HL Deb 06 March 1992 vol 536 cc1132-50

12.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hooper) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th February he approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this draft order has two purposes. The first is to authorise the expenditure of an additional £49.2 million for the current financial year. This brings the total Estimates provision for Northern Ireland departmental services this year to some £4,725 million. The second purpose is to authorise the Vote-on-Account of some £2,140 million for 1992–93. This will enable services to continue until the 1992–93 main Estimates are brought before the House later this year.

The Northern Ireland public expenditure allocation has faced significant resource pressures this year, with expenditure on a number of demand-led programmes such as health and education being higher than anticipated. Extra demands placed on the law and order programme have also contributed to this but are not part of the Estimates we are considering today. In order to accommodate those new demands, a temporary pause on spending on new capital contracts was announced on 9th December. While this means that some projects are being deferred for a few months, the effects of this short delay will be marginal and will not adversely affect the delivery of services. Indeed the moratorium is already effectively drawing to a close. Departments are planning to release the projects which will not now involve expenditure until the 1992–93 financial year. Departments will also release projects selectively where resources permit.

I should like to set the Estimates in the context of the recent performance of the Northern Ireland economy which has weathered the recent recession remarkably well. Unemployment, although higher than any of us would wish, has risen by a much smaller extent in Northern Ireland over the past 12 months than in the UK as a whole. It now stands at 14.3 per cent. of the workforce, an increase of less than one percentage point over the past year and well below the peak of 17.7 per cent. in October 1986. Similarly, employment and output levels have held up better in Northern Ireland than in the remainder of the United Kingdom. We are nevertheless not complacent and efforts to strengthen the economy remain high on the Government's list of priorities. The indicators provide encouraging evidence of the resilience of the Northern Ireland economy and should mean that it is 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's Vote 1. An additional £2.3 million is required for payments under the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Scheme and £4.4 million for the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance Scheme, reflecting increases in rates of allowances and in the numbers of eligible animals. These increases are, however, offset by reduced requirements elsewhere in the Vote.

In the Department of Agriculture's Vote 2, additional provision of £4.1 million is required, including £2.3 million for the disease eradication programme. The increases are fully offset by savings elsewhere in the Vote, resulting in a token increase of £1,000.

I now turn to the Department of Economic Development. In Vote 1, which covers expenditure on industrial support and regeneration, £3.9 million is sought for expenditure on custom-built factory premises. In Vote 2, a net increase of £5.7 million is sought for a range of services, including an additional £1.1 million for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. The last few years have seen a welcome upturn in Northern Ireland's tourism, and we expect that 1991 will show a record figure of over 1,150,000 visitors.

Vote 3, which covers expenditure by the Training and Employment Agency, seeks a further £1.4 million for the youth training programme and £0.1 million for the community volunteering scheme. This will enable the number of full-time posts supported by the scheme to increase from 600 to 700.

The Department of the Environment has supplementary estimates in four Votes. In Vote 1, an additional £4.5 million is sought, including £1.3 million for roads and bridges, £0.5 million for road lighting and £0.7 million for payments to Northern Ireland Railways.

In Vote 2 £5.4 million is sought overall and £12.3 million is for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, mainly to enable it to repay loans. This is offset by additional receipts from housing associations and by a fall in the number of applications under the co-ownership scheme.

In the Department of the Environment's Vote 3 an additional £3.4 million is sought for consultants' fees for design work on water and sewerage capital schemes. Over the next three years, approximately £87 million will be directed towards improving the already high quality of drinking water supplies in Northern Ireland in line with the relevant EC directives.

In Vote 4 an additional £3.3 million is sought. This includes £3.7 million for community economic regeneration schemes. Funds continue to be targeted at areas of social, economic and environmental need.

For education a net increase of £10.7 million is sought for Vote 1. Additional provision includes £11.8 million for grants to education and library boards and £8.7 million is for mandatory student awards, reflecting the increasing numbers of school-leavers who enter higher education.

Moving to the Department of Health and Social Services, in Vote 1 an additional £2.5 million is sought for grants to health and social services boards to meet increased costs. An additional £15 million is required for expenditure on the family health services, arising mainly for payments under the new general practitioner and dental contracts.

Finally, in Vote 4, covering social security, an addition of nearly £15 million is sought to meet a revised estimate of claims for a wide range of benefits, including income support and disability benefits.

I hope that the House has found this very brief summary of the main components of this order helpful. I commend the order to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th February be approved.—(Baroness Hooper.)

1 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, to a Northern Ireland debate and regret that I have been unable to provide her with a larger audience. I thank her for explaining so clearly the significance of the order and its main provisions.

Like all Members of your Lordships' House, I welcome the assurance of the Minister that the moratorium announced last December on new capital contracts will come to a close at the end of this financial year. Regrettably, its effect may be worse for a little while to come. That is a point made several weeks ago in your Lordships' House, when the noble Lord, Lord Holme, raised the question of its effect on the housing executive.

