Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South) : I thank the Minister for taking us carefully and thoroughly through the main items of expenditure. I do not intend to follow the path that he has laid out, but it was useful to have those items spelled out so clearly. I am sure that the House will agree with that sentiment.
I noticed that the Minister, like the Secretary of State earlier today, drew attention to the Government's economic achievements. As on previous occasions, I am prepared to concede that there have been economic successes. However, it is as well to remember that the Province remains the most economically deprived and
Column 549backward of any of the regions. No matter which economic indicators one takes, those in Northern Ireland are below the national average. Because of the economic measures that the Government have had to take to control inflation, throughout the United Kingdom economy in the next year the outlook is less buoyant, and this applies particularly to Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that the expected slowdown in the United Kingdom economy as a result of Government measures will present major economic difficulties in Northern Ireland. This emphasises the vulnerability of the Northern Ireland economy to any downturn in the national economic activity, and highlights the need for the Government and the private sector to consolidate economic achievements and advancements.
Both Ministers and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) spoke about the level of unemployment. The Government praised themselves, and rightly, for the fall in unemployment over the past 18 months or so, but 15.5 per cent. unemployment is still unacceptably high. Male unemployment is even higher, at 19 per cent. Far more has to be done, through public expenditure, private expenditure and attracting further investment to the Province, if we are to make a real and sustained attack on high unemployment.
The Government repeatedly tell us of the triumphs of inward investment. I do not wish to decry that, whether it comes from France, Japan or Canada, but there is a theory, leaving those big industrial investments aside, that many of the smaller investments are creating jobs that are low-scale, part- time, predominantly for female workers and at the bottom of the technology ladder. Nevertheless, they are welcome. If Northern Ireland is to have a prosperous future, it needs above all highly technical jobs for highly skilled people so that it can compete not just in the United Kingdom economy but in the broader European single market economy post-1992.
There is also a fear that the privatisation of Shorts, which the Government consider a triumph, could lead to further job losses, particularly in the high skill sector. If that happens, it will be to the detriment not just of the economy of Belfast but of Northern Ireland as a whole and the island of Ireland.
Having referred briefly to the general economic situation, I want to refer to more specific spending areas. I want to spend some time, but not a great deal of time, in discussing spending programmes in social security, health and housing.
The Minister will know that pensioners in Northern Ireland did not greet the recent statement from the Secretary of State for Social Security with universal acclaim, and the Minister will know the reasons for that. They found it difficult to understand how the Secretary of State could say :
"It is simply no longer true that being a pensioner tends to mean being badly off. For most people retirement is now a time to look forward to with confidence."
I wish that that was so in the North of Ireland. The Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should remind the Secretary of State for Social Security that in Northern Ireland two thirds of pensioner households still rely on state and other benefits for most of their income.
Column 550The Secretary of State for Social Services should also tell pensioners in Northern Ireland that a single pensioner is £10 a week worse off and a married couple £16 a week worse off under this Government than they would have been if the Government had not abolished the link between earnings and pensions. Pensioners in the North of Ireland certainly find it difficult to understand this new-found access to wealth which the Government claim that they have miraculously achieved over the past 10 years.
In an earlier debate my colleagues and I warned the Government that the changes in social security benefits were inadequate to protect living standards. Unfortunately, I must remind the House, although I take no pleasure in saying this, that my prediction has come true. The Minister will be aware that a recent survey by the citizens advice bureaux in Northern Ireland showed the way in which those changes were adversely affecting many people in Northern Ireland. The survey showed clearly that income support is not sufficient to compensate for the loss of additional requirements, single payments and the necessity to pay the first 20 per cent. of rates. It also showed that housing benefit was almost universally reduced for all groups of claimants and that 88 per cent. of those surveyed had lost their entitlement altogether. I believe that the Government's social security policy continues cruelly to pay scant regard to the needs of the least well off members of our community. That is as apparent in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. I want now to consider health. The estimates provide for an increase of only 3.5 per cent. in health spending on the outturn for 1988-89. If we bear in mind, as I am sure that the House will, the fact that, overall, inflation is running at 8.5 per cent. while internal inflation in the NHS is much higher than that, we do not need to be geniuses to understand the implications of the figures. They mean that the service will come under increased pressure and that more cuts will have to be made.
I reminded the House in an earlier debate that the health profile in the North of Ireland compares unfavourably with all other regions in the United Kingdom. A statistic which underlines that is that Northern Ireland has the worst infant mortality rate in the United Kingdom, with 10.4 deaths per 1,000--that is the figure for 1986, which, I understand, is the last year for which figures are available. That figure and all the other socio- economic indicators of deprivation show that the Government should be providing more money for health in the North of Ireland.
If we consider the fabric of the hospitals in Northern Ireland, it is obvious that many hospitals are in a disgraceful state of disrepair. The Minister and the House will recall that the Ceri Davis report estimated that it would cost between £18 million and £20 million to clear the backlog of maintenance in the Royal group of hospitals alone. Over the past three or four years the Royal group has been able to spend only £1.8 million on maintenance. It is estimated that the Craigavon area hospital requires £1.5 million to be spent on its fabric. I am sure that hon. Members representing constituencies in Northern Ireland can highlight hospitals in their areas which urgently require additional expenditure on repairs and maintenance.
