HL Deb 09 July 1992 vol 538 cc1362-81

9.40 p.m.

The Earl of Arran rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd June be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1992, laid before the House on 2nd June, be approved.

This is one in a series of financial orders for Northern Ireland which come before the House each year. The draft order before us today authorises expenditure of £2,874 million for Northern Ireland departments in the current financial year. That is additional to the sums voted on account in March and brings total estimates provision for Northern Ireland departments to £5,014 million.

I should like to set the estimates in the context of the recent performance of the Northern Ireland economy. The region's economic fortunes are, of course, closely bound up with those of the UK as a whole. It is not therefore surprising that Northern Ireland has been affected by the recent recession. However, the local economy has been remarkably resilient over the past year or so. While unemployment at 14.4 per cent. of the workforce is higher than any of us would wish, it is well below the peak of 17.7 per cent. in 1986. The increase in unemployment has moderated in recent months and is substantially below that set for the UK as a whole. Similarly, output levels and employment have held up better in Northern Ireland than in the remainder of the United Kingdom.

Recent business surveys also point to an increase in business confidence in Northern Ireland and to a welcome revival in export performance. Taken together, that is encouraging evidence of Northern Ireland's economic capabilities and should leave it well placed to take advantage of the economic upturn.

With your Lordships' permission, I now turn to the main items in the order, starting with the Department of Agriculture. Net provision in the two agricultural Votes amounts to some £152 million, an increase of £8 million over 1991–92. In Vote 1, £33 million is for various market support schemes which operate throughout the United Kingdom. That includes £19 million to support farming in the less favoured areas by means of headage payments on hill cattle and sheep.

In Vote 2, £53 million is for a wide range of professional and technical services to the industry, including scientific and veterinary services. That reflects the importance of maintaining the highest possible quality of Northern Ireland Agricultural products. A further £27 million is sought for arterial drainage, fisheries and forestry.

The Department of Economic Development's Vote 1 seeks provision of £168 million for the Industrial Development Board. The board's main aim is the introduction and development of internationally competitive companies, as that will provide the basis for growth in durable employment. Existing companies are being encouraged and assisted to improve their competitiveness in order to meet the opportunities and challenges offered by the single market.

In Vote 2, £44 million is sought for the Local Enterprise Development Unit which is also placing greater emphasis on improving the competitiveness of small companies; £9 million is sought for the Industrial Research and Technology Unit, which was launched in March to assist companies with research and innovation.

Finally in Vote 2, £11 million is for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, to assist the further development of the tourist industry. That is nearly £4 million more than last year and will help the tourist sector generate additional jobs and benefit the economy throughout Northern Ireland.

The Department of Economic Development's Vote 3 seeks £189 million for the Training and Employment Agency. That includes some £46 million for the youth training programme, £51 million for the "Action for Community Employment" programme and £18 million for the job training programme. Your Lordships will be pleased to hear that 90 per cent. of apprentices on training centre courses provided by the agency enter permanent employment on completion of their training.

I now turn to the Department of the Environment, where £169 million is sought in Vote 1 for roads, transport and ports. That includes £142 million to finance the operation and maintenance of Northern Ireland's well-developed road system and for new construction and improvement works.

Vote 2 covers the important area of housing, where £187 million is sought to provide assistance to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and to the voluntary housing movement. When net borrowing by the housing executive, rental income and capital receipts are taken into account, the total resources available for housing this year will be about £531 million. This will enable further progress to be made in improving housing conditions.

In Vote 3 gross expenditure on water and sewerage services in 1992–93 is estimated at £152 million; of which £98 million is required mainly for normal operation and maintenance and £54 million for capital expenditure, including schemes to improve further the quality of drinking water in line with the standards laid down in European Community directives.

In Vote 4, £132 million is sought for a wide range of environmental services. This is some £5 million more than in 1991–92, and includes additional resources for pollution control measures.

The estimates for the Department of Education seek a total of £1,213 million, an increase of 6 per cent. over last year. Vote 1 includes £743 million for recurrent expenditure by education and library boards, an increase of £54 million over 1991-92. This includes £389 million for school teachers' salaries and £237 million for other expenditure on schools and further education services. For libraries, youth, transport and administration £117 million is provided and £50 million is for boards' capital projects, including the provision of new laboratories and technology workshops. Voluntary schools have £123 million and there is £6 million for integrated schools. I know that your Lordships continue to take a keen interest in the development of integrated education in Northern Ireland and will therefore be pleased to learn that there are now 14 integrated schools in operation, with a total of 2,581 pupils in attendance.

In Vote 2, £266 million is sought, including £89 million for universities and £126 million for student support. The vote also covers expenditure on a range of youth, sport, community and cultural activities, including £3 million for community relations activities funded by the department.

For the Department of Health and Social Services, total net provision of £1,243 million is sought for health and personal social services. This is an increase of £74 million over 1991–92 and will help to ensure that the already high standard of these services in Northern Ireland is maintained and developed. Included is £252 million for family health services, £887 million for the health and social services boards and £46 million for a substantial capital development programme.

