Previous Section Home Page

Column 68

a period of crisis. The market is very depressed. This year's prices are well down on last year's and well below the cost of production. No industry could prosper in such conditions. Surely United Kingdom Agriculture Ministers, together with their Northern Ireland Office colleagues, should be seeking to ascertain what state subsidies are received by the pig industries of other European Union member states. At a time of pressure on the pig industries of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, it is entirely unfair that other European Union member states are exercising the right to subsidise part of their industries. It ought not to be beyond the ability of Her Majesty's Government to make inquiries through embassy and consulate officials. They should be able to find out exactly what is happening elsewhere--especially in France.

Mr. Beggs : The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to the decline in pig numbers in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that, bearing in mind the fact that, in the Irish Republic, pig farming is thriving and the pig population is growing, this is rather strange ? There ought not to be much difference between pig producers in the north and those in the south.

Rev. Ian Paisley : Any industry that is encouraged through disguised subsidies has a very great advantage over one in a country that provides no support whatever. As the hon. Gentleman knows, our pig industry has never had state support.

Since the United Kingdom's accession to the European Community our intensive sector has been cut very badly. Farmers are unable to buy feed on the world market and, therefore, have to pay higher prices than previously. We have already had a cut in our intensive industry, but we are now going into a very deep trough. I hope that we shall be able to get out. The Government must accept responsibility. Have they really taken into account what is being said by farming interests across the United Kingdom, especially in Northern Ireland ? There has been mention of the good animal health record that Northern Ireland has had for many years ; in fact, our record is second to none in the United Kingdom. We are proud of what our farmers have achieved.

I should like to refer to the current bovine spongiform encephalopathy problem. Last week, at a meeting of the agriculture committee of the European Parliament, an official admitted that the incidence of BSE was decreasing rapidly in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland's figures are indeed low. After the meeting, I asked an official whether the disease was called by another name in other countries of the Union and, therefore, was not subjected to the strictures that we impose.

I was told that I was absolutely right. In other parts of Europe, where the disease is given a different name, people can eat as much meat as they like. In contrast, the German Government now say that they will defy all European Union laws by shutting out meat from the United Kingdom. What are the Government doing about that ? Do they intend to accept Germany's action ?

The single market will lead to the removal of border controls, and our high animal health status will be put in jeopardy. An asset will be destroyed. What do the Government intend to do about it ? Northern Ireland did not qualify this year for European Union beef promotion

Column 69

funds. Will the Government push for such funds in the coming year ? What steps are they taking to secure a level playing field ? If the competitiveness of Northern Ireland's specialist cereal growers is to be maintained, we may need some co-operation from European Union officials with a view to securing a satisfactory formula for the calculation of arable area payments under the arrangements for reform of the common agriculture policy. Northern Ireland is a specialist region in cereal production. The Government ought to be taking up these issues now if our farmers are to be helped during the grim days that I fear lie ahead.

It may be important that we have reform of the CAP, but that will have major implications for Northern Ireland agriculture. We have not yet seen the effects of the general agreement on tariffs and trade, but I have read in a farming newspaper that the United States Secretary for Agriculture has been boasting that, following the achievement of GATT, the United States will engage in agricultural produce flooding. What does the United Kingdom intend to do about that ?

Is the hard-pressed farming community to become prey to a development arising from a deal made by Commissioner Ray MacSharry when he was about to retire ? I am glad that I voted against that deal in Strasbourg. I do not agree with it and I believe that we will have a real reaping of a dreadful sowing. It is all very well for a Commissioner to receive a golden handshake and to say, "Goodbye, I've got the thing fixed up." But what will happen to our farming community ?

The farmers of Northern Ireland need the help of Ministers at the Northern Ireland Office. I am pleased about the appointment of Baroness Denton. I am glad that she will attend Councils in Europe and I wish her every success. However, we must ensure that the Government are prepared to fight for the rights of the farmers of Northern Ireland in the same way that the Dublin Government fight for the rights of their farming community. I am afraid that we have lagged behind in that respect.

I want to mention fishing because fishermen joined us at the meeting to which I have referred. The fishing industry in Northern Ireland should be a priority for the Northern Ireland Office. According to figures that I have seen, it seems that because of the cruel quota system and because, under the fishing agreements, our waters can be fished by other European Union nations, at the end of the week one of our crewmen receives £100 net. That must spell the end of our fishing industry.

