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Column 616I know that there is to be an inquiry, but will the Minister accept its findings ? In the past, the Government have put their pen through the findings of certain inquiries that they did not like. What was the use ? Will the Minister say tonight that whatever may be the result of investigations, the Government may be depended upon to ensure that the inquiry's findings are implemented ? That is something that the Minister cannot dodge. He comes from Scotland himself and must know something of the agitation there.
All of us are concerned about the completed feasibility study into the building of a new university of Ulster campus at Springvale in west Belfast, which will require the injection of £100 million. There are fears that money would have to be taken from other education projects in Northern Ireland and its education budget. Perhaps the Minister could say something about that tonight. People are worried as to how the continuing revenue costs of such a university would be met.
There is the continuing threat of closure of small rural schools, and continuing pressure on schoolteachers, parents and pupils from educational reforms. I say to the Minister who is to reply, who has responsibilities for education in Northern Ireland, that his reaction to deputations has been appreciated. The Minister has listened, taken some propositions on board and been helpful in many cases. However, there is much concern about the educational issues that I mentioned. Northern Ireland still has a big housing problem. Is the Minister prepared to review the amount of money allocated to housing in the Province, which still has housing queues ? One can find married couples with children who are still living with their in- laws. At a home that I visited the other day, the whole family--mother, father and four children--slept in one room. One would think it possible for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to do something, but it is not prepared to purchase ground and build new houses in that area. People do not want to leave the neighbourhood in which they were brought up, and they should not have to do so. They should be rehoused in the same district. The Housing Executive should immediately be given the proper resources to undertake necessary work. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.
As to roads, on 16 June the Under-Secretary said :
"I welcome the inward investment project to which the hon. Gentleman referred and I recognise the importance of access to Larne port. We hope to upgrade part of the road in 1997-98."--[ Official Report , 16 June 1994 ; Vol. 244, c. 749.]
Which part of the road does the Minister intend to upgrade during that time ? The Minister who opened the debate, who told us that his colleague would answer, must have been reading Hansard , or must have known what was in the mind of his other colleague ; he was certainly very confident about what was in the mind of the Minister of State who is sitting next to him this evening. We have been given a date, and I wonder what will happen in 1997- 98.
What will happen to the road from Ballymena to Antrim, the A26 ? As Member of Parliament for Antrim, North, I feel very aggrieved. The hospital for which the land was purchased should have been our main hospital, but it was taken from us. A firm promise was made that the roads to Antrim from Ballymena and further north would be designed so that people who became ill and had to be transported for half an hour, three quarters of an hour or an hour would have good roads on which to travel. That promise has not been kept.
Column 617The Antrim hospital, which is now up and running, is not sufficiently accessible to the people. It should be serving an area from as far north as Ballymoney, and even Coleraine, down to the borders of Antrim. Moreover, we were promised cars, ambulances and other conveyances. A committee was set up to monitor what happened in Larne. When people become ill in the night or have an accident, they are rushed to Antrim ; the ambulance then leaves, and after receiving treatment those people must sit in the hospital all night because there is no transport to return them to Larne. That is happening repeatedly.
I hope that the Minister will tell us what he knows about the problems with the new hospital in Antrim. If he knows nothing, perhaps he will make inquiries and write to me. This is a serious matter, and it is coming to a head : there will be more problems with people being taken to hospital and simply left there.
I am also very concerned about the European rail link. The official map that has been issued shows just one link, with Dublin ; there are branch links elsewhere on the island of Ireland. I raised the matter by means of a deputation, and the Commissioner said that he would look at it. I do not know what the current position is.
I do know, however, that there is tremendous agitation in the Irish Republic, which is trying to destroy the port of Larne. Larne is the second largest port in the United Kingdom--a good port, which used European money wisely and well. European Commissioners have taken photographs and exploited the port, saying, "This is the way in which European money is being used to benefit society." Now, the money that helped to make the port what it is, will be sidetracked in an attempt to take the volume of traffic away from Larne and keep it in the Republic.
As we know, the shortest sea route is across to Scotland. It is sad that the rail link has been closed, for big business could be done. I trust that, in their representations to Europe, Ministers will push for Larne's status to be maintained. It was established with the aid of European money, and has shown that it can produce the goods. I hope that we shall see a fight for its salvation. If European funds for the Dublin to Holyhead route are to be increased, let that be countered with similar funds to make the roads to Larne what they ought to be.
