§ The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler)
I beg to move,That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.The draft order has two purposes. The first is to authorise expenditure of £122 million in the 1996–97 spring supplementary estimates. That will bring total estimates provision for Northern Ireland to departmental services to £6,560 million for this financial year. The second purpose is to authorise the vote on account of £2,941 million for 1997–98. That will enable the services of Northern Ireland Departments to continue until the 1997–98 main estimates are brought before the House later this year.
I remind the House that the draft order does not cover expenditure by the Northern Ireland Office on law and order and other services. Details of the sums sought are given in the estimates booklet and the statement of sums required on account, which, as usual, are available in the Vote Office.
I now turn to the estimates. Some of the votes seek token increases only because new pressures have been offset by savings elsewhere in the vote. To give hon. Members the maximum time, I shall refer only to the main areas where supplementary provision is sought.
In the Department of Agriculture's vote 1, which covers expenditure on national agriculture and fisheries support measures, a net increase of some £0.6 million is required. About £0.3 million is required for national back-up aid to EU fishing projects, £0.1 million is for the payment of grants for the decommissioning of nephrops fishing vessels, some £0.3 million is to fund additional commitments under the farm and conservation grants scheme, and £0.2 million is required to meet ex gratia compensation payments to sheep and suckler cow producers who were disadvantaged owing to a misinterpretation of EU quota regulations. These increases are partially offset by projected savings in other areas.
In the Department's vote 2, covering local support measures, a net increase of £6.3 million is sought. This includes £.3.7 million for payments made from the civil contingencies fund for the 24 to 30-months bull slaughter scheme and for increased expenditure to compensate for outbreaks of animal diseases of various kinds. An increase of some £1.4 million represents the carry forward of running cost underspends from 1995–96, while £1.1 million is for health and safety work. Increased expenditure in the vote is partially offset by a net increase in receipts of £0.9 million.
I now turn to the Department of Economic Development, where token increases of £1,000 are sought in all three votes. In vote 1, some £2.6 million is required by the Industrial Development Board for site acquisition, development and building works at Springvale in west Belfast. Two million pounds is sought to meet increased claims for marketing grant support and legal costs, while a further £2 million is required to meet contractual commitments in respect of aircraft sales financing and support for the shipbuilding industry. The increases are offset by increased receipts and reduced requirements elsewhere in the vote.
962 In vote 2, the main element is receipts from the sale of shares in Northern Ireland Electricity plc and the residual associated costs. These costs are being met out of the dividend payments and the proceeds from the sale of the shares.
Finally within vote 3, an increase of £0.7 million is sought for capital expenditure on training facilities. Offsetting savings have been declared elsewhere in the vote, reducing the requirement to a token £1,000.
Turning to the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas, formerly the Office of Electricity Regulation for Northern Ireland, an increase of about £0.4 million is required. This increase is to cover expenditure by the director general of gas, a new statutory appointment, and is for consultancy costs incurred in the preparation of Ofreg's submission on NIE's price control to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
I turn next to the Department of the Environment, where a net increase of £5.1 million is sought in vote 1. The main requirement of some £8 million is for roads maintenance and capital, while some £3.1 million is for additional compensation payments to Northern Ireland Railways. These increases are partially offset by additional receipts of £4.8 million and a reduction of £2.5 million in capital grants to Northern Ireland Railways.
In vote 2, covering housing, an increase of £10.5 million is sought. Some £7 million is to provide assistance to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, while £3.5 million is to provide private sector housing renovation grants. Gross housing expenditure in Northern Ireland this year is now expected to be about £608 million, an increase of £5 million over 1995–96.
In vote 3, covering water and sewerage services, a net increase of some £2.5 million is sought. About £3.3 million is for operational and capital requirements. This is partially offset by additional receipts of £0.5 million, together with reduced privatisation costs of £0.2 million.
In vote 4, which covers environmental and other services, a net increase of £4.3 million is sought. Some £5 million is for regeneration-related matters, about £9 million represents the carry forward of running costs and underspends from 1995–96, and about £6 million is for capital works on accommodation. This increased expenditure is largely offset by additional receipts of £11.6 million and a reduction of £4 million in matching funding for the EU peace and reconciliation programme.
Turning to the Department of Education, a net increase of £5.8 million is sought in vote 1. This includes some £9.6 million for grants to education and library boards, mainly for maintenance, energy efficiency measures, rates revaluation, Irish-medium education, making good arson damage, the fitting of seat belts in school buses, and the cross-community contact scheme. Some £0.4 million is for integrated education, £1.3 million is for capital works at colleges of education, and £1.9 million is for student support. The increases are partially offset by savings elsewhere within the vote. Provision for further education incorporation is included in the estimates and in the vote on account for 1997–98.
In vote 2, an increase of some £5.5 million is sought for the teachers superannuation scheme.
I now turn to the Department of Health and Social Services, where a net increase of £50.6 million is sought in vote 1 for expenditure on hospital, community health, 963 personal social services, health and social services trusts, family health services and certain other services. This includes £14.7 million carried forward from 1995–96 under the end-year flexibility scheme, £3.5 million for hospital emergency admissions and haemophilia costs, £3 million for the family health service, and £20 million to enable trusts to repay trust debt remuneration, together with transfers to and from DHSS vote 3, so as to realign provision following a reappraisal of functions within the department under a senior management review.
In vote 3, a token increase of £1,000 is sought for certain miscellaneous health and personal social services costs to reflect the corresponding senior management review transfers to and from DHSS vote 1, £0.8 million carried forward from 1995–96, and an additional £2.6 million in respect of the EU peace and reconciliation programme.
In vote 4, a net increase of £8.3 million is sought. This includes £11.5 million for running cost, capital and other administration pressures in the Department. These increases are partially offset by reductions elsewhere within the vote.
In vote 5, which covers social security administered by the Social Security Agency, a token increase of £1,000 is sought. This is mainly to realign provision between the individual benefits and to take account of increased appropriations in aid in respect of recoveries from the Northern Ireland national insurance fund, which finances expenditure on the contribution element of jobseeker's allowance.
In vote 6, which covers social security centrally administered by the Department of Health and Social Services, £10 million is sought. This is mainly due to increased expenditure on rent rebates and rent allowances, together with increased payments into the Northern Ireland national insurance fund in respect of the Treasury grant. These increases are partially offset by decreases in the independent living fund, social fund and rates rebates.
Finally, in the Department of Finance and Personnel's vote 2, an additional net amount of some £8.8 million is sought to cover superannuation and other allowances.
In my opening remarks I have drawn attention to the main provisions of the order. In replying to the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) will respond to the points raised by hon. Members. I commend the order to the House.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)
It might be helpful if I make it clear that the debate on the order may cover all matters for which Northern Ireland Departments, as distinct from the Northern Ireland Office, are responsible. Police and security are the principal subjects excluded.
§ Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My recollection is that, last year, Madam Speaker gave that direction before we started the debate. I notice that the Minister departed only by omitting that from the text that he used to open the debate. That is a roundabout way of saying that the technicalities of the order follow a prescribed pattern.
964 I am sure that almost all hon. Members present caught some of what the Minister said, but we hope to tease out what the order means in terms of its practical effect on Northern Ireland. The debate is principally an opportunity for Northern Ireland Members to raise with the Minister and his colleagues matters that relate to the lives of their constituents, so I shall keep my remarks comparatively brief.
The background to the order was, in part, the public expenditure document released by the Secretary of State on 10 December; the appropriation applies to part of the sums therein.
Can the Minister tell us why public expenditure announcements for Northern Ireland must always go through the farce of a private notice question? Why cannot they just be published, instead of the pretence that, on this occasion, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) is particularly interested in them, or that, the previous year, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was? Their enthusiasm is not in evidence now.
The Minister mentioned the European Union peace and reconciliation programme funding. Can his colleague confirm that that is in addition to Government provision, and will not be used to replace it?
The Government have, regrettably—I am sure that they regret it as much as anyone else—had to transfer £120 million to the security budget, as the Secretary of State made clear. I recognise your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not to stray into matters of law and order. I do not question the need for the security services to receive all the support that they have a right to expect, but given that all the mainstream public services are under such pressure, can the Minister assure us that, consistent with the need to protect the security of our citizens, the security services are tested as rigorously as other services to ensure that public money is being spent to best effect and is not being wasted?
If matters turn out more optimistically than the Government have suggested in their projections for the next three years, what mechanisms are in place for returning money to the mainstream budgets? Can the Minister confirm that no spending commitments have been made to fund spending in the current year from the 1997–98 provision or from provision for subsequent years?
The Northern Ireland Audit Office revealed last year that £14 million had been spent on consultants of all kinds. Given the explosion of agentisation—that is the expression that the Department uses—that has taken place in Northern Ireland Departments over the past 12 months, what is the latest figure?
I shall deal with the Departments in the order in which they appear in the document, starting with the Department of Agriculture. The Minister mentioned the slaughter programme, which most people call the accelerated cull. Can he confirm that that has started? He referred to suckler cows. Does the figure include the provision that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outlined at the Dispatch Box on 17 February?
The BSE crisis has been deemed a national issue and most of the funds to support the programme have been found from elsewhere. I say that with great respect for the Minister. Why, then, is the fight against the only 965 systematic and prevalent terrorist campaign that exists in these islands not considered a national issue? Why must other budgets be used to combat terrorism?
Last week, the chairman of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland addressed the annual meeting in Belfast. I quote from a newspaper report:Mr. Alan McClure told 400 business leaders and senior civil servants at the IOD's annual banquet at the Culloden Hotel, Belfast, last night, that such cuts sent 'the wrong message to the wrong people'.He complained that underfunding was creating the worst crisis in two decades in the North's education system. Moreover, recent reductions in research and development grants to Queen's University and the University of Ulster 'threatened inward investment and the competitiveness of Northern Ireland companies'.
'Cutting education and training budgets, almost by definition, hits those at the bottom of the educational totem pole. But it does something else. It reinforces a sense of isolation, of failure and lack of self-worth,' he said.'It confirms to many youngsters that the paramilitaries may offer more than they can'.If that was not damaging enough, Mr. McClure went on to speak about the Government's attitude to economic and monetary union, but I shall not burden the Minister with that.
