HC Deb 11 March 1991 vol 187 cc760-8

Question again proposed.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. W. McCrea) to continue his speech, I may tell the House that five other hon. Members wish to participate. The debate can continue until 11.30 pm, so if they each speak for about 10 minutes, they will all be called, and there will still be time for wind-up speeches from both Front Benches. I hope that those time limits will be broadly borne in mind.

Rev. Ian Paisley

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will the two minutes taken by the business at 10 o'clock be added to our debate?

Mr. Speaker

The answer is in the affirmative.

10.3 pm

Rev. William McCrea

Can the Minister say what steps will be taken to action some of the proposals in the Castlederg programme, to stave off the decay that is affecting that area? My constituents are desirous to assist themselves, but the Government must offer added incentives.

Has the Minister heard of the Gibson plan for Mid-Tyrone, named after my friend and colleague Councillor Oliver Gibson, who had the vision and the initiative to compile a comprehensive scheme that identifies many of the needs in the area? I shall be obliged if the Minister will discuss it with the local council in the near future.

Given the existence of the beautiful Gortin glens and the Ulster-American folk park at Omagh, the Government should initiate a worldwide drive to help tourism in the area. We in Mid-Ulster have a willing work force, but it needs encouraging. Will the Government encourage with grant aid multinational firms to that area of high unemployment?

I pay tribute to the local industry that has mushroomed over the past few years; many concerns, however, have been strangled by high interest rates and inflation. Will the Minister encourage the Chancellor of the Exchequer to assist industry by introducing lower interest rates in the Budget?

How can Northern Ireland industry compete with that of other EC countries, given the exorbitant electricity costs that we must endure? We deplore the additional costs that have been forced on the Province. What action will the Minister take to remove this intolerable burden from my constituents?

What will the Minister do about the impending payoffs at Tyrone and Fermanagh hospital, which has been at the forefront of mental health care in the Province for many years and is now a vital employer in the Omagh area? Is he aware of the alarm and disquiet that is felt in that area? The nursing staff are gravely worried about the future of mental health care; their opinions must be taken into account. The senior officers have drawn up a hospital plan, but I should be deeply obliged to the Minister if he forwarded to me the detailed plan for community mental health care. Many of the changes are based on the development of community-based care: surely it is entirely unacceptable to wreck hospital care facilities without possessing detailed knowledge of community-based care.

The community is also concerned about the lack of home helps for the elderly who are forced to live in that community. Like other hon. Members, I wish to know when the Minister expects work to begin on the new Coleraine hospital. Has he read the comprehensive submission from those who are campaigning to save the Moyle hospital, for which many hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed their support?

There is much concern in my constituency about the question mark over the future of one of our local schools, Tullyhogue primary school. The school is an essential part of the local community, and I ask the Minister and the Department of Education to ensure that it is saved.

10.7 pm

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

In the interests of brevity, Mr. Speaker, I shall try to abide by your directive.

The macro element of the debate seems to have been largely ignored in favour of the micro element. That may be a result of the Ribble Valley by-election, which has tended to focus all our attention on the more parochial issues. I shall follow suit; I will merely ask the questions, and request consideration of them.

First, the north of Ireland badly needs a noise pollution protection scheme. According to what I can glean from parliamentary questions and answers, there is no clearly defined arrangement to protect people's health in that regard, as there is in other parts of the United Kingdom. The figures interest me; there is, of course, a constituency element in my interest.

In England, a noise problem caused by a traffic scheme qualifies for legislation at 68 decibels; a noise problem caused by a military installation qualifies at 70 decibels. In Northern Ireland, the helicopter noise scheme run by the Minister of Defence qualifies at 72 decibels. In Canal street in Newry, in my constituency—one of the main streets, but a very narrow street—Newry and Mourne council has measured the noise level at between 74 and 77 decibels. Despite all my efforts, however, I have been unable to persuade the Department of the Environment to re-route the traffic from that street to a new bypass and an alternative route into Newry.

In the interests of health alone, I suggest that the Minister, who is responsible for the health of all of us in Northern Ireland, should join me in trying to persuade the Department of the Environment and those in charge of road traffic to abolish noise pollution in that street. Noise pollution is as dangerous as any other form of pollution.

As for the grants department of the Housing Executive for the southern area, there has been a problem in the Newry office, which is being resolved. The problem was caused not by those who have applied for Housing Executive grants but by the Housing Executive itself. The last people to suffer should be the people who live in the Newry and South Armagh areas. However, due to irregularities in that office, they have to wait an inordinate length of time. Only two or three grants are issued each month. That is unfair, and patently unjust, and it must be dealt with quickly. I have dealings with another grants office and have compared the speed with which grants are processed. One of the reasons for the slowness in processing grants is due to Housing Executive's problems.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) referred to those with disabilities, and to the difficulty that they face if they want improvements to their homes. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We all come up against that problem. Part of it relates to an insufficient number of occupational therapists to make the assessments. I have written to the Minister about the issue.

