Column 581Ireland Housing Executive had valued certain horticultural stock at more than £500,000, when, in fact, the true value of that stock was £45,000. We would be making a grave mistake if we put the blame squarely on the shoulders of those working with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The problem is that Ministers do not allow their departmental staff the scope to plan ahead to ensure that such errors do not occur.
I am not suggesting that all is well within the Civil Service. When one has the sort of direct rule system that we have had in the past 15 years--with, for example, the Secretary of State attempting to rule almost like a viceroy, and his junior Ministers following his example--of course we will find much the same problem or attitude permeating the Civil Service. The belief is that there is no accountability and no need for accountability in Northern Ireland. As an elected Member I probably suffer more directly than my constituents in trying to deal with that attitude.
That attitude permeates right down to the girl on the switchboard. Only yesterday at about three minutes to 1 o'clock I phoned one office and asked the girl on the switchboard to put me through to the head of the department. While I was doing something else I listened as the telephone rang, rang and rang. I suddenly realised that it was now five minutes past 1 o'clock and I set the telephone down and phoned back immediately only to be answered by the porter. I complained to him that I had not been put through to the head of the department and he said, "Ah well, he has probably gone to lunch." That was reasonable, but I thought that it was unreasonable that the young lady on the switchboard had plugged the telephone in but had then left her post to go to lunch and left me hanging on the other end. Her attitude appeared to be that if the person was there he would answer.
I had identified myself when I first telephoned and if such treatment is given to a Member of Parliament, what on earth happens to my constituents who try to get a service from that department or other departments? Where does the blame lie? I believe that it lies fairly and squarely with Ministers, although there is no doubt that senior civil servants should ensure that their departments are properly administered.
A more poignant, tragic example of what happens to my constituents involves a man who suffers from multiple sclerosis. By December 1988 he found it necessary to write to the Housing Executive to suggest that he needed an entrance into his little Orlit house so that a car could drive in rather than his being wheeled out to the roadway to get into a vehicle.
That matter was dealt with by the district housing manager, who got a report from a hospital consultant. She was unable, however, to make a decision and had to refer the matter to a welfare officer in her department. A further process had to be gone through and the welfare officer had to refer the matter to an occuptional therapist. That therapist eventually managed to get a report together and by March of this year the district office had approval, as far as that went, for a roadway into the side of that man's house. It was then necessary for the district officer to refer the proposal to an engineer at regional level for approval. The regional officer approved it, but then had to pass the matter on to the road service department, a different
Column 582section within the Department of the Environment. Once again it was deemed to be necessary that the alteration should be made to the entrance and the work was regarded as feasible, but that was not enough, as the matter then had to be referred to the planning department. It was at that stage that it arrived with me ; meanwhile there had been a seven-month delay.
When I rang the planners they promised that the matter would be attended to within a week. I thought it reasonable therefore that I should ring the regional engineer and suggest to him that he could go ahead quickly and begin to get things in hand. Imagine my surprise when he told me that he would be unable to deal with it because there was no direct labour organisation within his department to do a job which was worth slightly less than £1,000. He said that when he had received approval from the planning department he would have to refer the matter to an outside consultant because it would have to go to public tender. Therefore, a £1,000 job had now become a £5,000, £6, 000, £7,000 or even £8,000 job. It was likely that at least a year would have elapsed before my unfortunate constituent would be able to drive, or have a car driven, up to the side of his house so that he could travel around.
I apologise for boring the House with that story, but it was worth the few minutes that it has taken to demonstrate the frustration faced by hon. Members such as myself when trying to ensure that our constituents' needs are given proper attention. The problem is not due to lack of funding, but to the bureaucractic machine which grinds slowly and, sometimes, not so surely. If we are to make the best use of the funding assigned to the Province, we must trim down the bureaucractic process under which we have suffered for the past 15 years. That process is destroying the opportunity for many good things to take place within the Province.
