§ 4.59 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 11th June be approved.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft order before us today authorises expenditure of £3,632 million for Northern Ireland departments in the current financial year. That is in addition to the sum of £2,941 million voted on account in March and brings total estimates provision for Northern Ireland departments to £6,573 million, an increase of 4.2 per cent. on 1996–97. The order also authorises the use of additional receipts to meet an excess vote in 1995–96.
I would remind your Lordships that the order does not cover the estimates for the Northern Ireland Office on law and order services. As it is a Whitehall department, the estimates for the Northern Ireland Office are dealt with separately. However, the public expenditure decisions underlying the estimates for the Northern Ireland departments and the Northern Ireland Office form part of the Northern Ireland block allocation. The Secretary of State has flexibility to reallocate resources within the block in the light of emerging pressures and easements and, as your Lordships will recall, the block benefited from the so-called peace dividend following the ceasefires of 564 1994. I regret that it may be the ordinary people of Northern Ireland who will suffer as a result of the need to meet the additional policing and compensation costs following the mindless violence of the past few days.
Your Lordships will appreciate that the draft order which we have before us today reflects the spending allocations of the previous government, although I was pleased that it was possible to find an additional £4 million for schools this year and that is reflected in the estimates.
Although our manifesto stated that departments will be expected to work within the 1997–98 and 1998–99 spending ceilings announced by the previous government, we will be reviewing allocations within those limits in the light of our own priorities. That is why the Government have launched a comprehensive spending review which will focus on the medium term. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be conducting a comprehensive review of programmes in Northern Ireland. The review will be a root and branch examination of every area of spending and will provide an opportunity for extensive consultation on public expenditure priorities.
I know that your Lordships continue to take a close interest in the prospects for economic development in Northern Ireland, and I should like to say a few words about the local economic situation before turning to the contents of the estimates. The latest official statistics show that the Northern Ireland economy is in good health and generally economic conditions remain favourable. All 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 five years, Northern Ireland's manufacturing sector has increased its output by over 18 per cent.—almost twice the rate of growth achieved nationally. Over a similar timescale there has been a significant improvement in the Province's gross domestic product relative to the United Kingdom, with GDP per head rising from 78.2 per cent. of the national average in 1990 to 83 per cent. by 1995. Indeed, of particular note is the fact that over the year to 1995 Northern Ireland's GDP per capita increased relative to the UK's, while that of both Scotland and Wales decreased.
International investment in Northern Ireland's tourism industry remains strong. In addition, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board believes that the new marketing initiative announced in November 1996 to market tourism to Ireland as a whole could generate a potential £27 million of additional revenue and 720 new jobs in the Province over the next three years. Despite being down on record 1995 levels, visitor numbers are still above pre-ceasefire levels, at 11 per cent. up on 1994.
At March 1997 the number of employees in employment in the Province stood at 580,500, the highest March figure on record. That is coupled with a rate of seasonally adjusted unemployment of 8.4 per cent. of the workforce, its lowest level for almost 17 years.
565 Allied to that are the survey results from the local business community. Despite a number of recent surveys reporting falling optimism among Northern Ireland business leaders, overall economic conditions are reported as favourable. Northern Ireland firms have experienced growth rates in output and exports and order books which have outpaced United Kingdom averages. Economic growth is set to continue in the future and further reductions in unemployment are anticipated.
All of that clearly demonstrates the impressive achievements of the Northern Ireland economy and I am confident that that performance will continue to be sustained. However, a brighter economic future will without doubt be put at risk if violence were to continue.
I now turn to the main items of expenditure covered by the order as detailed in the estimates booklet; all the figures are of course in pounds sterling. I shall start with the Department of Agriculture. The net provision in the two agriculture votes amounts to some £172 million. In Vote 1 net provision of some £30 million is to fund EU and national agriculture support measures. The net provision covers the pre-funded market support measures under the common agricultural policy which total £146 million. The vote includes some £4 million for various capital, environmental and other grants to assist structural improvements. Some £26 million is for the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance Scheme to provide support for farming in special areas.
Vote 2 includes £142 million for regional services and support measures. That includes £60 million for the development of the agriculture and agricultural products industries and for scientific and veterinary services; some £30 million is for farm support, enhancement of the countryside and fisheries and forestry services; £24 million is for central administration, including information technology and specialised accommodation services; and some £5 million is for the rural development programme; £18 million is for the Rivers Agency and some £5 million is in respect of processing and marketing and fishing projects which are wholly funded by the European Union. That vote also contains net provision of £9 million in respect of the EU peace and reconciliation programme which incorporates agricultural, rural and water based projects.
In the Department of Economic Development's Vote 1, some £153 million is for the Industrial Development Board. That will enable the board to continue to attract and support industrial development in Northern Ireland, primarily through the provision of selective financial assistance to both new and existing companies. In 1996–97 the board supported some 35 inward investment projects offering 4,641 jobs.
In Vote 2, some £31 million is for the Local Enterprise Development Unit, Northern Ireland's Small Business Agency. That will allow the agency to maintain its excellent track record in developing, strengthening and improving the competitiveness of the important small firms sector in Northern Ireland. Finally, in this vote some £14 million is for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to support the tourist industry in Northern Ireland.
566 In Vote 3, £196 million is for the Training and Employment Agency. That includes some £65 million to fund 14,700 training places under the jobskills training programme; £42 million is for the Action for Community Employment, Community Work Programme and Enterprise Ulster, which will provide some 7,400 places for long-term unemployed adults in projects of community benefit. Some £24 million is to assist companies improve their competitiveness by developing the skills of their workforce.
I now turn to the estimates for the Department of the Environment. In Vote 1, £177 million is for roads, transport and ports. That includes some £145 million for the development and operation of Northern Ireland's public road system as well as maintenance of the road system, which remains a priority.
