HC Deb 15 July 1993 vol 228 cc1213-34 10.11 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler)

I beg to move, That the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1993, which was laid before this House on 7th June, be approved. The draft order, which covers the main estimates for Northern Ireland departments, authorises expenditure of £3,116 million for the current financial year. Taken together with the sum voted on account in February, that brings total estimates provision for Northern Ireland departments to £5,492 million, an increase of 9.6 per cent. on 1992–93 provisional outturn.

It is customary on such occasions to highlight the main items in the estimates, but I shall be very brief, and shall not comment on each vote. I draw the attention of the House to the Department of Economic Development's vote 1, in which £148 million is for the Industrial Development Board. That will enable the board to carry out its role of strengthening Northern Ireland's industrial base and to meet its existing commitments, primarily in the area of selective assistance to industry.

In vote 2, £37 million is for the Local Enterprise Development Unit, Northern Ireland's small business agency. That will allow the agency to maintain and build on the success that it achieved during 1992–93, which was one of its most successful years.

In vote 3, £193 million is for the Training and Employment Agency. That includes £47 million for the youth training programme, to support some 12,500 training places, and £52 million for the action for community employment programme, to provide 9,500 places for long-term unemployed adults in projects of community benefit. A further £21 million is for the job training programme, which offers training and work experience to unemployed adults, and £12 million is for the company development programme, which will increase to 300 the number of companies assisted to improve their competitiveness in external markets.

Token provision of £1,000 has been included in vote 4 to cover expenses to be incurred in the privatisation of the Northern Ireland electricity supply industry. A supplementary estimate covering the actual expenses and proceeds from the sale will be presented to the House later in the year.

I now turn to the Department of the Environment. In vote 1, £176 million is for roads, transport and ports. This includes some £144 million for the roads service. Department of the Environment vote 2 covers the important area of housing. Some £193 million will provide assistance mainly to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and to the voluntary housing movement. When net borrowing and the Housing Executive's rents and capital receipts are taken into account, the resources available for housing will be some £552 million. This is an increase of some £2 million over 1992–93. This substantial sum will support the continued improvement of housing conditions.

Department of the Environment vote 3 covers expenditure on the water and sewerage schemes. Gross expenditure in 1993–94 is estimated at £174 million, an increase of some £27 million over 1992–93 outturn. Also, £77 million is for capital expenditure and £97 million for operational and maintenance purposes. I will not comment further on the Department of the Environment votes.

The estimates for the Department of Education seek a total of £1,253 million, an increase of 2.5 per cent. over last year. Vote 1 includes £772 million for recurrent expenditure by education and library boards, an increase of £23 million over 1992–93. This includes £407 million for school teachers' salaries, which is sufficient to maintain the pupil-teacher ratio at present levels. Also included is £250 million for other expenditure on schools and on further education services and £115 million for libraries, youth, transport and administration.

Vote I also includes £39 million for boards' capital projects, including provision for new laboratories and technology workshops to enable further progress to be made on education reforms. In addition, £8 million is for integrated schools, and £129 million for voluntary schools.

The next set of votes relates to the Department of Health and Social Services. Total net provision of £1,209 million in votes 1 and 3 will maintain and improve the standard of the Province's health and personal social services. This is an increase of £74 million over estimated outturn for 1992–93.

Also, £1,127 million in vote 4 is for a large range of social security benefits administered by the Social Security Agency. This represents an increase of more than 6 per cent. on last year.

Finally, I turn to the Department of Finance and Personnel. In vote 3, over £4 million is for the community relations programme, reflecting the importance that the Government continue to attach to community relations.

In my opening remarks, I have briefly drawn attention to some of the main provisions of the estimates. In replying to the debate, the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), will respond to points raised by right hon. and hon. Members. I commend the order to the House.

10.18 pm
Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I welcome the Minister of State, Northern ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), to the Dispatch Box. When Members of Parliament are appointed as Ministers to the Northern Ireland Office and when hon. Members are appointed as shadow Northern Ireland Ministers, some of our friends tend to think that we are between a rock and a hard place. In some cases, that is probably true. However, the more that the right hon. Gentleman settles into his brief, the more he will find that the majority of people in Northern Ireland are honest, decent, law-abiding citizens who want nothing more than to live in peace with each other. I wish the Minister well in his difficult brief.

We again refer to the Government's allocation of resources among spending Departments within Northern Ireland. As on former occasions, this debate should have been a welcome opportunity for hon. Members to express their concerns about a wide range of problems affecting Northern Ireland. Because of the hour—I do not blame our Welsh colleagues for their deliberations—we are limited once again to a very short debate. However, I am given to understand that the usual channels have agreed that we can return to the subject for a much longer period when the House reconvenes in the autumn. Therefore, I hope that hon. Members from Northern Ireland will forgive me for delivering my prepared speech.

In spite of what the Minister has told us about the amount of money that the Government are allocating to Northern Ireland, unlike what happened on former occasions, tonight's proceedings take place with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury waiting in the wings before taking centre stage and delivering a series of swingeing cuts. It seems that the Government expect the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom to foot the bill for their financial ineptitude. Sadly, the Government's incompetence is starkly evidenced by the overall rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland, which is still the highest of any region in our islands—13.7 per cent. of the work force, compared with 10.3 per cent. in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I take this opportunity to welcome the recent decrease in unemployment in Northern Ireland. I also welcome today's announcement of the recent decrease in unemployment in the rest of Britain. However, I remind the Minister that the Northern Ireland figure remains shamefully high. Unfortunately, the overall figure of 13.7 per cent. unemployment in Northern Ireland is dwarfed by some of the most appalling statistics revealed in travel-to-work areas. Cookstown and Derry, from which I returned yesterday, continue to suffer more than 18 per cent. unemployment. In Strabane, 23 per cent. of the work force is unemployed.