The main estimates will come before the House later in the year, and this afternoon I propose to confine my comments and questions to four areas. We heard from the Minister that the first main vote is that of the Department of Agriculture. We will do well to remind ourselves that this industry accounts for 10 per cent. of civil employment in Northern Ireland, and 7.5 per cent. of the total GDP. I have read the annual report of the Department of Agriculture for 1990–91, and my noble friend Lord Gallacher, to whom we on these Benches look for guidance on agricultural matters, confirms that the report reveals good performances over the wide area of agricultural interest covered by it. I am sure that that is a point which the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, as a former agricultural Minister in Northern Ireland, will be happy to confirm.

The Minister referred to the agricultural vote and I shall be grateful if she can throw some light on four specific matters. First, as two-thirds of Northern Ireland's agricultural output is exported, why were the grants for co-operation in agriculture and horticulture withdrawn last May? Was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the agricultural Minister consulted about that? If so, were they in full agreement with the proposal?

Secondly, although additional provision is made for the disease eradication programme—that is something to which the noble Baroness specifically referred—will any of the additional funding be allotted to pay for the costs of processing and disposing of fallen animals, which is estimated to cost around £200,000 a week? I have a feeling that the noble Baroness will not be able to give me a favourable reply to that question. However, the department will know that the issue of the disposal of fallen animals has been a subject of much anxiety, and that anxiety has been particularly expressed by the Local Government Action Group which represents 22 out of the 26 district councils. Moreover, the action group warns that the UK may be in breach of the EC directive on animal waste disposal. The group recommends that there should be an insurance fund set up to meet that risk. I shall be grateful if the noble Baroness can tell the House how the Government respond to the anxieties of the Local Government Action Group.

Thirdly, as agriculture is predominantly grass based in Northern Ireland, and almost 70 per cent. of its gross output comes from beef, sheep and dairying, can the Minister say how the proposals for the EC CAP restructuring are likely to affect that area? I understand that they are considered to be severe in a United Kingdom context. I should like to know how those proposals are likely to affect Northern Ireland. Again, can the Minister confirm whether or not consultation took place with the Northern Ireland Ministers by their British counterparts prior to and following meetings of the agricultural council.

My fourth point on the agricultural Vote concerns whether the Milk Marketing Board, or its counterpart in Northern Ireland, intends to table proposals for converting itself to a voluntary co-operative of producers. I understand that the Milk Marketing Board in England and Wales announced such proposals and that it will convert itself to a voluntary co-operation of producers by Easter. I understand that that is in response to pressures from the EC but with the encouragement of the Ministry. Does the Minister know whether a similar change of legal status is contemplated in Northern Ireland?

I move on to the second main Vote—that of the Department of Economic Development. We approve the additional provisions specifically referred to by the Minister. The Industrial Development Board plays a leading role in the economic regeneration of Northern Ireland. While I am loathe to criticise the board, and while I also appreciate that conditions have been difficult over the past couple of years, one has to ponder over a number of recent findings indicating that the board may not in the past have addressed the underlying causes of Northern Ireland's economic weaknesses.

That criticism came out most strongly several weeks ago in a letter by two members of the Department of Economics at Queen's University and published in the Financial Times. It seems to me that the Government will do well to ponder the letter, particularly as the post of chief executive of the IDB has become vacant. We hope that the opportunity will be taken to find a chief executive with the expertise and vision to measure up to the challenge and provide the vigorous leadership necessary.

Before I leave that main heading of expenditure, I should like to say that we on these Benches have been greatly heartened by the growing evidence that leading businessmen, both in the north and south of Ireland, now see that there is a close identity of interests between businesses north and south of the Border. We read with great satisfaction the joint report of the CBI and the CII on transport. A week ago the Irish Times carried a report of the powerful address of Dr. George Quigley, the chairman of the Ulster Bank. Dr. Quigley proposed that Ireland, north and south, should become what he described as an, 'island economy', supported by the EC and with a special budget for economic development to be allocated by agreement between the Irish and British Governments". He also proposed a Belfast-Dublin "economic corridor"—his words—to increase business and economic development between the two cities. It seems to me that that would also help to achieve the one "island economy", although I am not quite certain that he presented the corridor on that basis.

That is a refreshing approach and surely must be the modern approach. I hope that the Minister can say that the Government are listening carefully and with sympathy to what business people such as Dr. Quigley are saying. I hope also that they are considering in what way the two governments—and clearly it is a matter which concerns the two governments—can help to create the conditions which will enable these new ideas to come to fruition.

A deputation came to Westminster about a month ago to press the case for increased funding for the Northern Ireland community-based workshops. These workshops are providing a training service to young people who are particularly disadvantaged. I accept that the standard of training may be questioned. Nevertheless, like other noble Lords who met the deputation, I listened with great anxiety and sympathy to the message which the deputation brought to Westminster. Yesterday the Association of Community-Based Training Organisations issued a press statement from which I am very pleased to note that the department has come up with some short-term relief, but I believe that the longer term needs of the workshops remain unresolved.

According to the press statement, the Prime Minister is to be asked by the three party leaders in Northern Ireland to review the funding and the long-term role of the community-based workshops and their standard of training. I also note from the statement that the association is setting up a study group to investigate the funding and the possibility of approaching some of the European youth programmes.

