HL Deb 26 June 1991 vol 530 cc630-48

The Paymaster General (Lord Belstead) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this draft order has two purposes. The first is to authorise expenditure of £2,735 million for the current financial year. This is in addition to the sum voted on account by the House in March and brings the total Estimates provision for Northern Ireland departmental services—other than the Northern Ireland Office—to £4,676 million.

Your Lordships may wish to have a brief explanation of the main items in the order. In the Department of Agriculture's Vote 1, some £31 million is for agriculture and fisheries support measures which apply throughout the United Kingdom. This includes £15 million for capital and other grants to improve farm structures and £16 million to provide support for farming in the less favoured areas.

In the Department of Agriculture's Vote 2, some £116 million is sought for local support measures. This is an increase of some £10 million over last year. Some £48 million is for agricultural, scientific and veterinary services and £27 million is for arterial drainage, fisheries and forestry.

In the Department of Economic Development's Vote 1, some £212 million is sought for industrial development and financial assistance to industry. The Industrial Development Board (the IDB) is seeking to encourage internationally competitive companies in the manufacturing and tradeable service sectors to set up in Northern Ireland. This will create conditions for growth in durable employment in the Province and thereby strengthen the Northern Ireland economy.

In Vote 2, some £40 million is sought for the Local Enterprise Development Unit (LEDU) to enable it to develop and strengthen the small firms sector in Northern Ireland. Also in Vote 2, £5.5 million is sought for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, an increase of £0.3 million over last year. This, we believe, will enable the board to market Northern Ireland at home and abroad and to build on its success in attracting a record 1.2 million visitors to Northern Ireland in 1990.

Vote 3 of the Department of Economic Development covers expenditure by the Training and Employment Agency, which was established in April 1990. Some £31 million is sought for the youth training programme to provide 8,000 training places for unemployed young people. Some £53 million is for the action for community employment programme, an increase of £1 million over last year. This will provide almost 10,000 places for long-term unemployed adults. Some £17 million is for the job training programme, which offers employer-based training to assist the long-term unemployed to obtain employment. That is almost £6 million more than in 1990–91 and is clear evidence of the Government's commitment to help those who have been out of work for some time to obtain employment.

For the Department of the Environment, £169 million is sought in Vote 1 for roads, transport and ports. That is nearly £8 million more than last year. Some £139 million of that is for the roads programme. Details of major construction projects currently under way are contained in the estimates volume. That includes the Belfast cross-harbour road and rail link—a very major project—on which work is due to begin in October.

In Vote 2, £197 million is required for housing, mainly for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the voluntary housing movement. When net borrowing by the housing executive and rental income is taken into account, gross public expenditure on the housing programme will be about £522 million. That is £18 million more than in 1990–91 and will enable further progress to be made on improving housing conditions in Northern Ireland.

The DoE Vote 3 covers expenditure on water and sewerage services. Gross expenditure in 1991–92 is estimated at almost £134 million, an increase of £10 million over last year. Within this vote it is planned to spend some £96 million to improve the already high quality of drinking water supplies in Northern Ireland.

In DoE Vote 4, £124 million is sought for a wide range of environmental services. This includes some £40 million for urban regeneration measures targeted at areas of social, economic and environmental need; £10 million is for environmental protection and improvement, including conservation of wildlife and the countryside.

The Estimates for the Department of Education seek a total of £1,151 million, an increase of nearly 12 per cent. over the previous year. In Vote 1 some £648 million is sought for the Education and Library Boards to cover recurrent expenditure, including teachers' salary costs; 80 per cent. of this will be delegated to the schools and colleges and managed by them at local level. This provision includes some £11 million to tackle a backlog of urgently required maintenance work. Vote 1 also seeks £138 million for the boards to cover recurrent expenditure on libraries and youth services and for mandatory student awards; £54 million is for capital projects which will provide, among other things, new laboratories and technology workshops.

Expenditure in the rest of the schools sector, which is administered directly by the Department of Education, will be £128 million. That includes £4 million for grant maintained integrated schools, reflecting the increasing demand from parents who recognise the benefits which integrated education offers.

In the department's Vote 2, £153 million is sought; £87 million is for Northern Ireland's two universities. The vote also covers teacher training and a range of youth, sport and community activities. It includes £2.4 million for the improvement of community relations. That is the Department of Education's part of the community relations programme.

For the Department of Health and Social Services, total net provision of £1,052 million is sought for health and social services. This includes £223 million for family health services, £837 million for health and social services boards' current expenditure, and £51 million for capital development. The DHSS Vote 4 provides a total of £1,106 million for social security benefits, an increase of some £122 million over 1990–91. That includes some £491 million for income support, £170 million for housing benefit and £431 million for family and non-contributory benefits.