I hope that the Minister appreciates that a seasonally adjusted fall in unemployment of 1,500 is certainly welcome, but it allows no room for complacency. However, this month's announcement by the Department does not include the unacceptable number of long-term unemployed concealed within the monthly figure. For the Minister's benefit, I remind him that 53.9 per cent.—more than half the unemployed in Northern Ireland—have been out of work for a year. What hope can the Minister give them? Perhaps he will tell the House how far the order will go towards getting the long-term unemployed in Derry or Strabane back to work. They represent 59.5 per cent. and 64.5 per cent. respectively of their area totals.

What is more worrying about the Government's plans to find spending savings by attacking the poorest in Northern Ireland is the effect upon the already high number of people in the region who are living in or near poverty. In the 1930s, Joseph Rowntree discovered widespread hardship, squalor and suffering in areas such as York and Liverpool. Like Northern Ireland, parts of Merseyside hope to receive objective 1 status. As we approach the end of the century, research carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on household budgets and living standards in Northern Ireland has shown that for a couple with two children current income support meets only 74 per cent. of their basic minimum budget. In addition, income support and children's allowances were found to meet only 43 per cent. of the amount needed to provide adequate living standards. Frankly, in the latter part of the 20th century, those statistics are a scandalous indictment of the Government's failing.

The hardship that many Northern Ireland families are currently experiencing is mirrored by the difficulties that the region's young face. The annual report of the Northern Ireland Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux states: High levels of unemployment mean that young people can no longer confidently look forward to securing a job or apprenticeship. The best opportunity secured by upwards of 15,000 young people every year is a place on a Youth Training Programme. What a waste of young talent and potential.

If the Government continue merely to dump young people in poorly paid schemes and refuse to utilise the greatest resource available to them—and the people of Northern Ireland—we will begin to see more than 50 young people present themselves every week to the Housing Executive as homeless. We will begin to see lengthening queues of unemployed young people joining the 8,000 who are already unable to find a place on youth training programmes and who consequently must live on £23.90 a week.

Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the young people to whom he is referring—those in virtually every part of Northern Ireland and especially those in the cities and towns—are the same young people who, when training schemes come to an end, are cynically exploited by paramilitary organisations? They find themselves sandwiched between the paramilitaries and the inevitable confrontations between security forces. In many ways, they are lost and find their way into prison or at the end of a gun, taking someone's life or being killed themselves.

Mr. Stott

There is a great deal of truth in what the hon. Gentleman says, as someone who has a great deal of experience in such matters. If we could give those young people a proper job, and if there was hope for them in terms of employment provision, that would help them immeasurably not to fall into the arms of the paramilitaries. Unemployment and the lack of hope are probably the greatest recruiting sergeants for the paramilitaries.

In short, we will see further increases in the level of debt, homelessness and poverty among all sections of society in Northern Ireland, all of which will be a direct result of the policies promulgated by the Conservative party. As has been made clear by further leaks and speculation, the Secretary of State for Social Security is impatiently sharpening his axe before taking it to the benefits that are paid to those who have no other form of income.

The Minister will know that, of all the regions in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has the highest rate of people with disabilities—a total of 17.4 per cent. Seventy five per cent. of them rely on the social security system for part or all of their income. If the Government take their intended sideswipe at those who claim invalidity benefit, the Minister and his colleagues will consign three quarters of the disabled adult population in Northern Ireland to further hardship and anxiety. Therefore, the Minister is faced with a large number of potential victims of any Government spending cuts in Northern Ireland. How can he possibly justify an action that will result in 201,000 adults with disabilities in Northern Ireland being forced to pay through their meagre benefits to restore the Government's political fortunes?

I welcome the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) to his new post in the Northern Ireland team, although he is not in his place. I am sure that he is aware that his predecessor set in motion a review of education administration in Northern Ireland. I hope that he will give such a wide-ranging review equally extensive consideration and that he will not reach any hasty conclusions.

As I said earlier, I returned from Northern Ireland yesterday. I had spent some time visiting Meanscoil in Belfast. The school does not have state funding and is consequently seeking a commitment from the Minister. As its name suggests, Meanscoil teaches the curriculum in the Irish language and has been doing so since 1991. It is funded by parents and the community. It is the only school in the whole of Northern Ireland to provide Irish-medium education to those pupils who have already received their primary education in the Irish language. It seems to me that the school satisfies the necessary requirements. Will the Minister consider its case sympathetically? I shall write to him about it tomorrow morning.

Dr. Hendron

The subject of Meanscoil Feinte is dear to my heart, as the hon. Gentleman knows. The only Irish-medium secondary school is in my constituency. The Government have already accepted their responsibility for the Irish language in primary school education, so I hope that they will look positively at this secondary school in west Belfast.

Mr. Stott

I know that my hon. Friend recently visited the school and that he is as concerned as I am to ensure that the Irish language is fostered and maintained. I understand that four primary schools teach in the Irish language. From the age of 11 no school other than this one teaches the curriculum in Irish for children up to the age of 16. We have just had a big debate on the Welsh language. It is important that cultural links and the language are preserved and protected. I hope for a sympathetic response from the Minister.

The education service as a whole ultimately depends on the quality of its teachers and lecturers for the achievement of the required standards and the implementation of the changes that the Government have introduced. Although most face the added pressure of education reform positively, the changes are demanding so much energy and commitment that the quality of the provision for pupils and students in schools and colleges is in danger of being lowered. As someone who is married to a teacher in this country, I can confidently tell the Minister that education changes have caused great difficulty to the teaching profession.

If that possibility is to be avoided it will be necessary to employ not only the most effective forms of in-service training and advisory and support services to assist teachers in implementing the changes, but to win the vital endorsement and support of parents, teachers and employers for the service that the teaching profession in Northern Ireland provides.

The Government have decided in their wisdom that Belfast international airport is to be privatised. The people who work there are concerned about their futures, their job prospects and pension provision. On Tuesday morning I spoke to a number of trade unionists who represent the work force there. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) and I have been extremely concerned about the police force at that airport. They are not members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary; they wear a different uniform. Nevertheless, they are sworn constables under a magistrate. If they are to be transferred to the private sector, their concern is about their operational impartiality and duties.

