HC Deb 22 June 1989 vol 155 cc476-8
1. Mr. Archer

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps he has taken to maximise the share of the European Community structural funds accruing to Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Ian Stewart)

The Government welcome the designation of Northern Ireland as an objective 1 region for structural aid from the European Community. Following partnership consultations, a development plan for the Province was submitted and negotiations with the Commission on the Community support framework are under way. Work on preparing earning measures is well advanced.

Mr. Archer

Since the present quota system of allocation will no longer apply after 1992, will the Minister ensure that his Department is ready with projects to assure Northern Ireland of its proper share of the funding? Will he undertake to ensure that every penny of European money will go to increase public expenditure and not to reduce the commitment of the Treasury?

Mr. Stewart

We are very anxious to ensure that Northern Ireland has the maximum opportunity to obtain the maximum amount of funding for the best possible projects through the earning measures. Work is already in hand and my officials are having another meeting with European Community officials about this next week. With regard to additionality, to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred, I am fully confident that we shall meet the European Community additionality requirement. I understand from Commissioner Milian that any constraint on the availability of funds is more likely to come from the number of existing commitments in the pipeline than from any problems on our front.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the Minister tell the House how many bodies he consulted in drawing up the strategic plan that he intends to submit to Brussels for action? How have the consultations taken place, why was a very important body—the Institution of Civil Engineers—left out, and are the discussions still going on?

Mr. Stewart

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that consultations took place between a very large number of bodies. With regard to the formal consultation process, a body with a statutory function in relation to the plan or the earning programme is defined in the Community's rules as being a partner for specific consultations. However, the Government consulted much more widely and included the Confederation of British Industry and the trade unions. If the particular body to which the hon. Gentleman referred has views that it wants to put to us on the use of the programmes and the structural fund we should be glad to hear from it.

Mr. John D. Taylor

As the most important Euro-route out of Northern Ireland is that between Belfast and Larne and then out through Scotland, will the Minister assure the House that the Belfast-Lame road will be improved as a matter of priority in the development scheme being submitted to the European Community? Will he confirm whether the line of the other Euro-route—from Belfast to Dublin, down to the border—has yet been finalised?

Mr. Stewart

The arterial routes which the hon. Gentleman mentions are important parts of the transport infrastructure for Northern Ireland, both to Scotland and to the Irish Republic. Transport proposals have been put to the European Commission in the context of our plan. It will be for the Commission, but in consultation with us, to establish the priorities within that and if those qualify, I will be glad.

Mr. Hume

Does the Minister agree that the designation of Northern Ireland as an objective I region, and the strategic plan to be based on that, represent a major opportunity substantially to raise living standards in Northern Ireland if the Commission's objectives are met? Does he agree that the Commission stipulates that special interest groups in Northern Ireland must be consulted and that expenditure must be extra and additional to normal Government expenditure? What steps has he taken, first, to ensure that there has been consultation, not just contact, with special interest groups, and, secondly, to assure the Commission that expenditure will be additional?

Mr. Speaker

Briefly, please.

Mr. Hume

Will the Minister assure the House that the final detailed plan submitted in October will include local development programmes for each part of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Stewart

In addition to the consultation and notification that took place before the development plan was permitted, there will be ongoing discussions with interested parties in Northern Ireland. That is in addition to those which have a statutory function and are thus technically partners under the European rules.

The projects for which we are seeking European funding, when they come forward in our public expenditure system, are bids within our overall bid to the Treasury. The mere fact that they are treated in that way for public expenditure purposes does not mean that they are not additional. They would not exist if EC funding was not forthcoming. To separate them out in accounting terms, as some have suggested, would merely put them at risk if for any reason European funding was not forthcoming.

Mr. Thurnham

I have just attended a meeting at the Institution of Civil Engineers at which an excellent report was put forward containing a number of proposals for structure investment, a copy of which I will pass to my right hon. Friend. In view of the apparent decline in investment in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that report carefully.

Mr. Stewart

I am glad to say that investment in Northern Ireland has been improving in an encouraging way in the past year or two, but that does not mean that I shall not be interested to see the document that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Jim Marshall

May I press the Minister a little further on the concept of additionality? He will be aware that there is a difference of view between the Government and the EC Commission. Can he say anything about the Government's thinking on that? More importantly, the Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that separating the projects out might put them in jeopardy suggested that they would go ahead irrespective of any EC funding. If that is so, the Minister must accept that they are not additional to existing programmes. We need a cast-iron guarantee that in future any EEC funds will be additional to those approved by the House and the Treasury.

Mr. Stewart

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman suggests, I see no problems in our conforming with the additionality requirements but the matter turns on the subsequent point that he made. I was trying to explain that if those items were taken out of the main public expenditure block for Northern Ireland, as approved by the Treasury and incorporated in our public expenditure plans, any delay in receiving European funds between one financial year and another which meant that the amounts were not forthcoming in full would mean that those projects could not take place. The current arrangement provides some flexibility for the Government in Northern Ireland. I welcome that flexibility and would not want us to be deprived of it.