In Vote 4 a total of £1,022 million is sought for the range of benefits administered by the Social Security Agency. That includes £187 million for disability benefits, £567 million for income support and £268 million for family and other benefits.

Finally, I draw attention to the Department of Finance and Personnel Vote 3, where £4 million is sought for the community relations programme. This brings total spending on this programme to £7 million this year. The Government will continue to support and facilitate developments which lead to increased contacts and understanding between the two communities. Much useful work is being carried out in this area and it is encouraging, for example, that some 500 schools and 300 youth organisations are now involved in cross-community contact programmes. This offers great hope for the future.

I hope that your Lordships have found this summary of the main components of this order to be of help. I commend the order to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd June be approved.—(The Earl of Arran.)

9.49 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his summary of the main provisions of the order. The importance to Northern Ireland of the National Health Service and social security stands out very clearly in the estimates. Added together, the expenditure on those two services accounts for almost one-half of the total current annual expenditure of the Northern Ireland departments, excluding security and law and order. Having regard to the magnitude of that expenditure and also to the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Arran, is the Minister who has special responsibility for both programmes, I thought that it would be appropriate for me this evening to concentrate on these two services to the exclusion of the other services, although I do not underestimate their importance for one moment.

Although the two programmes are extremely important for people in Northern Ireland, they have not been discussed at length in your Lordships' House for some considerable time. As I have said, however, we have the advantage and the pleasure this evening of having with us the Minister in charge. I have to refer to criticisms that I hear about the planning of the health service capital programme in the Province, but let me say at once that I would not wish to be thought blind to the fine achievements of the dedicated men and women who serve the patients in Northern Ireland or to the magnificent contribution that is made by the service.

The debate on this order in another place on 18th June, together with complaints from at least two deputations which came to Westminster last year, suggest that all may not be well within the planning structure of the National Health Service in Northern Ireland. I put it no higher than that. It would appear that those who have had dealings with the planning departments of the four Health and Social Service Boards would prefer to try almost any other form of planning which the wit of man could design. An inference that the Government might fairly draw from this is that it has something to do with the failure of the boards to undertake their planning tasks in a way that retains the confidence of the local communities. Another inference would be that the boards have failed to appreciate the historical role of the hospital service in relation to its community. They simply treat such hospitals as if they have outlived their era.

I would be the first to concede that the reorganisation of hospitals is inherently difficult. It is difficult because a community will be wedded to its local hospital. Historically, that hospital will have been dependent on local donations, public-spiritedness and involvement. However, the public of 1992 have not been convinced by the department or the four boards that their own community hospital can have an extended role in the future. I am sure that the Minister is fully aware of that criticism, but he may be unaware that there is also a widespread conviction that the leaders of the local communities feel they are impotent in their efforts to influence the health boards and to shape the National Health Service.

The criticism that we hear is not confined to the nature of the planning of the capital programme; it also touches the composition of the health boards. I accept that board members are anxious to do a good job of work, but I have to say to the Minister that the membership of the boards and their role is something of a mystery to many people who have had a lifetime of experience in public life—

Lord Fitt

Hear, hear!

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I hear the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, supporting me.

It is widely rumoured that too many of the members are ex-civil servants—the innuendo being that they are there to represent the interests and the prejudices of the Civil Service and to ensure that the board becomes an instrument of the Civil Service. Although I would be cautious about accepting that innuendo, I am sure that the charge cannot be ignored or lightly brushed aside.

I should be glad to hear from the Minister how the Government propose to answer that criticism. It would be helpful if the noble Earl could tell the House what is the test for membership of the area health boards. Can the Minister place in the Library a list of the names of the present members together with a description of their occupations, or former occupations if retired?

As well as being a department of central government, the DHSS in Northern Ireland, over which the Minister presides, also fulfils the same role as an English regional health authority. How well does the department perform its regional health authority functions?

Among the official documents published this year perhaps one of the most revealing of all in this respect is the authoritative report by the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland which was published in February. I regret to say that the report brings to light a sad picture of the department's inadequate and sloppy control and monitoring procedure in respect of the purchase of X-ray equipment by the four area boards during the past four or five years. The report gives an impressive list of omissions and deficiencies by the department, which owing to the lateness of the hour, I shall not repeat now. While the responsibility for the state of affairs revealed by the report must in part be that of the boards and their officers, it is also certain that there has been a lack of drive and sophistication in the relevant section within the department. That is a severe criticism but I am satisfied that it is properly based on the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Another worrying point is that the Department of Health performs other regional functions. I appreciate that the Minister has been in his present post for only three months but I should like to urge him to satisfy himself that similar deficiencies are not affecting those functions as well and that the department is using the powers which it undoubtedly possesses to supervise more effectively the work of the health boards. I anticipate that its task of supervision may become even more important as the health trusts take over the provision of health care and the service becomes more fragmented in the future.

