HL Deb 06 March 2000 vol 610 cc878-91

7.27 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th February be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 laid before the House on 28th February be approved. Details of the sums sought are given in the Spring Supplementary Estimates booklet and the Statement of Sums required on Account, which have been placed in the Library of the House and are available from the Printed Paper Office.

I regret that this legislation is before the House today instead of being considered by locally elected representatives within the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, while we await the restoration of the Assembly, it is our responsibility to see that good government is maintained. Once again, we must ask Parliament to deal with issues such as appropriation. Of course, that should be one of the most important tasks for the Assembly, which was about to embark upon it when the suspension began. I am sure your Lordships will agree with me when I say that we all hope that it will not be too long before the Assembly is restored on a permanent basis and the benefits of a devolved administration will he fully realised by the people of Northern Ireland and beyond.

If I am unable to provide detailed answers to points raised at the end of the debate, I shall, of course, respond in writing. However, I must advise your Lordships that the Government cannot account for the policy decisions which were taken by the Executive Committee and its members during the period of devolution. I would remind your Lordships that the draft order does not cover expenditure by the Northern Ireland Office on law and order services.

Unfortunately, the Assembly was still in the process of scrutinising budget proposals for the coming financial year when it was suspended. Consideration of the annual Budget, which the Assembly has the right to modify, is one of its key tasks. By approving the Vote on Account today, this House would not necessarily be pre-empting the decision of the Assembly about the final allocations for 2000–01, since less than half the total proposed budget is being sought in the draft order. However, budget holders in the health service, in schools and all other key public services in Northern Ireland have to plan and commit resources now if they are to be able to discharge their responsibilities properly. They are presently working with the executive budget proposals which were presented to the Assembly in December on a provisional basis, and this will continue to be the case. The longer restoration is delayed, therefore, the less opportunity there will be for the Assembly to modify spending plans, since the resources will effectively have been allocated.

The draft order has two purposes. The first is to authorise expenditure of f 193 million in the 1999–2000 Spring Supplementary Estimates. To a large extent this reflects recent decisions taken by the Northern Ireland Executive Committee and will bring total estimates provision for Northern Ireland departmental services to £7,595 million for this financial year. The second purpose is to authorise the Vote on Account of £3,539 million for 2000–01. In general, this has been calculated as 45 per cent of the anticipated net 2000–01 Main Estimates provision contained within the Budget proposals. This will enable the services of Northern Ireland departments to continue until the 2000–01 Main Estimates are approved—it is hoped—by the Assembly later this year.

With your Lordships' permission, I now turn to the main areas where supplementary provision is sought. Some of the votes seek token increases only because new pressures have been offset by reduced requirements elsewhere within the same votes.

In Vote 1, which provides for Northern Ireland expenditure on national agriculture support measures, a net addition of £10.5 million is sought. That includes £8.5 million in respect of the Special Aid Package payable under the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances and £2 million is to cover higher than anticipated demand for the Environmentally Sensitive Areas Scheme. A further £4.1 million is in respect of agri-monetary compensation for the beef sector and £3.5 million is for Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances. Agri-monetary compensation is designed to offset the effects of currency appreciation on agricultural support prices and compensation payments which are set in euros.

In Vote 2 covering local agriculture support measures, a net increase of £5.4 million is sought. That includes £10.2 million in respect of controlling outbreaks of animal diseases, including tuberculosis and brucellosis. The additions are partially offset by reduced requirements elsewhere within the vote.

Token increases of £1,000 are sought in Votes 3, 4 and 5, covering economic development and training. In Vote 3, some £13.3 million is sought by the Industrial Development Board to meet pressures on industrial development grants from increased claims from client companies. A further £1 million is sought for industrial development promotion, to allow the Industrial Development Board to build on the success of its overseas marketing campaign and to maintain the momentum in promoting Northern Ireland as a good and competitive investment location. Those increases are offset by reduced requirements and additional receipts elsewhere within the vote.

A token £1,000 is also sought in Vote 4. Within the vote, which covers other economic support measures, administration, energy and miscellaneous services" increased requirements are offset by savings elsewhere. Additions sought include £0.5 million to assist with the setting up costs associated with the new Equality Commission and to meet pressures within the Office of the Industrial and Fair Employment Tribunals.