Earlier today, I listened to the Secretary of State talk about the need for good relations between the two communities in Northern Ireland. In the district council area in which I live, work and serve as a district councillor, very reasonable working arrangements exist between the two communities. Indeed, I would not be exaggerating if I said that we might be a little ahead of 25 other councils. Be that as it may, what reward do we receive for our efforts to share responsibility within the community?
Dungannon district council, along with Larne district council, is one of the two councils that do not have a proper leisure centre. Over the years, we made plans to provide a leisure centre that would be comparatively modest and would adjoin our present swimming pool. Initially, the Department of Education for Northern Ireland suggested that we were being too ambitious. Therefore, we went back to the drawing board and came up with a modest project costing £1.1 million.
Just as we had arranged with the permanent secretary at the Department of Education that we could begin to think about moving ahead and providing the leisure centre, the Minister responsible sent us a letter, the first two paragraphs of which read :
"You will be aware that in the course of the last few months the Minister has made a number of announcements about specific capital projects--mainly in the schools sector--which have been given approval to start in 1989/90."
Those were the various projects that had motivated a junket out to a certain part of the Province where he told us that he had found money to enable them to go ahead. The letter went on :
Column 583"I have to inform you that, apart from these projects, the Department will be unable to facilitate any other new starts in this financial year.
On the District Council front this means that the Department is unable to offer grant-aid on current applications in respect of sporting, recreational, community and arts facilities provision under the recreation and Youth Service".
In other words, the Minister had indulged in a con game. He had pretended to have extra money. He had gone out and distributed this money, and then promptly returned to his office to write to the rest of us and tell us that there was no money left for us--that to a council which was under-provided for, and one that provided good cross-community provision for its people.
Is it any wonder if I am sceptical when the Secretary of State says piously from the Dispatch Box that, if only the communities would come together and work more agreeably together, the problems of Northern Ireland would be sorted out? I am inclined to think that the Minister looked at Dungannon district council and said, "What a peaceable bunch. We can cut them out at this stage. We will send the money to somewhere that is slightly less agreeable."
It is not just the Minister with responsibility for education who acts in this high-handed and arrogant way. Recently, an organisation called the Goodman organisation sought planning permission to build a meat factory in my constituency, on a roundabout which is on the main route from the M1 to Omagh and Enniskillen, so it is busy. The factory was planned to go outside a village and adjacent to a voluntary secondary school, a housing estate and a number of private houses. Immediately, there was local opposition to the proposal, and I conveyed that opposition to every department involved in the decision to allow planning permission to go ahead. Initially, I was assured by the planners, the roads people, the water people, and the Department of Agriculture drainage division that there was no difficulty. They were opposed to a project in the area, but the whole matter had to be referred to an article 22 inquiry.
The ordinary objectors to the project did not have the finance to engage a barrister, and finance is not made available to such people. The organisation was able to bring along a high-powered team and senior counsel to represent it. Some of us, realising that we were in difficulty, went along to the inquiry and drew to the attention of the commissioner the danger of building a factory on that site. One of the matters that we drew to his attention was that if the organisation were allowed to build a factory in that location, it would be creating a monopoly--something to which the Government are supposed to be opposed.
The commissioner agreed with us in his findings. With regard to roads he said :
"I share and support these apprehensions about the advisability of introducing this access at this point, in spite of the Road Service's stated acceptance of it."
The road service had told me earlier that it was opposed to the proposal.
In terms of water, the commissioner said :
"the effect on the natural habitat of the river by the abstraction of such a percentage at low river flows has not been investigated. It would seem to me that such an abstraction rate was bound to have some effects downstream."
The commissioner was equally derogatory about effluent : "The effluent treatment plant, skin shed and stomach content storage area will also be visible from the Omagh
Column 584Road. I have noticed that at all the plants that I have visited there is some area for dumping unwanted waste. I am sure that it is required for emergency use, if not the normal running of the plant. In the case of this site it would have to be close to the river, at the lowest part of the site, or in a prominent position by the A4 or A5."