The Comptroller and Auditor General also reported that, since the resignation of the department's advisory committee on radiology in December 1989, it no longer has available to it the advice of an independent group of radiologists drawn from throughout Northern Ireland. He concluded that this was a loss to the service and he recommended specifically that this specialist committee be reconvened. I hope that the department has not been unsympathetic to that advice.

I am aware that there is a body of opinion in Northern Ireland which favours the setting up of an independent Northern Ireland health advisory board to give advice on the formulation and application of health policies. Such a body should have among its membership well-informed and articulate lay people who could bring some pressure from the outside world to bear upon a bureaucracy which is perceived to be set in its ways. I wonder whether the department is sympathetic to that suggestion.

I should now like to make one or two comments on the social security service. I should point out that, since July last year, the service has been administered by the department's agent, the Social Security Agency, which employs about 5,500 people. That is something like 20 per cent. of the whole of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Moreover, two-thirds of the population of Northern Ireland, inclusive of old-age state pensioners, is in receipt of social security benefits. Those few facts show the heavy extent of Northern Ireland's dependency on benefits. It follows that the day-to-day well-being of two-thirds of its population cannot be separated from the smooth, effective and efficient running of the Social Security Agency.

The foregoing implies that there should be fair and prompt adjudication of applications for benefits and that there should be speedy procedures of appeal whenever there is a dispute. It also implies that the adjudication officers in the district offices should possess a sound and up-to-date grasp of the complex legislation so that an applicant can receive her or his just entitlement.

I accept the fact that these are early days in the history of the agency. Fortunately, the chief adjudication officer's latest annual report covers the period ending last June. Therefore, it includes the first three months of the agency's programme. I am glad to say that it appears to me that the chief adjudication officer is not living in a world of his own; he is living in the real world. His report gives the impression of being realistic in its approach to the difficulties. It does not hesitate to point out that much work remains to be done in respect of some benefits in order to bring first-time adjudication to a satisfactory standard.

Nevertheless, it is very disturbing to read that many district offices do not have up-to-date particulars of the detailed legislation relating to unemployment benefits, income support benefits and the Social Fund. That puzzles me. How can a claimant receive his or her proper entitlement unless that basic information is immediately available to the staff who handle the claim? I suggest to the Minister that that is a deficiency which must urgently be put right. Understandably, there have been some problems of redeployment and retraining and selection of people for new posts; but can we be assured that such problems—which, as I say, are inevitable—will he sorted out by next April?

I very much hope that the Minister will encourage the agency to pay the maximum attention to the authoritative report that I mentioned. Will the Minister also confirm that the agency will study the lessons that are spelt out in the DSS-sponsored research study evaluating the Social Fund? That study was undertaken by the Social Policy Research Unit of York University. Its report was published yesterday. Indeed, I am indebted to my noble friend Lady Hollis for alerting me to the publication of that valuable report and to some of its disturbing conclusions. However, if the Minister can confirm that the agency will pay immediate maximum attention to the findings of that study group, I shall be content.

The Department of Health and Social Security, over which the Minister presides, has full control of those two major areas of policy and expenditure. It is not dependent on any external factors. As the people of Northern Ireland are heavily dependent on both programmes, they can benefit substantially by effective and efficient running of the National Health Service and administration of the Social Security Agency. That is why I have taken the liberty this evening of concentrating at some length upon those services, knowing that other speakers will do justice to many of the other equally important subjects covered by the order.

10.5 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, has eloquently made his own this evening the subject of health in Northern Ireland. Perhaps I may presume for a moment upon the very topic that he has been addressing—I must apologise to the Minister for not having given notice of the question I am about to ask—because there is a considerable problem of which the Minister is no doubt aware. It relates to the Throne Hospital in the Royal group of hospitals of the Eastern Health Board. As I understand it, to acquire trust status in 1993, the Royal group has to find savings of £3 million. It intends to save £1 million by closing the Throne Hospital, which, as the Minister will be aware, specialises in the care of old people.

Given the widespread disquiet that the proposal has caused, not merely among the political parties but among local residents, the old people themselves, and the medical profession, is it the Government's intention, when pursuing trust status for hospitals, to have a good and much-needed community facility for old people closed in that way? Was that the intended consequence? Is there even now any prospect of seeing that decision rescinded?

My main subject is the state of the Northern Ireland economy. In his interesting and comprehensive introduction to the order, the Minister used the phrase that the Northern Ireland economy was well placed to take advantage of an economic upturn. He may be interested to know that a few days ago the Financial Times said that that phrase was always used by company chairmen whose companies were in trouble. We must hope that what the Minister said is true, but I am afraid that the Northern Ireland economy is not in good shape, despite the massive subventions which the British taxpayer makes, on the whole, I believe, willingly, towards Northern Ireland's prosperity. Indeed, the Minister will be aware that the April report of the Northern Ireland Economic Council was one of the gloomiest since the recession of the 1980s.

Despite the fact that 40 per cent. of the jobs in Northern Ireland are public-sector funded, unemployment is consistently 4 per cent. higher than that of the UK and is currently running, as the Minister said, at 14 per cent. of the population—one in seven of the workforce. The numbers of unemployed people have risen from 99,400 in January 1991 to 105,000 in January 1992. That is an increase of over 5,000 in one year in a country of only 1.5 million people. There are a further 5,000 people on training schemes who will soon leave them. They will then be on the dole.

