HC Deb 26 January 1983 vol 35 cc1017-29 11.57 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John Patten)

I beg to move, That the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1982, which was laid before this House on 14th December, be approved This order is the latest in a series of such orders which are required at intervals of about two years. The last order was debated in 1980, when the then Minister introduced it with a speech lasting as long as three minutes, and the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) made his introductory remarks in the space of two minutes. I am afraid that my speech this evening will last a little longer because of the complexity raised by the order and the number of serious and interesting points that are encompassed in it. I hope that the House will bear with me.

The main purpose of the order, like that of all the orders, is to adjust, as necessary, certain limits that are imposed by statute on financial operations and to deal with a considerable number of other fairly routine matters of a financial nature. The adjustment of financial limits that we are discussing is designed to cope with all our foreseeable requirements until 1985.

I should make it clear, if it needs making clear, that the order does not deal with the appropriation of resources for the public service. Indeed, without specific approval of Parliament for financial allocations for the various services, the limits on issues set in the present order would, of themselves, be wholly meaningless.

I shall now describe the purpose of the various articles in the order. Article 3 provides for increases in two statutory limits on issues from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund for certain categories of expenditure. The first of those categories relates to issues to the agricultural loans fund to enable that fund to make loans to farmers. That fund, as will be familiar to right hon. and hon. Members from the Province, is in the process of being run down prior to termination. Expenditure relates purely to applications already in the pipeline.

The present limit of £18 million is to be increased to £20 million, which should be adequate to cover the borrowing needs of the fund until 1985–86, in which financial year, we anticipate, repayments by farmers will be sufficient to enable the fund to make repayments due to the Consolidated Fund.

The second category is for capital expenditure of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. It plays a vital role in the Province. The limit applies to the net amount that may be issued from the Consolidated Fund to enable the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland to make loans to the executive for its task. The present limit of £950 million is proposd to be increased to £1,300 million—a substantial and necessary increase.

Article 4 increases from £15 million to £25 million the limit on the amount of loans and grants that may be made by two Departments—the Department of Economic Development and the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland—to harbour authorities for the execution of harbour works. The new limit should be sufficient to accommodate expenditure as currently projected until March 1985.

Rather smaller, but none the less important, sums are involved in article 5, which increases from £600,000 to £1,200,000 the amount of principal that can be guaranteed by the Department of Finance and Personnel in respect of certain borrowing by health and social services boards in Northern Ireland. The borrowing is for the purpose of on-lending to general medical practitioners for the provision of new and improved practice premises. The current limit, which was established in 1967, has been adequate until now, but recent signs are that there will probably be a greater interest in loans. It therefore seems prudent to increase the limit to the suggested level to accommodate the demand in the two years up to 1985.

Article 6 is interesting, because it abolishes the capital purpose fund, which in present-day Government financial terms is something of an anachronism. The fund was established in 1950 to provide a sensible means of carrying forward from one fiscal year to the next money voted for capital purposes. In the post-war period there was considerable difficulty in phasing expenditure, particularly for building, on large capital projects, because of the shortage of building materials. However, since the time when the capital purposes fund was introduced, the use of the fund has diminished. Under the current system of financial controls which the Government correctly exercise, it can fairly be said to have completely outlived its usefulness. No use has been made of it for some years.

Articles 7 to 16 are equally interesting, because they re-enact the provisions of the Government Loans Act (Northern Ireland) 1957 that are necessary to enable loans currently made from the Government loans fund to be made instead from the Consolidated Fund. Because of the effect of articles 7 to 16, the 1957 Act will be repealed and the Government loans fund thereby abolished. The fund was established in 1925 and, like the preceding capital purposes fund, it seems to have outlived its utility. It was designed to be an independent and self-balancing fund, but, in practice, for many years in the Province it has operated as an extension to the Consolidated Fund, which borrowed from the national loans fund and on-lent to the Government loans fund.

The transfer of the Consolidated Fund will simplify procedures and vastly improve the presentation of transactions to Parliament. I hope that the House will agree that this is a laudable object to pursue.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I wonder whether there has been some minor change since both the paper from which the Minister is reading and that which I have in front of me were compiled, because he referred to this matter as being dealt with by articles 7 to 16 of the order. It would appear that the Minister is dealing with part III, which, in the copy that I have procured from the Vote Office, consists of articles 7 to 15, article 16 being concerned with Ulster savings certificates. I do not know whether an article has disappeared somewhere.

