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Column 96social services increased from 17 to 19 per cent. The increase in health and personal social services and in social security is the price not of violence but of unemployment. It is the price of failure, which the Government have imposed on the people of Northern Ireland. The Government have failed to do something about those conditions. I realise that the Minister must have a long list of points to answer but I should like to add one or two to that. The Compensation Agency has received a number of new claims because of the new emergency provisions. Claims have risen from 3,560 in 1990-91 to an estimated 4,600 in 1993-94, which is an increase of more than 1,000 claims. What is the background to that increase ? The Compensation Agency's total expenditure for the period 1993-94 amounts to £94 million. What a waste that that money must be spent as a result of violence and not used positively on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.
The report shows a notable decline in the planned expenditure on compensation in the period from 1991-92 to 1995-96. Given that position, how can the Government plan a reduction in expenditure on compensation ? The report includes a line about trade, industry and employment, to which I shall return later, with regard to incentives to commercial enterprises to expand.
Legitimate fears have been expressed about the risk of terrorists attacking the interconnector between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It has been mentioned that the cost of installing the interconnector from Scotland to Northern Ireland will be £175 million. Apart from the fact that many parts of rural Ayrshire will be devastated, I am not convinced that that interconnector will be safer from terrorist attack than the interconnector between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Department of the Environment spent £1 million between 1987 and 1988 but the report does not show how much was spent on ports. I have heard the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs), time and again, raise the point about Larne, on which I support him. Why is there no specific spending on ports ?
A number of hon. Members have mentioned the rural nature of many parts of Northern Ireland. I notice that spending on housing is to be reduced over a period of years. The Government may argue that they have almost completed their job in inner cities, which is where most of the problems have been, but the level of unfitness and serious disrepair in private sector rural housing still stands at 65.3 per cent. How can the Government reduce spending on housing from 7 per cent. of the total cake in 1987-88 to 3 per cent. in 1995-96, when rural housing is so important to many people in Northern Ireland ? Another item in the report gives current and future estimates by the Department of Finance and Personnel and other public services. In 1987-88, £10 million was spent on financial administration and central management of the civil service and other services. By 1994-95, that figure will have almost trebled to £29 million. It will be interesting to hear why a Conservative Government dedicated to reducing the number of civil servants has trebled spending on the financial administration of the civil service during that period. If only grants and other employment measures had trebled, too. My colleagues have also rightly made the point that the level of health is poorer in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. One of the officials from the Northern Ireland Office who gave evidence to the Public
Column 97Accounts Committee said that Northern Ireland is comparable to Scotland in that respect. I do not think that we can underestimate or totally ignore the effect of unemployment on people's health, as the Government seem to do. That conclusion has been resisted by the Government for years, but they now seem to accept that unemployment and deprivation affect people's level of health. It is the classic situation that, if one does not spend money, it costs money in the long run.
Expenditure through the European regional development fund dropped from £46 million to £34 million in the period that I mentioned. The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) referred to the operations of the European Community. My colleagues, especially my Unionist colleagues, mentioned doubts about co-operation with the Republic of Ireland. When I look at the job that the Republic of Ireland has done in getting some of its money back from the Common Market, it makes me envious, and I wonder why this Government cannot get some of their money back from the Common Market.
I shall spend a few moments on the record of the Republic of Ireland, which comes from a journalist who is not unknown to the Minister and not unsympathetic to his ideology. Today in the Glasgow Herald , Murray Ritchie said :
"Well, guess which EU state these days has a growth rate miles ahead of the rest and whose manufacturing sector is booming compared with all its partners. Which state has enjoyed the lowest inflation in the past five years ? Fastest rise in exports ? Biggest external payments surplus in the EU ? Lowest level of borrowing ?" And what is regarded as an indicator of wealth--
"Proportionately more home owners in the EU than everyone except the Portuguese ?"
That is how the Republic of Ireland operates the system. Why does the Northern Ireland Office not operate the same system ? Why do not the Government ensure that Northern Ireland gets its share of the European Regional Development Fund the way that the Republic of Ireland is getting its share ?
Mr. John D. Taylor : I have already spoken and I do not want to take up any time, except to say that the hon. Gentleman has left out one of the other things which the Republic of Ireland has as the biggest in the European Community--its emigration rate.
