§ Madam Speaker
I have a short statement to make for the guidance of hon. Members who may wish to take part in the debate. I wish to make it clear that the debate on the order may cover all matters for which all Northern Ireland Departments, as distinct from the Northern Ireland Office, are responsible. As many hon. Members know, police and security are the principal excluded subjects. I hope that that is of some guidance to hon. Members.
§ The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)
I beg to move,That the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 11th June, be approved.I welcome the hon. Members for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) to the Opposition Front Bench. I am sure that they will continue the bipartisan approach that we took on Northern Ireland matters in the previous Parliament.
The draft order, which covers the main estimates for Northern Ireland Departments, authorises spending of almost £4,000 million for the current financial year. Taken together with the sum voted on account in March this year, that brings the total estimates provision for Northern Ireland Departments to almost £7,000 million, which is an increase of just over 4 per cent. on the 1996–97 outturn.
The order also authorises the use of additional receipts to meet an excess vote in 1995–96. 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 on law and order services are not covered by the order.
I am sure that the House would prefer the draft order to be considered in some form of local Assembly. The Government's overriding objective in Northern Ireland is to achieve progress towards a lasting political settlement that will enable powers to be devolved to local administration. That is why we are anxious to press ahead with multi-party talks, which we believe offer the best chance of securing a comprehensive settlement that addresses and resolves the fundamental concerns of all participants. Despite some horrific recent setbacks, that remains the Government's firm objective. It was the subject of the Prime Minister's statement to the House of Commons yesterday.
Hon. Members will appreciate that the draft order reflects the previous Government's spending allocations. I am pleased to announce that it is possible to reallocate some £4 million for schools this year, and that is reflected in the estimates.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
How much of the extra £4 million will be targeted at social need in schools in badly deprived areas?
§ Mr. Murphy
The purpose of the £4 million virement is to ensure that teachers are kept in their jobs, and as a consequence that class sizes are kept to a minimum. I am sure that much of that spending will be in areas where social need is obvious. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter.
998 Our priorities are not necessarily the same as those of the previous Government. My party overwhelmingly won the election on a manifesto committed to a reduction in class sizes and health service bureaucracy, and on pledges on the economy and welfare to work. These figures do not necessarily reflect those priorities.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
The Minister referred to bureaucracy. What role do Northern Ireland Ministers play in curbing spending, bearing in mind the latest revelation that, according to law, departmental heads—the civil servants—are really in charge?
§ Mr. Murphy
I note the hon. Gentleman's point. I am sure that when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is responsible for those matters, winds up the debate, he will take it into account.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has-rightly—stated that Departments will be expected to work within the 1997–98 and 1998–99 spending ceilings announced by the former Government. Nevertheless, we shall be reviewing allocations within those limits in the light of our own priorities.
That is why the Government have launched a comprehensive spending review that will focus on the medium term—to the end of this Parliament and beyond. On 11 June, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced details of our approach to public spending in the medium term and how our comprehensive spending review will be taken forward. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already announced a comprehensive review of programmes in Northern Ireland. It will be a rootand-branch examination of every area of spending. In her address to the chief executives' forum on 28 May, my right hon. Friend announced that there would be extensive consultation on public expenditure priorities as the review progressed.
I cannot of course speculate on the outcome of the review or the consultations; but they do mark a new and exciting departure from previous practice. We intend to consult widely over the next couple of months—indeed, we have already begun. I shall be inviting all the political parties in Northern Ireland, local authorities, and representatives of the voluntary sector, of business and commerce and of the trade unions, to express their views on spending priorities for Northern Ireland. I believe that to be a step in the right direction, in parallel, I hope, with the talks process.
I intend to highlight the main items in the estimates without going into too much detail, as I am sure that hon. Members will have examined them. I begin with the Department of Agriculture, where there is net provision of some £30 million to fund European Union and national agricultural support measures. The vote also includes moneys for structural improvements and for grants, and funds for farming in special areas. It includes, furthermore, provision for the development of agriculture and the agricultural products industry, for scientific and veterinary services, for farm support, for enhancement of the countryside, and for fisheries and forestry services. The vote also provides resources for the rural development programme and the Rivers Agency.
Hon. Members will also note the provision for the Department of Economic Development. They will be aware that well over £150 million is required for the 999 Industrial Development Board in Northern Ireland, which plays an important part in attracting and supporting industrial development there. In 1996–97, the board supported about 35 inward investment projects offering nearly 5,000 new jobs. Northern Ireland Members will be aware, too, of one of the latest such projects—Seagate in Londonderry. Unfortunately, that same city has undergone the loss of several hundred jobs in the past few days; so the one tends to cancel out the other. It is important, however, to continue to put money into the IDB.
The amount to be provided for the Local Enterprise Development Unit, Northern Ireland's own small business agency, is £31 million. That will allow it to maintain its excellent track record of developing, strengthening and improving the competitiveness of the important small firms sector in Northern Ireland.
There is also £14 million for the Northern Ireland tourist board. It was noticeable during the ceasefire that many more people expressed an interest in going to Northern Ireland. The ending of the ceasefire, and the more recent disorders, have had a marked effect on visitor numbers. They are still pretty healthy, but they could be an awful lot better.
§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
The Minister seems to be repeating a statement that is regularly made about tourism in Northern Ireland. I am sure that he will agree that the reaction that he is describing is based on a misapprehension, as Northern Ireland continues to be, just as it always has been, the part of the United Kingdom with the lowest crime rate. There is thus no reason why anyone should be discouraged by a fear of crime from going there. It is also quite wrong of the tourist board and others to repeat the canard when they should be tackling tourism more effectively.
§ Mr. Murphy
I accept that point entirely. My experience over the past few weeks as a Minister with responsibility for Northern Ireland is that the overwhelming percentage of the geography of Northern Ireland is no different from—indeed, it is better than—parts of the Principality that I represent. However, it is of some interest that, if we talk, as we must now, about the money that is voted for the Department of Economic Development, there is also a need this very week and in the weeks ahead to understand that if, throughout the world, pictures of disorder are shown on television, clearly, industrial development is affected.
We hope and pray that the people in Northern Ireland who are responsible for disorder will be made aware that, in many ways, they are damaging the prospects for Northern Ireland's economy. It is a most important factor to take into account. I understand what the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) says, and I believe that all of us wish the Secretary of State well in her endeavours to bring about peace.
§ Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
From what the Minister says and because he mentioned United Technologies leaving Londonderry, is he suggesting that, whatever difficulty United Technologies had, last year's rioting in the republican areas of Londonderry, when 22,500 petrol bombs were thrown 1000 over the space of a couple of days, in a well-orchestrated and pre-planned attack on the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was the final nail in the coffin of that company?
§ Mr. Murphy
I should not like to talk about what exactly caused that company's departure, but I am sure that most of us—indeed all of us—would agree with the hon. Gentleman that the rioting certainly did not help.
Nearly £200 million is allocated for the Training and Employment Agency. It provides nearly 15,000 training places under the job skills training programme and nearly 8,000 places for long-term unemployed adults under action for community employment, the community work programme and Enterprise Ulster, developing the skills of work forces in Northern Ireland. I hope that, next week, when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announces his Budget—and undoubtedly he will spend much of his time dealing with the welfare-to-work proposals, which formed an important part of our manifesto—much of the good work that will result will be reflected in Northern Ireland, where it is desperately needed.
The Department of the Environment spends nearly £200 million on roads, transport and ports. Some £220 million will provide assistance to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and to the voluntary housing movement, which means that the housing executive will be able to start some 800 new houses, while housing associations will start more than 1,000 new dwellings in Northern Ireland.
Expenditure on water and sewerage services is estimated at nearly £200 million—at £184 million, to be exact. I am sure that Northern Ireland Members will be aware that much needs to be done in relation to the water and sewerage infrastructure. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the noble Lord Dubs, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, have examined the matter in detail.
A total of £183 million is for environmental and other services: the Environment and Heritage Service, the Planning Service, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the Construction Service, the Land Registers of Northern Ireland and, of course, urban regeneration. There is no doubt that everyone associated with Northern Ireland is aware that the money that has been spent over the years on urban regeneration pays dividends. Some £37 million will be made available under the European Union peace and reconciliation programme, of which £28 million will be funded from EU receipts. Additionally, some £44 million goes to the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland.
The Department of Education seeks a total of £1,408 million, which sounds a lot, but is actually a decrease of nearly 2 per cent. on last year's provision. I know that hon. Members from all over Northern Ireland have expressed concern in the past few years about the reduction in the education budget. As they are aware, education is a very high priority for my Government. We believe that we must give high priority to class sizes and maintaining standards in education.
I am also concerned about capital projects. Although we have put millions of pounds into such projects in Northern Ireland, the state of many schools in the Province remains unsatisfactory. I am pleased that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde 1001 (Dr. Godman) highlighted, an extra £4 million has now been made available for schools from another source. Local universities, student support, youth, sport, community and cultural activities are provided for.
At the Department of Health and Social Services, £1,518 million is to be spent on hospitals, community health, personal social services, health and social services trusts, family health services and some other services. There is, of course, extra money for grants to voluntary bodies and so on.
It is a high priority of my Government to reduce bureaucracy in the health service in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It is also a high priority to reduce waiting lists, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will touch on those matters when he winds up the debate.
Nearly £2,000 million is for social security benefit expenditure, administered by the Social Security Agency. That represents an 8.3 per cent. increase on last year and covers not only the general uprating of benefits from April 1997, but an increase in the number of beneficiaries. I hope that next week my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will refer to that, because it is important to emphasise that the thrust of our policy is to take people off benefit and put them back to work. That applies as much to Northern Ireland as anywhere else in the kingdom.
Finally, I have to mention my own Department, the Department of Finance and Personnel, where some £5.8 million is sought for the community relations programme. In addition, nearly £2 million has been made available through funding from European Union receipts under the peace and reconciliation programme.
I have drawn attention to the main provisions of the estimates. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will reply to any points raised in the debate.
This is a short but important debate. It is important because, in many ways, it is about the other Northern Ireland, the real Northern Ireland. It is not about the horrors that we have witnessed or the sometimes frustrating talks process, vital though that is. It is about jobs, schools and hospitals; it is about the quality of life for 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland, whose needs and aspirations are the same as those of anyone else in the United Kingdom. I hope and pray that we can achieve a settlement that will mean that we can concentrate on the social and economic needs of the people of the Province. I therefore commend the order to the House.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)
I return the compliments and welcome the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), to his post at the Northern Ireland Office. He has a very responsible job, and I was interested in the way in which he presented the estimates. As he rightly recognised, we have a new, fresh team. I thank him for the welcome that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and me. I must also mention my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran). He is now an Opposition Whip and therefore no longer frozen in silence, as was the tradition when we were in government. He will be playing an active role in the proceedings of the House. I recognise the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), and look forward to hearing him wind up the debate.
