§ 7.18 p.m.
§ Baroness Denton of Wakefield rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th May be approved.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I think perhaps we could describe this order as the housekeeping order of the Province.
§ The draft order authorises expenditure of £3,291 million for Northern Ireland departments in the current financial year. This is additional to the sum voted on account in March, and brings total estimates provision for Northern Ireland departments to £5,824 million, an increase of 4.1 per cent. on 1993–94. I know that the House continues to take a close interest in the prospects for economic development in Northern Ireland I have never returned to the House from the Province without being questioned about progress, and often I can answer with some success.
§ The latest economic indicators show that the local economy continues to perform well. Over the year to the last quarter of 1993, the output of Northern Ireland's manufacturing industries rose by 3.6 per cent., while employment levels rose by 1 per cent. over the year to March 1994. Seasonally adjusted unemployment has fallen in eight of the past nine months. At May 1994 the total was 98,000 or 13.1 per cent. of the workforce. That is the lowest level for almost three years. I remind the House that that figure represents a lot of people, and the Government are very conscious of it.
§ Encouragement is also provided by recent surveys of the local business community. These point to strengthening economic activity, improving output, 955 increasing investment intentions and improving order books, particularly for exports. Businesses do not have an easy task, but I believe that we can look forward with some confidence to continued progress in the months ahead. In the past six months I have been delighted to find that Northern Ireland companies are less hesitant and nervous of exporting than many companies in England.
§ I turn to the main items of expenditure covered by the order as detailed in the estimates booklet, starting with the Department of Agriculture. The net provision in the two agriculture votes amounts to some £164 million. In Vote 1, some £25 million is to fund EC and national agriculture and fishery support measures. In addition to various market support measures under the common agricultural policy, the vote includes some £10 million for grants for capital and other farm improvements, and £14 million is for the hill livestock compensatory allowance scheme.
§ In Vote 2, some £139 million is for regional services. This includes £59 million for agri-food development and scientific and veterinary services. Forty-four million pounds is for farm support, enhancement of the countryside, fisheries and forestry services. I am pleased to say that £5 million is for the rural development programme, an increase of £3 million over 1993–94. We regard that programme as one of importance to both fanners and rural areas.
§ In the Department of Economic Development's Vote 1, £130 million is required for the Industrial Development Board. Thirteen inward investment projects were successfully negotiated last year, representing a total investment of £259 million, while 2,309 jobs were promoted. That is a significant achievement in anybody's book.
§ In Vote 2, £34 million is for the Local Enterprise Development Unit and £14 million for the Industrial Research and Technology Unit. Elsewhere in the vote, £12.5 million is for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. It is encouraging that in 1993 a record 1.26 million visitors came to Northern Ireland. I appreciate that that figure represents many people who visit their families and attend conferences, but in the latter case we know that if we can get people to come to Northern Ireland they will come again.
§ In Vote 3, £204 million is for the Training and Employment Agency. That includes £53 million for the youth training programme, £53 million for the action for community employment programme and £24 million for the job training programme. Neither Northern Ireland nor anywhere else in the country can hope to succeed without a skilled workforce.
§ I turn to the estimates for the Department of the Environment where £183 million in Vote 1 is for roads, transport and ports. This includes £152 million for the development, operation and maintenance of Northern Ireland's public road system. Vote 2 covers the important area of housing. Some £188 million will provide assistance mainly to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the voluntary housing movement. When net borrowing and the Housing Executive's rents and capital receipts are taken into 956 account, the total resources available for housing will be some £570 million. This is £14 million more than in 1993–94 and will enable us to build on the progress which has been made in recent years. After a job, perhaps the most important thing to ensure quality of life is a home.
§ In Vote 3, gross expenditure on water and sewerage services is estimated at £200 million. Ninety-three million pounds is for capital expenditure and £107 million for operational and maintenance purposes. In Vote 4, £136 million is for environmental services, including £34 million for urban regeneration measures. These continue to be targeted at areas of social, economic and environmental need and have helped secure a welcome improvement to many areas of Northern Ireland where the need is indeed desperate.