Mr. Patten

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman was paying close attention to my speech rather than to the interesting piece of paper that I was reading, to which I do not think he could have been privy. I did not pass the paper on to him, and I trust that the Finance and Personnel Department in the Northern Ireland Office is leak-proof and does not make available, even to such distinguished persons as the right hon. Gentleman, papers that are prepared for Ministers to base their remarks on.

I apologise for adding an additional article to articles 7 to 15. None the less, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will agree that it is common sense to get rid of ways of making capital funds available through a series of transactions, when they would be better presented in a simple way to enable the House to examine them more closely.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

For the avoidance of any doubt or embarrassment in these suspicious days, when Government papers, even of an inoffensive and explanatory character, are apt to find themselves in the wrong hands, I point out that it was merely the natural deduction of a professional textual critic that if the Minister's speech presented the same problem as the explanatory document issued to hon. Members, there was likely to be a common source. If I identified the archetype wrongly with the brief from which the Minister was reading, I apologise, but no other deductions should be drawn from that.

Mr. Patten

I was drawing no deductions, merely chaffing, in passing, the right hon. Member, whose powers of textual criticism are well known in his scholarly past.

The transfer of lending functions to the Consolidated Fund will simplify accounting procedures and improve the presentation to Parliament of the transactions that are involved. I hope that no one disagrees with that laudable objective.

It is important for me to draw to the attention of the House one minor side effect of this set of articles, because I know that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and his hon. Friends, and Labour Members, are concerned about the terms and conditions of the Civil Service in the Province. I think that all hon. Members who are connected with Northern Ireland agree that we are extremely fortunate in the Civil Service that we have in Northern Ireland.

One minor effect of the articles will be to allow the lapse of provisions permitting the making of housing loans to civil servants in the Northern Ireland Departments. This is historically interesting, because provision for such loans was introduced in 1923 to facilitate the resettlement of officials obliged to move north on the creation of the new Administration—existing Irish officers, as they are now known in the trade, although few remain today. The original justification has long since disappeared and ready availability of finance for house purchase from other lending institutions is available. We feel that the continuance of these arrangements is otiose in the present circumstances.

It is suggested that the issue of Ulster savings certificates should be carried out by direction of the Department of Finance and Personnel. At present, changes are effected by subordinate legislation, but this practice, which has existed only since 1962, has given rise to serious administrative inconvenience. The time involved in the proper processing of such legislation makes it virtually impossible to achieve the changes at the same time as changes in the analagous and, if one likes, the lead national savings certificate issues. The move to effect these changes by direction brings Northern Ireland practice into line with that in Great Britain, to whose national savings certificate issues the Ulster savings certificates are absolutely and completely tied by practice.

Hon. Members will appreciate that while the order relates to matters within the responsibility of most Northern Ireland Departments, it is essentially concerned not with policy—I stress the point—but with routine financial aspects that stem from agreed policy. In other words, we are concerned here with ways and means rather than with matters of substance. I commend the order to the House.

12.10 am
Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

I shall not detain the House long. The Minister asked, I believe, for the interventions that came from the Benches behind me. I wish that the hon. Gentleman's speech had been linked to the explanatory document made available to hon. Members. This would have saved the House the time that was spent searching for an article that did not exist. It is a minor point. It would, however, have saved a little of the "aggro" that occurred behind me.

The Opposition have no objection to the order. I thank the Minister for his fuller explanation. It does not alter our position on what is a routine matter. It is, however, with some regret that I observe from the explanatory memorandum that there are no implications for increased public expenditure. I wish that there had been such implications. One must keep returning to the state of the Northern Ireland economy and the unemployment level. Over 20 per cent. of the insured population is unemployed while recent forecasts suggest that the figure could be 26 per cent. by 1990. There has not yet been an opportunity to discuss the Government's expenditure plans. The trade unions, I understand, are to publish a plan containing ideas for the creation of 40,000 jobs in Northern Ireland. I hope that the plan can be used as a starting point for restoring some sensible policies. I recognise that I digress from the subject of the debate but I intend to miss no opportunities to discuss unemployment in Northern Ireland.