Finally, I should like to draw attention to the Department of Finance and Personnel Vote 3, in which almost £3 million is sought for the community relations programme. The programme of community relations work, which is undertaken jointly with the Department of Education, continues to expand. Total expenditure by both departments will be more than £5.5 million in this financial year, some £1.5 million more than last year. This will support projects designed to create equity of treatment for all sections of the community and to improve community relations. This remains one of the Government's highest priorities and we believe that these practical measures will, over time, help to ease community divisions. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th June be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

7.15 p m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the main provisions sought by the order. Further details are set out in the Estimates booklet for 1991–92. The noble Lord's opening speech and the Estimates demonstrate very clearly the huge scale of public expenditure over a vast range of activities in the Province. I notice that this expenditure was analysed in an instructive, although somewhat dispiriting, article in the Independent on 29th May. Leaving aside expenditure on security, expenditure per head of population in Northern Ireland in respect of almost every heading in the budget is far higher than such expenditure in England, Wales and Scotland respectively. Of course there are good reasons why the expenditure should be so high. It is partly explained by the entrenched unemployment, the still fragile state of the economy, the higher morbidity and the continuing violence.

The Estimates acknowledge that the strengthening of the Northern Ireland economy is the Government's stated second public expenditure priority, being second only to the maintenance of law and order. The alliance between the Department of Economic Development and the Industrial Development Board has played a large part in attracting foreign investment to the shores of Northern Ireland. The Minister referred to the importance of inward investment. It is a sad commentary that foreign investment in this country—not merely to Northern Ireland—is seen as essential to the development of new scientific knowledge arid modern technology in industry. This point was referred to repeatedly in the important debate in your Lordships' House last Wednesday on manufacturing industry. The importance of inward investment was emphasised almost a year ago when we discussed the Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order.

Against that background I was concerned to read in the press that figures released about 10 days ago indicate a serious decline in job creation from new foreign investment in Northern Ireland. I stress that I read that in a press report. I did not see the announcement by the IDB itself. It appears that the Industrial Development Board announced that the number of new jobs promised had fallen 700 short of the target, which was set at 2,000. The director of the Northern Ireland Economic Council is reported as having said: You are talking about the lowest numbers since the really dismal years at the beginning of the decade". That was his comment. Then I saw that two economists at Queen's University had written to the Independent questioning the present pattern of expenditure on industrial development in the Province and pointing out that productivity in industry in Northern Ireland remains much lower than that in Britain. That prompts me to ask the Minister whether this seriously worries the department; or have the two economists got it wrong? If the department and the IDB accept that the criticism is fair and just, what do they propose to do about the position? Do they have in mind any new initiatives to attract inward investment?

It might be convenient if I were to refer at this stage to the draft order to privatise the electricity industry in Northern Ireland which is the subject of consultation in the Province. A few of your Lordships will recall that about a month ago a very strong deputation came to Westminster to lobby against the decision to privatise the industry. That deputation represented a reservoir of knowledge and experience, and it was very critical of the decision.

In the light of that representation, from these Benches we should certainly urge the Government to consider postponing the introduction of the privatisation legislation until they have reviewed the original policy decision which was taken in 1987 or 1988, and to review it in the context of the growing awareness of the importance of North-South co-operation in developing a unified energy policy for the whole island. It would be very reassuring if the department were to consider such a postponement, because I understand that the technical arguments against privatisation may well be stronger than those for privatisation.

I gather from the deputation that the Government have commissioned two or three reports on the feasibility of the proposal. The members of the lobby which came to Westminster a month ago were anxious to find out what advice the Government had received from the experts whom they had consulted. I believe they were anxious to find out what advice had been tendered to the Government because they believed that at least one of the reports may have been disregarded by the Government. When I met the deputation I promised that I would raise this issue when we came to the next appropriations debate, so I honour the commitment which I then gave. Are the Government prepared to disclose the contents of the reports which they commissioned, or at least to publish a summary of the findings? I believe that that would be much appreciated by many people in Northern Ireland.

I should now like to move to the health budget, which is a substantial one by any standard. A report which has been made public is that of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the control of administrative and clerical staff employed by health boards. The report was published on 28th May. It is not a report on the whole remit of the health department. The Audit Office investigated the expenditure on A and C staff between 1983–84 and 1989–90, but during that five-year period such expenditure increased by 58 per cent. and the number employed increased from 6,187 to 6,999.

I see from the report that the Department of Health advanced many arguments to justify that increase, but there can be little doubt that the Audit Office did not find them convincing. That message comes through loud and clear. The Audit Office has made a number of recommendations. For example, it has recommended that the boards should adopt a common approach to classification of jobs so that meaningful inter-board comparisons can be made. It has come down firmly in favour of staff inspection programmes, believing that to be essential if there is to be effective control over staff numbers. Then it has asked the department and the boards to take action to demonstrate whether the growth in the number of A and C staff has led to an increase in overall efficiency.