§ The estimates for the Department of Education seek a total of £1,317 million, an increase of 3.6 per cent. over last year. Vote 1 includes £807 million for recurrent expenditure by education and library boards, an increase over the previous year of £40 million. This includes £760 million for schools and colleges of further education, which should maintain the pupil:teacher ratio at present levels. Also included is £47 million for libraries, youth services and administration, and £40 million for boards' capital projects. There is a provision of £133 million for voluntary schools and £11.5 million for integrated schools. There are now 21 integrated schools in operation, with 4,276 pupils in attendance. There are proposals to open three new integrated schools later this year. I have quoted many figures. I wish to assure your Lordships that they represent the importance that we attach to education in Northern Ireland. Vote 2 includes £109 million for universities, £124 million for student support, £17 million for arts and museums and £3 million for community relations.
§ In the Department of Health and Social Services, Vote 1 includes some £1,293 million for expenditure on hospital, community health, personal social services, health and social services trusts and family health services. I am delighted to report that that is an increase of 6.8 per cent. on last year. Vote 3 includes £116 million for the Social Security Agency and £14 million for the Child Support Agency. In Vote 4, £1,302 million is for a range of social security benefits, an increase of 4.3 per cent. on last year. In Vote 5, £458 million is to cover expenditure on the independent living funds, housing benefit, the Social Fund and payments to the National Insurance Fund.
§ Finally, I turn to the Department of Finance and Personnel. In Vote 3, some £4 million is for the community relations programme. Together with the expenditure by the Department of Education, total spending on the community relations programme will be £7.2 million, reflecting the importance that the Government continue to attach to community relations.
§ I hope that this short summary of the main components of the estimates is helpful. I assure your Lordships that the figures represent the values that we hold in Northern Ireland for the benefit of the people of the Province. I commend the order to your Lordships.957
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th May be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Cooke of Islandreagh
My Lords, it gave me no pleasure to speak, as I felt I had to, on the order whose proceedings we have just completed. I am very much happier to talk about the positive and encouraging matters that lie behind the appropriation order. The Minister described it as a housekeeping exercise, but I suggest that it is very much more than that. Behind that exercise there has been a great deal of planning and hard work by civil servants, Ministers and many people in industry, education and so on.
The House knows that the noble Baroness has been responsible for two departments in Northern Ireland in recent months. I am sure that your Lordships will be pleased to know that her hard work and ability have been recognised and noted with satisfaction. She has a wide range of responsibilities. The Department of Agriculture covers a varied field. I expect that the noble Baroness found that she had to learn a new language to understand the many acronyms such as ADOPs, LFAs and HLCAs. I shall not tell the House what they are, but these are all things that the Minister will have to understand. In addition, she is responsible for the Department of Health and Social Services where, I can assure the House, there is plenty of opportunity for an unwary Minister to trip up. I hope that the noble Baroness is enjoying her work.
Under many headings of expenditure matters are moving fast, not only in Northern Ireland but also elsewhere, not least in education. The recent announcement by the Minister responsible for education, Mr. Ancram, that he is undertaking a wide-ranging review has been widely welcomed. I have no doubt that much will come from it. In Northern Ireland we have enjoyed a high standard of education for a long time. I trust that that will continue. I suggest that this is an opportunity to make certain that at the higher level of education it becomes easier for school-leavers to move across into a job or, if not into a job, at least into positive training. I wonder whether in the past the educationists have taken as much notice as they should have done of the need to help students move across and adapt to the outside world.
It is the intention to develop a new university on the Springvale site in West Belfast. I wonder whether a university is the correct establishment or whether it should not be a polytechnic or technical college. A university does not always prepare students for the reality of work and equip them with the skills which are needed in working life today.
Training for work is most important. A great deal of work has been undertaken by the various departments and organisations responsible for training young people. A great deal of money is being spent on that. I believe that the Minister at the Department of Economic Development, Mr. Smith, has announced a review of training. Training needs to be co-ordinated to make sure that no gaps are left and that it is appropriate. Unfortunately, at present one quarter of those between 958 the ages of 17 and 24 are unemployed. As everyone knows, it is vital that young school-leavers get some form of employment as soon as possible so that they are not induced to engaged in unlawful activities. I know that the Minister is well aware of that, but it is my feeling that more could be done to co-ordinate training and to ensure that it is appropriate.
