployed. Does the Minister anticipate a similar rise in the numbers on short-time working over the next 12 months, and what prospects are there for those people to return to normal working? Or is the order merely to put off the inevitable day when they will join the ever-growing dole queue in Northern Ireland?

Usually with this order we consider the application of additional funds to sustain or improve industrial development. That is not so today. There is no mention of more money being made available for crippled industry in Northern Ireland. Instead, we are asked to vote money to keep industrial production at the all-time low that it has reached in the Province.

In 1980 manufacturing output in the textile industry declined by 26 per cent. It was also down by 26 per cent. in the timber and furniture industries. The decline in mineral products was 16 per cent. In the detailed breakdown of Class II, Vote 4, we are told that the additional £7 million for the temporary short-time working compensation scheme is needed because of the"increased demand for assistance".

Why do not the Government realise that there is a vigorous demand for jobs in Northern Ireland to provide the economic security which it is plain that their policies cannot yield? The provision made for the unemployed in this order under Class II, Vote 4, and Class X, Vote 2, which requires an additional £5 million to be paid out to the unemployed, demonstrates that the Government are recklessly squandering all the economic achievements not only of the last Administration but of quite a few of their predecessors. It is difficult for some of us to watch in two years the disappearance of what has been painfully built up in Northern Ireland over 20 years.

There appears to be no enthusiasm among Northern Ireland Ministers for encouraging new jobs to come to the Province. Will the Minister say how many positive investment decisions have been made since the last Appropriation order was before the House? I would wager that even over the past year such decisions are far outweighed by the number of redundancies and factory closures.

I have a long list of all the announced closures and redundancies in Northern Ireland over the past 15 months. I cannot guarantee that it is fully comprehensive. It will take me a good few minutes to read it all out. For the sake of brevity I remind the Mininster of just a few of the closures which have necessitated the spending of £5 million under Class X, Vote 2. Some of the names on the list are those that I would never have expected to see.

Let us start with 10 January 1980, which witnessed redundancies at McLean and Bryce textiles. On 8 January it was Courtaulds. McCleary and L'Aimie followed. Then it was Courtaulds, and then Courtaulds again. When I recall that Courtaulds had 24 factories and was the largest employer in Northern Ireland in 1977–78 I can just imagine what is happening in the Province with the demise of that company. Olympia Business Machines announced redundancies in February 1980. The Carrickfergus plant of Courtaulds was closed completely. I cannot imagine Carrickfergus without Courtaulds. It certainly must be nearly a ghost town. The list continues with GEA Airexchangers of Bangor, Tern Consulate Shirts of Coleraine, Filtrona of Castlereagh, Grundig, Du Pont, Denny's of Portadown, the Rochester, Milford and Star factories at Londonerry and Cullan Valley Mills, the Goblin factory at Castlereagh, and, ICI fibres at Kilroot. There were only a few redundancies at GEC, and Courtaulds at Campsie is, we are told, under threat. The list goes on with British Enkalon at Antrim, Viking Cycles at Londonerry, and Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd. In addition, jobs are threatened at Euroweld, Goodyear—which I have visited—the Falls Flax Spinning Company, British Enkalon and Unidare Engineering at Portadown.

Mr. Alison

The right hon. Gentleman is reading out a list, the contents of which we all deeply deplore. But let us take Grundig as an example. Surely the right hon. Gentleman does not believe that the lack of profitability of Grundig in Germany, due to Japanese imports into Germany, is the fault of the Government.

Mr. Concannon

I can say only that as a Minister I encountered this problem with another firm in Northern Ireland. I concede that I probably had the benefit of a more enlightened Treasury Bench than the hon. Gentleman has these days. It allowed me to pick up some of the threads and to hold on to some of the jobs. It was much easier for me to the hang on to jobs we had than to chase new jobs that might never materialise. One of our priorities in those days was to ensure that we hung on to existing jobs, if necessary by the skin of our teeth. That is exactly what I did with some factories in Northern Ireland at that time.

In addition to this catalogue of failure in manufacturing industry there has been a series of redundancies in education, the Civil Service and the construction industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) will deal with Classes VIII and XI, so I shall say just a few words about the construction industry. A survey published on 17 February 1981 shows that 8,421 construction workers have lost their jobs since last June and that a total of 23,257 building workers are currently unemployed. That staggering figure represents 50 per cent. of the total construction work force at a time when 14 per cent. of the housing stock in Northern Ireland is unfit. There is, therefore, clearly plenty of work to be done, and I find it totally incomprehensible that the Government are allowing yet more houses to fall into a state of disrepair and unfitness at the very time when an adequate and willing work force exists and wants to work.

I do not think that it is a good enough excuse for the Government to rely on what was done between 1974 and 1979. As the Minister said, it should be said that the 1979 house condition survey revealed that there had been a significant impovement in the condition of the housing stock between 1974 and 1979. There was a 16 per cent. increase in sound houses and a 17 per cent. decrease in the number of houses requiring remedial action. The number of unfit houses fell by a quarter and the number of dwellings lacking one or more basic amenities fell by almost 30 per cent."—[Official Report, 22 January 1981; Vol 997, c. 535.] When travelling around Northern Ireland generally, and Belfast in particular, one is struck by the vast amount of work that remains to be done under the housing programme. It is not enough for the Government to quote the impact of what was done by the last Administration and to use that as an excuse for cutting back on the plans of the Housing Executive. The present Administration should be trying to match the figures that we achieved, trying to do something about the terrible housing conditions in Northern Ireland.

It is no good Ministers in Northern Ireland claiming that this whole area is the responsibility of local government. That is what the Secretary of State for the Environment claims for the rest of the United Kingdom. However, in Northern Ireland the Minister who is responsible for the Department of the Environment is also responsible for local government, so the whole sphere is his responsibility. There is much to be done there and it is not good enough for the Government to use what we achieved as an excuse for cutting back on public expenditure on housing.

In despair I ask what the Government are doing to reduce unemployment. I note with dismay under Class II, Vote 4, that almost £400,000 is to be reduced from the budget of Enterprise Ulster. In the seventh annual report of Enterprise Ulster, which was published just after the last Appropriation order was discussed in this House, the board reported that for the first time since the organisation's inception in 1973 job losses had occurred. Over 600 jobs have disappeared since May 1979, and recruitment has been practically non-existent since July of that year, when stringent cash limits forced this job-creating body to reduce its labour force by the non-replacement of leavers.

In addition to these cuts at a time of high unemployment, the function of Enterprise Ulster as a bridge between unemployment and employment is threatened. The more money that is taken from the organisation, the more it will become a form of unemployment relief. Rather than helping people back into the working world, it will mean they are simply biding their time between spells in the dole queue. The cut in the budget of Enterprise Ulster under this class will exacerbate the costs of materials and plant hire and make it difficult for the organisation to operate under the original aims laid out in 1973.

Because of what is happening to Enterprise Ulster, I view the recent announcement of the Minister responsible for the Department of Manpower Services to set up a community employment scheme with some scepticism. He said on 18 February of this new scheme: In terms of the total number of unemployed in Northern Ireland this contributor is modest. I take issue with the word"contributor". The fact that the budget of Enterprise Ulster is being cut back when a new scheme to create 450 jobs is to be set up means that there will be no net additional help for the unemployed in Northern Ireland. If anything, the Government are only putting back under a different name what they have already taken away—600 jobs from Enterprise Ulster are to be replaced by jobs in the community employment scheme.

I find little in Class II, Vote 4, to give hope for the unemployed. I note that there is to be no more money for the youth opportunities programme, even though there are 20,754 people under the age of 20 in Northern Ireland who do not have a job. That represents one-fifth of the people out of work. At the moment, despite the recent increase, the youth opportunities programme has only 10,000 places. This caters for only half, the young unemployed. What does the Minister propose to do to help the other 10,000 youngsters? We are frequently told that resources are needed to pay for industrial development, but the evidence of such development is thin on the ground. In any case, the conditions created by the Government mean that any money given to industrial development at the moment will not improve the job situation. Grants simply are not enough in an area where energy and freight costs are way above the national average.

On 20 January the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce made a plea to the Secretary of State to do something positive to help existing industries in the Province by subsiding electricity charges. Opposition Members and representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, particularly the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) have constantly criticised the energy situation in Northern Ireland. There is nothing in this Appropriation order to suggest that there will be a change, although the Prime Minister, in her Belfast speech last Thursday, said that the principle of bringing Northern Ireland energy pricing more closely into line with Great Britain had been conceded. We welcome that concession. Having allowed a situation of inequitable energy prices to grow up in Northern Ireland, it is only right that the Prime Minister should seek to remedy her own mistake. I hope that this new attitude will take root in other policy areas. However, a number of questions need to be answered. It is right that they should be raised—

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Humphrey Atkins): The right hon. Gentleman has accused the Government of allowing the energy differential to widen during our time in office. It has not.

Mr. Concannon

I put it like this. There was a time when I had this problem myself. I know what a fantastic amount of money it took to knock it down to something nearer the Great Britain level. If the right hon. Gentleman intends to narrow this down to what it was previously—the objective was to get it down to the price existing in Great Britain—I can only say that my recollection is that the Prime Minister spoke of bringing it more closely into line, and not into line, with great Britain. This does not alter the questions that I wish to put to the Secretary of State.

The Opposition will vigorously oppose any reallocation of resources away from housing, education or any other sector to pay for fairer energy prices. The Labour Government provided additional funds from the Treasury. The cost was £250 million over a five-year period to subsidise the electricity board and to bring prices down for the industrialists who were creating the furore. It was not done for domestic prices. I must ask the Government whether it is intended that domestic users should benefit.

The statement by the Prime Minister was fairly loosely worded. The situation should be spelt out clearly before someone is misled. We should know whether industry alone is affected or whether those words also apply to domestic prices. I ask the Secretary of State to consider these comments carefully when drawing up the main Estimates for the sums voted on account tonight.

There is no indication that any heed has been taken of the plea for help with transport costs, for a reduction in high interest rates and for a lower exchange rate in view of its adverse effect on cross-border trade. Even from what were traditionally bastions of support there is now severe criticism of the Government's economic policy. Following publication of the CBI's medium-term strategy last week, the chairman of the Northern Ireland CBI called for an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss job strategy. I do not know whether the Secretary of State can say when that meeting will take place or whether an agenda has been prepared. Will he say whether the call of the CBFs local council for increased public investment will be heeded and acted upon? There is great concern among industrialists in Northern Ireland that the Province's economy has been so seriously damaged that it will be unable to recover from the recession if and when it comes to an end.

For the benefit of Ministers who did not hear the words of Sir Philip Foreman, now the chairman of the Northern Ireland CBI council—I find it hard to say Sir Philip when"Phil" was the name we used—let me tell them what he said at a press conference last Thursday: The terrible truth about unemployment in the Province is that the total out of work will soon outnumber the people employed in manufacturing". It is about time that the Secretary of State did something positive about that terrible truth and started to fight the corner of the people of Northern Ireland on the economic front.

I turn to Class X, Vote 2. I am sorry that the additional amount sought for supplementary benefits is to cope with the demands of the unemployed. This additional sum of only £5 million shows that the Government have little intention of attacking the dire social distress that exists in Northern Ireland. The Government statistics published only last week reveal what Opposition Members have been saying in these debates over the past year to be absolutely true. Northern Ireland is definitely the poor relation of the United Kingdom. The people there earn less and have less to spend than in any other region of the United Kingdom. It would not be far from the truth to say that the only industry that the Government have been successful in creating in Northern Ireland is the industry of unemployment. Certainly it would appear that additional jobs will be created by Vote 4 in Class X, but it is ironic in the extreme that these people will owe their jobs to the high level of unemployment in the Province. I refer to the extra civil servants in the Department of Health and Social Security to deal with the number of unemployed.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

The right hon. Gentleman has not dealt with the problems of farming in the Privince. It may not come directly under the class. Would he not agree, however, that agriculture in Northern Ireland is in distress and is desperate for help?

Mr. Concannon

I had not intended to neglect that area. My hon. Friend will have something to say about it. He has been dealing with farming and the farmers union, for some considerable time. During my period in Northern Ireland I was responsible only twice for that Department. My hon. Friend has met the farmers union, which has had some harsh comments to make.

This is a pitiful Appropriation order. It is a firm indication of the character of this Administration—static and uncreative. Many of the people of Northern Ireland are depressed and demoralised, not least the trade union movement. Despite what the Secretary of State would like to believe, I can tell him in no uncertain terms that profound pessimism is the mood of the Northern Ireland Committee. At the last Question Time on Northern Ireland affairs, when I questioned the Secretary of State the right hon. Gentleman replied: My hon. Friend met the whole Committee last week and there was a useful exchange of views. I am happy to say that when 1 talk to the Committee I do not find quite the amount of pessimism that I detect in the right hon. Gentleman".—[Official Report, 12 February 1981; Vol. 998, c. 973.] I sat back and waited for the explosion from the NICICTU. Knowing the rosy language used by the secretary, Mr. Terry Carlin, I knew that I should not have to wait long for a missive. He said that he had heard the questions on Ulster Radio and added: Mr. Atkins' comments drew from me on that occasion an immediate angry response. That is only because he doesn't dot, dash, expletive deleted— listen. For the record Mr. Atkins last met the NIC for discussion on the economic position when he attended our meeting with the Prime Minister on 6 August … With reference to the recent meeting with Mr. Butler, referred to on 12 inst., we did meet him on 3 February to discuss a number of matters relating to manpower services. He insisted on having a general economic discussion to begin with, and I can only assume that it was to provide the Secretary of State with the opportunity of saying that his colleague had met the NIC. In summary therefore, his reply is facile, flippant and misrepresents the Committee's views on the current desperately worrying economic situation. The press statement after the latest unemployment figures were announced stated that the Government's response on the other hand is a combination of complacency and hopelessly inadequate responses, such as Mr. Butler's pathetic proposals announced last week. Mr. Atkins' complacency is matched only by his gross economic incompetence and his self-inflicted industrial blindness which does not allow him to see what is happening in the real world of industry outside the rosy gardens of Hillsborough Castle". I am only quoting Mr. Caxlin and pointing to the pessimism that I detected, but which the Secretary of State could not detect.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Butler)

Since the right hon. Gentleman has had to call on the services of Mr. Terry Carlin to make his speech, it might be reasonable for me to ask why, if Mr. Carlin had a message to convey to the Government, he declined to meet the Prime Minister on Thursday.

