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Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down) : It is obvious from many of the matters raised in the debate so far that there is an urgent need to find a better way of dealing with Northern Ireland appropriations. Something must be done to provide greater democracy for the people of Northern Ireland, and to enable them, through their Members of Parliament, to have a say in the governance of Northern Ireland. While we wait for the restoration of a Northern Ireland assembly with powers, there is a duty on this Government to establish a Select Committee on Northern Ireland affairs without further delay. That is needed, and it is the very least that the Government must do to give a semblance of democracy to the Province.
We are here to speak for the people. I must say that I disagreed with the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), who criticised business men for allegedly meddling in politics. Business men are part of the community. Their businesses may fail or falter as a result
Column 1017of what politicians say or do. I expect-- indeed, implore--business men to express their opinions to me and to other Northern Ireland Members so that we know what is in their minds, just as I expect people from other sectors of the community in the Province to tell us what they wish us to say in their name. We depend upon business men to generate jobs in the Province and I welcome all business men, and particularly small business men who employ a few people as they get their businesses going.
The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) referred to incinerators, and posed a series of questions. I listened to his speech with the utmost respect ; the House should be grateful to him for what he said on the subject. Incinerators are undoubtedly a hazard to health. In many cases, the fumes are dangerous to human beings who live in the vicinity, or downwind of, an incinerator. We are speaking of ordinary incinerators but, as the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) said, there is also that incinerator--if I may call it that--at Sellafield, which is sending its fumes over to Northern Ireland. We must do everything possible to resist that health hazard.
Greater attention must be paid to defending the environment in Northern Ireland. It is constantly under attack, particularly from speculators who have litte or no regard for residents in a particular area and whose main and only concern is profit. Many parts of Northern Ireland have been ruined as a result of speculation. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) launched an attack on planning officials for always refusing planning applications. The planning authorities have my full support because, if a planning applicant is refused, he can appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission. People frequently do appeal and, sadly, the Planning Appeals Commission often allows their appeals, even when local people object to the application. That is why I continue to insist that the law should be changed to enable objectors to appeal against a planning permission if they live in the area and are affected by a particular development.
I come now to Castlereagh college. I was pleased to learn from the principal that the South-Eastern education and library board has agreed, following representations--including representations from me--to make a grant towards the cost of community education at what was formerly the Dundonald girls high school. Sadly, the amount of grant does not come anywhere near the amount that was requested and I urge the Minister responsible for education to intervene because the scheme to provide community adult education for the people of the Dundonald and Tullycarnet areas is all-important.
I go further in my appeal to the Minister by repeating my request that the Dundonald girls high school should be devoted entirely to providing recreational, as well as educational, facilities for residents in the area. I mentioned the swimming pool, which has been out of commission for some years. The swimming pool should be restored and other facilities provided-- especially for elderly people and young people who live in Dundonald and Tullycarnet.
Insufficient provision is made for residents of housing estates in Northern Ireland. It is not sufficient merely to throw up houses. More facilities must be provided because the people living on housing estates have other needs which must be satisfied. Take the Tullycarnet housing
Column 1018estate, for instance. It has a totally inadequate community hall. It is inadequate in size for an area as big as Tullycarnet, and I fear that the structure is not perfectly sound. Surely it is essential to provide an adequate building for community facilities in Tullycarnet.
I should emphasise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am deliberately keeping my remarks as brief as possible so that my hon. Friends from other constituencies can take part in the debate. Nevertheless, I take this opportunity to repeat my charge that the Eastern health board, acting as the minion of the Government, and the Department of Health, are undermining hospital services in the North Down area. Over the years, the hospitals in my constituency have done everything humanly possible to save money and to cut out any fat that may have existed. However, a few months ago, the Eastern health board announced proposals that will impose further restrictions on the facilities that can be provided. Because of that decision, further beds will be closed.
When the proposals were first made known, I immediately arranged a meeting with the head of the management committee for North Down at which the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and I protested about the cuts. The Ulster and Bangor hospitals are about to suffer serious cuts in the money required to provide a proper service. It is not as if there is no waiting list or that people do not want to go to those hospitals. There are long waiting lists and people need treatment. Nevertheless, beds in the Ulster and Bangor hospitals have already been closed, and now further beds are to be closed. The financial restrictions will undermine the morale of doctors, nurses and ancillary staff, as well as denying a proper service for the people of the North Down area.
