HL Deb 08 March 1979 vol 399 cc340-54

Lord MELCHETT rose to move, That the draft order, laid before the House on 20th February, be appoved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order is the first in the annual cycle of orders appropriating funds for services administered by Northern Ireland Departments. The order appropriates the spring Supplementary Estimates for the current financial year. Part I of the Schedule contains details of the services for which extra provision is needed, and further information is contained in the spring Supplementary Estimates volume which is available in the Library.

The total additional provision asked for under this order is some £61 million, and this brings the total for the 1978–79 financial year to £1,522 million, some £204 million over the total for 1977–78. About £23 million of this is for expenditure on health and personal social services, and is needed mainly to meet the cost of pay awards and price increases. About £8 million is needed by the Education and Library Boards to cover increased costs and to finance the additional employment opportunities which were created early last year. Some £6 million is needed to cover both price increases and an extension of the roads resurfacing programme, which is helping to maintain employment in the construction industry. The £3 million paid out as £10 Christmas bonuses to pensioners is included in this order. There is also a need for £2 million to provide for benefits under the Shipbuilding Redundancy Payments Scheme, and £1 million to cover an increase in uptake under the Temporary Employment Subsidy.

The second main purpose of this order is to appropriate the sums required on account for 1979–80, so that Northern Ireland Departments have the necessary resources until the appropriation of the balance has been approved by Parliament. The sums on account have, in general, been calculated on the basis of 45 per cent. of the Voted provision for the current year, and £663 million is needed on account for 1979–80. My Lords, I have only covered the main points of the order, but I will, as usual, do my best to answer any questions which noble Lords wish to raise. I beg to move.

Moved, that the draft order, laid before the House on 20th February, be approved.—(Lord Melchett.)


My Lords, this order was debated in another place only yesterday. I do not mean to treat it cursorily when I say that for that reason, however, I, first of all, support the need for the order and will refer only to three aspects of it. The primary aspect of any discussion about the Northern Ireland economy must be the future. Although in social policy matters Northern Ireland may be a prisoner of the past, in economic matters it is the fact that Northern Ireland's industry and commerce have shown their readiness to look to the future. I am only too ready to acknowledge the work which Ministers of the present Government have done in this particular respect. But if one looks at the recent report of the Central Economic Service of the Department of Finance, the report called Economic and Social Progress in Northern Ireland, in its third section one reads some pretty grim forecasts of a further substantial decline in jobs foreseen in construction, manufacturing and mining. May I ask how the Government intend to tackle this problem? Do the Government see any way of tackling the problem other than by a constant increase in the public service? At a time when unemployment in Northern Ireland stands at nearly 11 per cent., it is essential to ask this question and for the Government, despite all the difficulties which face them so far as employment in Northern Ireland is concerned, to make clear their plans for the future.

The second question I should like to ask is whether planning has advanced at all so far as the construction of a natural gas pipeline from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is concerned. Some months ago in your Lordships' House and also in another place the Government announced a substantial grant of financial aid which is to be given to the Northern Ireland electricity service. What concerns me is the position in which that rather piecemeal approach—welcome though it was so far as Northern Ireland electricity is concerned—leaves the Northern Ireland gas service; and what are the Government's intentions for the Northern Ireland gas service in general so far as the future is concerned?

Lastly—because this order also refers to education and because the noble Lord has personal responsibility for it—may I take the opportunity to question him about the reports of the working parties on secondary reorganisation? I understand that their tasks have been completed and the reports are due to be published very shortly. Is it the intention of the noble Lord that those reports will be distributed widely in Northern Ireland for comments and discussions? Will it be possible for copies to be made available in your Lordships' House? At the same time I would refer to a Bill which is going through Parliament at the moment, the Education Bill for England and Wales, which is now in Committee in another place. That Bill has already been considerably amended since it had its Second Reading before Christmas. No doubt it will be further amended. What recognition has the Department of Education in Northern Ireland taken of the current Education Bill and the Amendments which have been made to it? In particular, in fixing his quotas for grammar schools in Northern Ireland, is the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, up to date as to the latest state of play in the debates in another place on the Bill's idea for what are known as planned admission limits?

