HC Deb 22 May 1989 vol 153 cc762-6 9.24 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Ian Stewart)

I beg to move, That the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 17th May, be approved. The order is the latest in a series of such orders, the last of which was passed in 1986. Their main purpose is to adjust, as necessary, certain limits imposed by statute on financial operations and to deal with other routine finance matters, including the simplification and rationalisation of accounting procedures. Those are described in the explanatory memorandum. The only article to which I need draw the attention of the House in particular is article 3, which will enable a capital surplus of some £365 million in the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund to be used to write off some of the loans to be made over the years to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

The surplus came about because the 1986 Financial Provisions Order abolished a number of obsolete funds and transferred their assets to the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. Savings on interests charges on loans written off will release resources of some £50 million a year for alternative and more productive public expenditure. I therefore commend the order to the House.

9.26 pm
Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

The House will be pleased that I do not intend to speak at length. I thank the Minister of State for taking us so quickly through the provisions of the latest draft order.

The Minister referred to the most recent draft order, that of 1986. My research shows that the one before that was in 1984. The only Member of the 1984 Parliament and certainly the 1986 Parliament who fully understood the orders, with the exception of the Minister who initiated and replied to the debate, was the right hon. Enoch Powell. He certainly went through the draft orders meticulously and, as usual, with a fine-toothed comb, and found something useful to say about them. I wish that I had that insight and strength of character to say that I had done the same. Unfortunately, the truth is that I have read through the order and cannot find a great deal to say about it.

The order does not deal with the appropriation of cash for public services in Northern Ireland, a point that the Minister did not mention, although his two predecessors did so in previous debates. I regret that, because, had the order dealt with the appropriate of cash, the scope for the debate would have been far wider and we would have been able to call into question the global sums of public expenditure in Northern Ireland and the allocation of those sums between the various services in the Province.

I notice that the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) is getting a little agitated as she sees the time moving on. I presume that she has her eye on a Bill further down the Order Paper.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)

I am not remotely agitated.

Mr. Marshall

We might disagree about the verb, but I feel that the hon. Lady wishes to discuss a Bill further down the Order Paper.

It is perhaps regrettable that the order does not deal with appropriation, as it would have provided the opportunity to discuss Government policy on public expenditure in Northern Ireland. The Minister knows that on many previous occasions I have given the Government credit for the level of public expenditure in the Province. Nevertheless, I repeat that, although the present levels of public expenditure are commendable, in view of the economic and social difficulties and problems, there is still a strong case for even greater increased levels of public expenditure in Northern Ireland. Perhaps that is a point we can pursue in the next Appropriation Order debate.

I recognise that the Government need the order to be passed quickly. Perhaps that is why it was laid before the House last week and is being discussed today. If one reads in detail the explanatory memorandum, one sees that the Northern Ireland Estimates for this year were passed on the assumption that the draft order would come into effect in June. If the Government fail to meet that deadline—it is not my intention to engineer that—public expenditure in Northern Ireland will be reduced by £1 million per week, or nearly £5 million per month, or £60 million per year. That would affect the allocation of public expenditure in the North of Ireland. If the order is not passed and the money is not available, it will affect many expenditure programmes, including that of the Housing Executive, as well as expenditure on education and health. It would also affect the Government's privatisation policies in the North of Ireland.

I should like to say a few words about Shorts, a subject I raised with the Minister during Question Time last week. The Minister knows that my party's view remains that the company should continue to be publicly owned. However, I recognise that that battle has now been lost. It is essential to secure and expedite the company's future. We have to have decisions quickly. We all know that the Government have only two bids to consider. The first bid is from Bombardier—I apologise to the company for mispronouncing its name last week—and the second is from GEC-Fokker. It should not take a great deal of time to choose between them. It seems to me and to many other hon. Members that the top management at Shorts has already made a decision and would welcome a takeover by Bombardier. I assume that the recently announced reorganisation of the operational divisions of Shorts is a preliminary step towards that end.

Whatever the truth may be, we have to end quickly the uncertainty over the future of Shorts. That requires a speedy decision by the Government. I press the Minister again to give an assurance that the Government will make their view known within the next two weeks.

Having said that, without further ado I accept the order and commend it to the House.

9.34 pm
Rev. Martyn Smyth (Belfast, South)

I wish to put one or two points on the record. I notice that the order was issued on Wednesday when in Northern Ireland we had a slight local distraction which continued on Thursday and Friday. Therefore, I join the hon. Member for Leicester South (Mr. Marshall) in his tribute to my colleague of past days, the right hon. Enoch Powell. He is a master of figures and he would have studied in detail the draft order.

It has been said that there will be a shortage of funds for education, but education is not mentioned in the order.

Reference is made to funds being given to the Housing Executive, thereby enabling funds to be released for other work. Will those other funds be for housing? Will people who have been trying for months to obtain grants—especially older people who have been trying to modernise their homes—but have been delayed by insufficient funds be given grants, or will they be left waiting because tenders will be out of date by the time funds are made available to help them? Will the funds that are released be retained by the Housing Executive, or will they be given to another Department?