Mr. McAvoy : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I know that he thinks that people from the Republic of Ireland are all heading for the north. I am not sure whether he has any figures to prove that, but I shall accept what he says.
My point is that this small country, which is just across the border from part of our country, is more successful in getting more of its money back from the Common Market than Northern Ireland.
Mr. McAvoy : I am talking about the Republic of Ireland's money. I am certainly in favour of the United Kingdom taxpayer getting more money back from the Common Market. The Republic of Ireland is conning money out of the Common Market which has been paid for by the British surplus. The blame lies with the British Government, not with anyone else.
Before I deal with the next item, I shall declare an interest of some sort. Unlike my hon. Friends, I am sponsored by the Co-operative movement. Of course, there
Column 98is no personal gain in that. The Co-operative movement--the CWS, the Co-operative Retail Society and the Belfast Co-op-- has expanded its retail operations, which has meant an increased share in the retail trade. In common with other commercial operators and shops, it has suffered bomb damage from the terrorists. What incentives has the Minister offered to commercial operators who are willing to develop and expand their field of activities in Northern Ireland, as the Co-op has done ? I should like more positive incentives to be given to them.
The Co-op pursues an own-brand sales policy and a large percentage of the brands sold are made in the island of Ireland. although I am not sure of the specific details. Anything that affects the economy of the island must surely be of benefit to all. The Co-op ensures that 15 per cent. of its total lines are Irish brands, and that can only be good.
The political philosophy of co-operation can be helpful. I will not hear any moral lectures from anyone outside Northern Ireland. According to that philosophy, people come together for the common good to ensure that trade operates to the benefit of ordinary people, but that philosophy of co- operation can be extended through all facets of life. I suggest humbly that the principle of co-operation has much to offer to the people of Northern Ireland.
Sir James Kilfedder (North Down) : It was just a short time ago that I attended the funeral of a constituent of mine, Police Constable Johnston Beacom. I was subsequently present at the graveside when his body was interred. He was a young community police officer and a deeply committed Christian, who harboured no ill will for anyone in the entire island of Ireland. It was his greatest wish to do good whenever he got the opportunity.
That man was slaughtered, like so many others before him and many more to come, by Irish republican terrorists, who believe that, by killing and destroying, they can force the people of Northern Ireland to capitulate and the British Government to engage in further clarification of the Downing street declaration.
I was deeply moved at the service when I saw his young wife. I realised that he had left behind tiny tots who are now fatherless, and parents who have been left with a tremendous void in their lives. I compare the sacrifice that he and many others like him have made in the past 26 years with the evil men who skulk around Northern Ireland and elsewhere doing their evil deeds and engaging in carnage. The sad thing for the people of Northern Ireland is that, at present, those terrorists and their political wing and political sympathisers are basking in the limelight of publicity. That has followed the entreaties made to them to engage in the peace process. I hope that peace comes to Northern Ireland ; certainly the people of Northern Ireland deserve it.
When I heard tonight that the high unemployment in west Belfast was the fault of Britain, I could only laugh at that claim, because unemployment-- certainly the greater part of it--in west Belfast, and elsewhere throughout the Province, is due to the machinations of the Irish Republican Army and all the other terrorists in Northern Ireland. They are the ones who blow up businesses and destroy factories.
Column 99The IRA is adept in the United States, through its political organisations, at trying to dissuade business men from investing in the Province. It is the terrorists who are creating unemployment and driving young people away from Northern Ireland. It is a matter of deep regret to me thatm the media in the United States gave so much publicity to Mr. Gerry Adams on his recent visit there.
The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) rightly criticised the financial aspect of students coming to Northern Ireland universities. I was glad of the opportunity to study at Trinity college in Dublin. The value of attending a university is not just obtaining a degree but the opportunity for young people of different religions, cultures and races to meet. The more that people get together, the better for Northern Ireland. I think in particular of my own constituency of Bangor, whose abbey and college were destroyed 1,300 years ago by Vikings, who came in their hordes and slaughtered the monks and students.