Mr. William Ross

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that, even if we had enough occupational therapists, we do not have sufficient money to carry out the work that needs to be done after assessments have been made?

Mr. Mallon

That is a valid point, but money will certainly not be spent without an occupational therapist's report. Most areas want the number of occupational therapists to be increased, in the interests of the disabled.

I appreciate how valuable the small rural school is, having been taught in one, and having worked in another. The rural schools acts as a cohesive element in village communities. In rural areas, as Northern Ireland is, schools are small units. Both board and departmental decisions should bear that in mind. The Southern education and library board has decided to withdraw all school transport from children not of compulsory school age, who therefore have to leave school at about 2 pm.

One can imagine the effect of that on many schools struggling to retain their numbers and to remain open. Schools which have amalgamated have been hit the hardest. There have been closures due to insufficient numbers of teachers being available to supervise children; they also have to fulfil the new curriculum requirements. School transport is expensive, but it plays a vital part in keeping schools open.

A matter which concerns the Minister's Department recently came to my notice. I wrote to the Minister, but unfortunately the matter was referred to a departmental head, so I take this opportunity to draw it to the hon. Gentleman's attention. Severe disablement allowance will not be paid to 23 disabled people who attend school in the Republic because of the requirement that they must be resident in the north of Ireland for 10 consecutive days. Those young people, who suffer from profound deafness, attend St. Joseph's school for the the deaf in Cabra. When they become 16, they will not be able to avail themselves of that allowance; yet the area boards are paying for their education in the Republic. It is handier for them to travel there because of the direct train service. Such a circumstance was not foreseen when the legislation was passed, but it seems cruel that, because those terribly disabled people are furthering their education outside the jurisdiction, they are denied severe disablement allowance. I ask the Minister to consider that.

I am concerned that community care grants are not being paid to some people for travelling to hospital. They have been told that they will not be paid retrospectively. When the small children of some of my constituents fell ill, their parents, who lived a considerable distance from the Crown buildings, were not able to avail themselves of those grants, because the office refused to pay them retrospectively. In some circumstances, it is surely impossible for parents to complete a form and all the formalities before visiting their child. That is a further anomaly that I ask the Minister to consider carefully.

10.16 pm
Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North)

I should like to take up some aspects of planning as they affect Northern Ireland.

Planners, who are not elected, have enormous powers to alter a community, without being responsible to anyone in that community or to the wishes of the community in general. They operate under regulations that are so restricted that moral, spiritual and social matters cannot readily be taken into consideration.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) said that local councillors play only an advisory role and in practice have a limited influence on decisions, and that, whereas the applicant has power to appeal against a planner's decision, no such right is available to objectors.

Planning permission was given to infill a quarry situated on the main trunk road to Belfast airport. Despite many objections, the application was granted. As a result, overloaded lorries, transporting hundreds of tonnes of clay, have deposited a deadly and dangerous film of slime on that main thoroughfare, I have received an avalanche of correspondence from constituents and others who use the road, complaining bitterly of the road surface and the state of their vehicles. Many people, including senior citizens, use the road to gain access to the countryside, but as it is impossible to walk on the footpaths because of the mud, they are forced to use the road, thereby increasing the risk to their lives and to motorists who may have to brake in treacherous conditions to avoid them.

In addition, ratepayers must pay the Department of the Environment regularly to employ cleaning services. Despite all that expense, it is impossible to keep the road in an acceptable condition.

I voice the concern of the residents of Balmoral avenue, who are incensed about a decision to designate that formerly highly desirable residential avenue as a main trunk route. Surely some other means should have been found for diverting traffic across this section of the city. Residents who must pay the exceptionally high rates levied on this prime area should not have to contend with this imposition on their right to live in some peace and tranquillity.

Another worrying factor in present planning procedures concerns off-licences and liquor stores. These businesses can be set up without planning permission. That is causing great consternation among those concerned with the problems relating to the consumption of alcohol. Many of these establishments have been opened adjacent to church premises and other community projects. The conflicts of interest can easily be imagined, particularly when intoxicated lager louts who have been drinking in the proximity of their source of alcohol come into contact with more socially motivated people who have been attending church and community activities.

Of equal concern in this undemocratic planning process is the problem created by the leasing of church buildings. Decisions are taken without reference to local opinion. Although in general the feeling is that listing buildings is a sound principle, in inner-city areas buildings of little architectural merit sometimes cannot be altered without infringing regulations. In one case, there is a need to dispose of a building no longer needed by the Church, but because of listing it is unsaleable, and unless it is sold, it will be destroyed by vandals.