The health board says that people can go to the hospitals in Belfast. Those hospitals are also part of the eastern health board and, sadly, they drain money away from the hospitals in north Down--money that is vital for their survival. I would not deny money to the hospitals in Belfast if they can get it--and they do--from the Eastern health board. My protest is about the discrimination against the people of North Down because insufficient money is being provided for the Ulster and Bangor hospitals.
According to the chairman of the British Medical Association, the United Kingdom spends 5.4 per cent. of gross domestic product on health, compared with 6.7 per cent. in France and 6.3 per cent. in Germany. We hear a great deal about the failure of Germany and France to make proper provision for their people, but I think that the United Kingdom is lagging behind them. The Government are directly--and indirectly through the Eastern health board, undermining the NHS in the North Down area. The BMA says that an increase of £6 billion is necessary for the United Kingdom, which is a 1 per cent. GDP increase, to bring the United Kingdom level up to that of the continent.
More money must be provided for the Ulster and Bangor hospitals to prevent further bed closures. We need a fully operational hospital at Bangor, as it is a densely populated area with a high proportion of elderly people. The people of North Down are extremely angry, as I am, at the way in which the Government are bleeding the NHS in my constituency. The position is exacerbated because money is being drained away to Belfast, especially to the tower block at the City hospital. I understand that beds in that tower block are empty, yet those beds cost more to
Column 1019run than beds in the Ulster and Bangor hospitals. Beds at those two hospitals will be closed so that patients can be provided for that white elephant in Belfast.
That is all that I wish to say tonight on the matter. I hope that the Government will heed what the people of North Down are saying, and give them a fair deal.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : I am glad to have the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder), who is right to fight for his constituents. However, I think that many of his constituents are thankful for the tower block at the City hospital in Belfast. It serves the community. It would be helpful if the people of Bangor would travel to the hospital by rail rather than by car. There is a good railway halt just outside the hospital. The International Rose conference will be held in Belfast next week, and that will be followed by one stage of the tall ships race. It is an example of the co-operation between the Government, the city council and private enterprise, which will give the world a proper picture of our city. So often, it has adverse reports in the media, which finds it easier to report a bang rather than the good things that are happening. I pay tribute to those who are trying to revitalise the city. On occasions such as this, we often deal with individual problems--and I shall do so--and with particular problems affecting the Province. However, it is also important to put on record the positive aspects in the Province.
Vote 3, under the DHSS, deals specifically with grants. Earlier today, I was speaking to an Australian Member of Parliament, who said that Australia could not run its social services without the support of the Churches and voluntary organisations. The same is true in the United Kingdom. The Government must continue to support the voluntary bodies that support care in the community and help those in need. Recently, the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus appointed a full-time representative in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will consider some pump priming to help that organisation in its work.
The press recently reported that while there may be a low incidence of AIDS and HIV in Northern Ireland--and rightly so--there was no ground for complacency. The problem is growing, and how it starts and how it spreads may become known in time. I am concerned that in a community that has a strong Christian conviction, and where the Churches try to help in the education of the community, the Government have consistently refused to help with their AIDS education programme. I understand that the Government have targeted AIDS education through their own education teams, but they should recognise the work of the Churches, and it is important that that work is supported.
The Government have also refused to support their care programmes. The tragedy is that representatives of voluntary bodies have been told that because of their directive approach and the position that they hold on sex education and sexual standards, their policy runs contrary to the way that the Government want to handle the matter. There is a case for reminding the young and the old that there is an abuse of the body that must be stopped for the well-being and health of society.
Mr. Beggs : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the advice given to young people by the Brook advisory centres operating here on the mainland would be completely unacceptable to the majority of people in Northern Ireland?
Rev. Martin Smyth : That was not specifically on the point that I was dealing with, but I agree with my hon. Friend. We know that across the community there is deep concern about the manner of the approach and the approach itself.
On the Department of Health and Social Services vote 4, I share the concerns that have already been expressed about the allowances and, more particularly, about the way in which those allowances are granted and the appeals of those who have applied for mobility, attendance or invalid care allowances are treated.
I do not know whether directions from the top have meant that folk have been turned down in order to save money, but some of the medical referees who have carried out examinations have been careless and, as a result, people have been turned down. For example, one person was turned down as a result of past injuries. The medical referee claimed in his report that he was shot in the ankle when he was shot through the lungs--a little way away from the ankle.
A woman was turned down because she was described as a manageress. When I represented her at the tribunal, my first question was what she was a manageress of, to which she replied that she was the manageress of a wine store where she had had to lift crates and so on. Those who assessed whether such people were entitled to benefits were not doing their work properly. We must tighten up and give clearer directions not simply to save money but to ensure that the applicant is entitled to the allowance.
