§ The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)
I beg to move,That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 20th February, be approved.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
It might be helpful if I made it clear that the debate on this order may cover all matters for which Northern Ireland Departments, as distinct from the Northern Ireland Office, are responsible. The police and security are the principal excluded subjects.
§ Dr. Boyson
The Order is being made under paragraph 1 of schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974. Ths purpose of the draft order is to appropriate the 1984–85 Spring Supplementary Estimates and the 1985–86 Vote on Account of Northern Ireland Departments.
Part I of the schedule covers the issue of a further £68 million out of the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland in respect of the Spring Supplementary Estimates of Northern Ireland Departments and appropriates this sum for the purposes shown in the schedule. This sum is in addition to some £2,872 million, which has already been approved by the House for the 1984–85 financial year. It brings the total Estimate provision for 1984–85 to just over £2,940 million.
Part II of the schedule gives details of the issues for which the Vote on Account of £1,323 million for 1985–86 is required. This provision is necessary to enable services to continue until the 1985–86 Main Estimates are debated later in the year. The sums required on account are based on the standard calculation of 45 per cent. of the total provision for the current financial year, except in those classes where it is known that the pattern of expenditure will differ significantly in the incoming year.
The main Estimates for 1985–86 will, of course, be framed within the total public expenditure provisions set out in the Government's White Paper on Public Expenditure, which was publised in January.
As hon. Members will be aware, the public expenditure allocation to Northern Ireland Departments for 1985–86 is some £30 million higher than had been originally planned. This is further clear evidence of the Government's continued commitment to tackling the Province's economic and social problems, particularly coming at a time when public expenditure in the United Kingdom as a whole is being held at the previously planned levels.
Full details of all the provisions sought in the draft order can be found in two volumes, copies of which have been placed in the Vote Office. These are entitled "Spring Supplementary Estimates" and "Statement of Sums Required on Account".
Before coming to the main points of the Supplementary Estimates, it is important that I should comment on the economic prospects for Northern Ireland. This is particularly relevant because the draft order includes increased aid for industry. Some of the alterations have come about because of the need for extra money for the development or changes in respect of factories, as I shall explain.
It is clear from recent economic indicators that Northern Ireland, in common with the rest of the UK, is experiencing a revival of economic activity, and the signs 1236 are that this will continue. In Northern Ireland, the trend for total industrial production and manufacturing output remains upward, with output for these sectors in the first three quarters of 1984 up by 3 per cent. and 4 per cent. respectively when compared with the same period in 1983.
It is particularly encouraging to note that the recovery is broadly based, with most sectors now displaying some improvement. The most recent employment figures provide further evidence of this recovery. Indeed, the number of persons employed, as I mentined earlier at Question Time, rose by 4,170 in the third and fourth quarters of 1984.
Nevertheless, unemployment remains the major economic problem in the Province, as hon. Members will be aware. As in Great Britain, the trend is still upwards, although there are clear signs that the rate of increase is moderating. For example, the increase in unemployment was only 420 between February 1984 and February 1985, according to figures published today. That compares with over 7,800 in the preceding 12 months.
That represented a loss of employment — nobody wants any loss; there will be nothing to cheer about until there is a gain rather than a loss — but the figures are significant in that, between February 1983 and February 1984, there was a loss of employment of 7,800. To put it correctly, there was an increase in unemployment — the two are not necessarily the same — of 7,800 between February 1983 and February 1984, and for the 12 months ended on 18 February of this year, on figures published today, the increase in unemployment was 420, as against that figure of 7,800.
We have a distinct problem in Northern Ireland which does not exist in the rest of the United Kingdom. I refer to the higher birth rate and, therefore, the need to find additional jobs. The birth rate is between 40 and 50 per cent. higher than in the rest of the country. Accordingly, the percentage of 18-year-olds in Northern Ireland is that much greater than the average for the United Kingdom.
Linked with that is a decrease in emigration. No disrespect is meant when one says that the biggest export from both parts of Ireland for a long time has been manpower and womanpower. However, unless people can offer distinctive skills—the very people we want to keep — it is unlikely that they will be able to go to other countries. Thus, with decreasing emigration and the birth rate being between 40 and 50 per cent. higher, the problem of finding work as the additional people grow up is a serious one.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)
The Minister may feel encouraged if I share with him an experience of mine in the last four weeks, when I have met no fewer than seven constituents who have returned, having previously emigrated, they thought permanently. They have returned to Northern Ireland on the grounds that it is not such a bad place after all.
§ Dr. Boyson
That helps to illustrate the problems that we are facing. By all means encourage people to return, but let us be sure that we can absorb them in the economy when they come back. I accept that there is a distinct tendency in the direction to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—and he spoke of having talked to seven people. But the story he related can be found at other than what one might call ordinary levels of employment.
A distinct number of people are coming back to Northern Ireland to senior managerial posts. Basically, 1237 that is a vote of confidence in the Province, and in that respect I support what the right hon. Gentleman said. About three weeks ago I met the new personnel director to John Parker at Harland and Wolff. Having worked elsewhere in Great Britain, the new personnel man has returned to the Province. The more people return, the more work we have to find, but we want them to come back.
Unemployment is stabilising, but the high birth rate and lack of emigration cause problems. The internal migration figures are interesting. This time next week I shall have the figures so that we shall know where we stand. The figures represent a vote of confidence in the Province. A number of overseas company representatives, particularly from America, say that they have difficulty in persuading people to go to Northern Ireland, but that once they are there they cannot get them out. They like the education system, the leisure facilities and the warmth and hospitality offered by the people. Co-operation exists at all levels in the companies based in Northern Ireland.
The House will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to speak about all provisions sought in the Supplementary Estimates. I shall concentrate on the major items. Hon. Members can ask questions about any issues covered in the order and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will reply later. If he cannot give the answers today, he will write to hon. Members.
I draw attention to a common element in six of the 24 Votes which the Estimates cover. I refer to receipts from the European Community under the urban renewal regulation. The order provides for the receipt of £14.2 million of the second tranche of aid which in full amounts to about £19.8 million and which was approved by the European Commission in November. The assistance has been earned by 91 publicly funded infrastructure projects in the greater Belfast area and has enabled the Government to increase their planned expenditure on urban renewal, including housing.
The previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made housing a priority, particularly in Belfast. The present Secretary of State has maintained that priority.
Only this week my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) took a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House to Northern Ireland. Two of them spoke to me during the Division tonight and said how different the housing situation was now compared with four years ago. Northern Ireland has a lot going for it. I agree that it is a time of disaster and alarm and the last few weeks have brought sadness to all of us, but there is much that can be said in favour of Northern Ireland.
Under Class II, £3.5 million of the £4.4 million extra sought under Vote 1 is to fund an increased number of alterations and extensions to existing factories. The policy in Northern Ireland has been to build advanced factories so that when outside employers come in, or a firm expands in the Province, a factory is available for rent or sale. Many of those factories are open and nobody works in them, so I queried that Vote. I wondered whether we should be building more factories when many were not being used. However, there has been a higher than expected level of investment by a number of companies in Northern Ireland, including the American company AVX which is now Europe's leading manufacturer of multi-layer ceramic capacitors. I trust that everyone knows what they are.
Some additional funds are also required following the Industrial Development Board's decision to proceed with 1238 the development of a new science park near Antrim. That development is designed to encourage, in particular, new investment in high technology in Northern Ireland. The extra money is needed for the adaptation of existing factories. I am sure that all hon. Members will approve of that expenditure.
In Class II, Vote 2, an extra £6.9 million is sought. A total of £1.9 million is for interest grants on borrowings for industrial modernisation and reorganisation and about £3.8 million is required by the IDB to meet loan commitments arising from a number of major new investments during the year. Again, the money is being spent on existing firms to give them help. Aircraft Furnishings and Vantona Viyella are examples of the companies which will benefit from that movement of money.
Under Vote III, expenditure on standard capital grants will rise from £37.5 million to £54 million. This reflects a continuation of the trend for a higher level of investment in manufacturing, indicating once again improved business confidence in the Province. I have quoted from a report by PA Management Consultations which says that firms in the sample taken invested 17 per cent. more this year than last year in their plants. Next year they expect to employ 2 per cent, more workers. Signs of optimism are there.
However, part of the increase can also be attributed to investment being brought forward in the knowledge that the standard capital grant scheme is under review. That scheme in Northern Ireland is analogous to the former regional development grant scheme in the assisted areas of Great Britain. A new regional development grant scheme was introduced in Great Britain in November 1984. The Northern Ireland scheme has been reviewed in the light of the significant changes already made in the Great Britain equivalent. I hope to be able to announce the outcome of that review in the near future.
Class III of the Spring Supplementary Estimates covers energy. Following the decision not to proceed with the Kinsale gas project, a new sub-heading, B3, is being introduced in Vote 1 to enable the Northern Ireland Gas Company Ltd to repay loans issued during the financial years 1983–84 and 1984–85.
In September 1984, the Government announced chat they would not be proceeding with proposals for natural gas to be supplied to Northern Ireland from the Kinsale field in the Republic of Ireland because the project no longer afforded the prospect of economic viability. Provision is being made to enable the orderly rundown and closure of those gas undertakings which decided themselves that they were unable to continue without financial support from the Government.
Under Class III, Vote 2, an extra £5 million is sought to increase the electricity tariff subsidy to the Northern Ireland electricity service. This service is heavily dependent on oil for electricity generation. Since oil is priced in dollars, the movement in the sterling-dollar exchange rate sharply increased the price of that fuel and there has been a consequent increase in electricity service costs.
The Government remain concerned about the ever-increasing cost of the tariff subsidy, and about the extent to which it restricts the funds available for other Government programmes in Northern Ireland. In the Estimates for next year we are calculating that £95 million will be required to subsidise the electricity industry so that 1239 it can peg the price to the highest tariff in Great Britain. If one calculates that the Northern Ireland block is about £4 billion, that means that the subsidy is 2.5 per cent. It escalates each year.
For that reason, we are looking urgently at the options for altering the primary fuel for electricity generation at Kilroot, which would reduce costs and thus reduce the demand for the subsidy.
The Government and the electricity service are also actively following up the potential for reducing the cost of electricity generation through use of the indigenous lignite. The first firing of lignite from the Province took place yesterday. Certain lights and bars on electric fires in Northern Ireland for the first time now take their energy from the native lignite. We hope that that will be a success. The House will be united about that.
In west Belfast, 200 tonnes of lignite, which comes from Crumlin, is being fired. Lignite is black bricks and looks like coal. We have paid for the experiment to be done in Yugoslavia and the material is then brought back to be fired. The experiment will prove whether hard lignite from Crumlin can be made into bricks by a process that is used in other European countries. It could then be used in the west Belfast power station. It could also be used in the Kilroot power station if we decided to change to coal and then to lignite. The experiment has no bearing on the use of soft lignite in a possible minemouth station in Crumlin. It would be moved directly into the power station. The making of the bricks — we cannot send lignite to Yugoslavia, although committees may visit regularly to see how it is done—means that we, private enterprise or the Northern Ireland electricity authority will have to build a plant to make the bricks if we use lignite in the Kilroot and west Belfast power stations. The experiment has no bearing on whether we can build the minemouth plant. That will have to be tried elsewhere.
Northern Ireland has a highly developed roads system which is of great importance to the industrial and commercial life of the Province. In order to maintain this valuable asset, the roads programme requires, in Class IV Vote 1, a net supplement of £4.2 million for both capital expenditure and the operation and maintenance of the roads, bridges and lighting.
I should now like to turn to housing, to which I have referred already, which continues to be the top priority among Northern Ireland's social and environmental programmes. The net increase in Class V, Vote 1 of some £9.5 million in the provision for housing services can be attributed mainly to an additional sum of £6 million to enable the Housing Executive to repay certain building society loans, and to an increase in the level of expenditure on house renovation grants in response to rising demand.
On education, the supplementary provision sought for the education services in Class VIII, Vote 1 relates primarily to the increased salary costs arising from the teachers' April 1984 pay award of 5.1 per cent. The overall number of approved teaching posts in schools, including the voluntary grammar schools, in the current school year is 18,615, which will permit the existing overall pupil-teacher ratio to be maintained.
Increased provision of just under £1 million is also made in this Vote for capital grants to schools under voluntary management, and will allow further progress on certain essential minor works, including health and safety 1240 schemes, at these schools. The bulk of this increase, £750,000, has been made possible by the new carry-over arrangements introduced last year, which have permitted a proportion of unexpended capital funds in the Northern Ireland block as a whole to be brought forward from the 1983–84 financial year into 1984–85. Under the scheme, underspending of up to 5 per cent. of the total eligible capital provision may be carried forward from one year to the next.
This year is the first time that that carry-over facility has been in full operation. It is extremely useful because there is nothing worse than having to spend up by the end of the year. In the past, in schools, I had to circulate messages that we would have to spend up by the end of the month and asked for suggestions. It is not an ideal situation, especially when two weeks later one discovers that one wants something desperately after one has just spent money on something much less important. In all Votes, 5 per cent. of the total eligible capital provision can be carried forward from one year to another. That means money is spent as it should be spent and not in haste at the end of March.