If there is no reduction in the number of boats and no proper decommissioning scheme, what will happen to Northern Ireland's fishing industry ? I trust that the Minister will explain to us why other boats can continue to fish in the Irish sea while our boats must return to port and be tied up. Is the Minister absolutely satisfied that the quota system is in keeping with the fish available in the Irish sea ? Why does Northern Ireland have such a very low quota ?

I can understand why fishermen become very angry when they have to return to port while fishermen from the Irish Republic can continue to fish and to bring in their catches. I want to know what the Minister intends to do about that problem.

Representatives of the fishing industry met officials from the Northern Ireland Office last week. The representatives informed me that they were told that, under the structural funds, they are to receive £9 million. However, the Government official told them, "We are

Column 70

going to pocket £3 million of that and you will get only £6 million." Instead of there being additional funds, the Government will pocket £3 million because of what they say they have already done for the fishing industry.

Those funds are structural funds. They are supposed to be additional funds. Was the Government official right when he spoke to the Anglo-Irish Fish Producers Organisation Ltd. in Kilkeel ? I assure the House that that organisation has nothing to do with the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Did that official tell the truth ? Has £3 million gone ? Has it been pocketed by the Exchequer or by a treasurer for the Northern Ireland Office ? Will only £6 million be available ? That is an important point about which the Minister should come clean when he replies to the debate.

I want now to consider the very difficult subject of rural planning. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) and I were present for the publication of a booklet on rural planning. The strange thing about that booklet was that it contained nothing about the farming community. It seemed to be an amazing booklet to produce. Do farmers live in the country or do they not live in the country ?

Farmers have two grievances that Ministers must consider. The first involves the almost complete inability of a member of a farming family, who no longer works on the farm because it can no longer support that person, to build on the farmland that that person's father or grandfather owns. That is a great difficulty.

I have visited many farms on which parents have said that they want their daughters to be close to them. They claim that the farm is their heritage and, after all, they are told to try to use their farm holdings to the best effect. The problem is great. Will the hard line adopted by planning officers, when they say no to farmers, be relaxed ?

Many houses in Northern Ireland are tied up in agricultural agreements. Planning for those houses was granted on the understanding that they would be used and occupied by a helper on the farm. However, the farming community can no longer support those people. A parent who obtained a farmhouse when he or she retired may have died. There is no place for a farm worker, because that person is not required. Many people working on farms are now part-time farmers. However, the house to which I have referred is still held in the cruel net of that agricultural entanglement. It cannot be sold other than to provide accommodation for a farm worker in the area. As a result of that problem, many houses are lying vacant in the country. No one can occupy them. We cannot break that jam unless we have regulations or legislation. That is the only way out of the problem. The problem has arisen because of a change in the nature of farming. I hope that the Minister will consider that point and have his officials examine the matter because the problem is recurring in the farming community.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) : The hon. Gentleman is making a very valuable point about property subject to agricultural occupancy conditions. I suggest that we do not require legislation. We simply require a change in departmental policy so that instead of having a condition relating to a person whose income is wholly or mainly derived from agriculture, the condition may relate to a person who is substantially or significantly engaged in agriculture. There could be a change of policy and, where necessary, there may simply be an application to vary the

Column 71

existing conditions. There is no need, therefore, for legislation. The problem could be resolved by the Department, if it so wished

Rev. Ian Paisley : That makes it easier. The Department should take action ; it should not allow houses to be vacated and not allow anyone to live in them. If someone who is not working in agriculture is allowed to live in such a house, the law is broken and violated. The Department can start to take action through the courts, which would be a serious matter. If the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who is a lawyer, is correct in stating that the Department could resolve the problem, let us bury the regulations and find a way to release houses in the countryside.

Mr. John D. Taylor : The hon. Member raises a further problem. People cannot even afford to buy dwellings on which planning permission is granted on condition that the owner is employed on the farm land. No one can obtain a mortgage to assist him to buy such a house because of that condition.

Rev. Ian Paisley : The right hon. Gentleman may not believe it, but my next sentence was along those lines. The value of the home is restricted ; hence the banks and building societies restrict the mortgage. The regulation perpetuates rural poverty because people cannot buy those houses. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has found something on which he and I agree, because recently he said that he agreed with the President of the Irish Republic more than with me. I am glad that there is common ground between us on agricultural housing.

