§ 8.50 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th February be approved.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 laid before the House on the 15th February be approved. The draft order before us today authorises expenditure of £146 million for Northern Ireland departments for the current financial year. This is in addition to the £6,780 million voted by the House last July. The order also authorises the vote on account of £3,120 million for 1999–2000 to enable the services of Northern Ireland departments to continue until the 1999–2000 Main Estimates are brought before the Assembly later this year. Given the restructuring of Northern Ireland departments, with the associated allocation of functions to new/restructured departments it has been necessary to remove department names from Part II of the schedule to the draft order covering the vote on account. The 1999–2000 main Estimates detailing the total estimates provision will also set out the amount voted on account by individual vote under the new departmental structures.
§ This order covers services which will be devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. With pending devolution it will soon fall to local representatives to make decisions on the allocation of resources between the various Northern Ireland departments. I am sure that your Lordships share my hopes for a smooth transition of power to the Assembly and look forward to the vote on account for 1999–2000 being spent on the services under the new/restructured Northern Ireland departments. The order does not cover the estimates for the Northern Ireland Office, which will remain the direct responsibility of the Secretary of State. As a Whitehall department, the Estimates for the Northern Ireland Office are dealt with separately.
§ The aftermath of the Omagh bomb has placed significant pressures on budgets and indeed we have had to make additions this year of some £6 million in total largely to cover criminal damage. It also includes some £2.7 million for the health programme covering such areas as hospital and community care, rehabilitation and social and psychological care including voluntary sector support costs.
§ I know that your Lordships continue to take a close interest in the prospects for economic development in Northern Ireland and I wish to say a few words about the local economic situation before turning to the 1884 contents of the estimates. The latest available official statistics show that the Northern Ireland economy remains in good health in almost every area. The main economic indicators have, once again, shown very positive results for the Province.
§ The output of manufacturing and production industries continues to rise at a rate well above that achieved nationally. Over the past four years Northern Ireland's manufacturing sector has increased its output by almost 17 per cent., more than six times the rate of growth achieved nationally. There has also been a significant improvement in the Province's gross domestic product relative to the United Kingdom, with GDP per head in Northern Ireland increasing from 76.9 per cent. of the UK average in 1990 to 80.4 per cent. by 1997.
§ Record employment levels have also been achieved. At September 1998 the number of employee jobs in Northern Ireland stood at 600,670; the highest September figure on record. This is coupled with the International Labour Organisation's unemployment rate of 6.8 per cent. for the period October to December 1998, the lowest level since comparable records began in 1984. It is lower than Merseyside where the unemployment rate is 11.4 per cent., the north-east at 9.2 per cent., London at 7.5 per cent., Scotland at 7.3 per cent. and Wales at 7 per cent. It is also worthy of note that the Northern Ireland unemployment rate is three percentage points lower than the European Union average of 9.8 per cent. currently. In addition, falls in the numbers of both long term and youth unemployment are particularly encouraging. The latest information available from the Industrial Development Board shows that 1998 has been a good year for investment in the Province. Since April 1998, 15 IDB-supported projects involving planned investment totalling £35.9 million have been announced by locally-owned companies, promoting 759 new jobs while safeguarding 171 existing jobs. Over the same period, 26 IDB-backed inward investment projects have been announced involving a total investment of £81.1 million, promoting 1,884 new jobs and safeguarding a further 143 existing jobs.
§ Allied to this are the survey results from the local business community. Despite a number of recent business surveys reporting falling optimism among Northern Ireland business leaders, particularly within the manufacturing sector, the main economic indicators point to continued growth in demand and output during 1999.
§ All of this clearly demonstrates the impressive achievements of the Northern Ireland economy which, coupled with political stability, provides Northern Ireland with an opportunity for a brighter economic future.
§ With your Lordships' permission, I now turn to the main items in the Estimates, starting with the Department of Agriculture. In Vote 1, which provides for Northern Ireland expenditure on national agriculture support measures, an additional £36.5 million is required. This includes £17.7 million to cover an increase in advance funding from 60 per cent. to 1885 80 per cent. under the suckler cow and beef special premium schemes, £9.3 million in respect of further agrimonetary compensation for the beef sector; and £8.5 million is for increased rates paid under the hill livestock compensatory allowances scheme.