Although the Minister was right when he said that unemployment in Northern Ireland has been worse in the past, there are of course wide regional variations. Some areas such as Strabane, Newry, Mourne, Londonderry and Cookstown have rates of between 19.5 per cent. and 24 per cent. One in five people is out of work. Emigration continues. Nearly 7,000 people leave Northern Ireland every year to look for work. What do the Government feel that they should do about that grave problem when the some of the youngest, best and brightest people are leaving the Province? There is not merely the problem of emigration and unemployment; currently, inward investment is falling. The IDB has been unable to report more hopeful statistics. Sadly, 1991 was one of the worst years on record for job promotion, with only 80 jobs being created by inward investment. Even including the 350 jobs attracted from the UK during the year, this falls well short of the IDB's own target of 1,800.

Does the noble Earl feel there is any longer a case for the IDB and the LEDU being separate organisations? I notice that they cost £10 million and £7 million respectively. Their areas of operation seem to overlap; indeed, they are currently carrying out a joint project on SMEs. I wonder whether there is scope for rationalisation and, in the course of that more focused promotion on their part.

To finish the chronicle of gloom in which I take no pleasure —it is something that must worry us all—the PA consultancy survey in March 1992 shows that all four forward economic indicators are down for the first time in 30 years. Investment intentions are down 4 per cent. for the coming 12 months; projected employment is down 2 per cent.; and manufacturing output is down 1 per cent. Orders are down 1 per cent. I know what a blow this must be to the noble Earl's honourable friend Mr. Needham who predicted 2 per cent. of real growth for the Northern Ireland economy earlier this year.

The proponents of economic despondency—among whom today I am unhappy to find myself—are bound to try to ask what more could be done. I know that this exercises the Government continually. Where are the green shoots of growth in the Northern Ireland economy? What more could be done to try to get a greater degree of economic self-reliance in the Province and a growing prosperity that does not depend on the drip-feed of subvention?

I return to a point I raised in the earlier debate. There is an enormous potential bonus available from treating the island of Ireland increasingly as one economic area within the European Community. No doubt the noble Earl is aware that Coopers & Lybrand, commenting on a recent CBI/CII survey, said that they thought that an increase in intra-island trade would be a great advantage. The CBI/CII survey thought that an extra £3 billion in increased trade and an extra 75,000 additional jobs were potentially available if the two parts of the island could be in the closest possible economic links. We understand very well the fact that they are not and we all know that for reasons of history and of political tension they have not naturally looked to each other but have both looked across the water. But does this not demand from the Government of the Republic of Ireland and from ourselves in Northern Ireland the greatest possible effort to get the economic borders down? There should be co-operation rather than competition between the two parts of the island.

It is unique within the Community that both sides of the border qualify for objective one status under the EC structural fund. This could be exploited for their mutual advantage. They are peripheral. Both have small home markets; both have important agricultural sectors and large public sectors.

Perhaps I may suggest one or two other areas of co-operation. Both parts of the island—and this means the British Government and the Irish Government—could concentrate on getting state aids in centrally located regions of the EC de-emphasised while emphasising more strongly the peripheral regions to help in the cohesion plans which have been published for EMU. There could be more joint recession development, given the relative similarity of trade. Both parts of the island could co-operate to get European Community funds for research and development.

I referred earlier to the prospect for improved joint energy programmes. It is welcome that the interconnector between the Scottish grid and Northern Ireland has been agreed. It is also welcome that the EC has agreed to help finance the project. That is certainly more likely to create a realistic market in the newly privatised industry than would otherwise have been possible. But would not the interests of the Northern Ireland consumer be better served, and incidentally would there not be greater spinning reserve made available to ensure continual electricity supply and fewer power cuts if the interconnector could be re-established with the South?

I am well aware that the terrorist action of 1975 is the reason why the interconnector has not been re-established. But that is another good reason for the talks to work. We must hope that this kind of co-operation on energy matters will become possible. The noble Earl was kind enough to say earlier that he would write to me on the matter. There is scope to create a key junction in the Scotland/Dublin gas pipeline which could feed Northern Ireland too. On the question of economic development there is greater scope than has so far been put into practice to get the two halves of the island working together—that is what all my comments have been leading to—and in that context to make sure that the British taxpayer gets better value for the money we spend, albeit willingly, on Northern Ireland.

Finally, there is the question of transport, particularly freight. When the Channel Tunnel is completed, the island of Ireland will be the only part of the European Community which is not, as it were, land linked with continental Europe. That will throw together Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland through necessity, or, if one likes, adversity, to concentrate on transport infrastructure both within the island and with Great Britain and Europe.