The carry-over facility has proved to be a most welcome addition to the Secretary of State's flexibility. As well as the Department of Education, three other Northern Ireland Departments have benefited this year: the Department of the Environment carried over into this year £1.6 million, the Department of Economic Development carried over £2 million and the Department of Health and Social Services carried over £500,000. Those amounts are included in the additional provision being sought now for those Departments.
Returning to Class VIII, Vote 2, additional provision of £1.8 million is required to make good a deficiency in the anticipated level of receipts from the European social fund in the current financial year. The EC contribution relates to the cost of certain courses of vocational training in the further education sector, expenditure on which is borne both in this Vote and in Class VIII, Vote 4, where a similar adjustment is required. I would emphasise, however, that that does not imply any change in the underlying volume of activity or in the level of EC support, but relates simply to the timing of the receipt of certain contributions now expected to fall in the next financial year.
Indeed, many hon. Members ask why certain moneys have not been paid to their constituents. In many cases we must wait for the EC to give us money before we can pay it out. The fact that we had to transfer receipts from this to next year shows that that is true — not that anyone doubted. All the letters that I have sent to hon. Members—I have sent two this week—are true.
Finally, in this class, may I refer to the supplementary provision of £5.2 million required in Vote IV for grants to the education and library boards. The major element of the increase in this Vote relates to recurrent and capital expenditure on this year's youth training programme, details of which were not finalised until after the Main Estimates were prepared. The increase will bring the total expenditure on the educational element of the youth training programme to more than £10 million, and will allow the further education colleges to offer 2,500 full-time places and 7,500 part-time places. I am sure that every hon. Member is anxious that we should provide all the youth training that we can. We are also anxious that it is the right sort of training and that it helps the young 1241 people to get jobs afterwards. It is not merely a case of filling in time for one or two years to keep young people off the streets, as we used to say in the north of England; it is important that there is a purpose attached to training. It is helpful to link such training with further education colleges. The Vote will allow 10,000 more people to be involved this year.
On health and social services, the supplementary estimate for Class IX, Vote 1 seeks net additional resources of £3.2 million. The main reason for the increase is to take account of pay settlements the additional costs of which have attracted, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, partial assistance from the contingency reserve. Within the provision, an additional £800,000 net has been provided for capital projects and £500,000 has also been made available which will permit the replacement of medical equipment for regional specialties at the Royal Victoria hospital.
Vote 2 is one of a number of Votes in which the House will find a "token" provision of £1,000. In this Vote there has been an increase of almost £3 million in the cost of medical and ophthalmic services, due to the extra cost of providing those services, and increased demand for them. However, this £3 million increase is offset by a reduction in the provision for pharmaceutical services, and also by higher receipts than expected from the contributions paid by employers and employees towards the cost of the Health Service.
The overall effect of these pluses and minuses is that the original provision is adequate. However, in order to draw the attention of the House to the significant changes in the costs of the elements within the Vote, it is necessary to seek a token Supplementary Estimate of £1,000. The fact that has been included shows that we have open government in Northern Ireland. If it had not been included, hon. Members would not be able to debate the items. Perhaps hon. Members may not wish to debate them — Ministers do not wish to. We have included these items as a service to the public and to open government, and so that hon. Members can rise to it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I appreciate how this is fully understood by all hon. Members who are present.
Finally, in the social security programme, an additional £2.7 million is being sought in Class X, Vote 4, for administration and miscellaneous services. Additional provision is required for salaries and wages, charges for agency services and for the additional costs of the inquiry into children's homes and hostels.
I have tried to outline briefly the main features of the draft order and to give hon. Members an appreciation of the reasons for the changes in provision. I shall listen with great interest to the points raised by hon. Members, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will reply. I commend the draft order to the House.
§ Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)
Debates on Appropriation Orders occupy, to some extent, the same place in relation to economic affairs in Northern Ireland as the Budget statement, the debate on the Finance Bill and the Appropriation Bill occupy for the United Kingdom as a whole. We may argue whether it is sensible to review the United Kingdom economy and to decide financial policy as part of a mystic ritual once a year, but it is right that the Government should give some account of their stewardship and answer debates from time to time. I would 1242 have hoped that the Government's business managers would have accorded Northern Ireland something more than half a Thursday evening for that purpose.
The Minister predicted that I would destroy the harmony in the Chamber. His predictions are not always justified in the event, but on this occasion he is 100 per cent. accurate. The provision which the order seeks to make and the needs for which it is intended to provide must be assessed against one all-pervading fact: that the much-heralded economic recovery never made a personal appearance. It has been replaced by alibis, scapegoats and grasping at straws. For the people of Northern Ireland, the better future has not materialised.
In January, 123,105 people were claiming unemployment benefit, and even the laundered figures cannot conceal that that is 861 more than a year earlier. If I understood the Minister correctly at Question Time this afternoon, and again this evening, the figures are a little better for February, as we would expect. This time, we are only 420 worse than last year. He made the most of that information. I do not blame him, because he does not have much good news to announce, but we had all that song and dance about the fact that we are only 420 jobs worse off than we were last year.
If we compare the number of job promotions by the Industrial Development Board and LEDU with the number of people qualifying for statutory redundancy payments, we find that they are running hard but failing to maintain the same place. In 1984, 7,214 jobs were promoted, while 8,378 people qualified for redundancy payments. No doubt I will be told that I am spreading alarm and despondency. But there is alarm and despondency in Northern Ireland, and we must face the fact in this debate. The people I meet, who are not company executives, are worried about their future, and if the malady is not diagnosed, we shall continue to be short on prescriptions.
What is especially worrying is the failure to absorb people qualified in the new technologies. On 22 February, the Belfast Telegraph reported that, last year, there were 72 graduates from Queen's university in electrical studies and electronic engineering. Twelve were overseas students who returned home. Of the remaining 60, only 27 found jobs in Northern Ireland. Yet they are the people on whom an economic recovery will depend.
A measure of the waste can be found by comparing expenditure on the social programme with expenditure on industrial development. The Government's expenditure plans, which, as the Minister said, were published in January, reveal that, since 1979, the Government have spent more than £5 billion on social security in Northern Ireland. Of course, we do not complain about the Government meeting people's needs, given that those needs exist. But in the same period they spent less than £2 billion on industry, energy and employment promotion. Had they tackled those problems more effectively, the need would not have reached anything like those proportions. This is the philosophy of spending money to keep people unemployed instead of spending it to get them to work.
We still hear the argument that to attract industry to Northern Ireland the Province must be able to offer what is euphemistically called "wages flexibility", which means that people must be so desparate that they are prepared to work for less than employers must pay anywhere else. That has been put to the test in Northern Ireland. In 1982, 27 per cent. of men in full-time employment earned less 1243 than £100 a week compared with only 17 per cent. in Great Britain. That did not bring jobs crowding into Northern Ireland. Everyone agrees that in skills, willingness to work, loyalty and perfomance, the workers of Northern Ireland bear comparison with workers anywhere. But if the Government abdicate their responsibilities in favour of market forces, there will be no rewards for those workers.
May I put some concrete suggestions to the Minister as to how the Government could help Northern Ireland to break out of that vicious downward spiral? First, has he seen the 1983–84 annual report of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which points out that the incentive schemes for employers are not always incentives to create jobs? The capital grants scheme is dispensed with no apparent assessment of its impact on job creation, and the congress suggested that the Government should replace it with an employment grants scheme, where the grants would be based on the number of employment years that would result from each pound spent. It also suggested a tighter monitoring system to ensure that the money was not siphoned off to associated companies or to outside creditors.
Secondly, the Government could match the need of the unemployed for work with the need for work to be done in the public sector. The proposals in Class V, of which the Minister spoke, reflect the Government's intention to reduce by 750 the number of housing starts made by the Housing Executive as against starts in the previous year. This is at a time when the Housing Executive's waiting list is apparently growing. There were 1,000 more names on the list in September 1984 than there were in March 1984. The Housing Executive states in its annual report that one third of its applicants have been waiting for at least four years.
As I understand it—the Under-Secretary of State will tell me whether it is right when he replies — the Government explain that by saying that, instead of undertaking an energetic house-building programme, they are concentrating on improving the existing stock. We would not complain about that if the Government showed more energy in enforcing standards in the private sector. It is true that the tenant of a house in need of repair may apply for a repair grant, but in practice it will not be provided unless the landlord consents. Many landlords are not prepared to consent because they will not be permitted to increase the rent if they have made no contribution to the cost of the repairs, and because some of them are anxious to make the tenancy as unpleasant as possible in order to obtain possession.
The Belfast law centre has proposed to the Government several changes in the law to make such enforcement more effective. If I were to reherese them today, my speech would be inordinately long, but I hope that the Government at least see the merit of paying people to build or improve houses in preference to paying them to eat their hearts out on the dole.
May I offer a further example of matching jobs to needs? The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten)—admitted in a parliamentary answer on 5 December that the entire class of 41 nurses who were due to complete their training at the Royal Victoria hospital in December would face unemployment, and that of 13 nurses who recently completed their training at Ards hospital, only four have 1244 been offered permanent jobs. That is not because hospitals in Northern Ireland are over-manned, but because there is no money to pay the nurses. The number of people provided with home helps by the Eastern health board fell by 1,231 in 1983–84, not because people have less need for home helps, but because the authority could not provide them out of the money which the Government had made available.
The problems of the Eastern health board are known to Ministers and to all hon. Members. It must provide £1.;2 million for the 1984 pay award; it has been asked to make efficiency savings of £1.4 million; it will need a further £1 million to cope with population changes; and it has a bill for a further £1 million from the north and west Belfast districts. The Government have provided some new money, but it will be completely absorbed by the costs imposed by reason of the new tower block at Belfast city hospital. So there will be growing unemployment among Health Service employees at a time when the sick, measured by the number receiving sickness and invalidity benefits, is 66 per cent. higher than the number in Great Britain, when the incidence of severe disablement is 35 per cent. higher, when the rates of infant mortality, congenital deformity, mental handicap and mental illness are all higher than in Great Britain.
If people were paid to meet those needs instead of being paid to remain unemployed, the Government would be going some way towards dealing with both problems. Until then, there is a vicious circle. Construction workers, nurses and home helps are unemployed while health and housing needs are not met. And because so many people are unemployed, Northern Ireland is an area of deprivation. That, in turn, is reflected in further strain on the health and housing services.
Until employment opportunities are provided in Northern Ireland, it will remain an area where very many people are living on very low incomes. In 1982, the average gross income per head in Northern Ireland was only 70 per cent. of the average for the United Kingdom. It is against that background that the House has to judge the proposals in Class III, particularly items 1 and 2 which the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) mentioned in his speech.
We are indebted to the report of the Assembly on social security parity, to which I should very much like to pay tribute, for some illuminating information on the cost of domestic fuels. Of the four most readily available sources of fuel — coal, oil, gas and electricity — two, coal and oil, cost about the same in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom. But coal is no longer very widely used in Great Britain, partly because it is not an efficient method of heating domestic space. Of coal burned in fires, only 35 per cent. of the heat generated is consumed usefully. So, although coal is a cheap fuel if we calculate it in terms of the therms generated, if, instead, we calculate it in terms of the therms usefully consumed it compares badly with other fuels for domestic heating. Yet in Northern Ireland coal takes 42.4 per cent. of the market in domestic fuels, compared with 10.4 per cent. in Great Britain. So we begin with householders in Northern Ireland largely committed to an inefficient and therefore an expensive method of heating.
The next most widely used fuel is electricity. We have discussed the price of electricity so often that I shall not presume to relate to the House facts of which it is obviously well aware. Suffice it to say that the price of 1245 electricity in Northern Ireland, as the Minister of State reminded us, is equated with the price in the highest priced region in Great Britain. That means 10 per cent. higher than the average price for Great Britain. The consequence was that in 1983, while the average household in Great Britain spent £8.80 per week on fuel, in Northern Ireland the average household spent £13.10—49 per cent. more out of a substantially lower total income. This impinges most heavily on the most vulnerable groups, particularly pensioners. In January, the Belfast Voluntary Welfare Society estimated that one third of Northern Ireland's pensioners live in inadequately heated accommodation and that about 20,000 are at risk from hypothermia.
What proposals have we had from the Government tonight, or any night, to deal with this tragic situation? Their document, "Northern Ireland Energy Issues", published in July 1983, which we have discussed on previous occasions, contains this revealing indication of their view of the Government's role:to set a framework which will ensure that the market operates in the energy sector with the minimum of distortion and that energy is produced and consumed efficiently.That is a classical definition of monetarism — the abdication of the Government and the magic of the market.