1002 The Minister will not be surprised if I keep my remarks fairly brief, partly because, as someone who has just been invited to take on this responsibility, my first task is to listen. I am sure that there will be some interesting contributions, which will enable me to learn a little more about the issues affecting constituents in the Province.
I was interested to hear the Minister's detailed comments on policy. It is important to put it on record that the Northern Ireland economy enjoys its best prospects for generations. We sincerely share the hope that that continues. Unemployment in May was at its lowest for almost 17 years. At 8.4 per cent. of the work force, it is still too high and there were some disturbing announcements this week that the Minister mentioned, but the overall picture is positive.
Conservative policies delivered low inflation, low taxation and low interest rates for Northern Ireland. That framework, together with a flexible labour market and the removal of burdens on business, has ensured that Northern Ireland firms remain competitive in an increasingly competitive global economy. I hope that my experience as a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry will be of benefit during debates on what the Minister rightly called the real Northern Ireland economy, away from the troubles that have beset the Province.
Manufacturing exports were worth more than £3 billion in 1995–96—an increase of almost one fifth. The Province received more inward investment that year than ever before, with 35 projects, worth £430 million, creating or safeguarding almost 5,000 new jobs.
In one respect, 1995–96 was unique. The IRA ceasefire gave new hope to everyone in Northern Ireland. Figures released recently by the Industrial Development Board show that inward investment and business confidence were dealt a clear blow by the IRA's return to violence. I endorse the Minister's comments about the consideration that those who threaten or carry out violence must give to the disturbance that they cause to the economic prospects of the citizens of the Province. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition confirmed yesterday that we are anxious to continue the bipartisan approach to the peace process, provided that the Government's actions continue to be in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. I echo those comments.
The paramilitary ceasefires enabled the previous Government to reduce spending on law and order by almost £300 million between 1995–96 and 1998–99, according to the estimates that we set out. Those funds have been released and earmarked for improving the quality of life for the people of Northern Ireland. That should be taken carefully into account if the problems increase, because that reallocation of resources cannot be sustained unless the IRA lays down its weapons once more.
The Opposition will work closely with the Government to bring about a new ceasefire, but the onus remains firmly on the IRA. The Prime Minister made that clear yesterday.
I should like clarification on some general points. I listened carefully to the Minister. Away from the troubles, there may be less inter-party agreement on how to keep the Northern Ireland economy vibrant. I do not disagree about the need to bring down class sizes. I also concur with some of the Minister's other comments, but we must be clear about some of the principles that the 1003 Conservative Government set in train. Northern Ireland benefits from the current fiscal arrangements by £3 billion a year. In 1995–96, public spending per capita was almost £1,400 higher in Northern Ireland than in England. Will the Minister confirm that he has no plans to change those arrangements and that the more disadvantaged areas of the United Kingdom, particularly those in the Province, will continue to receive extra financial support from the Exchequer?
The Prime Minister yesterday confirmed his wish to devolve power to Northern Ireland when circumstances permit. Will the Minister confirm that the Government have no plans to introduce tax-raising powers for a devolved Assembly?
The private finance initiative has much to offer the taxpayer. The Northern Ireland Office has signed a small number of deals, worth about £4 million. It is imperative that more use is made of the PFI in Northern Ireland. It seems to have been endorsed by the Labour Government, but the disruption of the team that was running it has led to a sense of drift. I should like an assurance from the Minister that the removal of people who have tried to get the PFI going and the various reviews that are taking place will not disadvantage the people of Northern Ireland by causing delays in the projects that the PFI could assist. What action is being taken to ensure that the PFI benefits the Province?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has introduced a completely new set of assumptions about growth, unemployment and other key economic factors. We believe those assumptions generally to be over-cautious. Can the Minister explain their effect on the services provided to the people of Northern Ireland and the higher taxes that they and the rest of us may be expected to pay?
I am concerned when I hear about root-and-branch reviews of every aspect of public expenditure. The Government seem to have come in on a wave of enthusiasm for reviews. I hope that the Province is not burdened by too many reviews, as they may well be a substitute for effective action.
Will the Minister assure me that Northern Ireland will not be penalised by the rigid approach of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that there should be no transfers between headings of expenditure and, in the broader Budget sense, no virements between Departments, even if resources that are freed up in one section of expenditure could be beneficial to another? I understand the restraint of using the Red Book projections on public expenditure for the current year and the forward year, but what happens within those caps? Are there movements between headings, and will that affect the estimates that have been laid before the House today?
Those points aside, I am pleased to offer the Opposition's support for the order. We shall certainly not seek to divide the House, and I assure hon. Members that I shall be listening extremely carefully to the rest of the debate.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
The question by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) about reviews was rather rich coming from him. Many Scottish Tories fervently wish that the 1004 Conservative Government had assessed the likely impact of imposing the poll tax in Scotland. Had that Government done so, the Tories might still have had some Scottish representatives in the House.
I shall be brief, as hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies wish to speak. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton was right to say that the order relates to everyday matters. However, as The Irish Times pointed out a couple of days ago, we still facethe pernicious threat of further IRA violence.As that editorial pointed out,Drumcree looms on Sunday week".I begin by asking my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about funding. I start with a question about the new passenger ferry service link to Campbeltown and the Mull of Kintyre. As he knows, living on the Clyde, the service has long been attractive to the people of Campbeltown, Carradale, Tarbert and elsewhere. It could help to develop a useful tourist link between the west highlands, particularly the Mull of Kintyre, and the beautiful Province of Northern Ireland.
I was deeply unhappy that the previous Administration rejected—I thought in a squalid way—the use of a Caledonian MacBrayne passenger vessel for such a service, but that is in the past and that Government are now in internal exile. How much has the Northern Ireland Office spent on the project? Are there any forecasts in terms of the number of jobs that are likely to be created in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and what is the assessment of likely passenger volume on the ferry service?
The hon. Member for Esher and Walton mentioned the proposed Assembly. How will its acceptability be assessed? Will it be a costly exercise? In Scotland, we are undergoing a similar process, which will cost some money. How much thought has been given to that? Let me say in passing that I shall be delighted if the anachronistic first-past-the-post system is rejected in favour of a more democratic system.
Although I did not come here to make my hon. Friend the Minister work, I refer to the second report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, entitled, "Underachievement in Northern Ireland Secondary Schools". For about three months, I was a member of the Select Committee. I am concerned about the funds that are directed, by way of targeting social need, to children who live in socially and economically deprived areas. As a Scots Member with a keen and deep interest in Northern Ireland matters, I do not consider that the Department of Education has a very good record in that respect and I say that with some regret.
The report was published just before Parliament was dissolved. Paragraph ii on page xxvi is entitled "School funding and social disadvantage". It states:It is quite clear that the figure of five per cent (for Targeting Social Need) is simply based on previous expenditure. TSN funding is money that would have been spent on analogous education projects, but with a new name. The five per cent figure does not seem to have been arrived at by a process which recognised TSN as a priority.That is the key sentence. I hope that my hon. Friend will—dare I use the word—review and analyse the targeting of social need policy as matters seem to have gone badly awry.
1005 The paragraph continues:DENI should initiate debate and consult widely about the appropriate amount of the schools' budget to allocate to this major policy.I hope that my hon. Friend will examine those matters closely. As I am one of the authors of the report, I should refrain from saying that it is a fine piece of work—however, it is.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at times other areas have been disadvantaged by hidden deprivation? As some children and not others receive funds for school meals, school budgets receive different amounts, and that affects the income available to schools in order to supply the required standard of education.
§ Dr. Godman
That was a fine intervention. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have to root out the disadvantage and inequality that are inflicted on many people of all ages in their everyday lives.
I am concerned by the way in which money is directed towards schools in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will not disagree that too much money has gone to fee-paying schools. However, we shall have the opportunity to discuss that on another occasion.
I said that I would be brief and I shall try to keep that promise. I now refer to support for the voluntary sector. I was delighted that the Secretary of State addressed the annual general meeting of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action. I am proud to say that I am closely associated with that organisation, which does remarkably good work in all Northern Ireland constituencies. I would impress on my hon. Friend the Minister—if he needs such heavy-handed impression—not to overlook the legitimate demands of voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland, which do such splendid work in both communities and help to bring them together. I remind the Minister, although he probably does not need it, that he and I, with other hon. Members, met representatives of Playboard yesterday. That organisation does fine work and I ask the Minister to consider any entreaties from Playboard representatives with the sympathy that they deserve.
My final point is one that is also close to my heart. What sums have been earmarked to provide assistance to fire-bombed churches and Orange halls that have recently been the targets of thugs? On that issue, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the estimable Canon Sean Connolly should be warmly complimented for his decision to suspend Saturday evening masses in Harryville? That is a magnanimous gesture and I hope that the representatives of the Orange Order and of the Garvaghy road residents association take a leaf out of that estimable man's book. He has set a fine example for others to follow.
I have mentioned the need to direct money more effectively to those in need, by targeting social need policy. I have also mentioned the need to help the voluntary sector and those who have suffered damage at the hands of vicious thugs. I hope for responsible and sympathetic answers on those issues from my hon. Friend the Minister when he winds up.
§ Mr. Clifford Forsythe (South Antrim)
I, too, welcome the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary to the Front Bench. I also welcome the hon. Members for 1006 Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran) to their new responsibilities. I have been interested to hear the comments from the Minister, the shadow Minister and our Scottish cousin, the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman).
I remind the House that this is the only opportunity that Members from Northern Ireland have to raise matters that concern their constituencies. Madam Speaker has instructed the House that we are not allowed to discuss certain issues, so, although I am sorely tempted, I will not do so.
We have a new Labour Government and, perhaps, a new broom. My colleagues and I will be interested to see what is done by those who, until a short time ago, sat on the Opposition Benches. They made many comments about Northern Ireland issues and gave us the impression that they would do all sorts of things when they entered government. I will mention some of those issues today and we will watch to see whether some of the promises made are kept.