This morning I received a letter from the department from which I was very pleased to note that the department has given considerable support to the workshops. Mr. Needham tells me that the youth training programme already attracts support from the European Social Fund to the tune of about 65 per cent. Yet I am glad that this matter is to be placed on the agenda of the meeting with the Prime Minister and that the discussion will lead to a review of the community-based workshops and their place in the youth training programme in Northern Ireland.

We have been reminded by the Select Committee of this House that the EC has a number of programmes to help young people of the ethnic communities within the EC. The problems of disadvantaged young people in Northern Ireland are just as acute as those of the ethnic communities in Europe. However, I am encouraged to learn that the department may be exploring other opportunities of obtaining assistance from the EC programmes.

We see from the few examples which I have just given that many of the specific problems of Northern Ireland have also to be seen in context of the general development of the European framework and institutions. We see very clearly the need for a strong regional voice within the Community. Perhaps I may venture to ask whether the department is satisfied that it is well equipped to develop the case in Brussels with an eye particularly on the needs of Northern Ireland. That is not to say that Northern Ireland must look to Brussels or to London for all answers to all its problems. That would be to ignore the problems that are well within the power of Northern Ireland, relying on assistance from the UK, to put right.

From these Benches we have given every credit to the Government for having supported the principle of integrated education. But when I read the report of the debate on the order in another place, I became painfully aware that the nursery schools which are feeding the integrated primary schools are in some financial difficulties. If the integrated nursery schools were to fail, it is impossible, in our view, to exaggerate the damage that will be done to the integrated primary schools and the integrated secondary schools further up the line. I hope that if there is a problem here—I should not care to quantify that problem—the department can find the resources that are required to finance the integrated nursery schools, although I accept that this may require particularly careful presentation, given opposition in certain quarters.

I shall touch very briefly on another subject. Within the competence of the Northern Ireland Office is the National Health Service in Northern Ireland. We need to ensure that Northern Ireland has the most efficient, effective and humane health service possible. That is an issue to which we shall have to return on another date.

This is the last appropriation order which we shall discuss before the general election. Therefore we are very pleased to read and to hear that the leaders of the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland have expressed their willingness to resume the discussions whatever the outcome of the general election. That is encouraging news.

1.15 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, we on these Benches feel a dissatisfaction (which is not confined to any one quarter of the House) with the way that Northern Ireland business is at present scrutinised at Westminster. I recall the debate in this Chamber on the education reform order for Northern Ireland in 1988. That was an enormous measure. We rushed through it in half of an afternoon. We have before us a piece of business of considerable importance, and in the regrettable and unavoidable absence of my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham I cannot do justice to it the way I should wish. But we should pause and think a little longer about it.

The noble Baroness did her best with her case. There was perhaps a slight Panglossian element in some parts of it. I may say that as a Liberal Democrat I speak as a representative of the only political party which has to any extent any democratic "plain-speak" for voters of Northern Ireland. We are in partnership with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, and speak in conjunction with them and with information from them.

At all times unemployment in Northern Ireland has been higher than unemployment in the rest of the United Kingdom. At present it is approximately 4 per cent. higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom; a figure of 14 per cent. over the population as a whole; 25 per cent. in some areas in which there are considerable difficulties. Those are significant figures. Looking at them, I am reminded of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff in the days when he was Home Secretary. After visiting the Province, he recalled the proverb about the devil finding work for idle hands to do. In seeing a link between unemployment and crime, as almost all governments have done in almost all centuries, I am tempted to see that multiplied in Northern Ireland.

We on these Benches feel a quite profound regret about the capital freeze which the noble Baroness mentioned. We are pleased to hear that it is drawing to a close. We hope it is doing so very rapidly, and we hope that it will not need to recur in the near future. We are particularly concerned at the freeze in the use of improvement and repair grants. The construction industry is one in which unemployment is quite peculiarly cyclical. We are also well aware that repairs postponed are repairs whose magnitude increases. If building repairs are put off, a great deal more work is created in the long run and that is not in the public interest.

We are also very anxious about the justification that has been given for the freeze. We have been told that it is because of the cost of terrorist attacks. It is our contention that that cost, unavoidable as it regrettably is, should not be taken out of ordinary budgets. That should be a separate account and should not hold back the carrying on of ordinary business. If it does, it is yielding a vital point. It is interfering with the principle of business as usual.

I should like to ask the Minister one or two specific questions. How much of the £35 million recently made available to increase the Social Fund—a welcome amount, if small—will go to Northern Ireland? With an eye on the long-term development of the Northern Irish economy, are there any plans in progress to have a rail link leading from the Channel Tunnel to one of the ports which serve Northern Ireland? In the long term, for the future of the Northern Irish economy, that question is a vital one. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, about the EC and the future of the Northern Irish economy. We sympathise with the approach, but if it is to be made effective there must be trade routes as fast as we can manage stretching from Northern Ireland through to the Channel and through on to the Continent of Europe. I very much hope that that will be taken into account. With those words, I shall leave it there for the moment, but the business needs more scrutiny than it is getting here.

Lord Dunleath

My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest, albeit an indirect one, because my company owns a small amount of property in the area to which I am about to refer.