Column 551Having made one or two general statements about the Health Service, I want to put several specific questions to the Minister which refer in particular to Belfast city hospital.
Why have two operating theatres at the Belfast city hospital been closed since Monday 5 June, and to my knowledge still remain closed, when the waiting list for operations at the hospital is more than 3, 000? That waiting list includes 945 for vascular surgery, 768 for urology, 300 for gynaecology, 817 for ear, nose and throat and 525 for general surgery. Why have the number of intensive care beds at the Belfast city hospital been reduced by 50 per cent.? I understand that there are now four out of eight intensive care beds in use. I want the Minister to comment next on a rumour, although he may be loth to do so. Will he comment on the rumour that 30 per cent. of the bed complement at the Belfast city general hospital is to close within three months? Rumour has it that two paediatric wards are to close with the loss of 47 beds ; two gynaecological wards are to close with the loss of 30 beds ; the Jubilee maternity unit is to close with the loss of 64 beds ; one neo-natal ward is to close with the loss of 15 beds ; and an accident and emergency unit is to close with the loss of 15 beds.
Mr. Marshall : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and I have been involved in arguments like that from time to time. However, I do not want that argument to be drawn into the specific questions to which I am seeking answers now. I am sure that the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) will put his point to the Minister if he has an opportunity to do so --although hopefully not at too great length. I repeat that I have been referring to a rumour. However, I understand that it is a rumour with solid foundations, and I should like to hear the Minister's reply to my points.
I notice that the Minister praised the Government's achievements in housing. He will recall that in previous debates I have concurred with the praise that has been heaped on the Government's shoulders. But the Estimates show that, good though the progress has been, the funds being made available are still insufficient to meet the demand. If my reading of the Estimates is correct, they show an overall reduction in proposed expenditure of 11 per cent. compared with the 1988-89 provision.
Again, if I have read the Estimates correctly, the housing grant to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is down 9 per cent. and renovations and enveloping grants are down 29 per cent. This is at a time when the Housing Executive is having additional responsibility imposed upon it by recent legislation to meet the housing needs of the homeless. Further finance is required if we are to bring the general level of the housing stock in the Province up to the standard that is found in England.
A great deal still remains to be done. To put that into perspective, let me remind the Minister of one or two statistics. In Northern Ireland, 8.4 per cent. of dwelling stock is deemed to be unfit compared with 4.9 per cent. in England, and 5.5 per cent. of its dwelling stock lacks one or more basic amenities, compared with 2.5 per cent. in
Column 552England. Those statistics show that the money needed to rectify the neglect by undertaking repairs and new build is virtually double that required in England.
Having made those general points, let me make two specific points. The first may seem small, but I intend to make it. Why is the grant to the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations and the National Housing Association been reduced from £66,000 to £55,000? That may seem a negligible figure in the overall context of the budget, but it is vital to those two bodies. That reduction seems petty in the light of the Government's commitment to the voluntary housing movement.
Secondly, the Government are giving priority to community care projects in the housing association sector. The Minister will be aware that the Government agreed to provide the bridging finance for such projects until funds were released as a result of the closure of acute beds and other hospital facilities. Those two aspects are no longer synchronised because the finance has not been released from the closure of beds and other facilities. In reality, housing money is being spent on community care projects instead of straight housing. When will that situation be rectified?
Northern Ireland still faces daunting social and economic problems, many of which can be tackled only with continuing and increasing high levels of public expenditure. Ministers in Northern Ireland are, to their credit, more successful than their counterparts in other Departments in obtaining finance, and they are to be congratulated on that. Nevertheless, I urge them to redouble their efforts and to argue more vociferously and stongly with their Treasury colleagues to obtain increased public expenditure for Northern Ireland so that we can begin to take greater steps forward in alleviating the social and economic problems that undoubtedly still exist in the North of Ireland.
Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down) : I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), especially on the social and economic problems that face the Province. They can be resolved only by a high level of public expenditure. It is no use the Government saying that they are against massive public expenditure because Northern Ireland, on the periphery of the United Kingdom, needs vast amounts of public money to be invested in it.
I urge the Government to deal without further delay with the appalling number of temporary classrooms which exist in North Down. That is just one example of what is required in Northern Ireland. I am sure that North Down is not unique and that there are plenty of temporary classrooms elsewhere in Northern Ireland.
Every penny spent on our young people is money well spent. We must invest in them and in their future. In doing so, we invest in the future of Northern Ireland and in everybody in the Province, Protestant and Catholic. It is fitting that children should have a proper place in which to receive their education. It is no use their being taught in what I would describe as pre-fab classrooms whose "temporary" existence has, in many cases, lasted a great number of years.
The hon. Gentleman referred to pensioners. There must be more than 10 million pensioners in the United
Column 553Kingdom, about 5 million of whom are below or just above the poverty line. As a result of the Social Security Act 1988, which I opposed in the Division Lobby, millions of pensioners have become even worse off with considerable cuts in their rent and rates rebates.
The recent increase in the retirement pension, amounting to approximately £1.65 a week, was insulting to our senior citizens. The only way to ensure justice for pensioners is to restore the link betweeen pensions and wages. That would mean an increase of at least £10 a week for a single pensioner, bringing the United Kingdom into line with some European countries which pay their pensioners double what is paid to the British pensioner.