Once the Channel Tunnel is completed, the land bridge may become more attractive than the direct route to Northern Ireland and the Irish ports. However, the tunnel will only benefit trade on the island of Ireland to the extent that improvements are made in the road and rail infrastructure linking the Channel Tunnel and the west British ports that serve the two parts of the island. As my noble friend Lord Russell pointed out during the March debate, the Government are aware that at least 10 to 15 per cent. of Northern Ireland freight originates outside the UK, and hence Northern Ireland is critically dependent on GB infrastructure for that trade.

While it is welcome that the Government are willing to discuss the requirements of upgrading the Holyhead/Crewe rail link, that does not directly benefit Northern Ireland which is dependent on links to Stranraer. What are the Government's plans to improve the links with Stranraer? I fear that the proposals, such as we understand them, to improve the road links to these ports, extremely welcome as they are, may be too little too late. We have a projected 3 per cent. increase in road use within the decade and it could be that current planned improvements will be outstripped by demand.

The burden of my theme is that we support the order and believe that the British taxpayer is right to continue heavy levels of subsidy to Northern Ireland. Those subsidies are needed but we must reflect whether there are not ways in which the governments of the Republic and this country working together could do more to improve the common infrastructure and thus the prosperity of the island.

10.18 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I am conscious that the time factor is pressing severely on the business of this House. The points I wish to make will be directed principally to the order before us and will not be argued in detail. Members on these Benches have contributed to searching and constructive debate on these orders. I hope the Minister will have an opportunity to reply to the points made by noble Lords on this side of the House.

To help clarify points in my own mind I shall refer to the Northern Ireland Estimates for 1992 to 1993. The first matter I wish to raise is the DED, Vote 1 on page 48 of the Estimates referred to in the order. It relates to selective assistance and other services to industry. I have heard concern expressed about what appears to be a cut in the provision under this heading of some £37 million. It is readily accepted that there is a need to improve the effectiveness of the methods applied by the selective assistance and other services to produce effective productive development. But I would suggest that any proposed changes in the industrial development grants should be realistically directed to the development of indigenous businesses. There is a greater need than ever to encourage entrepreneurial skills and enterprise in Northern Ireland. That has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Holme.

This would not exclude suitable support for overseas and inward investment on new product development. Indeed I was delighted to hear the Northern Ireland Minister for Industry, Mr. Robert Atkins, announce the Fruit of the Loom expansion at Derry involving some 650 new jobs. But I believe that overseas investment is more readily attracted if potential investors find industrial productive development in Northern Ireland rather than the drip-feed and lame cluck connotations that we have heard mentioned tonight. In this connection I would join the CBI in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland trade unions and the Belfast Unemployed Centre in welcoming the establishment of the new Research and Technological Unit. It is to be hoped that this unit's new board will effectively encourage closer links between both sides of industry which comprise the board. Indeed there is a great need for co-ordinated action at all levels of the industrial partnership to generate employment. There is a very close-knit management-labour relationship—a small span of command—that can effectively deal with problems and new methods of production in an earnest and quick manner, so it is unfortunate that there should be this cut of £37 million in the provision as listed. I would ask: is there a figure for the provision of a new RTU?

I should like to refer to DED, Vote 2 on page 51 of the Estimates dealing with the Health and Safety Agency for Northern Ireland and also with health and employment protection. Both these are small financial provisions. Why is there a cut of some £18 million in regard to these very important safety services? It is particularly unfortunate in this year, the European Year of Hygiene, Health and Safety at Work. I should have thought there would be some special provisions to indicate that Northern Ireland was in line with what was happening in the rest of the United Kingdom and in Europe.

I now come to the item on page 54, Vote 2, on mineral exploration and miscellaneous services. I was surprised to see the extent of the cut, £278,000, in connection with expenditure on the search for minerals and petroleum and on the monitoring of current exploration developments in the Province. I understand from people at university level who are competent to assess these research and mineral explorations that optimistic results have been obtained about possible commercial prospects from shale oil deposits on the Antrim plateau and other commercially viable mineral deposits in the Province. I ask the Minister whether we have given up hope of profitable exploration in Northern Ireland? Why has this huge cut taken place this year.

With regard to the General Consumer Council—DED, Vote 2 on page 54—the Minister will be aware of the work of that organisation. It is extremely active and effective in the discharge of its statutory remit. It has responded very positively in a supportive manner to the principles of raising the standard of high quality public services and giving more power to the citizen, as announced in the Northern Ireland Citizen's Charter. Indeed, the chairman of the council, Lady McCullum, has been appointed a member of the Secretary of State's advisory panel on the charter.

I ask the Minister whether he will tell us the reason for that severe cut. Why has a provision of the General Consumer Council been cut by £25,000 even when it was proven that its very limited budget for last year had been extended to the limits? I understand that the council's budgetary estimates for the programme of work for the year were duly submitted to the department but no explanation was received about the work or the finance involved.

With regard to DED, Vote 3 on page 58, the Youth Training Programme (YTP) and Action for Community Employment (ACE), from experience I know that both those programmes have been very tightly financed, monitored and controlled. I very much regret to see cuts of some £6 million in those essential and vital services. Indeed, I had hoped to have seen substantial additional funds for that vastly increasing problem in Northern Ireland.

