HL Deb 15 December 1975 vol 366 cc1242-54

4.26 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, if we may now resume the discussion of the Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order, may I first say to my noble friend Lord Shinwell—


My Lords, I do not want unnecessarily to extend the debate but I believe that there may be another noble Lord who wishes to speak before the noble Lord replies.


My Lords, I was not aware that the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, was about to reply and I should, in any event, hesitate to add to the talk about Northern Ireland and its problems. Much talk—and there is much talk—may equally well be the cause of troubles as their cure. So much that is said over here is about what is bad in Northern Ireland and all too little is said, and even less is listened to, about what is good. That is my excuse for seeking to add a few words to the specific points which have been made by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and by the noble Lord, Lord Moyola. Five years in a privileged position in Northern Ireland taught me that, despite the undoubted bad, there is a great deal of good. Several years away from Northern Ireland since then have, alas! taught me that many people over there feel, rightly or wrongly, that not enough is said here on their behalf about what is good.

The draft Instrument before your Lordships is one that will appropriate a very large sum of money for the service of that part of the United Kingdom which is across the Irish Sea. There are others outside your Lordships' House who, for understandable reasons, would cheerfully excise that part from the United Kingdom and cease entirely to appropriate monies for it. That has never been the intent of Her Majesty's Government and the draft Instrument before the House is further proof of this. So I may be open to the charge of pushing at an open door if I try to justify Northern Ireland's claim to its share of what is available from the United Kingdom. However, the purse on which Northern Ireland must claim is, alas! very much slimmer than it was in the days when the statement about parity of services to which the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, referred was made. It may therefore be necessary to speak up for the worth of the claim, not just on some promise made in the past but on its intrinsic worth.

There are two ways of speaking about Northern Ireland, neither of which is in the least likely to lead to success. The first is to utter some broad generalities and open oneself to being instantly controverted; the other way is to go into the endless complexities that undoubtedly surround anything discussible in that wonderful land. The second of these alternatives is tedious and your Lordships' House has had enough of it in the past and I shall have at least the merit of brevity if I use the "generality" method. I boldly say that there is, in spite of all the grievous tragedies of Northern Ireland that have anguished and perplexed the rest of the United Kingdom, a great good there that merits help of the kind that it is proposed to give by this appropriation of money.

We have been told that the level of unemployment there is twice the national level and that there are large pockets of unemployment where the level is vastly higher than anything anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I hope that no one will think that a fair deduction from this is that the majority of those out of work in Northern Ireland are unemployable. The contrary is the case. An instance can be taken from Short Brothers and Harland. Any firm that earns a Queen's Award to Industry can justly be proud of it. It is almost unbelievable that in the stresses of Belfast in recent years and in all the uncertainties and difficulties of the aerospace industry, Short Brothers have won the Queen's Award to Industry no fewer than eight times. This is something which is unparalleled except by (I think) two great companies with many separate divisions, some of which have earned the Award from year to year.

The fact is that with good management and wise understanding of the work force, Northern Ireland people are skilful and industrious; and if the question is asked whether strenuous efforts (to which tribute has been paid by noble Lords who have spoken previously) should be continued to reduce unemployment at the same time as the large and difficult problem of unemployment in the rest of the United Kingdom, the answer undoubtedly is, Yes. There is the additional consideration that the levels of unemployment in Northern Ireland are of themselves so destructive of self-respect as to be a direct cause of civil disorder and resort to anti-social behaviour. So there is a special need to tackle the unemployment problem there.

It is patently true that the Ulstermen themselves have contributed to the loss of job opportunities. This has happened not only through direct violence and the mindless destruction of life, limb and property but in other less direct but equally reprehensible ways. It would be a brave director or senior executive of a company who would stand up at an annual meeting of shareholders to explain why it was decided to invest further large sums of the shareholders' money in the reconstruction or further development of a business in a place with so dismal a reputation as has Northern Ireland. But there are good reasons for doing just that. There are the specific arrangements that have been made by succeeding Governments which have been mentioned this afternoon: the advance factories and the financial inducements. But beyond those there are the great advantages of intrinsic skills and, as the noble Viscount has said, a reputation for good industrial relations and a responsible trade union organisation.

It is dangerous for any non-Irishman to express any general views about the Irish character, particularly if he proposes to be in any way less than complimentary, but I wonder whether it is not true that the Irish have themselves in times past given the impression that they are, to put it politely, a little light-hearted about money. Some may be so; but the cold statistics of savings in Northern Ireland show that the Ulsterman is a canny man about money and the saving of it. This is all the more remarkable at the present time when, elsewhere in the United Kingdom, saving does not seem to be a great virtue, and the mutability of human affairs in Northern Ireland is greater than it is over here and consequently there is even more temptation to spend what one has and take no heed for the morrow. The Ulsterman is a great saver and a good regarder of his money and it may be assured that the monies appropriated for public services in Northern Ireland will not be frittered away.

