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Column 114costs incurred by the Department of Economic Development on the privatisation. The Estimate now before the House accordingly provides for an increase of £34 million, to just under £94 million, for assistance to shipbuilding during 1989-90. This will be offset by appropriations in aid of £28.5 million, representing the payment for the assets and business by Harland and Wolff Holdings and the repayment of grants by the old company.
It may be necessary to draw advances from the Northern Ireland Civil Contingencies Fund before this order is approved in the Privy Council. If so, these advances would be repaid to the Contingencies Fund under this Supplementary Estimate, in the usual way. I hope that the House will acknowledge that the successful privatisation of Shorts and Harland and Wolff was a notable achievement. We fully recognise the importance of those two companies to the economy of Northern Ireland, and we are convinced that their return to the private sector affords them the best opportunity of commercial success. The capital restructuring required, and the packages of assistance offered to the new owners, involve a cost to Government, but we were determined that the two companies should be returned to the private sector adequately financed to promote their future success. I believe that the Government's financial contribution in each case is adequate and appropriate to meet our objectives, and that Harland and Wolff and Shorts will flourish in the private sector.
The other area for which additional funding is required under this head is the Local Enterprise Development Unit, LEDU, Northern Ireland's small business agency. An increase of £365,000, partly offset by savings of £265,000 from economies elsewhere in LEDU's budget, is required to enable it to continue its work of encouraging the development of small businesses in Northern Ireland. The additional funding is mainly required to enhance LEDU's involvement in the special initiatives for Belfast and Londonderry.
Finally, in this vote there is a reduced requirement of £3 million on capital grants. This results from a continuing decline in the number of firms seeking assistance under the capital investment grants for industrial development scheme. As some hon. Members will be aware, the scheme has been abolished but applications for grants for expenditure up to 3 March 1988-- when it stopped--can continue to be made up to 31 March 1990. The scheme was always quite separate from industrial development boards and LEDU's selective industrial grants which are the main instrument of industrial support in the Province, and will continue.
The other vote involved in the order is for the Department of Health and Social Services, where an increase of £34.4 million is sought for the social security programme. Hon. Members will appreciate that expenditure under these heads is very largely demand-led, and that it is fairly routine for the estimates to be adjusted during the year.
The largest element of the increase sought--£33.1 million--is for income support, due mainly to average payments to claimants being higher than originally provided for. Similarly, higher average payments account for the increases of £1.4 million for housing benefit--mostly for rent rebates. Additional provision of £3.6 million for attendance allowances and £1.7 million for child benefit is sought because of increases in the numbers of claimants.
Column 115Two new subheads have been included in the vote. The provision of £200,000 sought at section F in the vote will enable the Department to extend transitional compensation to hostels for loss of revenue resulting from the changes in the rules governing income support payments to claimants in such accommodation. In section G, the other new subhead, provision is sought for £10,000 for residual payments to claimants in line with adjustments to the retail price index. The additional requirements that I have outlined are partly offset by estimating adjustments of £5.9 million elsewhere in the vote, and £5.6 million of this relates to family credit, where the uptake is lower than originally anticipated despite a strong and ongoing publicity campaign to encourage applications. The remaining £300,000 is due to a revised estimate of requirements for rates rebates reflecting lower than anticipated take-up.
I have been brief in outlining the order so that hon. Members will have time to contribute to the debate. I shall do my best to respond to any points raised by hon. Members. I commend the order to the House.
Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South) : I note that there are substantially more hon. Members here for the debate than is the custom on such occasions. I notice a cluster of hon. Members behind the Minister and I am tempted to believe that that may be because of factors other than the order that is before us. If I am proved wrong, I hope that Conservative Members will maintain their interest in Irish affairs throughout the remainder of the Session. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) is here because he always likes to hear what I say to ensure that it is in line with his views and those of the parliamentary Labour party. The Minister has taken us clearly through the details of the order and we are all delighted that he has managed to do it so concisely. I hope to follow his example. He rightly told us that the order is in two parts. Vote 2 continues the Government's commitment to the privatisation of Harland and Wolff and Shorts. Vote 4 deals with various changes in social security.
The order is quite narrow but fortunately for the House the two votes which have been chosen allow a brief discussion on economic trends in the Province and on the consequences of the Government's recent social security changes.
