HC Deb 13 June 1996 vol 279 cc449-87 4.59 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler)

I beg to move, That the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 5th June, be approved. The draft order, which covers the main estimates for Northern Ireland departments, authorises expenditure of £3,617 million for the current financial year. Taken together with the sum voted on account in February, this brings total estimates provision for Northern Ireland departments to £6,438 million, an increase of 6.2 per cent. on 1995–96 provisional outturn. The sums sought for individual services are set out in the estimates booklet, which is, as usual, available from the Vote Office. I remind the House that the estimates for the Northern Ireland Office covering law and order services are not covered by the order before us.

As is customary on these occasions, I shall highlight the main items in the estimates, starting with the Department of Agriculture. The net provision in the two agriculture votes amounts to some £164 million. In vote 1, net provision of some £20 million is to fund European Union and national agriculture and fishery support measures which apply throughout the United Kingdom.

The net provision covers the various pre-funded market support measures under the common agricultural policy, which total £135 million. The vote includes some £6 million to assist structural improvements, by way of various capital, environmental and other grants. Some £14 million is to provide support for farming in special areas by means of headage payments on hill cattle and sheep, while £6 million is in respect of processing, marketing and fishing projects, which are wholly funded by the European Union.

In vote 2, some £140 million is for on-going regional services and support measures. This includes £60 million for the development of the agriculture and agricultural products industries and for scientific and veterinary services. Some £27 million is for farm support, enhancement of the countryside and fisheries and forestry services; £24 million is for central administration, including information technology and specialist accommodation services; and £5 million is for the rural development programme. Some £18.4 million is for watercourse management, which is due to become a next steps agency with effect from 1 October 1996.

This vote also contains net provision of £9.3 million in respect of the EU peace and reconciliation programme which incorporates agricultural, rural and water-based projects.

In the Department of Economic Development's vote 1, some £134 million is required for the Industrial Development Board. This will enable the board to continue to attract and support industrial development in Northern Ireland, mainly through the provision of factory buildings and selective financial assistance to both new and existing companies. In 1995–96, the board supported some 35 inward investment projects offering 4,869 jobs.

In vote 2, some £115 million is required. Thirty-two million pounds is for the local enterprise development unit, Northern Ireland's small business agency. This will allow the agency to maintain its excellent record in developing, strengthening and improving the competitiveness of the important small firms sector in Northern Ireland.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the excellent news that 300 new jobs are coming to Cookstown in my constituency. I wish to put on record our appreciation for all the efforts made by the Industrial Development Board and for Baroness Denton's help in getting those jobs for Mid-Ulster.

Northern Ireland's major industry is agriculture. Does the Minister accept that, as we have heard this afternoon, Northern Ireland is practically bovine spongiform encephalopathy free? Will he encourage the Secretary of State, the Cabinet and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to try to get the European ban lifted and allow Northern Ireland to lead the United Kingdom out of the present awful situation, bearing in mind the quality of our produce, which is respected across the world?

Sir John Wheeler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks in which he thanked my noble Friend for her enthusiastic and sterling work on behalf of his constituency and the whole of Northern Ireland. She will be much sustained and encouraged by his observations. I know that the hon. Gentleman works unceasingly to support his constituents by sustaining the business environment and he is aware that he is appreciated for doing so.

As for the BSE problem, it is simply not acceptable that the UK should have been placed in the present position. It is the Government's policy that the ban should be lifted not only for Northern Ireland but for the UK as a whole. The hon. Gentleman's specific remarks about Northern Ireland's excellent record are, of course, well understood and will undoubtedly form part of the Government's case in Europe to see that the ban is lifted as soon as possible. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks.

I was giving the House some financial information. A total of £15.5 million is for the industrial research and technology unit, primarily to promote the competitiveness of local companies by encouraging innovation, industrially relevant research and development and by technology transfer. This underlines the importance that the Government attach to helping Northern Ireland industry to grasp the technological opportunities that underpin successful economic development.

Finally in this vote, £14.6 million is for the Northern Ireland tourist board to support the tourist industry in Northern Ireland. This coming year will be an important challenge for tourism in Northern Ireland. In 1995 we saw the seventh consecutive rise in visitor numbers: a record number of almost 1.6 million people came to Northern Ireland, a 20 per cent. increase on 1994. Investment in tourism remains healthy with a number of major development projects announced in recent months.

In vote 3, £212 million is for the Training and Employment Agency. This will enable the agency to continue to provide a range of comprehensive training and support measures, and includes £73 million to fund 16,000 training places under the jobskills training programme. Some £45.6 million is for the action for community employment and community work programmes, which will provide some 8,000 places for long-term unemployed adults in projects of community benefit. Furthermore, £23.7 million is to assist companies to improve their competitiveness by developing the skills of their work force and to provide training for those intending to pursue management careers in industry.

I deal now with the Department of the Environment. In vote 1, £180 million is for roads, transport and ports. This includes some £147 million for the development, operation and maintenance of Northern Ireland's public road system.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the share of funding allocated to DOE roads in Northern Ireland is totally inadequate for current needs? We were disappointed in East Antrim that both the A8 and A2 projects were removed from the major works scheme. We would like them to be reinstated. Yesterday's announcement of major investment by Emerson Electric and Caterpillar in F. G. Wilson will increase substantially the number of heavy goods vehicles travelling between the new plants in Newtownabbey and west Belfast to and from Larne. I would ask that consideration be given at the earliest possible date to increasing the amount of money both for new projects and for road maintenance throughout Northern Ireland.

Sir John Wheeler

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion of the road to Larne and all adjacent roads and he argues his case with conviction. The roads programme is assessed on an annual basis and has to take into account circumstances, time, financial priorities and other objectives. However, the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with responsibility for roads will be replying to the debate and I have every confidence that he will wish to respond to the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and possibly to other comments about roads which may be made during the debate.

To continue, maintenance of the road system remains a priority with some £72 million being spent this year. The maintenance programme is complemented by new road construction, minor road improvement and safety schemes. This year, some £3.4 million has been made available for phase 2 of the cross-harbour bridge scheme, with completion of the M3 Lagan Bridge to the Sydenham bypass scheduled for October 1997.

Vote 2 covers housing, where some £210 million will provide assistance mainly to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the voluntary housing movement. That is an increase of some £4 million on 1995–96. When net borrowing and the housing executive's rents and capital receipts are taken into account, the total resources available for housing this year will be some £607 million. That is an increase of some £5 million over 1995–96 and will support the continued improvement of housing conditions enabling the housing executive to start some 900 new houses and housing associations to start some 1,250 new dwellings.

Vote 3 covers expenditure by the new Water Service Agency covering water and sewerage services where gross expenditure is estimated at £181 million. Some £75 million is for capital expenditure and some £106 million is for operational and maintenance purposes and administration costs.

In vote 4, about £200 million is for environmental and other services. That includes provision for the environment and heritage service, the planning service, the construction service and land registers of Northern Ireland, all of which achieved agency status in April 1996. Some £37 million is for urban regeneration measures that continue to be targeted at areas of social, economic and environmental need. Those measures provide the catalyst for higher overall investment through partnerships with the private sector. Some £25 million has also been made available under the European Union peace and reconciliation programme, of which some £18.5 million is being funded from EU receipts.

The estimates for the Department of Education seek a total of £1,422 million, an increase of 2.5 per cent. over last year's provision. Vote 1, which now incorporates the provision previously provided in vote 2, includes £877 million for recurrent expenditure by education and library boards—an increase of £34 million over 1995–96. It includes £829 million for schools and colleges of further education.

Vote 1 also provides some £48 million for libraries, youth services and administration, £39 million for boards' capital projects, some £35 million for capital projects in voluntary and integrated schools and £134 million for recurrent expenditure by voluntary and integrated schools. Those amounts include some £24 million for integrated schools—an increase of £9 million over 1995–96.

Also in vote 1, £116 million is provided for local universities to enable them to maintain parity of provision with comparable universities in the rest of the United Kingdom and £125 million is for mandatory student support, including grants and student loans. The vote also covers expenditure on a range of youth, sport, community and cultural activities, including some £17 million for arts and museums and some £3 million for community relations. About £11.5 million has also been made available under the EU peace and reconciliation programme, some £8.6 million of which is being funded from EU receipts.

The next set of votes relates to the Department of Health and Social Services. Vote 1 provides £1,432 million for expenditure on hospital, community health, personal social services, health and social services trusts, family health services and certain other services. That represents an increase of 2.5 per cent. on last year's provision.

In vote 3, £26.5 million is for expenditure on certain miscellaneous health and personal social services costs. Costs of the services now borne on that vote were previously provided for in vote 3 administration and miscellaneous services. The provision sought reflects a 12.1 per cent. increase over last year's final net provision.

In vote 4, £150 million is for the Department's administration and other miscellaneous costs. It includes £99 million for the Social Security Agency, £7.5 million for the Northern Ireland Child Support Agency, £9 million for the Health and Social. Services Executive and £4 million for the Health Estates Agency.

In vote 5, £1,628 million is for social security benefit expenditure administered by the Social Security Agency. That represents an increase of 9.2 per cent. on last year and covers not only the general uprating of benefits from April 1996, but an increasing number of beneficiaries.

In vote 6, £370 million is to cover expenditure on the independent living funds, housing benefits, the social fund and payments into the Northern Ireland national insurance fund.

Finally, I turn to the Department of Finance and Personnel, where, in vote 3, £5.8 million is sought for the community relations programme. In addition, some £3 million has also been made available through funding from EU receipts under the EU peace and reconciliation programme. It reflects the importance that the Government continue to attach to community relations in Northern Ireland.

In my opening remarks, I have drawn attention to the main provisions of the estimates. In replying to the debate, I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will wish to respond to points raised by hon. Members. I commend the order to the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Before I call the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), it may be helpful if I make clear that the debate on this order may cover all matters for which Northern Ireland departments, as distinct from the Northern Ireland Office, are responsible. Police and security, including the current peace talks, are the principal excluded subjects.

5.18 pm
Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

The order is wide ranging, and as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pointed out, it covers the votes to the various departments of the Northern Ireland Office. We welcome the order. I shall comment on a few areas covered by it and ask a few questions to which I hope the Under-Secretary will be able to respond this evening. If he is not, he will no doubt respond in writing to any points that remain unanswered.

The BSE crisis is having a devastating effect on the beef industry in Northern Ireland and on the Northern Ireland economy, despite the fact that the incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland is extremely low. As I have said in previous debates, the beef industry is extremely important to Northern Ireland. Agriculture is one of the largest sectors of the Northern Ireland economy—if not the largest—and the beef industry is very important to it. Eighty per cent. of Northern Ireland's beef is exported, much of it to Europe, so the ban is having a devastating effect on the more than 16,000 farms in Northern Ireland that rely to some extent on cattle for the beef industry.