Mr. Concannon

That is a matter for Mr. Terry Carlin. I do not require him to write my speeches. I was merely replying to the Secretary of State's claim that he had not detected any sign of pessimism in the NICICTU. I was stating the answer that Mr. Carlin had sent to me.

None of us should be complacent when dealing with the economic problems of Northern Ireland. I take my own constituency as an example. Up to two years ago it was a receiving area for jobs. I used to count the unemployment in hundreds. I never thought that it would be possible for us to have 10 per cent. unemployment. There were times when I used to sit in my office in Northern Ireland and wonder what I would do if unemployment in my constituency reached the 10 per cent. level that existed in Northern Ireland. Lo and behold, two years later my constituency has 10 per cent. unemployment, and it seems to be rising.

The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler), whose constituency is near mine, has an unemployment level of 11 per cent. When dealing with the problems of Northern Ireland we should remember that the Province's endemic unemployment level is much higher than that in the rest of Britain and certainly higher than the levels in the constituencies of Northern Ireland Ministers. The other Minister of State, the hon. Member for Barkston. Ash (Mr. Alison) has an unemployment level of just over 10 per cent. in his constituency. Unemployment in the Secretary of State's constituency is just over 5 per cent. In the constituency of the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Patten), unemployment is 8.6 per cent. and in Basingstoke, the constituency of the other Under-Secretary, the rate is about 6 per cent.

In view of all the points that I have raised I call on the Secretary of State to reconsider the priorities demonstrated in the order when he is drawing up the main Estimates to be debated in the summer. Clearly, the monetarist experiment has failed dismally in Northern Ireland. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that at this delicate moment in the political situation in the Province the social consequences of unemployment may become unmanageable.

At present, more than one-third of families in Northern Ireland are suffering from the effects of unemployment—a situation that undermines normal social values and fuels anti-social tendencies. The order and the Prime Minister's speech are a recognition of the Government's failure. Let us hope that the full error of their ways does not become apparent before positive action—U-turns or call it what one will—is taken to halt the fireball of economic disaster in Northern Ireland.

The only hope for the people of Northern Ireland is to be rid of the Government as soon as possible, so that we can start again on the path of economic recovery for the people of the Province.

8.5 pm

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North):

I welcome the concession on electricity prices, but I expected more from the Prime Minister on her recent visit to Northern Ireland. She did not say specifically that prices in Northern Ireland would be brought exactly into line with those in Great Britain and she made no mention of how the concession was to be funded.

The cost must not be taken out of Northern Ireland funds, but must be an addition to those funds. Other hon. Members and I have complained for years about the cost of electricity in Northern Ireland. The concession, as it is called, will not do all that much to bring down the cost of living. That is why I was disappointed that the Prime Minister did not announce a series of measures to show that the Government were at last aware of the need to launch a regional programme to deal with the massive unemployment in Northern Ireland.

Many people fear, and I suspect, that the Prime Minister's visit to the Province was dictated more by the need to counter the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who is not with us tonight, and his allegations than to tackle the serious unemployment and industrial situation in Northern Ireland. I do not believe that what happened in the city hall contributed one bit to the true image of Northern Ireland and Ulster men and women who are, as I have often said before, kind-hearted, humorous and decent people, and who are anxious to do their best for their families and for the Province as a whole.

I listened with respect when the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) listed the catalogue of firms that are in jeopardy. He was right to point out that the figure of 100,000 unemployed in Northern Ireland is equivalent to 4 million unemployed in Britain. That would be a shocking and unacceptable figure to most people in Britain, and we in Northern Ireland cannot accept the equivalent figure of 100,000.

I know men who have become unemployed for the first time after 30 years of their working lives. I know young men and women who have worked for less than 12 months since leaving school three years ago. There are 6,000 boys and girls in Ulster who have never had a job since leaving school at the age of 16. Of the 160,000 who were working in wealth-creating manufacturing industries in Northern Ireland in 1978, 42,000 are idle. That figure includes nearly half the workers in the textile and man-made fibre industries.

The startling fact is that the narrow base of Ulster's post-war prosperity has been decimated and, with present Government policies, I cannot see its being revived in this century. That is a terrible statement to have to make, but we must be frank in our judgments of the situation so that Ulster people are aware of it and the Government realise the seriousness of the situation.

Where is the evidence of the creation of a new industrial base in Northern Ireland? There is none. Where is the concerted planning for the revival of manufacturing when the trade recession finally ends? There is none. This Government, dispite their promises and great activity, and despite the visit of the Prime Minister last weekend to Northern Ireland, have failed the Ulster people.

The situation in Northern Ireland is very serious. I still hope that the Government will take action to help Ulster. It is only by making sure that there are jobs and that industry is maintained that people will have hope in the midst of terrorism. I hope that the Government will bear in mind that aspect of Ulster's problems.

Over £112 million is required for the first half of the next financial year to support manpower services, such as training and aid to industry. The traditional division of manpower services being responsible for the short-term counter-unemployment measures while the Department of Commerce is responsible for the longer-term measures weakens the overall attack on the social scourge of 100,000 persons without work and with no prospect of work. There are 1,000 unemployed school teachers. The teaching force has been reduced by 250 this year. Those resources of trained men and women should be mobilised to bring new life and fresh hope to the flagging hearts and the dreary frustrations of our young unemployed.

No doubt the Minister will say that he has added 3,000 places to the youth opportunities scheme. Of course I welcome that, but the dismal reality is that the ideas of the Holland report were designed as a stop-gap for boys and girls and men and women who were not likely to be unemployed for more than a few months. Ulster's unemployed will be long-term unemployed unless radical and drastic action is taken quickly.

It has been estimated that even a small imposition of tariffs on imported clothes, carpets, shoes and a man-made fibres would transform the position. But the Government are as frightened of upsetting the United States by such action as they are about insisting on the repeal of the offensive ban on hand guns for the Royal Uslter Constabulary'. In Ulster today 20,000 people are unemployed because of imports from America, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Apparently, the Government are never happier than when they are falling in with the wishes of the United States war machine or with the United States Department of Commerce. If we are a special friend of the United States, it is high time that the Government forced the Americans to show their friendship for this country.

I turn to the question of education. Again, the Government are overspending on the training of teachers. Over £2 million a year could be saved and used to help the unemployed by abolishing the special privilege that is given to organised religion by keeping open three teacher-training colleges—St. Mary's, St. Joseph's and Stranmillis.

The new university has 2,500 fewer students than the original plans envisaged. It has room for 1,500 more students in the existing buildings. It has the most generous staff-student ratio of any institution in Northern Ireland, and better than most universities in Great Britain—about 1:8. It is ludicrous not to fill those empty lecture rooms with the students who are potential teachers. In the university they would escape the divisive influence of separate sectarian teaching and would share to the full the advantage of being in a university community.

No doubt the Minister will say that he has to wait for the final report of the Chilver committee. However, I believe that he would do and say anything and spend any amount of money to avoid the prospect of a clash with the Churches. I have said categorically before, and I do so again, that the existence of two separate education systems in Ulster is the most diabolical curse ever visited on our people. The very first Ulster Government in 1923—something that is not remembered—inserted the following words in the very first Northern Ireland Education Act; Education authorities shall not provide religious instruction in any public elementary school". Of course, Churches could go to schools and give religious education if they wished, but not at taxpayers' expense.

Unfortunately, that fine radical measure ran foul of the denominationalists, who even out-distanced the Roman Catholic Church authorities—and that is saying something—in their opposition and intransigence. Ulster's first Parliament weakened, and I regret to say that the words were deleted in an amending Act of 1925. That was the first surrender by the new Ulster Parliament to the demands of the sectarians. It did untold damage to generations of Ulster children.

There were to be other equally infamous surrenders in education until today, when we have the sad situation in which innocent children are kept apart between the ages of 5 and 16. That is unacceptable. I want the Government to have the courage to say that they have had enough of a system whereby Protestant and Catholic boys and girls must go their separate ways and only at the age of 16 or 17 can they first become acquainted at work. It is an impossible situation, and certainly is no sure foundation for any community. Taxpayers' money ought not to be used to support a system of educational apartheid that is as rigid and as humiliating to human dignity as the school systems of Durban and Johannesburg. That is wrong. The Government should take action and, if they want to help Northern Ireland, they should act on the Chilver committee's interim report.

I turn to the subject of the construction industry. The right hon. Member for Mansfield spoke of its plight, with over 8,000 having lost their jobs since last June. Of the total work force, 50 per cent. are now unemployed. It is an extraordinary situation and one that it is difficult for Ulster people to comprehend. New housing is needed, and some existing houses need to be brought up to a proper standard. People who are on the waiting list for a house in Ulster see no hope of getting one in the near future, and yet they see men out of work who could build those houses.

That is not government; it is sheer madness. There are too many young people who feel desperately frustrated as they face a long period waiting for a home of their own. Decency and humanity demand that the Government should adopt a policy that would enable those people to have a home within a reasonable time. If people have a home and an opportunity to bring up their families in decent circumstances, there is a better prospect for Northern Ireland.

Finally, I want to mention a charity in my own constituency—the Newtownards Gateway Club. The Gateway Club has branches in other parts of North Down and throughout Northern Ireland. It does wonderful work for the mentally handicapped. I have attended some of its functions and seen how it has been able to give happiness and help to young mentally handicapped people and to adults who suffer from mental disturbance. Yet this club in Newtownards, which used to have a minibus provided on two evenings a week, has been told by the Eastern Health and Social Services Board that it can no longer have the bus because the board has been instructed by the Government to cut its expenditure.

I should have thought that there were many ways in which one could save money without denying to the mentally handicapped the few hours of pleasure that these voluntary workers provide. Their work enabled the parents and relatives to get some relief when their disabled relatives were in the care of the Gateway Club in Newtownards. It is a disgrace, and I hope that the Government will say that they will provide the money so that the minibus will again be available on two nights a week to bring disabled children and adults from the Ards peninsula into the town.

I protested to the Minister about the decision, but he merely passed on my letter to the chairman of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, and the chairman wrote to me—and that shows the bureaucracy that has been imposed on Northern Ireland. His reply was very brief. It said that he had been told by his officials that he had to withdraw the transport services and that he had accepted his officials' advice.

There was no humanity in the board's approach to the needs of the Newtonards Gateway Club. It showed that the board was concerned only with pleasing the Minister, and that the Minister in turn was concerned only with pleasing the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer by showing how much it had been able to cut. But in this case the cut has been made to services for people who perhaps have not the strength to protest as vehemently as other organisations, and this is where the Government are failing to provide good government.

I complained to the Minister, and he wrote to me on 25 February. He said that the board's decision had been taken within the policy laid down by his Department and that"it would be inappropriate" for him to intervene. But that is only begging the question. If the matter were left there it would mean that no Member of this House could question the reason for the withdrawal of a service formerly provided by a health board. No hon. Member would ever be able to get at the truth and to find out whether there were other options that could have been followed by the health board and been less damaging to the work of voluntary organisations.

I am entitled to ask how big and important and how vital a decision by the health board must be before the Minister thinks that it is appropriate for him to intervene. He cannot abdicate his responsibility.

I end, as I began, by referring to the Prime Minister's visit to Northern Ireland. As I said in this Chamber earlier today, many people were disturbed by her failure to make a full and frank statement about the result of the summit conference in Dublin, and they are even more concerned now because of the report in the Irish Press, the official organ of the Fianna Fail party—the party in power in Dublin—that the Anglo-Eire study group is considering a federal Ireland as one of the options.

The people of Northern Ireland do not know the true situation. The only way for them to have peace of mind is for the Government, late in the day as it may be, to make a full statement about the summit conference and to give the guidelines laid down by the Prime Minister for that Anglo-Eire study group so that people know the parameters, exactly what the position is and whether any danger exists.

If there is fear, some politicians will be able to play on that fear and work havoc in Northern Ireland. I do not want that, and I do not believe that the Government want it, either.

8.26 pm
Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

After we last debated an Appropriation order I took the precaution of preserving my notes. Looking through them now. it seems justifiable to have hoped for some improvement in the position in Northern Ireland. However, far from seeing any improvement, we see an increase of nearly 10,000 in the number of unemployed since we last had the opportunity to debate an Appropriation order.

The hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) was quite right to bring before the House information about the brutal and ruthless cuts now being made by the Government in services provided for the disabled in Northern Ireland. We have been told in press statements and on television that this is International Year of Disabled People. For the disabled in Northern Ireland this year will be worse than any other year through which they have lived.

If the Government had any humanity or compassion they would have gone out of their way to show some consideration for the thousands of disabled people in Northern Ireland. Survey after survey has shown that there are far more disabled people in that region of the United Kingdom than in any other part of it, and their disablement has been brought about because of the poverty and social deprivation that we have known in Northern Ireland since the creation of the State. That is a situation for which successive British Governments must bear responsibility, whether Conservative or Labour. They were in sole control of conditions in Northern Ireland. Until 1968, when the House began to consider Northern Ireland, far too many of those Governments were prepared to let Northern Ireland look after itself. One can see from the state of health of thousands of our disabled how neglected they were.

The hon. Member for Down, North quoted a case in which he was involved concerning a minibus being taken out of service. I received a letter recently from the North and West Belfast health and social services district committee saying that at its February meeting it"learned that because of the present financial situation the Eastern Health and Social Services Board's schemes for financial assistance towards:

  1. (a) the adaptation of accommodation for the physically handicapped,
  2. (b) the provision of television for the housebound, and
  3. (c) the installation of telephones for the elderly and handicapped
had been abandoned in October 1980 and would remain so for the remainder of the current financial year.

Indeed, it was also indicated that the reinstatement of these schemes in the fiscal year 1981–82 will be dependent upon adequate funds being made available.

The members of the District Committee were greatly disturbed by this information and felt that taking into account that 1981 is the 'International Year of Disabled People' a line of positive action should be taken to have these schemes restored."

Tomorrow the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make another Budget Statement. I do not believe that we can expect by this time tomorrow to have had a ringing declaration in favour of the poor, under-privileged and disabled, whether in Northern Ireland or in any other part of the United Kingdom. In addition to all the other disabilities with which people in Northern Ireland have had to live, this insult is being heaped upon the disabled, as no consideration is being given to them.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) mentioned that 100,000 people were unemployed. I agreed with him when he said that that was not the true figure. During my last speech on an Appropriation order I said that I suspected that the total figure—without the increase of 10,000 in the last few months—was 125,000. In Northern Ireland the real total of unemployed, of people who would take jobs or any type of" employment if it were offered to them, is now about 130,000. One has only to reflect on that terrible figure for a moment to recognise the distress and despair that it brings, not only to those who are unemployed, but to their dependents.