Hon. Members will notice that such debates are becoming somewhat ritualistic. The Minister stands up and expeditiously takes us through the details of the order and usually, though not on this occasion, pats himself and the Government on the head for increasing public expenditure and achieving an economic miracle in the Province. I am sure that that was not a deliberate omission by the Minister and that it will be rectified when he winds up the debate. The ritual then continues and I congratulate the Minister, but everything is not as it would seem from the Minister's remarks. It is always my duty on such occasions to introduce a note of realism and caution, and it will come as no surprise to the House that that is my role today. Repeatedly we hear from the Northern Ireland Office that the Province's economy has been transformed and
Column 116that Northern Ireland faces a viable future led by the flagship of privatisation. That view is wildly optimistic and flies in the face of all the available evidence. I should like to cite three examples of the danger facing the economy in the Province. The Minister will be aware that the Economic Council recently published its report for the year to 31 August 1989. It said :
"Despite significant improvements in the Northern Ireland economy over the past year, these are primarily a reflection of unusually rapid growth in the United Kingdom economy as a whole and do not suggest a fundamental change in the performance of the local economy."
It concludes by saying :
"It will be difficult for the Province's economy to build upon the gains made over the past year."
The second example comes from a recent survey of the construction industry for the third quarter of 1989--that is, July to September. It was carried out by the Federation of Building and Civil Engineering Contractors. If anything, it was even more pessimistic. Its report shows clearly that output and activity are falling and that the number of firms reporting less work has increased by 21 per cent. to 44 per cent. In other words, nearly 50 per cent. of construction companies in the Province are reporting less work than they had earlier in the year. It also shows that the number of firms expecting to operate at less than 50 per cent. capacity has increased by 6 per cent. to 16 per cent. of the total number of building firms in the Province.
The third example is a study of manufacturing performance which is reported in volume 23.5 of the 1989 regional studies document. It shows that the low average productivity level in Northern Ireland is persisting and shows little sign of increasing. It is still hovering around 80 per cent. of that in Britain.
Those three example show beyond a shadow of doubt that, despite the Government's claims to the contrary, there has been no economic miracle in the Province. If we are to maintain the slight improvement that has been achieved in the past five years, there is still a need for indicative planning in the north of Ireland and for continued public expenditure on economics as well as on social matters. The Minister mentioned both Harland and Wolff and Shorts. I am a little concerned about Harland and Wolff. I know that the Minister has the excuse of saying that he is not responsible for the future of the company now that it has been privatised. We warned against that situation prior to privatisation. Nevertheless, I hope that he will attempt to answer the questions that I put to him.
The Minister will know as well as anyone that currently there is only one ship in the yard and that all steel work on that ship has been completed. The three ships ordered by Fred Olsen have still not come on line. I am informed that the steel for those ships is not readily available. I am not aware of all the reasons for that. I understand that there is some problem with the ordering of it. If those three ships do not come on line quickly, there is a strong possibility that up to 500 steel workers could be laid off by the end of this year. If there is a problem, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what it is and the likelihood of resolving it before the end of 1989.
Although the Minister is new to the Northern Ireland Office, he will be aware that under the old management there were regular meetings between the management board and the work force and its representatives. I should have hoped that that would continue after privatisation. However, my understanding is that Harland and Wolff has
Column 117now restructured itself into five operating units, and the holding company is insisting that discussions and negotiations should be with the five operating units and not with the holding company board. I hope that the Minister will agree that that is not the best situation for developing good relationships between the new company and the work force and its representatives. I hope that if the Minister continues to have influence with Harland and Wolff he will urge the management and the new holding company to have direct discussions about all the issues which will affect the new company and thus its work force and its future. I hope that the Minister will provide answers to those two specific questions.
My party condemns the two bomb outrages at Shorts some days ago. Despite the differences that we have had with the Government about the privatisation of Shorts, in no circumstances are we prepared to accept bomb attacks on Shorts, which will further undermine the weak economic base in the north of Ireland. All parties are united in their determination to ensure that, despite terrorist attacks and atrocities, prosperity will come to the north of Ireland and all communities--the majority and the minority- -will be free from threats of terrorism, from whatever quarter, and will be able to achieve full economic wellbeing. Beyond any shadow of doubt, we condemn those attacks on Shorts.
I say that also because Shorts represents a toehold for the Province in the high technology industries which will provide the wealth of the future. It would be to the lasting shame of each and every one of us if that toehold were lost as a result of terrorist activity. It is ironic that the Provisional IRA should pick on Shorts. The new owner of Shorts, Bombardier, is as firmly committed to fair employment opportunities in the Province as are all of us who supported the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989. I am sure that Bombardier, and through it Shorts, will actively implement the provisions of that legislation.