Some years ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), told me that there was a research project on the care of the elderly. Has that research project been completed, what have been its findings and, more importantly, what are the Government doing to implement the best service for the elderly in the community?
I would ask that some of the money in vote 4 might be used to promote hearing therapists. As I have said on other occasions, when some of my English friends, particularly English Ministers, say, "I hear what you say," I am not sure that they do. There is a great need in the community for hearing therapy to help those who have hearing impediments so that they can take their proper place in the community.
With regard to the Department of Education, Northern Ireland vote 2, I again pay tribute to the work done in education. However, I want to make two specific pleas about university education. First, I understand that finances available for ancillary staff have been tightened. I regret that some people seem to think that ancillary staff are lesser mortals than academic staff or, in the hospitals, the surgeons, doctors and so on. Yet all would admit that, without those ancillary staff, things would be in a real mess. I use the word "mess" correctly. Three years ago, youngsters in a school in the city turned their noses down or up--however one described it--when a youngster in the classroom said that her daddy was a bin man. They did not think that a bin man was up to much. However, when the bin men went on strike shortly afterwards, they soon
Column 1021discovered how much we need them. I plead that the work of the university will not be impeded because of a tightening of finance. At the same time, is the Department doing anything specific to promote the universities, or is it relying on the Universities Central Council on Admissions or the universities themselves? Is the Department doing something to restore the balance between universities in Northern Ireland and those in England and Scotland? Many of our young people go to English and Scottish universities but we are not getting enough from England to give us a proper balance. We are thankful that there has been an increase in international students, both in the University of Ulster and Queen's university but, as I understand it, the mix of students is one of the benefits of university life. I would like to think that for the benefit of us all we might see more students coming from Scotland and England to take their place in the fine institutions of Northern Ireland. What is the Department's policy following the decision of Parliament that mentally and physically handicapped children should be integrated into the normal education system? I confess that I was not happy when that decision was taken because we destroyed a fine special education system. But having said that, the decision was taken, so what are we doing to give parents and children the schools of their choice as they have been promised?
I have discovered that the Northern education and library board set up a committee to consider the matter, but I am more concerned by a letter from the Minister which says that the money that is directed for a child in need may be kept centrally to provide what is thought to be the best education for that child. Since the Government took that decision to have integrated education throughout the country, does not the Department consider that it should be providing the funds to meet the challenge and needs in the community ? We cannot simply leave it to boards to try to wrestle with the demands upon their finances and then make it difficult for children to have the benefit of that education.
I appreciate that in some cases there may be real difficulties, but I do not accept the view of one education psychologist that it may be possible to teach physically handicapped young people in ordinary schools, but mentally handicapped children cannot be taught in such a situation. There are those who are not so extremely mentally handicapped ; some of them may be much wiser than the rest of us. But if an education psychologist takes that line, he shunts such children into segmented education without necessarily giving them the best chance of being educated.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) in his plea for environmental protection agencies. To some extent, that goes against my views, because I do not like quangos, but if I have to choose between a quango doing its work and two Government Departments making a mess of that work, I will go for the quango. The actions of the Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland leave a lot to be desired. There is a growing green lobby in Northern Ireland. Throughout the Province, people are worried about what is happening to the environment. I
Column 1022fully sympathise with the hon. Member for North Down, who talked about planning appeals. Planners allow the green belt to be built upon and ride roughshod over the wishes of local people. It is time that somebody called a halt. The Minister knows that the Foyle Commission, or somebody else, has allowed nets to be placed in such a position that salmon are prevented from going up river. The Department of Agriculture must ensure that our rivers are properly stocked again.
There is an agency to protect the environment in Great Britain. I want to know what is to happen in Northern Ireland. A similar agency has been refused for the Province, on the ground that the various Departments can look after the environment themselves. Unless it is a question of setting a thief to catch a thief, I am not sure that the Departments can look after themselves.
Under the Department of Economic Development, vote 1, money has been set aside, among other things, for parking. Is the Department ready to introduce a scheme, in city areas and elsewhere, of residents-only parking? Does it intend that people should continue to park their cars in side streets? Motorists have to park where they can. If parking meters are installed around Donegall pass, motorists will put their cars in side streets that were never designed for traffic. The purpose of parking meters is to reduce the number of parked cars, but residents now find it difficult to park their cars in the bays outside their houses. What are the Department's plans for parking?