I wrote to the Minister of State on 17 June asking him whether a representative of the police force at the airport, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) and I could meet him to discuss the police force's concerns. The Minister has not responded to my letter but I hope that he will respond positively so that that important organisation—the police force at Belfast airport—can put its genuine and serious concerns to him.

If the perceived advantages of the European single market are to be realised, it is crucial, because of the island of Ireland's peripheral geography to the rest of mainland Europe, that industry, commerce, tourism, transport and energy policy are harmonised on an island basis

In its crudest terms, Northern Ireland has benefited from additional EC funding as a result of objective 1 status. But welcome as such investment is, compared with the funds granted to the Republic, Northern Ireland still receives a disproportionate part of the cake. As has been said, a comparison with the Republic on the basis of a head count shows that Northern Ireland is granted only one third of the sum to which it might otherwise be entitled. That illustrates an unfortunate consequence of the European Community viewing Northern Ireland's economy in simple regional terms rather than addressing the needs of the island of Ireland economy as a whole.

Two weeks ago, during the recent debate on the renewal of direct rule order, we heard how difficult it will be to get an agreed constitutional settlement for Northern Ireland. I do not doubt for an instant that it will be difficult but it will not be impossible. By contrast, however, making the island of Ireland economy work is an opportunity, not a problem. I am sure that all Members representing Northern Ireland will work together to ensure that full advantage is taken of any potential increase in cross-border aid.

In his speech in Dublin last year, Dr. George Quigley, chairman of the Ulster bank, reinforced the concept of "Ireland, an island economy". I recommend all hon. Members who have not read Dr Quigley's paper to do so because he describes how businesses in the north and south are working closely together. He said: As Chairman of Ulster Bank, which is in the fairly unique situation of doing 50 per cent. of its business in the South and 50 per cent. in the North, I find no difficulty with the proposition that Ireland is—or should be—an island economy. Both North and South would have signally failed to give substance to the 1992 concept if, occupying a small island on the periphery of the EC, they neglected or were unable to function as a single market. The Bank's fortunes are intertwined with the prosperity of both parts of the island". Hon. Members will be aware that the Secretary of State for Transport recently granted the American airline, TransAir, a licence to fly directly from Belfast international airport to New York. I warmly welcome that move and am pleased that my representations in support of the licence did not fall on deaf ears and that I finally have my baggage back from Riga. The new link between Northern Ireland and the United States will attract extra valuable inward investment and begin to counter the isolation to which Dr. Quigley referred in his speech.

Now that business has set the agenda, the specialist Government agencies in the north and south have an important role to play in consultation with the business community. A seminar in Northern Ireland formally confirmed the agreement of the International Development bank and the Irish Trade Board to work closely together to increase the number and range of products supplied within the island of Ireland. A series of jointly organised sourcing exhibitions will encourage companies to supply goods currently imported from outside Ireland. Equally important are the planned initiatives in conjunction with the Confederation of Irish Industry and the Confederation of British Industry to open up areas of public procurement in the island in a way that strengthens companies so that they can bid successfully for public sector procurement contracts in the rest of the European Community.

I agree with Sir George Quigley's analysis that for far too long the economic orientation of both parts of the island has been along a horizontal rather than a vertical axis. In a global economy, it is essential that we continue to look outwards towards the rest of Europe and beyond. It is crucial that both Governments do not neglect the potential that exists within the vertical axis, the strengthening of which will create a more solid springboard for growth within the island of Ireland and for conquering markets within the European Community. Making the island economy work is essential. It is an opportunity; it is not a problem.

10.40 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I shall make a brief comment about the speech by the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott). Before I do so, I wish well the new Minister, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), and also his new colleague, the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). I trust that in the right hon. Gentleman's arduous duties, especially in regard to the prisons of Northern Ireland, he will have the benefit of bringing his experience to bear on problems that are vital to the best in the community.

The prisoners, who come from both sections of the community, run right into the community. There is a great need today for there to be an understanding of how the families feel and an understanding of what is happening in the prisons of Northern Ireland. I am sure that the House wishes the Minister well as he tackles a difficult and continuing problem in Northern Ireland.

It comes as no surprise to hear the hon. Member for Wigan talking about an island economy. I have the document that has been much talked about and that programme is set forth in it. Level 1 is: Co-operation between Departments and institutions on both sides of the border. Level 2 is "Harmonisation of policies". "Integration of administrations" is level 3. That is what we heard from the hon. Member for Wigan tonight.

I have experience in Europe. I have been an elected Member of the European Parliament continuously since I was first elected. I have topped the poll at every election to the European Parliament. I have been there. I have never once seen the deputies, as they call themselves, from the south of Ireland voting for anything that was of benefit to Northern Ireland. Not once. I have challenged them about that. I have voted in the European Parliament for things that were of benefit to the south of Ireland, as long as they were not detrimental to the north of Ireland. Those deputies have never done the same. I am sick of the talk about them being all for this island economy.

I was in Strasbourg this week. I heard the deputies demanding £8 billion. Never once did they mention Northern Ireland. There was not a cheep about it. They never even said once that of course Northern Ireland deserves the treatment that we demand. In fact, they told the European Parliament that they were good Europeans. As the predecessor of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) said in the House of Lords this week, "Yes, they are good Europeans as long as you pay them well." Six million pounds a day and they will be good Europeans. It ill becomes the hon. Member for Wigan, the spokesman for the Labour party, to read to us tonight a lesson about the glorious co-operation that we shall have from the south of Ireland.

As for Dr. Quigley, I happened to meet representatives of the business community in Northern Ireland at a meeting known as the meeting of the seven. I am sure that other Northern Ireland Members have been to such meetings, too. I took up Mr. Quigley there on something that he had said. Faced with his own business men around the table, he backed off. I told him that it was all very well singing the praises of his own bank—with 50 per cent. of its business in the south, it profits the bank to go in for co-operation with the south—but such co-operation certainly does not profit Northern Ireland, since businesses in all sectors of the economy in the south are trying to undercut the competition from Northern Ireland.