The Minister will think that I am being churlish and uncharitable about the increases that he has announced in social security payments. If he thinks that, so be it, but my role is to point out the financial hardship that many people in the Province are facing. If the Minister reads back copies of Hansard in the relatively small amount of spare time that he may get, he will see that in previous debates on appropriation orders I have repeatedly warned that the Government's changes in the social security system would increase financial hardship and indebtedness in the Province. It gives me no pleasure to say, "I told you so", but that situation has come about.
The Minister is probably aware of a recent survey conducted by the Andersonstown citizens advice bureau which shows that indebtedness per person in west Belfast is approximately £1,814 compared with a national figure of £350. That is a colossal amount of debt per individual. To my mind, and I think to all fair-minded people, it is a sign of the financial hardship that many people in the Province experience. They are unable to make ends meet with social security payments, and they are unable to get money from the social fund, so they are driven to increased indebtedness, many of them into the shadier side of loans. I urge Ministers to press their colleagues to change the system, not back to what it was before, but to something that offers universal benefits and assistance to people in need.
Column 118The Minister will also be aware that electricity disconnections have increased by almost 30 per cent. in and around Belfast. That also shows the extent of financial hardship in the Province. The order will do little or nothing significant to improve economic or social conditions for the least well off in the Province. For that reason, if for no other, it is to be regretted.
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : It is right that we should voice our concern about the economy and the social services of Northern Ireland. My first remark must be that, once again, we protest at the way in which Northern Ireland business comes before the House. We protest that, at this hour, we have to deal with matters that are relevant to the basic needs of the whole community of Northern Ireland. How different it would be if we were discussing legislation or administration matters for any other part of the United Kingdom. It is only right that, as we come once again to appropriations, we, as representatives from Northern Ireland, voice our indignation that the rulers of the House have not given us long since what is ours by right--the right to deal with legislation like any other part of the United Kingdom.
Seeing your unease, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not pursue that topic further, but I thank you for your condescension in giving me the liberty to make my protest. I trust that Ministers will take heed of what I have said, and that right hon. and hon. Members on the other side of the Chamber will support me.
I think that I discerned a tinge of jealousy when the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) rose to speak because nobody was behind him, but I noticed that, after the first part of the Minister's speech, his companions fled because there was no more image of them to be seen in the debate. I am not fond of images, so that will not affect the type of speech that I shall make. The hon. Member for Leicester, South was right to call attention to our deep anxiety about the Northern Ireland economy. We are not convinced that the coming days will witness any significant change in the economy. I do not want to be pessimistic. I want to be optimistic because Northern Ireland representatives have the most to lose. It is our business to see that Northern Ireland prospers, that the economy is in good shape and that the prospects will help all sections of our community. It does not help us in the least to draw attention to worries, but it is our duty and we must do it as ably as we can. The Minister mentioned the Local Enterprise Development Unit. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on what it is enabled to do. Most Northern Ireland Members would say that on the whole it has done a reasonably good job. I trust that it will be able to continue to do so. But some of us are concerned about its present policies. I was naive enough to think that LEDU was involved in supporting all small industries that could give employment and seemed to be viable ; indeed, that it was to help those that have been giving employment and need further aid to extend their business. According to LEDU, that is no longer the proposition.
When we assist applicants to make their case we are told that LEDU is not tied to such guidelines and that certain small businesses cannot obtain grants under any circumstances. I am thinking of local newspapers. I do not
Column 119understand why a newspaper that is putting out the news in a community and providing employment cannot be supported. It is beyond my comprehension. I know of a newspaper in Banbridge in County Down that in the past days has had to pay off about 16 employees. It is amazing and alarming that LEDU says that it cannot support that newspaper. I cannot understand why community newspapers that are circulated freely in particular areas and paid for by advertisements cannot be assisted. I trust that the Minister will shed some light on this matter and tell us what LEDU's guidelines are and what we are voting money for. Is it for certain businesses only or for all sections of the community that are endeavouring to provide employment?
I trust that when I leave the House tonight I shall understand what the Minister understands the money for LEDU is for. I do not want to go into the details of further cases because I intend to meet the directors of LEDU once again to put these cases. I think that it needs to be highlighted in the debate.
I shall leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) to deal with Shorts and Harland and Wolff, which are in his constituency. I shall leave it to him also to deal with the matters which were raised by the hon. Member for Leicester, South from the Opposition Front Bench.
