HL Deb 13 March 1980 vol 406 cc1278-90

6.55 p.m.


My Lords, in a brief entr'acte in the high drama of this evening, I beg to move that the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1980 be approved. This order serves two main purposes. The first of these is to authorise the issue out of the Northern Ireland consolidated fund of the additional money required by Northern Ireland departments for the current financial year, and the second is to authorise the issue, out of the same fund, of the sum required "on account for 1980–81.

In view of the late hour to which the House will in any case be sitting, and of the custom of dealing only in general terms with money matters, over which this House does not have power, I will deal only briefly with this item in my introductory remarks. If your Lordships then wish to raise any matters, I shall, of course, do my best to satisfy them either directly, in my reply to the debate, or, in writing, thereafter. I am sure the House will understand that, while I have no wish whatever to limit the observations that noble Lords' may wish to make, I am right to remind them that in making them as concisely as possible they will be doing a service to the House by freeing the Floor of the House for the resumption of the Committee on the Education Bill which still has a great deal of work to do.

The order provides for a further sum of just over £93 million for 1979–80, and this would bring the total Estimates provision for the Northern Ireland departmental services during the current year to some £1,768 million, which is an increase of £246 million over the total for 1978–79.

Part 1 of the Schedule to the order lists the services for which extra provision is being sought, and further information is contained in the Northern Ireland Spring Supplementary Estimates volume, copies of which are available in the Library. Of the additional provision of £93 million, some £51 million is needed for approved public sector pay increases, which is a matter of some interest. The three major groups of staff involved are teachers, for whom £11 million is included; health service staff, for whom £29 million is being sought; and civil servants, for whom £4½ million is required. It will perhaps help to put the extra £51 million required for pay awards in perspective, if it is compared with the cost of around £30 million for the new hospital in Antrim which is under construction.

About £11 million is included in the Estimates for general support to industry, to allow the Government's industrial development drive to be sustained. Some £16 million is being sought for housing, largely to permit an increase in the revenue grant payable to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Noble Lords will recall that in the latter part of 1979 the Housing Executive launched a programme of house sales to tenants. Some 160,000 tenants have been offered the opportunity to purchase their homes with the benefit of generous discounts off market values, depending on the length of tenancies. Over 20,000 tenants have expressed an interest in the scheme and the Housing Executive is now processing the applications.

The second purpose of the draft order now before your Lordships is, as I have already said, to authorise the issue out of the Northern Ireland consolidated fund of the sum required "on account "for 1980–81. The provision sought, some £770 million, is needed to provide Northern Ireland departments with funds until the Main Estimates for that year have been considered both here and in another place. The sum being sought on account has, as usual, been calculated on the basis of 45 per cent. of the total Voted provision for the current year. This order will shortly be considered in another place. I commend the draft order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd March 1980, be approved —(Lord Elton.)

7 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for his explanatory outline of this order. In my opinion, the order is a very important one in the context of the social and economic affairs of Northern Ireland and concerning the Government's proposals for the requisite financial provisions. This order is being debated today, as the Minister said in another place, so perhaps under the Vote for Class XI—that is a Northern Ireland Assembly, page 8 of the order—it may be an appropriate time for me to say that I very much regret that these important financial measures and their implications are not being considered by elected representatives in a Northern Ireland Assembly. It appears to me that however earnestly and however responsibly we in both Houses at Westminster may attempt to deal with these Northern Ireland social and economic issues, it can only be a second best. We require a suitably devolved executive and administrative assembly, directly accountable for and responsive to the wishes in the Province.

There are a number of matters I could have wished to deal with today but, in view of the time allocated for this debate and the fact that other noble Lords may wish to take part in it, I shall restrict my remarks to the bare essentials. Under the Class I vote, I wish to draw attention to the Government's decision to axe the Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust. The Minister will know the concern expressed by trade unionists and agriculturalists about this action, and especially about the future for the marketing and the commercial development of agricultural production as undertaken by the trusts. I should like to ask the Minister what consultations have been undertaken by the Government with the Ulster Farmers' Union to transfer back to the Ulster Farmers' Investment Company properties and projects which, as understand it, are deemed to be partly owned by the Ulster farmers.