Those Vikings subsequently travelled farther down the coast and created the modern city of Dublin. Bangor was already ancient when Dublin was created-- a centre of learning for students from all over Europe, which was good for them and for the people who lived in that part of Ireland centuries ago. I am all for the movement of people and the exchange of ideas, because the more that young people get together, the better chance there will be of creating understanding and harmony.
It is lamentable that some bureaucrats play down unemployment in my constituency from the safety of their offices, pensionable jobs and statistics. They ignore the fact that unemployment causes great hardship for people of all ages but particularly for the young in North Down. I doubt that the bureaucrats who treat that information just as statistics and not as the records of human beings know what it is like to be on the dole.
Those bureaucrats, and perhaps Ministers as well, ought to call at homes in my constituency and talk to the unemployed fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who are robbed of the dignity of going to work and bringing in a wage or salary, to allow them to provide for the necessities of every family and home and to give their children the opportunities they themselves did not have when they were young. I make a particular appeal in respect of school leavers and college graduates in my constituency, who may have to abandon Northern Ireland to find work in England or elsewhere. Northern Ireland needs its young people--they are its real wealth. Young, talented people with idealism and fervour, who are anxious to work and to make a career for themselves, are needed if the Province is to be transformed into a prosperous and vibrant society.
A society can only be judged by how it cares for its senior citizens. Many elderly people in North Down, as in other parts of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, live isolated lives, and some experience financial difficulty. I urge the Government to do more to help them. I think particularly of the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel.
I ask the Government to encourage others to offer their services in caring and looking after the elderly. It is much
Column 100better if the elderly can stay in their own homes among their treasured possessions and in a neighbourhood they know, rather than be put in a residential home.
I am worried about the standard of care offered by a number--albeit a minority--of the private residential homes in the United Kingdom. Greater inspection is needed rather than less to protect those vulnerable people who, the moment the relatives leave, are at the mercy of those who control those homes. The vast majority are dedicated staff--I know a number of them in residential and nursing homes and can speak highly of them--but I worry about some of the homes and how the people are cared for. The Government must provide better and greater inspection.
That brings me to the subject of the Banks residential home, with which I link Enler house, a residential home in Dundonald. They are statutory homes and must not be sold off. Speculators are waiting in the wings to purchase them. I have certainly heard it suggested that the Banks would be purchased under the guise of saving it as a residential home. No doubt in the course of time it would be closed, divided up and sold off, with considerable profit to the speculator. I recently had a meeting with the new Minister at the Department of Health, Baroness Denton, at which I made a passionate plea on behalf of the three hospitals in the North Down area : the Ulster at Dundonald and the Bangor and Ards hospitals. She listened sympathetically. I hope that, in due course, she will respond in the way that I suggested.
I had called for the reopening of the ward that had been closed at the Ulster hospital. It is scandalous that, under recent cuts, some patients are being diverted from the Ulster hospital in Dundonald to hospitals in the centre of Belfast--the Royal Victoria and City hospitals. I urge the Minister to keep in mind the needs of the people of Bangor. Bangor has a population of some 75,000, which continues to increase, yet Bangor hospital has been run down. I demanded of the Minister then--I repeat that demand now to the Minister who will be replying to the debate in great detail and at great length--that the services provided at Bangor hospital should be enhanced with the provision of a maternity ward and casualty department. The people of Bangor desperately need a hospital suitable for the size of the community, a hospital that is worthy of the area, a hospital to look after all the people, young and old, who live in Bangor or the surrounding area.
The Ards hospital is a former workhouse and needs a replacement. The ideal solution is to provide a new major hospital between Bangor and Newtownards. But since that is not likely in the foreseeable future, the people of North Down are entitled to have the existing hospital services enhanced and increased to meet the needs of the people living in the area. I pay tribute to the doctors, nurses and staff at all those hospitals. They and the people of Bangor, Dundonald and Ards deserve a fair deal from the Government. I conclude by making reference to St. Patrick, whom we shall be celebrating--at least some of us will--on St. Patrick's day on 17 March. St. Patrick seems to have been hijacked by Irish Republicans, but he was a Briton, kidnapped and taken to Northern Ireland, or what is now Northern Ireland. He returned of his own free will and landed, as I claim, in Bangor, in my constituency. His holy footsteps are no doubt there to be followed by many others. Without doubt, he was a Briton--and presumably, if he
Column 101returned today to Northern Ireland, where he landed before, the Republican terrorists and their political sympathisers would tell him to go home : "Brits go home," they would say.