It is a pity that the Minister had no time to tell us about the structural fund and what additional money will result from it. The House should realise that something strange has happened to it—

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, it is disgraceful that the Northern Ireland Office sends out the documentation on the structural fund to every Tom, Dick and Harry in Northern Ireland, and to every community organisation and tenants association there, but has not, to date, sent it to Members of Parliament?

Rev. Ian Paisley

It is indeed. I happen to have a copy because I am a member of the European Parliament, but I do not see why colleagues here should not have been sent a copy.

To return to the structural fund: the cake has not been enlarged, but the number of those wanting a share of it has increased. Germany will get the largest slice, because it has achieved objective I status for east Germany. Belgium and France are to receive money, and Italy will too—even though it was not able to spend the money that it has already been given. Presumably Italy will proceed to hoard the money, or perhaps it has been stolen by the Mafia, or perhaps the Italian Prime Minister stole it.

All these Governments are demanding a slice of the cake, so our slice will be smaller. Merseyside and the highlands and islands are also to get a share, and rightly so, but I should like the Minister to tell us how much we are likely to get. Demands for £8 billion from the south have been cut to perhaps £7.5 billion, but those who are to get that much are not satisfied. I wonder how much will be cut from our money. Will we get £1 billion, or less?

This week I talked, with my European colleagues the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and Mr. Nicholson, to Commissioner Millan. He said that, when the figures are announced, there will be some surprises: they are all to be reduced.

So, far from getting anything out of the cohesion fund, we will be paying into it—

Mr. Stott


Rev. Ian Paisley

Everyone knows my attitude to Maastricht, and the official attitude of the Labour party, so the pot should not call the kettle black.

The four poor countries—Portugal, Greece, Spain and Ireland—have all put their hands in the cohesion fund kitty, which is a quarter as big again as the structural fund. So the taxpayers of the United Kingdom—of Merseyside, of the highlands and islands, and of Northern Ireland—who are crying out for money as objective 1 areas will find that they are putting their pounds into the pockets of the countries I have mentioned. Dublin is shouting loud and already has £3 million a day, and will soon be getting £6 million. That fact will shortly come out in the wash.

We need to hear what the Government think they will get. The last time that we had structural pay-outs, what did Northern Ireland get as an objective 1 area? It got an increase of 8 per cent., which hardly covered inflation. The south of Ireland got an increase of between 80 and 90 per cent. Spain, Portugal and Greece got an increase of over 100 per cent. When Ministers were negotiating, why did they not ask for double the money because we lost out before? The Commissioner has told me that Ministers asked for no increase, just for their crunch of the money. The Northern Ireland Office must come clean and tell us exactly what it feels it will get from the structural fund, and where the money will be spent.

I read the debate in another place, and I would like the Minister to hear something that was said there. Lord Cooke of Islandreagh raised the matter of the structural fund, and the Minister answering said: the Government will fully accept the additionality requirement."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 July 1993; Vol. 547, c. 1656] Will the money we get, whether it is a little or a lot, be additional, and where in the appropriations will it be spent? The Minister must address that question in his reply, although we know that we shall not have much time for a reply.

There are other matters of great interest that I would have liked to have dealt with tonight, but, as we know, we have only a limited time. I thought that the hon. Member for Wigan would have curbed the length of his speech, as we are curbing ours, but he did not, because he was so interested in the school that teaches Gaelic. I rather laughed at that, because the census figures tell us that only about 5 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland speak Gaelic, and even fewer read and write it. It is not like Wales. I spent part of my life in Wales, and every church I preached in had both a Welsh and an English service in the morning. That does not happen in Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, only a small percentage of the Roman Catholic population speak Gaelic. The situation is not on a par with that in Wales—I understand the deep feelings of Welsh speakers, which were expressed so well earlier tonight. To argue about that is to get into minutiae that we should not be getting into.

Mr. Stott

I appreciate that we have a time constraint on the debate. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that, in the four years that I have had this responsibility for the Opposition, I have cut my speeches short on every appropriation order debate. This evening, I thought that it was important to flag up what I and my party consider to be important issues. I do not need any lessons from him about the length of the speeches that I make from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Oh, shut up and sit down!

Mr. Stott

And I need no lessons from that hon. Gentleman either.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I am very sorry that I gave way to the hon. Member for Wigan. It is ridiculous; we are limited for time, and he is trying to justify himself. I welcome the fact that we are going to be able to discuss this matter at a later date. We need to do that. I regret that the hon. Gentleman took all the time he could, because there is not only the SDLP; there are also the Popular Unionists, and their voice should be heard too.

10.56 pm
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

First, I welcome the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir. J. Wheeler) to the Government Front Bench as a member of the Northern Ireland team. It is no insult to him, or indeed to me, that my colleagues who are in the building tonight have deserted this Bench as a protest at the intolerable way in which the business that relates to Northern Ireland has been handled, not for the first time, but for the second time that we have tried to have this debate.

There are so many areas of administration that must be dealt with in the scope of this ridiculously short debate that it is impossible to do any of them justice. Those of us who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland are obliged to try to summarise our year's work in a very few minutes, to draw on that experience and to seek to expound reasonable alternatives where we feel that there is inadequacy, right across the scope of the Northern Ireland Office administration.

Our English, Welsh and Scottish colleagues have the benefit of both a meaningful stratum of local government, which helps to relieve the burden of parochial responsibilities that Northern Ireland Members have to deal with, and of being able to address various departmental issues within debates dedicated exclusively to the function of those Departments. We, on the other hand, are obliged to paint our picture with a great broad brush that can do little to capture the nuances and attitudes pertaining to the area in which we live.

Nor do we have the benefit of inside knowledge, which can be ascertained only where there is either direct involvement or an adequate system of checks and balances a—system that would be enhanced by having a Select Committee on Northern Ireland to examine and monitor Northern Ireland matters. The first is unobtainable because we are a small Opposition party; the second because there has been a stubborn unwillingness to concede even a degree of openness about the way in which Northern Ireland is governed.

