Previous Section Home Page

Column 1002

was welcome. I hope to see it extended so that more and more people own their own dwelling, but there will always be a place for let accommodation.

I hope that the rest of my remarks will not be taken amiss by the Government. There is a certain amount of slippage in some areas, which should be dealt with. Some have already been touched on, including the new Coleraine hospital. The proposal for a new hospital has been floating around for not 14 but 30 years, since it was first decided that Coleraine needed a new hospital. The proposal has been chopped and changed and all sorts of arguments have been heard. It is about time that a final decision was made. I have today tabled a written question asking for a statement on the subject next week. I hope that we will receive a favourable response then if not today, because it is overdue. The intellectual argument about the need for that hospital has been won. It is a matter of money. The proposal has been on the waiting list so long that the money should be made available now so that people can look forward to proper health care for the first time.

I ask the Minister to recall that on 11 March I raised the matter of the incinerator at the Du Pont site at Londonderry. Several things have happened since then and the matter has moved on, not least because I have asked several questions and much of the local population has become more worried about the incinerator. Ministers will not have missed the widespread anxiety about toxic waste and its disposal in Northern Ireland. Even if the Minister missed the public debate about it, he will not have missed the questions that I have tabled. No doubt he will have looked at the answers to those questions and had discussions about them with his officials. I may tell him that I had some difficulty in getting my questions past the Table Office. If the Table Office had taken them as I wrote them, the Minister would have found them rather more precise than the form in which they appeared on the Order Paper. If the Minister has taken an interest in my questions, he will be aware that there is a need for people throughout the United Kingdom to pay attention to how we get rid of chlorinated hydrocarbons. They are not a nice material. The technology that has been used to dispose of them is burning at high temperatures, but that involves dangers. I am sure that the Minister has also been made aware of the problem in the Bolsover area of England with dioxins in cows' milk. Hon. Members who represent Derbyshire will have besieged the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with demands that he trace and eliminate the source of that dioxin. Their interest in the purity of our food, at least in the case of one Derbyshire Member, is well known.

I have tabled a question about dioxins which has not yet been answered. It is a matter of national importance. It is not restricted to two or three farms in Derbyshire which are troubled with the problem. It should worry every hon. Member. It is a dangerous, long-lasting material. In my question I asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he has yet managed to discover and eliminate the source of the pollution. I can assure the House that every farmer in the United Kingdom is anxious about this. Farmers are also anxious about another matter dealt with in an answer that I received from another Government Department. It is the principle that the polluter pays. The polluter can be made to pay only if he can be identified and the pollution traced back to him. In a case in the Irish Republic, we all saw how difficult it was

Column 1003

to reach that stage when the farmer was facing ruin. If the poor chap had not gone on and on beyond what most people would have done, he would have been out of the door and the pollution would probably have continued. I sometimes wonder whether that, rather than a real need for an incinerator, has anything to do with the proposal to bring an incinerator to the Du Pont site.

Northern Ireland is one huge food factory. Brussels is under pressure to outlaw any incinerators sited near food processing plants. I look on Northern Ireland as a food producing and processing plant and so should every other hon. Member who eats in this House, which probably means all of us. Food production is also the largest industry in Northern Ireland. It is increasingly successful in promoting its food in the European market. Like me, the Minister with responsibility for agriculture in Northern Ireland, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) visited the food fair in the early spring of this year in London. I am sure that he was as much impressed with what he saw as I was. It was not a Northern Ireland only event. Scotland, Wales, England, Germany, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all from every corner of Europe were there. It was a most impressive exhibition. I certainly enjoyed it and learned a great deal. At that exhibition I was told by Northern Ireland producers that they sold their produce with the image of the green, wholesome, naturally produced products which are free from chemicals. One does not need to spell out to the Minister just what effect even the slightest smell of chemical infiltration into the food chain would have on that flourishing trade.

Dioxins will be in not only milk but wool and all meat. They are an insidious chemical and one with which the body has great difficulty dealing. When I read about the problems in Derbyshire I did some checking up. I discovered that MAFF has laid down that the tolerable daily intake of dioxins is 0.01 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day. The maximum tolerable concentration of dioxins in milk is 0.7 nanograms per kilogram of milk. On the farms in Derbyshire the highest concentration was 0.47 nanograms. That should worry every one of us. Dioxins come essentially from chemical waste which is difficult to handle and has had to be burned. If it is burned at the wrong temperature dioxins are the sort of nasties that come out of them.

As you, Mr. Deputy Speaker will appreciate, I have taken a keen interest in the incinerator. It is in that part of county Londonderry which is now represented by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) but it is not far from my boundary and I represented the area in my former incarnation as the hon. Member for Londonderry before the number of seats was increased from 12 to 17.