In Vote 5, covering the Training and Employment Agency, a token increase of £1,000 is sought. That, as in Vote 4, involves increases sought being offset by reduced requirements and additional receipts. The adjustments include a redistribution of resources within the New Deal to meet changing demands and pressures.

I turn to Vote 7. A net increase of some £1 million is sought. The main increases are some £6 million for roads maintenance and £2 million for capital expenditure on the Vehicle Information System of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. There is also increased provision for Northern Ireland Railways and for works at St Angelo Airport in Fermanagh, as well as additional running costs for roads service. Those increases are largely offset by reduced requirements and increased receipts elsewhere within the vote.

In Vote 10, a net increase of some £8 million is sought for increased expenditure on urban regeneration, assistance to Omagh District Council for costs incurred following from the tragic bombing, as well as additional running costs brought forward from 1998–99 under end year flexibility arrangements. Those increases are partially offset by additional receipts.

I now turn to Vote 12, covering expenditure on education and related services, where a net increase of some £53 million is sought. That is mainly due to a reduction of £70 million in receipts previously forecast as a result of the third UK sale of student loan debt not proceeding. I should add that the Treasury has made good the resulting deficit from the Reserve so there is no loss to public services in Northern Ireland. In addition, there are increases of £3.9 million for school and library books; £3.5 million for school and further education maintenance; £2.8 million for tuition fees and grants to students; and £2.6 million for the Odyssey Millennium Landmark Project. Those increases are partially offset by a reduced requirement of £11 million on student loans; and a reduced requirement of £4.5 million on the European Union Peace and Reconciliation Programme.

In Vote 14, a net increase of £58.6 million is sought for expenditure on hospital, community health and personal social services, health and social services trusts, family health services and certain other services. That includes £23.9 million carried forward from 1998–99 under end year flexibility arrangements, £20.3 million towards winter and other pressures, £9.4 million for capital expenditure and £5 million for the meningitis vaccine programme.

In Vote 16, additional net provision of £9.1 million is sought for expenditure on certain miscellaneous health and personal social services costs. That includes £8.5 million for the European Union Peace and Reconciliation Programme and £0.4 million for grants to community groups funded by the ERDF.

Additional net provision of £10.5 million is sought in Vote 17 to meet administration and other miscellaneous costs. That includes £12.3 million to fund running costs, capital and other administration pressures in the department. The increases are offset by an increase of receipts of 1.8 million, mainly from the Department of Social Security for administering certain services on its behalf.

In Vote 19, which covers social security that is centrally administered, £12.9 million is sought mainly to meet higher than anticipated expenditure on housing benefit and increased payments into the Northern Ireland National Insurance Fund in respect of the statutory sick and statutory maternity payments. Those increased requirements are offset by reduced requirements elsewhere within the vote.

Finally, there is also additional provision of £4.4 million for the Northern Ireland Assembly. That increase is to allow the Assembly to begin to implement the recommendations of the Assembly Commission, which examined the resources the Assembly will require in order to discharge its functions fully. However, I must advise your Lordships that, during suspension, the Northern Ireland Act 2000 requires the cost of the Assembly to be met directly from a Northern Ireland Office vote. That is put before Parliament as part of the approval process for UK supply estimates, a completely separate procedure from today's business. That arrangement will continue until the suspension is lifted, at which time the Assembly will revert to taking its funding from the provision sought under this order. We have, of course, had to provide for the Assembly in the draft order in order to facilitate a speedy return to devolution.

I should point out to your Lordships that both the supplementary estimates and the vote on account are based on proposals made by the devolved administration in Northern Ireland before suspension. Those proposals have not been modified or extended. I hope that that short summary of the main components of the estimates is helpful. I commend the order to your Lordships.

7.42 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, we are at some small disadvantage as a result of delays in terms of both availability of documents and of short notice. I do not attach any blame to Ministers or to the Department of Finance and Personnel. Your Lordships will be aware of certain little difficulties elsewhere.

