HL Deb 20 December 1982 vol 437 cc878-87

4.47 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, if I may revert from this important discussion on steel to the Northern Ireland Appropriation Order, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, for his very detailed explanation of the order and also express my own grateful thanks for the helpful information given in the Supplementary Estimates booklet. Perhaps I may apologise to the noble Earl if anything I say gives rise to questions on which he is not able to give me the answer this afternoon, but the time factor prevented me giving him notice of any of the points.

I am certain that the increased vote for agriculture under Class I will receive general support, particularly the £11½ million for the special grants and subsidies under Vote 2. I was pleased to note the emphasis in the Supplementary Estimates booklet that the continuation of the milk subsidy will ensure that consumers in Northern Ireland will not pay a higher price for milk than consumers in Great Britain.

Vote 6 for the Department of Economic Development under Class II, is extremely important. The department is responsible for the economic lifeblood of Northern Ireland. I appreciate the point made by the noble Earl, that the economic situation of Northern Ireland is of course closely linked with the general economic position of the United Kingdom as a whole. But we have a situation where unemployment in Northern Ireland is now over 20 per cent., with some 112,000 out of work and, as noble Lords will be aware, certain parts of Northern Ireland have unemployment at the frightening figure of 30 per cent., with the number of redundancies in 1981 being three times greater than those in 1979.

The noble Earl referred to the devasting cutback by the Michelin Tyre Company. This, of course, is a bitter blow to all the people in Northern Ireland and reflects the position of United Kingdom car production as a whole. The loss of 2,250 jobs by the closure of the Michelin Tyre Company will have a devastating effect.

I wonder whether the noble Earl can allay concern that is being expressed about the future development of the Learfan project. Also, in The Sunday Times yesterday, there was a report referring to figures stated to have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Office for the Secretary of State. It was a report under the heading, "Ulster jobs crisis may be beyond solution". The report states that the Northern Ireland Office has given the information that no new investment from overseas companies has been forthcoming during the past two years. The article also continues that the Northern Ireland manufacturing base provides only 97,000 jobs, which is just 15,000 fewer than the total number of unemployed in Northern Ireland.

The serious economic situation is reflected in the additional provision of over £22 million for non-contributory benefits under Class X. This is the largest supplementary estimate and, as is stated in the explanatory preface, it is in consequence of the anticipated rise of 7.3 per cent. in the number of unemployed claimants—that is a dismal forecast for the people of Northern Ireland—and also the expected increase of 6.6 per cent. in claimants other than the unemployed. This would indicate a further anticipated deterioration in living standards.

The economic problems of Northern Ireland are the same as in general for the United Kingdom, for which, from the Opposition, we say that a change of policy is needed, but this is not the place to debate that. Northern Ireland is also affected by the general image created, as the noble Earl said, by factors which will be considered when we are discussing the next order. Should there be no improvement in the economic position, we have a situation where young persons are being brought up in an environment of brutality and lack of mutual trust, and then at the end of their educational years are finding that there are no jobs available for them. This situation presents grave consequences. If essential investment is not forthcoming, if new jobs are not to be created, the Government must consider some action, if necessary by the development of Government-sponsored industries in Northern Ireland.

The noble Earl referred to energy. Of course industrial development depends on adequate supplies of energy. Industry in Northern Ireland is greatly dependent on oil-fired electricity. In a previous debate on Northern Ireland, reference was made to the plight of the gas industry. It is now encouraging to learn that negotiations with the Republic are at a stage where the introduction of natural gas supplies from Kinsale seems probable. When gas supplies from Kinsale—expected in 1984—come, how much of that supply will be able to meet the needs of the gas industry? What will be the position of the gas undertakings pending this development in 1984?

Finally, the Vote for the Assembly costs is given under Class XI, but this is not the place to have a full debate on the Assembly. From the Opposition we made it clear in the debates on the Northern Ireland Bill that we wished to see the Assembly successful. May I say to my noble friend Lord Donaldson that the Labour Party policy is not obscure? We want the Assembly to be successful, but we also want there to be a move towards an all-Ireland dimension on the basis of mutual trust and mutual consent.