We have no objection to the order. I am simply giving the Minister notice of our intentions.

12.13 am
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

In these days, one is almost tempted to offer Northern Ireland Ministers appearing at the Dispatch Box a welcome home. It must be a pleasant change for Ministers not to find themselves either on the Floor, or before the Committees, of the Northern Ireland Assembly, addressing a body to which they have no responsibility and which has no responsibility for anything whatever. It is pleasant to see the hon. Gentleman in the House, which is the proper place for considering limits upon public expenditure and capital advances.

There are technical aspects to the order. There are also substantive matters involved. Although the effective decision to spend is taken in another form—by means of Appropriation Order in the case of Northern Ireland—some of the provisions made under Appropriation Orders would not be possible or, indeed, lawful without this order to raise the limit where necessary. So in that indirect sense we are authorising—although not directly, at any rate indirectly—future capital expenditure in the Province.

I shall deal first with three technical points. The first is the improved procedure for dealing with Ulster savings certificates. This is one of the simplifications brought about by the order that is wholly welcomed by my hon. Friends and myself. There is no longer—if there ever was—any justification for a separate organisation for the sale of national savings certificates with an Ulster denomination, an Ulster title. This is one of the ways in which unnecessary administrative and other effort and expenditure are caused by separation for separation's sake between the same operation in Great Britain and in Ulster. Of course, the article makes only a minor administrative simplification, but it is a reminder of the savings that are available if and when the Government decide that, when an identical operation is being carried out in Northern Ireland and in other parts of the United Kingdom, it should, wherever possible, be carried out by the same authority, under the same legislation, and by the same administrative machine.

As we are here only concerned with an improvement of the technical administration of national savings, I shall not enter upon the larger question that I have been guilty of canvassing in years gone by as to whether savings certificates themselves are not an obsolete form of Government borrowing, in as much as they are both the dearest and the most liquid form of Government borrowing, and therefore, if there were no extraneous considerations, the most expensive form in which the Government borrow to meet their requirements.

In the early days of the movement it was widely—perhaps rightly—believed that there were indeed such extraneous factors that justified that separate, special, and specially costly form of raising funds. Certainly, in the context of the first war, it is probable that savings were tapped by means of the national savings movement—and this probably went on for several decades—which otherwise might not have been reached, and that some of the functions that the trustee savings banks perform, of providing an easy vehicle for saving by people of very limited means, were also served by national savings. However, I think that the time will come sooner or later, now that Lord Mackintosh has gone not only through his steps in the peerage but left us altogether, when national savings are recognised as an obsolete form of the borrowing of cash by the Government. Meanwhile the simplification and avoidance of duplication of legislative effort that are implicit in article 16 are to be welcomed.

Mr. John Patten

Does the right hon. Gentleman also realise that the Examiner of Statutory Rules may well be happy to see this change, because he has had cause to complain in the past on a number of occasions about the unfortunate delays that have been built into the system because of the very operation—the thing that we are seeking to remove?

Mr. Powell

I am grateful to the Minister for reminding me of that. Anything that makes the Examiner of Statutory Rules happy makes the rest of us happy because, perhaps more in Northern Ireland than in another part of the United Kingdom, his watchful eye is particularly valuable not only to hon. Members of this House—whose work to some extent he is doing—but to the Departments, which I think have come to rely on him as an extra check and a sort of benevolent policeman, invigilating over their secondary legislation. I am obliged to the Minister for his intervention.

When we come to the bulk of the articles, articles 7 to 15, it is to the good to be able to cut out, by disposing of the Government Loans Fund what was, if not a fifth, at any rate a sixth or seventh wheel to the coach.

As we are mentioning the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund, it is a pity that it has not been possible at this stage to do what I hope will happen sooner or later—that is to consolidate the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund with the Consolidated Fund. It is the freak of there being a separate Consolidated Fund for Northern Ireland, upon which the practices of the House in relation to money paid out of the United Kingdom Consolidated Fund do not bite, that a whole range of expenditure that would be brought to the attention of the House in the normal manner if it were met out of the United Kingdom Consolidated Fund is not so brought when it is met out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund, although that itself is fed from the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom.