I call on the Government immediately to consider dealing with the restriction. If it can be dealt with in the way in which the hon. Member for Upper Bann described, so be it. Let us get on with it. Why does not the Minister with responsibility for planning institute planning and advisory bureaux throughout his Department so that people can receive proper advice and readily ascertain the Department's attitude to building and house construction in certain regions ? It would be far better if the Department set up proper advice bureaux.

Rev. William McCrea : Does not my hon. Friend agree that it would be more sensible if civil servants or those working in the Departments listened to elected representatives on district councils ? They should have the final say on planning permission--officials should not dictate where one can or cannot build.

Rev. Ian Paisley : Elected representatives should have the final say. Instead of planning officers telling elected representatives what we should do--we should tell planning officers what to do--I agree whole- heartedly. But as we all know, that does not happen. We are tied by planning regulations. Planning officials in some regions grant planning permission, but, in the same circumstances, a planning official in another region will refuse it.

A constituent told me, his public representative, that he could take me to a site that ran parallel to another one in a different constituency. He said, "If you live in one constituency, you can get planning permission ; if you don't live there, you will not." As I have said before in the House, planning officers

Column 72

should be civil servants. I detest the attitude adopted. As a planning officer and I walked up a lane in my constituuency to visit a site, he told me that the applicant would not receive planning permission for it. I wrote down the time so that I could then say that before the officer saw the site he had told me that planning permission would not be granted. The applicant happened to be a Roman Catholic. It was not the bigoted hon. Member for Antrim, North who had kept that man from receiving planning permission, but a planning officer employed by the Minister's Department who made the decision before he saw the site.

After a stiff and hard battle, we secured planning permission. But the applicant was first told to clear out the dunghill on his farm and build his house there. That is the sort of behaviour displayed by some planning officers. It is time that the Minister talked to employees in planning departments and told them that they should be civil to people. We need proper planning advisory bureaux where people can be met courteously and talk to planning officials about what they want.

Last week, I was informed of an officious planning restriction which, if passed, would rob Northern Ireland of £10 million-worth of business investment and the possibility of up to 300 jobs. Two years ago, a business consortium told me of an extensive plan to build a state of the art equestrian centre with conference and hotel facilities. That major project received backing from an enthusiastic American hotelier.

While the Prime Minister was in America, he asked America to invest in Northern Ireland. The American hotelier had said he wanted to invest, but what happened ? The answer was no. Antrim borough council supported the planning application 100 per cent. If we elected representatives had had our say, we would have had £10 million worth of investment and 300 jobs. But officious planners said no. I have written to the Secretary of State on that matter. I hope that the Minister will reverse that tragic decision.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) : The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that I have discovered from the planners that equestrian activity is deemed to have no relationship to agricultural matters. One of my constituents wanted to adapt his farm to incorporate an equestrian site, but his plan was turned down because the use of horses for that purpose is not considered an agricultural activity--how ridiculous. I am not surprised by the hon. Gentleman's story.

Rev. Ian Paisley : I could understand the Government discriminating against asses, but not against horses. They had better put on their running shoes. The people of Northern Ireland put up with a lot of stick, but they are frustrated by planning issues. Hon. Members and Members of the European Parliament are told to try to win investment, but when an American organisation wanted to invest £10 million in Northern Ireland, it was not given planning permission.

Mr. Peter Robinson : Earlier today, I spoke to the business man to whom my hon. Friend referred. When the planners brought the application to Antrim council, they did not make any recommendations, but wanted the council's view. Yet when the council gave its unanimous view, the Department rejected it. Does my hon. Friend also

Column 73

agree that, as part of that scheme, it is intended that a provision will be made for bloodstock, so the site would have an agricultural use as well ?

Rev. Ian Paisley : Yes, I know that that is a big problem. I know about the matters that my hon. Friend has put before the House. To my knowledge, he has been given the same information as I have. I do not know why the Government are not prepared to do something to keep that investment in Northern Ireland.

May I give another illustration about planning ? In the north of my constituency is a thriving market town called Ballymoney, with an exceedingly narrow main street, so the planners decided to make it partly pedestrian. They proposed to do that by narrowing the street even more, yet still allowing traffic to go down it. I was there a couple of days ago and met my constituents and the traders, who pointed out to me the absolute folly of the planners.