The pensioner in Northern Ireland may suffer more than his counterpart elsewhere in Britain. The cost of living in Northern Ireland is higher than in England and electricity is more expensive. Elderly people need heat, so they consume a considerable amount of electricity in order to heat their homes. About two thirds of pensioners in the United Kingdom are women. Many of them are widows and quite a number live alone.
The Government should make every effort to ensure that pensioners can live their retirement years in comfort and dignity. They could ease the lot of women pensioners to some extent by allowing them to have free transport at the age of 60, when they qualify as pensioners, rather than having to wait until their husband retires at the age of 65.
More could be done for pensioners by providing free television licences, or at least by giving them a concessionary rate. I have been raising that matter in the House for the past 21 years. Some pensioners who live in dwellings with a warden pay £5 a year for their colour television licence, while others who may live just a street away have to pay the full £65. That anomaly is unacceptable in this day and age. The only way to deal with the injustice is to give all pensioners a colour television licence, either free or at a greatly reduced cost.
I shall not elaborate on the unemployed in the Province as the hon. Member for Leicester, South has covered the issues so eloquently. He mentioned that employment in Northern Ireland is currently 15.5 per cent. For statisticians, that is just a figure and does not convey any of the hardship involved in the dole queue. More than half the unemployed in Northern Ireland are long-term unemployed. They find it almost impossible to be considered for a job vacancy. The stress and hardship of being unemployed is acute. That is easily discovered by talking to an unemployed person whether he is old, young or has just left school.
I think in particular of the young people in the Province who are full of idealism and eager to become wage earners after they leave school. Many have to endure the dole queue or take a job which in no way provides an opportunity or a challenge to their capabilities. The youth training programme goes some way to soften the blow, but it does not resolve the problem and if one dwells too much on the programme one ignores the problem. We must do more to create jobs in Northern Ireland.
The IRA is waging war which is aimed in part at destroying the economic life of Ulster, and it is partnered in this evil work by Noraid which is campaigning in the United States for the states in America to adopt the MacBride principle. That campaign must have frightened
Column 554many American investors from investing in Northern Ireland. Of course, its purpose is, jointly with the IRA, to destroy the economic base of Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Minister will agree that not one job has been created in Northern Ireland by the MacBride principle's campaign, but that campaign has robbed a great many Ulster people, young and old, of jobs that could have been created in the Province. That message needs to be conveyed to people in America, especially to state legislatures which adopt the principles as in doing so they are creating hardship in Northern Ireland. They must accept that. The only way to deal with it is to defeat it in the state legislatures and to make sure that money is invested in all parts of Northern Ireland for all people in the Province. Last week, when the Secretary of State made his statement about Shorts, I repeated the appeal that I made in the House nine months before--according to the Secretary of State he had never heard it before, although I made it in his presence--that instead of English Ministers going to America, there should be an all-party delegation of Members of Parliament representing Northern Ireland who could speak directly to people in America about the jobless in the Province and get jobs for all parts of the Province, including Strabane and other black areas in Northern Ireland.
There are many good aspects of the Province and I am sorry that the media, particularly television, carry an awful image of Northern Ireland abroad. Tourism is essential to Northern Ireland. Fortunately, despite the IRA's vicious campaign of terrorism, many foreigners visit the Province, although not in the numbers who came before the present violence. Perhaps when the Minister replies to the debate, he will deal with the subject. He set up a committee to review tourism in the Province. Perhaps he could say when the report is likely to be published. Everything must be done to enhance the image of the Province. In doing so, not only will we attract tourists from abroad, as well as from England and Scotland, but we will help to improve the prospect of investment in the Province.
Tourism requires good roads. The local people, industry and commerce require good roads especially as 1992 and the single European market approaches and 1993 when the Channel tunnel opens, which will bring the hordes from France, Germany and Spain into Britain. I hope that some of them will come to Northern Ireland. Capital expenditure on roads in Northern Ireland has dropped by 50 per cent. in the past ten years, while it has almost doubled in other parts of the United Kingdom. Although I am sure that he will not be able to answer the question now, perhaps the Minister will look into the matter of the Belfast-Bangor road. When will it be updated? When will it be made into a dual carriageway to take the enormous traffic between Bangor and Belfast.
Mentioning roads is like mentioning trees, because it leads me to talk about dogs. Dog control has caused widespread debate throughout Britain, with more reports of terrible attacks by ferocious animals. In Northern Ireland, the number of stray dogs does not seem to have been affected by the requirement of a dog licence with a substantial fee. The number of stray dogs in Bangor seems to be on the increase and the present law is not being enforced properly. Dog excrement is to be found on pavements everywhere, on the grass where children play, on the beaches and on the piers. It is time for the law to be amended.
Column 555Owners should be required to register all dogs by means of a simple injection of a transponder under the skin of the dog which will give a unique number when read by a reading device. Dogs cannot be controlled effectively without such registration. Dogs without a transponder could then be rounded up.