The order is bad news for the Department of Economic Development. There are to be cuts of £73 million from the training budget, with the action for community employment—ACE—programme again suffering. One almost has a sense of déjà vu. This time last year, the ACE programme was facing cuts of 25 per cent. and 2,000 job losses. I do not understand what the Government have against the programme. This year there is the justification that money is being transferred for other purposes. Last year the Government did not have that justification, but they still imposed harsh cuts.
Although the public expenditure document refers to substantial resources for training, those references are disingenuous, as they mask substantial cuts. There is considerable concern and anger at the decision to close the Dundonald training centre, which will leave a large part of the East Belfast, Castlereagh, North Down and Ards area with no specialised training for the long-term unemployed in particular. Will Ministers ask officials in the Training and Employment Agency to review the proposed closure in the light of all the representations that have been made locally, especially as no consultation was undertaken before the decision was announced?
The community work programme, which has been used in part to supplement the losses of the ACE programme, is not seen as an adequate replacement. We shall be interested to see the two-year review that is due in the near future. That will confirm most people's reservations. Increases to the Industrial Development Board budget, welcome though they are, will be wasted if they are more than offset by the fact that the skilled workers needed to foster investment and growth in Northern Ireland are not available because of cuts further down the training chain.
On the environment, the regional rate needs to be set about now, if it has not been done already. When might that be done? In the light of the re-rating of commercial properties that has just been undertaken, will the Minister give us details of the transitional grant assistance for that? From which budget will it be drawn?
The Minister mentioned increased subsidies, or increased assistance, to Northern Ireland Railways. Will he make it clear whether that includes the shortfall that 966 has been identified in the upgrading of the link between Belfast and Dublin, or whether that will come from a separate source?
Housing has also taken a firm hit in the order, particularly at a time of growing waiting lists and growing homelessness. I know that the Minister resisted that view in Northern Ireland questions a couple of months ago, but those are the facts. What is the Secretary of State implying when he says in the public expenditure statement:I see significant opportunities in the future however for the private sector to increase its role in meeting the Province's house building needs especially through Housing Associations in the context of the recent Housing Review"?The Minister has referred to the housing review, but what will that actually translate into and how might that go at least some way to offsetting the sharp reduction in public investment that the order portends?
There is, I suppose, a little good news in education provision, at least for the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who is not in his place at the moment, because I distinctly remember him making an impassioned plea on behalf of Belmont primary school last year. I notice that that has gone into the capital programme, so that is to be welcomed, but in his statement the Secretary of State mentions that the plans to advance nursery vouchers will not now be proceeded with. I have a letter from the Minister of State, who was kind enough to write to me after this debate last year, in which he set out the Government's plans to proceed with nursery vouchers this year. He wrote:The implementation of the Scheme in Northern Ireland will require a certain amount of tailoring to take account of the distinctive features of the education system here. Officials in my Department have been working on proposals and I hope soon, in line with my previous public commitment, to launch a document for consultation which will set out how the Scheme might relate to Northern Ireland.Given the fact that the scheme is not now to be introduced, will the Minister give some indication of how much time and effort was wasted on that particular extravagance?
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, when the pre-school lobby was in Parliament last week, those who were there representing Northern Ireland were pressing for the voucher scheme to be extended to Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Dowd
I accept that entirely. It merely underlines my point that there are mixed views on the scheme's value. I too have heard people from all parts of Northern Ireland saying that they would welcome the voucher system, but the fact that people's expectations have been built up, only to be dashed, shows the Government's conduct in this matter. Whichever way we look at it, the Government have clearly wasted their time and money pursuing their policy, and disappointed people as a result.
The proposed education spending implies some increase, but that implication is not what is happening on the ground, certainly in relation to the school meals service, the school transport service, curriculum advisory support, the library service, the youth service and discretionary awards. On all of those, boards are making considerable cuts.
967 Even the objective of protecting the schools budget is not what it might seem. I have a copy of a letter from the South Eastern education and library board to the chairman of all the schools in its area. I think it would be instructive if I read just a couple of paragraphs to the House.Dear ChairmanAs you are aware the Board has encountered great difficulty in meeting its financial commitments in the 1996–97 financial year, and it is indebted to Governors and Schools for the efforts which they are making to keep expenditure to a minimum. The Department of Education has made available additional resources on a loan basis in the 1996–97 financial year, with repayment required in the 1997–98 and in 1998–99 financial years.The implications for your school are reflected in the revised projected position at 31 March 1997 and the projected position at 31 March 1998. You will also be aware that because of the tight financial constraints which all schools and services are experiencing, the Board has very limited flexibility which would allow schools to carry deficits at the end of the financial year.The letter goes on to give details of the local management of schools formula budget for 1997–98 and then in two chunks takes 10 per cent. of it away for the repayment of loans. Will the Minister explain why not just the capital, but the revenue, budget seems to be run on borrowed money? How many further examples are there of commitments made this year, particularly in the health sector, where various loans have been forthcoming, and what will the impact of those repayments be further down the track?
On health, we had an excellent debate this morning, for which we are grateful to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs)—who is not here at the moment. I shall not repeat much of what we went through then, other than to say that the Government's reforms and the internal market in the national health service continue to absorb into administration money that would be far better spent on patient care. The public expenditure document mentions, yet again, the state of the prescribed drugs budgets and the efforts to try to reduce them—but that is now an almost permanent feature of expenditure documents. Will the Minister give some indication of what progress is being made to reduce the prescribing budgets, particularly as, in the Eastern board in particular, general practitioners have put forward various schemes which I believe he has accepted at least in part to try to control that expenditure?
The Secretary of State concludes the public expenditure document by saying:Northern Ireland has to regain the path that leads towards lasting peace, stability and growth".We echo that without reservation, not simply for the effect that it would have on public spending—even though the Government's attitude towards that seems to be somewhat selective—but because it would be of unremitting benefit to every citizen in Northern Ireland.
§ Sir James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)
I begin, alphabetically, with the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. I have seized on one little phrase: "certain alternative land uses". Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that it gained currency as part of the Jopling reforms mark one, when the then Minister returned from Brussels with a directive from our betters in the superior Parliament exhorting farmers to stop 968 producing beef, milk, cereals or anything else and, whatever the cost, find another use for their land—but not produce anything if they could help it. For some reason, fortunately, that never caught on in Northern Ireland, perhaps because a different planning theology has taken root over there and it was never really enforced.
If people had a look around Northern Ireland, they would find land for which an alternative use could be found. I think of Ministry of Defence property and disused airfields. The Minister of State will know that there is some land at Maghaberry prison on which I have my eye, not for personal property, but for the worthy cause of providing recreation facilities in that rapidly growing village.
Vote 2 mentions scientific and veterinary services. After the BSE scare—I use the word scare deliberately—we owe much to the veterinary services in Northern Ireland for placing Northern Ireland beef at the head of the queue waiting for the ban to be lifted. Our case rests not on geographical or political considerations but on the uniquely high standard of animal health in Northern Ireland and on our ability to trace every animal.
I say with very great regret that I trust that there is no foundation to reports that some ill-disposed people in the Scottish Office are grubbing around to see if they can find what they call a chink in Northern Ireland's armour, which presumably would enable them to sabotage the case for Ulster beef. I will not go more deeply into that subject now, but I know that our veterinary services will continue to serve Northern Ireland's agricultural activities and their customers.
I have no doubt that the news industry is becoming bored with BSE, or that it will come up with a new scare before the general election. I have been proved wrong in my forecast that lettuce leaves would be the next victim of a scare, as it appears that spring water from our own garden wells will be the next scare—and yet another example of poisoning someone's well. I merely give warning to be prepared for it, but be of good cheer, because—like all the other scares, fashions and gimmicks of the news industry—it will die a death in time, if people do not resuscitate it.
§ Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Department got it wrong, once again, on the veterinary laboratory at Omagh? It eventually had to reverse its very foolish decision. Does that not prove the great value that the veterinary service provides in detecting animal problems in Northern Ireland? Does it not also prove that the man from the Ministry very often gets it wrong?
§ Sir James Molyneaux
Yes, that example is adequate testimonial to the efficiency of all who served in that centre and in other such establishments in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend was far too modest to claim that the reversal of that decision was in some ways a tribute to all the genuine political parties in Northern Ireland which came together, not for the first time, to make their presence felt. Their advice was taken by those in authority. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary did not entirely disagree with the advice that we were giving—although I will not embarrass them by asking them to confirm or deny that.
I suppose that the situation with the purity of water puts us on a par with sunny Spain, which deplores the quality of drinking water in the European Community. It claims 969 that water in Europe is not drinkable and that much needs to be done to restore it, so that it can be safely drunk and all the rest of it, but the Spanish forget that, on disembarking from an aircraft anywhere in Spanish territory, one is warned within an inch of one's life to drink nothing but bottled water, which is imported from France. A wee bit of educational activity is needed there, even if it does offend our Spanish colleagues in the great European Union, as we now call it.
The second Department listed in the schedule is the Department of Economic Development. I am not one of those whose standard practice is to withhold credit from the Government and from Departments when credit is due, so I have no hesitation in saying that this month's report from the PA Consulting Group projects 3 per cent. growth in employment in the next 12 months. That growth comes on top of steady job increases over the past two years. I do not believe that all of that could have been achieved had it not been for the drive, energy and determination of Lady Denton, who—despite the extreme pressure of coping with her other Department, the Department of Agriculture, in the crisis year of BSE—has projected Ulster industry on to the world map. I trust that we can all resolve to support her in any further initiatives in that regard.
Vote 2 mentions energy efficiency, which reminds me that we all have a role to play in promoting that theme, particularly in the construction industry. I could never comprehend why we should continue to indulge ourselves by building buildings with glass walls, which surely must cost a fortune to heat in winter and cool in summer. I have yet to find an architect who can explain the reasoning behind building such structures. Right hon. and hon. Members have wide scope to make some progress in the matter by persuading the Treasury to reduce the 17.5 per cent. VAT rate on conservation materials, or by persuading the Treasury at least to reduce it to the 8 per cent. rate that applies to heating fuel.
