HL Deb 26 June 1989 vol 509 cc554-71

7.27 p.m.

Lord Lyell rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order is being made under paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974. The draft order authorises the expenditure of £2,195 million in addition to the £1,669 million voted on account for 1989–90 by your Lordships on 13th March this year.

This gives a total voted cash provision for Northern Ireland departments of £3,864 million for the current financial year, 1989–90. Noble Lords may wish to refer to the right hand column of page 6 of the estimates—the heavy volume that we have before us. It is at this point that I take your Lordships on a tour of this volume. No doubt you will have questions to ask but the stopping points I have chosen are those which I felt reasonable, relevant and interesting in reviewing this volume. The estimates are, of course, available in the Printed Paper Office.

These draft appropriation orders cover the voted element of Northern Ireland public expenditure, which totals some £4,951 million. That can be found at the bottom of page 6. These estimates do not cover law and order, which is dealt with under separate estimates arrangements. Before I go through the main components of the estimates I should like to mention one or two aspects of the Northern Ireland economy. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, advised me that this might be of some interest to his noble friend the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, and I look forward to hearing his comments on these estimates and other aspects.

Your Lordships will no doubt join me in welcoming the continuing improvement in the position of the labour market in the Province. Unemployment continues to fall. The underlying trend during the six months to May 1989 shows a reduction on average of 600 per month in the numbers unemployed. That means 600 more persons employed every month. That is some cause for satisfaction.

The upward trend in employment is a continuing one. In the first quarter of this year there were an additional 6,400 employees compared with 1987. Moreover, growth in employment has been accompanied by growth in output. The latest figures indicate that output of production and manufacturing industries in the Province increased by 6 per cent. and 7 per cent. respectively between the fourth quarter of 1987 and the fourth quarter of 1988. These figures provide some encouraging evidence of an improvement in the economy of Northern Ireland.

I should like to turn to the estimates presented in the volume before us in alphabetical order, beginning with my own department, the Department of Agriculture. I believe that agriculture is the most important aspect of Northern Ireland. That view is vociferously aired by many people and surprisingly in the city of Belfast. The net provision sought in the two agricultural votes amounts to some £141 million.

Page 28 of the estimates volume, Vote 1 of the Department of Agriculture, covers expenditure of some £36 million on those national agricultural and fisheries support measures which apply throughout the United Kingdom. This aspect includes expenditure on new measures under the recently introduced farm and conservation grant schemes and the farm woodlands scheme. We also include under D4 on page 31 a provision for the new beef special premium scheme. This scheme, which is fully pre-funded by the Intervention Board, is administered at farm level in Northern Ireland. It will be complemented by the enhanced premia under the suckler cow premium scheme. That is a scheme which is in existence in Northern Ireland, for which we are grateful.

Vote 2 on page 34 of the estimates seeks provision of about £105 million in respect of the continuing regional agriculture, fisheries and forestry services and support measures. This vote covers agricultural, scientific and veterinary services, for which some £43 million is provided under section A on page 34, together with provision for arterial drainage, fisheries and forestry sub-programmes. I am delighted to tell your Lordships that farmers have responded very positively to the investment opportunities provided by the new Agricultural Development Programme which we began last year. Provision is being made under C3 on page 37 of almost £14 million in the current year to meet the build-up of commitments under this scheme, This programme is of immense value. At least two-thirds of the queries raised by farmers whom I have visited in the Province, concerned what the Government are doing about this particular ADP, as they call it. It is up and running and we have the figures before us this evening.

On page 42, Vote 1 of the Department of Economic Development appears. This covers the Industrial Development Board (IDB), industrial support and regeneration. Under subhead D1, page 44, some £93 million is set aside for selective financial assistance to industry. In the main this is aimed at the creation of jobs in manufacturing industry and tradeable services, and at strengthening the marketing, quality, design and research and development capabilities of industry in Northern Ireland. Your Lordships will be pleased to note that IDB had another record year in 1988–89, achieving 5,653 job promotions. One third related to new inward investment projects, which would account for 1,800–1,900 jobs.

Vote 2 of the DED covers other economic support measures. That is shown on page 46. Under subhead B1, page 47, over £65 million of the £109 million sought is to provide assistance to the aircraft and shipbuilding industries. There are no guesses as to which two enterprises those will be aimed at. On page 47, under subhead B1, paragraph 2, we are seeking just under £60 million—in fact the figure is £59.981 million —to provide assistance for Harland and Wolff. This sum is to support the company in the period before privatisation as well as, we hope, to meet part of the costs of the management buy-out which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced in another place on 22nd March this year. This provision in the main estimates does not take account of the full costs of the privatisation package in 1989–90. Further provision for Harland and Wolff will therefore be sought at the supplementary estimate stage when the phasing of the package for privatisation and the total estimates requirement for the current financial year will be finalised. I hope your Lordships will be hearing from me this year on that aspect.