The hospital service is also undergoing change. Following the recent review of the hospital service here, the Secretary of State, Mrs. Bottomley, tells us that by the year 2000, 40 per cent. less bed space will be required in hospitals because of the revolutionary changes which are taking place in surgical procedures and other health care. I suggest that now is the time for an urgent all-Province strategic review of medical facilities looking forward 20 years so that plans can be made to ensure that appropriate facilities are available. I have no doubt that that review should be Province-wide, and that the territories of the present four area boards should be set aside. I feel that it is important that that is done so that money will not be spent in the wrong directions. What is happening is almost revolutionary. This is a great opportunity for an area the size of Northern Ireland to set up facilities in a way which will be most economic and will offer the best service for everyone.
In the Department of Agriculture there is uncertainty at present in respect of small farms. Your Lordships may be surprised to hear that 72 per cent. of the farms in Northern Ireland are classed as less favoured area farms and are therefore eligible for hill livestock compensatory amounts in respect of their cattle. Last year the budget for such grants was reduced substantially in the United Kingdom as a whole, and Northern Ireland suffered 16 per cent. of the total cut, amounting to just over £4 million. That has had a serious effect on the economy of very small farms. It has also had some effect on the continuity of economic farming in those areas. I ask what the Government intend to do to support the continuation of livestock farming in less favoured areas in Northern Ireland.
It appears that at present many farmers are experiencing delays in the payment of grants, and in some cases long delays. Those include the agricultural development operation plan—otherwise known as ADOPs—and the farm and conservation giant scheme. I wonder whether those delays are the result of public expenditure restrictions or due to administrative hold-ups. They are having an effect on the cash flow of farmers and, as everyone knows, cash flow is very important to farmers.
Agriculture includes fisheries and sums voted for the fishing industry. Some of those sums go to fish processing companies. There is assistance for the fishing fleet. The fishing industry as a whole in Northern Ireland is not very large but it is important. It provides considerable employment in coastal areas. Of approximately £9 million allocated to the fishing fleet in Northern Ireland under the EC Objective 1 Area Sectoral Plan only £2 million is allocated to the Northern Ireland fishing fleet. Of that, £1 million has already been taken up in decommissioning, and the remainder will probably be taken up in further 959 decommissioning grants. That will leave nothing to assist with the essential modernisation of ships and the substantial expenditure which is expected to be necessary in order to meet the new EC safety and hygiene regulations. No one is complaining about those regulations where there is a need to improve safety and hygiene, but at present the owners of small ships comprising the Northern Ireland fleet are wondering how they will be able to afford this necessary work.
In Northern Ireland we have been fortunate over a long time with our road infrastructure. We have an excellent road system, but anyone who drives round Northern Ireland regularly will see that road maintenance is steadily falling behind due to cuts in maintenance budgets. Various critical road plans have been delayed. For example, the two-lane road between Antrim and Ballymena has been further delayed and it is even more important now that the hospital has opened at Antrim. On occasions it can take some time to drive from the north of Antrim to the new hospital because of the heavy traffic on the single-lane highway.
It is important to the development of industry in the Province that the good road system is maintained. I ask what plans the Government have to ensure that maintenance standards are kept up. If maintenance is allowed to drop behind, the eventual cost of repairing the roads is much greater.
Great progress has been made on a number of matters in Northern Ireland in the past year. The Industrial Development Board is to be congratulated on its success in bringing in a number of important new industries. The work which is being done by the Industrial Research and Training Unit, for which funding is provided, is useful in assisting firms in all areas with technical assistance, advice, help with research and so on.
The electricity service is mentioned and money is voted to the regulator. Unfortunately, the tariffs for industry which rule at present mean that the cost of electricity to firms in Northern Ireland is higher than in Great Britain. It is almost certain that the difference will increase over the years rather than even staying at a similar level. There are various reasons for that which I need not go into now, but there is little real prospect of competition reducing the cost of electricity in Northern Ireland until well into the next century. There is just one possibility that could perhaps reduce the load to industry. That is in the balance of tariffs between industrial and domestic tariffs.
When the Northern Ireland Electricity Authority was privatised, the balance between the tariffs was altered in favour of the domestic tariffs, which are now on a par with those on the mainland. It is the large industries that will suffer the highest extra cost, in some cases up to 30 per cent. If the larger industries become uncompetitive, with resulting unemployment, it will not make a lot of sense that they will have gone out of business to benefit the householder. I understand that it would cost only between £10 and £20 more per household to bring the balance back to where it was before and make a considerable difference to larger companies.