On vote 3, if money should become available or savings made in the Department of Economic Development, I hope that the action for community employment scheme and other training schemes will benefit and be reinstated. In my humble opinion, savings could be made through greater co-operation by the planning authorities. Protection of the environment is a noble objective—fair enough—but not if it is achieved at the expense of delaying applications from industry or if it causes wasteful expenditure on electricity links which subsequently increase the cost of electricity.
The Under-Secretary is doing a good job in the Department of the Environment, but there is great disappointment because the Belfast-Larne road scheme has slipped back further in the schedule. It is the most important road link and it is the link to Europe—as the European Union realises. Surely a special case can be made in asking Brussels to give back at least some of our own money, to which we are entitled, as Europe has declared a particular interest in that project. A case could be made for new roads and new bypasses elsewhere, but we must get it clear in our minds that Larne is the one external link and the one external route to which all the others must take second place in the queue. I say that as a representative of Lisburn.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) mentioned the expenditure under votes 2 and 3 on housing, water and related services. I am afraid that that 970 £11million has not been wisely or sensibly spent. The Environment Minister knows that I pleaded for a commonsense approach to housing in, for example, the village of Glenavy. We failed to halt the fivefold expansion in new build in that village, which occurred years before provision of the services listed in votes 2 and 3—sewerage, water, electricity and schools.
It would be indelicate to describe the appalling risk posed to public health during the past two summers because the advice offered by the Minister and me was ignored and almost treated with derision. People said, "It can't happen; it won't happen. The services will all be in place before the houses are built," but they were wrong—those services are still not in place. I ask for a little more co-ordination between the authorities and rather less arrogance in such cases.
Most of us have had a fair bit of advice in recent days about what must be done in education. Most of that advice centres on increased expenditure. Many of us would like that, but the reality is that it will not happen. We may have to settle for a revamp and a re-examination of each education board's expenditure projects. As I understand it, nearly all of them are in deficit, so they would be unlikely to splash new money around even if they got it.
There is a case for taking another look at the bodies that are not really at the core of education. Those auxiliary bodies are no doubt very worthy, but there are 19 of them. They are not teachers and do not claim to be. Teachers are the vital element in education. Teachers and the environment in which they work—the schools—must have priority over all the other well-meaning bodies. I am not suggesting that those other bodies should be set aside, simply that they should consider the possibility of finding other sources of funding.
It is astonishing how many self-appointed bodies are sloshing around in money from all manner of sources. I fear that there will be a day of reckoning eventually but, for the moment, a bit of co-ordination would be helpful for those 19 bodies in what the Minister referred to recently as the protected funding group—those with ring-fenced funding. Surely they should have some share, or at least set about endeavouring to obtain some share, of the money that comes from sources other than the Treasury. If that cannot be achieved, we shall have to admit that the boards will be driven to the painful choice of cutting some of services that are not quite in the group of 19, but are neither compulsory nor statutory. Many of them could be made self-financing. Tough decisions must be made, because a general election will change nothing.
Department of Health and Social Services vote 1 contains a staggering sum. The only certainty is that demand will grow remorselessly. This morning, my hon. Friends dealt fully with the subjects of votes 1 to 6. The first is of special interest to me, given my involvement in that area in my earlier years, until my second demobilisation in 1973, which was caused by reforms brought in by a Stormont Government. My first demobilisation was in 1946, when the Royal Air Force decided that it might be able to manage without me. I am now within I do not know how many days of my third and final demobilisation.
§ Sir James Molyneaux
I do not believe in reincarnation.
971 Vote 1 deals with community health and personal and social services. On the basis of my experience, I believe that the best of the trusts have transformed the service to patients to an incredible extent. I pay that general tribute to the trusts, and specifically to the handful of the best of them. Others have not quite measured up to their standard.
That implies competition. Will the Minister confirm that the non-recurrent funding made available to the Belfast hospitals outside the contracting process will cease on 31 March 1997? What actions have been taken to reshape the hospitals so that I can reassure my constituents that any potential penalty for them will cease? In his review of the capitation allocation, will the Minister take account of the fact that the population of our Eastern board area is expanding so rapidly that even a period of 12 months can render any calculations inaccurate?
In case this should be my last speech in the House, I should like to finish with a word of caution. For the foreseeable future, there will be no crock at the end of the rainbow.
§ 8.4 pm
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)
There are many matters of great concern to the people of Northern Ireland at the moment. One of the greatest is the swingeing cut in education funding. There is no doubt that teachers, parents, children and those employed in education in the Province are gravely concerned about what will happen in our schools.
Hon. Members present will be aware that in his public statement on 10 December, the Secretary of State announced that the savings in the law and order budget released as a result of the cessation of violence would have to be restored in view of the IRA's abandonment of its ceasefire. There will be a tremendous cut in the education budget.
I should like the Minister to explain that cut to us. I understand that when security is being discussed at Budget time, an amount is allocated for the whole United Kingdom. There is a feeling in Northern Ireland that the Treasury and the Ministers have had two bites at the cherry. We do not see any cut in education in Manchester or the Canary Wharf area of this city, but we see it in Northern Ireland. Of all the people who might suffer, surely it should not be the children in their education prospects and their need for education and training. That goes to the heart of the people of Northern Ireland.
The implication is that there will be an additional £77 million over the next three years for the police authority and an additional £42 million for the Compensation Agency, making a total of £119 million—an increase of £36 million to the police authority over the previous year. The cuts will affect education seriously. Many hon. Members from Northern Ireland will have particular interests to put to the House. I am interested in the south-eastern area.
I have a note from the Northern Ireland Teachers Council that the number of teacher redundancies—not full retirements—will be more than 200. Taking more than 200 teachers out of the schools in that area will leave a gap in the ability of the schools to manage the education 972 of the children under their care. The number of ancillary redundancies is not fully determined, but it will be 50 plus. It is estimated that there will be 10 headquarters redundancies, but the figure has not yet been finalised. When the figures are adjusted for inflation, expenditure on meals will be cut by 8.4 per cent., spending on colleges and secondary schools by 14.51 per cent., libraries by 15.3 per cent., youth services by 7.62 per cent., and discretionary awards by 14.25 per cent. They are large and serious cuts that will have an enormous effect upon children's schooling in Northern Ireland.
My two parliamentary colleagues and I met the Minister yesterday. He said that he could not tell us what the full impact of the cuts would be. We asked how many teachers would lose their positions—the teachers' unions estimate that as many as 500 might be affected—but the Minister could not provide an answer. There will be a serious crisis. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) said, an unusual thing happened at the annual meeting of the directors' board, when its chairman made a long speech about the cuts and the effect that they would have.
The overall allocation for education, arts and libraries in the next three years will be £1,376 million in 1997–98, £1,380 million in 1998–99, and £1,400 million in 1999–2000. Those allocations reflect adversely on education provision to the millennium as they represent funding increases of approximately 0.3 per cent. and 1.5 per cent. in the next two years. That is much less than the current and anticipated rates of inflation over the next three years. Therefore, we shall gain nothing from the alleged increases.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
The hon. Gentleman referred to teacher redundancies. Did he notice that £50 million has been allocated to cover redundancies? Whatever the figure may be, it is a waste of money to make good teachers redundant and lose their skills.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The House and the Government must realise the seriousness of the situation, which is causing grave concern. According to the Department of Education, the Government's financial allocation to education in 1997–98 is 2 per cent. higher than that for 1996–97, which represents an increase of about £30 million in monetary terms.
The Department of Education must get to grips with the likely impact of the cuts. In all fairness to the Minister, he admitted that the cuts were serious and he recognised that schools would face financial hardship. However, I do not think that the Government have fully recognised that the reductions will create difficulties that cannot be solved. Children will suffer now and for the rest of their lives because they will not be educated adequately. That problem will not be solved in five or six years, and it concerns everyone in Northern Ireland.
The extent of the cuts imposed by Government was clearly illustrated on 25 February when the Education Minister announced a new capital building programme for schools throughout Northern Ireland. Opposition Front Benchers spoke about Dundonald and my colleague's delight at what had happened there. However, the overall figure is not encouraging. Schools throughout Northern Ireland will receive £23 million, which is in sharp contrast 973 to the trend of the past two years when capital programmes totalling £111 million were announced. If one compares those figures, one will see exactly what is happening.
All Northern Ireland Members complain that schools in their areas have Portakabin classrooms, some of which are not watertight. In many schools, the toilet facilities are outside the cabins so the children must walk from one Portakabin to another in adverse weather conditions. Yet capital expenditure has been cut.
I regret the fact that the Minister initially refused to meet with the Northern Ireland Teachers Council. I do not think that Ministers should adopt that attitude with anyone. He argued that he wanted to meet the politicians first, but he did not tell that to the council. He should have explained that he wanted to meet the elected representatives first. I am glad that a meeting is planned for next week, but the Minister's actions caused bitterness among those people who have a legitimate grievance. Parents want to see something done about this problem.
The Government are abdicating their responsibility in this area. The Government are responsible for providing free education for all pupils of statutory school age, but they will not be able to achieve that aim in Northern Ireland. Some £120 million in public sector funding will be diverted to the security budget over the next three years. Many people believe that that is immoral, obscene and reprehensible; they believe that the Government are making the children of Northern Ireland the scapegoats for a security problem for which they are not responsible and which they did not create.
I know that I must tread carefully, but that is what the Government have said. They claim that the cuts are caused by the security situation. That situation is commonly known as Drumcree, but it should be known as Garvaghy road, because that is where the trouble was. Last night, Gerry Adams told us that the IRA had been scheming and planning its actions for three years. The events were not caused by Orangemen wanting to walk home from church or wanting to go to their place of worship at Dunloy in my constituency, at Bellaghy in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), or elsewhere in the constituency of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). It was a planned, concerted and orchestrated action on the part of the IRA.
I know that I am very much on the borders of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I prefer union to borders. I want to retain union with the United Kingdom, but I support borders between us and the Irish Republic.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
Is it not a fact that a fair proportion of the education budget has gone to funding the Gaelic Athletic Association halls where Sinn Fein concocted many of its plans over the past three years?
