HC Deb 11 March 1991 vol 187 cc769-82 10.44 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the others who have occupied the Chair this evening have been fortunate indeed. For almost four hours, Northern Ireland Members—people from both traditions in the Province—have spoken without any division or argument among themselves.

The only note of controversy injected into the debate came from an Englishman. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen)—misery-guts that he is—took the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to task for having the audacity to attempt to resolve problems in the Province. The hon. Gentleman told us that the initiative had failed—indeed, that it had been pronounced dead from the very beginning. He came to the House, complete with his funeral garb, to deliver an oration at the funeral of what he called the Brooke initiative.

The members of my party certainly do not want that initiative to fail. We recognise the very real need for progress towards the creation of structures in Northern Ireland. It was this House and the party of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West which took the Stormont Parliament from us. It is their fault that we do not have a local body with legislative powers. If some of them had been able to look into the future, they might not have been so quick to put their hands to the destruction of Stormont.

However, the hon. Gentleman was right about at least one thing. He recognises that the way in which Northern Ireland business is dealt with in the House is far from satisfactory. It should not be necessary to bring day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues here. However, I make no apology for raising in this debate issues that some hon. Members may consider trivial.

I want to start on a note of thanks to the Government. The last time I took part in an appropriation debate I raised a matter of concern to not only myself but the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder). I permitted the hon. Gentleman to intervene when, during my speech, I referred to Merton park, for which he and I, as Members of Parliament, share responsibility. Unfortunately, he did not return the favour this evening. He and I recognised the inadequacy of the way in which Merton park was being dealt with. The Minister undertook to look into the matter, and I was given the opportunity to speak to a number of officials. I am glad to say that it has been decided that there should be a fully integrated scheme, which will greatly enhance the lives of the people of Merton park. I trust that the Minister and his officials will ensure that good ideas will be translated into action and that the necessary finance will be available.

I realise that, because of the time restriction, I shall be able only to put down some markers. I hope that the Minister of State will draw to the attention of his ministerial colleague who is responsible for the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment the crisis in relation to grants for the repair and improvement of houses. The system is now so bogged down that only people with financial difficulties get any money out of the scheme, and they have to wait a considerable time for grants to come through. The Minister is guilty of very false logic and very false economy. The rate of unfitness of property will increase considerably before very long. The housing stock is not being repaired and improved sufficiently. It is a major problem, and I urge that funds are freed for such an important purpose.

There has already been reference to planning issues. The hon. Member for North Down rightly talked about the difficulties that objectors have if a planning department recommends approval of the application. There is no automatic appeal for objectors. The hon. Gentleman will recognise—he was the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly—that the environment committee was able to wring out of the then Minister a concession that if two thirds of the members of a district council expressed serious concerns, there could be an article 22 inquiry. The hon. Gentleman and I recognised that the concession did not go far enough. That is a process that operates as a result of the grace and favour of the Department, but perhaps it has established itself to some degree in custom and practice. Many of us would like it to be established in planning law. A planning order is coming before the House, and I hope that the Minister will incorporate such a provision within it.

I think that the Minister should go even further because the two thirds restriction is unnecessary. A majority in a district council would be satisfactory. Planning is one area in which there has been great contention between the political parties within district councils. In some instances that is right, but the Minister should not be concerned if the district council is merely referring the matter to an appeal tribunal.

There are serious difficulties with enforcement because the Department is so slow to act. The most outrageous scheme can be pursued for a long time without the necessary action being taken, and this is causing great annoyance. Steps must be taken to accelerate the enforcement procedures. I recognise that there are legal difficulties, but the Department must be capable of finding means of ensuring that enforcement procedures operate much more speedily.

During most appropriation order debates over the past three or four years I have referred to ex-post-facto applications. In most instances they are made by those who decide to build now and apply later. The applications are increasing in number and because of the slowness of enforcement procedures there is no official response for a long time. I have suggested that the Minister incorporates a penalty clause in the new planning order that is to come before the House which requires someone who builds without planning permission to pay 10 times the penalty that is normally imposed in Northern Ireland. The Minister has not, unfortunately, taken up the suggestion. In a recent schedule that came before a district council in the area which I represent, 25 per cent. of the applications were ex post facto. That shows how planning laws are being flouted.