He concluded by rejecting the planning application.
In terms of employment, the commissioner recognised that the claims that the factory would provide 200 new jobs were false. As a result of the factory being built beside Ballygawley, 80 jobs in the same firm proposing the new factory would be lost in Enniskillen. The claimed 200 jobs would be reduced to 120. I was able to tell the commissioner that another plan to build a small boning factory providing 40 jobs would have to be abandoned if a monopoly developed. Therefore, the claimed 200 jobs were really only 80.
Members of the Ulster Farmers Union and other informed sources went further and suggested that Mid-Ulster Meats with 50 or 60 jobs, the council abattoir in Dungannon with a considerable number of jobs and other meat factories would ultimately be forced out of business. The Goodman Meats project would actually cause a net loss of jobs. When the Minister was approached about this matter, he informed people that he did not know anything about it. He said that it had not arrived on his desk. For months it appeared that it had not arrived on his desk. Then the district councillors in Dungannon caught on. As soon as we approached the council elections, we realised that the announcement was going to be made and there would be no one there to object. We decided to try to stop that happening. A senior person in the planning department was telephoned and asked to state that that would not happen. A very clever assurance was given. We were told that it would not happen before the election. We should perhaps have understood that we would be misled. It did not happen before the election ; it happened the day after, before we got back to our councils. That is the sort of trickery that we have to live with day by day, week by week and year by year.
There are many--I hope that I am one of them--who try to be reasonable. [Interruption.] I did not make it clear that the announcement was that planning permission would be given for the firm.
There are not many hon. Members here today, but those who read Hansard tomorrow might well look at Goodman International's background. It is based in the Irish Republic. There is nothing wrong with that : we do a great deal of business with the Irish Republic. But the firm is reported to be close to certain members of the Fianna Fail Government. In fact, it is supposed to subscribe heavily to that party's election expenses. No doubt it was able to bring influence to bear through the Anglo-Irish Conference or through other connections to circumvent the recommendations of the commissioner who investigated the planning application.
Let me quote from the Irish Farmers Monthly of April 1989. It says that the Goodman outfit
"has the ability to house over 25,000 cattle on nearly 50 acres of concrete."
The important part says :
"The cattle are fed on what is probably the cheapest feed in Ireland with usual ingredients including imported corn, gluten, meat and bone meal from his own factories, molasses and the inclusion of chicken litter at up to 20 per cent. of the diet. A recent visitor to the feed lots expressed surprise at the
Column 585feeding of such a high level of chicken litter. But he was told, in a matter of fact way, that over a third of the diet had comprised of chicken litter on occasion".
That is the entrepreneur whom our administrative team is inviting into Northern Ireland to create a monopoly which will put our other abattoirs out of business, and which will ultimately result in the backbone of our economy, the farming industry, getting lower prices for its cattle. That is the irresponsibility that we have to face week after week, month after month, year after year.
But there is more. A FEOGA grant--processed through the Department of Agriculture at Stormont--worth £750,000 was agreed for that project long before planning permission was even considered. Because I insisted on an answer at the inquiry I managed to extract a letter that had been sent to the Department of Agriculture from the Goodman organisation saying that it had been confidently assured that planning permission would be agreed in May or June 1988. Yet the inquiry was not due to take place until September or October. To enlighten hon. Members, let me say that on no previous occasion have I ever found a FEOGA grant being awarded to any organisation until it could prove that it had planning permission to go ahead with a project in a specific place.
We shall have to deal not only with the £750,000 FEOGA grant but with a large grant from the Industrial Development Board--none of us will be told for how much--to put our other abattoirs out of business, to create a monopoly and to undermine our agricultural industry with an organisation that uses 20 per cent. chicken litter and bonemeal in cattle feed. What would the Minister responsible for environmental and health matters have to say about that? It is a pity that he is not in the House tonight to hear what we have to say.