Under the heading of Department of Economic Development, we wish that the Industrial Development Board could make an extra special effort to attract industry to the area of South Down. I know that it is difficult to attract industry to anywhere in the United Kingdom at this time of economic recession and in Northern Ireland I know that it is easier to attract industry to the periphery of Belfast, to the satellite towns such as Bangor, Newtownards, Lisburn and Carrickfergus. Perhaps there is a false perception about South Down—that it is a rural area and one that is not suitable for any industrial development at all. That is not the case. Sites have already been identified where, without detriment to the countryside or rural environment, industry could be located. We feel that perhaps South Down has been allowed to become something of a backwater and that not enough effort has been made to attract industry to that area.

It was for that reason that I was privileged on Monday to be able to attend the launch of a new completely voluntary enterprise, though with input from the Down District Council. I refer to the Down Economic Development Agency. This is a marvellous example of self-help and of people voluntarily trying to do what they can to improve prosperity in the area. But being realistic, all they can do is promote the area, publicise it, give information and encouragement and try to influence affairs. However, at the end of the day it is the IDB which has the staff and which can go overseas to negotiate. Above all it is the IDB which has the funds to be able to put together an attractive package to provide an incentive for inward investment to be brought to the area. If we wish that the IDB and the Department of Economic Development would work harder in favour of South Down, we sincerely wish that the Department of the Environment would work less hard against South Down.

Downpatrick, the county town, has been strangled for years by traffic congestion. It is getting worse every year. For years the possibility of an urban through pass has been mooted. That would not solve the problem. It might ease it temporarily but experience has shown on many occasions that carving the centre out of a town for the sake of the traffic is counterproductive. Not only does it wreck the personality of the town but it tends to attract more traffic, so it defeats itself in the end. The only answer is to keep through traffic out of the middle of the town.

For this reason a bypass road for Downpatrick was suggested by myself and others more than 20 years ago. More recently, in the past few years it has been under active consideration and we were promised not long ago that a decision was about to be reached. Now we have been told that the ring road has been postponed indefinitely. When all is said and done, a great deal has been said but nothing has been done. Why does the Department of the Environment spend money on an urban regeneration scheme for Downpatrick when in fact it is causing degeneration, not regeneration, by allowing the town to be strangled by traffic congestion and is providing a disincentive to inward investment to the area?

Under the heading of Department of the Environment, there is shortly to be a reorganisation of the water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland. I understand that a new company is to be formed which will be wholly owned by the Government through the Department of the Environment. Unlike Great Britain, it will be a single company covering the entire Province, which means that there will he no competition. That makes it all the more important that regulation of that company should be as efficient and as powerful as possible. The way things are at the moment I understand that regulatory powers may be vested in the very same department, the Department of the Environment. That is not satisfactory.

We have already seen how the Department of the Environment can grant itself planning permission to build what seems to be a completely inappropriate building beside one of the most historically and architecturally important churches in Belfast; St. Malachi's. If the department can do that kind of thing, if it is self-regulatory, the public will have no confidence. It is very important that there should be maximum consultation before any decisions are made. The public and those who represent the public and the various interests throughout the Province should have every opportunity to make an input during the consultative period before any decisions are made. It would seem that the Northern Ireland Consumer Council would be as good a body as any to act as an agency for this purpose and perhaps to be the regulatory agency at the end of the day.

In what I am afraid is mainly a rather whingeing speech, it gives me great pleasure, as they say, to be able to pay tribute to the Department of Education for its far sighted attitude towards integrated education in Northern Ireland. I was in at the start when in 1981 Lagan College was formed with 28 pupils. Last Autumn I was privileged to go to the 10th birthday party of Lagan College when it had not 28 pupils hut 750 of them. It has been a real success story. As the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, knows, integrated schools have been established all over the Province since that time. It is a movement that has really got off the ground. Credit must be paid to Her Majesty's Government and to the Department of Education for the way in which they have facilitated that, and in recent years actively encouraged it.

I turn now the Department of Health and Social Services. I read that £37.2 million of extra aid was recently approved for assisting in the running costs of hospices in Great Britain. That means that 50 per cent. of the running costs of hospices in Scotland are met from public funds and that 42 per cent. of those costs in England and Wales are met from public funds. But if what I read is correct, Northern Ireland hospices still receive only 33 per cent. There may be some other factor involved in the equation about which I am unaware. If the noble Baroness would be kind enough to let me know, I should be most grateful. On the face of it it seems to me to be inequitable; but perhaps I have got it wrong. I honestly think that the Northern Ireland hospices ought to receive the same level of grant aid towards their running costs as do those in England, Scotland and Wales.

Finally, I have something to say under the heading of the Northern Ireland Assembly, although I hesitate to say it. I preface my observation by saying that ever since the introduction of direct rule about 20 years ago, I have found every Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, whether Labour or Conservative, to be unfailingly courteous, sympathetic and as helpful as they could be within the limitations of what they were able to do. I have found everyone of them to be friendly and congenial.