As for roads, I thank the Government for the progress that has been made with the construction of the dual carriageway between Supermac and the Upper Newtownards road. I am glad that it was decided at the Belfast urban area plan hearings that the Castlereagh roundabout should have not a flyover but an upgraded traffic light system. That system has been put into operation and it seems to be working successfully, as are the traffic lights at the Castledona junction. Those schemes were urged on the Government by the local council and they were reluctant to implement them. The schemes were implemented, however, and they have proved to be successful.

I ask the Minister to consider the serious traffic problem at Ryan park, just up from the Castlereagh roundabout. I suspect that, before too long, I shall have to inform the House of a fatality there. The traffic moves quickly and young children have to cross the road to get to buses. There have been several near-misses. The Department has been pressed consistently on that matter, but, as yet, has taken no satisfactory steps to avoid the problem. I urge the Minister to consider this matter before a fatality occurs.

I turn to the education vote and transport to schools. In my constituency, there was a primary school at Clarawood. It was very much the centre of the area. All the life on the estate revolved round the school. It was used in the evenings for community purposes. All the young people in the area went to the school. The Government, as part of their rationalisation programme, decided to scrap it. They said that they could not allow a school with such low attendance to continue.

The children were forced to go to Orangefield primary school, some two miles away by road; but it was not two miles away if one had to cross a muddy field. The Belfast education and library board has decided that, whether the rain comes down in torrents or whether there is snow on the ground, the young children have to go across the field because it will not provide them with the transport to go by road.

Mothers with young children of four or more are forced to wade across the field in the worst of weather. They must even cross a river which has a plank across it. The Belfast education and library board believes that that is a fit route by which parents can take their children. That is unsatisfactory. This step was taken only to provide financial savings. As the board took the local school from the area, it has a responsibility to provide children with the kind of minibus used by many other schools in the area which probably have less need. I urge the Minister to use his influence with the board to deal with this matter.

The Government's record on allocating funds to district councils for sport and leisure services is abysmal. They have cut so much that district councils looking for the normal grant aid for leisure provision now get nothing. The councils' capital programmes have come to a halt, unless they are prepared to put all the burden on the local rates.

The cuts in community services are beginning. Local communities suffer because the Government want their finances to look better, and do not mind local government finances looking worse. The Government are quite happy about the rates going up and the blame falling on local councillors. They do not want to take the blame, all hough the responsibility has been theirs for a long time. I urge them to put funds into the education budget so that the programme of capital expenditure on leisure centres and other educational provisions and important community work can recommence in the Province.

11.53 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I appreciate that time is now rather limited, so I will keep to the period suggested. For that reason, I will have to be brief in some of my comments.

From the debate a few weeks ago on the draft Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1990, the Minister will remember that I made some comments about Spelga hospital in Banbridge. He will appreciate the considerable concern in the local community about the threatened closure of that hospital before proper refurbishment of the main Banbridge hospital is carried out. I hope that there will be a speedy resolution of the uncertainty, and that the matter will be resolved appropriately. The concern about Banbridge hospital is heightened by the fact that there is no casualty unit there at present, because of a lack of senior staff. I hope that something can be done about that.

I want to mention some Department of the Environment matters concerning planning. I am sure ghat the Minister knows that Craigavon district is unique in Northern Ireland, as the only area for which there is no statutory development plan. Well over 20 years ago, there was a non-statutory plan, but it has long since been superseded by the failure of the Craigavon new city concept. Planning in the area is carried out on an unsatisfactory basis.

I realise that there has been a recent study on the Craigavon central area and that there is talk about having studies on the Portadown and Lurgan town centres, but is that the right way to proceed? Should we not be thinking in terms of producing a proper development plan for the whole of Craigavon, rather than building up a patchwork for the central area, for Portadown and for Lurgan?

Two specific matters are causing concern in the area. Under the central area plan, it has been proposed that there be a link between the M1 and the centre. As the Minister may be aware, that link would run over land that was originally vested in the mid-1960s for the new city. A number of years later, when that project was not carried through successfully, the land was surplus, and it was disposed of to the original owners. They were encouraged to invest considerable sums in bringing the area back under control and to put other investments into the area. They are now threatened with that area being re-vested. I want that matter to be looked at carefully. The concept of a link is good, but we want it to be routed so that it does not involve the re-vesting of surplus land, which has been disposed of.