We regarded the setting up of the Assembly as a step towards community reconciliation, and we deeply regret the boycott by some elements in Northern Ireland. If the Assembly is not to be used for discussion on economic and social matters, then how can there possibly be discussions on these important subjects on the essential cross-community basis? We supported the Assembly, and I am certain that the Government are determined that the principles laid down in the Bill will be carried through, and that there will be no question of devolution without cross-community acceptance. That will certainly be the view of the Opposition. As noble Lords will have heard, a strenuous "Hear, hear" from the noble Earl endorses that position.

Can the noble Earl tell the House whether or not there will be opportunity for reports of the progress of the Assembly, particularly the discussions in the six statutory committees, to be placed before Parliament at intervals so that there can be a review of what is taking place? Naturally, we support the principles behind the appropriation, but some of these important points need some clarification.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, for his introduction of this order, and welcome the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, as others have already done. The small booklet Autumn Supplementary Estimate is most helpful, although the sub-heads might be simplified. The booklet makes clear that, while still important, this order is concerned only with the sum of around £47 million on top of original estimates for as much as £2,472 million. I shall be asking the Minister a number of questions, of which I have given him notice, and understand that matters concerning security will mainly be dealt with on a later order. None the less, I hope I may be allowed a short general comment on this point.

We cannot be unmoved by the tragic events of the past few weeks, nor shut our eyes to the effect that terrorist activity and the fear it creates can have on the economy. It is a vicious circle, as is generally accepted, because the greater the number of unemployed the greater the chances for the paramilitary groups to recruit new support. A man or woman who is happily and gainfully employed is much less likely to support the extremists than one who may be condemned to deprivation and despair.

Perhaps I may here ask some questions about the IDB—the Industrial Development Board—and LEDU —the Local Enterprise Development Unit—both of which organisations are concerned to create new jobs. My colleague, Stephen Ross, and I recently visited both organisations and were most hospitably received. LEDU took us to some admirable firms that are battling bravely and, it is hoped, successfully in promoting permanent jobs on a small scale. The IDB is a more recently established body, and I was left with the impression that perhaps the Government are expecting too much of it too quickly. Page 10 of the estimate booklet, programme 2.6, sub-title B.6, lists the salaries of a staff of 183, which is quite a high figure. Can the Minister give some further assurance that their efforts are meeting with success and, if so, how? There are also charges for some 26 staff and five representatives in overseas countries. Can we be given some information about their opportunities and success?

Next, I turn to page 24 of the booklet, and matters concerning the Northern Ireland Assembly, to which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has already referred. Some politicians predicted that it never would work, and seem now to be in a hurry to be proved right. While we on these Benches accept that there are indeed very real and difficult problems to be faced up to and overcome, we remain firmly convinced that every encouragement should continue to be given that will help towards a return to local responsibility, very gradual though the process may be.

It is widely known that Sinn Fein and the SDLP stated that they would not take up any seats that they won at the election, and have so far stood by that decision. What is much less well known is that of the 10 non-sectarian Alliance Members who are very active, six are Catholics. This is not an insignificant number even in a Unionist-dominated Stormont. My questions are these. Under A.1(1) is given a figure of £521,000 for Members' salaries and secretarial allowances. Can the Minister please answer these points? First, are these figures based on the assumption that every Member takes his seat, for some have clearly said that they will not? Secondly, how much is each Member entitled to? Thirdly, how does a Member qualify for payment? Is it, as has been stated in the press, merely a matter of one signing on and oath-taking, regardless of further attendance or not? Lastly on the Assembly, I come back to a point which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, made: will copies of the Assembly Official Report be available at Westminster?

I have two further questions for the Minister, the first about page 7 of the booklet. Programme 1.2(A1–4) lists the liquid milk consumer subsidy as £7 million. Can the Minister clarify why that payment still does not mean, according to the Government spokesman in the other place, that the Northern Ireland milk producer gets as good a price per pint as is given to producers in Great Britain? Secondly, at page 16 in programme 4.1(A2), under "Roads and Bridges", reference is made to additional expenditure on essential maintenance due to severe winter weather. Are the Government satisfied they are doing enough? In my home county of Worcestershire, on the mainland, road conditions in some places seem to be steadily deteriorating from year to year and an enormous operation may in time become necessary.

4.51 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, the Minister has been asked many questions and I will not add to them. I thank him for giving us a general address at the end of this series of figures—which, as the noble Earl knows, I always object to (the figures, not the address)—but the general address filled me with absolute despair, and I must ask him how far it has to go before we change gear. That is a question we are always asking the Government about things in this country, but it is so much worse in Northern Ireland. When, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said, there are more people unemployed than employed, one is past the point when old ideas have to be scrapped, and there is only one obvious way of dealing with anything as bad as that, and that is by public investment of some kind.