I read the statement made by the Du Pont company. The project manager, Mr. Richard Wylie, said that it could be August before any announcement was made. He also said that Du Pont did not operate incinerators anywhere simply for profit. It operated them whenever it had a problem with waste disposal. If there is spare capacity, they will help out locally. That flies somewhat in the face of the idea that we need only one incinerator for the whole of the island of Ireland. Du Pont is building one to deal with its own waste but which can also deal with much more than its own waste.

We are also told that co-operation between the Northern Ireland Office and the Dublin Government--so

Column 1004

on an all-Ireland basis--to draw up a policy for hazardous waste disposal has been a small step in bringing nationalists and unionists together. I assure the Minister that it sure has. It seems that the only time the two Governments can manage to bring us all together is when they do something of which we all disapprove and which affects everyone equally. That shows that we have at least some common interests.

At Maydown there is an existing liquid waste incinerator which treats 5,500 tones per annum, most of it in the form of chlorinated hydrocarbons. However, until recently, about 700 tonnes of solid waste has been shipped for incineration to Finland or France. Mr. Wylie emphasised :

"waste minimisation is the first priority. To run chemicals through a plant and then have to spend vast sums on disposal is obviously daft."

I accept that that would be daft because if those chemicals can be recycled they are just as good as the originals. Mr. Wylie went on to state that the Du Pont projections involve substantial reductions in waste at Maydown--by up to 70 per cent. by the end of the decade. On the source of the greatest local concern, dioxin, Mr. Wylie commented :

"If someone lived downwind and the wind direction never changed"-- I can tell the House that it blows most of the time from the south and west--

"and if they lived there continuously for 70 years ; if they had light body -weight ; if they never took a holiday ; if the incinerator never shut down ; and if it always ran at the maximum limit--then the person would still be safe by some orders of magnitude."

The Minister will have long since gathered that the questions that I have put down are so precise that only someone with a fair knowledge of the chemical process would know what to ask. The chap advising me described the latter quote from Mr. Wylie as "nonsense", but I would not expect Du Pont to say anything else--after all, it is their muck and they have to get rid of it somehow.

In the light of the quotes that I have given to the House I should like to know more about the 700 tonnes of solid waste currently shipped out of Northern Ireland. That 700 tonnes is the same quantity as the dangerous stuff that is to be burnt in the proposed new incinerator. At present, 5,500 tonnes of chlorinated hydrocarbons are burnt at the old plant on the Maydown site. Is that present incinerator up to the requirement of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988? I believe that those regulations come into force in Northern Ireland tomorrow. If that plant does not meet those requirements, what steps are being taken to ensure its compliance? If it fails to comply, that means that it is a dangerous plant.

Can the Minister tell me whether the emissions from the stack in the present plant are monitored? What is coming up that chimney and spreading over all Northern Ireland? Is the Minister absolutely certain that the COSHH regulations are being met? If not, what steps will he take to ensure that they are? Will the Minister also make sure that he does not forget that the Safety At Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 applies not only to those working in the Maydown plant, but to farmers in the fields, who may be many miles downwind. The company's responsibilities do not end with its workers, but with all those other folk outside the plant who may be adversely affected.

Has not Australia recently said no to incineration and the working incinerator, which I believe was an ICI plant,

Column 1005

been closed down? Is it not also true that the plant that Du Pont operates in Canada--I believe that it is at Swan Hills--was until recently the only hazardous waste incinerator in Canada? It has an annual capacity of 5,000 tonnes and a queuing time for disposal of more than a year. That plant now takes hazardous waste from Alberta only, following an accident in which a lorry carrying PCBs to the incinerator turned over at the border between Ontario and Manitoba. It is clear, therefore, that the Australians and Canadians are worried about incineration. Indeed, the Canadians have restricted the incineration plant not just to the territory of Canada at large, but to one state only. If the Canadians and Australians are so worried, surely we should also be worried.

On 26 June I tabled a written question which was answered by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. He stated :

"The proposed incinerator would constitute a registrable process under the Alkali and Radiochemical Works Regulation Act 1906 as amended by the Alkali and Radiochemical Works Order (Northern Ireland) 1991."--[ Official Report, 26 June 1991 ; Vol. 193, c. 488. ]

Will the requirements and information contained in that answer be upgraded by the COSHH regulations which come into force tomorrow? My constituents and everyone downwind of the proposed incinerator in Northern Ireland would like to know the answer.