That giant anomaly is one to which I hope the Government will summon up sufficient courage sooner or later to give its attention. It is absurd that sums paid out of the Consolidated Fund should escape from the appropriate processes just by being paid into the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and then paid out again. The fact that this enabled us to have an entertaining debate on the money resolution and certain later proceedings on the ill-fated and ill-conceived Northern Ireland Bill of the last Session is not sufficient justification for the maintenance of this anomaly.

When we move away from treating Northern Ireland differently simply for the sake of doing so, with no corresponding difference in need or benefit to result from it, then we shall go beyond what is in the articles and have a Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom which is such in reality as well as in name.

I hope that I shall not be grudged a few moments to refer to article 6 and the abolition of the capital purposes fund. Those who are connoisseurs of accounting and parliamentary control of public expenditure might, if they were so inclined, shed a silent tear over the passing of what was really a very good try at solving the conundrum of how, within the system of annual accounting which is essential to parliamentary control, to carry sums forward from one year to the next. If we have not succeeded in doing it in Great Britain, an answer was once found in the more secluded groves of Stormont. That answer was to pay the money into a capital purposes fund so that what would otherwise be annual expenditure came to be a borrowing from the capital purposes fund and could therefore, as borrowed money, be spent either in one year or in another year, thus solving the problem that has defeated the most determined efforts of local government and other financial authorities in Great Britain—how to carry sums forward from one year to another without irreparably damaging the annual basis of Government accounting and parliamentary accountability upon which, I am almost tempted to say our liberties, but at any rate our control over Government depends.

It is sad to see this gallant attempt pass from the Northern Ireland statute book but I do not think any of us at this time would reach out a hand to hold it back and keep it purely for its antiquarian interest. Suffice it to note that, in Northern Ireland, we have now come formally and fully on to that annual cash basis of accounting and control, without which there could be no national accountability by Government to Parliament.

With those remarks on the technicalities of the order, I pass to the more substantive matters raised by the contents of some of the earlier provisions of the order. I do so confident that, although he has not yet shown his hand, the Minister has been well briefed by the Departments concerned about some of the facts that lie behind the advances set out in the earlier articles of the order, and can, therefore, respond to the many innocent and fairly obvious questions that I and I am sure some of my hon. Friends will wish to put to him.

The first question concerns the agricultural loans fund. As best as I can understand the explanatory document provided to hon. Members, and the secret document that tallies with it exactly, which was provided for the sole and exclusive use of the Minister in explaining the order to the House, in the near future there will no longer be a net inflow of capital into the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland from public sources through this channel, as the explanation looks forward to the time when repayment will balance outflow, and there will be no net increase in advances. It would be helpful if the Minister would say whether that understanding is correct, and also whether there are no further sources from which a net addition is being made to agricultural capital in Northern Ireland, or whether other channels of agricultural capital from public sources have replaced the agricultural loans fund.

My second point relates to advances for housing expenditure, where it is accepted that the requirements of the next two years, from March 1983 to March 1985, will be an additional £350 million of net advances. That implies an expenditure on average of £175 million net on capital account by the Housing Executive in each of the next two years. I think that the Minister can confirm—it would be good if he could do so—that that is a net figure, because it would be wrong for anyone to say that the total capital expenditure on housing by the Housing Executive envisaged for each of the next two years will not exceed £175 million a year.

I hope that I am right in saying that it will exceed that sum considerably, if only because, owing to the brisk sale of houses to tenants and others that was initiated by the previous Administration, whose prejudices in this matter happily did not extend to Northern Ireland—an extremely beneficial and popular process—large sums of capital are becoming available outside that channel for use by the Housing Executive. If the Minister can supply the House with the real net capital expenditure anticipated during the next two years on housing in the Provice, that would avoid misunderstandings and would be helpful.

Mr. John Patten

I would happily confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that of course the sums given in the order do not in the end tie my hon. Friend, who is responsible for the Department of the Environment, to a particular level of expenditure. But I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that neither can I this evening commit my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to some level of capital expenditure in the public expenditure round after next. That goes completely against current Government practice, as he well knows.

Mr. Powell

I have not wanted to place any temptation in the way of the Minister, but since his right hon. Friend had been able to anticipate the volume of net issues from the Consolidated Fund during the next two years, I thought that perhaps his colleague might have been able to anticipate the total of capital requirements towards which he had estimated that those sums were necessary. Indeed, it is difficult to see how that estimate of net requirement from the Consolidated Fund could have been arrived at with any degree of accuracy unless the gross total of capital requirement of the Housing Executive had been anticipated.