§ In Vote 2, covering local agriculture support measures, a net increase of £12.4 million is sought. This includes £7.7 million in respect of controlling outbreaks of animal diseases, including tuberculosis, brucellosis, salmonella, Newcastle disease and BSE, and £1.5 million for the Redmeat Marketing Strategy to help recover export markets for Northern Ireland beef.
§ I now turn to the Department of Economic Development, where token increases of £1,000 are sought in Votes 1 and 2. In Vote 1, £2.7 million is required by the Industrial Development Board to meet the costs of the very successful North American Roadshow, which took advantage of the favourable climate generated by the Belfast agreement to promote Northern Ireland as a profitable investment location. Some £6.3 million is also sought to meet pressures on industrial development grants resulting from increased claims from IDB client companies. These increases are offset by reduced requirements and increased receipts elsewhere within the Vote.
§ In Vote 2, a token increase of £1,000 is also sought. Within the Vote there are a series of self-adjusting changes resulting in offsetting savings covering any increased requirements. The major element within this Vote is an additional £0.5 million for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to meet increased promotional and marketing activities.
§ In Vote 3, a net increase of £6.1 million is sought by the Training and Employment Agency; £5.6 million is sought for the Jobskills Programme, training centres and community projects to meet increased demand for payment of training allowances. A further £5 million is for the welfare to work initiative to provide a range of employment and training measures within the New Deal, mainly for the long-term unemployed. These increases are offset by savings elsewhere within the Vote.
§ Turning to the Department of the Environment, a net increase of some £4.8 million is sought in Vote 1. The main increases are £5.1 million for roads maintenance while an additional £2 million is needed to support the running costs of Northern Ireland Railways. The Chancellor's Fund provided £0.5 million for roads and £1 million for work to St. Angelo airport in County Fermanagh. These increases are partially offset by reallocations from other areas and increased receipts.
§ In Vote 2, covering housing, a token increase of £1,000 is sought. The Chancellor's Fund provided some £2.8 million for improvements to certain housing estates, and there is a need for a further £4.9 million to support the work of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. There has also been a drop of £1.8 million in the anticipated level of receipts. These pressures are offset by reallocations of £6 million from planned expenditure on renovation grants and £3.7 million in 1886 housing association spending. The gross amount available to support housing in Northern Ireland this financial year is approximately £609 million.
§ In Vote 3, covering water and sewerage services, a net increase of £2.3 million is sought. Some £6.3 million is required for increased operational costs, with a further £2.2 million to meet additional running costs. This is offset by additional receipts of £2 million, together with a reallocation of some £4.4 million from planned levels of capital expenditure.
§ In Vote 4, which covers environmental and other services, a small increase of £0.5 million is sought. Additional expenditure of some £3.5 million is needed for accommodation and supplies costs arising from the proposed political settlement, and £6.6 million reflects the carry forward of running costs and capital underspends from previous years. These increases are largely offset by additional receipts and a reduction of £4 million in matching funding relating to the EU Peace and Reconciliation Programme.
§ In Vote 5, which covers fire services, an additional £3.8 million is sought of which £2 million is for the development of a new fire training centre and £0.7 million is needed for superannuation costs of fire service personnel. A further £0.9 million reflects the carry forward of capital underspend from 1997–98.
§ I now turn to the Department of Education, where a net increase of £46.3 million is sought in Vote 1. The main element of this is £38.5 million for student loans due to a reduction in expected receipts from the second tranche of the national sale of the student loans book debt, owing to a change in the amount of the sale. The remaining increases include £0.3 million for costs arising as a result of the Omagh bomb, £1.3 million for energy efficiency measures mainly in schools, £0.9 million for the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, some £2 million capital and recurrent provision carried forward under the end year flexibility scheme and £2.5 million for the Odyssey Millennium Project.
§ Turning to the Department of Health and Social Services, a net increase of £38.2 million is sought in Vote 1 for expenditure on hospital, community health and personal social services, health and social services trusts, family health services and certain other services. This includes £29.3 million carried forward from 1997–98 under the end year flexibility scheme and £9.2 million towards winter and other pressures offset by reductions elsewhere within the vote.