Is the Minister aware that the De Gaussa organisation in Germany has a chemical process to clean up hydrocarbons contaminated with PCBs leaving nothing but common salt behind? It is possible to unzip, as it were, the PCBs so that the waste is reduced to harmless salt. The possibility of dangerous emissions as a result of waste burning are therefore eliminated. If such technology is already available, people should spend a lot of money on developing it rather than taking the risk of burning the waste. No matter what one does with the incinerator plants, it is a question not of whether but of when something will go wrong--it is inevitable, and when things do go wrong I suspect that the operators will do their best to cover that up. If there are any investigations into the proposed incinerator, does the Minister accept that those investigations should not be carried out by a university in Northern Ireland, especially Queens university, which has had a chair sponsored by the Du Pont company? I am not saying that the scientists and professors at Queens would be willing to dress up their reports, but some unkind people might think that. I should be much happier if the investigations were carried out by a body outside Northern Ireland.

Is the Minister prepared to give a guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland and to me that the new environmental protection scheme that the Prime Minister announced will have teeth at least as good as those of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. That American organisation, above all others, made the chemical companies and other polluters sit up and take notice. Will the Minister ensure that whatever form the environmental protection scheme takes in Northern Ireland, it will not be based in Belfast where it could have a cosy relationship with the Government and everyone

Column 1006

else, but way out in the sticks where it would feel freer to take a good hard look at the job that it was supposed to do?

If what the spokesman from Du Pont says is correct and the company intends to reduce its waste disposal by about 70 per cent. by the end of the century, how on earth can it build an incinerator small enough to deal with that small amount of waste material? Or do the Government expect a huge increase in the amount of waste to be produced by new chemical plants in the island of Ireland? Those basic questions must be answered.

If an incinerator has to be built, a number of measures must be taken. It should not be owned or run by the company that produces the pollution, because those companies would do their damnedest to ensure that they reduced the cost to themselves. We all know that reducing costs leads to taking risks, which usually means that the plant blows up in our face. We have had enough of that. The nuclear technology scientists have persistently assured us that nuclear establishments are safe. I am sure that the people living in Flixborough and Bhopal were assured that the nearby chemical establishments were perfectly safe. However, whenever the pigeons come home to roost many people are hurt. The only way to ensure that a plant is run properly is for it to be run by an independent body.

Alternatively, all those who produce the waste could own a large chunk of the plant so that they did not pay simply for the burning of the waste created by Du Pont. If Du Pont owns the place it can charge whatever the dickens it likes, because it will be the only incinerator needed in the island of Ireland, and any other person producing material for incineration will be at the mercy of that company.

If an incinerator has to be built, it should not be built on the west coast but on the east coast, where the emissions from the chimney would blow out to sea 90 per cent. of the time.

Mr. Trimble : It will blow up to Scotland.

Mr. Ross : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Perhaps it should be right over on the east coast of Scotland. Despite the Minister's giggles, there is no point in building an incinerator where the emissions will be blown across Ulster. The wind blows from the south and west much of the time--the Minister knows that perfectly well--so the incinerator should be sited where the emissions will be blown out to sea. Much of the emission will come down in the first 20 miles if it comes down at all, so the decision is difficult.

Is there a small area health statistics unit based in Northern Ireland? If not, will one be created to look after the incinerator? The plant must be operated by highly skilled people. Will the Minister assure me that emissions will be fully scrubbed and that there will be a high-speed quenching of the gases?

The trouble is that one is always caught on the horns of a dilemma : should we trust the machinery, the computer, or the people? They all make errors and a balance must be struck. The risks must be minimised and, if humanly possible, an alternative technology--even if it is not ready for the next couple of years--should be used.

When people talk about state of the art technology, they mean technology that works on the laboratory bench. When it is upgraded and used on a large scale it does not necessarily behave as it did in the laboratory. We must therefore try to use not only state of the art technology,

Column 1007

but tried and tested state of the art technology. The problem is that technology must be tried out for the first time on a large scale, but I should prefer to have technology which I know works rather than experimental technology.

I hope that my questions have shown the concern that I and many of my constituents feel. I cannot believe that a 20,000 tonne incinerator is viable when I consider that the Cleanaway plant--a much larger general purpose plant--handles many multiples of that amount of waste. I also find it hard to credit that the plant can be built for £38 million, because the scrubbing equipment alone is very costly. Before we proceed, we must think carefully and either site the plant where the possibility of damage is minimised or, instead of an incinerator, use technology which, with a little more research, could be a real winner because it would reduce the material to salt and carbon dioxide.

In a written answer the Minister told me that

"At a meeting of the Anglo-Irish conference on 31 January 1991, I exchanged views on this and other environmental issues with the Minister for the Environment in the Irish Republic, Mr. Flynn. I have also discussed with the management of Du Pont (UK) Ltd., their proposal for a hazardous waste incinerator and have visited the company's site".--[ Official Report, 25 June 1991 ; Vol. 193, c. 445 .]