I should like to commend to the Minister, if he has not seen it, a publication called "Fuel Poverty in Northern Ireland". It is published by the Northern Ireland Right to Fuel Campaign. It suggests a number of measures which could help. First, it suggests a fuel allowance, payable to members of those groups which are knows to be most vulnerable: those in receipt of retirement pensions, invalidity benefits and the severe disablement allowance. Secondly, it suggests that efforts should be made to bring natural gas as an option to consumers in Northern Ireland. I was a little disappointed with what the Minister said about that tonight.
Following the Government's announcement last year that they were not proposing to proceed with the Kinsale project, the Northern Ireland Gas Employers Board and the gas trade union group prepared a report suggesting a less ambitious project. As he will recollect, I wrote to the hon. Gentleman urging him to give it serious consideration, and in the course of a courteous reply he said two things. First, he said that he was not happy about the assessment of the operating costs and the marketing prospects, but he said that he accepted that the working group wished to take independent advice on the proposals. Secondly, he said that he was not prepared to countenance any option which entailed a continuing subsidy towards the price of gas.
Independent advice was taken, taken from Coopers and Lybrand and from Congas Engineering. That report confirms that the scheme could offer gas to the people of Belfast at a price 25 per cent. below the current price. It confirms that over a period of five years the scheme would be self-financing, with a positive return of £159 million. I heard today from the hon. Gentleman that he had not yet officially seen that document. I hope that he will make arrangements to try to see it.
§ Dr. Boyson
It would help if that report were to be sent to us, but we are still waiting for it. It is very difficult to be attacked for disagreeing with a report when we have not even seen it.
§ Mr. Archer
Far be it from me to attack the hon. Gentleman in any sense for disagreeing with the report. I 1246 did not say that he disagreed with it. I am grateful to him for pointing out that he has not yet seen the report. I believe that the group intend to base further recommendations upon it before they submit it to the hon. Gentleman. However, when the time comes I hope that he will give very serious consideration to it.
The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the order provides for closures in the gas industry. If the gas industry has to be closed down, the cost to the Government, in addition to the penalty imposed on consumers in Northern Ireland, will be between £100 million and £120 million. It would swell yet further the ranks of skilled, loyal workers who are eating out their hearts on the dole. So a short-term commitment to the public financing that is necessary far this purpose would bear a double fruit. It would make available to consumers an attractive option at prices that they could afford, and it would ensure employment for the work force.
Thirdly, the Right to Fuel Campaign report suggests that the Government might assist further with the cost of insulating homes and that that should be restructured from the present system. There are two problems about the existing grants. First, since the householder has to find a proportion of the cost, those on the lowest incomes are unable to take full advantage of them. Secondly, it is less cost-effective to insulate the odd house here and there than to cover a whole estate in one project — in fact, about half as cost-effective. It would be a saving in the medium or long term to provide proper insulation for all houses which fail to meet basic standards, irrespective of any means testing of the occupiers.
Finally, a restructuring is proposed of electricity prices to ease the burden of standing charges, especially for those who are dependent upon district heating. Some tenants are paying £11 a week in electricity bills before they consume one unit of electricity.
If the Government were prepared to take some or all of those measures, it is unlikely that we would see many decent families, not lacking in honesty or providence, getting into loads of debt which become unmanageable.
But if we are discussing human misery and despair, there is a further measure which needs to be taken in relation to those who fall into debt. In 1971 there was a rent and rates strike. The occasion and the merits of it are now matters for the historians but the consequences of it are still with us. The Government of the day responded by placing on the statute book the Payment for Debt Act, or, to accord it its full name, which is now without significance, the Payment for Debt (Emergency Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland) 1971. It is a draconian measure which provides that any Government or public authority which is owed money by an individual may pay it and shall pay it, if the Department of Finance and Personnel so directs, in settlement of any sum appearing to be due—not proved to be due or even shown to be due—to anyone, in respect of sums due for rates, taxes, payment of public services or payment for accommodation.
The authority, or the Department of Finance and Personnel will be the sole arbiter of whether the debt is owed, how much is owing and what the debtor can afford to pay. The only concession to the judicial process is that the debtor may go to the county court after the event. If he can satisfy the court that no debt was owing, the court may order the money to be refunded, apparently without interest. The burden of proof that money was not owed is 1247 on the debtor and if the court finds that the bureaucracy took money that was not owing, it may — not must — order the bureaucracy to pay it back out of the goodness of its heart, or to credit the sum against some future debt. It would be hard to envisage a measure which placed citizens more completely at the mercy of the bureaucracy. It applies without qualification to those who are dependent for their incomes on payment from the Government or public authorities, many of whom are by definition those on low incomes.
Those who are employed by public authorities are subjected to a liability which is not shared by those in private employment. No limit is set on the proportion of the payment which may be appropriated or on the minimum which should be left for the individual to live on. There is no procedure for examining a person's means before a decision is made. The court has power to intervene only if the debt itself is disputed, and then only after the event. The only duty to give notice is that the person concerned must be informed by post that a deduction is to be made.
§ Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)
The House may think that there is some validity in many of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's arguments. However, many hon. Members will recognise the need for some provision to stop the state paying money to those who owe money to it. If the Act to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred is so bad, why did the Labour Government of which he was a member do nothing to remove it from the statute book?
§ Mr. Archer
That question was not wholly unexpected. The reason for my own inactivity is that I was unaware of the Act at that time. If I spent my time trying to defend every measure which the Government of which I was a member left on the statute book, not very much progress would be made in Northern Ireland. The same could be said by any member of any previous Government. I am not suggesting that Governments should continue unreservedly to pay money week after week, month after month and year after year to those who owe money to them. I am merely suggesting that there might be a more compassionate and fairer approach. For example, some judicial process might intervene at an earlier stage. I hope to carry the hon. Gentleman with me to that extent for I believe that he is a compassionate man.
§ Reverend Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)
Surely the blame rests on those politicians who said, "Go on a rent and rates strike and you will never have to pay." That advice was in their literature. It is those politicians who need to be castigated. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) helped to organise the rent and rates strike.
§ Mr. Archer
It is part of folklore that the English never remember and the Irish never forget. The strike took place a long time ago. I do not seek to join issue with the hon. Gentleman on matters of history. We are in 1985 and some of those who are suffering were children or were not even born when the strike took place. The emergency provisions for the payment of debt distinguish Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. If one lives in Birmingham or Halifax, the Act cannot apply to one. If one lives in Belfast or Derry, one is subject to it.
1248 The dangers are not wholly theoretical. I have been quoted the case of a woman, who is a single parent, being left with £20 a week to keep herself and one child, and that is only one example. The Assembly — again I pay tribute to it — passed a resolution in May 1984 calling fora review of the debt legislation in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to the Payment of Debt Act".So far as I am aware, there has been no response from the Government to that invitation. If I am wrong, I shall be happy to be corrected.
My criticism of the order is that it reflects a whole package of policies that offer no comfort to the Northern Ireland people. They are already disadvantaged in comparison with Great Britain because of what happened many years ago. Those policies do not add up to a remedy. Worse, they are the very policies which, during the past six years, have resulted in the present state of industry and employment.
It is true that the order reflects a substantial subvention by the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland, but the subvention is necessary largely because the Northern Ireland people are denied the right to work producing the goods to meet their needs. Of course we shall not divide against the order. It would be silly to register a protest against inadequate provision by voting against any provision at all, but we share in the indignation felt by so many people in Northern Ireland. Unemployment, poverty, deprivation and frustration are not inevitable; they are the consequences of Government policies and political decisions. While direct rule continues, the decisions are made by a Government which was in no sense chosen by the Northern Ireland people. The peoples of both traditions have a common interest in finding a better way of ordering their future.
§ 9.6 pm
§ Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North)
In speaking to the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, I once again acknowledge the Government's efforts in financing activities in the Province and the dedication of their various Northern Ireland Ministers to their respective portfolios, in spite of the sometimes unreasonable criticisms to which they are subjected from time to time.
The subjects in the order are wide and varied. They reflect the scope of the requirements of the Province, but I am more interested in the matters relating to the city of Belfast, especially to my constituency of Belfast, North, which has suffered considerably as a result of civil unrest causing serious deprivation in many areas.
Class II, Vote 1, section D details current expenditure in relation to the Industrial Development Board. I would be naive or dishonest if I did not appreciate the financial help and advice that the board has given to many industries. I am concerned that the board, in its enthusiasm to help, can be severely criticised for not inquiring sufficiently into some of the applications. There is evidence that vast sums of money have been granted to companies to set up businesses which then competed with similar business already in operation and which were more than able to cater for existing market demand. As a consequence, there have been redundancies and short-time working in these businesses, and sometimes there have been closures.
In my constituency, a long-established chemical works has suffered because of grants given to one of its former 1249 employees. There is another case where an entire door factory has closed, and another factory is now considering a three-day week because of grants given to a company to start up this type of business outside Belfast. Cheap imports from Spain, Portugal and the Irish Republic have decimated the door market in Northern Ireland. When the Government are not seen to be protecting the working population from the effects of these pirates, who are dumping goods on our markets, the activities of the Industrial Development Board, in adding to the problem, are to be condemned. Such incompetence does not produce any new jobs.
I am pleased to note that in Class II, Vote 3 the Government have recognised the value of the aircraft and shipbuilding industries to our Province. The provision of consultancy and advice to those industries must be welcomed. We all know that those two industries are competitive, and the record and dedication of their management and work forces must be admired. They are worthy of our full co-operation. I was somewhat alarmed to see in Vote 5 that the number of shipbuilding redundancies has been larger than anticipated. We must streamline operations to increase competitiveness, but there can be a hidden danger if we lose too many skilled operators through voluntary redundancies.
In Class II, Vote 3, I fully support the energy efficiency and other support services. The loft insulation scheme has been a success in Northern Ireland, and minimising heat loss has contributed to the economy in real terms.
I am sorry that the Local Enterprise Development Unit has not had the response for its services that was expected. That unit has been one of the most successful in creating jobs. The widening of its scope to cater for the service industries is welcome and has given a great uplift to my constituency by helping those who are setting up in the enterprise zones and providing much needed jobs in what was originally a virtual wasteland.
In Class II Vote 6, I am glad to note that recognition has been given to the fact that, because of their insular position, small private companies in Northern Ireland might not have the knowledge and business application to make the best use of their resources. The provision of consultancy grants through the European regional development fund is welcome. It will make such companies more viable in the present economic climate.
Class III deals with subsidies to electricity tariffs. The Secretary of State said when announcing the subsidy:This commitment is becoming an increasing strain on resources, and the demands of the electricity subsidy compete directly with other programmes for resources within the Northern Ireland block.I remind the Minister that the high cost of electricity generated in Northern Ireland is due to many factors of which he is aware and over which we in the Province have no control. As citizens of the United Kingdom subscribing to the Exchequer of our mother country, we are not to be treated as beggars. We are paying far more for fuel of all descriptions than are our fellow citizens in Great Britain. Although electricity is subsidised, it is still more expensive than in most other regions. The Government have the power to introduce cheaper energy. I am glad that they have tried that with lignite, but they should not patronise a population which suffers more than most from its energy consumption.
In Class IV, Vote 1, it is encouraging to note that the Minister has responded to the pleas of many public 1250 representatives about the condition and lighting of some of our roads. Provision is being made for extra expenditure on those necessary works. As the Minister is aware, there have been many complaints about those matters. It is a point that has been recognised by providing in section E for hefty sums of compensation for damage to property or injury to persons arising out of the Department's responsibility as a road authority.
There are several headings under Class V about which one could speak. The housing grant system has been successful in updating and preserving the Province's housing stock. It is reassuring to note that that fact has been recognised by the provision of extra resources to cater for the existing demand. Unfortunately, there are still what many applicants will say are unacceptable delays in the processing of applications. That causes great frustration for all concerned.
In connection with the grants, I am still very concerned about the cowboy element in the building trade. That element is being encouraged by the addition of 15 per cent. VAT on all building alternations. I agree with a recent suggestion by the Building Federation Association that the VAT net should be widened to take in all firms in the construction industry, no matter how small. That would help to stamp out this area of the black economy—the growth of unfair competition by unscrupulous builders who are avoiding registration for VAT.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)
When a constituent has difficulties in obtaining a grant for what, on the face of it, seems to be perfectly proper work, the reason often is that the person whom he intends to employ has given him bad advice and drawn up plans not calculated to comply with the requirements of the Housing Executive.
§ Mr. Walker
I quite agree with my right hon. Friend. It is the cowboys who are not able to cope with the trade who create such situations.
I note that the Housing Executive proposes new controls to govern the employment of subcontractors, to try to ensure higher standards of workmanship. If the new rules were extended to include builders involved in grant work, there would be more protection both for the executive and for the owner who lacks the necessary experience to ensure that the job is completed to a satisfactory standard. Such work should be awarded only to a contractor who has a valid tax exemption certificate and is registered for VAT.