It seems appropriate that we should calmly examine government expenditure in Northern Ireland against a more settled background than would have been the case, say, a year ago. In Northern Ireland there is a sense of relief and a degree of normality resulting from an absence of media bombardment which, for the past three years, had the effect of "setting the children's teeth on edge". People are now concentrating on those matters which they judge to be important in everyday life. They are not going to thank any party which endeavours to hoist them and their Province back on to yet another high profile, high wire act. Politicians north and south would do well to heed Clem Attlee's directive: A period of silence would be welcome". The debate provides an opportunity to focus attention on the financial realities that are block allocations from the Treasury and products of the annual public expenditure survey by the major Whitehall departments. It follows that the most any devolved assembly can do is to plead a special case which may of course be valid in all three devolved regions. At present and for decades past, all three devolved regions benefited through the Barnett formula benefit per capita to a greater extent than the United Kingdom in general and England in particular. In their own local interest, I must say that those three devolved regions—and London's elections are coming up, which is an unknown quantity—must take great care to avoid upsetting that well tried formula.

The Secretary of State in all three regions occupies the key role because he has the discretion to allocate the block between services in response to local needs and priorities. Junior Ministers apply great pressure to the Secretary of State and the overall department. We have two representatives of that band present tonight: the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Patten, who have treated their responsibilities to the departments under their control and fought their corner with great sensitivity and determination. I want to pay tribute to them and to some of their predecessors.

However, to a great extent, one of the main Northern Ireland departments is not quite so closely bound by the restrictions of the block. That is the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which features in Votes 1 and 2 on both parts of the appropriation order. In the Barnett formula of 1978, agriculture was—and still is—in a kind of semi-detached position. I am grateful for the clarity with which the position is set out in the statement of sums, which tends to confirm that semi-detached status. But, since then, agriculture has been affected by membership of a far greater authority: the Common Market: now the European Union. I said that agriculture has been affected by that body, but I should have said "disastrously affected" by the European Union.

There is the need now for a genuine opportunity to reprioritise government support for Northern Ireland agriculture relative to its much greater importance to the Province's economy as compared with any part of Great Britain. Government assistance is imperative in the immediate and short term to secure the very survival of Northern Ireland agriculture. The ongoing Ulster Farmers Union campaign has secured widespread acceptance from both political representatives and the general public throughout Northern Ireland. It has convinced them that the agricultural crisis is extremely real and that urgent assistance needs to be provided. Nothing more can be done on what one might term a "Northern Ireland only" basis. We are now totally dependent on the Treasury and Downing Street for progress to provide the necessary short-and immediate-term assistance for the general UK-wide crisis in agriculture.

One must ask what short term assistance is necessary. It would appear to fall under two crucial areas identified by the Ulster Farmers Union and by many other bodies with farming interests. The first is urgent assistance for the pig sector—a situation made far worse by the closure of one of the major plants only this weekend. Secondly, there is the provision of all agri-monetary compensation available to UK agriculture in the year 2000: beef, £135 million; cereals, £169 million; dairy, £28 million; sheep, £67 million; and sugar, £3 million, making a total of £402 million.

What is the state of Northern Ireland's agriculture? The agri-food industry is still the largest single industry in Northern Ireland, accounting for 10 per cent of employment and 7 per cent of the gross domestic product. In Northern Ireland the agri-food industry is almost three times as important as at the UK level. The industry is still the main driving force in the rural economy of the whole of Northern Ireland. Over the past five years, some £756 million has been removed from the economy of the Province as a result of various crises in agriculture. The annual total farm income has plummeted by 79 per cent in real terms to £71 million in the same period.

A recently produced Eurostat report shows that in the period 1995–98 agricultural producer prices in the United Kingdom have fallen by much more than in any other member state of the European Union. Provisional figures for 1999–2000 indicate average net farm income to be minus £700. In 1999 Northern Ireland farm incomes fell by 23 per cent in real terms compared with 1 per cent in real terms in the UK as a whole. That is surely a shattering fact. Now farmers are in a situation of owing £520 million to banks alone and that sum continues to grow. A deadline of the end of April exists for the United Kingdom Government formally to request from the European Union its allocation of virtually all the available agri-monetary compensation for the livestock sectors.