Again, under the Class I heading, I should like to raise the question of decision on lay-offs. I refer to lay-offs of 130 forestry workers and 40 drainage workers in the South Armagh area. I quote from a Mr. Jim Murphy, who is apparently a spokesman for some of these workers. He said: The only real employment for the people in South Armagh is that provided by the Department of Agriculture forestry and drainage sections. Some of the men would be better off on the dole but they prefer to work, they are the type of men who want to work instead of being idle. It seems strange to have lay-offs when other countries are forging ahead with plantations on unproductive land He went on to say that the reason could not be economic because the difference in cost and what would be paid out on the dole would not show a saving.

Looking through the debates on Northren Ireland appropriation orders for the past three years, I find there has been one issue which features very much in both Government and Opposition speeches: that issue is unemployment. I do not wish to go through a litany about the continuing job crisis and the consequential social problems, distress and human suffering. The Trades Union Congress Economic Review for 1980, published a few days ago, lists on page 55 under the heading of "A Catalogue of Decline "some 5,000 Northern Ireland jobs lost to manufacturing industry between June 1979 and 14th February 1980. In January this year, Cooper and Lybrand, the internationally well-known firm of management consultants, published a survey entitled The Northern Ireland Economy: The Current Economic Situation and Prospects for 1980. One part of this report indicated that some 90,000, or over 15 per cent. of the labour force, could be unemployed by the end of this year. Already some areas in Northern Ireland have 30 per cent. male unemployment. That could mean that male unemployment in such areas could rise to 60 per cent.; at any rate that is the prediction.

The Minister himself recently spoke very movingly at a teachers' conference about the terrible problems of unemployment, especially among the young. Surely the Government must have some knowledge about the present state of the Northern Ireland economy and its immediate prospects. May I ask the Minister if he will refute this predicted rise in unemployment? Some people have said that the 90,000 will have gone beyond 100,000 by the end of the year. May I ask the noble Lord what are the Government's remedial measures to cope with the present high rate of unemployment that is being experienced in all sectors of the Northern Ireland economy? May I also ask when we are likely to have the predicted upturn in industrial employment, and what are the strategies of policies that the Government have to retain and improve a trained and skilled labour force for future employment in the Province?

There is another matter which recurs in these debates and which I must raise again today. I refer to the question of energy and the supplies of coal, gas, electricity and other fuel in the Province. It appears to me, and to others who are concerned about Northern Ireland, that while the Government are tackling the need for short term and perhaps longer term policies to meet the energy needs in Great Britain, Northern Ireland is literally, and indeed strategically, left in the cold. May I ask the Minister that the Northern Ireland Office be invited to publish a comprehensive and up-to-date statement of the energy strategy for Northern Ireland as soon as possible? That may enable industry and the community to pursue desirable social and economic objectives without undue anxiety.

The Class VI vote concerns expenditure of the Department of the Environment on certain aspects of water and sewerage. I understand the new university of Ulster has undertaken some valuable research into pollution control in connection with Lough Neagh. Could the noble Lord undertake to encourage this research and have introduced the positive and beneficial results of this research?

In a brief telephone conversation I had this morning with the noble Lord's personal assistant I mentioned some matters which I should like to have had considered here this evening. Among them were the use of school facilities, a programme for the development of a brighter Belfast, about which the Minister will know something has been published already, and the appointment by the Government of a co-ordinating committee representing the engineering industry in Northern Ireland along the lines of the Finniston Report on the future of the engineering industry. I believe that would have tremendous beneficial effects for all in Northern Ireland. I do not mean that it should be a Quango; it should be a body directed and designed to cope with the present and future needs of the engineering industry in Northern Ireland. It would be keeping abreast of possible developments in Britain and throughout the United Kingdom. I know the noble Lord the Minister has already initiated at school level some studies into micro-chip processing and some training and educational processes in connection with computers and computer use and development throughout the Province. I think this type of co-ordinating committee could very well supplement this type of work.

I should also like to indicate my support for the excellent work undertaken by the Outset group, an agency which has been set up in co-operation with the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Social Services. This group is studying the necessary and effective action to help the disabled and the handicapped in the Province. I do not expect the noble Lord to be in a position to give answers to these matters this evening, but perhaps we can have a discussion outside your Lordships' House.

I would be failing if I did not mention the great energy and enthusiasm which the Minister is giving to Northern Ireland affairs especially to educational matters which, of course, are his special remit. I, and some members of my family who are connected with teaching, liked very much the statements which the noble Lord made recently at a teachers' conference when he said that teachers are the guardians of the flickering light of civilisation. That was welcomed. He went on to say that classrooms provide areas of calm and normality in a troubled community. I do not know whether that would have gone down just as well. Certainly, classrooms can be a haven, provided we get teachers of dedication, which we have in Northern Ireland; but perhaps they are not always places of calm and normality.