The Minister is in a very suspicious mood where I am concerned tonight. I am sorry about this. I assure him that there is no sound cause for it. I was not endeavouring to elicit from him some injudicious revelation of calculations that were still held close to the chest of the Department of the Environment and the Housing Executive. I simply hoped to elicit a corresponding gross figure to the net figure of £350 million of issues over two years from the Consolidated Fund to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. As I have been frustrated in that endeavour—indeed, as it has been repulsed as an attempt to pry behind the veil of secrecy that shrouds the operations of the Department of the Environment—I am afraid that my colleagues and I will simply have to go to our constituents and so far as possible explain to the media, who are watching these figures closely with the object of reporting them tomorrow morning not only in the columns of the newspapers but in "Good Morning Ulster" and other such programmes which had long anticipated breakfast television. We shall be able to assure them that these are not by any means the total or maximum capital sums that will be expended on housing in the Province in the next two years.

Mr. John Patten

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, who is known, if he is known for nothing else in this Chamber and in the United Kingdom at large, as being fair-minded, will also point out, should he be favoured with an invitation to appear on "Good Morning Ulster" or one of the other programmes, that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary responsible for the Department of the Environment is vigorously pursuing a housing policy that means the building of more and more houses and spending substantial sums of money, and that the purposes of this order are to make prudent future provision for necessary loans.

Mr. Powell

Encouraged by that compliment from the Minister, my hon. Friends and I will have to assure the public in Northern Ireland that in the next two years the capital spent by the Housing Executive will be £350 million plus X, X being a figure that even the House of Commons has not been given. The thought has just struck me that this fact may be deliberately being withheld in this Chamber so that it can be doled out to a Committee of the Assembly as part of the hand-feeding of that monstrous creation, which is the principal occupation of the Secretary of State and his minions. So perhaps the X that we are obliged to insert into any statement we make will in due course be filled in at a Committee of that irresponsible body to which the Minister is not responsible.

However, I draw a veil over that matter, and pass to another question about which I hope the Minister will not be so inhibited in providing information—the advances to general medical practitioners for practice premises. He indicated that there had been an increase of interest among the medical profession in Northern Ireland in securing advances for this purpose. This is a matter which, from the early days of the Health Service in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland, has been of great interest and at one stage of considerable political controversy. Since a big increase is now being provided for in the maximum sum that can be outstanding in terms of loans for the improvement of practice premises I hope the Minister, when he winds up, will be able to give to the House at any rate a brief indication of the progress that has been made and the volume of outstanding applications and plans that lie ahead.

To what extent is the general practitioner in Ulster now serving his patients not in premises that are traditionally associated with the consulting room of the general practitioner in country areas in days gone by but in new, purpose-built or purpose-provided premises towards which these loans go? Secrecy and loyalty to colleagues will not prevent the Minister from answering that question from his own Department, thereby giving the House an interesting if somewhat nocturnal insight into the improvement of practice premises in the Province.

I come last—

Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)


Mr. Powell

I do not know whether that was an expression of regret or relief. Perhaps I can settle that difference with the hon. Member later. At any rate, whether to general regret or satisfaction, I come last to loans to harbour authorities.

I have a minor and major point to make. The loans and grants are made by the Departments of Economic Development and Agriculture. I probably ought to know the answer to this, but others may not. How is the function of grant-aiding harbour works divided between those two Departments? That is my technical question.

My second and concluding point is to place emphasis on the outstanding importance for Northern Ireland—in all possible respects, including economic development—of the improvement of its surface communications with the rest of the United Kingdom. That does not everywhere depend upon harbour works, but the Minister will readily concede that in all the main ports of access to Northern Ireland harbour works are an important factor in the efficiency of communications and transportation between the Province and the rest of the United Kingdom. Additional harbour works at the major Northern Ireland terminals could improve the efficiency of those communications.

The Minister probably knows that I have a special interest in this matter, in that the port of Warrenpoint, which has been modernised at considerable public expense in the last decade or so, cannot give the full service that the facilities there ought to provide, both to the economy of Northern Ireland and indeed to the Irish Republic, unless there is an improvement in the access to that port through Carlingford lough.