In yet another area of the inner city, a Church building has been virtually walled in on one side by a prestige development. Such dilemmas posed by regulations over which no one appears to have any control are seriously inhibiting the mission of inner-city churches. The Minister should look seriously at that and take the matter up with the various church organisations with a view to redressing this seemingly bureaucratic procedure.

Page 5, vote 1, deals with education. I am deeply worried about the introduction of formal tests for eight-year-olds, despite recommendations from the Northern Ireland School Examinations and Assessment Council. The attainment testing of eight-year-olds could have serious psychological consequences on them. It is beyond comprehension that children at the tender age of eight could be forcibly reminded of the fact that they are below average. The reforms which the Minister seems intent on imposing on the educational establishment will have an adverse effect on our teachers. As the chairman of the Irish National Teachers Organisation stated at a recent conference: It seems to have been a case of an English solution to an English problem which mysteriously got posted to Northern Ireland. The view of most, if not all, of the teaching organisations is that whatever the need for such a system on the mainland, there is no case or demand for it in Northern Ireland.

In relation to page 5, vote 3, I express concern about the privatisation of domestic services in north and west Belfast. I am referring in particular to the tender by Grosvenor Cleaning Services. There are major doubts over the technical credibility of the company. It appears that no indication has been given of how the Grosvenor bid relates to comparator figures. There is concern that office cleaning comparators may have been used on what is essentially a social or health care contract.

There is also concern about the health and safety standards in the contract, as there is a potential legal liability to the Eastern health and social services board if this inadequate proposal leads to injury to board employees, contractors' employees or the general public. There are sufficient grounds to justify the rejection of the Grosvenor bid on the grounds of technical credibility.

In the Official Report of Standing Committee A for 19 November 1987 we read as follows: Of course it is true that on numerous occasions I have said that authorities are not obliged to accept the lowest tender. If there are reasons to do with a particular contract such as the quality of the specification or the services that are directly related to the subject matter of that contract, authorities are entitled to take these matters into account and not for that type of reason accept that tender.

I should like to take up again the problems of glass-fronted room heaters. The elderly cannot cope with these appliances, and there have been problems associated with fumes which are causing serious asthmatic problems. There are now alternative forms of heating which are more appropriate for the elderly—economy 7, for instance. Will the Housing Executive consider that alternative for people for whom solid fuel systems have run their course and replacements have become necessary?

I should llike to mention elderly people who were originally transferred from inner-city areas to the highly elevated suburbs of Belfast, particularly north Belfast, because of redevelopment in their inner-city areas. After 30 years, they have grown elderly and cannot cope with the conditions in those areas. I contend that, in such circumstances, they should be moved back whence they came to take advantage of the more centralised shopping facilities and flat living conditions. The elevated sites should be allocated to young families and more able-bodied people, who can more easily cope with that mode of living.

10.26 pm
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

In reply to an intervention by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), the Minister said that there was nothing in these estimates for hospital building which, he said, was covered in the main estimates. I was surprised to hear that, because I notice that the order supplies supplementary cash and provides money for next year, to the tune of £426.5 million, for the Department of Health and Social Services. I should be astonished if there was nothing in that sum for hospital building—I am sure that there is.

That brings me immediately to the new hospital in Coleraine. With a little gentle urging from me, the Minister was kind enough to drop in and see a deputation about that hospital. I think that he found the people in it a most efficient and able group who presented their case admirably. The Minister knows perfectly well that the need for that hospital has long been acknowledged; it was one of the framework hospitals for acute services in Northern Ireland. The debate as to whether it should be green field or rebuild has been finally laid to rest by the option of appraisal. In any case, the hospital is needed.

We are told that at one stage there was cash for part of the rebuild, but we know what Government cash is like —"Now you see it, now you don't." If the money was not spent on rebuild, it must have been spent on something else, so relief expenditure for other items should be available in some form. I hope that the Minister will listen to good advice, elect to rebuild, and let us get on with it. There is no need for delay. I offer him the following good advice from a letter written by an excellent source 117 years ago: Don't throw good money after bad, build new; if you build, build wisely; of course you have a new building to suit its purpose, at moderate outlay. If you add and repair an old building not even originally constructed to suit their purpose, and certain to be deficient in the most essential requisites of health and comfort—you have at the end of all your additions and re-constructions a bad building, at immoderate outlay".

The Minister will be delighted to know that that letter was written by one Florence Nightingale, who certainly knew what things were about. It was written on 29 January 1874 to the honorary secretary of the Belfast nurses home, but I could not have put the case better in relation to Coleraine hospital. I hope that the Minister will follow the good advice of the matron of modern nursing practice.