Naturally, the noble Lord will not expect me to agree entirely with everything he says, proposes and does. I respect and applaud the way in which he has endeavoured to meet and discuss with people in the Province matters directly concerning their whole way of life. He does not have an easy task, nor indeed do his other ministerial colleagues, but I am sure that getting to know and consult with the people of Northern Ireland will be mutually beneficial to the work of the noble Lord and his ministerial friends. I support the order.

7.14 p.m.

The Duke of ABERCORN

My Lords, my intervention will be brief but I trust relevant to this order. In view of the current negotiations and problems in regard to Britain's contribution, in fact, overpayment, to the Community's budget, I should like to put forward a proposal for consideration by the Government. It is universally recognised that one of the main problems affecting industry is not only the current damaging level of the minimum lending rate, but the erratic movement of base rate even over a brief period of time. For instance, in January 1978, the rate was 61½ per cent., while, as the noble Lord is only too aware, in January 1980 the rate was 17 per cent. Therefore a stabilising effect on interest rates is essential, particularly in attracting new industrial development, in spite of the benefits of possible interest relief grants.

Like other peripheral areas of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is experiencing appalling economic problems —mounting unemployment, 14 per cent. among the male population and almost weekly announcements of textile plant closures. However, there is one distinct ray of hope amidst all the gloom, namely, the steady build-up of new American industrial development. Some of these firms could be described as having a risk element, but in my opinion the Government are totally justified in supporting these projects.

Although the Department of Commerce and the Northern Ireland Development Agency provide the majority of finance for these projects, I believe that the European Investment Bank could and should play an active role in accelerating further the build-up of new industrial development in Northern Ireland. The main objective of the European Investment Bank—and I quote from Article 3 of the Treaty establishing the Community— is to facilitate economic expansion of the Community by opening up fresh resources". The bank is an independent public institution within the Community, of impeccable standing; it operates on a non-profit-making basis, offering long-term loans on fixed equipment at most advantageous rates.

Moreover, the bank could well be described as a clearing bank with a social conscience but without the philosophy, indeed the powers, of risk-taking. In fact, it has never incurred a loss during its 20 years' activity. Article 20 of its statute, paragraph 2, states: It shall neither acquire any interest in an undertaking, nor assume any responsibility in its management unless this is required to safeguard the rights of the bank in ensuring recovery of funds lent.". I believe that the Government should consider proposing an amendment to this statute to include the provision of risk capital and possibly an interest subsidy for future investment, since this would be most advantageous to Northern Ireland, as it would to other regions of the United Kingdom. Again, it would appear that Article 9, paragraph 2, provides a potential adjustment to the present somewhat rigid approach of positively assisting the less prosperous areas of the Community, since it states: The board of governors shall lay down general directives for the credit policy of the bank with particular reference to the objectives to be pursued as progress is made in the attainment of the Common Market.". This amendment would not in fact create a total precedent since in the context of the European Investment Bank, operations under the Lome Convention, risk capital is forthcoming: In order to foster co-operation between the Community and the ACP countries, "— in other words, African, Caribbean and Pacific countries— and to promote bank operations in the industrial, mining and tourism sectors where its main responsibility lies, the Bank was given the task, under the Lome Convention, of acting on behalf of the Community, and at the Community's risk, in providing a relatively new type of financial aid, known as risk capital assistance, particularly suited to financing projects in these sectors.". Therefore I trust that the Government will seriously consider this proposal, and if an amendment to the bank's statute could be achieved then the Government would be prepared to provide the necessary exchange risk cover in this new field of risk investment by the European Investment Bank.

7.17 p.m.


I am obliged to both the noble Lords who have contributed to this debate for the restraint which they used in their remarks, which means that we also may get some dinner tonight. I am not sure of the order of the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blease, but he asked me about redundancies and unemployment. There are a number of pieces of information which I can give him about the Government's tactics and strategy on this subject which he may find of interest.

As was recently announced, the temporary short time working compensation scheme will continue to be available in Northern Ireland in the year commencing 1980. Decisions on special employment measures for 1980–81 were recently announced. He may have seen these. The temporary short time working compensation scheme will be indentical to the Great Britain scheme and reimburses employers for wages paid to employees, plus any short time working as an alternative to redundancy. The job release scheme will continue to be available for another year, although in an amended form. It is identical to the Great Britain scheme. As in Great Britain, the youth opportunities programme will be extended and will next year offer 7,500 places, an increase of 25 per cent. compared to the original target for the programme. Over half of these places will provide opportunities for young people to learn a skilled trade either in a Government training centre or recruited as apprentices by employers.

