HC Deb 19 February 1996 vol 272 cc109-47
Madam Speaker

It might be helpful if I make it clear at this stage that debate on this order may of course cover all matters for which Northern Ireland Departments, as distinct from the Northern Ireland Office, are responsible. Of course, police and security are the principal excluded subjects.

10.2 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler)

I beg to move, That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 13th February, be approved. The draft order has two purposes. The first is to authorise expenditure of £96 million in the 1995–96 spring supplementary estimates. That will bring total estimates provision for Northern Ireland departmental services to £6,238 million for this financial year. The second purpose is to authorise the vote-on-account of £2,821 million for 1996–97. That will enable the services of Northern Ireland Departments to continue until the 1996–97 main estimates are brought before the House later this year. I remind the House, as you have done, Madam Speaker, that the draft order does not cover expenditure by the Northern Ireland Office on law and order and other services.

Details of the sums sought are given in the estimates booklet and the "Statement of Sums Required on Account" which, as usual, are available in the Vote Office. I now turn to the estimates.

In the Department of Agriculture's vote 1, which covers expenditure on national agriculture and fisheries support measures, a net increase of £1.1 million is required. About £1.5 million is required for capital grant commitments, £1.3 million of which relates to the farm and conservation grant scheme. Those increases are partially offset by savings in other areas. In the Department's vote 2, covering local support measures, a net increase of £1.1 million is sought.

Turning to the Department of Economic Development, a token increase of £1,000 is sought in vote 1. Some £3.5 million is for the provision of land and buildings by the Industrial Development Board to meet additional expenditure on factories for recent inward investment projects. Some £6 million is for selective assistance to industry, mainly to meet claims made under existing offers to major inward investment projects. Those increases reflect the board's continuing success in attracting international competitive companies to Northern Ireland. The increases are offset by increased receipts and reduced requirements elsewhere in the vote.

In the Department of Economic Development vote 3, a net increase of some £1.6 million is sought by the Training and Employment Agency. The major requirement is £6 million to meet increasing claims under the company development programme. Partial offsetting savings have been declared elsewhere in the vote, to reduce the additional requirements to £1.6 million.

For the Department of the Environment, a net increase of some £6.5 million is sought in vote 1. Some £2.8 million is for compensation payments and capital grants to Northern Ireland railways. Those increases are partially offset by increased receipts.

In vote 2, covering housing, a net increase of some £3 million is sought, mainly to provide assistance to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and some £6.8 million is to provide private sector housing renovation grants. That increase is partially offset by the reallocation of some £2.8 million in housing grant and by additional receipts from housing associations. Gross housing expenditure in Northern Ireland this year is now expected to be about £599 million, an increase of £25 million over 1994–95.

In vote 3, covering water and sewerage services, a net increase of some £2.1 million is sought. Additional expenditure of some £4 million, mainly required for operational, new construction and improvement work, has been offset by a reduction of some £2 million on water and sewerage administration. In vote 4, which covers environmental and other services, a net increase of some £0.2 million is sought. In vote 5, covering office and general accommodation, £8.2 million is for new public building works, alterations and purchases.

I now turn to the Department of Education, where a net increase of some £8.3 million is sought in vote 1. That includes some £7.1 million for grants to education and library boards, mainly for maintenance, minor works, frost damage and replacement buses. Some £1.4 million is for voluntary schools, mainly for health and safety works.

I turn next to the Department of Health and Social Services, where a net increase of £17.6 million is sought in vote 1. That includes £26.1 million for hospital, community health and personal social services and family health services revenue, and £1.9 million for capital expenditure. Those increases are offset by increased receipts and a reduction of £7.1 million in the centrally financed services.

In vote 3, additional net provision of £5.3 million is required, due to a decrease in receipts of £6.8 million, most of which relates to recoupments from the national insurance fund in respect of administration costs, and an increase in funding for the centrally financed miscellaneous health and personal social services of £2.8 million. Those increases are offset by reductions of £4.3 million elsewhere in the vote.

In vote 4, which covers social security, £29 million is sought. That is due mainly to a greater than anticipated demand for disability benefits—in particular attendance, invalid care and disability living allowances. That is offset by decreases in income support and family credit.

Finally, £5.3 million is sought in vote 5, due mainly to increased expenditure on rent allowance and rates rebates. Those increases are partially offset by reduced requirements elsewhere in the vote.

In addition to the aforementioned increases, provision has been included within individual votes under the European Union special support programme for peace and reconciliation. European funding has been provided initially for a three-year period, from 1995 to 1997, with further funding for two years up to 1999, subject to review. Northern Ireland has been allocated £200 million which, together with 25 per cent. matching funding, brings the total value of the programme in Northern Ireland to some £266 million. Both the European funding and the matching funding will be fully additional.

In my opening remarks, I drew attention to the main provisions of the order. In replying to the debate, the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), will eagerly respond to the points raised by hon. Members. I commend the order to the House.

10.9 pm

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)

I sympathise with the Minister. It has been a long day, but at least he knows that we are more than halfway through it. He rattled through a great range of numbers, and as the order is principally a financial measure, the House should examine a few of them. The debate provides an opportunity for Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies to raise issues, and as a significant number of them are present, I shall be brief.

The order is part of the Government's projections for expenditure from 1996–97 to 1998–99 arising from the Budget statement. We welcome several of its provisions. I hesitate to say it, but some sleight of hand is involved. I do not know whether there is less to the order than appears at first glance, or more, but I hope to tease out from the Minister which it is.

Although there is no reduction in the emphasis on targeting social needs and no offset of the additional funding expected from the peace and reconciliation initiative and the EU money that was mentioned, the figures, of which the measure represents the first tranche, suggest that there will be a reduction in real terms over the next two or three years. Most of the provisions are welcome, but they should be viewed against the need to consolidate the opportunities for economic development that have arisen in Northern Ireland recently—and the need to expand the economy by some 6 per cent. if a net 60,000 jobs are to be provided.

Although the recent developments that we discussed earlier are deeply troubling, it is the will of all Members to ensure that the work that has been done to bring normality to the lives of so many people in Northern Ireland continues, and that it is not another victim of the callous brutality of the Provisional IRA.

I would be grateful if, in his reply to the debate, the Minister would say whether the priorities established in the expenditure review in early December after the Chancellor's Budget statement have been changed by developments in the past 10 days or so since the South Quay outrage. I understand that he cannot say too much, but perhaps he can inform the House whether the welcome shift anticipated by the expenditure review is likely be reversed.

The overall increase in expenditure is some 2.5 per cent., but when the increased social security costs are taken into account, the figure drops to below 1 per cent., which, as all Members will know, represents a cut in real terms. When that is considered together with the switch from security spending to industrial development, it places greater pressure on the targeting of social needs expenditure, and the health, housing and education budgets. It is fundamentally wrong, therefore, for the Government to rely on more expenditure in that sector to create sufficient wealth and jobs to improve the lot of the socially deprived.

I should refer to one of the most alarming proposals in this year's order—the implied 20 to 30 per cent. cut in the action for community employment programme. There is widespread concern in all parts of Northern Ireland about the possible effects—up to 3,000 jobs could be lost. I asked a parliamentary question to try to elicit further information about the ACE programme, to find out the expenditure on individual organisations for the years between 1994 and 1997, and to learn how many people are employed by each body.

I was disappointed to receive an answer telling me that such detailed information was not readily available and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost. I should have thought that such figures were first-line information for the Training and Employment Agency in its dealings with the ACE programme.

There has been a welcome decline in unemployment in Northern Ireland in recent years, but it remains the area of the United Kingdom with the highest unemployment, especially long-term unemployment; and unemployment there is well above the EU average. Anything that jeopardises progress on this front is a matter of justifiable concern to all involved.

Although it has been said that the community work programme will be given more emphasis, the evidence is that it is nothing like as successful as the ACE programme has been. There is anxiety about the quality of community work programme training and experience, for instance.

Another worrying aspect of this affair is that the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action has been deeply critical of the fact that it was not even consulted about the proposal to reduce the ACE programme.

The Minister mentioned EU special funds. Can he confirm that they remain, and will remain, additional beyond this year; and that the Government do not intend to make them "instead of" as opposed to "as well as"?

There is also widespread concern in Northern Ireland about the lack of speed and the method involved in the distribution of the special funds, and having them committed to the purposes for which they were intended.

I appreciate the Minister's comments on the support for local authorities, but he will know that some of the rate rises projected for Northern Ireland are severe, to put it mildly: 8.9 per cent. in Coleraine, 9.5 per cent. in Banbridge, 7.2 per cent. in Down, and 12.2 per cent. in Newry. The figure rises to 27 per cent. in Castlereagh—a staggering figure. Even though the Government have estimated that projected increases for the rest of the United Kingdom will be above inflation, some of the projected figures for Northern Ireland are extremely worrying, and, if realised, will impose a considerable burden on many householders.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The hon. Gentleman has been speaking strictly about local council rates. Is he aware that the Department has increased regional rates, without capping them, over the years?

Mr. Dowd

Indeed so. I am not certain whether the Government have yet announced the projected increases in regional rates—I suspect that they are due imminently—but they too will be well above the rate of inflation, partly owing to the disproportionate impact of the Government's landfill tax on local authorities in Northern Ireland, which are peculiarly dependent on this method of refuse disposal. That localised impact has not been adequately considered by the Government.

The Government will be aware of their report showing that the major part of the road-building programme was undertaken in the 1960s, and that those roads are now reaching the end of their useful life. Nothing in the figures suggests adequate expenditure to cover that fact. Infrastructure is important—not just in Northern Ireland, but across the country—given what the Minister was able to say about attracting inward investment. The infrastructure and the roads are a key element of that, because it is difficult to see how one can achieve as much from inward investment without the infrastructure.

We welcome what progress has been made in housing recently, although that progress has taken place against the backdrop of increases in waiting lists, which now have more than 22,000 people on them. I urge the Department to put less effort into breaking the Housing Executive into housing associations and more into allowing it to build and rehabilitate homes in Northern Ireland. That would be to everyone's benefit, although I know that the Government are determined to decrease central Government control.

We recognise that the position in Northern Ireland is acutely difficult, because local authorities do not have the same rights and responsibilities as those in other parts of the United Kingdom. However, we do not necessarily believe that the best way to deal with that is to move power away to semi-selective quangos, whether housing associations or other organisations.

The Minister will be aware that a recent report showed that some £114 million needs to be spent to bring school buildings up to standard. Clearly, it would be wholly unreasonable to expect that amount to be committed in one year, but the report shows that a large programme of work needs to be done to the fabric of schools in Northern Ireland. I would appreciate any information about how the Government intend to deal with that.

I would also appreciate any information that the Minister might have about if, when, whether and how the Government's proposals for nursery vouchers might be extended to Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram)

The hon. Gentleman has given us quite a shopping list of what he would like to spend money on. Can he explain where, if he was in our position, the money would come from?

Mr. Dowd

We would run the Government more efficiently, and we could do a thousand and one things that the Government are not doing.