We are already a little nervous, because the new Government will stick to the same budgets, but we will be interested to see whether the budgets will be redistributed. We have commented on that in the past and we will do so in the future. I hope that I am allowed to mention the ferries, which will bring tourists back and forth. They will be a big advantage for both Northern Ireland and Scotland.
I caution all hon. Members about proportional representation. Its effect is that every person who stands in an election becomes the enemy of his or her party colleagues. The system creates great dissension among party members in a constituency. People should consider carefully before introducing that system, democratic as it may seem. It is a disaster for party discipline.
The Minister of State mentioned water and sewerage. I remind him that one of the largest polluters in Northern Ireland is the Department of the Environment. We have a lot of pollution in Northern Ireland and we have fought continually to solve that problem. It is unfortunate that the poacher and the gamekeeper wear the same clothes and are, in fact, the same person. Until that is sorted out, the pollution problem in Northern Ireland will not be solved.
I also wish to raise the issue of the number of road safety officers in Northern Ireland. Sadly, we have the worst road safety record in the United Kingdom. I had good support on the matter from members of the Government when they were in opposition. It is proposed that the number of road safety officers is to be reduced from 13 to 11, but I look forward to hearing that the number will be maintained at 13.
The Under-Secretary may recall serving on several Committees with me when road safety was mentioned. I look forward to his comments when he winds up. I hope that he will forgive me if I mention a route in my constituency—the A6 Moneynick road which runs from Belfast to Londonderry through Toome Bridge. It must be one of the most dangerous roads in Northern Ireland. When the Government consider the budgets, they should include the roads budget and give the go-ahead for the Toome bypass. The road runs through farming country and cars that are going very fast use the side roads. That means a lot of accidents and deterioration of the roads, which is costing money.
1007 I am sure that Ministers will remember that I have raised the issue of quangos in the House before, because it is a favourite subject of mine. As Ministers responsible for Northern Ireland, they will soon experience Northern Ireland quangos. I would be interested to hear what they mean to do about the quangos. When their hon. Friends from Wales and Scotland were in opposition, they supported Members from Northern Ireland on the subject of quangos which, as I think they will remember, were described as unrepresentative and undemocratic; they are certainly unelected.
The composition of the Northern Ireland quangos gives one a fair idea of how unrepresentative they are. I know that many people on those quangos do much good work, and that they mean well—but, sadly, the quangos are not democratic. They operate according to the will and pleasure of the Minister, but perhaps he will change some of that now. Perhaps we shall hear something about it later.
Another bone of contention for Northern Ireland Members—I am no exception—is planning. Through a constituent, I received an assurance from a planner that, if a certain large factory in my constituency sought planning permission, it would not be allowed to expand further. Wherever the pressure came from, it is my understanding that that factory has now been given temporary permission for an extension.
What happens when a Department takes enforcement action, as happened recently in my constituency? Enforcement action was taken against an unauthorised carrier, yet the commissioner told the planning service that, because the documents that had been filled in were wrong, he could take no action, and he dismissed the case.
There are other planning issues, too. A housing estate had outline planning permission showing a residents' path, which had been there a long time; yet that had mysteriously been forgotten by the planners, and planning permission over the route of the path was being given. It is a disputed path, but that is the area that could be used.
Unfortunately, there are two planning services in my constituency, one at each end—one in Belfast and one in Ballymena. The decisions taken by the different officers on the same type of application are different. There are supposed to be guidelines, yet different decisions are taken.
This morning, I had to make a quick investigation concerning a mobile telephone mast which was apparently about to be erected in the middle of a housing estate. When I inquired where the permission had come from, I was told that the mast was permitted development under a certain article of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991.
I tried to read that article, and it was very obscure—although perhaps that impression is my fault rather than that of the draftsman. None the less, nowhere in it could I find anything that would cover that aspect of planning. I am still investigating. I do not ask the Under-Secretary to respond on such detailed matters now, but I may be in touch with his colleague in another place at another stage.
I could, but I shall not, name dozens of small applications which, while all that I have described has been going on, have been vigorously pursued by the 1008 Department—so much so that people have arrived on doorsteps very early in the morning to say that, unfortunately, they oppose this or that planning application. I like to think that the "new broom" will consider such matters carefully, and perhaps do something about them.
Perhaps, in passing, the Minister would tell me what legislation governs the opening of the road for gas and cable. I could probably speak for much longer, but I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends want to contribute. [Interruption.] I shall continue a little longer.
Last Friday, the House debated the Child Support Agency. For various reasons, I could not be here then, but I would like to refer to the agency now, in the context of Northern Ireland. The office in Belfast covers not only Northern Ireland but the rest of the United Kingdom, and I read with great interest the account of the debate. I thought that there were some questions that had not been answered; indeed, most of the questions were not even asked.
The agency is called the Child Support Agency, yet when we debate it we talk about finances and all sorts of other things. Has it made the children any better off? Decisions on maintenance were taken away from the courts because the courts apparently could not deal with them, and gave the wrong vibrations. People could get away with paying very little.
Are the relationships between former husbands and wives, or other couples, any better now than when maintenance was a matter for the court? Are absent parents, whether male or female, any better at paying? The whole House agreed on the CSA—there were no dissenters—yet now we seem to be concentrating on whether the Exchequer is saving money and whether people are being pursued.
Even with what seem to be black and white, cut and dried cases, the CSA does not seem able to operate the necessary sanctions. That is sad. The idea of a Child Support Agency was correct, yet we are failing to do what we were supposed to do—ensure that parents looked after their children, that fathers and mothers accepted their responsibilities. If that is not happening, that, rather than many of the other things that have been suggested, is what should be investigated.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a degree of frustration about what happens? Although the parent Act was passed by the House and deals with all of us, whether we are in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, when I have written to the Secretary of State for Social Security, sending a copy to the Northern Ireland Minister responsible, instead of the matter being dealt with in terms of legal reforms in the House, my letter has been sent back with the message that my question has been transferred to Northern Ireland. Surely the main Act was an Act of the House, affecting us all, and questions should be dealt with here.
§ Mr. Forsythe
I agree. Unfortunately, as I have found in many Standing Committees on which I have served, Northern Ireland is often not included in Bills. It is always explained to me in minute detail why that is, and that an order will be made at a later stage, but it would be much better if such matters were dealt with in the House by Ministers here. That is no reflection on the Ministers now in situ.
1009 I cannot understand why a fixed amount is not set for each child, or why the Inland Revenue cannot be used to deal with self-employed absent parents. Some of my colleagues on the Select Committee on Social Security were of that opinion, although some are now slipping away from it. Changes must be made to the CSA so that it carries out its proper function. I congratulate the staff of the CSA on their work. They are carrying out our instructions, and my complaints are not about them, but about the legislation—I wish to make that clear.
On social security, I am aware that many applicants for disability living allowance are unhappy. I know that family doctors were in a difficult position when signing forms and making applications for DLA, and the new system was brought in to counter that. However, so many people have complained about the system that there must be some grain of truth in the allegations. There have been complaints about the attitude of those carrying out the medical examinations of not only new applicants but recalls. People have been crying after their examination, and many who have visited me are unhappy. That does not apply to everyone, of course—there are hundreds of cases of which I know nothing. However, if we have a number of complaints, they must be looked at.
The most surprising thing that I have discovered is that there have been complaints about the tribunals for those who have been turned down for DLA. People have complained to me about the attitude and conduct of some members of the tribunal, so much so that I have arranged to meet the president of the tribunals at a future date. It alarms me that people making appeals feel that they cannot put their case forward properly because of the attitude of those on the other side of the desk. This is not a matter for which the new Government have responsibility, but I wish to alert the Minister and the Under-Secretary to it. In addition, I have received many complaints about the jobseeker's allowance—which I need not go into—for various reasons.
The Under-Secretary may remember that I have previously raised the matter of charges at hospital car parks. I know why those charges were introduced: people were parking their car at certain hospitals, getting on the bus and coming back to pick up their car at night. But now the private finance initiative has been introduced at the Royal Victoria hospital, I understand that not only visitors but staff must pay for the car park. Does the Minister consider that to be a pay cut? Nurses are receiving the same salary, but now have to pay for car parking.
I wish to refer to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the annual complaint that is made about bad neighbours. I am sure that all hon. Members could tell me about bad neighbours, as we all have problems in our constituencies. What bothers me is that there seems to be no legislation on the matter. There have been suggestions and attempts to introduce legislation to deal with people who are not conducting themselves properly, and some whose behaviour is worse than that. In certain areas, drugs are dispensed in houses owned by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and we are unable to do anything about that.
I am not criticising the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, but it is unfortunate that its officers simply give such bad neighbours a transfer. That is not the solution, as it only brings in other people who cause the same trouble and who will be transferred again later. Unfortunately, 1010 people who were told that it was a good thing to buy their home, and received a reduction in price, are still suffering bad neighbour problems from Northern Ireland Housing Executive tenants, and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive seems unable to do anything about it. I wish to raise that matter with the new team on the Government Front Bench.
I wish to refer to a Northern Ireland Housing Executive case involving two women. One owned her own home, and the other was a tenant of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The woman who owned her home lived in an upstairs apartment, while the other woman lived downstairs. There was a problem with the flue and, as a result, the woman upstairs had her living room destroyed by smoke. The story was that the people who previously lived in the downstairs flat knew not to use the flue, but the new tenant used it. I received a complaint that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's insurance company—rather than the Northern Ireland Housing Executive itself—decided on the damages to be paid. One can argue the case either way, but we know that insurance companies tend to try to cut their losses. If such a situation happens again, what will be the position of the person who is not to blame? I hope that the Under-Secretary will reply on that point—I will even take a letter from him.
§ Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)
I rise for the first time to deliver a speech in the House of Commons. This is a special occasion for me, as I am the first elected Member for the new constituency of West Tyrone or, as some on the mainland like to call it, Tyrone, West. Recently, I thought that any possibility of my being elected to this House—despite my involvement in politics for 30 years—was remote. However, when the boundary commission created an additional seat in Northern Ireland—and that seat took in the area in which I liive—that possibility became real.
Evidently West Tyrone was expected to be a nationalist seat, as the electorate are predominantly nationalist. There are two nationalists to every Protestant or Unionist. Due to the division between Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour party, the full Unionist support in the constituency, and the addition of a number of Roman Catholic votes, I was elected with a majority of 1,161. Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that I fully support the first-past-the-post voting system.