960 I wish to finish by saying that the extent of public funding in Northern Ireland is widely recognised and I do not think that anyone would suggest that it should be increased. However, there can be cases where priorities should be changed and economies made. In the health service it seems that there is a chance that something could be done.
The management and administration of the hospital service are generally believed to be cumbersome, bureaucratic and over-costly. I should say, by the way, that it is widely recognised that we have an excellent health service from an operational point of view in Northern Ireland, but that does not mean that improvements cannot be made if the management and administration costs could be reduced. I understand that an internal report on administration will soon be available. I should like to ask the Minister whether the savings offered in the report fall short of those suggested in the report submitted to the Minister by Dr. Sir George Quigley and others. Will the Minister call in an outside consultant, on the lines of the Tomlinson review for London, to advise on this important matter?
§ 7.45 p.m.
The Viscount of Falkland
My Lords, I wish to thank the noble Baroness for so clearly explaining the background to the Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1994 which meets the full estimates for the current financial year. That is against a general economic outlook in Northern Ireland which differs somewhat from that of the mainland of Britain, most noticeably in unemployment. To me personally and to all my colleagues on these Benches, unemployment is one of the most difficult and worrying problems which faces not only us but the rest of Europe and many other countries in the world.
In Northern Ireland, unemployment is significantly higher than here, and in certain parts it is alarmingly high. There is a 13.2 per cent. overall level of unemployment in Northern Ireland, and there are areas where it is as high as 20 per cent. That can hardly be the right climate for discouraging paramilitary recruiting, among the other effects of unemployment which involve many young people, unhappily. I understand that something over 50 per cent. of all the unemployed in Northern Ireland have been out of work for more than a year. In the first quarter of 1994, unemployment fell and has been falling ever since. However, there were still worrying job losses recently, notably in the construction industry with some 1,500 net job losses, as well as in the medical and health services and the veterinary services. There were 240 job losses in public administration. The losses may be related to the Government's radical health and personal social services Northern Ireland order which passed through both Houses of Parliament in February.
Curiously, there is a relatively small drop in jobs in banking and financial services. That may be a temporary phenomenon. Perhaps the noble Baroness could enlighten us on it. I should have thought that Northern Ireland was well placed for providing banking and other financial services with the very good communications which have now developed. Perhaps there is an 961 opportunity here which could be profitably exploited. It is of course quite obvious that the Northern Ireland economy differs in two major respects from that in mainland Britain. The most noticeable difference which has already been mentioned is the importance of agriculture. Proportionately three times as many people in the total workforce are employed on the land in Northern Ireland as on the mainland. There are the special circumstances which mean that the Government play a particular role in investment to support the economy. That the country is so largely dependent on agriculture and the investment that it receives are facts that are both relatively insensitive to economic cyclical developments, which can mean that the Province is, and certainly feels, left behind as Britain may (and we all hope will) enjoy the fruits of steady recovery.
In regard to particular points that arise in respect of the order, Vote 1, dealing with agriculture, is down on last year, from just over £14 million to something just under £12 million, having dropped from £17 million in 1992. Given the clear dependence of many parts of Northern Ireland on agricultural support and subsidy and the very substantial role that is played by agriculture in the total economy, it seems to us on these Benches that that reduction could be extremely damaging, especially to the smaller communities in the remoter parts.
Since the recent privatisation in electricity, anecdotal evidence suggests that the service has not performed as was expected and that there has been a deterioration, with power cuts and high prices. The extra £4.5 million to assist that privatisation is interesting considering that Northern Ireland Electricity became a plc in 1992. Parliament was also asked to approve £4 million last year and £3 million in 1992 for the same purpose. Perhaps the noble Baroness will be kind enough to explain that. The fall in funding for OFFER Northern Ireland is also interesting. Is it perhaps related to performance-related cuts given the relatively poor standard of service offered recently by Northern Ireland Electricity? It seems to us that greater resources rather than fewer should be given to electricity regulation.