Therefore, it is with some hesitation that I ask whether it is in keeping with the dignity of their office that Northern Ireland Office Ministers should indulge in local party politics? I should say the same if we were to have a Liberal Democrat Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. That is not inconceivable; indeed, after the next election, it may even be the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Moreover, if they were to campaign on behalf of the Alliance Party I would regard it equally as being unseemly. Therefore, is it right? After all, in a colony the governor may have been a prominent politician since retired, but as soon as he enters Government House he leaves his politics behind him. He is above all that. I suggest that the same should apply to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. I do not wish to cause offence, but I feel that it would be more in keeping with the dignity of their office if they were right above politics.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, perhaps I may briefly intervene after the powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath. I should like first to congratulate my noble friend the Minister for getting her toes wet on an occasion such as this on Northern Ireland affairs. Who knows, after a possible election, she may well find herself—judging by her previous performance in your Lordships' House—handling all the responsibilities to which the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, and other Members of the House referred? Looking into the background of the order before the House today, I must say that it is rare for us to have the opportunity to discuss—certainly in the depth that has been possible today—the affairs of Northern Ireland, let alone to delve into some of the details. I take the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that we should use such opportunities to raise all kinds of points.

What has not been mentioned—it may have been touched upon briefly by the noble Earl—is the question of terrorist violence which is, alas, still with us. Today of all days, I should like to pay my personal tribute and express my respect and congratulations to the members of the security forces—namely, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment—and also to the people of Northern Ireland who, once again, after an enormous bomb went off in Lurgan yesterday, have, with good humour, swept up and carried on business. The one thing that marked my five-and-a-half very happy years serving in the post which my noble friend now holds in Northern Ireland was indeed the immense support I received and which all Ministers in your Lordships' House and in another place receive from everyone in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that your Lordships will find it normal if I raise one or two points on the agricultural sector in the two Votes in the order before the House today. I was ignorant in a certain aspect; indeed, it shows that I had not kept up with the entire details of the Northern Ireland Office. I had one or two questions on drainage. I spoke to the Minister responsible for the Northern Ireland agriculture department. He said that I was a little out of touch, but typically, and in tribute to me, he said, "Why use one word when three would do?" I understand that that division is now known as water course management. Certainly, I recall that water course management occupied much of the time of government output when I served in Northern Ireland.

I wonder whether my noble friend can confirm—not necessarily today, but perhaps after raising the matter with our noble friend and indeed with the Ministers responsible for these activities in another place—something about the Blackwater drainage scheme. That was well under way during my career in Northern Ireland. It was a scheme of such complexity that it even outlasted my career. I believe that the programme should be complete by now. Can my noble friend confirm that all the tidying up and repairs which are associated with the enormous works carried out on that section of drainage in Northern Ireland have been completed? I hope that all the work has been cleaned up and indeed that the professional tidying up and restoration of all the facilities and the sites has been carried out to the very professional standard which the water course management division would seek to aspire to.

Can my noble friend also check that all the wetlands areas, which I recall were endemic, have been restored and are in the kind of order which they should be. I recall that one of the wetlands caused considerable embarrassment in my office as the typewriter misprinted the name of one particular inhabitant who may well have inhabited the area spoken of by the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath; namely, the area around Downpatrick. I remember that he took me to visit the areas to which he referred. I was informed that in the wetlands, especially the Blackwater area, there was an inhabitant known as the green and white fronted goose. I put down a note saying that I was not aware that this was the "ocine" sector of the Celtic supporters' club but that I wondered whether they could pay a visit to various places in south Belfast which I thought might be particularly good. An official said, "No, no, Minister. There is something called the Greenland white-fronted goose". Apparently, it took its roost in a particular area of the Blackwater.

I hope that my noble friend can confirm that all the assurances that were given in those far off days have been carried out and that the wetlands work in that area and in the programme has indeed been completed. Perhaps she may also be able to confirm at a later date—or at least verify—that, as regards all the capital grants mentioned in both Schedules 1 and 2 of the Votes to the Department of Agriculture, her honourable and right honourable friends in the Northern Ireland Office will continue to push for the very best treatment for Northern Ireland farmers. I recall that one motto which used to appear regularly was, "Act fast while grants last." That was not exactly the watchword of the department as it was keen on a high take up; but, all the same, I hope that all the grants—for example, for the concreting of floors of fairly simple sheds within the Northern Ireland agricultural sector—are going through.

I hope that my noble friend will insist upon sound support for marketing. That is mentioned in both schedules of the agricultural Vote. As my noble friend will know, there is an enormous food fair which takes place every other year; that is, every even year. This year there is a huge fair in Paris. I hope that my noble friend will insist that either the Secretary of State or a Minister attends that exhibition to push the interests of the Northern Ireland food industry.

Finally, I believe that I heard my noble friend say that the Government were directing their efforts as a priority towards the veterinary service—towards both the chief scientific officer's department and the veterinary research laboratory—in an attempt to continue the great struggle in Northern Ireland to achieve a high rate of animal health and hygiene as well as what my noble friend referred to as "disease eradication". I hope that she will convey my comments and my best wishes to her right honourable and honourable friends in the Northern Ireland Office as well as to all those who are involved in supporting Northern Ireland's primary industry.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, perhaps I may first extend a very warm welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, in her first incursion into Northern Ireland affairs. I was not surprised to find her at the Dispatch Box because, of all the Ministers of State in this House, the noble Baroness has proved most versatile in speaking for one ministry after another. Given her Liverpool background, I am sure that she will not feel entirely out of place discussing Northern Ireland.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, alleged that it is almost a ritual for this side of the House to complain about the way in which Northern Ireland business is conducted. Over the years I have found that this House spends more time discussing the affairs of Northern Ireland than the elected House. It is obvious when one reads the Hansard reports of Northern Ireland debates in another place that Members of Parliament are in a great rush to cover as many topics as possible in the short period of an hour and a half that is allowed for the debate. According to one Hansard report, only five Members of Parliament representing Northern Ireland constituencies participated. From reading their speeches, it is obvious that they had to apologise for taking so long to make their points. I repeat that they had to rush to make their remarks in an hour and a half.