Vote 2 covers the important area of housing. Some £220 million will provide assistance mainly to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and to the Voluntary Housing Movement. When net borrowing and the Housing Executive's rents and capital receipts are taken into account, the total resources available for housing will be some £610 million. That will enable the Housing Executive to start some 800 new houses while housing associations will start some 1,050 new dwellings.
In Vote 3 gross expenditure on water and sewerage services is estimated at £184 million. Some £79 million is for capital expenditure and some £105 million is for operational and maintenance purposes, as well as for administration costs.
In Vote 4, some £183 million is for environmental and other services. That includes provision for the Environment and Heritage Service, Planning Service, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Construction Service and Land Registers of Northern Ireland. Some £32 million is for urban regeneration measures targeted at areas of social, economic and environmental need. Those measures provide a catalyst for higher overall investment through partnerships with the private sector. Some £37 million will also be made available under the EU Peace and Reconciliation Programme, of which some £28 million will be funded from EU receipts.
The estimates for the Department of Education seek a net total of £1,408 million, a decrease of 1.8 per cent. on last year's provision. However, when account is taken of Northern Ireland's share of receipts from the national sale of the student loan debt, expenditure will increase by 1.8 per cent. Provision is included for the additional £4 million which the Government have made available to assist schools.
Vote 1 includes £887 million for recurrent expenditure by education and library boards, an increase of £8 million over 1996–97. This includes £843 million for schools and colleges of further education: £44 million is also included for libraries, youth, administration and other services. Vote 1 also provides some £34 million for boards' capital projects, some £42 million is for capital projects in voluntary and grant maintained integrated schools and £140 million is for recurrent expenditure by voluntary and integrated 567 schools. These amounts include £31 million for grant maintained integrated schools, an increase of £8 million over 1996–97.
Vote I also includes £113 million for local universities, £133 million for mandatory student support, £17 million for arts and museums and £4 million for community relations. Some £19 million has also been made available under the EU Peace and Reconciliation Programme, some £14.6 million of which is being funded from EU receipts.
In the Department of Health and Social Services Vote 1, £1,518 million is for expenditure on hospital, community health, personal social services, health and social services trusts, family health services and certain other services. This is an increase of 2.4 per cent. on last year.
In Vote 3, £27 million is for expenditure on grants to voluntary bodies, research, training, bursaries and further education and certain other services. The provision sought is 1.5 per cent. higher than last year's final net provision.
In Vote 4, £142 million is for the department's administration and other miscellaneous costs. This includes £93 million for the Social Security Agency, some £8 million for the Northern Ireland Child Support Agency, some £10 million for the Health and Social Services Executive and £4 million for the Health Estates Agency.
In Vote 5, £1,724 million is for social security benefit expenditure administered by the Social Security Agency. This represents an increase of 8.3 per cent. on last year. In Vote 6, £362 million is to cover expenditure on the independent living funds, housing benefits, the Social Fund and payments into the Northern Ireland National Insurance Fund.
Finally, I turn to the Department of Finance and Personnel where, in Vote 3, some £5.8 million is sought for the community relations programme. In addition, some £1.7 million has also been made available through funding from EU receipts under the EU peace and reconciliation programme.
I hope that this short summary of the main components of the estimates is helpful. I commend the order to your Lordships. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th June be approved.—(Lord Dubs.)
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ Lord Lyell
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the way he has presented the order and on his mastery of the figures, particularly those concerning my former department, the Department of Agriculture. Your Lordships will see sitting beside me some of my colleagues who know a great deal about Northern Ireland. Indeed, it seems that every second another of my colleagues appears. My former Secretary of State is here, who gave me a great deal of advice.
All noble Lords will admit that it has not been the best or the easiest time for Northern Ireland in recent days, let alone for the press, both in written and electronic form, which has been showing Northern 568 Ireland's face—one of the faces of Northern Ireland— around the world. Indeed, I am reminded—I think my noble friend Lord Gowrie may be able to assist me—of the education he and I received more than 40 years ago and of the Roman poet Ovid, who said:Video meliora proboque, Deteriora sequor".In other words, I do see what I ought to be doing—the good things. Never mind, out of compulsion I have to follow the worst aspect.
With all the good things that the Minister has presented to us I am reminded that 100 human beings have been hospitalised over the past four days. Two hundred and twenty vehicles have been hijacked, including a mail van in, of all places, Dunmurry, which I know well. My noble friend Lord Prior will certainly know it. All noble Lords will be appalled by these incidents. There have been 550 attacks on the security forces. I read in today's paper that masked and armed men were seen in the lovely city of Downpatrick. There have also been 700 petrol bombings. One wonders what kind of face can be presented by various people in Northern Ireland. Indeed, I am taken back to a pale blue report which I have in my hand—the Cameron Report of 1969. What happened then seems to be happening today.
I hope the Minister will be able to convey my personal and heartfelt congratulations to the Secretary of State on all that she is trying to do with all her enormous humour, honesty and persistence. I hope that she, the noble Lord and the entire Northern Ireland ministerial team will be able to present the face of Northern Ireland that I, the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Prior, the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, and all the other noble Lords who are to speak today, know to be the real face of Northern Ireland.
I have looked at the order before us. I was delighted that the Minister mentioned the Department of Agriculture. On page 4, schedule 1, I am delighted to see that the Government are continuing to assist production and market development in the agriculture industry. On page 5, paragraph 2, the Government are continuing to ensure the pre-eminence of the Department of Agriculture in both scientific and veterinary research areas and indeed, in my old stamping ground, the Veterinary Research Laboratory in Stoney Road, which is just a few paces from the Minister's office in Dundonald House. I hope that the financial efforts the noble Lord has been pointing out will be pushed forward in this area of Northern Ireland's industry. I am also delighted to see that animal health and forestry are occupying a high priority in the activities of the department. They were singled out by the Minister. I am delighted that he is continuing to do that and I hope that he will be able to push on with it.