So far as education is concerned, in Vote 3 the figures in 1992 and 1993 were £7.5 million and £8.5 million respectively. One wonders why there has been such a sharp and sudden rise. The figure includes premature retirement costs. Is a wave of early retirement anticipated?
Vote 2, for the Department of Health, has more than doubled in two years. In 1992 the equivalent figure was only just under £8 million. That has increased by about 140 per cent. in two years. Some of that increase concerns superannuation benefits for employees of the Department of Health. Is it related to the recent privatisation of health and personal social services in Northern Ireland? Perhaps the noble Baroness can throw some light on that point.
Vote 3, for the Department of Finance and Personnel, has fallen now for two years running. It seems to us that that is one of the most worrying aspects of expenditure covered by the order. The Community Relations Council does extremely worthy and useful—indeed, crucial—work in Northern Ireland which one hopes is 962 not being undervalued. Surely that must not be a component of expenditure to be dealt with alter everything else is sorted out. In our view it should certainly be a central element in the Government's strategy for the Province. The reduction is a cause of dismay to those of us on these Benches.
Finally, perhaps I may just remark on the amount of increase for the expenditure of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Does that indicate any plan for reopening in the not too distant future? Perhaps the noble Baroness would give her comment on that.
§ 7.55 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I also thank the Minister for two things: first, the clarity of her explanation; but, much more importantly, that I am able to say what a pleasure it was to hear the word "draft" correctly pronounced with a short "a", as she and I always do, rather than mispronounced with a long "a" as many of your Lordships do, having fallen into serious error.
Earlier this year we had a discussion on these lines. As the Minister indicated, it is very good to see. a slight fall in the May figures for unemployment. However, if one looks a little more deeply into the figures, more than half of those who are registered as unemployed are long-term unemployed and therefore have been unemployed for a year or more, which is worrying. The increase in those who are in employment is about 2,200. Unfortunately most of those jobs are female part-time and, although they have a value to some, they are not the full-time jobs that people really need if an economy is to be properly stimulated and reinvigorated.
More than one-fifth of those who are unemployed have been out of work for more than five years. That is dispiriting, sapping for the individuals and extremely expensive for public funds. The numbers in full-time employment in Northern Ireland (although the May figures were better) fell by 3,290 from December 1992 to September 1993. One wonders what hope is offered to those who are coming onto the labour market in their struggle for full-time, productive, decent, reasonably paid employment.
If one looks, for instance, at the travel-to-work areas, there are some further rather alarming figures. Eight out of 12 travel-to-work areas in Northern Ireland have unemployment figures of 18 per cent. or more. Of 566 Northern Ireland wards, no fewer than 107 have male unemployment figures of more than 30 per cent. As the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, said, more than 25 per cent. of those in the 17 to 24 age group are unemployed. We think that that is laying up a fairly dreadful harvest for the future. As the noble Lord said, and I respectfully agree, those are the people (that is the age group) whom paramilitaries are only too ready to exploit, the young disenchanted who are hopeless and dispirited.
I gave notice to the Minister informally earlier today about what troubles us about rumours of cuts taking place in training facilities for young people in Northern Ireland. I should be grateful if she could put our minds at rest on that matter, if she is able to do so.
Specifically also—I shall not traverse ground that was fully covered by the noble Lord, Lord Cooke of 963 Islandreagh —there are serious worries in Northern Ireland on all sides about the closing down of accommodation for elderly people and sometimes mentally ill people. Quite insufficient alternative arrangements are made for the mentally ill under the alleged care in the community policy and in respect of the elderly, causing deep worry and distress to very many people. There is real feeling about the possibly precarious position of the Royal Victoria Hospital. In dealing with residential care for the elderly, I would welcome a word of reassurance that there will be no threat of closure on The Banks, the residential home for the elderly in Bangor, North Down, in the constituency of Sir James Kilfedder, who frequently expresses a widespread unease about the position of that home. The average age of the residents is no less than 85. It seems quite monstrous that people of that age in those circumstances should be subject to worry and anxiety in the twilight of their lives.
I also indicated to the Minister the question raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland; namely, the purpose of the £220,000 grant for the Northern Ireland Assembly. I personally welcome the component of Vote 3 (on page 7 of the draft order) in respect of cultural traditions, which we on this side entirely support.