The perceptive questions asked by the Comptroller and Auditor General lead me to return to an old question which I have raised on more than one occasion when discussing an appropriations order. What is the relationship in practice between the health department and the health boards? We know the theoretical answer to that question, but what is the relationship in practice? I do not want to underestimate the need for devolved power within the NHS, but in the light of the report of the Auditor General I just question whether the Department of Health is doing quite enough, through the many channels which are or could be open to it, to provide a more effective and efficient service by the health boards. Unless the department offers firm leadership, there is always the risk that management at all levels will be tempted by the pressures of the passing hour to pursue short-term interest at the expense of the long-term interest of the NHS in Northern Ireland.

I note that the Auditor General also investigated one of the operations of the Housing Executive. I was gratified that the executive had made worthwhile efforts to reduce mortgage arrears due to it from house purchasers. It seems to me that that objective was achieved primarily by a large-scale transfer of the existing indebtedness and mortgages into the private sector. This prompts me to ask the Minister whether house purchasers who live in the more troubled areas of Northern Ireland are experiencing difficulties in obtaining private mortgages upon terms which compare favourably with those available to purchasers in mainland Britain, even though things are overstretched here. While the Audit Office, for its part, is satisfied with the current state of the mortgage arrears account of the Housing Executive, we do not want things to go very wrong for the individual house purchaser, so I very much hope that the Minister can give a reassuring reply.

Finally, I should again like to express the full support of these Benches for the positive encouragement which the Government have given to the improvement to community relations and education for greater understanding in and around the Province—a commitment which I am pleased to note is reinforced by the European Regional Development Fund. The Minister referred to the constructive work which has been undertaken in Northern Ireland by the Community Relations Unit. I am delighted at the way that it is setting about that task.

Another matter which has delighted me is the way the charity Ultach Trust is supporting the Irish language, seeking to do so by rediscovering the Gaelic background to the Protestant and Unionist traditions in Northern Ireland in the 18th and 19th century.

I think we all agree that it is essential in Northern Ireland to work for openness and tolerance, and to pull the different threads together in a positive framework. It seems to us on these Benches that that must be a fundamental aim or policy. That is why we need also to reflect on how the present initiatives can be further developed. I accept that it may be too early for me to press the Government on that point this evening, but I very much look forward to the way the Minister will respond to the handful of questions and problems which I have raised.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for the customary care and courtesy with which he took us through an extremely complex order, and I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, for his thorough exposition of the issues upon which he wishes to be better informed. I associate myself with his question on electricity privatisation. I share his curiosity as to the answer.

Before I raise one or two issues of especial interest to myself and these Benches, perhaps I may reflect for a moment on what we are doing here in an almost deserted House, in the dinner hour, discussing an extraordinarily detailed, complex and massive expenditure programme for Northern Ireland. If there were no other reason for supporting, as we all do most warmly, the Brooke talks, and wishing them well—there are of course a multitude of reasons for wishing them well—it would be that this is not a suitable system of government to run the affairs of Northern Ireland. I am sure that many noble Lords wish for the day when the people of Northern Ireland themselves, through devolved executive power-sharing government—having elected members of a Northern Ireland Assembly or Parliament—deal with these questions, make these dispositions, and consider these complex matters with which we are grappling on their behalf.

I wish to refer to education. I apologise to the Minister for not having given him advance notice of the questions. Perhaps he will try to answer the drift of my remarks rather than wrestle with the figures from the Estimates that I propose to throw at him. The first question relates to the provision for adult education. If I understand the detailed figures in the Estimates correctly, within the total education expenditure, which rose in gross terms by an impressive 14 per cent. between 1989–90 and 1990–91, and again by 14 per cent. between 1990–91 and 1991–92, it is notable that the provision for adult education fell by 25 per cent. between 1989–90 and 1990–91 and increased by only 3 per cent. for the latest year. The Road Ahead, which was produced by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, says that some 50 per cent. of adults had not taken any education or training since they left school and that participation levels in further education and training were discouragingly low and had barely improved. That must be a matter of concern for the future of Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, spoke eloquently about inward investment. The regeneration of the Northern Ireland economy depends upon the skills of the people in Northern Ireland. It must be a high added-value and highly skilled economy. That is one of the routes to peace and prosperity that the Government have rightly identified. It would be good to think that adult education received the priority that other forms of education clearly receive.

Secondly, I should like to mention integrated education. Like many other people, we on these Benches warmly support the movement towards integrated education which has taken some valuable steps forward in Northern Ireland. I am all the more puzzled that in the grants category in the Estimates, which includes help to bodies involved in the promotion of integrated education, there was a fall of nearly 40 per cent. between 1989–90 and 1990–91, and virtually no increase for 1991–92. Will the Minister tell me what the latest position is? He may not be able to answer me tonight, but if he would let me know subsequently I should be grateful. It may be that I do not understand the figures properly because the category includes other forms of grants such as grants towards European studies. Within that category money provided for integrated education may not have decreased, as it appears to have done from a crude reading of the headlines. I should value further information. We need an assurance from the Government that any school, state or private, which wants to take steps towards integration will be able to do so.