My Lords, the noble Viscount referred to the terms of the White Paper of 1973, Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals, Command 5259, and I am sure that the same principles there set out are still those that move Her Majesty's Government today. It was declared that the overall level of public expenditure in Northern Ireland would be determined in the light of the objectives to which the noble Viscount drew attention and would be compatible with public expenditure policies for the United Kingdom as a whole. As we are all so sadly aware, the harsh facts of economic life have turned very much against the United Kingdom as a whole since then; but des- pite all the unfavourable publicity and despite its self-inflicted wounds, Northern Ireland, not only as an integral part of the United Kingdom but on its own desserts—which far exceed the much more publicised defects and defaults—should have the parity of treatment which the White Paper set out and which had for many years before that been the basis of United Kingdom policy.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked some searching questions as to the basis of the calculations which lie below the details of the sums of money which are to be appropriated if the draft order is approved. It is not for me to traverse that ground or to venture to accept the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, to go into such things; but one is surely entitled to hope, whatever arrangements underlie these calculations, that what Her Majesty's Government do about money for Northern Ireland will be the result of sympathetic, specific, realistic and effective consideration of the needs and desserts of a much maligned part of the United Kingdom.

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grey of Naunton, for intervening. He has the respect of, I think, all members of the Northern Ireland Province and he reminds us that although there is a sense in which the preservation of the Province in something like its normal state is a cost to the United Kingdom, this is a cost which is very much worth while. I, for one, agree entirely with what the noble Lord has said. He made one or two points to which I think I should refer. He mentioned the excellent industrial relations, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, spoke of the half-an-hour-per-employee time lost in Harland and Wolff.

Nobody who has anything to do with agriculture, as I have, in Northern Ireland can doubt the extreme energy of the Northern Ireland worker. There is a basis here of a possibility of industrial efficiency which is not so striking to the eye elsewhere, though there are other difficult problems. My noble friend Lord Shinwell was not right in suggesting that this is the first time these figures, which come up two to three times a year, have been subjected to fairly close analysis. As a matter of fact, six months ago we had a debate not very different from today's debate, dealing with all the same points which have moved on a little in the way things do. It is desirable and healthy that we should do this from time to time and, as noble Lords know, I have once or twice criticised one or two noble Lords for talking out of turn, but not on Appropriation Orders.

I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in his praise of the work of the Manpower Services Commission. This is one of the most important things that we are doing in Northern Ireland. Our industrial training programme is the most sophisticated in Western Europe. In Northern Ireland nobody lives more than 25 miles from a training centre. That is a remarkable statement. We have ten times as many training places per head of population as in Great Britain. These are supplemented, as noble Lords will know, by schemes to train workers on company premises, and groups of workers as an integrated work force, by direct labour schemes such as "Enterprise Ulster" and the Urban and Rural Improvement Campaign. I spoke about this the last time we were discussing this matter. The work they are doing is absolutely first class. They are collecting men, who seem to have been out of work for some time, from the employment exchanges and turning them into semi-skilled and hard workers so that they can go on and hold down a job elsewhere. It is excellent.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, asked about foreign investment. Clearly this is a matter of the greatest importance. It is not too easy at the moment to attract new investment in Northern Ireland for obvious reasons. The United Kingdom is subject, as we all know, to a serious recession. It is part of a world recession which has United Kingdom elements all of its own, and Northern Ireland is always a percentage worse in its economic problems than the United Kingdom. So when we are discussing investment in Northern Ireland we cannot expect to be particularly cheerful. It is very difficult to get investment here and it is still more difficult in Northern Ireland, but we continue to try. Last year, representatives of the Department of Commerce visited over 1,000 companies outside Northern Ireland —which was twice as many as in the year before—and since 1st January 1974 seven foreign-based firms have been attracted and will eventually provide something like 750 new jobs. It must be admitted that much energy has to be devoted (one noble Lord said this) to the task of persuading firms to continue and not decrease their activities in Northern Ireland and, where possible, encouraging them to expand. My right honourable friend Mr. Stan Orme spends his whole time on this and probably spends more time trying to stop things closing down than with expansion and getting new investment.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked what other methods, apart from the Northern Ireland Finance Corporation, were available to encourage investment in Northern Ireland. The Department of Commerce, which has greater and more flexible incentives than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, is working away at this. Grants of up to 40 per cent. can be offered towards the cost of constructing new buildings and the provision of plant and machinery and advance factories can be made available at favourable rents. The United Kingdom Government industry schemes relating to special sectors are available too. There are currently some 58 foreign-based firms in Northern Ireland employing some 29,000 people, but no new American companies have come this way since 1969. Since 1975 the Department of Commerce has promoted 3,055 new jobs, which is not too bad. So much for foreign investment.