While a massive organisation can ride roughshod over the interests of the community I represent--and Ministers at the Northern Ireland Office allow it to happen--the little fellow--
Mr. Maginnis : It is disgraceful. I am glad to have an accord with the Government Whip. I hope that he will advise his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Northern Ireland Office of his feelings on the matter.
The little fellow who tries to run a bus and coach hire firm and wants to provide an adequate service for my constituents--a firm such as Lakeland Tours in County Fermanagh--is balked every step of the way. Ulster Bus is allowed to prevent the development of a service for my constituents. The Department of the Environment road transport licensing branch permits that to happen. In an effort to provide an express service for students travelling the 90 miles from Belfast to Enniskillen each weekend, going out on a Friday and returning on a Sunday night, a group of enterprising constituents decided to set up a travel club and hoped to engage Lakeland Tours to provide that service.
The road transport licensing branch sent them a letter warning them that it would be irregular, that Ulster Bus provided an adequate service, that they should not cut across that service and to do so would be in contravention of regulations. But what happened a week or two later?
Column 586Ulster Bus announced a special weekend commuter fare and a new service on exactly the lines that had been proposed by the private operator--Lakeland Tours.
The little man is neither cared for nor cared about. I have example after example of that type of irregularity in dealing with the affairs of Northern Ireland. That irregularity means that the people I represent are getting neither value for the money that is there to be spent nor any opportunity to make proper representations, and I do not have the opportunity to make day-to-day representations on their behalf.
I am not allowed to have meetings with permanent secretaries by order of Ministers, one of whom is sitting in the Chamber now. He forbids his permanent secretary and senior civil servants to see me and other colleagues unless we agree to talk to him. That is the disgraceful way in which we are treated and I want it to be put on the record fairly and squarely. I want the Minister, if he disputes that, to stand up and do so as fairly and squarely as I have made my comments. We will then know where we stand in the future. I will know that there is a means whereby I can properly represent the interests of my constituents without having to submit to the bully-boy intimidation I have suffered for the past three and a half years.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Viggers) : I would be happy to see the hon. Gentleman andany other Member of Parliament at any time, because that is the normal etiquette observed between Members of Parliament and Ministers. As for the hon. Gentleman saying that it is not possible for him to put his point of view across, he has done so for the past 36 minutes. If he continues for much longer, there will not be an opportunity for me to reply to the debate.
As I said at the beginning, the people I represent do not suggest that they are underfunded or that they are not properly catered for financially. I could make many more points but--
Rev. Ian Paisley : Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House why the ban on Members of Parliament seeing permanent secretaries does not extend throughout the entire Northern Ireland Office? For example, I can meet the permanent secretary at the Department of Agriculture. When an attempt was made by the Minister, Lord Lyell, to stop that meeting, I received a personal apology from the permanent secretary who said that he would meet me at any time to discuss the matters I wanted to raise.
Mr. Maginnis : I do not know the answer to the hon. Gentleman's point. Perhaps the Minister will explain why he and some of his colleagues are so adamant that we have to meet him and only him and why we cannot discuss with senior civil servants issues that should not and would not normally take up the time of a Minister. I will say frankly
Column 587to the Minister that some of his senior officers are willing to meet me and my colleagues but are keen that the Minister does not know that they have infringed his directive.