One would think that the planners would have done their homework before deciding to narrow a street. But they arrived with concrete blocks, which they laid out on the street to the measurements that had already been agreed in the planning office. They then hired an Ulster bus, which they tried to get to manoeuvre down the street. The Ulster bus knocked down the concrete bricks, so the planners pulled them back a little and made the Ulster bus try again and again until at last it could get through. But a low-loader came down the street and knocked all the bricks to pieces.

Before the planners had that madcap scheme, they said that they would build a new road at the back of the business properties so that the businesses be serviced at the back instead of at the front. That scheme has been scrapped because of lack of finance, but the planners are continuing with narrowing the main street.

The Minister has a full report on that problem, because one of his top officials met us at my request. I hope that he will tell us today that the scheme will not proceed and that the street will be kept as wide as possible. If the Minister can get us that new road to service those businesses, I press him to do so. The businesses would be excited at that prospect, but it is certainly not happening at the moment.

We have many problems to consider, but some developments are good for the community. I welcome the fact that, just this week, the Academy of Strasbourg has entered into an agreement with the North Eastern education and library board arranging inter-community projects.

But all is not rosy on the educational front. Northern Ireland educationists seem to want to do away with rural schools. Rural schools are part of the cement that holds the community together. They are a meeting place for parents taking their children to and from school and for the community taking part in social activities at night. The curriculum is now crammed to unmanageable levels, making both teachers and pupils alike suffer. Teachers have told me that it is impossible to do all the paperwork and still find time to instruct the pupils.

I am trying, without much success, to keep open Moyarget primary school in my area. Many other schools are also being closed. I hope that if the school increases its number of pupils again, we shall be able to hold on to it. The numbers went down because the previous principal could not attend to her duties. The school was sometimes closed for one or two days a week and once it was closed for four days.

The parents asked me to tell the education authorities about it. I did so, and they told me that they were having

Column 74

the difficulty of disciplining that principal. The problem continued for more than a year. Naturally, the parents took their children from the school and left it in the doldrums. The school now has a very good principal and has been helped out of some of its difficulties, but, because of the education authority's policy, the board has said that, as the pupilship has gone down, the school is no longer viable and must be closed.

The Government must look into the whole issue of closing rural schools. In the near future, rural society will be regenerated throughout the European Union. If we destroy our rural communities, we shall not benefit from the funds that will become available. So the Minister has some hard thinking to do on education.

On economic development, a business man came to me the other day to tell me that he had set up a business that was an economic success. The Local Enterprise Development Unit had given him a grant of £60, 000 over an 18-month period. For security reasons, I do not wish to mention the town in which he has set up the business, but it is outside Belfast. All his employees are ex-service men who served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Ulster Defence Regiment or the Territorial Army.

Two weeks ago, LEDU officials told him that he could not have the grant unless he relocated in west Belfast. That was their ultimatum. We have heard in the House today accusations about consideration given to republican areas. Here is a case in point.

That business man is doing well in a predominantly loyalist area. The men who work for him could not do so in west Belfast without taking their lives in their hands. I have been in touch with the Department and I trust that I shall be in touch with it after today. Will the Minister look into those sensitive matters ? Let us not destroy the good work which business men are doing.

I had an interesting happening today. When I first came to the House, a right hon. Member with an English constituency said that, in a Northern Ireland debate on an appropriation order, one could tour the land from Dan to Beersheba. That is a scriptural expression, with which undoubtedly those who know the Bible are acquainted. Enoch Powell said that--I have never forgotten it. I referred to that earlier when my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) was speaking. I got a note from Hansard asking whether it was the city of "Dun" and the city of "Masheba". I simply wrote back on the note : "Read your Bible!"

Mr. John D. Taylor : Which county are they in ?

Rev. Ian Paisley : The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott), who led for the Opposition, might wish them in another territory altogether. What I am saying is that we have been moving from Dan to Beersheba today. It is our responsibility, as elected representatives in the House, to use this opportunity to deal with these issues. I could continue for another two hours on the problems in my constituency--I have only scratched the surface. I welcome the fact that we will be able to question Ministers in a different forum about giving an account of their stewardship. I can assure them that those questions will be put to them in the spirit of the defence of hard-working people in Northern Ireland who deserve the very best service from Government officials and from Ministers.

Column 75

7.40 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) : Judging from the earlier speeches, we could be forgiven for wondering whether we are having a political or a financial debate. I shall not be led down the path of answering the political remarks that were made, because it would not be fruitful to this debate and I would gain your disapproval, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I shall address the problem of the financial situation in Northern Ireland in the most general terms.