Finally—I am afraid that it is now becoming for me a King Charles head but I intend to continue until the matter is resolved favourably, as I am sure it will be —what is the present position of the Government's thinking, if any, about the criminal injuries compensation scheme in Northern Ireland? As is well known, because of the superior legislative knowledge in your Lordships' House, the Government's proposal to do away with the proper scheme and introduce a mean, miserable tariff scheme was defeated in this House.
I should like to know what effect that entirely proper defeat is having on the Government's thinking on Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister always deals courteously with these matters and, subject to the constraints of decisions made by others, perhaps a shade deviously. I say that, as she knows, in all friendliness. But there is a serious point here. We have unanimously condemned the recent wicked killings of the people watching television in a public house. I put my mind only on the survivors. The fact is that if the Government's parsimonious scheme is introduced in Northern Ireland, the future care of those who are grievously wounded and possibly suffering permanent injury will not be compensated, nor will there be compensation for their lost future working years. So it is very important for many Members of this House, not only on these Benches but on the Benches which noble Lords to my right occupy.
We feel strongly that the uncertainty is becoming extremely demoralising. I constantly receive requests from a large number of different sections of the communities in Northern Ireland to know when at last the Government will be able to make up their mind. One would have thought that that was not a difficult activity.
§ 8 p.m.
§ Baroness Denton of Wakefield
My Lords, let me first assure noble Lords that I did not mean to denigrate the order by describing it as a housekeeping order. We have to manage our resources to achieve our policies and aims. I hope that tonight's debate has proved that we do so. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, for his kind remarks. I do indeed love my job in Northern Ireland and I suspect that perhaps it shows.
The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, said that we must give our young people hope and skills. That has been endorsed by other noble Lords. Perhaps it will reassure your Lordships when I say that there is no reduction in the budget for training. The Training and Employment Agency, which is responsible for industrial training in Northern Ireland, has had its budget for 1994–95 increased by almost £10 million to £203 million. That includes an increase of over £3½ million for the Youth Training Scheme, making a total of almost £52 million.
The Training and Employment Agency has recently completed a consultation exercise, following pilot training programmes in Ballymena and Newry, for a new training scheme called Jobskills. Decisions about full implementation will be taken after the results of the consultation exercise have been fully considered. The new scheme, if introduced throughout Northern Ireland, would have all the resources allocated to YTP, JTP and the skills training scheme—some £75.3 million in 1994–95. I hope that that scotches the rumour about a reduction or a withdrawal, which has given some concern.
In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, trying to ensure that the health service runs efficiently is a more complex task than I have found in any company that I have run in the past. As he rightly says, much of the change is driven by medicine itself. But he also referred to the management and administration of the hospital service in Northern Ireland. I am very conscious of the importance of reducing the management costs of the service to the minimum necessary to ensure that the highest quality and most cost-effective services are provided to patients.
I recently received the report mentioned by the noble Lord which was commissioned by my predecessor on the organisation of purchasing functions in Northern Ireland. I shall announce my decisions on that matter in the very near future. The report was based on analysis and research undertaken by outside consultants and outside members sat on the review body.
I can also assure the noble Lord that I listen very carefully to anything that Sir George Quigley says to me. We are very fortunate to have him as a trust chairman. In this instance, he had no opportunity to quantify the costs of the scheme that he put before me. But perhaps it would help the noble Lord to know that the cost of senior managers across the health service is less than 1 per cent. of total costs, while 56 per cent. of administrative and clerical staff are engaged in patient-related duties—staff such as ward clerks and medical records clerks.
If we are to manage efficiently, we have to measure. I can assure the noble Lord that when I look at the 965 Northern Ireland health service, I see it not only as individual trees but as the forest that represents the whole of the Province. I aim to ensure that if possible we have a health service which we would all wish to experience if it were our own families who were using it.
The noble Lord referred to the problems of hill farmers. I recognise the need to look very carefully at the difficult times that they are having. The noble Lord's concern was perhaps based on reductions in the hill livestock compensatory allowances which were made last year. But the reductions were far outweighed by the large increase in direct livestock premiums. In addition, many of the small farms referred to benefit uniquely in the United Kingdom from the special rate for suckler cow premium—some £20 per cow more than in Great Britain.