There is a great need for respite facilities for the families of the profoundly handicapped. I am sure that their position will strike a note of sympathy and support with all hon. Members. It is a great affliction when one member of a family, or two members, are profoundly handicapped. As a minister of a congregation for over 40 years, I have some pastoral experience of the effect of that on a family. One sees manifested immediately the care, the love and the compassion of both parents and the other members of the family for the disabled person. In many instances, the entire family revolves round the one person, or two persons, who needs, or need, careful care and attention.
That brings a strain on family life. It brings a strain for father and mother and for mother and the other members of the family, but these parents do not want to be rid of their handicapped children. To suggest otherwise is a slander on their compassion. They want to be able to care for and have the child for as long as possible, but they need respite facilities.
I know that the Minister will tell us that there is fostering, that fostering is good and that there are those who are dedicated to it. We all remember the terrible calamity when the British Midlands Airways plane crashed. One of the victims was a foster parent of profoundly handicapped children. Her loss was one of the greatest losses experienced. Parents were able to call upon that lady at a time of tension, and she was always willing to give them the benefit of the care that their children needed. The parents said that her death was a calamity for her own family and a calamity for the entire community in which she lived.
I do not want the Minister to say that fostering should not be spoken against because I am not doing that. However, a foster parent cannot always be called in a moment of intense need and pressure, because that person has commitments like everyone else. Sometimes there is a
Column 120crucial moment when help must be given, and if it is not available the result can be the breakdown of the family. There can be a colossal effect on the entire family.
I accept that helpers can be sent into the home. It is not always the best help, but it provides some relief for the parents. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that on the western side of the Bann, the Stradreagh part of the Gransha hospital, in Londonderry, is used to give respite to parents by caring for profoundly handicapped children. The Minister will know of the very successful pilot scheme that operated last summer at Harberton house in Londonderry. A unit was set up in which four children could be placed under supervision for a week or a fortnight, allowing complete respite to their hard-pressed parents--especially the mothers. It was, however, only a pilot scheme. Such units are needed throughout Ulster, across all the various board areas : I am not speaking only for the area east of the Bann. That would enable us to launch a three-pronged attack on the problem, adding the units' work to the help provided through fostering and assistance in the home.
The advantage of such a unit is that its existence is evident to parents, who, whatever the circumstances, can arrange for their children to be taken in at times of crisis, thus removing pressure from themselves.
I am told that it would cost £90,000 a year to set up a unit serving approximately 30 to 40 children. That is not much in terms of the Government's budget. I understand that the Government's policy is that the old and infirm should not be isolated, but should be related to the community so that the community can make every effort to help them. I am asking for the same kind of community care to be provided for those profoundly handicapped children.
The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that it is in his power to designate allowances granted to the various boards. I ask him now to designate certain sums for such care, and for respite for parents. I want boards to be told that they cannot use the money for any other purpose. I make that plea on behalf of children who cannot speak.
A dear mother who came to my church had two handicapped children, one aged five, the other three. One took a virus and died ; five days later, the other took the same virus and died as well. I had always known what was in a mother's heart for such children, but now I saw that mother place on the shrine of her little boy a note that read, "I know you could never see me or understand, but I did love you." She went to the grave with a little parcel, saying, "This was his Christmas gift : bury it with him."
That illustrates how mothers feel about their handicapped children. I may be termed emotional, but I do not mind ; this is an emotional subject. If the Minister were to designate sums as I have asked, I believe that he would bring honour on himself and the Government. People would know that he was a man of feeling, and that he felt for those who really need help.
I am worried about the proposed cuts in the home help services. They should be extended rather than diminished. Northern Ireland has a large number of elderly people who need help.
I am concerned about the privatisation of the health and social services. I fear that it will lead to a grave reduction in the standard of service.
Pensioners need realistic pensions. They should also be able to travel free of charge on public transport. Free
Column 121television should be offered to those pensioners who still live in their own homes. If they live in sheltered accommodation where there is a warden, they pay practically nothing for their television. Pensioners who still live in their own homes should not therefore have to bear the burden of a large television licence fee. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North) : I join the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) in condemning in the strongest possible terms this unacceptable and undemocratic system of bulldozing Northern Ireland matters through the House without meaningful debate or powers of amendment.
My leader, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), succinctly and clearly expressed the views of our party in a debate on the Queen's Speech. He said :
"only minor amending legislation would be required to sweep away the monstrous colonial rule Order in Council procedure which was introduced as a temporary device when Stormont was abolished in 1972. Its perpetuation for 17 long years constitutes a standing reproach to this Mother of Parliaments and arguments for its retention have lost any validity that they ever had. If the Poles and East Germans are entitled to parliamentary democracy, there can be no justification for denying it to the parliamentary representatives of a part of the United Kingdom."--[ Official Report, 21 November 1989 ; Vol. 162, c. 53.]