If the Minister wants me to give figures now, his question was a reasonable try, but he must try harder. He knows the position. My understanding of the matter, weak and flimsy as it may be, is that the Government are responsible for the order before the House tonight, and my questions are about the order. A simple trawl of replies, especially to oral questions, from Ministers, and of questions from Conservative Back Benchers, would show that they are more concerned about what the Labour party will do than about the responsibilities of the Government. The Chamber was and remains established to call the Government to account for their proposals and what they will do about the information supplied by Departments.

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Perhaps he did not understand my question, but I am sure that he realises that resources in Northern Ireland are allocated from a block, which is based on a formula. If more money were spent on one area of the block, it would have to come from another area. Can the hon. Gentleman explain, given his shopping list, from which areas of the block he would take money?

Mr. Dowd

The short answer is that I am not prepared to run around giving alternatives. Moreover, we are taking far too much time from Northern Ireland Members in engaging in a petty party political squabble, and I do not intend to devote much more time to it.

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

That's okay, then.

Mr. Dowd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

I shall not go into the issues arising from the trusts and shadow trusts, many of which will come into existence in the next couple of weeks, but a specific problem has been brought to my attention, and, I am sure, to that of hon. Members representing rural parts of Northern Ireland. It concerns changes to GP dispensing arrangements, which—owing to various modifications to qualifications—now threaten the prospects of many small GPs in such areas.

For instance, the nearest overland station to a practice in Roselea, in Fermanagh, is some 30 miles away, and the GP there informs me that, unless GPs in such areas can use the funds they received under the previous formula, their future is threatened.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

We have the same problem with the Coagh dispensary. It is vital for doctors in that surgery to be able to dispense medicines. May we join forces in asking the Minister to take the problem on board? What GPs, the people and elected representatives are saying must be heard.

Mr. Dowd

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. I have heard from people in Fermanagh, Antrim, Down and elsewhere. It is a widespread problem, which also threatens the quality of care available to those furthest away from urban areas. GPs have approached me with detailed representations, demonstrating that the people involved are not given to complaining and have a genuine problem. It is not so great a problem in the short term, but, when GPs retire, it is highly likely that replacements will go by the board and local services will suffer.

The Minister mentioned costs to the water authority. Will he assure me that no money is being spent on preparations for privatisation—that the Government have seen the light after the debacle of electricity privatisation, and have noted the overwhelming opposition to water privatisation in Northern Ireland?

I have no time to ask the Minister about an extension to the dangerous wild animals legislation, but he will know of the ridiculous events in the recent past. Huge amounts of police time have been taken up to no particular purpose; the matter really ought to be sorted out far more efficiently.

10.27 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Wide-ranging debates such as this always give Northern Ireland Members an excellent opportunity to raise issues that our constituents regularly ask us to raise in the House.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I zigzag across the elements in the order. The first matter that I wish to raise relates to local government, and, in particular, to section 72 of the 1973 Northern Ireland local government measure: it concerns the provision of a loans pool. Local authorities in other parts of the United Kingdom are empowered to borrow money in advance at the most attractive rate, provided that they can identify a need for those funds, in future years, within their budgetary requirements.

I had hoped that the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) would be here to support me, because he is aware of the attempts that I and my council made to raise the matter with the Department and to seek permission to establish and operate a loans pool. Despite numerous approaches to the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of the Environment, the matter still remains unresolved. Last year, Castlereagh borough council appointed consultants in the City of London to advise on the management of its capital borrowings. To operate its finances efficiently, it was advised that the establishment of a loans pool and the ability to borrow in advance of requirement was essential. Yet we do not appear to be able to get that matter sorted out from within the Northern Ireland Departments. The delays in obtaining the necessary approvals are hindering the council from obtaining finance at favourable interest rates, and as a result it is not achieving the savings that were expected.

The Under-Secretary of State who has responsibility for the Department of the Environment told the council that his Department was preparing a model loans fund scheme for adoption by district councils in Northern Ireland. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to ask his colleague why it is taking such a long time. It appears to us that there is considerable foot-dragging. I believe that councils in Northern Ireland should enjoy the same privileges as councils on the mainland.

I raise two issues that relate to the Department of Economic Development. The first, naturally, relates to the problems faced by Shorts, which is in my constituency and which had a major contract with Fokker, the Dutch aircraft manufacturer, to supply wings for the Fokker 100/70 jetliner programme. As hon. Members will be aware, the Daimler-Benz board has ceased to give financial support to Fokker, and that has thrown the company into crisis. If Shorts loses that customer, between 1,000 and 1,500 jobs could be lost. Economists have indicated that the knock-on effect could result in the loss of some 3,000 jobs in the Province as a whole. Shorts is not simply looking at Fokker as a customer; it has a special relationship with Shorts in that it has a partnership arrangement. Not only does it have what might be described as a profit-sharing arrangement, but it has a risk partnership. Therefore, from Shorts' point of view, the potential exists for considerable loss if the contract with Fokker falls.

I believe that the Dutch Government have been proactive in the matter and have given time and space for Fokker to try to put together an arrangement whereby it can stay in business, at least in part. Happily, one proposition that I raised recently with my right hon. Friend the Minister and with the Prime Minister was the possibility of Bombardier buying out Fokker. That seems a sensible option not only for Fokker but especially for Shorts.

What investigation has been made by my right hon. Friend's colleague, who has been very active in the Department of Economic Development? The Minister has been in regular contact on this issue. It appears to me that there are many areas where it was recognised that Fokker was carrying out work at an unproductive level, and where the costs were much higher than they would have been if the work had been carried out in Northern Ireland by Shorts. What assistance can the Government give to Bombardier, provided, of course, that part of the contract work that is currently being carried out by Fokker is put into Shorts, where it can be done at lower cost, which benefits not only Shorts in terms of jobs but Fokker and Bombardier?

It would be a nice end to the story if the removal of the threat of 1,500 job losses at Shorts, and as many outside it, led to a gain in jobs as a result of more work coming to Shorts. I am eager to have a response from the Minister on that issue.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) referred to the substantial cut in funding for the action for community employment scheme. Although I do not despise today's announcement that £2 million is being put back into the scheme, it is small beer in terms of the loss that is expected. I have had a series of communications from groups within my constituency, such as community development groups, charities, including Action Cancer, victim support groups, citizens advice bureaux and many others, all expressing real concern about the impact of the cut. They believe that it will become impossible for them to maintain their present services for people within my constituency and that many of the services will have to be withdrawn entirely.

The ACE schemes have provided a worthwhile opportunity for people to gain skills; they have taken people out of the unemployment pool and they have given them a sense of belonging to society. It was remarkable for the Government to decide that they would cut the funding to the most vulnerable section of the employment pool. We see all the hype about the prospects of new jobs coming into Northern Ireland in a new atmosphere. How many investors are required to come to Northern Ireland to take up the slack that will result from the loss of jobs arising from the cut in funding for the ACE schemes? It will be difficult to fill that gap.

Rev. William McCrea

Does my hon. Friend accept that the feelings of his constituents concerning the cut in the ACE programme are shared by people in the rest of the Province? Having spoken to many other Northern Ireland Members, I feel that something urgent must be done and that the £2 million, although welcome, will not meet the concern felt throughout the Province.

Mr. Robinson

I accept that entirely. I know that in the unemployment black spot of Mid-Ulster—in Strabane and that general region—where there is high unemployment, the cut will be felt strongly.

I express criticism about the heavy cuts in the health service. I had the sad responsibility of meeting a family whose mother had required hospitalisation as the result of a heart condition. When the family contacted the hospital, a cardiac team rushed to the home and gave immediate assistance. The team determined quickly that it was essential that the lady be taken into hospital. They rang the Ulster hospital at Dundonald, to be told that there were no beds. They then tried desperately, for the next 90 minutes, to find any other hospital in the Belfast area that could provide a bed for this chronically ill patient. None of them could do so. It was only after ringing the Ulster hospital at Dundonald again that a bed was made available for the patient.

I accept immediately that the cardiac service was there and that it gave attention to the patient at all times. However, the House will recognise that a patient with a heart condition who is left for an hour and a half not knowing whether a bed will be found becomes very anxious—the very condition that is least required for somebody who has a heart problem. In my view, financial cuts are destroying what was a very good health service in Northern Ireland, and are driving the caring and professional doctors, nurses and staff almost to despair. I find more and more when I meet hospital staff that morale is very low and that they have great fears for the future.

I have had a number of difficulties in my constituency in recent years where people have been given the wrong advice on pensions over the telephone, and have taken decisions based on that advice. When it is later discovered that they have been given the wrong advice, everybody washes their hands and no one wants to do anything about it. In one such case, the official information given in writing to a constituent of mine never advised her of her rights and entitlements in relation to the matter that she raised. She is now getting 25 per cent. less per week as a result of receiving bad advice. The Government must face up to the issue. If someone gives incorrect advice in the name of the Government, they should make sure that the person involved is not penalised in the long run. I would ask the Government to introduce a system to ensure that those who suffer in that way do not do so permanently, and that any loss suffered is given back in compensation.

I was a little surprised to hear the positive remarks of the Minister and of the hon. Member for Lewisham, West on housing, because the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's house-building programme is almost non-existent. When I ask housing managers for essential work to be done in my constituency, I am always told that money is not available and that schemes are being put off and long-fingered.

One of the areas of greatest difficulty is home improvement grants. I know of people who have been waiting for three, four or five years for a decision from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. It seems that the Housing Executive pulls out of the air any excuse to put off making a decision—it is "looking for more details" or carrying out all sorts of "tests of resources". I had an unfortunate case in my constituency when a young couple purchased a house in 1993 because they intended to get married in September 1994. When it got close to that date, it was obvious that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive would not be able to provide the grant that would allow the couple to have their home ready for their wedding, and they had to postpone it.

Some hon. Members might think that that poor man had been saved for at least a time, but—whatever his personal position may be—he is still waiting for his house to be properly refurbished. After all this time, it surely must be possible for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to decide on whether this person can get a grant. In many cases, by the time a grant is paid, the condition of the house is much worse and the original estimates are no longer realistic.

In relation to the assessments, there is considerable concern that the test of resources can change during the period of waiting. I had constituents who, in March 1994, had their contribution assessed at £3,076. By October 1995, the contribution was assessed at £6,664.22, more than double the original assessment. Their total income increased by £27, they ended up in a new band and they had to pay an additional £3,600—all for the privilege of a £27 increase in their income. If the matter had been dealt with properly and speedily, they would not have been faced with that problem.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) is bracing himself because he knows that my final point relates to the Department of Education—his Department—and to Belmont primary school. A delegation from the school—including the headmistress and the board of governors—and I visited the Minister, and he also visited the school. Approximately 250 pupils attend Belmont primary school, which was built in 1890—not 1690, but it is none the worse for that—and it requires urgent work and a major extension. The Department accepts the case for a new building, but there are serious delays.

The building is currently in a bad state of repair: no one is allowed to use the upper floor, and there are difficulties with the electricity, with wet rot and with leaking in the ceiling. The staff use the staff room at their own risk. The Presbyterian church has been used in the past because the school was closed as a result of the need for repair. The overall wiring of the school is of concern—for example, one cannot turn on all the computers at one time. There are three classrooms in a row, with the one in the centre not having a separate exit. If there is a fire, the children will have to make their way out through the other classrooms.