The cull is also causing one or two problems in the Province due to the backlog and delays in dealing with animals. I should like to put one or two points to the Government. I understand that young bulls aged between 24 and 30 months, which were not part of the original cull scheme, have now been accepted. The rate of compensation for those animals will be 171p a kilo, which is about 20p below the intervention rate. Although farmers in Northern Ireland are grateful that the bulls have been accepted into the cull programme, I understand that they are disappointed that the compensation payments fall short of what those animals would have made on the open market. In overall terms, each animal is worth about £1,000 on the market, but farmers will receive about £750 in compensation.

There are also fears that this week's meeting of the beef management committee in Europe will recommend reductions in the compensation rates payable to farmers for the beef cull. One payment that is in line for a reduction is the 25p top-up payment, which is paid in compensation for steers and heifers reaching 30 months since 20 March 1996. I understand that there are different rates of compensation for an animal's live weight and its dead weight. The Government topped up the dead-weight payment by 25p, but there is a fear that that payment will disappear. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Government will press for those compensation payments to remain?

Compensation for a dead-weight animal is 171p a kilo, as opposed to 85p a kilo live weight. The difference is a factor of two. It is envisaged that it may be reduced to a factor of 1.6, which would reduce the 171p a kilo compensation payment to 140p a kilo. There is concern among farmers in Northern Ireland that they will lose out if such reductions are implemented. I urge the Minister to use whatever influence he has to mitigate any change in those payments proposed in European meetings. Northern Ireland farmers are asking the Government to ensure that farmers do not lose out as a result of the backlog in dealing with animals that will be part of the culling process.

The framework document that is before the European Union is likely—I hope—to be accepted. If it is, Northern Ireland will be in an advantageous position compared with the rest of the United Kingdom; 90 per cent. of herds in Northern Ireland are grass fed, there is a low incidence of BSE and a traceability system is in place. Will the Government take on board the possibility of the ban being lifted early in Northern Ireland if the framework document is accepted and the herds in Northern Ireland meet its criteria?

Fears have been flagged up in the press recently that a further 200 jobs might be lost at Shorts as a result of the collapse of Fokker. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding those jobs. I understand that there is a possibility that Shorts might undertake a contract to build 70 aircraft wings. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to try to mitigate the effects of the collapse of Fokker, to assist in securing that contract and to protect the jobs at Shorts.

Also under the heading of the vote for economic development is the assistance voted to the Northern Ireland electricity industry, which is a long-standing problem in the Province. The issue surrounding electricity prices is worsening by the day. It is estimated that the difference between average Great Britain prices and those in Northern Ireland is 20 per cent., but in some areas it is even greater. The annual bill for a consumer in the London Electricity area, whose prices are close to the Great Britain average, is £305.12, compared with an estimated annual bill in Northern Ireland of £366.95—a difference of 20 per cent.—but the relatively higher level of consumption of electricity in Northern Ireland means higher electricity bills. The average bill in the London area of £305.12 should, therefore, be compared with a bill in Northern Ireland of more than £400—a difference of 32 per cent.

For pre-payment meter bills, which are in use for the lower paid in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, an average annual bill in the London area is £317 compared with £430 in Northern Ireland—a difference of 36 per cent. The difference between prices in Northern Ireland and Great Britain is, therefore, anywhere between 20 and 36 per cent.

It is interesting that, this week, Northern Ireland Electricity announced that its profits have increased by just under 12 per cent. to £105.9 million. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there are headlines in the press in Northern Ireland such as: Northern Ireland Electricity Upbeat About Economic Growth". The Government provided £15 million this year to keep electricity prices in Northern Ireland lower than they would have been. The price increase was kept to 2.6 per cent. as a result of that money, which is part of a package of £60 million that the Government have made available. They must consider other ways in which to spend the rest of that money because, next year, Northern Ireland Electricity will require a grant of £30 million to maintain those price reductions. All that that £15 million is doing is delaying the price increase that will come about when the payments cease. We must consider other ways of using the remainder of the £60 million. I urge the Government again to consider providing money towards Northern Ireland Electricity's capital investment programme, which would have a direct effect in reducing prices, as part of the price review that is under way.

That review will have to address two major problems associated with Northern Ireland Electricity, which were caused by the way in which it was privatised. First, contracts with the generators allow the complete pass-through of Northern Ireland Electricity's costs in power purchase agreements. They allow for fuel costs, plus availability payments, to be passed through—despite the fact that there is overcapacity in electricity generation in Northern Ireland. The only good news for electricity consumers in Northern Ireland comes when the power stations break down, because then they are not required to make the availability payments. Any efficiency savings are kept by the generators as profit, and not passed through.

The Labour party proposed a windfall tax on utilities not only in Northern Ireland, but throughout the rest of the country, but the contracts for electricity generation in Northern Ireland allow any tax increase to be passed straight through to the consumer, so those profits cannot even be taxed by a future Government.

Northern Ireland paid a total of about £500 million for its electricity last year. NIE and the generators made about £150 million profit out of that. Last week, NIE announced profits of £104 million. Last year's profit was £87 million, achieved from a turnover of about £498 million. About half that turnover represents a straight pass-through of generating costs, so NIE made an £87 million profit on a turnover that is really nearer £250 million. That is an excessive rate of profit, and the Government should look at it long and hard.

This week, Warburgs said that NIE shares were still a good buy. That may be something of an understatement. The Office of Electricity Regulation Northern Ireland will produce a document later this month on the price review and a possible reference of the generating contracts in Northern Ireland to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, but because of the problems in Northern Ireland I urge the Government to refer the whole situation to the MMC now rather than wait for the production of that document.

Under the votes for the Department of the Environment, I shall mention the fire services. I ask the Minister to confirm that a budget has now been set for the Northern Ireland fire brigade, which recently explained that it had particular problems because of the shortfall in funding for the service. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the Northern Ireland fire service that its budget problems will be resolved.

Under the heading of the Department of Health and Social Services, I refer the Minister to mounting concern about the provision of health services in Northern Ireland. It would appear that the Under-Secretary of State now acknowledges that efficiency savings in the health service are no longer available, and that cuts will be implemented.

There have been warnings of cuts in services at several hospital trusts, and the Under-Secretary is on record as having said at a recent conference that he had to "come clean" and tell those assembled that efficiency savings are just not possible … Therefore I acknowledge that there will be cuts in services", although he did not like the fact. How can the Government keep referring to the 3 per cent. as efficiency savings, when there are no savings to be made? Surely the 3 per cent. now amounts to across-the-board cuts that will affect the level of health services provided in Northern Ireland.

I said that several hospital trusts in the Province had complained about the level of cuts being imposed on them by the so-called 3 per cent. efficiency requirement. At the conference the Under-Secretary also said that he did not think that any hospital closures would be envisaged in the near future. Perhaps he will reaffirm that when he replies.

I draw the Minister's attention to the widespread concern about the cuts that is being reported. The press in Northern Ireland is describing the efficiency savings as a "meltdown" in the health service. The Royal Victoria hospital will have to close its operating theatres for five weeks in the summer, which will mean the cancellation of hundreds of operations, and there are fears that people are being discharged too soon after surgery.

The South and East Belfast trust has made a cut of £1 million, involving a whole tier of management. I do not oppose that at all—I have long been an advocate of cuts in management, especially since Government reforms foist on the country a bill for more than £1 billion for extra health service management—but it would appear that the same trust is contemplating a reduction of a further £1 million. That will lead to the closure of wards and operating theatres, to longer waiting lists and to the closure of residential homes. Musgrave Park hospital describes "drastic" reductions, with more closures of operating theatres and wards.

We welcome the appropriation order and some of the votes that the Minister mentioned, especially those for tourism and training schemes. We welcome investment in Northern Ireland. None the less, we hope that the Government will take our suggestions on board and consider them closely.

5.35 pm
Sir James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Under the heading of the Department of Economic Development, vote 1, may I mention that, since I put my supplementary question at Question Time this afternoon to the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), about the possibility and desirability of the establishment of an economic committee representing both Houses of Parliament, I have been asked by interested Members to explain what I have in mind.

I have explained that I have in mind a body established not by rigid legislation but by simple resolution, perhaps even for a trial period. At the time, the right hon. Gentleman wondered whether the need for such a committee could be met by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. That is a worthy body, but it suffers from having far too wide a remit. Only occasionally can it concentrate on matters connected with the economy, and its members cannot be expected to meet at short notice to discuss with people such as Baroness Denton matters that require urgent attention, to consult overseas investors or to support the Baroness at major international conferences.

I do not imply or suggest that the committee, when it is formed—I shall not say "if' it is formed—should go to such places as a whole body, but a balanced team representing the various parties in the House, not the Northern Ireland parties alone, would be able to do much to underpin what Ministers, especially Baroness Denton, do when they go abroad to those prestigious gatherings.

There have been some such gatherings in the recent past, and many have been fruitful. I dare to suggest that they could have been even more fruitful if such a back-up body had been in place. Such a body, consisting of people experienced in industry, business and technology, from both Houses of Parliament, would do much to co-ordinate and boost measures to expand Northern Ireland's economy, not on a temporary basis, but on a rock-solid permanent basis.

Under the heading of the Department of Education, vote 1, I make a special plea for funds for two school replacements, and I shall give two examples of pressing need.

One is Ballycarrickmaddy primary school. The Official Reporters will be relieved to note that I propose to give them the spelling of that name in block letters. It is a rather ancient and small building that forms the core of a school that consists almost entirely of portacabins connected by muddy paths. It is unprotected from the weather, which is of the type one would expect on a hilltop site. The South Eastern education and library board has approved plans for a replacement school, which have been forwarded to the Department of Education.

I ask the Minister of State and his colleague to transmit to the Minister responsible for education a plea to ensure that account is taken of the fact that several other schools have been closed in that locality, the pupils from which are being bussed into Ballycarrickmaddy school. The roll has rocketed to 135 pupils, and it will be further increased in September because of the recent construction of 50 new homes within the catchment area. It is fashionable to advocate new schools as status symbols, but I am making this request, which is driven by dire necessity, on behalf of the South Eastern education and library board, the governors, teachers and pupils.

Another worthy funding request comes from the governors, teachers, parents and pupils of Tonagh school in Lisburn for a relatively small extension to a fairly modern school, where the number of pupils is increasing. Funding for the project would be comparatively modest. The number of pupils is increasing partly because of the housing estate in which the school is situated, and partly because of the adjacent estates from which pupils are attracted by the high standards of teaching and discipline for which the school is noted. I visited the school recently, and I was shown the sketch plans at the site. Even to my inexperienced eye, the proposed extension represented no real structural problems within the curtilage of the site, as there is plenty of space. I hope that this modest requirement will be sympathetically considered for early action.

I apologise to Ministers for bouncing a matter on them unexpectedly, but I received correspondence on an urgent matter in this afternoon's post. I shall give the Minister of State copies so that he will be au fait with the details of a matter that must be dealt with by his colleague, the Minister with responsibility for education. The present chief executive of the South Eastern education and library board, Tom Nolan, is to retire. All of us who have had dealings with him will concede that he has been one of the most efficient education officers in Northern Ireland for a long time. His retirement will leave a big gap in the administration of education throughout Northern Ireland, and I hope that—as he is a comparatively young man—he will find another role. I say that as a 75-year-old.

