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Column 646But, like every other hon. Member who has spoken about those planning issues, I do not believe that enough account is taken of the people who live in the areas, those who are involved on the ground and those who represent the people on the ground. If the planning service is supposed to be a service, who is it servicing if it does not recognise the wish and the will of the people ?
Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton) : This debate, like all the other debates on the appropriation orders, allows hon. Members from Northern Ireland to develop the discussion involving their constituents and their constituencies. Because circumstances permit, the 10-minutes rule on speeches does not apply and therefore the debate has widened into a discussion of many aspects that are of importance to Members when considering an appropriation order. I draw the attention of the House to the part of the schedule of the order that refers to the Department of Economic Development, because a great deal of taxpayers' money is allocated in the order for the purpose of industrial development and the creation of jobs. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott), in opening the debate for the Opposition, expressed anxiety about and dwelt at length on the subject of unemployment.
I received in the mail a copy of the front page of the Carrickfergus Advertiser of 15 June 1994. The report states that the new mayor, Sam Crowe, is asking for the Prime Minister to intervene over the proposals by the Northern Ireland Office to close the commercial activities of the Carrickfergus harbour. I understand that there has been significant and lengthy exposure on the future use of the Carrickfergus port.
I also understand that one reason why the town's mayor wrote to the Prime Minister was that the Department of the Environment has issued a vesting order on the commercial land and has given the port users until the end of July to vacate the site. Employees at the port have been put on redundancy notice. The problem in Carrickfergus has been intensified because of the order issued by the Department of the Environment.
Those job losses come on top of other recent major job losses in the region. We must ask what the Northern Ireland Office is thinking of to allow vesting orders to be imposed on commercial land, driving businesses away from the township. It appears to outsiders that the Department's economics is that of the madhouse. That seems to be an apt description of the Department of the Environment--jobs are being lost because of the dogma attached to the closure of the commercial activities at the Carrickfergus port. I thought that when the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) was developing his argument about the port he would refer to that subject because of the significance to it of the order that has been issued.
I understand that there have been discussions on the subject over a long period. When the alterations to the town map for the 1988-95 period were being considered, the problem was discussed. There was also a significant discussion on the port's future at a public inquiry in November 1992 on the Carrickfergus maritime area. There was a recent debate at a meeting of the Carrickfergus town council. A report on the debate was sent to me. A motion
Column 647was put before the council to rescind a previous decision agreeing to the closure of the commercial industries in the region. One councillor mentioned the issue of abandoning the harbour. He said that councillors had once again been misled when they were told that from 1 July all operations on the commercial harbour would cease. He said that the harbour was not part of the hinterland and that commercial activity should be retained at the harbour. When the debate was winding down an alderman asked the town clerk to seek legal advice from the town solicitor on the consequences of voting for a rescinding motion. He concluded :
"I am distressed and very annoyed about the redundancies. I work with unemployed people every day of the week and I see the ravages of unemployment. It is the scourge of the nation when people are made redundant."
This sort of involvement by a whole community goes to show the depth of the concern felt about unemployment, the loss of revenue to the area and the lost job opportunities that ensue.
Carrickfergus harbour has been the backbone of the town, and one can understand the worries about the consequences of redundancies for the community. It is now accepted that mistaken decisions have been taken over the past few years. They should be analysed and reviewed. Redundancy and its causes should not be taken lightly by Ministers, and they should now review the planning approvals given in connection with the drawing up of the town map.
On behalf of the locally elected representatives, business men and trade unionists of the town, I ask the Minister to consider withdrawing the vesting order to allow me, and other interested parties, to discuss the matter with him so that a full investigation can be launched into the whole affair of the Carrickfergus port. The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) referred to the water supply in parts of his constituency. Earlier, I questioned the Minister about what is happening to the water industry in Northern Ireland. I would be interested to know how much is being spent on privatisation, for instance. Problems with water supply and sewerage systems should be given a much higher priority than privatisation. The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) discussed the housing situation. The last time we debated an appropriation order I dwelt at some length on it too. The situation has not improved much since then. More resources still need to be channelled into providing new homes, improving existing stock and accommodating the homeless. I hope that the Minister will pay serious attention to what the hon. Gentleman had to say on this subject. Northern Ireland still has a significant need for more housing.