One has only to read the editorial and report in today's London Times to understand the problems in Great Britain arising from unemployment among young people. Many of them have left school without qualifications and have little or no work experience. Employment schemes are vital to the future and general good of young people and the community at large. I ask the Minister to use his good offices to draw this matter to the attention of his ministerial colleague to have it urgently examined.

In the matter of the employment services, I should at least like to present a bouquet on Vote 3 (page 60 of the Estimates). There is a very welcome provision of £170,000 for employment schemes and facilities at the Training and Employment Agency offices throughout the Province—those are jobcentres—which are found in every town throughout Northern Ireland. I mention specially the offices at Gloucester House, Belfast, and in the North and West of Belfast, for the type of help given. I have had feedback from a number of people with whom I have been associated in going to those offices. They have praised at great length the highly advanced and specialised equipment that is made available to them there. I understand that it is the best in the United Kingdom.

The unemployed and job seekers are helped personally in every possible way to be placed in the employment that is most suitable to their aptitudes, skills and abilities. They are able to be put in touch with vacancies and prospective employers not only throughout Northern Ireland at any time but also throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. I understand that measures are soon to be adopted to extend that type of information to all the jobcentres in Europe. In that respect, Northern Ireland is well ahead of Great Britain. I should like to give credit to the people who are manning those particular jobcentres which I know and have experienced.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, referred to electricity. Reference has been made to the DED Vote on pages 61 to 64 for the OFFER in Northern Ireland. There are no comparable figures available. It is a new venture to meet the needs of the 600,000 electricity consumers in Northern Ireland. I do not wish to go into the details about the quotation and other matters. However, there is considerable anxiety among consumers and industrialists in Northern Ireland about the future in that connection. Such concern does not arise from rumour or lack of understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland. It arises from the situation that already exists in Great Britain.

In its brief the Northern Ireland CBI states: Large users are at severe disadvantage in Northern Ireland. During 1991 CBI research highlighted that these users were paying 15–25% more for electricity in NI compared to GB, costing approximately £10 million … and even more compared to many other EC countries. Since April 1992, 21 companies (representing 10% of the manufacturing employment) have been facing significant increases—even though Minister Needham said that tariff levels would not increase in real terms until 1996/7. DED has imposed 6 month freeze (till 30 September) on price increases as they try to resolve [the] problem. Additional cost being threatened [is] estimated at £3 m". Naturally the CBI sees a need for some form of competitor in that new venture on electricity. It supports the electricity of the interconnector already referred to and the gas pipeline with Scotland.

There is considerable information in a new publication available on the magazine rack in the Library of the House of Lords. It is a publication from Northern Ireland entitled Northern Ireland Business Review and is published monthly. It will be of great value to people in Northern Ireland and those interested in business affairs in Northern Ireland. Its information is positive, informative and reliable.

Those are the points that I wish to raise. I have given the Minister notice of some of them.

10.32 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, the heavy force has just arrived on the Government Front Bench; and I suppose that we should be intimidated and not keep the House up at this late hour. However, it is necessary to speak on this Appropriation Order. That is what the House is for. When we were invited to take our seats in this Chamber we were invited to express our opinions on legislation that affects our constituencies.

The people of Northern Ireland should be very grateful that we have the noble Lord, Lord Blease, in this House. He is the only Member of your Lordships' House who both regularly attends the debates and continues to live in Northern Ireland. With his industrial background in the trade union movement, he still after many years remains concerned with the industrial position in Northern Ireland. I believe that all the people in Northern Ireland should be grateful to him for his continuing interest.

I have taken the same view as my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies in relation to the debate. I do not live in Northern Ireland. Although there is no substitute for living there, I try to keep in touch with people in Northern Ireland by telephone, by meetings, and by reading the debates of another place. I intend to concentrate on that aspect briefly tonight.

During my political life I have found few occasions to agree with the honourable Member for North Antrim in another place, Dr. Paisley, particularly in respect of constitutional issues. However, I have always recognised him as being a valiant constituency worker. He has shown a great deal of interest in the welfare of his constituents and in other people throughout Northern Ireland. On reading his contribution to the appropriation debate in another place I was astounded at some of the revelations which he made. Although there may not be too many Members in your Lordships' House this evening I know that many Members read the Official Report of our debates. I believe that something should be read into the records of the Official Report to show the extent of what I regard to be a serious problem in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies drew attention to what he considers to be great discontent within the health service as regards the boards which have been set up—the "quangos" as they are referred to in Northern Ireland. All political parties in Northern Ireland have voiced concern about the composition of the boards. They consider that the people who have been placed on them are there to voice the opinions of the Northern Ireland Office. That is a bad way to run a health service. Referring to an earlier debate, I hope that, if there is a conclusion to the political talks which are now taking place, the responsibility for heath and social services will revert to a Northern Ireland institution. Those people will then have the responsibility either for the continuing existence of the quangos or, if they want to abolish them, for the setting up of a new structure which will more ably represent the views of the people.