I was delighted to be elected, but at the count three constituencies were counted together and a Mr. McGuinness—a prominent member of Sinn Fein—was elected for Mid-Ulster and got all the publicity. It was as if Sinn Fein had won the election—I was hardly mentioned. Is it not strange that we live in an age when our party, which won the election, hardly gets mentioned and a party that wins two seats gets all the publicity? That shows how much is gained by supporting terrorists and how much the media are determined to report their every word and action. That is a sad day for democracy in the United Kingdom.
I am proud to represent all the people of West Tyrone, irrespective of their religion or political affiliation. Having lived in the area all my life, I believe that the vast majority of them are decent, honest and hard working and I have a great affection for them.
The new constituency is made up of the district council areas of Omagh and Strabane. Sixty per cent. of the area was incorporated in the previous constituency of 1011 Mid-Ulster, then represented by the Rev. William McCrea, while the rest—the Strabane area—was in the Foyle constituency and was represented by the leader of the SDLP, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume). I pay tribute to Rev. McCrea for his commitment and dedication to the constituency for the 13 years he represented the area and I wish him well in his future years. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Foyle, who made every effort when he represented the northern part of my constituency to bring employment to the area—with considerable success. It will be difficult for me to emulate that success.
West Tyrone is largely a rural constituency of gentle rolling hills, glens, forests, loughs and rivers revered by fishermen. Omagh is the largest town in the constituency and the county town of Tyrone. Strabane is the next largest town. Farming is the predominant industry and has been badly affected by the beef crisis. A number of large to medium-sized industries exist in the area, giving substantial employment, but unemployment is still excessively high, with the May average figure showing 15 per cent. male unemployment and 5.7 per cent. female employment, as against the United Kingdom average of 7.7 per cent. and 3.1 per cent. respectively. The lower female figure is due to the fact that much of the main industry in the constituency is in the manufacture of textiles, which obviously gives higher female employment. More than one quarter of the unemployed have been out of work for more than five years, which is very worrying.
Inward investment is obviously needed in the constituency. It is, therefore, a high priority and I shall certainly do all I can, with the various employment and inward investment agencies, to bring more employment to the area.
The north-west of Northern Ireland has benefited greatly from the development of computer-based industries, particularly Seagate, which has just announced a big expansion programme. It is hoped that that expansion will have a knock-on effect in my constituency. Given the skills that are available, more inward investment of that sort would be very welcome indeed.
Tourism is another important industry in my constituency. Two of the major attractions are the Ulster-American folk park and the Ulster history park. The former traces the history of the mainly Protestant Scots-Irish emigration to America in the 18th century and the emigrants' unique contribution to the war of independence and the American constitution, boasting ancestral connections with at least 13 Presidents. The park also traces the later emigration of the Irish as a result of the Irish famine, with the settlements in New York, Boston and other American cities. The park contains unique collections of buildings, artefacts and archival materials of the period and has a fine library, which constitutes the only emigration museum of its kind in Ireland. It contains many records detailing the passenger lists of many of the ships that sailed for America and it is an invaluable source of information for students and historians alike.
Under the proposed Museums (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which will be coming up for debate in the House soon, the folk park is to be transferred from the existing trustees to a new board of trustees of the national 1012 museums of Northern Ireland—yet another quango—where it will be merged with the Ulster museum and the Ulster folk and transport museum in the Greater Belfast area. Those two museums are in the east of the Province and it is to be hoped that the Ulster folk park will not be disadvantaged by its geographical location in the rural area of Tyrone, but will continue to receive adequate funds to expand and develop. We consider that that is important because we know that there are always pressures in Belfast and outside to get the most money. Sometimes, we in the west are regarded as far distant from the main city. We hope that we will get our fair share of the finances for our park to continue.
The Ulster history park traces the history of Ulster from the time of the first people to arrive through to the 17th century AD. Examples are to be seen of the simple huts, covered with animal skins or possibly tree bark, used by our early ancestors, the introduction of pottery, farming and events leading to the settled way of life. Examples of the different working tools and utensils through the ages are shown, with various tombs used to bury the dead and, no doubt, the various implements that the Irish have used to fight among themselves for the past many hundreds of years. The two parks complement each other, therefore, and attract a considerable number of visitors, and they contribute significantly to the local economy.
My constituency has had its fair share of terrorism in the past 20 years. Many good men, men of the British Army, the Ulster Defence Regiment, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the police reserve have lost their lives through the bomb and the bullet. My area has suffered severely. The principal of the local school was murdered—blown up by an IRA bomb. A schoolmaster in the adjoining village was brutally murdered on his way home from school, and there were many others who chose to join the security forces and serve the community out of their loyalty.
Those people were especially vulnerable because of their part-time jobs. They made the supreme sacrifice, and I salute their memory. That makes us more determined never to give in to terrorism and to ensure that terrorism will not succeed in Northern Ireland. As an elected representative, I have attended the funerals and shared the grief of the loved ones, but I felt powerless to do anything about it.
We, the loyal citizens of Ulster, looked to successive British Governments to deal with terrorism and defeat it; we heard wonderful words, telling us that they would never give in to terrorism, but those words were not met with action. To buy off the terrorists, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to which we still say no, was imposed on us, giving a foreign power considerable influence in the affairs of our part of the United Kingdom; we resent that.
Again, the Downing street declaration was produced, and the framework document, with its plan to incorporate us gradually into an Irish republic, still hangs over our heads. All those concessions to terrorists have not placated but encouraged them: they believe that the British Government want to leave Northern Ireland and that keeping up the pressure will eventually persuade them to do so. I, along with many loyal people in Ulster, have felt let down and betrayed by successive British Governments.
1013 Sinn Fein even wants to restrict our freedom to display our identity and culture by stopping our parades and church services. How can peace come to Ulster, as we all want? It can come only when the results of the ballot box are acknowledged, terrorism from whatever source is utterly defeated and democracy is again restored to our Province.
We are dealing in particular this afternoon with the finances of Northern Ireland. I was for a short time the Chairman of the Finance Committee of the Assembly of 1982–84. I seek a clarification that the security budget is now separate from the main budget for Northern Ireland. The security budget used to be part of the Northern Ireland Office expenditure.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. The hon. Gentleman should resume his seat for a moment. I am extremely sorry to have to interrupt his maiden speech. I have allowed him considerable latitude, but he will have heard Madam Speaker say that police and security matters are expressly excluded from the compass of this debate. I have made every allowance for the fact that he has been making his maiden speech, but I really must ask him not to pursue security or police matters in the remainder of his remarks.
§ Mr. Thompson
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had no intention of discussing the police or security budget; I was discussing the relationship of that budget with the one that we are debating. That budget was previously kept separate from the Northern Ireland Office and was not cash-limited; we were told that when we had peace in Northern Ireland, part of it was transferred to the Department and we benefited in some way from it, but now, as there is no longer peace, that money has been taken away. We need clarification on that.
Another important issue in Northern Ireland is farming. The farmers have great need of help, especially because of the devaluation of the green pound. Can the Department produce more money to help the farmers? In the past, there was a system of virement, whereby Departments that did not spend all their money, particularly those dealing with inward investment, could transfer their savings to others so that the whole budget could be spent. Will that continue?
§ Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) on a tremendously confident and, if I may say so, competent speech. I am always greatly impressed by the passion with which Northern Ireland Members speak and the love that they have for their constituencies and the Province that they represent. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he is here by virtue of the creation of a new seat in Northern Ireland. I am familiar with such feelings, because mine is also a new seat, although in a different part of the country—Gloucestershire.
I hope that Northern Ireland Members will forgive me for intruding, as an English Member, on the debate. There is no reason why people should know this, but I made my maiden speech on the subject of Scottish devolution simply because, although I am not Scottish or from Northern Ireland, I have a great passion for the United Kingdom.
1014 I congratulate Ministers and shadow Ministers on their appointments to the Front Benches. There are many other issues that concern Northern Ireland, but the defeat of the IRA and all violence in the Province must be the first priority. I recognise the need for regeneration and I should like to mention a few aspects that could help the process; they may be novel ideas, but they deserve a mention.
Some time ago, we witnessed the advent of mixed schools in Northern Ireland that children from all traditions could attend. What provision is there for the continuation and encouragement of that process? Local democracy was mentioned earlier; I urge caution on moving towards proportional representation, but I want more specifically to ask what plans are in hand for the strengthening of local democracy—giving more powers to local government—i;in Northern Ireland to give people elected to councils something worthwhile to do.
On a recent visit to Northern Ireland, I observed that there was a good set-up for local government but that the elected representatives had little responsibility. I do not mean to be unkind—I am sure that Northern Ireland Members know what I mean. I am aware that there is a difficulty, in that some of the councillors elected in Belfast, for instance, are members of Sinn Fein, but we must consider what can be done about the situation. More peace might come to the Province if local people are able to have more power and control over what happens there.
Has an expanded enterprise zone for Belfast been considered, with more inducements for inward investment and companies perhaps paying less tax as an encouragement for them to come there in the first place, as an attempt to regenerate the Province?
Finally, on the peace process, I urge that no time or finance be wasted on going down roads that have been shown to have failed in the past. We cannot expect much good will from the men of violence; we should not waste too much time seeking it.
§ Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
I want to raise with the Minister the finance that is allocated to the various Departments in Northern Ireland. While no one disagrees with trying to achieve value for money, such is the stringency within Departments that the instructions that go down the line from, for example, the Department of Education to the education and library boards and to individual schools cause a great deal of waste and misdirected effort. I shall illustrate that by dealing with the provision of school meals in small rural primary schools.
In my constituency, where the community has suffered greatly over the years at the hands of terrorists, there have been extraneous pressures on society. It has been exceedingly difficult to maintain many of our small rural primary schools. There is a proposal to close 10 school kitchens in the part of the western board that is in my constituency and three in the part of the southern board that is in my constituency. One might imagine that that would release substantial resources to be ploughed into the classroom. In fact, the closure of those 13 kitchens will release about £28,000. The cost of social security benefits for the 13 cooks who will be made redundant will be about £30,000 or £32,000. In the schools budget, we save £28,000 but we lose more than that from the social security budget. That does not make sense. I will be told 1015 that they are different budgets, but they are not. It all comes out of the same pot; it is all part of same cake. Someone must discover how we can save the cost, which has not been taken into account, of all the work done on the process that is called rationalisation of the school meals service in small schools but which actually loses money.