I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, that neither this House nor another place is the best place to discuss an appropriation order for Northern Ireland. We are now discussing an appropriation order for £4,725 million for the present financial year for services in Northern Ireland. I recall the many years that I spent as a Member of Parliament at Stormont and at the Assembly. The old Stormont Parliament had 52 Members of Parliament and the Assembly had 70. Discussion there on an appropriation order of this dimension would have lasted at least one full day, if not two or even three days. In that time, all the relevant constituency problems, which are the everyday concerns of elected representatives, would have been covered in great detail. It has been said in another place that some of the issues raised in Parliament in these debates seem rather parochial to the outsider, who is not be aware of the names or problems of the towns in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, said that he has met with unfailing courtesy from all the Northern Ireland Ministers sent from this House to administer the affairs of Northern Ireland—be they Conservative or Labour. I, too, have found the same—dating right back to the first such Minister, the noble Viscount. Lord Whitelaw, in 1972, to the Ministers of the present day. However, I find it sad that, having gained such vast experience of Northern Ireland by actually living there, all the former Secretaries of State and Ministers of State for Northern Ireland seem to lose interest when they come to this House. At present, five former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland are Members of your Lordships' House. Those people have been involved in the administration of the Province throughout the past 20 troubled years. I had hoped that they would maintain their interest in the Province and be present in the Chamber during our debates to give us the benefit of the knowledge that they have gained during those years. They might have been able to add something to our debates. That is not a criticism of your Lordships' House but of the way in which Northern Ireland business is conducted.

I am sure that I will be in total agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, when I say that the best place for a discussion of Northern Ireland affairs—be it an appropriation order or anything else—would be in an Assembly at Stormont, in a devolved Parliament on the 1974 model, which was representative of all the communities in Northern Ireland. Whatever talks may be held in the immediate future, I hope that Northern Ireland's politicians will concentrate their minds on trying to bring about devolved government in Northern Ireland so that these issues can be discussed by representatives who have first-hand knowledge of them.

The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, referred to the possible privatisation of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland. I believe that many of your Lordships may have received a circular on this. Perhaps I should add that Northern Ireland is not as short of water and does not have the same problems with water as some oilier areas, such as Wales. I stress, however, that water is of vital importance to the people of Northern Ireland.

I have absolutely no doubt that if the Government continue to pursue their current thinking on privatization—that is what it amounts to—I shall be standing here in the future talking about the new company that will be set up. Initially, such a company would come under the control of the Department of the Environment, but I have absolutely no doubt that the provision of the service will be privatised within a few years. There is no question about that. There must be maximum consultation before any steps to set up such a company are taken. The views of the General Consumer Council in Northern Ireland—a body that acts with government support—should be sought now before the publication of the White Paper because, once a White Paper is published, it is difficult to change its provisions. We need to have the maximum consultation now on this important development.

The Estimates include a vast sum of money for electricity. Again, that has been allocated with the intention of privatising the electricity undertakings in Northern Ireland and selling off the power stations. However, every elected representative from every constituency in Northern Ireland has expressed opposition to the proposals to sell off Northern Ireland's electricity undertakings to a private enterprise.

Only yesterday, I was amazed to read in The Times of London that, perhaps for the first time, the economics of Northern Ireland may have considerable bearing on the Budget. The article suggested that in seeking to sell off the four electricity power stations in Northern Ireland, the Government hoped to raise billions of pounds with which the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be enabled to reduce income tax by 1p in the pound. I am sure that the people of Northern Ireland will be very interested to know that the sale of their electricity undertakings might lead to a reduction in income tax. So we have it—the threatened privatisation of water and what might be described as the almost fait accompli privatisation of the electricity industry in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies referred to the new appointment that is about to be made by the Industrial Development Board. The IDB in Northern Ireland is of such crucial importance to the whole economic outlook of the Province that the person who gets that job should be enthusiastic about it. The job should not be given to someone simply because he has spent so many years in the Civil Service and the post is regarded as simply another step up the ladder, with the view being taken that that person is entitled to it and that, as a result of it, he may be entitled to a knighthood in the future. The man who gets the job must be dedicated to making it a success. Considerable stress should be put on that by the Government when making that appointment. I reinforce everything said about it by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies.

The Minister may not have the answers to the questions I am about to ask, but I was happy to read in the Estimates that two advanced factories are about to be built in West Belfast. As one who represented that sorely deprived area for many years, that was good news. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some indication of how large those two factories will be; whether there have been offers from people outside the Province who want to invest in them; what type of industry will be carried on in them; and how many people will be involved. The Government and the Opposition will admit that the last time that that type of activity was tried in Northern Ireland under John DeLorean, when a car factory was set up in West Belfast which failed tragically for all sorts of reasons, the one thing that it proved was that there was a skilled workforce there.