Finally, the hon. Member for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) raised the issue of health and social services. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has an Adjournment debate on this very point tonight, and I do not want to take up time that he could spend developing his theme. I would, however, draw attention to a press statement issued by the Civil Liberties Council on 9 June relating to the issue on which the hon. Member for North Down spent his entire speech : the closing of homes for the elderly. Who is responsible for closing old people's homes ? Is it the health and social services board or the new trusts ? The hon. Member for
Column 648North Down put the blame on the new trusts. If that is the case, why do they not carry out reasonable and proper consultation with all those involved ? One of the problems is that people are not aware of what they are entitled to or of the consultation procedures that should be adopted.
The Minister should investigate the reasons for the lack of proper consultation. Perhaps he would give the new trusts some guidance to ensure that before they make a decision they consult those who will be the victims of that decision.
What sort of animal have the Government introduced with the new trusts ? The hon. Member for North Down accepted that they are bodies with no responsibility to the community, are unfair and undemocratic, yet they decide the destinies and quality of life for many old people in their areas. Will the Minister listen to the Northern Ireland Council for Civil Liberties on this and other matters involving community care ?
Mr. Trimble : The hon. Gentleman is developing an important point about the unrepresentative character of the trust boards. Does he appreciate that exactly the same point can be made about the area boards, which are equally unrepresentative ?
Mr. O'Brien : That point has been raised in previous debates on appropriation orders. It is true that the health and social services board is in the same category. New quangos are being introduced. The Government should accept that they were wrong when they set up the health and social services board. They should have included some system of democracy when setting up the trust boards. I dwelt on the issue of the trust boards because I share the concern expressed by hon. Members about what is happening to old people's homes. There is a need for the greater involvement of local people who are answerable to the community. Until that happens, the issue will be raised in every Northern Ireland debate in the House. Unfortunately, many people will suffer in the meantime.
I ask the Minister carefully to consider the points raised by many hon. Members. Action needs to be taken on a number of issues, and especially on the question of old people's homes and the Carrickfergus port. I hope that the Minister will accede to some of the points raised tonight.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram) : I shall deal first with the last point raised by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) about where the final decision lies. I do not want to pre-empt my answer to the Adjournment debate or to the points raised about the Banks residential home. However, my noble Friend Lady Denton must endorse any decisions. She made it clear that she has visited or will visit the homes concerned and will weigh up all the information that she receives before making up her mind on the closure proposal. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that my noble Friend is most sincere in giving that undertaking.
Tonight, as usual, we had an interesting debate. I was sorry that, yet again, the Liberal Benches were empty. The Leader of the Liberal party tells us of his interest in Northern Ireland, but when we debate the nuts and bolts of how Northern Ireland works the Liberal Bench tends to be empty. We all regret that and a number of comments have already been made which I do not intend to take up.
Mr. Ancram : That matter has already been raised. It was dealt with and an explanation was given by the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott). Members of the party to which the hon. Gentleman referred normally attend such debates. I was making the point that, despite the fact that the Liberals purport to have an interest in Northern Ireland, the Liberal Bench tends to be empty on these occasions. I am sure that that is of great regret to all hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said that I would deploy a Noah's flood of answers in responding to the debate. His analogy may have been wrong. I feel more like a cork floating on the flood of points that emanated from speeches made tonight. I shall deal with as many as possible, but if I fail to deal with a particular point I will--as is traditional--arrange for the hon. Member concerned to receive a letter from me or from the Minister responsible.
It is important in a debate such as this that Northern Ireland Members have an opportunity to raise matters of concern to their constituents, as was done tonight. When I wound up the last appropriation order debate, I remarked that it remained a matter of sadness to me that the public hear not a selling of Northern Ireland--persuasion that Northern Ireland is a good place to live, invest and create jobs--but almost the opposite. The nature of the process is such that we tend to talk Northern Ireland down. I say to all hon. Members who quite rightly raised the question of unemployment--which I shall address in detail later--that if we are serious about attracting investment and jobs to the Province, we should remember that we do ourselves no good by continually describing Northern Ireland in the somewhat lurid terms used in debates such as this.