I reiterate the question of the hon. Member for Down, North about whether there is any Government plan to try to grapple with this terrible tragedy in Northern Ireland. I again pose a question that I posed during the debate on the last Appropriation order. Is there any possibility of financial assistance from the EEC? Over the last six months the hopes of people in Northern Ireland were raised. They were told by spokesmen of the EEC that if Britain were to make an application for funds to be spent in the city of Belfast and in Northern Ireland generally, those funds would readily be made available.

I did not believe that propaganda at the time. Some people from the South as well as some from the North of Ireland were ruthlessly exploiting the feelings of the people of Northern Ireland. Meeting after meeting took place with so-called spokesmen of the EEC, which gave rise to great hope, but which in turn led to great despair when it was discovered that the promised pot of gold that was to come from the EEC was not there. I ask the Minister to say whether there is any chance of an increase in funds from the EEC to grapple with the terrible problem of social deprivation in Northern Ireland.

It is the duty of the Minister of State to be more explicit than the Prime Minister was and to tell us exactly what the right hon. Lady meant when she said that Northern Ireland electricity prices were to be brought into line with those in other parts of the United Kingdom. I agree with the hon. Member for Down, North that the right hon. Lady did not have to go to Northern Ireland to make that announcement. It could have been made anywhere and at any time. It is not the habit of the Government to send Prime Ministers all over the United Kingdom to make such announcements.

The right hon. Lady rightly went to Northern Ireland to counteract the propaganda of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). In his absence I make no apology for saying that it would be better if he were here tonight to debate the issues that affect his constituents. The fact that he is not here should not go unnoticed by the unemployed in Carriekfergus, Larne, Ballymena and other parts of Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman's colleagues, the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Belfast, North (Mr. McQuade), in both of whose areas there is tragic unemployment, should also be here. This is the place to voice their concern for those who depend on their case being put. It is not all that difficult to get here from Northern Ireland. Let no one be deceived into thinking that it is the strike by air traffic controllers that has kept those hon. Members away. There are other ways of getting out of the Province, if the three hon. Members had been interested enough. They could even have stayed here to await this debate.

The Prime Minister could have made her announcement of this belated change in the House. It could have been announced long before the hon. Member for Antrim, North went on the Carson trail. The price of electricity in Northern Ireland has been so disabling for so many thousands of people, not only in industry, but on the domestic scene, that it did not need a constitutional crisis or someone going on the Carson trail to make the Government change their mind.

I say with great reluctance to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) that his Government could have done exactly the same. They did not. There were many things that the Labour Government could have done and many that they found it impossible to do. Representing a Northern Ireland constituency, I cannot completely exonerate previous Governments for allowing that situation to continue.

Mr. Concannon

Our announcement of the £250 million grant to the Northern Ireland Electricity Board in, I think, 1977 was welcomed by my hon. Friend and others.

Mr. Fitt

Yes, I accept that, but it still left the price of electricity in Northern Ireland 23 per cent. higher than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I should have hoped that with the uncertain future facing the gas industry—the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) can speak on that matter with far more experience than I can—some help could be given there as well.

The Prime Minister went to Northern Ireland to announce this little modification. The Minister of State, who is here, had no hesitation in answering a written question this afternoon from an hon. Member who does not represent a Northern Ireland constituency. He was obviously told to put down a planted question. Surely the Minister does not think that we are stupid. Surely he does not believe that we do not know what a planted question is. The hon. Member for Petersfield (Mr. Mates) happened to table a question for answer today so that we could be told that there would be an increase of 37 ½ per cent. in the price of private sector housing rents and that more houses would be brought into the scheme, which will lead to a further dramatic increase in rents. If the Prime Minister had to go to the expense of flying to Northern Ireland in the present state of the economy, she could have made that statement in Northern Ireland. I understand that a written parliamentary question costs a few bob to answer.

The hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) was told in a written reply last August that there was to be a reallocation of resources involving £50 million. That amounted to a miniature Budget for Northern Ireland. I hope that I voice the concern of all Northern Ireland Members in saying that an announcement of such importance should not be made in a written answer to an hon. Gentleman who represents an English constituency.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

The hon. Gentleman is on a dangerous course. He is saying that English Members are not interested in Northern Ireland. Some of us are interested, and tabling questions shows our interest.

Mr. Fitt

I am not trying to restrict the rights of any hon. Member. We debated the rent order in Committee. Our constituents were affected by that order. I accept that Members from England, Scotland or Wales have the right to seek information, but their constituents will not be paying a 37½ per cent. increase in rents. I resent such a question being planted.

The Appropriation order is the equivalent of Northern Ireland's Budget. It gives scope to bring constituency problems to the House. I join other hon. Members in objecting to what appears to be the lack of concern of the Government for the Northern Ireland textile industry. They have shown scant concern for the textile industry in other parts of the United Kingdom. Outside the Belfast shipyards, the textile industry was the linchpin of the economy. It gave employment throughout the little towns and villages. It has been all but decimated. Looking as hopefully into the future as I can, I cannot see that there will be any resurgence of the textile industry as we knew it in Northern Ireland. If we accept that—and we must—the Government must ask what they can provide as an alternative. The textile industry has gone for ever.

Last week a deputation from the industry came to the House of Commons. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet the members of that deputation. They came from Northern Ireland, at no little expense, to try to influence opinion within the House to save the remaining industry in Northern Ireland. Those to whom I have spoken returned to Northern Ireland with the hopeless feeling that the few remaining jobs are insecure and that possibly by the summer of this year they will have gone also. If the textile industry in Northern Ireland has no future, I urge the Government to find some way, somehow, to do something quickly to attract some other industry that will employ those who have become unemployed because of the recession.

I wish to refer briefly to some of the Estimates being presented this evening. Class I covers a subject about which I rarely speak. In the past years I have not been in contact with the Department of Agriculture at all, but only last week I had the temerity to telephone its private office. I am sure that it was as astounded as I was about that. I contacted it about a river that runs through my constituency at Glen Road in West Belfast. That river is polluted, and the many rats around it scare the lives out of those who live in the immediate area. I contacted the health department of the Belfast city council, which told me to talk to somebody in the Departent of the Environment, which in turn said that it was the concern of the Department of Agriculture. I hope that between the health department of the city council, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Agriculture—which I believe is responsible for open rivers—and the Minister, inquiries will be made into the condition of the river at Glen Road.

I turn to the most important section of the order, namely, Class II, which covers the Department of Commerce. That Department is charged with the responsibility of trying to attract industries to Northern Ireland to take up some of the 100,000 unemployed. It is important that that Department also recognises its responsibility to try to maintain existing industry in Northern Ireland. It is sometimes easier in the long run to maintain existing jobs than to depend on being able to attract American, German and Japanese industries at some time in the future. Those countries have their own economic problems, and charity begins at home. It is the Government's duty to maintain existing jobs rather than to let them go and hope that something will turn up in the future.

There has been some talk about the position in Northern Ireland which I do not believe. The hon. Member for Knutsford has received more support on this issue than he would otherwise have received. There are plenty of decent, hard-working Unionists in Northern Ireland who believe tenaciously in the link with the United Kingdom. Their fears and suspicions have been aroused by the mysterious circumstances attached to the summit meeting and the lack of information.

Many of them have attended meetings organised on the so-called Carson trail. It is an emotional issue. The hon. Members for Antrim, North and for Belfast, East have been saying that the fall off in employment and factory closures are symptoms of a British economic withdrawal from Northern Ireland. I do not believe that there is that political significance in factory closures. They are taking place because of the Government's hardhearted and ruthless outlook and their mad pursuit of monetarism. There is no such thing as the economic withdrawal that is spoken of by the hon. Member for Antrim, North.

The Northern Ireland Electricity Consumers' Council was set up by the Government and charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the interests of electricity users. It has performed a useful function. I have received a recent communication from the council—I am sure that it has been received by others—that states that the Government's withdrawal of the additional heating allowance on 24 November 1980 has caused real hardship. The allowance was payable to those in receipt of supplementary benefit because the price of electricity was higher in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom. It was designed as a compensatory allowance. We have been told that the price of electricity will be reduced, but the withdrawal of the allowance has caused great hardship.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John Patten)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on electricity tariffs is likely to be of great benefit to those on or near the poverty line?

Mr. Fitt

I accept that. I only hope that my confidence and that of the hon. Gentleman is not misplaced. The Prime Minister's announcement is rather like the Dublin summit. Nobody knows exactly what it means. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us exactly what it will mean. Will it be for domestic consumers, or will it be only for industrial consumers? What will the rate be? Will it be exactly as it is in other parts of the United Kingdom? There needs to be clarification. Where will the money come from? Will it be taken from some other Department in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Member for Knutsford tabled a question in July 1980 on the De Lorean car project. The answer stated that the company was to get £14 million and that £10 million was to be taken from one Department, £5 million from another and £3 million from a third. Was that money taken from other Departments so that it could be made available to the De Lorean project? The Departments of Health and Social Services, Housing and Education suffered drastically.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

And the Department of Agriculture.

Mr. Fitt

I am not sure about that. I merely know that other Departments suffered badly because of the reallocation of resources. If that was a reallocation of resources, the fewer we see of them the better. The reallocation meant that we had £10 million less for housing, £10 million less for health and social services and £26 million less to spend on the environment, £13 million of which was cut from the housing allocation. I find myself in agreement with many of the sentiments that the hon. Member for Down, North appeared to express this evening.

One of the greatest problems in Belfast is housing. Every day I have an advice centre. When I am not there my wife and daughter run it. About 80 or 90 per cent. of those who come to see me have housing problems. Every time that I get in touch with the Housing Executive 1 am told that the houses being built are for redevelopment areas or for Al category people. Ordinary young people who get married and put their names down for a house have no chance. I am told that by a series of district managers in the city of Belfast. I know that it is also true of the United Kingdom, but Northern Ireland has the worst housing in Western Europe. Sociologists and other experts in the Common Market agree that Northern Ireland has by far the most appalling housing conditions in Western Europe.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Does the hon. Gentleman include Italy in Western Europe?

Mr. Fitt

I do not want to get involved in an international debate. We have enough problems without that.

The Government appear to be concerned about spending money in the right way. How does the Minister responsible for the environment in Northern Ireland justify telling Belfast city council to employ people to pull down fly posters? After 6 or 7 pm in Belfast there is little social life. There are few places to which one can go with security. In the past troubled decade a few promoters have tried to run dances and bring international artists to Belfast. The)' therefore need to advertise in the local press and by displaying posters on hoardings.

If I knew who it was in the Department of the Environment, I should sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with him, but somebody decided to tell the council to remove graffiti. Graffiti in Northern Ireland usually refers to 1916, 1690, the Queen or the Pope. Advertising that a punk rock group is visiting Belfast is not nearly as offensive—though some people may find it so. However, no sooner are posters put up by the people who are trying to bring some social life to Belfast than someone to do with the corporation tears them down. The promoter has to pay for someone to put up his bills; they are then torn down the next morning. The printers, the promoters and those who stick up the bills have made representations to me. I have written to the Minister about this. If there has to be cheese-paring, that is one area in which it could take place. The money saved there could perhaps be channelled into North Down to compensate for what has been taken away. People must get their priorities right.

I am glad to see that as a result of the strong representations made during the last Appropriation order debate the Minister has decided to retain the Sports Council functions under Class VIII. The people of Northern Ireland, through their representatives—my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench as well as some hon. Members on the Conservative Benches—made representations to ensure that the Government's mind is not completely closed.

The increase in expenditure of £5 million to which my right hon. Friend referred has been brought about by the increase in the number of unemployed. Again, on the question of spending money in the right way, the Government must surely realise that it is better to keep a man in a job than to pay him unemployment benefit. Yet they appear to accept that the unemployment figures must be allowed to rise to whatever the level they may reach and to be prepared to pay unemployment benefit. Even from a Conservative point of view that is very bad economics. It is a very bad and wasteful way of spending taxpayers' money to keep on paying out unemployment and social security benefit without, in effect, even trying to create work.

The people of Northern Ireland are not demanding exorbitant wages. Northern Ireland does not have thousands of industrial wreckers who are determined to wreck the economy. It does not have a strike record that is in danger of wrecking its industry. At present, Northern Ireland has the highest uptake for family income supplement in the United Kingdom. That means that those people are in employment, but that they are working for less than they would receive if they were not working. It gives the lie to any idea that there are thousands of layabouts in Northern Ireland who do not wish to work but prefer to live on social security.

The 8,500 to 9,000 people receiving family income supplement are in employment, but they are working for less than they would receive if they were on the dole. The difference therefore has to be made up by means of supplementary payments. That in itself should be sufficient indication that the people of Northern Ireland want to work. They are not strikers. They are not out to wreck industry in Northern Ireland.

The record of the trade union movement in Northern Ireland is an enviable one. The Minister must agree, by and large, from the discussions that he has had with trade union leaders in Northern Ireland, that they are not far-out Lefties or people who support some other far-out view. They are people who are trying their damnedest to create conditions in which their members will be allowed to remain in employment.

As I have said, this Appropriation order is tantamount to a small Budget for Northern Ireland, and I recognise that without it life in Northern Ireland would come to a standstill. Nevertheless, it leaves a great deal to be desired. It could have shown more sympathy, understanding and compassion for all the people of Northern Ireland, and particularly, as I have already said and I emphasise again, the disabled of Northern Ireland, who are suffering tremendously as a result of the heartless attitude of the Government. It is easy to kick someone who cannot walk or who is suffering from physical disability. He cannot do anything for himself. He has to depend upon the generosity of the Government, and he is not getting it.

The hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Patten) has recently taken up his first ministerial position. I urge him to include in his reading material a magazine from Northern Ireland known as"Scope". It is an informative magazine, which takes into account all the needs of the under-privileged groups in Northern Ireland. This month's issue reports that Age Concern in Northern Ireland is extremely concerned about the future because the number of under-privileged groups is increasing and very little provision is being made to solve the problem within the next decade.