On page 5, paragraph 2 of the Department of Economic Development's Vote, your Lordships will see reference to expenditure to promote the development of tourism. Perhaps the Minister and indeed the entire ministerial department in Northern Ireland may feel something of the nature of the great classical figure Sisyphus in trying to push this vast burden up the hill. The noble Lord and others who know and love Northern 569 Ireland will admit that some of the images we have seen over the past day or two have not exactly promoted tourism in that lovely part of the world.
I conclude with a plea to the Minister and to the department. The Department of Agriculture has an unbeatable record in promoting agriculture, science and the production of every aspect of food and drink. However, earlier last month the Minister seemed somewhat unaware of the passage of the years. I wish to stress to him that in the odd years—1997, 1999 and 2001—the world's largest food and trade fair will be held in Cologne. It goes by the happy acronym ANUGA. I shall not try to weary your Lordships by explaining the acronym, but it is a very large fair. I know that it helps to promote the proper face of Northern Ireland. I had the luck to go to that exhibition twice and I went to two other exhibitions in Paris. I was able in some small way to persuade the buyers and those who are interested in the food, drink and hospitality industry that the face of Northern Ireland that we and the world have been seeing is only one face and that there is another face—the one presented by the department. I hope that the Secretary of State will insist that the noble Lord is at the exhibition and that he will use his enormous talents to promote the Department of Agriculture.
I commend him for his enormous fortitude in presenting the report today. I hope he will pass on my good wishes to the Secretary of State and her ministerial team.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Molyneaux of Killead
My Lords, when the Minister was reporting on the strength of the Northern Ireland economy, the drop in unemployment and many other very desirable developments there, I am sure that many of us had in mind that period when the noble Lord, Lord Prior, was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In a very real sense he laid the foundations for what we have been enjoying over the past year. He seemed to be extremely successful in persuading the Treasury to part with money at times when it had other ideas. I do not know whether it was peaceful persuasion, but it brought results. Many of those who now find themselves in permanent jobs, those who run businesses and the leaders of industry are grateful to him for what he did during those years.
Noble Lords will remember the exchanges in your Lordships' House yesterday as regards the weight limits on heavy lorries. The United Kingdom derogation expires on 31st December 1998. Is the Minister satisfied that haulage firms in Northern Ireland are sharing in the consultation initiated by the previous government, particularly in regard to the classifications existing in certain European countries which apply distinctions between what they term "international traffic" and "national traffic", which presumably means internal traffic? These definitions might be difficult to relate to Northern Ireland for obvious reasons, one of them being that we have one land frontier of the United Kingdom with another European state.
570 There follows the possibility of some confusion over the current bridge strengthening programmes. Are the standards and specifications based on the requirements of what I might call the post-derogation period? If so, how was it possible to decide on bridge strengthening standards so far in advance of the outcome and the result of the consultations, which are even now nowhere near completion?
In your Lordships' House yesterday it was pointed out that the very expensive bridge strengthening programme had been made necessary by European Union requirements. Will Her Majesty's Government press vigorously for European structural funding to meet the cost of what is, after all, their directive? As the European Union is not noted for speedy decision-making, I draw attention to the fact that here in Great Britain the Ministry of Transport meets the cost of all upgrading by local authorities. As the noble Lord, Lord Prior, and other noble Lords will recognise and remember, the relevant road authority in Northern Ireland is the Road Agency and the Department of the Environment, Northern Ireland. I wonder whether the Minister for Transport can provide the necessary funds in the short term until the European Union has subvention funds on stream, thus ensuring that the Treasury allocation for Northern Ireland is not eroded by these expensive demands of an external and, if I may say so, undemocratic body known as the European Union.
Finally, I draw the Minister's attention to a perceived unfairness in planning. There is some evidence to suggest that in the interests of the preservation of planning guidelines, domestic individual planning applications are often rejected, sometimes for very good reasons. But different standards appear to apply to powerful developers who proceed to breach the planning laws even before their applications are launched. Objections follow in a ritual way to the planning authorities, but unfortunately these are simply disregarded. Development continues and effective enforcement of the law is nil. That is the perception. Will the Minister consider amending the law to remove this truly glaring inequality?
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Lord Prior
My Lords, perhaps I may intervene for just a minute. I did not put my name down to speak, but the kind references made to me by the two earlier speakers have stimulated me into saying a few words. I start by telling an anecdote. When I was Secretary of State it was not very often that the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, came to Northern Ireland as Prime Minister, but I would not like to say whether that had anything to do with the fact that she sent me there. When she came she nearly always travelled by helicopter. On one unfortunate occasion it was too foggy to travel by that means and she had to come with me in the car. As we were going along one of the new roads and seeing all the new housing, she turned to me and said, "Jim, you know, we are spending too much money here". I mention this because we are dealing with the consolidated fund. My view—and I believe it was hers 571 also—was that we were spending a great deal of taxpayers' money in Northern Ireland. It was an honourable and right thing to do and it remains as such.
I have always been extremely proud of the fact that, given the difficulties of the Northern Ireland situation, British governments of both political parties have always done their best to act in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland and will continue to do so.