I am still concerned about the lack of progress in many areas of North Belfast of the building and rehabilitation programmes. I do not criticise the Under-Secretary of State, who has always been very helpful in all housing matters. I am concerned about that bureaucratic and monolithic organisation known as the Housing Executive. To my mind—I suspect that many other hon. Members and public representatives would agree with me—that organisation is not fulfilling its function in the community.
Over 75 per cent. of the complaints that I receive from long-suffering constituents relate to the Housing Executive. There are allegations that controllers are not controlling and that managers are not managing. The only office with a record of sympathy and understanding is the one at 71 Royal avenue, Belfast. I wish to pay a personal tribute to the manager and staff of that office, who have 1251 never failed to answer queries and to take up points made by any public representatives. That office's provision of new build and upgrading is the best in north Belfast.
A new formal system for dealing with complaints has now been set up, but to date I have received no evidence that the system is working. A constituent advised me the other day that she had had to wait five weeks to see a housing officer at the Housing Executive office. I am concerned that by introducing such formality we will penalise the elderly and confused who may not understand the formal requirements for lodging a complaint. We need mannerly and co-operative housing assistants who will listen attentively to the problem and process it through the system in a workmanlike manner.
During the Appropriation debate last year I mentioned some plots of land in north Belfast which I believed could be developed for housing. The land is still there, but there seems to be a reluctance to develop it, at least for housing. The situation is especially bad in the Shankill area, where large tracts of land originally vested for housing are still dormant and desolate, especially in the areas RDA 11/33 and RDA 12/13. Public representatives have vociferously condemned the executive for dragging its feet in providing well-designed and good quality homes for Shankill families who are still living in unfit houses which were built at the turn of the century.
I am also worried about allegations that plans are afoot to use housing land to provide hospital facilities and large car parks around Eglington flats in the Crumlin road. That would permanently deprive 50 to 60 Shankill families of a home of their own in their own area. The Belfast housing strategy has greatly increased the number of Shankill dwellings that are due for demolition. So far, the Housing Executive has failed to tell the community where the redevelopment victims will be housed. It is only right to highlight the housing shortage and the imminent crisis in the Shankill area arising from redevelopment proposals.
Will the Minister ensure that Shankill housing land is used to provide homes, and is not used as wasteland for dumping, large car parks or, more ominously, to support schemes for the use of non-residents? Woodvale and Shankill housing association applied for permission to develop a prime piece of land on Agnes street for a small sheltered development. The land is close to all amenities and would be ideal for such a development. On investigation, it was revealed that it has been reserved for environmental works. That revelation only strengthens the belief that there is little Government commitment to provide for the people of the area. I trust that the Minister will investigate the allegations, and I hope that the land will be transferred back to housing. Open spaces and environmental works in that area are havens for hooligans, drinkers and glue sniffers, who practise their nefarious activities and then go forth to terrorise the neighbourhood.
I am pleased to advise the Minister that, after some time, site clearance has at last commenced in RDA87 in the Bray street—Ohio street complex. The district needs a crash programme of housing and rehabilitation to alleviate the terrible deprivation there. The Minister knows that many accusations of religious discrimination have been levelled at the executive for its inaction in that Protestant enclave. That is especially so when brand new houses are being supplied for Roman Catholic neighbours on the other side of the Crumlin road. The efforts of the 1252 Woodvale and Shankill housing association to solve the problems of the area are being thwarted by the minions of Stormont. That adds further to the impression that there is a conspiracy to deprive that section of the population of its basic rights. I hope that the Minister will respond to my plea to meet the officers of that association so that the many and varied complaints can be aired at first hand.
When the Minister announced his housing budget, he said that private developers were to be responsible for building the bulk of Ulster's new homes and that the executive's primary role would be to maintain and improve existing stock. Although I encourage home ownership, I am aware that current levels of unemployment in the Province mean that many families do not have the opportunity to avail themselves of home ownership. They have no option but to register for Housing Executive accommodation or to become tenants in the private rented sector. It is generally recognised that private tenants suffer the worst housing conditions in the Province.
I welcome the setting up of a private tenants association and hope that the Government will assist it to help those who are forced to live in accommodation such as I have mentioned, which often has a poor level of amenities and no proper standards of repair and safety. Enthusiasm to support the private developer and to encourage him to take Housing Executive land is not altogether satisfactory. I am led to believe that the development in Northumberland street is not coming up to expectations, in that there appears to be little interest from the community. However, there is a long list of applications for housing in the public sector at the local executive office. The executive has also handed over land at Manor street for private development. I predict that there will be little interest in that as well.
It would be much better if people could eventually purchase their executive home, which is built to a high standard, by applying the historic cost of the age of the house, as opposed to the date of the letting.
I now turn to Class VI, Vote 2, and mention the grant to community advice groups. While this grant could be beneficial in connection with advising the community on take-up benefits, care will have to be exercised to ensure that such grants cannot be applied and used by minority political parties in their desire to ingratiate themselves with the electorate.
In the same Vote, mention is made of itinerant caravan sites. There have been many problems and difficulties in Belfast in trying to help this section of the population. It must be accepted that itinerant populations have a wandering inclination, and the experiment of providing the settlement in Springfield road was a dismal and costly failure. Full and frank discussion with these people should be the order of the day to ascertain whether anything can be done for them and whether the community in the areas where their camps are to be put will accept them.
I refer now to Class VIII, section B, where provision is made for nursery schools. The decision to integrate nursery schools into neighbouring primary schools is not always the best one, for many reasons. I am particularly concerned about the transfer of Edenderry nursery school to Glenwood primary school, which I feel is a retrograde step. It would have been much more acceptable if the Minister with responsibility for education had at least inspected the school himself before taking his decision, especially as the inspectorate had recommended that the school should be allowed to remain. The Minister has been misinformed regarding the play area to be provided for 1253 these children. The headmaster of Glenwood school cannot give any more space, and the space available does not conform to the established criteria.
Parents and teachers in north Belfast have suffered traumatically through the rationalisation of their schools, and this further step in destroying nursery facilities is causing great dissention in the community, to the detriment of the Government. The Minister will, I am sure, forgive me if I say that this scenario is reminiscent of a "Yes Minister" episode.
Teachers are one of the most supportive influences in the early lives of our children. Now, on top of what they have suffered as a consequence of rationalisation, they are not being recognised in monetary terms. They claim that during the last decade they have fallen about 34 per cent. behind the salary levels of people in similar jobs. There is no doubt in my mind that they have a just case. Salary levels do not reflect the importance of their job or the demands that the community makes on them. Low pay, coupled with falling school rolls, deprives teachers on the bottom pay scale of promotion opportunities. They are very conscious of university contemporaries following careers in commerce or industry who are now earning more and enjoying far better prospects. Is it any wonder that morale is at rock bottom? The Government should show sympathy and understanding to our teachers in what is a legitimate claim. They should recognise that they are being treated unfairly and take steps to redress the imbalance in their salaries.
In winding up my speech, I make reference to Class IX, under health and personal social services. I had the privilege of reading recently a speech by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland — the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), who is responsible for health—to an invited audience at Queen's university. It was an excellent and most informative speech about the future of the Health Service. It is the future of the service, especially relating to the activities of the Eastern health and social services board, responsible for Belfast, which concerns me. I am perturbed to hear that that board is to protest to the Minister about a shortage of cash that is forcing it to find £4.6 million to meet its bills for 1985ߝ86. That naturally poses the question: is the board capable of managing its affairs? The suggestion that radical action would be considered, in the form of job cuts, does not auger well for the future of the service. There is talk about 1,000 ancillary jobs being axed before the end of the year, which would involve staff in catering, laundry, portering, domestic and home help services. Such cuts, if implemented, will further erode health care standards and, in my view, result in ward closures. There will also inevitably be longer waiting lists, and patients in desperate need may not receive treatment.
Within the eastern board the restructuring process has been a ghastly error, which has led only to vastly increasing costs in administrative levels, without providing better service. How anyone could hope to cut costs by creating eight extra units of management defeats me. I understand that there is now extreme dissatisfaction because of the creation of so many senior administrative posts, with the whole run of supporting positions under them, which has resulted only in spiralling costs and a top heavy administrative structure which does less work in a contracting service.
With regard to general medical services, I feel that I must protest at the suggestion that the Government are set 1254 to announce a steep increase in prescription charges. It is suggested that it may be as high as 20 per cent., which is well above the rate of inflation. Such an increase will coincide with a rise in charges for dental treatment and is likely to result in a tenfold rise in prescription charges since the Government came to power in 1979. There can be no justification for such methods. To capitalise on the sick and ailing in an attempt to bolster a declining Health Service would be deplorable.
In conclusion, I refer again to the Under-Secretary's speech at Queen's university, when he said:Investment is also required in services for the mentally handicapped and in particular the provision of more residential homes and adult training centres.Provision for that has also been included in Class IX. Knowing the Minister of State's concern for the problems of the mentally handicapped, and in particular the great sacrifices made by the parents in their care and support of those unfortunate members of their family, I shall relate to him what I believe is the most blatant act of discrimination and criminal negligence ever perpetrated by the eastern board against that underprivileged section of our community in north Belfast. The Minister is aware that north Belfast contains the greatest proportion of' mentally handicapped people in the Province. The parent groups have been trying vainly to obtain a proper adult training centre for the past 10 years and have been involved in discussions with the board over that period. In the meantime, to my knowledge, two beautifully equipped training centres have been built, one in Newtownabbey and one in south Belfast.
During the period of office of the last Labour Government — and that was not yesterday — Lord Melchett, who was Minister at the time, set aside the sum of £300,000 under the Belfast areas of need programme especially for the provision of an adult training centre for north Belfast. He instructed the board to proceed with the identification of a site, with subsequent building. Perhaps it proceeded, perhaps it did not, but certainly nothing materialised. It must have been a welcome relief when that Government went out of office and the board could again prevaricate and adopt a negative attitude to the project. Eventually, the intervention of the media embarrassed the board and it roused itself sufficiently to acquire a rundown clinic at Mountcollyer which, at minimum cost, was converted into something which the board presented as a sop to the parents. By superhuman efforts they transformed this so-called facility into an acceptable temporary compromise.
After many more years of feet dragging the board identified a building in York lane which was presented to the parents on a "take it or leave it—there is nothing else" basis. Some parents were so demoralised that they were ready to accept anything, but they should not be forced to take such an unsuitable building as the one now proposed. Bearing in mind that most of the people using such a building are severely handicapped and in constant need of help and support, how can anyone justify a decision by board officers to purchase a building which has the following serious shortcomings?
It is three-storey, requiring emergency evacuation procedures which could not possibly be relied upon with this type of usage. It is situated in an area of Belfast with a high traffic density and restricted parking. It is almost impossible to gain access or egress. More road development is scheduled, which will compound the 1255 problem. There are security problems in that high-risk area which has had more than its share of emergencies. There is very little natural light in the building. There is no outside area for physical education programmes. There is also an electricity sub-station in the building, which in the past has been a terrorist target. I appeal to the Minister to treat this matter with the utmost urgency. There are many properties, including ground floor school premises in north Belfast, which would be much more suitable. The parents deserve the same facilities as those supplied with Government finance by other agencies. I fully support them.
§ Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)
The people whom I represent have told me that they are sick and tired of hearing about how much Northern Ireland is subsidised by the British Exchequer. We recognise that the public expenditure in Northern Ireland is higher than in other regions of the United Kingdom but we must remember that the position is the same in other parts of the mainland where the less well-off regions receive more in Government expenditure than is gained from the tax revenue from the area.
Attempts to help the less well-off regions through regional policy and the distribution of Government funds have been the mainstay of economic policy in the United Kingdom. Since the second world war, the weaker regions have been helped by the better-off. There should be a redistribution of resources to seek to alleviate regional differences.
The appalling unemployment in the Province and the necessary expenditure on security, as well as the other problems of high infant mortality and appalling housing conditions, can be alleviated only by high levels of public expenditure. We are not asking for special treatment for Northern Ireland. We are simply asking for equal treatment with the rest of the United Kingdom—in other words, the provision throughout of basic British standards for all British citizens.
Some elements of Government policy and the application of Government policy in the Province give grave cause for concern and have caused hardship. Under Class V, in regard to housing, Northern Ireland has been treated very generously. The amount of public expenditure on housing has been welcomed by all elected representatives. However, I am not convinced that those funds are being used in the most efficient manner. My party has always been critical of the way in which the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has used the funds which have been made available to it.
This year, despite the fact that we have a waiting list of more than 22,000 people in the Province and that a large proportion of the houses have been declared unfit, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive could not manage to spend all the money allocated to it. It has already handed over at least £11.3 million of this year's budget. By the time April comes, that £11.3 million may be nearer £15 million. That is equivalent to nearly 600 new houses. I can assure hon. Members that such houses are in great demand in some areas of the Province, and especially in Belfast. Indeed, I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker).
§ Mr. Peter Robinson
Will my hon. Friend take it from me that those houses are most needed in east Belfast, which has the highest waiting list in the whole of the Province?