I am not an economist and I will not tell the Minister how to do it, but it seems that there is first-class labour, there have always been first-class industrial relations in the Province—when the noble Earl was listing the various good things about the area it was interesting that he missed the very good industrial relations which have always been there—and there are enterprising small businesses. I think the situation is such that, irrespective of monetarism or of what is said by economists in general—I speak with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Kaldor, who is seated in front of me—one should not worry too much about the economists because, when things are bad enough, one must do what is obvious, and it is obvious that we must invest in small enterprises which will employ equally small numbers in terms of labour, thereby making some difference to the appalling situation.

My objection to the Labour Party policy—I called it "obscure" but perhaps that was wrong; "contradictory" is the word I should have used—is that if you approach a man with, in one hand, something which you know he not only cannot accept but has. time and again, said he will fight to avoid, you are not likely to get mutual trust. I am anxious to hear what my noble friend from the Alliance over the seas has to say—he has an interesting political point—and I will not delay the House longer.

4.55 p.m.

Lord Dunleath

My Lords, I wish to refer to Class XI in the order, which concerns the Northern Ireland Assembly. I would mention in passing that I am the only Member of your Lordships' House who is in a position to give a first-hand report on the inside working of that body. Whether that is an enviable position to be in is perhaps questionable.

Whereas there were moments when I almost felt that I should write to the Secretary of State apologising for having flown a kite in your Lordships' House just over three years ago and suggested an assembly of the sort which has been set up—because I was feeling depressed about it—I am more optimistic now. There are moments when one is disheartened, but there has been some quite good debate and I am more enthusiastic about it and more encouraged now than I was before.

However, the Vote in Class XI will be money well invested only if the Assembly can be made to work, and the party which I represent, the Alliance Party, has pledged to do its best to make it work; that was the main plank in our election manifesto. But—and it is a big "but"—can it work if the members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party remain outside it? It is our sincere hope that they will change their minds and decide to join in. But there is a stumbling block here in my view, and that is contained in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 in Part IV, Section 26(3), which provides that a Member's salary shall be payable from the day on which he is returned, not from the day on which he takes his seat.

That means that it is retrospective. In theory, it would be possible for an abstainer to wait until the last day of the four-year life of the Assembly and then come in, sign the roll and be qualified to receive tens of thousands of pounds in back pay. That annoys Unionists on both sides of the House and a great many of the public, and I sympathise with that point of view. But if we are to make the Assembly work, we must not only leave the door ajar for the SDLP members to join in; we must leave it wide open. It is because of the annoyance to which I have referred that during the debate on Standing Orders. Standing Order 6(5) was passed—against the Alliance Party's view; we were out-voted—to provide that no member could take his seat more than six months after being elected, except with special leave of the Assembly.

On the one hand, it might be argued that that would be an incentive for the SDLP to take their seats within six months. On the other, it could be argued that it would humiliate them because by the time the Assembly resumes after the Christmas recess, just over three months will have elapsed since the election, and if the SDLP decide to take their seats, as I hope they will, it will probably be when they see the scrutiny committees beginning to work effectively. They will then begin to realise that they would have more clout inside than outside the Assembly. It is tremendously important, therefore, that the six-months rule should not be enforced, and if Section 26(3) of the 1973 Act, to which I referred, were amended so that salaries were payable from the day on which a member took his seat rather than from the day of election, I think that would remove the argument for the six-months rule and in the Assembly we might be able to get Standing Order 6(5) amended.

That was the main point I wished to put to Her Majesty's Government, because I am sure the Assembly can be made to work, and the only reason it will not work is because of politicians who do not want it to work. Therefore every possible obstacle, and every potential excuse, should be removed, so that the Assembly can function in a meaningful manner and command the respect of the majority of citizens from all sections of the community which support the democratic process.

Finally, I should like to refer to another topic that has already been mentioned. The closure of the Michelin plant at Mallusk was a very devastating blow to all of us in Northern Ireland, and I should like to ask Her Majesty's Government why they think it happened. Was it because productivity there was worse than in other subsidiaries of Michelin? Was it because of the security situation? Was it because of the world recession generally? We should like to know the answer to those questions, and we should also like to know what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to try to prevent even more closures of subsidiaries of multinational corporations and companies. Further, we should like to know why the Republic of Ireland seems able to attract more British and overseas investment than does the North of Ireland. Would tax incentives help? Would more favourable financial terms help? As other noble Lords have said, something must be done.