I do not want to say a great deal about the NIFC; there will be an Order before Parliament within a matter of a month or two regarding its new name and new terms of reference. We will leave those discussions until that date. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, said that we did not need to be reminded of the perils of pushing money into non-viable firms. First of all, it is not intended that it should have power to give grant aid on its own account. It will operate commercially so far as possible. In the circumstances of Northern Ireland we cannot expect that public ownership will never be appropriate. I should like to remind the noble Lord of the encouraging and hopeful start of Strath Earn Audio Company as a result of help from the Northern Ireland Finance Corporation. This is an entirely successful development. I would also mention the half stage that my colleague and right honourable friend the Minister of State has reached with the Ben Sherman Shirt Company in Londonderry. Here, they have halved the number of factories and work-force and are now trading at a profit. It is early days, but it is possible, by this kind of careful investigation, to put a little money here and there and to make things go which were otherwise not going. These points are worth mentioning because, as the noble Lord, Lord Moyola, said, it is depressing to find these companies shutting down in small areas, such as in the area in which he lives, where there seems to be no adequate substitute. We are doing something about this; something is happening here.

This takes me to URIC and Enterprise Ulster, which I referred to before. URIC provides employment for 2,500 men at a cost of £7½ million per annum. It also includes various amenity projects under district councils, but these will be phased out by the end of 1976–77, to be taken over by Enterprise Ulster. This direct labour organisation aims to equip the unskilled, long-term unemployed for work as well as to provide employment. There will be expansion of the organisation currently employing about 1,500 people on 100 or so projects, concentrated in areas of high unemployment, and will probably employ over 1,600 men by the early part of the coming year. It is undoubtedly a success and is now being copied in many respects on this side of the Irish Sea. It is particularly important in relation to possibilities about which the noble Lord, Lord Moyola, referred regarding intensive farming running down and there being people out of work in the country areas. It is about the only thing which can be put in here to be effective and it is important.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, asked about the school-leavers' unemployment subsidy. My information is that the reduction in the number of school-leavers in the Province has been noticeable as the result of this action, but there were still over 3,000 school-leavers on the register in November. The improvement is not effective enough, but it seems to have achieved something. The noble Lord also asked whether Northern Ireland agriculture receives money from the EEC Regional Development Fund. The answer is that as yet it does not, but I do not think there is any reason to suppose that it never will.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, raised a number of points, some of which have been covered already. Perhaps the most interesting one concerned the block grant. This is a very interesting subject and, in relation to the future discussions we are to have on devolution, a most important one. There are relevant sections in the White Paper on devolution and in the Report of the Northern Ireland Convention. We are still studying the Report of the Convention and shall note what the noble Lord has said. There is no block grant at present; and this matter could be appropriate only if there were a devolved Administration to receive it.

The situation at present is that public expenditure in Northern Ireland is one of the fifteen programmes into which total public expenditure is broken down in the annual White Paper which the Chancellor presents to Parliament. The first place to which a Minister looks to finance a new service is within his own programme. If room cannot be found there. there may be savings to be made from some other programme or from the provision made in the public expenditure survey for contingencies. But in the present very difficult climate for public expenditure, it is practically impossible for any Minister to get money from outside this programme, and the choice may be between abandoning a project and finding offsetting savings. There is simply no money available elsewhere. Though a block grant may be a useful thing in easy times, it is quite unhelpful in hard times.

One of the most important points raised today has concerned Harland and Wolff and the question of nationalisation. In the first place, Harland and Wolff were nationalised in August of this year, well in advance of the rest of the United Kingdom shipbuilding industry, and the private shareholding in Short Brothers and Harland is now very small and of no practical significance. However, the Government do not feel it would be right to include these two companies among British shipbuilders and British aerospace—the point which was raised by the noble Viscount. These companies, important as they are to the economy of Northern Ireland, should be controlled locally and should be the direct responsibility of any future devolved Administration. Moreover, in the view of the Government, it will be to the advantage of the two companies and their work forces if they have an identity separate from the Great Britain nationalised industries rather than being peripheral part of them. This is not to say that the companies will lead an existence of isolation from the nationalised firms in the rest of the United Kingdom. Noble Lords may rest assured that the Government realise the importance of close and continuing links between the Northern Ireland companies and their counterparts in Great Britain but it is a little early to say exactly what form such links should take, as the counterparts are not yet in fully-fledged existence. However, the point is an important one and it will be observed.