§ Rev. William McCrea
I am happy to have that information from my hon. Friend, and I trust that this debate will draw the problem to the Housing Executive's attention. I believe that the excuses made by the Housing Executive do not stand up to close scrutiny. With better managing of its resources, the money could have been used on schemes which have been delayed time and time again.
It is ironic that in a year in which the Housing Executive could not spend all the money allocated to it, it had to declare that enveloping schemes which had been planned for the beginning of the next financial year would have to be shelved because of financial difficulties. There should be an administrative shake-up in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Indeed, I should prefer the Housing Executive to be removed and completely abolished, and its affairs returned to the local representatives in our Province.
In order to deal with situations such as those that have developed this year, the Housing Executive should be instructed to hold a number of schemes which could be immediately activated if and when it became apparent that there would be an underspend of the funds allocated by the Government in a particular year. The present system seems to be that, when an underspend is discovered, there is a panic trying to identify ways in which the money could be spent. As significant sums are involved, that simply is not practical. Given the Province's terrible housing problems, that is not an efficient way to deal with the resources allocated for housing. Inevitably, it will lead only to great disappointment, anger and frustration among those who have been kept waiting for many years for a house.
§ Mrs. Anna McCurley (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)
Is my hon. Friend talking about whether it would be equitable for the Housing Executive to be disbanded, or is it just a question of wanting more political influence over it?
§ Rev. William McCrea
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I served as a member of the board, and was the first member of my party to serve on it. But I believe that the Housing Executive is too large and unwieldy. It is too distant from the general public, and so cannot necessarily give it what it needs. Therefore, I believe that its affairs should be returned more to the local authorities. I do not hear anyone on this side of the water suggesting that all the powers should be taken from local authorities and given to some massive and unwieldy housing executive for England, Scotland or Wales. However, it would be interesting if that suggestion was made.
A formal review should be conducted into the housing programme to ensure that the correct levels of resources are devoted to the building of houses, and that valuable resources are released for high priority areas at the earliest opportunity for whatever housing area most needs them.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)
Will the hon. Gentleman agree that the highest priority must be given to provision for the elderly, for those with ills and for others who need ground floor accommodation with adequate 1257 central heating? If priority were given to that sector of housing in Northern Ireland, many two and three-bedroomed houses would become available for younger families.
§ Rev. William McCrea
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I accept that this section of the community need a large proportion of public housing, yet they do not have adequate provision for their needs. Indeed, real increases should have been made to the maintenance expenditure of the Housing Executive. In my constituency, work is needed at Watson Park and Camowen Bungalows, in Omagh, and other schemes which need urgent attention include Knockloughrim, Carson Villas, Tamlaght O'Crilly and Upperlands. I hope that the Minister will give careful thought to those places, and he might care to write to me about them.
Like me, other hon. Members will have been approached by constituents about problems concerned with response maintenance. I wish that the Housing Executive would be more caring and sympathetic about the maintenance issue. Time and again constituents complain that whenever they approach the Housing Executive, they are told, in effect, "You are at the bottom of the list. The repairs will he done some time." However, some people in the Province seem to be knocking on the door of the Housing Executive every other day and getting the work done. That group of people seem to be able to wreck their houses and have the Housing Executive van at their homes practically all the time. Against that, a good, honest, honourable citizen who has a problem with his home and has urgent need of response maintence is told that his problem is not urgent.
Time and again I have found that the good tenant seems to be overlooked, while the irresponsible one gets the attention of the staff of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I hope that that situation will change and that people will be encouraged to be good and honourable tenants.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North spoke of cowboy firms who are doing housing repairs. Many of the cowboys are doing what is known as "the double", and their standard of workmanship is deplorable. I have brought to the attention of the Housing Executive the workmanship at Coagh and Stewartstown in County Tyrone. I hope that something will be done to improve the general standard of workmanship and that clerks of work will be employed to watch over the work.
Putting in tenders are firms which employ people who are not tradesmen but who just collect their pay and leave work half done. Too often, such workmen leave behind a mess for others to clear up.
The increasing numbers of elderly and others with special needs make it vital that the voluntary housing effort is maintained and, if possible, enhanced. That sector of housing provides a commendable and worthy contribution to alleviating suffering among a valued section of the Ulster community, and we should pay tribute to the housing associations.
Will the Minister provide an up-to-date report on Orlit homes and aluminium bungalows, both of which are causing tenants grave concern?
Under Class IV, another sector of public expenditure needing an injection of money is capital construction and the improvement of roads and bridges and the maintenance of the road network throughout the Province. The 1258 Northern Ireland Economic Council estimates that money spent on capital works and maintenance has declined in real terms by one third since 1973–74. Anyone can see that if anything needs an injection of finance in Northern Ireland it is road maintenance. That money is needed to protect the capital already invested in our road system and to alleviate all other problems.
The money available to maintain 14,683 miles of road is not extravagant compared with expenditure in Great Britain. Steps should be taken to carry out proper repairs to our roads instead of resorting to inadequate patching.
The Under-Secretary of State recently made a vist to Northern Ireland and he is well aware of the need for urgent provision of the Castledawson bypass, the Magherafelt-to-Moneymore road and the Magherafelt bypass—to name but a few. Several of those roads have been on the list for many years and promises have been made to provide money for them.
One of Northern Ireland's problems is education. The inspectorate's report shows that the present curriculum is being restricted by shortages due to expenditure cuts. Paragraph 38 of the report, published over a year ago, states:The curriculum for 11–19 year olds is being restricted to some extent by the curtailment of outside activities, by shortages of equipment and the materials for practical subjects.Of the building programme necessary to upgrade secondary schools, the report states:There is a need to make provision which will enable schools to implement the balanced and broad curriculum through the addition of special spaces for science, craft, design, technology or physical education.If there are shortages of material, equipment, teachers and buildings for the present curriculum, how do the Government envisage broadening the curriculum through the introduction of new subjects, new teaching methods and new methods of study?
I trust that the programme will not become another cynical exercise in diverting attention from the real plight of education in the Province, but that resources will be allocated to improve the quality of education.
Many hon. Members want to take part in the debate. I have prepared comments on many other subjects, but I shall mention only two further simple matters. I come from Mid-Ulster, the area with the highest unemployment in the United Kingdom—indeed, the highest unemployment in Europe. I plead with the Government to introduce more attractive incentive packages for prospective investors. In the face of such overwhelming unemployment, the bodies entrusted with providing jobs have a gigantic task which I do not under-estimate. However, I am convinced that, with the Mid-Ulster work force—one of the best in the United Kingdom — and the dynamic sales initiatives, we can be brought from the depths.
I will not under-estimate the figures given to us, as the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) did. I am delighted that the increase in unemployment has dropped. In February 1983–84 the figure was 7,800 and in February 1984–85 it was 420. I trust that we shall see a dramatic turn in the figures and that the people of Ulster will be allowed to do a simple job, and work and provide for the Province as they have done in the past. I spoke to the Minister privately today and asked him to visit my constituency to see some of the problems at first hand. He readily accepted that invitation. I welcome that and trust that the visit will take place soon.
1259 The problems facing our elderly, our unemployed, those who are urgently needing home helps — all of them among my constituents—should be a burden on both my heart and that of the Government. I earnestly 1260 appeal to the Government to listen carefully to the representations from the elected representatives of the people so that we may dispel the problems and bring a bright and happier future to the whole of this part of the United Kingdom.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
In his speech the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) spoke of not going back over history. The tragedy is that in a House and from a profession steeped in history, Government and Opposition indubitably have failed to learn the lesson of history and to listen to the voices of Ulster Members. We have already seen evidence of that tonight.
I draw to the attention of the House the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) on 11 June, which is published in the Official Report, Vol. 61. He pointed out our traditional antipathy to this method of dealing with Northern Ireland business. Even tonight there have been suggestions that Northern Ireland is served more beneficially than other parts of the United Kingdom. I do not doubt that we have benefited in some areas, but if the appropriation order for the rest of the kingdom were dealt with on this basis, we would all see how other areas of the United Kingdom were dealt with specifically. We discovered in the publication of a breakdown into regions that Northern Ireland normally comes about fifth in the areas of benefit rather than first. Therefore, I advise the House that my right hon. and hon. Friends will vote against the order on the principle that we should be treated in the same context as the rest of the kingdom.
I take up the point of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) and ask the Minister to spell out the figures. The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West may have missed the good news at that point, when he said that that was the only good news that the Minister had. I believe that I am right in saying that about 7,000 people come on to the employment register each year, so even to mark time we must create that number of new jobs each year. I hope that the Minister will re-examine those figures, because the important point was made that, although none of us can be satisfied with unemployment in Northern Ireland, constructive steps have been taken from which we should derive encouragement.
When the Minister deals with energy, will he say whether the Government have decided to allow those who have been using town gas for cooking — it looks as though the onward march of events means that comparatively soon there will be no more town gas—and who wish to convert to liquid gas to have the same rights as others who will convert to other forms of fuel? I fear that the Government may be tempted not to do so. Since they are the Government of choice, they should give those older people the opportunity to have cheaper fuel and not to have to rely on electricity.
While I am on the subject of fuel, will the Government give a little more publicity to the fact that the coal advisory service, which to the uninitiated seems to be a benevolent society to guide people on how to get the best from coal, may in fact be a cover for the coal importers and is more concerned with arguing their case? We have already seen press releases defending the fact that there will be no reduction in coal prices, although the miners' strike is over, because we have been trading in dollars and there has been advance trading. It appears that the service is already preparing an argument to force the people of Northern Ireland to continue to pay a high price for coal.
1262 Can the Minister confirm the figures given by the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West for the employment of graduates in engineering from Queen's university? I may be more sceptical than others, but I do not normally take as hard facts the figures that appear in the press. There can be printers' errors and sometimes reporters get the wrong end of the stick. Only last week, I had the privilege of travelling in an aeroplane with a senior professor in this area at Queen's university, who said that graduates from the electrical and engineering faculties were being snapped up not only by overseas companies but in Northern Ireland. I understand that about 27 graduates annually from Queen's are automatically taken on the payroll of Shorts, which is moving forward with new technology.
As we are trying to improve employment in Northern Ireland, is enough being done to co-ordinate the Industrial Development Board's initiatives and finance with the research work carried out at Queen's university and other establishments in Northern Ireland so that the creative engineering skills latent in Northern Ireland can be harnessed to new industries? At present, many research projects are financed by overseas industrialists from Japan and America, and the outcome of the research is going across the oceans. We live in a global village, and we are happy to share our knowledge with others, but I believe that we should try to do more to create job opportunities of that kind in Northern Ireland.
I turn to a few points which arise directly out of the order. Class IV deals with street lighting. I do not think that we have been fully satisfied with the maintenance of street lighting, especially in Belfast, since the changeover from the Northern Ireland electricity service to the Department of the Environment. Are the supervisors looking after street lighting properly? Where there is community unrest, I believe that it is unwise for street lights not to be functioning for long periods. I question whether the money that is provided for this purpose is being spent wisely and properly. I notice that there has been a decrease in the amount of money set aside for new installations and improvements.
Will the Dunmurry bypass be completed this year? In particular, when will the stretch to bypass Areema be started and completed? Three years ago, I was assured by a former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office that this stretch of the bypass was to be started that year. To my knowledge, work upon it has not yet begun. It is important that it should be started, and completed at the earliest possible opportunity.
I welcome the fact that money is to be provided for the development of Belfast international airport. However, is the Department satisfied that the money is being spent in the best possible way? I declare an interest. It seems to me that the marketing director of the airport has a strange way of attracting business to Aldergrove. He criticises in the media those who are trying to build up the traffic between Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. The firm concerned has managed to get "slots" into Gatwick and it is servicing Belfast. To do this and meet security requirements at Gatwick involves two landings. The marketing director criticised the company for the efforts that it has made to improve business.
In that context, is it wise for the Department to continue to subsidise a very fine bus which rarely carries more than two passengers? Would it not have been wiser a long time ago to provide a minibus rather than a large bus? I am sure 1263 that it impresses those passengers who are brought into the centre of Belfast, but if insufficient people use it, it is foolish to use such a large bus. It is a shameful waste of money to spend £100,000 a year on this service.
Turning to Class IX, may I say a few words about the provision of new buildings, the financing of the staff council and the overall development of the health service? Can the Minister assure the House that money to cover growing administrative costs is not hidden within these figures at a time when we are being asked to cut back on the provision of health and social services?
I know that there is great concern within the nursing profession. This may have arisen because at an earlier date the nurses opted out of their traditional role of managing the ward and the hospital. We now have administrators. Perhaps the time has come to examine again the growth in administrative costs and to urge that more facilities be provided for patients instead of allowing administrative costs to continue to rise.
I ask the Minister to supply us with a list of voluntary bodies and the grants that are made available to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) has expressed some misgivings on this score. I know, too, that the Community Advice Bureau has been asking questions. In and earlier debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) expressed similar misgivings. Unfortunately, we have not yet had a proper response. I should like to know whether Action MS is included in the voluntary bodies and whether its grant has been upgraded to meet the tremendous work that it is doing. I should like to know also whether Lifecare has been admitted at last to the grant system to asssist it in the work of caring for those who need help.