I will take the Minister's hint. Obviously, he will make amends. He is about to explain why we have such a bureaucratically inefficient system and why the firms from outside, one of which I have mentioned at length and which may turn out to be another De Lorean, are dealt with in a privileged manner and why some of the smaller firms--the backbone of our community and economy--are treated in such a despicable and offhand way.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have brought those facts before the House. I can stand by those facts. Let the Minister, when he replies, contradict me if he dares. Let him tell me that I cannot stand by those facts. He knows that that is not true.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Viggers) : Northern Ireland appropriation debates, especially those on main Estimates, are always wide-ranging. Hon. Members have raised many points on the spending plans and policies for particular services. I am anxious to have an opportunity to deal with as many of those as possible. I noted that earlier in the debate, which I have sat through for the past four hours, there was a comment that Ministers have not always found it possible to deal with points at the end of the debate. I accept that comment. On previous occasions, I have found that I have been squeezed out of the debate because hon. Members from Northern Ireland were so anxious to take part that it seemed right to give way to them. However, I was anxious to deal with as many points as possible.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) was good enough to say that he recognised that it would not be possible to deal with all the points raised. Indeed, the number has been so many that it will not be possible to deal with them all. However, I give the House the assurance that I will deal with as many as possible and I will ensure that the points cannot be dealt with in debate are drawn to the attention of my ministerial colleagues as they relate to their Departments and letters will be written to hon. Members accordingly.
Before I deal with specific points arising from the debate, I want to add briefly to the comments that my right hon. Friend made in his opening remarks on the broader economic and public expenditure context within which the estimate provisions are framed, especially the industrial and economic areas for which I have responsibility. Hon. Members will be aware that, when giving details of the outcome of the 1988 public expenditure round for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reaffirmed the priority within public expenditure that we attach to strengthening the economy. That objective is second only to the overriding priority of combating terrorism through the programme on law and order and I am pleased to say that there are clear signs that our public expenditure strategy is contributing to improvements in the economy.
It is also the case, of course, that Northern Ireland has benefited from the high levels of growth on the United Kingdom mainland and future prospects will be similarly linked to developments at national level. The combined effect of national economic growth and our public
Column 588expenditure strategy has been reflected in, for example, the growth of output over recent years in the textile and clothing industries. There is also evidence of current growth and strong growth potential in a number of other sectors such as plastics, plastic packaging, information technology, electronics, including software production, and certain sectors of the food processing industry.
Another notable feature of the Northern Ireland economy in recent years has been the buoyancy of the retail sector. In the year to December 1988, the number of employees in retail distribution rose by some 1,300 or 2.7 per cent. and further increases can be expected. We are looking forward to welcoming the new Debenham store which is to open in Belfast city centre, and which will create 500 new full and part-time jobs.
Employment in manufacturing industries has also risen, from 100,530 in March 1987 to 102,190 by March 1989, with nearly all major sectors experiencing growth. Overall, the total number of employees in Northern Ireland increased by 6,370 during the same period. Comments were made during the debate, notably by the hon. Members for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) and Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), that some of those jobs were not necessarily of high quality and that they were, perhaps, low-tech jobs. I must say in parenthesis that I know that the hon. Member for Leicester, South wished to be here for the end of the debate, but it was simply not possible. He wishes to tender his apologies and he was good enough to say so to me.
I must say to the two hon. Gentlemen who raised the point about the quality of jobs that that opinion would not be shared by those at Standard Telephones and Cables and Du Pont and by those now working at the Antrim technology park. I am proud of the quality of the jobs created across the sector of employment, from the large companies through to the small companies. There has been substantial growth on a long-term, viable basis. As my right hon. Friend said in his introductory remarks, at the same time the trend in unemployment is downward. Since January 1987, the seasonally adjusted figure has fallen by almost 17,000. Moreover, the prospects for continuing economic improvement are good. The latest survey from the Confederation of British Industry reports a positive balance in business confidence in all sectors of the economy.
Notwithstanding this background of economic improvement, we recognise the need for public expenditure allocations which address Northern Ireland's comparatively high levels of need, within the necessary constraint of national economic policy. The hon. Member for Leicester, South made a substantial point of that in his introductory remarks. We recognise that, although falling, unemployment levels are still around twice the national average ; and even that disguises much higher rates of unemployment in certain areas, with male unemployment posing a particular challenge. Similarly, housing unfitness was still over 8 per cent., though again declining, in the
Column 5891987 housing survey ; and Northern Ireland has a proportionately larger school population to educate than other parts of the United Kingdom.