My major concern and that of my party--and probably all the parties in Northern Ireland--is to enhance the general quality of life in Northern Ireland. Basically, that means to ensure that public moneys are spent in the best possible way to give a good standard of living--and any good standard of living begins with a good job and a good house.

Coming from a constituency with an unofficial unemployment rate of some 22 per cent., I know what unemployment does to the community, the family and the individual. I say "unofficial" because unemployment statistics are not available for the constituencies of Northern Ireland as they are for England, Scotland and Wales. The area that I represent in the northern section is dealt with under the euphemism of "greater Belfast". I do not know where the statistics for the southern part of the constituency are dealt with. My calculations show that there has been between 21.5 per cent. and 22 per cent. endemic and continuing unemployment not only in years of recession but in years of plenty. I do not think that unemployment could be any worse without a total disintegration of the rural community that I represent.

It is appropriate that part of the first vote deals with agriculture and fisheries. As some hon. Members have said, agriculture and fisheries are the bedrock of our communities in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the industrial base is centred on certain conurbations. The rural communities, by and large, have been devoid of inward investment and therefore still depend entirely on agricultural income and fishing income.

Two of the three major fishing villages are in my constituency, the other being in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor). Many references have been made to the lower income of farming communities over the past couple of years and the increase in basic overheads that they must contemplate not only this year but in the years to come. In real terms, the net income has reduced substantially over the past few years.

Reference has been made to hill livestock compensatory allowances and milk quotas. I shall not repeat them, although I endorse them completely. I draw the attention of the Minister to the aspects of agricultural policy which relate to maintaining an efficient and updated structure for the farms of Northern Ireland. The farming community greatly regretted the withdrawal last year of the agricultural development scheme, the ADOP. Since that scheme was withdrawn, there has been little or no reconstruction of farm buildings and the provision of service houses has been restricted. I tabled a parliamentary question on the matter, which was answered on 22 February. In reply, the Minister told me that negotiations were continuing with the European Commission under the auspices of the Northern Ireland structural funds. Hopefully, the outcome will be a new

Column 76

scheme called the community support framework. I hope that that scheme is implemented urgently and backdated, if possible, to the point at which the agricultural development scheme stopped. The second structural fund grant--the farm conservation grant-- related to farm conservation. Those grants still exist, but in June 1993 they were reduced from 50 per cent. to 25 per cent. as a result of a budget decision rather than an EC decision. It is ironic that many farmers who applied before the changeover date in June 1993 were penalised on two grounds : the new budgetary resolution, and--this is unforgivable--the high level of bureaucracy within the Department of Agriculture, which was unable to process the applications that were made in time and before the change in policy. I have received innumerable representations from farmers who submitted applications before the closing date. They did not receive any acknowledgment, and when their claims were processed, they were granted only the 25 per cent. rate. That is a despicable and mean way to service the agricultural community, who did what was legally required.

I said that the second part of the first vote relates to fishing. All hon. Members who have participated in the various debates on fishing know the traumatic time that the industry is going through at present. Not only have the quotas and total allowable catches been restricted year by year ; we also have the so-called Fish Conservation Act 1993 which restricts the days of fishing at sea. As the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, fishermen in the Northern Ireland ports will be able to go to sea for only 100 days per year if the Act is fully implemented.

Fishermen cannot and will not survive, for the simple reason that the economics of working only 100 days out of 365 is not viable. The upkeep of boats must still be maintained, and insurance must still be maintained. If a crewman is able to work only 100 days per year, obviously he will drift away from the industry, and the lifelong expertise of such people will be lost for ever. Therefore, the Act must never be implemented. It was introduced to the House under the guise of a conservation measure, but it is not a conservation measure because it does not apply to the other nationalities which fish in the Irish sea.

As has already been said, it is galling for the fishermen of Kilkeel to see, just a few miles away, boats from the Republic of Ireland going out to sea to fish for as long as they like. The fishing industry of the republic has a quota that it cannot catch. It has a surplus quota. In 1991, I was able to arrange for that element of the surplus quota to be transferred to the fishing industry of Northern Ireland. I should be pleased if the Minister responsible, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Baroness Denton, would repeat that arrangement, so that the surplus quota not caught by the republic could be transferred to Northern Ireland's fishermen through a swap or a deal between the two Governments.