It is clear that there is a major need for new premises. The dining room and the toilets are in a different part of the site. The children have to go out of their current portable cabins or out of the old building, cross a playground and go into these facilities, which are small and inadequate. The headmistress has an office that is smaller than a prison cell—I would have been happy if my headmaster had had such a small office, because he would not have been able to swing a cane in it—and is not satisfactory. The Department of Education must provide finance for a new school for Belmont.

The Minister recently made an announcement concerning the new starts list for 1996–97. I was disappointed that Belmont was not included on the list, but I will not be so churlish as to fail to thank the Minister because Grosvenor high school was on the list—clearly, there was a need there. The Minister accepts that there is a real need for Belmont primary school.

The school was disturbed to receive a letter from the Belfast education and library board, which said that the Minister cannot take a decision on Belmont primary school because the necessary work has not been completed to the stage necessary for him to take such a decision. According to the Belfast education and library board, the delay appears to be within the Minister's Department. The communication says that the Belmont project is the Belfast board's second priority. If Belmont is its second priority, I would like the Minister to tell me what its first priority is, because I cannot think of any school in the Greater Belfast area that is in greater need of new accommodation than Belmont primary school.

The letter goes on to say that the initial economic appraisal has been submitted to the Department, that that has been expanded to meet the Department's requirement for additional options and a detailed design study cannot be commissioned until approval is given to the appraisal. Finally, it states that work cannot start on site until new-start approval is issued.

Belfast education and library board is being held back because approval has not been given to the appraisal that was submitted. I hope to have the opportunity to speak to the Minister about this case. I would be pleased if, by then, he could determine what stage the appraisal is at and whether it could go back to the board to be put on its list of priorities.

If there are designs floating around for Belmont primary school, would it not be a good idea for some information to be given to the school? It is most unhelpful when the headmistress and the board of governors do not have any idea what appraisal the Minister is having to look at. They do not know what the board's proposal is—whether it is for an extension, whether the existing school is being knocked down, or whether it is for a new building on the same site. Surely that information can be given to the primary school.

I hope that, in a year's time when the Minister announces the new starts for the following year, he will have Belmont primary school at the top of his list, if he does not find some slippage in the intervening period and feel able to give approval before that.

10.50 pm
Sir James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

I have no means of knowing whether the Chair has arranged for Lord Nolan to sit in on the debate, and if so, whether he can blow a whistle so that anyone who appears to have an interest in the matters under discussion can be forewarned.

In a way, all of us are bound to have financial interests somewhere in the 11 pages of this order. I am distinctly nervous when it comes to the mention of retirement pensions. I am less anxious about the case for maternity benefits. Younger colleagues, who have served and are serving their apprenticeship in this House consumed with the burning ambition to progress to higher things, might be concerned over the mention of £163,000 for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

As time is pressing, I shall resist the temptation to deal with specific matters, but will consider the wider picture as it would affect any Government. I hope that that may appeal to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd), who spoke for the Opposition.

Northern Ireland appropriation order debates should not be allowed to give the impression that Northern Ireland is an obscure colony. It is an integral part of the United Kingdom and this appropriation order confirms that. It merely authorises the allocation of funds made available by Her Majesty's Treasury, which, in turn, derives that money throughout the United Kingdom by unitary taxation, as it is applied to all four constituent parts of the kingdom.

The advantages of belonging impose matching responsibilities. While we represent Northern Ireland and have a right to suggest how the total sum should be spent, we do not have the right to demand reckless expenditure which, if it were repeated in England, Scotland and Wales, would jeopardise the nation's finances and devalue the currency, whatever the complexion of the Government in power. In that regard, our parliamentary party has been consistent since its inception in 1974.

In my modest contribution to the debate on the reply to the Gracious Speech in November last year, I reiterated our principles: no fixed exchange rates, which has incidentally become a very popular view in the interval since I made that speech in early November; resumed repayment of the national debt; maintaining the Government's excellent record on low inflation; a steady reduction in the public sector borrowing requirement; and, support for the Chancellor's carefully phased cuts in interest rates. The Chancellor was on the Front Bench that day and he seemed to approve. Although I am a modest man with much to be modest about, I like to think that perhaps I had some influence on his decisions when he was finalising the Budget that he presented the following week.

With regard to the broad sweep of funds granted by the Treasury, the Minister may find it useful to explain more fully the impact of the so-called peace dividend. Savings resulting from what has been called the temporary cessation of military operations will have been reflected to some extent in part I of the order. Part II will presumably reflect certain reductions in public expenditure in keeping with the Government's policy of sound money, with which we do not greatly disagree. That means a reduction in the budgets of various sectors such as housing and hospitals. The authorities in those sectors managed—but only just—to avoid swingeing reductions in plans for this year and next year.

However, with the rolling resumption of terrorism, the peace dividend will have disappeared. There will inevitably be an increase in security-related expenditure throughout the United Kingdom—bearing proportionately on Northern Ireland. I am not referring to the costs of security forces because they are not contained in the order.

I am asking for an assurance that as security-related expenditure rises, the Government will regard that as a regrettable extra and will not be tempted to raid from the Northern Ireland budget the already reduced funds allocated to the Departments for the year 1996–97. Will it be accepted that, although the Northern Ireland Departments will do their best to cope with cuts in the coming year, they simply could not function if further cuts were made in their budgets for 1997 and the remaining years of the decade?

Paragraph 4(2) makes the rigid requirement that any money borrowed, with interest due, must be repaid not later than 31 March 1997. I make that point because, on 1 November 1995, in a Committee debate on the financial provisions order, I referred to the flexibility that the order gave in the dates for the repayment of loans by various organisations in Northern Ireland. It was explained by the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), who was acting for the Government on that day, that a rigid repayment date could sometimes impose an administrative burden on organisations such as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. On that occasion, the Committee could see the sense in that proposal and it unanimously approved the order. The question arises in my mind: why is the Department of Finance and Personnel, in this appropriation order, denying itself the flexibility that it accorded to others in the financial provisions order?

I know that many other right hon. and hon. Members will no doubt wish to deal with the activities of some of the departmental votes, but I wish to concentrate on the financial aspects of the Department of Economic Development listed on page 8, in vote 3. I want to focus on the enterprise and investment scheme that was introduced by the Government in the 1993 Budget to provide for a new equity investment in unquoted trading companies by outside individuals, "outside" in that case meaning persons not connected with the company, such as employees and shareholders with more than 30 per cent. of the capital.

Despite the fact that various tax reliefs are available to investors, only about 200 companies have benefited in the two years of the scheme's existence throughout the entire United Kingdom. Potential small companies have not noticed that whereas various forms of support are restricted to manufacturing industry, which has always been a sore point, this scheme has benefited service industry companies, including retail and wholesale distribution companies, hotels and restaurants. That has always been a much-despised sector, but it has chalked up assets of £8 billion throughout the United Kingdom in the last full year.

I am baffled and disappointed by the lack of response to the scheme in Northern Ireland, which is noted for its diligence and business acumen. It is a part of United Kingdom that, despite all that the enemy could do over past years, is benefiting from a steady improvement in its natural economy. I know of numerous small potential investors on the one hand and small enterprising companies on the other. The challenge for us all is how to bring them together.

It is true that the enterprise investment scheme is based on the Department of Trade and Industry in London, with welcome Treasury support. It is also true that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North, who is responsible for finance, and his colleague, the Under-Secretary, Baroness Denton, are making determined efforts to project that scheme in Northern Ireland. However, the two Ministers would be the first to admit that they need the support of all of us. I think that I can assure them of the backing of all hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland because, throughout my 25 years in the House, my colleagues from Northern Ireland, whatever their party affiliations, have banded together to support initiatives that have improved the material well-being of all our people in Northern Ireland.

I recognise the difficulty. This topic is not the stuff of which soundbites are made. It is dull dog stuff that cannot compete in the news industry with name-calling and abuse, but that means that we have to work all the harder to assist the two Ministers and their colleagues, should they decide—as I hope that they will—to stage a major promotion of a scheme that could make a great contribution to employment and prosperity in Northern Ireland.

11.1 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

I do not share the understanding of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) of the cuts in Government expenditure that have been imposed on us over the past few months. I make no apology for again referring, as have other hon. Members, to the vicious cuts in the action for community employment programme, whereby the groups involved were unilaterally informed on 12 December 1995 of a 25 per cent. cut in their budget. There was no advance consultation.

It is interesting to note that the document issued by the Department in February 1993, "The Strategy for the Support of the Voluntary Sector and Community Development in Northern Ireland", promised that there would be consultation with that sector on key issues before decisions were made by the Government. Why was that promise not honoured on this occasion?

Another document was issued that related to training and employment. It stated: the Training and Employment Agency seeks an active partnership with voluntary organisations and local community interests in support of training and other initiatives which enhance employment programmes. The providers embraced that whole-heartedly under the concept, advanced to them by the Government, of partnership. Once again, the Government acted unilaterally. The so-called partners in training were advised of the vicious cut by a press release. The Minister must answer to the voluntary organisations which provide such a dedicated service to the Northern Ireland community—they deserve much better treatment than that.

The Department failed to pursue through the system the consequences for our communities of that draconian cut. The most vulnerable—the aged, invalids, the young, pre-school children and the unemployed—have been hit directly. The Minister has made a vicious cut in that sector but, if services are to be maintained and not disappear entirely, another Department must pick up the tab. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the Government's intention? Will services to the most vulnerable members of our community be cut as a result of the Government's actions?

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) referred to the 2,000 to 3,000 jobs which may be affected—as will diverse organisations, such as Cancer Research, Age Concern, meals on wheels and play schools. There will be a fundamental withdrawal of services and the Minister must address that issue. Will he confirm whether the Government's ploy is simply to reduce spending on the Training and Employment Agency in the hope that the peace and reconciliation fund will meet the difference in the long term on the basis of its social inclusion philosophy?

I shall deal now with the Department of the Environment. My hon. Friend mentioned the roads infrastructure bonanza of the 1960s and he questioned whether the funds should be renewed. Certain areas of Northern Ireland never enjoyed that bonanza in the 1960s—I refer to my constituency and to the neighbouring areas in south-eastern Northern Ireland. In the intervening three decades, there has been no meaningful capital expenditure on roads or communications infrastructure in those areas.

If we are to achieve any share of the job bonanza that is promised to Northern Ireland and any share in the forecast huge increase in tourism, we must have reasonably modern road access to that area, which is one of the legs of the tripod for tourism development in Northern Ireland: the lakes of Fermanagh, the north coast and the Mourne and St. Patrick's country. The latter does not have the accessibility to create meaningful infrastructure for tourism or inward investment. I shall not go into great detail, but the primary routes into that area—the A7, the B8 and A24, Belfast to Downpatrick, Belfast to Newcastle, and the coastal roads—will not be improved until 2001, except through the expenditure of a small part of the minor works budget. It is beyond me how that policy gets past the equal treatment qualification. It seems as though those areas which did not receive funding in times of plenty will certainly not receive it now.

I must refer to one aspect of the roads infrastructure in light of last month's debacle involving the ferry between Strangford and Portaferry, which is the major link between the Ards peninsula and south-east Ulster. The ferry service did not operate for several days—the main ferry, the back-up ferry and even the small passenger cruiser were out of action at the same time.