The board wrote to the Department of Education on 5 March 1996 to inform it of the retirement of the chief executive, and asked for guidance from the Department on how to trigger the procedures necessary for the appointment of someone as important as a chief executive. The board is up against a timetable, as the new chief executive has to be in post by 1 January. The Minister will know that there is a staged sequence of events in such appointments, starting with advertising and followed by listing, short-listing and innumerable interviews and assessments. The effect is that the board now faces a deadline of no more than six or seven days.

I apologise for appearing to bounce the issue on Ministers, but I need a response. There may be a good reason why the Department failed to acknowledge the letter from the board of 5 March. Two reminders were sent, but neither was replied to. The board now needs advice on how to proceed. Without such advice, it would be quite illegal—given all the restrictions placed on such appointments—to proceed unless and until the board has the Department's permission. The Department must respond within the coming week to the responsible request from the board.

The vote on health was mentioned by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley). On 12 February 1996, the Minister said: The resources are simply not available to meet all the demands placed upon health and social services and added that spending on existing services would have to be reduced by 3 per cent., or £30 million, throughout the Province.

The Down and Lisburn trust is based in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), and it is calculated that it will lose £1.8 million in the current year, but the situation is far more serious than that. Because of the late notification of the reductions announced on 12 February, there was no time to make the necessary adjustments. As a result, there will be serious service reductions in what I would call non-emergency areas of the health service in the current year, 1996–97. In those areas, the cut will not be 3 per cent., but about 30 per cent. We can imagine the effect of that in human terms—it will be disastrous. The missing services will distress patients and the general public, and it is forecast that additional reductions will be made in 1997–98. That will mean the disappearance of many facilities.

Since the Minister's statement on 12 February, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—as is his right—has been holding forth about the national finances. In a major speech recently, he indicated that education and the health service would be protected sectors and would not suffer when the Government made any cuts necessary to keep the national finances on course. The Chancellor implied that, if across-the-board cuts were forced upon the Government, they would not be applied to those protected areas. I regret that I do not have to hand the exact reference, but that was the broad sense of the Chancellor's statement and I have reason to believe that it is the broad sense of his views.

My plea to the Minister is this: in the short term, if extra funds can be found—as I believe they can—priority should be given to a booster injection in the current year to relieve the hardship that will undoubtedly result from the fact that the announcement was made comparatively near to the commencement of the current financial year.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I always understood that appropriation debates dealt with money delivered to the Northern Ireland Office which did not include security funding. Surely the fact that there has been a security bonus should not result in money being deducted from the Northern Ireland appropriation fund, as we were told that these were different budgets.

Sir James Molyneaux

That has always been a puzzle. I can never understand where we benefited from the peace dividend and the savings on security and security-related measures. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us. For one moment, I thought that my hon. Friend was going to ask what had happened to the billions of pounds that have accrued over the past five years from privatisations. It is not a piffling sum, but in the region of £87 billion. That little nest egg must be hidden away somewhere, too. Goldsmith does not have it all.

I mentioned my first priority, and I shall repeat it for good measure. If there are any lottery funds lying around, please devote them to a booster injection for the health service in the current financial year. My second priority is slightly longer term. In the 1996–97 expenditure round, I plead with the Minister to move heaven and earth to ensure that there will be no—repeat, no—further reductions in the Northern Ireland allocation for health for 1997–98 and beyond.

My party, under successive Treasury spokesmen, has supported the Government's monetary policies, which have now borne fruit. The battle against inflation is won; interest rates are steadily reducing; unemployment continues to drop. It is not outrageous to suggest that we, the Government's supporters, who have kept the faith through all those tough years, are entitled to a share in those achievements. That does not apply only to one sector of Northern Ireland, but I have highlighted those that need it most.

I hope that my words can be conveyed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Perhaps I ought to do it myself instead of inviting someone else to incur his wrath by suggesting that it is not time for pre-election tax cuts. The Chancellor made his position on that clear last night, which was the right and honourable thing to do. I gently remind him that our nation, which has suffered pretty badly over many years, is entitled to support the Chancellor in proclaiming his faith that the Government will protect health and education, irrespective of whatever further troublesome cuts may be required elsewhere.

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

The appropriation order debate gives us the opportunity to bring to the notice of the House various factors in relation to the provision of funds that are of special concern. It also allows us to express our views on matters that directly relate to our constituencies, under the terms of the order.

As I have stated on many previous occasions, north-west Belfast is an area of severe material deprivation. In addition, my constituency has suffered more murders and civil unrest than any other part of Northern Ireland over the past 27 years. It has a disproportionate number of elderly people, many of whom live in isolation, poverty and fear. They are honest, decent people who have contributed over the years to maintaining normality in their communities.

In supporting the remarks of the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux), I must say that the health and social services available to my elderly constituents have declined steadily in recent years. This year, there has an overall 3 per cent. reduction in the health service budgets, a move that I and my colleagues deplore.

To add insult to injury, the Eastern health and social services board, the purchaser of services for my area, has devised a formula for funding services for the elderly that has reduced services to them across north and west Belfast by a further £2.5 million. On the basis of a half-completed study by Sheffield university, the board has decided, in the interests of so-called equity, to transfer £2.5 million out of the most socially and economically deprived part of Northern Ireland. It has done so on the basis of a formula that does not recognise that elderly people are affected by deprivation. That, in turn, affects their needs for health and social care.

In real terms, the cuts mean the closure of three elderly persons' homes in my constituency, an area where there is little private care; a 5,000 hour a week reduction in home help services, which are a lifeline to many elderly constituents; and the loss to the local community of 120 jobs. The difference between maintaining many elderly people in their own homes through a modest service and maintaining them elsewhere is reflected in misery, human suffering and neglect. The Government are supposed to be targeting social needs in north-west Belfast and providing additional programmes to give it a chance to catch up. The Industrial Development Board is striving, with some success, to bring jobs into my constituency and that of my colleague the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron).

What is the Eastern health and social services board playing at? How can it present the transfer of resources as equitable? How can it argue that social deprivation does not affect the elderly and infirm? Why has it acted on the basis of a half-completed study, without bothering to wait for the final outcome, when the results are such a kick in the teeth to my constituents, and fly in the face of the Government's policies, which aim to regenerate the most deprived areas of Belfast, Protestant and Catholic alike?

I pay tribute to the Minister for giving the hon. Member for Belfast, West and me a sympathetic hearing when we recently talked to him about our concerns for the elderly in our constituencies. However, I say with all respect, we need more than sympathy. We need a complete reappraisal of the conditions that affect the elderly in north and west Belfast. Research shows that people in disfranchised groups suffer more ill-health and die younger but are also less likely to receive, or benefit from, health and social care. For the elderly population, the dilemma is even more acute because the cost of health care services rises dramatically with age. Hence, the dominant factors in allocating services to this group have been the numbers of the elderly and their age distribution, which is normally broken into the age groups of 65 to 74, 75 to 84 and 85-plus.

However, the people of deprived areas are unlikely to live as long as the general population. The health status of the surviving elderly in such areas may be worse than that of their counterparts elsewhere. Thus, the health needs of the 65-to-74 age group in deprived areas may be similar to those of the 75-to-84 group in a more affluent area. That is the situation that pertains to north and west Belfast. We have more chronically ill elderly, across the age spectrum, than any other part of the Province. We need extra resources to cater for their needs, not fewer.

The Minister knows how concerned I am about the cuts in orthopaedic surgery. It is inconceivable that elderly people who have subscribed all their lives to their country should be sentenced to pain and suffering, some of them for the rest of their lives, because of monetary considerations. It is an indictment of the Government for them to say that, because joint replacement is not life-threatening, it should be the subject of major financial savings. It is envisaged that the reduction in orthopaedic surgery will mean ward and theatre closures and job cuts. That will be another traumatic blow for a long-suffering elderly population.

On housing, I am pleased that the Government have recognised the efforts of the Housing Executive in contributing to meeting the housing needs of the Province by strengthening its strategic role. The transfer of the Department of the Environment housing functions in relation to housing associations and the private rented sector will facilitate a more comprehensive approach across all types of housing tenure.

In north and west Belfast, some housing factors are different for different religious sections of the population. In general, Catholics suffer more from overcrowding whereas Protestants suffer more from older housing. For both communities, housing remains a significant factor for their regeneration. Issues such as expansion of housing capacity, upgrading of older housing and improving tenure mix remain most important for many residents.

I am extremely concerned about the difficulties and delays associated with the Housing Executive grants process. Delays of up to three years are just not acceptable, especially when applicants are living in unacceptable conditions. I should like to see more of the executive's budget directed to dealing with the backlog, in the interests of the whole housing stock.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe (South Antrim)

Is my hon. Friend not also concerned that handicapped people for whom occupational therapists have recommended certain things are kept waiting, sometimes for years?

Mr. Walker

I am pleased that my colleague has brought that subject up. We are very much aware, particularly in north Belfast, but throughout the Province, of the terrible delays in providing for elderly people the facilities that they need to give them a meaningful life. I thank my colleague for bringing that to the notice of the Minister at this stage.

I am also critical of the Housing Executive's redevelopment programme. Decisions are taken to redevelop an area without adequate provision for those who are displaced, especially those who wish to live in the immediate area. I am also concerned about the criteria for valuing properties in redevelopment areas. The basic offer often does not reflect the true value of the property, when compared to other properties in the immediate area. I cite an area in Crumlin road—Rosewood, Yarrow and Albertville drive—where excellent three-storey brick houses have been incorporated into a redevelopment scheme. The houses are mostly owned by elderly occupiers who do not wish to leave their home, where they have lived for most of their lives. The houses have been vested. There is no public sector housing in the area suitable for them. They have been offered less than half of what it will take to purchase a house of less than half the size, where their furniture will just not fit. To top it all, the executive is taking up to £15 per week in rent to allow those elderly people to live in their own homes.

Quite a number of elderly people, some of whom are infirm, will not be able to cope with the trauma of moving home at their age. They will either have to stay in their houses, thereby holding up redevelopment, or move to residential care, where their assets, including their homes, will be required to keep them. There should be some discretion within housing management to cater for situations in which residents live in their own homes after vesting. They should not be subject to rent. The property should not come under executive ownership until the value of the house has been fixed and paid. Then, and only then, should rent be demanded.

I welcome the introduction of the order on industrial pollution control. North and west Belfast citizens suffered much in the past as a result of serious and life-shortening pollution emanating from a mill environment. There was a serious lack of attention to any form of pollution control in such circumstances. Health and safety factors were largely ignored in the continuing quest for increased production, to the detriment of the health of the community.

I pay tribute to the work of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and, in particular, Mr. Bob Brown and his staff. Our bird population in Northern Ireland has suffered much in recent years from human activities. It is noticeable just how many of our young people now take an interest in this important aspect of our environment, but unfortunately such dedication is not matched by Government action, which is often perceived to be retrospective and sluggishly bureaucratic. How often have we watched helplessly as other species have become almost extinct, as another habitat falls to development pressure?

