HC Deb 17 February 1994 vol 237 cc1056-8
4. Mr. Foulkes

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what discussions he has had with the Commission of the European Union concerning financial support for projects in Northern Ireland from the European regional development fund and other funds.

Sir John Wheeler

My right hon. and learned Friend and ministerial colleagues are in contact with the Commission as and when the interests of Northern Ireland require it.

Mr. Foulkes

Is the Minister aware that I have here a list of environmental, infrastructure and industrial projects for which European money is urgently needed to create jobs in Northern Ireland? Why is he wasting £61 million on the interconnector with Scotland, which threatens jobs in Northern Ireland? Will he now abandon that plan, and save us the expense and bother of the public inquiry in Scotland which was announced yesterday?

Sir John Wheeler

I cannot respond to that question; it is a matter for other Ministers. I can tell the House, however, that our structural funds plan for 1994–99—in which I know the hon. Gentleman takes a sincere interest—has been placed before the Commission. We have not yet received a formal response, but we hope to do so soon.

Sir James Kilfedder

Why does the Northern Ireland Office seem to discriminate against the good people of North Down by failing to press the Commission to direct a greater share of European funds and investment to my area, to create more employment? Is the Minister aware that there is considerable unemployment in North Down, particularly among school leavers and graduates? The people of North Down feel that they are being penalised because they live in religious and political harmony.

Sir John Wheeler

The interests of North Down are always in the minds of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and my other ministerial colleagues. I very much hope that some of Northern Ireland's 52 per cent. portion of the United Kingdom's allocation of structural funds will find its way to North Down by one means or another.

Mr. Beggs

Does the Minister accept that my colleagues and I are very disappointed and dissatisfied with the way in which United Kingdom representation to the Commission is being made on behalf of Northern Ireland? We are concerned that we are not receiving adequate funds to develop the infrastructure around our ports, or those of south-west Scotland and the north-west of England. What does the Minister propose to do before there is economic devastation to Belfast, Warrenpoint and Larne harbours? When will he robustly seek to ensure that we obtain proper funding and that funding that is being poured into Wales and the Irish Republic is not used to disadvantage our ports?

Sir John Wheeler

Funding into Northern Ireland from the Exchequer and United Kingdom taxpayers will be about £18 billion in the next six years, in addition to the £1 billion that comes from the EC structural funds. As to the Northern Ireland ports, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if any of those ports is eligible we shall seek to ensure that we obtain the maximum possible benefit for the Northern Ireland ports.

Mr. Hume

Does the Minister agree that it was a serious injustice and a serious error by the Government that Northern Ireland was excluded from the new cohesion fund? Given that that fund is committed to both transport and environment, does he agree that Northern Ireland has exactly the same problems in both those areas as has the Republic, as we are both part of the same offshore island? What has he done about it, and will he do anything about it? It is a very substantial fund, from which we have been excluded.

Sir John Wheeler

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Northern Ireland receives very substantial sums indeed and I and my colleagues are always looking to see whether we can acquire any additional form of funding from any other source to sustain the programmes that we wish to be developed in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Stott

One of the projects that has received European regional development fund funding and is of crucial importance to the island of Ireland is the upgrading of the Belfast to Dublin railway line. Is the Minister in a position to tell the House what progress has been made in the upgrading of that line, as well as the upgrading in the rolling stock? The Minister may well be aware that Sir George Quigley, the chairman of Ulsterbank, has set up a study group to recommend how to put in place a Belfast-Dublin growth corridor, with all the possible economic spin-offs that will occur if that were put in place. The upgrading and modernisation of that rail link are integral and crucial to that concept.

Sir John Wheeler

It is important that the project to which the hon. Gentleman refers should be sustained and encouraged. It is my understanding that £70 million is available between the two Governments to further the work and I very much hope that it will continue.