Subhead B1 on page 47 relates to the sum of £5,300,000 for Short Brothers plc. This sum is in support of grant aid to the company for the current financial year as well as to defray the costs of professional advisers who were engaged by the Department of Economic Development. Your Lordships will be aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State approved a heads of agreement on 7th June this year for the sale of the company to Bombardier Inc. of Canada. This disposal will require substantial further amounts of Government funding. We have not yet settled the phasing of that funding. The additional provision required in the current year will therefore be brought before the House by way of supplementary estimates. I am sure that your Lordships will understand that the complexity and timing of the privatisation measures for Harland and Wolff as well as for Short Bros. and the requirement for European Community approval have meant that we are unable fully to define the implications in the current year, 1989–90, in these main estimates. Once again, we shall be bringing the details before your Lordships as soon as we can.

On page 47, at Vote 2, we find that the LEDU (Local Enterprise Development Unit) requires an allocation in A1 of nearly £30 million to meet this year's job promotion target of about 5,500. In the past financial year, as I have mentioned, LEDU promoted in excess of 5,000 jobs, bringing the total number of jobs promoted since the unit was first formed 18 years ago in 1971 to 40,000. In the context of Northern Ireland, and I believe in any context, this is a particularly creditable performance and we ought to pay our tribute to those men and women who have worked so hard to achieve this.

Page 51, Vote 3, states that £140 million is sought for labour market services. This vote covers a very wide range of measures, including the encouragement of enterprise, the provision of training and work experience, and a variety of labour market support services. Thirty-seven million pounds is required for the youth training programme under subhead A1 on page 52. This will provide a total of approximately 14,000 training places. This will ensure that the guarantee of a training place for every unemployed young person under 18 is met.

On page 53, more than £6 million is sought for the job training programme, which parallels the work-based training element of Employment Training in Great Britain. This programme will expand to 2,000 places during 1989–90 and provide a further 500 training places within the "Making Belfast Work" programme. These jobs are especially appreciated by and valuable to the young men and women involved.

On page 54, under subhead C1, we seek more than £50 million for the action for community employment scheme, to provide an average of 10,000 jobs over this year. The scheme gives the long-term unemployed an opportunity to re-enter the employment market by providing temporary jobs, of up to one year's duration, on work of community benefit. On pages 56 and 57, noble Lords will see the priority which the Government attach to the promotion of equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland. The Fair Employment Bill will provide a stronger framework within which the new Fair Employment Commission will operate and provide a new stimulus to employers to take positive steps to promote equality of opportunity. That concludes my remarks on the Department of Economic Development. I wait with interest to hear what noble Lords have to say on that aspect.

In Vote 1 for the Department of the Environment, on page 67, some £153 million is sought for roads, transport and ports. On page 68, under subhead A1, the sum is required to provide for the construction and improvement of roads and bridges. Your Lordships will accept the importance of transport infrastructure if the Province is to meet the problems and overcome the challenges to be created by the opening up of European markets in 1992.

On page 75, Vote 2 for the Department of the Environment covers expenditure on housing. The figures are considerably greater: £220 million is required, mainly to provide finance for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and for the voluntary housing movement. Noble Lords will appreciate that substantial inroads have been made into Northern Ireland's housing problems, to which I alluded during my remarks on the previous order, but the Government accept that more needs to be done. This is reflected in the significant resources which are being made available for the current year. When net borrowing by the housing executive to fund its capital programmes, and rental income and capital receipts are taken into account, gross expenditure on housing will be almost £545 million in 1989–90.

Vote 3 for the Department of the Environment, on page 79, covers water and sewerage services, for which around £94 million is sought. It is worth mentioning that on page 85, £101 million is sought for environmental and other services in Vote 4. This expenditure is directed primarily at improving the economic health and environment of areas suffering from urban dereliction. One important element of this policy is the encouragement of partnership between government and the private sector, particularly through the urban development grant scheme, under which each £1 of public money generates approximately £3 of private finance. That is more than evident in Belfast city centre as well as elsewhere in the Province.

We also seek, on page 102, £750 million for the Department of Education's Vote 1. Recurrent expenditure on the schools sector, which has elicited some interest from noble Lords, accounts for more than half of the total provision for education. The salaries of 18,700 school teachers and more than 2,300 further education lecturers for the academic year beginning next September are major items in Vote 1.

On page 103, the provision of £279 million under subhead A1 for recurrent expenditure by the five area education and library boards represents an increase of 9 per cent. over last year's figure, and includes an extra £7 million for the maintenance of buildings. There is also a special injection of £4 million to improve standards of pro vision in the classroom. The education votes also include £4 million of the additional £30 million made available over the next three years for Northern Ireland's progamme of educational reform. This will enable a start to be made on the provision of additional accommodation and facilities and schools to prepare for the demands of the new programmes of study as well as on in-service training for teachers—the continued training and upgrading of the capacity of teachers. We include also approximately £3 million to the "Making Belfast Work" initiative.