I go one step further and say that I have felt very deeply for the Secretary of State in the past few days because nearly every Secretary of State has experienced some of the very difficult situations in which the present Secretary of State finds herself. It has been made more difficult by what I consider to be the quite scurrilous use of a leaked letter or memo, which was several days old. If anyone knows the Civil Service, it could only have been a position paper indicating that something might happen under certain circumstances. To produce that as a vital document and to show it to people who, for one reason or another, were bound to react in the way that they did, seems to me to be thoroughly bad journalism and does no good to the people of Northern Ireland whether of the Nationalist or Unionist persuasion.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that we appreciate the present Government's difficulties. We are glad that we are in a position to support Northern Ireland as generously as reasonably possible. We wish the Government the success that I hope will be coming to them and give them the knowledge that they will receive as much support from these Benches as they will receive from their own.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Lord Cooke of Islandreagh
My Lords, it has been a pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Prior, speaking and commenting on his time in Northern Ireland. He came in at a critical time—although all times are critical—in the development of industry in Northern Ireland. I know that the steps he took have helped towards achieving a situation whereby the Minister has been able to give a positive report tonight on the economy which it has been a pleasure to hear. As someone who is engaged in industry in Northern Ireland, that was not an exaggeration.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, has commented on it, but it is a pleasure to see tonight not only the noble Lord, Lord Prior, but two former Ministers, the noble Lords, Lord Lyell, Lord Gowrie, and the noble Baroness, Lady Denton—the most recent Minister— who was responsible particularly for the Department of Economic Development. They made a very large contribution to the state of the economy as it now is.
I fear that there is one cloud on the horizon with regard to the economy. I refer to the strength of the pound. Several important firms in Northern Ireland export all of their products and their effective return has decreased by about 15 per cent. in the past year. That must be borne in mind because one or two of those firms could have serious problems due to the strength of the pound, and there is some indication that it may strengthen yet further.
572 Perhaps I may now ask a few questions relating to the Appropriation Fund. I refer first to the Vote for the Department of Agriculture. Generally speaking, agriculture in Northern Ireland is prospering, but not in financial terms. The milk, beef and cereal sectors are considerably disadvantaged at present—again, due to the strength of sterling. That has meant that the green pound has been devalued and that farmers' support from the CAP has suffered considerably. There is an EU compensation fund which is intended to correct some of those deficiencies. I ask the Minister why the Government have not made use of the EU compensation fund which is available to meet devaluations of the green pound. Other countries in Europe have availed themselves of the fund, including the Republic of Ireland. I understand that if the compensation fund was drawn down, it would be worth £56 million to the agricultural industry in Northern Ireland.
Agriculture in Northern Ireland has suffered also because of the BSE-caused embargo on the export of beef. It will be helpful to know whether the Government have submitted a response to the EU's report on the proposed UK export certified herds scheme. If the Government have responded, it would be helpful to know what that response has proposed.
I move on now to the Department of Economic Development. The Minister may not yet have had an opportunity in his short time in office to learn of the very high costs of electricity in Northern Ireland. It is a considerable handicap to industry and is a burden on consumers which they should not have to bear. I am surprised to note that Vote 2 of the Department of Economic Development refers to,assistance to the gas and electricity industries"—I cannot think what assistance they need; they are doing very well—(including residual costs in connection with the privatisation of the electricity industry in Northern Ireland)".The generating companies were privatised in 1992, so I should like to know why there are any residual costs now.
Vote 3 of the Department of Economic Development is for training grants and "training in skills". There was recently a much regretted cut in the training grant. As everyone knows, it is most important that young people's skills are improved and that they are introduced to new skills. Can the Minister say how soon that former support will be renewed and even improved upon?
I turn now to the Vote for the Department of Health and Social Services. Everyone in Northern Ireland knows that there is an enormous administrative overhead in the health service. There are two tiers in the system before one reaches the hospital trusts. I refer to the Management Executive and to the four area boards. They are so large and so cumbersome that it is almost impossible for the trusts to get a reply to any application that they may make. It has been estimated that the administrative overhead costs are in the region of £80 million a year. It is not difficult to see how it might be reduced to between £10 million and £20 million a year. Can the Minister assure the House that that will be considered in the review that is about to be 573 undertaken? I hope that impartial outside consultants will be brought in so that we can ascertain how that enormous overhead can be reduced so that the savings can be passed on and used to provide additional patient care. I commend the order to the House.
§ 5.35 p.m.
§ Lord Alderdice
My Lords, this is a somewhat distressing time to be speaking of and attending to the affairs of Northern Ireland. As we consider matters of funding for Northern Ireland, the amount of money that has been wasted in the past two or three days alone can scarcely have passed our awareness. One particular company, Translink, which is responsible for public transport in Northern Ireland, has, I understand, over a period of two or three days lost in excess of £10 million-worth of stock at replacement value in terms of train carriages and buses. Speaking of those losses, however, says nothing about the damage that has been done to the tourist industry, to which reference has been made, and to the general economy. Although extremely valuable work has been done, particularly by the previous administration and the noble Baroness, Lady Denton of Wakefield—as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, mentioned, that work can be traced right back to the days of the noble Lord, Lord Prior, if not before—all of that is again put in jeopardy because of the violence of recent times.
Although I accept much of what the Minister said, I do not think that the violence should be regarded simply as mindless violence. Certainly, I accept that some of the behaviour and some of the decisions—the decision to exercise the right to march, for example— were not very mindful of what was wise and were even extremely ill advised, but some of the violence on both sides of the community was orchestrated with anything but mindlessness. It was considered violence. It was intended to cause destruction and damage. It was intended to destabilise the community. It is unwise to dismiss it as mindless and thoughtless. Knowing one's enemy, one should not dismiss them because if one does so, one ends up looking foolish. We are talking about considered stuff which is highly dangerous. I very much hope that we are not standing on the edge of a serious abyss in Northern Ireland. We have had very difficult times in the past few days and there is real danger in the days ahead.
However, the business of government must go on and all that is possible must be done to contain the situation and to retain a degree of normality in difficult times. I shall detain your Lordships for only a few moments when commenting on and asking questions about a number of matters in the Appropriation Order. In respect of the Department of Agriculture, I would find it helpful to know the Government's position in response to the European Commission's report. The noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Islandreagh, alluded to that. It is clear that in respect of BSE, Europe is prepared to consider Northern Ireland as a special region because of our island base and because we have a good system of tracing cattle and a good history of animal health. As it is clear from the report that Europe is prepared to 574 consider those factors, I should like to know whether the Government are prepared to consider that matter or whether it is to be held up again and again to the detriment not only of the industry but of government expenditure until the rest of the United Kingdom is ready to participate.