The Department of the Environment commissioned a firm of marine consultants to carry out an assessment of the ferry operation and make recommendations. The firm reported to the Department in April 1995, recommending that the motor vessel named Portaferry be replaced. The Department has sat on that report and, despite the endeavours of my party and others, we have failed to elicit a reasonable response to proposals made to the Department by the commission that it appointed. Will the ferry be replaced or not? It is a simple question.

Perhaps the Minister will take aboard an entirely different concept. Is it more meaningful in modern times, instead of replacing the ferry, to build a bridge between the Ards peninsula and the rest of the south-east? It would create much greater scope for increasing economic prosperity, based on the limited amount of industry that exists. It would connect the two areas of Down, which have the entire fishing industry of Northern Ireland, and facilitate commerce in agricultural produce. Does that proposition figure in the Minister's thinking?

I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that, if we are to have a meaningful social housing programme to take us into the new millennium, increased funding will unfortunately be required. All the primary indicators of the way in which our housing stock is developing show an unhealthy trend. Unfitness is increasing and is now 8.8 per cent.—higher than the Great Britain average. In some substantial rural areas it is as high as 28 per cent.

In the past five years, waiting lists have increased considerably and the population forecast of household growth is 7,500 per annum, yet the total targeted of the Housing Executive and the housing associations is only 2,300 per annum. Added to that is the increasing need to provide specialised housing for the care in the community concept, which will obviously increase as the population ages.

A comment was made about the fact that the demand to rehabilitate houses by way of grant—repair, renovation or restoration—has obviously greatly outstripped that anticipated by Government. Is there any meaningful anticipation that adequate funding will be provided for the Housing Executive or whatever the new set-up will be after the housing consultation that is taking place?

I shall now discuss the severe cuts throughout the health boards—3 per cent. this year. Those cuts were announced in a press release by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), on 12 February 1996. It is an unusual press release. It is five or six pages long and admits clearly—for the first time ever, in my experience—that the 3 per cent. cut cannot be provided for out of the boards' funding. The Minister anticipates that only 1.5 per cent of that cut can be provided for out of the boards' funding. The Minister continued: I will be asking Boards, GP Fundholders and Trusts to work together to minimise the impact of the remaining 1½% reduction on services to patients and clients. That is the first time ever that, in a ministerial press release, a deliberate cut in services has been acknowledged.

In response to a letter concerning a constituent with an acute cardiac condition, the consultant cardiac surgeon at the Royal hospitals in Belfast wrote: We have been advised by our Directorate here in the hospital that we are over 'contract' on Eastern Board and Northern Board activity. We have been told to avoid operating on all but the most urgent patients for these purchasers. We have been told that there are no restrictions on elective work for Southern and Western Board patients or for any GP fundholding practices. As you can see from the above, this poses great difficulty for us in our clinical practice and might explain why your patient is having his operation delayed. That is clear, unequivocal evidence of the two-tier system that now applies in the health service. Is the Minister taking that situation into consideration? As we speak, cardiac patients in my constituency and throughout the eastern and northern board areas cannot have their operations performed. Does the Minister think that the most pressing of all the monetary requirements to which the votes should apply? I end on that sensitive note concerning the health, the welfare and probably the lives of our constituents.

11.16 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

My speech will mirror that of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), because I have the same problems in my constituency. A letter from a constituent of mine in Ballymoney stated: I write for an explanation on the different treatment of two very similar cases. Both parties reside in the Ballymoney area, the diagnosis for both cases a cartilage problem in the knee and the recommended treatment 'keyhole surgery'. The facts of the cases … are as follows: Case A:

June 1994. Referred by GP to consultant in the Route Hospital, Ballymoney. September 1994. Attended the Outpatients Department of the Route Hospital, Ballymoney, and was referred to a consultant in the Musgrave Park Hospital. June 1995. Attended an Outpatients Clinic at Musgrave Park Hospital and was examined by a Mr. McCoy. Advised by Mr. McCoy that there was a waiting list for this operation and it was not anticipated that the operation would be performed before December 1995. January 1996. A member of the clerical staff at the Ballymoney Health Centre (on the instructions of the GP) rang Musgrave Park Hospital and was informed that the operation would not be carried out 'until the beginning of the summer'. That is, a wait of nearly two years. The letter continued: Case B. 22 March 1995. Referred to consultant by GP. 28 March 1995. Attended clinic in Belfast and examined by consultant. 31 March 1995. Operation carried out in Musgrave Park Hospital. That is, the same month. My constituent continues: There would appear to be a startling anomaly in the treatment of the two cases. However, there are two facts previously omitted which clarify the situation.

  1. 1. Case A is a National Health patient.
  2. 2. Case B chose to go 'privately' and paid for the operation.
I have paid tax and Class I National Insurance Contributions for almost 25 years. Perhaps I am naive in believing that the contributions paid by me over the years entitle me to fair treatment… It is an indisputable fact that there is a 'two-tier' health system. Those who are rich and pay receive virtually immediate attention whilst those who are poor wait and suffer. How many others have 'jumped the queue' since June 1995? That speaks for itself, and backs up what the hon. Member for South Down said about a two-tier system.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but his comparisons are not entirely apposite. The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) was comparing the two-tier system of GPs who were fundholders and those who were not, while the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) is comparing national health patients with private patients who are paying for their own treatment. If I am wrong, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will clarify the issue.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I accept that, but it is a two-tier system in both cases. For the sake of time, I shall not go into the minutiae of what the hon. and learned Gentleman said.

The Housing Executive budget has been cut by £10 million. That has deprived Northern Ireland of new build and refurbishment work. In North Antrim, more than 400 people were driven out of their Northern Ireland Housing Executive homes during the bad weather because of burst pipes. The NIHE refused to acknowledge any responsibility. Two years ago, it cut out the direct labour scheme. This winter, when problems arose, the tenants could not find workmen to do the job. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive told me that it could find only two plumbers to repair 400 houses.

Will the Minister make the Northern Ireland Housing Executive acknowledge its responsibility? Its refusal to spend money on the upkeep of the houses caused an emergency in the very cold weather. The pipes were not lagged, and no proper action had been taken to protect them from the very cold weather. After some 40 years, why is no work being carried out on any of the houses on Greystone crescent?

I welcome the fact that the Government have decided to spend £2.7 million on the next phase of the A26. That money is being spent because the Prime Minister visited Ballymena and everyone got at him. He heard only about the A26. He heard it from me as the local Member; he heard it from the mayor, from the deputy mayor and from every alderman and every councillor. He heard it out in the streets and under the Christmas tree, so he had to do something.

The sad thing is that the third phase of the A26 has been postponed for 13 years. I do not know who will be the Prime Minister then. It may even be the Minister. Perhaps the A26 will be finished off at the end of the day, but until then, the new shopping and retail developments in Ballymena will be bypassed as people go to other parts of North Antrim because the road system is inadequate. The Government must complete the A26 scheme as soon as possible. I welcome the second phase, and I am glad of the money, but there must be a more reasonable date for the third phase than 13 years ahead.

I have dealt briefly with health matters, but I remind the Minister that a promise was made that a small injuries clinic would be erected in Ballymena. What progress has been made on that scheme?

How much financial assistance for local businesses has gone into Ballycastle, Ballymena and Ballymoney in the past 12 months? Would the Minister agree that it is difficult for small businesses to avail themselves of financial help from organisations such as the Local Enterprise Development Unit? I do not know whether my colleagues have trouble with LEDU, but I certainly do.

Hubert Brown-Kerr, a young man in my constituency, is a goer. He started the Sunstart Bakery; he got very little financial help—about £6,000. He is now the biggest exporter of bakery products to the United States of America. But LEDU held him up for months when he wanted to build a huge bakery in Ballymena, and offered him only small sums of money. What he needed was very large sums, to get the factory built.

I pay a warm tribute to Baroness Denton for the help she gave us in this case. She told LEDU to get on with helping this young man. I am glad to tell the House that the factory is to be erected. I went to see Brown-Kerr the other day, and he told me that he has had so many orders for his commodities that he has had to close his order books. He is the type of young man we need in Northern Ireland, and he is the sort of entrepreneur who should be encouraged. LEDU should take note that a man it despised and rejected has successfully promoted Northern Ireland's bakery products in the United States.

There has been talk tonight about the ACE scheme. Every Northern Ireland Member is greatly concerned about the cuts. I want to know what alternative provision the Minister intends for these areas, to reduce their unemployment rates. If ACE is removed, more people will be on the unemployment list. It is all very well announcing a cut, but what is the alternative?

We all talked to Baroness Denton today in the airport lounge, because our planes were delayed. In our private meeting, she told us about the £2 million. We do not despise that money, but it is nothing compared with the cuts that have been made.

The Minister knew that I would raise the question of the Ballycraigah school tonight. I wonder what progress he is making. I hope he will be able to tell me tonight, or write to me about it.

11.27 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Has the Minister had an opportunity to study my letter and come up with a suggested date for visiting Wellington college? It has been in existence for a long time, under its former guise of the Carolan and Annadale schools. They amalgamated as part of the reorganisation, but the promises made to them at the time have not been fulfilled.

The attitude here seems to be one of mariana. For some years, the project was high up the list of priorities, but the Department demoted it. Now, with the move to become part of the new Balmoral high school in September, it looks as if the school is being asked to use the premises without even the modifications promised at an earlier stage.

When will the Minister be in a position to visit and see for himself that the school cannot actually provide the full scope of the curriculum in the rooms it has? There is an increase in the numbers going to the school. Outside the city, the nearest grammar school is Down high school on the southern side and the other schools, including the Methodist college, Victoria and others, are all over-subscribed.

It is not fair to absolve oneself of responsibility by saying that it is not the conditions of the classrooms that matter, but the quality of the teaching. The results show that the teachers are performing well, but the conditions are impinging on the future of those young people, and they do not have the same facilities as others.

I hope that the Minister will be able, in the near future, to pay that visit, which has been postponed at least twice. I recognise the pressures on the Minister's time, but I know that there has been a cry from the hearts of the staff and governors of Wellington college.

I now turn to vote 4, and the link between income support and housing benefits. I am concerned, and I have been for some time, about the pressures on the Housing Executive to increase rents. Has a study been done on the impact on the public purse of increasing Housing Executive rents by amounts well above the rate of inflation?

How many people are paying a full rent, and therefore, how much public money is being spent on housing benefit for those who cannot afford to pay those rents? Will we soon have the sort of situation that happened in London some years past, when the rises in the price of house building ultimately caused the collapse of housing prices? The private sector in Northern Ireland claims that it cannot afford to build houses of the quality that the Housing Executive is building for the price. Is a problem being stored up, and is public money being wasted because the Department and the Housing Executive keep putting up the rents of Housing Executive properties?

I wish to raise a specific issue that links education and housing benefit with income support. A young woman student at Queen's university took ill and had to discontinue her studies. She does not qualify for income support, because social services say that she is in full-time education. Therefore, she is now faced with the problem that, because she does not qualify for income support, she will not qualify for housing benefit.

How is a person in that situation expected to live? Is there a misunderstanding of the rules on the part of somebody in social services? Is that student getting the bad advice to which the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) alluded when he talked about pension advice?

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

The Minister might be able to clarify the point that education and library boards have some discretion in such matters, but they may not have been exercising it.