The message from the Northern Ireland farming community is that there is urgent need for the provision of short-term assistance to secure the survival of Northern Ireland's agriculture industry.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Patten

My Lords, I rise with some temerity to support my right honourable friend—I use that phrase with care—the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead. He has told your Lordships that after recent months he felt that peace and quiet and above all silence from politicians on this side of the water was called for. I hope that he will allow me to break that Trappist silence to support him. I know that he feels that in the past 35 years one of the endemic problems in the politics of the Province has been that dreaded word "initiative", and that one initiative piled upon another by people of good intention has often not only failed to produce results but made matters worse.

My right honourable friend the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, has given us one clear initiative tonight that the Minister and her colleagues could take to heart: to achieve by the end of April the aim that the noble Lord has pressed upon the House this evening. Uniquely—again I choose that word carefully—agriculture has an extraordinary place in the economy and society of Northern Ireland, more than in any other part of the United Kingdom.

I do not know how hopeful I should be in making the request that a useful initiative would help the agriculture industry and agri-business in the Province. I come from the West Country of England, where recently we had a visit from someone who pressed a telescope with Nelsonian indifference to his eye, saw no crisis about him and went away again. I do not believe that anyone could visit the Province, look at the agri-business and see anything other than crisis. The terrible situation among pig farmers in the Province deserves urgent consideration for a host of reasons one of which is that those devotees of the Ulster fry in the morning—of which I am one—still want a supply available to fuel their plates.

I believe that there is an opportunity for something to be done which is not only right for the economy and the society of the Province, but may also help measured and careful future political development there. Where there is poverty there is trouble. There was trouble in the 18th century when a pike was hidden in every thatch and there is in the early 21st century when there are too many Armalites in too many attics. I believe that the Minister could do a lot to reassure the people of the Province and aid its careful, slow and measured political development by listening to what my right honourable friend the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, had to say tonight.

7.56 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I hope that we shall pass this appropriation order. However, the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, referred to the Barnett formula. I believe an English backlash is growing not just in Northern Ireland, but also in other devolved areas. In a year's time when an order such as this comes before the House, it may not receive the reception that I want it to receive tonight. In voting for this order we urge the politicians of Northern Ireland to get their act together so that they can proceed in a peaceful manner and so that external investment will continue to flow in at the rate that it has, because unless there is a settlement that will come to a sudden and juddering halt.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for so clearly presenting this order. It is sad on two counts. First, it is sad that we are debating it at all. Secondly, it is equally sad because it is a comprehensive order, the most important financial order for Northern Ireland in the year. We have not had adequate time in which to do it justice. It is well laid out, but there must be many questions that need to be asked.

On the positive side, I hope I understood right that the Minister has not committed the total Vote and that should the Assembly be resumed shortly, it will have an opportunity to re-run this debate and do with the block grant what it wants. That is very important. Northern Ireland has gone a long way down the road of deciding how it wishes to spend the money for its electorate. I sincerely hope that this situation will not recur.

However, the Northern Ireland economy is in as balanced a situation as its politics and is probably as dependent upon success in the major political scene for its future as it is on what we talk about tonight. There are crises. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, has outlined clearly the plight of the farmers, in which connection I must declare an interest. I understand that our fishermen have had their cod quotas reduced and that French fishermen are benefiting from their waters. If that is true, it cannot be right.

Our shipyard has been the leading company in international endeavour for probably 100 years and was once the largest shipyard in the world, but it is once again in serious danger of dying. However, the company has great opportunities and is currently negotiating, critically and vitally, to win orders to fill that yard again. Are the Government using all endeavours to afford the shipyard the best possible opportunity? I understand that funding of up to 9 per cent is allowable in assisting such a contract.

I hope that Ministers will act quickly and sensibly to attend to the vacuum created by the Executive and to any crises as they arise. Although in UK terms, little crises in the Northern Ireland economy may seem small, they can be of critical future importance to the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I welcome the opening statement by the Minister, especially her hope that peaceful trends will prevail. The people of Northern Ireland earnestly seek, with honour, trust and good will, to establish a form of government as set down for the Assembly.

Although it is a matter that is outside the Minister's control, I should have preferred the draft order to have been duly tabled and considered by elected representatives in another place first. However, the opening statements have been very constructive and positive.