In Vote 2 for the Department of Education, a total of £141 million is sought for higher eduction, other services and administration. Some £109 million under sections A and B covers expenditure on Northern Ireland's two universities, the Open University and teacher training. Grants to the universities and awards to students are based on the principle of maintaining parity of provision with Great Britain. Noble Lords may wish to note that within this vote, under subhead E6 on page 113, almost £3 million is set aside for the initiative to help promote community relations in Northern Ireland. That aspect interested a noble Lord earlier.

I turn now to health and personal social services, on page 120, where provision of £836 million is sought in Vote 1 to maintain and improve the standard of the Province's health and personal social services. Within this total, under subhead A1 on page 121, £686 million will be allocated to the four health and social services boards which are responsible for the delivery of these services. Under subhead A2, still on page 121, £37 million is sought for capital expenditure. This will permit the continuation of a substantial programme of major and minor works, including the new area hospital at Antrim and completition of the new block at the Mater Hospital, Belfast. We will commence work on the construction of a new geriatric unit at Londonderry and on the extension of regional cardiology services at Belfast.

In my last stop in this tour through the estimates, I turn to page 134 and the social security programme. We seek some £807 million in Vote 4. Of this about 40 per cent.—£342 million—is required under subhead B1 for income support and for payments into the social fund.

Those are the elements which excited my curiosity as I went through this volume. I hope that noble Lords will have borne with me as I described them. I look forward to hearing noble Lords' views. I shall try to answer any queries either tonight or in writing. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th June be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, we appreciate the care and the diligence the Minister has shown in doing his homework. He will feel as we do, that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to be reminded of the manner in which the Government care for the various matters that need to be dealt with. We have a rundown of expenditure for Northern Ireland. It is not a complete balance sheet because there is income in the form of taxes, receipts and revenues to be taken into account. However, in this order we are dealing with expenditure of billions of pounds. The Minister was right to take 22 minutes of the important time of this House in order to tell the world, and especially the people of Northern Ireland, that there are some good things to say in this connection.

We on this side of the House have no hesitation in recognising the enormous burden which is carried by Government Ministers in seeking to discharge their responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland and to their Government. Indeed, for about an hour before this debate, we had a most useful reminder of the backcloth and the raison d'être for so many of the problems and the anguish of Northern Ireland at a political level. However, the purpose of this debate is examine the nitty gritty. We must find out the gaps, if there are any, between the aspirations—laudable as they may be—of the Government and the reality on the ground.

I should like to begin by using as an analogy a speech made by the Minister's ministerial colleague, Mr. Peter Viggers. He made the speech when he addressed the members of the Londonderry Rotary Club. It is entitled, "The Future of the Northern Ireland Economy". This is the language which he felt able to use when speaking to that distinguished body. He said: New computer-based technology—with the automation of so many processes—is also rapidly transforming the nature of the manufacturing processes, radically altering industry's skills, research and marketing needs. Economics of scale are being revolutionised. The life-span of products is rapidly decreasing, with new approaches and fashions proliferating. Continually the pace of change is increasing. At the same time the service sector has rapidly developed, with new work patterns and approaches. Some of it is the natural development of more traditional skills and markets, such as fast-food, but in other areas such as photocopying and data handling growth is coming from formerly undreamt of technologies". That is the way in which a Minister felt able to describe an aspect not just of government policy but also of the economy of Northern Ireland.

Pehaps I may at this stage tell the House how another important body, the Northern Ireland Economic Council, was able to describe broadly, and give their views on, the same situation. The council issued a press release on 9th June of this year. It says: Northern Ireland remains the most economically depressed region in the United Kingdom and has lagged behind the rest of the country in experiencing an upturn in activity. The rate of improvement of almost every economic indicator in the Province has been below the national average. Looking ahead to the coming year the Council anticipates a less buoyant performance by the local economy. The expected slowdown in the United Kingdom as a result of the tightening of monetary policy in response to rising inflation and the balance of payments defict will present major difficulties for the Province. As a consequence the Council expects only modest growth in the economy with employment levels remaining largely static and falls in unemployment levelling out during the course of the year. The report stresses the vulnerability of the Northern Ireland economy to any downturn in the level of national economic activity and emphasises the need for concerted efforts by the Government and the private sector to consolidate the gains which have been achieved. Neither body is straining too far. Indeed, both bodies have the deep interest of the people of Northern Ireland at heart. The Minister has prime responsibility for generating activity; that is, not as regards himself, but as regards government measures. However, here we have another view of broadly the same situation. While the Minister tried to take some solace from the falling levels in unemployment, the falling—that is, the proud local figure at present—still leaves 15.5 per cent. The figure is enormous. It is less than it was; but it is still enormous. Further, when one looks at the position, 19 per cent. of the male working population is unemployed.

