HL Deb 26 May 1977 vol 383 cc1463-9

1.20 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 be approved. The order is being made under paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974.

The main purpose of the order is to appropriate the balance of the 1977–78 Main and Revised Estimates, the Vote on Account of 1977–78 having been appropriated in March this year; it also appropriates certain sums arising out of Excess Votes for the financial year 1975–76. The total of the Main and Revised Estimates provision, including the sum already voted on account, is some £1,144 million, compared with a total Estimates provision, including Supplementaries, of £1,148 million in 1976–77. Details of the provisions sought are set out in the Main and Revised Estimates volumes.

The main increase over 1976–77 is £14.6 million in Class V,Vote 1 (Housing Services), caused primarily by the inclusion of £17.5 million in respect of the balance of monies due to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive at 31st March 1977. Under the Housing Finance (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, which came into operation on 1st April this year, a single housing grant representing the difference between the Housing Executive's revenue income and expenditure now replaces the various grants and subsidies previously paid to the Executive.

An extra £5.8 million in Class VIII, Vote 1 (Schools), is mainly due to an increase of 650 in teacher numbers to provide increased teacher employment, and to bring the teacher/pupil ratio in Northern Ireland into line with, if not very slightly ahead of, ratios in Great Britain. Increases of £6 million and £10.6 million on Class IX Vote 1 (Health and Personal Social Services) and Class X (Social Security) respectively are mainly the result of pay and price changes and increases in the rate of benefit made on the basis of parity with Great Britain.

The largest decrease is in Class II, Vote 4 (Compensation for Price Restraint). Payments in 1976–77 to Northern Ireland electricity and gas undertakings in respect of loss of revenue incurred in 1975–76 due to compliance with the national policy on price restraint amounted to £31 million. No further compensation is payable in respect of periods after 31st March 1976. The £53,000 element of the 1977–78 provision for compensation is to meet late claims from certain gas undertakings. Finally, there were Excess Votes amounting to £3.5 million on three Votes of the Northern Ireland Estimates in 1975–76. Details of these and of the reasons for them are set out in the Statement of Excesses. The Excess Votes have been considered by the Public Accounts Committee, which has recommended that the necessary sums should be made available.

I hope that I have dealt with the main sums of money which have increased or decreased so far as this order is concerned, but of course I should he happy to deal with any questions arising out of the order which noble Lords may wish to raise. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, laid before the House on 11th May, be approved.—(Lord Melchett.)

1.23 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for explaining the increases and decreases which the order marks. Part II deals with agriculture and I should like to refer to a question which has arisen on the two previous Appropriation Orders; that is, the question of the Northern Ireland meat industry. It is some 18 months ago that the Secretary of State introduced the Meat Industry Employment Scheme, which is really a subsidy for the meat processing industry in Northern Ireland. I should like to make the point that I support the Government in this. I am certain that the scheme has been essential and I know that the Government will be considering the future need for it very carefully.

I want to refer to the state of farming, which supplies the packaging and processing industries which ultimately feed us, by reference particularly to the pig industry, on which there is to be a Government Statement a little later today. Anyone who watched television last night or who has read the newspapers today will know of the deep discontent of those who are raising pigs in Great Britain. I would imagine that this discontent is felt even more deeply in Northern Ireland, where animal feed costs and costs generally are higher, not least the cost of power. This will be felt particularly if one is running a pig house that needs artificial heating.

I really must ask the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, what the Government intend to do about pig farming in Northern Ireland. The size of the pig herd, if one looks at the United Kingdom as a whole, has dropped astonishingly since 1973. Then, the total pig herd in the United Kingdom was 1,015,000 whereas the latest figures for, I believe, April this year are 840,000. I regret to say that, when one looks at the Northern Ireland figures, they are no better. The figure for 1973 was 112,000, taking all pigs. In 1976—and I believe that this is the latest figure for Northern Ireland—the figure was 77,000. Indeed, if one takes December last year to March this year, there is a total fall in the United Kingdom pig herd of 5 per cent. and the figure for gilts—upon which the future pig population of the country is built—has fallen by 12 per cent.

This is a serious matter and it is not just a piece of special pleading because one must compare those figures with the Government's own policy which was set out in their White Paper, Food from our own Resources, which was published two years ago. In paragraph 44, the Government said: Higher output of bacon and pigmeat products is limited by the competition from imported supplies, particularly from Denmark. In the period to 1980 United Kingdom producers of pork, poultrymeat and eggs can satisfy the entire growth in demand forecast for these products. This is a reasonable objective for the industry. But what has happened since that White Paper was published? The pig herd in this country, which is what I am concentrating on, has declined steadily because farmers cannot get any return from home grown pigs. I must ask the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, is or is not the 1975 White Paper still Government policy? If it is, whom, may I ask—and I do not mean this personally to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett—are the Government trying to fool? It is certainly not the general public, for everyone, including all your Lordships, knows perfectly well that if one goes out to the shops one will only he able to find Danish bacon. It is not the public who are being fooled and it certainly is not the farmers. The farmers are reported in today's papers as having told the Minister of Agriculture to his face that they are losing £4 on every pig they produce. It is not a very bright future or, indeed, a bright present for the primary producer who is losing money on each article that he sells. The pathetic truth is that it is the Government which are fooling themselves by clinging to an agricultural policy that they have neither the will nor the ability to implement.