I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, for the helpful remarks that he made, and I sincerely hope that, as an outcome of today's debate, perhaps in the light of my suggestion about the Constitution Act of 1973, there will be a better chance of the Northern Ireland Assembly working from now on.

5.2 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, in general I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate on the appropriation order for their concern about and interest in Northern Ireland matters. Since the exigencies of parliamentary time inevitably squeeze Northern Ireland affairs in both Houses more than, in my view, they should, it is a pleasure for us to be able to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, on his election to the Assembly and on his vigorous pursuit of Northern Ireland's interests there, as well as in your Lordships' House.

I have been asked a number of questions, which I shall try to deal with as briefly as possible. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked me whether Kinsale gas was to be made available to all of Northern Ireland. The evaluations carried out by the Government have included the possibility of supplying gas to all undertakings in the Province. A decision on the actual extent of supply is. of course, dependent on economic viability, and we shall have to wait and see a little, since the project is not yet on stream. The noble Lord also wanted to know whether the Government propose to continue to pay deficit support until natural gas is available to the consumer in the Province. It is the case that present arrangements for a deficit support will continue until the decisions are made, once the gas is on stream. The financial arrangements for the period up to the introduction of natural gas have not yet been decided, and perhaps I could alert the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, when we come to a view about that.

In asking me to comment on the Sunday Times article, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, echoed the question put to me at the very end of the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath. It is true that the Province has not been successful in attracting new inward investment, and I regret to say that I have to include the rest of British inward investment in that category. The Republic has been successful, though it must be said that it enjoyed some boom years and is now running into considerable difficulties, which we in the north of Ireland, who are also affected by them since the Republic is a major trading partner, hope will soon slough off. We have every confidence that they will. But it is true that certainly in fairer weather the Republic was more successful, and my honourable friend the Minister of State in another place, Mr. Butler, has been very exercised about this matter. He has looked at our package of grants and incentives and he certainly finds them comparable. We shall continue to try to keep them comparable, or even to exceed the Republic's advantages.

However, I have to say to the House that it is the image of politicial stagnation, as well as of terrorism, which I think has made people feel insecure about going to the Province in the numbers which its many advantages, outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, would normally suggest that they would. That is one of the reasons—not the only reason—why, frail plant though it is, with the noble Lord we hope that the principle of a local focus for regional politics will take in Northern Ireland; and I am very glad to hear of the noble Lord's confidence in that process.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked me about the future development of the Learfan project. This is an admirable invention, an excellent project. It was backed by Government funds and, as the noble Lord will be aware, when it was clear that there was private interest in the project the Government were, of course, only too delighted to encourage that private interest and to reduce public liability. I think that that is all that I should like to say about it at this point, but if the noble Lord would like me to write to him further about Learfan as things develop, I shall do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, asked me about the Industrial Development Board and the details of the work of its overseas staff. It is a little early to talk about the success or otherwise of the IDB. Over the last months it has been devoting considerable time and energy to sorting out the overall strategy that it should adopt to fulfil the remit that it has been given, but I can tell the noble Lord, and the House, that it will be making public its strategic approach to the promotion of new employment opportunities in Northern Ireland.

The 18 overseas promotion officers, eight of whom are attached to the offices of Consuls-General in the United States of America, and who also have a wider United Kingdom inward investment remit, represent the front line of the thrust of the IDB's international marketing division, which is searching throughout the world for mobile international manufacturing investment. The main task of the officers is to identify such potential investors, and then to seek to persuade them to give serious consideration to the advantages of investment in Northern Ireland, including the range of incentives which such investment would attract. Again, particularly in a recession, it would take some time for the fruits of this work to be shown. But referring back to the earlier question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, I would say it is true that the Republic spends much time, money and energy on marketing itself as a home for overseas investment, and, quite frankly, we must do no less.