Yet, when anything goes wrong in Northern Ireland, there are those who invariably contrive to create an impression that Ulster Unionists are to blame. Whatever is wrong, the responsibility lies with a succession of Governments who have had sole and unbridled power in the Province for the past 21 years, and that certainly is not the party to which I belong.

My colleagues and I have some ideas about how progress can be made, and I believe that that is amply demonstrated in terms of the work that is done by our district councillors, where they have managed to claw back responsibilities to themselves despite the resistance of some departmental musclemen and quango placemen.

At a time when the community in Northern Ireland is more ill at ease with itself than it has ever been during my 10 years in the House, it is becoming increasingly important to create at least an atmosphere of social and economic continuity and stability. I am not suggesting that there is anything in this life that cannot be improved upon, but I am tired of the Government going out of their way to mend things that are not actually broken. We are assailed, year in, year out, with far too many fanciful ideas that are far too costly and disruptive, and that in practice do not work the way that they were intended to. Paper exercises are too regularly failing in practice.

In this respect, I want to turn to the Department of Health and Social Services and question whether the present piecemeal policy of rationalisation of acute hospital services is in the best interests of the consumer. I have had to endure the trauma of trying to defend maternity and paediatric services in the two hospitals in my constituency. These two hospitals—the Erne and Enniskillen and the South Tyrone in Dungannon—are administered under separate health boards, and each board, one assumes encouraged by the Department, embarked on its own programme of rationalisation in isolation. No one appeared to think that, if amalgamations proved necessary, it might be sensible to consider the overall delivery of maternity and paediatric services throughout Northern Ireland.

The case of the Erne has been won, but South Tyrone's case—after nearly two years—is to be held in limbo for possibly another year. It appears that, if administrators have a cock-eyed idea that cannot be sustained, they merely give themselves time to move the goalposts and hope that the constructive opposition will go away.

I hope that the Minister will understand that, in the case of the South Tyrone, we are not going away. We know that the motivation for the proposed changes in the delivery of maternity and paediatric services has to do with the arbitrary figure of 2,500 births per unit per year. That may or may not be justified in hospitals that serve large mainland conurbations, where consumers live in a small geographical area. However, it has little relevance in a rural area of Northern Ireland, where average income is lower and distances greater, but where that is offset by a high degree of family support. In such cases, accessibility means a great deal.

My hospitals are as financially efficient as larger units, and the units dealing with between 900 and 1,000 babies per year have a low perinatal death rate that many larger units would envy. The system simply is not broken, either in financial or in safety terms; I beg the Minister not to allow the boards to mend it.

It is much more urgent, however, for the Minister to ensure that community care services are put in place in time to meet the demands resulting from shorter post-operative hospitalisation and the increased number of day-surgery treatments. I ask him to consider carefully how such services can be delivered with the community as distinct from to the community.

He may protest that it is perhaps too early for me to try to argue conclusively that the new health boards—devoid of any elected representatives—are ineffective; but I believe that the breadth of professional talent that was hoped for is missing. There are clearly a few excellent people, but they are a minority, and the non-executive members are largely and understandably dominated by those with an executive role.

The latter—also a mediocre bunch—seem preoccupied with finance and organisation, to the detriment of the health service itself. They are preoccupied with glossy brochures and business consultants' reports. Surely it is better to put finite resources into shortening waiting lists and waiting times, and maintaining a hospital and community care infrastructure that is accessible to the consumer.

Before leaving the subject of health and social services, I must ask whether the Minister intends to do anything about the inequity in medical and other services that we in Northern Ireland appear to provide on demand for citizens of the Irish Republic. That country neither reciprocates nor provides those services for its own people.

We have already been presented with examples of the high cost of providing third-level education scholarships for students from the Irish Republic; it has often been cited in the House. Now the Minister has informed me, in answers to parliamentary questions, that 15 per cent. of private nursing home places in Fermanagh are occupied by residents who came directly from the Irish Republic.

I was disappointed to learn that the Northern Ireland Office cannot tell me what that means to the Western health and social services board and the Department of Health and Social Services in terms of social security and general practitioner costs. However, it can be deduced from the cost of in-hospital treatment—over £32,000 last year—that a good deal of money is involved. That money should be spent on providing better home help and other services for my constituents. Is it not scandalous that Cavan general hospital in the Irish Republic discharged 21 patients directly to our private nursing homes, one with such horrific bed sores that special equipment had to be bought by the Erne hospital?

About 12 per cent. of my constituents are over 65 years old, and I want the finite resources available to my health boards going to improve their quality of life. Why should we be subsidising the parasitic Government in Dublin, who would presume to lecture us on political proprieties?

Nor does the extortion end there. There is clear evidence that it is easier for someone from the Irish Republic to get a public authority house in Northern Ireland than it is for someone born in the Province who has perhaps lived his working life in England and wants to return home to retire. In matters relating to education, the social services and housing, can we afford to finance Eire's spongers to the extent that we do?

The Minister has already told me that he will not increase the funding available to the Western health and social services board to compensate for the demands of the Republic's elderly who come into my area. Will he tell me when he intends to put a stop to that abuse?

Let us consider some activities of the Department of Economic Development—in particular, the way in which its industrial development board operates. I do not fail to recognise the difficulties enshrined in job creation, and I pay tribute to the good work being done in the Department and the IDB. But it would pay dividends if the efforts to attract inward investment and business opportunities in places such as the United States were more equally divided between officials, who work directly for the IDB, and contracted agents, who would have the advantage of working on home ground.

It is not possible, however bright and able the Department's nominees may be, for them to cover enough ground in the time available and to maintain the follow-up on promising leads. The indigenous agent who knows the territory can be of immense value if he or she is properly tasked, targeted and rewarded. On the other hand, if not productive, he or she is more easily expendable than a civil servant who has been encouraged to uproot family and home to undertake the task.