St. Patrick is an Ulsterman by adoption. I think that all the people of Northern Ireland should recognise him as a person whose life is worthy of celebration, and I like to think that everyone there will celebrate his name day on 17 March.
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) : The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) spoke of treading from Dan to Beersheba-- covering all the ground open to us. I intend to speak--harshly, unfortunately--about only one aspect of life in Northern Ireland.
Much of what we are considering today will have a far-reaching financial effect on the day-to-day lives of the people whom I represent. That may appear to be a fairly self-evident truth, but I do not necessarily mean a beneficial effect. Sadly, although those who administer our affairs in Northern Ireland live and work no more than 100 miles from the furthest extremity of the Province, some of them might as well live halfway around the world, in terms of their understanding of our rural population.
Rural Northern Ireland--and we are, or at least were, a rural community--is being gradually but ruthlessly decimated by the conduct of our affairs under the direct-rule system of government. To live in a rural area is to be a victim of blatant social engineering. The most culpable in that regard are the planners, who are, in practice, a cabal of the most arrogant, unreasonable, dictatorial and conniving bureaucrats whom one could ever hope to avoid. They operate an unrestrained victimisation of the rural community. We used to have an impartial Planning Appeals Commission, to which we could refer ; it has now been packed with, and dominated by, planners, losing much of its independence as a result.
Let me tell the House about the attitudes of those people. One applicant living in one of a small cluster of houses in a rural area wanted to develop what would have been an infill site to provide a home for his elderly sister, who badly needed family support. The planner refused permission ; when I argued the case for the limited development, I was told, "No. She is nearly 80 years old"--in other words, "If we give her a year or two, with a bit of luck she will be dead and will not need a house."
Another constituent was eventually given permission to build his new bungalow, adjacent to a self-feed cattle silo and a slurry lagoon. When I argued that he should be allowed to move 20 yards away from the smell, the same planner told me, "Remember, it is a farmhouse." With apologies, I would interpret that as meaning "If you are a farmer, you should expect to have to live in cowshit." I do not accept that. I have held my tongue for too long ; let me now put on record a few more planners' decisions that have caused grief to the applicants and to me. It must be realised that people who have worked the land for perhaps 50 years or more do not want to be banished from it--banished from the community to which they belong and the church that they have visited with their children on Sunday after Sunday, close to where they hope eventually to be buried--just because they have reached retirement age or are making way for a son or daughter to succeed them.
Column 102At the other end of my constituency, I argued for planning permission for an aging retiring couple in indifferent health, who could no longer work the land and who, having no one to succeed them, intended to sell all of it except a plot where they wanted to build a bungalow. The planning officer, for no good reason, would not approve their choice of site but suggested his alternative, which was in a low-lying field that each winter, almost without fail, lies under 2 ft to 3 ft of flood water. How am I expected to be able to deal with such pigheadedness ?
The same planner recently refused to allow another farmer who has 450 acres of land and hundreds of head of cattle, whose son is married and intends to occupy the main farmhouse, to build adjacent to his extensive farmyard. Unlike his colleague whom I mentioned earlier, this one wants to move the applicant away from his farmyard across and down a main road. He probably does not know that cows sometimes calve during the night and that a farmer cannot afford to be out of touch with what goes on at any time of day.
I could cite literally dozens of perverse decisions such as that. A farmer wanted to build a retirement home for himself and was refused permission on the ground that his proposed site was too prominent. With photographs, I produced evidence to show that this was not so, but the planner's decision was upheld by the planning directorate--a cabal within a cabal. On inquiry, I discovered that someone in the planning department had submitted alternative photographs to mine and had cheated by contriving to gain elevation at the point from where the photograph was taken to prove their point about undue prominence of the site.
I took the matter to the Planning Appeals Commission and proved to the satisfaction of the presiding commissioner--an ex-chairman of that body and a thoroughly decent man who visited the site--that planning approval should be granted. When he submitted his positive findings he was overruled by the other commissioners, too many of whom are ex-planners whose first objective is to protect the system but too few of whom have any affinity with things rural.