§ Moving on to Vote 4, a net increase of £12.5 million is required. This includes £16.9 million to fund running costs, capital and other administration pressures in the department and takes into account an additional £1.6 million in respect of administering the welfare to work initiatives. The increases are offset by an increase in receipts of £4.4 million, mainly from the National Insurance Fund in respect of the recovery of administration costs.
§ Turning to the Department of Finance and Personnel, a net increase of £7.8 million is sought in Vote 1. This includes £1.5 million to provide support for new 1887 institutions flowing from the Belfast Agreement and £1.7 million reflecting the carry forward of running costs underspend from 1997–98.
§ Finally, an increase of some £1.4 million is sought to cover additional costs arising within the new Northern Ireland Assembly.
§ I hope that this short summary of the main components of the estimates is helpful. I commend the order to your Lordships.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th February be approved.—(Lord Dubs.)
§ Lord Molyneaux of Killead
My Lords, the House is being invited to endorse additional expenditure of £146 million for the current year. Secondly, and more importantly, we are invited to give approval to the much larger sum of £3,120 million to enable Northern Ireland services to be financed pending the new Northern Ireland Assembly's approval, and to approve the main estimates for the coming year.
There is an urgent need for early decisions on the mechanism for dealing with approval in the near and intermediate future. Approval is needed for authorisation and scrutiny of expenditure by all the departments that will be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The separate funding for those areas of government reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament, as the Minister has rightly said, is not within our remit this evening.
However, there is a dichotomy. Looking at all the various documents being produced by and on behalf of the Assembly, I cannot help thinking that there is a degree of overlap in the functions of the United Kingdom Parliament and Government and of the Assembly. That overlap was not so apparent during the lifetime of the previous Stormont parliament and government. I had the impression that there was a general belief that a perceived "restored" Stormont, as is often referred to, would automatically reinstate the financial arrangements that existed during the lifetime of the Stormont parliament.
Those who take that rather simplistic view forget that, until 1972, there was no Northern Ireland Office. Presumably, the Vote on those matters for which the United Kingdom Government remain responsible would have been fairly small compared with that over the past 10 years. The Northern Ireland Office now has its own budget and, depending on various factors beyond the control of any of us, it can expand very rapidly. That structure, which existed until 1972, and that very clear division no longer exist. There will be a certain parallel with legislation in the Welsh Assembly and in some respects the Scottish Parliament.
There are problems and overlaps which, as yet, have not come over the horizon in regard to all three areas of the United Kingdom. That being the case, why is it proving so difficult to complete the design of what one might loosely call accountability and control of expenditure, given that all three regions of the United Kingdom have featured so prominently in the 1888 deliberations of your Lordships' House and the other place for a good deal of time? I notice that the Whip is taking account of this particular point.
For the first two years of this Parliament, Northern Ireland has featured in terms of the usage of the time and facilities of the draftsmen in a way that probably did not happen over the previous 20 years. The Minister of State in another place, Mr. Murphy, has explained that the President of the Council and Leader of the other place is looking at the issues in so far—these are the Minister's words—"as they affect Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales." There is a certain commonality, and there ought to be a commonality, in our approach to all three areas so that at least there is a degree of uniformity and one area is not out of step with another.
Will the Minister share my view that progress could be hastened if senior Ministers in Her Majesty's Government could begin with a basic design for all three regions of the United Kingdom? They could then consider slight variations that might be desirable in the light of local differences.
I raise a brief question under Department of the Environment Vote 1. The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his generous package for road improvements and much else besides. The fact that the Chancellor made the announcement gave the impression that it was a Treasury initiative, a Treasury bonus, perhaps over and above any future appropriation order. However, confusion arose when the local Stormont Department of Finance made it clear that the Treasury bonus would become available only if the Port of Belfast were privatised and the proceeds and receipts used to fund the Chancellor's generous hand-out. That sounds to me like selling the family silver. Perhaps the Minister can provide some much needed clarification.
I have a final point under Department of the Environment Vote 4 relating to planning. In regard to recent proposals for the expansion of facilities and ancillary undertakings at Aldergrove international airport, can I assume that the Minister in his department and the Department of the Environment welcomed those statements, first, on the grounds that such a hub of commerce and industry around the airport would provide lasting benefits for the entire Province and, secondly, because the provision of employment centred roughly on the airport and the town and borough of Antrim would provide employment in an area extending well to the west of the Province where there has been much depression caused by the closure of what appeared to be secure undertakings?