On a more mundane, but relevant, issue for Ardglass and Kilkeel, those ports are still awaiting the provision of small capital sums that would enable them to sustain their present fishing industries. Kilkeel needs such capital to build an ice-making plant, and I should like to think that the Department of Agriculture could assist the local fishing industry by providing immediate funding for that project. In Ardglass, an early start should be made to provide new market buildings which will contain chill rooms. They are

Column 77

urgently needed to meet the new health and hygiene regulations, which require that the existing facilities should be replaced. If the fishing industry is to sustain its current level of activity, despite all the factors that operate against it, those modest capital projects should be implemented as soon as possible.

I am sure that the right hon. Member for Strangford shares my concern about the future of the lough fishermen who use Strangford lough. They are deeply concerned about the intention of the Department of the Environment to declare all Strangford lough a marine nature reserve. They maintain that their means of livelihood, which has been practised by generations of fishermen, would be greatly restricted. It would be appropriate for the Minister with the environment portfolio to hold a meeting with those fishermen--they are not unreasonable people--to try to work out a modus vivendi to accommodate all uses of the lough.

I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) for the great tribute that he paid to my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mr. Hume), for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) on the magnificent way in which they represent their constituents and on bringing inward investment, capital and enterprise to their constituencies. I noted that he did not mention me, because he obviously recognises that I am the exception that proves the rule. I cannot boast that I have been successful in attracting new inward investment to South Down, no matter what pressure I have exerted. As a result, my constituency, in common with many other rural constituencies in Northern Ireland, has a high level of unemployment.

On one occasion I remember when the Industrial Development Board, through the Northern Ireland Office, replied to a letter from me and said that my constituency was too far from the main port of Belfast. The northern part of the constituency of South Down is 10 miles exactly from the centre of Belfast and its harbour. Month by month, announcements are made about inward investment to parts of Northern Ireland that are quite remote from port facilities, and good luck to them, but my constituency is not only close to Belfast harbour, but the southern part is serviced by the harbour of Warrenpoint. That port is equally accessible and could handle the export and import trade that inward investment would entail.

The Under-Secretary of State who is to reply to the debate wrote to me to say :

"However, every effort is being made to encourage inward investors to establish their new businesses in the areas of high unemployment, including South Down."

That is a laudable statement, but is it borne out by the facts ? For the three years ending 31 March 1990, 1991 and 1992, the number of visits from potential inward investors to Northern Ireland was 175, 231 and 240 respectively--a grand total of 646. Of that total, only 15 investors were asked to visit any part of the greater South Down area in those three years. I am bold enough to describe it as such because the figures given to me related to the district councils. Fifteen visits in total were made to Banbridge, Down and Newry and Mourne district councils. That does not represent a real commitment to the area.

Between April 1992 and 31 March 1993, no visits were made to Banbridge district ; five visits were made to Down district council, with one repeat visit and four visits were made to Newry and Mourne district council, of which two were repeats. In 1992-93, the period for which the latest

Column 78

figures are available, a total of 333 first and repeated visits were made, of which nine were made to those three district councils. Surely any reasonable person would say that that does not represent reasonable endeavour in trying to attract industry to an area which has as high unemployment as any other area in Northern Ireland and which is convenient to the two harbours of Belfast and Warrenpoint. The figures speak for themselves. I am dissatisfied at the way in which resources and endeavour have been allocated in this context. I am almost afraid to say that I have something in common with the hon. Member for Mid- Ulster, because I too complain about the way in which the cake, as he called it, has been distributed.

I must ask the Minister for clarification about a new proposal from the EC, which is causing great concern to the management of Warrenpoint harbour and docks. I have been unable to get a great deal of information about it. It is proposed to set up a new maritime zone between Wales and the Republic of Ireland for the purposes of committing grant aid in the Interreg programme for 1994 to 1999. I understand that the introduction of such legislation would lead to the establishment of an irrational division of the Irish sea, which could seriously disadvantage the ports of Northern Ireland and inhibit their development, particularly that of Warrenpoint, which would be just north of that new Irish sea box. It is not a fishing box, but an Interreg programme box between Wales and the Republic of Ireland, running from Wexford north to Dundalk. We must consider carefully how that would effect the ports of Northern Ireland and the traffic to and from them.