As for vote 2, I share the concern of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East about the Local Enterprise Development Unit. My particular concern is the Federation of Youth Enterprises. For years it has sought permission to develop its scheme, but time and time again it has been given the run around. It has become obvious during the last two years that LEDU has set its mind against the use of a particular site, ostensibly because it does not meet what it believes is required by the two communities. The committee consists of local professional people and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland. They all say that the site at Annandale should be used, but LEDU says no. It wants to move elsewhere. However, we have discovered that it has even blocked the development there. I hope that the Minister will look again at why the Federation of Youth Enterprises has been impeded for four or five years in its attempts to develop the useful work that it does in south Belfast. Despite what people say about south Belfast being affluent, a large number of needy, elderly people and unemployed young people live there. In one area in my constituency--Lower Ravenhill--there is 20 per cent. unemployment. Anyone who states that south Belfast is affluent must have forgotten that it contains, apart from wealthy Malone, Sandy Row, Donegall road, Lower Lisburn road, Taughmonagh, Ormeau road, the Markets area, Woodstock and Ravenhill. They are all working-class areas. I should like to think that the Department will start to help us to train young people by means of the Federation of Youth Enterprises.
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South) : The first matter that I should like to raise is the tragedy that occurred last evening in north Antrim. I draw the attention of the House to the number of unmanned level crossings in Northern
Column 1023Ireland. In August 1989, Northern Ireland. In August 1989, Northern Ireland Railways advised the Department of Transport in London and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland that it proposed to convert 11 unmanned level crossings into automatic half-barrier crossings. Those crossings included the two where tragedies took place recently--the one at Slaght and the other at Broughdone.
Progress has been made towards the restoration of those barriers, but on 1 March 1990--six months later--three fatalities occurred at the Slaght crossing. After that tragedy I, together with others, urged the Department of the Environment and Northern Ireland Railways to carry out the work that they had promised that they would do. I also raised the matter in the House on several occasions. I had joint consultations with representatives of the Department of the Environment and Northern Ireland Railways. On each occasion, I was assured that the matter was being dealt with urgently.
I presented evidence to the Department of the Environment and Northern Ireland Railways supporting my view that unmanned crossings were very dangerous and potential death traps. I drew their attention to various matters, such as the record of what had happened at unmanned crossings in Northern Ireland. In 1989, a 33-year-old woman was killed and her two children were injured when their car was in collision with a train at Cromore crossing near Portstewart. In 1987, a young couple on a motor bike were killed at an unmanned crossing near Ballymoney. Three years later, a man died when his van was in collision with a train at another crossing at Dunloy. In 1986, a soldier was a killed and another injured when their Land Rover was struck by a train at the Shackleton crossing near Ballykelly. Those were all unmanned level crossings.
At what speed is it assumed that a train will be travelling if a 27-second warning time is allowed for the lights to go on as a train approaches a crossing? For the benefit of the House, there are exactly 27 seconds from the time the train hits the trigger on the track until it crosses the level crossing. One may say that that is a very short time, but the Department and Northern Ireland Railways told me that the purpose behind the 27 seconds is that there is not too long a time for a car to sit at the crossing once the lights start flashing.
I was also asked how long it would take a women pushing a pram over a crossing to unstrap her child from the pram and lift it to safety if one of the wheels of the pram became jammed between the rails. Would she be capable of clearing the track in the 27 seconds? Another question was how long it would take for a train travelling at the maximum permitted speed of 70 mph on Northern Ireland Railways track to come to a standstill? What distance would be required for that train to stop? A train travelling at 70 mph covers 924 yards in 27 seconds.
I raised many of those points with the Department and with Northern Ireland Railways. On 4 September 1990 I received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), which answered a further query that I raised about the matter during Question Time on 19 July 1990. The letter stated :
"In Northern Ireland, NIR identified a list of 11 crossings to which alterations should be made in the light of the Stott criteria. These were the crossings notified to the Department
Column 1024in August 1989. It has not been possible, however, for NIR to carry the proposal forward pending the outcome of the trial of the prototypes and the drafting requirements by the Railway Inspectorate. Now that that stage has been reached NIR will be able to do 2 things. Firstly they will be able to order material and undertake the design work necessary for the modification of the existing controls." The letter continued :
"I am assured that NIR will proceed expeditiously. For its part the Department will give the applications priority to allow NIR to implement the programme as quickly as possible."
That was on 4 September 1990.
As someone who has worked in the construction industry, I am well aware that specifications must be met. In October 1990 I was given those specifications--the design of the crossings, photographs of the crossings and other related details. That was in October 1990, but to date not one unmanned level crossing in Northern Ireland has had any of the half- barriers fitted.