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
That is absolutely right. However, I shall not transgress any further as I must make some progress.
I think that the House should consider seriously what is happening in our Province. As I said at the talks today, I would like the people who pointed the finger in the summer at the Orangemen and the Protestant population to withdraw their statement and to put the blame where it is rightly deserved.
974 I trust that the Minister will tell us how he will handle the situation, given the loss of 500 of the best teachers. How big will classes be, if 500 teachers are to be taken out of the education system? I am concerned that smaller classes will not be retained. There will also be a reduction in the number of temporary teachers to cover teachers who are absent on sick leave. What will happen when teachers get sick? Will there be no replacement, and will two classes have to be put together? We are told that there is no money, so what can we do?
I trust that the Government will reconsider this matter. Those cuts will lower the morale of teachers in schools, will lower the morale of pupils who attend schools and will lower the morale of parents who send their children to those schools. I must place on record the profound abhorrence in Northern Ireland about the position in our schools. Many experienced teachers will opt for premature retirement or redundancy to save the job of a young colleague. Those people have given their lives to teaching, but they cannot finish at a pensionable age because they want their younger colleagues at least to have the opportunity to earn money to sustain themselves.
The Government must realise that the position is very serious, and they must do something about it. The Northern Ireland Teachers Council has said in blunt, unequivocal terms thateducation is facing a crisis in Northern Ireland of such proportions that has never been witnessed before".Its only hope is that the House of Commons will be able to pressurise the Government, so that they take this properly on board and do not just dismiss it and say, "We are very sorry, but this is the way it is going to be." I expect something from the Minister, and so do the people of Northern Ireland. The children have a right to expect a response. It is our right, and I trust that we will not be fobbed off by the Minister, and that he will give us a full statement.
I am deeply concerned about the roads programme. I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) about the serious situation at Larne. I was at a meeting some years ago and was amazed to learn that Larne harbour was not marked on main European maps, yet at that time it was one of the largest ports in the United Kingdom. That has been put on the long finger. It took the Prime Minister to come to the centre of my constituency before the dualling of the A26 commenced. It took us 16 years to get that started. It has now started, but in the middle of it we were told that stage 3 has been put off. It may be six, seven or eight years before that work recommences. On the one hand we got encouragement, and with the next we got a smack in the teeth.
Hon. Members should look at the schedule of schemes deferred from the programme that was announced in February 1966. It lists schemes at Omagh, Antrim-Ballymena, Limavady, Limavady, Limavady, Limavady, Strand road, Windyhall, Comber, Garvaghy, Northway Portadown, Leckpatrick and the Toome bypass. They were all promised, were all on the list and were all postponed. That is a very serious matter indeed.
I received a letter from the chancellor of Queen's university, and from the chancellor of the university of Ulster. Both of them are frightfully concerned about 975 research budget cuts. That is a serious problem for our industry, because those universities make a valuable contribution to the present and future development of industry in the Province. The chancellor of Queen's university refers tothe serious damage which will be done to Northern Ireland universities, and to the economy and Province generally, resulting from the 1996 Public Expenditure plans announced by the Secretary of State in December 1996. In his announcement he indicated that research funding for the two Northern Ireland universities is to suffer swingeing cuts of £4m (16 per cent.) from April 1997, increasing to £6m (24 per cent.) per annum from 1998. By contrast, the University system in England and Wales received additional funds.Why was that? Why is there discrimination against the two universities in Northern Ireland?
The chancellor goes on to say thatresearch is essential to wealth creationresearch is essential to high quality teaching in our universities;research expenditure benefits the economy in a wide variety of ways, including the creation of jobs and provision of well-trained graduates for the work force;research facilities and personnel provide support advice for local companies, organisations and professions;research expertise and graduate availability helps to attract high technology inward investment;research helps to promote economic growth;research helps the voluntary sector;research gives rise to spin-off companies"—and he lists them—research helps to improve health and health care;research helps the professions and public bodies; andresearch helps to improve the environment.All those vital contributions that flow from research in our universities will be subject to swingeing cuts.
The Minister says that we need inward investment. The first question that companies coming to Northern Ireland ask is what research facilities are available in the universities. We have to tell them that we are sorry, but we cannot help.
I have been asked to raise the issue of Banbridge hospital. I lend my support to the hon. Members who represent the Armagh area that includes Banbridge. I give my backing to the demands of the action group. The closure of Banbridge hospital is a running sore. I do not understand why the Prime Minister, when approached by an across-the-board deputation of Members from Northern Ireland, said that he could not see his way to talking to them. I understand that there is to be an all-party deputation, which will include hon. Members from all parties in the House. I hope that what was not given to the Northern Ireland Members of Parliament will be given to those hon. Members representing both sides of the House who want to discuss this issue, because that would be good.
I must give some thanks to the Department. Like the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley, I am always prepared to say thank you for what we get. I am glad that the flood wall scheme has been carried out at the Toome road in my constituency. We have had a problem there for the past 30 or 40 years and I am glad that the scheme is now almost complete. The people in that area can go to their beds at night knowing that no matter the weather, 976 they will not be flooded. I do not know how many times during my 27 years as the Member of Parliament for that area, I have had to rescue furniture as it floated round the homes of my constituents. That has happened over and over again. I must put on record my gratitude for the fact that the money has been found to resolve a problem that has brought fear into the hearts of people during adverse weather conditions in the winter.
§ Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)
At the start of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you warned us not to transgress into the funding for law and order and the Northern Ireland Office. It is ironic that it is the transfer of funds from the budgets of other Departments that is the cause of some of the most serious complaints by Northern Ireland Members about the real cuts being made, particularly in education and health.
On behalf of those we represent, we all regret that the cost of the collapse of the ceasefire, the Orange demonstrations and the blockage of the roads throughout Northern Ireland in the first week of July last year, which cost £17 million alone, is part of the £120 million being transferred out of what I might call the personal services for every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has dealt well and in great detail with the problem affecting education provision for our children. I make no excuse for re-emphasising what he said, and confirming that the best estimate available to us is that 400 to 500 teachers will be made redundant. In a community of 1.5 million people, that will have a serious impact on the education of our children.
We all know that education cannot be switched on and off, or be provided one year and not the next. Our children and students are entitled to the same treatment, facilities and opportunities as those anywhere else in the United Kingdom. The cuts that have been imposed will, in my opinion and in the opinion of the best educationists in Northern Ireland, dictate that we will not have those facilities for our children and teachers.
The hon. Member for North Antrim, whom I shall quote considerably, has already said that the mature and experienced teachers are taking early redundancies and sacrificing the remnants of their professional career, on behalf of the younger members of the teaching fraternity. We are losing the best and most experienced teachers for the sake of the younger teachers with families. That is a great tragedy.
The pupil-teacher ratio will be affected dramatically, and that will be detrimental to the quality of teaching. If the number of pupils per teacher increases, the physical size of the classrooms, particularly in rural communities, will be inadequate. I represent a rural constituency, and I have already experienced that problem in my area. It will be impossible to provide an education.
I had a meeting last week, before the debate was scheduled, with about 25 principal teachers, from primary to tertiary and across the maintained, voluntary and state sectors. They were unanimously of the opinion that, with the existing deficiencies in their budgets together with the forecast increased deficiencies, they will not be able to deliver the national curriculum.
I do not know who does the sums in the Department of Education, but I should have thought that any prudent financier would have looked at the objective and then 977 considered how to provide the sums necessary to achieve it. Presumably the minimum objective is the delivery of the national curriculum, and the sums should have been calculated to achieve that. It seems as if someone just said, "We need x million from here," without considering the consequences for the children.
I have no doubt that many of the small rural schools dotted around my constituency will be forced to close. As a general rule, one thing that those schools have and others do not necessarily have is high academic achievement. The figures show that. The cuts will lead to the further degradation of the rural population and the ensuing problems of rebuilding and relocating all the facilities in some town or city.
I hope that the Minister will convey to his colleagues the serious nature of the problem. If he does not appreciate it yet, I hope that he will do the necessary research to find out whether what is said by Northern Ireland Members is true or false. I am sure that he will find that it is true.
I was caught badly by the fact that the cuts in education will mean an end to the summer schemes for the less privileged or less able in our society. That includes schemes such as those run by Mencap. Such schemes provide recreational facilities for the mentally and physically disabled, but they have been cut out completely this year. What sort of society can fail to deliver such a small thing as that?
Another major area that has been cut and which will affect the ordinary man, woman and child is health. The Under-Secretary of State who is to reply to the debate has departmental responsibility for that. I am convinced from all the evidence given to me that, if we have a 3 per cent. cut upon a 3 per cent. cut, together with the recovery of the deficits that already exist on a very low budget, there is a great danger that the health service, or sectors of it, will collapse completely.
In reality, care in the community is a farce at the moment, because the funding is not there. The great promises that were made when people were taken out of institutions and left in the community, and the promised back-up to give those people a meaningful and easier life, were all for naught. When I heard from a constituent how many hours of care are provided in London, I could not believe the contrast with the amount provided by the Southern health board in my constituency. It is unbelievable that people get 38 hours' community care in London, but in my constituency people with the same disabilities get half an hour a day. What has gone wrong? I hope that the Minister will address that issue in his reply.
I know that the cuts will lead to increased waiting times, because that happened in January 1986 and 1987 when the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast cut non-elective surgery to nil. The fundholders could afford to pay for that surgery, which illustrated the double tier. The people on the waiting lists who will suffer most are those with cardiac problems and those with cancer. I do not have to spell out why they are the very members of society who cannot afford to wait. The Minister should take that point on board.
Why are the consequences of terrorism visited on the 98 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland who have no time for it and who suffer most from it? Why are children and ill people paying the price? The cost of the prevention of terrorism and other security measures should be a 978 national burden, and contributions should be made from the national coffers, rather than by the communities that suffer the double jeopardy of violence and the bomb, and the cuts in their education and health care.
That approach is immoral in any Christian society. The victims are penalised for the crimes they abhor. There is no logic or morality in that. I ask Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office to tell the Treasury that we should be given the funding to deal with terrorism and other acts of lawlessness, to allow our people to enjoy the modicum of education and health care to which they are entitled.