I am sure that everyone in Northern Ireland who wishes some degree of democracy to be restored to the Province agrees with those sentiments. Their implementation could be a first step in the slow process of building meaningful relationships between the communities. I hope that the Government will see the sense of redressing that imbalance. Perhaps the next appropriation order will benefit from the application of the same parliamentary structures as apply to the rest of the United Kingdom. We cannot amend the order, but at least we can make our views known, in the hope that action will be taken later. As for vote 2, needless to say the Northern Ireland community is incensed by the terrorist outrages carried out by the IRA against our aircraft industry. Those barbaric acts are obviously designed specifically to cause suspicion and dissension among the work force. I hope that there will be no lack of Government resolve to take whatever action is necessary, for the benefit of all, to protect one of our largest employers from the murderous attacks of those whose goal is to promote anarchy and disruption through their evil intention to undermine the efforts of those who wish the Province to prosper.
I refer also in the same vote to the excellent efforts by our tourist board to promote the Province. The tourism awards, sponsored by British Airways, are highly commendable and go a long way towards enhancing Northern Ireland's image by making it a more attractive proposition to the outside world. It is important to realise that tourism can flourish only in a settled community. It is gratifying to know that the industry transcends all boundaries and religions, which is generally recognised as the reason for its richly deserved success. In this connection, it is imperative that the world should be aware
Column 122that the fight against terrorism will be the Government's first priority and that there will be no ambiguity in this commitment. One of the greatest tourist attractions in the Belfast area, of which the citizens in the north and west of the city are justly proud, is Cave hill, which is a landmark for travellers, whether they enter Belfast via Aldergrove or from the Belfast lough. Cave hill, with its beautiful wooded slopes, is appreciated by nature lovers and conservationists alike. The Belfast zoo is also situated on the hill, and there are plans afoot for a development of a further 700 acres on behalf of the citizens by Belfast city council.
The proposal to grant a prospecting licence for exploration of the hill was, understandably, received with great trepidation and anger and prompted bitter reaction from all strands of political opinion. The public and their representatives were unanimous in their condemnation of such a proposal and, following meetings with the Minister, I understand that they have been assured that, irrespective of the outcome of the test drilling exploration, mining is definitely out of the question. Although I accept the Minister's word that there will be no desecration of this wonderful tourist asset, I am naturally concerned that permission was given to allow test drilling when subsequent mining was not to be considered.
Further to vote 4, I pay sincere tribute to the work of the Northern Ireland hospice, which caters for the terminally ill in the Province--a function which could not possibly be matched by the general health service. Only those who have witnessed the traumas affecting the terminally ill can really appreciate what the dedicated and caring staff in this hospice can do for such unfortunate people in making their lives more bearable in their final days on earth. I am worried that, although promises have been made by the Government that help is on the way, such help has not yet been translated into hard cash. We need a commitment now from the Government that the necessary cash will be made available immediately to put this great caring facility on a sounder financial footing.
I draw a comparison with the Scottish Office, which is giving £1 for every £1 raised, up to 50 per cent. of the running costs of a unit. As far back as 1985 when the matter was raised, the Government stated that they recognised that the hospice movement could not be expected to bear its costs alone. The public have been very supportive--that is a tribute to the efforts to the hospice's director, Mr. Peter Quigley--but it is unrealistic to expect it to raise running costs of nearly £1 million per year. I trust that the Minister will take the necessary action to enable it to continue its great work on behalf of the terminally ill in our community. I welcome the additional funding for the Housing Executive. The Government should be more involved in determining how these funds should be allocated. I criticise the Government and Ministers for staying aloof from the executive's activities in its commitment to the Province. Many activities under this autocratic umbrella are not being addressed. Scarce resources have been wilfully wasted in many hare-brained schemes which have little bearing on housing requirements. The Government auditor has exposed many of these anomalies, but little seems to have been done to redress the examples of gross mismanagement.
In my area, I am concerned at the lack of progress in the executive's maintenance and improvement schemes. The
Column 123cut-off dates for grant applications are leading to a serious deterioration of housing stock. Tedburn estate in Ballysillan is a striking case in point where a cowboy builder sold substandard housing to an unsuspecting public who cannot now obtain grants to keep their homes wind and water proof.