Last night, Mr. Robinson was killed at a crossing a few miles further down the line from the Slaght crossing. We cannot speculate on the cause of the accident, but we can protest that, even at this stage, the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Railways have not expedited an extremely urgent proposal which had been recommended by Professor Stott and which affects the safety of all who travel--locals and visitors--on Northern Ireland's roads.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Richard Needham) : I agree that this is a very serious matter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, statutory orders must be proceeded with before the new half-barriers can be introduced. The hon. Gentleman asked a question to which I replied at the end of February this year listing the dates when the orders would be passed and when work would start. So far as I am aware, the hon. Gentleman has not since told me or the Department that the programme that we had set out should be speeded up even more.
Mr. Forsythe : Is the Minister suggesting that despite his letter to me and despite my interest in this matter from the beginning, I must continuously--week after week and month after month--stay on the backs of officials in the transport section of the Department of the Environment and of Northern Ireland Railways to ensure that they carry out their statutory duties to the people of Northern Ireland?
Mr. Needham : No, I am not suggesting that. I am saying that the hon. Gentleman has known since the end of February what the programme was and how it would be proceeded with. If the hon. Gentleman had felt at that time that a further delay was intolerable, he could have said so, but he did not. That does not mean that the programme should not be proceeded with as quickly as possible, but it takes time to push through the necessary procedures.
Mr. Forsythe : Is the Minister telling the House that, although he sent the letter to say that things were under way, I should have continued to press the Minister, his Department and Northern Ireland Railways to do something for which an application was made in August 1989? The application from Northern Ireland Railways was made to the Department in August 1989 and I received the specifications in my possession in October
Column 10251990. We are now in July 1991. Surely the Minister is not suggesting that I should take over his job in Northern Ireland. I am very disappointed by that reply. I should have thought that the Minister, knowing of a colleague's concern about the matter, would have assumed that when he wrote to that hon. Member, the hon. Member would take him at his word and assume that the Minister would ensure that the work would be done. Sadly, as the Minister sits and I stand in the House in July 1991, no work has been carried out by Northern Ireland Railways to erect half-barriers on the unmanned level crossings, as it was supposed to do.
In view of the paragraph from the earlier letter, the further letter sent to me by the Minister and the fact that I have had the detailed specifications and drawings of such crossings since 12 October 1990, why do the Department of the Environment and Northern Ireland Railways appear to have failed in their duty to those who trust them to carry out their responsibility to keep road and rail users as safe as is humanly possible? Why does the Minister appear to have failed in his duty to ensure that the work was carried out? I readily concede that no Minister can know about every little nut and bolt in his Department. However, as the Minister knows, it is a parliamentary tradition that Ministers answer to the House for their charge. I submit to the House that in this matter, the Minister appears to have failed to honour his commitment to the House. I am very disappointed that the Minister seeks to shift the blame from himself, from his Department and from Northern Ireland Railways, to the shoulders of a Member of Parliament who has continually urged them to carry out their duty. Now I have had the experience of hearing of yet another death at an unmanned level crossing--and I leave aside the question how the accident occurred.
Mr. Needham : I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not trying to shift the blame, least of all on to his shoulders. As he points out, nobody could have done more than he has to raise the matter. The dates that I sent him at the end of February for the start of the schemes were the earliest available dates on which the barriers could be introduced. That is why he tabled his question and I replied to it. I was told that that was the earliest point at which the work could be begun.
The only point that I make to the hon. Gentleman is that, at the time when I gave him the figures, he did not say to me that it was not good enough, that the start should be sooner, or that this or that should be done. However, that does not alter the fact that I agree that we must get on as quickly as we can. In view of what the hon. Gentleman says, I will look at the matter again immediately to see whether there is any way to bring the dates forward.
Mr. Forsythe : I thank the Minister for clearing the matter up. May I seek his assurance in the House that he will endeavour, to the best of his ability, to ensure that half-barriers are fitted to at least the 11 unmanned level crossings that were decided on in August 1989?
The Minister will also be aware of my views on planning--a matter that other hon. Members have raised. The Minister probably heard me intervene on the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and refer to the market at Nutt's Corner. Perhaps the Minister can assure me on that matter, too. I will give way again if he wishes to intervene. I am keen to give way. I will be fair to the Minister, as he also is concerned about the matter. It really is out of order for anyone not only to decide to have a market in an area in which there is no planning permission but to make a new access to a main road--an A road--to bring in stands for that market and to put up a sign which clearly states "New Sunday Market". No application has been made, local people are up in arms, and the planning department is telling me that it is doing its best but that it is working under great difficulty.