Finally, I believe that the Royal hospital should be kept. Unfortunately, it has a location problem, but one that the people of Northern Ireland have weathered. Given its international standing, the hospital should be preserved and helped. I think that there is a good place, too, for the City hospital, and that the hospital appreciates that.
Patients from Cork can be operated on in the Royal Victoria hospital, while patients from my constituency have to go to Scotland. There is something wrong with that. No one in the medical world would challenge the capability of the Royal hospital, whose surgeons and other professionals have the highest qualifications and have proved it worldwide. Why should our people have to travel to Scotland for operations, while people in the Republic can use the facilities of the Royal Victoria hospital ? A hospital must serve its own community first ; then, if it has places for others, it must serve them. I hope that the Minister can give us more information about the treatment
Column 618of patients outside Northern Ireland when we have the facilities in Northern Ireland, and beds in Northern Ireland hospitals are being closed.
We are all very concerned about old people, and about the senior citizens' homes over which there is now a question mark. The other day, at one of those homes, I spoke to an old lady who was over 90. She told me, "I have been here for more than 20 years and I should like to end my days here, but I am told that I may have to be shifted away from the few friends I have left in this community." Such action is not good for the aged, or for those who should be looking after them. Let me issue a plea for sympathy and concern for the aged in our Province : let us not close, willy-nilly, homes that have done such good service to the community. There is much emphasis on home care nowadays, but some people cannot go home because they need care all the time. If they can be cared for at home and want to be there, that is fine ; but the needs of some cannot be met through home care, and we must provide for them.
Those are some of the matters that concern me. I hope that the Minister will give them his attention.
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East) : I begin by taking issue with the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott), who said, in praising the Royal Victoria hospital, that it was situated in the middle of the worst killing ground in Europe. I know that we have our problems, but we have not yet approached the level of killing in places such as Bosnia. I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will agree that his words were not as wisely chosen as many of the rest of his remarks.
Mr. Stott : I acknowledge that I said that, but I had meant to say "in the European Community". I acknowledge that in the past two or three years we have seen dreadful scenes in some areas of Bosnia. Even the hon. Gentleman would not deny, however, that in the past few years the area around the hospital in Belfast has been a terrible place for people being killed.
Mr. Ross : I acknowledge that, not least because the area is within a square mile of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) and the number of deaths has been horrendous. It would wrong, however, to let folk outside Northern Ireland or even the United Kingdom believe that the position is worse than it is. God knows, it is bad enough--we do not have to add to the misery.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) discussed retirement dwellings and the right to sell. No one should be under any delusions that this is a difficult matter. Hon. Members will know that I am a farmer, so I am well aware of the problem and of the extended family nature of the farming community in Northern Ireland. Two or even three generations can be resident on or near the family farm. I fear that, if we loosen the right to sell too much, applications for other dwellings will be made in 10 or 20 years' time. The Minister is nodding and I am sure that note has been taken of the matter. I hope that there will be some loosening of the right to take tenants into such accommodation, which would often relieve farmers of the problem for years. The matter is worthy of consideration.
While I am on the issue of planning, I should like to raise an issue that has caused me some concern. A large
Column 619housing development was constructed in my constituency, after which other constituents found that water pressure had disappeared from their homes. I made inquiries and was told that the Water Executive was doing its best to remedy the problem and that, within the next month or so, it would be remedied. When I made further inquiries, the water service told me that the development was such that water demand would be outside the range of the existing main and that the developer should liaise with the Water Executive.
That is fair enough as far as it goes, but I hope that the provision of public utilities such as water will be given greater consideration. Towns such as Coleraine and Limavady are expanding like mad, but not enough consideration is given by the planning authority at an early stage as to whether a public utility--water, sewerage or electricity--will be up to the job. That creates enormous problems for people moving into dwellings. I should say that that is the first time in my 20 years in the House that such a matter has been brought to my attention. If it is happening in my constituency, I am sure that it is happening in others, and I see one or two heads nodding in agreement. Some consideration should be given to improving procedures to deal with such problems.
The next problem is of constituents who contract a rare medical condition. I am sure that every hon. Member knows that there are an endless variety of medical conditions, many of which are very rare. As it happens, this year three totally new conditions have been brought to my attention. In the first case, the individual was told by doctors, including the consultant at the Royal Victoria hospital, that he had multiple sclerosis. It was then discovered that he did not and that he was possibly the only person in Northern Ireland with that particular disease, but that he could be cured by a difficult and delicate operation. His family faced a horrendous time in the period between the diagnosis and the operation.