I raised the matter of the blight in the centre of Lurgan in the appropriation debate last May. I understand that that stems from a throughpass proposal which was part of the original new city proposals. The throughpass was planned to go from Arthur street to Malcolm road. As a result, part of the centre of Lurgan has been blighted for over a decade. Some work has been done by housing associations to try to recover the area.

Is the throughpass proposal really necessary? Like most of our Ulster towns, Lurgan has a broad central street running through it. There are occasional traffic problems, but they are no greater than in any other substantial town in rush hour. I should like people to study closely whether the throughpass proposal is necessary. If the proposal were finally to be dropped—it has effectively been dropped for 20 years, because nothing has been done to implement it —the blight would be removed. A considerable area in the centre of the town could be redeveloped, which would be for the town's benefit.

I want to raise a matter that may seem small, but which is important to the people concerned. During the very cold winter weather, I became conscious of the plight of people affected by Housing Executive renovation schemes. They had been rehoused temporarily in caravans during the cold weather. There was obvious inconvenience, and additional costs were incurred.

I discover that there is provision under legislation for the executive to make payments to compensate people who have been displaced temporarily. The payments are made on a standard basis without any regard to the costs incurred, yet the Department has the power to make regulations and I understand that that power has not been exercised. Can that be looked at? Can the regulations make provision for the special additional costs incurred everywhere during the recent very cold spell?

I had hoped to deal with two substantial points at some length. One relates to a matter that is the responsibility of the Department of Economic Development and of the Industrial Development Board. Last week, I dropped a note to the relevant Minister telling him that I propose to raise the matter in this debate. I am sure that it is not a lack of interest in the subject that has caused him not to be here this evening. The difficulty was caused by an imaginative proposal which was started a number of years ago by the Northern Ireland Aeronautics Technical Training Aviation company—which is a mouthful, so I shall hereinafter call it NIATTA.

The proposal emerged in the late 1980s. It is a good proposal and tends to build upon skills that exist within Northern Ireland, both in terms of aeronautics and engineering. The proposal identifies a need for aeronautical training for engineering and servicing aircraft. Essentially, the proposal comprises two phases. The first is to train engineers, who may be used to service aircraft in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, which is important skills training, would build upon existing skills in Northern Ireland and would equip people for useful employment there or elsewhere.

The second stage of the development would comprise the establishment of a substantial servicing operation locally, which would be viable if the necessary investment were made and could provide up to 1,000 highly skilled jobs.

Since its inception, the progress of the proposal has been a sorry tale. Way back in June 1988, there was a meeting, as a result of which the secretary to the then Minister responsible for the Department of Economic Development replied to NIATTA saying: if you are willing to set up a commercial aircraft servicing and training company as a prerequisite to the actual aircraft servicing phase of the business the Department would consider grant aiding the training of employees".

In August 1988, it was stated that the grant aid would be on the same training basis as on the mainland. However, in November that year, the proposal from the Department of Economic Development—as it was then —was to reduce the grant to less than 40 per cent. of the equivalent on the mainland. Despite that, a detailed business plan was submitted to the Industrial Development Board. Unfortunately, it has not responded effectively to the proposal. In March 1990, it requested additional information, which was provided on two subsequent occasions—in June and October 1990—giving detailed cash flow projections for the first phase of the development, not merely for one but for three years.

Unfortunately, there has not been a positive response from the IDB, which keeps saying that it needs to have a detailed business plan for the second phase. In the nature of the business, that is unrealistic. The first phase concerns training of engineers who are working on servicing, but the second phase of establishing a servicing operation in Northern Ireland would require detailed knowledge of what hangars and runway facilities were available, what level of training would be achieved, what qualifications would be achieved and what relationships there would be with particular companies. That is an unrealistic request.

However, sufficient information is available to enable a decision to be taken on the first phase. Regrettably, the IDB is not responding to that proposal, which would be extremely valuable. It is an imaginative proposal, but it seems that the IDB is too earthbound in its attitude to the matter to be able to respond to it.

I am sorry that the Minister is not available to reply to my remarks, but I hope that these comments will be carried to him, so that he can come back to me.

The other matter of substance, which I touched upon in an intervention on the Minister at the beginning of the debate, concerns the way in which the cultural traditions programme has been developed. I must explain the arguments that I mentioned indirectly then.