Article 8 makes a change, and is a sweetener to attract Northern Ireland Members, by bringing Northern Ireland into line with current British practice. It provides that the Department of Finance and Personnel, unlike the previous mandatory provisions, may direct departments when to prepare trading accounts. How often will such accounts be prepared?

It is part of the task of hon. Members to monitor supply and expenditure. It has been exceedingly difficult to monitor certain Departments in Northern Ireland, in which expenditure has been rampant over the years. Surely it would have been better to bring Britain in line with practice in Northern Ireland so that there would not be a long lead time before the accounts are published of the various commercial, trading and manufacturing services that Departments might operate. The House should have had such monitoring machinery earlier, but it is being offered now, perhaps to save on administrative costs and perhaps, in the long run, to cover the other losses of millions of pounds that we have been unable to monitor.

This is not an appropriation debate, so we cannot probe funds more carefully, but do the new regulations providing loans for the Northern Ireland Electricity Service mean that the Government have decided not to go ahead with privatisation of the NIES, which would please many people in Northern Ireland? Does it mean that the Government have discussed a new link between Northern Ireland and the Republic, or does it mean that the Government are prepared to go ahead with the Scottish link, which would keep the United Kingdom and the EEC together for the good of our people?

9.38 pm
Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

Having had the opportunity to speak earlier this evening, I shall intervene only briefly.

I should like to follow the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. M. Smyth) about the funds that will be available to the Housing Executive. Will the Housing Executive be able to make the grants that many people in North Down have been asking for and carry out vital repairs on its estates?

I hope that, before long, the people of Northern Ireland, not English Ministers in Westminster, will be able to decide financial provision, because Stormont is where such matters should be dealt with.

9.39 pm
Mr. Ian Stewart

With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker. I think that many of us would welcome progress towards devolution of responsibility to elected representatives in Northern Ireland, and. I endorse what the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) has said.

The hon. Members for North Down and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) made specific points about the Housing Executive. The funds released for public expenditure purposes in general by article 3 are not hypothecated in housing, but they influence the amount made available over all the programmes in the current financial year. The resources used to write off the Housing Executive loans are not funds which arose from housing but are the result of closing a number of obsolete accounts containing money which went into them for various reasons. There is no particular case for applying them to housing. Nevertheless, there are housing needs, and that is why we have sustained a substantial programme in this area of public expenditure. As the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) said, the order will increase the funds available for public expenditure by about £1 million per week, and that will continue throughout the current financial year and in the future. This has enabled us in the last annual public expenditure round to see higher public expenditure figures than we would otherwise have had.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South asked about article 8 and how often discretion would be used by the Department of Finance and Personnel in respect of formal trading accounts. For example, there are at present only three trading accounts in respect of services operated by the Department of Agriculture—a fish farm, a pig testing station and the forest service. Of those, only the forest service is a true trading activity which would require formal trading accounts. When the order is implemented, the Department will probably dispense with the need for trading accounts for the other services. It will be a matter of using discretion, but it should enable quite a lot of rather pointless bureaucratic exercises to end.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I appreciate the Minister's answer. I was thinking also of the development of privatisation and in-house trading within, for example, the Department of Health and Social Services.

Mr. Stewart

The hon. Gentleman is going rather wider than the matter in hand. I will let him know whether I have any further comments. I should not like him to think that these decisions have been taken in advance because they have not, but it is sensible to have this measure available and to see when it can properly be applied. It may therefore be a considerable time before any sensible answer to the hon Gentleman's question is available.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South asked me whether article 6 had any implications for privatisation of electricity or the connector link. It has no implications one way or the other. It is designed simply to ensure that any Government loan to the Northern Ireland Electricity Service is automatically secured on the assets and revenue of the service without having to go to the bother of constructing a special legal mortgage or other document. It should simplify the financial arrangements for the Northern Ireland Electricity Service and the Government agency making the loan.

It would not be right to comment at this stage on Shorts, when the bids are being carefully assessed, but I assure the hon. Member for Leicester, South that it is not the Government's intention to delay that process longer than necessary to deal with the matter properly, as he would wish.

On the general scope of the debate, I am sorry that I never had the opportunity to take part in one when Mr. Enoch Powell was still in the House, but I know of his formidable debating skills from my time as a Treasury Minister and I have no doubt that he would have found all sorts of ins and outs in the document before us. As the hon. Member for Leicester, South recognises, however, the order does not go into specific matters of appropriation, for the simple reason that it is concerned largely with technicalities. There are other occasions on which we can debate appropriation and public expenditure generally. If the normal pattern is followed—I have no reason to think that it will not be—we shall have another appropriation order debate before too long when we can look into more general matters of public expenditure.

I am grateful to hon. Members who have taken part in the debate and for the support given to the order, which I hope that the House will now pass.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 17th May, be approved.