I also condemn the lack of progess in the provision of defensible space for the elderly. Those members of the population are receiving grants and housing benefits, and are involved in support schemes, but they are living in terror of the vandals who are systematically defacing and destroying their houses which, incidentally, are run by the Housing Executive. The executive should now look realistically at social needs and the provision of housing in north Belfast. That area has suffered more than most from deprivation over the years. Many of the houses there are more than 100 years old, so a programme of planned renewal is required urgently for the benefit of that community, which has had the tenacity to remain and to subscribe to that neglected part of the Province.
The proposals for the establishment of area committees would bear closer examination when considering the management structure of the Department of Health and Social Services. There is consternation in Northern Ireland that the decision to replace the present district health and social services committees with four new area committees will not accomplish what the Minister intends. The National Health Service review stated that the area committees would represent consumer interests in the services and focus on the quality and standards provided for patients and clients. There is some doubt about the realistic function of the proposed area committees as the new management boards will wholly exclude local government representatives, professional bodies and other interests. In those circumstances, there is a vital need for a strong advisory body to provide consumers and clients with real say and influence. Such a body would have to have meaningful responsibility, and to be truly representative its membership would have to be drawn from the community and from voluntary organisations to ensure a proper mix. Secretarial and adminstrative support would have to be of the highest order and to be associated closely with management functions. Members' expenses would have to be commensurate with the responsibilities of the job.
There have been many responses to the proposals from responsible groups which are intensely interested in the proper administration of the Health Service and I hope that the Minister will give due attention to those submissions. There must be no suggestion that the new committees will have a low priority in terms of consultation and democracy, or the whole exercise will be of little consequence and will lead inevitably to more insecurity and chaos in the Province. With regard to vote 4, under the new social security order which comes into operation on 9 October applicants must satisfy the Department that they are taking active steps to find a job if they are to qualify for unemployment benefit, income support or national insurance credits. Those steps can include applying for a job, contacting employers and taking part in schemes designed to help people to return to work. The job seekers will need to show what they have done in their search for work. They are
Column 124expected to keep a record and progress may be reviewed from time to time. They should also keep all letters from prospective employers to prove that they have applied for jobs.
Apart from the general point that such legislation is wholly inappropriate to Northern Ireland, where applications per job vacancy far outnumber the ratio in the rest of the United Kingdom, the legislation also fundamentally contravenes the new fair employment legislation for Northern Ireland. The Fair Employment Commission specifically outlaws contacting employers directly, which is called "speculative application". It prefers employers to recruit personnel by placing advertisements in places which are generally available to both Protestant and Catholic communities, such as central job markets and advertisements in the local newspapers. The Department of Social Security directive to claimants to contact employers directly drives a wedge through the fair employment legislation by encouraging speculative applications.
In practice, the legislation is a charter for pestering employers, who will have to give refusal letters to all the claimants who contact them direct. It will also mean large numbers of unemployed people applying for jobs for which they are unsuitable and, in some cases, for jobs that they do not want, just to obtain an employer's letter of refusal so as to satisfy the Department of Health and Social Services. In some instances, claimants have already stretched the resources of the Department of Health and Social Services by applying for jobs in the Department itself. Replying to such applications takes up staff time and makes the work of the Department-- administering benefits--much more difficult.
I am concerned that top management at the Fair Employment Commission has not complained about the new legislation, which encourages speculative applications. By that omission, the managers are inviting the accusation that their own lucrative jobs were obtained by that method of application. I ask the Minister to examine those allegations carefully. It would be extemely difficult for some people to conform to the instructions, which would be detrimental to their right to benefit. It is also wrong, in my opinion, to expect such draconian measures to be implemented by the unemployed, especially given that jobs are so scarce.
The time available to me is extremely limited, and I must therefore dispense with all that I wished to say about employment and industry in Northern Ireland, except to comment briefly. There is no doubt that the economy of Northern Ireland is fragile, that the image that Northern Ireland presents abroad and the campaign of terror waged by the IRA deter people from investing in the Province and that we need investment. It is the policy of the IRA to bomb the
employed--Protestant and Catholic--on to the dole heap. That is a policy that we all condemn, and in that respect I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) who opened the debate for the Opposition.
I repeat to my hon. Friend the Minister that it would help the cause of reconciliation in the Province if a
Column 125delegation made up of Nationalist and Unionist politicians went abroad--particularly to the United States of America--to seek investment, although I am not too sure whether all hon. Members would get on with members of another party. I believe in the cause of reconciliation and that Ulster Members ought to be heavily involved in the task of bringing people together and bringing money and jobs to the Province.