I shall deal briefly with one or two agricultural issues. We have often debated the problem of BSE, and I do not want to repeat the well-argued case. I will leave that issue aside, but I hope that the submission made to Brussels last Tuesday will have an urgent and speedy passage through the committees there, to give some relief to the beef industry in Northern Ireland.
I draw the Minister's attention to the plight of the potato industry, which I have mentioned in the House before. The potato farmer is the poor relation of the agricultural scene. He does not receive benefits, subsidies, grants or deficiency payments. The potato farmer gets nothing—even though the market has collapsed this year—and he is just as much part of the agricultural scene as the dairyman, the beef farmer, the pig rearer and the cereal grower. But he is the only one who gets nothing.
Northern Ireland potato growers used to be at the forefront of the potato industry in Europe and the world, in both the quality and the variety of potatoes produced, but potato farmers need help to compete in a market that now demands higher quality. They need help to develop new varieties to meet the requirements of sophisticated households and the big chain stores.
This year, there are 25,000 tonnes of potatoes in dedicated stores and 14,000 tonnes in ambient stores, but there are another 60,000 tonnes of potatoes in old stores all over the place. Those potatoes will deteriorate, and will stop being marketable. I ask the Minister to pass on to the Minister responsible my urgent request for assistance to give some hope to the potato farmers, who used to lead the field in Europe and elsewhere.
Before I leave the subject of agriculture, may I ask the Minister to remind his fellow Minister about the Adjournment debate we had on the farming and countryside environmental scheme? That scheme is known as FACES—and there were lots of red faces in the Department of Agriculture, because the people there had made such a muff of it. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), promised an inquiry into the Department of Agriculture's handling of the scheme, and I should like to hear some word on how and when that will be initiated.
We have had many fishing debates, so I shall not delay the House by talking about fishing for very long. However, I would like a quick word on the subject, because the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority has imposed an increase of 50 per cent. on the landing levy on all catches in Northern Ireland.
The fishing industry is trying its best to keep its head above water economically—forgive the pun, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and the only reason given for that 50 per cent. increase in levies is that there is a small deficit in the budget of the NIFHA. It amounts to about £250,000, which in the context of the total budget is very little.
979 I shall now move on to talk about the Department of Economic Development. I re-echo the enthusiastic praises of the Industrial Development Board, and I envy its substantially increased budget. I hear with great joy of the inward investment and other indigenous successes for which the IDB claims credit, but I have another reason for being envious. As I have repeated ad nauseam to the House over the past 10 years, not one inward investment job has been created in the constituency of South Down, which is an area of social deprivation.
I saw a most interesting local statistic the other day—a House of Commons statistic about unemployment in the Northern Ireland constituencies. I got an awful shock when I looked at the figures for South Down, because they showed that, between January 1996 and January 1997, unemployment there had decreased by 19.3 per cent.
I scratched my head and wondered how that had happened, and where, in the name of God, those 1,222 jobs had come from, unbeknown to me. Then I looked more closely at the monthly statistics, and found that the phenomenon happened in September, October and November last year. If we cast our minds back, we can recall what happened in October and November. Those are statistics, damned statistics, and—but in this House I shall not go on to use the last phrase in that saying.
There has been no decrease in unemployment in South Down; there has simply been a transfer of statistics and a manipulation. We could not have had a 20 per cent. fall in unemployment in two months, yet that is what the statistics show. I stress that, over the past 10 years, not one inward investment has been made in the constituency of South Down, or even in the areas peripheral to it.
The second aspect of the proposed economic appropriations that causes great concern is the blanket cut imposed on the Training and Employment Agency. It is a dramatic cut, and what I have to say about it is similar to what I said about health. No one has looked at the consequences of the cut. The budget has simply been top-sliced, and the effects will filter down. No regard whatever has been paid to the quality of the schemes that will have to be abandoned, and no assessment has been made of the impact of the schemes on local communities.
Again, the areas of social deprivation and the people in the greatest need will suffer most. If there must be cuts, they should at least be made on a needs basis, taking account of social deprivation. There should not be a blanket cut.
I have good authority for saying that—no less an authority than the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who, in a statement on targeting on 10 December, said:In programmes where I have had to make reductions, there may need to be some redistribution within the reduced totals to ensure that the most disadvantaged areas and people are targeted more clearly.That simply has not been done. Did the Secretary of State not mean what he said, or is the Department simply ignoring him?
The Department of Finance and Personnel has been mentioned. The Minister of State has departmental responsibility for it, and there are some questions about the revaluations in Northern Ireland and about the 980 subsequent announcement regarding transitional relief, which has been applied for the first two years, 1997–98 and 1998–99.
The revaluations are often totally unrealistic, and do not seem to be consistent. I am not a member of the hurrah brigade welcoming the transitional relief, because that is merely pushing part of the problem two years on. It is like the man who built a house on top of a hill without planning permission and painted it pink. When everyone objected, he said, "Okay, I'll paint it grey," and everyone was happy, but the house was still on top of the hill. The problem is still exactly the same. It is time for some meaningful investigation to be made into the consequences of the revaluations in terms of ratings in the commercial and economic sectors, which are vulnerable. That should be taken on board.
It is immoral, unacceptable and unchristian for young men and women, boys and girls, in our education system, and those who need health care, especially those with more extreme cases of illness, to suffer more because of the terrorists. There is something wrong with that concept. Again, I ask the Minister and all those responsible to say to the Treasury in London, "This is not right."
I am sure that the people of the entirety of the United Kingdom would agree that it is morally wrong and unchristian for those totally innocent and vulnerable people to be affected for the rest of their lives—be it the long lives of the primary school children or the short lives of the people on long waiting lists—not to get the funding they deserve, to enable them at least to be on a level playing field with the rest of the citizens of the UK.
§ Sir David Mitchell (North-West Hampshire)
This appropriation order probably provides my last opportunity to contribute to a debate on expenditure in Northern Ireland. I want to make three points; but first let me say that I recognise that it is about 13 years since I had the honour to serve as a Northern Ireland Minister with responsibility for the environment, and things should have changed since then. They have changed in terms of housing, with expenditure of about £608 million this year, in terms of jobs, and in many ways during the ceasefire, but, alas, the same intractable problems remain from one decade to the next.
If I have any credentials to speak, it is as one of the few Ministers whose departure from the Province was regretted by both the nationalist and the Unionist press. I also serve on the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, which met in Dublin this Monday and Tuesday.
My first point relates to local government. As hon. Members know, there are elected district councils in Northern Ireland, but their powers are not much greater than those of parish councils in Great Britain. Most of the work that would have been done by borough or county councils in Great Britain is, because of the McRory gap, carried out in Northern Ireland by the Department of the Environment.
My first proposition is that the Secretary of State should license some or all district councils to carry out a growing range of local government responsibilities normally carried out by district or county councils in Great Britain. I refer to licensing rather than to giving or transferring those powers, because I want it to be possible to withdraw the licences if a council acts in a way that discriminates against either the Unionist or the nationalist community.
981 I am very much aware that those in the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, and Westminster Ministers, are scrupulously non-sectarian in their administration of local government in the Province. So are many district councils. Indeed, when a council has a clear majority, either Unionist or nationalist, there appears to be little discrimination; it is when there is near-equality that attempts to discriminate, and the temptation to discriminate, are likely to arise. That is why I believe that the powers should be granted only on licence. I think that that will give a new vitality to local government, and ensure that there is value for money in Northern Ireland.
I also think that there is a case—in advance of what I have just proposed and, indeed, in advance of the completion of the peace talks—for reactivating and giving real substance to an important but unrecognised responsibility of Northern Ireland district councils. In addition to the meagre duties that those councils now perform, they have a special consultation role, which I think should be enhanced: I think that the Department of the Environment should implement the priorities chosen by district councils, as long as such action is within their budgets, and as long as their purposes are non-sectarian.
I was going to refer to the approaching marching season and the enormous costs associated with policing it, but I fear that, if I did so, I would be out of order, so I shall simply say that it takes two to have a confrontation.
I referred to the meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. During the two days that the meeting lasted, it covered BSE in cattle—north of the border as well as south—the International Fund for Ireland, the tourist industry and a host of other matters concerned with appropriations for Northern Ireland that the Minister mentioned in his opening speech. During that meeting in Dublin, a number of Members of Parliament sought to put the Unionist point of view—most particularly and outspokenly, my hon. Friend the Member for East Berkshire (Mr. MacKay).
I must say this to Unionist Members of Parliament: "Your friends do the best they can for you, but the authentic voice of Unionist Members would do a much better job." I hope that, before long, they will use the platform provided by that body to express their views, and to give Westminster and Dail Members a better understanding of Unionist policies, views and aspirations. A better understanding, on both sides of the border and both sides of the House, of the views of Northern Ireland Members in all the main parties would go a long way towards helping to redress the lack of understanding which, unfortunately, is so often the hallmark of Northern Ireland outside the Province.
§ Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir D. Mitchell), who served with such distinction in Northern Ireland. He was not always very popular then, and we did not always agree with him, but we nearly always found him exceedingly helpful. He was invariably courteous, and at the end of the day we usually reached an agreement with him—in so far as that was possible, given the financial restrictions within which he, like all Ministers, had to operate. I am one of those who count him as a friend, and my colleagues and I are very 982 sorry to see him depart. We wish that he had reconsidered and stayed for another term: his wisdom and understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland could have been put to good use.
This is always an important debate, but unfortunately it often skates over those things that do not appear like rocks above the surface of the administration of Northern Ireland at the time of any particular debate. I have often thought that we never get down to the nitty-gritty in the necessary detail. For that reason, my hon. Friends and I welcome very much the increased powers of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee and the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. It is there that we shall be able to ask the nasty questions that are difficult to answer. Often, it is not so much Ministers as civil servants who find them difficult. We want to get into the detail, to know what is going on, to know where the money is being spent, and to try to unravel the sometimes contorted thinking that leads the Government to their conclusions.