There is a general appreciation of the diligence and determination of the Minister in directing and encouraging all who serve in his wide ranging department and the results that he has achieved. In addition to the burden that he carries in representing and answering for all Stormont departments in your Lordships' House—sometimes we are inclined to forget this—I am certain that we can rely on the Minister to use his experience and initiative in co-ordinating all the various agencies and furthering this much-needed set of projects for the enhancement of the airport, not just the passenger side, but what flows from that by way of 1889 auxiliary undertakings in the area of the airport. We had high hopes at one time that there would be expansion there because it was going to be a kind of tax-free area, but that did not happen. This seems to me a good opportunity to carry that forward. The attraction for one of the Minister's departments—namely, the Department of the Environment—would be that this could all be done at no financial cost to the department. That ought to bring him good cheer.
It was encouraging to hear from the Minister the good news about the improvement in the economy and a further reduction in unemployment. All of that we welcome and applaud. But, like the Minister, we regret the continuing problems of farmers. He will know that, despite the financial support of his department of Agriculture, the pig sector is rapidly collapsing. That is a fact which we have to face. I trust that the Minister will receive full support across the Province for any measures he can take in the form of what would now amount to a rescue mission.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, I believe that the delay in the implementation of parts of the Good Friday Agreement has left this House with a continued responsibility to discuss the appropriation order for Northern Ireland. I am sure we all agree that the sooner the agreement can be implemented in its entirety the better. To that end, we all wish the Government well in their efforts to accelerate the establishment of an executive on terms that are acceptable to all who invested goodwill in the agreement last April.
I am sure that the Minister of Finance of the new Assembly, being held to account by that Assembly, will be able to do the issues involved more justice than we can tonight. No doubt when the new Minister of Finance announces next year's budget to the eager members of the Northern Ireland Assembly the attendance will be far greater than it is here tonight!
However, we are presented with an opportunity, since, if this is the last appropriation order to be dealt with by this House, as we all hope. we can be sure that it will be against this appropriation order that future budgets in Northern Ireland will be compared. Whatever the new Minister of Finance announces next year, those changes will inevitably be compared with the figures we pass tonight. This order will therefore probably be judged more critically than most of its predecessors, even if that criticism is blunted because it is indirect and because it is delayed by 12 months.
With that in mind, it would be nice to think that we could bequeath Northern Ireland a golden inheritance. Unfortunately, this order seems to have been bound by the Treasury orthodoxy that money is always tight. In some areas it bequeaths a silver inheritance; in a few others, more base metals spring to mind.
Let me start with the areas on which the Government have done well. Agriculture, which has already been discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, accounts for almost 5 per cent. of gross domestic product in Northern Ireland and employs 6 per cent. of the 1890 workforce, compared with 2 per cent. and 2 per cent. respectively for the rest of the United Kingdom. In addition to its other woes, the Province has been one of the areas hardest hit by the recent problems in agriculture, in particular in securing export markets for some agricultural products. I am particularly pleased, therefore, to see that in this order the Government are allocating an extra £36.5 million to the Department of Agriculture. That is considerably above the annual rate of inflation and will go a great distance towards shoring up an industry which has been hard hit.
However, there is more that the Government can do for this vital industry. I understand that last year some £4 million in quota support from the Common Agricultural Policy which should have gone to Northern Ireland farmers to supplement the suckler cow premium remained unclaimed. Although the Government are not directly responsible for this shortfall, they should try to ensure that in future all these European funds are taken up. Further down the line, if the Objective 1 status for Northern Ireland is lost, the Government may have to step in to help Northern Irish farmers further. Although agriculture is to be devolved under the new arrangements, the Minister will be aware that dealings with Europe on all matters including agricultural grants are not, so the Government will need to keep an eye on this. They have done reasonably well so far, but there is no room for complacency.
With regard to education, I fear that the Government have fared considerably worse than they have with regard to agriculture. Putting teachers' superannuation to one side, it seems that funding for education is to be increased by only 1 per cent. in the coming financial year. That follows this year's increase of only 2 per cent., which was also below the rate of inflation. And we must remember that these meagre increases—cuts in real terms—are to an education service already struggling from serious under-funding.