I begin by putting myself forward as the salesman for Northern Ireland and placing one or two important points on the record. Northern Ireland's economy is growing faster than the national economy. We did not hear much about that tonight, but it is a fact. Seasonally adjusted unemployment has fallen in eight of the last nine months. The Industrial Development Board has come in for compliments and criticism tonight, but it had considerable success in attracting inward investment over the past two years, and it made a promising start this year. That is all building towards the sort of jobs that we are looking for in Northern Ireland.
As to agriculture, income from farming increased 17 per cent. in real terms in 1993, which must be welcomed. The sum of £5 million was made available for rural development--£2 million more than last year, which reflects the importance of trying to develop the countryside for the benefit of the whole of Northern Ireland.
I will deal later with the specific points about housing, but the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's gross resources in 1994-95 are £522 million, which is £17 million more than last year--not a reduction, as was suggested. The number of unfit dwellings reduced from 11 per cent. in 1987 to 8 per cent. in 1991. That is good news for those who live in houses in Northern Ireland and for those whom we are trying to attract to Northern Ireland. Per capita spending continues to be substantially higher than nationally, at £788 in 1992-93 ; the UK average was £586. That, too, is to be welcomed.
Column 650Health and social services have also come in for a good deal of comment this evening. Spending has risen by 37.8 per cent. in real terms between 1980-81 and 1994-95. This year, £1,293 million will be spent on hospitals, community health, personal social services, trusts and family health services--a 6.8 per cent. increase on last year's spending.
While making valid points about problems in their constituencies, Northern Ireland Members must not lose sight of what is good in Northern Ireland, or of the continuing need to put that message across. Ultimately, that is more important to the development of the Northern Ireland economy and to Northern Ireland jobs than many of the other matters that we discuss in debates such as this.
Rev. Martin Smyth : I welcome the Minister's defence of the Government's policies, but does he accept that people are not in a position to hear that sort of good news in tonight's debate because the task of Northern Ireland Members is to draw attention to areas which still need improvement ? Outside the House, we certainly present a positive image of Northern Ireland, but it is the Government's job, not ours, to defend their record tonight.
Mr. Ancram : I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but it is not just a question of defending the Government's record ; it is a question of pointing out that many good things are happening in Northern Ireland. We all want to say that, and it is my responsibility to put it on the record now. We have heard a good many gloomy stories about the Province this evening.
I come now to the specific issues that have been raised. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), intervening in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, pointed out that the number of "pure" holiday visitors to Northern Ireland had doubled in the past five years. One in five visitors is now a holidaymaker. Of the 1.26 million visitors to Northern Ireland in 1993-94--that figure was mentioned earlier--250,000 are "pure" holiday visitors. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that he can work on those figures in the future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) raised the question of the links between the Republic and Wales, and whether they were receiving more favourable treatment from the European Community than the Northern Ireland-Scotland links. In the first instance, it is for the EC to decide what types and levels of funding are made available to member states under the structural funds ; it is then for each member state to decide how to allocate the resources thereby made available. So far, projects to develop links between Northern Ireland and Scotland have benefited considerably from EC grants, and have remained competitive with links between the Republic and Wales. I hope that that will continue.