Not least is the question of rates, which was touched on by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). There has been a huge increase in the rateable valuations of commercial property. While that will lead to a considerable decrease in the rate in the pound that will be sought from proprietors, we know that it will also lead in many cases to the most massive increases on commercial properties. It is difficult to see how a profit can be made when such sums are requested. The trouble is that many of those who draw up the rates have never had to earn their crust in the commercial world. They sit in an office, look at values and play around with the figures. When the individual running a business in a town or village has to find the money, it is a different kettle of fish.
I have long had a deep concern that the rating valuation, even within a small area, is not creating a level playing field. The officials who decide the valuations of premises in Londonderry, Limavady or Coleraine will not be the same ones who decide it in Lisburn, Newry or Armagh. A regional rate is to be applied across the Province on those different rateable valuations. I have never been convinced that that is a level playing field.
The objective of my hon. Friends and me is the continuance of the thriving town centres with which we have lived. They have thrived because of the profitability of their family businesses, but they are being placed under increasing strain by out-of-town shopping centres which have lower rates per square foot. They also have the advantage being able to provide free parking. In town, people have to pay to park and will probably have to walk quite a bit, which is not so convenient. Increasingly, out-of-town shopping centres are a one-stop shop for the week or the month while town centre shops are slowly deteriorating. The hon. Member for North-West Hampshire nods. We know that that is happening in England. Northern Ireland was late in taking off in that direction, but it is not a direction that I welcome. No sensible body welcomes it. It will be reversed only when the costs of out-of-town shopping centres mean that they compete on a level economic footing with smaller businesses in town centres. That has not yet been achieved anywhere in the United Kingdom.
It is a big task, but it is one that the Government—and any future Government—must face if we are to have a middle-class, home-based commercial sector such as has been the life-blood of so many communities. Small 983 businesses tend to spend their profits in the local community, while the profits of large national or multinational companies are spent in the streets of London. It is not healthy when so much of the commercial profit of this nation flows into the south-eastern corner of the country. From what I see around me, I believe that that point is well understood. Whether we receive an answer remains to be seen, but I hope that those in government and those who advise them will spend some time thinking about the dangerous situation that is being created.
It has been put to me that there is a tremendous delay in the valuation of Housing Executive property which is up for sale. The delay is several months from the application to buy. Until the valuation is given and a firm price is put on the house, the sale cannot proceed and the tenant has to continue paying rent, to no personal benefit. I have one or two cases of tenants who want to carry out improvements, but cannot do so. Whenever I inquired gently why the long delay seemed to occur, I was told that it was because the Valuation and Lands Agency had spent months doing nothing but rateable value revaluations. For that reason, the tenants of Housing Executive properties are now suffering. Could someone please examine the matter urgently and do something?
I know that the Government's process is such that they will not bring in any extra staff, but something should be done to allow the houses to be sold a little quicker. At the end of the process, the Valuation and Lands Agency lost the contract for valuation of Housing Executive properties. It is now being done by a Belfast firm which employs local estate agents to do the job. So concentrating its fire on one particular point because the Government insisted that it do so has not helped the lands valuation system in Northern Ireland. Perhaps someone could examine the consequences of overloading a service for a period and the consequences for the customers—in this case, the Housing Executive tenants. I suspect that if Housing Executive tenants face delays in obtaining valuations, many other people who seek valuations of property face long delays, with untold financial consequences.
I have special responsibility as agriculture spokesman within my party for the farming community. Once, the people of Ireland north and south rejoiced in the fact that they had a double water barrier between themselves and all the diseases of the continent. The European ideal is a single market in which all the barriers disappear. The barriers were not only to trade, but to disease. Now we have blue-ear disease in pigs and Newcastle disease is spreading among poultry.
When a spokesman from the Irish Republic was asked how his country had escaped the outbreak of Newcastle disease, he simply answered, "We have had a strong south-west wind," and he was probably right. We are now vaccinating birds rather than slaughtering them in an effort to clear up Newcastle disease. I understand that any vaccination programme suppresses rather than gets rid of a disease. I am curious about whether a serious effort is to be made to clear Northern Ireland of Newcastle disease so that we can return to the standards of health that we enjoyed until a few weeks ago.
The problem of bovine spongiform encephalopathy is now a year old. I will not add to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) 984 said, except to say that Northern Ireland should always have been looked upon as the test of the good faith of the European nations and whether they would accept that the cull was sufficient to open the door to United Kingdom beef. Within a few weeks, Northern Ireland will meet the criteria and we shall then see whether Europe is genuine or whether it is using all its demands as an excuse to keep United Kingdom beef out of Europe. The Minister should keep up the good work and keep the pressure on. We should complete the cull to see what those in Europe then say. We will then know whether we are dealing with friends or foes. We will then know whether we are dealing with people who are clear and honest in their demands or whether they are using those demands simply as an excuse to protect their beef industries through the back door.
In Northern Ireland, in common with everywhere else, there is increasing concern about the environment. The principal polluter in Northern Ireland is the Department of the Environment. The Minister is not happy about that, but he is stuck with that nasty label. We hope that he or his successors, whoever they may be, will manage to deal with the problem of the DOE in a few years. I hope that higher standards will be applied constantly so that we can get rid of the environmental problems from that particular source.
We are still left with the problem of farm pollution, which is another serious difficulty. When I was a boy, I remember that the pollutant in rivers that caused fish to die was flax water. When the flax was rendered in dams, the water was made devoid of oxygen and so the poor fish died. Today, flax has been replaced by a material a thousand times more deadly—silage effluent and slurry. That is a constant problem in the rivers and lakes of Northern Ireland. I believe that not enough has been done on farms to provide storage for such fluids.
I accept that it is a costly business to build silage tanks. Some farmers have opted for the big bale system of silage to overcome a great deal of the silage effluent problem. If the Government are considering ways in which to help agriculture, I hope that they will look seriously at means of restoring a grant system for the building and refurbishment of storage tanks for all kinds of farm effluent. That would be a great help.
Farming has never been the prosperous business that it is believed to be by those outside the industry. It has always had difficulties. I should like to believe that continuing help will be provided to farmers to erect buildings for shelter for man and beast, especially in the winter months when stock must be brought in. The problem relating to the provision of such buildings has not been properly addressed in the past few years.
The hon. Member for South Down, who has had to leave the Chamber, referred to the problem of potatoes. I do not wish to add to his remarks, but I encourage the Government to consider carefully whether anything can be done to help that sector, which was once such a major part of the agriculture industry of Northern Ireland. It has fallen on such hard times that the huge seed potato industry has vanished. We should try to reverse that outcome.
Other difficulties relate to the use of marginal land. Some years ago, I planted a few acres of trees. I like trees, and some were planted as an amenity and some as a long-term investment. The acreage was small, but I learned a lot, including the fact that the effort of clearing 985 existing growth before the planting of trees is an unprofitable business. One makes money from trees only when they are cut down, but even with Sitka spruce one has to wait between 30 and 35 years. If one grazed even sheep on such land for 35 years, I suspect that they would return a much higher profit. That activity would also yield a profit every year; one would not have to wait for it.
If the Government plan to increase the planting of timber in Northern Ireland, especially broad-leaved species, they should consider carefully any incentives that they may want to give to farmers, especially to those who plant small acreages of trees. In 20 years, such areas would add to the amenity value of the countryside. Plenty of things could be done, even by comparatively small landowners, in that regard.
I have a continuing anxiety about the long-term future of farming. The age profile of farmers and workers on the land in Northern Ireland is far too high. We have a problem with getting more young people into farms. I was sitting counting up mentally the number of farms in my own townland 25 or 30 years ago. Where there were 10 full-time farmers, today there are two. That says much about the efficiency of the industry, but it also shows the tremendous drop in the number of people who earn their living from the land, because the decrease in farmers is repeated in every townland in Northern Ireland.
There comes a point in time, which I believe that we have reached, when there are just too few hands—tob few people working the land. I believe in the family farm, but that really is a farm that produces an income for two families—father and son. That is the only way to have a truly viable farm. Below that, at the bottom end of the scale, are the smaller, part-time farmers—people who have another job and who farm half as a hobby and half for the extra income. In between are the many farms in Northern Ireland that produce only a one-family income, and they will have increasing difficulty.
Ministers should therefore try diligently to improve farming education and, above all, to improve business training for the farming community. Farmers are good at producing food, caring for animals and growing crops, but they are not trained in the business world in which they now have to operate. That problem should receive far more attention than it has received so far.
When I spoke in the corresponding debate in 1996, I said that we were told that three quarters of jobs had to go to deprived areas. I wonder whether that remains Government policy—if it has been Government policy in the past 12 months—and, if so, which of those deprived areas have benefited. Have they got the three quarters of incoming jobs—and, if not, why not?
Specifically, may I be told why there appears to be such a large and continuing imbalance in the visits made by potential investors to different areas? I notice that Newry and Armagh received eight visits in 1993, five in 1994 and 28 in 1995. I have not found out how many visits they have received this year, but there has been a remarkable increase.
On the other hand, my inquiries suggest that there have been few, if any, visits in other areas. Limavady has fared very badly, Magherafelt has done no better, and Coleraine—a fairly important town in the Northern Ireland context—received eight visits in 1993, one in 1994 and five in 1995. I hope that those figures have improved considerably, because East Londonderry has the 986 unhappy distinction of being one of those constituencies in Northern Ireland with very high unemployment. We badly need more inward investment there—or, even better, more encouragement for the home-grown investor, who should be the backbone of our economy.
Disappointingly, it appears that this year the Training and Employment Agency will not take on young people until September. I understand that last year it took on 6,000 young people when they left school, about 1,200 or 1,400 of whom returned to school in September. As a result, this year we are told, "We are not taking on any; we are waiting until September to see who goes back to school."
One thing that Northern Ireland does not need, in what may prove to be a long, hot summer, is 6,000 or 7,000 young people running around with nothing to do. I encourage the Minister to re-examine the issue seriously. Last year, some young people who did not intend to go back to school went back, and some of those who had always intended to go back to school went back, but at least they were given some training in the world of work, and that was time well spent.
Finally, I have not yet managed to work out how much is being clawed back for security. I remember all the money that was promised for capital build projects in schools last year. The figures looked good; then we were told that the money was not to be spent until the next financial year. I assume, therefore, that much of the capital spending for this year is already in the pipeline, and that the money for capital projects recently announced this year is for spending in the next financial year. Either way, we should be told.
