HL Deb 22 March 1977 vol 381 cc411-22

4.11 p.m.

Lord MELCHETT rose to move, That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, laid before the House on 1st March, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that this draft order be approved. This order, the first this year in the annual cycle of orders appropriating funds for services administered by Northern Ireland Departments, serves two purposes. The first of these is to appropriate the Spring and further Spring Supplementary Estimates for the current year. Copies of the Supplementary Estimates volumes are available in the Library and provide details of the services for which additional provision is now sought. I should, however, like to say a few words about the main elements of these Estimates.

The sum total of the additional provision required is some £48.4 million. This brings the total Estimates for this financial year to £1,147.7 million, which is some £119.3 million, or 11.6 per cent., more than the total voted for 1975–76. The bulk of the amount now sought is accounted for by pay awards and increased costs. Any real increases in public expenditure have been more than offset by real decreases in other programmes. Major real increases include £6.5 million required for payments under the Meat Industry Employment Schemes. Without these payments, the further devaluation of the Irish Republic's Green Pound in October 1976 would have had a serious effect on throughput in Northern Ireland's meat processing plants. Two million pounds is needed to meet the cost of final payments under the Special Land Improvement Scheme, and a further £2 million is needed for new construction and maintenance work on roads and bridges.

The second purpose of the order is to appropriate the sums required on account for 1977–78 to provide Northern Ireland Departments with funds until after the main Estimates have been published, and appropriation of the balance of the funds required has been approved by Parliament. The sums required on account have, as usual, been calculated on the basis of 45 per cent. of the total voted provision for the current year, the amount required on account for 1977–78 being £502.6 million.

This order has been considered by another place. I have outlined in this brief summary the general nature of its content, and I shall certainly do my best to answer any questions on the order which noble Lords may wish to raise. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, laid before the House on 1st March, be approved. —(Lord Melchett.)


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for his explanation of the order. It is an important order because, as the noble Lord has explained, it appropriates not only the spring and further spring Supplementary Estimates for this financial year, but also the sums needed for 1977–78 until after the main Estimates for the next financial year are published. I shall not raise at any length the matter of housing, even though it is dealt with in the order, because an opportunity for doing this was offered last week on another Northern Ireland order. However, I should like to welcome I' hat was said in another place about Belfast building and redevelopment.

I see from yesterday's newspapers a report that the Government are intending to tackle with even greater determination the problem of improving existing homes in Belfast. This must surely be right in Northern Ireland where, as I understand it, the population is no longer expanding very much, and where the House Condition Survey has revealed that approximately 300,000 people are living in unfit houses and that as many as 300,000 people are living in houses which are lacking at least one basic amenity.

My only question is whether the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will be able to spend the sums which are to be allocated. As I understood the Minister's Statement in another place, an annual average rate of over £25 million is to be allocated to new building, redevelopment and rehabilitation and to support housing associations. Obviously, the lion's share of that amount will go to the Executive. The Executive admitted in its annual report for 1975–76 that it had not been able recently to spend its allocation of money for capital expenditure. I realise that there are security reasons for this, but I must express the hope that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will be able to implement the policy to tackle bad housing conditions in Belfast and that it will be able to fully utilise the allocations which are being made to it for this task.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, mentioned the £6.5 million which is required to meet payments under the Meat Industry Employment Scheme, and that reminds us of the Serious aspect of the Green Pound differential so far as Northern Ireland agriculture is concerned. I have welcomed this scheme in the past. It would appear to be the only way in which the Northern Ireland meat plants can continue to operate at anything like full capacity. However, I must put this question, which I admit I have asked before: What is the future of the scheme? Is it the Government's policy that the scheme will continue to run for so long as the existing Green Pound differential is maintained? This is not the moment to discuss the rights and wrongs of the effect of the value of the Green Pound so far as producers are concerned. Indeed, I believe that this question was touched on in a debate in this House only yesterday. However, it is obviously important for it to be known whether this method of support will continue while it is still needed.

The noble Lord, again because he was keeping his opening remarks brief, did not mention Harland and Wolff specifically. However, Class II of the order provides for selective assistance to industry and shipbuilding. I noticed that when the Statement announcing the £65 million allocation to British Shipbuilding was made about three weeks ago, Harland and Wolff was specifically mentioned as being excluded from that allocation. If one looks at the order, there is a sum of over £41 million recorded for selective assistance to industry and shipbuilding in the next financial year. Could the noble Lord tell the House how much of this assistance is destined for Harland and Wolff; for what purposes, and whether those purposes are in line with the aims and objects for which the £65 million to British Shipbuilding has been allocated?