The second case appeared to involve hlyasthema gravis--an awful auto-immune disease that causes fluctuating, sometimes fatal, weakness. Again, the individual involved suffered many problems. The third case involved a constituent who I know personally and who had contracted dystonia, the symptoms of which are very nasty. He and his wife were working. Over a period of months, he suffered increasing and great pain. The family income went down enormously because he had to leave his work. Like most young couples buying a house, he was a comparatively young man. Doctors had some difficulty identifying the condition. They also ran into a series of problems in relation to the financial help to which they were entitled--a problem that is common to the cases of the three individuals who wrote or came to see me. Families in that position, often with no experience of how the social security system works, face severe problems. They look to all the statutory agencies for help and experience difficulty in receiving disability living allowance, severe disability allowance, mobility allowance and other benefits. As only the wife is working, they suffer an horrendous drop in family income, which has a devastating effect on the family.
I am not an expert in such matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) knows a lot more about them than I do. The Government must consider them because they involve distressing cases. It may not always be true that hard cases make bad law, but sometimes they call for rather more sympathy than is
Column 620readily apparent to those of us who are brought face to face with the consequences of such illnesses. The matter goes much wider than that. So far this year, I have had three cases. Heaven only knows what horrors await hon. Members at their next constituency surgery or in the post tomorrow morning. I hope, therefore, that the Government will consider the matter.
I have heard of one or two cases where students were involved in motor accidents and were unable to continue their studies for some time, or suffered an illness that rendered it impossible for them to return to their studies. As they had not been paying national insurance contributions, they could not draw the benefits that were available to other people. They intend to return to their studies. Those involved in car accidents may, in some cases, eventually receive some compensation, but they have to get from where they are to that happy position. In the intervening period, some of them are without any income and are totally dependent on their parents, who are often incapable of supporting them.
Something needs to be done. I have corresponded with the Minister in regard to one student. I hope that the problem will be resolved because it is clearly a United Kingdom-wide problem. It needs to be looked at and dealt with sympathetically to allow these young people some income while they are recovering until, eventually, they can continue their studies. It would be an enormous waste if those young people said that they were giving up their studies and surrendering the possibility of grant.
The next matter has occupied quite a few column inches in my local newspapers. It arises out of the large payments now being made for electricity produced under the non-fossil fuel obligation. The Minister is well aware that there has been a hullabaloo over the wind farm on Rigged hill. There is some talk about what is happening at Corkey, but that is not my immediate problem because it is in another constituency. There is continuing concern and unease in the community in Limavady about the Rigged hill project, although the council has decided that it will not raise any objection, even after listening to the folk on both sides of the question at a recent special meeting. It is interesting that the Northern Ireland legislation appears not to require a formal environmental impact study. At least in the Corkey case and in the case of Rigged hill, an informal report was prepared. I have looked at the 1985 EC directive and at the United Kingdom regulations that brought it into force in 1989.
It is interesting that two categories are covered under the EC directive and the regulations. There is a need for reports on the water generation of electricity and for generation through thermal stations. Indeed, the legislation runs rather wider than that. Nowhere is wind generation mentioned. We are told that we must take into consideration all the developments that have an impact on the landscape, as the EC directive says, and on the environment, as the regulations say--in civil servants' eyes, those phrases may or may not mean the same thing--in terms of the visual effect.
I have seen wind farms in Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Anyone who says that they are not intrusive is living in a dream world. The wind farms can be seen from many miles away. In the report on Rigged hill, folk were told that the windmills would be 30 m high. In fact, they will be 60 m high--four or five times the capacity of the project originally mentioned.
Column 621Sir John Wheeler indicated assent .
The matter is not as simple as it appears and we need to take a careful look at wind generation generally. Rigged hill is part of the escarpment that runs from Benevenagh in the north to beyond the Glen Shane pass, a distance of 20 to 25 miles. Every inch of that escarpment is a first-rate place for a wind farm. Whenever I mentioned that to the planners, they said, "Wind farms will not be built the whole way along." My immediate reaction was, "Why not ?" It must be one of the best sites in the British Isles for a series of wind farms.