The hon. Members for Wigan and for Antrim, North both made important points about unemployment, to which I referred earlier. I recognise the seriousness of unemployment in Northern Ireland, but I am pleased to note that the unemployment figures for May 1994 show a decrease of 1,000 on the previous month, and of 5,400 on May 1993. The seasonally adjusted total has fallen for eight of the past nine months ; in January it fell below 100,000 for the first time since July 1991. Although there is no room for complacency, it is important to note that the trends are moving in the right direction, particularly in comparison with those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Column 651The hon. Member for Wigan mentioned the long -term unemployed. As he knows, there are a number of programmes that demonstrate the Government's anxiety to deal with the problem--action for community employment, the job training programme and Enterprise Ulster. All those are being used in the attempt to make inroads into a serious problem.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned inadequate funding for community care reform. Again, I think it important to put on record that the Government have made substantial allocations of additional money for that purpose. In 1993-94, the boards were allocated £29.45 million, of which £24.63 million was transferred from the social security budget to spend on the new arrangements. A further £41.22 million has been allocated for 1994-95, and £35.34 million will be allocated in 1995- 96, bringing the total cumulative additional money for community care to £106 million. In the light of what has been said, it is important to register that point.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North made a large number of points, and although I may not be able to deal with them all I shall try to deal with some. Like many other hon. Members, he raised the issue of rural planning. The objective of the Department of the Environment's rural planning strategy is to assess and balance the need for development of houses and jobs in particular areas against the need to protect and conserve the environment within that area. It aims to match development to rural settings with the right design and has been generally welcomed. Although some people are unable to build houses in the countryside--they tend to be the ones that, inevitably, we hear about--it is worth pointing out that on average 78 per cent. of planning applications submitted each year for development in rural areas are approved. Although we hear some of the difficult stories, a much more balanced picture appears when we look at all the statistics.
Mr. Clifford Forsythe : I assume that the Minister does not take into account the number of inquiries that are made and the fact that the planning department advises applicants that they need not make an application because it will be refused.
Mr. Ancram : I am sure that the hon. Member will agree that in planning terms it is dangerous--I speak from a certain amount of personal experience--to consider only inquiries, which can be made on a number of levels. It is important to look at the number of applications, which shows an applicant's seriousness, compared with the number that are approved--the vast majority.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North asked about training in Northern Ireland. The allocation to the Training and Employment Agency in 1994-95 is £203 million, compared with £193 million in 1993-94. Allocations to all major training schemes have increased. We are concerned to help as many young people as possible, and those figures fly in the face of some of the suggestions that have been made tonight that training resources have been reduced.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North raised the question of the Springvale campus. The Government have made it clear from the outset that we shall consider any case put forward by the university, but a decision will take into account an examination of the implications for the higher education system in Northern Ireland as a whole, the impact that the scheme would have on the regeneration of the north and west Belfast area and an assessment of the
Column 652public expenditure implications, given the current limitations on available resources. A number of the concerns that the hon. Member raised will be considered by the Government.
The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) covered a number of points which had been mentioned by other hon. Members. In particular, he raised the issue of Irish street names. The removal of the prohibition on non- English street names is part of the process to achieve a more open and tolerant society and is a practical manifestation of the Government's recognition of cultural diversity. It should not be seen as a forerunner to bilingualism. It will be for councils to decide whether to erect dual language street names, but if they do, one name must be in English. There is an obligation on councils to take account of the views of occupiers in the street before deciding whether to put up a street name in a language other than English.
The hon. Members for Londonderry, East and for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) raised the disturbing question of the water pollution incident on the River Stroule. This has been a matter of major concern. The Department of the Environment is continuing its preparation of a file to send to the Director of Public Prosecutions, with a recommendation to take legal proceedings in relation to the spillage of the wood preservative which gave rise to the incident. That shows the seriousness with which the Government regard that problem.
Mr. William Ross : Surely there is a split personality in the Government's approach ? They say that we must integrate everybody, make everybody like each other and become more like each other, and create a more homogenous society ; yet they then promote two totally different cultures and always talk about two different communities. Will they make up their mind one way or the other ?
Mr. Ancram : When the hon. Gentleman is next in Scotland, he might go to look at Skye, where he will see examples of signs in Gaelic. They were introduced some time ago as a recognition of cultural diversity. We should not be afraid of cultural diversity. The hon. Member for Londonderry, East raised the question of rare illnesses and has written to me about that. He also mentioned the particular case of students. Like others, students may be eligible for income support, notwithstanding the absence of a prior contributions record. That remark is in line with the letter that I wrote to him recently on the matter.