It seems fashionable nowadays to keep ferocious dogs. Perhaps it is part of a macho image which some people wish to project and certainly special attention should be given to the danger presented by such animals to old people and young people. I read in the local paper, the County Down Spectator, last week of a couple of young children who were exceedingly frightened by a doberman on the beach at Ballyholme esplanade. The Minister will agree that more people are needed to control dogs. Although it is a matter for local government some guidance helps and perhaps finance will be given and some of the unemployed could be used to round up stray dogs in Bangor. I turn to one of the problems faced by traders in Bangor and in the North Down borough council area. I urge the Government to investigate the matter of trade waste collection. Traders in the North Down borough council area have been told by the council that they must pay enormous sums to have waste collected from outside their premises. The council states that it is required by the Department of the Environment to make what I regard as exorbitant charges. It says that it has no alternative. My advice to the traders was that they should arrange to have their waste collected privately. I am sure that they could do that for half the cost charged by the council. Traders already pay colossal sums in rates. The rates in the North Down area must be more expensive than in many other parts of Northern Ireland and I do not see why the traders should be further penalised. As the hon. Member for Leicester, South mentioned, there is an urgent need for additional expenditure on hospitals in the Province. The waiting lists are intolerably long. I receive many complaints of patients waiting for an operation. I refer them to the Eastern health board or to the appropriate Stormont department which then refers them to the health board. Bare figures do not convey the stress imposed on patients waiting for treatment. In fact, there is more than stress because there is often pain and the relatives have to suffer, watching the person in pain and agony.
I must also mention the charge for eye tests introduced by the Government and their proposal for a two-tier eye examination. I received a letter from an optometrist who lives in Bangor in my constituency. He said that he and his colleagues are appalled by what the Government have done. In rebutting what the Secretary of State for Health said a short while ago, he said :
"It is impossible to prescribe spectacles by refraction alone." The Secretary of State said that is a cheap way of providing an eye test. He goes on to add :
"Around 5 to 10 per cent. of my patients are referred via their family doctor due to suspected ocular or systemic disease. Some may be sight threatening, others life threatening, and in the majority the patient come for routine examination with no symptoms that could be directly related to the cause of referral without further investigation. Many ocular diseases do not affect visual acuity and the patient would be unaware."
Finally, he said :
"it has been suggested that a healthy young man does not need a full eye examination for a pair of spectacles. It is not young men who will take advantage of a cheaper sight test
Column 556--it will be the pensioner who is not eligible for a free eye examination but is still on the limits of poverty which account for a high percentage of patients. It is also impossible for a young man to tell whether his eyes are healthy--only the optometrist or ophthalmic medical practitioner can give such assurances."
I mention that subject and quote from the letter so that the Government are made aware of a problem that they have created. I hope that they will review what they have done, because I would hate to think that the eyes and health of people will suffer.
Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North) : Once again, I take this opportunity to object to the method in which this iniquitous order is imposed upon the Province. In my view, it is morally wrong and completely indefensible that elected representatives cannot subscribe in a tangible way to the needs of their constituents under the terms in which the order is made. To illustrate my concern, I should like to bring to the attention of the Government and the Minister some matters under the various sections outlined in the order. I have spoken many times in the House during the presentation of the orders of my concern for the Alliance areas in Protestant Ardoyne in north Belfast. The Minister will know that that interface is divided by an unsightly corrugated iron fence. He will also know that there was a proposal to erect an environmental wall to replace that monstrosity. There was also a proposal to carry out some judicious planting in the area and then to have some limited building as a means of restoring confidence and encouraging people to return. That proposal has now been abandoned, as has the proposal to build a sheltered complex in the same area. The proposal came from a well-known housing association and, as far as I am aware, the Government leaned on the association and said that they were not giving permission for building there.
I have heard from sources within the Housing Executive that the area is of low priority. Therefore, I am forced to conclude that a blatant policy of discrimination is being waged against that beleaguered community in the hope that the people will be forced to leave. I request, as a matter of extreme urgency, that the Minister gives the matter his immediate attention and reverses the diabolical decision.
The Minister must also know that there are serious divisions within the Ardoyne community where many killings have taken place. When it is perceived by the Protestant residents there that such discrimination is being practised by the Housing Executive, the stage is set for a full-scale revolt. I know that many would welcome that, particularly those who could then justify a decision to do nothing because of unrest in the area.
I wish also to draw the Minister's attention to the blight that has been allowed to develop in the Cambrai-Ohio street area. I lay that directly at the feet of the civil servants who are supposed to run the housing branch in Stormont, because, as far as I am aware, they do not appear to know what is not being done in the area. The local housing association that has been working there for some years has been trying to obtain action on the project for about five years. It has had no success. There was some limited development by the Minister's predecessors in an effort to inroduce some stability into the area. However, because of the lack of progress since then, the area is now completely blighted.
Column 557I know that the Minister responsible is not on the Treasury Bench, but I hope that the Minister who is there will tell him of my plea. He should now leave his ivory tower and visit the two areas to see for himself what is going on. As he looks at the beautiful Catholic housing on the Crumlin road opposite the Ardoyne chapel and sees the excellent new build and rehabilitation schemes that have been provided in Catholic Ardoyne, I have a feeling that he will be forced to agree that there is justification for my accusations of blatant discrimination in the decisions affecting those areas.
I also want to voice the concern of the many reputable housing associations in matters concerning their future. The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) touched on this matter. I am concerned that the decision to bring the associations under the control of the Housing Executive was a retrograde step. It gives the executive a role in the affairs of those associations that it should not have. It was evident that this role would be abused. The record of achievement by the associations in respect of price and quality, together with sound design, caused the executive extreme embarrassment. What was predictable has now happened. The executive is now depriving the associations of work in an effort to reduce their effectiveness.