Can the Minister tell us—if not, perhaps he will write to me—what is the scenario in respect of low paid, low skilled, part-time female employment? Surely the Minister is aware that there is a world of difference between an adult male working full time and, for instance—with no disrespect—a female working part-time, both of whom are a statistic in the employment register.

When the Minister talks in terms of the privatisation of Shorts—indeed, he will know that privatisation of industries is an anathema to many of my colleagues on this side of the House; but that there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland which we acknowledge—can he tell us what has emerged over the past few months, and what will emerge in the next few months, in respect of the likely effect on employment following privatisation of the company? For instance, could this lead to further job losses, especially in the highly skilled area?

We know that there are such things as confidential assessments, private conversations, and so on. However, just as the Minister is proud to tell the world that this is a further example of privatisation, we are entitled to ask what that means to the people who live in Belfast. Will there be a spin-off which they will certainly not like?

The Minister paid special attention to the improvement in the economy. However, let me return to what Mr. Viggers told that conference just two weeks ago. He said: The reduction in tax levels and the outright abolition of several taxes have once again created the incentive to work, the opportunities to save and freedom of choice in spending, and indeed the chance to pass one's wealth on to one's family. Through the major extension of share ownership and the sale of council houses many more families have been given a genuine stake in their home, their jobs and their community". You can say that again to the tens of thousands of people who live in Northern Ireland!

I wonder whether the Minister would care to tell us what are his observations as regards the debt register in Northern Ireland. He knows, of course, that consumer debt is increasing alarmingly. However, that is not just a Northern Ireland phenomenon—it is not perhaps even a British phenomenon—and there are very worrying indications that the ordinary person is getting more and more into debt.

For example, I am told that in Northern Ireland £338,369,000 is owed to the finance houses; £268 million is owed to the banks in outstanding personal bank loans; and £100 million is outstanding on credit cards. That is a time bomb which the Minister and his colleagues must recognise. But what are the Government doing to tackle the problem of consumer debt in Northern Ireland? Is that something which the Minister and his colleagues shrug off as a phenomenon of the British Isles? I am asking a genuine question here. Is the problem more worrying in Northern Ireland than it is anywhere else? It is certainly present in the Province and needs to be tackled head on.

The Minister quite rightly drew our attention to certain situations as regards housing. I thought the Minister was saying that, difficult as it was, there are improvements. Will the Minister set that statement against the state of the housing stock in Northern Ireland? It is about the worst in any region in the whole of the British Isles. Therefore more must be done in Northern Ireland than in many other places.

I have had access to extracts from the Northern Ireland 1987 House Condition Survey. It can be compared with the 1986 English House Condition Survey. The extracts show that in Northern Ireland 8.4 per cent. of the dwelling stock was found to be unfit, compared with only 4.9 per cent. in England. Further, 5.5 percent. ofNorthern Ireland stock lacked at least one basic amenity, compared with 2.5 per cent. from the English survey. I cannot talk in terms of thousands, tens of thousands or more, but that is the nature of the problem. I visit Northern Ireland infrequently. The Minister virtually lives there and knows more about the situation than anyone in the House except my noble friends Lord Fitt and Lord Blease, who are worried about the position.

I referred to debt a moment ago. As more and more people are encouraged to buy their own homes, more and more people find their homes being repossessed due to economic circumstances. The Belfast Law Society tells me that in 1984 there were 69 building society orders for possession. In 1987 the figure had grown to 241 and in 1988 it had grown to 308. That is a 446 per cent. increase since 1984 and a 27 per cent. increase between 1987 and 1988. I wonder whether the Minister is worried by that trend. What are he and his colleagues doing about it?

I wonder whether the Minister can say something tonight about two problems. One is the Carrick House Hostel in Belfast. I have read some documents which have caused me concern. That hostel is one of the few, if not the only one, of its kind, in Northern Ireland which deals with homeless men. Will the Minister tell us a little more about homelessness in Northern Ireland? I genuinely seek the information. The situation is horrific. In London more and more people are being made homeless from a variety of circumstances, some of which may well be self-inflicted. Will the Minister tell us what he is doing about homelessness in Northern Ireland?