The outlook today has considerably improved since the matter was last debated or even mentioned in the House, in that the estimated cost of carrying out the necessary work has been reduced from about £10 million to about £4 million. As a result, the hopes of the Northern Ireland Economic Council, which has pressed this matter for a number of years, and of those of us who from far and near look to the improvement of the traffic through Warrenpoint for a regeneration of employment and activity in the whole of that area—as well for as an additional contribution to communications between the Province generally and Great Britain—have been largely encouraged.

We find ourselves hoping that before the additional sum in the higher limit is expended, the initial outlay at any rate will have been made upon that improvement of the access to Warrenpoint harbour, which after many years' study appears at last to be coming nearer to the stage of practicability and implementation than many of us had feared. On that hopeful note, I offer the support of my hon. Friends and myself to the order which is before the House.

12.40 pm
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) spoke briefly on the questions which arose on the Development Loans, Agriculture and Fisheries Act 1968, and pointed out that in the Government's view there was a balancing act ahead where the inflow and outflow would be equal, and that £2 million only would be required to cover extra loans until that happy occurrence.

The original Act specified many purposes for which agriculture development loans can be made: Development and improvement of agricultural land and livestock and of land suitable for forestry or woodland purposes. There are then The purchase (including hire purchase) and installation of agricultural machinery … the establishment or development of small rural and agricultural industries". and many more.

All those matters are costly, and it appears to me that £2 million extra and an aggregate of £20 million will not go far.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us precisely how that expenditure will be met, whether the Government expect the investment in agriculture in Northern Ireland to fall to such a degree that it can be met from this fund, and what other sources are available from which farmers may borrow.

The second matter that I wish to ask the Minister about is found in article 11 of the order. We read: If a borrower of a government loan makes default— (a) in paying any money due in respect of the loan for a period exceeding 10 days after the money becomes due"— then— the entire amount of the principal outstanding under the loan together with— (i) interest on it at the appropriate rate or rates … shall become payable and shall be paid by the borrower to the Department on demand. That is different from what was contained in the original Act of 1968. I should be interested to know which the Minister will hold over the head of the farmer or the agriculturist who finds himself in the unfortunate position of having a cash-flow problem, which is not unknown in agriculture. Anyone who has grown potatoes and tried to sell them in Northern Ireland this past season knows how serious the difficulties are.

Section 6(2) of the original Act said: Where any instalment of principal or interest or both principal and interest due on foot of any loan made under this Act is more than 31 days in arrear additional interest at a rate not exceeding 6 and one half per centum per annum shall, notwithstanding any enactment or rule of law to the contrary, be chargeable on the amount of such arrears and shall be recoverable therewith; but the Ministry of Finance may in such cases as it thinks fit direct that the payment of such additional interest may be waived. There is a vast difference between the attitude displayed by the original Act and that which is set forth in the order. The order contains much harsher provisions, which could in certain circumstances bear very heavily indeed upon the farming commumity in Northern Ireland. I would like an assurance from the Minister that if not the letter of the original Act at least the spirit of it will prevail in future. The original Act, I believe, took fully into account the difficulties of the agricultural community in Northern Ireland. That willingness to understand the difficulties of the people concerned seems to me quite absent from the present enactment. I am just curious what the situation will be in the future.

12.45 am
Mr. John Patten

I welcome the welcome of the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) for the order, albeit qualified by his concern for what he sees as a correct and adequate level of public expenditure in the Province. I hope that, even if we do not necessarily agree on a figure, we can at least agree that the order allows in the future increased capital expenditure in an area of the United Kingdom which needs the help of the rest of the United Kingdom in the problems which face it. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said.

I turn, first, to the three technical and then the four more substantive points that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) raised. I am grateful to him for his welcome for the changes in the way in which Ulster savings certificates are to be treated in future.