What is more disturbing is that the executive now proposes to carry out this work itself. Department of Health and Social Services and community care programmes are specialised, necessitating high building and architectural skills. Such work was always the domain of the housing associations and cannot be carried out by the executive. Steps should be taken to allow the housing associations to pursue their aim of providing excellent schemes for the benefit of the whole community.
I am also most perturbed about the suggestions to close or amalgamate viable controlled schools in north Belfast. I am sorry that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), who is responsible for education, has now left the Chamber. I was going to say to him that he always prided himself on his adherence to the concept of allowing parents a choice in selecting the schools that their children would attend. How does he square that with any proposals to interfere with the status of the Belfast model schools, where the overwhelming majority of parents have opted for those schools to provide their children's education? On nursery schools, I noticed that the Minister has authorised the setting up in west Belfast of three of those necessary planks in formative education. That is at a time when the education authorities are withdrawing support for nursery education in my constituency of Belfast, North. I want to make the Minister aware that in one small community in my constituency there are 80 children on the waiting list, but only 26 places available. North Belfast is just as deprived in an educational sense as west Belfast. Its people suffer perhaps more than those in west Belfast from the results of the troubles. Its children have the same rights as those in west Belfast to nursery facilities. I hope that the Minister will take it upon himself to look at the whole question of nursery education as it relates to my constituency, with a view to redressing that glaring imbalance.
Column 558I will stay with my constituency and its problems of unemployment and lack of facilities. I am most disturbed about the large allocation of money being given to west Belfast, especially as that area is described incorrectly as north and west Belfast, which gives a completely false impression. I am concerned especially about the vast sums being channelled to community projects headed by Bishop Daly and Father Matt Wallace, when areas such as Black Mountain and Springmartin have been completely ignored.
I am also perturbed that the New Lodge has been given priority treatment when neighbouring Duncairn gardens and York road have been virtually forgotten. The impression in my constituency is that the Government are endeavouring to combat insurrection by throwing money at it and that Protestant north and west Belfast is not being considered seriously for much needed funding. There are many community projects that could be funded by the Belfast action teams or by "making Belfast work" money, and those projects should have immediate attention from those or similar agencies.
Another significant question that must be asked is why the Protestant areas of Ballysillan, Silverstream, Tyndale and Joanmount were deliberately excluded when the action teams drew up their territories, especially when it is recognised by everyone there that those areas are the most deprived. I request that another action team should be set up and appointed to look after those specific areas. The small units being managed by the Industrial Development Board have proved successful in my constituency because they have given small companies the opportunity to create jobs and to subscribe to the community generally. I am appalled by the decision to increase rents by 40 per cent. If that decision is implemented, some of the units will inevitably be vacated, thereby creating unemployment and encouraging vandalism. The tenants have more than enough with which to contend and many of them are existing on a knife edge. I ask for an immediate investigation into that scandalous proposal, and I ask that steps be taken now to peg the rents at an acceptable level. I draw the Government's attention to a problem in our Health Service which causes me great concern. I am referring to what are known as magnetic resonance scans, which are necessary to investigate orthopaedic problems. The only machines available to carry out such scans are in London or Dublin. My other area of concern is the lack of lithotrypter machines which can remove kidney and gall stones by high frequency sound waves. The only machines available are in Manchester and Dublin. The pain and suffering caused to patients who are forced to go to London and Dublin must be quite unbearable, apart from the costs involved. In 1988, 48 patients were sent to London for magnetic resonance scans at a cost of £32,015. So far in 1989, 43 patients have been sent and the number of requests is rising steadily. Patients are now being asked to go to London on the 7.15 am flight on Saturdays, as that is the only day available for them to be looked after in London. The irony is that in Belfast we have specially trained operators, but because of cuts in Health Service provision we have not purchased the necessary machines.
Column 559I was looking at the matter in the light of the suffering caused to people. I was also looking at it in relation to the fact that Dublin always pleads poverty, yet it can afford to have those machines. We also know that London has them. It would, of course, be difficult to send members of the security forces to Dublin for scans. Such scans are often required because of the orthopaedic problems cropping up in the security forces as a result of terrorist activities. I hope that the Minister will at least take my requests on board as an act of compassion. I can assure him that he will be helping many disabled prople to cope with a very painful condition. On planning, I refer to the new shopping complex at Sprucefield roundabout. As the Minister knows, it was the subject of great controversy between the local planning service public representative and the Minister himself. It resulted in some mixed feelings in the business community, which has loyally supported Lisburn town and its population.
I am now concerned to hear that in an effort to widen the scope of their operations and to attract more customers than shop there now, entrepreneurs have descended on that rural area and are now in the process of considering the provision of small specialised retail units similar to those already existing in the Bow street complex. There is even a suggestion that those same nameless people are approaching landowners in the vicinity and offering to purchase their land at extremely high prices.