Therefore, I advise hon. Members representing other parts of the United Kingdom, who may feel that special and perhaps excessive provision is given to Northern Ireland, that it is right and proper that public expenditure should continue to run at a higher level per capita than the United Kingdom average. Indeed, it runs at about 40 per cent. above the average for the rest of the United Kingdom, although one would not necessarily recognise that fact when one hears the complaints from hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies.
Reflecting those needs, the main estimates before the House tonight incorporate a number of important increases over the previous plans for 1989-90. These include an additional £24 million to the Industrial Development Board for its job promotion activities ; and an additional £25 million for Action for Community Employment and job training.
I must advise the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) who commented on the tragedy of highly trained people being unemployed, that 70 per cent. of the long-term unemployed have no educational qualifications, which is why we are now switching so many extra resources to the link between training and employment and why we are seeking to promote the training elements in our schemes including the Action for Community Employment scheme, which now has a 20 per cent. training element.
We have also found an extra £23 million for priority roads, education and health programmes and an extra £15 million to continue the "Making Belfast Work" initiative as part of a £55 million overall programme.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked about progress on Harland and Wolff and on Shorts--a most important subject. My right hon. Friend said in his introductory remarks that additional provision will be sought through Supplementary Estimates for the full 1989-90 costs of the privatisations. We are convinced that the future of those companies lies in the private sector, and we are happy with the heads of agreement that have been exchanged in each case. They provide a real chance for a much brighter future for those who work for the companies. However, more remains to be done before the privatisations are fully concluded, but I am confident that it will be achieved.
As to Harland and Wolff, since the signing of the heads of agreement with the management buy-out team and Mr. Olsen, significant progress has been made in preparation for the formal completion of the sale. Discussions between my officials and the MEBO-Olsen team and their respective advisers are continuing to finalise the legal contracts and other matters associated with the sale of the company. A formal notification of the terms of the disposal has been submitted to the European Commission and I am hopeful that we shall receive an early and positive response.
Mr. John Parker, the chairman of Harland and Wolff, and his senior management team have held a series of what I understand to have been constructive meetings with the work force and we await the outcome of his negotiations. Subject to EC Commission approval and the satisfactory
Column 590conclusion of the other pre-contract conditions and procedures, I would expect that the sale would be completed in September as planned.
We have been working consistently to achieve moving Shorts to the private sector since my statement to the House on 21 July last year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a statement on 7 June about the heads of agreement for the sale of Short Brothers to Bombardier of Canada. There will be a further opportunity for hon. Members to consider further the details of the privatisation agreement with Bombardier when Supplementary Estimate provision is sought. The agreement with Bombardier has opened the way for the transfer of Shorts from public ownership to the private sector, and we believe that this will give the company the best possible opportunity for a bright commercial future. We are satisfied with Bombardier's commitment to making a success of Shorts as a single company in Northern Ireland. We believe that during the next few years developments will prove exciting both for Shorts and for Northern Ireland. We look to the company to make a major contribution to the Northern Ireland economy.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South commented on the low percentage increase in spending on health and personal social services. Total expenditure will amount to £946 million, including £7.7 million for the 1989 review body pay awards for which Supplementary Estimates will be taken later. I think that perhaps the hon. Gentleman had not taken account of the fact that a reduction from 1 April 1989 in the rate of employers superannuation contributions has created savings of some £15 million. Together with the health and social services boards' cost improvement programmes yielding some £6.5 million, those savings mean that effective spending on the programme will be about 8.5 per cent. above last year's level, and not the figure that the hon. Gentleman quoted. The hon. Gentleman also asked about bed closures in hospitals. During the past year the Eastern health and social services board has closed a number of acute beds, but that is in line with targets in the regional strategy for 1987 to 1992. I have been assured that services to patients have not been reduced as a result. Indeed, I understand that the number of patients receiving treatment continues to rise, reflecting a more efficient use of the resources available. The hon. Gentleman asked about theatre closures at the Belfast City hospital. The recent theatre closures are a temporary measure brought about by a nursing shortage that arises from sickness and unexpected difficulties in recruitment. The normal theatre nursing complement of 62 has been reduced to 47, with the result that there are only four theatre teams instead of the usual six--that is, one to cover each theatre. The six theatres are used in rotation ; no theatre has actually been closed. It is hoped that a fifth theatre nursing team will be available in two or three weeks and that a return to normal will follow in the near future.