As part of the cultural traditions programme, there have been a series of conferences—the third will take place later this month. There are a total of nine major participants in terms of speakers and chairmen of working groups. When one examines the nine, one finds that, using the criteria spelled out in the current employment legislation to determine the ethnic origins of persons involved, five seem to be of Irish origin—using the term in its widest sense. Four of them can be identified, using the criteria in the legislation, as nationalist or belonging to the nationalist community. The fifth is perhaps not, but he is a civil servant, and I expect that his politics will not enter into the matter.

Consequently, we find that four of the five Irish participants at the conference on cultural traditions can be attributed to one community group, and that there is no one who can be regarded as representing the Ulster British tradition, at a conference which is supposed to deal with the traditions of both communities. I told the Minister that this was inadequate, and he acknowledged that that was a fair argument. The cultural traditions group may make the defence that it had invited a person to represent the Ulster-British viewpoint because an officer of my party, one of the honorary secretaries, was invited. That is no excuse.

Mr. Mallon

He was in Dublin.

Mr. Trimble

The conference has not yet taken place. The group knew that he could not attend because the Saturday of the conference coincides with the annual general meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council. All officers of the council are elected annually, so that officer could not possibly have attended. It is not as if the cultural traditions group did not know that, because I had exactly the same problem last year when I could not attend the conference because of the annual general meeting. The group knew that, so I am not prepared to accept its excuse.

Mr. Beggs

Who is the chairman?

Mr. Trimble

I shall come to that.

The background to this matter is that the cultural traditions group was formed a couple of years ago and the then chairman, hon. Members will be amused to hear, was a man whom I regarded with considerable suspicion; I told him so, so I am not saying anything behind his back. I doubted his attitude to the matter, but at least he recognised the need to include representatives of both communities. Consequently, he approached me in my capacity as chairman of the Ulster Society, because, outside the loyal orders and political parties, that society is the only body in Northern Ireland which is committed to promoting the Ulster-British culture and heritage.

He invited me to join the conference committee, which I did, and we made a contribution to that first conference. Because of my involvement in a by-election last year, I was not able to undertake the same role in the second conference. The commitment from our society came from its secretary, Gordon Lucy. As a result, there was an input to the second conference.

For the third conference, my colleague was ignored. Gordon received no notification of any meetings of the conference committee. There was complete silence, and then we find the present conference arranged with an unbalanced membership. That is particularly annoying, because the theme of the conference is European issues, and the deputy chairman of my society is uniquely fitted to deal with that subject, because he is a recognised authority on the ethnic and cultural disputes in Europe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) has said, there has been a change in the chairmanship; I am afraid that the present chairman, Dr. Maurice Hayes, does not seem to display the same sensitivity as his predecessor. I hope that that will be examined.

Finally, I should like to deal with a couple of brief matters. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) spoke about the way in which Northern Ireland matters are handled in the House as a constitutional slum. A happening this evening reminds me that there is some truth in that. In conducting its affairs, the Northern Ireland Office tends to arrange for things to happen across the water in Belfast, and does not always arrange for people over here to know.

Earlier this evening, I received a telephone call from the BBC in Belfast asking whether I could comment on a draft Order in Council which, apparently, was published today in Belfast. Other hon. Members may have received a similar request. Of course, it is not available in London, and one cannot comment on it. Hon. Members who attend to their duties in the House find themselves at a disadvantage about what is happening on the ground in Northern Ireland, and that is unsatisfactory.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West went on to criticise the provision in the appropriation order relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly I am afraid that I do not share his criticism. I am glad to see that there is some expenditure to keep some aspects of the Assembly going because there is a need for a regional administration or government, call it what we will.

Hon. Members spoke about the problems that we face vis-a-vis Europe and the concepts of additionality. Dealing with regional and structural funds in the absence of a regional administration makes things worse. The European Commission and its civil servants go to other major European countries to discuss the operation of regional policy. When they go to Bavaria and want to know how regional policy should apply to that area, they can speak to the Government of the Bavarian Land, who will give a view. Unfortunately, when the Commission comes to talk to people in the United Kingdom and goes to Scotland and speaks to the Scottish Office, it does not get a Scottish answer: it gets a Treasury answer. If it speaks to the Northern Ireland Office, it does not get a Northern Ireland answer but a Treasury answer. The problem of additionality rests primarily with the Treasury.