In dealing with expenditure decreases, I ask the Minister to explain why there has been a decrease in the number of student radiographers. There is concern about unemployment and I understand that there is still a need for radiographers. Is the problem linked with that of providing a college or school of radiography in Belfast? Is this a recurring problem? Would it not be better for funds to be spent on training? There has been tremendous development at Shorts recently and I understand that it has had to advertise abroad for avionics engineers because of a failure to train local young people. The company has had to look to Great Britain to find trained personnel. Could it be that while we are providing money for unemployment benefit, we are not providing enough to enable local people to be trained to take up job opportunities as they arise?
Is the Minister satisfied no over-age workers are still being employed in social services when they could be drawing the retirement pension? I know of one case where more efficient work could be done in the office concerned, for the good of the community.
I ask again for the Secretary of State to tell us what relationship exists between the provision of bursaries for the training of radiographers and social workers and the staffing targets that are set by the various Northern Ireland health boards. I have been probing along that line. I am concerned that we are not providing sufficient staff to deal with the community's needs.
Is the Under-Secretary of State prepared to lend support to a call for an early debate on the recent report by the Select Committee on Social Services on care in the 1264 community? We should remember the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North about the lack of provision for the mentally ill and mentally handicapped. Those Select Committee members who visited Northern Ireland were impressed by what was happening, but they recognised the need for more community provision. The figures in the order do not encourage me to think that adequate provision has been made.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. It might help the House if I say that the first of the Front Bench speakers hopes to catch my eye at 10.50 pm.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)
It comes as a surprise to hear that the Front Bench replies are to begin so early. Many of us have other things to say. I should have thought that the replies would begin at 11 pm and take half an hour. That would give hon. Members an opportunity to participate. I am glad that there is agreement between the Opposition and the Government. I shall be as brief as I can. I do not wish to go over the ground that has already been covered.
I agree with much of what has been said, but disagree with some of the points of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). I shall vote for the Appropriation. I am amused to find that the hon. Gentleman will vote against his own Assembly salary. That is his business, and on his head be it.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I shall say something at another place at another time.
I am grateful for every penny that comes to Northern Ireland. I do not accept that the money comes because we have a begging bowl. We have a right, as part of the United Kingdom, to a fair share of the cake, and we are entitled to the moneys that we receive. We in Northern Ireland are at the same level, pay the same type of income tax and carry the same responsibilities as any other citizens of the United Kingdom.
The emphasis in the debate has rightly been an unemployment, especially the dark shadow of unemployment in the Province. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members to hear that I shall confine my remarks to agriculture. We have talked about creating jobs, and teat is very important. To some extent I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, South, but I believe that the figures give us some encouragement. There seems to be at least a halt to the disastrous unemployment trend. I trust that it is a real halt, but we shall have to wait and see. It would be churlish if we did not emphasise that matter.
I am anxious that we should retain the jobs that we already have. There is a great danger in not preserving what we have. There is a slogan in Ulster, "What we have, we have" and I believe that we need to hold on to the jobs that we have, especially in agriculture, which is the largest employer in Northern Ireland.
The Under-Secretary of State should know that there are certain problems in Northern Ireland, some of which we are meeting face on and some of which—if the EEC has its pernicious way with us—we shall have to face in the future.
I wish to mention three matters briefly. First, Northern Ireland dairy farmers feel—I believe rightly—that they 1265 should have received the 65,000 tonnes of additional quota allocated under the milk regime by the EEC. We are coming to a new year, and the Commissioner has made it clear that he will be making a similar proposal. Can the Minister give us an assurance tonight that if the United Kingdom gets an extra 65,000 tonnes of quota he will see that it comes to us in Northern Ireland? That was its purpose.
I should like to point out to the Minister an interesting figure that has been released by the Milk Marketing Board. If we were put on a par with the Irish Republic, we would receive 190,000 tonnes. We have not been allocated much, but we should receive what we are entitled to. What will the Minister do about the matter? Will he allow the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to rob us of what is rightfully ours? Of the tribunal awards for development claims, 45 per cent. are likely to be met. Scotland will receive 57.5 per cent. and England and Wales 65 per cent. of their respective claims. That is another problem that faces the Northern Ireland dairy industry.
With regard to the outgoers scheme, exceptional hardship cases in Great Britain will be met in full, but in Northern Ireland the quota so far surrendered under the outgoers scheme is only 1 per cent., whereas the Government expected that it would be 5 per cent. That is yet another difficulty for the Northern Ireland dairy industry. What will the Minister do about those problems, because as they increase jobs are being lost?
Secondly, I want to deal with the beef industry. As the Minister is aware, the Commission has proposed to the Council of Ministers that the beef variable premium scheme should he done away with. That would mean that we would have one support scheme only—intervention. We do not produce beef to store—we produce it for the consumer. That proposal is looming ahead of us. It would be disastrous to do away with the variable beef premium scheme.
The United Kingdom will be expected to rely solely upon the intervention scheme. There are already 680,000 tonnes of meat in store in the Community. The full effects of the introduction of the milk quota have not yet worked through the system. A significant level of cow culling may be expected in 1985–86. The market will be further depressed by the release of meat presently in store. There is no proposal for any planned initiative to stimulate market demand or to dispose of the stocks already in store. We shall therefore have a further problem.
To compensate for the loss of the variable beef premium, it is estimated that about 40,000 tonnes of beef in Northern Ireland would have to be bought under the intervention scheme. At best, Northern Ireland has only 20,000 tonnes of storage space available. Such space will not be available for 1985–86 because of the beef already in store and because of the anticipated high level of cow culling. It will prove impossible both to take sufficient volume of beef off the market during the normal intervention period and to find sufficient storage capacity if the variable beef premium is abolished, and there will be a problem even if it is retained, because the stores are already choc-a-bloc full.
How will the Development Board and the Department of Economic Development handle the proposition, already laid before them, for the building of a large blast-freezing store in Northern Ireland to provide sufficient storage in Northern Ireland to cope with the meat? Last year, when 1266 there was a change in the beef variable scheme, intervention buying increased dramatically. That was evidenced by the fact that the United Kingdom accounted for 75 per cent. of increased Community-wide purchasing, and Northern Ireland accounted for some 80 per cent. of total intervention purchases in the United Kingdom. In addition, 12,700 tonnes of beef were accepted into private storage in Northern Ireland, out of a Community total of 275,000 tonnes. Even if we retain the scheme, we shall be in grave difficulty. If it is abolished, there will be a spin-off affecting the meat processing plants and so on, and we shall be in great difficulty in retaining employment.
I ask the Minister to put it on record tonight that the Northern Ireland Office will fight tooth and nail to retain the premium scheme. I hope that he will not come back to the House with a diluted scheme and tell us that Ministers could not get all that they wanted but that they have got a little. It is vital that we should know and that it should be spelt out here tonight, where the Northern Ireland Ministers stand on this issue. It is not enough to say that Ministers will fight for us. We want to know that they are totally committed to the scheme. To lose it would be a disaster. Even if we do not lose it, we shall face many serious problems.
I ask the Minister to give us some assurance on those points. There seems to be an effort by Europe to change the traditions of the United Kingdom. The beef industry is largely concerned with heifer beef. As the Minister will know, heifer beef does not go into intervention. It is the steers that go into intervention. He will also be aware that the premium is paid on the whole carcase, but that it is only certain quarters—and at certain times of the year only parts of those quarters—that go into intervention. I ask the Minister for a full commitment on that issue.
This is a debate in which one can wander from Dan to Beersheba. I want, thirdly to wander to Kilkeel for a moment. What is the Minister doing about the proposal for a new dredger for the Kilkeel fishermen? The Select Committee on Agriculture was informed on Tuesday that an application was made in February 1984 with regard to that dredger. The Agriculture Department approved it, and it is now with the Finance Department. The Fishery Harbour Authority says that if it is not approved by 1 April it will be curtains for the Kilkeel fishermen. What is happening to the proposal? Can the Minister announce that he will do something about it? I am glad that the authority has put the order out to tender in the hope that there will be a favourable answer from the Department. I am also glad that Harland and Wolff is interested in the tender, and that if its bid is no more than 5 per cent. higher than a non-United Kingdom producer it can win the contract. The benefits would therefore be felt by more than the Kilkeel fishermen.
As a constituency Member, I know that there is only one large island with a population off Northern Ireland — Rathlin. At the turn of the century, 1,000 people lived there, and there are now fewer than 100. They have serious difficulties. I know that the various Departments are doing something for them. Perhaps we can have a progress report on the schemes, which I do not want to go into for reasons of time, so that we might know how they are going. I have already spoken to the Minister about an educational problem. I hope to be able to speak to my constituent about it. I trust that it will be resolved satisfactorily.
1267 I have spoken of some of the issues on my mind and on my constituents' minds, and I trust that we shall have some profitable answers.
§ Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South)
This is a wide-ranging order. As many hon. Members wish to speak, I shall leave out the padding and get to the nub of what I want to say. I might sound a little disjointed, but I will have to risk that.
Parts of my constituency have problems when designated and undesignated waterways flood and damage houses. When we make inquiries about compensation, we are told that we must prove that there has been negligence on the part of the Department. In one part of my constituency, road drains, which belong to the Department of the Environment, run into a watercourse. Great flooding has been caused by water coming off the road and drainage work done on farmland. They drained farmland and put the water into the watercourse, which promptly flooded. When my constituents tried to get compensation, they were told that it was an undesignated watercourse and there was no way that they could be given any.
In one part, Housing Executive houses were flooded from a watercourse. People were told that they would have to prove that it flooded because of negligence by the Department. One of the families concerned was on supplementary benefit, with no household insurance. The Housing Executive had no insurance which covered this, and the department refused to pay any compensation.
I would ask the Minister how one is expected to do something for one's constituents in that sort of instance. The whole question of designated and undesignated watercourses should be looked at.
Street lights have been mentioned, and they are a favourite topic of certain people in Northern Ireland. I will not go into this because it would take too long, but in one instance I was used as a shuttlecock between the Department of the Environment and the electricity service, and it took me five days to get a rapair done. I never discovered whose fault it was that the repair was not done more quickly —I was only too pleased to get it done eventually.
§ Mr. Beggs
I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that when a Member takes up any problem for a constituent with any Government Department it should be resolved by the Department concerned, not handed back to the Member so that he has to shuttle round the Departments to find which is responsible. It is about time that Departments knew where responsibility lies in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Forsythe
I agree, of course, but, since I have been in business in the past and have been used to lifting telephones to resolve problems, perhaps part of that difficulty was caused by me.
Everyone is getting very excited, quite rightly, about the lignite that we have in Northern Ireland. Part of that lignite is in my constituency an there are people living in the Crumlin area who are uneasy about some of the developments in connection with this and the envisaged new power station. I have not had the greatest response from the private firm which is looking after the operation, and I am very disappointed about this.
§ Dr. Boyson
The operation of the mining is under a contract laid down by the Department and the firm has to comply with that. If there are problems concerning the mining, these should be taken up, so that the conditions laid down for mining there or elsewhere in the Province do not put people at risk. The firm will be taking out the lignite within the terms which have been stipulated by the Department, which, as far as I am concerned, has heard nothing whatsoever about this.
§ Mr. Forsythe
I told the Minister on one occasion that I wanted to speak to him about the lignite operation, and he said that I could certainly do so. I was endeavouring to look after the interests of my constituents and deal with the matter between them and the firm. I will not go into the matter now, but will explain to the Minister what I mean.
When all this comes to fruition and we are looking to use the lignite in our area, I will do my best to see that my constituents are not disadvantaged in any way, although we welcome this operation.
Will the Minister explain why there is a decrease in current expenditure on public transport and other services? I notice that money is allowed for airport services. While on occasions the bus may not be used to go to the airport, Aldergrove airport is one of the most up-to-date and finest airports in the whole of the United Kingdom, with tremendous facilities. It would be unfortunate if, in criticising the bus service, the impression was given that the airport itself was being criticised. I am sure that that was not the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth).
One could speak for hours about Class V, which I promise not to do. Heating is put into old people's dwellings, but I remind the Minister that old people also live in ordinary dwellings. We have the unfortunate situation where old people living in old people's dwellings have heating put in, but next door to them, someone who is just as old does not get heating put in because the house is not an old people's dwelling. The Minister should consider that.
District heating has also been mentioned. The difficulty with that system is that people who have radiators are not using them but are being charged pounds every week. They get into arrears, not because they are doing anything to get into arrears, but because of the fixed price charged by the Housing Executive. If they try to move out of their home, and get a transfer, because of the arrears that they have built up by not using the heating, they cannot move. That is a tragedy for people, and one should look at it.