Rev. Martin Smyth

It occurs to me that the boards might have used their discretion in their own way, to the disadvantage of the student I have mentioned. That has put additional pressure on an ill person.

There are many important issues on which I could spend time, but I wish to consider the projected expenditure for 1996–97.

I was a little concerned that, in the Minister's answer to my question on 11 January, there might have been not a deliberate misleading, but certainly a misleading, of the House. When I pressed the question of the 3 per cent. up-front cut, the answer was that the same had happened in the past three years. The chairmen of the boards, and those in the trusts, were certainly not aware that the recommendation from the Department and the management executive was a repetition of what had happened for the past three years.

In my question, I suggested that there would be reductions in elective surgery. I welcome the fact that the Minister has listened and made some adjustments, but is there something wrong with the Department and the management executive? Are they out of touch with reality? What is the motivation for some of their decisions? They have been completely out of kilter in regard to the capitation charges that have been going on for some years; now, in trying to correct them, they have come up with another howler. There has been a postponement for another year to allow more consultation between the boards, the providers and the Department. Who is making the decisions, away from the reality of work?

Can the Minister tell us—especially those of us who are involved with the eastern health board—why, although it seems to have been possible for contracts to be finalised quite early in the year in the southern, western and northern boards, at least two of the eastern board's main providers, Belfast City hospital and the Royal Victoria hospital, are finding it difficult to get contracts finalised until after September? Is there something wrong with the bargaining process? Did it not start in time?

Reference has been made to the knock-on effect and the two-tier system. GP fundholders have regularly been blamed for that system. To what extent are the health commissioners here and the health boards in Northern Ireland playing the sysytem with the trusts providing the services?

I gave some statistics in Health questions recently, from which it seems that there is an undoubted pattern throughout the nation and certainly in Northern Ireland: people come from GP fundholders to be treated three to six months earlier than those who come from the health boards and health commissioners.

I have seen figures for both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I have discovered—perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the providers purchase the service that the GP fundholders are purchasing, knowing that, at the end of the year, extra money will be available through the boards to fulfil their contracts. In the meantime, the boards have had to deal mainly with emergency work.

Are the boards playing the system, while not providing patients with the care that they require and that their doctors are recommending? I do not believe that it is a fair system if that is what is going on. Is the system allowing that to happen, or is it human manipulation of the system?

I have looked at the impact that the cuts will have, and not only on elective surgery, because in Northern Ireland, as well as the boards and trusts, there are health and social services, provided, for example, by the South and East Belfast Community Trust. It is concerned about the impact that the cuts will have on the provision of social services. In that context, I pay tribute to the experimental and positive work that the South and East Belfast Community Trust has done.

Is there not something wrong with a system in which a perverse incentive allows people to go into residential and nursing homes when they could be better provided for in the community, in their own homes where they want to be? The figures show that, even at grade 3, which is the highest grade for a nursing home, the community trust can do it much more effectively and economically. The patients we visited in their homes were singing its praises. They had benefited when in hospitals and institutions, but now they are back in their community and are getting excellent service.

The state could do more and adjust the funds, which, in my judgment, are wrongly going into nursing homes and residential homes rather than into community trusts. It might mean that we would need some changes in legislation, for it was obvious that some of the people in their homes who were getting the service free were also in receipt of other benefits, such as attendance and mobility allowance. One wonders whether that could be used to extend the scope to others.

I should like to deal with the penalty clause. I was in one of our larger hospitals on Saturday, and discovered that, as it was getting near the end of the year, it was holding Saturday theatres, Sunday theatres and night theatres. Although there would be a penalty if it was over-productive, it would not be as great as if it was under-productive. The management is pressing it and saying, "We must fulfil these contracts; we must get these patients in," and so on. Is that part of the folly of the traditional Treasury attitude: "There is only so much money and if it is not spent by the end of the year, you will not get the same amount next year"? Can we look again at some way to improve our budgetary arrangements, so that they do not cause that last-minute splurge?

I look forward to the developments in hospital provision. Does the Minister agree that there was something wrong with the approach that allowed obstetricians in Belfast to say that what they needed was a modern maternity provision on a green-field site—they were not terribly worried whether it was the City site or the Royal site?

In the examination, it was decided that the facilities that were available in the City tower block could be modified to give modern maternity provision, closing the Jubilee and the Royal maternity, with facilities that would be needed into the next century, catering for some 5,500 confinements and deliveries in a year. We now have the "Save the Royal" campaign, which denigrates the City. It claims that it has no neonatal services, and paediatricians are sending the message to mothers west of the Bann, in North Antrim, in South Down and other places: "It is not safe to have your babies in a modern provision in a city site." The site is only 15 minutes from the Royal Victoria hospital, but it is claimed that the paediatricians, especially the cardiac surgeons, will not be available. It is time that some involved in health provision began to be more responsible in terms of their job protection tactics and their attitude to the provision of modern services for our community.

11.44 pm
Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

As the only independent Northern Ireland Member, I collect the crumbs, or perhaps it is an advantage to have all the salient features of the Northern Ireland apportionment of funds dealt with so comprehensively and so unanimously by Members representing the major parties.

I have discovered this evening that a Minister's lot is, indeed, not a happy one. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has properly, on behalf of Belmont primary school, given us a catalogue of disrepair and other afflictions from which that school suffers and has asked the Minister to make it one of his priorities. However, we all appreciate, despite the extent of our respective begging bowls, that what the Minister has to allot is finite. The hon. Member for Belfast, East was more than generous when he acknowledged that the Minister, in the allotment of funds, had given priority to a major grammar school, Grosvenor grammar, in his constituency. Many of my constituents send their children to that school and I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking the Minister for the priority given to Grosvenor. It has rendered me conscious of the fact that there are many other hon. Members and many other people who are assiduously seeking a slice of the goodies that the Minister from time to time has it in his power to allot.

I am equally conscious that the funds that any Minister in any Government has available to him are limited. It is a matter of fine judgment as to which of a number of competing priorities he allots some of the money at his disposal. However, one constant theme from every Northern Ireland Member who has spoken this evening has been a reference to the draconian cuts that have been administered in relation to the money allotted to the action for community employment schemes. There has been a 25 per cent. cut, capitalised at £12.5 million, in funds for a group of people who can least afford the cut, belonging as they do to one of the most economically and often socially disadvantaged strata of the community.

The schemes are designed to enable the long-term unemployed to re-enter employment society. They have given sterling service to Northern Ireland in an area where it was much needed. Northern Ireland generally, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, has always suffered a high level of unemployment, both male and female. In certain areas of Northern Ireland, male unemployment has been absurdly high. It was to address that particular area of chronic long-term unemployment that the action for community employment schemes were introduced. Not only did the schemes benefit those who had been out of work for a long period, but they gave hope and succour to young people emerging from school into the employment sphere in an area where the prospects of immediate employment—particularly for those without academic skills or those lacking any form of training—were particularly prejudiced.

The schemes have been enormously successful. Many of them have high success rates, with between 50 per cent. and 60 per cent. of those passing through the schemes ultimately finding long-term or permanent employment. The schemes not only provide and train people for permanent employment, but in many cases they have achieved rates of between 40 per cent. and 50 per cent. of nationally recognised training qualifications. It is a matter not simply of training people, but of giving hope to those who have perhaps lost their self-respect through chronic unemployment or the absence of any prospect of employment.

As a peripheral benefit, the schemes have provided a great service to the community. That can be demonstrated by the wide nature of the groups that have written to me. These include Donaghadee Community Work Force Ltd., North Down local trust, Youthnet, YMCA Ireland, the Shankill road mission, the Northern Ireland Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and the Newtownards community work force. A wide range of charities and other community organisations have been mentioned by other hon. Members tonight in this regard.

While recognising that the resources at the disposal of the Minister have a finite quality, I also recognise that he is called upon to make judgments as to the allotment of resources to those who would lay claim to at least a small portion of the largesse that may be on offer. Every hon. Member in the Chamber this evening would make common cause in advancing the case for the restoration to the action for community employment schemes of something more than the £2 million that is currently on offer.

What has been demonstrated here this evening is the unanimous, cross-party, cross-community support from every hon. Member from Northern Ireland for the schemes, which enjoy that unanimous support because something about them touches a common chord in everyone. Every hon. Member from Northern Ireland is aware not only of the validity of the objective of the schemes, but of the success that they have enjoyed in delivering to deprived people—in every sense of the word—some prospect of hope. They have also managed to engender a sense of community. Not only do they offer training and the prospect of permanent employment or a qualification, but, in a peripheral sense, they provide services to other disadvantaged members of the community—the sick, the aged and those suffering chronic invalidity. A number of organisations benefit from the action for community employment schemes—from meals on wheels, to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, to Donaghadee Community Work Force Ltd., an organisation in my constituency.

In a letter addressed to me, Donaghadee Community Work Force Ltd. refers to the organisation of the local summer festival—which attracts huge crowds—and the entertainment of Prince Andrew, among others, who visited as part of the VE day celebrations. The planning, creation and maintenance of the town's floral displays resulted in its winning first place in the Ulster in Bloom competition and being selected to represent Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom in the finals.

The organisation offers a range of adult education courses designed to promote education as a constructive use of leisure time. I give these examples as an illustration of the filtering down of the work of these community organisations, not simply in the people whom they train but in the sense of community purpose that they afford to a much wider range of people. I am not in a position to calculate all the benefits in financial terms, including the knock-on benefits of schemes of this kind.

If the schemes engender the work ethic in young people and in the chronically unemployed, and if they prevent those people from finding other less practical and useful avenues for their energies and endeavours, they serve the whole community. They also prevent the drawing of unemployment and family support benefits. If the financial benefit were properly calculated, there would be great advantages to the community—both present and future—that would more than offset the £12.5 million that will be saved by the cuts.

I therefore ask the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)—I am conscious of the demands from a variety of sources—to look at this issue with sensitivity and with understanding, which I am sure that he can bring to bear on the issue. All hon. Members feel that this is perhaps a miscalculation, that this is perhaps a failure to seize the right priority, that this is something which, if it is not restored, will literally and metaphorically knock the stuffing out of a section of the community that is least able to bear it.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. In the 48 minutes available before the wind-up, four hon. Members wish to catch my eye. That should not be impossible with a bit of co-operation.

11.58 pm
Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

I shall bear in mind the time, and not repeat much of what has already been said. I join with all hon. Members who have mentioned the action for community employment scheme. I have been lobbied by quite a number of community organisations which feel that it is of vital importance that finances are made available for the continuation of the original ACE scheme.

I am sure that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) realises that one of the biggest problems in Northern Ireland is the roads infrastructure. I had the privilege of hosting Baroness Denton of Wakefield in my constituency at the weekend. Her visit was most welcome, and I know that she understood the difficulties of getting there. Unfortunately, we are told that to solve part of the problem we must attract industrialists. We have to compete with the other areas of the Province that are close to air and sea ports.

For the likes of Omagh district or Castlederg, the great difficulty is transporting people and products between their businesses and the air and sea ports. I ask the Minister, therefore, to implore his colleague to ensure the upgrading of the road from the end of the M1 at Dungannon right through to Ballygawley roundabout, Omagh and Strabane. That is a major section of the road. The Minister said that perhaps private finances should be considered. I ask the Department to take whatever actions are necessary to get us a road that will enhance the prospects of industrial development in an area of very high unemployment. We are sincere when we say to the Minister that that is one of the essential ingredients.