As time is limited, I propose to confine my remarks to the vote for the Department of Health and Social Services. Last week during our debate on the Queen's speech, I paid tribute to the devoted service provided for our senior citizens by home helps in my constituency of North Down. Those elderly people have given a lifetime of service to the community. I was disappointed to learn, therefore, that the Eastern health and social services board had refused permission for a deputation of home helps to speak at its monthly meeting a week ago. I am perplexed that the board should deny such a dedicated body of workers an opportunity to comment, from their own direct experience, on the home help service in their area. I urge the board to change its mind ; perhaps the Minister will induce it to do so. The home helps wish to show that cuts in the service are having a detrimental effect on elderly people in my area. I endorse that view. I have lodged a protest with the board relating to the new restrictions imposed on the service. I have also protested to the Minister responsible for the Department of Health who sits in the other place. The bureaucracy emphasises that there are no cuts, but that is not so. I had a letter from the board which stated clearly that the board is in the process of reviewing the existing provision of home help services to reduce the hours available to the elderly and, in some cases, to stop that service. The reason is lack of finance. The letter also said that the board would not be able to offer home help services to most new applicants. That is an extraordinary and disgraceful state of affairs.
My constituency has a higher percentage of retired people than elsewhere in the Province and that number is increasing as more people retire to live in my constituency because it is so delightful, as I am sure the Minister knows.
I shall illustrate the scale of the problem by quoting one example--one of many--of a lady called Elizabeth who is 84 years old. She has been in hospital for heart treatment and suffers from arthritis of the spine. She must wear a surgical corset, is unable to stoop and also suffers from diabetes. Because of her medical condition she desperately needed home help to clean her home and to change the bed clothes during the week. She had made arrangements with her home help to do that cleaning, but that came to the notice of the Eastern health and social services board which said that the home help could not clean her dwelling. Even though she is unable to stoop, the board concluded that the cleaning was desirable, but not essential. The help provided to that lady has been restricted to one hour a week for laundry alone. That example shows the callous face of the social services, which should be there to help the elderly to enable them to live out their remaining years in dignity and comfort. I made that point in the debate on the Queen's Speech.
Yesterday I attended the annual christingle service at the Clifton special care school for the handicapped. I attend that service every year and yesterday, as usual, the church was packed with relatives and with mentally handicapped people. The young people at that school
Column 126performed much of the music for the Christmas service of carols and lessons. That service speaks volumes for the dedication of the principal and the staff of the school and also makes one aware of the tremendous demands on the parents. For them there is no respite and, for some, looking after their mentally handicapped offspring is a 24-hour vigil.
I urge the Government to recognise the service performed by parents. Although it is a labour of love, none the less it causes sheer physical and mental exhaustion. There is an overwhelming need for more places in North Down where the sons or daughters could stay for one or two weeks to give some respite for their hard-pressed parents.
I know of a case in which the parents were told that their daughter was too much for the specialised staff of one unit, and were asked to take their daughter home after she had been there just one night. Surely this should not have happened. I appeal to the Minister, for whom I have great respect, to intervene in this case. I know that it does not fall within his Department, but I hope that he will ensure that my words are carried in the right direction.
Reference is made in the appropriation order to cold weather payments. Pensioners are already suffering from the cold and we are only at the beginning of December. There is a need to consider their sorrowful condition. Many reduce the heating in their homes because they cannot afford to pay large electricity bills. We can best judge our society--as I am sure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would agree--by how we look after the vulnerable groups in our community, of which the elderly are one. Heating is essential to them.
Some elderly qualify for the heating cold weather payments when the weather is extreme. But should they have to wait until then? Many are on the border line and do not benefit at all. Therefore, I urgently appeal to the Government to ensure that more elderly people receive payment to enable them to heat their homes in the winter.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) : I concur with the remarks of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) in protesting against the methodology of dealing with Northern Ireland legislation. I renew the offer to him, and the other Northern Ireland Members who have spoken, to sit round a table and discuss new ways and means of providing new institutions that would enable us not only to debate legislation, but to frame it in such a way that it is tailor made to the needs and the people of Northern Ireland.
We have a limited debate tonight on votes 2 and 3. Time, of necessity, makes me brief. The Minister said that the substance of vote 2 was substantial moneys for Harland and Wolff and Shorts Brothers and enterprise in the towns of Belfast and Derry by way of additional funding. That is welcome and will be of great benefit to those for whom it is intended, but it will not give a great deal of impetus or heart to those in the rural communities of Northern Ireland who will not substantially benefit from the announcements that the Minister has just made.