Local councils have a role to play in promoting businesses from within their own areas, targeting clearly defined regions of, say, the United States from an exporting, joint venturing and inward investment perspective. Four councils representing County Tyrone have come together to do just that in the mid-west of America and hope to be able, with IDB co-operation, to make use of, and task, an agent in that area so that he may identify opportunities. I hope that the Minister will see that as a practical, tangible opportunity for cross-party, intra-community co-operation, in contrast to some of the more ethereal schemes that exist, and I hope that he will give the initiative his support.

At home, I will only urge him to ensure that there is unity of purpose between the Departments of Economic Development and of Agriculture in sorting out the urgent need to develop our agrifood industry before it is too late. I leave him with the challenge that we must protect and develop realistically our milk-based industry.

I draw attention to the way in which the modicum of democracy which at present exists in the education and library boards is threatened in the Department's paper on reorganisation, although it is noticeably lacking in any reference to the need to rationalise the Department's headquarters. I hope that the Minister will set my mind at rest about that.

Education must never be taken out of the hands of parents and teachers. Sadly, since I left the classroom just over 10 years ago, I find a profession which had maintained the highest standards, not least in the primary sector, very demoralised, with teachers falling over themselves to retire early.

I am glad that the Minister with responsibility at the Department of Education for Northern Ireland has recognised that, and has decided to slow down the pace of proposed change and look anew at the whole question of curriculum content. I congratulate him on that decision. It is time that teachers were restored to their proper role, and that someone got a grip on the inspectorate, which represents executive authority gone mad.

I must express disappointment at the limited funding available for new capital projects. While I welcome two major projects in my constituency in the voluntary sector, and I am pleased to have been involved in pressing for one of them, I am horrified to discover no major provision listed in the controlled sector. The Minister would be offended if I whispered, "Discrimination," but I would simply be reflecting how that has been interpreted in some quarters.

Some rural primary schools in my constituency are more than 60 years old, and there is pressure to rationalise because of falling rolls, but no one appears to have considered it a good idea to group those schools within a new rural school to sustain my rural community, or to take cognisance of the excellent study of the future of primary education commissioned by the Rural Development Council, which was broadly in favour of clustering.

While the Department has been mending things that are not broken, it has left the urgent matter of adequate infrastructure on the proverbial long finger. Will the Minister make it his priority to find extra cash to make an impact on that area? In a region of high unemployment, our children's education must have precedence.

I shall refer briefly to the Rural Development Council. There should be urgency to develop a coherent rural policy, but it will not happen unless the council is given greater authority and influence. It currently lacks teeth and plays second fiddle to every other Government Department and agency. Planners continue to be systematically destructive towards the rural community, and take little notice of its needs or rights.

I am running out of time, so I shall conclude by telling the Minister that Northern Ireland should be governed with continuity and stability; by consent rather than by diktat; by sustaining what is good and improving on what is imperfect, but never by trying to mend things that are not broken.

11.12 pm
Sir James Kilfedder (North Down)

I join in welcoming my right hon. Friend the Minister on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. He will find that the Ulster people are kindly, hospitable and friendly. No matter how their representatives in the House may sound, there is a big heart in the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

It is impossible to deal with the order in the short time that is available, so I shall mention just three points. This is the European year of older people and it is appropriate to draw attention to their problems and their needs. They are seeking not sympathy or pity, but fair play, justice and proper consideration of their plight. Most of them are living on relatively small incomes which, in many cases, have been reduced as a result of the lowering of interest rates on, for instance, their building society accounts. Unfortunately, the majority of them are just above the threshold of eligibility for state benefits.

The cost of living in Northern Ireland is greater than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Some of our senior citizens are endeavouring to eke out their pensions by eating less or buying cheaper items. Some even try to save on the cost of heating by restricting it to one room or one bar of an electric fire. Therefore, imagine my surprise and alarm when the Government announced in the Budget the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel and power. Everyone in the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, will have to pay that tax—those who are earning enough to be obliged to pay income tax and those who are not.

In that sense, it is an unfair tax which will hurt, in particular, the retired people who do not receive state benefit, which I understand would then entitle them to some compensation, although I am not sure what will be available. It is well established that during winter there is a substantial increase in the number of deaths among pensioners. I fear that this harsh tax will cause more suffering to our senior citizens and expose them to greater danger of death through hypothermia. There is still time for the Government to abandon the tax on domestic electricity, oil, gas and coal.

I am deeply concerned about the welfare of elderly people in residential care homes, whose numbers have mushroomed. Some homes are excellent, some are not, according to the complaints that I have received from the relatives of the elderly residents. It is all very well for the Government to state that registration may be refused if the health board considers that the applicant is not a fit person to operate a residential care home, but frequent visits should be made every year and without notice. Relatives should be given leaflets inviting complaints and stating where they should be made. Telephone numbers should be provided so that someone with a grievance can immediately contact an official, who can then immediately go and check that home.

I understand that some residents who are supported at public expense in residential care homes are not being given by the owners the statutory allowance of f12.65 a week—or, at least, not being given the full amount. I am deeply concerned about that. Often, those residents are vulnerable and cannot look after some aspects of their affairs. I hope that there will be an investigation into that throughout Northern Ireland, as we must ensure that they are receiving the money to which they are entitled.

I deplore the moves by the Department of Health to close state residential care and nursing homes, which provide the standards by which private homes can be judged. I urge the Government to preserve, in particular, the Banks residential home in Bangor, which was purpose built and provides an excellent and homely atmosphere.

In speaking of the elderly, I think of the loving care shown by the nurses who look after them, either in residential homes or in hospitals. I pay tribute to those nurses, male and female, who, by their dedication and hard work, make life more comfortable for patients of all ages in hospital. Young people in Northern Ireland who have the vocation should be encouraged to train as nurses. It is annoying and perplexing that, in an area of high unemployment, young people who are eager to become nurses are discouraged. It is ridiculous that some nurses are made redundant when it is clear that the nursing staff in hospitals are overworked. We need nurses as well as doctors to ensure the highest possible standard of patient care.