When I saw the wonderful information that the Minister had discussed at the Anglo-Irish conference I expected a detailed statement, but in fact the statement was only a couple of sentences long and told me nothing. Will the Minister now tell us whether he has done a deal with Mr. Flynn and the Government of the Irish Republic to build the incinerator in Northern Ireland to take all the hazardous materials produced in the Irish Republic? That would give the people of Northern Ireland the benefit of anything that comes out of the chimneys, which would confirm my view that the Irish Republic is always prepared to send the United Kingdom any muck that it possibly can, and we do not want it.

When I asked the Secretary of State for the Environment "what information he has on the quantity of toxic and hazardous wastes arising from the operations of the Du Pont company in Northern Ireland which is transferred to the incinerators of the Cleanway and Raychem plants in Great Britain each year",

the answer was :

"None. Monitoring the movement of hazardous waste within the United Kingdom is the responsibility of local waste disposal authorities."--[ Official Report, 3 July 1991 ; Vol. 194, c. 141. ]

In Northern Ireland, that ranges from Belfast city council down to Moyle council, which looks after 10,000 people. Is the Minister trying to convince the hon. Members from Northern Ireland that all those local waste disposal authorities in the Province are capable of monitoring the movement of waste? I doubt whether they are even told about it. I wonder whether the health officials in the councils are aware of their responsibilities in that respect, because none of them has ever mentioned them to me. I was horrified to discover that there was no overall authority to oversee the movement of that hazardous waste.

LEDU is not my favourite organisation. The Minister said in his opening remarks that LEDU had promoted 7,000 jobs in the past year and 50,000 jobs since 1971. The real questions are not how many it has allegedly created but how many it has merely replaced and how many still

Column 1008

exist. It is not a question of whether a job is created but whether a continuing job is created. We want industrial growth and more work in Northern Ireland--there is no point in creating jobs which simply disappear.

I make no apology for returning yet again to the problem of one of my constituents, to which I could now add the problems of a couple of others. When I asked about this in March, I received the usual bland reply. As the Minister knows, my constituent went to the commissioner of complaints, who found that he had not suffered through maladministration. That is a matter to which I hope to return when the ombudsman's reports come before the House, so I shall leave it for tonight.

In March I said that I believed then, and I still do now, that LEDU was simply not equipped to deal with inventors because it did not have the necessary machinery to cope with an idea from its invention through to its marketing--that expertise and capacity does not exist. I sometimes think that inventors as a body tend to look at the world in a slightly skewed way. If they did not, they would never come up with an idea. They have difficulties and do not necessarily have a vast amount of machinery or wealth behind them. Frequently, an individual comes up with an idea, which is what happened in the case of my constituent. I am deeply involved in the matter because the individual involved is a neighbour of mine. It is a long and complicated saga. I have a chunk of the file with me and I will gladly give it to the Minister if he wishes to spend the weekend reading it. I am concerned that an idea that I thought was a winner is still not on the market after several years.

The first bone of contention for the inventor involved the control of the project. It seems that help is sparse unless the set-up is acceptable to LEDU, which dictates what can and cannot be done and who will be involved. A Londonderry firm was apparently unacceptable to LEDU, and I often wonder why LEDU was unable to come up with another firm. My constituent and I had no objection to LEDU meeting the firm, but my constituent's bargaining position seemed to be undermined by LEDU's attitude, despite the fact that heads of agreement had already been drawn up, which caused the bone of contention.

Another factor involves the sheer cost of development and patent rights, and protecting those rights across the world. A good product must be protected and there is apparently no way in which a private individual can gain funds for that protection. It is important for ideas to be protected so that they can be brought to fruition and used, but there does not seem to be any help available to the individual. Inventors tend to spend to an enormous amount of their own time and money on their pet projects. Admittedly, not all the projects come to anything--many die the death--but the tenacity of the individuals often ensures that their ideas succeed.

Another factor relates to the grant aid for production. Basic engineering involved can be carried out in Ulster--the difficult part involves sales and promotion. When LEDU made an offer a year or so ago for a grant for market research, it seemed to be saying that the project had not been handled properly and it wanted to get off the hook. By that time, however, my constituent was so suspicious of LEDU and all its works that it was difficult to persuade him to go back to LEDU. I think that LEDU should carry out some market research of its own to find out whether my constituent's product can sell. If it

Column 1009

succeeds, as I am sure that it will, it will create many jobs in Northern Ireland. It is worth taking a risk with that project, and the Minister should get his finger out and take that risk. Providing such assistance to inventors should be examined because inventors usually come up with only one good idea in their lifetime, and they want to hold on to it. If they do not, it will sometimes go down the plug hole. I should like more help to be given to them, from the inception of their idea until the product proves to be either a failure or a success. LEDU would make enough money out of the successes to pay for the failures.