May we be given a list of the headings of expenditure that are being reduced to pay for extra security? May we also have a full comparison with the headings that were given increased allocations during the so-called dividend that resulted from the IRA ceasefire? I for one have not yet managed to get the figures to add up. The people of Northern Ireland deserve to be told in rather clearer terms exactly what the peace dividend and the clawback amount to.
§ Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)
Because of the nature of the problem facing my constituents and the people of Northern Ireland, I regard this as one of our most important debates. We are discussing a major transfer of money that will have an impact on every sector of our community. That is why I am so disappointed by the empty Benches in the Chamber. It may seem easy to condemn the lack of money for education, the health service or for other major public services, and to describe the tremendous pressure under which we representatives of the people find ourselves because of the lack of finance to meet their needs. But I honestly believe that hon. Members should take the opportunity of this debate to make their opinions heard. This is the place where elected representatives ought to express their serious concerns about the impact of the settlement on their constituencies.
Northern Ireland Members of Parliament, including me, believe in value for money. I do not believe in spending money for the sake of spending it. I believe that every pound should count and that we should try to extract the most value from every pound spent. I also agree—this point was touched on earlier by my hon. Friend the 987 Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)—that it is immoral of the Government to take away from the children and the elderly of Ulster the money that is so important to their future well-being—money for education and the health service. It is wrong to take away that money because of a terrorist campaign that is not the responsibility of those people—yet they are the ones suffering because of the campaign. Adding to their suffering from the campaign by taking away funds that are necessary for the services that the community needs is simply adding insult to injury. I trust, however, that Northern Ireland Ministers will go back to the Treasury and ask for more money to meet needs in the Province which I—and many Ministers too—believe must be met.
I wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir D. Mitchell), who spoke earlier, for his interest in Northern Ireland. I remember the time when he was a Minister in Northern Ireland. I was the vice-president of the Northern Ireland Local Authorities Association at the time. He was an excellent Minister and showed tremendous concern for the people of Northern Ireland. If those were his last comments on Northern Ireland in the House, I want to express on behalf of my colleagues our deep appreciation for the service that he gave to the people of Northern Ireland as a Minister.
The first vote this evening is that for the Department of Agriculture. I come from a rural constituency, Mid-Ulster, and not surprisingly I am deeply concerned about what is happening in the agricultural community. Over recent months, members of the farming community have spoken to me about their depression and feeling of hopelessness. Many of them are facing financial ruin and problems to which they were not contributors—for example, BSE. Northern Ireland farmers, like others, were not responsible for that major problem facing the farming community, but unfortunately it has caused them intolerable suffering.
Farmers face further difficulties from Newcastle disease, the blue ear problem in the pig industry, and the problem in the potato industry. The Department must assist them. I hope that when the noble Lady, the Under-Secretary of State, reads the debate, she will do all that she can to help in every sector. I mentioned the potato industry because I believe that it has been regarded by many as the poor relation of the agricultural industry, and that market has collapsed.
Moving on to the Department of the Environment, we have expressed on numerous occasions in the House our concern about the axing of ACE jobs. In the light of the representations that have been made in relation to that problem, the proposals should be reconsidered.
We have serious concerns about road maintenance in Mid-Ulster, which has vast road mileage. Rather than coping, we seem to be getting into ever deeper problems of road maintenance. I trust that the Minister will turn his attention to the problem of road gritting, as many major accidents have been caused by the lack of gritting at appropriate times. Forecasts of frost are broadcast on radio and television, but even when ample warning is given, little heed is paid.
My colleagues and I had a meeting with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. One of the topics discussed was renovation grants. The backlog of cases must be dealt 988 with, which will take a considerable sum, but the money should be provided so that people can live in conditions that are appropriate for the beginning of the 21st century.
Can the Minister tell us when the area plan for Cookstown will be concluded? The old area plan for the Magherafelt area is now out of date—it expired in 1996—but I understand that work on a new plan has not yet started. That is holding up vital planning approvals in our area. It is totally wrong that, because there has been neglect in providing a new area plan for Magherafelt, ordinary decent people of the community are held to ransom. It is to be deeply regretted that, as the Department with responsibility for roads, the Department of the Environment, tells us, the Magherafelt bypass has been in the plan for the past 15 or 20 years and is still no further forward.
The upgrading of the M2 is essential, as is the Cookstown bypass. It will not take a tremendous amount of money to meet the need for some of these schemes, but that money is not forthcoming. I trust that there will be announcements that we will receive the money that is necessary. Money is also needed for the continuation and widening of the road from Coagh to Arboe and for the footpath in Coagh village.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim mentioned quite a few matters in relation to the Department of Education that are causing concern. However, it is not only to be regretted, but disgraceful that nursery provision in Northern Ireland is going to be held back when we should be moving forward on this. Expectations were built up and there is much disappointment.
On the building programme, I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has been successful in relation to Belmont primary school. That has been going for many years. I have heard him mention that school, but many of the schools in my constituency face an intolerable situation of mobile classrooms, yet we are not able to get away from that.
Although additional funding has been made available in England and Wales, in Northern Ireland, there have been cuts in education and in the research grant for universities, which is not only to be regretted, but to be deplored.
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is winding up, certainly has the health portfolio as well. Because of time, I will just touch on these matters, but I trust that, some day, the Prime Minister who occupies the Dispatch Box will tell us that the pensioners of the United Kingdom will receive not a miserable pension, but an appropriate pension, so that they are not left to spend their last few days in a poverty trap with inadequate provision.
Many of our elderly people using home helps and in community care face intolerable problems. Some have 15 minutes a week of home help. That is absolutely disgusting and an insult to those people. Care has been removed from hospital to the community, yet the finances have not been brought along with that and many people feel neglected. The elderly are deeply concerned, especially those in their latter years.
Recently, I have had numerous communications concerning the changes in social security offices. It is said that many hundreds of social security offices throughout our Province are threatened with closure by 1998, with a 989 transfer of jobs from the public to the private sector, which will administer the detailed finances in the cheapest way, so many people will lose their job.
I want to express appreciation to the Minister of State, on the rates in the revaluation. He listened to the representation that was made. I thank him for his concern in the matter and for listening to that representation with care. I ask him, however, to consider the £10,000 level because I am led to believe that that was the level when the matter was considered on the mainland some years ago. We have moved on and valuations have been raised since then. Therefore, will he consider that level further? It would alleviate the problems of many people who face an intolerable burden. Will he review that level in the interests of many of our constituents?
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
If the Minister cannot continue his reply to this morning's debate—which touched on appropriation issues—in his reply to this debate, we look forward to receiving replies in writing.
In last Thursday's Northern Ireland Question Time, a question was asked about the action for community employment programme. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office made the point that we will have to suffer because of the problems caused by the resumption of terrorism and violence. In a speech on a different occasion, the Secretary of State compared the current situation with that during the second world war, when we all had to tighten our belts and suffer. There is a distinct difference, however, because on that occasion Northern Ireland suffered with the rest. Although there were those within the then free state who were not prepared to allow the British Government to conscript in Northern Ireland, we sent volunteers. People in our own family made the supreme sacrifice.
Our people have been suffering, although it seems wrong to use that type of argument in this context. When the announcement was made on a replacement for Britannia, it was said that it would be financed out of the reserve fund. I thought that that was interesting because, although we are supposed to be a bankrupt nation, we still have reserves. Instead of putting pressure on the budget for the needy in Northern Ireland, perhaps we should have taken more money out of reserves to deal with the problem.
I should like quickly to mention several matters. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) mentioned the railway system. Over the years, the Minister and his predecessors have received much correspondence from me about the stretch of line between the old Great Northern station, which will be the new Belfast Central, and the Lisburn Road and the Great Northern track. We were told that there was not a real problem but a minor problem that would be dealt with on this or that occasion.
We are now being told that the situation is worse than had been realised. Why has it turned out to be worse? Local residents and myself went on the track to illustrate the problems. They performed some simple repairs, such as filling in holes, and showed that our assessment of the problem was correct. When will the situation be dealt with—not only for the benefit of the residents but for the benefit of our entire economy? In our drive to increase exports, we use the railway to take traffic off the road system.
990 I apologise for my earlier statement that redundancies in education would cost £50 million. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about the £50-odd million in the health budget. Redundancies in education will cost about £5.5 million., which is still rather high.
I return to the decision taken by education boards and others that there will be no summer schemes this year for those with mental handicaps. Such schemes are not simply social. Anyone who knows anything about education knows that those children must be regularly stimulated, and that such schemes are educational rather than simple child minding. It is also a service to parents. If parents break down because they have to give that extra attention to their children, those children will have to be taken into care, creating a larger expense for the community budget. Therefore, I ask and plead that further consideration be given to the matter. The simple explanation that has been offered—that there are not sufficient trained staff—is not the real one. The real explanation is that we are prepared to withdraw services that young people need because of a lack of finance. Where there is a will, there is a way. I am convinced that we could find the money if we were prepared to do so.
I urge the Minister to give us at least a chink of light to suggest that our concerns will be addressed. I recognise the difficulties in moving money from one budget to another, but I was struck by the £14 million underspend in the health budget, which has been carried over. That happened at a time when we were told that there was no money in the budget. We need closer scrutiny of the movement of money in the health service.
Whether people like it or not, the management executive has become the holding company of the health service and there are different firms in the service. As I understand industry, if there is a pressure in one company under such a holding company, money can be moved temporarily from where there is a surplus to meet needs elsewhere. If that is the structure, it is time that the management executive began to deal with the issue seriously.
I do not want to prolong the debate, although I could return to issues that we raised this morning. I am happy to share with my colleagues who raised the issues. We would love to know not only where the money has to be spent, but from where it is being saved.
§ Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)
I should like to put on record immediately my endorsement of the remarks of the hon. Members for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady) about the axing of the summer scheme for those with a mental handicap. I cannot believe that a Minister, when deciding where to make an incision, could choose that area. If the Minister saw the enjoyment that the children at Torbank school in my area get out of the summer scheme and the relief that their parents get, he would look elsewhere for his cuts. I know that my colleagues from other areas have had similar concerns expressed to them. There is to be a public meeting on the subject in my area tomorrow night. I trust that the Minister understands that there is concern among all hon. Members from Northern Ireland about the issue. I hope that he will take that concern on board and see what he can do. He should review the decision and change his mind. That would be welcomed by all parties.