If there is any substance in those allegations, the Minister should be aware that such a proposal would be in direct contradiction to what has already been ruled, which is that no development would receive planning permission for a floor area of less than 30,000 sq ft unless it were for a garden centre, when the floor area would be reduced to 10,000 sq ft. I ask the Minister to confirm in his reply that that is the case and that he is not aware of any such proposal which would sound the death knell of the small business community in Lisburn, which is finding it increasingly difficult to make a living in the present economic climate.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) : I wish to raise just three issues that arise from the order. I shall speak only briefly on the first. I hope that the Minister will be in a position to throw some light on this subject because it relates to his Department. I trust that if he is listening to my speech he will be able to say something about what progress has been made on the Harland and Wolff buy-out proposition. Many people imagined that because, in a flurry of publicity, the Secretary of State and the Minister announced a heads of agreement arrangement with Mr. Parker and with the Norwegian Mr. Fred Olsen, all the problems were over. However, many other issues remain to be resolved, principally those affecting the work force at Harland and Wolff. It would therefore be valuable if the House could hear an account of what progress has been made since the announcement was made in the House.
The second issue that I wish to raise follows directly from some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker), whose closing remarks dealt with planning issues. By way of explanation, I should say that planning is dealt with far differently in Northern Ireland than it is in other parts of the United Kingdom. Local government in Northern Ireland has only a
Column 560consultative role in planning matters. The planning division of the Department of the Environment attends district council meetings with a schedule of planning applications on which it has indicated merely whether it is recommending that approval should be given or that the application should be refused. The district council has the ability to make its opinion known to the planning department.
The planning department then reconsiders its initial recommendation against the backcloth of the council's opinion. It then arrives at a conclusion. Councils frequently ask the planning officer to reconsider the recommended verdict. Consistently in my experience--if experience varies in other parts of the Province I should be interested to hear it--the planning department simply reaffirms its original decision. That shows that the consultative process is merely a rubber-stamp exercise because the department reaches its decision, passes it under the council's nose, and then stamps it with either the approval or the rejection that it had originally intended. That process also shows that there is only a small role for the elected representative. I must advise the Minister that it is those local elected representatives, most often acting without regard to party and on most occasions acting unanimously, who know what the local community thinks and feels about a planning application and who also know the way in which an application will affect the local community. Even when the planning officer returns, having reaffirmed his original opinion, the council can ask the planning directorate to review that decision.
In my local council I have seen that process eight or nine times and on each of those occasions the planning directorate has simply rubber-stamped the planning department's decision. On no occasion has the planning directorate changed its mind on the issue. That shows that local elected representatives do not have a worthwhile role in planning matters. The planning department must be encouraged to listen to the local elected representatives.
I shall give an example from the most recent meeting of my local council in Castlereagh. A Mr. Ewart, who has premises on the Ballygowan road, leading out towards Ballygowan and Moneyreagh, put in an application for a vehicle sales office. He submitted with his application the views of the local community by way of a petition which showed that the overwhelming feeling in the area was in favour of his proposition. There were no objections to his planning application. Many members of the council viewed the site and recognised that far from detracting from the area, the project would have improved the area and would have offered an added service to its people. If we are to have a planning service, whom is it serving if the local people and the local representatives want a facility, but the Department thinks that it knows better than everybody else? That is the kind of bureaucracy that we have in Northern Ireland. I do not want to cover ground that should have been covered if we had the time to do so in the previous debate, but I must stress that there is no democracy in Northern Ireland if even the unanimous views of elected representatives can be pushed to one side while the views of faceless bureaucrats enjoy the overwhelming support of the planning department and of the Minister who refuses to change his opinions on such issues.
Also on planning, I must deal with the same subject as the hon. Member for Belfast, North. There has been an
Column 561announcement that in the east Belfast area there is to be a massive retail, recreational, office and industrial complex, covering 35 acres. If I read the proposal properly, it is proposed to knock down the existing Connswater industrial estate. I have been asked about this by its employees. Indeed, I attended a meeting at which the employers of 39 companies on the industrial estate were present. The selling point that was given publicly was that the new project would bring approximately 600 jobs to east Belfast. What a tremendous prospect. The thought of the loss of jobs at Harland and Wolff and at Shorts was swept aside as we thought about the 600 new jobs that would be created by the project.
However, what the blurb did not tell us was that about 500 jobs would be lost as a result of clearing the land to make way for the site of the retail and leisure development. There is great concern in the area that the company should make public its proposition so arbitrarily and without consulting those who are already on site. There is certainly the suggestion that a wink or a nod was given by the planning department before the money was spent on the project. Will the Minister tell us--I shall be generous in the way that I phrase this--what consultation there was between the planning department and that major company, which is based on this side of the Irish sea? Were any reassurances given to the company? Have the Government considered the impact of that company's proposal on the proposal that they are backing for the Laganside development? It would surely devastate that proposal if there were two similar projects so close to each other. I accept that it is not the Minister's departmental responsibility, so he may not feel able to answer my questions, but I shall be happy to receive answers in writing from the appropriate Minister.
Many of us were led to believe that the Belfast urban area plan would be published in January 1989, but it was not. I now understand that it is unlikely that it will be published before Christmas. That is causing great concern to the construction industry--not just the housing sector--because there is a virtual standstill on major planning applications for housing, industry and recreation. Jobs are already being lost because of the delay. Surely the planning department can get its act together and do rather better than it has done on many past occasions.