While I am fully aware of the global nature of the problem, I feel that each of us should act directly in respect of our local concerns. For that reason, I continue to campaign for an independent environmental watchdog in Northern Ireland. I want a body with power and purpose to protect and police the whole local environment without becoming embroiled in political wrangles. I believe that such a body is essential to match the enthusiasm of our young people and is the most important single step that can be taken to preserve what still exists for successive generations.

6.6 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in the appropriation debate. I should like to touch on one or two aspects of some of the headings of expenditure which are before us this evening, beginning with the Department of Agriculture. My first comment is a fairly modest one about the problems facing agriculture and fisheries. Will the Minister take on board the suggestion that what was known as the sub-programme for agriculture and rural development should be reinstated? The scheme was suspended in March 1995 because of over-subscription and insufficient finance, but that showed the very need to continue the programme, which has not been reinstated after more than 12 months. For the uninitiated, SPARD is a scheme to assist farmers to update and modernise the facilities on their farm. My request is modest, but reinstatement soon would be welcome assistance to the farming community of Northern Ireland.

Under the heading of agriculture, two major problems face Northern Ireland. One is the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, which has been dealt with in considerable detail, and with eloquence, by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on the Front Bench. It would not be to the benefit of the House if I repeated all that he had to say. I simply underscore one or two points by way of brief sentences.

As my hon. Friend said, the problem is much more severe in Northern Ireland than it is in Great Britain because 70 per cent. of our production is exported, whereas only 10 per cent. of British production is exported. Recovery of home consumption, which I understand has progressed to 85 per cent. in Britain, does not touch the problem in Northern Ireland. It would not do so even if home consumption recovered 100 per cent., because of our export dependency. It is important that, in the negotiations that are now taking place, a decision be taken to treat Northern Ireland as a special case, in view of its special history, of the lack of prevalence of the disease and of the computerised tracing system, which can trace an animal from any beef, dairy or other herd right back to its source.

Such a tracing system is not available anywhere else. I do not think that it is even available in Europe. It gives us the facility to identify immediately that which is capable of eradication and the measures that will have to be applied if the present suggestions do not produce immediate success.

In the meantime, one or two issues, such as the storage of carcases between slaughter and rendering, must be addressed. The existing rendering facilities must be examined. I reaffirm what my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central said: there must be a continuation of the top-up supplement that is paid for steers and heifers—and it should be extended to beef bulls. If those matters were addressed on a day-to-day basis, it would help to alleviate some of the problems.

Another problem facing agriculture in Northern Ireland is the harvest from sea fishing. The recently published Lassen report gives a benchmark to the Northern Ireland fishing industry of minus 40 per cent. In other words, the European Commission is asking Northern Ireland to reduce its fishing fleet by 40 per cent., and it has already been reduced. I know that Baroness Denton has an active and productive interest in representing the interests of the fishermen. The latest suggestion is at variance with the requirements of the fishing industry in Northern Ireland—and it is contrary to scientific evidence.

All sides—the fishing industry, the processors, the Department of Agriculture and the scientific advisors to the Department—consider the Lassen report to be based on a false premise. The benchmark of 40 per cent. refers to nephrops, or prawns, and the other species that are caught incidental to them. It would be horrendous if the fishing industry were cut by 40 per cent.—it would kill the industry.

It is frustrating that the evidence in the report is contradictory. The report says that nephrops are not an endangered species, yet they are being used as the reason for the 40 per cent. reduction. I hope that the Department of Agriculture is represented in Brussels, as we speak this evening, and that it is putting the case for the fishing industry. The fishing industry and the farming industry in my constituency, and in many other constituencies, will be devastated economically.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if we have anything like the cut in the fishing fleet that is demanded, the on-shore infrastructure will also disappear because it could not be supported by the smaller number of fishermen coming ashore? Does he further agree that there is an abundance of haddock in the Irish sea and that it will not be harvested if the cuts are implemented? Does not the Hague preference militate against the Northern Ireland fleet, but help the southern fleet—which cannot catch the quota that it already has?

Mr. McGrady

I agree 100 per cent. with the three points that the hon. Gentleman raised. With respect to the Hague preference, there is a non-Hague official swap between the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland fishermen on the various catches. The downstream job creation from the fishing industry is fundamental to the economic welfare of my constituency and to other constituencies in Northern Ireland.

The people who hope to provide the infrastructure for tourism in Northern Ireland are frustrated. The Northern Ireland tourist board and the Department of Economic Development deal with tourism, but they do not have a cohesive policy. There was a huge upsurge in tourism to Northern Ireland during the ceasefire—and it has been sustained because of the de facto ceasefire. The immediate problem was the creation of bed accommodation for the tourist industry.

My constituency is a tourist-orientated and scenic part of the country—all hon. Members are welcome to visit it during the summer. Tourists were turned away and had to be sent to the Republic of Ireland for accommodation. The people who are now trying to provide the infrastructure, and who can do it quickly and efficiently, are not getting any assistance or encouragement because of the lack of policy of the Northern Ireland tourist board. That situation must be addressed quickly. I understand that there is a target development strategy and that the Northern Ireland tourist board has identified that, between 1995 and 2000—just four years from now—we shall need a 59 per cent. increase in bed accommodation.

Up to April 1996, the board's policy was to concentrate its entire budget and effort on three or four big hotel projects. However, tourists—as distinct from those attending conferences—want to stay in small, family-run hotels that are convenient to their places of pleasure. I mean that in the sense of amenities, seasides and mountains, rather than the city types of pleasures to which other hon. Members would be more accustomed than I. The tourists want small, well-run, high-class hotels and guest houses.

I know of two hotels in Warrenpoint, which is a tourist area, and of two in Newcastle, one of the biggest tourist centres in Northern Ireland. They could produce 50 beds within a matter of months, but they cannot get any assistance because of the absence of a policy. We need a policy to address the accommodation needs of our tourists.

I shall deal with job provision against the background of my constituency's inability to cash in on the tourist industry, of the terrible problems in the agricultural industry and of the problems faced by the fishing ports. During Northern Ireland Question Time, the Minister gave us some information about the economic upsurge in Northern Ireland. He said that 4,800 jobs have been created over the past three or four years. In the past week, 1,800 jobs have been created in West Belfast, Newtown Abbey, Larne and Cookstown.

I find it puzzling that, fiscal year after fiscal year, only 6 per cent. of first-time visitors to Northern Ireland, and only 5 per cent. of repeat visitors, come to an area that is covered by the three council districts of Banbridge, of Down and of Newry and Mourne, which includes all of my constituency and another constituency. Not one single inward investment job has been created.

That statistic is repeated year after year—and year after year, I ask the same question and I am assured that this is accidental. At some point, statistics have to be believed and someone has to say, "There is a flaw here; there is something wrong here." We are accessible: we are 10 miles from the harbour of Belfast in the northern half of Northern Ireland, and there is the relatively new Warrenpoint in the southern half. The problem spills over into industrial site provision. The Industrial Development Board was to close the Warrenpoint site. The acquisition of the Downpatrick site has gone for on six years without any sod being acquired by the board. I can no longer consider those matters to be entirely accidental.

Against that backcloth of economic difficulties in the fishing, farming and tourist industries, I ask again for a review of the siting of jobs because, as I have often said, if we are to have equity and justice, job location is just as important as job allocation.

An item in the programme of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland—a simple one involving the written test for driving licences—might seem a small matter to raise in such a lofty debate. People in the whole of Northern Ireland are being asked to go to six separate centres. In his reply to my letter on the subject, the Minister said: While the theory test contract provides for fewer theory test centres than there are practical centres, this reflects both the differences between the 2 types of tests and the necessity to maintain the theory test fee at a reasonable level for all candidates … Adding additional centres to cope with only 30,000–40,000 theory tests a year would be an uneconomic proposition and would require a significant increase to the theory test fee for everyone. I do not know how the Minister obtained that information because, as I understand it, the new agency is hiring new offices, new furnishings, new equipment and new everything else, although hundreds of education institutions are willing to provide this service for as little as £35 a test, however many people are in that test. Therefore, it has nothing to do with economics.

Primarily, teenagers will be taking the driving test. They are students, trainees and the unemployed and they will have to travel 50 or 40 miles to do a half-hour written test. It is a bit ludicrous. They will have to have a driver with them, to take a day off school, training or work, and to flake off to those places.

People cannot get from where I live to the nearest driving test by public transport. We do not have trains in my constituency and we have an infrequent bus service. The local institute of technology can say, "Here is our examination hall. We will charge you £35 a session all in." What more economy would the Government want than that? Therefore, I ask the Minister again to consider closely the provision of some more centres, which will be more economic.

I shall quickly move on to the Department of Health and Social Services, to echo what the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) has said about Mr. Tom Nolan and the services that he has rendered to education. I urge the Department to give the authorities a direction as to whether they must fill the post of chief executive, which expires, I think, in August this year. It is ludicrous that they are not able to move one way or the other.

I echo what my colleagues have said regarding the Minister's statement of 12 February that there would be a 3 per cent. cut in funding. He announced a £54 million increase, but said that a 3 per cent. cut was required in efficiency. I give him one credit, and I have said this publicly before. He said that there would be a 1.5 per cent. cut in finance and a 1.5 per cent. cut in services. That was the first time I heard a Minister say, "Services will be cut." They certainly will be.

The community care budget of the Lisburn and Down trust has been cut by 30 per cent. in one go. That means 10,000 man hours. Remember what those man hours are. They are spent not in an assembly line or a shop, but with old, invalid and physically disabled people. A total of 1,200 visits have been cancelled in my constituency. That affects the most vulnerable and dependent parts of our communities. It is scandalous.

To be fair, I know that the Minister or the Department did not intend that to happen. Some of the gurus, whiz kids or whatever they are called nowadays—consultants perhaps—in the Department of Finance and Personnel got their sums wrong. As a consequence, people are suffering. If, as anticipated, there is a 3 per cent. cut in 1997–98 and in 1998–99, I assure the Minister and the House that the health service will totally collapse in Northern Ireland. That is not an alarmist statement, because we see what is happening in the service.

An anomaly is hidden within all this. The 3 per cent. cut is across the board in terms of hospitals, irrespective of whether people are efficient or a fat cow, as I say. My local hospital has been credited as being one of the most efficient and cost-effective. With due respect to my other colleagues, city hospitals seem not to have the same degree of cost-effectiveness, yet they will both be penalised in the same way.

I throw in a little minnow to find out whether I can catch anything. Is it true that hospitals that are not able to meet their budgets have been given some supplementary funding of £400,000, although others which have met their budgets have been squeezed further and further? There is a difference between cuts in Northern Ireland and cuts in Great Britain. Money from cuts in Great Britain is recirculated in the area in a different form and reapplied to the provision of service. In Northern Ireland, the 3 per cent. cuts in funding go to the Treasury and cannot be used to provide better additional services. That is another reason for the Minister to consider the matter carefully.