We in Northern Ireland in particular feel the absence of a regional administration, but that problem is not confined to us, and it should also be tackled. I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if my final comments have strayed from the subject of the order, but I will now conclude my remarks.

11.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

This has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate—perhaps more wide-ranging from one direction than the order warranted. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) follows one of his predecessors as a Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton in having a special place in Northern Ireland's history.

The debate was conducted with great courtesy, with all the speakers from the Province exhibiting great oratorical skill. They served their constituents with distinction, and spoke with care and in great detail. I shall try to cover as many points as possible in the time available to me.

The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), who kindly gave notice that he could not be present for the end of the debate, expressed concern about the Province's economic situation and its possible impact on employment levels. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said in his excellent opening remarks, the upturn in unemployment in recent months is extremely disappointing, but it must be seen in the context of the sustained period of employment growth that Northern Ireland enjoyed over the past four and a half years, when unemployment fell by almost 28,000.

The recent upward movement in Northern Ireland's unemployment level is less marked, proportionately, than in Great Britain, and we hope that it will be short-lived. It would be silly of anyone, including me, to make any predictions, but much of the employment downturn has been in sectors such as distribution, hotels and catering, which are particularly sensitive to changes in demand—and I suspect that they will recover quickly when demand picks up.

The hon. Member for Leicester, South drew attention to the Cambridge university report. I regret that its predictions were at the pessimistic end of the forecasting spectrum, but the Government recognise that the completion of the single market entails both challenges and opportunities. It is for individual firms to respond to them, and the Government's strategy is aimed at encouraging local companies to improve their competi-tiveness and to take full advantage of the opportunities on offer.

The time ahead will not be easy, but Northern Ireland companies are well suited to meet those challenges and to exploit those opportunities. The hon. Member for Leicester, South spoke of targeting social need—some-thing in which I have a particular interest, as have my colleagues. In allocating public expenditure resources nationally, we have consistently recognised the greater needs of Northern Ireland. That is reflected in the higher levels of public expenditure per head of population.

The targeting of social need priority seeks significantly to accelerate improvement of the social and economic conditions in the most disadvantaged areas and of the people of Northern Ireland. The thrust of priority is to address need, which is defined as deprivation or disadvantage, as identified by objective criteria, wherever it may exist in the community, and to apply any action even-handedly to all who fall within the objectively defined categories.

The hon. Member for Leicester, South mentioned the provision of a natural gas pipeline between Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. The technical and economic feasibility of using gas for power generation is being assessed, several possible routes for a pipeline from Great Britain are being examined, and seabed surveys have been completed. The crucial issue will be the price of gas delivered to the power stations by comparison with existing fuels.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity and the resignation of its chairman. My hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), the other Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, has already paid a well-earned tribute to Dr. Schierbeek's sterling service in his capacity as a board member of NIE, as deputy chairman and, for the past five years, as chairman. I, too, wish him well in the future. Following his resignation, there was speculation about the Government's proposals for the privatisation; any comment would, I think, be best reserved until the publication of the White Paper later this month. There will then be ample opportunity for all the various interests to make their views known.

The hon. Member for Leicester, South also mentioned training and employment. He asked why the Government did not consult interested parties, other than employers. The Training and Employment Agency has an advisory board, whose members have been chosen because of the contribution that they can make to the agency's activities. They include representatives from industry and commerce, but also from education and, indeed, from trade unions and community organisations. I believe that the board will act as an important catalyst in forging effective partnerships between the agency and the business community.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) raised a number of important points, one of which concerned Rathlin island. I assure him that NIE and the Department of Economic Development are considering the possibility of providing a mains electricity supply for the island, and that the departure of the good Dr. Schierbeek will not alter that. Various types of installation have been identified, but a preliminary application for grant has already been made to the European Community under the Valoren scheme which, if successful, could partly finance the project. I certainly hope that progress will be made.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the agricultural difficulties arising from the EC proposals. I acknowledge that those difficulties exist. The Commission's initial proposals—and the MacSharry leaks before them—met with considerable opposition; the only subject of universal agreement seemed to be the need for reform of the CAP. Budgetary constraints, however, are likely to force the Commission to present stringent price proposals in 1991, The United Kingdom welcomes reform of the CAP, but any measures that are taken must not discriminate against the larger efficient farms in the United Kingdom. Even the small farms in Northern Ireland seem to be regarded as large compared with many in Europe—a point made by the hon. Member for Antrim, North with telling passion. Certainly the farms in Northern Ireland, however small, are efficient by many European standards.