Are the governing bodies of Northern Ireland schools going to be subject to the new composition for school governing bodies in England and Wales which are proposed in the current Bill which is before the House of Commons? In particular, will the voluntary schools in Northern Ireland continue to be recognised as a most valuable part of the Education Service? I am bound to say that the position of voluntary schools, regarding the part they play in the education system in England and Wales, is very much called in question so far as the Education Bill before another place at the moment is concerned. My Lords, this order, relating to the end of this financial year and, as the noble Lord has explained, making the necessary appropriations for next year, appropriates substantial sums, and these sums are necessary. But, at the same time, I think that the questions which I have asked are relevant at the present time and I put them now to the Government for reply.

5.34 p.m.


My Lords, I also should like to welcome this appropriation order and support my noble friend Lord Belstead in the tributes that he has paid to the Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office and to the Secretary of State in particular. Both the Minister, the right honourable Don Concannon, and the Secretary of State have done a massive job in attracting new industry to Northern Ireland. I feel at the present moment that America is an important area from which to attract industry, and the Secretary of State and the Government are going to have to make a very much bigger effort in the area of publicity. All the feedback from America suggests that the anti-"H" block campaign is doing us considerable damage. I am not at all sure that it does not need an almost united parliamentary approach on the part of all parties to make sure that the people in Congress in America understand that this is the united opinion of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and that the stand of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is correct on this issue. I feel it is a very serious state of affairs that the propagandists in America are achieving a great deal of success.

In this appropriation order there is money provided for the reconstruction of Belfast Airport. We in Northern Ireland depend enormously on having good communications. We feel very sore that British Airways, reporting a profit of £2 million, are about to approach the aviation authority for a further rise in fares. I understand that on Laker Airways it costs £69 to fly to Toronto. It costs £72 at the moment to fly to Belfast and back. I feel that the Government ought, somehow or other, to investigate the efficiency of British Airways on this system. The shuttle system which we have from London to Belfast is most convenient, but it is a fairly rugged operation for those of us who have to fight our way down through Gate 49. I feel that British Airways should not have the "neck" to ask for a further rise in fares until such a time as the aircrew—because this has a great effect—stop overnight somewhere in Northern Ireland. The last aeroplane at night, the 8.30, flies on to Glasgow where the crew stop overnight. That alone is costing British Airways hundreds of thousands of pounds. I cannot believe that it is not within the bounds of possibility for British Airways to arrange for the aircrew to stay overnight somewhere in Northern Ireland. That is an area where efficiency could be improved.

The justification for the reconstruction of Aldergrove Airport must be the possibility of getting international air links. Cork, a much smaller airport serving a much smaller number of people, has daily air links with the Continent. We have none. To make matters worse, in a very ill-advised way British Airways objected to poor little East Anglia Airways running a trip from Aldergrove to Amsterdam. British Airways did not want to run in competition, they just wanted to stop East Anglia Airways. I feel that was most inappropriate; it gave British Airways a very bad image. I should like to know what, if anything, the Government can do to try to encourage other airlines to establish an international air link with Europe. More and more we are becoming Europe-orientated; our exports are going to Europe and it becomes more and more important for us to have direct routes.

On an earlier Bill, I mentioned to the House that I thought it might be appropriate for the Government or parties to appoint one or two more people from Northern Ireland to this House, men distinguished in their fields—and there are plenty of fields in which we have distinguished men—who could take part in and make more realistic the debates on this particular order. This order is a very important one. It is the budget and the expropriation for the whole of the expenditure of Northern Ireland. If Scotland were separately accounted, I wonder how long it would take to debate the appropriation order for Scotland. Therefore, I feel that my remarks are justified. Except for the noble Lords, Lord Belstead and Lord Melchett and myself, I do not see anybody in the Chamber who has actually served in Northern Ireland in the capacity of Minister. I do not expect to get a favourable reply from the noble Lord because I do not think that would be possible.

In Part I of the Schedule, Class VI, we have a reference to money being provided for planning. Because we are dealing with an order in this way, in a small debate, I feel that it is right to draw attention to certain matters with a broad brush rather than go into too much detail. I should like to ask many questions: for example, about the meat industry, the employment scheme, dates for finishing the roads, the Bangor marina and goodness knows what, but I feel that would be inappropriate at this time. However, I should like to raise a subject that I have raised before in this House—that is, the problems that arise in the whole of Northern Ireland because of the struc- ture of local government. Local government was reorganised in Northern Ireland on the basis of a devolved Parliament in Stormont. Practically all the services, as they are known, were removed from local government and centred in Stormont. The result of that, with no Stormont, has been that we have a very difficult situation. I recognise that the Ministers in charge have done their very best to try to mitigate the difficulties caused by the actual structure, but I believe that some changes will have to be made soon, and certainly there should be an examination of what the changes might be.