I do not need to emphasise the importance of Harland and Wolff to employment in Northern Ireland, where unemployment is now running at 10.7 per cent. This is far the highest rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland since the war. Therefore I should like further to ask whether Harland and Wolff have any future shipbuilding contracts at all, bearing in mind that the £65 million has been allocated to British Shipbuilding precisely to try to attract new orders, and whether there may be any possibility of a defence contract for the yard.

The noble Lord's speech did not mention specifically the Quigley Report. Even though the report may seem to fall outside the order, I gave notice to the noble Lord that T might ask a question or two about it. The House may remember that this report is of some significance because, published last autumn, it is a development survey—I do not think one would call it a development plan—for the Northern Ireland economy, and was prepared by the Civil Service, not by outside consultants or an independent committee. I accept that there are aspects of the report upon which the Government may not be ready to comment and, indeed, with which they may disagree. I would have thought that by now the Government could have made some statement about the three Quigley proposals the Committee listed in order of priority as being of particular importance.

The first of those proposals was to reduce energy costs to industry, and, of course, my noble friend and the noble Lord opposite have been talking precisely about the gas industry only a moment or two ago. The noble Lord in his speech mentioned that due to price restraint sums of money are going to be needed to he appropriated for payments to both Northern Ireland gas and electricity undertakings. This form of support is all very well—I think it is obviously necessary—but with the exceptionally high costs of energy in Northern Ireland it is not really a solution to the problem, and this, of course, is why my noble friend Lord Long asked the question about natural gas. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, may be able today to give us some news about what is called the Shepherd Report on the Northern Ireland electricity industry which seems to have taken an unconscionable time acoming. My noble friend has put his questions about cost problems of the Northern Ireland gas industry, and I will leave that industry at that.

The second of the three Quigley proposals, the noble Lord may remember, was the need for blue chip industries to be attracted to black spots in Northern Ireland. I understand that private as well as public investment in Northern Ireland industry and commerce is continuing to hold up quite well—I think Ministers are to be very much congratulated if this is the case—despite the dangers to plant and the dangers to businessmen in Northern Ireland. But it would be interesting to hear whether the recommendation for establishing sound firms in difficult areas is making any significant headway. The third Quigley recommendation, which really falls totally outside this order, was for a tax holiday on export profits, a method of rewarding success. I have put that point to the Government before, and doubtless they have not lost sight of it.

Finally, my Lords, I should like, if I may, to turn to Class VIII of Part II of this order, which appropriates just under £5 million for "youth, sports and allied services and community relations". I should like to ask specifically about the building of sport centres and youth clubs. I do not think it needs very much imagination to see that sporting facilities are a significant part of the policy to try to lead the Province to normality and peace. As I remember it, Northern Ireland had plans to build either five or seven large strategically placed sports centres. Three of them were to be in Antrim, Newtownard and Craigavon; but I regret to say I forget where the others were to be. I remember visiting the Antrim centre and, with its marvellous facilities and set in a very pleasant place, it was a sight for sore eyes. I would be interested to hear how completion of these main centres has progressed.

In addition, there are two other kinds of centre or club. One is the community hall, something with which noble Lords will be familiar in towns and villages in Great Britain, financed partly voluntarily and partly by grant aid from the Government. In Northern Ireland, where rural isolation is a very real factor, community centres are again a way of integrating the community and providing a focus for community life. I remember very well a place on the West side of Strangford Lough, Killyleagh, which is a beautiful centre for sailing; the noble Lord obviously knows it. Very nice it is, if one happens to be in a boat or happens to have transport, one's own car, and can get to and from that little market town. But, if one is stuck in Killyleagh, there was, and I expect there still may be, no community centre of any kind at all. I should like to know what kind of grant aid budget exists in Northern Ireland for these projects, because a percentage of grant aid can make all the difference between a project being successfully completed and a project not being started at all.