I have received some information from the Carrick Hill Residents Association. The document is signed by Marie Mulholland, the community development officer. It makes hair-raising reading. It is about the attitude shown by the people in charge of the hostel to those people who unfortunately have to use it. Will the Minister tell us a little about housing associations in Northern Ireland? I have evidence about what is happening to the Clonard Housing Association. The document makes disturbing reading. I shall read a brief extract of what I have been told: The Clonard Housing Association is a non-profit-making concern. It is the only community based housing association in West Belfast, the most highly populated area in the city. West Belfast has enormous opportunities for growth for the Association. There are a lot of vacant sites and derelict buildings which are ugly, dangerous, degrading and demoralizing. The Association sees its role in changing this image, in acquiring these vacant sites to provide modern housing, derelict building could be rehabilitated, provide much needed housing, and thus enhance the areas involved and give a sense of pride to the community. The Association has been established over 11 years and has not yet been able to undertake a new build scheme". There must be something wrong with the raison dêtre of the association, or the impetus of the people in charge. If not, there must be some other reason. The document continues: The Association's stock is as follows:—34 tenanted properties, 2 bricked up properties, I vacant property requiring work before it can be tenanted, 37 vacant sites". Those sites have been acquired over the years to enable a number of schemes to be progressed. We should take on board the fact that the existence of a large stock of vacant land is of concern to the association because those vacant sites contribute greatly to the air of decay and neglect in the area. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Fitt knows the association and the area. He knows the problems and he may know some of the solutions and some of the reasons why we are not making progress. Without using too heavy a stick with which to beat the Minister, surely such a situation needs detailed investigation by him.

Finally, I should like to say a word about health. I know we had the benefit of a similar debate which took place in another place two or three nights ago. My parliamentary colleague Mr. Marshall dealt in detail with a number of points. It would be an exercise in futility if I read the same case into the record. I have the Minister's observations in response to my colleague. I believe that he and his advisers would have anticipated that I would raise these matters. My honourable friend drew attention to the number of acute beds that had been closed which were of great concern to him. Mr. Peter Viggers said: The hon. Gentleman also asked about bed closures in hospitals. During the past year the Eastern health and social services board has closed a number of acute beds, but that is in line with targets in the regional strategy for 1987 to 1992". What kind of strategy is it that closes acute beds at a time of crisis? Can the Minister tell us that? Mr. Viggers then said: The hon. Gentleman asked about theatre closures at the Belfast City hospital. The recent theatre closures are a temporary measure"— will the Minister tell us how temporary is temporary?— brought about by a nursing shortage that arises from sickness and unexpected difficulties in recruitment". What is the position? Although shortages occur, they must be tackled with great vigour. The Minister then said: The hon. Gentleman commented on hospital waiting lists". We are of course all concerned about those. His answer was: The Department has recently had discussions with four health and social services boards about the validation and medical management of waiting lists and waiting times".—[Official Report, Commons, 22/6/89; col. 589.] The people on the waiting lists, their families and their friends may be fed up with consultations and discussions. They want the beds, the doctors and a redress of their problems to be provided.

I conclude by saying that it is the duty of the Opposition not just to draw attention to ministerial statements, which the Minister will properly see have a full and wide circulation in Northern Ireland, but to let the people in Northern Ireland know that we are obliged to bring their grievances to the attention of a place which they believe is here to help redress the balance. On the other hand, we acknowledge the great difficulties that the Minister has, not only on these matters but on a wide range of others. We feel good will towards him and his colleagues in their efforts to solve the many problems that I have outlined.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, the concluding remarks of my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton are of great significance because he, as a former elected representative, will be acutely aware that there is no substitute for being an elected representative and being in almost daily communication with one's constituents. One has only to read the reports of the appropriation debate that took place in another place to see that the everyday contact between an elected representative and his constitutents is all important. I marvel at and am grateful to my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, who does not have a Northern Ireland constituency. It is quite evident that he has gone to a great deal of research to establish and maintain contact with people in that part of the United Kingdom. I agree almost word for word with the comments he made here this evening. Many of his remarks have been garnered from areas which he may not know such as the Clonard housing association in the heart of the constituency which I formerly represented, West Belfast.

West Belfast is generally recognised as one of the most socially deprived areas in the United Kingdom in the fields of housing, employment and all the other priorities which affect the Northern Ireland constituency. Unfortunately, West Belfast is represented by Mr. Adams, an MP who does not participate in the mechanics of the House on behalf of his constituents. The ordinary people of Belfast who are so desperately in need of representation are denied it because of the political consequences and the situation in that region. Because of those political consequences now and in the future, I cannot see that constitutency being represented by any other person.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, commenting on previous remarks that I made, said he thought that I was being rather pessimistic. If "pessimistic" means being realistic, then I plead guilty. I am realistic towards events happening in Northern Ireland and what has already been referred to in respect of the housing association. I remember the housing association of Clonard coming into existence. I also remember making representations on its behalf and being told by people from that area that I had to be very careful of some of the personnel involved in that association. I am not sure whether the same people are there now, but I agree that it is up to the Government to query the personnel of every association throughout Northern Ireland. There is a real need to listen to the representations of an association in such a difficult area as West Belfast.