I know that the environment is dear to the Minister's heart, so perhaps I may pass on to him my thanks for, and the congratulations of many people in Northern Ireland on, the decision that was taken on the Magheramorne quarry. That may not have been an easy decision, but I believe that it was a wise one. It is a decision that has enormous support not only in that locality but in Northern Ireland generally. I welcome the decision of the Minister in regard to that.
I ask that the Minister continues his wise decisions. When the previous administration raised the question of water privatisation in Northern Ireland, they indicated that, because of the strength of public opinion in Northern Ireland, they would perforce put any decision on that matter beyond the next election. That election has come and gone and we now have a new Parliament. Can the Minister ensure that, particularly in the light of the opposition of all the parties in Northern Ireland and of his own party when in opposition to water privatisation, water privatisation, which was stopped in Northern Ireland, will not be continued under the administration of which he is a part?
I also lend my support to the planning matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead. He is right. There is a suspicion—sometimes more than a suspicion—in Northern Ireland that large commercial enterprises are dealt with differently from ordinary individual planning applications. When the Select Committee of another place visited Northern Ireland and looked at this matter, it was profoundly disturbed by a number of aspects of the planning service. I support the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, in his call for the conduct of the Department of the Environment in planning matters to be looked at.
I was encouraged by the recent comments of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in regard to health, education and welfare to work and the funding that was likely to be made available. However, I remained unclear as to whether Northern Ireland would benefit in health, education and welfare to work in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom. I would welcome clarification from the Minister on that matter given that a little time has elapsed since the Budget and, it is hoped, the matter has now been fully discussed.
I conclude by thanking the Minister and his colleagues for all their work in difficult and tiresome times. I wish the Minister well in the next few weeks. Both he and his colleagues will find them strenuous and difficult times. All of Northern Ireland is fearful of what may emerge in the next few days. It is important that the Minister and his colleagues are aware that they have our support in trying to do what is wise and good. My goodness, in Northern Ireland it is not always easy to know what it is best to do for wisdom and for the good.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ Baroness Denton of Wakefield
My Lords, it would be wrong to stand at the Dispatch Box this evening and fail to express disappointment that the efforts of the Government and those of good will came to nothing over the past weekend and to express sympathy with the police and security forces; husbands and wives and, fathers and mothers who would have been at home had violence not been threatened. One saw how little that counted with the callous murder of two of their number in Lurgan. I believe that the greatest sympathy must go to the Secretary of State who yesterday, following tremendous efforts to find a compromise—which unfortunately is still all too often a dirty word in Northern Ireland—found herself facing the problems of a leak.
I hear the criticisms of my noble friend Lord Prior of the media in using this leak. However, I believe that that was only what could be expected. From where did this leak come? I am sure that that also concerns the Minister. This comes as no surprise to me. I was leaked against, to quote one of the radio journalists, "by the world and its mother". Officials then failed to follow the code of conditions of service in subsequent inquiries. They now choose to leak against Dr. Mowlam. I hope that this time any inquiry will follow the rules.
But whither now following the weekend and with difficult days ahead? The cost of this is appalling, not just in pounds but in its effect on tourism and inward investment. I had the pleasure of fronting a "make it back home" campaign to attract those who had left the Province to return with their skills and their children. Grandparents were saying that their grandchildren could return to Northern Ireland safely. Who will say that now? How many of the very bright children undergoing education will stay? If we lose that talent, will we also lose the companies that that talent attracted?
I take this opportunity to praise the group of 7, composed of businessmen and trade unionists, who have been brave enough to put their heads above the parapet to point out to people the cost of this terrible violence. This phenomenon has arisen in recent years and it is sad that even their voices are not heard. I praise the IDB. It was good to hear the Minister review our success over the past years. I am glad to hear that it continues but it is a difficult uphill task. Against all odds, tourism has continued its curve, which, with the exception of the ceasefire year, has moved in the right direction. But what now?
What follows the events of the past weekend is in the hands of the people. Anger, like forgiveness, runs to personal timetables not government ones. But I suggest that the Government should not allow politics to overtake normal life in Northern Ireland. On a good day it cannot be bettered. I believe that the Government have a duty to facilitate economic growth as smoothly as possible. There are tough economic times ahead. Other noble Lords have referred to the problem of BSE. One matter about which we can be certain is that the ban on entry to European markets will not disappear overnight. The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, referred to the problems of 576 the strong pound, particularly in Northern Ireland where business has been built locally on exports. With a population of 1.5 million there can be no other way.
Inward investment has been attracted to Northern Ireland as a gateway to Europe. One hears inward investors say how difficult it is to be based in the UK to service the European market. I hope that that is something that the noble Lord and his colleagues will also hear. I believe that there will be continuing hard competition from the south, where people living in a peaceful environment express views on the current situation that are not helpful. Ultimately, there will be an end to the peace and reconciliation moneys that the European Commission has so generously provided. I hope that when they do come to an end we will be able to say that this is what has been achieved with the £230 million.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred to the announcements of the Chancellor on health, education and welfare to work and their relationship to Northern Ireland. One makes the assumption, which one hopes is not misplaced, that that will extend totally to Northern Ireland. However, one wonders what the extension of the welfare to work programme implies for the ACE schemes and Enterprise Ulster. It is right that the Government should carry out a spending review. Obviously, they must know the facts on which to base future policy.