Another one of my constituents invented a toilet seat that was operated by foot-- [Laughter.] It seems laughable, and I appreciate that most people laugh at the idea--I did when I first encountered it--but the inventor said that Americans were going up the wall because of their fear of AIDS and reckoned that the product would sell well. Everyone who has looked at the fancy idea says that it will work. The idea is still floating around, waiting for help to take it from the invention to the development stage-- [Laughter.] At least my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) seems to be enjoying this. We need a bit of light- heartedness in this establishment occasionally. It does not matter that the idea involved a toilet seat. If there is money and work in the idea, we should be glad of it.

Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North) : Where there's muck, there's money.

Mr. Ross : Yes, I agree.

In that case, an inventor came up with a project which, despite the hilarity, could be manufactured. Why have not greater efforts been made to help him?

Within the past week, another constituent came to me saying that he approached LEDU last September because he wanted to set up a gear cutting business. He said that he was the only person in Northern Ireland doing so, and his story concerned me. I had a word with him on the telephone earlier this evening to confirm what stage he had reached. He said that officials from LEDU made an appointment to come to see him in September or October last year but they did not turn up and he received a telephone call a day or two later to say that the officials' car had broken down which was why no one was able to come. The officials finally arrived in February--that hardly showed the proper amount of speed, efficiency and urgency necessary to promote industry in Northern Ireland and the officials then said that they would not give my constituent any money.

My constituent then went to Donegal and saw the Irish Development Agency in the Republic. He talked to an accountant and within one hour he was looking at premises. He received a telephone call one week later with an offer to go back to look at more premises and was offered all the grants in the world. He said that when he compared the two--the IDA and LEDU--LEDU did not know where to begin. He did not actually use those words but you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would reprove me if I uttered the ones that he used. My constituent has now bought five gear-cutting machines and the business is going full blast without money from LEDU. The Minister

Column 1010

may think that that is good enough, but I do not. Will he please go and give that organisation a damned good shaking?

7.36 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) : I am grateful for this opportunity to participate in tonight's debate. I apologise to the Minister of State and other hon. Members for my absence at the start of the debate.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) made a strong plea about agriculture in Northern Ireland and today's news of the proposed changes in the common agricultural policy. The pressure from the general agreement on tariffs and trade negotiations is disturbing to us in Northern Ireland. I come from a constituency which is mainly made up of small farmers--both lowland and hillside--and they have great concerns about the future.

I realise that there is an apparent dichotomy between the requirements of an agricultural policy for Northern Ireland and that pertaining to Great Britain. I am sure that the Minister with responsibility for agriculture in Northern Ireland must be suffering from schizophrenia because what is needed in Northern Ireland, is to support the small farmer in every way possible, whereas that does not seem to be required by farmers in Great Briain. However, the Northern Ireland Office will be responsible for the final policy that is applied to Northern Ireland.

At present in Northern Ireland, there is a great thrust forward to rejuvenate and regenerate rural communities, which seems to be flying in the face of the agricultural policy on which we are about to embark, which will degenerate and lead to the degradation of the countryside in Northern Ireland as we know it.

In the previous appropriation debate, I asked the Minister to pass on to his ministerial colleagues the concept that, if the worst came to the worst --I know that we are a small cog in the big wheel of European and international politics--we need a financial package and a rescue operation that will at least blunt the most severe effects of the changes in the common agriculture policy, which will have a detrimental impact on small farmers. The preparation for that package needs to be in place now. It should not be an ill thought out, ill conceived, ill administered operation when the time comes. We are at the crossroads, at a time of potential emergency in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Agriculture is also responsible for fisheries. The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) referred to some aspects of the fishing industry, claiming that one half of the catch came in through Portavogie. We can assume then that the other half comes in through South Down. Quotas are soon to be applied to parts of the fishing industry in the Irish sea, with the result that those fishing from the east coast of Northern Ireland, from Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel will suffer dramatically. Quotas on cod and haddock have been imposed to protect stocks in the North sea, but they are not necessarily relevant to the Irish sea.

It is clear from answers that I have received from the Minister who is responsible for the fisheries that the Department has not yet thought about a decommissioning programme. Fishermen have been squeezed out of their traditional inherited businesses but have received no help for decommissioning so as to prevent the over-fishing which the quotas are allegedly supposed to prevent. I ask

Column 1011

the Department to revise its attitude to a decommissioning scheme. Not much money would be involved for such a scheme in Northern Ireland, but we are talking about the livelihoods of the families attached to each fishing boat, and decommissioning definitely needs funding.