The hon. Member for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) raised the question of the Banks home. I know that he has raised it on a number of occasions and that he always speaks with great feeling and great eloquence on the subject. I am certainly aware of the strength of feeling in North Down and in the House. I assure him that my noble Friend Lady Denton is fully aware of the concerns. If the trust decides to close the home, my noble Friend will be asked to consider and endorse the decision. My noble Friend has agreed to meet a number of delegations of interested parties and she has also signalled her intention to visit this and any other homes to meet residents and to listen to their views, which is a point made by the hon.
Column 653Gentleman. No doubt we shall return to the issue again in the Adjournment debate a little later. I wish to make clear to the hon. Gentleman my noble Friend's intention.
I also put on record my rejection of the comments of the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) during the speech by the hon. Member for North Down. People who are appointed to serve on boards and trusts face many difficult choices and decisions, and they do so in the wider interests of all the people in the area. They have a difficult job and I believe that we should recognise their public-spiritedness rather than criticise their efforts to serve their communities.
Mr. Ancram : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will attend the Adjournment debate. I do not want to pre-empt what I shall say then. This is very much at the heart of the matters that will be raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). I think that we should await that debate.
Rev. Ian Paisley : Does the Minister agree that when a home is to be closed, it is malpractice for civil servants to tell people, "You had better put your name down for a home convenient to this one ; if you do not do that now, you will be shifted 10, 20 or 50 miles away from where your people visit." That happened in Broughshane in my constituency, when the Minister's predecessor told me that the home would not close until he met a deputation, yet it was closed before the deputation could meet him.
Mr. Ancram : I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that my noble Friend Lady Denton has fulfilled all her commitments to meeting delegations of people. The hon. Gentleman paid a kind tribute to my noble Friend, for which I was grateful. She has said that she will meet delegations and listen before she comes to a final decision. I should leave it at that because she has to make a difficult decision. She has made it clear that she will make it in the light of comments.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) raised the question of the health service and transport in the rural areas of his constituency and the constituency of the hon. Member for Antrim, North. The provision of hospital services to people in the glens of Antrim has not deteriorated as a result of the transfer of acute services from the Waveney and Moyle hospitals to the new Antrim hospital. Travelling time to the hospital is longer, but the time taken to reach a patient in a emergency remains as before. A very wide range of out-patient clinics is provided at the Waveney and the Moyle. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), the Under-Secretary of State, will shortly be meeting representatives from a number of councils in the area to discuss road access. My noble Friend Baroness Denton has always made it clear that she is keen to hear concerns about health matters generally.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South also raised the question of Orlit houses. I understood that he and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) were keen to meet my hon. Friend and I shall pass that request
Column 654on to him and, in any case, I shall write to the hon. Member for Antrim, South about the matters that he raised. He also raised a specific question about the pension rights of employees in the case of privatisation of Northern Ireland airports. It is not intended that the rights of members of the pension scheme, whether current or past, or the assets of the scheme will be affected in any way by privatisation. Privatisation of the ports is being discussed tomorrow and I hope that the position on that can be clarified at that time. The hon. Member for Mid- Ulster raised a number of points, many of which, again, were covered by other hon. Members, but he raised the question of Unipork in particular. As he knows, its operational control was taken over by Bridgewater Food Holdings plc. The business, which represents a major part of the Northern Ireland pig industry, has suffered considerable financial losses in recent years. A restructuring plan is currently being prepared by the new owners in an attempt to achieve ongoing viability. The eventual configuration of the business will not be known until the completion of that plan. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster also raised the question of flooding in Castlederg. I can confirm that financial approval has been given to the proposed scheme to provide flood protection on both sides of the banks of the Derg.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann raised the question of fair employment. I must begin by responding
Rev. William McCrea : While appreciating the time that the Minister has at his disposal, there are a large number of other matters which have been raised and there are certainly other matters which have not been raised. For example, the hydro-electric matter in my constituency was raised and there are other major matters of concern. Will we get detailed replies on those through the post ?
Mr. Ancram : I told the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members at the beginning of my winding-up speech that, on any matters which I do not cover now, I or my hon. Friends or my noble Friend will write to hon. Members. In cases where a matter has been raised by a number of hon. Members, I shall ensure that the reply is made known to them all.