However, in relation to health matters, why is it necessary to review in great depth the decision on the rationalisation of the Belfast hospitals? Review the political decision maybe, but I do not believe that the thorough work that has been done for three years by the people involved in the hospitals and the experts from other fields justifies a review. I warn the Minister that in Northern Ireland there is a habit of putting reports in drawers, which brings no benefit.
I should also like to know whether the Budget covers future childcare policies of the Government. This is essential, as women play such an important part in the economy. I also hope that education changes will include opportunities for women returners, for which there is a great need.
On the economic front, I join with other noble Lords in arguing that, if the Government could be persuaded to go to the European Commission so that Northern Ireland farmers could take their product back to the market, that would be economically sound. It would take the pressure off other markets in Great Britain and we would all see the benefit. The important thing is to get the boat afloat, not that everyone should be in it to start with. I hope that the Minister will be able to persuade his colleagues that it is important for the fishermen of Northern Ireland that the problem of quota hoppers be resolved.
One of the problems which has not yet stopped inward investment into Northern Ireland but could at any time is the cost of energy. Will the Minister update us on the Scottish interconnector which would make a difference to the cost of energy? Will he explain why it has taken 18 months to review the £45 million which the Government hold and which should be returned to the public?
577 I always seem to disagree with at least one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. One issue is expenditure on the infrastructure for the water industry. I wonder how the noble Lord thinks that the money, especially after this weekend, can be made available from government funds. Would it not be wiser to privatise the industry so that the capital will flow in to make the improvements that the infrastructure needs?
What is the position with regard to the funding necessary to keep open the Omagh Veterinary Centre? Last year's budget left no space for it. It was agreed to keep it open on the basis that farmers would pay fees for the services that they receive, as they have for many years in the rest of Great Britain.
The investment scene has been good. It has been greatly praised by those attracted to it. The Minister talked about the current situation which offers over 4,000 jobs. I wonder whether he can tell the House how many of those jobs are in place and whether they could disappear. There are, as we read, many companies in difficulties. What will the cost of them be to the budget? There are enormous difficulties in that area as a result of the current images being sent around the world.
Perhaps the Minister will agree to look at the Arthur Andersen case. The only thing that may overtake the acceleration of DeLorean are the costs of the American lawyers' fees in the Government's case against Arthur Andersen. That problem may well need time spent on it.
Is it possible to examine why Northern Ireland needs to put every directive separately into legislation? Agriculture visibly suffers through not having a voice at Brussels. We have none of the benefits of being able to negotiate separately but we have the cost of legislating separately for every directive. I wonder what those costs are. Could they not be saved?
One of the problems brought home this weekend is that the Targeting Social Need programme has obviously not got through to the people, who believe they are not getting their fair rights and support. If noble Lords were aware of the amount of inward investment into West Belfast, they would wonder how people could so easily set light to vehicles in front of the factories. If there is no inward investment, how can social need be targeted?
It will not surprise the Minister that I join with other noble Lords who say that there is considerable criticism of the planning process. I look at it from a commercial point of view. It is estimated that there is some £100 million of potential investment waiting to go to Northern Ireland which is held up by the planning process. It is important to speed it up. Although it may cause this Government some difficulty, they should look at the speed at which development corporations dealt with planning matters. They should be copied.
The infrastructure is important. It has been looked at in isolation in the past. There is a great need for departments to work more closely together. If, as is hoped, the economy continues to grow, it will be difficult to get any goods out of Belfast harbour because it will be difficult to get them there. The PFI is needed in Northern Ireland almost more than anywhere else.
578 I have a colleague who used to describe the appropriation debate as a "bogweed" debate. I disagree because it gives noble Lords the opportunity to consider how Northern Ireland is run, who runs it and to whom they answer. We hear that health trust meetings in Great Britain are to be opened up. Will that happen in Northern Ireland? Will quango board meetings be open except when they are discussing commercially confidential matters? Will the Government's policy of sharing the operation of the economy with the electorate be spread to Northern Ireland? Will the recruitment changes planned for Great Britain be the same for Northern Ireland? Why does Northern Ireland have different arrangements with Peach on appointments for each department?
Northern Ireland is not the size of Greater Manchester, but each department has its own IT department and some of the budget was required for these. Will the Government continue to have a separate IT department for each area? Would it not be worth considering having just one department? One of the things I suffered was the fact that all the departments could not talk to one another through IT. At the moment the political ones can but the economic ones do not.
That highlights an important point which comes from the debate—political solutions in Northern Ireland will take a long time. The economic scene is and can continue to be one of growth. It is important that that continues.
I appreciate that I have asked the Minister a great many questions. I should be happy if he would write to me with the answers. This order covers homes, jobs, schools and hospitals—the concerns of everyone living in Northern Ireland. I ask that those matters are not considered to be secondary to the politics. For the people of Northern Ireland they are crucial.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I thank all Members of the House for their helpful and positive contributions to the debate. I have been asked many questions. I shall do my best to answer them. If any noble Lord feels that his questions have not been answered, perhaps I may give the answers in writing.
I thank noble Lords for the many contributions expressing support for the Secretary of State in her recent endeavours to deal with the difficult situation of the marches. I shall ensure that those words of support are passed to her. I also thank Members of the House for the support expressed for other Ministers working in Northern Ireland. We are grateful for those expressions of support. There are difficult times ahead of us. If common sense prevails, those difficulties will be overcome. We can only hope that the Secretary of State's efforts, plus common sense, will prevail over the difficulties that lie ahead.
I shall deal now with the questions that were asked. The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, urged me to give support to agriculture. That is something I shall go on doing. He expressed concern about the future of tourism in the light of the recent images. That is a concern I share. If the difficulties through which Northern Ireland is going 579 can be overcome quickly, their effect on tourism will, I hope, be a small one. I realise that the television coverage and the newspapers are not helpful in presenting a positive image of Northern Ireland. That is a very sad comment that I have to make.