While it is true that there have been a large number of redundancies announced in Northern Ireland in recent months, I am nevertheless encouraged by the fact that in the first 10 weeks of this year over 3,000 new jobs have been announced in the Province. The latest example was the decision by the Post Office to establish a high technology system softwear engineering centre which will provide up to 400 new jobs. Sometimes we tend to concentrate a little overmuch on the bad news and we should have some of the good news in mind at the same time. This does not mean, of course, that the situation is not a worrying one, and certainly the Government will not turn their attention from it.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, referred to the household survey of the handicapped. The survey was undertaken by the Outset Organisation. It will cover all the households in Northern Ireland and will produce for the first time comprehensive information on the numbers and needs of handicapped people. It is well under way and the field work should be completed this year. The noble Lord asked for further information about that and I have not given it to him. On reading Hansard I will supply what is missing.

The noble Lord also referred to the agricultural trust. I understand that it is said that there was no consultation before its conclusion. Both the Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust and the Ulster Farmers' Union had an opportunity to discuss the rundown of the trust with my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State before the announcement was made. The decision was taken in the light of the Government's commitment to reduce public expenditure. The more important elements of the trust's activities will be continued by existing departments. The Ulster Farmers' Union has had consultations about some farmer-controlled organisations purchasing some of the assets of the trust. Companies owned by the trust will be sold as a going concern at market value to any purchaser, and farmers' companies will have an opportunity to purchase.

The noble Lord also made reference to the diminishing scope for jobs in forestry and particularly in drainage. With this diminishing scope for worthwhile schemes, some 1,300 temporary jobs provided by the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland in minor drainage works and forestry and fishing, amenities under the urban and rural improvement campaign will be phased out by March, 1981. These are temporary jobs. There has been full consultation in this matter with the trade unions concerned. There are no other proposals at present relating to the industrial labour force, although the search for greater economy and efficiency in the Northern Ireland Civil Service will necessarily continue.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reference to my own contribution—I think it is a very modest one—to the work of Government in the Province, and particularly for picking up a central theme in my own thoughts about the conditions in which we live in the Province at the moment. I do think the properly conducted classroom is an island of calm and normality. Of course, it depends whose classroom it is as well as who the pupils are. I remember the first occasion when I was going to sit in before starting teaching in a particular school. I was sent to a classroom conducted by a model teacher, as I was led to suppose. As I approached it, the first thing I saw was a gumboot sailing past the window. That was no island of calm.

I recognise that there are some educational institutions which are experiencing different difficulties in the Province, as they are in Great Britain, in the matter of preserving the calm which is necessary to education without inhibiting the feeling of some freedom of action on the part of pupils, which is also necessary to their sense of wellbeing. I am aware of these matters, as is my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education over here, and I am giving it my close and personal attention.

We then come to the very interesting and constructive observations of my noble friend the Duke of A bercorn on the matter of the European Investment Bank. There are areas, of course, in which this bank is already involved in risk. The Exchange Risk Guarantee Scheme which provides cover for private sector borrowers against the exchange risk on loans made by the EIB in foreign currencies was recently extended for a further two years. As a result of the recent publicity given to this announcement numerous inquiries have been received by the Department of Commerce and it is hoped that a number of projects can be successfully processed.

I would mention, however, that the availability of the EIB loan assistance is by no means automatic in every case, as projects from certain industrial sectors such as textiles and clothing may not be acceptable to the bank. I was most interested in what the noble Lord said about the possible extension of the activities of the European Investment Bank into the venture and working capital fields, involving a modification of the charter. He will understand that in respect of Northern Ireland this is a matter which lies within the area of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary responsible for industry, and I am bringing this to his attention. But, as the noble Lord's proposal also has implications for the whole of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland Ministers will probably wish to discuss the proposal with their United Kingdom counterparts. I thank the noble Lord for his interest in this matter. It is a constructive suggestion and a very interesting one,

That covers the extent of the remarks of which I had notice and which I can immediately draw, as it were, out of the hat. I shall read Hansard with care and if I have omitted anything I will write to the noble Lords concerned. I think, however, the major matters of policy, which ought to be on the record of the House and not in the post box, have been covered. I repeat that I am grateful to the noble Lords for their constructive approach on this occasion both to the policies in the Province and to our own menu this evening.