It would help if the Government and the Minister were to look five or 10 years into the future to see in what direction their policies are taking us. In an area where there is social deprivation, mass unemployment and very little concern for the disabled, frustrations are building up. Those frustrations build up until there is a social upheaval. I am surprised that there has not been a social upheaval in other parts of the United Kingdom because of Government policies since 1969. Throughout the past decade I have lived through that type of social upheaval in Northern Ireland, and I should not want to see it pushed on to people in England, Scotland or Wales.

Even though many of my remarks relate to Northern Ireland, they have a general bearing on social conditions throughout the United Kingdom. I urge the Minister to look at the matters that I have raised, because I believe that they have a real effect on the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland. If possible, I urge him to show just a little more humanity and concern for the problems of the people who live in that part of the United Kingdom.

9.7 pm

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) that the trade union movement in Northern Ireland is to be commended. There has been a deterioration in recent years, but it is true that the record of industrial relations and the sense of responsibility in the Northern Ireland trade unions are superior to that in Great Britain. We should also recognise the part that the trade unions have played in preventing sectarian trouble at places of work.

The hon. Gentleman charged the Prime Minister—so did the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon)—with ambiguity in her statement about electricity. However, there is one question which the hon. Member for Belfast, West could have answered for himself had he read my right hon. Friend's speech. She said that the"major decision of principle" on electricity will be welcomed by commerce, industry and agriculture, as well as by domestic consumers". She said that this was evidence that the Government is responsive to the needs of this part of the United Kingdom", and added that it was confirmation of the Government's economic commitment to the Province". Those words are important, because, although the hon. Gentleman said that he did not believe it, he pointed out that members of the Democratic Unionist Party were going about saying that there was some intention on the part of the Government to disengage economically from the Province. That is just not so. Indeed, the Prime Minister went to the root of Ulster's economic problem when she referred to energy. She said: we have in the Province one overriding economic problem—the cost of energy, particularly electricity". I want to ask one question about bringing Northern Ireland tariffs more closely into line with those of England and Wales. The statement says: The tariff increases due on 1 April will be reviewed in the light of this decision. Is the cost of that provided for in the Appropriation order, or will the Government have to return to the House for additional funds to meet the cost?

The hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) will have noticed that the Prime Minister offered no hope for the gas industry, unless he considered the orderly rundown as something to be welcomed. The Prime Minister also referred to the possibility of receiving supplies of gas from Kinsale in the Republic. My right hon. Friend said: we are looking at that possibility with an open mind". Is that one of the subjects for joint studies with the Republic? Is that one of the matters being discussed?

Energy has long been a matter of co-operation between the North and the South. In the communiqué issued after the talks between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in Dublin on 8 December, the two leaders noted with satisfaction the useful exchanges at Ministerial and official level leading to new and closer co-operation in energy, transport, communications, cross-border economic developments and security. I ask the question partly because I share the curiosity of other hon. Members about exactly what is being discussed. All kinds of impressions are abroad. The Dail has been debating defence for the first time for many years because, it is alleged, the possibility of a defence pact is one of the topics. While the House and the country are not informed about what is going on, there will be rumours and inventions. I am not sure that that is healthy.

Diplomacy and international discussions do not prosper in the glare of publicity, but, whether it be our dealings within the European Community or with other foreign Powers, there comes a time when it is appropriate for Ministers to make a statement in the House. I hope that before too long it will be possible for a statement to be made.

The communiqué on the talks on 8 December referred in paragraph 6 to"possible new institutional structures". I hope that I shall not be trespassing on your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that of the House if I mention one existing institutional structure which dates from 1786. It is an all-Ireland institutional structure, the 21 Commissioners of Irish Lights, upon whose transport I have had the pleasure of sailing. It is an all-Ireland institution of proved value on which we can question the Department of Trade. I know that that can be done because I have done it.

Although it is without the compass of the order, I mention that institutional structure because one of the 21 members of the Commission of Irish Lights is the Lord Mayor of Dublin. It should be placed on the record by more than one hon. Member how deeply we deplore the violent insult offered to this distinguished foreign visitor by supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party. They are absent from one of the more important Northern Ireland debates of the year. I hope that it is because the hon. Members concerned are ashamed of themselves. If so, at least there is some sign of grace.

Mr. Kilfedder

I am sure that the hon. Member will accept that the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) received far more publicity from the fracas at the Belfact city hall than this debate will receive in the media in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

That is probably unfortunately so, but some of us are concerned with the welfare of Northern Ireland, not for our publicity or the publicity of a particular political group.

The Prime Minister referred to the advantage to agriculture of the decision of principle on electricity. Although I see my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) in his place and hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and knowing that he is well informed on this subject, I hope that he will not mind my saying a word about the serious state of agriculture, on which I asked a parliamentary question—

Mr. Fitt

Was it a planted question?

Mr. Biggs-Davidson

No, it was not planted. I worked it all out for myself. The answer to this question by my hon. Friend the Minister of State showed that The aggregate net income of farming in Northern Ireland fell by 47 per cent. from 1978 to 1979 and is estimated to have fallen by a further 60 per cent. or more from 1979 to 1980. There are no separate figures available for Great Gritain, but corresponding figures for the United Kingdom as a whole are 7 per cent. and about 10 per cent."—[Official Report, 30 January 1981; Vol. 997, c 535.] Put in real terms, the fall in farm incomes was 60 per cent. in 1979 and is estimated to be between 70 and 80 per cent. in 1980. It is remarkable that production has not yet fallen to the extent that might be expected, but I suppose that that is because fanners cling to their stock in the hope of better times coming.

Let me say a word about agriculture in the county of Fermanagh. For long that county has in effect been disfranchised in this House, so perhaps it will be proper for me to say something about that part of Northern Ireland. By"disfranchised" I do not mean by the regretted decease of Mr. Frank Maguire, the late Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. However, 90 per cent. of the land area of the county is a less-favoured area—speaking of which, I hope that Northern Ireland will not have to wait for full delimitation of these areas until the survey in Great Britain has been completed. Matters in Northern Ireland are too serious for that.

Recently, the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported that 122 animals were starving on a farm near Fermanagh's border with Tyrone. I understand that earlier cases of animals in this condition had been reported in that county. What information does the Minister have—whether from the RUC or from officers of the Department of Agriculture—of the state of cattle and the provison of fodder? How true is it, to speak more generally, that many farmers are on the edge of bankruptcy, including enterprising young farmers who undertook heavy capital investment on borrowed money?

From a non-Government source, I am informed that farmers' overdrafts showed an increase of £38 million since January 1980 and stood at £181 million in November while the net income for the year was estimated at £13 million. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, about £4 million of European money is to go to the subsidising of improved grain handling facilities at the major ports in Northern Ireland. The higher cost of feed is one of the great difficulties of Northern Ireland agriculture. What effect will the application of this £4 million have on the extra cost of feeding stuff, and when?

Have the Government any other measures in mind to assist with transport costs or to support milk prices? Do Ministers agree with the allegation by the Ulster Fanners Union that, in the pigs sector, hidden subsidies are given in France and Denmark? I understand that on 13 January the Ulster Fanners Union met the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and that the latter promised speedy action. What has resulted, or is to result, from that? I congratulate the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the efforts that he made in Brussels on behalf of Northern Ireland and the package put together there. I hope that the principle of additionally will not give difficulty.

When one considers the plight of agriculture in Northern Ireland, one thinks, despite what was said by the right hon. Member for Mansfield, of the millions of pounds that have been made available not only for De Lorean but for other industrial enterprises. I believe that, without adding unduly to public expenditure, prompt and sensible measures can do much to relieve a serious situation. To cherish agriculture is to cherish Ulster.

9.22 pm
Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)

The right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) reminded the House that, at regular intervals over the past seven years, I have been arguing that parity of pricing for energy in Northern Ireland would, at one stroke, give a boost to our community across the board—to the pensioner, who is bearing fuel costs much in excess of pensioners in other parts of the United Kingdom, and to the industrialist, who also bears a substantial surcharge for energy compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. For that reason I welcome the statement made by the Prime Minister in Northern Ireland last week.

We started off by demanding parity. We have finished up by begging for it. We demanded it because we thought that we had a right to it. We implored, wheedled and argued. We were told at various times, particularly by the predecessor of the Minister in charge of commerce, that we had no right to expect parity and that we had no right to share in the resources of the United Kingdom. It was gratifying to read last week the Prime Minister's remarks on the matter. Perhaps we should not have been banging on the door of the Department of Commerce. Perhaps we should have been banging on the door of No. 10 Downing Street.

It was nice to hear the Prime Minister say that in the Province we have one overriding problem—the cost of energy, particularly electricity. We have been saying that for seven years. The Department of Commerce in Northern Ireland did not want to hear us.

I wish to put the Prime Minister's remarks on the record in case the reservations that have been expressed come true. The right hon. Lady said: Whatever the future prospects for gas, electricity prices will continue to be of vital concern to Northern Ireland consumers …these tariffs are an unreasonable burden upon the Northern Ireland community … We have decided to bring Northern Ireland electricity tariffs more closely into line with those in England and Wales, and to keep them there. Because of the importance of energy costs to the whole Northern Ireland economy, this is a major decision of principle. It is a principle for which we have been arguing for seven years. We are glad that the principle has been accepted and granted.

There may be reservations, with which I shall deal later, but I do not see how the Government can get out of that commitment if they do not mean it. Therefore, I start from the assumption that the principle has been conceded and they mean it.

Once that is accepted, there is no way that money to finance the commitment can be found from any source in Northern Ireland. It will cost an awful lot of money. If the Government attempted to finance it by taking money from other areas of the economy of Northern Ireland they would destroy us by that means, just as they were destroying us slowly by charging us more for our energy.

Let us consider what the Prime Minister may have meant. She said that the Government had decided to bring Northern Ireland electricity tariffs"more closely into line" with those of England and Wales. What does"more closely into line" mean? Does it mean bringing tariffs into line with the average of England and Wales? That would imply that Northern Ireland was the equivalent of the average area in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is not; it is the most under-privileged area in the United Kingdom. The Government cannot say that they will grant us the average cost for England and Wales. It must be more than that.

Queen's University in Belfast was recently asked to select a region of England or Wales that roughly corresponded to Northern Ireland. The geography department of the university advised that an area embracing Northumburland, Durham and Tyne and Wear had similar geographical, industrial, urban, rural and social characteristics to those of Northern Ireland. We did not need Queen's University to tell us that. Anyone looking at the two regions would see that they had substantial similarities—old, decaying industries, such as shipbuilding and heavy engineering works, backed by a rural hinterland and matching urban and rural deprivation.

What is the situation on electricity tariffs in that area of the North-East? The National Utility Service news brief No. 13 of December 1980, supplied to me by the Library, points out that in the league table for electricity tariffs for the United Kingdom the North-Eastern Electricity Board, which covers the area defined by Queen's University, charges 3.5lp per kilowatt hour to light engineering, compared with the charge of 4.72p in Northern Ireland. Commercial premises in the North-East are charged 3.4p per kilowatt hour compared with a charge of 4.49p for similar premises in Northern Ireland. The charge for heavy engineering in the North-East is 2.78p compared with 3.4p in Northern Ireland.

That means that a light engineering firm in Northern Ireland pays 34 per cent. more per kilowatt hour of electricity than a similar firm in the North-East of England; commercial premises in Northern Ireland pay 32 per cent. more and heavy industry pays 23 per cent. more. Is it any wonder that ICI, Courtualds and the other companies mentioned by the right hon. Member for Mansfield have decided to cease operations in Northern Ireland?

Courtaulds and ICI are heavy users of electricity, and if they were faced with difficulties in their United Kingdom operations and had to look for places to make cuts they would obviously cut in the area where electricity charges were heaviest. That is as much of a reason for the closures in Carrickfergus as any other that I can think of.

The Minister may well dispute those figures, but they were supplied by the Library, and I have to accept them. When the Prime Minister spoke about bringing tariffs more closely into line with those in England and Wales", I hope that she meant to bring them into line with a comparable area of England and Wales, and that is the North-East. That area—perhaps its electricity board acknowledges the problems that exist in that also deprived area—has one of the lowest tariffs in the whole Kingdom. The tariff is not the lowest, because other areas have even lower tariffs, but we are prepared to settle for the tariffs that exist in the North-East.

I do not know the domestic tariffs. In Northern Ireland domestic consumers pay over 20 per cent. more than the average. If that is the figure for the average, how much more are they paying than the lowest domestic consumer in Great Britain? One can imagine a figure of 40 per cent. or more. So when the Prime Minister talks about bringing the figures"more closely into line" she should equate like with like, and the tariffs in the North-East are the most appropriate for Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister went on to say and to keep them there". I acknowledge the efforts made by the right hon. Member for Mansfield and his colleagues to grapple with this problem in the past. To get £250 million at a time of economic difficulty out of the Exchequer, and another £100 million in additional moneys to help stabilise prices, was a massive achievement. But all that they did was to stabilise the prices at the variations that I mentioned. They pegged the prices and, unfortunately, had to impose that disadvantage on the various groups that I had listed.

I hope that when the Government decide what action to take they will take guidance from another document, which no doubt is covered with dust in the Department of Commerce and has not been looked at for a long time because it might be a source of embarrassment. The document was published in September 1978 by the Northern Ireland Economic Council, which three years ago said what I am saying tonight. It is worth putting it on the record. It said that we question whether it is realistic to expect an entirely separate and self-contained electricity supply industry in Northern Ireland to be able to provide electricity at charges and at a standard of service which match those prevailing in Great Britain. Since costs, relative to Great Britain, are of great importance to the economic viability of the Province, the Council is led to the conclusion that the interests of Northern Ireland might be well served by some form of amalgamation between the electricity supply industry in the Province and the main body of the industry in Great Britain. We are of the view that in this way the Northern Ireland consumer could be serviced to the standard enjoyed by the consumer in other parts of the United Kingdom, and at an approximately equivalent charge. The council went on to refer to the Plowden committee, which had considered the problem shortly before. It said: We consider that it is relevant to our advocacy of some form of integration with the electricity industry on the mainland that the Plowden committee considered the case for a separate Electricity Board for Wales, but concluded that separation of the industry in Wales from the main body of the industry would be decidedly detrimental to the interests of Welsh consumers. Northern Ireland is in many respects less favourably circumstanced than Wales, and by inference is even less well equipped to sustain separate electricity supply arrangements. The Minister should take out that report, brush off the dust and read it carefully, because I believe that it shows the way.