We need to sit down and put on our thinking caps before going any further down this road. The beauty of the countryside and its tourist potential are such that we must have some regard for the visual impact. There are not normally many folk on those hills, which are hundreds of feet high. However, we must think rather more seriously about the whole matter than has been the case hitherto.
The constituent who raised the matter with me pointed out that there was a letter, which is mentioned in the documentation, which was sent to the B9 energy section from the Londonderry division of the town and country planning service on 24 November 1992. There was also a letter to EM Consultants on 21 May 1993. My constituent has been unable to see the letters. I assume that, as they have been issued by a public body, they should be available to the public. I should be grateful if the Minister would give an undertaking to place them in the Library and then tell me when they are there because I would like to see them.
Environmental impact studies have a whole series of regulations surrounding them. They are supposed to be available to the public and copies are supposed to be made available to the general public. Councillors are supposed to be told about them. The reports prepared in these two cases were allegedly available, but they were never advertised. No one knew that the reports were available for examination. My constituent, who found out about them more or less by accident and then went to have a look, is not very happy. If we go down this road, the general public must be taken along with us. They must be given an opportunity to object to anything that they think might have a long-term detrimental effect on the landscape in which they live. I hope that planners will be rather more open about such matters in the future.
I want to touch on one or two other matters, not least the horrendous case of pollution in the River Strule. As the House knows, I believe that work keeps interfering with my angling. I am afraid that I do not get very much angling done these days.
Unfortunately, someone let a large amount of wood preservative into the Strule. As the Minister, who is also a keen angler, knows well, nine miles of the river were poisoned to the extent that the water plants were killed. It was not a happy situation. We were fortunate that the salmon smolts were away, but that did not protect the resident fish or the following year's salmon smolts in that area. It was a large kill.
Column 622I believe that the source of the pollution has been traced. I hope that remedial measures will be taken and that measures will be put in hand to ensure that such an incident is extremely unlikely to happen again. We have far too much pollution. Every year, we have a whole catalogue of disasters. The people who are responsible wash their hands in public and say, "We are very sorry that it happened. Please leave us alone and we shall get on with the work." The reality is that many people use the water for recreation, and they have put time and money into their activities, often on a voluntary basis. It is just not good enough that people seem to be able to walk away from these horrible pollution incidents, which damage other people, and that they get off practically scot-free.
I now turn to sub-head 3 of the vote for the Department of Finance and Personnel, which refers to money being spent on community relations and cultural traditions. It is all intended to improve relations between the various sections of the community in Northern Ireland. We then find that the way in which the Secretary of State intends to improve community relations is to bow to the Irish republican demand that street names should be put up in Irish. I do not know who advised the Secretary of State and I do not know which Minister is responsible for the matter. It is just about the daftest idea that has come out of the Northern Ireland Office for many a day. Will the Government never learn that, if they take all those soft stories at face value, all they do is annoy far more people than they please ? I do not hear Irish spoken very often in the streets of Dungiven, which I would have thought is one of the places where one may well expect to hear it. I do not hear it in everyday use and I do not think that many people do.
Since Irish has been taught and learned in Northern Ireland, it has been for a blatantly sectarian and political purpose rather than an educational one. If the Minister does not like that, he should go back and examine the evidence and he would gladly come to the conclusion that my assessment is correct. That proposal should be dropped and the money should be used for something far more useful. While talking about how the Government may use that money, may I point out that Limavady grammar school is still waiting for the go-ahead for its building programme. That money would make a favourable start in that process.
I hope that it will not be long before the Minister accepts the good advice which arose from several quarters and from the General Synod of the Church of Ireland--as it happens, it was held in Cork this year--where a number of leading clergy drew attention to the nonsense of integrated schools in the Northern Ireland context. We have been told that everybody has their freedom. I well remember the roots of the whole idea of total parental freedom of choice, rather than dealing with the schools in which there was something wrong. I am aware that the Government are so heavily committed to the idea that they are unlikely to change their mind, but if they had any wit they would drop it and some of the other proposals and get on with providing a proper education in every school in Northern Ireland. Then, if people are anxious to go to good schools, they can go to state schools and the voluntary grammar schools, which are largely integrated anyway.
I also hope that the Government have not lost sight of the need for the Coleraine hospital, despite the diminished number of beds which, apparently, are to be provided in Northern Ireland in a few years' time.