I am puzzled by another aspect of the fishing industry. We need a proper fishing training centre or school on the east coast of Northern Ireland. I should like to see one at Ardglass or Kilkeel. It could possibly be linked to the fine establishment in Greencastle in north Donegal across in the Irish Republic. Such a centre would ensure that young people who were left in the industry were properly trained in fishing techniques, in conservation and in new technology. Again, this would not involve a huge sum.

These young people do not seem to receive the same sympathy and help as those pursuing other careers. For instance, they have to pay their own way to these schools. University graduates, those who attend Government training centres and those who go to colleges of further education receive assistance--but not youngsters being trained for fishing. Will the Department review its policy on this important area?

As for training under the Department of Economic Development, the Under- Secretary will know that all my constituency has is an annexe of a training centre. Several times, I have urged the Minister to provide a modest expansion programme for the training college so that it can increase the number of subjects it teaches in a modest way. We have virtually no public transport in the constituency--no railways, and the bus service is thin on the ground and does not cater for travelling workers or a travelling training force. Only a modest sum would be involved in this idea.

The main thrust of policy of the Department of Economic Development must be job creation. I listened with interest to the remarks of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) about LEDU. My experience of LEDU does not equate with his. I believe that it is better geared to helping small businesses begin and expand. We live in an era of small business expansion. I should not like LEDU's expertise in this area to be swamped by its being reabsorbed into the parent body, the Industrial Development Board. Today, the Northern Ireland Economic Council made some suggestions to that effect, on which I have not time to report in detail, but we should think carefully before accepting those suggestions.

An important element of the work of the Industrial Development Board is attracting inward investment. I ask the Minister to use his best endeavours to obtain back office development for Northern Ireland. I make a plea for South Down, which has a very weak industrial infrastructure and which could easily benefit from this type of development. We are fully linked up with international fibre-optic communications throughout the constituency, and back office developments can be plugged in almost anywhere in the constituency at little cost. The same can be said of many other constituencies in Northern Ireland.

I know that the Minister and the Northern Ireland Office are committed to fair employment as embodied in the legislation, but it is important also that jobs should be fairly distributed--the more so given the peculiar circumstances of Northern Ireland where, for all sorts of reasons, communities may be divided into hostile sections. It is therefore not always easy to travel to a workplace in a community different from one's own. New jobs must be fairly distributed--more so than they have been in the

Column 1012

past. We know the number of visits made by the IDB to South Down from the answers to parliamentary questions. I will not bore the House by repeating the statistics, but they show an appalling lack of equality of job opportunity.

The Minister will know from having tasted the fruits of South Down that the tourist industry there has great potential for development. Of course tourism is important throughout Northern Ireland--tourism is a very saleable commodity in the European and North American markets--but there is a problem with what I call St. Patrick's country and the Mournes. Both have a high reputation on many continents. We have never been able to put together a package comparable to the excellent ones produced for the Fermanagh lakeland and the north coast tourist area. If we could put together a Mourne-St. Patrick's country concept, we would enhance tourism and the potential for jobs in the area from Carlingford lough to Strangford lough. That is a hobby horse of mine. Many potentially exciting infrastructure developments for tourism are on the drawing board and could be translated into reality.

The next vote relates to the Department of Education. Tremendous hardship and disappointment and a sense of failure have been created throughout Northern Ireland by the failure to operate a fair and total transfer system. The Minister knows that by and large, those who have obtained grades 1 and 2 in the 11-plus examination are supposed to be entitled to grammar school education in Northern Ireland. There is also an entitlement to parental choice, which is one of the great thrusts in the Government's promotion of the reform of education.

Last year, many pupils suffered damage to their potential careers because they were unable to obtain the education to which their examination results entitled them. It is possible to excuse that because last year was the first time that that happened, but it is not acceptable for the debacle to be repeated this year. However, matters are even worse this year, and the numbers reported in the Northern Ireland press yesterday, if accurate, reflect nothing short of an educational scandal. Boys and girls who have done their best and worked hard and have received the results of their hard work are being deprived of what they thought would be their reward. That is totally unacceptable and a most inhumane way to start people on their careers.

The Minister must ensure that places are available for those pupils, not next year but this year. Places are being denied because of a paper exercise. Many schools have the capacity to take those children, but because of a Ministry rule of thumb and a paper figure, it is not happening. It is not a question of accommodation or finance, but one of administration, and it could be corrected tomorrow by the stroke of a pen. Perhaps that request could be passed to the Minister who is responsible for education, so that he can take immediate action.

Much has been said about the environment. As I listened to the right hon. Member for Strangford, I wondered whether there would be any money left in the kitty for a road or two in constituencies other than Strangford. From his previous portfolio in Northern Ireland, the Minister is aware that not a pound has been spent on major capital programmes in my constituency over the past 13 years. I may be open to correction on that, but I do not think so.