991 I should also like to put on record my appreciation to the Education Minister that justice has at last been done for Belmont primary school. It is, alas, too late for the present headmistress, who has served the school for many years but who will be ending her service this year and will therefore not see the new school open during her period of stewardship. When he writes to us at the end of the debate, will the Minister give me an idea of when the work will start? There are some nasty rumours going about that, although the project has been included in the expenditure that the Minister announced recently, it could well be more than a year before anything begins to happen.
I ask the Environment Minister, who is to wind up the debate, to take on board the concerns expressed at a public meeting in Dundonald last night about the Comber road. In a short period, 105 accidents—including two fatalities—have been reported on that road. The road is narrow, and has a number of bends. The area has poor lighting and some large housing estates have been built nearby that come out on to that B road. The only plans are for about 250 m of improvement. The area is so dangerous that the Minister must consider trying to get a scheme up and running to remove that danger. My wife, who represents that area, received a telephone call at 8.30 this morning and was told that, following last night's public meeting, another accident had occurred in which a car hit a telegraph pole. I urge the Minister to examine the matter urgently.
In the past few days, the Minister has announced the planned merger of the hospital trust and the community trust. The hospital trust had been a thorn in the Minister's side as it had been helpful in advising elected representatives of the real difficulties that it faced. At one stage, it was forced to consider the possibility of making 200 nurses redundant because the money would not stretch to the end of the financial year. The Minister injected a small amount of money into the hospital, which did not balance the books, but at least allowed for a manageable overspend.
The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but some people suspect that he has taken punitive action against a hospital trust that was drawing attention to underfunding and wiped it out by merging it with the community trust. They claim that he is trying to avoid awkward questions about the matter in the Public Accounts Committee. Perhaps he will tell us in his winding-up speech about his intentions regarding the trust. When our attention is drawn to underfunding in the health service, I do not think that it is appropriate to respond by removing resistance in the form of those who have served the community well.
The Ulster, North Down and Ards Hospitals health and social services trust is badly underfunded. I do not blame the Minister totally, as the situation is due not simply to the amount of money that the Government have allocated to the health service but to a breakdown in the money to the various boards. The Eastern health and social services board is underfunded in relation to the other boards, and the health trust is underfunded compared with others in the Eastern area. The problem will not be solved simply by wiping away the hospital trust by merging it with the community trust. That move may cost money. Has the Minister calculated the cost of the redundancies? 992 I remember one redundancy costing £300,000. That money would be put to better use funding the health service.
Time does not permit me to refer to several other issues, and I know that Front Benchers wish to address a number of matters. I am delighted about the tremendous news, announced by Shorts in the past few weeks, regarding the regional jet. Shorts is to get additional work as a result of the Canada contract, which will secure jobs in the company and create additional employment. The Ministry of Defence contract for 1,000 new missiles is also good news for Shorts. It will benefit other areas besides east Belfast. The hon. Member for South Down complained that the Industrial Development Board did not consider his constituency for inward investment. People come from Ballynahinch, Grossgar and the surrounding areas to work for Shorts. Subcontract work is going to many places in the Greater Belfast area, and probably beyond it.
I trust that the Minister will discuss with the MOD the ASTOR contract for an airborne platform for reconnaissance. The MOD was supposed to make an announcement towards the end of March, but we have not heard a squeak about it so far. I hope that there will be no slippage in announcing that programme, which would be vital for the Shorts group.
I referred briefly to the Dundonald training school in the Grand Committee, and I ask the Government to reconsider the matter. I ask the Opposition to do the same, because they could well be the Government when action on the Dundonald training school could still be taken. For the want of £0.25 million to repair a roof, that training school is to be closed. It is one of 10 training centres in Northern Ireland that are strategically placed so that the whole of the Province is covered. By taking that training centre away, the north Down, Strangford and east Belfast area will lose out compared with the rest of the Province. Baroness Denton announced a speculative scheme in west Belfast that will cost £2 million, and there is no one to move into the factory, whereas £0.25 million would ensure that 300 places are kept in the Dundonald centre.
I wanted to go into detail about the loss of ACE jobs and about jobseekers. I touched on the matter in the Grand Committee, and I will allow that to satisfy me.
I ask the Minister to consider the Dundonald training centre. We must not allow it to be taken out of the overall scheme in Northern Ireland. I hope that I will get a ready response from the Opposition, and that they will do their part, if and when they are in government, to ensure that the centre remains open. I look forward to having a positive response from them, if not from the present Government.
§ Mr. Dowd
I would speak for 10 minutes, but we would run out of time.
993 I want to give the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) my assurance that, should the British people give us the opportunity, we will certainly consider the Dundonald training school if it still exists. We will consider all the training programmes.
§ Mr. Dowd
It is strange that the Minister did not want me to speak, but that he now wants me to answer questions. I will happily tell him. I will send him details of our five pledges, which include using the windfall levy— [Interruption.] It seems that the Minister knew all along; he was only pretending. We shall consider all issues related to training, especially training of the long-term unemployed. If the Dundonald centre is still there, it will certainly come under that review.
I wanted to say only two things in response to the debate. What I want to say to the Minister is education, education, education. If the hon. Members for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), for South Down (Mr. McGrady), for North-West Hampshire (Sir D. Mitchell), for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) will forgive me, I shall mention only the speech of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux). If that was his last contribution, he has brought a distinguished career to a distinguished conclusion.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss)
I was going to begin by offering my congratulations to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd), not because he will be taking my job soon, but because it is his 46th birthday today. I wish him happy birthday. It is my birthday tomorrow, but I am older than 46.
§ Mr. Moss
I am not saying.
I shall begin by re-emphasising a point made by the Secretary of State on a number of occasions, but most recently towards the end of last year, which underpins the decisions taken in the latest public expenditure survey round. This issue has been raised by many hon. Members, who have asked why we have redistributed the peace dividend moneys by taking them from front-line services and putting them into security and law and order. We have often said that if violence resumed, the savings in the law and order budget that were released for the benefit of other programmes in the 1994 and 1995 public expenditure surveys may have to be restored. That was reiterated by the Secretary of State in December 1996. He added that, in total, almost £120 million extra was being provided for security and compensation over the survey period. He said that he would have much preferred to have used the money on, for example, job creation, schools, hospitals and housing, but that the peace dividend had, alas, been reversed and that that had obviously had an adverse effect on the provision of public services in Northern Ireland.
I shall reply to a number of questions raised by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West, which were reiterated by many other hon. Members. He asked why I made my 994 announcement in a parliamentary answer. I did so to inform hon. Members of the Government's public expenditure plans before they were announced publicly. The hon. Gentleman asked whether expenditure put back into law and order for this year could be reversed if there were to be a ceasefire tomorrow. The answer is yes: if circumstances allow, resources can be moved to other programmes. That question was also asked by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) and the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). We can vire money interdepartmentally and, if there was a ceasefire and it was possible to make savings in the law and order budget, we could look carefully at where the money could best be spent in other Departments.
Many hon. Members asked about the BSE programme. Tracing visits started in Northern Ireland on 20 January and the slaughter of about 1,500 home-bred animals is to be completed within about eight weeks. The first slaughtering took place on 28 February, when 206 animals were slaughtered.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, West and most other hon. Members asked about the cuts in the ACE programme. The ACE provision must be seen in the context of an improving economic situation in Northern Ireland. Over the past five years, the Northern Ireland index of manufacturing output has increased by 18.7 per cent. compared with an increase of just 9.1 per cent. in the United Kingdom as a whole. Unemployment has fallen by a record amount. Seasonally adjusted unemployment at January 1997 was 9.2 per cent. of the work force, its lowest level for 16 years.
Significantly, there was also a fall of nearly 8,300 in the long-term unemployed. I believe that it was the hon. Member for Belfast, South who talked about the change in unemployment figures as a result of the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance. More directly, Northern Ireland has had a seasonal record of more than 573,000 people in jobs.
The Dundonald training centre was raised by the hon. Members for Lewisham, West and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). It is understandable that the decision to close the training centre has been greeted locally with some dismay. There are a number of reasons for the closure. It has been increasingly difficult to attract young people to the centre and, currently, there are only 286 trainees as against a capacity of 408. Considerable capital building work needs to be undertaken to keep the centre operational. Also, there is already adequate alternative provision within the area for training opportunities and there are vacancies for trainees elsewhere in the training centre network.
Several hon. Members asked about the regional rate. An order to make the regional rate for 1997–98 will be brought forward next week. On transitional relief, the focus is on smaller properties which will be facing the largest increases in rates. There are two conditions for transitional relief. First, the net annual value of the property must be £10,000 or less and, secondly, the increase in the bill due to revaluation must be greater than 25 per cent. The scheme offers 100 per cent. relief in the first year, two-thirds relief in the second year and a third in the third year. The full bill is payable from the fourth year. The scheme is automatic and no applications are required.
995 The hon. Members for Belfast, South and for Lewisham, West asked about the railways, particularly the upgrade of the Belfast-Dublin rail link. Work on the upgrade is progressing and we hope that the new trains will be running by mid-1997. We have run into some problems on the section mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast, South, between the City hospital and Lisburn. In the past two or three years, it has deteriorated more rapidly than expected, necessitating the bringing forward of work planned for the next century.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, West and others mentioned housing. The total resources for housing for the financial year 1997–98 are planned to be £608 million, which is similar to the likely outturn for the previous year. The resources are planned to increase to some £616 million in 1998–99 and to £623 million in 1999–2000. Those substantial resources demonstrate the Government's continued commitment to this important social programme.
The resources earmarked for the pre-school voucher scheme have been retained in the education budget. Legislation currently before Parliament will provide the Government with enabling powers to introduce the scheme to Northern Ireland when the requisite resources become available.
§ It being Ten o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Order[13 February]
§ Question agreed to.
That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.