Finally, there are those clubs or centres which, as the noble Lord will, I am sure, know, are urgently needed in such places as Belfast or Londonderry where the security situation is particularly bad. Frequently the Security Forces will take a visitor to a selected spot and will say, "If only there was a youth club there now, many of our troubles in this particular area would be over as far as young people are concerned." The problem with such projects is that they are always needed urgently and they simply cannot queue up and wait their place in a future year's grant aid programme. It was a weakness of the grant aid arrangements in Northern Ireland that there was no separate grant programme for urgent projects connected with the security situation. I am not saying that they were not attended to, but so far as I know there was no separate programme. But now that education and community relations are under one budget I would have hoped that it might be possible for an overall look to be taken at the community projects problem, and those with particularly urgent needs given a separate slice of the Department of Education budget. Those are the only questions I have to ask on this order. Doubtless we shall be having another opportunity later in the year when the firm Estimates for the forthcoming financial year will be presented by the Government. Meanwhile, I certainly give my support to the passage of this order.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for giving his support to this important order and for giving me notice of some of the points he was to raise this afternoon. As he has said, we spent some time recently discussing housing, and particularly the new housing drive in Belfast. I should like to make two points on that. First, I think it is particularly noticeable how widely welcome throughout Northern Ireland is the new emphasis which my honourable friend, the Parliamentary Under—Secretary of State with responsibility for the Department of the Environment, is giving to housing in central Belfast. This is obviously an extremely encouraging sign. The noble Lord raised the problem of the ability of the housing executive to spend all the money that is available; and that is, of course, a real problem, particularly in a city like Belfast with the appalling difficulties that face those contractors who are building in certain parts of the city. My honourable friend, as the noble Lord will know, is chairing a steering committee on housing in Belfast, and it is very much hoped that that committee, with representatives of all those agencies involved, will give some assistance to the housing executive, giving them the necessary impetus and drive which will undoubtedly be needed to make an impact on the appalling problems that exist.

The noble Lord then asked me about the meat industry employment scheme and about the future of that scheme. I certainly agree with him about the importance of that scheme, and I am grateful for his acknowledgment that this is the best way of meeting what is for Northern Ireland an extremely serious problem. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is not yet in a position to make an announcement about the operation of the scheme after 31st March 1977. He is studying the conclusions of an independent examination of the scheme which has recently been presented to him by outside consultants. An announcement about the future of this scheme will be made at the earliest opportunity. I certainly know that my right honourable friend is aware of the urgency of making an announcement about the future of this scheme.

The noble Lord also asked about Harland and Wolff. May I say, first of all, that the company is working through its order book in an exemplary fashion and maintaining its good record of industrial relations and productivity. The management and the workforce have contributed a great deal to the yard's creditable performance in difficult circumstances. The noble Lord asked me about the amount of £41 million which is mentioned in the Estimates for assistance to industry and shipbuilding, and asked how much of that would be available to Harland and Wolff. I regret to say that I do not have a definite answer on that at this moment, but I will write to the noble Lord. This very much depends on the orders that may come to Harland and Wolff. The Government are determined that if viable orders come forward, Harland and Wolff will receive any help it needs in order to secure those orders. It is a matter of reacting to the orders. Inquiries about possible future orders have been received, but at this stage I am afraid it is not possible, nor would it be right, for me to divulge details of the commercial negotiations which are taking place.


My Lords, I did not give the noble Lord notice of my question on Harland and Wolff. Perhaps he could write to me on it, as that would be the most useful way of dealing with it. I want to make my question absolutely clear. As I understood the Government's Statement some three weeks ago, the £65 million for British Shipbuilding is to be used to try to attract new orders. That was its purpose. Perhaps I could receive advice in a letter—if the Government are able to divulge the sum of money from the £41 million that will go to Harland and Wolff—as to whether it will be for the same purpose. The crucial question for Harland and Wolff is whether they will be able to obtain new orders.


My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord that that is the crucial question. I take his point and shall certainly write to him about it. I only wish that I knew the answer to that crucial question, as do many others in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord then asked me about the Quigley Report and what progress had been made on consideration of its recommendations. As the noble Lord knows, the report was published on 18th October and since then it has been widely circulated both within and outside the Government. As the noble Lord indicated, it is not a policy document; it sets out a series of options for the Government's consideration. A wide variety of organisations, including those representing both sides of industry, have been consulted and have recently expressed their views about the report. Those views are now being considered together with the report.