I seem to have taken up more than the allocation of time. I should like the Minister to respond—perhaps not this evening, but in writing through his colleagues—to some of my points because the matters that I raised in the appropriation debate on 19 February 1996 still await an answer.

6.27 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I rise to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and to note that, in an important debate that deals with everyday, bread-and-butter Northern Ireland issues such as the economy, it is left to the Social Democratic and Labour party to join us in the Ulster Unionist party to look after the interests of Northern Ireland's people. In that context, I trust that the hon. Member for South Down will not think that I am trespassing into his territory when I refer to the Department of Education vote 1 and welcome the introduction of the voucher scheme into Northern Ireland and the additional funds that will be arriving there.

I underscore the importance, about which some of us learnt this morning, of young people being introduced at an early age to reading. It has been recognised that in America that $1 spent in the pre-age teaching of reading will save $7 later. It might be worth bearing that in mind as we consider the whole concept of education.

I want to deal with a specific request to me from the Tyrella primary school, which I believe is in South Down. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will remember, and Ministers may have had time to read it in Hansard, a question put during Defence questions this week about the funding of the teaching of officers' children in boarding schools.

Many children from the base at Ballykinler attend the Tyrella primary school. As it is a mobile base with people coming and going, the school faces difficulties as the numbers ebb and flow. Many children who attend the school may have been to two or three other primary schools during their school life, so it is important that the school be retained. I understand that it has been threatened with the loss of another two teachers. I ask the Minister to discuss the matter with his colleagues and to consider whether we should give the support necessary to provide education for local children and for the children of those who serve in Northern Ireland as part of the mobile forces.

I draw the attention of the Minister to the Department of Health and Social Services vote 1. I reject the specious argument that is made time and again that Northern Ireland is funded at a higher per capita rate than the rest of the United Kingdom. It is no longer true that our funding is greater than that of Wales or Scotland and it is only greater than that of England by 14 per cent. or 11 per cent. per capita. It is ridiculous to compare per capita expenditure in a nation of 48 million with large conurbations—much of the money goes to those areas, particularly in the south-east and the midlands—with expenditure in a community of 1.5 million which is scattered throughout Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister to examine that question of funding.

I empathise with the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) who referred to care for the aged. I often wonder whether the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. For example, a contract has been awarded to paint a social service establishment that is to be sold. If hon. Members intend to sell their houses they do not paint them first as it is unlikely that they will get a return on their money. The new buyer will be interested not in the decor but in whether the building has solid foundations. Decisions have been taken to paint rooms without consulting the office workers about the colour. They then request that the rooms be repainted a different colour, only to see them painted again in the original colour. That is a waste of money.

It is time that there was an in-depth examination of the administration of health and social services in Northern Ireland. While it is a rule of the military that one protects one's base, I am not convinced that it should be translated into providing luxurious accommodation for administrators while cutting expenditure at the coalface. Such issues are causing tremendous concern in Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, I have not been successful in the Members' ballots so I have not spoken about health issues in Northern Ireland for some time. However, I have tried to probe the changes to the charter mark, particularly regarding waiting lists. Has the charter mark been set aside completely, irrespective of the fact that people have been on the orthopaedic waiting list for more than a year? Some of them have urgent conditions, but they are told that there is no money.

It is interesting to note that that money comes primarily from boards. I have examined the situation and I have discovered that trusts are prepared to do work for fundholders. I do not criticise them, but I think that they should provide similar services for the boards. The trusts currently provide services for boards at the end of the year when they may have more money. That results in a mad rush to complete contracts in a short time rather than steady work throughout the year.

I am not convinced that the closure of wards in July and August represents a sacrifice. I believe that it may simply be convenient for the institution's administration to close over the holidays. It is time that we faced that issue rather than blame the closure on a shortage of funds.

As I am not dealing only with local issues, I draw the Minister's attention to the Sperrin Lakeland trust in Fermanagh and West Tyrone, whose team attended the nursing awards. I congratulate the team members on their achievements, although I do not know the results of those awards as I had to leave before they were announced.

Home-start in West Tyrone was working with the Sperrin Lakeland trust, but the Western board has now decreed that it will not be possible to fund West Tyrone home-start because of the Department's requirement to reduce expenditure by 3 per cent. Its important work has now ceased. It is very difficult to motivate voluntary workers when their co-workers are suddenly dispensed with. That service to families in West Tyrone appears to be a casualty of the decisions and the mechanisms of boards and trusts. The Northern Ireland assistant director of Home-Start United Kingdom said: it is difficult to identify where responsibility lies and neither body would appear to be taking ultimate responsibility for this decision". Nevertheless the staff have gone and the work has been impeded.

We are still in the midst of discussions about the amalgamation of hospitals in Northern Ireland, particularly those in Belfast. I must confess that I empathise with the work that is going on, but at times I cannot fully understand the rationale behind the decisions. Not much light is shed on the subject when we write asking for guidance and information. I follow in the tradition of John Robinson, who never refuses light from any quarter, but I have difficulty glimpsing any light when I write to administrators and others requesting information about why decisions have been taken.

For example, I may receive the bland response that every consultant in dermatology had been consulted. However, I then discover that that is not so. Some dermatologists may favour basing the service at the Belfast City hospital, but the Department recommends that it be provided at the Royal hospital. I do not know whether that is a juggling exercise, but the Belfast City hospital has been decentralising service provision for some time and it does not seem sensible to change that arrangement completely.

I come now, under vote 1 of the Department of Education, to the Sports Council. Is the Minister aware of at least a suggestion in a report which has been drawn to my attention that the Sports Council has named the Boys' Brigade and the Churches League$football leagues under the Football Association$as sectarian? As a Boys' Brigade officer in the past and a chaplain for a long time, I know that no one was denied membership of the Boys' Brigade as long as he was prepared to work within the brigade's rules. In a world where discipline is sadly lacking, the discipline of the Boys' Brigade is needed.

People from outside denominations and outside religious bodies have been members of the Boys' Brigade, and to speak of the Churches League as sectarian because it may be identified with particular churches is surely more fallacious than recognising the Gaelic Athletic Association as a bona fide body to receive grants. It is more sectarian than any other and is anti the security services of the Province. If that is the direction in which the Sports Council is going, it is time that it was brought back into line.

Many of our international footballers, some of whom have gone to high positions in football clubs in Great Britain, have begun by kicking a football in a Boys' Brigade team. It would be a tragedy if that development were impeded.

Mr. William Ross

Is my hon. Friend aware that a boy's football team in the Portrush-Port Stewart area was unsuccessful in its application for funding to visit Holland from the Department of Education because it did not have a 60:40 mix? There is no chance of getting such a mix in that area. Surely that means that the religious criteria that the Department is applying with regard to funding for cross-community purposes should be looked at carefully and grants should reflect the area in which children live.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I agree with my hon. Friend. If the Department continues down that road there will be a very cross community because it will result in biased decisions which impede development. All our communities are, to some extent or other, cross-communities. I happen to represent a constituency, compared with other constituencies, with a high proportion of ethnic communities, including Chinese and Indian. To what extent should people be told that they should be in the majority group when they may want to be in the minority group?

What about vote 1 and the Department of Economic Development? I have tabled a question to the President of the Board of Trade asking how many representations he has received concerning the Europe Tool Company investment in Northern Ireland. I was told that that was a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. My information is that the President of the Board of Trade had received complaints from particular industries in Great Britain, saying that that was unfair competition which would damage some of their tool companies.

I have not yet had a reply from the Northern Ireland Office, but the reality is that some of the companies that are complaining are purchasing tools from Korea when they could be manufactured by British people in the United Kingdom, strengthening the United Kingdom economy and giving it another base in the world. Therefore, I question whether the Government are pressing ahead with that development under that vote.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for South Down has gone because he regularly pleads the case for South Down and Newry and Armagh. I want to make a simple plea for Belfast, South, which is fifth in the unemployment league in Northern Ireland out of 18 constituencies and has the highest number of female unemployed. I do not know whether that has something to do with changes in the textile industry, in addition to which now there is the possible move of the Ormeau bakery. We are not sure where it is going and I hope that it will remain in my constituency, but I cannot guarantee that until the final decision has been made. If not, we will have lost another considerable pool of employment in the constituency. I ask that consideration be given to that.

The media has said that the large vote for the women's coalition which came from South Belfast was because there were so many professional women there, but I urge journalists to consider the matter in greater depth. There are intelligent women who do not come from the professional classes who are trying to find their way. Some of the most advanced work has been done in south Belfast by women and others who have sought to try to raise the standards for women in their community. I should like to think that we would find that redress in balance reflected in our unemployment figures.

Other things could be said, but we have opened up issues. We welcome the funds that are coming in, but we must constantly ask whether they are being used in the right way or whether attitudes have become entrenched and people have been able to use their positions to steer money in a particular direction. We must regularly ask ourselves whether we can do better with the available funds. I think that we can. At the moment, we are not necessarily doing the best for the people of Northern Ireland in our spending on health and education.

6.46 pm
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I, too, listened with care to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) making a plea for his constituency. He and I and the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) have the same problem, and it is one to which we shall no doubt return with increasing frequency during the coming months and years unless there is a considerable improvement in the distribution of investment from overseas in Northern Ireland. Many of us are not very happy when we find our constituencies and folk bypassed time after time. Often, as in my case, they are areas which have been completely peaceful for the past 25 years, and they do not think much of their reward for good behaviour.

I had not intended to start there, but rather with the question of my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Mr. Forsythe) on fluoride during Northern Ireland questions today which, if I may say so, received a most unhelpful answer. I noticed that the Minister quietly skated around my hon. Friend's point, which was simply that such mass medication was not acceptable to the population at large or to the representatives of the people at large, and had nothing whatever to do with whether it was good for us. But we are told by the experts that what we think does not matter because they believe that it is good for us, so they will cram it down our throats anyway. Such an attitude is not acceptable in a democratic society.

I have talked to dentists and others and they have said they do not think that there is any harm in fluoridation, and that it is quite a sensible idea because it stops tooth decay and so on, but one lady said to me, not so very long ago, that while she herself did not believe that it did any harm, it was completely wrong for an unelected quango, appointed by the Ministry, to tell people what they should and should not drink. That is my principal objection to the fluoridation of water. It is mass medication whether people want it or not. For that to be said by a smiling Conservative Minister is strange, coming as it does from a party which demands freedom of choice.

As it is possible for anyone who wants fluoride to take it in tablet form, I should have thought that it would be much cheaper to make fluoride tablets freely available through chemist shops at much less cost than adding it to the water, and then folk could make up their own minds whether they wanted decaying teeth or fluoridated teeth. That is what I call freedom of choice, and it is a far step from mass medication. It is not the fluoridation of water that can cure the problem but rather a change of diet. If we can reduce our children's sugar intake, no doubt most of them would have much healthier teeth. I cannot say that I disliked sweets when I was young, but parents now take more interest and are constantly concerned about the amount of sugar that children consume in sweet drinks and so on. We need a fundamental change of attitude in the home between children and parents. That issue touches on the health and social services budget, which leads me to the next issue that was raised with me—the pay and conditions of service for employees of Foyle Health and Social Services trust.