I believe that the CAP should indeed be a common agricultural policy, and that the harm should not affect any particular area. I intend to fight fully for the interests of Northern Ireland agriculture; on my first day in the job I said that I would be its champion, and since then I have discovered that it is not only a battle worth fighting, but a battle for people who are worth supporting. Agriculture is an important part of Northern Ireland's economy.

Like many other hon. Members, the hon. Member for Antrim, North mentioned fallen animals. Regrettably, progress has been painfully slow and extremely delicate; almost every day I have had to struggle with the issues, and my officials—especially the permanent secretary—have tried very hard to get all the interested parties together to find a solution. We need co-operation from all those involved in Northern Ireland agriculture—not only the food producers and the by-product manufacturers but the feed compounders, the renderers and, indeed, local authorities. The district councils have an extremely important part to play. The Department of Agriculture, however, has a catalyst role, and also a veterinary role.

I hesitate to say this, but I know that hon. Members want to know the most up-to-date position. I am close to announcing that a solution has been found, but I warn hon. Members in all parts of the House that at least twice during the last two months I have been close to announcing a solution. Therefore, I hope that my wishes will not be dashed at the last hurdle, as they were on those occasions. I hope to make an announcement next week. I am grateful for the patience and the good advice I have received from hon. Members during the last three months. I believe that a solution is likely to be announced next week. I shall write to all hon. Members immediately that happens.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North referred to flooding. I am grateful to him for what he said. I recognise fully the difficulties faced by those who are not farmers but also suffered from the flooding. The farming community's gratitude for the assistance that it received, after the initial difficulties, from the ADOP funds was heartwarming.

The Government have made it clear that they do not normally compensate for insurable losses, or losses which arise from weather abnormalities, but an exception was made in the case of North Antrim flooding due to the extreme severity and the permanent nature of the damage.

I am pleased, therefore, that we were able to offer some assistance to those farmers. Nevertheless that does not alter the general principle. Naturally I understand the issue raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), but that must fall within the normal pattern.

Mr. William Ross

The principle that the Minister has applied to the North Antrim floods must surely apply to the October 1987 floods as well.

Mr. Hanley

I recognise that, as the hon. Gentleman does, but it was well before my time as a Minister. Serious floods have occurred on many occasions, but the damage is not always so permanent as it was in the glens on that evil night. I maintain that the compensation that we have offered is as far as we can take it at this stage.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister of State to ask about capital expenditure for hospitals. This year we allocated £44 million for capital expenditure on hospitals, thus ensuring that the momentum is maintained. That is an 18 per cent. increase on the previous year. Major projects are under way in the Province, which should be very proud of its capital expenditure successes in this financial year. When completed, the new hospital at Antrim will cost £35 million. Regional cardiac services at the Royal Victoria hospital are being expanded. A new 120-bed geriatric unit at Gransha in Londonderry has recently been opened. Construction work is starting on a new 72-bed unit at Whiteabbey hospital. A new linear accelerator has been announced, as well as a new headquarters for the blood transfusion service. Many people over here wonder how Northern Ireland gets away with it.

Many hon. Members referred to Coleraine hospital. I was very pleased to meet members of the action committee, albeit briefly and I look forward to meeting them again in the near future. I spent four hours last Friday carrying out research into various issues put to me by the Northern health board. I also visited the Antrim site. I was most impressed by that hospital. I shall be visiting Coleraine in the near future. A local newspaper said that I planned to visit the Coleraine site for four hours. To stand in a green field, even as a Minister with responsibility for agriculture, for four hours might test my patience. What I meant was that I should be concentrating on the issue for at least four hours last Friday. I shall be visiting the site and taking representations from all parties in the near future.

It is understandable that hon. Members should want to spell out the needs of hospitals in their own areas, but the Government have to consider the overall needs and the best means of addressing them. We have rules on major capital expenditure which require detailed investment appraisals of all the costs and benefits of the feasible options. I am pleased that the Northern board recently completed an appraisal of the Coleraine hospital and recommended a new-build hospital on a green-field site. The board is consulting local interests. I assure the hon. Member for Antrim, North and other hon. Members that my decision will be taken as expeditiously as possible. I will write to the hon. Gentleman about the matters that he raised on other hospitals, including the Moyle and Downpatrick. I am dealing with the concerns that have been expressed.