The noble Viscount wondered whether the firm's status as a United Kingdom firm with a worldwide reputation and commitments would be jeopardised by exclusion from British shipbuilders. We think that such fears are greatly exaggerated. There is no evidence to suggest that keeping Harland and Wolff separate from British shipbuilders will lead to any lack of confidence in the firm on the part of shipowners. Its success will depend upon its ability to meet the needs of shipowners both at home and abroad. As the noble Lord has pointed out, Harland and Wolff is known worldwide and has a reputation for skill in the building of ships. The Government are determined to see that the yard succeeds.

I was enormously impressed a week or so ago, after speaking at a Chamber of Commerce dinner, when I was followed by the new chairman of Harland and Wolff, Sir Brian Moreton. I thought that his confidence was infectious, his pride in his factory was inspiring; and I feel that if anybody can bring off this venture, he will. We must not be to gloomy about the possibilities for Harland and Wolff. A great deal of money has been put into it, and we have made it absolutely clear that there is no more. My own view is that under this leadership we have a very good chance of pulling this venture off and, of course, if we do that it will be of immense value to the Pro- vince, whereas to allow it to fail would be a great disaster—though we are not bluffing when we say that it may come to that. However, I am full of hope, and I hope that the kind of absolute negative which has been given about no more money will satisfy the noble Viscount.

I should like to turn for one moment to the agricultural worries of the noble Lord, Lord Moyola. Goodness knows, I share most of them! The particular point I should like to deal with refers to the feeding stuffs differential. We have had a very elaborate examination made by the Ministry of Agriculture in this country, the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland and the feedingstuff merchants on the differential between the two. As the noble Lord said, they have given a perfectly firm figure, that the cost of the grain required for a poultry or pig ration in Liverpool is about £4 a ton cheaper, or it was when the examination was made—because it varies a certain amount—than it is in Belfast. I will not go into detail at this moment, but there is available here a report which noble Lords can see if they so wished. Basically, the reason for the differential is transport and delivery in bulk in England, and there is nothing whatever we can do about that.

Therefore we are up against the problem: are we to ask for new money to equalise this position? As may be imagined, we are exploring this matter very carefully. There is a real danger of a significant run-down in the 14,000 people which the noble Lord, quite rightly, allocated to the intensive industries, plus the processing of what they produce. There is a great deal of labour at stake The difficulty is that the industry in Great Britain would be only too happy to take up any reduction in pig, egg and poultry supplies from Northern Ireland. The Government are therefore in a real dilemma. We cannot be justified in subsidising in the long term the production of commodities in Northern Ireland which can be produced more cheaply on the mainland, without the need for any large amount of new capital. The case must be a social, rather than an agricultural one. I personally am most anxious to see Northern Ireland agriculture prosperous and healthy, and this must include some intensive production, though the basis must always be grass.


My Lords, did the report say how much of this differential is due to the fact that we have gone into the EEC and the supply of our grain coming into the ports in Northern Ireland has had to come a different way?


This is discussed, my Lords. But the point is that ten years ago it would have made an enormous difference whereas now, with grain the price it is, it makes very little difference. If we ever got back to cheap grain, then our membership of the EEC might be a handicap, but with grain at its present prices it simply is not.

We have in the Province the skills; and the capital is already invested there, although some of it is running down. The question of whether to replace it is a commercial one about which the firms involved must make up their own minds. But, as with the air fare for the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, the distance is a heavy and costly disadvantage. Any mitigation of these difficulties must require new money, and noble Lords will appreciate how difficult this is to come by today.

I can assure the noble Viscount that we are acutely conscious of the problems which he has mentioned, and we hope to make a statement on the subject in the fairly near future. The noble Viscount also asked about the remoteness grant. All I can say about that is that we think it is a very valuable grant and we shall give nothing away on it without a great struggle; in other words, we shall try very hard not to give anything away. I think we shall succeed.

My last word, because I have taken long enough, is on the air fare situation. First, I should like to point out that a couple of million pounds have been spent at Aldergrove in connection with the TriStar. Six months ago, I was hauled over the coals by every speaker about the horrors of TriStar. I left it a little late, but I myself have now been a couple of times by TriStar, and have found it extremely comfortable and quick. So I believe that the difficulties have now been dealt with. But when one considers whether one should subsidise people who are at a distance from the rest of the United Kingdom, but who are members of it, in order to get them over more quickly, one is up against an extremely difficult problem. All I can say is that if I were asked to pronounce my reaction would he very unfavourable, but the Government have not gone as far as that. The present position is that the Economic Council in Northern Ireland is looking at this matter and will make some suggestions. I think I shall say no more.

In a time of maximum difficulty, I am happy to have had the opportunity of answering some of the questions, and those I have not answered I shall reply to in writing. It is most important that we should not shirk open discussion of our very serious problems in Northern Ireland, and I thank noble Lords for the debate which we have had.

On Question, Motion agreed to.