It is a question not only of money but of the future of small schools. Once their kitchens are removed, parents will become doubtful about whether the schools can continue to exist. They will ask whether it is the thin end of the wedge. They may decide that their children's future is no longer in the catchment area of the local school, so they will move closer to more viable schools. Perhaps the Government want that, but to me that is social engineering of the worst sort. We do not need such social engineering in Northern Ireland, above all places. Over the past 25 years or more, we have been trying to maintain stability in our society in Northern Ireland, but now we are tossing in a folly and calling it saving when it is the exact opposite of that. It is the destruction of the very thing that this Government, and the previous one, were publicly pledged to maintain.
The problem does not affect only the education system. I will not bore the Minister with similar examples in health and hospital services. I could give examples relating to the relocation of rates offices. Water and sewerage services were mentioned earlier. Through rationalisation, the people responsible for maintaining services are being taken further away from the areas where they work because someone thinks that it will save the electricity, light and heating costs of a small office that houses only six officers. No account seems to be taken of the extra travel involved or of the lack of contact with the people who are dependent on such services. I could go on, but there is a corollary to my point, and I hope that the Minister will give it serious consideration.
In Northern Ireland, the firm Mackie International has got into financial problems. I am not going to suggest how that happened, but I want to draw attention to the fact that the figures that were being published proved to be totally inaccurate. A large part of the industry concerned involved public funding several years ago. We must ask what has gone wrong, or whether anything has gone wrong that should not have, and whether anyone was culpable in respect of the way in which a business that had a large slice of public finance was handled.
I leave two thoughts with the Minister. First, will he exercise his authority over Departments in respect of so-called rationalisation to ensure that it is not the little fellow down at the bottom on whom the entire burden is placed? If he will not, the people being served will not get the service to which they are entitled. Secondly, will he examine firms into which large slices of public money have been poured to discover whether the money has been properly handled?
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate. I had not planned to do so because, in preparing for the debate with the customary modesty of the Ulster Unionists, we were leaving space for others to participate. However, with the customary loyalty of the people of Northern Ireland who rely on the Ulster Unionists to look after their interests, 1016 the other parties have left us to make sure that they are looked after. At business questions I asked about Northern Ireland questions, so it would be a shame if we left more than one hour of this debate, although it would be nice to let the Minister have that hour to answer all our questions. If we did so, however, he would miss the privilege of saying, "I do not have time; I shall write to hon. Members."
I want to raise some of the issues, and to thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) for his tribute to our new Member, my hon. Friend the Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson). We appreciate his contribution. We understand that maiden speeches should be non-controversial but, within the context of the economy, we must face the fact that, as the Minister said when he opened the debate, other factors have an impact on the economy. My hon. Friend the Member for West Tyrone spoke with passion about his experiences in west Tyrone. There is no need for the hon. Member for Tewkesbury to apologise for being a Yorkshire man. One of the best Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland happened to be a Yorkshire man—[HON. MEMBERS: "He was a Lancashire man."] I am sorry, I thought that he was from Yorkshire. We shall let the battle between the whites and the reds continue elsewhere. We appreciate hon. Members taking an interest in Northern Ireland, and the more who do so the better informed the House of Commons will be, so that people are not carried away by all the campaigns of the international terrorist movement and others.
I wish to take up the point made by hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury about the impact of the two budgets. Even the Minister said tonight that money had been taken from the security budget and put into the other budgets and that, if terrorism and unrest were to continue, that money would have to be clawed back. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has challenged those figures in the House in the past. We discovered that figures were being brandished—millions of pounds—but nobody could trace them. We want greater accountability when money is allegedly taken from our education or hospital budgets because it is supposed to go to the security budget. That was supposed to be a separate budget.
You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were right to say that the security budget did not form part of this debate; Madam Speaker and her predecessors did the same on successive occasions. However, immediately something goes wrong, the powers that be in the Northern Ireland Office say, "Be good boys or you will not get that money." That is the point that we are making. It is a genuine point, which must be made in the circumstances.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are strong suspicions in Northern Ireland that the cuts were directed more at securing the future of the United Kingdom in meeting European monetary union criteria than the circumstances that prevailed?
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
Many folk in Northern Ireland were of that opinion. It is not for me to speculate in this House, because many others have speculated and used the English language with an economy that left the rest of us wondering whether it was correct or not. I hope that that is parliamentary language.
The Minister referred to the decline in education standards in Northern Ireland. I cannot fully grasp that concept and I know that some of my colleagues have the 1017 same problem. I may have misheard what was said. We were congratulated on the upper end of our education system and the fact that universities in Scotland, England and elsewhere are delighted to poach our best young people. Unfortunately, some teachers in Northern Ireland keep encouraging our best young people to go abroad, thereby denuding some of our universities of the quality of student that would challenge and encourage others to be the best. At the other end of the scale, we were congratulated on the fact that more people were leaving secondary education with awards and diplomas than ever before.
A problem remains, however. The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) referred to those who are deprived. Unfortunately, in some areas of Northern Ireland there has been a tradition whereby parents send their children out early to work, either to get a dead-end job with no future or to augment the family's income through social security payments. That robs some of our young people of the ability to develop. I come from such an area and feel that we should do more to provide good jobs and encourage young people to prepare for them.
However, if we constantly deride what has been happening in Northern Ireland, that will not happen. Tonight's Belfast Telegraph—Thursday night is job night—contains hundreds of jobs that are open to people on condition that they have the required qualifications. There is a tendency to think that the education budget is not going in the right direction to encourage some young people to improve their qualifications so that they can take the jobs that are required for this modern age.
If we were to separate the Mersey area from other parts of the United Kingdom with populations of 1.5 million and compare it with the overall "English region", as it is called, we would discover that Northern Ireland is not as deprived as we are often told. At the same time, we are not the beggars we are often accused of being. I do not for a moment deny the fact that we have benefited from being part of the United Kingdom, but so have other areas. I am sure that, like Northern Ireland, those areas would be delighted to have the Government subventions that have gone into south-east England, in defence contracts and research establishments, rather than into social security payments.
I therefore make no apology in this appropriation debate for asking the Minister whether a proper study has been conducted of the sums coming out of Northern Ireland into insurance firms and finance houses in England through some of the stores and firms that have discovered that Northern Ireland gives them the best return on capital. How is taxation being considered, or are we still working on an imaginary figure rather than dealing with reality?
I welcome the money that has been set aside. I encourage Ministers, who have taken up their posts with tremendous enthusiasm, to heed one warning: they should shake themselves loose from their civil servant minders and sometimes go out and meet real people rather than keep themselves so busy that they cannot even study their brief properly.
§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), I shall take advantage of the absence of the other 1018 Northern Ireland parties to speak on my own behalf, so that, when Labour Members rush into the Chamber at 6 o'clock, they will not be disappointed to discover that the business is over.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) on his maiden speech. His election gave pleasure not only to our own party, but to many people in Northern Ireland when they saw that a pro-Union party had gained that seat. Like my hon. Friend, we all resented the way in which the media devoted excessive attention to the games of a very small party in Northern Ireland, and ignored the fact that the largest party had managed not merely to retain its position as the largest party, but had increased its lead over other parties.
My hon. Friend mentioned the museums in west Tyrone—the Ulster-American folk park and the Ulster history park—and the Museums (Northern Ireland) Order that will shortly be forthcoming. He referred to the possibility of the order being debated in the House, but unfortunately, because of the Jopling reforms, Northern Ireland legislation scarcely features in the House at all. That is one of the factors that incline me against the Jopling reforms, which I do not think have benefited the House. They have taken far too many debates off the Floor of the House. The bulk of the primary legislation made for Northern Ireland—I repeat, primary legislation—is never debated on the Floor of the House. It is debated in Committees, where one, or at most two, Northern Ireland Members are present.
That is a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs. The Modernisation Committee should take that on board. I am sorry to say that, as is traditional in the House, the Committee was set up with no attempt to provide representation for the part of the United Kingdom that we represent. That reflects the habit of hon. Members on the two Front Benches of ignoring the interests of Northern Ireland, except on rare occasions, of which this debate is one. I hope that the Committee will introduce procedures that will allow Northern Ireland business to be conducted properly.
I welcome the contributions of the hon. Members for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). Unlike representatives from Scotland and Wales, we do not resent the presence of other hon. Members at Northern Ireland business. Indeed, we welcome their interest and the contribution that they have made to the debate.
If we managed to get the Northern Ireland Grand Committee up and running, as I hope we will before too long, the paradox is that there would be more hon. Members at the sittings of the Committee than are present for this debate. One of the features of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee is that, in order to maintain the Government's majority, there are about 25 added members. Those members do attend, so we have a larger audience of English, Scots and Welsh Members at the Northern Ireland Grand Committee than when we debate on the Floor of the House.
The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde discussed the new ferry which we hope will be operational next month between Ballycastle and Campbeltown. Like the hon. Gentleman, I express the hope that that will develop tourist opportunities and lead to an increase in 1019 tourist movement between Northern Ireland and the west of Scotland. However, considerable effort will have to be made if the ferry is to be a success.
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the Scottish Office was reluctant to authorise the use of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry that was available, because there were serious reservations about the economic viability of the service. There must be such reservations.
The north coast of Antrim, or rather the north coast of Northern Ireland—if my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) were here, he would immediately chide me for that slip—is an area of considerable attraction to tourists, from the glens right through to Foyle. A significant number of tourists visit the area. One can easily see how coming over to Ballycastle and moving along the attractions of the north coast will appeal to them, but of course there are not many people in Kintyre to come over, and it is not likely that people will travel through Kintyre to Campbeltown to travel over.
If there is to be significant movement, it will be largely in the other direction. The problem with that is that Campbeltown will need considerable investment to be attractive to visitors. Consideration will have to be given also to the transport links north from Campbeltown through Kintyre.
There is a matter that I should mention. I did not think that I needed to declare it, as I derive no financial benefit from it, although I derive social benefits. My sister-in-law runs a guest house in Machrihanish, on the other side of Kintyre from Campbeltown. Consequently, I am familiar with the long journey from Stranraer to Campbeltown, and I will take advantage of the new ferry. Being familiar with the roads through Kintyre and the condition of the town of Campbeltown, I am aware of the need for considerable investment on that side if the venture is to be successful.
§ Dr. Godman
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the assessment of the economic viability of the service should not be confined to two or three years, but would need to be carried out over a period of at least five or six years, to allow it to develop.