Another example is the Carryduff area plan. I do not wish to tread on the territory of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), but I do not think that he will mind my mentioning this matter. The hearing on the plan took place only last week. It deals with Carryduff's building programme for the years 1987 to 1991. However, it appears that the plan will not be published until the mid-1990s. That is a nonsense. It shows the way that the planning department deals with major inquiries. Surely there could be better programming and better timing so that events come in the right order.
The next issue of concern to me is health. I concur with the remarks of the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall). I am deeply concerned about the decline in the Health Service in Northern Ireland. As other hon. Members have already said, it is outrageous that there are such long waiting lists for operations and hospital treatment. Although my constituency does not have a
Column 562major hospital, the Ulster hospital lies on its periphery. That hospital has empty wards because there are no resources to fund the staff necessary to look after patients.
Yesterday, I was part of an all-party delegation that toured the accident and emergency department of the City hospital. The delegation was united in its condemnation of the Eastern health and social services board for what it is contemplating for that department. There have previously been several proposals, but they have all been overridden by the current proposal, which may go before the board some time next week or, if rumour is right, it may be put off until October. The proposal is that the department should close on alternate evenings ; that the accident and emergency department at the Mater hospital should close every evening ; that the accident and emergency department at the Royal Victoria hospital should remain open; and that the City hospital should alternate with it. The impact of that on the service being provided would be devastating. Perhaps the Minister could explain how someone in great need--perhaps he has cut off a finger while doing a job in his home--could possibly stop and think, "Do I rush to the Royal Victoria or the City hospital? Which one is open tonight?" He may go to the doors of the City hospital only to find a sign telling him he has it wrong and that he must go to the Royal Victoria hospital. It is complete nonsense.
The proposal does not take any account of the community issue. Whether we like it--and I hope that none of us do--many people in Northern Ireland recognise that there are areas where they are not safe. Many people, especially the security forces, would be loath to go to the Royal Victoria hospital. Indeed, the security bosses would not allow their forces to go there without an armed presence to guard them.
We are told that the reason for the proposal is that the health board might save about £50,000 in heating, lighting and staff wages. How can people be so wrong-headed? Do they think that on alternate nights the hospital can simply turn off the heat and the lights and send the staff away? Perhaps they intend that the staff who will not be required at the City hospital on alternate evenings will instead go and work at the Royal Victoria. We can all imagine the effect of that on the service as the staff try to familiarise themselves with different hospitals on different eveningss. Perhaps they intend to recruit staff to work on, for example, Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening. What would that do to the sleep pattern of doctors and nurses? It is absolute nonsense.
The proposal is also financial nonsense. If the accident and emergency department at the City hospital is closed on alternate evenings, some sort of security would be necessary to look after the empty areas of the hospital where vast quantities of dangerous drugs are stored and where patients' records are kept. Currently there is no need for such security because the nurses and the doctors are always there. If security has to be provided, there will be a need for heat and light, so no savings will be made there. The security staff will have to be paid, so there will be no saving there. The hospital will have to staff itself on the basis of the unexpected happening. Who will tell someone who comes to casualty desperately needing attention that he must go away, possibly to this death? I cannot believe that anyone will do that. The hospital will have to have some staff as back-up, so where is the financial saving there?
Column 563We must contemplate the reality of life in Northern Ireland. What happens if a disaster occurs in the Belfast area? Will the one hospital be able to cope? We may not be talking about a terrorist disaster : it could be an air disaster. One hospital could not adequately cope with such a major event affecting the Belfast area. I appreciate how people who are not aware of the local circumstances in Northern Ireland might look at a map of Belfast, see three dots close together--representing the Royal Victoria, Mater and City hospitals--and think that some arrangement could be made to save money. In practice, it does not work that way. Not only would such a cut not work, but the results could be disastrous. Ask the nurses. There will be queues of people waiting for attention, and queues mean violence to nurses. The patience of people in need of attention can become frayed. Many problems will arise, particularly on Friday and Saturday evenings, and there is already great concern among the nursing staff. Many of the nurses I spoke to yesterday made it clear that if this proposal goes through, there will be no place for them in Belfast City hospital. There are plenty of jobs for them in private nursing homes and elsewhere, often at more attractive wages than they are now receiving.
I urge the Minister to bring to bear what influence he has on the members of the board that he appoints to ensure that they do not put through such a perverse proposal to close on alternate evenings the accident and emergency department of Belfast City hospital. 8.42 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) : I am grateful for this opportunity to participate in the debate. The Minister and the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) have dealt with, as it were, the macro- economics of the measure. I shall deal with some of the smaller figures behind the grand millions that appear in the schedule accompanying article 5.
It is appropriate, perhaps, that the first section of that article deals with agriculture, especially as I represent a basically rural and agricultural constituency. I perceive with joy the fact that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has announced that at long last the less -favoured areas submission has been made to the European Commission. In view of the financial consequences of that submission, I urge that as much pressure as possible is brought by the Department of Agriculture on Commissioner Ray McSharry, who is now responsible for that matter in Brussels and who, because of his experience and the similarity of the problems in the North and South, should have a receptive ear to the speedy implementation of the less-favoured areas provision.