As regards the suggestion that I should travel to various food fairs, no doubt my officials will advise me on whether I should make so many journeys. I thank the noble Lord for the suggestion in so far as I share his motive to do everything I can in support of agriculture, which is the most important industry in Northern Ireland. I shall do so in any way that is appropriate and open to me.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, raised a number of questions, most of which related to the weights of vehicles and whether the roads and bridges of Northern Ireland are sufficient to sustain them. The haulage industry, through the trade organisation, has been and will continue to be consulted by the Department of the Environment in order that we can be certain of the industry's views as regards the changes to which the noble Lord referred. The bridge strengthening programme, which is currently underway in Northern Ireland, is being carried out in preparation for the EC requirement to permit 40 tonne vehicles to operate generally with effect from 1st January 1999. In other words, we are anticipating the likely changes and we hope to have them in place before the operational date.
An application for EC structural funds has been made and that is presently being considered in Brussels. We can only hope that the outcome will be positive. The noble Lord asked whether in the meantime grants would be made available to carry out improvements. Responsibility for bridge strengthening programmes in Northern Ireland fall to the Road Services Agency, which has allocated additional funding to facilitate the acceleration of the programme. I hope that that extra money will show itself in improved bridges capable of taking the extra weight of vehicles.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and others referred to the planning process in Northern Ireland and some words of criticism were uttered about it. I am looking again at aspects of the process, but it might be helpful if noble Lords can provide me with specific examples of criticisms so that I can use them in assessing how the planning system operates or, perhaps in their view, does not operate as it should. Specific examples would be helpful as it is difficult to deal with planning in a general sense.
The noble Lord, Lord Prior, commented on the proper levels of expenditure in Northern Ireland and I share his sentiments. Notwithstanding the present financial difficulties, we shall continue to ensure that Northern Ireland receives the financial support that it needs in the present circumstances.
As regards the leaked letter to which the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, referred, I do not know how the leak occurred. It is being investigated, but we can hope only that the effect will not be as damaging as some of the newspapers have tried to suggest. I shall comment on the letter in a few moments.
580 The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, referred to compensation payments as a result of the strong exchange rate, particularly with regard to the needs of farmers. I acknowledge that the Government have received from the UK farming unions and other producer organisations a case for EU co-funded compensation in respect of the effects of green pound revaluations. They have made that case and I recognise that farming organisations are seeking an early decision. I must advise that these submissions are being considered very carefully as there are obvious significant public expenditure implications. The Government will announce their decision as soon as they are able to do so. I do not thereby wish to suggest that that is inevitable; we are simply looking at the case. There are great difficulties in dealing with it because there have been times when the value of the green pound has risen and we have not sought to balance that out. When the green pound has risen and there has been a benefit we have not sought to reduce its impact, so a balancing factor must be taken into account.
The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, and others, asked about the Government's approach towards the difficulties as regards BSE. The latest position was announced in another place in answer to a parliamentary Question. The Secretary of State, Jack Cunningham, stated:The Government have decided to adopt a twin track approach of pursuing a revised export certified herd scheme and developing a new proposal for a date based export scheme. We have put our ideas to the Commission about both schemes and will press both with equal vigour. The export certified herd scheme is being revised, taking account of criticisms made earlier by the EU Scientific Veterinary Committee. Eligibility for the scheme will be more restricted than initially proposed, but it would still be open in principle to producers in all parts of the United Kingdom. Details of the date-based scheme will be announced when exploratory talks with the Commission have progressed and the Government are ready to put forward a formal proposal".That is the present position. Obviously, the Government are pressing as hard as they can to get the whole ban on UK beef lifted in line with the proposal that I have described.
Questions were asked about energy and assistance to the gas and electricity industries. The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, asked why there should be further compensation as regards the privatisation of electricity some years ago. Some minor residual costs remain in respect of the privatisation of electricity, such as agents' fees. All costs are met from the proceeds of the sale of the electricity industry in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord asked further questions in respect of the gas and electricity industries in Department of Economic Development Vote 2. A major element of that is the application of the nuclear levy read across; £20 million in 1997–98 and £25 million in 1998–99. That is to be used for the benefit of electricity customers in Northern Ireland. It is currently subject to negotiations with Northern Ireland Electricity PLC and interested parties. In relation to gas, there is minor provision for consultancy costs in extending the natural gas pipelines to outside the Greater Belfast and Lame areas.
The noble Lord also asked about cuts in training grants and how quickly they could be restored. The Training and Employment Agency is spending in the 581 current year some £127 million on training and employment programmes, providing some 25,600 places, mainly under programmes such as Jobskills, through Enterprise Ulster and various other training programmes. In addition, the welfare to work initiative announced by the Chancellor in his recent Budget Statement will provide further and significant resources to be targeted at the young unemployed and the long-term unemployed. This will provide a major and comprehensive training network for Northern Ireland which will more than redress the cuts made by the previous administration.
The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, also asked about savings that might be made in health service administration. Northern Ireland will play its part in the Government initiative to reduce bureaucracy costs in the health service. The savings made will be directed to patient care, particularly in the development of cancer services and the reductions in waiting lists in the Province. There was already a target in the current year of 1.5 per cent. cash savings for the HPSS in general. That included the commissioning costs of boards and the management costs of trusts, the target for which has now been raised to 2.5 per cent. and will apply to all HPSS bodies. The Government will be looking for further savings as we move to dismantle the Tory internal market and its wasteful bureaucracy.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, asked a number of questions. He asked me about the future of the water industry. I am not in a position yet to say very much about that because we are looking into it very carefully. It is clear to me that there has been under-investment for years in water and sewerage in Northern Ireland, particularly but not only in the Belfast area. I have asked my officials to look as quickly as they can at possible ways to ensure that we can improve the level of investment because there could well be a crisis in water and sewerage but particularly in the sewerage system in Belfast. We want to avoid that if we possibly can. Therefore, rather than dealing in detail with the questions asked by the noble Lord, I shall ask him to wait a little longer. I hope to be able to give him a more definite answer to the question that he put to me.