The report even dealt with one matter in the Prime Minister's statement that worried me. It concerns the avoidance of recurring subsidies and having to read year after year in an Appropriation order for expenditure by The Department of Commerce on a subsidy to electricity tariffs of several million pounds, making us look as though we are standing with the begging bowl in our hands year after year asking for what we believe is our right.

The council considered all these matters. It considered how to avoid the problem, because it does not happen anywhere else. When British Ley land properly receives hundreds of millions of pounds, the sum does not go against an account for the area where British Leyland factories are located. The same is true of other regions. I should be glad to know whether any region of the United Kingdom has a separate account, and whether the fact that it received more than other regions is held against it.

I hope that by speaking so forcefully about this matter 1 have not appeared too churlish. I welcome and accept what the Prime Minister said. The reason why I feel so strongly is that 1 have been arguing what the right hon. Lady said for seven years. I am sorry that some of our Ministers did not accept it a little sooner because we might have seen the benefits a bit sooner, if they had. We might not have had unemployment figures quite as bad as those to which the right hon. Member for Mansfield referred.

Let us hope that what I interpret from this statement is what we shall see. Let us hope that we do not have the chairman of the Northern Ireland Electricity Service appearing again on television saying that he does not quite know what the Prime Minister meant, which is virtually what he said the day after, and that he does not know how this will be achieved. Of course, the explanation is that he is an electricity Sinn Feiner. He has a vested interest in wanting to maintain a nice separate little electricity supply industry in the Province. Obviously he does not want to become submerged in an overall United Kingdom electricity supply industry. Someone should bring him in and tell him exactly how this will be done. We hope that it will take account of some of the recommendations on energy policy made by the Northern Ireland Economic Council in September 1978.

The Prime Minister also said: Some people talk as though a supply of natural gas would solve virtually all our energy problems. As one of the few people who have been arguing for natural gas ever the past seven years, I cannot help feeling that the right hon. Lady may have been taking a swipe at me in that regard. But I have never said that a supply of natural gas would solve all the energy problems of Northern Ireland. I simply said that we were as entitled to our share of natural gas in Northern Ireland as any other part of the United Kingdom, and I hold to that view.

To get natural gas, we were prepared to pay three or four times what was being paid by consumers in other parts of the United Kingdom. We were denying our own argument for parity, but, in order to make our case, we said that we would pay three or four times more. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson), who represents the Social Democratic Party, might be interested to know that gas consumers in Northern Ireland pay more than 90p per therm. It makes us a little sick to hear all the soul-searching about having to pay 30p or 31p per therm, which is apparently what will have to be paid over here when the 15 per cent. increase is imposed. We already pay 90p per therm.

Mr. Fitt

It would cost the hon. Gentleman three and a half quid to do himself in!

Mr. McCusker

I do not know whether one therm of gas would be enough.

Mr. Neville Sandelson (Hayes and Harlington)

The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr, Fitt) obviously has worked it out.

Mr. McCusker

We never said that natural gas would solve all our energy problems. We simply did not want to see ourselves with our dependency all in one basket. We did not want to become totally dependent on electricity, and we still do not. We believe that we are entitled to the choice that other energy consumers in the United Kingdom have. We should like to see interconnectors both ways—north-south and east-west.

We believe that natural gas has a part to play in the Northern Ireland energy scene, and we are sure that the Prime Minister meant it when she said that this possibility was being looked at with an open mind. As other hon. Members have said, it is one of those areas of co-operation on the island of Ireland to which no one could object. If we stuck to those types of co-operation we should not be facing what we have had to endure from certain politicians in Northern Ireland over the past two or three weeks.

I want to touch briefly on the subject of education. As the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) said, there are 1,084 unemployed teachers in Northern Ireland and we are now threatened with a further 250 redundancies this year. I was arguing for parity a few moments ago. If this was a case of parity I should have no argument to make. If it was because the pupil-teacher ratio in Northern Ireland was so much better than in other parts of the United Kingdom and we had to get rid of teachers to bring our ratio into parity I should not mind, but that is not the case.

In a recent survey by one of our local teachers' unions it was established that in a league table of 93 local authorities in Great Britain Northern Ireland finished in about seventy-fifth place in pupil-teacher ratios. The union went to Queen's University for co-operation with that survey, and it was advised that the North-East of England could be used as a comparable region to Northern Ireland. That region takes into account authorities such as Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, Durham and Northumberland. The average primary pupil-teacher ratio was 21. In Northern Ireland it is 24. If we are comparing like with like, what justification can there be for declaring another 250 teachers redundant in the coming year?

Mr. John Patten

If the hon. Member is comparing like with like, will he make a similar comparison between pupil-teacher ratios in secondary schools in England and those in Northern Ireland, where they are better?

Mr. McCusker

I was coming to that point, which is made in the same survey. The union was honest in its endeavours to try to produce a case. It showed that, for example, in Northern Ireland the pupil-teacher ratio in secondary schools is 15.5. In Newcastle it is even less, at 14.7. In South Tyneside it is 15.5, and in North Tyneside 15.8. Other regions are slightly above that ratio. There is an advantage to Northern Ireland in the ratio in secondary schools, but that marginal advantage is not anything like the variation at primary level. Most teachers in Northern Ireland are capable of teaching in either primary or secondary schools—I have done so myself—because of the nature of their training. If we have a pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools of 23.8 against 21 in a comparable region in great Britain, we should be using those excess teachers to bring down that pupil-teacher ratio.

Few people argue that education and the advantages that it can confer on Northern Ireland is an area in which we should try to make savings. There are too many unemployed school leavers still on the dole in Northern Ireland. There is a much higher proportion than in England. One of the reasons is their lack of education, skills and achievement when they were at school. If there is anything that the Government can do to improve that, they should do it. Now is not the time to have another 250 redundancies in the teaching profession in the Province.

There are no redundancies in Great Britain. In The Times Educational Supplement of 27 February the heading was: No teacher has yet been sacked because of cuts. There are substantial examples of cuts that have been avoided. The report states: It looked for a long time as if Lincolnshire would be the first authority to make teachers compulsorily redundant … Until before Christmas, it looked as if compulsory redundancies were inevitable—then the authority had a change of heart and offered alternative employment to all those still without another job." The report went on to state that the county council agreed to meet extra travelling costs.

Hereford and Worcester county council was faced with the possibility of redundancies. It proposed to axe an extra 300 teachers. However, after a protest campaign launched by teachers' unions with the support of parents they agreed not to go ahead with the cuts. There was an instance of fixed-term contracts being negotiated in Oxfordshire, where 200 fixed-term contract teachers were involved. About a quarter of the teachers said that they wished to renew their contracts. All were eventually found posts. In Solihull, councillors tried to cut 153 teaching posts, but a revolt by members of the Conservative controlling group eventually threw out the cuts package. They were able to do that. Education and teachers are the responsibility of elected representatives in Great Britain. They are not the responsibility of the elected representatives in Northern Ireland, where the education and library boards cannot make those decisions. They are told by the Minister what to do, and because they are the Minister's lackeys they generally do what he tells them.

Teachers in Great Britain can use their muscle, their strength and their influence in political terms to get education committees to change their policies and use redeployment and so on. In Northern Ireland that does not occur. That is as good a reason as any, apart from the one that I have just given, for not declaring another 250 teachers redundant in the Province. I shall be interested in what the Minister, who, to judge from his intervention, is also concerned with parity, will say about that.

9.46 pm
Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. As a West Country Member, I do not apologise for speaking in a Northern Ireland debate. Once one has tasted the friendship and kindness of Northern Ireland, one cannot forget it. One certainly cannot forget its problems and difficulties. If I can do anything to help, particularly in regard to agriculture and food production, I am determined to do it.

I take exception to what the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) said about Members of Parliament from England putting down questions. I put down a planted question the other day, and I counted it as a privilege. It is important that we in this part of the country, and certainly in the South-West, where we have many problems similar to those in Northern Ireland, take an interest and are prepared to do something positive.

It does not do Northern Ireland much good—I must not say"to exaggerate"—to fail to take into account the present appalling world recession. Northern Ireland has had its problems for many years. They are bound to exist. The world recession is biting hard. It is nonsense to talk about Courtaulds and one or two other companies being in trouble only in Northern Ireland. Companies are in trouble elsewhere as well. It is no good the Government pumping in more and more aid when we simply cannot sell the goods that are produced.

That does not mean that I am not deeply concerned about Northern Ireland's problems, but we want to try to be responsible. With respect to him, the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) was not being responsible in the present circumstances. His speech was almost like a party political broadcast, which does not help in these circumstances. Let us try to be a little more frank and realise the effects of the recession and the difficulties that Northern Ireland has had for many years.

I want to deal with the economy and unemployment in Northern Ireland, particularly the problems of agriculture and food production. A far higher proportion than in this country—13½ per cent.—of all those employed in Northern Ireland are employed in agriculture and food production. It is therefore an important industry. Unemployment is double the average United Kingdom level. In spite of all the inducements, many of which have been very attractive, the problem remains. One has to go to unusual lengths to maintain existing economic activity and employment in Northern Ireland. That must be so. We cannot allow the situation to go on and on. My right hon. and hon. Friends are doing what they can in a difficult world recession.

The difficulty of going to extreme lengths to maintain existing economic activity also applies to agriculture and food production. I have no hestitation in repeating my concern about the Government's change of policies on agriculture, and particularly about what they have done about milk aid. It is easy for me, perhaps, to go back into the past, but I had the privilege of being the Minister responsible for agriculture in Northern Ireland and we introduced special aid and help for Northern Ireland. It was justified because of the circumstances and difficulties there.

Remoteness grants and special aid to the milk industry are necessary. The danger is that if the producers are not given the aid, once again they will go out of business. In addition, the merchants, agriculture engineers and all those involved in serving agriculture in Northern Ireland will also go out of business. That would increase unemployment still further.

I do not like criticising my right hon. Friends, but I do not believe that they have taken the matter seriously enough. Remoteness in agriculture is a real problem in Northern Ireland. The figures are appalling. They show that the net income of Northern Ireland farmers fell by 53 per cent. in money terms in 1979, and by 60 per cent. in 1980.

An excellent brief based on a survey commissioned by the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association gives comparative figures with Great Britain. The income of a specialist dairy farm in 1978–79 was minus 21 per cent. in England and minus 58 percent. in Northern Ireland. For a farm dealing mainly in dairy produce it was minus 25 per cent. in England and minus 91 per cent. in Northern Ireland. For a pig and poultry farm it was minus 18 per cent. in England and minus 65 per cent. in Northern Ireland. The figures are appalling, and that situation cannot continue. Something must be done urgently.

I cannot understand why the Government have not taken the problem more seriously. After all, the stability of the Province is bound up in the farming industry. Most farmers are in the rural areas. If the Government want to maintain stability, particularly since many farms are family farms, they must act urgently. I fully understand the financial restrictions that must be imposed. However, the cake has not been divided fairly. The aid that has been removed has been given to the De Lorean plant and the Belfast shipyards. The remoteness grant and milk aid should be continued.

Production has not fallen much. That is due entirely to the fact that fanners are hoping for better times. They have cut expenditure on new buildings, machinery and maintenance. Because they are family farms they have the ability to draw in and take less money out of their enterprises. The borrowings for agriculture in Northern Ireland are appalling—up to £180 million. An additional £38 million was borrowed last year. That cannot continue. Already banks are beginning to put on the squeeze, and that will have terrible consequences for the future. It is vital that steps are taken quickly to improve profitability and to restore confidence. That means doing something about milk aid and other remoteness grants.

I have been told that Northern Ireland dairy farmers may export milk to Lancashire and Scotland. I do not blame them one little bit. Good luck to them. I hope that they will do it, because the Government will then have to take steps quickly because British dairy farmers will be on their tail. There is no question but that that will happen. Northern Ireland dairy fanners should have the right to export their milk. They export pigmeat, beef and other items to Britain, so why not milk? We shall watch the reaction from British dairy farmers if that happens. It will be interesting to see what happens. There will be a terrible row. Something must be done. About £11 million is needed for milk aid to safeguard the industry.

Northern Ireland is not alone in its difficulties and its remoteness. What about Italy? Italians receive special aid because of their position in the Community. The Government could call on the Community to help to deal with the problems in Northern Ireland in the same way as it helps Italy. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will now listen to me even more carefully. A price review is due in Brussels, which will affect farmers not only in Britain but in Northern Ireland. The current proposals are inadequate to deal with the position because of the minus 25 per cent. to minus 30 per cent. fall in incomes in Britain, let alone what is happening in Northern Ireland. A proposal for only a 7–5 per cent. average increase in prices will lead to a fall in production. There will then be a scream about the necessity to increase home production of food. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support: the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food both in Brussels and in the Cabinet to ensure a proper return that will go some way towards covering expenses and the loss of income for British and Northern Ireland farmers.

When I had the privilege of serving as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office I insisted on going to Brussels myself. That should happen now. It would restore the confidence of farmers in Northern Ireland if, occasionally, the Minister responsible for Northern Ireland agriculture went to Brussels to put the peculiar case of Northern Ireland—its remoteness, its difficulties, and its similarity to the situation in Italy. I did that. It would help confidence in Northern Ireland. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would know that someone was behind him pressing strongly for action to deal with the peculiar problems of Northern Ireland.

The problems should be dealt with. It is a pity that they have not been dealt with before. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will be impressed by the need for action to be taken quickly.

10 pm

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

The right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) made a long and interesting speech, in which he referred to a number of problems that have arisen in Northern Ireland over publicity seekers in the past few weeks. He detailed the financial and economic measures taken by the Labour Government. It seems that the right hon. Gentleman forgot the most important event to take place during that time to cool tempers in Northern Ireland. It was a constitutional advance in respect of full representation in this place. That is the sort of measure that above all others will stop the publicity-seeking activities that we have seen recently.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

How many more seats does the hon. Gentleman want to give to Ulster?

Mr. Ross

The hon. Gentleman knows that I am not asking for additional seats. He knows the other measures that we are seeking. We have stood for those issues at election after election.