The hon. Gentleman commented on hospital waiting lists. Of course, we are very concerned about that. The Department has recently had discussions with four health and social services boards about the validation and medical management of waiting lists and waiting times. Departmental guidance on the completion of waiting list returns has been reissued and a clinicians' guide to waiting list management will be published to promote better practice.
Column 591The hon. Gentleman referred to expenditure on the Health Service at large, to Northern Ireland's health profile and to the need to provide resources to deal with the health problems in the region. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Government have recognised the special needs of Northern Ireland, which is why programme costs are more than 20 per cent. higher per capita than in England and Wales. That is precisely in recognition of Northern Ireland's higher needs.
The hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) raised the issue of temporary classrooms. As my hon. Friend mentioned in his opening speech, nine new school projects with a total cost of £11 million have been allocated resources to enable them to start in 1989. A major aspect of that programme is the replacement of substandard facilities to meet the needs of the modern curriculum and to rationalise the existing stock of school buildings. I hope that, on the basis of what I have said, the hon. Gentleman recognises that matters are moving in the right direction.
The hon. Member also asked, as did the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), about the tourism review that I commissioned in October of last year and which I received at the end of April. It will be published soon. I can give the hon. Gentlemen a preview by saying that the review has recognised that a comparatively small proportion of those who come to Northern Ireland do so as genuine holidaymakers or tourists. We believe that much more can be done to promote Northern Ireland as a tourist location and we intend to pursue that policy vigorously. As I say, the policy document will be published soon. We recognise the great importance of this area and agree that much more can be done.
The hon. Members for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) and for Antrim, North referred to the level of roads expenditure. As I travel around Northern Ireland, I am surprised by the number of roads that are being improved and built. I appreciate that that is casual comment, and on one recent long journey it seemed that almost every paving stone was being replaced along the length of the road.
As my right hon. Friend said in his opening remarks, an additional £8 million is included in this year's roads programme for extending the programme of structural maintenance of carriageways and footways. The total provision for roads in 1989-90 is about £129 million, which the House will agree is a substantial allocation indeed.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) raised the question of the rationalisation of controlled secondary schools in his constituency. I hope he will accept that some further rationalisation is necessary. Some of the schools in question are already too small to provide a properly balanced curriculum for their pupils. The Belfast education and library board is currently considering how best the rationalisation might be achieved, but has not yet reached a final conclusion. When the board reaches firm proposals, they will be subject to the statutory development proposal procedures, which will give all interested parties an opportunity to comment on them before decisions are taken.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the resources that have been allocated under the "Making Belfast Work" initiative and suggested that certain parts of his constituency had been unfairly treated. I would not wish to minimise the problems in his constituency, but the Government are confident that the allocations for deprived areas of Belfast have been made in good faith.
Column 592We have tried to direct them to the areas of greatest need, and I believe that they are being effective in achieving their results. The hon. Member for Belfast, North also raised a point about MRI, and I have in the last hour or so learned more about magnetic resonance imaging than I ever thought would be necessary for me. The provision of MRI remains an objective in the current regional strategy. I understand that the clinical efficacy of this equipment is still undergoing evaluation. A number of studies are in progress and the results of a major evaluation being carried out by the Medical Research Council are expected to be made available later this year. Also, the technology is rapidly changing and I understand that, as development progresses, new models are likely to become available which will be considerably cheaper to install and run and which will offer a wider range of clinical applications. The significant investment of resources required for MRI will also be a factor in the timing of its introduction.
