HL Deb 07 April 1981 vol 419 cc436-8

2.53 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords. I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are yet in a position to comment on the Northern Ireland Economic Council's Economic Assessment, March 1981, and in particular its conclusion that "losses in employment and a further narrowing of Northern Ireland's base, are grave".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, the Government have taken note of the Northern Ireland Economic Council's Economic Assessment, March 1981. Every effort is being made to offset the effects in the Province of the current recession from within available resources. In particular, emphasis continues to be placed on the creation of new jobs through indigenous and inward investments, support as necessary of existing viable employment, and a generous training programme.

Lord Blease

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that reply, may I ask him to confirm or refute the assessment of the Northern Ireland Economic Council that the Government's policies could mean unemployment in Northern Ireland reaching over 25 per cent., which is one-quarter of the total working population, within the next 12 months?

Lord Elton

My Lords, it is not our practice to make unemployment forecasts and it cannot be said with certainty what the level will be in Northern Ireland in 1981.

Lord O'Neill of the Maine

My Lords, is my noble friend aware how tragic it is for people like the noble Lord, Lord Blease, who played such a large part as secretary of the Northern Ireland trade unions in his day, to see the industries which were attracted to Northern Ireland in the 'fifties and' sixties slowly slipping away today? Is the Northern Ireland Office also aware how unfortunate it is, with the divisions which exist in the Province, that these divisions should be added to by constantly rising unemployment?

Lord Elton

My Lords, of course I echo the concern of my noble friend about the effects of divisions within the Province. I would encourage him, all my noble friends and Members of this House, to take a realistic view of what the situation in political terms is in the Province and allay the unreal estimate of those divisions that is held abroad as a result of the way in which the media concentrate on the bad news.

As for current developments in the Province with regard to unemployment, I should not like your Lordships to think that nothing is being done. First, we have taken the necessary measures through our central economic policies to strengthen the economy of the United Kingdom. Secondly, we are taking steps to sustain industry and to stimulate new job-creating investment in Northern Ireland by offering the most generous industrial development incentives in the United Kingdom. Thirdly, we have implemented a number of measures to alleviate the problem for adults and young people who would otherwise be employed.

There are 6,350 persons in the Youth Opportunities Programme, 11,400 in the Temporary Short-time Working Compensation Scheme, 11,550 in training on employers' premises, 1,010 in the Job Release Scheme, 830 in Enterprise Ulster and 360 in Government training centres, attachment training, and so on. That is a total of 31,500, to which should be added in the current year 3,000 new places on the Youth Opportunities Programme and about 450 under the new Action Community Employment Scheme. Altogether, £9.4 million has been added to the provision for special employment measures in 1981–82, but much our prime concern is still to stimulate economic activity which will create real and lasting employment.

Lord Blease

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the Northern Ireland Economic Council is a very influential body and is comprised of knowledgeable people with wide experience of the commercial and industrial life of the Province? Will he, in efforts to support what he has stated on behalf of the Government, attempt to get that council and the Government to work together, so that the general public in Northern Ireland may feel that they are working in tandem to try to do something in the best interest of the Province and perhaps some useful results may be achieved? In other words, will the Minister use his good offices to try to get the Government and this influential body to work together?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the differences between the council and Government are not as real as the noble Lord may think. The Government have always acknowledged that Northern Ireland's particular needs differ from those of Great Britain. It is in recognition of those that per capita expenditure of public funds is higher in the Province than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That there are higher levels of per capita public expenditure in Northern Ireland is acknowledged by the Northern Ireland Economic Council and is not in dispute. I share with the noble Lord, as do the Government, the anxiety that that prestigious body should in fact lend its weight to our efforts towards reconstruction, and I take the point well.