I find it difficult to accept this appropriation order in the light of years of experience on the Opposition Benches in dealing with expenditure and the various developments that took place.

It is necessary to refer to three documents. The first is the Northern Ireland Act 1974 which sets out the background and shows why the appropriation order had to be presented at this time in this manner. In relation to expenditure, it is necessary to look not only at the appropriation order but also at the Northern Ireland Spring Supplementary Estimates 1999–2000.

There are two matters that touch on the point of principle that I should like to develop. Paragraph 12 on page 7 relates to expenditure on education in schools. We see there a figure of £53 million, which is a decrease of approximately £68 million. I looked at the Supplementary Estimates to see why that reduction has taken place. On page 45 the reduction is stated to be mainly due to a reduction of planned spending of £4 million as the result of the non-availability of receipts from the sale of the Belfast Port. The Minister has already referred to that point.

Paragraph 5 refers to a reduced requirement of £5 million-plus being mainly due to a reduction of planned spending of £2 million-plus as a result of the non-availability of receipts from the sale of Belfast Airport; a transfer of £2 million to sub-head (2) for education technology, and a reduced requirement of £24,000 in respect of the Making Belfast Work Initiative. Why has that situation arisen? Is it sound or practical to build a budget on that basis?

Page 9 of the appropriation order deals with expenditure for the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is an increase on the original estimate. In the Northern Ireland Spring Supplementary Estimates on page 79 approval is sought for various changes in relation to additional staff salaries and recruitment costs of over £600,000; additional Members' and office holders' salaries of £500,000; a party allowance of £400,000; and road, security, cleaning and catering costs of £1.5 million.

I do not understand how those figures can be presented at a time when Northern Ireland is trying to fulfil the housing, transport development and educational needs of ordinary working people.

I do not wish to close the door on a sad note or a highly critical note. I know that the Government have tried to deal with the affairs of Northern Ireland in a liberal manner. But at the same time, this appropriation order requires acute examination that cannot be done in one sweep in this House.

I thank the Minister for the way in which she presented the order. The burden she carries in this connection would be much less if it had been presented in the other place first, instead of in this House.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I share my noble friend's regret that we are debating this order at all. We hoped fervently that these matters would stay with the Assembly in Belfast. I feel also that this procedure is not entirely satisfactory, even if we have to conduct the business here. Frankly, noble Lords asking questions, which are answered by the Box passing messages to the Minister or the Minister writing in response, is not the best method of dealing with these matters. I am sure that a better procedure could be devised, though we hope that we shall not have to deal with appropriation orders in the future. There are better ways in which to debate these matters, ask questions and obtain the answers than this cumbersome way via secondary legislation.

I have sympathy with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, in relation to the state of Northern Ireland agriculture. This is not necessarily the appropriate time to debate those issues, but I share his concern about the dreadful situation facing farmers, including the hard-hit pig farmers, at the present time. I am not sure that there could be much in this appropriation order which would make a difference. As the noble Lord suggested. we must look to Brussels and possibly even MAFF for some easement, not to decisions made in Belfast.

I should like to raise a few issues, one or two of which have been referred to, which underlie some of the figures that we have been debating this evening.

The first concerns the difficulties as regards Belfast Harbour. I wonder whether my noble friend can throw a little more light on the timing as regards the plans to privatise the harbour, which have been somewhat delayed for reasons some of which I am familiar with and others which have arisen more recently. But they cast a dark shadow over any spending plans in Northern Ireland because it meant that some items of expenditure had to be deferred on the assumption that the harbour will be sold before too long. Perhaps my noble friend can say something about the assumptions underlying the failure so far to make much progress in selling Belfast Harbour.

Secondly, and importantly, it is likely that Belfast Harbour is worth a lot more than the £70 million that we have been discussing. Although I am sure that my noble friend cannot give any assurances from the Front Bench today, I hope that when the harbour is sold for a sum in excess of £70 million, all that money will stay in Northern Ireland; that the Treasury will not get its hands on the difference between £70 million and the amount the harbour fetches and claw it back. The wealth of the harbour comes from the efforts of people in Northern Ireland their industry, commitment and hard work. It is only proper that wealth created in Northern Ireland should stay in Northern Ireland for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. My noble friend probably cannot say much about that and I do not want to tempt her into a discussion about it. But that needs to be said for the record.