Column 6238.31 pm
Sir James Kilfedder (North Down) : For a number of years I have been fighting, and fighting relentlessly, on behalf of the Banks residential home in Bangor in my constituency to prevent the closure of that excellent home, which provides facilities for elderly people. I have been fighting to stop the dispersal of the residents there--senior citizens--who have come to regard the Banks as their own home.
A year ago, I presented a petition to Parliament, which was signed by many thousands of people. In all, 16,000 local people have signed petitions for the retention of that valuable facility in my constituency. I have written numerous letters to the Secretary of State for Health, to her predecessors and to the chairman of the Eastern health and social services board and other officials. Yet the threat of the closure of Banks and the eviction of the residents still hang over the heads of those vulnerable, elderly people. I therefore take this opportunity once again of protesting in the strongest possible terms at the inhumane way in which those people are being treated.
It would indeed be unfortunate if the Banks residential home were closed. It would be a traumatic experience for everyone in the home. For a group of frail, elderly people, with an average age of 85, it is devastating, and that devastation is being imposed on them by a body which is supposed to be statutorily charged with their welfare. That is a mockery. I refer, of course, to the North Down and Ards community health and social services trust, which no longer seems to believe in democratic accountability to the people that it is supposed to serve.
There is widespread community support throughout the North Down area for the plight of those poor people. The fight to prevent the closure has been organised and co-ordinated by a body of people known as the Friends of the Banks, led by Mrs. Marion Smith, the chairman of the pressure group. I pay tribute to her and her colleagues. The campaign is based not only on emotion, although I must admit that I feel emotionally involved with those unfortunate people who seem to be pawns of an unthinking bureaucracy, but on the logical argument that there is a continuing need for the Banks. The home provides a first-class facility for full-time residential care, for respite care and as a base for a whole range of community support facilities for the elderly.
Indeed, the local unit trust appeared to accept that the Banks residential home is a first-class facility. Its own inspection team has given it top marks as a first-class establishment, and I can confirm that from my experience over the 24 years during which I have been a Member of Parliament for the constituency of North Down. I have visited it frequently each year, and I have long had connections with the Banks through meeting its residents and meeting relatives there and attending some of the functions there. I have always been impressed by the care and the consideration shown by all the staff towards the residents, and I know that that impression would be strongly endorsed by the residents and their relatives.
Mr. William O'Brien : I appreciate the opportunity to intervene on this important issue. The hon. Member for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) has described the appalling situation over the application by the people who form the trust. Is it not a fact that we are witnessing what we described would happen--undemocratic, unrepresentative,
Column 624unthinking people appointed to the trust by the Minister ? Does not the hon. Gentleman feel that he should condemn the way in which the trusts have been formed and the lack of democratic accountability of those appointed trusts ?
Sir James Kilfedder : I readily adopt what the hon. Gentleman says about the attitude of the people in that unit of management. It was my opinion that they were there to serve the people. Certainly all the people that I have met felt that the people appointed to the trust are not serving them, the people of North Down, but are serving themselves and masters elsewhere. They are there to serve the people--the patients, the elderly and all those in need. In my view--I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said--they are falling down on their duty and turning a deaf ear to the pleas of people in this case : the supporters, the relatives and the residents of the Banks residential home.
The only reason for suggesting the closure of the home is that the site is a valuable one and its sale would partly provide the cash for alternative community care facilities. I am not certain whether the cash would be used wisely. I am sure that the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) would echo that fear. The home is on a valuable site. The land, I understand, was given by a private individual for the specific purpose of providing the home. However, once the home is sold, developers may buy the land, but the money from the sale may be wasted on some other project. I feel that it is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul if, in fact, the trust intends to provide some other facilities, although I wonder whether, at the end of the day, it will. Surely we have not reached the stage at which progress in community care provision is achieved at the expense of the elderly and vulnerable residents of the Banks.
Leaving aside the sense of outrage at the proposal, the consultation has been abysmally handled by the unit trust. It has been forced to make postponement after postponement because it has mishandled the consultation. It was forced by the High Court to appoint an advocate to represent the old people at the home. The latest postponement arose from representations by the High Court about the way in which advocacy had been handled.