The problems that arise have been very well illustrated in the last few weeks by the publication in County Fermanagh—my own county—and in the neighbouring county of Strabane of what is called an area plan. The planning officers are centred in Belfast; the whole planning machine is responsible to the Department of the Environment in Belfast, and the Ministers are answerable politically here in Westminster. The district councils have no authority in planning over and above being consulted—and they are very ably consulted by the planners, so what I am saying must in no way be taken as a criticism of the people involved: it is a criticism of the system, which I feel is doing great damage, especially in the rural areas. When councils had their own planning officers, an area plan would be built up over a period with a planning committee and the chairman of that committee exercising influence. Sometimes the chairman may have thought that the committee were exercising a lot more influence than in fact they were, because the planning in some cases has to happen whatever a planning committee may say, but it was being built up and the council had a responsibility for it. On presentation of an area plan, it was fathered by the committee and by the council. The planning officer was felt to be part of the council and part of that community, so there was at least an identity of view.

What has been happening in County Fermanagh? The area plan has been published and there are many parts of it—perhaps even the whole—which are well founded as to the general intention, but, since there is no involvement, it is being hammered everywhere in the county and people are vying with each other to say rude things about it. The great danger is that we are going to get the good things thrown out with the bad. There are bad details in it, but, worse still, I think we are developing a "we" and "they" mentality. The civil servants based in Belfast are "they" and "they" are operating against "us", and this is very bad for a community.

The past record of planners has not been exactly unblemished. There have been plenty of times when there has been local influence on an area plan as it is built up gradually rather than influence being brought to bear after the plan has been published, when somebody has put his head on the block and has had to argue in justification of his case. That has been extremely useful and has often resulted in better planning. This situation in fact applies to other services, such as roads, sewage and water, but the problem with planning is that it is a much more emotional subject because it involves land and it involves an authority saying "no". That is what is most readily remembered by anybody when talking about planning: it is a case of, "You can't build that house there". It is not remembered that the plan may in fact have enabled the countryside to be protected and developed in an orderly fashion. It is the "no" mentality imposed from Belfast that is at the basis of all I am saying.

I was much encouraged when I read the report of a debate in another place, because of the speech made by the honourable Member for West Belfast in voicing his criticism of the Housing Executive—and the housing powers were among those that were removed from the local authorities. He was voicing what appeared to be a fairly widespread feeling of disagreement with the Housing Executive. He was one of the people who objected to local authorities having those powers in the past, and he said he regretted very much the establishment of the Housing Executive. My Lords, it is a mammoth. Somebody described it as "a dinosaur": it is a huge organisation and, no matter how hard people try—and they do try very hard—it cannot be responsive in the way that people would like.

I raise this issue because in the past the Government have had a very difficult job in deciding whether to devolve any further powers to district councils. The opposition to it came from the main political Opposition party—that is, the SDLP—and here we have the leader of that party voicing an opinion contrary to what he has been expressing before. It is all in Hansard—perhaps he was emotional at the time—but the main thing is that something has to be done or else we are going to have a very unhealthy situation in the countryside.

These powers were removed because it was supposed there was a misuse of political power. That is something I would not agree with—at least no more than elsewhere—but the situation in Northern Ireland is now very different from what it was. There are many safeguards for personal freedom. We have the Standing Commission on Human Rights, we have the Fair Employment Agency and we have Ombudsmen—absolutely legions, hundreds of them. I am therefore quite convinced that more power could be given back to the rural councils. The final safeguard of the whole lot is that for the foreseeable future, no matter what people may say to try to persuade us otherwise, we are not going to have a devolved Government in Northern Ireland. Therefore, my Lords, I welcome these appropriations.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, I think some Members of your Lordships' House may be pleased rather than sorry that there are less people from Northern Ireland here to make contributions tonight, but I hope the noble Viscount would agree that what we lack in quantity we make up in quality with, hopefully, some degree of brevity.

The noble Viscount asked about air services. I can tell him that I battled to and from Belfast on the shuttle yesterday. I had an absolutely appalling journey in the morning but a really marvellous journey back in the evening and, on the whole, I would agree with him that it is an extremely convenient and on the whole a very good service—rather over-maligned by some people, and very much to the benefit of Northern Ireland, particularly to the business people there, because it is so frequent in its flights.