Mr. Needham : I do not want to take up too much time, as other hon. Members wish to speak. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I sympathise with his point about Nutt's Corner. Any market in Northern Ireland can operate for up to 14 days or 14 times in a year without a licence. After that, it must apply. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as soon as the 14 days have passed, we shall deal with the matter. I assure the hon. Gentleman, too, that we shall ensure that the regulations in respect of the existing market, which will come before the courts on 26 July, are also dealt with. I do not intend to give up the matter.
There are unadopted roads in many constituencies. In some parts of the world, certain people are elected on the issue of potholes in roads. Perhaps the Minister could have a wee look at unadopted roads and consider a campaign so that at least some unadopted roads are brought up to standard. That would get rid of a bugbear for many people in Northern Ireland.
It is good to have trimming in Government Departments. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) talked about trimming, but we need trimming in the Department of Social Security. Staff who are properly trained in interviewing techniques would get better results. One great bugbear is telephone answering in Government Departments, particularly the DSS and the Housing Executive. I should like to think that a little training in telephone answering went on in both Departments.
As a member of the Select Committee on Social Services, I am aware that there are many problems with the social fund. I agree with the points made by other hon. Members about the position of those who are poor for whatever reason--they may have been made redundant or they may never have been able to find a job--and who are in receipt of benefit. If a benefit claimant's cooker breaks down and he or she does not have the money to buy a new one-- and cannot, therefore, cook a meal for the children--the DSS cannot make such a person a grant, but can
Column 1027only offer a loan. That state of affairs is causing great problems. I am sure that we shall have to reconsider it when the new rates come into effect in the autumn but, until then, I shall sit down to allow some of my colleagues to make their points.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) : This is an almost unique parliamentary occasion and, as can be seen from the crowded Benches, it is of great interest to hon. Members from outside Northern Ireland who flood into the Chamber to hear the constituency problems of hon. Members who represent the Province. None the less, it is an opportunity that we do not like to miss, and we offer no apology for raising the matters that we do. If they seem trivial to some people within the precincts of the House, all that we can say is that the Government provide us with no other opportunity to represent the people of Northern Ireland on these important issues. If the government of Northern Ireland was ordered differently, we might have greater opportunities for dealing with these vital matters either upstairs in Committee or elsewhere.
To get him into the right mood, I should like first to offer my thanks to the Minister for the efforts that I understand he has been making in relation to an important scheme in my constituency which is competing with the Department of Economic Development's local enterprise scheme for a piece of land in the Severn street area of east Belfast.
For many years, the land has been earmarked for the Connswater housing association and is much needed for local housing. Unfortunately, another body for which the Minister also has responsibility within the DED has had its eyes on the site. The two were in some conflict over the land and, before I met the Minister, it appeared that the more mobile of the two would be the winner. Having met the Minister on this issue, I understand that he has now taken some measures withing the Department and that it now looks as if things are moving in the right direction. I hope that those words will encourage him to continue his efforts to ensure that that land comes back into the ownership of the Connswater housing association, so that houses can be built for local people.
I refer the Minister now to road services. I do not know whether he was in Northern Ireland earlier today and whether he has had access to this evening's Belfast Telegraph . If he has had the opportunity to see that paper, he will have seen on the front page and in living colour a photograph of some of my constituents, who appear relaxed despite a traumatic past few days. They are residents of the Shannon Park area who, through chit-chat and tittle-tattle at a golf club, discovered that their houses were to be demolished. It appears that the Minister's information service requires us all to take out membership of the local golf clubs so that we can find out what is going to happen in our areas.
Those local residents discovered at a barbecue at a local golf club that the Department of the Environment had changed its proposals for widening the road along the Knock dual carriageway and proposed to create a new intersection which would take away two fine properties and the gardens of other properties. It would displace peole who have fond memories of the houses in which they reside and who can see alternatives to the Department's
Column 1028proposals. For the life of them, they cannot imagine why the Department has not either considered or accepted those alternatives. The proposals have caused such anxiety in the local area that every political party which has elected representatives in that part of east Belfast has offered its support to the campaign of the local residents. Members of the local council and I contacted the DOE. We have had some response from the Minister's office. It did not go much further than an apology that the matter leaked out. I am glad that the matter leaked out, because it gave people an opportunity to get their armour on and prepare themselves for the battle.