All the delays are simply adding to the trauma of the residents, who are becoming increasingly upset and depressed. Indeed, my latest information is that they are being given conflicting information by the unit trust about the outcome of the legal proceedings. Surely the fact that the unit trust has been endlessly forced to delay its procedures shows that the proposal is seriously flawed. Why cannot those old people be taken out of their misery by receiving an assurance that the Banks residential home will not close ? The situation has become so unreasonable that I strongly urge the Minister to intervene and to direct the unit trust that, in the interests of the old people, the closure procedure should be indefinitely abandoned.
Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster) : I am sure that the hon. Member will be glad to know that many people throughout the House wholeheartedly support his contention and his appeal to the Minister. I am sure that the Minister, realising the strength of feeling in the House, will do something about it.
Column 625when he replies to the debate. If action is not taken quickly, there will be a powerful feeling in Bangor and in the rest of my constituency of North Down that no one in authority cares any more. I am most anxious that elderly people should remain in their own home as long as is humanly possible ; I have said that often in the House. It is good for them to remain in the area that they know and where they have friends and where their church and other facilities are located. However, they need help with cleaning the house, making a main meal, lighting fires, washing and maintenance of the garden. That means the provision of home helps and other carers. Therefore, it is lamentable that home help hours have been seriously reduced and elderly people are left with less support. Our senior citizens are vulnerable at all hours of the day and night. I am absolutely disgusted that they do not receive the help that their years of service to the community entitle them to in the twilight of their life.
Elderly people are vulnerable in many ways. I drew attention only a short time ago in the Chamber to the way in which some youths have behaved towards elderly people. Greater action is needed. More police ought to be provided to stop gangs of youths banging on the doors of elderly people's houses late at night, throwing rubbish into their gardens, urinating on their front doors, writing obscenities on their walls and so on. We ought really to try to safeguard and look after our senior citizens. They deserve not just compassion but support, and something must be done to protect them and to give them the quality of life that they surely deserve.
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South) : First, I draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that, during the last Northern Ireland Question Time, his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland referred to the A8 to Larne. If he looks up the reference, perhaps he will find out precisely what are the plans for that road. I agree with what has already been said about the importance of the Larne road and the A26, which is essential to the north of the Province and to the new hospital in Antrim.
Vote 2 of the Department of the Environment vote is for housing. We have received a considerable number of complaints both by letter and in the House about the inset fires fitted in Housing Executive houses. I have made my views known on the matter. Many of the complaints were well justified, although there was a great deal of scaremongering as well. I took the matter up with the Housing Executive at the invitation of the Minister and with the National Coal Board and the Coal Advisory Service. I found that both bodies had been working hard to find out just what the problems were. I have seen test rigs and I can tell the House that the investigations have been exhaustive. Up to the present, they have been inconclusive in some respects, but the Executive and the Coal Advisory Service have certainly done their utmost to try to solve the problem. There is a problem with the fires and a problem with the flues. Those problems have been investigated. The point can certainly be made that the fires are not terribly handy for the elderly people who use them. There is a tendency to keep out all the draughts in a room. Unfortunately, to make a fire burn properly and keep alight a certain amount of air is required.
Column 626I welcome the fact that the Housing Executive is now looking at a new open fire, similar to the old Baxi-type fire, which draws in air almost artificially. I have great hopes for that fire. It would certainly serve and please those people who wish to have an open fire and at the same time run a given number of radiators, using fuel which is suitable for clean air zones. I put those points on the record now because in the past I have criticised the Housing Executive and the Minister on the matter.
An allocation problem still exists in the Housing Executive. None of us envies the job of the allocation officers because when they please one person they disappoint a hundred, but there is a case to be made for a return to giving some preference to local applicants. Unfortunately, if there are empty houses--or voids, as the Housing Executive calls them--in a given area, folk come in from all sorts of places to occupy them and local applicants are turned down because those coming in from outside appear to have greater priority. That matter should be examined. We should keep the local people in the locality where they have been brought up and wish to remain. I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) said about care in the community. I certainly agree with all that he said. However, if we are to have care in the community, the Housing Executive also has a responsibility to provide proper housing for those people. Elderly people who want to live in the community or who are being asked to live in the community certainly cannot climb stairs or live in an upstairs flat. They require suitable housing.
Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North) : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on this important subject. Is he aware that pensioners and their families have been prohibited from buying their Housing Executive homes, although in some cases those homes may be in low-demand areas ?
