HC Deb 27 February 1997 vol 291 cc411-3
1. Rev. Martin Smyth

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what representations have been received concerning proposed further reductions in the ACE schemes. [16359]

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

Representations have been made to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by the four Northern Ireland party leaders, and by a number of organisations and individuals directly to my noble Friend Baroness Denton and the Training and Employment Agency. In the 1995 and 1996 public expenditure surveys, resources allocated to ACE were reduced by 25 per cent. and 28 per cent. respectively, with the loss of 2,000 ACE posts each year.

Rev. Martin Smyth

At a time of continuing high unemployment in some parts of Northern Ireland, which are crying out for better training, and at a time when training has been cut in other areas, is it not wrong to cut the ACE scheme, which has provided useful training and helped unemployed people to gain employment? Is the Minister aware that further cuts will bite into the core trainers while also damaging the disabled and elderly in the social community?

Mr. Ancram

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, but he must be aware that unemployment has fallen considerably in Northern Ireland. We must consider priorities within available resources. Unemployment has fallen from 17.2 per cent. in 1986 to 9.2 per cent. now, and 53,000 people have come off the unemployment register in that time. There are 7,200 unfilled vacancies at the training and employment agency. Long-term unemployment, which is specifically important in this area, has dropped by 17.8 per cent. during the last year.

Against that, we have the priority of the Government's responsibility to provide for the security of the people of Northern Ireland, as we are required to do. We have made it clear that, because of the changed circumstances, we are having to look across the board for £120 million over three years. I think that the people of Northern Ireland would expect the money to be spent on preserving their security, and I feel that we should pay tribute to the security forces and the police for the success that they have achieved recently as a result of that expenditure.

Rev. William McCrea

The ACE scheme has been very important and successful, dealing with long-term unemployment in all parts of Northern Ireland. It has been operating for 16 years and has consistently exceeded the targets set for it. In the light of that, and given that long-term unemployment in Northern Ireland is two to three times higher than it is in Great Britain, why have the Government used the hatchet on the ACE project, to the detriment of our long-term unemployed? Does he accept that the decision is resented throughout Northern Ireland and ought to be changed?

Mr. Ancram

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the cost of preserving security in Northern Ireland in the face of terrorist activity is a priority. I do not think that he is alone in resenting the fact that the cost of doing that must be borne by other programmes in the Province. That is the message that we should be getting across—that the best way of achieving the results that we want for both the long-term and the short-term unemployed is to bring about peace in the Province, with a growing economy and the creation of more jobs.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the Minister agree that penalising education, health and the long-term unemployed on the basis that the Government are discharging their primary function of protecting the lives and property of the citizens of Northern Ireland is entirely wrong and amounts to hostage taking? The Government are saying, "If you do not behave yourselves, or if a small section of you do not behave themselves, we shall punish the most vulnerable members of society as a whole."

Mr. Ancram

I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman takes that attitude. When there was a ceasefire, security requirements were being reduced and money was available as a result, I did not hear him say that we should not spend that money on education, health and employment programmes. In fact, I suspect that he welcomed our actions. The corollary is that, when security requirements are reintroduced as a result of changes in the security situation, everyone must share the pain.

Mr. Illsley

Do not the cuts to the ACE schemes amount to well over 50 per cent., with a loss of 2,000 jobs? Fifty per cent. of the core jobs have also been lost, which threatens some of the ACE schemes and some vitally needed services, despite the overwhelming success of the ACE schemes and the overwhelming opposition from all the parties in Northern Ireland to the cuts. The Training and Employment Agency's review of long-term unemployment, which was due last October, has still not yet been published. Will the Minister delay implementation of further cuts until we have had a chance to consider that document?

Mr. Ancram

We hope that the report will be published fairly soon. It is easy for the hon. Gentleman to make those criticisms from the Dispatch Box, but if he is saying—as he appeared to be—that we should not be making these cuts within the bloc, it behoves him to say where we should be making cuts instead. We have to decide on the priorities in the light of falling unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment. There are other priorities and we have to take hard decisions at this time because of the security situation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, as an Opposition spokesman, will bear his share of the responsibility for making the same message as I am.

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