If one reaches the point where deceit must be employed by planners and where the decision is so finely balanced that the presiding commissioner and his fellow commissioners disagree, should not the benefit of doubt be with the applicant ?
We all know that the latter decision went the way that it did because planners could not be seen to be beaten by a Member of Parliament. That could be the thin end of the wedge for them. It is not that I am paranoid, but I challenge the Minister to set up an independent inquiry into how the system works. I promise that I shall bring him dozens of such cases and I am sure that colleagues and Members of other parties from Northern Ireland will agree about what needs to be done.
That is probably the only alternative to our arriving at a stage where people such as myself will be forced to encourage those who are desperate to ignore the planners. Even at this stage, and having had to deal with this most perverse and destructive cabal for years, I am reluctant to do that. It is not in my nature or in that of the rural community to flout the law, but we will have no other redress unless the Minister does something now.
It is time someone took an in-depth look at the destruction of rural life in Northern Ireland and asked, for example, whether it is in anybody's interest to close our
Column 103rural primary schools and decimate happy, stable little communities like the one at Carnteel near Aughnacloy, where I grew up. I went to a school there which had 72 children on its roll, but there are no children there today. What has happened ? Carnteel school has gone and so have the neighbouring Mullycar and Loughans schools, and neighbouring Lisfearty school is currently under threat. Next week, I am going to plead with the Southern education and library board to reprieve that school until the board can provide a new school to cater for the area that was once served by Carnteel, Mullycar and Lisfearty schools.
Are the planners oblivious to the change ? I think that the answer is no. This is social engineering--the type which, in the past 30 years, has encouraged people from their traditional, self-sufficient, rural way of life and thrown them, without thought or adequate provision, into housing estates in the nearest towns. We cannot rewrite history, but we could cease compounding the folly. Yes, there was a real need to improve the standard of the housing stock in Northern Ireland, and I give full credit to the Housing Executive for what it has done. Yes, it is easy for me to be wise after the event, but I am convinced that less money--that is what we are here to discuss--would have been required if we had allowed people to upgrade their rural properties, instead of destroying a way of life that had survived for generations.
Ministers understand that many things have conspired to cause the terrorism in Northern Ireland over the past 24 years, but its continuation owes much to the search for identity among those who have been thrown into what are little more than urban ghettos. I would be the last to excuse violence, but a way of life has been eroded by the depopulation of rural areas and it will be difficult to replace that ethos. In what is left of our rural communities, there is an integrated society. We must stop the planners in their attempts to destroy it, and we must stop them now.
The problem is not only the refusal to permit rural development but the madcap idea, on which the planners are now working, that all new rural housing should somehow take on the design features of cottages built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Successful farmers are to be denied the right to build houses with adequate space and are to be restricted to smaller rooms, smaller windows and smaller everything. "Traditional houses" are the buzzwords and the planners are having a field day imposing their concepts on the community.
More often than not, the planners have no architectural qualifications. These are the people who, a few years ago, thought that electricity pylons should be shoved up mountains where they are eyesores on the skyline instead of tucked away among the contours of the valleys where they are at least less obtrusive. I am not suggesting that country houses should have large balconies and balustrades or that they should be built on the skyline, but a farmer should be allowed the same amenities as everyone else.
One old tradition that I want to support is that a farmer should be able to have his family around him. Planners refuse to acknowledge that the family factor has any place in their deliberations. No one wants to protect the countryside more than those who live in rural areas-- [Interruption.] I am sorry, Madam Speaker. I am being distracted.
Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman who has the Floor is having difficulty being heard because the voices of those beyond the Bar of the House are carrying. I can almost hear what they are saying, and that will never do.
Mr. Maginnis : No one wants to protect the countryside more than those who live in the rural areas do, but we must have some sanity in dealing with the issue. As was said earlier, there is no consistency between one area and another. I assure the Minister that there is no consistency in decision making within areas. Not just anger, but deep resentment, is building up in the countryside towards the planners. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will agree to an inquiry into the abuse by the planners of their almost absolute power.
Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North) : I hope, Madam Speaker, that you will forgive me if I preface my remarks by objecting to the way in which appropriation orders are taken through the House, which allows no opportunity for amendment. Northern Ireland Members are elected on the same basis as other hon. Members, so why are we treated as if we come from some banana republic ? Northern Ireland is still a part of the United Kingdom and, unless and until its people decree otherwise, the Government should face up to their responsibilities and should rule it accordingly.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) mentioned a business man who was trying to locate in Northern Ireland and who wanted to bring in considerable investment from the United States. The business man mentioned that the Local Enterprise Development Unit had encouraged him to relocate in west Belfast. The hon. Gentleman objected to that and said that the work force of this gentleman friend of his were all Protestants who came from a security background. The hon. Gentleman's friend can still come to west Belfast--to the Shankill road--where he will have an excellent and willing work force comprising Protestants, if that is what he wishes, to help him with the promotion of his business.
As my party's spokesman on environmental issues, I am naturally concerned about that important aspect of our everyday lives. I am especially critical of the elements in our society who would expose our population to dangerous levels of pollution through either ignorance or greed. The Government know very well the deep distrust felt by Northern Ireland Members about the activities at Sellafield, which is on our eastern seaboard. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) for their sustained opposition to the threat that the nuclear plant poses to the people of Northern Ireland.
There is now a further development by way of the controversial thermal oxide reprocessing plant which is likely to come into operation in the near future. It is extremely scandalous and dictatorial to proceed with this diabolical, radioactive cesspool against the express wishes of the local county council, which asked for and was refused a public inquiry. Ministers exceeded their powers when they ran roughshod over the people most affected. The air over the Irish sea will now be further polluted when the radioactive emissions caused by uranium and plutonium being separated from nuclear fuel are released into our atmosphere.
Column 105There is always the possibility of human error in such operations which many countries would not touch with a barge pole. A despicable example in recent times was the deliberate leaking of radioactive gas into our atmosphere by Nuclear Electric on Anglesey, which is within striking distance of our shores. The human error factor was ably demonstrated when staff at the power station released that gas without considering the information available to them. They did not know or check the wind direction at the time. No one knows what harm has been caused to our environment by such accidents.
We have heard about concern over Strangford lough. As recent comment indicates, there is continuing disquiet about the future development and management of that lough. That continuing unease underlines the inadequacy of existing structures and raises grave issues in respect of a vital and threatened natural resource. Local media comment shows that none of the conflicting interests are satisfied with present proposals or structures.
It is not my purpose to campaign on behalf of any one grouping, yet I understand the concerns of each of the conflicting interests. The commercial fishermen who are under attack for allegedly fishing across nursery beds may claim that they are following a way of life that has been pursued for generations. They can point to the fact that the discharge of sewage and agricultural effluent has a more damaging effect than their activities.
That internationally recognised waterway provides a diverse wildlife habitat and a sanctuary to numerous bird species. Some observers argue that there should be no shooting on the lough, yet wildfowlers could argue a sound case that their controlled activities pose no threat compared with recreational activities such as jet skiing and power boating.
Those limited examples may show the range of conflicting demands on that resource. It seems that the vital missing ingredient is a proper unitary authority, with power to consider the whole picture, which will take appropriate action without fear or favour. Simply, that is not happening with the existing division of responsibility between Departments and the Strangford lough management committee. I remind the House that, although the first report of the Environment Select Committee under Sir Hugh Rossi made but one specific recommendation regarding Strangford lough, numerous other recommendations applied to the welfare and preservation of the area.
I return to what, for me, is a core issue. On recommendation 26 of that report, I maintain that the need for an independent environmental protection agency for Northern Ireland is vital and I reiterate that my party is committed to achieving that end. I maintain that, in spite of minor delegations of powers, the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland has not met the spirit or the letter of that report and, until it does, the unsatisfactory situation will continue.
Of course, various designations, be they areas of special scientific interest or marine nature reserves, are valuable, but the continuing piecemeal approach does not resolve any fundamental criticism that the gamekeeper, who is also the poacher, cannot provide the satisfactory solution which is required.