Finally, will the Minister be good enough, however briefly, to give his appreciation of the state of the Northern Ireland economy? That again is a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred. Formidable efforts have been made, not least under the leadership of the Minister, Mr. Needham, to increase inward investment. How is it now going? We know that unemployment is rising. How is it rising compared with the rest of the United Kingdom? We know that the prospects for agriculture, upon which Northern Ireland is so dependent, are especially bleak at the moment. What effect is that having on the economy?

We have the impression—it is, I believe, a fair one—that the Northern Ireland economy is a paradox. It is relatively resilient compared to other parts of the United Kingdom, due partly no doubt to the active role played by, and financial support from, central government. At the same time, the Northern Ireland economy is vulnerable. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's perception of the Province's economic prospects.

We must trust that the Government's policies are addressed towards moving Northern Ireland from a dependence economy—dependent heavily upon subvention by central government—towards an enabling economy where every pound of government money spent helps to gear up enterprise, initiative, skills and effort in Northern Ireland itself. That is part of building the community of success upon which, to a great extent, the prospects for peace must depend. I support the order generally, but it will be interesting to hear the Minister's views.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, it is sometimes necessary to point out that Northern Ireland is a small place. The population of the six counties and two cities is about 1.5 million people. Those people suffer many of the problems associated with geographic remoteness and a legacy of old-style industry. Unemployment is therefore regularly higher than in other United Kingdom regions. Added to that are the difficulties caused by low wages and the high cost of fuel and food. All those problems have been exacerbated over the past 20 years by political violence and terrorism which have diminished new investment—there has already been reference to that point—and tourism.

Those factors help to explain why voluntary bodies are even more important in Northern Ireland than in most other parts of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to foresee circumstances in which government would not have to rely upon voluntary organisations for the delivery of services to those in need, for community care and community development, not to speak of partnerships in areas such as education and employment training. At their best, voluntary groups are highly cost effective.

At this point I should declare an interest as the current president of NIACRO. I am pleased to say that that body enjoys a constructive relationship with the prison and probation departments and with other departments in work training and crime prevention.

The history of government relations with other parts of the voluntary sector has gone through a number of phases. Early in the troubles there was the community relations commission. That body was wound up and the emphasis shifted towards leisure centres. Later, we had the Belfast Areas of Special Need, the BAN schemes. These withered away and along came Action for Community Employment. That has been a relative success. It has given work to many and, as a result, some have secured permanent jobs.

At the moment we have a new community relations council and the community relations unit advising the Secretary of State. At local level, there is Making Belfast Work and the Belfast action teams, both coming under the Department of the Environment. A similar programme exists for Derry, while the countryside has the rural action project.

The record seems to show a somewhat ad hoc placing of money on whatever seemed to be urgent at the particular time. This has been known to happen in conjunction with cuts in main government programmes in health, housing and social welfare.

I therefore ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend the present arrangements for the voluntary sector to continue permanently. Have they analysed the best way of enabling voluntary bodies to function effectively? Continuity is very important and yet ideally voluntary groups should not become over-dependent on government funding. We have to recognise also that direct fund-raising and grants from charitable trusts are a finite source of money. It can be difficult to raise money for unpopular causes, for example, mental health or prisoners. Complete reliance on the ACE scheme for workers is another pitfall to be avoided.

I urge Her Majesty's Government to take a coherent, long-term look at all these matters. Should there perhaps be an inter-departmental committee with the benefit of some independent members from outside the Civil Service? There is a lively and active voluntary sector and the needs it meets will not disappear at all quickly. I put to the Minister that it is necessary to take a long, calm look at how community development, cross-community relations, job creation and training can best be reconciled with education and social welfare. The Government have a part to play in sustaining the voluntary sector. I do not believe that they have yet found the most effective ways of doing so.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, and the noble Lords, Lord Holme of Cheltenham and Lord Hylton, in thanking the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for his helpful and informative explanation of this important order. I also warmly support the relevant and major matters raised by noble Lords in this appropriations debate.

Section 5 of the Estimates booklet for 1991–92 sets out the historical context and the parliamentary procedure from which these appropriation measures are derived and processed. As the Minister and other noble Lords have mentioned, this order and the Estimates invite the approval of Parliament for the amount of £4,676 million in order to finance the spending on government plans for the financial year 1991–92.

I agree with the Minister and other noble Lords that these appropriation orders are of crucial importance to the good governance and to the financial bases of the public services on which the present and future well-being and prosperity of the people of Northern Ireland may be built.

These plans, projects and developments have been duly proposed, considered and devised by Northern Ireland departments and Ministers as being desirable and necessary for publicly financed, supported services. In United Kingdom terms of parity of public supported services, this sum of money for appropriations and estimated spending is huge, by any stretch of the imagination. As I understand it, to maintain this parity principle, there is a subvention by the United Kingdom Government to Northern Ireland of £1,200 per head for each man, woman and child in Northern Ireland, above the average amount per head of population in the United Kingdom. That arises because of the separate financial provisions and estimates that have been arranged throughout history. I believe that other regions in the United Kingdom have similar arrangements and subventions, but this amount requires us to stop and think what money achieves if we throw it at problems.