I want the Minister to give me some details about the new phase of the road development. Why was it found necessary to change the proposal at this late stage when houses along the Knock dual carriageway had already been vested? Many houses had already been knocked down, and the road scheme was due to start soon. Why at this late stage was it necessary to have a further scheme which will affect, indeed decimate, the local area?
What alternative proposals were considered by the Department? Why did not the Department properly consult people in the local area and their elected representatives? Why does the Minister use the golf club to disseminate information in the east Belfast community? Perhaps he could also tell me how much the new scheme--
[Interruption.] The Minister says that he did not use the golf club. I am sure that he will not deny his responsibility for the actions of his Department. I am sure that he will own up and take full responsibility for what goes on within the DOE road services. Will there be a planning application for the scheme? Will the Minister allow a public inquiry to be held on the foot of the planning application, if there is one? Will he then apply for a vesting order? Will he allow us to have a public inquiry on the foot of the vesting order? If he allows us to have all those things, how will that affect the timing of the rest of the scheme and the finances of the scheme?
I certainly wish to register my outrage at the means by which people were informed of the scheme and to express my support for those who are campaigning for an alternative to be adopted which would require the slip road to go in a direction other than the one that the Department has chosen. We understand from a telephone conversation that the Department is not prepared to accept that proposal, because it might take a few feet from the scrubland attached to the golf course at which the Minister disseminates information to the local community. Perhaps the Minister could have less association with the golf course and more with the people in the area and sort out the problem for the local residents.
The Department of the Environment has responsibility for housing. I have mentioned grants for improvement of dwellings on previous occasions. Many of my constituents have come to me in the past few months because they were appalled at the delays in processing improvement grants. One should recognise that those grants are given only because of the serious need for improvements to be carried out to the housing stock. However, finance has been so restricted in Northern Ireland that only the worst cases are given approval. The delays are such that, by the time the Department gets round to giving approval, the building estimates that were received from local contractors when the process began are no longer valid. By and large, those considerable
Column 1029cost increases must be met by the owner of the dwelling. Surely the Minister is capable of encouraging the Housing Executive to adopt a more speedy process, so that people in need of those grants are given them, and the work is done at the price estimated at the time of application.
I want to raise another issue, but the Parliamentary
Under-Secretary is not in his seat at the moment. Therefore, I shall just keep on talking until the hon. Gentleman comes back. I hope that he has not gone for too long, but in the meantime I shall deal with another issue.
Mr. Robinson : I always keep in order, but I hope that the Minister will return to his place soon to ensure that I do so tonight. The Minister of State, who is present now, has considerable knowledge of the Department of Education in Northern Ireland although he does not have direct responsibility for it outside this House. On the previous occasion that we discussed the appropriation order, I raised the issue of the parents and children in the Clarawood estate in my constituency, who have had their school taken away from them. As a result of that decision, the schoolchildren have had to be sent to the Orangefield primary school. As the crow flies, that school is a short distance from the estate, but it is a long distance by road. When I raised this matter before I was assured that it could be appropriately dealt with by the Belfast education and library board. The board has since considered that matter and it agrees with me that a bus should be laid on to take the children to the school. However, the Department of Education then stepped in and refused to give the necessary permission.
It is a little odd that the Minister, having washed his hands of the issue and having told me to address my complaints to the education and library board, should then step in to stop the provision of the bus. According to a minute from the education and library board, the Department responded to its request by saying : "it is unable to justify a departure from the general terms of paragraph 2 of the School Transport Circular 1978/49 which states that A Board should not normally supply transport or pay travelling expenses for any pupil, other than a handicapped pupil, who lives within statutory walking distance of the school attended.' " The board's decision however, is not contrary to the provisions of the 1978 circular, as they allow discretion by saying that a board "should not normally" provide transport. Those provisions clearly permit the Department to allow the transport of schoolchildren in special circumstances. Those special circumstances have arisen in the case of Clarawood--they are so special that the appointed board set up to consider the matter approved of the provision of transport for those children. Unfortunately, the Department overruled that decision. What is the point of having education and library boards if the Minister allows his Department to step in to ensure that the thin veneer of local accountability is removed from the system? The Department is Scrooge-like when providing for attendance allowances. It is clear to elected representatives in Northern Ireland that the number of people who receive
Column 1030attendance allowance depends entirely on the annual allocation. It depends not on how many people need it but on how much finance is available. The Department is refusing some of the most needy cases simply because the finance is not available to meet the need. That has led to much hardship for those who attempt to keep relatives who require care. If they do not receive that care within the household, they will end up in hospital or residential accommodation, which will cost the Department--albeit under a different head of expenditure--a great deal more. Will the Minister reconsider that false economy and make money available for attendance allowances? It could save his Department money in the long run if people did not have to be institutionalised.