Mr. Forsythe : I am aware of that, although I was made aware of it only a short time ago. I understand--perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) will keep me right on this--that even if pensioners have the cash to buy their home, the Housing Executive will not allow them to buy it. That is unfair. If pensioners have the cash and can buy a home without even getting a mortgage, I cannot see what objections there could be. I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that matter.
We have certain types of houses which are not being occupied. Sadly, that means that some areas are going downhill because we have a lot of empty houses. That is a great pity because there is a shortage of certain types of housing. Perhaps that matter, too, can be examined. I remind the Minister of a problem from the past which, unfortunately, is still ongoing. I understand that the case of the Orlit houses has not been settled. A certain type of Orlit house is still causing problems. I understand that the tenants of Orlit houses which were sold by an unregistered housing association are not being treated in the same way as tenants in registered housing association houses.
Mr. Molyneaux : I know that my hon. Friend shares my concern for a fairly large group of Orlit home owners in Lisburn in my constituency who have through no fault of their own have fallen foul of what appears to be a defect in the law because their houses were built by an unregistered housing association. There seems to be some slippage in
Column 627the drafting of the legislation between what I call the Ian Gow Bill and the Order in Council. We had to wait three years for the Order in Council. When it emerged, it seemed to be defective. I wonder whether my hon. Friends the Members for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) and for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) would accompany me to see the appropriate Minister, because it is a grave injustice.
The hon. Member for North Down referred to vandalism on housing estates. There is a case to be made for joint action to be instituted between the police, the Housing Executive and the social services. We have great problems in certain housing estates, and that is a great pity. Unfortunately, we find that when one bad tenant is put into a housing estate, within a short time 70 per cent. of the people on the housing estate want to be transferred.
Sadly, I have to point out that in some areas the drug problem is also serious. It is difficult for public representatives to explain to constituents who are worried about vandalism and drug problems that it would appear that certain things cannot be done. I ask the Minister to examine the situation carefully. Perhaps a task force involving local councils and so on could be set up to examine the situation and try to resolve some of the problems in this respect as they are serious for those who live in certain areas. It is sad that there are such problems.
Vote 4 of the Department of the Environment vote is for planning. I agree with all that has been said about tied dwellings. I am also concerned about the situation in which farmers, their families and others cannot seem to be able to build on their own ground. I shall digress slightly from what my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) said. My sympathy is with my constituents, not with the planners trying to keep people from building.
If we are to keep people on the land, and to keep the farming community as a family or a group, we should make allowances for that. Certainly, if we are to have empty cottages or bungalows throughout the whole of Northern Ireland simply because there is a planning rule which says that they cannot be sold or let to people who are not in the farming community, the purpose of spending millions of pounds on building Housing Executive houses escapes me if we cannot use them. I agree that that matter should be examined again.
One gets annoyed when one phones the planning service and the planning service says that these are the new guidelines. The guidelines have not been through the House ; they are decided by the planning service. We are not told about them. There is no local council input. The decision is taken and the guidelines are then presented to us as being set in stone and we cannot change them. We greatly object to that.
We naturally object when enforcement is requested but is not carried out. Yet when we do not want enforcement, the planning service does it. Sometimes I think--and I say this to my friends in the planning service in my area--that they are perverse in that if we want something done, they do the opposite, but perhaps I am being unfair.
I wish to refer to vote 5 on the Department of Health and Social Services, and I want to put on record that we in Northern Ireland also have problems with the Child Support Agency. I know that the subject gets a lot of mileage in the Select Committee on Social Security--of
Column 628which I am a member--and I know that we have debates in the House about it, but the same applies in Northern Ireland as applies in the rest of the United Kingdom.
There are complaints about the CSA and hold-ups in assessments. We know that letters are not being answered and phone calls are not being returned- -at least we are told that. That seems to be the same in Northern Ireland as in other parts of the United Kingdom. The same points are made on the subject. Why should clean breaks not be accepted ? The debt switch arising from divorces and the travel-to-work expenses of the absent parent are not allowed for. Fifty per cent. of the pension contribution is allowed, not 100 per cent.
If a lady marries a man who is an absent parent, her income is immediately taken into account to keep the children of the absent parent. Some people would say that those things are not supposed to happen, but we know that they are happening. Sadly, that is the case, although even natural justice should demand that those things should not happen. It is rather unfortunate.