In one case I know, the heating system broke down. The old people were told that the system would have to be replaced. However, that was not done. They were told that they would have to wait until a scheme was devised to cover all the houses that were the same as theirs, then the heating system would be put in their home and all the others—regardless of the fact they they had no heating and that they were bringing in Super-Sers and electric heaters that were costing them a fortune to run because they were not designed for the job.
One has criticised the Housing Executive. At times it does a good job. It builds homes, although perhaps not the right ones on occasions. We should not give the impression that we are continually criticising it for the fun of the thing. But these are human beings, who are living in what is supposed to be a home. They should be treated properly by the body that has been put there by statute to 1269 look after them, consisting of people who are sitting in a comfortably heated office all day and who on occasions will not answer the phone. Constituents' Members of Parliament have to phone up to get an answer. This is a democratic and understanding House. Even civil servants have a little sympathy, although at times it appears as if they do not.
It is not a laughing matter, or a funny matter for someone who is in a disadvantaged position in life, and who finds it difficult to live, never mind heat his home, or get food to live on. For whatever reason, if such people are put at a disadvantage by a statutory body that is supposed to be there to assist them, that is a disgrace not only to the body concerned but to those who are answerable in the House. The Minister is here to answer. When we ask questions we are told by the Minister that it is a matter for the Housing Executive. When public representatives ask the Minister to do something for those who are disadvantaged he should take notice of them. If we had much more time we could raise many more problems for Ministers to deal with.
§ Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)
The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) referred to the heating of old people's houses. I do not know whether he was aware of it, but there was a mass lobby from the National Pensioners Convention at the House today. One of the requests placed before Members of Parliament was for a higher heating allowance so that they might have some relief from the cold winter. Many senior citizens in my constituency spend between one quarter and one third of their weekly income on trying to keep themselves warm. They pray to survive the winter so that in the summer they may save money for clothes. The Minister should show compassion for the senior citizens who have done so much to pave the way for the youth of today. I trust they will not be forgotten in their later years.
Another way in which the Government could help senior citizens is to allow them to travel free on buses. We heard earlier from the hon. Member for Antrim, South about empty buses driving up and down from the airport. The same thing happens in the city centre, yet I know senior citizens who have to walk to their destination with the aid of a walking stick because they cannot pay the concessionary rate on the buses. I do not often refer to what happens in London as an example, but the Minister responsible for the Department of the Environment would do well to emulate its system of free transport for the elderly.
The pensioners today raised other matters, including a realistic pension allowance. As that concerns the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I shall not go into it now. The Government should deal sympathetically with the petition which was lodged with Members of Parliament by the senior citizens who came to the House today.
I have had consultations on education with the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder), to whose constituency I am about to refer. He gave me some papers so that I might speak on his behalf, because he is ill and unable to be here. The matter refers to the second largest housing estate in Northern Ireland, the Ballybeen housing estate at Dundonald. The hon. Member for North Down and I have a common interest in the area, as it forms part of my Assembly constituency. Indeed, I formerly represented it when I came to the House in 1979. The 1270 estate has two schools within it. One of them is Ballyoran primary school. Many of us were amazed when the South Eastern Education Library Board proposed to close that school. We could see no logical reason for closing it. We recognised that more children attended that school than attended many other schools which the board was happy to keep open.
We also recognised that that school's educational standards were much higher than those of other schools in the board's area. We knew that there would only be a minimal saving, in that the board had already suggested that the school should be used for some other purpose, such as for nursery education or for youth provision. It now appears that the saving amounts to £25,000. For £25,000, the board has decided to close that school
I must charge the South Eastern Educational Library Board with being guilty of an act of blatant discrimination and of bias of a most sectarian nature against the predominantly Protestant area of Ballybeen. I have documents in my possession, and in my hand, which clearly show that the school is being closed for one purpose and one purpose alone—to obtain £25,000, so that the board can fund another primary school, which happens to be St. Kieran's primary school in Poleglass. That relatively new housing estate on the fringes of West Belfast — which is small compared with that of Ballybeen—is to be given the money to have a primary school. Those who are to be punished are the Protestants of the East Belfast and North Down area.
As if that was not bad enough, it was appalling to discover that, although the board has for years recognised that there is a need for nursery and youth provision in the area, it has given additional money, not to Ballybeen for that provision, but to St. Kieran's for nursery provision in the Poleglass area. Thus, a primary school will be taken away from Ballybeen, and instead of giving the nursery provision to Ballybeen in its place, it is being given to St. Kieran's.
I know that the Minister does not have direct responsibility for the board's day-to-day affairs, but he has overall responsibility for its actions. Under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act, which forbids such religious and political discrimination against my constituents and those of the hon. Member for North Down, I hope that the Minister will look into the board's activities and ensure that it makes provision for the need which it has already recognised, instead of making provision for the Roman Catholics, Republicans and IRA supporters of the Poleglass area.
§ Mr. James Nicholson (Newry and Armagh)
I was prepared to condense a half-hour speech into one of 15 minutes, but now I find that I shall have to condense it even more. I shall do my best. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe), I may have to make a somewhat disjointed speech, but I hope that hon. Members will bear with me.
I turn first to the employment, or lack of employment, in my constituency. Once again I must castigate the Industrial Development Board, and to a lesser extent the Local Enterprise Development Unit, for the total failure to bring any employment to my constituency or to provide any jobs. They have shown a lack of interest in the area, and have been unable to provide anything. The IDB has 1271 been a dead loss, and although LEDU has been somewhat of an improvement on that, that does not say an awful lot for it.
I am concerned about employment in the area. I am only too well aware, however, that the events of last Thursday night in Newry cannot enhance the area's reputation and might deter employers from setting up in it. The Government and others will have to cope with that in due course.
I shall have to dispense with much of what I had intended to say about the roads in my constituency. I regret that the Under-Secretary of State is not here tonight, because I was looking forward to crossing swords with him regarding the Damolly customs post. Or perhaps he was aware of that, and that is why he is not here.
The hon. Gentleman was led up the garden path. He came to Newry one afternoon in a blaze of glory and went on television to tell the whole of Northern Ireland that he had solved the problem of the customs station in Newry. He was led up the garden path by the SDLP-controlled council on his visit to Newry. The people of Damolly were left high and dry and the vast majority of the elected representatives in the area do not agree with the Under-Secretary's decision.
He capitulated, first to the SDLP and secondly to the Provisional Sinn Fein, the latter of which challenged him not to put the customs post where it should have been put, which was on the border. I feel strongly about this issue, especially for the people of the Damolly area. It is a mixed community and every member of it is up in arms about the decision over the customs station and the fact that the new link road is to go through the area. I look forward to crossing swords with the Minister on the issue on another occasion.
Time does not permit me to raise various matters concerning the Housing Executive. I will confine myself to appealing for more old people's dwellings in the Armagh area. They need accommodation much nearer to the city centre than where the Housing Executive is currently building houses, which is almost one and a half miles outside the town; and the elderly do not have a bus service to get into the centre.
Housing Executive grant officers are seeing people throughout the Province, but they are interpreting the rules differently in almost every area. One will tell people that they do not qualify for renovation grant while a second officer will tell people living nearby with similar problems that they do qualify for grant. Alternatively, an officer will tell somebody that grant is payable, and another officer will appear on the scene later to say that grant is not applicable. Indeed, people have to put up a hard fight to obtain grant. If we are to have grant officers, they should interpret the rules correctly and Members of Parliament should not have to be called in almost daily to resolve difficulties.
Hon. Members will be aware that I frequently speak about agriculture. I will restrict my remarks, because of the time, to saying that I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) about the milk quota. With regard to the beef variable premium, not enough is being done for that sector and the Government have not lived up to what was expected of them in trying to obtain cheaper grain for that sector of agriculture in Northern Ireland.
1272 I urge the Government not to ignore the importance of animal health in Northern Ireland. Strict control is needed.
There are 70 miles between Newry and the entry post at Belcoo. Cattle are in danger because of that distance. I know of one man who sat for 10 hours in a queue at Belcoo at the beginning of this week with cattle on his wagon. He had travelled for hours before that. If that is not to the detriment of the animals I do not know what is. Something is wrong. It is disgraceful.
§ 11.1 pm
§ Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)
I am pleased to be able to reply on behalf of the Opposition. I shall not be able to comment on all the speeches. The Minister will be able to do that better than I can. I shall not be able to emulate the blaze of glory in which the Minister visited the constituency represented by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Nicholson).
The Minister talked about the economy of Northern Ireland and about unemployment and employment. He rightly took credit for the fact that public expenditure for Northern Ireland would be £30 million higher than the level planned. It is not that he has got blood out of a stone: he did better than that. He extracted money out of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The Minister declared that this was further evidence of the Government's determination to tackle the economic and social problems in Northern Ireland at a time when public expenditure elsewhere in the United Kingdom is being held.
The Minister rightly said that, whereas between February 1983 and February 1984 the increase in unemployment was 7,800, between February 1984 and February 1985 the increase in unemployment was 420. However, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) said, that means that an extra 420 able-bodied people are looking for work.
The Minister spoke with compassion about the unemployed. I accept that compassion. I accept his view that no one wishes to see the scourge of unemployment in Northern Ireland or on the mainland. The Minister is a compassionate man. He also made my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West an offer which he almost could not refuse. He offered harmony and bipartisanship, but my right hon. and learned Friend was not in as harmonious a mood as that.
Industrial production in Northern Ireland has increased by 3 per cent., and manufacturing output is up by 4 per cent. A further sign of recovery is the increase in employment of 4,170 in the third and fourth quarters of 1984. We welcome the increase in industrial production and manufacturing output, and the increase in the number of those who are employed, but that does not mean that the storm cloud of uncertainty is any more dissipated in Northern Ireland than it is on the mainland.
Independent commentators and job creation agencies in Northern Ireland appear to be agreed on another aspect of the Northern Ireland economy—that unemployment will remain high for years to come. Indeed, when I read the forecasts earlier, I was reminded of the 1933 Budget of Neville Chamberlain. He predicted for both Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom that unemployment would remain high for years to come. I hear echoes of that speech in most of the statements made by Government spokesmen on Treasury and economic matters. Neville Chamberlain said that there was a limit to what Government could do. I do not suggest that those 1273 views were put forward by the Minister tonight, but they are the views of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and they attach to the economies of Northern Ireland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.
The two most recent surveys carried out in Northern Ireland show that jobs will be lost more rapidly than they will be replaced, and that unemployment is likely to reach a total of 140,000 by 1989. At Question Time today, I wondered out loud whether those who find work in Northern Ireland are part-time or full-time workers. The Minister replied that while they may be part-time jobs, they are better than no jobs, and that part-time jobs may be converted into full-time jobs. However, it is recognised that because employers do not pay national insurance on part-time workers, but do pay on full-time workers, there is a cost-cutting incentive to employ part-time rather than full-time workers. The surveys show that there are in excess of 100,000 people working part-time in Northern Ireland. In 1978, part-time work accounted for 17 per cent. of the total work force, but it now accounts for nearly 22 per cent.
We cannot distinguish this order from the consequences of the medium-term financial strategy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is not present tonight, and he has that in common with our colleagues in the Social Democratic/Liberal alliance. I make no criticism of that. They are rarely present for these debates. The Labour party is present, with solid ranks on the Front Bench.
§ Mr. Bell
Those two may be the great talent of the Labour party in years to come. Two are better than none, and no hon. Member from either the Liberal party or the SDP is present.
The medium-term financial strategy affects Northern Ireland as it does the mainland. That strategy is a sort of ghost that runs through this order. The Chancellor is seeking to squeeze inflation from the economy and at the same time to create growth and jobs. The Opposition believe that those objectives are mutually exclusive and will no more work for the Northern Irish economy than they will for that on the mainland.
Housing has been mentioned tonight. The Minister referred to a visit by hon. Members from both sides of the House, who were encouraged by what they had seen being done about housing. I am no expert on housing in Northern Ireland, but on my visit I spoke to members of the Housing Department, visited houses and was impressed at the progress made, considering the problems.
Housing remains the Government's top priority on social and environmental programmes, and we welcome that. We recognise that the immediate environment of a person is part and parcel of his way of life. That is as true in Northern Ireland as it is on the mainland, but there has been a shift in emphasis away from new public sector house building towards the improvement and maintenance of existing stock. The preliminary results of the 1984 house condition survey show that the level of unfitness has fallen from 14.1 per cent. in 1979 to 10.4 per cent. last year. In 1981 the unfitness level in Great Britain was 6.2 per cent. In Northern Ireland, more than 51,000 houses were still unfit. The number of homes lacking at least one basic amenity has also descreased, from 19.9 per cent. to 9.2 per cent.
The worrying feature of the survey is disrepair in the private sector, which increased from 8.6 per cent. in 1979 1274 to 15.4 per cent. in 1984. As I understand it, the Government propose to reduce new Housing Executive construction from 3,000 new starts last year to 2,250 for 1985–86. The Housing Executive will concentrate instead on the improvement and maintenance programme. The expenditure on housing services is planned to increase from £149 million in 1984–85 to £169 million in 1985–86.