I also understand that some of the reduced overall total of funding is to be sidelined into other areas: energy efficiency in schools, the Council for the Curriculum and costs associated with the Omagh bombing. We have nothing against these special areas of funding—indeed, they seem to be very worthy causes—but they leave even less money in a pot that was never full in the first place. This will stretch teaching resources in Northern Ireland even further. To suggest that money can be saved by cutting back on education is a false economy. I fear that the Government have forsaken their last opportunity to give the schools and colleges of Northern Ireland the boost that they need for long-term stability before control on this issue is devolved to the new structures.
As with all large expenditure totals, there is also the question in the area of education funding of how the global figure is distributed between competing demands. I have come across several well-researched reports and indications, backed up by the most heart-rending testimonies, that integrated education continues to do poorly in several senses of the word. We very much applaud the steps that the Government have taken to remedy this. I believe that they share with us the hope that integrated education has real potential to prevent 1891 future generations being blighted by the tribalism instilled at an early age that has been so destructive in Northern Ireland. The Government's recent decision to support all but one of the integrated schools established by parents—originally without government support—is one that we admire, and we hope it yields long term benefits in the Province.
Unfortunately, the basic facts remain that the demand by both parents and pupils for integrated education is very much greater than the supply and that, where it is in supply, it is not well funded at all. I hope that in this "limbo time" before the executive is established the Government will at least make one further gesture in support of integrated education by agreeing to fund Ulidia integrated primary school, which, sadly, remains dependent on the goodwill of parents and philanthropists.
I should like to conclude by dealing with one quandary brought to my attention recently. I refer to the difference between two figures. One is the suggested figure for the running costs for the new Assembly; the other is the estimated expenditure voted on by the Assembly itself. There is a difference between the £14.5 million on which the Government expect the Assembly to be able to run and the figure of £36.8 million that the Assembly is considering. I realise that these figures must be looked at much more closely to see which bears a closer resemblance to the truth. However, the large divergence between the two figures is a cause of concern.
§ 9.22 p.m.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the order. Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that I sneaked a look at the previous debate on a similar order. My noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley at the time observed that that might be almost the last time that the House debated such an order. We are still debating it this year. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that it is even more likely that this will be the last occasion. Presumably, next year the matter will be covered by a block vote from the Treasury to the Assembly and the Northern Ireland Office. I found the figures confusing, and I am grateful for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, about the education budget. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, made interesting observations about devolution matters in general.
The Minister made light of the difficulties of agriculture, but these problems are not peculiar to the Province; they apply everywhere. The support that he has given to agriculture is welcome. I join the Minister in welcoming the improvement in the employment situation in the Province. I was pleased to cover this matter in our debate last week. I believe that this improvement is the fruit of the relative peace and stability in the Province.
Perhaps I should have studied the figures more closely. Clearly, the fire service is a vital emergency service for the Province, but I was a little surprised when the Minister mentioned the training centre. Is it 1892 economic or effective and does the number of courses it runs make it worthwhile? I do not expect the Minister to respond or worry too much about my question tonight. I was a little surprised by his comment, but as I have not studied the matter previously I have no particular view on it.
I am concerned about the macro-economic effects of any welcome reduction in expenditure on security as and when it is prudent and safe to do so. I mentioned the subject last week, but it bears repeating. Expenditure on the RUC is more than £400 per man, woman and child in the Province. There would be a major effect on the economy if it were to be significantly and rapidly reduced. As it is a reserved matter, any savings will go to the Treasury in London via the NIO and not to the block Vote for Northern Ireland to be reallocated by the Assembly. Thus, there is little incentive to reduce the need for high expenditure on the RUC, either on the part of the unionists or the nationalists. I am not advocating continued high expenditure on the RUC just for the sake of the economy in the short term; I am just interested in the consideration that the Minister has given to the problem.