I welcome the words that he uttered about the recent decision on the landfill site near Larne, the Magheramorne Quarry development planning application. I thank him for that. We shall see what happens in the future as regards other aspects of the waste disposal industry which is being worked on at present.
The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, asked me a large number of questions and I shall do my best to do justice to as many of them as I can. She asked me about the leak in yesterday's newspapers. It may be appropriate to remind noble Lords of a very short Statement made by the Secretary of State yesterday about the document. She said:The document was an initial consideration by officials containing assessments and opinions of how the proximity talks should be approached. Neither I nor the Minister of State endorsed this document at the time or later. I insisted that the full range of 582 options should be kept under review. In the event, I explored a wide range of options at the proximity talks with no preconceived agenda and treating both sides completely even-handedly".The Secretary of State went on to say:I worked until the last possible moment along with others to achieve a peaceful accommodation. As the document said, the Chief Constable had genuinely not taken the decision and he did not do so until the night before the march. All feasible options were genuinely under consideration until the very last moment".The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, asked about welfare-to-work. The new deal will be implemented in Northern Ireland on the same policy basis as in Great Britain. Individual elements of the measure will reflect local economic circumstances and priorities and those existing Northern Ireland programmes and structures that can be developed to deliver specific measures.
In delivering the new deal, the Government intend to make the fullest use of existing programmes, services and structures so that we can make the most effective use of the new resources. Departments are currently considering how programmes can be developed and adapted to deliver the new measures. In addition, Northern Ireland has an extensive network of training providers, voluntary organisations and community-based groups which will be well placed to deliver the new measures.
I turn to the question asked by the noble Baroness And other noble Lords on expenditure going to Northern Ireland, to which I have already made some reference. Northern Ireland will receive its fair share of the additional resources to existing plans announced by the Chancellor on 2nd July. Northern Ireland will receive an extra £27.623 million in 1998–99 for schools and £31.143 million for the health service. In addition, the new deal will provide Northern Ireland schools with a further £2.6 million this year and £7.8 million next year for refurbishment and repairs. Northern Ireland will receive £140 million from the windfall tax. That reflects Northern Ireland's share of the young and long-term unemployed who will benefit from the welfare-to-work measures and will enable Northern Ireland to implement measures reflecting those in the rest of the UK. There will also be some help for lone parents. Northern Ireland will also receive this year and next year a benefit from the share of the capital receipts initiative.
A question was asked about the decisions in relation to the Royal and City Maternity Hospitals. The Government are fully aware of the controversy that has arisen in the wake of the decision by my predecessor to centralise maternity and associated services in the Belfast City Hospital tower block. We shall honour the commitment to review the decision and we are presently considering that as a matter of some urgency. I hope to be in a position to say more about that in the near future.
A question was asked about the Veterinary Investigation Centre at Omagh and whether it will be kept open. The introduction of charges for veterinary diagnosis is currently being considered and will be subject to consultation with the industry and other interests in Northern Ireland before introduction. Any further decisions will stem from the result of that particular consultation process.
583 I was asked also about expenditure on security in the light of the weekend situation. As I pointed out in my opening remarks, the Estimates that we are considering today do not cover expenditure by the Northern Ireland Office on law and order. However, as the noble Baroness will recall from her time in the Northern Ireland Office, expenditure on law and order, including the costs of the RUC and criminal damage and criminal injuries compensation are funded from within the Secretary of State's block allocation. As the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, made clear on many occasions during his time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, resources would have to be restored to the law and order programme if terrorist violence returned to our streets. In such circumstances, economic and social programmes would suffer. The costs of the Army in Northern Ireland are met by the Ministry of Defence.
I was asked about the electricity inter-connector. The planned inter-connector project is being promoted jointly by Northern Ireland Electricity plc and Scottish Power—two private companies. The Government are supportive of the principles of inter-connection which will provide access to competitive electricity markets in both the rest of the UK and the rest of Europe in line with EU policy. Progress with the project is subject to the granting of planning permission in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.
A question was asked about quota hoppers. The Government believe that there has been a good outcome for the UK after tough talks in Brussels recently. What is good for the United Kingdom fishing industry is also good for the Northern Ireland fishing industry. There are close links between our fishing industry and the communities from which it operates. The Government believe that that deal gives us the opportunity to strengthen those links and ensure that processors have access to raw materials and that employment is sustained.
As regards Arthur Andersen and the DeLorean case, the Department of Economic Development is continuing its legal action for negligence, breach of contract, fraud and aiding and abetting fraud against the former DeLorean auditors, Arthur Andersen and Co. Government appointed joint receivers also continue to pursue recoveries from other parties involved in the DeLorean case.
As regards targeting social need, this Government will seek to develop the TSN initiative and so help to promote greater equality of opportunity. Through TSN, there is also the targeting of areas and people defined objectively as being in greatest need. An important effect of that should be to reduce community socio-economic differentials. TSN has been an important expenditure priority for several years and is an underlying principle which guides allocations across many departments.
A question was asked about agricultural directives and whether they have to be taken in separate legislation for Northern Ireland. Agriculture is a transfer matter which is traditionally handled through separate legislation. It is hoped that some day that will be done in a new Northern Ireland legislature.
584 As regards the PFI, the Government welcome Sir Malcolm Bates' review of the PFI/PPP and Northern Ireland Ministers will continue to pursue PPPs wherever that offers value for money.
As I said at the outset, the questions are very detailed and I have done my best to answer as many as possible. However, I shall do my best also to ensure that noble Lords who have asked questions which I have not yet answered will receive an answer in writing. I commend the order to the House.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.