The right hon. Member for Mansfield drew attention to unemployment, housing problems and the difficulties of the textile industry, as well as many other issues. He erected a series of signposts that intrigued me. I am tempted to go down many roads this evening but, unfortunately, time does not permit me to do so. I shall concentrate my remarks on the subject that I feel rather more concerned about than most in the Northern Ireland context—namely, agriculture. If much of what I have to say this evening sounds rather like a repeat of what I have been saying over the past year, that is because circumstances have not changed very much over the past year.

The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) drew attention to a report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association. On page 2 it states: If one was setting out from scratch today, under EEC conditions, to apportion UK agricultural enterprises to the most suitable areas, Northern Ireland would not be a priority area for intensive livestock production. Such enterprises would be sighted close to the main areas of grain production in Britain". I suggest that very few persons would disagree with that.

On page 3 the report states: Until the United Kingdom joined the Community in 1973 the disadvantage of Northern Ireland's 'remoteness' and small sized holdings was overcome by large scale imports of feed grains from North America. In fact historically the intensive pig and poultry industries were built on imported North American grain. Under the UK minimum import price scheme, operating for cereals up until EEC entry, imported grain could be landed in Northern Ireland at a competitive price with home grown and imported supplies in Great Britain. As the major part of the resultant eggs, dairy products, pigmeat and poultry meat had to find a market in Great Britain, this led to the development of highly efficient processing and marketing facilities in the Province. In addition a modern highly efficient feed industry was developed to process imported feed grains and proteins into compound animal feedingstuffs". On page 4 of the report there is a table which provides some of the Northern Ireland agricultural census figures. The figures indicate that in June 1973 there were 112,000 pigs in the breeding herd. In December 1980 there were 65,000, the smallest herd for 25 years. The total number of pigs in 1973 was slightly over 1 million. There are only 654,000 now. The number of laying birds decreased from 7,250,000 to 4,750,000. The total cattle herd decreased from 1,500,000 to 1,390,000.

Some may think it churlish of me to point out that the decrease and the changes referred to earlier in the report arose during the period in which we have been a member of the EEC. We cannot ignore the effect that our membership is having on farms and farm production in Northern Ireland.

Although I have not yet had an opportunity to read the report, I have heard that Mr. O'Kennedy stated that the EEC was against the intensive farm. Generally speaking, the intensive farm in Northern Ireland is a highly sophisticated, intensive pig or poultry enterprise. Under EEC rules, unless a considerable proportion of the feed for the animals is produced on the holding, no grant will be paid. That alone means that at the end of the day the production from such enterprises in Northern Ireland must fall through lack of investment to the point where it matches what can be sold in the island of Ireland. Unless those circumstances can be circumvented or changed, there is no hope of holding, never mind raising, poultry and pig products on Northern Ireland farms. Decline is almost inevitable. If there is to be a future for those farms to the benefit of the United Kingdom as a whole, means must be found to enable production to increase.

That brings me immediately to the nonsense involved in the structural scheme proposed for Northern Ireland agriculture. I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food managed to obtain the money, but some of the money is involved in the structural measures. It was originally intended to improve the marketing and processing of eggs, poultry meat, cereals and cattle feed. I believe that all that is now left is something for grain handling. What need is there for that provision in the structure that I have outlined? There will be no grain imports in Northern Ireland. They are far too costly. It is a hollow victory.

The larger amount of money in the package is supposed to be for development in the less-favoured areas. Those areas need intensive poultry or pig production in order to raise the standard of living of the present number of farmers, or the number must fall drastically. Failing that, the farmers will return to being graziers—there will be nothing but dog-and-stick farming on the uplands. That will be an inevitable consequence of EEC policies. What appears to be a victory is nothing of the sort. The increased grants will be available only over a narrow sector of agricultural production.

In beef we have the continuing problem of the need to extend the less-favoured areas. It has been made clear that there will be no extension this year or in the next financial year if it can be avoided. The Government have given no undertaking that there will be an extension. Without it, the beef herd will continue to decline. Those who depend on beef will experience increasing hardship.

There is also something badly wrong in the milk sector. What I am about to say may seem strange and hard. We have lost milk aid. That money was needed and, on the whole, was wisely spent. Throughout the United Kingdom the Government set the price. In Northern Ireland we have an added disadvantage. Only 19 per cent. of our total milk sales go to the liquid market, where the real money is. At present we have the Binder-Hamlyn inquiry into the margins at each point from production to the pint on the doorstep. I suggest to the Government that we should perhaps set the bounds of that inquiry rather wider.

Something was brought to my attention recently which whetted my appetite, so I did a little digging. It was an article in the current issue of the Livestock Farming magazine. It concerned imports into Northern Ireland of liquid milk from Donegal, mainly to the Leckpatrick creamery just outside my constituency. The article states: The stunning fact to emerge from the inquiry is that Leckpatrick has been paying between 58p and 60p per gallon for Irish Republic milk at a time when Northern Ireland producers were getting a mere 43p to 46p a gallon from the MMB. In other words, Northern Ireland producers were receiving 10p per gallon less even when allowance is made for the differing value of the punt.

I therefore dug a little deeper. I looked up the facts and figures for the EEC dairy industry to see what were the percentages for liquid sales in other EEC countries. The figures were most interesting. They were: Germany 10 per cent., France 10 percent., Italy 23 percent., Netherlands 6 per cent., Belgium 18 per cent., Luxembourg 14 per cent., United Kingdom 48 per cent., Denmark 7 per cent. and the Irish Republic 10 per cent. In other words, even with 19 per cent. liquid sales, Northern Ireland is far ahead of most EEC countries.

What is wrong? Why are we getting so much less money than anybody else? Recently, the price per litre in Northern Ireland was about 12¾p, while in Scotland it was l5½p. Last year, the Northern Ireland price was about 50p per gallon for milk from the farm. The Republic of Ireland last September managed to pay between 50p and 56p per gallon. It is interesting that that 50p to 56p per gallon, depending on the creamery to which the milk went, was not for all milk but was for manufacturing milk. I think that this aspect has not been properly understood in the past. I am extremely curious to know why the dairy industry in the Republic of Ireland, which sells less on the liquid market than we do, is apparently doing very well, expanding production and making plenty of money out of it, while the Northern Ireland milk industry is sliding steadily downhill.

It is even more curious when one considers the winter and summer balance in the two parts of Ireland. In Northern Ireland it is 55 per cent. for the summer and 45 per cent. for the winter. The equipment in the dairies must therefore be operating at much the same level throughout the year, which is bound to make economic good sense. In the Republic, the figures are 77.9 per cent. for the six summer months and 22.1 per cent. for the winter months. The trouble that that causes to the dairy industry in the Republic, which is being successfully overcome, must be staggering.

Northern Ireland sells only 19 per cent. of its milk on the liquid market as compared with 50 per cent. in Great Britain. Yet, although Great Britain has this enormous price advantage in the amount of milk sold on the liquid market, it is able to pay only 6p per gallon more than the Northern Ireland price. I suggest, therefore, that if somebody in Northern Ireland is doing a lousy job compared with the Republic, a great many people in Great Britain are doing an equally lousy job for the farmer compared with Northern Ireland.

We should all look rather more deeply at milk marketing. 1 do not know what is going on, but I feel that something is badly wrong. Savings could certainly be made. Such savings must be sought, because if Northern Ireland milk production is to exist in the EEC it must match its competitors, and up to now it is not doing so.

There must be something wrong in the marketing of milk, not in milk production, because Northern Ireland's milk production is as efficient as anyone else's.

I turn to a matter relating to the drainage division of the Department of Agriculture. That division has served Northern Ireland well. It has done a tremendous job on many rivers and streams throughout Northern Ireland. I compliment the division on its work, at least as a farmer, but not as an angler.

That section of the Department of Agriculture will shortly undergo considerable change, which will entail cutting the number of drainage offices in Northern Ireland to three. I am extremely concerned, because it appears that the one in my constituency, in Coleraine, which deals with the northern half of Northern Ireland drainage, will be chopped. If that happens, I fear that my constituents and others will find themselves in great difficulty if something goes wrong. I make a special plea that this matter be looked at with great care. I urge that the divisional office in Coleraine be retained.

I leave agriculture for a moment and turn to the Department of the Environment. One could make many speeches about the DoE on a number of subjects. One matter concerns me greatly, and I am sure that it will concern my right hon. and hon. Friends when they hear about it. It relates to the provision of mains water in the rural areas of Northern Ireland.

In my constituency I have a continuing problem in an area called the Highmoor near Eglinton. Last year, the Minister told me that a scheme to supply water to that area, by changing the cost yardsticks, had finally managed to get just inside the cost yardstick. Now, I am told that in June 1980 the headquarters issued a directive that from October 1980 the unit allowance for farmland acreage must be excluded from all schemes coming forward for approval. The estimate for this scheme was reviewed when the draft programme for the 1981–82 financial year was being compiled. The results indicated that without the allowance for farmland acreage this scheme would not be viable, and therefore could not be included in the draft programme. I am sure that all hon. Members from Northern Ireland representing rural constituencies know of many such schemes that have only just crept in by the skin of their teeth. Now, instead of being borderline cases, they are definitely on the wrong side and have no chance whatever of being included. I ask the Minister responsible to take a hard look at this and to restore the farmland acreage allowance, because it is very much needed.

10.19 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

It is not my intention to detain the House for long. I have listened carefully to the debate, to the complaints that have been made and to the points that have been raised.

As I see the issue, whether it is termed"parity" or otherwise, it appears that the people of the Six Counties want some considerable subsidy in respect of energy prices. That is coupled with the usual complaints which one would get in any debate on a particular Department.

However, on this occasion more than a dozen Departments are concerned. Therefore, we have had something in the nature of a bitty debate, which followed from the transfer of power from Stormont to the United Kingdom and the small amout of time allocated in this House to discuss these matters.

The point I want to make to the House, especially to my Front Bench, is that I believe that we should be thinking in terms of redirecting the whole of our economic policy. The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) spoke about the remoteness grants. Other Members have discussed the problem of distance of much of the Six Counties from mainland Britain. That has been used as an argument for improving the subsidies and help to the inhabitants.

I believe that we are looking at the problem from the wrong direction. Instead of looking from Westminster across the Irish Sea to the Six Counties we should be encouraging the Ulster people and the people of the Republic of Ireland to regard the economy of the island as one. Instead of regarding the Six Counties as an appendage of the United Kingdom's economy, we should encourage the Irish to be thinking in terms of one economy for the whole of the island of Ireland. In that way we would ensure that the totality of economic activity within the island could be considered as one. Schemes such as that discussed by the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) to endeavour to get interest from the whole of Ireland in the gas pipeline from the South would go forward. Any surplus electricity generating capacity in the North should be exported to the South.

One of the most regrettable things about the present Government, as it was about the Labour Government, is that they are not prepared to take on the terrorists from both sides to ensure the maintenance of the connector links between the Six Counties and the Republic. That would have been a most positive co-operation which would have demonstrated links of that kind powerfully and forcefully to all the people of Ireland. The more we consider that, the better it will be.

On energy and especially electricity there could be a mutuality of interest which would in future prevent the Six Counties from appearing to have a begging bowl always held out to the United Kingdom. The totality of the examination of the institutions, which is still supposed to be continuing, despite the campaign of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley)—from which I noted that the Prime Minister did not withdraw in her statement made in the Six Counties over the weekend—should include the economic institutions and organisations. The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has successfully applied his suggestion of a common agricultural policy on the sale of milk within Ireland. There are also questions of textiles, industrial policy, regional policies, communications and tourism. There is every need for the island to be treated as one and for a degree of co-operation to enable a merging of identity of economies between the two parts of Ireland. That would be the most powerful and sensible step to be taken to improve the economic position of those living in the Six Counties.

Mr. McCusker

The bulk of industrial relations legislation that has been passed in Dublin is very different from that of the United Kingdom and would prevent what the hon. Gentleman has been describing from happening. The decision of the Republic to join the European monetary system, which leaves its punt at 75p, would also be a disincentive to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.

Mr. McNamara

I do not think that it would because, if it were possible to create a common economic region, that would solve one of the major problems facing the economy of Northern Ireland—the high value of the pound. Northern Ireland's exports, as is the case on the mainland, have been affected by the high value of sterling, and that has caused a great deal of de-industrialisation. If there were an alignment of currencies with an Ulster punt, or some such agreement with the Republic, that would be of advantage to both sides of the border.

I take the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the differences in industrial policy and legislation and the corpus of law that exists. Unfortunately, I was not around at the time, but if I had been and had been able to influence matters there never would have been that difference in law. Some of those problems can be overcome. It is significant that there is an Irish Congress of Trade Unions which can work effectively throughout the island of Ireland while recognising the special position of the Six Counties.

I make one point to my Front Bench. If we as a party are not to be dragged down the integrationist road, we must look carefully not only at the political institutions, but at the economic institutions and organisations. The best thing we could do to prevent the drift down that road would be to attempt to begin treating the island of Ireland as one economic unit, not as one unit of 26 counties and one unit that is an appendage of the United Kingdom. If our economy catches a cold, it gets pneumonia, and when we get pneumonia, as now, the illness it is suffering from is terminal.

10.27 pm
Mr. Neville Sandelson (Hayes and Harlington)

I am aware that time is running short and that more right hon. and hon. Members are hoping to speak in the debate.

I was grateful to the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) for his reference to me as the Social Democratic spokesman and for the valuable information that he imparted to me about the price per therm of gas. The hon. Member rightly appreciated that I am sadly in need of education in these matters. I make no apology, however, for intervening in the debate as a Social Democratic spokesman.

The House will appreciate that I am feeling my way in somewhat unfamiliar territory and also that because time is running short, but perhaps more significantly because other right hon. and hon. Members have covered so much of the ground, it will be unnecessary for me to repeat what has already been said. Rather I shall concentrate on fairly general remarks about Northern Ireland economic and industrial affairs.

Let me move at once to one aspect of the industrial position there that deeply concerns me—the textile industry. The multi-fibre arrangement is not as firmly drawn as it should be and does not go far enough. The Minister for Trade said last month, I think in Manchester, that the problem of cheap textile imports was being overstated. Few people in the textile industry in the United Kingdom, and least of all in Northern Ireland, would agree with the Minister. Many closures which are now taking place and which have been taking place for some time in Northern Ireland textiles, are those of first-class, efficient firms with modern machinery and plant. Other equally efficient firms are in dire straits.