I take note of what the noble Lord said about three of the main recommendations, particularly the one about reducing energy costs to industry. As he will be aware, there are fairly heavy public expenditure implications in almost all the recommendations of the Quigley Report. That is something which we must bear very carefully in mind when deciding what, if anything, the Government can do to meet the recommendations. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State intends to ask the Economic Council, which will shortly be reconstituted, to examine the report as one of its first major tasks. Some of the possibilities advanced by the report have public expenditure implications and others are of a long—term nature. All will have to be carefully evaluated in the light of public expenditure constraints. However, in the meantime I assure the noble Lord that all Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office are acutely aware of the importance of maintaining employment and encouraging new investment. My honourable friend the Minister of State is currently in the United States on just such a mission. I am sure that he will be successful.

The record of private investment and of industry in Northern Ireland has been extremely encouraging, given the appallingly difficult circumstances—not only those circumstances peculiar to Northern Ireland but also, as I was aware in my days at the Department of Industry, the enormous difficulties in a period of economic recession in attracting any industry to any area in the United Kingdom. Given that background, we have done extraordinarily well in maintaining the number of jobs in Northern Ireland that we have managed to maintain, in keeping the Northern Ireland equivalent of the regional employment premium, which has undoubtedly saved a large number of jobs in Northern Ireland and in attracting a number of new companies, particularly those from abroad, to Northern Ireland in recent years.

Finally, the noble Lord asked me about the youth and community services in Northern Ireland. It would take me a long time to tell the noble Lord all that is taking place, because an enormous amount is happening in the youth, community and sporting sectors, all of which fall within the ambit of the Department of Education. However, the community services and sporting provision are the direct responsibility of district councils.

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord one question. My noble friend Lord Belstead very rightly placed emphasis on help for community halls, youth clubs, et cetera. Can the noble Lord assure us not only that he will think in terms of the very large—scale, modern, highly—equipped, luxurious new centres, which are not always the ones that attract the most loyalty and interest, but that he will also divert a reasonable part of the possible aid to the much smaller, more modest and intimate and what might be called in some cases more old—fashioned youth clubs and community centres? I believe that they are enormously worthy of support as well as the large modern enterprises.


My Lords, the noble Viscount should have been at a conference which I attended two weeks ago at Portrush in Northern Ireland where exactly that point of view was expressed. It was a conference on the youth service in Northern Ireland held by the Youth Committee. No doubt when that committee comes to me with its recommendations for the future of the youth service in Northern Ireland, that will be one of the points it will make. It is indeed a matter of which the Department of Education is already well seized.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, asked me about the expenditure on leisure centres, which are at the other end of the scale—a very large and very expensive facility. As the noble Lord said, significant progress has been made in Northern Ireland. In Belfast, the programme has temporarily been reduced to four centres—those at Andersonstown, Connswater, Shankill and Maysfield. The other three centres which were proposed at Ballysillan, Bog Meadows and Whiterock have had to be deferred. We have made a policy decision not to proceed with any large—scale leisure centres outside Belfast in the immediate future.

As I think I intimated when discussing an order recently, I very much hope that shortly we shall see the sort of switch in emphasis that has already occurred on the housing front in my two areas of responsibility in Northern Ireland; namely, education, health and social services. If such a switch takes place, it may be that there will be encouraging news for some of the deferred projects in Belfast, including the leisure centres. I hope to make a statement about that in the reasonably near future.

The four centres that have been opened are at Antrim, Enniskillen, Craigavon and Londonderry and major centres at Newtownabbey and Maysfield will be opening their doors in the near future. Work is going ahead satisfactorily at Carrickfergus, Andersonstown and Connswater and work is shortly due to start on the leisure centre at Shankill.

I shall give the noble Lords an idea of the priority which we are giving to this expenditure on both the small and the large—scale projects. On the youth side, about 60 major building schemes, costing £2 million will be completed in the 1970s and at present work is in progress on 18 voluntary building schemes and 13 board schemes, costing in all about £1.75 million. Seventeen new community centres will be opening in Northern Ireland in 1977 and the number of people employed, which is equally if not more important in some areas than the provision of new buildings, has increased substantially in the youth service in recent years. I hope that we can take some new initiatives on the community worker's front in the near future as well.

In 1975–76 expenditure on sport and recreation was nearly £2½million and it is estimated that £2,600,000 will be spent in the financial year 1976–77; estimated expenditure for 1977–78 is £3,400,000. Expenditure on the youth service has trebled in three years in Northern Ireland. I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that an enormous amount is being done. I wish I could take up more of your Lordships' time to give further details. On the whole, the youth service, community service and sporting facilities in Northern Ireland are receiving priority. My concern is to ensure that priority is given to those areas that are most in need of the facilities and help that those services can provide.

On Question, Motion agreed to.