§ Mr. Trimble
I agree entirely. In order for the service to be attractive, there will have to be investment in Kintyre and Campbeltown, which will take time. There will also have to be promotion of the tourist opportunities. I hope that the Northern Ireland tourist board and the Scottish tourist bodies are co-operating on the project. Can the Minister tell us whether any active co-operation is taking place?
We hear a great deal in political terms about the advisability of cross-frontier co-operation on the north-south axis. A considerable amount of such co-operation takes place with respect to matters where there is any pragmatic value to be obtained from it. We do not hear enough about the need for more co-operation and joint ventures on an east-west basis. The project that I have described is a clear example where there ought to be such co-operation. So far it has not been forthcoming. The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde may know better than I do, but I do not think that any significant assistance was given by the Northern Ireland Office to get the new ferry into operation. I hope there will be such assistance to develop it.
1020 We have similar problems with the development of the Northern Ireland economy. Because Northern Ireland is a peripheral region of the United Kingdom, one of our biggest problems is transport links. We need the best possible transport links for goods and people. The greatest problems arise in Scotland, not in Northern Ireland. There has been investment in the ports of Stranraer and Belfast, so that, particularly in Larne, we have a state-of-the-art ro-ro facility, and Belfast is developing as well.
However, if one moves from Larne and Belfast, with their first-class ports, across to Scotland, to Cairnryan and Stranraer, one sees nothing like the same facilities or investment. The road connections through to Carlisle are not as good as they could be, and the rail connections are virtually non-existent. For years Ulster Unionist Members have been pressing for more investment in the west of Scotland, along the transport routes, but Scottish Office Ministers have not responded. Even when the former Secretary of State for Scotland represented the constituency concerned, we did not see any action. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why he is no longer in this place.
Reference was made at the outset to overall expenditure and spending plans. I have several general questions regarding the Government's review of expenditure and the extent to which they are committed to existing expenditure programmes. I understand why the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to impose some expenditure restraint on his party by making a commitment to retain the previous Government's expenditure programmes. However, I am surprised that he went one step further and locked in detailed departmental figures—particularly for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I assumed that the Labour party, which represents virtually all Welsh seats and most of those in Scotland, would be keenly aware of the fact that the previous Government deliberately cut expenditure in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in their last Budget in order to allocate more funds to England. They did so for purely political reasons. There were expenditure increases for certain favoured programmes, such as education, in England and Wales, but that did not occur in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I remember former Ministers claiming that £30 million extra would be devoted to the Northern Ireland education programme. However, as the Minister said in opening tonight's debate, we have seen a reduction in education expenditure in Northern Ireland. Expenditure levels were also held down in Scotland and Wales for political reasons, and the Barnett formula was not fully applied. Given the Labour party's pattern of representation, I assumed that it would want to right the injustices done to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I understand the Chancellor's desire to restrain expenditure overall, but I thought that he would make some adjustments.
Hon. Members will know that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not specially favoured in public expenditure terms. The comparisons made in terms of expenditure per capita are misleading. The particular circumstances of the regions necessitate higher spending levels. Expenditure is related to need and to the objective of providing a common standard of service. Regions with high unemployment, more health problems and a less well-off population require greater expenditure. Service delivery costs more when the population is dispersed over a wider area. It is not as though the level of service offered 1021 to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is significantly better than that offered to the people of England—in fact, as a result of the last Government's spending plans, the level of provision is decreasing.
I had hoped tonight to hear some details about the Government's expenditure plans. I hope that the expenditure review will be flexible and, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Tyrone said, there will be some virement within the Northern Ireland budget. It would be foolish to apply the Chancellor's rule about maintaining existing departmental budgets to the six Northern Ireland Departments. If the Northern Ireland budget has to be capped, there should be an opportunity for virement.
§ Mr. Paul Murphy
The hon. Gentleman is completely correct: there is scope for virement within the Northern Ireland budget and within the budgets of the Northern Ireland Departments. However, there is no such scope between Whitehall Departments.
§ Mr. Trimble
I thank the Minister for that encouraging clarification. I am sorry that he went on to reinforce the bad news, but at least we know that it will be possible to move funds between the Northern Ireland Departments.
I turn now to two specific matters. The first concerns the question of education, and I return to the comments of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde. He mentioned the amount of money that is allocated to targeting social need. That is a worthwhile objective, which may involve programmes that address social need and that seek to improve the position of those who are less well off. However, I question the purpose of including a line of expenditure that targets social need in the education budget. The education budget should be used for educational purposes: to educate people and raise standards in schools.
The correlation between social need and educational achievement is not certain. There is a degree of correlation, but it is not precise. There is a high level of educational attainment in some areas of great social need. That is an important point. Even if there were a correlation between social need and educational attainment, the money that is devoted to schools under TSN is not used for educational purposes. It is treated merely as a general addition to the budget and is not directed towards individual families who are in need.
The large sums distributed to some schools under TSN become part of the general budget. That money is not tied to educational need and no check is made of how it is spent. The school governors simply have more money at their disposal, which they may spend as they see fit. No one asks any questions. That is a very inefficient procedure. The criterion used to allocate TSN funding is the entitlement to free school meals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South said, that is a very uncertain criterion to apply, as many of those in need do not qualify for free school meals and are left out of the equation. Unfairness in that regard leads to further unfairness when the TSN programme is applied to schools.
About 7 per cent. of the education budget is distributed by referring to free school meals. That is an increase on the figure that the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde cited, which was accurate for the year to which he referred. That, and expenditure on other programmes, 1022 top-slices the general educational budget in Northern Ireland quite significantly and depresses the amount of money available to individual schools. Expenditure is often very tight at schools whose pupils are not entitled to free school meals. We face a crisis—that is not too strong a word—in education funding in Northern Ireland because many schools do not receive sufficient money through TSN and related programmes.
I have a friend who is a schoolteacher at a very successful primary school in my constituency. Student numbers at the school last year increased by 30 to about 400, but he has been told that he must make two teachers redundant because of budgetary pressures. Perhaps those posts will be saved by the £4 million that the Minister said will be available for education. That first-aid money might rescue some of the hundreds of teaching posts that were due to be lost in Northern Ireland. It might rescue them for one year only, but it certainly will not solve the long-term problem, which is related to the overall education budget.
The problem affects some schools more than others. I could refer the Minister to the detailed expenditure of schools which have similar geographical locations and student numbers and serve the same sorts of populations, but which face considerable budgetary differences because the criteria are applied unfairly. There is unfairness for individual schools and for categories of school. There is discrimination in favour of the maintained sector and against the controlled sector.
§ Mr. Trimble
There is severe discrimination against the controlled sector, and it is that sector that is in crisis. If something drastic is not done to tackle the issue within the next year or two, large parts of the controlled sector will be in a state of collapse. Unfortunately, there are many in Northern Ireland who regard this skew in the expenditure budget as related to the people who run the Department.
I do not, of course, refer to Labour Ministers, who are Ministers only by courtesy in terms of title rather than substance, because they are not heads of the Departments of which they are said to be Ministers. We know who is to blame, and Ministers may take some comfort from that. There is a serious problem, however, and it must be addressed.
I suggest that there are solutions. There may be a need in some instances to put additional funds into certain schools to improve educational attainment. Indeed, there is a raising school standards initiative, but the criteria under which it operates are open to question. There is clearly a need to raise attainment in some schools.
Information is available to enable that to be done on purely education grounds. That information comes from the tests that are set in schools at key stages 4, 7 and so on. From the results of these tests, we have purely educational information that shows levels of attainment. We should be switching the criteria on which moneys are distributed away from free school meals, which is not an especially good criterion, towards attainment in schools.
Results come in at key stage 4 and then on upwards that reflect personal progress through school. The tests would be a better guide if we had a test or assessment at 1023 entry level, and that is coming, albeit rather slowly. It is being piloted this year in England and Wales, and it is expected that the scheme will be developed generally.
When that process has taken place, we shall have entry-level assessment, and, subsequently through a child's career at school, points at which education attainment can be assessed. We shall then be able to fine-tune the funds that go to schools to enable them to raise standards and improve levels of attainment. At the same time, something should be done to ensure that additional moneys are well spent.
I move on to the closure of health facilities, and especially homes. The Minister knows that my constituents and I are seeking meetings with him to discuss these closures. This evening, however, I shall give him a foretaste of some of the points that will be made later, as and when we have the opportunity to speak to him.
I had hoped that the change of Government might result in a change of policy towards the closure of residential and other homes, but there appears so far to be no change. Perhaps a policy change is waiting on the conclusion of the review on financial matters, but the sooner the change comes, the better. There have been far too many closures.
The Minister will know that the Craigavon and Banbridge social services trust has recently taken a decision to close the Edenderry home in Portadown, and to give a six-month stay of execution to the Hoop Hill home in Lurgan.
The Hoop Hill home is for the mentally infirm, and is the only such home in the entire southern region. It will be closed in six months if the Minister does not intervene or if additional funds are not made available. If the closure takes place, there will be no statutory provision for the mentally infirm in the southern region. That is not satisfactory. Leaving aside the individual circumstances of the home, it is surely unsatisfactory to have no provision in the statutory sector.
It has been tried over recent years to introduce partnership between the private and statutory sectors, and one understands and supports that. That should not mean, however, that there is no statutory provision. As I have said, I leave aside the circumstances of the individual home, which is an extremely good one, custom-built with extremely good and caring staff. I leave aside also the inevitable distress that will be caused to residents as and when they are moved. I stress the wisdom of maintaining some provision in the statutory sector.
The Edenderry home is slightly different, in that it is residential and not for the mentally infirm. That being so, there is some alternative provision. As a result of the changes that have taken place in the Craigavon area, however, it is now the last statutory home in Craigavon. A succession of such homes have been closed. I remember being involved in fighting the closure of the Moylinn home in the Brownlow district of Craigavon a couple of years ago. As I have said, Edenderry is the last remaining home, but it is due to be closed.
Craigavon is a substantial area, and is now, I think, the second largest district in Northern Ireland in population terms. It will not be too long before the population reaches 100,000. There will be no statutory provision, however, for residential homes. The working party that 1024 recommended closure referred to the many homes that are available in the private sector. It claimed that there were more homes available in that sector in the Craigavon district than in other areas which it examined. That was a dubious statement, because I doubt whether it was true in proportionate terms. The provision proportionately in Craigavon is not, I think, as good as in the areas where comparisons were made.