I must put it to the Government that, if they will not devalue the green pound, which would he an answer to the current problems of the United Kingdom pig producers, then, in the absence of such devaluation, they must think of something else. My question on this order is, what are the Government going to do to see that the pig herd—which is one of the staple industries of Northern Ireland—reverses its disastrous downward trend of the last few years?

I have two further questions. Last March, the Government announced an ambitious plan to rebuild parts of Belfast. To that plan, I gave the support of my noble friends on these Benches. I should be interested to know either now or, if the noble Lord would prefer, by letter, whether that plan is as yet under way. Also, will it be a joint project including both the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment? Also, will the estimated cost, which I believe was £130 million, have to be revised at all?

Lastly, Class VIII deals with education. May I say a word of congratulation to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett? I believe that he is responsible for education in Northern Ireland and, if he has been able to get another £8 million out of the Treasury in order to deal with teacher unemployment in Northern Ireland and, as he said, to bring the pupil/teacher ratio into line with or even a little better than that of the United Kingdom, he has discharged his duties very well indeed. He will have the gratitude of the teaching profession in Northern Ireland. I believe that the noble Lord is preparing to make a statement on secondary reorganisation in Northern Ireland and, if he feels that he can do so, it would be interesting if he could tell us today whether that statement is imminent or is still to be delayed for weeks or months. With those remarks and with, I am afraid, those criticisms on the agricultural side of the order, none the less, of course, I support the passage of this order.

1.30 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I could take the points that the noble Lord has made in reverse order. On the statement on secondary reorganisation, we are still studying very carefully the enormous volume of comments and paper that has flooded in over the last nine months during the consultative period on this in Northern Ireland. That process is nearly complete, and I intend to make a Statement on this matter before the end of the school term—I think it would be wrong to delay it beyond that—which really means before the end of next month. I hope that it will be around the middle of next month.

The noble Lord also asked me about the redevelopment of Belfast, and the extra money that is being spent on housing there. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State is now chairing a steering committee which involves not only his own Department, the Department of the Environment and the housing executive, but also the Belfast City Council. That steering committee has had several meetings and is making very good progress, particularly on housing action areas, three of which have now been designated and many more of which are being considered and identified. I think it would be too early to say what precise financial implications the work of the steering committee will have—there are many difficult problems to be considered—but, nevertheless, action is being carried forward very rapidly on some aspects of the work.

It may also interest the noble Lord to know that there are very close links between that steering committee and the planning team, which I chair, on the area of special social need in Belfast, which has on it representatives, not only of the housing executive but of the many other agencies —education and health boards, the city council, the education and health departments, and the departments of commerce and manpower services—and which is co-ordinating a united approach to the social problems of deprivation in North and West Belfast. My honourable friend and I attach particular importance to co-ordinating the work on the housing front with the work that the planning team, which I chair, is doing, and, of course, there will be substantial expenditure implications in the work that the planning team is doing in diverting budgets of Northern Ireland departments to the areas of greatest need.

Finally, my Lords, on a slightly less happy note, the noble Lord had some harsh words to say on United Kingdom agricultural policy, but I was very grateful for his support on the particular measures which have been taken in Northern Ireland in connection with the Meat Industry Employment Scheme. I will certainly convey what he said on United Kingdom policy matters to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State with responsibility for that, and indeed to my honourable friend who has responsibility for agriculture in Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord knows, the Meat Industry Employment Scheme, which covers the Northern Ireland pig industry as well, was introduced as a temporary measure last October to safeguard employment in the Northern Ireland meat industry, which at that time was unable to compete for supplies of livestock because of the difference between our own green pound rate and that of the Irish Republic.

The scheme has twice been extended and increased to take account of changes in the rates of both green pounds; and, although it is at present due to expire in June of this year, the scheme is of course being kept under close review, and discussions about its future are currently taking place. I accept that the noble Lord was being very kind in his remarks about the efforts which are being made in that scheme, but was pointing to the broader problems which have made the scheme necessary. Those, of course, are matters for my right honourable friend with responsibility for agriculture, and I will draw his attention to what the noble Lord has said. It may be that the Statement which is due to be made this afternoon—and I confess that I do not know what it is going to say—will have some relevance to this matter; I do not know. My Lords, I think that covers all the points which the noble Lord has raised. I am very grateful to him for his support of the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.