The industrial development boards and their sub-agencies, the local enterprise development units, should concentrate more of their research and development on the base industries which make up Northern Ireland : the produce of the land and sea. Agriculture and fishing are not producing the jobs or values for their labours by way
Column 127of enhancement of value before exportation, which they could. They are renewable natural resources of nature, fertility and the sweat of the brow for both the farmer and the fisherman.
I draw particular attention to the plight of the fishing industry in the harbour of Ardglass, which seems to have been left behind in the provision of docking facilities for the three main fishing harbours in Northern Ireland : Ardglass and Kilkeel in my constituency and Portavogie in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder). A small amount of money is required to make the harbour of Ardglass safe. It has been promised for many years, but has yet to be put into effect or to give safe anchorage to the enormously increased number of boats anchoring there. Over the years, the number has increased from three to 21.
Enhancement of value and diversification are methods of stabilising the rural populations and giving them a better standard of living. I was disappointed at the poor way in which the Department of Economic Development handled the funding from the international fund for Ireland and its budget for diversification.
The other matter that must be dealt with is that of packages that are often talked about for rural development in various guises. I do not have time to go into that now, but it seems that we are chasing around in circles about providing a basic infrastructure of rural development for farmers, the tourist industry and the crafts industry which will sustain the rural population of Northern Ireland and prevent the drift to the cities which creates housing, transport and environmental problems in the greater cities.
I urge the Minister or people in his Department to take a look at the structure, ideas and hopes of a small community group in my constituency, the See Connell community committee. That is the embryonic method by which a vital renewal of the rural population can take place and provide sustainable incomes to keep people in the place where they are most happy-- their home towns.
Vote 4 contains many issues demanding attention, such as the paltry pension increases to the over--75s, the continuing insult to pensioners of the £10 Christmas bonus, and the poor allowances for people in need of care and to people caring for those in need. They are the subject of legislation and I should like to speak about matters that have to do not with legislation but with its administration. There is a crisis in community loans and on how the scheme is being administered in Northern Ireland. From my constituency work and some brief research, there seem to be differing approaches to people who are entitled to crisis loans. Such people are suffering enough from deprivation and need and should not be put off by administrative bureaucracy over the application of the loans. There is definitely a dichotomy in the attitudes of the DHSS offices in Belfast and those in the rural areas. That is certainly the case in relation to my constituency. There is leniency in Belfast and harshness towards those who apply in rural areas. I ask the Minister to ask his colleagues who cannot answer in the House to have an urgent review of attitudes before Christmas.
My final comment on vote 4 is about family credit. In opening the debate, the Under-Secretary of State
Column 128expressed a concern about the low uptake. The reason for that is simple. It is that the forms are grossly bureaucratic. They are far too complex and the only people who can render them with some ease and get family credit are people on a straight wage or salary. Our community is built upon small farmers and workers in the building industry, almost all of whom are sub-contractors and therefore self-employed.
Farmers and self-employed building workers are in the low-income sector and have to provide accounts or statements of earnings. The bureaucracy that that incurs and the questions that the Department asks have to be seen to be believed. People are being turned away by the dozen or put off by the gross and insensitive bureaucracy. That means that small farmers, sub- contractors and small self-employed people are not benefiting from the rights to which they are entitled under the family credit legislation. I again ask the Minister to review that in the next few weeks if at all possible.
There was a bottleneck on or about 8 October when allegedly new regulations were introduced by the Department of Health and Social Services. I and no one else to my knowledge has been able to obtain a copy or even find out the content of those new regulations. I do not think that they exist but are a bureaucratic reason for stalling on the payment of family credit to people who richly deserve it. Now that the fibre optics links are in place, in the so-called start programme, with the nodes of that system in many towns and villages, the Department of Economic Development in Northern Ireland should take a positive initiative and locate rural areas which would be suitable for low level, sensitive office development so that jobs could be imported from Europe and America, as has happened successfully in some places, so providing more employment. A well trained, intelligent work force, updated in technological matters, is waiting for jobs to be provided. The Minister should urge the task force, which he has set up, to take a more practical approach. In that way we could greatly reduce the number of unemployed, particularly among our young people.
I hope that the Minister will give urgent attention to the points I have raised, and in particular before Christmas that he will examine the issues of family credit and crisis loans.