Many responsible people in Northern Ireland and here at Westminster have been involved in the compilation of these Estimates. I feel sure that their knowledge, experience and honest commitment have been fully exercised in the separate elements and plans and in the public expenditure proposals.

Without going into detail, your Lordships will know and fully appreciate the manifold and distinctly hazardous difficulties with which Ministers, elected representatives and those involved in the exercise of public duties and services have to contend in the Northern Ireland context at present.

In this appropriation order debate, I have selected a few matters for explanation and perhaps criticism. I do so not for mere negative reasons but because I consider each part of the Estimates and appropriation measures as deserving of close appraisal and examination.

I applaud and fully support my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies and other noble Lords who have spoken on the major aspects of the issues which they have raised dealing with economic development and jobs in the Province. I shall put my points as succinctly as possible, not arguing the case in question. I shall try to deal with the points seriatim as they arise in the Estimates booklet.

Page 54 of the DED, Vote 2 of the Estimates, deals with energy efficiency. Section E indicates a decrease of provision from £734,000 in 1989–90 to £620,000 in 1990–91 and a tremendous decrease to £211,000 for 1991–92, the year we are considering. In my view this is a large decrease in the provision under Section E.1.(2) and (3), the energy enterprise scheme and the energy efficiency survey scheme. I should have thought that the need for energy-saving measures is still with us in Northern Ireland and I shall be pleased to hear the Minister's reply.

On page 55, DED, Vote 2, Section H, paragraph H.4. deals with expenses of the General Consumer Council. The provision for 1990–91 was £350,000. That is now reduced to £343,000 for 1991–92. That body has a statutory function to provide advice and information to the public in Northern Ireland concerning consumer affairs and protection. The General Consumer Council's work is highly regarded throughout the Province by elected representatives and the wider public. I wish to quote from a news release by the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland of Tuesday 7th May 1991: Access to good advice is fundamental if people are to benefit from laws giving consumer protection. However the provision of advice services in Northern Ireland is patchy and under-funded. This is the main conclusion of a report 'Good Advice—How Does Northern Ireland Measure Up?' published by the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland today, Tuesday 7 May 1991". Perhaps the Minister can explain the reason for that reduction.

Page 60 of the Estimates relates to Vote 3. Section B.8 concerns skill training and Section B9 the priority skills initiative. I believe there is a reduction of £131,000 in the provision for skills training. It was a shock to many of us in Northern Ireland to see banner headlines in the local press and to hear it broadcast that one of our most recently arrived and biggest foreign companies that had invested in an engineering project was facing problems with recruiting skilled labour. The Engineering Employers' Federation confirms that a number of firms are experiencing similar difficulties in finding highly skilled employees, including machine tool makers and experienced electricians and technicians. I fully accept that the new Training and Employment Agency established under the Government's Next Steps initiative has some awkward and difficult training and employment hurdles to clear. However, I should have thought the skilled labour hurdle could be made easy to surmount. A reduction in the provision in this area does not appear to me to be helpful.

I hope the Minister can help me as regards Vote 4 on page 81 of the estimates. Reference is made to environmental protection at Strangford Lough. Section A indicates a reduction of some £1,781,000 in the general environmental provision. I understand that the Department of the Environment has correctly identified the need for a structured management approach to conservation in the Strangford Lough area. It is mooted that a two-tier advisory committee is to he established to promote proper co-operation and management of the lough and its environs. Is it proposed to reduce the environment service provision by the amount that is mentioned in the estimates? What measures are proposed for the management of the Strangford Lough area? Will the proposed committee be publicly financed?

Vote 6 on page 94 concerns the provision for the fire services. Section A4 covers the maintenance of emergency fire-fighting services and fire prevention information. Why has a reduction of £5,000 been agreed in the provision of these two essential elements of the fire services, particularly at this time? I understand the fire authority is aware that Ulster firemen are concerned about the reductions and about the proposed restructuring plans and manning levels. That could seriously affect the fire services.

Page 110 deals with Vote 2. Section F concerns sport and community services. I know the Minister is particularly interested in the excellent sport and recreation services, and the active cross-community work provided by the Sports Council for Northern Ireland. I can assure the Minister that his support and interest are warmly appreciated by all connected with the Sports Council. However, there is one aspect of the capital grants provision which I know those involved in the Sports Council will wish the Minister to consider carefully. Serious concern has been expressed about the quality of the athletics tracks and stadium amenities provided in Northern Ireland. Facilities are urgently required there, to attract athletes of international standard and to enhance competitiveness and standards in Northern Ireland. I hope the Minister will give consideration in due course to the appropriate means of grant aiding such facilities.