I am trying to deal with what I believe to be the important issues raise and an important assertion was made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann on fair employment. I shall begin by refuting his allegations of dishonesty. The recently published report of investigations into six companies which the Fair Employment Commission commenced under section 11 of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 found three firms to have employed too few Protestants and three firms too few Catholics.
The affirmative action agreed with all six firms--they were on both sides of that particular problem--included encouraging applications from the under-represented communities, each company's advertisement welcoming applicants from the under-represented communities, effective action to maintain an environment free from harassment and equal opportunity awareness training for all employers. While scales and timetabling have been agreed, it is unrealistic to believe that an exact balance can be achieved, reflecting the overall balance of the Northern
Column 655Ireland working population. I heard what the hon. Member had to say and as it is detailed and complex issue I will, if I may, write further to him on that matter.
Finally, I come to the point raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). He raised the question of planning applications. I shall, of course, bring his comments about the need for an early decision on the planning application in Castlereagh to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield in his capacity as Minister with responsibility for the environment. Likewise, I shall draw to my hon. Friend's attention the other detailed points which were made about the planning process, which were shared by other hon. Members from Northern Ireland.
Mr. William O'Brien : I shall make two points. In the opening statement, when reference was made to the question of expenditure on the water and sewerage service, I asked if it would be possible to give information as to what is being spent on the privatisation of the water services and there was a suggestion that we might hear that information before the end of the evening. Has the Minister any views on the Carrickfergus port ?
Mr. Ancram : If I may, I will take that matter to my hon. Friend the Minister and write to the hon. Gentleman. I will also write to the hon. Gentleman about the water privatisation proposals and put the reply in the Library. Proposals have been made about expenditure to ensure that in the coming years there is a sufficient water supply to meet the needs of Northern Ireland. That is the most important point and the point at the bottom of the question that he asked. I can give him detailed figures on that. If I may, I will do so in writing.
Mr. Stott : I apologise to the Minister for not raising this issue when I spoke earlier. On page 7 of the order £220,000 is allocated to the Northern Ireland assembly. Is that estimate included with a view to any progress that may be made in the talks in which the Minister is currently engaged ? If he does not want to answer that question now, perhaps he will write to me about it.
Mr. Ancram : I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman. He should not read into that figure any hidden or unsubstantiated agenda that I am not prepared to talk about tonight. I suspect that the figure reflects the ongoing costs of preserving the current position. I will write to the hon. Gentleman and make it clear.
As I said at the beginning, while the Government listen to the legitimate points that have been made by hon. Members tonight, it is important that we do not lose sight of the work and commitment that the Government put into Northern Ireland. I listened tonight to many people saying that in some ways the Government did not recognise the needs of Northern Ireland and that Northern Ireland was underfunded. I leave one thought in the minds of hon. Members tonight : in terms of overall expenditure, Northern Ireland enjoys a lead of more than one third above average United Kingdom expenditure. That reflects the Government's concern about the problems which exist in Northern Ireland. That concern is real and it will continue. I commend the order to the House.
That the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 25th May, be approved.
That Mr. Michael Bates be discharged from the Health Committee and Mr. Jonathan Evans be added to the Committee.--[ Sir Michael Neubert, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]
That Jane Kennedy be discharged from the Social Security Committee and Kate Hoey be added to the Committee.--[ Sir Michael Neubert, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]
That Mr. Kevin Hughes be discharged from the Select Committee to join with the Committee appointed by the Lords as the Joint Committee on Consolidation, &c., Bills and Mr. Stephen Timms be added to the Committee.- -[ Mr. Arbuthnot.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Arbuthnot.]
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : I was interested in the Minister's comments in the earlier debate. He accused us of not talking up Northern Ireland. It is because we are concerned that the high quality of care manifested in Northern Ireland may be hindered by some policy changes that I am delighted to be able to have this Adjournment debate tonight.
At the outset, I should say that I share the tributes that have already been paid to Baroness Denton. She is one of the few Northern Ireland Ministers in my experience over the years who listens rather than using that lovely old English phrase, "I hear what you say," which means, "I am not listening at all and I am certainly not heeding what you say."