As the noble Viscount will know, the Northern Ireland Economic Council has recently published a statement of views on air passenger services to Northern Ireland. That statement is currently under consideration by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in consultation with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade, who, of course, has a general responsibility for air services in the United Kingdom. I and my honourable and right honourable friends have no doubt about the importance of air services. I suppose, more than anybody else who lives and works in Northern Ireland, the importance of good communications is borne in on us because of the frequency with which we travel. I can assure the noble Viscount that in the consultations which take place on the Economic Council's statement we will be putting forward the needs and priorities of Northern Ireland very firmly indeed.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, and the noble Viscount very kindly praised two of my right honourable friends who are most involved in attracting investment to Northern Ireland, and I will pass on those kind words. The noble Lord asked me how we intended to tackle the realistic but undoubtedly rather gloomy prospects held out in the economic document which has recently been published in Northern Ireland. The employment prospects are not good. The current level of unemployment is about double that of Great Britain, and is much too high in anybody's eyes. We do not believe—and I think that the economic document makes this clear—that there are any radical solutions, other than attracting from somewhere billions of pounds of public money which, frankly, particularly at the moment, does not seem to be at all a realistic proposition.

There are no radical solutions that are not already being adopted. We have to plug away as we are going and intensify our efforts, and I think it is fair to say that over the last two years the Government have done this with some success. We have maintained employment. The noble Viscount said that he would not ask me about the Meat Industry Employment Scheme, but there are that and a number of other schemes, many of them extremely expensive—it is as well to remember that—where we have maintained employment in existing industries.

As I have already said, we have had some success in attracting outside investment, and last year there were a number of projects providing several thousand jobs, in the long run, which we attracted. I hope that we have broken through the log jam on that. Certainly the number of visits which are currently being paid by potential investors and interested investors from outside, particularly from the USA, gives grounds for some encouragement. We have, in the area for which I am particularly responsible, increased the number of public sector jobs very considerably in the last two or three years, and the current year will see another major increase in health and social service employment, in line with the needs of Northern Ireland.

This is not something which is being done simply to create jobs, because there are unemployment problems. We have massive problems in the fields of the mentally handicapped, the under-fives and many other areas, where we need more public sector workers and people will be doing, as nurses, health visitors, teachers and ancillary help in classrooms for the under-fives, jobs which are vitally important in many areas, in which we are still behind the level of provision in Great Britain. But we have seen a major expansion and I certainly hope, in my two Departments, to see that expansion maintained and further expansion in some areas over the next few years.

I thought that the noble Viscount was unduly pessimistic about the effects of the propaganda campaign about the H-blocks in the States. As I say, the number of potential investors visiting Northern Ireland for the first time in the last few months does not bear out the idea that this campaign is having any kind of success. The noble Viscount may be interested to know that the recent "Panorama" programme, in which my right honourable friend appeared, will shortly be shown on American television.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, asked me about the energy position. As he knows, there has been an internal review of Northern Ireland's energy problems involving Departments in London and in Northern Ireland, and that has now been completed. The document outlining the main considerations is now being prepared and will be ready before the Easter Recess. It will, of course, be made available to noble Lords who are interested, as well as being distributed more generally; and when that document is made available the Government will be making a Statement in Parliament as well. I hope the noble Lord will allow me to leave it at that, until we have the published document available.

I should like to take a moment to answer the noble Lord's points about education, because not only is it a particular interest of mine but I think there is some considerable misunderstanding about a number of points that he raised. First, as he said, a number of working party reports—in fact, four—have been made available. Dr. Benn's working party, which is concerned with financing voluntary schools, has produced a final report and that is the end of its job. Its remit was specifically to ensure that voluntary schools can continue to play a part in Northern Ireland's education system, when selection at 11-plus is abolished. I think that that answers one of the points which the noble Lord raised about the Education Bill.

Dr. Dickson's working party, the general working party, has produced three reports but has a number of others to produce and will, undoubtedly, have a number of points referred to it by me for advice. That, in other words, is a working party whose work has only just started, and I should think that it will be in existence for some considerable time, certainly until any legislation which is needed has passed through Parliament, and maybe for some time beyond that until reorganisation is a long way down the line to completion. It will be used as a source of local advice. Apart from Dr. Dickson, who I think it fair to say is a very respected figure in educational circles in Northern Ireland, the working party is made up entirely of representatives nominated by the main educational organisations in Northern Ireland.