Turning to the Department of Agriculture's affairs, the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, asked why was a consumer subsidy necessary in Northern Ireland. Dairy farmers in Northern Ireland receive lower returns for their milk than do producers in Great Britain. This is because of the much smaller proportion of milk going to the higher value liquid market in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Government have allowed the Milk Marketing Board to charge a higher wholesale price for milk for liquid consumption, thereby increasing the producer returns. The consumer subsidy means that, despite the higher wholesale price, consumers in Northern Ireland do not have to pay a retail price higher than that paid by consumers in England and Wales.

The noble Lord, obviously suffering from experiences in Worcestershire, made reference to the essential maintenance on roads. I think that in the present economic climate we are doing quite well by the roads, and in Northern Ireland they are generally quite excellent. However, as I said in my opening remarks, we had a very punishing winter and we have had to maintain road bridges, deal with snow clearance and engage in non-structural maintenance, such as road drainage and grass cutting, as well as structural maintenance, including resurfacing and pothole patching. We are a wild and wet climate; and, in my view, that will always be a fairly substantial part of the road budget.

On the questions put to me by a number of noble Lords as to whether the "Hansards" (so to say) of the Assembly will be available, copies of the Official Report of the Northern Ireland Assembly are sent to the Library and Vote Office of another place as well as to your Lordships' Library, and therefore are available to all Members who wish to see them. The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, asked me from what date Assembly Members are entitled to salary. That is from 25th October 1982, the date on which the chief electoral officer for the Province handed his return of elected Members to the Clerk of the Assembly. Only those Assembly Members who have signed the roll in the prescribed manner will receive salary and be entitled to claim secretarial allowance and travelling expenses. Members may sign the Roll of Members at any time and will be entitled to receive salary, secretarial allowances and travel expenses from 25th October 1982.

That leads fairly naturally to the point put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, on the salaries and allowances of absentee Members. Of course, we regret that the chief nationalist constitutional party, the SDLP have chosen at this time to boycott the Assembly. I am, of course, aware that the Assembly has sought to limit the time in which a Member can freely take his seat by adopting the new standing order to which the noble Lord referred and which provides that an Assembly Member may take his seat in the prescribed manner within six mohths of the date on which he is returned as a Member, unless, by motion made, the Assembly otherwise decides. The difficulty that I am in is that it really is not for the Government but for the courts to decide whether such a provision would be ultra vires the Assembly.

I can say, however, that my right honourable friend and I remain ready to talk to the leaders of the three parties who are currently participating in the Assembly about this matter. It is our view—and, again, I say this tentatively as, in a sense, it is a matter for the Assembly and possibly for the courts rather than for us—that there has been no indication whatsoever that any party intends to abuse the existing provisions for financial gain. We would be extremely exercised if there were any signs that they would do so. With great respect to the noble Lord, I think that it is a little bit of a red herring at the moment. I think it is highly unlikely that people whose principles kept them away from the Assembly would feel that their principles allowed them to take money for keeping away; but we will keep the matter under review.

Lord Dunleath

My Lords, if the noble Earl will forgive me for intervening, I quite agree that this may never happen. What we are concerned about is the effect which this has on public opinion and the hardening of attitudes among the Unionists which has caused this particular standing order of the Assembly to go through. The leader of my party has taken steps to put it to the courts. I was attempting to say that if the 1973 Constitution Act were altered this would remove the excuse for that standing order.

The Earl of Gowrie

Yes, my Lords, but one of the problems in Northern Ireland, as the noble Lord knows even better than I do, if I may say so, is that people are rather apt to run horses in order to represent those horses as being in the stables of public opinion. To change metaphors, there has been a certain amount of stirring of the pot on this one in Northern Ireland and noble Lords will not be surprised that the Government would prefer it to be reduced to a simmer for the moment. I recognise that the Assembly is exercised about it. I do not think it would be right for us to change the legislation at this point. My own view is that it is somewhat of an academic problem in that, from my close contacts with members of the SDLP, I have heard no suggestion whatsoever that the Assembly could be abused in this way.

If I may close by referring to the general question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson—who asks how much worse must things get until we change gear—I think that the problem is not so much stubbornness about changing gear, but the fact that overall even rather cautious reflations now are not really in the gift of individual countries. I certainly agree with the noble Lord that the Western family of nations as a whole must try to seek to create an economic and fiscal diplomacy; and my honourable and right honourable friends are much engaged in that process. Certainly the Secretary of State and I myself have lost no chance during our trips to America to point out how dangerous the Western recession is to the entire Western family of nations and how we must all pull together to try to get out of it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.