I want to read a paragraph of what was said in another place by the honourable Member for North Antrim. He said: Last week, the Eastern health and social services board announced that it would close six hospitals. Some 750 beds in the area will close and up to 8,000 nursing staff will eventually lose their jobs. The Government propose to close Newtownards, Bangor, Belvoir Park, Down, Foster Green and Musgrave Park. What a list of hospitals to be closed!" —[Official Report, Commons, 18/6/92; col. 1131.] He then went on to point out that those hospitals have specialist agencies within them to deal with infectious diseases.

On the face of it the Eastern health and social services board has decided to close six hospitals and to make 8,000 staff redundant. Therefore, there must have been gross mismanagement in those hospitals, considering the number of staff involved, the hospitals which will close and the facilities which are to be transferred to other places. I am certain that if the board were run by Northern Ireland people that would not have taken place.

I am perhaps the more concerned for personal reasons and I have been in touch with the Minister's office to ask him about the matter. I receive daily telephone calls and letters from people in Northern Ireland complaining about the length of time that people there must wait for by-pass and heart operations. It is well known that Northern Ireland is the worst region in Europe for heart complaints. No one knows why, but that has been the case for a number of years. The honourable Member for North Antrim stated that he knows of people who have had to wait four years for heart surgery and that it is a matter of life and death. He quoted from the Register General Quarterly Returns for Northern Ireland for 1990, showing that: the number of heart disease deaths in the Greater Belfast area was: Ards, 165; Belfast, 922; Castlereagh. 188; Down, 215; Lisburn, 218; and North Down, 200—making a total of 1,908".—[Official Report, Commons, 18/6/92; col. 1133.] He added that the figures for other heart-related disease deaths were Ards, 22; Belfast, 178; Castlereagh. 25; Down, 21; Lisburn, 28; and North Down, 22. That makes a total of 296. The grand total of deaths from heart disease in Northern Ireland was 2,204.

I find those figures absolutely devastating. As I say, we do not know why heart disease is so prevalent in Northern Ireland but surely the Government should be able to throw more facilities into the tight to try to combat heart disease. I have asked the Minister—and I hope he will be able to reply this evening—how many by-pass operations were carried out last year in Northern Ireland and how many people are on the waiting lists. Is he satisfied as regards the number of specialists that there are in Northern Ireland to carry out heart surgery? If the facilities for heart by-pass operations or other operations related to heart disease are not available, could not patients be transferred to other parts of England, Scotland or Wales so that they would not have to wait for such a long period of time for an operation? It is extremely important for the Government to look at and take seriously the remarks that were made by the honourable Member for North Antrim, because it would appear that he has carried out a searching inquiry into the number of people affected by heart disease. The people of Northern Ireland deserve all the support that we can give them.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, mentioned the Throne Hospital issue. That hospital is situated in the Antrim Road, which is in what was formerly my North Belfast constituency for many years. That has provided a good service to people of all religions and of all political views over many years. It has always been regarded as an institution which could enlist the support of the whole community in that particular area, as it has done on this occasion. Every political party in Northern Ireland has supported the retention of the Throne Hospital. Although it appears that there will be savings of fl million, I am certain that that £1 million should be devoted to refurbishing that hospital. The building, the structure, is sound. The whole area is amenable to what the Throne Hospital is trying to do.

In relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Holme, mentioned, I still believe that there is no great anxiety in Northern Ireland over the privatisation of the electricity authorities or the water or sewerage services.

Two days ago I ran into a demonstration taking place outside the House. Immediately I was recognised by the fishermen from Kilkeel. I am sure that the Minister must have received forceful representations in relation to the ongoing dispute which is now taking place. The fishermen told me that many of them will be forced out of the fishing industry. They have been told by the Government that they must stop fishing for 136 days per year while fishermen from other EC member states will be able to fish in the waters in which our fishermen would normally be fishing. That directive from the EC acts greatly to the disadvantage of our own fishermen. Before the Government take any final steps, I ask them to look to the old adage that charity begins at home. They should look after the interests of our own fishermen rather than kowtow to the European Commission on the question of conservation.

Many representations have been made to me over the past two days about an investment company known as the International Investment Company Limited, which is based in Gibraltar. It has placed many advertisements in newspapers in the United Kingdom and in particular in Northern Ireland and, indeed, in the Republic. Many people have invested their life savings or redundancy payments with those people in answer to the advertisements. There are now rumours circulating that Northern Ireland may be about to experience its own BCCI scandal. I was wondering whether any representations had been made to the Government in that connection. The Minister may not possess that information for me tonight, but perhaps he will write to me. There is deep concern in connection with this matter.

10.45 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, perhaps I may say straightaway that in the interests of time it is probably best that I do not answer all the questions this evening. I shall do my best to answer as many as I can, but I shall certainly write to noble Lords in connection with any that I cannot answer.

Several noble Lords showed a keen interest this evening in the development of health and personal social services. The health and social services boards will have £887 million available from net current expenditure in 1992–93. That is an increase of £55 million over 1991–92 and is to improve the services for patients and clients.