Other factors bear on the closure of the Edenderry home. Policy was set by the Department and its board, which meant that the trust was forced into an exercise in which it had to choose one of three homes to close. It had to make comparisons between them. A paper was produced supposedly bearing witness to the comparisons made. The paper is largely unintelligible and irrational. I use my terms carefully and deliberately.
The paper claims to make a comparison of three homes on the basis of certain criteria. It claims also to award scores to the three homes on each of the points in the criteria. There are detailed tables with numbers against various points. The numbers are totted up, and it is found that there are certain scores. There is a variation of about 30 points out of 750 between the three homes. It was decided that the home with the fewest points should be closed.
It is an irrational exercise as presented. At no point is any explanation offered of why any one of the three homes was given any particular score on any of the criteria. We are left with a series of tables in which figures have been inserted. For all we know, those who conducted the exercise merely stared at the ceiling, thought of a number and wrote it down. Alternatively, they closed their eyes, thought of a number and put it down. No reason is given anywhere to show how a score was arrived at.
The Minister will hear at length from my constituents and me that we are amused at the scores given on ease of implementation, which is ease of closure. The report tells us that the Edenderry home will be the easiest to close, but, uniquely of the three, the Edenderry home is the subject of a charitable trust and cannot be closed without an application to the courts, which would take time and cost money. Those factors appear not to have been taken into account. We may find that that issue is ventilated in another place at a later stage.
Even if the Minister feels that he is precluded from examining the merits of the two homes that I have mentioned, I hope that he will consider the general policy, and not simply carry on with the policies adopted by the previous Administration; otherwise, the current jibes will be deemed to be accurate. The most significant recent jibe is that the Labour party won the election because it positioned itself to the right of the Conservative party.
I should like the Minister to examine the policy seriously. We want a change in policy, so that the health service in Northern Ireland does not continue to deteriorate. We also want changes in education policy.
During the general election, the issue that was most often mentioned to my colleagues and me on the doorsteps was education, and the problems that are occurring owing to the underfunding of schools. I hope that the Minister will deal with those problems urgently and energetically.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)
I concur with the remarks of the leader of my party, and having had the opportunity to spend a good hour with the Minister 1025 responsible for education in Northern Ireland, I shall not repeat them. However, last evening, I did not take the opportunity to pursue the matter of the genuine need for additional funding for universities in Northern Ireland. Far too many of our young people are forced to obtain university places in Great Britain. That would not be so bad if they were to return immediately after obtaining qualifications. That problem affects both communities. Those young people generally form life partnerships during their university years, and we do not get the benefit of their expertise and qualifications for many years.
It is a sad state of affairs that so many of our youngsters have entry qualifications that would easily find them places in universities in Great Britain, but because of the shortage of university places in Northern Ireland, only those with the highest qualifications are accepted. Although we welcome and encourage students from outside Northern Ireland, every student from outside Ulster who obtains a place at a university in Northern Ireland displaces one of our own students. Will the Minister please take that matter seriously and consider the cost to parents? He should also consider the problem of poorer families who cannot afford to support their children at universities away from home on the mainland.
During the period of phoney peace in Northern Ireland, which we all enjoyed while it lasted, Northern Ireland hotels and guest houses were overwhelmed with visitors, and the shortage of bed spaces became evident. That problem has been addressed to some extent by investment encouraged and supported by the Northern Ireland tourist board. That investment has produced a number of new hotels and extensions to existing hotels.
I appeal to those responsible to consider the plight of smaller family hotels, which have struggled through the 30 lean years of trouble, and have just managed to break even. They need investment and grant aid to encourage further investment. It would be of great assistance to smaller hoteliers if a scheme were introduced to provide funding and encouragement.
I want to bring to the Minister's attention a problem in my constituency. For many years, Ministers in previous Administrations went to the trouble of visiting the Gobbins path in Islandmagee, which is a unique feature. It was once one of the biggest tourist attractions in Northern Ireland, but sadly, because of lack of maintenance, the bridges to significant views and sites collapsed into the sea.
It would cost too much for a small local council such as Larne borough council to use even its share of millennium funding to reinstate that visitor attraction. It is not a white elephant: the millennium fund has accepted that it is a worthwhile project that would add to the existing attractions of the giants' causeway, the mountains of Mourne and the green glens of Antrim. Because it is such a major project, and because it needs such investment, the burden on a small district council would be too much. I ask those newly appointed to the Northern Ireland Office to examine how support can be given to councils that make investments that are beneficial Provincewide.
To help the Minister obtain some of the moneys required for such investment, I bring to his attention the serious problem of the hundreds of thousands of pounds that are lost annually in Northern Ireland because some in the road haulage industry use diesel fuel on which duty is not paid—red diesel. Presumably, there are insufficient staff in Customs and Excise to deal with that problem.
1026 I am sure that the Exchequer is being defrauded of hundreds of thousands of pounds because that matter is not being pursued.
Some units are being constructed with disguised fuel tanks that are capable of taking up to 200 gallons at a time, which can be drawn into the engine for consumption by the flick of a switch in the cab. The taxpayer loses out and, even worse, legitimate businesses that pay their drivers well, keep their vehicles roadworthy and incur the massive taxation cost of being on the road are put at risk because of the illegal use of fuel throughout Northern Ireland. It is used for journeys to and from both the Irish Republic and Great Britain. I ask that that matter be given urgent attention, so that the taxpayer can benefit and legitimate companies can have fair competition.
I had not intended to speak at all this evening. Although ours is the largest party from Northern Ireland in the House, usually only two of our representatives get to speak in such a debate. On a good night three of us get in, but on a special evening such as this—when the Ulster Unionist party, as it always has done, has again represented the interests of the people of Northern Ireland—more than three of us have had the chance to speak.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tony Worthington)
I shall do my best to answer as many points as I can. My first pleasure is to welcome the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) to his new position. I hope that he will enjoy his responsibilities for Northern Ireland as much as we all enjoy ours. I believe that he comes from the Euro-sane wing of the Conservative party; I wonder whether he has been stationed in Northern Ireland for that reason—but then I also see, sitting beside him on the Front Bench, someone from the other wing of the Tory party: the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran).
I am sure that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton will link up well with our newly appointed Northern Ireland Minister responsible for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy).
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the powers that a local Assembly would have—perhaps the simplest point with which I shall have to deal all evening. That is for the parties in Northern Ireland to sit down and discuss—soon, we hope.
I was astonished to hear what the hon. Gentleman said about the private finance initiative. He gave the impression that it was a smoothly purring machine that had been heavily funding large numbers of projects until the incoming Labour Government interrupted it. What nonsense. Here was a project hailed as the saviour of the Conservative party's public expenditure plans five years ago which has, in the event, disgorged virtually nothing. Indeed, we have had to rescue the PFI and cut out some of the bureaucratic, time-consuming procedures involved in the bidding process—a process that was threatening to become more expensive than the projects themselves.
We intend to be more imaginative and to find out whether the PFI or public-private partnerships can actually deliver. We shall energetically set about giving the scheme a chance to work.
1027 The hon. Member for Esher and Walton, along with several others, discussed transfers between Departments. They have always occurred, they do occur and they will continue to occur. The most immediate example that springs to mind was when we transferred money from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which was generating more capital receipts than anticipated by the previous Government, to the education budget. The Secretary of State has the power to move items from one heading to another. We are at present involved in a root-and-branch analysis of the expenditure by the former Government, to determine how it can better reflect Labour party priorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), like other hon. Members, mentioned the new passenger service between Ballycastle and Campbeltown. We hope that it will succeed. It will need marketing co-operation on the Scottish and Northern Irish sides; it has received European funding. We certainly hope that it generates the passenger volumes that will be necessary.
My hon. Friend contributed to the report on under-achievement in schools, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). We shall respond to that report in a Command Paper, which we hope will appear before the summer recess. It was a valuable report, which will inform the general review that we are undertaking.
Several hon. Members asked about steering money towards remedying educational under-achievement. That involves much more than top-slicing 5 per cent. for the targeting of social need. On arriving in government, we found seven separate funding formulae for schools in a region with a population of 1.6 million people. That raises questions about the effectiveness of school funding. We have recently received a Coopers and Lybrand report on that very issue, and we shall take it into account when looking at ways of targeting educational and social need.
We shall also review the progress of the raising school standards initiative, now in its second year and with one more year to go. We can learn from it. We fought the election on the idea that there can be no higher priority than raising school standards. Above all, that means improving the chances of low achievers in schools.
There is no question but that the Northern Ireland system is highly effective at getting youngsters into university—as many as in Scotland and more than in England and Wales. But the system also continues to turn out under-achievers. The prospects for them and their families are, of course, dispiriting. Instead of being able to contribute to community life, some people's lives are blighted by the under-achievement that stems from a lack of qualifications. We are reviewing that, too, with the aim of changing it.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, I pay tribute to the voluntary organisations' contribution to the life of Northern Ireland. It was a pleasure yesterday to attend the reception held here for UK organisations involved in after-school play activities. We are pleased that the £3.5 million from the European Union will begin to yield benefits in the autumn, when the first of 100 after-school clubs will begin to be funded. I hope that Playboard and other organisations will look 1028 into the possibility of funds from the midweek lottery going to after-school activities. I, for one, would welcome that.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Mr. Forsythe) raised a great many points, but I cannot respond to the ones involving unnamed planning applications in unnamed places—
§ Mr. Forsythe
The Minister will understand that I was making general points, not specific ones. This is not the place for specific details.
§ Mr. Worthington
I take the hon. Gentleman's point. If he could put more substance into those points, I should be delighted to respond to them and to examine the procedures.
The hon. Gentleman raised the assertion that the Department of the Environment is both a polluter and pollution controller. As he will know, on 1 April 1996, the previous Government established the Environment and Heritage Service as a next steps agency, following a full assessment of the options for the delivery of environmental functions and heritage protection. It is important for us to watch the development of the agency and to see how it operates. If, at the end of that time, the position is inadequate, we must address it, but as the organisation has existed for a year, it would be a bit precipitate to change it.
The hon. Gentleman and I know that Northern Ireland's road safety record is unfortunate. He referred to our Committee sittings on that. Eventually, last year, important legislation was put through to penalise, for example, bad drivers, which, we hope, will yield resources. Recently, more money has gone into measures such as traffic calming, which should improve road safety.
On quangos, again, one returns to the fact that the quango state of Northern Ireland could be dealt with most effectively if the talks were to succeed. When there is an elected Assembly within Northern Ireland, the necessity for excessive quangoisation will disappear. I hope that that will come along. At present, we have to deal with each quango on a one-by-one basis. In some areas, we shall certainly examine the role of appointed rather than elected bodies, and come to conclusions on a one-by-one merit basis.