During this debate, several hon. Members have spoken of their concern, which I share, about the cuts in the Department's budget for the area of management that covers the Ulster, Bangor and Ards hospitals. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) for inviting me to join him at a meeting with the chief administrator of that area, so that we could question him about those cuts. There seems to be an economic domino theory at work. The Tory Government cut the money, the boards must then cut the budgets of the unit areas, and the unit administrators must also cut back. Ultimately, those who suffer are the people who need the service. The figures that we have seen show that the local area has been asked to try to effect savings of some £1 million, although a smaller saving may be required. They show that severe hardship would be experienced in geriatric and paediatric care. The budgets in those areas have been trimmed to such an extent that further cuts would seriously affect the local service. Indeed, the cut comes on top of a cut the previous year, when 100 beds were cut from that unit of management. A further cut would have an equivalent financial effect. Moreover, the inflation rate will not be met by the figures allocated by the board.
Hon. Members will forgive me if I make comparisons that draw attention to their areas, but we all have to fight our own corners. The area that contains the city hospital is allocated an expenditure of some £60 million, but the cut will be exactly the same as for this unit of management, where the expenditure is only £30 million. It is most unfair that the percentage cut is so much greater in the management unit area.
Mr. Kilfedder : My hon. Friend realises that the tower block at Ulster hospital has drawn away millions of pounds from the North Down district. He mentioned a figure of £60 million. I believe that the figure is about £70 million. Perhaps the Minister will tell us tonight the total cost of building the tower block, the total cost of the equipment and re-equipment of the tower block and the total cost of the tower block's annual management.
I have been critical of the amount of money spent on the tower block both tonight and over the years, but my criticism is limited to that money being spent wastefully. I support the doctors who work in the City hospital, some of whom I know. I have the utmost admiration for the doctors, nurses and ancillary staff, but the people of North Down expect fair play and even- handedness.
Column 1031because, it was estimated at an early stage that the City hospital tower block would cost £8.4 million ; it was then discovered that it would cost more than £43 million, and at that time the work was not even complete. It will be interesting to know what the final figure was for building the tower block, and for furnishing it.
The extent of the inequality suffered by those in that sphere of management is such that, while they serve a significant proportion of the population of the Eastern health and social services board, they have a relatively insignificant proportion of the funds from that board. I should have thought that there should have been a further spread of money across that sector. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the City hospital. Some of us are keeping a close eye on the expenditure within the Royal Victoria hospital and the wisdom of continuing to plough money into that hospital when some of the other hospitals might be better built up to cater for the whole of the community, not just part of it.
Some months ago, together with some of my colleagues, I met the Minister of State, who has direct responsibility at the Department of Finance and Personnel, to discuss a rating issue. The matter under discussion resulted from the receipt of a bill by Castlereagh borough council for recreation facilities for which the Department had not normally charged the council for rating purposes. As a result of the council receiving that bill, which was for more than a quarter of a million, our interest was raised as to why a council should be asked to pay for a service that it was providing.
I understand that the Minister is considering the matter. When we spoke to him, he was prepared to look at the proposition to see whether, as a general rule, a waiver should be provided on rates bills for all local authorities. A bill of a quarter of a million pounds accumulated over a period is a significant amount for a relatively small district council, but does not have the same impact, in proportional terms, on the funding of the Department.
Will the Minister attempt to draw together the pieces of his investigation? He may have some good news for local authorities in Northern Ireland. I have noticed that several other councils are now being touched up by the Department on the same basis and may well have to fork out large sums.
I find it difficult to accept the Department's reasoning. The councils are providing a much-needed service for their ratepayers. They have been doing so for the past five years without receiving the usual 75 per cent. capital expenditure grant from the Department. The facility that the Minister was asked to consider received no grants from the Department ; it was built directly from the rates. It seems hard not only to fail to receive the grants that other councils have received but to have to pay rates to the Department on top of that. I regret that the Minister responsible for the Department of the Environment has not returned to the Chamber. He was present at a social occasion last Saturday evening in Belfast city council. I detected that he was impressed by the speech given by the honoured guest at the installation of the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alderman Nigel Dodds. His guest speaker was Miss Monica Wilson, assistant director of the Northern Ireland Council for the Disabled. She sincerely and thoroughly articulated the difficulties faced by disabled people in Northern Ireland. She spoke of a need for a change of attitude towards the disabled on the part of the Government. A number of the