We are equally aware of the constrictions that are placed around a Minister. I had the unhappy experience of dealing with a civil servant who was advising a Minister about housing in my constituency. He said that there had never been houses in that area on that road. Thankfully, one of the delegation had the Ordnance Survey map of the year of my birth, which showed houses on that road.
I am happy to bring before the House some of our anxieties arising out of the closure of residential homes by the Eastern health and social services board. I welcome the opportunity to raise the matter, because it has immediate implications for the area that I represent. It also has widespread ramifications which will affect people not only in Northern Ireland but in Great Britain. Perhaps a cautionary word should go out to the planners : people may not be in the fortunate position of being able to pay for their own care in latter years. We are all getting older and the lifespan for many appears to be increasing. In 30 to 40 years, today's planners could be those requiring care. Therefore, we should all be guided by the principle : "Do unto others as you would they should do unto you".
As a convinced supporter of community care and care in the community, I have never seen them as cheap options. I certainly take issue with national health service planners who seem at times to be using the elderly as pawns, and I object most vehemently to money mattering more than people.
The background to the debate concerns the Department of Health, which has stated its intention to increase the number of elderly people aged over 75 having their long-term needs met at home, rather than in residential care, nursing homes or hospital settings. Accordingly, the Eastern board has targeted a reduction from the existing provision of 1,823 independent homes and 394 statutory homes to 1,296 independent homes and 303 statutory homes. In south and east Belfast, growth in the private sector was encouraged by the Department and boards, but now many such homes are under threat. However, the real sufferers are elderly people who believed that their latter days would be spent in the settled home of their choice.
Significantly, south and east Belfast have twice the number of over-75s and over-85s as the other three community units of the Eastern health and social services board.
decision-making by the Eastern heath and social services board about residential homes has been completely unacceptable to the residents, staff and communities concerned ? Will he join me in urging the Minister and, indeed, Baroness Denton to tell the board that it must take into account the wishes of the communities concerned and start thinking about people, rather than only targets and beds ?
Rev. Martin Smyth : I appreciate the hon. Lady's contribution. She was concerned about the situation in Northern Ireland, and travelled to Belfast at the weekend to discover first hand some of the issues affecting the staff, residents and carers. I share her views about the rigidity of the decision-making.
I shall turn to the criteria that were set to evaluate options. They were, first, the fabric of the building, including costs and suitability for its purpose--although so used for some time--secondly, the standards set by the Registration and Inspection Department ; thirdly, the current demand and vacancies ; fourthly, the running costs ; and, fifthly, the locations within the area. The board added further criteria after discussion, including interest shown by the number of people attending meetings and the comments made. Presumably that took cognisance of the residents' views.
I give that only by way of background, as the issue is much wider. There is a difference in the national health service between the regions. In England, there is an obligation on local authorities to spend 85 per cent. in the private sector. In Scotland, there do not appear, as yet, to be clear guidelines. In Northern Ireland, however, it appears to be purely a numbers game, in which the target calls for 12 per cent. to be catered for in the independent sector, and only 2 per cent. of the elderly to be catered for in the public sector. The rigidity of the formula does not allow for proper transitional arrangements. People, not beds, would be a better starting point, especially where it was admitted that it would be cheaper to keep open Ardview house in Ardglass.
Community care, as I understand it, should be offering choice, but instead, this chimera is offered. However, those in residential care are offered no choice. Surely there should be a transitional period. Those coming newly into care could have an informed choice and know what their options are, while those already in care should be left to finish their lives in peace.
In 1989, more than 88 per cent. of over-75s lived at home. By the end of 1992, that had fallen to an estimated 82 per cent. I suspect that that was because the Department and the boards were pushing for private homes to be developed. The 1992-1997 strategy document sought to increase that percentage again to 88 per cent. by 1997. However, it would appear that, whereas the Department set a period of five years for the adjustment to take place, the trusts have drastically reduced that to two years.
There does not seem to be any logical basis for the policies being adopted, other than a headlong rush to save money. The Banks home, which has been referred to this evening, has been described as "beautiful and convenient", Ardview as "beautiful but not convenient" and Cairns