By pointing out that resources were available in Dublin and London, the hon. Gentleman asked, as it were by implication, why no such resources were available in Northern Ireland. The capital costs per MRI installation are currently about £1 million, and revenue costs are estimated at £275,000 per year. If, as he said, it is possible for his constituents and others in Northern Ireland to enjoy the benefit of these resources by travelling to London or Dublin, as they wish, that appears to be a sensible use of resources at this stage, although obviously the matter will be kept under review.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North also spoke about the increase in IDB rents--I think he referred to Industrial Development Board rents rather than to Local Enterprise Development Unit rents--for small businesses. He said that some small businesses were being driven out of business by rent increases. If that is the case, I would wish to know about it, and I shall institute an inquiry and see what can be done. I hope I shall discover that the increases are fair and reasonable, but I shall take note of the point and ensure that no firm is driven out of business by such increases in rent.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East asked about the Belfast urban area plan. The plan was published on 17 November 1987, and the closing date for submitting objections was 15 January 1988. The number of objections received was 2,400, and a public local inquiry into them by the Planning Appeals Commission was held in mid-1988, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know. The commission is expected to report to the Department later this year and, after considering the report, the Department will issue its response and adoption statement. Although it is hoped that the plan will be adopted in late 1989, it depends on the date on which the commission reports to the Department and on the issues raised by the report. The hon. Gentleman asked also about planning consultation, and expressed concern about the lack of consideration given to representations made to planning
Column 593officials. Any planning applicant has the right to appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission if he or she is not satisfied with the Department's decision to refuse planning permission for a project. The hon. Member for South Down raised further points about school rationalisation. For some time, the South Eastern education and library board has been considering the future of controlled secondary grammar school provision in South Down, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It has, however, suspended further consideration of the matter until it is in a position to take into account the effects of the education reform proposals that were recently announced by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science. When the board comes to a final decision on the matter, it will have to publish a development proposal outlining its proposals. There will be ample opportunity for all interested parties to comment on the proposal during the statutory consultation period, and the Department will take those comments into account before either approving or rejecting the proposal. There is no action which the Department can take until a proposal is published by the board.
The hon. Gentleman expressed some dissatisfaction that it had taken so long to submit the United Kingdom case for the less-favoured areas extension to Brussels. As he is probably aware, the criteria for designation of land are strict, and tests are necessarily time-consuming, and there is a significant extraction process in the presentation of statistical data relating to various economic and demographic tests. However, the matter is now in the hands of the EC Commission, and we hope that it will be able to reach a decision quickly.
The hon. Gentleman referred also to the Policy Studies Institute report on housing. I noted his comments. It is no surprise that, among its other findings, the PSI study finds no evidence of any sort of discrimination against Catholics. We welcome that.
The hon. Gentleman referred also to the star fibre optics programme, which we regard as an important element in selling high technology investment into Northern Ireland. He asked whether the star programme will apply to all areas of Northern Ireland. I confirm that that will be the case, because spurs from the fibre-optic ring will run into different regions. However, the hon. Gentleman does not need to rely on the spur in his own constituency, because the ring runs through the hon. Gentleman's constituency. He will be among those who are most able to take most advantage of the star programme.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East referred to accident and emergency services. The recommendations arising from a complementary study, carried out by a number of members of the eastern board into all the services provided at the Belfast City hospital, the Mater hospital and the Royal Victoria hospital, were included in the eastern board's draft operational plan as a basis for consultation. Proposals to implement some of the recommendations of the report are expected to go before the board shortly. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible for health matters will want to discuss the proposals with the board chairman when the board has come to a decision.