For years, I have been fighting the various plans to reduce the number of beds in the Ulster hospital in Dundonald and in the Bangor hospital and the transfer of essential services to other hospitals in Belfast.

Here in London, the movement is the other way round. The Secretary of State for Health maintains that money and facilities should go to densely populated areas outside the capital. That makes sense. But the Eastern health board, which covers North Down and Belfast, moves the beds from my constituency into Belfast, thus depriving the dense and growing population of North Down of its rights. That is a form of discrimination, and I resent it. In the name of the people of North Down, I challenge the Eastern health board to play fair. The people in my constituency deserve the best hospitals. The doctors and nurses demand them, and certainly the patients deserve them.

I should like to mention many other matters, but, in fairness to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), who wishes to speak next, I shall stop here, adding only that it is unfortunate that the people of Northern Ireland, through their representatives, do not have an adequate opportunity to examine the issues set out in the draft appropriation order. I look forward to the day when we shall have a truly democratic forum.

11.21 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity, albeit brief, to participate in the appropriation debate. First, on behalf of my party, I welcome the new Minister of State, who introduced the debate, and his ministerial colleague the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, whom I have already welcomed on a previous occasion. I hope that their endeavours in Northern Ireland will be for the benefit and welfare of all the people there and, on that basis, we promise our co-operation.

It is appropriate to put on the record the fact that the shortness of the time allowed to us tonight will allegedly be compensated for by extra time in the autumn, when the debate will be reconvened, as it were. On the understanding that that is a firm undertaking, I feel that it would be inappropriate to deal at this late hour with many of the broader issues that the appropriation debate would normally involve. I shall therefore restrict my remarks to the matters that cannot wait until the autumn to be debated and acted upon.

The first such issue concerns the Department of Agriculture. I welcome the potato feedstuffs scheme, which was introduced to alleviate the financial plight of potato farmers in Northern Ireland. The Department succumbed only after five months' pressure but, although it is late, the scheme is still welcome. The danger is not yet over. Many of the potato farmers, who form the bedrock of the agricultural scene in Northern Ireland, have been so financially devastated in the past year that despite the scheme they still require assistance in the new planting season, so I hope that some effort will be made to provide that, by means of either the structural fund or the special potato board funding.

One peculiar circumstance now affecting the farming community may cause some mirth, because it is the fact that cattle have no passports. Nevertheless, that circumstance is causing some distress along the southern border. Cattle that have been imported from the Republic of Ireland do not get any identification, so they are ineligible for cow and beef premiums in Northern Ireland. I ask the Department of Agriculture and the Minister to make representations to the appropriate department in the Republic of Ireland so that there can be co-operation over the certification and identification of animals that travel across the border.

It will not surprise the Minister if I touch briefly on the crisis in the fishing industry, because two of the three ports in Northern Ireland are in my constituency.

The fishing industry, like the potato farmers, has been devastated. It has been devastated not by the weather, but by Government policy and legislation. In that regard, I refer particularly to the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act and the follow-on from that, the Sea Fish Licensing (Time at Sea) (Principles) Order 1993. They represent the most devastating revision of the common fisheries policy since 1983 which is having a tremendous effect on the environment and the economic environment of the hinterland of those two ports and of Portavogie.

There is no doubt that the so-called Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1992 has nothing to do with fish conservation and that it will not achieve the objectives that it set out to achieve. It is incapable of performing that function. That point was debated at the time and there is no point re-examining the issue tonight. The more important, immediate and urgent point relates to sea fish licensing.

As a result of pressure, the implementation of that proposal has been postponed until 1 January 1994. That is an indication of the difficulties that it is causing. The fishermen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland seem to be the fall-guys for fish conservation policies in Europe. It is evident that other countries fishing around our waters do not abide by conservation and licensing matters.

It is particularly galling when one can stand, as I can in South Down, and see the fishermen from the Republic of Ireland putting out just a mile across the water virtually without restrictions and with a policy of an enhanced fishing fleet, when the fishermen of Kilkeel, Ardglass and Portavogie cannot do that. I urge that the licensing time at sea provisions be re-examined to assist those fishermen.

The real way to achieve conservation is through decommissioning. However, the Government have turned their face away from a meaningful decommissioning scheme. The efficient and modern vessels will go out of action and that will leave an inefficient and non-modern fleet to carry on fishing. The decommissioning scheme should encourage those with the largest quota drives to set aside, if they so wish, like the farmers, part of their endeavours to provide for conservation.

I must briefly refer to the Department of Health and Social Services, as I am sure all hon. Members would, because of our dramatic experiences in Northern Ireland as a result of the changes imposed by the Department. There seems to be an attempt to centralise even the most modest acute services in the conurbations.

As the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said, we are a rural community and we must have reasonable access to acute facilities. We are not looking for anything other than that. One of the most galling aspects of all this is that we had a so-called consultation period. However, when representatives of the community or of the duly elected councillors of Down and Mourne went to the Eastern health board, they found that there was no consultation.

When those representatives asked the board what was meant by acute services, by midwifery-led maternity services and by emergency and casualty services, the board bluntly refused to define what it meant. How can we have consultation in respect of a paper when the authors cannot explain what they mean? That is happening right across Northern Ireland. We have not had the required consultation.

One of the most interesting events in health and social services in Northern Ireland in recent times has been the intervention by the Department in the contractual goings-on of the Eastern health board vis-à-vis the Royal Victoria hospital. For the first time, the Department has admitted that ultimate responsibility is with itself. Until now the Department has said, "No, you cannot consult us at this stage; that is all to do with the administration on the ground at board level." We always knew that ultimate responsibility was with the Department itself.

I ask the Department to intervene to ensure that acute facilities are left in the area which is broadly covered by Down and Mourne health authority. There were three hospitals in the area. One has already been closed, one hospital in Banbridge is threatened, and Kilkeel hospital will be closed. Only the Down group of hospitals will be left.