Reference has also been made to hazardous waste. The Minister will be aware of the furore in my part of the world about the Du Pont proposal to build a toxic waste incinerator, or more accurately a hazardous waste incinerator. Some documents state that the Du Pont site produces 700 tonnes of toxic and hazardous waste per year, while others put it at 75,000 tonnes. The incinerator is an attractive proposal for the company because it means that it would not have to transport any of its waste off site while all its competitors in the island of Ireland would have to transport their waste to that site, thus adding to their costs. The incinerator is a good commercial enterprise for Du Pont, which would have a monopoly of the disposal of such waste—there is nothing similar in the rest of Ireland. Under European Community regulations it would also be mighty difficult to get that waste out of the island to burn it anywhere else.

Although there might be other ways in which to deal with toxic and hazardous waste, the normal practice is to burn it at specific temperatures. If we are to have such an incinerator anywhere in Ireland, the worse possible place is the upwind side of the island. The prevailing winds are generally west, south-west or south. They rarely blow from the north or the east. Given the problems and attendant hazards which arose from the incorrect burning of waste in the Irish Republic, if we are to have such an incinerator anywhere on the island it should be erected on the east coast so that any toxic fumes produced would at least be blown out to sea.

I do not want the Minister to forget about the alarm generated a few years ago, when it was thought that a toxic cloud had been produced at the Du Pont works and was floating towards Londonderry. We were all thankful to discover that that report stretched the truth, but mistakes can happen and their consequences should be limited. To achieve that, it would be best to locate any incinerator where any possible fumes would be blown out to sea rather than across land.

I believe that LEDU, the Local Enterprise Development Unit, and the IDB, the Industrial Development Board, are supposed to bring manufacturing industry to Northern Ireland. LEDU primarily deals with the native-born people and I am concerned about its activities. I repeat the concern that I expressed last year. I have been less than satisfied with the help that LEDU has given in a number of cases. An applicant for a grant for the production of high-quality concrete props was turned down for the second time after being encouraged by LEDU to apply and incurring considerable costs in producing a plan. A saw mill was also refused a grant, on the grounds of a shortage of timber, although that small-scale operation had sufficient timber to carry on. I also recall a long delay before a fellow finally got a grant for tools to write inscriptions for tombstones. Although he made his living in that way, it was years before the grant was paid. That seems a bit daft to me.

The problem may have been that people were already doing those things, and one might inquire whether it is wise to encourage applicants in such trades. However, LEDU fulfils a useful function in some sectors. It can give help and support at the lowest level where someone comes up with another way of doing something simple. It can also provide help and support in the final stages when a firm produces a plan, all neatly typed, with everything covered. LEDU then often pays the grant because all the preliminary work has been done.

Unfortunately, there is a great hole between those two ends of the spectrum. It occurs when an individual is doing something that is new. I will cite two cases. One is that of a sock manufacturer, who found that the machines which were supposed to be simple to operate were not all that simple, but when he went back to LEDU for a bit more help, which would have saved the firm, it was not given and the firm went down the bunghole.

The second case was more serious, and I have mentioned it in the House before. A constituent of mine came up with a method of jointing metal tubing—a process with wide applications, especially in plumbing where lead in water is a problem. The concept is new, it works, and I believe that his products will come on to the market fairly soon. The case has caused me some heartache and pain as the impression given to the inventor by the LEDU leaflet was not fulfilled in practice, leading to a long and bitter exchange between him and that body.

LEDU was not willing to grant further funding, because it was not prepared to let the inventor stay in control of the project. He was not prepared to accept that, and he was never satisfied that LEDU was directing him to the people who could give him the help that he needed with some of the difficult technical aspects of the project. He believes that, on one occasion, LEDU undermined his bargaining strength, and that it never set out a clear plan for how best to carry the project to fruition.

I could take up the rest of the time allotted to this debate with the detail of that case, but I will not. Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will look again not only at that case but at certain implications of it. I may well return to the matter in more detail another time. It is necessary to find a solution acceptable to all, because this is something that will be useful and could pay rich dividends.

Beyond that case, we must find a more satisfactory way to deal with the individual who comes up with a completely new invention or industrial application. We need to find a better way to fund research and development, right through from inception to arrival at the marketplace. That is especially true of patent costs, which are high. Often the backyard worker does not have that sort of cash. The Government should look carefully at setting up a fund to try to carry these projects through because they often involve people with little experience of the commercial world.

We should finance our native inventors. That is a far better way to spend money than throwing millions at de Lorean and the like. Millions were invested in textiles in the 1960s, but that industry melted away when the going got rough. Millions were spent trying to build aircraft at Aldergrove. If £1 million per year were spent on encouraging our native inventors, and if the Government were prepared to lose many of the projects, because many will go under, that would be a better way to go about things. Some of the projects will succeed, and those which succeed will pay rich dividends.

I suggest that the Minister talks to some of those who have been frustrated by the activities of LEDU. He will then understand the anger that they feel and perhaps reach a clearer understanding of what I am saying and try to make that organisation better.