Vote 2 deals in part with tourism. I hope that the Minister will encourage the International Fund for Ireland and give fair wind to the proposal to establish a Patrician centre in Down in the immediate future. That proposal is before the board of IFI and it would be an exciting venture in attracting tourists to South Down and Mourne. The northern part of Mourne is, generally speaking, patrician country, with many churches, ruins and historic monuments relating to that period. The Patrician centre would at long last give a focus to the whole concept of the area. We have, rightly, the concepts of the north Antrim coast and the lakes of Fermanagh, among others. The real concept of the Patrician country around Lecale and Mourne has never been fully developed. Its potential could reach not only throughout Europe, in which many villages and towns were developed by Patrician missionaries but also the north American continent. That centre will be absolutely crucial if and when we enjoy a peace dividend, when tourists will be able to visit our country without fear or inhibition.

Mr. John D. Taylor : I readily understand the hon. Gentleman's interest in a Patrician centre in Downpatrick and his loyalty to that area, because he is its elected representative in this national Parliament. However, the hon. Gentleman must acknowledge that several areas claim an attachment to St. Patrick. One of the great delights of life in Ireland is that St. Patrick was British. When he came to Northern Ireland as a Briton and landed at Bangor 1,500 years ago, he founded his church not in Downpatrick but in the ancient city of Armagh, which has the premier claim on anything to do with St. Patrick.

Mr. McGrady : I do not know whether to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because it was riddled with historical inaccuracies beyond belief. St.

Column 79

Patrick landed in 432 at a place called Saul Brae, which is Gaelic for a barn. The local chief, Dichu, gave the barn to St. Patrick as his first church--and Saul Brae happens to be the townland in which I live. St. Patrick not only lived and worked there but legend has it, because there is no written history of the time, that he returned to Downpatrick and is buried on the hill of Down from which Downpatrick gets its name--Dun Padraig means the hill, or the fort, of Patrick. The remains of not only St. Patrick but Bridget, Colmcille and Malachy also rest there. In Downpatrick, you get four saints for the price of one.

On a more serious note, I urge the Minister to give fair weather and full support to that interesting concept of a Patrician centre, which will complement Downpatrick cathedral, St. Patrick's grave and the Down museum, all of which are within walking distance of the proposed site.

Vote 4 concerns the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity. I was disappointed that more attention was not given to the cost of energy in Northern Ireland in the fattening process prior to privatisation and after. To me as a lay person, Northern Ireland energy costs seem likely to increase significantly, which will be greatly detrimental to the area's economy in terms of production costs and, equally important, expense to the ordinary householder, who is paying more and more for the energy he uses.

In a written question, I asked the Minister what concerns the Government had, and was informed that it was a matter between two private companies. There is no competition for energy supply in Northern Ireland. There may be competition on paper for electricity generation, but not for its distribution. I can obtain electricity from only one supplier, and that company can charge me whatever it likes, despite the regulator's so-called powers. It was farcical for the Government to pretend that there would be competition. We shall pay the penalty in energy prices to industry and householders.

Mr. Beggs : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the high cost of electricity to industrial users poses a real threat as Northern Ireland tries to attract more inward investment ? Is it not essential that the Government find a means of controlling the cost of electricity to domestic consumers and of reducing overall costs to industrial users ?

Mr. McGrady : I fully agree. As the hon. Gentleman was a particularly interested member of the Standing Committee that dealt with the privatisation Bill, he will recall that one of the Minister's key arguments was that privatisation would reduce energy costs, particularly to industry. That was the thrust of the Government's argument. It was said that the big buyers would be able to negotiate a bargain basement price, but that has not happened. We never believed it would, but we lived in hope. We have totally abandoned that hope.

Mr. Barnes : My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) mentioned the enormous problems that the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel would cause in Northern Ireland. The basic level of energy costs in the Province adds to that, because the VAT element will be even bigger in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Column 80

Mr. McGrady : I thank the hon. Gentleman for emphasising the point made by the hon. Member for Wigan that Northern Ireland has always suffered much higher fuel costs than the rest of the UK. There is the added factor of the fattening of the calf for privatisation and subsequent increases. Another 17.5 per cent. will eventually be added by VAT, to fuel costs that are already inflated in the six counties.

Rev. Martin Smyth : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Meekathara is seeking to develop lignite generating stations, which would provide for competitive prices, but that because of commitments made to the purchasers of the generating stations, there is no chance of that competition before 1997 ?

Mr. McGrady : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. There is also the question of competition from the Scottish interconnector project, which will cost £175 million.