Our present information suggests further substantial increases in income for those people in 1993–94, in particular, income increases for the various smallest farms. Prices have been buoyant and farmers, like others in the rest of the economy, benefit from the Government's economic policies which have led to lower interest rates and low inflation.
I believe that the noble Lord correctly drew my attention to the delays by the Department of Agriculture in paying grants, particularly those relating to the agricultural development operation programme and the farm and conservation grant scheme. I recognise that the delays have caused problems for farmers. Cash flow is important for all businesses. We are doing our best to minimise the problem. Our target is to have all properly completed and substantiated claims for grants paid within 10 weeks of receipt. That is a figure that I should like to improve. We have not been achieving the present target in recent months. The recent relocation of staff involved in processing payments from Belfast to Londonderry has resulted in a backlog of work and a delay in the issue of payments.
That is a one-off situation. I can assure the noble Lord that the staff is attempting to reduce the backlog as quickly as possible. However, an important part in this matter can be played by the farmers. If all claims are submitted properly completed and supported by the necessary documentation, they can be processed more quickly. "Right first time" benefits all of us.
The noble Lord was concerned about assistance for modernisation and updating of the fishing fleet. There is a 4 million ecu budget set aside to provide aid towards the construction and modernisation of fishing vessels, which is intended to address the aging profile of the Northern Ireland fleet. I shall be making an announcement on arrangements as soon as final decisions have been taken in Europe. The separate cost of decommissioning Northern Ireland vessels will not come out of that 4 million ecu figure. Northern Ireland participated fully in the 1993–94 UK decommissioning scheme. I understand the difficult life that fishermen have and I am pleased to say that we were recently able to announce the continuation of decommissioning support and also that I have been able to clear support for two much needed ice-making plants.
966 The noble Lord was concerned about a good road system. I can assure him that the Government consider that to be a prime need for the Province. Despite many competing pressures, substantial sums have been spent on roads in recent years. The total spending this year will be £157 million, with over £65 million being allocated to maintenance. That is in addition to the £180 million which was spent on the maintenance programme over the past three years. At a time when all public expenditure programmes are facing pressures, those figures illustrate the importance which the Government continue to give to roads.
Of course, we have not been able to proceed as quickly as we would have liked with every scheme, including the Antrim-Ballymena road. It is being completed in stages. Stage one has been completed and the second stage is programmed for 1996–97. The remaining stages were always seen as long-term proposals and are included in our long-term plans. I accept that the delay will cause the noble Lord some disappointment but I hope he will recognise that we face difficult choices. I am pleased to reassure him that, if he is worried about the ambulance service to the new Antrim hospital, those services have been retained at both Ballymena and Lame. Information published yesterday showed how well our ambulance services do in meeting their charter standards, for which they deserve much praise.
The noble Lord raised the question of whether the proposed establishment of a new campus on the Springvale site should be a university or a polytechnic. It is an argument which has been debated for many hours in many places. It may be that a university degree will better help our young people to obtain employment. But I shall pass on his remarks to my honourable friend the Minister for Education.
The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, again emphasised his anxiety about the unemployment figures in the Province. It is an anxiety that the Government share. It was interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, was telling me that my health service was over-managed and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, was asking about the jobs lost from the health service. As a Minister it is difficult to please everyone all the time. We believe that we will deliver a good community care programme in Northern Ireland. There must be a transfer from the acute hospitals to the community and a period of adjustment. I believe that we will continue to ensure that the dedicated and committed people who work in our health service are well looked after and that their efforts are appreciated.
The financial service redundancies mentioned by the noble Viscount are not unique to Northern Ireland but simply a reflection of the productivity increases which banks and building societies are looking for. Northern Ireland weathered the recession well and I hope that it will benefit from the recovery in relation to the rest of the United Kingdom.
The noble Viscount mentioned the increase in costs in education. I can assure him that my honourable friend is a doughty champion when fighting for funds for education and none of us can argue with him about the importance of that. On agriculture the noble Viscount 967 questions reductions in figures. It is part of the agricultural policy that, if it is at all possible for farmers to be reliant on the customer who is beating a path to their door rather than on a subsidy from Europe which can be withdrawn at the stroke of a pen, I am sure that they will sleep happier in their beds.