On the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I am familiar with the arguments about the need, as he sees it, to have an integrated Consolidated Fund for the whole of the United Kingdom. I shall certainly bear in mind what he has to say and pass on his views to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

But, however inconvenient—setting aside for one moment the constitutional proprieties, which I know bear heavily in the right hon. Gentleman's argument—from time to time we in this House should perhaps be able, under public expenditure spending programme No. 17, to isolate the high level of public expenditure per head in the Province. Although there are arguments about that, I think that it is commonly accepted that it is more than 30 per cent. higher per head in the Province than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

However inconvenient that fact may be for us, it also strikes me as a fact of considerable convenience, since it allows us by the very isolation of that sum to demonstrate to the people of the Province—the right hon. Gentleman's constituents in Down, South, and his hon. Friend's constituents in Londonderry, and the constituents of the hon. Member for Mid Ulster (Mr. Dunlop)—the commitment of the United Kingdom to the Province. It may be constitutionally incorrect—who is to say; that is a matter for debate—it may sometimes be unfortunate in terms of arguments, but I think that it is also fortunate, because it allows us to demonstrate to the people of the Province the considerable commitment of the people of the whole of the United Kingdom to their welfare via public expenditure.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I take the point that the hon. Member is making, but I think that he will agree that it is not directly connected with the question whether there should or should not be a Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. It would be perfectly possible to account separately for public expenditure in Northern Ireland, to show it separately and to present it separately, even if the sums were being paid out of the United Kingdom Consolidated Fund, which is the narrower point that I was making.

Mr. Patten

I accept that point, although it is difficult for any other part of the United Kingdom to separate public expenditure plans as the right hon. Gentleman suggests could easily be done for the Province should there be one Consolidated Fund. I am also grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome tinged with sadness to the abolition of the capital purposes fund, that interesting historical attempt to do a set of things with regard to capital expenditure that many people would still feel are desirable—the rolling over of capital expenditure from one year to another.

One substantial point related to agriculture. I should like, in replying to the point of the right hon. Member for Down, South, also to associate in my remarks the questions raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross). In answer to the direct question posed by the right hon. Gentleman, I can say that there will be no more direct lending from this fund in future. In answer to his second question, there are no other public sources of funds of this type for loans to the agricultural sector. I dare say that he and his hon. Friend will remember the considerable public interest and concern in late 1979 when this issue was first aired. There was full consultation with the Ulster Farmers Union and it was decided after considerable argument following that consultation that the fund itself should be run down, because in the Government's view there are adequate sources in the private sector of loans that can be supplied to agriculture.

As for the application of the present order and any previous legislation, if the hon. Member for Londonderry knows of cases, I should be grateful if he would draw them to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of State responsible for the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland.

On housing, I have said all that I can possibly say in answer to the questions posed by the right hon. Member for Down, South. I can say a little more about his third question, which related to the adequacy of the guarantees made available for loans from the Department of Health and Social Services. It is important to realise that the loans to general practitioners for the improvement of their practices and the buildings in which they are housed are not made directly from Government. There is no element of public subsidy. The loans gained from the private sector are underwritten—it has been a successful process—to allow for the improvement of facilities in general practice.

I do not have the exact figures in my head but I would hazard a guess that in the Province more than 60 per cent. of all general practitioners are now housed within health centres. I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman to give him the exact figures in a comparative framework because it is a considerably higher proportion than obtains on this side of the water. Generally speaking, the move of general practitioners into group practices, and more particularly into health centres, has been remarkably successful. There have been integrated units concerned with health education and with the dissemination of a great deal of information about health and general welfare.

There have been a few failures and a few difficulties. The Shantallow health centre in the constituency of the hon. Member for Londonderry has lain empty and vacant for many years, although general practitioners at one stage said that they wished to go into it. We have had to put it to other uses. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Gentlemen are familiar with the fact that general practitioners are independent contractors with the Health Service. In the end, they can decide whether or not to go into a health centre.

The right hon. Member for Down, South referred to harbour improvements. The grant aiding of improvement works to harbours when made by the Department of Economic Development, which used to be the Department of Commerce, is made to ports that are primarily commercial, whereas grants by the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland are made to harbours primarily concerned with fishing. There is a grey area of overlap but that, pragmatically, is how it works.

I suppose that Warren Point, which is in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Down, South, would be a commercial undertaking. I cannot give any details about the future of that scheme. It is a detailed policy matter for my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I welcome the interest that the right hon. Gentleman has shown both in his speech tonight and in his speech on 10 December 1980, when he spoke about the transportation problems of the Province.

This sensible order makes an important provision available for the future of the Province until 1985 and I believe that it will be broadly welcomed. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1982, which was laid before this House on 14th December, be approved.