Another necessity is the conclusion of the Omagh and the Cookstown bypasses. If we are again faced with terrorist activity, God forbid that the business people should again have to suffer being held up by the security huts near the security base in Cookstown. We urgently need that bypass. The Magherafelt bypass is equally important to enable us to get industrialists into the area and products out as quickly as possible.

Grants have been mentioned. The staff of the grants office seem to be totally disillusioned. They do not know what to say. They simply have to give us the old, old story and spin the record again, saying that there is no money that they can hand out. Many of the applications are long term; yet the papers are still filled with encouragements from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive for further applications. It would at least be something if the executive would stop giving the impression that if one makes an application one will get an answer. There is no money for the long-standing applications at the moment. We urgently need more money for Housing Executive grants and to pay for the long list that are still in the pipeline.

The health cuts will hurt the service for patients and clients in my constituency, which is to be condemned. We do not need further health cuts. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) mentioned the cuts of the past three years. One can only cut a service so far before one goes right to the bone. Unfortunately, the further cuts that are being forced on the boards are destroying an excellent health service and once again bringing disillusionment to the staff, who are trying to provide essential services without adequate finances.

My colleagues and many other hon. Members are concerned about the education boards, which are part of the Minister's brief. It is not right for there to be any change in the boards. They should not be juggled around. Time should not be wasted trying to get rid of some of them. It is the will of the people that they should remain as they are. Only if there were an Administration in Northern Ireland, in which the elected representatives could sit down together and discuss the whole problem of education, should that be considered. The Government should stop fooling around with that issue. It is about time that the Minister told us that the boards are not going to change and that they will remain.

The other problem that faces many of us is the proposition of the 16-year-olds-plus having to pay to continue in education. That has certainly sent a shiver up the spine of many firms. As usual, those who are caught in the poverty trap and who have to pay so much because they are just over the line and cannot get the benefits will have to face great bills. That is totally unacceptable within the community.

I want to ask the Minister about Orlit houses. There was a report on the rules—do we have it? The report has been conducted for a long time—what is the answer? Homes that should be properly repaired are not being repaired because of a report that has been commissioned somewhere in England. We have not yet received an answer.

We have heard that 144 jobs in the Unipork bacon factory in Cookstown are to be lost. That has caused tremendous dismay among my constituents. Two weeks earlier we heard that a package of £11.5 million was to be invested; now we hear that 144 jobs are to be lost. That matter needs to be considered. It is important that the pig industry and the factories ensure that the farmers receive a proper return for their work. I am sad to say that for two solid years the farmers were working simply for the bank rather than for their families, and they were falling deeper and deeper into debt. It is important that factories should be willing to give a fair return to farmers and not take their labours for granted. We must resolve the problems: where farmers have gone to the wall there is now a lack of pigs for the factories in the Province.

I want to give other hon. Members the time that is due to them to mention their constituency problems, so I shall mention only briefly the Tyrone and Fermanagh hospital. It is an excellent site, and it would be an excellent university campus site if the Department were willing to take it up as such. It has been wasted, which is disgraceful. Its buildings are second to none, and the Minister should consider the site afresh to see whether it would be possible to use that excellent facility in a profitable way, for the betterment and education of our people.

Local representatives are certainly demanding that planning should be returned to their hands. Instead of officials saying that they have conducted some sort of consultation process—which is often merely an apology for such a process—and then dictating what is to happen, it should be the other way round: the officials should make the recommendations and the elected representatives from local government authorities throughout the Province should make the decisions.

I have tried to take a quick canter over the course so as to leave other hon. Members time to participate, but it is important that my constituents and those of other hon. Members should be given detailed responses to the matters that are causing them grave concern. Many of the problems cannot be answered in a few minutes at the end of a debate: detailed answers are needed to satisfy my constituents and those of other hon. Members that their problems are being seriously considered.

12.7 am

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Like other hon. Members, I should like to refer to vote 3 in the Department of Economic Development. While I welcome the continuing decline in unemployment in Northern Ireland and the enthusiasm of the Minister with responsibility for the economy for attracting new investment to Northern Ireland, I do not think that there has been a sufficient drop in unemployment to justify the drastic cuts that have been forced on the action for community employment schemes by the Training and Employment Agency's decision to institute a 25 per cent. cut across existing schemes.

My Northern Ireland parliamentary colleagues, of all parties represented in the House, agree that the schemes have benefited the long-term unemployed, who have obtained places on them. They have also been beneficial because the community service provided by ACE schemes met the local needs of the most disadvantaged groups in Northern Ireland. The great pity is that there was not a proper assessment of each ACE scheme prior to the announced cuts in order to ensure that the schemes, which included a significant training element and were raising the skill levels of previously unemployed participants, remained fully funded and protected. ACE schemes that provided work activity rather than raising the skills of individuals should have been given 12 months' notice to improve to a preset standard or forced to close down and those on the scheme assimilated into a more acceptably managed scheme that had a significant training element.

I recently attended an evening club meeting of the Physically Handicapped and Able-Bodied, PHAB, in Carrickfergus in my constituency. It was good to see young and older people of all religious groups mixing naturally in a friendly, caring, secure atmosphere with their local leaders.

PHAB Northern Ireland is based in north Belfast. The ACE scheme managed by PHAB has an excellent record. In the past year, it employed 34 persons, of whom 14 have gone into permanent employment and six into higher education. That is a good record, but no allowance has been made for quality schemes in areas with high unemployment and social deprivation. The 25 per cent. cut announced by the Training and Employment Agency targeted all schemes equally.

Nevertheless, I welcome the announcement today by the Minister responsible for the economy that £2 million will be released to soften the swingeing cuts. It would have made more sense for the TEA properly to evaluate each ACE scheme and secure those that met community needs while improving the skills and prospects of the long-term unemployed in their areas. The £2 million will ease only part of the pain that removal of £12.5 million from ACE expenditure will cause. Like other hon. Members, I appeal to the Minister to hold the Training and Employment Agency accountable for that disgraceful decision and endeavour to find further funds to minimise the damage to the schemes.

Vote 3, Department of the Environment, deals with sums granted for expenditure on water, sewerage and related services. A "Green Guide" is published in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), will pay attention because the "Green Guide" is for suppliers of goods and services to the Northern Ireland civil service. On page 15, regarding asbestos, it instructs readers: Do:

take every precaution when working on Government premises to avoid disturbing any asbestos remaining in the fabric of our buildings;

ensure that asbestos of any type is not used in the composition of products supplied to Departments. That sound advice suggests that the view of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, that there is a health hazard from asbestos fibres associated with both inhalation and ingestion as routes of exposure, has been accepted and that there is sufficient concern to justify refusing to use asbestos cement pipes for carrying water supplies for human consumption anywhere in Northern Ireland. Was it necessary to commission yet another study by the Water Research Centre into the use of asbestos cement pipes, when research has already been done elsewhere? How much is the study costing? When will the results be published? Can the use of asbestos cement pipes in Northern Ireland be justified if there is the slightest risk to the health of one citizen, when alternative products are available?

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Water Research Centre has already given that advice? Why do we need to go over it again?

Mr. Beggs

I am assuming that the enthusiasm for employing consultants in Northern Ireland has led to the expenditure that we are about to incur.

I also want to bring to the Under-Secretary's attention an excellent document published recently, called the "Rathcoole Leisure Plan". It was commissioned by Newtownabbey borough council, in my constituency, and others. I wish to place on record my thanks to the mayor, Alderman Beattie, and Councillors Langhammer, Boyd, Hollis, Snoddy and Robinson for the time that they have devoted in genuine consultation. I also thank the architects of the plan, Kennedy Fitzgerald and Associates.

Rathcoole is a severely disadvantaged area in my constituency, which has suffered throughout the 25 years of troubles. The vast majority of its residents are ordinary, decent people who want peace and a job. They want to see their children grow up in a decent environment, receive a decent education and become good, caring citizens. The implementation of the plan will provide hope for the future and it will help to promote speedy social and economic regeneration in that area. I appeal to the Minister to accept my invitation to visit the Rathcoole area, examine the "Rathcoole Leisure Plan" and fully support the efforts of Newtownabbey borough council and others to secure the necessary funding for the project.

I shall not refer at length to the A8. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler)—who delivered the winding-up speech in a recent debate—said that the A8, Lame to Belfast road, was etched indelibly on his mind as a priority for upgrading. However, my constituents in the Carrickfergus area wish to see urgent expenditure on the A2 and B90 roads. I regret that agreement has not yet been reached with some of the owners of the property that is needed for the necessary road improvements.

I urge the Minister to vest the land required in order to avoid further delay, while encouraging his officials yet again to reach agreement with the individuals and families whose residences in the Carrickfergus area will be adversely affected by the improvements that road users require urgently. The future growth and development of Carrickfergus borough is being restricted by the inadequacy of the existing main road infrastructure in the borough. I hope that the starting date for work there will be announced soon.

My Ulster Unionist colleagues and I believe that every child in Northern Ireland has a right to expect to be treated fairly and to receive an equal opportunity in life. Sadly, many children and their parents do not believe that equality of opportunity exists for all children. There is a definite disadvantage in the transfer of selection procedure outcome for B-grade pupils who seek to enrol in state-controlled or voluntary grammar schools, which are attended mainly by pupils from controlled primary schools. However, in the majority of the Roman Catholic maintained sector grammar schools, grade B—and even grade C—pupils have found school places.

I urge the Minister to endeavour to remove that unintentional discrimination and to co-operate with headmasters and boards of governors who seek to increase their school admissions and enrolment numbers in order to meet local demand for places and, above all, to ensure that more children from controlled schools with a B grade obtain the grammar school places that their parents seek for them. When the Minister has examined closely what has been happening in Northern Ireland for several years, I shall do my own test and I hope that I shall be able to award a pass mark to the officials in the Department of Education.

The Department of Health and Social Services, in vote 5, page 10, makes provision for Christmas bonuses for pensioners. The value of the Christmas bonus has diminished steadily since it was introduced, and that issue should be examined. An early announcement when circumstances trigger entitlement to cold weather payments would give comfort and reassurance to those awaiting benefit from that source.

12.19 am
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I begin by expressing the thanks of all those connected with Limavady grammar school to the Minister of State for making available £6.4 million for long-needed improvements to that school. I declare an interest as my children attend the school. Although they will probably have left school by the time that the work is finished, the substantial improvements will benefit future generations and Northern Ireland as a whole.

A high-quality education is a vital building block if the capacity of Northern Ireland to attract investment in jobs is to improve. Right hon. and hon. Members on the Ulster Unionist Bench recognise that. During 1995, Northern Ireland's economy improved. We all want that improvement to continue so as to banish the misery of unemployment for ever.

Given the efforts being made by Government to provide employment, I should be grateful for a full explanation of the policy being pursued by the Government and the Industrial Development Board, in relation to the way in which they promote one area of Northern Ireland rather than another.