I have to confess that my information is somewhat sketchy, because the matter arose only at the weekend, but my understanding is that doctors and dentists, and probably some others, received a 2 per cent. increase in salary this year, and that it was, as usual, staggered. I understand that it is a national pay award and that it has nothing to do with the trust as such. My understanding is that the increase should be paid by May, but it has not been paid as yet, and, it seems, it will not even be discussed by the trust until the June meeting.

I presume that, somewhere along the line, the money is available to the trust. I presume that it is sitting in the trust's bank account and that the trust is drawing down interest on it. If it is, that is quite unforgivable. It should be in the bank accounts of those who are entitled to it. I should also be grateful to know what pay increase has been agreed for nurses and industrial staff. Will they get anything on top of the national agreements? When will they get their increase, as cleaners and the other industrial staff are fairly poorly paid and need any increase that is available? No worker should be deprived of money for which they have laboured for any longer than is necessary.

I listened with considerable interest to the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), who quite properly asked about BSE. Only now are people throughout the country waking up to the size of the problem, which is one of vast proportions. As I do so often, I waited in vain for some lead from the hon. Gentleman as to how the Labour party would resolve the problem. The Labour party needs to say what policy it would follow, as the problem will be with us for some time. It is a difficult problem, and I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would have said rather more than he did.

Having said that, I believe that responsibility still lies with Ministers on the Treasury Bench, so I shall make some points to which I hope to get sensible answers. First, I want an assurance that compensation for 30-month-plus animals will remain at its present levels until the huge backlog of cattle for slaughter has been dealt with. We cannot kill the animals quickly enough and the backlog will be with us for some time, especially in Northern Ireland, which exports so much of its stock. I believe that the figure is nearer 80 per cent. than 70 per cent. Indeed, 28 per cent. of all United Kingdom beef exports came from Northern Ireland. They went to Europe and South Africa—to all sorts of places—and some of those markets will start taking beef again if we can get the ban lifted. Until that happy situation arrives and the backlog of cattle has been dealt with the present compensation levels will remain.

We have an enormously difficult situation in that the beef market has collapsed and there is an urgent need of additional finance and support to prevent many farmers from getting into severe financial difficulties and possibly going out of business, in the sense that they will not have the money to replace their present stock when they sell it. They will probably have to sell it for less than they paid for it. Farmers are small businesses. They do not have large bank accounts. They are dependent on a steady flow of money as their wages every year, and unless something more is done, the entire agriculture industry in Northern Ireland will be in a very depressed state. There is currently no market at all for young bulls under 24 months of age and those more than 420 kg deadweight, and therefore there is an urgent need for the 420 kg upper limit in intervention to be removed, or some other outlet for such cattle.

The reality is that farmers, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said, are losing a lot of money. They are losing £250 to £300 a head, which is their entire profit plus part of the buying price of their cattle. They are being sold at a considerable loss. The farmer simply cannot open the door and let them out. He cannot walk away from them. He cannot stop them eating—unless they are slaughtered. There is a real problem with such stock. The Government must go a bit further than they have and deal with the problem. We must have an assurance that once the United Kingdom and the European Union agree the criteria for the removal of the export ban and it is up and running, the ban on Northern Ireland will be lifted immediately. I think that Northern Ireland can meet the agreed criteria, as we are further ahead than any other place, but we need some light at the end of the tunnel, and some confirmation that Northern Ireland will be free to export as soon as the agreement is reached.

The reality, however, is that the lifting of the ban is not the end of the problem. There is a tremendous marketing job to be done in the former markets and in new markets once the ban is lifted, and that will also need financial support. It is not only a Northern Ireland problem but a United Kingdom problem. I hope that the Government are taking that fact on board as well and that in a week or so cold storage will be available in Northern Ireland so that we can get rid of the existing backlog of cattle as soon as possible.

I draw the Minister's attention to two other difficulties. When a holding in Northern Ireland is flagged up as "BSE contact", it is the holding that is flagged up, not the animals on it. It is therefore conceivable that the farmer sells every animal, cuts his losses and gets out. Let us say that he has bought a lottery ticket so that he is able to replace his stock and that he has been very lucky. But that does not get rid of his problem. The holding is still flagged. He takes his cattle to the market six months or a year down the road. The computer will still show that these are flagged cattle and that the holding is "BSE contact". It is completely new stock. It has had no contact with BSE, but it is still flagged up and as a result is pretty well valueless.

What will the Government do to resolve that difficulty? How will they remove the flagging from the holding to the cattle? What will they do about the other problem that is sitting grinning at us like a death sentence three months down the road with regard to suckler herds? Suckler herd farmers cannot keep their calves over the winter. They have to be sold in September, October or November. There is no food for them. There is no way of keeping them. Quite a few flagged suckler herds in Northern Ireland are in that position. I know that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was looking at the problem. What has been done about it in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Many people seem to be being caught because they bought an animal five or six years ago from a milk herd that had been in contact with BSE. There may be nothing wrong with their stock. That problem needs to be resolved quickly.

I shall say no more about BSE and the horrors associated with it, but turn to a problem that I have already discussed with the Minister: the new hospital at Coleraine, and, in particular, cancer services there. The Minister has already been given a copy of one of the several hundred letters that I have received from people in the Coleraine area. If he has not yet replied to me, I hope that he will do so soon. Coopers and Lybrand is currently conducting a review; consultants at the hospital tell me that if the hospital is not given a cancer unit, the effect will be considerable. The area really needs such a unit. If my office has not already asked the Minister for a meeting, it will do so no later than tomorrow. I want to take a delegation to discuss the problem with him.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I do not want to detract from my hon. Friend's argument in favour of cancer provision, although there may be other arguments to deploy. Does he share my concern, and that of many other people, about the fact that the boundary line and environmental works have been completed, but the hospital that is required first and foremost has not been built?

Mr. Ross

The laboratory has already been built, and the final reassessment has now taken place. That scares the living daylights out of the folk in the area, who feel that the place has been reassessed to death. They want to see contractors on site. A total of £47 million has been committed to that hospital. I have been told time and again that it is safe, but I want to hear the Minister tell me so yet again from the Dispatch Box. I hope that he will also tell me that he will meet the delegation that I want to take to see him. Those people want to know what is needed, and are prepared to argue their case. They do not want to be fobbed off with suggestions that they should go and see members of the trust or the board. The matter should be dealt with by the Minister, and I am becoming a little fed up with being told to talk to someone else.

Another problem—in which the hon. Member for South Down would no doubt have been interested had he cared to remain with us—relates to the use of asbestos cement pipes from Mourne to Belfast. The Minister and I have corresponded about that in the pages of Hansard. I asked a parliamentary question about it, and was told that the asbestos fibres were removed by coagulation and filtration, which removed the bulk of the suspended material. My question was carefully worded, as was the answer. That process does remove the bulk of the material, but it does not remove all of it. According to the Green Book published by the Department just after the contract was let, the use of asbestos cement pipes should be avoided. How does the Minister justify the continuing use of such pipes, which are made outside the country anyway?

At that time, the contract had not even begun. The Government laid down the rule that would avoid the use of asbestos cement—I do not suppose that they did that just because it is good for people—and then, all at once, we were told that the use of asbestos would go ahead, but that the bulk could be removed by filtration. The filtration fount, however, is at the wrong end of the asbestos pipes. Documents published in the United States raise concerns in my mind, and I hope that the Minister will give the matter careful consideration.

The asbestos problem is probably a bit like BSE. It is pretty safe to eat British beef—I have never stopped doing so, because I do not think that there is any real danger—but there is the question of perception. The perception is that the use of asbestos should be avoided, and it could easily be avoided through the use of pipes made in Northern Ireland, or even steel pipes made in Great Britain. No doubt that would be very useful, if such pipes are still made here.

Finally, let me raise an interesting constituency case. If I do not receive a satisfactory answer from the Minister—or, rather, from his colleague the Minister of State, who is in charge of education—I may raise it in the House again. My constituent received the following communication from the Social Security Agency: Regarding your letter concerning your daughter's … claim for Income Support from September 1992 and October 1993. The Senior Adjudication Officer has informed us that the judgement in the Clarke and Faul case was not followed in Northern Ireland. The decisions of the Higher Courts in England and Scotland are not binding in Northern Ireland. The Adjudication Officer has looked at your daughter's case again and has decided that there was no error of law. and therefore there are no grounds for review in this case. That is remarkable. The famous Clarke and Faul case was brought by the students union when two students in Great Britain were refused income support. The Library tells me that they fought their case all the way to the Court of Appeal, where three Lord Justices were divided on the issue. Two said that the students were entitled to income support, and dismissed the case. The students received their money. It appeared that any students who were refused income support would henceforth be entitled to it.

The Government, however, knew perfectly well that they had made a mistake in their original legislation. They then introduced regulations that reversed the Court of Appeal's decision by removing certain words from the legislation. The Government had a right to do that, but I feel that my young constituent—who has now left university, and whose parents had to support her during the year that she was out of university—had a perfectly sound case.

The Government may turn round and say that, because of a little loophole in the law, although income support is a United Kingdom benefit and although the person concerned lives in the United Kingdom, they will not grant it. The different jurisdictions of the United Kingdom must all have a case fought through—Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England. If such a case came to court either of those jurisdictions, the lawyers would immediately call in aid the decision of the highest English court, and would invariably win.

It strikes me as incredibly petty of the Social Security Agency in Northern Ireland to say that, although the case was fought and won in England—and, presumably, many students in England benefited from it—they would not allow the same arrangement in Northern Ireland. It is scandalous. I think that the Minister should examine the position again, and should tell the senior adjudication officer and his officials to exercise a bit of common sense and apply what happened in England to the students in Northern Ireland. He should also advise his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, if he has been foolish enough to follow the Northern Ireland practice, to do the same. If we are one nation, we should treat all our young people in the same way in regard to income support and other social security benefits.

7.9 pm

Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)

I listened very carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). For years there was all-party support for building a hospital on a green-field site in Coleraine, and I know that he led that campaign. As the health spokesperson for my party, for years I was involved in many meetings, as were the spokespeople for the Ulster Democratic Unionist party and the Alliance party. I am absolutely surprised that the contractors have not yet even been on site.

I should like to start my speech on a happy note, by thanking the Minister at the Department responsible for economic development and the Industrial Development Board for the fact that, as mentioned earlier, 400 jobs are to come to my constituency. The headquarters of F. G. Wilson Emerson Electric—an international concern—will expand in Larne and will also come to my constituency. The fact that an international company with worldwide markets is coming to west Belfast is a vote of confidence in our available and well-educated work force.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and other hon. Members mentioned the deprivation and league tables in their constituencies. I understand why they do that, but, once again, I—with the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker)—must repeat that west Belfast and north Belfast contain the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, and probably anywhere in these islands.