The third working party, Professor Astin's on schools management, is hoping to report around Easter. That, again, will be the final report of that working party, and of course it covers areas which go well beyond the reorganisation of secondary education. On that final working party of Professor Astin's we would allow a long period for consultation, because it is a small group of people nominated by me and it is not intended to represent the views of educational interests generally. But on the reports produced both by Dr. Benn's and Dr. Dickson's working parties, where the reports are agreed by the representatives of educational interests, nominated by them, I should hope that we should have fairly short periods of consultation. At the moment, I am hoping that on those four reports we could have completed the consultations by the end of June. The reports will be published in the next week or two.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, also asked me about the Education Bill. I do not think that it reflects the likely future policy for Northern Ireland, partly because many of the things contained in it we are already doing, some of them in a different way, and partly because some will need to be investigated. For example, I have already mentioned school management and the report of Professor Astin's working party. The consultations on it and the conclusions which the Government reach will determine school management provisions in Northern Ireland in the future.

There are a number of provisions in the Education Bill which we already have; for example, the provision allowing education to take place in day nurseries is possible under existing legislation. Similarly, there are a number of provisions about awards and grants. Northern Ireland's basic legislation does not need to be altered to keep us in line with Great Britain on the level of awards and grants. The advanced further education board concerns another provision in the Bill we shall not be taking any action on until we see the outcome of the review of higher education which is currently looking at the whole field in Northern Ireland. The report of the review may or may not make similar recommendations, but that again will be for consultation and determination in the Northern Ireland context.

I suppose that one of the most significant features of the Bill is the control of intakes. In Northern Ireland we are already a step ahead, and a step ahead on a voluntary basis, because we have secured agreement from all the educational interests that intakes to all types of secondary schools, whether voluntary grammar schools, controlled grammar schools, maintained schools or ordinary controlled secondary schools, should be controlled, and that in a period of declining enrolments all sections, grammar and secondary intermediate, should suffer a proportionate decline in their enrolments.

This has been agreed by the Governing Bodies Association, who represent the grammar schools in Northern Ireland, by representations of the secondary schools more generally and by the teachers' unions. This is now being implemented by my Department, but with voluntary agreement there will be no need for legislation; and we do not intend to introduce any legislation unless this voluntary agreement breaks down in some way. There is absolutely no indication that this is likely to happen. I think that that covers the main provisions in the Bill and it will show the noble Lord that we are either doing it our own way or have already done it, which I think is typical of Northern Ireland's educational system.

I promised the noble Viscount that I would return to the German credit question that he asked me about earlier. As I understand it, this support scheme for the shipbuilding industry in West-Germany has not yet been considered by the EEC Commission, as, of course, it will have to be, and no doubt they will wish to determine that it does not represent any unfair distortion of trade within the Community. It might be wise to wait until they have given an opinion before we express any view on it.

Finally, the noble Viscount asked me about powers for district councils. He suggested that my honourable friend the Member for West Belfast had condemned the Housing Executive in the context of returning powers to district councils. My honourable friend certainly criticised the Housing Executive, and I am afraid that that is done by many people in Northern Ireland. I do not think that the suggestion has ever been made by any member of the SDLP that powers over housing should be returned to district councils. This is quite a different matter, as I think the noble Viscount would agree, and one of considerable political sensitivity in Northern Ireland.

We still believe, with the official Opposition at least, that our policy should be to return to Northern Ireland devolved government which is acceptable to the representatives of both communities in Northern Ireland and to Parliament at Westminster. At the same time, however, all legislation that is passed which comes forward in Northern Ireland is looked at very carefully to ensure that, wherever possible and where it is right, functions and responsibilities are allocated to district councils rather than to the regional Government. For example, Parliament approved recently a Shops Order which gave new powers to district councils. Another order which will come before Parliament in the near future is the Control of Food Premises Order.

Therefore, I can assure the noble Viscount that we watch the matter very carefully. Nevertheless, the basic policy of all the main Parties at Westminster remains our determination to see devolved government returned to Northern Ireland as soon as an acceptable formula for it can be agreed. At the moment, this does not, unfortunately, seem to be possible. However, it is important that that goal should remain the one that we aim at and that we should not allow ourselves to be deflected from it, although in the short term we do not seem to be making a great deal of progress.

On Question, Motion agreed to.