Pages 126 to 129 relate to Vote 3. An official announcement was made in another place on 24th June 1991 by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right honourable Peter Brooke, on the establishment of a social security agency. It was only this morning in the Library of the House of Lords that I obtained a copy of the framework document and business plan of the new Social Security Executive Agency. This agency is the fourth such agency to be set up in Northern Ireland under the Next Steps programme. It is the ninth largest agency of the 66 agencies that are proposed for the whole of the UK and has some 5,000 employees.

I know two of the chief executives who have been appointed by the Government to lead the new agencies in Northern Ireland. I was privileged some time ago to become associated with those two gentlemen in trade union and public service work in Northern Ireland. I know that both of them are experienced, skilled, thoughtful and competent civil servants. They bring to each of their separate executive positions high standards of public service, accountability and honest commitment. The functions of this social security agency are challenging and demanding in terms of the delivery of services and customer expectations. I hope the Minister will make available to each noble Lord who has participated in this debate a copy of the document concerning the social security agency. There are a number of matters of concern, including staffing, the proposed three-year review, the reporting to Parliament, the planned customer entitlements and the complaints and appeals procedure.

Page 140 concerns Vote 1 and Ulster savings certificates. There is provision for £592,000 to cover the administration of Ulster savings certificates. As I understand the position, Ulster savings certificates are no longer available. The services have been referred to the National Savings Office in London. I should have thought that the administrative costs of the savings office in Ulster would diminish considerably for the financial year 1991–92 as no business will be done in that period. If there is still some work to be done there, should there not be a financial credit return for handling the remaining Ulster savings certificates?

Finally, I turn to page 152 of the estimates. In the absence of an elected representative forum in Northern Ireland where local issues can be publicly debated in an informed way, there are in my opinion at least three organisations in the Province which perform an essential public service by way of scrutiny and the provision of helpful community information work. There is the General Consumer Council, which deals with consumer issues. There is the Northern Ireland Economic Council, which I am pleased to see has had its provision increased. The NIEC provides an excellent representative forum and public information service on a wide range of economic and social issues. But the subject of this Vote is the Northern Ireland Audit Office, which has a statutory duty to undertake the scrutiny of the spending of public moneys by Northern Ireland departments and other public bodies. The Northern Ireland Audit Office is a watchdog on public spending. There has been some public discussion as regards the under-staffing of that body because of the scarcity in Northern Ireland of suitably qualified and experienced accountants and other personnel. Perhaps the Minister can clarify the position and say whether that problem has been remedied.

With those remarks I support the order.

8 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships for taking part in this appropriation order debate and for the care which noble Lords have taken in picking up individual points. Perhaps I may say in the space of a sentence or two that I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies, Lord Holme and Lord Blease, and with what was implicit in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton—that we are talking about a great deal of money. The public expenditure allocation for the present year amounts to some £6.4 billion. Within that allocation we very much hope that it will be possible to maintain services at a high standard and to promote a range of developments and initiatives. It was on the question of developments which your Lordships, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Holme, focused.

Perhaps I may first endeavour to answer the points put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, to whom I am most grateful for notice of the points which he raised. The noble Lord asked the fundamental question as to whether difficulties have been experienced recently by the Industrial Development Board in attracting inward investment. It is indeed so. I confirm that the IDB has reported a decrease in inward investment for the past year as compared with the previous two years. There is no question but that a range of factors influence the inward investment results. The Gulf war undoubtedly caused a number of companies to postpone, and in some cases to abandon, their investment plans. The recession being experienced in a number of economies has also made companies cautious about major investment plans.

Having said that, I can give the noble Lord a direct answer to the direct question which he asked me about what is happening now and whether inquiries and opportunities are under consideration. I am glad to be able to tell the noble Lord that at present the IDB has some 70 cases under active consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also raised the question of Northern Ireland Electricity and the noble Lord, Lord Holme, too, expressed an interest in that subject. The advisers' reports on the privatisation of NIE are commercially confidential. I hope that I am not saying anything particularly controversial in saying that my honourable friend Mr. Richard Needham, who is responsible for the subject, during a recent debate in the Northern Ireland Committee distributed a summary of the advice provided and conclusions reached by the Government on the structure which they propose. As the noble Lord specifically asked whether there was a possibility of receiving a summary, I can tell him that there is and that I shall be very happy to send a copy to him and to other noble Lords who have taken part in this debate.