That factory was set up on a greenfield site under the aegis of my noble friend Lord Mason. There was no question but that the labour and skills were available. That was one of the great industrial successes I saw during my period as a Member of Parliament for that area. I hope that the Government will do everything that they can to push ahead and expedite the setting up of those two factories, because, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, when idle hands are available they can be exploited.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, was one of the longest serving Ministers in Northern Ireland. I come from an urban background and do not understand agriculture very well, but I can tell him that he was much admired for what he tried to do for the rural communities in Northern Ireland.

Those of us who have spoken do not represent Northern Ireland constituencies. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has said that the Liberal Democrats have a link with the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland. The Labour Party also has a link, because it says that it has a sister party in the SDLP. The Government will say that they have a candidate in North Down. Everyone can claim to have some connection with Northern Ireland. The one who has the greatest connection with Northern Ireland is the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, because he lives there. Unfortunately I do not live there. I do not live over here for any particular reason. My home in Northern Ireland was burnt by terrorists and I had to take up residence in this country. Hardly a day goes by when I am not telephoning or receiving calls in my office from Northern Ireland; so I am well aware of the position that exists there.

As I said, the Estimate of £4.725 billion represents a major sum of money. It should be given maximum consideration by the Government.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have welcomed me to this position for the first time. Perhaps I may remind the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that thanks to him the first mention of my presence in your Lordships' House recorded in Hansard was as a result of a debate such as this on Northern Ireland through which I happened to sit, which fact was commented upon by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt.

This is an important subject. The quality of the debate far outweighs the anxieties expressed about the length of time given to scrutiny procedures. That is always true of these debates in your Lordships' House. I hope to answer the main questions that have been asked, especially those of the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, who kindly gave me some advance notice of the areas of his interest.

I shall start by responding to my noble friend Lord Lyell who talked about agriculture and the need to ensure that capital grants and the marketing of agricultural products were given sufficient emphasis. He put considerable energy into that during his term of office in the Northern Ireland Office. I feel sure that my honourable friend who now stands in his boots —perhaps I should say wellies—will be displaying similar energy.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked about agricultural and horticultural co-operation. I can confirm that Northern Ireland Ministers were consulted before any decision was taken to withdraw those grants in 1991. The Government believe that the producers themselves should take decisions on collaborative marketing, in accordance with commercial considerations. The benefits of such marketing are clear, and the food industry should not need grant aid as an inducement to do what is in fact plain commercial good sense.

On the issue of' the reform of the CAP, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is of course one of the four United Kingdom Ministers with responsibility for Agriculture. He is closely involved in the development of the UK response to the CAP reform proposals. The Government's aim is to promote proposals which will benefit agriculture throughout the whole of these islands, including of course Northern Ireland.

It was said that the Local Government Action Group has expressed anxiety about animal waste disposal and the European Community directive. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has negotiated an arrangement with a rendering plant in the Province for a collection, rendering and disposal service for fallen animals at a cost to the farmer. Alternatively, fallen animals can be disposed of adequately and safely on the farm by burial, provided that that is done in accordance with the advice provided by the department.

There are serious difficulties associated with the Local Government Action Group's proposals for an insurance fund, a subject mentioned by the noble Lord. New primary legislation would be required to effect it. The proposals involve the imposition of a levy. That could not be applied to the large numbers of livestock which are exported live each year from Northern Ireland and would therefore impact unfairly on other farmers. A levy would have to be subject to European Community approval. I believe that the noble Lord understands that fully. I also understand that the Ulster Farmers' Union has rejected proposals for a levy and an insurance fund.

On the subject of the Milk Marketing Board, and whether the Northern Ireland Board intends to follow the boards in England and Wales in moving towards a voluntary co-operative system, it is generally recognised that the present arrangements need to change if the dairy industry is to meet the challenges and opportunities of the single market. On 6th December 1991, the Northern Ireland MMB announced its intention to move to voluntary co-operative status. All the boards in the United Kingdom are currently preparing proposals which will be forwarded to Brussels as soon as possible. All interested parties will of course be given an opportunity to comment before final decisions are taken.

I shall move away from agriculture to the IDB and its performance, especially that relating to attracting inward investment, a subject mentioned by a number of your Lordships. It has to be said that this is a long-term process, and it would clearly be wrong to judge performance on a one-year snapshot.

Over the past three years, the IDB has provided over 5,000 jobs from inward investment, and to the most recent figures should be added around 300 new jobs arising from the recent Royal Mail decision to set up its returned letter centre in Belfast. I understand that the IDB is currently negotiating with several foreign companies. This could lead to a further significant number of jobs in the near future. Obviously we all wish that the figures were higher. We must recognise the impact of the current worldwide recession and the special difficulties that the IDB faces because of the adverse effect of Northern Ireland's image abroad. However, I believe that the board deserves credit for the progress it continues to make. I should add that the post of chief executive has been advertised and it is expected that an appointment will be made within the next few months. In the meantime, I shall ensure that the comments made today by your Lordships will be drawn to the attention of my right honourable and honourable friends. This is a significant and important post.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked about recent comments by the chairman of the Ulster Bank on the subject of a one-island economy in Ireland. The Government also welcome the fact that businessmen north and south are thinking about the opportunities offered by the single market. We are listening and considering carefully what they have to say.