I certainly welcome the fact that F. G. Wilson Emerson Electric is coming to our area, and I fully appreciate that that was brought about by the good work and professionalism of the IDB, the Minister and the Department. Their work has also meant that Fujitsu and BCO Technology have recently come to us, and that there have been extensions to Mackeys International and to Deltaprint. Those developments are good news for West Belfast, a constituency in which the news, although about many other things—is not usually about jobs.

I should like to say one thing—this also concerns the hon. Member for Belfast, North—about the Department of the Environment. About three years ago, I was walking on the Shankill road with the Secretary of State. It was a very sunny afternoon, and he mentioned the beauty of the Belfast hills—which run around the periphery of north and west Belfast—to some of the local people. We have often approached the Department of the Environment, the Minister and his predecessors on the development of the hills. I believe that those at Making Belfast Work are considering the matter. Any development of the Belfast hills would be a tremendous asset to the city of Belfast and to the constituencies of west and north Belfast.

I should like to mention the LaSalle and St. Genevieve schools in my constituency. I fully appreciate that all hon. Members are concerned about their constituencies and their schools and about getting a proper financial allocation, but the LaSalle school is one of the biggest secondary schools in the most deprived part of these islands. I shall not deal with the option that seems to have been accepted by the Government, but the difference between it and the option desired by the schools is £2.4 million. I appreciate that final decisions may not have been taken, and I again appeal to the Secretary of State and to Education Ministers to re-examine that matter.

I do not want to repeat what other hon. Members have said about the Department of Health and Social Services, but I am of course aware that health boards are suffering from a 3 per cent. reduction in their baseline funding. In the case of the Eastern health and social services board, the cut represents £13 million. That is a catastrophic cut, as it comes on top of reductions made in recent years because of capitation shifts. I appreciate that a new formula has been adopted and that the financial position of the board may improve.

In the meantime, however, I am very concerned about the long-term prospects for hospitals such as the Royal Victoria, which not only serves the city of Belfast—as do the City hospital and the Mater hospital—but is one of the main regional hospitals in the north of Ireland.

The time spent on waiting lists for hip-joint replacements at Musgrave Park is increasing. The hon. Member for Belfast, North and I have drawn the Minister's attention to that fact in the past few days.

I am deeply concerned that reduced funding for the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services trust will severely affect the most vulnerable group in our society—the elderly. I appreciate that the Minister has said that funding has increased, but what about the percentage of funding? In 1993, the trust received 27 per cent. of the Eastern health and social services board's allocation for services for the elderly. This year, the figure is 24 per cent., which is a difference of £2.5 million.

The immediate impact of that change in programme is a reduction in care and home help services of 1,450 hours per week. The Secretary of State has drawn attention time and again to targeting social need in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland. West and north Belfast are at the top of that deprivation league. It does not make sense for the Secretary of State to State to refer continually to targeting social need when services for the elderly are being cut.

It is common knowledge in Belfast, although there has been no official announcement, that Shankill house, a home for the elderly, is under threat of closure. Grove Tree house, on the Falls road, is also under threat. That is just not good enough. There will be a loss of jobs, but what happens to those elderly people is a matter of even greater importance.

On the matter of trust funding, I drew the Minister's attention to how moneys were allocated by the Eastern health and social services board according to a formula, which meant that proper funding was not going to the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services trust. Elderly age distributions are broken down into 65 to 74, 75 to 84 and 85-plus. But populations in deprived areas are unlikely to live as long as those in better areas.

I have no doubt that people in Bangor, for example, live longer than those in north and west Belfast. Many people go to Bangor and similar places to retire, but they do not live as long as they do in other areas. Those who work out the formula do not seem to appreciate that people in the age group of 74 or 75 to 84 suffer much more ill health than do those in other groups. I draw the Minister's attention to that problem.

Rev. Martin Smyth

The hon. Gentleman has emphasised deprivation and the restrictions on resources in caring for the aged. Does he share my concern about problems in north and west Belfast in caring for children, because of cuts, not replacing staff and pressure on social workers who deal specifically with child abuse—of which there has been a high percentage in that area?

Dr. Hendron

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and I agree with him wholeheartedly. He and I could talk for nearly a week on sexual abuse and deprivation, which are extremely important subjects.

I have already referred the subject of my next comments to the Minister. A report is to be issued in the next 10 days. About three years ago, the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) and I approached the then Minister about deprivation in west and north Belfast. As a result, an economic working group was set up with the support of the Government. A report was commissioned by either the Industrial Development Board or Making Belfast Work. The report has been sitting on someone's desk for the past six months—I understand that it is not on the Minister's desk but somewhere at the IDB. Why has the report not been published? Perhaps there will be many red faces when the facts are known, because it will be appreciated just how minimal the funding or the allocation of resources for north and west Belfast is.

I have here a summary of the report. This is not the time to go into detail, but one of its recommendations is that there should be a strategy for north and west Belfast. A few months ago, I put to the Minister at the Department for Economic Development the case for some sort of strategy and co-ordination for the whole area. We have Making Belfast Work, the Local Enterprise Development Unit, the IDB and Phoenix, all of which are doing good work in their own way, but there is no co-ordination or overall strategy. I asked that someone be appointed as overall co-ordinator. I do not care who that person is or where he comes from as long as there is some co-ordination. I ask the Minister again to study the report carefully in the hope that some strategy can be worked out for west and north Belfast.

7.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss)

As usual on such occasions, we have had a wide-ranging debate. I shall try to answer as many questions as I can—it says here "in the time available", but I understand that some hon. Members are pressed for time and may have to leave. In the time-honoured tradition of junior Ministers when they wind up, I shall be writing to hon. Members about matters that I cannot answer directly now.

I begin with a few words on the general economic outlook in Northern Ireland. The latest figures show that the Northern Ireland economy has grown relatively faster than the national economy. Over the year to March 1996, the seasonally adjusted number of employees in employment in Northern Ireland rose by 1.6 per cent. to 576,010. Seasonally adjusted unemployment has fallen in eight of the past 12 months and, at May 1996 stood at 85,600, or 11.1 per cent. of the work force. However, that is a decrease of 2,700 on May 1995.

Public expenditure in Northern Ireland in the financial year 1996–97 will be in excess of £8 billion. That is equivalent to almost £5,000 for every man, woman and child. It is a clear indication of the Government's continuing commitment to the provision of a wide range of high-quality public services for the people of Northern Ireland and it includes an extra £25 million for industrial development.

The IDB has reported its best ever net jobs gain for a 12-month period since statistics have been recorded. Net employment in IDB client companies increased by more than 1,600. The underlying strong growth in client companies is further reflected in the fact that in the period April 1995 to March 1996, the IDB attracted record inward investment totalling £432 million, with a significant number of new companies choosing to locate in or adjacent to disadvantaged areas.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the possibility of encouraging IDB inward investment into their own constituencies. Clearly, the policy will be to spread it as widely as possible to make sure that disadvantaged areas get their fair share. However, the IDB does not direct companies; it can only give guidance. If we had more gross investment, we could no doubt spread it more evenly across Northern Ireland.

I was interested to learn that Cookstown, which is a deprived area, is to benefit from significant inward investment. It brought a smile to my face, because I am told repeatedly that investors will not invest in locations that do not have excellent road communications and motorways, but Cookstown is in the middle of the Province, and one could not say that it has the best road communications of any town in the Province.

Mr. William Ross

With the greatest respect, there is a perfectly good road from the main east-west routes down to Cookstown.

Mr. Moss

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman shares that information with the hon. Member who represents Cookstown, who is always telling me that the roads are not adequate.

There was also significant growth in tourism last year. Total visitor spend exceeded £200 million in 1995 and will see an extra £3 million increase over the next three years.

Inward investors who have located in Northern Ireland have specifically complimented the road system, telecommunications and the potential to create links between industry and the universities. In terms of location advantages, they found Northern Ireland operating costs to be significantly lower than anticipated, even when electricity and transport costs are included.

I deal now with some specific questions and start with those asked by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley)—the Opposition spokesman—who mentioned BSE. His questions were mirrored by those from other hon. Members. The first question related to young bulls. The problem that he highlighted is unique to Northern Ireland. There is a special problem, because some 6,000 young bulls on 200 farms are intended for a specific market—the Dutch market. I am delighted that last Friday the Government announced a scheme to slaughter those animals and compensate their owners. I believe that the scheme was widely welcomed. It is essential that the animals are slaughtered as quickly as possible, and I hope that we can rely on the patience and co-operation of farmers to ensure that the scheme runs smoothly. However, I take on board the comments made today, and they will be passed on.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central and others mentioned the problem of possible reductions in compensation payments, especially for steers and heifers. I shall certainly pass on their concern to Baroness Denton, and I assure the House that she will be using her influence to mitigate any possible reductions in compensation levels.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central and others also raised the question of special status for Northern Ireland. The European Union ban applies to the whole of the United Kingdom beef industry. The Government's principal objective is to have the ban lifted in its entirety, and all our efforts are being concentrated on that objective. From evidence provided not only this evening but on other occasions, we know that the Northern Ireland beef industry enjoys a very special reputation and is organised in a unique way. We are confident that once the ban is lifted, Northern Ireland will meet any requirements and perhaps meet them in a short time scale.

The Opposition spokesman also mentioned electricity prices in Northern Ireland. It is more expensive to produce and distribute electricity in Northern Ireland than in most regions of Great Britain, because our power stations are smaller, the spinning reserve margin is higher and customers are on average more dispersed. The most effective way to keep energy costs down is through the promotion of competition and the pursuit of efficiency in production transmission and the use of electricity. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Government are providing £60 million over three years from April 1996 to assist Northern Ireland customers. The Government will continue to encourage both efficiency and competition.

The Director General of Electricity Supply is currently engaged in the first electricity price controls review since privatisation and his proposals will take effect from 1 April 1997. In January this year, he published a consultation paper on the introduction of greater competition and consumer choice in the electricity market in Northern Ireland, and he plans shortly to issue a further paper outlining his definitive proposals. It is for the director general and not the Government to consider a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, as requested by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the fire authority. I suspect that he was referring to the funding of a new command and control system for the Northern Ireland fire brigade which was flagged up in a newspaper recently. Fire authority funding in Northern Ireland has increased from £16 million in 1985–86, to £32 million in 1991, to more than £42 million for the coming year. I am satisfied that the fire authority has sufficient resources to provide a new command and control system and that there is no threat to the ability of Northern Ireland's fire brigades to respond to fire calls.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central and almost every other hon. Member who has spoken tonight mentioned health funding. I recognise that there are some difficulties, but we should consider them in the context of the overall Northern Ireland block.

The Government have increased the resources available to health and personal social services next year to some £1,580 million. That represents a real—terms increase, thus honouring the Government's commitment to give real increases to the health service. That pledge was made at Cabinet level and certainly by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. It represents a real—terms increase of 0.8 per cent. on 1995–96. As we spent more last year, the increase was only 0.2 per cent. in real terms, but that must be considered in the context of an impressive 57 per cent. real—terms increase since 1979–80.