The Northern Ireland Economic Council questioned this change in strategy and made the following comment in its annual report for 1983–84:The available statistics do not show clearly whether this switch is justified. On the one hand, the census results suggest a housing surplus; on the other hand, the Housing Executive sti11 has a waiting list of 20,000.The council suggests that a mismatch may exist in terms of location or type of accommodation between the supply of and demand for, public housing. The latest Government figures show that the Housing Executive's waiting list is getting longer. There were 23,482 people on the list in March 1984, and 24,543 in September 1984.
In the 13th annual report of the Housing Executive, the chairman stated:Whether this shift in policy"—away from new build—will prove to be correct must depend to a large extent on the willingness and ability of the private sector to fill the gap by providing a sustained programme of new low-cost housing of acceptable quality.Experience gives little cause for optimism on that front. In 1982, 4,487 new starts were recorded in the private sector, but only 2,672 new dwellings were completed. In 1983 there were 6,892 new starts, and only 3,571 completions. We can see the comparison. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the Houseing Executive's target of an annual reduction of at least 1 per cent. in the unfitness level has not been met. Therefore, while we scrutinise the figures in Class V, as we scrutinise all of the elements in the order, we shall continue to examine these matters carefully in the months to come.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell
The hon. Gentleman might wish to know that the Department of the Environment has accepted that the comparative statistics for the commencement and completion of houses are seriously inaccurate, and that the picture given by figures such as the hon. Gentleman has just read to the House is inherently misleading. It hopes to be able to produce correct figures for completions, which will put the picture in a different light.
§ Mr. Bell
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's intervention. If that is the case, we shall look forward to a different perspective on the figures that we have before us now.
May I refer briefly to the intervention of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). He is worried about the implications for Northern Ireland of the price proposals of the Commission for 1985–86 as they relate to beef. In addition to the persistently high level of unemployment in Northern Ireland, which is about 22 per cent., there is the employment potential of the agriculture industry, which employs 10 per cent. of the work force directly, and which provides employment for a further 3 per cent. in ancillary industries. Therefore, what the European Community proposes to do about beef is important to Northern Ireland and we shall give to the hon. Member and to all those who are worried about this issue all the support that we can.
1275 We shall not vote against the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, but we shall continue to ride hard on the Government on this issue as it relates to Northern Ireland as we will on the economy as a whole.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Nicholas Scott)
Clearly it is impossible, in the time now available, to cover all the points that have been raised during the debate. However, I hope that the House will agree that it was right that we should allow as many contributions to be made from the Back Benches as possible. I shall ensure that either I or my colleagues reply in due course to the detailed points which have been made that I am unable to cover. I say in particular to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) that I shall ensure he receives a co-ordinated reply on the approach of the Government to the undoubted problems facing the community on Rathlin as well as on the narrower educational point that he raised.
May I begin by saying a word about the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), which I understand forms the basis of the decision of the Ulster Unionist party to vote against the order. The arrangements which he criticised for the financial management of Northern Ireland are not new. He must know that Northern Ireland has had separate legislation and a separate Consolidated Fund for the last 60 years. There is no secret or hidden reason why the Government decided to continue with these arrangements. I know that there are those who assert that there is, but I can assure the hon. Member that that is not so.
We continue to believe that a devolved Government would best meet the future needs of the Northern Ireland community. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is engaged in talks with the parties to find out whether it is possible to work out mutually acceptable arrangements. I know that some hon. Members have reservations about that policy, but that is what this Government, with the support of this House, are seeking to do. Viewed in that light, I believe that the financial and legislative arrangements for Northern Ireland are appropriate and sensible.
A number of hon. Members raised detailed questions about the roads programme. I shall make sure that they receive replies. In particular, the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) asked about the maintenance programme. Within the £48.4 million which was provided for this programme, priority is given to the structural maintenance of the existing network. The budget allocations for this work to each division are closely correlated with the annual data on the condition of the entire roads network in Northern Ireland. A system known as the maintenance assessment rating and costing of highways, or MARCH, which is used on this side of the water in order to make an objective judgment of the needs of the roads system, is used in Northern Ireland. I believe that in general it gives us very good value for money. There is an appropriate allocation of the limited but still substantial resources that are available for highway maintenance.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North made three separate points under the broad heading of agriculture and fisheries. I can assure the hon. Member and the House that 1276 Northern Ireland has received the full benefit of the 65,000 tonnes of milk from the Community reserve, plus an additional amount from the United Kingdom total. The percentage amount by which the Northern Ireland quota was less than the 1983 deliveries would be no more than in other regions of the United Kingdom, even though deliveries of milk in Northern Ireland increased proportionately more between 1981 and 1983 than deliveries in England and Wales. Northern Ireland received a quota about 12.6 per cent. above wholesale deliveries in 1981 and 2.5 per cent. above that for 1982, which was a record year. In England and Wales the quota represents an increase of only 1.5 per cent. on 1981 deliveries and a reduction of over 3 per cent. on 1982 deliveries. I do not think that Northern Ireland can claim that it has not received the full benefit of the 65,000 tonnes. If this is continued for 1985—I believe that it will be—Northern Ireland can look forward next year to similar treatment.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North referred to the beef variable premium scheme. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be pressing strongly for the scheme's continuation. We are conscious of its importance to the agriculture industry in the Province. He spoke also of the Kilkeel dredger. I am told that the project is being appraised in terms of the normal procedures for a project of that nature. We have noted the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the need for urgency and speed in considering the matter. I can assure him that the appraisal will be completed in the very near future.
The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) made great play about the treatment of those who owe money to public authorities in Northern Ireland. He seemed to imply that we were being unduly harsh and unsympathetic. I urge him and the House to recognise that public debt in Northern Ireland at the end of 1983–84 was about £45 million. That is an absurdly high figure for a province the size of Northern Ireland. It is one that has been the subject of criticism by the Public Accounts Committee. It was essential that we took urgent action to get debt to public authorities under control. The right hon. and learned Gentleman omitted to mention that many of those who are in debt to the authorities avail themselves of the opportunity to enter into voluntary repayment agreements. It is only those who decline to enter into such agreements who are subject to the scheme to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred.
§ Mr. Archer
Is the Minister saying that no one is subjected to the Payment of Debt Act if he subjects himself voluntarily to a repayment agreement?
§ Mr. Scott
If they comply with the conditions of the scheme, there is no reason why they should be subjected to the last-resort mechanism. I can assure the House that the mechanism is operated as humanely as possible. It includes a review procedure to ensure that excessive hardship can be avoided. Given the scale of the problem that is faced by the Government in Northern Ireland, we have tried to tackle it in a humane and compassionate manner. However, we are responsible for public money and the PAC has criticised the Government for allowing the level of debt to reach such a level.
The House will be aware of the cancellation of the Kinsale gas project. The subsidy was running at £12 1277 million a year and there was not even a distant prospect of the project becoming viable. There was a possibility of the subsidy, and even an increased one, continuing indefinitely. The gas industry's joint working party has proposed a revised option that is confined to greater Belfast and its satellites. It involves much lower capital costs than the cancelled project. We have not received the scheme officially. When it is received, we shall have to consider how it can he evaluated. We are told that there is a possibility of European Community support for any such scheme. We shall have to appraise it carefully, as will the Commission, to ascertain whether it is viable. I cannot see that we could possibly enter into any commitment for a continuing subsidy for the gas industry in Northern Ireland.
A number of hon. Members' comments on health and social services in Northern Ireland might have led some listeners to believe that in some way we were cutting back on health and social care in the Province. That is the reverse of the truth. Over the four years from 1979–80 to 1983–84, expenditure on those services has grown from £353 million to £600 million—some 70 per cent. in cash terms and 8 per cent. in real terms. This is the clearest possible evidence that, despite our economic problems and the inevitable constraints on public expenditure, we are committed to the maintenance and development of health and personal social services to meet the needs of the whole population.
I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South — it is important that we spend that money as wisely as we can. That is why my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has asked the health and social service boards to make what I regard as modest efficiency savings of 0.5 per cent. per annum—not so that that money can be cut, but so that it can be put into vital new developments in health and social services and to meet the new needs that are emerging. By making the system more efficient and by not allowing administration to burgeon, we can provide a better service to those who need it.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made serious allegations about the motives of the South Eastern education library board in closing the Ballyoran primary school. The matter had to come to me to approve the closure. The closure was not carried out on anything like the grounds that the hon. Gentleman described. In fact, there were two schools on that estate. The closure occurred not to ensure financial savings but primarily to ensure that the children at the school got the proper spread of curriculum necessary for their education. If the hon. Gentleman feels that he can substantiate those serious allegations, he should without hesitation or delay let me see the evidence that he claims is in his possession.
The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster drew attention to the critical findings of the inspectorate report on the effect of expenditure policies. He did not draw attention to the fact that the report concluded that, by an large, educational standards in schools are being maintained. I am as aware as anyone of the pressures on the education system in Northern Ireland, but I still think that education is a feature of life in the Province of which teachers, administrators and others involved can be extremely proud.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) talked about the dangers of integrating nursery provision with primary schools. Nursery provision is extremely close to my heart. I hope that in due course it will be 1278 possible to have an expanded programme of nursery education in Northern Ireland, but in the meantime I believe that joint provision of the sort that the hon. Gentleman was criticising can play an important part in nursery education for many of the young people who need it.
Many hon. Members rightly expressed their concern at the level of unemployment in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) recognised, the Government fully share their concern. I assure hon. Members that the overall strategy is designed to create the circumstances in which the private sector will develop and thus create new job opportunities for people in Northern Ireland.
We do not have endless resources in Northern Ireland. Public expenditure already amounts to 70 per cent. of the gross national product of the Province. With limited resources, it is important that we optimise the use of those that are allocated to us. One of the most useful contributions that Northern Ireland Members can make to these debates is to address the priorities and the way in which we are using these resources. It is easy and tempting for hon. Members to identify gaps in provision. Doubtless there are gaps representing needs which should be met, but they are to be met within limited budgets. Hon. Members have to identify also what can be done less lavishly or with less money.
Northern Ireland will never be able to flourish simply on the basis of a massive public expenditure injection of funds.
We must provide a safety net for the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that we do that effectively, efficiently and with compassion, but we must also provide a springboard. I hope that public money can provide that springboard, but eventually it is the people of Northern Ireland and private enterprise that will have to turn the springboard into a reality in terms of increased living standards for the people of the Province.
§ Question put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 102, Noes 9.1279
|Division No. 153]||[11.30 pm|
|Amess, David||Fenner, Mrs Peggy|
|Ancram, Michael||Forth, Eric|
|Ashby, David||Galley, Roy|
|Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)||Gow, Ian|
|Bellingham, Henry||Gregory, Conal|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Ground, Patrick|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes||Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)|
|Bright, Graham||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Brinton, Tim||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)||Hargreaves, Kenneth|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Hayward, Robert|
|Bruinvels, Peter||Heddle, John|
|Burt, Alistair||Hickmet, Richard|
|Butcher, John||Hind, Kenneth|
|Butterfill, John||Holt, Richard|
|Chope, Christopher||Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)|
|Conway, Derek||Hunt, David (Wirral)|
|Coombs, Simon||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Cope, John||Jackson, Robert|
|Couchman, James||Jones, Robert (W Herts)|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Kershaw, Sir Anthony|
|Dover, Den||Key, Robert|
|Dunn, Robert||King, Roger (B'ham N'field)|
|Durant, Tony||Knight, Gregory (Derby N)|
|Dykes, Hugh||Knox, David|
|Evennett, David||Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)|
|Fallon, Michael||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Favell, Anthony||Lilley, Peter|
|Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)||Portillo, Michael|
|Lord, Michael||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Lyell, Nicholas||Powley, John|
|McCrea, Rev William||Raffan, Keith|
|Macfarlane, Neil||Rhodes James, Robert|
|McQuarrie, Albert||Robinson, P. (Belfast E)|
|Major, John||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Malins, Humfrey||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|Marlow, Antony||Rowe, Andrew|
|Mather, Carol||Sainsbury, Hon Timothy|
|Maude, Hon Francis||St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.|
|Mayhew, Sir Patrick||Scott, Nicholas|
|Miller, Hal (B'grove)||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Mills, Iain (Meriden)||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Mitchell, David (NW Hants)||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Morris, M. (N'hampton, S)||Stern, Michael|
|Murphy, Christopher||Wells, Bowen (Hertford)|
|Neubert, Michael||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Newton, Tony||Wolfson, Mark|
|Norris, Steven||Wood, Timothy|
|Page, Richard (Herts SW)|
|Paisley, Rev Ian||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Pawsey, James||Mr. Ian Lang and|
|Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.|
|Beggs, Roy||Taylor, Rt Hon John David|
|Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)||Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)|
|Molyneaux, Rt Hon James||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Nicholson, J.||Mr. William Ross and|
|Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)||Mr. Ken Maginnis.|
|Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 20th February, be approved.