§ Mr. Forsythe
Before the Minister leaves the issue of the Department of the Environment and roads, may I remind him that road safety officer numbers have been reduced or maintained at the former level?
§ Mr. Worthington
We shall have to wait and see what happens over the next year. No decisions have been taken at present. We are working on the previous Government's budgets. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office has written—and I think that the degree of consultation that we have embarked on is unprecedented—to each of the parties, asking for suggestions to increase the budget next year. It will be interesting to receive their proposals for cutting expenditure that is being wasted. We look forward to receiving from all the parties a lengthy list of proposals. We wait in hope, but I suspect that they will be outnumbered by proposals for increased expenditure.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
One of our difficulties is that we cannot compare the figures. Would it be possible for the 1029 Minister to tell us the cost of the consultation during the two or three years that were spent planning traffic calming in the Holy Land and the cost of the ultimate outcome? That issue has been raised with me by people who object to the scheme. On the other hand, less expensive calming measures have been denied in other regions that have wanted them. If we had some of those figures, we might be able to give the Minister some guidance.
§ Mr. Worthington
It will not astonish the hon. Gentleman to know that he cannot have those figures right at this moment. I do not know whether I heard him right, but I thought that he referred to traffic calming measures in the Holy Land. I do not actually have those to hand at present.
The Child Support Agency was introduced with all-party support. I have already established good contact with the CSA in Belfast, which, in addition to serving Northern Ireland, serves a considerable amount of eastern England. My impression is that the work of the CSA in Northern Ireland is towards the top of the CSA's UK performance chart. The annual report will come out shortly, and I can only encourage the hon. Member for South Antrim to get in touch with the director of the CSA in Northern Ireland and put his points to him. However, I have been impressed with its work so far and we have just set new targets for it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) on his maiden speech. We remember vividly his predecessor, Rev. William McCrea, who, I suppose, was unique among hon. Members—he was probably the only Member who could fill Waterfront hall three nights running. That was not because of his political skills, but because of his gospel singing skills. I do not know whether he is going to intensify his efforts in that field, but he was a memorable Member.
I was at the Ulster-American folk park last week, so I found out at first hand the contribution that it makes. I heard the concerns of the director and others about the merger. It is so well advanced that we now have to implement it. There is no alternative. We are promised gains from the merger, but I did hear, as one always does when one goes to the west of the Province, people's fears that they will be forgotten about. Sometimes those fears may be excessive, but it has registered with me.
I apologise if I miss any points out. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) made a point about integrated schools. The number of integrated schools has expanded in recent years, but they still cater for only 2 per cent. of children. The previous Government and ourselves support the idea of integrated schools, where parents want them, where parents can demonstrate clearly that there is a demand for such schools and where that demand is robust and can be afforded, alongside the presence of other schools, which is important. There is, as elsewhere, a surplus of school places, so we shall consider the proposals sympathetically.
We hope that the talks will deliver in relation to local government, with the people of Northern Ireland deciding on such powers, but recently there have been some steps forward. Some local authorities have made considerable contributions through their involvement in district partnerships, using European money. Some of them are seizing on their newish economic development powers, to increase their role in society, and of course we welcome that.
1030 The hon. Member for—is it still Fermanagh and South Tyrone?
§ Mr. Maginnis
I reassure the Minister that I am still the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and that he will be welcome when he eventually finds his way to Dungannon or Enniskillen, where we have missed his presence so far.
§ Mr. Worthington
Now that the hon. Gentleman has returned home, it would be time for me to start visiting him. Recently, I have found it difficult to contact him at times and I should welcome the chance to go to Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I welcome his budget suggestions. Of course, we always have to be aware of the knock-on effects of any rationalisation, but we have to insist that things are run efficiently. If services are run inefficiently, it takes away from services elsewhere. There is no doubt that sometimes what appear to be economies are only false economies, and we have to bear that in mind.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Mackie's. It would not be proper for me to comment on the affairs of a particular company, but we are aware of the situation and shall give what support we can. The IDB is in close contact with the company, and I am sure that the relevant Minister—the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), who is sitting beside me—will be willing to talk to the hon. Gentleman about that.
I think that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) misheard the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, who did not refer to any decline in standards in Northern Ireland's schools. As is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom, it is absolutely crucial that we do not become satisfied with the standards in Northern Ireland. As we said many times during the election, standards have to be raised to match the best in Europe, although standards in Northern Ireland are relatively high already.
The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) mentioned university places. We recognise that the shortage of places in Northern Ireland is a serious problem. As he will know, we are awaiting the Dearing report, which we anticipate will appear next month. It should give us clues as to the ways ahead. We accept what the hon. Gentleman said about the consequences for Northern Ireland of a shortage of places. We accept that the problem has to be dealt with in the medium and long term, but we need to take guidance from the report.
I see that the hon. Member for Upper Bann has returned to his seat. I dealt with the issue of targeting education and social need in his absence, and it would be unfair to go over the point again. The Government have been active on the social and economic front since we took office, because we recognise how important it is that economic and social policy should help our political policy.
Unemployment, poverty, inequality and unfairness are fertile ground for social and political unrest, so we have to use education and training to provide opportunities for all. Indeed, we have already taken action on, for example, schools, where the situation that we inherited was unacceptable. Teachers were being made inappropriately redundant and class sizes were rising. Not to act would have set back our long-term objective of lower class sizes. 1031 Our action was greatly welcomed. Instead of the increase in the schools budget being below the rate of inflation, it is now slightly above.
We have also acted to end the indecision in the further education colleges. For years, the previous Government had intended to create self-governing colleges, but had failed to progress the necessary legislation, and the colleges were left in limbo. They will now become self-governing on 1 April next year. Unlike what happened under the previous Government, colleges will now go forward in the spirit of co-operation with other colleges, schools and universities rather than in selfish competition.
We believe that further education and training are best provided on a Northern Ireland basis, but they need a strategic framework for development.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs
There are great prospects for creating employment in the tourist industry in Northern Ireland. If we have permanent peace, the demand that we previously experienced will be surpassed. Will the Minister consider the need to secure funding for the Northern Ireland tourist and hospitality training council, to ensure that the proper training is afforded our young people so that those engaged in the industry can meet the standards that visitors have come to expect?
§ Mr. Worthington
That matter is on my desk at the moment, but we need effective training councils. We cannot simply support bodies that have the right name, but which might not be delivering. We need to know what is wanted in Northern Ireland as a whole, rather than simply hoping that the colleges will provide the skills needed for the tourist industry.
We took a major step forward when we decided that the same Minister would be responsible for education and training. There had been an unnecessary divide. We are also reviewing the provision of post-16 education and training, to make sure that all our education and training needs are being met in the most effective way.
One of the most important matters on which we have taken action and about which more details will emerge next week is the ambitious welfare-to-work programme, which will particularly benefit Northern Ireland, with its high rates of youth and adult unemployment. I have already referred to the action that we have taken to free up the private finance initiative. It will take a long time to remedy the decades of under-investment in the infrastructure, schools and hospitals of Northern Ireland, but we must rapidly find out what the PFI can deliver.
We are already proceeding with proposals to create a food standards agency under the control of Health Ministers. We have gone ahead with proposals for a major development at Altnagelvin hospital. I did in fact get very close to Fermanagh the other day, when I was pleased to open more renal dialysis beds in Tyrone. We finally confirmed the new Causeway hospital.
It will take us some time to tackle the root causes of some of the problems of over-administration in the health service, to deal with the two-tierism of fundholding, to end the internal market and to create an administration system that is lean and effective and which ensures that the maximum resources go to patient care. I have not met 1032 one Northern Ireland Member who believes that the present structure of administration in the health service in Northern Ireland is lean and effective.
As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said at the outset, the Government are dedicated to ensuring that these appropriations are used with the maximum effectiveness. The greatest help that we can be given is for the resources earmarked for security purposes to be made available for positive things such as health and education. As my hon. Friend said, we are currently involved in the most comprehensive ever spending review across the Northern Ireland block, and hon. Members can be assured that our aim is to ensure that every penny spent reflects the priorities that we so clearly outlined when we fought the election. We have asked the parties in Northern Ireland to help us in that.
Every hon. Member who has spoken today recognises Northern Ireland's enormous potential. Tourism simply shot up in the year of the ceasefire, and manufacturing growth has over the years outstripped that in the rest of Great Britain, but what is crucial to the success of Northern Ireland is the confidence that comes with effective talks and a new ceasefire.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 11 th June, be approved.
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether I could leave with you an important point of order that I want to raise tonight, which perhaps could be discussed with Madam Speaker over the next few days.
Oral questions for the Chancellor of the Exchequer were being tabled today. I sought to table a question to askwhat measures he proposes to increase resources for essential public services.My point of order is in two parts. First, even if the question was deemed unacceptable, it should still have gone in what I think is called the shuffle or raffle. Under our Standing Orders, Madam Speaker has the power to decide that a question that is deemed inappropriate should not be put. However, it should have gone into the shuffle to be decided on subsequently.
I told the Clerks that I felt strongly about the issue. I did not accept the view that the question should be rejected because it was too open. I made it clear that I contested the argument on a point of principle.
Secondly, as an alternative to my wording of askingwhat measures he proposes to increase resources for essential public servicesI was offered the words:what measures he proposes to increase resources for demand-led public services.The difference seems minimal. If my question was too open, so was the alternative.
I am not criticising the Clerks for saying that they thought that the question was too open, but it seems to me fundamental that if a Member of Parliament feels strongly and challenges a decision on a question, it should go in the shuffle. If the question is subsequently deemed inappropriate, it can be expunged, but it is wrong for the 1033 issue to be dealt with as it has been. I believe that my question should have gone in the shuffle and I do not accept that it is too open.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
Order. The best course of action for the hon. Gentleman is to take up any rejection of a parliamentary question with Madam Speaker privately.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would have done that, but my central point is that there was not time. A blue card was apparently flagged up for me on the board, but it reached me after the shuffle. I told the Clerk that I challenged his view. I am not complaining about the fact that he took a different view from me, but I believe that the proper procedure is that the question should go into the shuffle. Battle can then be joined privately.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The best advice that I can give the hon. Gentleman is to take the matter up with Madam Speaker, as is the tradition in the House. That must be done privately, when he can go into the detail that he has gone into in his point of order.