One reason why I am anxious to have that issue brought forward as quickly as possible is the inordinate delay that has already taken place. The less- favoured areas were designated in Northern Ireland several years ago, but only yesterday were they submitted to the European Commission despite the fact that in the meantime the agricultural development programme, of which advantage could have been taken by people in the newly designated areas, is already rolling. They have not had the opportunity to enjoy the enhanced support and grant system that the less-favoured areas arrangement would give them.
Column 564Because of lack of finance or lack of proper management or administration, a dangerous situation seems to be arising in the administration of the agricultural development programme. When an application is made, an acknowledgement is sent to the farmer giving him permission to start a project, but it does not give him any undertaking that the project will receive grant aid. The substantive reply arrives six or seven months later.
That state of affairs is totally unacceptable. There is sometimes an unfortunate temptation for the local farmer immediately to start a project, to get banking finance and to go ahead with the expenditure, only to find at the end of the day that he will not receive the grant aid which, albeit incorrectly, he thought he would get. That happens either because of lack of funds to ensure proper administrative staff or lack of adequate administrative arrangements. I urge the Minister to examine that point carefully, along with the question of delay in making payments to those whose projects have been approved under the agricultural development programme.
The other form of agriculture is marine agriculture. The Minister will be aware that two of the three major fishing ports in Northern Ireland are in my constituency, at Ardglass and Kilkeel. He will also know that great disadvantage is being caused to the fishing fleet because of the sand bars that have been created by previous governmental expenditure at the entrances to both harbours. In bad weather, particularly at Kilkeel, boats running for cover cannot pass one another at the entrances to the harbours. There are schemes afoot to have that remedied, but the finance has not been made available.
The severity of the situation can be appreciated by the statistic that out of the possible 98 days' fishing that the fleet could have--thereby providing income and jobs in that sector, including processing, fish sales and exporting--only 47 days are available because of that physical disbarment at the harbour of Kilkeel. A similar problem, because of the silted harbour bar, exists at Ardglass. Could some urgent financial provision be made to eradicate that debilitating situation for the fishing industry in South Down? I have listened with interest not only to this debate but to the earlier one on direct rule, in which the Secretary of State recited the enormous strides that have been made in employment and Government investment. I envied, but was not jealous of, the hundreds of millions of pounds that have been promised for job preservation in certain parts of Northern Ireland. I should like to think that some of that rich lode could be transferred to my constituency for industrial promotion and that a more active, positive programe from the Industrial Development Board and the Local Enterprise Development Unit could be applied to the development of jobs in local areas. I have heard arguments to the effect that that would not be financially viable, but in the context of the overall budget that we are discussing--considering the drift to the cities and centres of population, with consequent school, hospital, roads, car parking, environmental pollution and other costs--it would be cheaper to bring the jobs to the workers in rural areas than to take the workers to the jobs in the conurbation.
The second factor that affects the economic development of my constituency is tourism. It is no idle boast that it is the most beautiful part of Ireland in terms of mountain, sea and other scenery and facilities, but it
Column 565requires promotion overseas. The Minister's colleague in the Department of the Environment has recently restructured part of the development process, but we need local units with executive functions and finance to promote a concept that is appropriately designed for each area. The Mourne area, not only because of its natural beauty but because it is St. Patrick's country, is a seller, if it can be properly and commercially packaged. That area and Newcastle are the most developed and have the highest tourist input in Northern Ireland. Europe and North America have many links with St. Patrick's country. Most cities in Europe were founded by people from South Down, from the old monasteries of the fourth to the 10th centuries. That connection still exists and should be exploited.
I was pleased to learn a couple of months ago that the fibre-optic link programme was endorsed, signed and proceeded with by the Government. It is the most exciting development that the North of Ireland has seen. 1992 has often been quoted. One of my greatest fears is that the North of Ireland and Ireland as a whole will be marginalised in the European Community because we are on the Atlantic north-west coast of of that Community, and things naturally tend, both commercially and economically, to drift to the centre of any empire. A commercial empire is being created, so we must be more vigilant, ready and properly equipped than anybody else to sustain the onslaught of 1992. I was particularly pleased that the Government have accepted the fibre-optic link in principle and, I hope, in practice.
Will the Minister confirm that the nodes that are attached to those links will be available to small rural towns of South Down and elsewhere? If they are not, the Government will be failing to provide the infrastructure of electronic communications that are so important to our development post- 1992. I hope that the Minister's department will examine economic development in the context of bringing industry to workers in rural areas and that sensitive low-level buildings can be provided in advance for the transportation of jobs not only from England but from Europe and North America. That has already happened in Castletown in County Kerry ; the New York State Insurance Co. has transferred its entire administrative operation to the little village of Castletown because of the fibre optic links.
I sympathise with the hon. Member for Belfast, north (Mr. Walker), who mentioned the so-called rationalisation of schools. The rationalisation of schools affects the area that I not only represent but live in. I refer to Downpatrick, east Down and Lecale generally. The South-Eastern education and library board intends to close in one fell swoop three secondary-- intermediate schools at Crossgar, Downpatrick and Castlewellan and to abolish the grammar school status of what is known as the Down high school at Downpatrick. That was done without any consultation.
I was hoping to get an answer from the Minister at Question Time today. I asked him what consultation took place with the parents of pupils at those schools. He replied that there were statutory development procedures for school reorganisation proposals, that these provided an opportunity for interested parties--including parents