I cannot say too firmly that there is no privatisation in the health service. The formation of the trusts was in order to allow responsibility to be carried at local level and I find it working extremely well. They are properly funded and reduction in costs is not a reason for their formation. As a priority in our programme we target social needs, and community relations fit into that area. It is a prime plank of our policy and many other items in our budget cover it.
Both noble Lords had obviously combed the budget carefully to identify the amount required for residual functions of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The net figure for this year is £347,000 and it includes the maintenance of the Assembly Library, which also acts as a reference library for all Northern Ireland departments, the examination of statutory rules and the running of dining-rooms for official and ministerial functions. We try to ensure that as many of Northern Ireland's people as possible enjoy functions in those splendid rooms. The Assembly is also responsible for the pension fund for members of the last Assembly. These costs have been incurred annually since the Assembly was dissolved in 1986 and I can assure noble Lords that they are not connected with possible political developments in Northern Ireland, though I note that that item will probably be scrutinised annually and carefully.
The noble Viscount raised many questions on the subject of the Estimates and I shall write to him if I have missed any. But I should like to take up the question raised by both the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, and the noble Viscount in relation to the cost of electricity. It is important that our industry remains competitive. It is more expensive to produce and distribute electricity in Northern Ireland than it is in Great Britain because power stations are smaller, the reserve margin is higher and customers on average are more dispersed.
The problem of higher electricity prices has been addressed through the development of the planned electricity and gas pipeline linkages with Scotland, competition in the supply of electricity and investigation into the potential for combined heat and power in Northern Ireland. As part of this investigation the Director General of Electricity has commissioned a study by the Department of Economic Development. It is a problem of which we are aware and we are working hard on it. I can reassure the noble Viscount that the cost of electricity privatisation will be met totally from the sale of the shares. That includes the figure that the noble Viscount mentioned.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, rightly returned to one of our major problems; that is, unemployment and the difficulties of the long-term unemployed, the relationship between full and part-time work and male and female employment. They are all points that we regard as a prime requirement for efforts. There is a 968 direct relationship between this and terrorism. If violence could cease it would be so much easier to attract investment to the Province.
The noble Lord also raised the question of residential home closures, in particular The Banks. The matter of The Banks home is at the moment one for the North Down and Ards Health and Social Services Trust. Should a decision be made to close The Banks, it would come to me to be considered and endorsed. I can assure the noble Lord that I would not propose to endorse any decision on residential homes for old people without visiting and meeting the people. It is a programme that I have already started. I too am conscious of the stress it places on elderly residents and the fact that they probably go to bed at night worrying about the future of the home. I can assure him too that we shall make these decisions as quickly as possible. We recognise that for many of these people the family they now have are the friends with whom they reside in the homes.
The noble Lord questioned the future of the Royal Victoria Hospital. One of the main decisions of the Eastern Region Health Strategy Review was that the Royal and the City hospitals should not be merged. We have two flagships which can hold their heads up high throughout the United Kingdom and possibly through-out the world. We are at the moment rationalising, with my former chief medical officer as chairman of the steering group, to ensure that there is no duplication and no gaps and that we maximise on the skills available there.
I turn finally to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, says he raises on every possible occasion. I am not being critical in saying that but I hope that he will perhaps consider again the suggestion that I might be being devious. I am telling him the situation as it is and continues to be. My right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is considering what connotations there might be for Northern Ireland from the Home Secretary's new tariff-based compensation scheme. If my right honourable and learned friend decides to make changes to the compensation scheme in Northern Ireland, there will be a full public consultation exercise with all parties. I hear the noble Lord's appeal for speed and I will pass on his concerns.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I was not suggesting—and I hope it was quite understood—that the Minister is devious. I was complaining about the message, not the messenger. Sometimes the message seems a shade on the devious side to those people who want to know what their future will be if they are injured.
§ Baroness Denton of Wakefield
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, but the message is the facts as they are. I shall pass on his concern on the speed with which decisions are made. But I doubt whether he needs to press that point. Those of us who live in the community are aware of the concerns and the needs of the community. Perhaps the noble Lord might take some comfort from the fact that my right honourable and learned friend is indeed a most distinguished lawyer.
969 I shall read Hansard carefully and if I have missed any points I shall write to the noble Lord. Meanwhile, I thank noble Lords for their concern for the Province and for the people there. I commend the order to the House.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.