As I understand it, one consequence of not having that £70 million—or whatever greater sum it might be is that the roads programme has not proceeded as we hoped following the Chancellor's initiative a couple of years ago. Perhaps my noble friend can say a little more about what happened to some of the road schemes which were so eagerly sought after by district councils and others throughout Northern Ireland and which I suspect now have had to be delayed.

My noble friend referred to the costs of the Assembly. I hope she can assure us that in the figures for next year we assume that the Assembly will be going from the beginning, and that we are not writing into the figures any assumption about savings through the Assembly not functioning. The message that has to go out and that has gone out through some of the speeches this evening, is that we want the Assembly back in operation as soon as possible and therefore we do not want to look at savings which may make it more difficult for the Assembly to get restarted.

I have a few other points that I want to raise briefly. One concerns the water industry and capital expenditure on water and sewerage in Northern Ireland—an area which has seen too little spending over many years. I should like an assurance that the high levels of spending envisaged will go on being achieved in so far as this is not a matter that will go back to the Assembly in Belfast; in other words, that we are working on the assumption that the higher levels of spending will taker place whether it be from public expenditure or income from the regional rates.

My next point concerns public transport, again an area which has been under-resourced for a long time in Northern Ireland. Can my noble friend say anything about the needs of the railways and the buses and whether they can be met by some further increments in public expenditure, public-private partnerships or through PFI'? Is there any difficulty in applying PFI? Is there a legislative basis for it? It is a matter of seeing by what combination of means further capital spending can be achieved in both the railways and bus services of Northern Ireland.

Lastly, I want to raise a point about which I failed to give my noble friend notice earlier as I did with the other points. St. Angelo Airport was mentioned. Can she say anything about the plans to develop Londonderry Airport? It is much needed. I am not aware of what the latest position is but I know that some contribution has been made from the Republic. It will make an interesting and helpful package for the economic development of the north-west of Northern Ireland and indeed of Donegal. If my noble friend is not able to give me the answers today, perhaps she will be kind enough to write to me.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, identified a crucial issue with regard to funding for Northern Ireland in that the Barnett formula largely removes the need for detailed negotiation with Her Majesty's Treasury on spending needs. It is a transparent mechanism that enables allocations to be scrutinised. Expenditure per head in Northern Ireland remains significantly above that in England, reflecting relative need.

The noble Lords, Lord Molyneaux, Lord Patten and Lord Glentoran, raised the issue of agrimoney compensation. We are aware of the tremendous pressure to do something for the agricultural sector in Northern Ireland. Incomes have fallen by a further 22 per cent in the past year whereas they appear to have stabilised in the rest of the UK. We recognise the funding difficulties, but payment of compensation cannot proceed on a regional basis. The UK agriculture Ministers discussed agrimoney compensation on a number of occasions, including most recently at their meeting on 10th February this year. In 1999 a total of £ 16.8 million agrimoney compensation was provided to farmers in Northern Ireland. Further assistance will also be available over the next two years. Future assistance to the farming industry in the UK will need to be looked at in the context of the next spending review.

The noble Lords, Lord Molyneaux, my noble friend Lord Dubs and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, also raised the issue of the crisis in the pig industry. We recognise that that industry is facing difficulties across the UK. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that the whole Government, including my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, recognise the problems facing agriculture. The Government are doing what they can within the rules on state aids. Special assistance has been given to Northern Ireland pig farmers to compensate them for the immediate effect of loss through fire of a major processing plant. A sum of £400,000 has been made available to promote pigmeat sales. In this, I concur with the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Patten. A cross-border study of the pig industry has been set up and will report before the summer. The Government will study that report extremely carefully.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, raised the matter of Harland and Wolff and the negotiations with Carnival and with Cunard. We appreciate the concerns expressed by the noble Lord. Negotiations are continuing between Harland and Wolff and the Carnival Corporation of the USA. Officials at the Industrial Development Board are in close contact with senior management at Harland and Wolff and with the DTI in relation to the company's bid for the contract to build the new liner. I can assure the noble Lord that the Government will do everything in their power to be of assistance.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, also raised the issue of the Irish Sea cod recovery plan. We sympathise with whitefish fishermen who have to forgo their traditional spring cod fishing. However, the cod must be allowed to spawn during this period. Prawn fishing will continue without serious restrictions, affording continuity of supplies to the important processing industry in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lord Blease spoke of justification for the costs of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Assembly commission has estimated that the required expenditure of the new Assembly is necessary if the Assembly can resume its business. I believe that we would regard that as money well spent.