There are only two class B roads in my constituency, which has no railway system. We are trying to lay the

Column 1013

foundations for a tourist industry that would create jobs for our young people, and we will not succeed unless we have reasonable road communications because, as I have said, we have no railways. We have a fine and developing harbour in Warrenpoint, but it is served by only one major road from one direction. There is not even a class A road on which goods can be transported from other directions. The right hon. Member for Strangford spoke about the fishing industry and about the heavy articulated and refrigerated lorries from the two major fishing ports of Kilkeel and Ardglass. The roads are not built for such transport, although some minor works are under way to try to improve them. I am not asking for dual carriageways, because we are so unused to them that we would not know which side to drive on. However, even one class A road in the constituency would be greatly appreciated because it would help industrial development by providing a better infrastructure.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East spoke about pollution and about an incinerator for the Foyle area. Since the mid-1940s, there has been pollution in the Irish sea. That has been going on for 45 years, and for a long time we have had continuous daily radioactive discharges from Sellafield. There have also been more than 100 major and minor accidents, atmospheric and from the pipeline in the Irish sea, resulting in the discharge of materials with fairly high radioactivity. The issue contains an element of farce, because now there is to be deep land storage of low- level and medium-level radioactive material from Sellafield.

About two years ago, I attended a meeting in London held by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. We were issued with a glossy and attractive book detailing the great geological survey which BNFL intended to make of the whole of Great Britain to find a suitable dumping area. One of the basic requirements was a sound rock structure. At that meeting, I said that, at the end of the day, the selected site would be Sellafield, because the criterion was money and not safety or the environment. Lo and behold, the selected site for the deep storage in rock was at Sellafield. That is curious, because the most mobile geological fault in the British Isles runs from north Louth through the Isle of Man to Cumbria. There have been tremors in that area in the past couple of years, some of them substantial. In spite of that, Sellafield was the area found to be most suitable.

The Minister should hold a brief for the people of Northern Ireland against the vested interests taking such decisions. The hon. Member for Londonderry, East also spoke about the transport of toxic wastes. Toxic wastes of the worst kind--radioactive wastes--continually ply up and down the Irish sea in ships bringing dirt from all over the world. If Japan can send its nuclear waste to Britain for processing, it must be an expensive operation and the Japanese must be damn glad to get rid of it. However, the waste does not go back, it stays here.

I was one of the first to visit Sellafield before it became a "tourist" centre and I saw vat after vat of stuff that will be there for 10,000 or 50,000 years. That is a sobering and frightening thought. Everyone should take the opportunity to visit Sellafield, if only to sample the so-called pleasures of a conducted tour. People will come away frightened, as I did, by the prospect in evidence there.

Column 1014

In terms of the Department of Health, the Minister's responsibility, rather than the requirement of the health boards, is to ensure that people are given adequate and equal access to health care. I should like him to consider what is happening in my constituency. It has no major hospital, only two minor hospitals--Downe hospital in Downpatrick and Mourne hospital at Kilkeel. The Southern board is threatening to close the Kilkeel hospital right at the foot of the Mournes without any consideration of the tremendous distances and the difficulty of the travel which someone who was seriously ill in the area would have to undertake.

The Minister once held the portfolio for health in Northern Ireland, so he knows about the arguments that I and others have been advancing for generations about the final stage of Downe hospital in Downpatrick. That campaign is one of my earliest political memories, from 1956, and the project is still no further up the line. The Eastern health board carried out a survey of its hospitals, including Downe hospital, which showed clearly that in spite of the appalling physical conditions under which the surgeons, the other doctors and the nursing staff operate, it is the most cost-effective hospital in Northern Ireland. What could it not do if it received the modest boost of the completion of the third phase--the psychiatric, geriatric and maternity provision? In health provision terms, the medical centre would not require an enormous amount of money. It has been designed to cost about £8 million to £10 million, and that would easily be saved on upkeep during the next couple of years. I know that the Minister has two plans in front of him. One is from the Eastern health board, which has accepted--as has the Department over the years--the need to complete the project, but no one ever does anything about it. Ministerial intervention is required, especially now that we have quangos instead of representative health boards. It is significant that three homes in my constituency are closing--the St. Leonard's home in Rostrevor has already closed, and I understand that the Spelga house residence at Banbridge and Mourne house, in Newcastle, are also to close. In other words, there is a consistent rundown of public health care provision. At the same time in the area--and, indeed, in the Belfast area, where the hospitals are gathered around like doughnuts--the waiting lists for chiropody, coronary heart care, hearing therapists and orthodontic provision are lengthening. The evidence shows that the services are not being delivered and that service quality provision is contracting rather than expanding.