I take the point about the so-called maternity services throughput of 2,500. The last I heard, it was 2,000. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has clearly said that that is not the case and that it is a departmental figment. It would be quite happy with a proper liaison group. Throughput could be as low as 500 and there could still be an effective maternity service. That is what the rural populations of Northern Ireland require.

I must finish, to be fair to the Minister, but I should refer to the closure of statutory residential homes. The Department says, "Cut 12 per cent." It does not matter whether 12 per cent. of beds is a realistic figure for the demographics of an area. It is a balance sheet exercise of cutting 12 per cent. If the Minister would listen for a moment, we are talking not about closing beds but about closing homes. The rooms are people's homes. They are not beds, they are the homes and environment of old people. We must take great care. Already, two homes in Newcastle have been closed and people have been shuffled off to three other homes which are about to be threatened with closure. I ask the Minister to review that matter.

I see you looking at me, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I take the hint very clearly. However, we have only scratched the surface of the topic. Will the Secretary of State tell the people of Northern Ireland what will happen to the European fund to which the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) referred in great detail? The Northern Irish people are disgusted by what is happening. We would like to know what new instructions, if any, are being issued to the Minister and the negotiating team in the Council of Ministers to ensure that Northern Ireland deprived region No. 1 gets a reasonable funding allocation to enable it to sustain a measure of economic growth.

11.32 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Robert Atkins)

I have but seven minutes to try to respond to the debate. I therefore agree with comments about the shortage of time to examine several important and urgent issues for hon. Members who represent the various strands of opinion within the Province.

I thank the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) and others for their kind words about my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) and my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who recently joined the team. They appreciated those comments and they look forward to working, as I and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and my noble Friend the Earl of Arran have done for some months, with such a friendly bunch.

Several issues have been raised. I will write to hon. Members on matters that I cannot address in my brief reply—or encourage my ministerial colleagues with certain responsibilities to do so. Perhaps I shall touch on matters that are my responsibility within the Department of Economic Development and the Department of the Environment, and conclude, if I have the time, on matters relating to structural funds, about which there is concern and a need for clarification.

The hon. Member for Wigan made several comments and referred to the problems of unemployment. I agree that there are still a great number of concerns. Much of the unemployment is endemic for reasons that the hon. Gentleman and all other hon. Members understand. It is my task and that of the Industrial Development Board and other organisations to do what we can to create new jobs and encourage new companies to come to the Province and provide opportunities for new employment. We had a successful year in 1992–93. Nearly 2,000 jobs were created in new major companies around the Province. That task continues with the tacit and often overt support of hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies who do a great deal to assist in that respect.

I pick out the point raised by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) about his activities and those of the organisation in his constituency with the delightful name of TEDI. Other hon. Members and organisations are also encouraging links between various parts of the United States and, indeed, other parts of the world. The work done by those organisations, properly constituted, is valuable and is appreciated by IDB and others.

There is always some concern when there is a potential conflict between the activities of local councils and the IDB when they are not properly controlled. If they are not properly controlled, we get conflicts and difficulties. Essentially, if the organisations are properly set up, they do a great deal of work.

The hon. Member for Wigan raised a point about the airport. I will be delighted to see him and anyone whom he wishes to bring. That matter is important. I am sorry that he has not yet had a reply, but he should get one—I make a pledge now.

I agree with the points raised by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They were sensible and thoughtful and I will try to implement them as soon as possible. He made some points about planning in rural areas. Hon. Members know my view on planning in rural areas, but let me put it on the record now. I am entirely in favour of industry in rural areas—I am not against it. However, it must be recognised that there are pressures on rural areas when that happens.

Let me repeat that I am entirely in favour of housing in rural areas. It is essential that those who work in agriculture and other small industries have the right to be housed, especially if they have a family connection that involves them wanting to stay in the area in which they live. I have no argument with that. The only discussion—I suspect that hon. Members share this concern—is perhaps about the quality of the properties.

I spent a delightful day with the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) in his constituency. We looked at a number of planning concerns. We found—perhaps to his astonishment, if not to mine—an identity of purpose and understanding about what is happening there. Hon. Members will understand that there is an interest there.

I shall conclude my brief remarks—I want to return to a number of issues, perhaps through correspondence—by referring to the points raised about the structural funds, which are exercising all hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for Antrim, North. To answer his question, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and others have fought hard for not simply a significant increase for Northern Ireland. We have asked for a significant increase on what was requested last year plus inflation, so that pressure is firm.

The hon. Gentleman and others will have heard on the wireless this morning comments from Commissioner Millan who made it clear that the British Government, through my right hon. Friend, have been fighting extremely hard for the cause of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the United Kingdom. This morning, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State spoke directly to Commissioner Millan on the telephone. He made clear to Commissioner Millan, who was receptive in this regard, the importance of Northern Ireland maintaining its objective I status, but having no more than its fair share.

We must recognise that there is pressure on EC funds at present. I think that everyone understands that. We recognise that the specific pressures are coming from the former eastern part of Germany, parts of Portugal, Greece, and so on. I make the point—this shows how hard we have fought for Northern Ireland—that Northern Ireland's gross domestic product per capita is about 76 per cent. of the EC average, which is well above objective 1 status figures in other parts of the EC. We have fought hard against the odds to ensure that Northern Ireland gets a fair crack of the whip. If hon. Gentlemen are fair, and I know them to be so, they will understand that. We must continue that fight as Northern Ireland is entitled to a fair share of these moneys. My right hon. and hon. Friends in my Department and in the Government pledge that we will do so.

We have had an all-too-brief debate. All the points raised by hon. Gentlemen will be considered. We will respond as urgently as we can on the details of health services and residential homes—a subject which my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) raised. He speaks with great care for the elderly in his constituency. I hope that we can talk about these matters again after the recess and at some length so that hon. Members on both sides of the House and the official Opposition have the opportunity to raise matters and I, as a Minister, and my colleagues have the opportunity to respond.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1993, which was laid before this House on 7th June, be approved.

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