Since we last debated an appropriation order in the House, two major industrial decisions have been taken: the proposed privatisation of Harland and Wolff and of Shorts. These two companies have long been regarded as the linchpin of economic activity in the city of Belfast. It is necessary to consider not only the employees of the two different industrial undertakings, but also the spin-off from those undertakings which reaches throughout the whole of Northern Ireland. The manufacture of component parts necessary for those industrial establishments to carry on creates employment in other parts of the United Kingdom—England, Scotland and Wales. So it is of vital importance that the Government do everything in the change-over period to ensure that no obstacles are placed in the way of those industries continuing in existence, even under privatisation.

A very valid question has been asked by my noble friend Lord Graham. Can the Minister tell us what the prospects are for future employment? How many personnel are employed now? Will there be a reduction, or will the figure be maintained? It would be of interest to the people working in those industries, who are now going through a very insecure time, to have an indication of whether or not their employment will be secure.

Again, my noble friend Lord Graham mentioned one point known, I am certain, by anyone from Northern Ireland or who has contact with it. Northern Ireland, even through the most terrible times, has always prided itself on having the best hospitals in the world. It also prides itself on what I know is the best medical profession in the world; it has the best nurses in the world. That is no mean claim. But it is supported by every section of the Northern Ireland community.

It is very sad to read of the closures which are taking place, particularly at the City Hospital in Belfast, where theatres which are urgently needed have been closed down because of a shortage of nursing staff. Perhaps the Minister does not have the figures at his fingertips, but I have never heard of a shortage of nurses in Belfast. I know that many young girls have regarded it as a vocation, throughout decades, to become members of the nursing profession. Indeed, I have two daughters of my own who began their nursing careers in the City Hospital in Belfast. I find it a very sad commentary that there has been or will be a shortage of nurses. If that is so, why has it been allowed to happen? I am certain that many young girls who are dedicated to the vocation of nursing would do everything they could to take employment in that profession.

If there is one thing which united the elected representatives in another place when the appropriation order was debated, it was the concern which they expressed in relation to the rationalisation of schools which is taking place, particularly in South Down, North Belfast and other areas. It appears that the proposals by the educational library boards were announced as something of a bolt from the blue. The parents who were sending their children to the schools were met with these proposals without any consultation having taken place. One would have thought that the present Minister in charge of education in Northern Ireland, Dr. Mawhinney, who has a Northern Ireland background, must be aware of the great concern as to the religious content, the sectarian content, the siting of the different schools, the distance of one school from another, and the replacing of schools. These issues are of vital concern to parents whose children attend the schools.

I have been inundated with letters from all over County Down about the proposals envisaged by the Department of Education in relation to the so-called rationalisation of schools in County Down. That is particularly so in the Downpatrick area, with the impending closure or loss of status of the Down High School. I have received letters from throughout Northern Ireland, not only from people with children attending these schools, who in this case happen to be Protestant, but also from Catholic people living in the area who support the concerns expressed by the parents of these students.

We know that if there is rationalisation then it means closure, whether of jobs, houses or schools. The people of Northern Ireland are no fools. I hope that before any real steps are taken to implement what has already been mooted as the idea of the department, the parents of children at these schools are brought into the consultations. Education is most important, particularly in the circumstances prevailing in Northern Ireland. To bring about difficulties in education for the sake of saving money will, I believe, in the long run, be the wrong thing for the Government to do. I appeal to the noble Lord to have consultations with his honourable friend and to ensure that before any steps are taken, the views of the parents of the children attending the schools which are threatened with rationalisation or closure are sought.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I am not startled at the very interesting and close attention that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, paid to the detail, and to what some kind friends may call diligence, of my remarks. However, I apologise for the length of my opening remarks.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, there is no need to apologise.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, as always the noble Lord has some very kind things to say. I appreciate that very much. Nevertheless, while I apologise to your Lordships for perhaps going into too much detail, I know the diligence with which noble Lords go through these accounts.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, raised a number of points. I am particularly grateful to him for all the nice things he said about those of us who serve in government in Northern Ireland. I add my tribute to those in the government service, not least those in my own Department of Agriculture who work throughout the length and breadth of Northern Ireland for the benefit of agriculture and, it seems, for the benefit of many people in the Community. I also add my tribute to the courageous and long-suffering people of Northern Ireland, whom I mentioned at an earlier stage this evening. I pay tribute to them for their fortitude in all aspects of life in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord made great and very entertaining play on a particular speech that was made by my honourable friend the Minister who is responsible for industry in Northern Ireland. I particularly enjoyed one or two of the points made by the noble Lord about fast food in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, and indeed his noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, may remember that food is the number one aspect that concerns many of us in Northern Ireland, not least those in the Department of Agriculture. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, will know, there are certainly quite a few stout farmers but very few stout farm workers. Those farm workers work extremely hard to ensure that our food and agricultural industry is second to none.

