HL Deb 26 November 1981 vol 425 cc853-6

3.12 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why there is a lower level of financial assistance given to job creation schemes in Northern Ireland than to those operating in the rest of the United Kingdom, and whether they have reconsidered their attitude towards this discrimination since the Written Answer given to Lord Melchett on 24th July 1981.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland (The Earl of Gowrie)

My Lords, in general, the financial assistance available for job creation in Northern Ireland is at a higher level than in Great Britain. There are, however, necessary differences between the financial assistance provided in Northern Ireland under the Action for Community Employment Scheme and that available in Great Britain under the broadly comparable Community Enterprise Programme. These differences are designed to provide as many jobs as possible within the resources available, as well as to help to ensure that the sponsors make a genuine contribution themselves.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I wish to thank the Minister very much for that Answer, but I still do not think that he has quite explained the anomaly. Would he not agree that it is quite extraordinary that in Northern Ireland, where economic conditions are worse and unemployment figures are higher than in other parts of the United Kingdom, employing bodies using the job creation schemes are generally benefiting less than are their counterparts who are benefiting from similar schemes in the rest of the United Kingdom? Surely the Minister should give a commitment that community organisations in Northern Ireland engaged in this essential work of social benefit should be brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom by being given 100 per cent. gross wage cost per employee and the equivalent administration grant of £400?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I would agree that economic conditions in Northern Ireland are worse than they are in the rest of the United Kingdom, which is one of the reasons why it is so important to restore stability, both politically and in terms of security, in the Province. But I would not agree with the further points made by the noble Baroness. The evidence does not support her contentions. I am glad to report that the Northern Ireland scheme is proving very successful in providing worthwhile employment for the longer term unemployed, and the planned number of places has been not only fulfilled but exceeded.

Lord Reay

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the terms of an attack reportedly made today on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland by the Member for Macclesfield, Mr. Nicholas Winterton? If so, would my noble friend care to take this opportunity to repudiate the attack, in regard to both its substance and its insulting terms?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I have seen a report of the attack. I think it is widely felt that for many years people both within and outside political groupings have been bipartisan about the Northern Ireland issue, and it is very unhelpful not to be so. But I think that all political parties have their mavericks, and Mr. Winterton is perhaps the Dennis Skinner of the Tory Party; he is full of sound and fury, but he signifies very little.

Lord Blease

My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl whether he has noted that since his appointment as a Minister of State for Northern Ireland this is my first opportunity to face him across the Floor of the House? Will the noble Earl the Minister accept that this side of the House sincerely appreciates and understands the acute and testing difficulties of his new position and his parliamentary brief? May I further ask the Minister whether he is aware of the great concern among community organisations about the financial aspects of the Action for Community Employment Scheme, and whether he will consider the position so as to allow some flexibility to enable community organisations, as well as statutory bodies and local government bodies, to compete in the scheme?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am grateful for the remarks directed to me by the noble Lord, Lord Blease, and I am even more grateful for all the work that he is doing outside Parliament, as well as in Parliament, for the Province. I believe that the Action for Community Employment Scheme is sufficiently flexible to cater for a very wide variety of projects, such as those involving building, environmental improvement, community service, research, exhibitions and the rest. We have found not only voluntary bodies coming forward, but private organisations as well.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl why in the previous Written Answer, to which reference is made in my noble friend's Question, it was stated that the sponsors receive a lower percentage because it was desired that they should show a genuine commitment? Why should that be asked of organisations in Northern Ireland when it does not apply to organisations in the rest of the United Kingdom? Does it imply a feeling that the organisations in Northern Ireland do not have the same sincerity as those in other parts of the United Kingdom?

The Earl of Gowrie

No, my Lords, it does not. The noble Lord will be aware not only of some differences between the system in Northern Ireland and that in the rest of the United Kingdom, but also of the fact that very many organisations and businesses there receive very high existing United Kingdom central subsidy and subvention. Therefore it was felt that it would be effective if some contribution of this kind were made by private sponsorship.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that perhaps the difference to which reference has just been made could be attributed to the remarkable co-operation and help from the trade unions in Northern Ireland?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am very glad to agree with that remark, and I have had many meetings with trade unions in Northern Ireland which certainly confirm my noble friend's point of view. My noble friend the Leader of the House points out that I should not have mentioned a Member of another place by name. I apologise for doing that, but I in no way retract anything else that I said.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, reverting to the supplementary question of my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs, may I ask the noble Earl whether he would not agree that some action towards ending unemployment in Northern Ireland—the highest in the United Kingdom—and rectifying the appalling housing conditions would be a real contribution to a settlement of the conflict there? Is the noble Earl aware that recently I met a trade union official who had met a Protestant shop steward in the shipbuilding works in Belfast and the shop steward of a Catholic factory in Londonderry, and that they were both completely united in their social and economic demands? Is it not those social issues on which we should be concentrating?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, not only should we be concentrating on those issues: we are concentrating on them. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State, as well as myself and other Ministers, have constantly reiterated the danger facing the economy of Northern Ireland and the necessity to restore political stability there in order to encourage inward investment, and to encourage, too, the British taxpayer, who pays so much of the subvention to Northern Ireland. We are pleased that this message is getting through.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that the work being done by the community groups in Northern Ireland is essential to the policy that we have had in Northern Ireland, and that they themselves feel that there is an unfair discrimination in this case? Would he therefore not agree that we should give them all the help and encouragement that we possibly can?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I certainly agree with the latter point, but the simple fact is that there is not unfair discrimination in the case of Northern Ireland. There is discrimination: the discrimination is that Northern Ireland gets more money comparably than any other part of the United Kingdom.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, in regard to the earlier reference to two honourable gentlemen in another place, would it not have been more appropriate and in accordance with custom for the noble Earl to have withdrawn the criticism of those named Members of another place? Would that not have been in accordance with the custom of this House?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am delighted to do that, but, of course, I had to answer a question put to me by my noble friend.