I thank my noble friend Lord Dubs for giving me advance notice of several points that he wished to raise. Both he and my noble friend Lord Blease asked about progress on the sale of Belfast Port and the financial implications for improvements to Northern Ireland's roads network. The position on the sale of the port is that the Belfast Harbour Commissioners have now published their revised PPP proposal, but have not yet submitted their transfer scheme to the department. The Assembly Minister for the Department of Regional Development recently submitted an options paper on the future of the port to the Regional Development Committee. If the sale of the port does not proceed, it is possible that there will be an impact on the roads programme. I would expect the consequent implications to be a matter for consideration by the Executive Committee and the Assembly. If the sale does not proceed, the allocation of receipts to spending programmes would also be a matter for those bodies. My noble friend Lord Dubs also raised the issue of what would happen were there to be in excess of £70 million from the sale of the port. We are aware of general concern on this point. Discussions are proceeding with the Treasury. However, it is important not to hold up the sale.

My noble friend also raised the question of the cost of the Assembly and possible savings arising as a result of the suspension. If devolution is not restored during this financial year, it is estimated that expenditure on the Northern Ireland Assembly will reduce by some £2 million in 1999–2000. Savings next year will, of course, depend on the date of the restoration. However, along with my noble friend Lord Blease, I can reassure my noble friend that we all seek restoration of the Assembly.

My noble friend Lord Dubs mentioned the issue of investment through the use of PPPs and PFIs to support investment in the railways and buses. I am pleased to be able to advise him that present investment in public transport services includes the purchase of 130 new low-floor buses at a cost of £15 million, reinstatement of the Antrim to Bleach Green railway line, costing £17 million, and the provision of the Bangor integrated transport centre, costing £4 million. Pending the development of PPP options for public transport, £5 million is being made available subject to a satisfactory investment appraisal to begin to address the rolling stock needs of the railway. We are also conscious of the potential contribution which PPPs could make to public transport and a review of possible PPP opportunities in public transport services has recently been completed. The conclusion and recommendations of the review are currently under consideration. It is expected that a decision on the way forward can be taken soon.

My noble friend made the point that public expenditure plans for Northern Ireland announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review included an assumed increase in revenue from the regional rate. One of the beneficiaries of the additional spending is, as he said, water and sewerage services, where significant increases in expenditure amounting to £85 million over three years are planned to help to meet European Union drinking water and waste water quality standards. Future spending on water and sewerage needs to be considered alongside other priorities in the next spending review.

My noble friend Lord Blease raised the question of a decrease of £68 million in the Department of Education estimate. The bulk of the £68 million decrease is the reduction of £70 million in receipts as a result of the third UK sale of student loan debt not proceeding. I can assure my noble friend that the resultant shortfall has been made good by the Treasury.

My noble friend Lord Dubs raised the issue of the City of Derry airport runway improvements. A final decision on whether to provide the city council with additional grant assistance to cover the cost overrun on the runway project has not yet been taken. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that the Government will, at all times, act sensitively and quickly in reaction to crises in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, expressed very well the view that peace is the best means of ensuring inward investment and economic redevelopment. Political success is vital, as my noble friend Lord Blease said.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is right to say that, should the Assembly be resumed shortly, it will resume responsibility with the appropriate level of funding within the budget left for it to determine. Several noble Lords have referred to the short period of time to consider the detail of this order. In commending it to your Lordships, I undertake to reply to any further questions submitted in writing. I join all noble Lords in hoping that the situation in Northern Ireland will improve and that this order will not need to be repeated in your Lordships' House. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.