The noble Lord raised further points. I shall attempt to answer them all, but I may have to answer some of them in writing. The noble Lord mentioned employment and industry in Northern Ireland. I think the overall climate, despite the figures mentioned, is something for optimism. A French company called Montupet, which is regarded as one of the world's leaders in the field of aluminium castings, and is particularly prominent in the motor industry, announced in December 1988 its decision to establish a highly automated, state of the art aluminium foundry in West Belfast, and a toolroom facility in the city suburbs. The foundry is situated in the former Kingsway industrial estate. Moreover —this is far more familiar to your Lordships and students of Northern Ireland—the foundry is situated in the former De Lorean premises. This will provide employment for some 920 people over a five-year period. However, that project is starting from absolutely nothing.

The toolroom will be built on a site at Mallusk in County Antrim towards the airport. It will provide further employment for 110 persons. The investment by this world leader will be in the region of £80 million. That, together with the other very encouraging investment by the Korean company, Daewoo, is no mean tribute to the workforce in Northern Ireland, let alone to what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been able to do in selling the talents of the people of Northern Ireland around the world. He has had two notable successes. We realise that the world is a competitive place. All of us in Northern Ireland who are concerned with economic health and, above all, with the economy of Northern Ireland, realise that we have to compete on a world basis. However, I believe that we are in no way losing this particular battle. We intend to ensure that the economy goes forward as far as we are able to take it.

The noble Lord quite rightly asked about Shorts. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, also mentioned this. However, on the matter of Shorts and the new developments which have taken place as a result of the agreements which have been signed with Bombardier of Canada, no one in your Lordships' House, let alone any businessman, would expect us to make any firm and meaningful assurance about future levels of employment. That would be something for Bombardier and Shorts to consider. However, any assurances and any possibilities for employment in Shorts will depend upon the ability of Shorts to produce competitively priced products at a profit. We think there is a strong possibility that this will happen, and I believe Bombardier is very optimistic also. We are confident that, under the ownership of Bombardier, Shorts will be able to continue to produce products which are already being produced, although no doubt new products will be introduced. I believe a new regional jet is scheduled to be produced by Bombardier, and that Shorts will have a major part to play in that, as well as in some of the more technological areas.

Redundancies may be necessary, although we are not sure about that. They may be necessary in order to return the company to profitability. The Government will assist Bombardier to meet the full cost of any redundancy. However, that is a matter for Bombardier. I wish to stress to your Lordships that the Government stand ready to help Bombardier as well as Shorts as far as we possibly can. We wish them well. I believe that everything that is being done by my right honourable friend, as well as by my honourable friend the Minister responsible for industry, is geared to launching the Shorts-Bombardier combination in the very best way possible.

As regards some of the queries of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, I shall have to reply in writing. The noble Lord seemed a little worried about some aspects of the debt problem. As regards private debts, for example the level of hire-purchase debts and commercial debts, I shall have to write to the noble Lord. There are some special problems associated with public debt in Northern Ireland. We have certainly tried to deal with all of this sympathetically as well as firmly. However, I shall provide the noble Lord with figures to illustrate the scale of public debt, as well as indicating our approach in trying to reduce that figure.

As regards debts in agriculture, farmers tell me that they, like businessmen everywhere, are concerned that their debts may be difficult to service. That is a common factor in agriculture throughout the United Kingdom. I believe the agricultural industry is making great progress. That progress depends upon the weather to a large extent. Certainly in all aspects of my work in Northern Ireland, I am particularly aware of private commercial debt, as was referred to by the noble Lord.

On the matter of the housing stock, I cannot necessarily quibble with figures mentioned by the noble Lord. As regards unfitness and other matters, they may be in step with the figures he referred to for England and Wales. I agree that the figures are too high. However, one of the main instruments for tackling housing unfitness is renovation grants. In the current year, 1989–1990, the amount for spending on this is £30 million. The high demand for this particular grant continues, and alas! it exceeds the funds which we have available.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has had to restrict some applications to those in the high priority categories as regards fitness. Nevertheless, the 1987 mini house condition survey in Northern Ireland indicated that since 1984 there had been a significant reduction in the level of unfitness and disrepair. In January this year we introduced changes which provided for an increase in the maximum amount of eligible expense limits in the various categories of renovation grant. That is a partial answer. If there is anything that I have missed, I shall write to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord mentioned the Carrick House hostel and the achievements of the Clonard housing association in 11 years. I shall have to write to him with any details that I can obtain. The only aspect of Clonard that I know is the monastery, to which your Lordships may wish to confine me, but rather like St. Augustine, perhaps not yet. We know that they do particularly valuable work there.