Dr. Quigley's ideas are an interesting contribution to the debate. The advantages of close co-operation are widely recognised and the Government are already working to develop this in areas which are economically beneficial to Northern Ireland such as tourist promotion, transport and energy links. No doubt it could also include the issue of the rail link from the Channel Tunnel raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I know that in my days as a Member of the European Parliament for Liverpool much thought and effort were given to the issue on this side of the Irish Sea.

Also in the context of the Industrial Development Board, the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, drew our attention to the needs of South Down. Like him, I welcome the launch of the Down Economic Development Agency as evidence of the important aspect of self-help. I trust that it will succeed in co-operating successfully with the IDB, whose role is to present a more national image.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred to the recent deputation from Northern Ireland on the position of community-based workshops. In many cases we fully recognise that they carry out valuable work within the Northern Ireland youth training programme by providing training services to young people, especially those in disadvantaged areas. They are relatively well funded compared with the rates which apply in Great Britain, but we need to ensure that they offer a consistently high quality of training. To that end, a system of funding has been introduced which requires workshops, as well as other trainers, to raise their standards and improve their cost-effectiveness. The funding of workshops will continue so long as those standards are met. The Government are also exploring the opportunities for further EC funding for certain training programmes and will bring them to the attention of the community workshops.

On the question of provision of integrated nursery schools —another point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies —the Government's commitment to integrated schools is well known and has been commented on by others in the debate. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the support which your Lordships' House has given to these developments. There are now 16 such integrated schools, with a total of 3,000 pupils, so it is clearly moving very much in the right direction. I understand that about 45 per cent. of three and four year-olds in Northern Ireland are in nursery or primary education, which is broadly in line with the position in local authorities in Great Britain.

The Government recognise the case for more nursery schools, not only in the integrated sector but more generally. However, these have to be considered against other demands on education resources.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, specifically asked me about the £35 million for the Social Fund. I can tell him that this is a commitment for Great Britain. Northern Ireland has a separate Social Fund budget and its size for 1992–93 has still to be determined. We expect the budget to show a significant increase over 1991–92.

The noble Earl also expressed concern about the possible effects of the capital moratorium, and this was touched on by other noble Lords. A number of extra demands arose this year in the Northern Ireland block, including significant pressures in relation to education and training and the family health service provision, as I said in my opening remarks. Those were not just extra costs arising from terrorist violence. It was therefore necessary to impose a short delay on the release of certain expenditure, but the Government have always made clear that the moratorium would not extend beyond the end of the financial year. My honourable friend the Secretary of State recently confirmed this and indicated that the moratorium is being brought to an end. Any projects delayed will be reconsidered in the year 1992–93 and in most cases will be slotted into the programme fairly quickly.

Perhaps I may stress that there has been no reduction in the overall level of public expenditure in the Province. The adjustments required amount to less than 0.5 per cent. of the total block, which currently stands at £6.5 billion. Nor has there been any direct or lasting effect on the quality of services provided to the people of Northern Ireland. Within the substantial resources available to the Province, perhaps I may also assure the noble Earl that the Government give high priority to measures to strengthen the economy and reduce the levels of unemployment which he mentioned.

The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, asked a specific question about hospices. In Northern Ireland we have already met the Government's commitment to fund agreed services at around 50 per cent. The recent announcement of an additional £37 million being made available in England is intended to bring the English end nearer to the 50 per cent. target which already pertains in Northern Ireland. While we keep the position under review, the Government have no immediate plans to provide a further injection of additional funds.

The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, also referred to the new water company and its regulation. I understand these regulatory functions will be the subject of an Order in Council which will come before your Lordships in due course. Your Lordships will therefore be able to examine the regulatory framework in that context and ensure that it is sufficiently robust. The noble Lord, and others, raised a number of interesting matters including industrial development, the traffic problems in Downpatrick and environmental services. I know he has a deep interest in those matters. I can give an assurance that my noble friend Lord Belstead will study the record of the contributions made today and will write not only to the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, but also to any other noble Lord whom I have failed to respond to.

Before I offend my noble friend Lord Lyell on this point, he asked a specific question about the Blackwater drainage scheme. I understand that the final contract of the scheme was completed in the autumn of last year. The department is still in negotiation with some landowners as regards compensatory works. Measures to compensate for the loss of river habitats and to provide environmentally positive features are also being undertaken.

I conclude by saying that it has been of considerable interest to me to be able to participate in this debate and to concentrate on many issues which are familiar to me in the GB context and to compare them with things that are happening in the Province. I understand the feelings that have been expressed about the importance of all these issues. I can assure noble Lords that my right honourable and honourable friends also understand those feelings. They are carrying out their duties and that is also the reason why my noble friend Lord Belstead has been unable to be present at the Dispatch Box as he would have wished.

On Question, Motion agreed to.