The Minister is aware of remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) on 7 February 1996 at column 274, to the effect that the Government's policy was to provide three quarters of all new jobs in specific areas of deprivation. That piece of information builds on the letter sent to me by the Under-Secretary, Baroness Denton, who is in charge of the Department of Economic Development: While IDB is specifically tasked to give priority targeting to areas of social need", the letter, of course, repeats the mantra that the ultimate decision … rests … with the investor. I have to tell the Minister of State that that statement is not good enough. We on this Bench want to know just how the "tasking" is worded and how it has worked out in practice, with regard to the amount of investment and jobs of all types going to areas dominated by one religious denomination. We also want to know what extra little sweeteners have been given to investors to go to selected areas that have not been given to other areas.

We want a list of the favoured areas, in relation to not only council districts, but locations within each council area, and we want to know how long that policy has been in play, the changes made to it, when they were made and what input there was from the Maryfield secretariat.

I hope that the House and those remaining in the Chamber, if not the Government, realise the enormity of what has gone on. It is simply that some parts of Northern Ireland and the citizens who live there have had consistent, assiduous discrimination in their favour by the application of "guidelines" laid down by the Government. Such guidelines no doubt have a very fuzzy line round them and are capable of a wide variety of constructive interpretations.

The Minister will be aware that in the Northern Ireland context, some people will say that the discriminatory nature of the policy means that some areas of Northern Ireland, such as Coleraine in my constituency and Ballymena in North Antrim, are expected to pull themselves up by the efforts of the local community alone. Given that other areas have very many millions of pounds of public funding poured in, my constituents are competing on very unequal terms.

I want a categoric assurance from the Minister that all areas will be on a level playing field in future, because what has been going on is unacceptable by any normal standard that one might care to apply.

I shall now discuss two or three small items. I shall be brief because two hon. Gentlemen from Great Britain have been sitting here, hoping to speak.

The Minister will be aware of the Arcadia building in Portrush. It occupies an honoured place in that holiday resort and it has been at the centre of several allegations in recent days. The answers that I was given to parliamentary questions on 15 February set out briefly many facts and say, among other things, that the ballroom was in a very poor state of repair.

The chamber of commerce in the town has been involved in efforts to repair the building, to make future use of it. I am given to understand that the chamber of commerce needs to see the development brief and the structural survey before it can make up its mind what can be done. Is there any good reason why the Minister should not allow it to do so, so that it will become clear whether that famous building can be brought back into use?

As to the salting of roads during the present winter and in future winters, a new primary school has been built at Cregg road in Claudy—it is a steep minor road, with the school about 100 yd from the main road. The school authorities and the children are most anxious that the short stretch between the main road and the school is salted during bad weather, because it is dangerous in the present conditions. In a letter dated 14 February, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), simply said, "No, nothing doing," which is not an acceptable attitude. He wrote that it would not be possible to respond positively in all cases. That implies that it is possible to respond positively in some cases. I suggest that salting should be undertaken in this case, to avoid the accident that parents feel is just around the corner. I ask the Minister seriously to reconsider my request.

12.25 am
Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

I want to express my appreciation of the gesture by all our colleagues from Northern Ireland to make time available for two other hon. Members. Northern Ireland Members do not get that much time on the Floor of the House, so I appreciate their courtesy in sharing it.

As to the Department of Economic Development's vote 1 in respect of the Industrial Development Board, I want to express my admiration for the board's centres world wide. Members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee visited South Korea and were most impressed by the IDB's representative, Mr. Kim. Using local people has certainly paid off, and I hope that the Minister will maintain that cost-effective policy.

I noted from the IDB's report that the board made visits throughout Northern Ireland, to try to ensure that each area feels that it is included in the board's activities. However, there are concerns in South Down and Fermanagh—in common with any area outside Belfast and other big centres—that they are not getting their fair share. I ask the Minister to remain vigilant, to ensure that all areas of Northern Ireland enjoy a fair share of the limited opportunities to attract industrial activity to the Province.

Earlier, the Minister made reference to block payments, saying that if one section benefited more, cuts would have to be made in another. Life is about comparisons. The Northern Ireland Office could certainly learn from the Scottish Office, and ensure that any new incumbent as Secretary of State does not spend a fortune on public relations activities, in hiring right-wing journalists all over the place purely and simply for publicity-seeking purposes. If the Northern Ireland Office does not go down that road, that will save a fair amount of money.

The Industrial Research and Technology Unit's report states that the promotion of engineering and science as a career for girls was given particular attention in 1994–95, which also merits praise. The IRTU is represented on the WISE committee—the Women in Science and Engineering committee—which aims at changing the attitude of young people, parents and teachers in respect of career opportunities for men and women in science and engineering. That excellent IRTU initiative is praiseworthy, as is the unit's inaugural Irish innovation lecture.

At the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference in July 1993, Ministers agreed that Northern Ireland and the Republic would collaborate in launching a series of Irish innovation lectures, aiming to publicise the importance of innovation in wealth creation. Without going into any border or constitutional issues, that was an example of sensible co-operation between two neighbouring administrations to address the issue of wealth—the basis of providing all other services in the island of Ireland.

I now move on to the Department of the Environment and particularly the responsibility for planning. Recently, the Department of the Environment launched a consultation paper on the Belfast city region and invited comments on that document which dealt with planning for the entire region. Although it was a consultation paper, not one outside influence was involved in compiling it. Although the Department was prepared to listen to any point of view, the parameters and the agenda that were set did not encourage a whole range of submissions to the paper. That brings me to the specific spending commitment.

A number of organisations need to be fostered and encouraged in relation to planning in Northern Ireland to compensate for the well-known and well-expressed democratic deficit in the Province. Local councillors do not have as much say and influence as they should in planning matters. I understand that we need an internal settlement in Northern Ireland before we can address that democratic deficit, however, surely there is a need to ensure proper funding for organisations that can help community groups formulate submissions to planning documents such as that for the Belfast city region. I was certainly impressed by three organisations: Community Technical Aid, the Rural Development Council and the Rural Community Network. If those organisations are to help the community address the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland, they need financial support.

In Britain, the importance of community participation was highlighted in the 1994 Department of the Environment research department report entitled: "Community Involvement in Planning and Development Processes". It stated that rather than being an additional hurdle or barrier to development, involvement can be a way to speed processes and generate more acceptable proposals". That is exactly right for England, Scotland and Wales; it is also exactly right for Northern Ireland, where there is also a democratic deficit. I hope that the Minister will be able to maintain and, if possible, increase support to those organisations that serve the community.

I now move on to the votes on the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, which cover one or two matters that are worthy of support. One is the relationship between ombudsmen. Informal meetings of public sector ombudsmen are held three times a year, when the ombudsman meets the local government ombudsmen for England, for Wales and for Scotland and Mr. Kevin Murphy, the Northern Ireland ombudsman. That illustrates that there is proper co-operation that can be only for the good of Northern Ireland.

Planning and DSS were the two most frequent sources of complaints to the ombudsman. One case involved the review of formal investigations regarding planning and concerned the Department of the Environment. The ombudsman's report stated: The Department's records of its investigation and pursuit of the breach of planning approval were completely inadequate. Rarely have I come across such a history of inefficiency and poor administrative practice. Time and again my investigation was hampered by the absence of documentary evidence of telephone calls, site inspections, internal instructions". I maintain that that type of fault in the planning service is directly related to the lack of democratic oversight of the work of the Department in question. It is high time that the Department found a way of ensuring that local communities can monitor its work and have some input in to it. They should not just have the chance to complain; that just puts them on the back foot. There must be a specific place for electoral involvement in the planning service in Northern Ireland.

I shall close on that note. Once again, I express my appreciation to my Northern Ireland colleagues.

12.35 am
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Why is the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire rising to speak at 12.35 am in an appropriation debate on Northern Ireland? He will get no coverage in his local media, but he does think it important.

Appropriation debates are probably the nearest we come to Northern Ireland Budget debates, when important matters relating to Northern Ireland's economy can be considered. This is our opportunity to talk about the economic and social regeneration of the Province, and the requisite approaches to that.

The economic and social regeneration of Northern Ireland helps perhaps more than anything else to undermine terrorism in the end. I know that blocking terrorism also helps regeneration, as has happened recently—although we currently face a considerable setback.

There are all sorts of headings under which these matters can be discussed. I want to pick up remarks made by other hon. Members today. It was noticeable that there was hardly a breath of sectarianism in the debate. Indeed, there was a great deal of common ground between the representatives of four political parties. Many of them were advancing constituency concerns and looking for more assistance, but there seemed to be a great deal of common ground when it came to expenditure and the means of obtaining it.

In several Northern Ireland debates that I have attended I have found great cross-party agreement about various items. I remember our debates on student loans. Throughout Northern Ireland there was opposition to the Government's proposals. In Committee, electricity privatisation was also the subject of common conclusions, although the arguments varied. A subject of a great deal of unity this evening has been the ACE schemes.

People often fail to understand, in short, how much unity there is in Northern Ireland politics. That is because of the key divisions about its constitutional future.

I should like to know more about the economic and social programmes of the various parties to these debates. I would like the SDLP, the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the Independent Unionists to spell out their programmes a little more fully. Do those programmes tie in with the speeches that are being made? The only person this evening who seemed to tie in his analysis with a more general economic outlook was the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux). It turns out that his analysis was different from everyone else's.

The right hon. Member started by saying that his argument should be seen within the context of a unitary taxation system that existed throughout the United Kingdom, and that it could be extended only from ideas that were being produced about what should be done in Northern Ireland constituencies. If extrapolated, that would lead to bankruptcy and, therefore, we must be careful about expenditure. The right hon. Member then elaborated his overall objectives, including no fixed exchange rates, the repayment of national debt and low inflation. Some of those objectives are shared by the Government. Other ideas that were raised had much more flavour of Labourism, even if that was good old Labourism rather than new Labourism.

The appropriation debates should be used as an opportunity to discuss what needs to be done about economic and social problems in Northern Ireland, because it has massive problems quite apart from the conflict. Those other problems include high unemployment. Northern Ireland has many of the difficulties that exist in British constituencies in the health service and other provision, but to the nth degree. We need to take an overall approach. I know that that is difficult because Northern Ireland politicians, in the end, are out-groups in the United Kingdom Parliament. They provide support for Government or opposition to Government, but they never share power, unless—as might rarely happen—they hold the balance of power. Therefore, it is easier in most circumstances to behave more like a Back Bencher who is not necessarily always in line with his Front Benchers and to argue for constituency concerns.

I welcomed much of the debate. It has been very different from appropriation debates that I have come across in the past. The Ministers who introduced past debates usually made free enterprise arguments about the Northern Ireland economy. On this occasion, we had a rather dry, accountant's speech that did not offer any reasons for the order. Perhaps the debate will be enlivened by the Minister's response. The Opposition Front Benchers often make collectivist proposals, but on this occasion my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) questioned and probed the Government's position.

One of the Labour party's problems in Northern Ireland is that we are not organised there. We have an overall economic and social programme for growth, jobs, partnership and the extension of training and education. That extends to Northern Ireland, but we do not have a movement there to influence what we do. When a debate in the House involves the central region of the Labour party, which might not be of immediate constituency concern to me, I feel obliged to be present because I am part of the central region. However, because we have no Members or even candidates from Northern Ireland, some of the detail about problems in Northern Ireland does not come to our attention except through informal links with bodies such as the Northern Ireland section of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

I wish us, including Front Benchers, to take a more ideological approach on economic and social matters, but it is essential that hon. Members from Northern Ireland do that themselves. In that way, people such as myself can learn how the views of the people of Northern Ireland fit into the overall perspective.