There is an absence of competition not only in generation but in distribution. The company that buys electricity as a wholesaler can retail it at whatever price the company likes. Consumers have no redress except the nebulous regulator. From current statistics on energy costs, the regulator does not seem to be doing a very good job.

There is not much point in hon. Members coming to the debate and arguing, as I am now, for inward investment if the infrastructure is not there. We are told that there will be enormous cuts in the funding available for roads. The problem with many rural areas is that, in these times of plenty, they were not developed any way, so in times of scarcity there is little hope of getting a reasonable share of the cake.

I hope that the Minister will take on board a suggestion that was made to his predecessor--that the budget for roads should be split in some balanced way to enable those areas that have not had reasonable road development to have such development now whether or not they have the traffic capacity by which they are now judged on priority, because if we continue to allocate in the order of strict traffic priority, the roads that were not developed in the years of plenty will fall further into disrepair and any chance of providing a reasonable infrastructure to them will have gone forever. It was interesting to note that Professor Austin Smyth, who heads the transport research group at the University of Ulster, said that Northern Ireland already suffered because it was a small peripheral state on the edge of Europe, and warned that the north would seriously lag behind even the Republic of Ireland on transport spending. He went on to say that the Irish Government will spend about 15 times more than the Northern Ireland Office on infrastructure during the next seven years. Apparently, the Republic of Ireland has agreed to spend £1,950 million on roads, rail and port facilities, but the Northern Ireland Office said that it will spend less than the £125 million that it spent during the last round. An interesting book was issued by the Department in November last, called "Transportation Programme for Northern Ireland 1994 to 1999". On page 15, paragraph 124 states :

"Northern Ireland's agricultural producers stress the importance of the region's green image in marketing their products in GB and mainland Europe. Investment in facilities which sustain the disease-free development of Northern Ireland's agricultural industry, together with the swift transportation of fresh produce, is crucial given the importance of the agricultural sector to the

Column 81

region's economy as a whole."

If the Department is saying that and believes it, then it has not put its money where its mouth is. The programme contained in the transport programme for Northern Ireland does not give effect to that particular sentiment.

That is to be seen in the context of the overall spending of some £189 million on transport generally--ports, airports, railways, Ulster Bus, DUB, Northern Ireland Transport Holdings. Of that, some £14 million has been spent on roads, and of that, £8.5 million is coming by way of grant. The Department appears to be spending some £5 million net on a four-year programme. It is not a very ambitious programme. We must take out of that the priority programmes. Once that has been done, the rural communities and road services will suffer more and more.

The irony of that is that those communities are totally dependent on the provision of roads, as there are no railways in South Down, the bus service is inadequate and the roads have been neglected. Not one penny of capital expenditure has been spent on a major programme in the entire constituency for the past 14 years. That is the type of misallocation of resources about which I complain from time to time. I shall now deal briefly with planning. Several hon. Members have quite correctly and eloquently touched on the question of rural planning and all the problems pertaining to it. A new influence is coming aboard in rural planning where the planners dictate the type of brick, the colour of the roof, and all that nonsense which we had hoped they had forgotten about 10 years ago. It seems to be coming back into vogue again. It is an enormous irritation to people who have gone through the whole planning process only to be beaten at the end of the day by the colour of their roof or walls. I am not talking about houses that are painted pink or yellow, but ordinary red-brick or white-finished houses, which are appropriate to the countryside that is Northern Ireland.

One of the most frustrating aspects of planning is the double permissions that are required. In theory, planning is a one-stop shop ; in practice, it is a two-stop shop. One goes to the planning office and, with luck, it will give planning permission, subject to approval by the roads people. The roads people stay right in the background, never surfacing in public. They never go to individual cases to the district council, or to anybody else, yet it seems to have the authority to say whether a planning application goes through. I make a plea to the Minister to pass on to his ministerial colleague the need to harmonise the permissions that I suggest are required from the planning officer and the roads officer. It should be a one-stop shop for that, instead of people getting the go-between and run-around between those two departments. One would think that they were separate departments of government, but they are in the same building--perhaps different corridors, but actually they are usually in the same building.

One has to go through a whole rigmarole to get a planning application past the roads people. Will the Minister take on board the comments already made about agricultural dwellings and other qualifications attached to housing, where the rundown of the agriculture work force makes those redundant ? I do not know whether it would be legal or whether it requires legislation, but I suggest that, as in the first instance when the Department of Agriculture

Next Section

  Home Page