On those matters of special scientific interest which relates to welfare of wildlife, our airports could do a lot more to provide grass cover during the breeding season. There are vast areas of grassland at our airports, which is the natural habitat for ground-nesting birds and animals,
Column 106but, unfortunately, the grass-cutting programme destroys that habitat at the most vulnerable time. Airport authorities will say that their operations are based on fire risk, but during the growing season there is little of risk of fire. Fire risk increases as grass dies down, in the autumn when all breeding has ceased.
My other responsibility is for housing, which in Northern Ireland relates mostly to the responsibilities of the Housing Executive. Several concerns deserve the attention of the Government. One of the most important, which is causing physical and mental anguish to the elderly, is the operation and condition of many of the glass-fronted fires installed in most of the pensioners' dwellings across the Province. Many senior citizens live in great fear of what is known as the silent killer. I refer to the fumes from those fires, which are not detectable and which can result in death from carbon monoxide poisoning. Many people are physically unable to look after the fires. They cannot manage the effort involved in removing the throat plate or handling the ashpan--two extremely dangerous operations for the frail elderly.
Furthermore, many elderly people are living on the standard pension and cannot bear the cost of the expensive fuel that the fires require. Consequently, some coal merchants are supplying chemical fuels, which are not suitable and which can aggravate the problem. The Housing Executive insists on frequent chimney cleaning--which is, of course, necessary--but, quite apart from the cost, elderly people do not always remember such things. I state categorically that, were it not for home helps, voluntary workers and caring neighbours, many serious accidents and even fatalities would result from the operation of glass-fronted fires in pensioners' homes.
The exceptionally high cost of maintaining the fires and relining chimneys is of concern to the Housing Executive. As the appliances become older, the costs escalate dramatically. There is also a serious lack of liaison between the executive and the coal advisory service in relation to repairs.
There is medical evidence that the fumes from the fires have an adverse effect on the health of children and of elderly people alike. For three years, an eminent paediatrician in a large Belfast practice has been monitoring the health of children where such children live in homes with glass-fronted fires. The conclusive evidence is that they are suffering from asthmatic and other respiratory problems. During the past year, a survey of 300 households with such fires was undertaken in north and west Belfast. Some 56 of those questioned were asthmatic and a large proportion of them were children. A large proportion of the adults were suffering from catarrh.
The Province has more coal-burning appliances in proportion to the size of its population than any other area in the British Isles. Consequently, it has greater air pollution problems. The executive should seriously consider the provision of an alternative form of heating system. Children and the elderly appear to be the most vulnerable. An environmentally friendly Economy 7 system would particularly appeal to senior citizens, especially those who live on their own.
I am also concerned about the response times for Housing Executive repairs. The simplest repairs are now taking weeks to complete. Since the direct labour organisation was disbanded, the quality of work has also
Column 107suffered, largely because some of the contractors now employed are in the cowboy category. They get away with shoddy work because of the lack of supervision.
It is said that only one in 20 jobs is inspected. That gives rise to fraudulent claims against the executive by some disreputable contractors. Honest builders who act responsibly are penalised by not being paid on time. The executive is supposed to honour invoices within 21 days of the beginning of the following month. In many instances, however, contractors do not receive any money within eight weeks. That could be part of the reason why contractors are taking short cuts or adding fictitious amounts to their invoices. I am concerned about the low level of improvement grant approvals, which affects the housing stock. I should be interested to hear how many such grants have been approved in each of the Belfast regions in the past two years. Applicants are experiencing delays of months in obtaining confirmation--so much so that, in many instances, costs have increased dramatically. I also query the unfitness criteria, which seem to vary between one inspector and another. The local building control office is best placed to make efficient decisions on interpretation.
I should like to turn to a few constituency matters relating to the Department of Economic Development and the Department of the Environment. Among public representatives and community workers there is concern about youth training schemes. Because of the lack of funding, many schemes have been forced to close, leaving many young people on the streets and vulnerable to the influences of the gangster element.
The youth training programme has been further eroded through a proposal to slash participants' wages by 30 per cent. Under the job skills scheme, the Training and Employment Agency will cut by £10 the fee paid to second- year YTP trainees. Those affected--mainly 17 and 18-year-olds--will be given just £25 a week instead of the current £35, with training centres, workshops and management expected to make up the shortfall.