12.44 am
Mr. Dowd

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Like many other hon. Members, I was here just after 4.30 pm, when we began debating the earlier Northern Ireland business. Since then, we have covered a number of aspects of life for Northern Ireland citizens—from mega-political issues relating to emergency provisions and the tragic circumstances of the moment, to life as it is lived by real people in all corners of Northern Ireland.

I endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). What is transparently evident from the debate is the common experience of people from all backgrounds in all parts of Northern Ireland, and the fact that they are trying to get on with their lives in a way that is to the best advantage of themselves and their families.

Earlier, I took up a good deal of the time of the House, so I shall be brief now. I do not intend to go over all the points that other hon. Members have covered; suffice it to say that I was delighted that every Northern Ireland Member who wanted to speak was able to do so, as were my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) and for North-East Derbyshire.

If the Minister picks up one feature of the debate, it will be the overwhelming concern that is felt about the action for community employment programme, which was mentioned in detail by the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for South Down (Mr. McGrady), for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) and for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), and by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). Indeed, most other hon. Members mentioned ACE, if only in passing.

It is a salutary lesson for the Minister that, whatever else has happened to the programme, the way in which the reduction exercise has been carried out has merely antagonised many people, and undermined the agency's position. It clearly needs re-examination. The minor concessionary allowance announced earlier today is a promising start, but the Minister would be deluding himself if he thought that that was the end of the dispute.

I was struck by what the hon. Member for East Antrim said about an evaluation of the project, to take, at least, a scientific approach of some kind. As I said earlier, I have been trying to obtain information from the Training and Employment Agency about the schemes that it is supporting, where the schemes are and what the benefits are, but I have been unable to obtain it. I sincerely hope that it has that information, because without it the effects of the measure will be harsh and, indeed, extremely unfair.

Many hon. Members mentioned the health service. We were given clear signs of the growth of a two-tier service. The reforms in Northern Ireland have been somewhat behind those in the rest of the United Kingdom, but the experience is identical. One of the most infuriating aspects of the way in which many shadow trusts—trusts, as many of them will soon be—have gone about their business is their devaluation of the idea of consultation. They go through the formality of announcing a plan, and saying that there will be a period for responses; but I have yet to come across a single case in which their ultimate conclusion has been different from their original projection. That was just as true in the major London teaching hospitals as it has been in Northern Ireland.

There was a widespread feeling that the Housing Executive had, if not lost its way, lost a great deal of momentum in recent times. The story about grants recounted by the hon. Member for Belfast, East illustrated the problems experienced throughout Northern Ireland and, indeed, the rest of the United Kingdom.

On roads and infrastructure, most hon. Members gave detailed and experienced voice to many of the issues that I outlined some time ago from the Dispatch Box.

I am sure that hon. Members will be far more interested in what the Minister has to say in response to all of the matters that have been raised. I am deeply interested in the 27 volumes of paper that have come down from the other end of the Chamber, so I conclude my remarks and look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

12.49 am
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram)

I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State who opened the debate. He had been in the Chamber since about 4.30 pm yesterday and he had other responsibilities, as I am sure that hon. Members will realise. He asked me to apologise that he could not be here for the wind-up.

An enormous number of topics have been covered, as usual, and a lot of paper has been moving around the Chamber. I am always fascinated when I start off with a brief that seems to cover everything, only to discover that ideas that hon. Members have come up with have not been covered in my briefing—it is always helpful to have a little assistance from time to time. I shall try to answer the main questions that have been asked. I cannot answer all the questions, as I do not have the time. I would not do the questions justice if I tried to answer them in the time available, so I shall write to hon. Members on matters that I have not covered.

As usual, the debate has been a voyage of enlightenment. I was once asked by someone who read the Official Report of one of these debates whether Northern Ireland really was such an unhappy place, because everything seemed to be wrong. I pointed out that it was not the total picture of Northern Ireland and that it was merely a lot of hon. Members doing their job and raising important issues on behalf of their constituents. When I wind up these debates, I always feel rather like the Pooh-Bah of the debate—expected to be able to deal with everything. As I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members realise, many of the issues that have been raised do not fall within my own ministerial responsibilities, but I shall endeavour to cover the issues that do.

The ACE scheme was touched on by many hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd), for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for South Down (Mr. McGrady), for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) and for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), and the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). I understand the concerns that have been expressed about the reductions in the ACE programme, and have heard the heartfelt representations that have been made. I shall pass them on to my colleagues.

It is right to say, however, that ACE was introduced at a time when unemployment was rising rapidly. Although it is still a major problem, there are signs of improvement. Unemployment has fallen to its lowest level in 14 years. During the 12 months to June, 11,000 new jobs were created in Northern Ireland. Output has risen 13.2 per cent. faster than in the rest of the United Kingdom, and there has been a steady stream of inward investment projects and expansions of existing firms. In response to the improving economic situation, there were pertinent reasons for refocusing the use of resources, with more emphasis placed on the schemes that more directly contribute to economic growth and that will in the longer term better address the needs of the unemployed, particularly the long-term unemployed, in finding sustainable employment.

I share the pleasure, which others have expressed tonight, at the announcement by my noble Friend Baroness Denton of a £2 million package of transitional measures to allow ACE schemes to manage the reduction of activities. These are designed to allow schemes, particularly those that provide support to the needy, the elderly, the disabled and the ill, time to plan alternative arrangements. Short-term funding is also being made available for schemes that are losing core posts, to phase them out over the year. I am sure that that will be helpful.

I can tell the hon. Member for South Down that there has been no reduction in the overall budget for the Training and Employment Agency. Additional resources have been made available, for example, to the company development scheme and the community work programme. The adjustments to ACE have facilitated the refocusing of resources.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir. J. Molyneaux) and the hon. Member for Lewisham, West asked what effect the security budget changes, which have resulted from the changing circumstances, might have on the Northern Ireland Departments' spending plans. Although the order under consideration this evening deals with the estimates only of Northern Ireland Departments, the public expenditure allocation underlying the separate Northern Ireland Office estimates is part of the total block provision for which the Secretary of State is responsible. Any increase in the Northern Ireland Office security budget as a result of the breakdown of the ceasefire will inevitably have repercussions for other important economic and social programmes.

It is right to make that point clear. I quote the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State when he announced this year's budget and the amount of money that was available as a result of what became known as the peace dividend. He said: Last year I explained that, if the violence resumed, these savings would have to be restored to the security budget. If violence resumes, then there will be losses in the key public services such as our schools and our hospitals, affecting the jobs of those who work in them as well as those who use them. That was a stark warning and it was a correct warning because many of those areas of expenditure had come about because of the savings that we were able to make as a result of peace. It was made clear at that time that if the savings were to be restored to the security budget and removed from the areas where they were being applied, the blame would lie fairly and squarely with those who had returned to violence. I hope that the people of Northern Ireland, in all parts of the community, will be fully aware that that is the price of the decision by the IRA—so widely condemned by us all—to return to violence.

I now turn to another general subject, which was raised only by the hon. Member for Belfast, East—the Fokker crisis and the impact on Shorts. I appreciate the importance of the contracts under which Shorts supplies wings to the Fokker jetliner programme and the concern among the work force at Shorts about their future job security. Those matters were raised by my noble Friend Baroness Denton when she recently met representatives of the Dutch Government in Holland. The problems facing Fokker are commercial and need to be resolved on that basis. The Industrial Development Board is maintaining close contact with Shorts and Bombardier on developments.

A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Members for South Down, for North Antrim and for Belfast, East, talked about what they described as the deficiencies and the cuts in Housing Executive funding. The gross resources available to the Housing Executive remain substantial—£547 million in 1995–96—and it is proposed to increase the figure by a further £8 million in 1996–97. Whatever views hon. Members may take about the level of housing need, no one can deny that those are substantial figures.

The other general matter that was raised by a number of hon. Members, especially the hon. Members for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for North Antrim, was what they referred to as the two-tier health service. The Government do not accept that GP fundholding has introduced a two-tier health service. Boards and trusts have considerable freedom to carry forward unspent funds from one year to another. Underspends do not reduce the budgets allocated to the boards for the next year.

I shall deal now with one or two specific issues raised by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West asked about the additionality of the EU peace programme. The programme, both the EU receipts and matching funds, is fully additional. The programme is novel in its delivery mechanisms, which are now in place. The rate of spend is expected to increase during the coming year and any money unspent this year can be carried forward to next year.

The hon. Members for Lewisham, West and for Mid-Ulster raised the question of dispensing guidelines for doctors. As a result of the implementation of the new departmental guidelines on dispensing, some doctors will lose dispensing income. The level of loss of income by individual GP practices cannot be gauged until the board's review of dispensing doctors' lists. However, to ensure that all existing medical practices in rural areas remain viable, the Health and Personal Social Services Executive is introducing an inducement scheme, from April 1996, which will guarantee their viability.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East invited me to meet him again to discuss Belmont primary school. These decisions are always difficult, but I would be delighted to have a meeting with him. I believe that my Department has been in touch to organise a meeting as soon as possible.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley asked about the enterprise investment scheme and referred to its low uptake in Northern Ireland. I note his comments. It is a national scheme that can provide valuable support for unquoted trading companies, and I should like businesses in Northern Ireland to make far greater use of its facilities. I certainly welcome the right hon. Gentleman's continuing interest in the subject, and I will pass on to my noble Friend Baroness Denton his offer of help to promote the scheme. I am grateful to him for having raised that important subject tonight.

The hon. Member for South Down referred to the replacement of the Strangford ferry. In relation to the consultants' report, which concluded that the motor vessel Portaferry should be looked at, the Department of the Environment is about to appoint an economic consultant to assist in the preparation of the business case for the substantial investment involved. Such a proposal will have to compete with other priorities in the roads programme.

The hon. Member for North Antrim asked why stage 3 of the Antrim to Ballymena road had been delayed for so long. The Department of the Environment recognises the value of completing the dualling of the A26 between Antrim and Ballymena, and it is planned to achieve that in stages. The first stage was completed in August 1989, while stage 2 is programmed for the current year. Stages 3 and 4 have always been longer-term proposals, and are at present included in what is known as the six to 15 years major works programme.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South asked why rent increases were continually rising above the level of inflation. The rent increase coming into effect in April this year is held to the rate of inflation and is in line with the average percentage guideline increase announced for local authority housing for England. The average Housing Executive weekly rent is, at about £32, some £6 less than the average council house rent in England and Wales. Tenants on housing benefit will not be affected by the rise. I heard the hon. Gentleman's invitation to visit Wellington college, and while I regret that I have had to put off that visit on a number of occasions, I look forward to going to the college soon.

A number of other questions have been raised that I do not have time to deal with, and I shall write to the hon. Members concerned about them. We have had a comprehensive debate. Through all of the complaints that inevitably come up in these debates has come an enormous pride in Northern Ireland and a determination to work for the benefit of Northern Ireland. That is a determination that we all share. We all realise that we have an enormous role to play in achieving peace, and I am sure that that is a role which we will not shirk.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.