It is accepted that, when the subject of the CSA went through the House, everyone agreed that it was a good idea that parents should look after their children. Everyone would have applauded that, but there is a way of doing it and we should look at the subject again seriously. I must emphasise to the House that I and my colleagues are well aware that the staff of the CSA are doing precisely what the House requested them to do, and it is most unfair to hear about the aggravation which CSA staff are receiving. We must try to change the system to help those who are disadvantaged by it, but people should not take it out on the workers. We in the House gave them a task which they are now doing.
I would like to mention also "The Future of Pensions" recommendations which will be debated by the House and which will also apply to Northern Ireland. I know that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) will understand when I say that improvements and changes in pensions law should be brought in as soon as possible.
One thinks of evidence given by the Harland and Wollf management regarding the pension fund. They seemed to treat the members, former members and workers with great disdain and did not pay any particular attention to their views. I understand that the management saw the report and thought that it supported what they had done. In fact, the position was the absolute opposite. The pension fund trustees have not yet appointed a representative from the pensioners--unless one counts the chairman, who has now retired but remains as chairman of the trustees ; one wonders whether he perhaps regards himself as a representative of the pensioners.
I hope that when the privatisation processes for the airport and the port of Belfast are taking place the Government will take into account the ideas and the new proposals in "The Future of Pensions" and build those into the pensions provisions in the privatisation of those companies.
I would like to ask the Minister briefly about the social fund. The social fund report from the Auditor General in the Northern Ireland Audit Office says that there were 1,901 cases of recoverable loans abandoned or impracticable to pursue. Why was that the case ? The figure in the accounts states that the amount was £153,000. I would be the last to say that we should pursue people if they are
Column 629desperately in need of money and are deserving of it, but we should have an explanation as to why it was not possible to recover that money.
I agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) about the disability living allowance. Nowadays, people suffer from new ailments and medical conditions which are not recognised by the medical practitioners who examine the applicants for the living allowance. That lack of flexibility should be considered.
The introduction of an identity card is an excellent idea. That little plastic card could carry a photograph and all the relevant details about an individual. Those in receipt of benefit could then take it to the post office for the purposes of identification. That would provide an excellent job for sub-post offices, which we are keeping. There is talk about the privatisation of the Post Office, but I know that we are keeping our sub- post offices. The card could also identify those who go along to vote, as that procedure is still subject to problems.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) : The hon. Gentleman should consider going a bit further and having an identity card in Northern Ireland for all purposes, including voter identification. In the past there was a difficulty about the introduction of such cards, but now that we have all-party agreement on it and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron), the Social Democrat and Labour party representative, is now in favour, surely its introduction would be a non-contentious issue on which the Government should move ahead.
Mr. Forsythe : I agree. It is an excellent idea. It is not a particularly difficult job to produce the identification details required ; they could all fit on the back of the card, just like our Access cards. Now that there is agreement across the House on its introduction, the Minister should consider it. My colleagues and I would support its extended use.
Vote 2 for the Department of Economic Development covers tourism. The Minister had a little debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East about the membership of the tourist board. He said that certain people were best suited to serve on the board and I would not disagree with that. I am not quite sure, however, whether there is an hotelier on the board. If there is no such member, perhaps that is why local business people who apply to the Industrial Development Board for help to build a hotel or complex are told that they cannot have one because the board will only give such grants to large hotel chains which come to Northern Ireland or to hotels associated with such chains. I am reliably informed that that is the practice, so perhaps the Minister will confirm or deny that when he replies. If it is true, it is disgraceful. We are talking about helping to attract people to Northern Ireland, and who better to do that than local people ?
In connection with vote 1 for the DED, I congratulate the Minister, as I have done in the past, on the new investment and new firms that have come to Northern Ireland. I have seen the benefits of that in my own constituency and I welcome them. I know that the IDB has done a lot of hard work to attract such investment. As I have said on previous occasions, it is most unfortunate when the media choose to play down and, on occasion,
Column 630attack certain investments which people have worked hard to get. I give a black mark to the media for talking down or criticising certain matters. My second criticism of the media is that when the IDB is holding confidential discussions the media tend to leak the fact that those discussions are taking place, with the result that others get to know about the matters in hand. That is unfortunate. I disagree with the Minister's high praise for the Local Enterprise Development Unit. My praise for the IDB does not carry over to LEDU, because it is supposed to help and encourage local people by putting them in a position in which they can create more employment but, sadly, that is not happening. I am sorry to end my speech on that note, but it must be said.