The noble Lord also asked me about the possibility of postponing privatisation. The Government's decision to adopt the proposed structure was taken because we believe that that could introduce, in the best way possible, real competition into the electricity supply industry in Northern Ireland. We intend to go ahead with that. We are working on the matter and intend to come back to both Houses of Parliament later this year.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, raised the question of the report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General on the control of administrative manpower in the Northern Ireland health and personal social services. That is a matter which is now being looked into by the PAC, before which the department appeared recently. As the noble Lord will know, the Government's response to the report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General will follow the normal procedure. There will be a government response in due course and within the correct period of time. In making that response we shall consider the conclusions and recommendations which were made and the response will be laid before both Houses of Parliament. Any response will, of course, reflect the Government's policy on health and personal social service reforms. I can assure your Lordships that we shall, as always, give full and positive consideration to the PAC's recommendations.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also asked me about the important question of mortgages in Northern Ireland. The Housing Executive has operated a home loans scheme for Northern Ireland similar to those operated by local authorities in Great Britain for individuals who are unable to obtain mortgage finance from normal commercial lenders. The scheme is on all fours with the local authority schemes here. However, it is good news that the scheme is being used less and less as a result of the widespread availability of mortgage finance in Northern Ireland. I am unaware of any areas where there is now a mortgage supply problem. The short answer to what is an important question is that there was a supply problem but my understanding is that there is no such problem now and the scheme is being used less and less.

I was grateful to the noble Lord for what he said about the important work of the Ultach Trust. It has received from the European Commission under the physical and social environment programme of the European Community a contribution of half a million pounds to its capital trust fund. The Government, for their part, have enhanced that support for the trust with a contribution of a quarter of a million pounds. The income from the trust fund will be used to support both new and existing Irish language groups operating at local level.

The final point which the noble Lord raised—and I was grateful to him for doing so—concerned community relations and education for mutual understanding in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord spoke supportively about those matters. He made a glancing reference to the need to monitor the position and to see where we stand. I should like to give the noble Lord an assurance that the programmes which I have just mentioned are regularly monitored to assess their impact as best we can. There is an increasing amount of quantitative data to demonstrate that the programmes are beginning to break down traditional barriers between the communities. That is supported by research such as the social attitudes survey.

However, the ultimate aim of our policy is to change behaviour and attitudes. That will clearly not be achieved in the short term. We are therefore undertaking a number of long-term studies of the work in order to develop the range of qualitative indicators available by which we can measure progress. I therefore very much take to heart what the noble Lord said—it is no good indulging in what we believe is good work without knowing where it is heading.

Perhaps I may turn last to the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Holme, he does not mind, because he raised some fundamental questions about the economy. I shall, if I may, deal first with the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Blease.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, may I intervene to apologise for not being able to stay any longer and to say that I should be extremely grateful if the Minister would write to me about my single point?

Lard Belstead

My Lords, perhaps I may deal with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blease. He asked, quite rightly, about what appears to be a reduction in support for energy efficiency. The answer to his question is that the energy efficiency provision is required for the energy enterprise scheme, which involves the promotion of and publicity for energy efficiency, and the energy efficiency survey scheme, which provides grants to industrial and commercial concerns for the employment of consultants to improve energy efficiency in the workplace. That is what the figures in the estimates to which the noble Lord referred relate to.

The noble Lord is quite right. There is a big dip in the expenditure. Much of that is explained by the fact that over £225,000 of the 1990–91 provision was required to meet a backlog of claims under the forerunner of the energy efficiency scheme. The current level of provision will be kept under review in line with the commitments in the consultative paper on energy efficiency.

The noble Lord also asked why there is a reduction in the provision for the Consumer Council for the current year. Provision for the council for this year, at £343,000, is only marginally lower than the out-turn figure for last year. That should enable the council to maintain its level of activity in an important field.

The noble Lord raised an important point about skills training. The reductions for skills training that he identified are almost minimal. There are some reductions, but they are tiny. They are the result of rationalisation in funding arrangements following the reorganisation of training in Northern Ireland. There is no question of a reduced commitment to skills training which has been given a high priority in the Training and Employment Agency's published strategy and operational plan. Industry-led working groups have already completed reviews of the training needs of certain sectors, including engineering, and action plans are being drawn up to implement their recommendations.

The noble Lord asked me about environmental services. He asked why there has been a reduction in funding of environmental services. Last year's expenditure included two major exceptional items which meant that the 1990–91 figure for environmental services was unusually high. There is therefore no real reduction in expenditure this year and, at nearly £9 million, it is over £2 million higher than for 1989–90.

The noble Lord also asked about Strangford Lough. I should like to assure him that the Government are aware of the importance of preserving Strangford Lough and are currently engaged in consulting local interests including residents of the area. All views will be carefully considered and we shall publish proposals in due course. I cannot say anything this evening about public funding, but all interested parties are agreed on the need to preserve that wonderful amenity in that most beautiful area and I hope that we can reach broad agreement on the most suitable way forward.

The noble Lord asked about the reduction in the provision and maintenance of emergency fire-fighting appliances which are known as Green Goddesses. There is a tiny reduction of some £2,000. The estimated costs of maintaining the emergency appliances has been reduced because the number of new replacement parts that had to be purchased this year decreased. That is good news. I assure the noble Lord that there will be no change in the standards of maintenance of those important stand-by vehicles.