The Minister may be surprised that I do not intend to complain about the amount of money provided for social security. I shall not complain about that, because my present complaint is more serious--it is about the administration of social security, and the effect that that has on the people who come into my constituency surgery. Why can people looking after children with cystic fibrosis not obtain attendance allowance, when such children require the same care as other children? That is nonsense. Children with cystic fibrosis require very special care. Many of them need not only constant physical care but enzyme treatment and many other complicated medical procedures.

I had a case in my surgery the other week in which the parents had already lost two children through cystic fibrosis and now had a third child, also with cystic fibrosis. They were refused attendance allowance on the ground

Column 1015

that the child did not need care different from that required by a child without the disease. That is administrative nonsense, which should be dealt with.

A young, totally deaf boy had his attendance allowance withdrawn because it was said that he did not need more care and attention than someone with full hearing capacity. What sort of nonsense is that? The evidence of one's eyes is denied by the social security officers and the tribunal.

The same thing happens with mobility allowance. Again, there is a parade through my surgery of people who cannot get mobility allowance. So far as I can see, the only people who can be sure of getting it are those who cannot move at all, because they are dead. A girl badly affected by Down's syndrome and could not walk, did not have the mental capacity or the will to walk, yet she was refused mobility allowance. Another girl had had her arm amputated, had a twisted spine and a difficult gait, because she dragged her legs. Such people are refused mobility allowance because of the weird criterion that they have to be unable or virtually unable to walk. When it comes to the appeal stage, it seems that the only people who can get mobility allowance are those with no legs. I ask the Minister to consider the administration rather than the allocation of the money, and to examine how it is spent.

The consequences of the administration of the social fund, which was set up in April 1988, have been horrific. It often creates poverty rather than resolving it. In December 1989, the Child Poverty Action Group carried out a survey which, with a strong use of statistics, showed clearly that the social fund system was inadequate and was creating a new poverty trap.

Last month, the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network gave evidence beyond a doubt that the social fund was exacerbating the poverty trap. I have many case histories showing that, but I shall not give all the details. I simply ask how social security officers can refuse a destitute young girl a grant to obtain clothes, and how they can refuse the mother of seven children, who had no clothes, a clothing grant. How can a young man just released from gaol, who had nothing, be refused a few pounds to get himself a few respectable things? Should we not be trying to prevent people being put into gaols or other institutions? Are we not trying to assist the rehabilitation of such people? If grants are not given to such worthy cases, who will be given them?

There is a big gap in the administration of the system, in that such people may be offered loans, but they have no money to pay them back. Some people are refused loans because they already have a loan. I am not talking about usury or about high street lending banks ; I am talking about ordinary people who cannot pay their way and buy a reasonably respectable suit of clothes or a dress, or provide food for themselves.

Mr. William Ross : Has the hon. Gentleman, like me, come across cases of people getting loans from money sharks at high rates of interest? One of my constituents has to pay back £2,000 over two years, having borrowed only £1,000.

Mr. McGrady : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention in support of what I am saying, and I agree with him. There are many such examples. Back-street moneylending is an enterprise industry in Northern

Column 1016

Ireland at the moment. Some people are borrowing from moneylenders to pay back social security loans. That is a ridiculous situation, and we shall have to get out of it.

We see many adverts in our local newspapers saying that people are not applying for family credit, but I shall explain what happens to the self- employed. I shall say more about the phrase "self-employed" in a moment, but I am not talking about wealthy people who are not entitled to family credit. When a self-employed person claims family credit, he is in for an administrative nightmare.

Who are the self-employed people I am talking about? Every brickie, every plasterer, every carpenter and every agricultural labourer. All of them are classified as self-employed because of the system now operated in the economy. Previously, such people would have fallen within a pay-as-you-earn system and would have been able to get certificates of income without any bother. Under the present system, however, they are self-employed and have to produce accounts proving their income and net income.

The questions coming from the social security administration in Northern Ireland would drive anyone to distraction. The most minute expense is queried. I have heard of queries and requests for an analysis in respect of £10-worth of repairs to a car. In the face of that situation, people are switched off and go to the moneylenders to try to supplement their income, even though they are entitled to social security benefits.

Will the Minister look at the matter urgently? The officers administering the system have no concept of people's income--never mind how to arrive at it and how to prove it. I have been to tribunals with such officers, and even the tribunals have no concept of the income and expenditure of self- employed people. They do not know the first principles. They are flying by the seat of their pants in reaching decicisions.

I emphasise that, in referring to the self-employed, I am referring to nearly every person in Northern Ireland, other than shop assistants. I am talking about all those in the construction industry and many of those in agriculture and the fishing industry. I am talking about very small, poor, self-employed people who are being denied family credit because of administrative incompetence and lack of feeling. I ask the Minister urgently to revise the

administration--rather than the quantum--of the funding.

8.11 pm

Next Section

  Home Page