It is a matter for boards to plan the development of their services in the light of the additional resources being made available, and with sufficient flexibility to enable them to cope with emerging pressures. However, I note what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, regarding planning by the boards, and I shall write to him in that regard.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and other noble Lords, I understand that local communities may be extremely concerned when a health and social services board proposes the closure or change of use of facilities or services. But I hope they will agree that if boards are to continue to provide the highest quality of services, changes are inevitable. I know that boards take seriously their responsibility to consult their local communities when changes are contemplated. Decisions to close or to change the use of facilities will not be taken lightly. The views of local communities and their public representatives will always be given the most careful consideration. I give the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and other noble Lords my complete assurance on that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, mentioned the question of the closure of the Throne Hospital. The Eastern Health and Social Services accepted proposals for the closure of the Throne Hospital. The board proposals are in line with the department's policy for the care of elderly people as set out in the regional strategy for health and personal social services for 1992–97. The aim is to build up services in the community so that a greater proportion of people aged 75 and over can be cared for in their own homes rather than in institutions.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, was kind and courteous enough to give me advance notice of the points that he wished to raise this evening. He referred to the membership of the health and social services boards, as did the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. Membership of the boards consists of people drawn from a wide range of backgrounds who have an interest in health and social care. Individuals are appointed as non-executive directors of boards on the basis of the skills and experience that they can bring to the board's business. The appointment of chairmen and non-executive board directors was publicly announced on 28th March last year. As the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, suggested, I am arranging for a list of members to be placed in the Library. But it is not normal practice to disclose personal information about individual appointees.

The noble Lord asked also about the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the purchase of X-ray equipment, and the suggestions that the department's advisory committee on radiology should be reconstituted. The Public Accounts Committee recently took advice on that matter and it would he inappropriate for me to comment at this stage. When the committee's report is published, its conclusions and recommendations will be carefully considered and the Government will respond fully through the normal medium of a memorandum of reply.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked also about the prospect of setting up an independent health advisory board. My department receives advice from a wide range of professional advisory committees, but I shall certainly consider the noble Lord's suggestion in that regard.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred to the Chief Adjudication Officer's report on adjudication standards. The social security agent has given an extremely positive response to the report and is taking action to effect improvements in the areas highlighted. I can assure the noble Lord that the agency is determined to attain the highest possible level of performance in adjudication work.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, spoke about the report in Great Britain by the Social Policy Research Unit at York. Although the report covers only Great Britain it will be studied extremely carefully to see whether it contains material which would be of relevance to Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, suggested that the I DB and the LEDU might amalgamate. There are no plans at this time to do so, but a harmonious and effective working relationship exists between the two organisations. That is being continually developed and built on. A review of structures within the Department of Economic Development and its agencies undertaken last year recommended that IDB and LEDU should remain separate, but that action should be taken to strengthen coherence of policy and eliminate any areas of overlap. The review's recommendations are being implemented.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, also asked about North-South economic co-operation. Certainly, we welcome any constructive contribution to the discussion on cross-border economic co-operation which has of course increased significantly in recent years. The Government are ready to provide assistance with, for example, the development of infrastructure in those cases where it can be shown to be of mutual benefit. However, it must be recognised that there are also many areas where the natural North-South relationship is one of competition to serve the same markets. It is for individual firms both North and South to determine where their own interests lie and to pursue those relationships which they believe will enhance their competitive position in world markets.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, raised several points. I shall respond to a few of them. He asked why the level of selective financial assistance to industry this year is about £20 million less than for 1991–92. The answer is that the reduction mainly affects industrial development grants where a lower number of projects have been grant-aided in recent years, reflecting the more difficult economic situation and a reduction in the level of grants available towards total investment costs. Grants may be spread over a number of years and there will inevitably be fluctuations in the estimates from year to year. However, I can assure the noble Lord that the change in provision does not reflect any reduction in the Government's commitment to industrial development. That remains the Government's second public expenditure priority in Northern Ireland after law and order.

The noble Lord also pointed out that the current provision for the Health and Safety Agency and for health and employment protection shows a marginal reduction over last year. This allocation is considered adequate for both the agency and the Health and Safety Inspectorate's needs, including any activities associated with the European Year of Safety, Hygiene and Health Protection at Work.

As regards funding for the General Consumer Council, the Government believe that the sums provided in the estimates should enable the council to carry out its functions including any relating to the Citizen's Charter.

Perhaps I may take one point of the many which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, brought up. I hope that I have covered some already. As regards the Kilkeel fisherman, I understand the points that he has made about the anxiety expressed by the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, including those fishermen based at Kilkeel. However, we consider that the package announced by my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, which also included a decommissioning scheme, will make a definite contribution to the conservation of fish stocks through reduced fishing effort. We consider that the package represents a good balance between the use of public funds, further controls on fishermen and the opportunity for the industry to play a greater role in securing its future.

I conclude my remarks by thanking noble Lords for participating in this debate and displaying their customary interest and concern for the people of Northern Ireland. I commend this order to your Lordships' House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.