The noble Lord asked me about the Sports Council. I was most grateful to him for his kind words. The figure on which he lighted in the Estimates is the capital grant to the Northern Ireland Sports Council and is intended for the upkeep of the Sports Council headquarters building—the House of Sport—the Northern Ireland Mountain Centre at Tullymore and some equipment such as computer terminals. However, any money that finds its way to, for example, athletics tracks—in other words, through the governing bodies of sports—and the noble Lord specifically mentioned such facilities, will come from the Sports Council's recurrent grant which has increased this year by more than 9 per cent. over last year.

The noble Lord asked me about the Social Security Agency and about accountability to Parliament. Ministers will remain fully accountable to Parliament for the work of the DHSS including in the Social Security Agency. That means that Ministers will continue to reply to letters from noble Lords. However, where the issue raised is one of an operational nature it is intended that a full response will be provided by the Chief Executive with copies placed in the Library of this House. The noble Lord asked me whether I could make available a copy of the relevant document. I shall consider that matter urgently and do my best to respond to him.

The noble Lord asked me about Ulster savings and suggested that there should be a credit transfer in the Estimates. With effect from 1st June 1991, no new investments for Ulster savings will be accepted. From that date Northern Ireland investors will have access to national savings. The amount in the Estimates represents the cost of administering existing investments for the present year. I hope that the noble Lord will not think that I am being controversial if I say that the moment had come when it was reckoned that to run a regional variant of a national scheme, however important it was for Northern Ireland, was not cost-effective. That is why the change has been made.

Finally, the noble Lord asked me about the difficulty in recruiting which it is reported has been experienced by the Northern Ireland Audit Office. I understand that the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland is of the view that, although the wastage rate particularly for qualified staff gave cause for concern in recent years, he is glad to report that the overall wastage rate for the past year has declined considerably and did not include any qualified staff. He attributes the improvement in the recruitment and retention of those well-qualified staff at least in part to the performance-related pay system which is now operated by his office.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked the fundamental question, sometimes raised by other noble Lords, why we were debating this important order in an empty Chamber and why it was not a proper piece of legislation. He said that he would like the day to come when responsibility for such matters would be in the hands of those affected in Northern Ireland. I say amen to that. Let us hope that we shall move towards that position in view of the talks that are taking place.

The noble Lord raised the important question of integrated education, which is a subject in itself. I should like to write to him on that matter, but perhaps I may make two comments. Expenditure has increased from £1.6 million in 1990–91 to over £4 million in the current year. I quoted that figure in my speech. I am sorry that I cannot interpret the figures that the noble Lord gave from the Estimates, but that is the answer as regards expenditure. That is good news. Since becoming involved in Northern Ireland affairs I have seen the integrated education story continuing to expand, with more primary schools being opened.

Given the hour and the fact that there is further business to come I shall not go into the question of further and adult education which the noble Lord raised, save to say that, although there is a fine further education system in Northern Ireland, the participation rate by adults has been, as he said, disappointing. I hope that the noble Lord will allow me to write to him on that matter.

Finally, I come to the point raised in a pretty fundamental way by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, and by other noble Lords as regards where the Northern Ireland economy is at present, how it looks and what is likely to happen in the future. The Province has been less affected by the national recession than elsewhere. Unemployment started to rise after that of the UK and at a slower rate. That has been good news. Nonetheless, the recession is now undoubtedly being felt in Northern Ireland and the economic difficulties that we are experiencing at the moment—I do not conceal that fact—highlight the need to enhance the productive capacity of the local economy. In that context, strengthening the economy has been one of our top priorities.

I believe that much has already been achieved. We have invested heavily in all aspects of infrastructure. The necessary physical and communications infrastructures which are so crucial to economic development—roads, air links and telecommunications—are of extremely high quality and leave Northern Ireland well placed to take advantage of the forthcoming economic upturn. In the middle of it all the Industrial Development Board has been playing a crucial part. We talked about it earlier.

Before I finish I want also to mention that we have been undertaking a programme of urban regeneration which has been under the responsibility of my colleague Mr. Needham. It has been pursued for quite a few years now. Most of the initiatives of urban regeneration are geared towards encouraging private investment. For example, in Belfast urban development grant totalling £43 million has since 1983 generated £177 million of private sector investment—a ratio of one to three. The overall regeneration package has undoubtedly assisted the recent revival of Belfast, where private investment in major projects in the city centre completed in the past six years, under way and programmed currently total over £600 million. If the noble Lord has not had an opportunity to do so since becoming spokesman for his party on Northern Ireland, one of the things that might interest him very much, if it could be arranged, would be to go to see what has happened in the centre of Londonderry, where the city on the West Bank has been absolutely transformed by regeneration programmes and inward investment.

Apart from the answer that I should have given to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton (and I shall write to him), I believe that I have answered the points which noble Lords have raised. Perhaps I may thank noble Lords for taking part in the debate on this order, which I commend to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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