The noble Lord also had some queries about acute hospital beds and mentioned what my honourable friend Mr. Viggers said in another place on an earlier occasion. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, also raised the issue of medical services and hospitals in Northern Ireland and in particular in Belfast. The closure of theatres in the City Hospital is a matter for concern. I stress, however, that those closures are a temporary measure brought about by a shortage of nurses. The noble Lord mentioned that the main problems are sickness and unexpected difficulties in recruitment. I do not believe that that is a complete answer. Care and treatment of patients are very dependent on the skill and diligence of nurses, and it occurs to me that the application of technology is relevant. There are new and swift methods of treating acute cases. I suspect that in some instances where there have been difficulties in recruitment it is not a case of difficulty in recruiting nurses but in recruiting nurses with the skill to operate some of those incredible, high-tech, ultrasonic machines used in emergency cases and intensive care.

Those closures are of concern to people who depend on the City Hospital for treatment. The normal theatre nursing complement of 62 has been reduced to 47, with the result that there are only four theatre teams at present instead of the usual six. Normally there is one team to cover each of the six theatres. The six theatres are used in rotation at present; no theatre has been closed down. We hope that a fifth theatre nursing team will be available in two or three weeks and that a return to the usual six teams will follow in the near future. However, I believe that the introduction of a fifth team in two or three weeks is commendable progress. While the noble Lord may not be totally satisfied, I hope that he will accept that that is encouraging news.

The noble Lord also mentioned one or two comments made in another place by my honourable friend Mr. Viggers, the Minister responsible for economic development. Within the past year the Eastern Health and Social Services Board has closed a number of acute beds. The closures are in line with targets in the regional strategy for 1987 to 1992. I have been assured that the number of patients receiving treatment continues to rise, reflecting a more efficient use of the resources available. I hope that that may be of some comfort to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord also asked about the waiting lists. To people who require treatment of non-acute conditions—for example, people with orthopaedic problems, as I experienced in my youth—it is of no comfort to have to wait for treatment of injuries which may be recurrent and troublesome. We give very high priority to action to reduce the time which people have to wait for treatment. The Department of Health and Social Services has recently had discussions with the boards for health and social services about the validation and medical management of the waiting lists together with waiting times. Waiting time is more important to the patient than the length of the waiting list. In September 1988 about one-third of patients had been on the in-patient waiting list for one year or more. That figure has remained fairly static since 1981. If there is any further detail which may be of help to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, I shall let him know in writing.

However, I stress that acute hospital services in Northern Ireland compare favourably with those elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have allocated a further £1.5 million in the current financial year for the development of regional medical services, including ophthalmology, trauma, orthopaedic and cardiac surgery. I hope that that sum of money will provide treatment for a considerable number of patients to whom speedy attention will be particularly welcome. If there are any points that I have missed which the noble Lord, Lord Graham, raised I shall pick them up.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, raised the question of the two large industries in Belfast—Harland and Wolff and Shorts. We should not wish to place any obstacle in the way of their continued economic health and recovery. The noble Lord also said that he believed that in Northern Ireland we have the best hospitals, medical teams and nurses. What I said to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, with regard to theatre closures is also relevant to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt.

With regard to education, the noble Lord mentioned rationalisation. I shall not seek to duel with him on that aspect, let alone about Down High School and Downpatrick. I shall write briefly to him. If he wishes to raise any further points with regard to the letters which have been flooding in to him, I have no doubt that he will be in touch with me.

The noble Lord raised a point about the education reforms which are being instituted by my honourable friend Dr. Mawhinney. The draft Order in Council which would give effect to those proposals was published for consultation on 13th June. Consultations will extend until mid-September this year. I believe that that is an appropriate time for the teaching profession since they will not have the pressure of exams and the summer and autumn tend to be a time for reflection in the education year. I believe that, if we set our minds to it, that consultation will be valuable, but I take any point that the noble Lord wishes to raise on the matter.

We recognise that implementation of the reforms will require adequate resources. In my earlier remarks, I mentioned that we had made an additional £30 million available for community education over the next three years. Above all, a tranche of about £4 million is included in the estimates that we are considering this year. Those resources, in addition to the high level of funding that we already provide for education, will meet a variety of needs, including extra in-service training for teachers as well as extra specialist accommodation and equipment.

I do not think that there is anything that I can usefully add to what I have said, but, if there are any points raised by noble Lords that I have not covered, I shall write to them. I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for the very nice things that he said about me and, above all, about my right honourable friend and my honourable colleagues. We appreciate the constructive questioning that is carried out by both noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Graham, as well as that by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. We very much relish the attention that is paid to the orders by Members of this House and are grateful for it. I am sure that it is recognised and appreciated by everyone in Northern Ireland.

On Question, Motion agreed to.