There is dumping of end-of-run surpluses by American producers. There is covert entry into the EEC, mostly through the back door into West Germany, of cheap clothing from East Europe. There is the massive inflow of cheap textiles from the Third world and the Far East. I do not think that the Government, or, for that matter, the Commission, have come anywhere near to the policies that are required if Northern Ireland's textile industry, on which so much employment depends and in which so much employment has already been lost, is to weather its present difficulties.

I cannot presume on the time of the House to go into these matters in much detail. I would, however, lay down two principles for a start. First, the main aim of Community policy should be justice for member States, with any market growth primarily for the benefit of the EEC's own textile industries. Secondly, the growth rate in textile imports into the Community should be closely related to market growth and shared equally between low-cost and industrialised countries. None of us wishes to restrict the growth of Third world economies. Indeed, we must encourage growth vigorously for every practical and moral reason. I wish the Third world to have an equitable share of imports into the EEC. From whatever source imports of textiles come, however, we cannot turn a blind eye to the destruction of important industrial assets in Northern Ireland at a time when we are having to agree to the huge expenditure set out in this Appropriation order.

The history of decline of industry in Northern Ireland goes back a long time. I feel, however, that neither this Government nor, indeed, the Labour Government can escape responsibility for the effects of their policies on the majority of the population in the Province. Industrial closures, declining output and an increasing level of unemployment are, unhappily, prevalent throughout the United Kingdom. What seems particularly distinctive about so much of life in Northern Irland is the evident real poverty and social deprivation of a high proportion of the population. This widespread poverty has been greatly worsened recently by the Government's indiscriminate cuts in public expenditure.

A number of hon. Members have already referred to the bad housing. This is a blot not only on the present Government but on the previous Government, of which I was a supporter in the past. It is a blot on both sides of the House that the housing situation should have been allowed to continue to its present state of dilapidation. All that adds greatly to the overall picture of family poverty.

There are shamefully low family incomes for so many in the Province. There are also low wage levels which, in many people in cases, fell below the recognised poverty line and produce the absurdity of many people in full-time employment having to claim FIS. On top of that are the inflated prices for electricity and other forms of energy. I join other hon. Members in congratulating the Government on their belated conversion to the obvious and their action, which should have been taken a long time ago.

In the long run, only industrial investment and regeneration can produce the revival of economic prosperity. Why is it that the Government, faced with a decaying social infrastructure, of which bad housing is only one aspect, and massive unemployment, which costs so much in social benefit, do so little by way of fundamental, long-term investment in a programme of public works? Surely now is the time to make the construction industry a prime channel of investment and area of recovery, not only to raise living standards to a more acceptable level but to construct vital new developments in transport and communications throughout Northern Ireland, together with other public services that are badly needed for industrial and social change.

I turn to massive Government subventions of a new enterprise in the Province. Much has been said about De Lorean. If it will contribute to industrial recovery and reduce unemployment, no one will begrudge a penny of Government aid. Will the Minister of State give us a firm assurance that De Lorean will have a profitable world market and will prove a commercially succesful venture?

Much has also been said about Harland and Wolff, though not tonight. The bareness of its order book in relation to its huge capacity is a depressing picture, which is hardly alleviated by the nature of recent contracts. Could not the situation be improved by bringing some naval shipbuilding into the yard? In last year's Appropriation order debate, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) raised that matter and the possibility of diverting some nuclear submarine construction to Harland and Wolff. We have to maintain our heavy investment in the company, and such orders would clearly infuse new hope into the yard and bring ancillary orders at the same time.

Other hon. Members wish to speak, and I am grateful to the House for having listened to my contribution, which is in a sense a maiden speech in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

10.39 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

In a few intervening moments, I can do little more than pay the customary tribute to a maiden speaker. The debate has been remarkable for two innovations—the appearance of one party, which my hon. Friends and I welcome, since anything that brings more Great Britain Members to participate in the affairs of Northern Ireland and in debates such as this is to be welcomed, and the absence of a party because it has formally, and in the most express manner, renounced Parliament.

It is perfectly possible to have reservations and anxieties about what passed or might have passed between the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic in Dublin at the end of last year. But nothing can go so directly to destroy the Union as for a party and anyone purporting to represent the people of Northern Ireland to repudiate Parliament, which, after all, is the essence of the Union. That is the true reason for the absence which has been noted.

I have time for only one other observation, which perhaps I illustrate in my own person. This is one of the Northern Ireland Supply days. The House, in its wisdom, has decided that the Supply procedure of this House needs a radical reconsideration. I believe that those right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in these debates, as Northern Ireland Members do eagerly as an opportunity to speak on behalf of their Province and their constituents, recognise that these Appropriation debates are no substitute for our ability to participate, which we do not have at present, in the full Supply procedure of this House.

We have neither the opportunity which Consolidation Fund Bills provide to focus the attention of a Minister on successive items, be they small or great, and obtain a reply from him directly there and then, nor the opportunity to participate in the major debates of policy upon Supply in which the position of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom and the effect of United Kingdom policies upon Northern Ireland could be explored in their proper context.

The ultimate reason for that is that, in 1972–73, when much else was altered, the separate Consolidation Fund for Northern Ireland was left intact. Therefore, we have to so the best we can, and it is not very satisfactory either to the House or to Northern Ireland Members with this double and overlapping Supply procedure which we have observed tonight.

Hon. Members in this debate have, amongst other points, ventilated matters which in the rest of the Kingdom would be for local government. It was never the intention of this House or of any Government that Northern Ireland should be deprived of local government. It was simply the ironical accident that, just before the abolition of the Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland, the powers of local government had been absorbed and amalgamated into that shortly doomed institution, and we are suffering in part in these debates from the fact that matters which ought to be dealt with and settled by elected representatives on the spot can only be brought to Ministers here.

I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friends, because notice was given that we should be seeking to raise the question of rating this evening. For that and for the future of rating in Northern Ireland, which clearly is essentially linked with the institution of local government, there is now no time. Therefore, I content myself with saying that if the Government are, as we understand they are, to bring forward proposals for a radically different rating system in Northern Ireland, we ask them to put forward those proposals for discussion first in as tentative a form as possible before we see them as proposals for a draft order or even a draft order. This is a vital matter for the possibility of the regrowth of local government and local responsibility in Northern Ireland, and we should have the opportunity of full advance debate upon that subject.

10.44 pm
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Once again, I shall have to cut my remarks short. Although we are for ever experimenting—and, to the credit of the Government, they have been experimenting with the best will in the world in these debates—I do not think that we have it quite right yet. Perhaps we shall look at it again.

The debate has centred, rightly, on the unemployment and deprivation in Northern Ireland and, in Opposition speeches, on the role that Government policies have played in exacerbating the already serious situation in the Province. We find no comfort in the order. Many hon. Members have said that the money involved is totally inadequate.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) struck the right note when he said that the order was evidence of the Government's failure to come to terms with Northern Ireland's social and economic problems. I go further. It is evidence that since the Government came to office the problems have become worse as a result of their policies.

The hon. Members for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) and Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) must have regretted going through the Lobby that spring evening in 1979 to bring about the fall of the Labour Government. With every speech they make, that is indelibly impressed upon us. It would be churlish not to welcome the speech made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson). He has probably drawn the short straw within his alliance—or whatever it is called—because he might believe that debates on Northern Ireland always take place at a reasonable hour. It might not be too late for him to get out of his commitment, so I shall tell him that this is an early hour. Often we are here at 4 am or 5 am. We shall welcome him then and hope that he sustains his interest in Northern Ireland during those long debates.

I do not knock the hon. Member for Belfast, West, because I love him like a brother. He said that he had not spoken much about agriculture. His speech today was welcome. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) often refers to agriculture and the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) takes a regular part in agriculture debates, as does the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross). In the past 18 months I have raised the questions of the less favoured areas, milk, feedingstuffs, pigs and so on. I shall not dwell on those issues, but I hope that the Minister will say something about the £34 million EEC aid. Has it been agreed? The Secretary of State and the Minister responsible for Northern Ireland agriculture met the Ulster farmers about seven weeks ago. We have heard nothing about that. It is about time that the Secretary of State made a clear commitment.

We hope that the Prime Minister's decision in principle on energy is the first step back on the road to an energy commission to advise in the future. What has happened to our suggestion of a public body to review energy pricing in the Province? Energy is not the only problem with which the Northern Ireland people have to cope. The adverse exchange rate, high interest rates and crippling levels of national insurance contributions cause problems for people in the rest of the United Kingdom, but for Northern Ireland the burden is even more enormous.

The CBI report published in January confirmed what everybody else had been saying and thinking about the economic situation for some time. It states that demand for goods continues to contract, that firms are not optimistic about retaining market shares in the longer term and that most investment plans appear to have been shelved. Has the Minister read that report? I am sure that he has. Will he tell us his views when he replies?

It is good to see the Secretary of State in the Chamber. What has he said to his right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer about tomorrow's Budget? Without giving anything away, perhaps he will say what he has done to persuade the Chancellor to lower interest rates and to move the albatross around the neck of Northern Ireland industry. We shall see the results tomorrow.

I turn to Class II, Vote 4. I am sorry that the Government are intent on continuing their policy of false economy for the industrial training boards. In the past, the boards have made an invaluable contribution towards improving the skills of the work force in Northern Ireland. I am looking at the Under-Secretary because he is sitting closest to the Minister who is to reply and will, no doubt, continue to nudge him when necessary. A cut of £400,000 in the budget of the training boards will be counter-productive. We have said that before. I am sure that the Minister will take note of that. It is a pity that the Prime Minister did not concern herself with that problem when she made her fleeting visit to the Province last week. She should have spoken about not only energy but the important issues that face Northern Ireland industry.

I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, West in that I view with total dismay the £157,000 reduction in the provision for the rehabilitation and employment of disabled persons. It is incredible that in this International Year of Disabled People the Government are acting in such a niggardly manner. The money that will be saved will pay for the Government's mistakes by buttressing the short-time working position—which makes the jigging of the funds ever more despicable. Perhaps I should not be so shocked. I went through the shock barrier many months ago in relation to the Government's actions in Northern Ireland. I hope that one day the Secretary of State will feel ashamed, or, if he does not feel it, simply look as t hough he is ashamed, of some of his actions. Hope springs eternal.

No less contemptible is the Government's treatment of the education sector in Northern Ireland, especially of the teaching staff. That subject was touched on by the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker). I hope that the Government will be forthcoming tonight and say what they intend to do. The Under-Secretary is concerned with that aspect. The hon. Member for Armagh said that the pupil-teacher ratio in Northern Ireland primary schools is worse than in the remainder of the United Kingdom.

The Under-Secretary appeared to be proud of that, despite the fact that Northern Ireland is the most deprived region He thought that the fact that some areas of Britain had a good teacher-pupil ratio was something of which to be proud. The fact is that all——I stress"all"—local education authorities in England have a better staffing ratio in primary schools than do authorities in Northern Ireland. The Under-Secretary referred to secondary schools, but I am talking about all the primary schools in the remainder of the United Kingdom. If the Northern Ireland ratio were reduced to the English ratio of 22.7 per cent., nearly 400 more teachers would be employed in the Province.

At the very time when the Minister should consider ways to employ more teaching staff, he is taking a peremptory decision without consulting the unions—which is disgraceful in itself—to reduce staffing levels. That action is even more worrying because 1,084 teachers were unemployed in December 1980—an increase of 39 per cent, on the figures for the previous year. Once again, a decision has been made on the ground of financial expediency with scant consideration for the effect it will have on the social fabric of society in Northern Ireland. Of the 250 jobs to be withdrawn, 150 will be in the Belfast area, an area with special problems that deserves special treatment. It seems that it will not get it from this Government. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the decision on cuts in teaching jobs and will have some regard for those in teacher-training colleges who will shortly be qualifying and will have no jobs for which to apply.

It seems from Class VIII that the Government have no intention of alleviating the problems of the school meals service.

Mr. Peter Mills rose

Mr. Pendry

No. It will be evident to the hon. Gentleman that I am galloping on. I moved from teachers to school meals without a break.

It appears that the Government have no intention of alleviating the school meals service crisis. Only last month the Department of Education and Science published a survey of the school meals service in England and Wales, It provides conclusive evidence that the take-up for school dinners declined by almost 30 per cent, in one year. What is the position in Northern Ireland? There can be no excuse in Northern Ireland, because the Department cannot hide behind local authorities. It is the direct arm of the Government that is stripping the school meals service. I should like to know about the take-up in Northern Ireland on the basis of the survey that has recently been undertaken in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Class IX, Vote 2, deals with the moneys allocated to health and the personal social services programme. Even though the sum allocated under this Vote constitutes more than half of the total Estimate, I still find it an inadequate sum. I might surprise the Minister by saying that, but I do not think that I shall surprise many people in Northern Ireland.

We are often told that the health boards in the Province are lucky to have escaped the full brunt of the public expenditure cutting axe. That is not so. Last autumn the health budget was lopped by over £10 million. I am sure that it is no coincidence that the same sum has reappeared in the order. I regard that as a confused and neglectful way of treating the welfare of the most deprived populace in Europe.

The gravity of the problems faced in Northern Ireland were revealed in the Baird committee's report, which was published on October 1980. The report on the high level of baby deaths in Northern Ireland illustrates well the needs that are not being met. A child born in Northern Ireland has a lower chance of reaching its first birthday than a child born anywhere else in the United Kingdom or in most other developed countries. In the Province, there are 17.2 deaths in the first year of life per 1,000 live births. In England and Wales the figure is 13.8. The report contained recommendations to improve the maternity services and made it clear that the social problems of Northern Ireland were interlinked. Only with full employment and adequate housing will there be any chance of ameliorating the serious situation.

We have to look long and hard at the order to find any evidence of the Government's good intentions to implement the Baird committee's suggestions. When the report was first published, the then Minister with responsibility for health, the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison), said: No additional resources can be provided or earmarked for these purposes at this stage. There will, of course, be competition from other priorities for any additional resources. What is more important than saving the lives of newborn babies? Everyone, particularly expectant mothers and mothers, will be interested to hear whether there are more urgent and significant calls on the Department's finances.

Class XI deals with the central management of the Civil Service. If transferring the central pay branch to the Department of the Civil Service improves the general treatment of civil servants in Northern Ireland, we welcome the change. Since we last debated an Appropriation order a number of changes have taken place, resulting in severe job losses in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, particularly in the industrial branch. With so many problems in industry in Northern Ireland, I question the fact that the Civil Service cuts should begin with industrial civil servants.