The hon. member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) said that Northern Ireland Electricity should not be privatised by Order in Council. There are many other issues to be considered, but essentially this is a transferred matter under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. There will therefore be extremely full consultation when the White Paper is published.

The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) mentioned rural development, for which I was recently given ministerial responsibility. He suggested that the Minister responsible should visit the Seeconnell site. I visited the area three months ago, and I found it an inspirational example of community development. Such a bottom-up approach, with the initiative coming from local people to try to keep the area based on agriculture and its young people on the land, is exactly what we are looking for. I was therefore pleased to be able to give them some money from the 1.4 mecu that we received from the European Community for pilot projects, of which Seeconnell was one. The £20,000 that it received will help with its feasibility study.

The hon. Member for South Down mentioned reductions in farm incomes in Northern Ireland. I can only agree with him and regret those reductions. There has been some good news, but last year was bad. The Government recognise the importance of agriculture to the Northern Ireland economy, and it will be one of the factors that we take into account when taking a robust stance in Europe.

The hon. Member for South Down mentioned many other issues, such as the activity of the Industrial Development Board and the Local Enterprise Development Unit in the Down district council area. The story is excellent, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman. The IDB has 12 customer companies in the Down district area employing 1,200 people. There are two industrial estates—one is full and the other is filling up. LEDU has 83 client companies in the Down district area. The IDB arranged nine inward visits to the Down area.

I shall write to the hon. Member for South Down about the troubles with the spinning industry, but he will recognise that one of the major customers in Brazil has collapsed, which is one reason why workers have been laid off.

I thoroughly agree with the comments of the hon. Member for South Down about family credit forms. I welcome his suggestions and will bring them to the attention of those concerned to promote increased take up of family benefit and other benefits. The forms are full of gobbledegook and are difficult to complete. Even a chartered accountant would experience difficulty with some of them.

The hon. Member for North Down (Mr.Kilfedder) mentioned Bregenz house, of which I saw the details the other day, and I know that the hon. Gentleman presented a petition to the House which is being considered by the Department.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North will return from fighting for Ulster in the far east on Thursday. I look forward to giving him details of all the various roads that were mentioned in tonight's debate.

Health councils, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), will be set up as soon as possible. District councils are being asked to nominate members in the next three weeks and we are advertising in newspapers for the other members. I agree that the subject of waste disposal is absolutely vital.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) said that farm incomes are low. The rural development programme has been based on an inter-departmental committee. We recognise that planning issues are extremely important, and I plan to have a meeting with my fellow Under-Secretary of State to discuss them. The other answers to his questions will be forthcoming [Interruption.] The message says that I may have the extra two minutes, thanks to the hon. Member for Antrim, North.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said that noise was a form of pollution and I thoroughly agree with him. I shall make sure that in conjunction with my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, we shall look at that matter afresh. I shall certainly look into the disablement allowance case when I have Hansard to hand.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) talked about competitive tendering standards. Although I cannot comment on the specific tender, I can say that quality of service is the overriding concern in every contract. All work undertaken in bringing forward this initiative has fully taken standards into account. I shall deal with educational assessment in writing.

I have dealt with most of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross). The issues raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) will be dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North. In response to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I know that my hon. Friend well knows Craigavon's particular problems and circumstances, as do I. I have visited it regularly and I know that my hon. Friend will respond.

In the time available, I have tried to answer as many of the points raised in the debate as I can. I will arrange for written replies to be sent on the outstanding points. I know that Northern Ireland Members in particular welcome the opportunities provided by appropriation debates to raise issues which concern them and their constituents. They would not expect me, therefore, to be able to cover everything in response. This evening is for them, and they have, understandably, focused on some of the problems facing Northern Ireland.

In the nearly four months that I have been a Northern Ireland Minister, I have also come to recognise the positive side to life in Northern Ireland, which is often overlooked. I have been struck by the friendliness and enthusiasm of the people, by their determination to overcome setbacks and difficulties, and by their hopes for the future. I have even enjoyed the company, advice and good will of hon. Members on both sides of the House, who have greatly helped me to carry out my job and welcome my tasks. I am also impressed by the exciting developments in the pipeline in the Province——

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted Business).

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, which was laid before this House on 12th February, be approved.