The intention behind the Training and Employment Agency's proposal is to encourage the programme's trainees to move into employment, where employers are expected to meet the shortfall so that a young person may receive at least £35 a week. That will fail. Young people will simply leave the scheme, thereby putting in jeopardy the whole concept of youth training. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at this matter, which is causing such concern and dissension in the community.
In my constituency, many elderly people suffer ill health of various degrees, requiring medical or surgical attention. The patients charter was introduced to limit the waiting time for operations. On the surface, that is commendable, but consultants are concerned at the fact that, in many instances, the charter's effects are iniquitous. Under the charter, a consultant cannot admit a seriously ill person with a deteriorating condition if other patients have been waiting for more than a year and must, therefore, have their operations before 1 April 1994.
Consultants are thereby frequently forced to operate on patients who, although they have been waiting longer, are suffering little--people who, although their condition may require surgery, are not in urgent need of such a procedure. By virtue of Government policy, including the patients
Column 108charter, consultants are not allowed to use their clinical judgment in respect of those matters. I believe that such circumstances were not envisaged when the patients charter was drawn up. There should be latitude to enable consultants to operate on people with serious and deteriorating conditions.
My constituency suffers dreadfully from deprivation and unemployment, which lead to problems involving the welfare of children. Young people who are brought up in such an environment need all the help and assistance that are available. There is a serious literacy and numeracy problem. As a result, teachers face almost insurmountable difficulties at primary level. The Government should provide resources to enable schools to staff their intake classes adequately to provide the individual attention that children need if the proper groundwork for future success is to be laid.
There is a serious lack of nursery school provision. It is important that children are provided with such opportunities in their formative years and are thus prepared for primary education. Teachers criticise the requirement that children undergo a formal assessment procedure at key stages. That procedure can label children as failures.
I am concerned about the current legislation on historic monuments, which was formulated before the advent of the metal detector and was designed to deter people who resorted to excavating on ancient sites or mounds. Time and progress have overtaken the Northern Ireland legislation. It should be replaced by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, which has worked in Great Britain and, in fact, is the envy of many European countries.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : I appreciate that my colleagues have ploughed much of the ground and sometimes have harrowed it as well. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), who moved the order, kept very tightly to his notes. At one stage, he reminded me of one of the black jokes in Northern Ireland about someone on the Magnus Magnusson show. As that person received quick-fire questions, he replied, "Pass, pass, pass, pass," until one of his friends in the audience stood and shouted, "That's right, Gerry, tell him nothing."
I hope that tonight, and after tonight, we will receive more specific answers to questions. The Minister of State told us where large sums of money were to be spent. He then said that there would be savings. However, we do not know where the savings will be made or what impact that might have on different aspects of services. It would be helpful if we were aware of that.
I reiterate the points made by several right hon. and hon. Members about education. It would be helpful to know what reciprocal funding is being spent in other European Union countries on tertiary standard education for young people from the United Kingdom. I realise that we will not obtain much information about that from the Republic of Ireland, where that money is not even spent on Republic of Ireland students so our students would not benefit if they went to the Republic.
There has been pressure on the education budget in Northern Ireland, to the detriment of all sections of the community. Only this morning, I received a letter from the Belfast education and library board in response to an issue
Column 109that I raised about nursery education. I was told that the board could not cope with that provision, as it did not have the necessary funding. While the board believed that nursery education should be funded, it said that, if funding were brought forward, it would have to be spent in the first instance in what the board termed "areas of deprivation".
The Prime Minister has placed nursery education on the agenda. I should like to think that it will be carried through in Northern Ireland to all sections of the community. As the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is to reply to the debate, will be aware, we are waiting for a response in my constituency in relation to Wellington college. It is bad enough to have a moratorium on spending, but when we go through the mythology of saying that boards are responsible for spending the funds allocated to them and when they have a list of priorities, the Department steps in and says, "No, you must take that one out." It is monstrous that a school that comprises prefabricated buildings and has occupied inferior premises for a long time should be pushed further down the list in an area of social deprivation.
Mr. Beggs : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is reprehensible that school principals can go over the heads of their area boards and appeal directly to the Department for funding and that the boards are then instructed by the Department to allocate priorities to meet the requests from some principals?