I said that I should sit down at this time. I shall, therefore, say no more, except that I hope that the points I raise will be answered, although not necessarily tonight. I repeat that we should once more consider how we structure these short but important debates.

11.1 pm

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John Patten)

It may be convenient if before my hon. Friend the Minister of State replies to this complicated and full debate I intervene briefly to attempt to deal with the points raised on education and the social services. I intend to deal with each in turn.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) galloped through his speech. In the short time available to me, I shall not be able to do complete justice to the points that he raised on education and social services. I shall write to him in greater detail as soon as possible.

I listened with care to the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), who is greatly concerned about the three teacher-training colleges and awaits urgently the outcome of the consultation that my noble Friend Lord Elton is having with interested authorities. His remarks ranged widely over the whole issue of sectarian education, as he calls it. I listened carefully to his analysis. However familiar or unfamiliar we are with the education system in the Province, it must be clear to us all that it reflects the legitimate aspirations of parents. As in the past, children will most likely be educated according to the religious wishes of their parents.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

As in Great Britain.

Mr. Patten

In that sense we are no different.

I am not pre-empting what my noble Friend will say, but teacher-training colleges have to an extent naturally reflected that desire. The hon. Gentleman was wrong to suggest that the Government are committed to imposing some form of educational apartheid. I refute utterly the suggestion that any child in the Province is denied education at any school by law. It ill behoves him to use such terminology. He rightly criticised the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley)—who is sadly absent from tonight's debate—for using such terminology.

Mr. Kilfedder

The hon. Gentleman cannot compare the situation in Northern Ireland with that in Great Britain. I think that I am right in describing it as educational apartheid for children, from toddlers to 16-year olds, to be separated from boys and girls of a different religion. That cannot be accepted. If parents wish their children to receive religious education, they should do that quite separately. Taxpayers' money should not be used to maintain religious schools.

Mr. Patten

I can only reiterate that it is not imposed by law.

I turn to the remarks of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, which reflected to a great extent some of those contained in the very interesting speech of the hon. Member for South Armagh—

Mr. McCusker

The whole of Armagh.

Mr. Patten

I apologise to the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker). Clearly my pursuit of the teaching of geography in the University of Oxford for 10 years left me inadequately prepared to deal with that one of the Six Counties, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), who is now no longer in the Chamber, endlessly described them.

Listening to the hon. Member for Armagh, I rather felt that, just as he was determined to get in his peroration about electricity and energy prices which he had clearly written before the Prime Minister made her most welcome statement in the Province last Thursday, he was also determined at all costs to get in the results of a very interesting survey on education and pupil-teacher ratios that he had recently read.

I can only say to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde that the policy of my noble Friend Lord Elton—who, it must be remembered, was himself a school teacher—is to put the classroom first. While it is true that in primary education our pupil-teacher ratios are a little worse, in secondary education they are a little better than those on this side of the water. I do not believe that the reductions in teaching staff will do anything more than reflect the overall reduction in school rolls, which absolutely parallels the experience on this side of the water.

I should like to correct the hon. Member on one matter of fact, which I believe is indisputable. Not all of the reduction of 250 in teaching staff will be achieved by redundancy. A good deal of it will be achieved by natural wastage. That is similar to the experience of many county councils on this side of the water.

I turn briefly to the question of social services. The right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) raised the important issue of supplementary benefits and our expenditure on them. I appreciated what he said, but I remind him of the great benefits that the Province draws from its relationship in parity with the rest of the United Kingdom in these issues.

I also remind him that one may have all the benefits in the world, but if one cannot persuade people to take them up it is extremely difficult to put them to good use. I must tell the House that since November last year my Department has made great efforts to increase the uptake of benefits such as family income supplement, and we have already achieved a 10 per cent, increase in the number of people taking up that benefit.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's important announcement on electricity prices will have a very beneficial effect on the poorer community in particular.

An important point of detail was raised by the hon. Member for Down, North and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). I am conscious that I have not been able to deal with anything like the substantial number of points that the hon. Member for Belfast, West raised in his long and interesting speech, and I apologise for that. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde raised the important matter of provision for the disabled, which of course includes the mentally handicapped as well as the physically disabled. I listened with great care and appreciated the obvious concern of all three hon. Members about the lack of certain services which they would like to see provided for people in those categories. Hard decisions have had to be taken by many boards. The eastern area board was particularly mentioned. The boards were given broad options for the savings that they had to make in the past financial year. Within those savings, I think that it is right and proper for a Minister to leave decisions to the boards. Otherwise the whole process of government would quickly break down. I am sure that in their hearts, however much they support these individual services, hon. Members know that that is the correct course.

I remind the hon. Member for Down, North that the service to which he referred has not been completely abolished but simply reduced in its provision with regard to transport for the Gateway club.

From 1 April, area health boards will have some room for growth. We project about 1.5 per cent, in the coming financial year. It is at that stage that we may look to the restoration of some—I cannot make any promises about all—of the services to which right hon. and hon. Members have referred.

I conclude on this note, and I hope that it is a positive one. We cannot endlessly look to the Government. It is important that in the Province, just as much as on this side of the water, the voluntary sector, to which I pay my tribute, plays its full part in services such as this. I remind hon. Members that, just as the Government have isolated areas of particular and acute need in the Province, such as the Belfast areas of need, where we have lowered the pupil-teacher ratio to 19.1, so we have made such areas a priority for health and social services. I believe that the Government are responsive to the needs of the people of the Province.

11.11 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Butler)

It is a strange sensation to follow one's ministerial colleague. As my hon. Friend the Under-secretary sits for Oxford and as I came from Cambridge, I hope that the sequence will be different in the Boat Race in a few weeks' time.

It will be impassible to deal with all the individual points that have been raised. I and my hon. Friends will attempt to deal by correspondence with those that are not answered tonight.

I formally extend by congratulations to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson) on his new responsibilities. Perhaps many other hon. Members from more and more splinter parties will speak on Northern Ireland as the hon. Gentleman's former associates break up. However, the more people there are with a genuine interest in Northern Ireland, the better.

References have been made to certain absentees. I must strongly point out that in the absence of devolved government it is right and proper that the affairs of Northern Ireland should be debated in this House.

I shall try to deal with the main subjects that have arisen in the majority of speeches. First, I turn to the question of energy. This has crescendoed in my time into the most important demand from all quarters of industry. The hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) said that he had argued this for seven years. I remind him that the Government have been in power for less than two years, and I have been in the Department of Commerce for about two months. We have responded to the strong points that have been put to us.

It was proper that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should have been the person to make the statement on energy in the former Parliament buildings. Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) said, we have held down the differentials which we inherited. However, those differentials still place an unfair penalty on consumers. Therefore, the Prime Minister promised that these should move more closely in line.

Nevertheless, up to now there have been a hand-to-mouth existence and some doubts about the future as to which way tariffs would move. That was the importance of my right hon. Friend's second promise. First, she said that tariffs would move more closely in line, and secondly that the Government would keep them there.

I looked for greater enthusiasm than we received for that announcement. In tonight's debate, time has been spent in searching out detail instead of acknowledging the importance and firmness of the Prime Minister's commitment. Of course, there is a need for the way in which that commitment is to be fulfilled to be made public. So it will be. I have no doubt that when the Government reveal the details they will be generally welcomed and will be seen to be equitable in the circumstances of Northern Ireland.

Many hon. Members asked me about additional funds. It follows that if tariffs are to be brought more in line, additional funds will have to be made available. I have no doubt that when the House learns the details it will not be disappointed.

The question of Kinsale has been referred to. I have no need to repeat what I have said before on this subject. The Government certainly have an open mind on the matter. The question revolves around matters of timing, quantity and, most particularly, cost. We are closely in touch with the Dublin Government, and I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) that this is a proper matter for discussion between the Governments of the two countries. I agree with the hon. Member who pointed to the benefit that would flow from greater co-operation on energy matters and on economic matters generally.

I reply to the question of housing in the absence of the active participation of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. He wants me to take up the point made by the right hon. Member for Mansfield, who led for the Opposition. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the deplorable housing conditions in the Province, claiming that the Government were sitting back and that we were using the improvement in the period 1974–79 as an excuse for doing nothing. He said that we should be trying to match that improvement. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend is not the sort of man who sits back and does nothing. He does not think that matching the previous Government's performance on Belfast housing is sufficient. He has every intention of improving on that earlier period.

I turn next to the money that my hon. Friend is putting behind housing in the Province. In the current year, expenditure on renovation is higher in real terms than in 1974–79 and funds available for housing associations have risen from £4 million in 1979 to £12½ million in 1980–81. A significant announcement by my hon. Friend the Under-secretary today is designed to improve the state of housing in the private rented sector. It is a four-point package which has proposals to encourage the improvement and repair of 20,000 houses held under restricted tenancies, with rent increases in line with Housing Executive rents to enable landlords to maintain the regulated tenancy houses in proper condition. There will be a tightening up of the regulations against landlords who fail to keep their houses properly repaired and higher levels of grant for house renovation. From that brief response to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Mansfield and others in the debate, it can be seen that the Government care deeply about housing conditions and are doing something constructive about them.

Mr. Fitt

When the 1978 rent order was going through the House, a special Committee consisting of all Northern Ireland Members met. Now, as the scope of the legislation is to be enlarged, will the Minister give an undertaking that another Committee will sit upstairs so that we go into the proposed changes in greater detail?

Mr. Butler

I give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that my hon. Friend will write to him about the matter.

I wish to say something about another industry that was frequently mentioned—

Mr. Fitt


Mr. Butler

The hon. Gentleman takes the word out of my mouth. Throughout the United Kingdom, the textile industry has suffered severely in the present recession. The Government have been following two lines to help. The first is to operate the present multi-fibre arrangement as comprehensively and effectively as possible. It has been successful in holding down the level of imports from low-labour-cost countries, and we are pledged to seek a tough successor arrangement.

Secondly, more attention has been given in the past year or two to the area that suffers from low feedstock prices in America. The Government have taken a lead in stimulating the European Commission to urge upon the American Administration the need to examine these factors. Although we should hesitate to take all the credit for this, the Government and the House welcomed the steps that the Reagan Administration took in decontrolling oil prices.

It is not true that in textiles all is lost. It does not help to say, as I think the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) suggested, that within a few months there will be no textile industry in Northern Ireland. I know textile companies throughout the United Kingdom that are succeeding either because they have a special productor, more often, because they have first-class management and a highly co-operative work force.

I take just one example from Northern Ireland. I was fortunate enough on Friday, after a certain visit, to go down to Lisnaskea and to open an extension of what is probably the most modern spinning factory in the world. It is certainly one of the most advanced. The Tootal group made that investment of over £5 million in Northern Ireland knowing, first, that it could get the best encouragement and support from the Government but, secondly, that it had a first-class work force which had stood behind it in the past. It chose that site over any other in the United Kingdom and possibly any other in America or other places where it has plants now. That is the sort of encouragement that we need and the sort of example that wants to be spoken about outside the House to encourage others to do the same.

Agriculture is another area in which I have a special interest. Many hon. Members have contributed to our debate. They included the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) and my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills), with his double experience—a lifetime in agriculture and his time as a Minister in the Province. I welcomed his contribution particularly, but other contributions all pointed to the undoubted severe drop in farmers' net incomes in the Province. I do not believe that the figures misrepresent the position unduly.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the Ulster Farmers' Union in January, and he is seriously considering the many representations that were made to him. He hopes to be able to say something about what assistance may be available as soon as he can.

The position of agriculture in Northern Ireland is fully taken into account when deliberations take place in the Common Market, in Brussels, as they have been and as they will continue as this year's price proposals are worked through. The Province has also benefited from decisions already taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, such as increases in the hill land compensatory allowances and the transitional steps in the sheepmeat regime, which should benefit sheep farmers in the coming year.

I have little time to deal with the other points regarding agriculture, but I can tell the House that, subject to final ratification and subject, indeed, to Italy withdrawing some opposition, there will be concrete measures which will be of benefit to the Province in the future arising out of the package recently discussed among the Agriculture Ministers.

I wish to spend the few minutes of time remaining to me on the question of industrial development. I wish to meet the charge that the Government are not properly accepting their responsibilities in regard to unemployment and to rebut absolutely charges of the kind made by the right hon. Member for Mansfield, speaking for the Opposition, that we have had no enthusiasm for attracting jobs into the country. I rebut that firmly. The right hon. Gentleman also made the point, as did others, that there was no extra provision in the Estimates which we are debating today. He will know very well that the autumn Supplementary Estimates which were the subject of the last debate were the vehicle for a significant shift of resources into our economic programmes in Northern Ireland, and that was approved by the House—I hope, enthusiastically.

The problem of unemployment in Northern Ireland is clearly of the greatest concern to us all. The truth is that the differential between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom has been high under Governments in the past, but if one goes, as I did recently, to Londonderry, where there is one in four people out of work, and one knows the situation in such places as Strabane, it must make one think very seriously.

We have in the Department of Commerce a concerted three-part strategy. The first part is the support and encouragement of estblished companies, but here I must say that it is no good pouring money into companies which have no future. Second, in support of that, the strategy is to stimulate small businesses, to which we attach special importance. But those two are not enough, and it is no good saying that we must concentrate our attention on supporting established industries. If we are in the future to overcome unemployment of the magnitude that it is in the Province, we need to attract jobs from outside. So the third part of the strategy is to attract inward investment. We have been successful in this, and we shall continue to be successful in the future.

That strategy is supported by substantial funds, boosted by an injection of additional funds last summer and a reallocation of resources already available to Northern Ireland. The Department of Manpower Services, for which also I have direct responsibility, is putting further money, as the House knows, behind the short-time working scheme, which is necessary, and behind the youth opportunities programme, in which real work is being done to train and educate young people for a successful life in industry.

Most of this debate has understandably been devoted to special pleading by those with interests in their constituencies. Let me say in conclusion that not only do we have our programme concentrating on the problems of Northern Ireland but, of course, the Province stands to benefit as strongly as does the rest of the United Kingdom from the Government's economic policy, which is designed to build a sound industrial and commercial base to make our industry more competitive, through the reduction of inflation and giving every encouragement to the containment of costs. That is starting to succeed. That is why under this Conservative Government there is hope for Northern Ireland. I therefore commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, which was laid before this House on 20 February, be approved.