There is a further problem relating to the RUC and any redundancy or compensation payments. I accept that it is not strictly relevant to this order, but the costs will be considerable although necessary. Indeed, the Prime Minister has said that the payments will be generous. The payments will have to be funded by the Treasury. Are they being built into Treasury forecasts? If not, there is a future danger that unnecessary expenditure on continued and unnecessary manning of the RUC could be incurred because of a lack of funds to pay lump sum compensation payments. It may be that the Minister cannot help me tonight, but will he draw the problem to the attention of his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
If I misheard what the Minister said about agriculture, I apologise. My observations apart, I am content with the order.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I am grateful for the comments that have been made and I will do my best to answer the specific questions.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, referred to the Chancellor's initiative and asked about spending on roads and its relationship to the proposals for Belfast Harbour. When the Chancellor made his Statement he made it clear that some of the money—the estimate was £70 million—towards improvements in the strategic road network would come from the proceeds of the sale of Belfast Harbour. The Government believe that the strategic road network is very important and improving it is to the economic benefit of Northern Ireland. We also believe that there need to be changes in the structure and management of Belfast Harbour because it is constrained by its trust board status from competing as effectively as it would wish and it cannot use its money as it would like for the benefit of the harbour. Accordingly, the harbour commissioners came forward with their proposals.
1893 The commissioners consulted the political parties—some were supportive and some were critical—but the final scheme has not yet been produced. However, the issue will be for the Assembly to decide, as the Secretary of State made clear. It will be up to the Assembly to decide how much of the Government's proposals it wishes to continue to pursue—I hope virtually all. It will be up to the Assembly to decide whether it wishes to proceed with the strategic road network as funded by the proceeds from Belfast Harbour; whether it can raise the money for the network from elsewhere; whether the network is not of such a high priority as we had thought. However, that will be a problem for the Assembly.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, also asked about the development or possible expansion of facilities at Aldergrove airport. We have been in discussion with the developers at Aldergrove for some time over their proposals for commercial development. For the most part, the proposals are acceptable, subject to certain road access improvements to cope with the additional number of people who will travel daily to and from the airport. I refer to proposals for call centres, distribution centres and aircraft maintenance facilities. However, the proposed factory outlet centre does not accord with the policy on out-of-town retail developments. We are having further discussions with the developers with a view to addressing an acceptable overall development.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, also asked about Northern Ireland legislation and devolution arrangements. He asked why there are some differences between the plans for Northern Ireland and those for Scotland and Wales. I think he suggested that there might be more uniformity across the three sets of arrangements. The noble Lord will be aware that the devolution arrangements for Northern Ireland flow from the Belfast agreement. The legislation which has come before your Lordships' House over the past year has been based upon that agreement. To that extent, therefore, it is not possible for there to be a commonality of approach between Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, as the noble Lord proposed. Furthermore, in Northern Ireland we are building on the method of government when Stormont was in charge and on some of the arrangements from there. Again, that does not apply to Wales and Scotland.
§ Lord Molyneaux of Killead
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In case my remarks misled him, I should point out that I was not thinking of the devolution of powers to the three areas of the United Kingdom but of the very sensitive area of how the financial arrangements for all three will be dovetailed. I gather it is that matter on which the Leader of the House of Commons and the President of the Council are concentrating at the moment.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, given the answer which my right honourable friend the Leader of the House gave in the other place, I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to go into the details. I should be 1894 happy to explain to the noble Lord how we see things developing as regards Northern Ireland. I am not so well acquainted with the thinking on Scotland and Wales. However, if the noble Lord is anxious to have a fuller answer, I should be happy to try to provide one.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about education funding. I agree that it is sometimes difficult to deduce from this order what is an increase in funding for any particular activity. I appreciate the problem there. However, my understanding is as follows. Education will receive increases of £90 million, £195 million and £259 million in each of the next three years. That represents increases of 3.7 per cent., 4.3 per cent. and 1.4 per cent. in real terms. I can reassure the noble Lord that the Government's commitment to increased expenditure on education is being met, even if the way in which the appropriation order is designed does not spell it out as clearly as perhaps he and I would wish.
The noble Lord also asked about the crisis in the pig industry. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, also referred to that. I hope that I did not misunderstand him. I thought for one moment he was suggesting that I was not taking agricultural problems seriously, but he then made it clear that that was not the case.
I am aware that Northern Ireland agriculture has gone through a particularly difficult time. I refer not only to the pig sector. Unfortunately, many other sectors are simultaneously facing serious difficulties. On a number of occasions the Government have produced packages of help. That has happened both within the past year and a little longer ago. They were geared at the most vulnerable sectors of the industry. They benefited the beef sector particularly as we added to the suckler cow premium, especially in disadvantaged areas. We also provided some help for the sheep sector.