That settlement included a requirement from the Department of Finance and Personnel to the health service to find 3 per cent. efficiency savings. I discussed that with all the trusts and boards, and we concluded that it would be extremely difficult to find 3 per cent. efficiency savings, but that savings of 1.5 per cent. were possible. Instead of being prescriptive, we agreed to guidelines of 1.5 per cent. efficiency savings and 1.5 per cent. cuts in services. Although we have not yet finalised all contracting, some boards have managed 2 per cent. efficiency savings—more than the anticipated 1.5 per cent.

I have allowed the boards and trusts to remain flexible. To a certain extent, I am pleased with the way in which they have addressed their problems. I do not yet have all the final contracting. Once I have that—and I am pressing boards and trusts to reach a final resolution—I intend to meet them to review the position.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) referred to in-year money. I am flattered that he assumes that I can secure any, but the man responsible—my right hon. Friend the Minister of State—is not too far away. Perhaps some pleadings should be addressed in his direction, but we shall be considering the overall position and preparing our case for next year, as next year's public expenditure round is about to start. We shall have information relating to the impact on this year and our plans for next year.

I should also point out that there has been real growth in certain services. Additional resources have been provided, including £2 million for renal services, particularly dialysis, just under £1 million for additional drugs for cancer patients and £1.1 million for neurology. I have allocated money to the proper implementation of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995—a matter that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has raised with me previously. We also included in the budget this year an extra £12 million for community care.

When we came to decide where cuts should fall, we decided on elective surgery, as we cannot limit accident and emergency admissions and we cannot touch the family health service or the GP service. Nor can we reduce the drugs bill. We have to address the drugs problem in Northern Ireland. There has been exponential growth in the drugs budget, so I have to allow a contingency reserve of what might be required, as I cannot allow that budget not to be met in the financial year. We are holding back a great deal of money, which I want to release to front-line health care, if I can get assistance from GPs and the public at large on the exponential growth of the drugs budget.

The average cost of prescriptions per head of population in Northern Ireland is £98 compared with £68 in Great Britain. It has been said that we should not compare cost-per-head figures and expenditure in Northern Ireland with those in Great Britain. I am prepared to accept that there are differences, as there are certainly areas of severe deprivation in Northern Ireland where we would expect to spend more on health services, including drugs, but I am not sure that I agree that a differential of £98 to £68 is acceptable or reasonable. Any money that we save on drugs can go back into front-line health care.

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)

The Minister mentioned the difficulty of comparisons between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He admitted that there will be cuts in health service provision in Northern Ireland. That stands in stark contrast to his counterparts in the Department of Health, who resolutely refuse to admit to that. Apart from his obvious greater honesty and candour, what is the reason for that distinction?

Mr. Moss

There is a distinction primarily on the basis that we spend far more on health per head of population in Northern Ireland than we do in Great Britain, although spending in Scotland is high. There is a differential of 14 to 15 per cent. in spend per head of population. Northern Ireland obviously has a high cost base that needs addressing in one way or another. In the rest of the United Kingdom, there probably would be 10 district general hospitals per 1.5 million head of population; in Northern Ireland we have 19. I am not saying that we should get rid of nine—I hope that that will not be tomorrow's headline—but we have to look carefully at the number of hospitals and what they do.

There is a higher cost base, which needs to be addressed in the medium term, but short-term measures are difficult. Earlier this evening, attention was drawn to the fact that 3 per cent. cash-releasing savings is different from what has been asked of the health service in England and Wales—and, I believe, in Scotland. I met the boards and trusts, to try to establish a way forward that would help to minimise the effects of cuts in some activities. We selected elective surgery because it would also affect the fundholder budgets that are used to purchase elective surgery.

In the past few years, Northern Ireland has had an excellent record of increasing the throughput of in-patients, out-patients and day surgery. Our waiting lists are extremely low in most activities, and I do not believe that the impact of the cuts will be as draconian or dramatic as people claim. Until I get the full list of contracts, I cannot review the position, but I intend to do so very quickly.

Rev. Martin Smyth

In respect of the drugs budget, how far has the Department proceeded with the pay review? Is there a disparity in drug prescription in particular areas or by individual doctors? I am not suggesting that we should save money by reducing the prescription of modern, expensive drugs, which ultimately might prove cheaper, but I believe that there is a disparity in prescription.

Mr. Moss

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is a disparity, and we have statistics on it, but it is a different matter from publishing a list of what individual GP practices prescribe. We have had some considerable success in reducing the drugs budget through our fundholding GP practices. We want non-GP fundholders to try to emulate that success. We shall be launching a campaign in the near future. I have not yet brought all the strands together, but I am looking carefully at the matter, and making inroads into it is a major plank of our policy over the next year. I shall certainly consider any specific suggestions that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends may make to me.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley referred to the funding of two schools in his constituency, and I shall certainly convey that information to the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram).

I was somewhat surprised that the South-East education and library board, to which the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) also referred, had not yet replied to a letter of 5 March. I find that very strange and will certainly take up the matter.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley referred to the statement that has been made—he mentioned my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I think that the statement has also been made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Certain key services—the health service and education—were particularly mentioned. I can speak this evening only on the health service. The health service has been protected in so far as we have given it a real—terms increase this year.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) also raised health issues. He referred to the capitation formula, on which a moratorium is being conducted at the moment. When he and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) came to see me, I said that the Eastern board had begun a moratorium, and we are looking at that again. It is true that finding a capitation formula that is acceptable to all is extremely difficult. However, we believe that we have built deprivation factors into our formula—for distribution not only to community trusts but to boards. It is difficult to arrive at a formula that meets everyone's approval. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast, North for his comments on the strengthening of the Housing Executive's role, especially in a strategic sense, and I endorse the importance of housing not only to his constituents but to those of every hon. Member in Northern Ireland.

The issue of grants came up at Question Time this afternoon, and I accepted that there had been some delays, especially for disabled people. That is because of the lack of occupational therapists. We are addressing that and hope to bring it into line in the very near future. The amount of money allocated for grants has increased year by year. There has been a £3 million increase—I think—this year to £47 million. The problem of mandatory repairs grants that were eating into the total budget has been addressed, and we have reduced the maximum amount available to £500. That should make quite a difference.

The hon. Member for South Down raised the sub-programme for agriculture and rural development. It is true that the capital grant elements of that scheme were suspended from 24 March 1995 because, as he noted, commitments to applicants risked outstripping the available financial resources. A decision about reopening the scheme will not be made until an assessment of funds required to finance the applications received has been made. We shall take stock at that time.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to fishing. We agree that the European Union proposals are unacceptable at this juncture. We accept the view that the assessments of over-fishing in the Irish sea are probably wrong. I am sure that my noble Friend Baroness Denton, together with my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, will be arguing the British case very strongly in European meetings.

The hon. Member for South Down again mentioned theory test centres. I have written to him and said that we are starting off with—I think—six test centres, but I shall review the position at the half-year point. Essentially, we are trying to keep the costs of the tests down. We have calculated that every extra test centre might cost us £55,000 a year, which would put £1 or £2 on each candidate's test. I heard what he said about £35 for the hire of an educational establishment in Downpatrick. Obviously, I shall have to check that out with the usual sources.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South mentioned the bad publicity about theatre closures at the Royal Victoria hospital. I was pleased to have his support on the fact that at least some such closures happen every year, but are just not publicised. Doctors and nurses have to take a holiday. August is a holiday time in any case, and the number of people admitted to hospital in that month drops dramatically. The information is not new, but I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support of the Government's position. I shall refer the issue of Tyrella school to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South also made a plea for investment in south Belfast. That will be passed on accordingly, but it should be borne in mind that every hon. Member who speaks for Northern Ireland makes a personal plea for his constituency. I am not aware of any problems with Sports Council funding, so I cannot comment this evening, but I shall look into it for him.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) raised the issue of fluoridation. It is true that the four boards have formally requested that I consider introducing fluoridation in Northern Ireland. They are tasked with conducting a thorough and adequate consultation, not only with the public at large but with district councils, and they must take those views into account. It is common knowledge that, if the consultation process has not been as thorough and proper as it should have been, the boards could lay themselves open to judicial review. I have not seen their request, but I shall be looking at it fairly soon. The important thing is that they consult properly in their areas. I have to balance—as indeed they do—the points made for fluoridation against the general thrust of their policy, to look after the health and well-being of their populations.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about a pay increase that was due in May and has not yet been received. I shall look into that, but it surprises me. Last year, we agreed the full 3 per cent. pay increase for nurses. As far as I was concerned, that was financed by the boards and trusts. The proposal made by the pay review body this year is for a 2 per cent. increase for nurses. The proposed increase for doctors was higher. We are in negotiations on where we go from that 2 per cent. baseline, but we are not in a position to make any announcements at this stage.

I should be happy to welcome any deputation that the hon. Member for East Londonderry would care to bring from the Coleraine area, on cancer services at the new Causeway hospital. Contractors are on the site, and it has been cleared. We are about to go out to tender, but we are conducting one final financial assessment before we lay the first stone. I am convinced that that assessment will be through in the near future.

Sir James Molyneaux

My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) apologises for having to leave to catch a flight.

Mr. Moss

I had noticed that he had gone, but I did not refer to it. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that comment.

The subject of asbestos cement pipes was raised by the hon. Member for East Londonderry and by a number of hon. Members who represent the Belfast area. I hope to make an announcement on that very soon. My Department has received a report from the water research centre. We are looking at it very carefully and hope to make an announcement in the near future, at which time the report will be made available in the Library. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on the matter of income support for a student in his constituency.

Finally—I do not think that I have missed out any hon. Members—the hon. Member for Belfast, West spoke of the Belfast hills. The Department of the Environment is anxious that we should have a policy on the hills because they are—I would not say that they are a hidden asset, because one cannot miss them—a unique asset and much under-utilised by people in Belfast. I shall refer back his question about the LaSalle and St. Genevieve schools. The hon. Gentleman asked for a little extra money, but I believe that the capital programme for both of them has already been more or less agreed.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of home closures. I can assure him, and the hon. Member for Belfast, North, who also raised the matter, that those are not related to the present economies. The closure of statutory homes takes place because, although we need sufficient beds in the public and private sectors to accommodate those who need residential and nursing home care, the emphasis now is on care in the community, with people being looked after in their own homes. So we do not need so many beds in either the statutory or the independent private sector. We are simply rationalising the provision to ensure that we have sufficient beds, with a mixed provision of care across the two sectors—or rather, across the three sectors. I have not mentioned the voluntary sector, which is also important.

I have not seen the paper on the economic position in north and west Belfast. The hon. Gentleman held up a copy, and if he would like to give it to me afterwards, I shall take it away and consider it. We can liaise with the IDB in that respect, because we are interested in finding a sensible way of measuring deprivation, not only in the hon. Gentleman's constituency but throughout Northern Ireland, so that funding in, say, the health service, can be targeted under the heading of social need for those key areas in our overall policy.

I have answered as best I can most of the questions that have been raised, and I shall write to hon. Members about those that I have not answered. I commend the appropriation order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 5th June, be approved.