However, the pig industry is in particular difficulty. Following the fire at the pig processing plant in Ballymoney, which accounted for 40 per cent. of Northern Ireland's entire facility for dealing with pigmeat, farmers had the serious problem of being unable to get the pigs off their farms and for sale. The problem was aggravated by low prices and by a general over-supply in the European Union. We took action and introduced a pig welfare scheme last August/September to deal with farmers whose pigs were overweight and could not be removed from the farms. We helped farmers to deal with some 17,000 pigs and each farmer received £30 compensation.
However, we as a government are very limited by the European Union with regard to what we can do. Unfortunately, many of the requests I have received for additional help for the pig industry have had to be given the reply, "We are not allowed to do it; Brussels won't let us." We have been in touch with Brussels throughout the crisis and a senior representative from the Commission has visited Northern Ireland within the past few weeks. My right honourable friend Nick Brown, who is in charge of all the arrangements at MAFF, visited Northern Ireland and saw the situation for himself. However, we are simply not allowed by Brussels to do everything we are asked to do. We are very limited. Indeed, the European Commission has 1895 objected to the compensation we offered under the pig welfare slaughter scheme. We are still contesting the Commission's findings on that.
Certain developments in the European Union have helped. There is now a proposal to provide food aid relief measures for Russia. That will take some pigmeat off the European market. There have also been a number of other schemes. However, I appreciate that the problem in the pig sector is still very serious. We shall have to await the result of the Commission's visit to Northern Ireland as regards taking that further. I could spend a great deal of time discussing the problems of agriculture in Northern Ireland, but it would perhaps take up more time than is appropriate.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked why the costs of the Assembly have increased from £14.3 million to £36.9 million. The initial estimate of £14.3 million was based on the main estimated provision for 1998–99 and it was always accepted that some further provision would be necessary; for example, to take account of the Senior Salaries Review Body's recommendations on Members' pay and allowances and the Members' pension scheme. The figure of £36.9 million is the Assembly commission's estimate of the operating cost of the Assembly in a full financial year. That figure was decided by the Assembly within the past week or 10 days. It includes the cost of 400 administration staff, the SSRB recommendations, committee and party costs, research and IT, and printing and publishing costs. As the commission recognised, the actual cost of operating the Assembly in 1999–2000 will depend on a number of factors, including the date of devolution and when the additional staffing identified by the commission takes up duty.
When the order was prepared, we were not aware of the Assembly's decision leading to the figure of £36.9 million for the next financial year. So we were working on the information available to us at the time. Clearly, it will be for the Assembly to decide how it balances its books in the coming financial year. It is a decision for the Assembly. That is part of the process of devolution.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked a number of questions. I believe that I have dealt with his points as regards agriculture. I believe that the fire training centre is an important provision. I am satisfied that it will be of benefit to the fire service in Northern Ireland and that it will be used effectively with sufficient economies of scale to make it a worthwhile operation. I dealt with that in quite some detail some months ago when I gave the go-ahead for the scheme, but I am certainly happy to write to the noble Earl and give him fuller information on the basis of the question he asked.
As regards spending on the RUC and the assumption that the noble Earl made that there would be a reduction in that expenditure, which I believe is reasonable, given that the RUC represents a level of staffing way above what one would expect in a normal, civilian peacetime situation for a population of the size of Northern Ireland, that assumption is understood by the RUC. Of course, any reduction in expenditure would be made in the light of recommendations from the Chief Constable about the 1896 security situation at the time. So we cannot estimate the speed at which there might be a decline in expenditure on the RUC because we await the frequent security assessments from the Chief Constable on the basis of which we will make reductions if that is recommended.
Of course, in the shortish term redundancy payments will be an expensive cost, as they will be in the prison service. Therefore, 1 do not foresee a reduction in total spending having a damaging effect on the Northern Ireland economy, which I believe was the thrust of the noble Earl's remarks. I shall make sure that his views are made known to my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer as being a concern that the noble Earl has expressed, not for the short, but the medium term.
I believe that I have answered all the questions. In one or two instances I have said that I shall write to noble Lords with fuller information.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.