Previous Section Home Page

Column 413

believe that there is a limited budget and that the money that should go into the fishing industry will be used for schemes such as that mentioned by the hon. Member for South Down--the harbour in Kilkeel. That is essential money which should be provided. The fishermen face one of the greatest challenges they have ever faced. They have to cope with depleting stocks and financial problems as they try to keep their families. It is disgraceful and despicable that inadequate provision is made for the Kilkeel fishermen and the harbours. I join the hon. Member for South Down in asking the Minister to provide that money.

It is appropriate to say that the present Minister with responsibility for agriculture is one of the first Ministers to have gone to Europe to fight for the position of farmers in Northern Ireland; it must be placed on record that that is appreciated. It would be remiss of me to say that there is a need for assistance but no representations are being made; the noble Lady certainly fights our corner. I hope she knows that right hon. and hon. Members will back her if she continues to fight for appropriate finances to meet the needs of the fishing industry, bearing in mind the serious challenges that it faces.

Under the same agricultural budget, I should mention the changes that have been recommended at Loughery agricultural college, in my constituency. I attended a deputation to the Minister but, unfortunately, it seems that the decision has been taken. I genuinely feel that that decision is detrimental to the interest of the Cookstown area, which has the second highest unemployment rate in the United Kingdom. The decision is regarded as a blow not only to teaching staff but to ancillary staff and local services. Many small businesses relied on Loughery agricultural college and its vibrant college campus as a means of income.

Moving on to the Department of Economic Development, I have listened to much of the talk about the peace dividend. There seems to be plenty of verbiage and witty talk and it all sounds good. It is wonderful to hear so many wonderful promises. If I believed in all the amounts of money that are supposed to be rolling into Ulster, I would not know what road to keep off, as so many tonnes of pounds and punts would be arriving--perhaps we will not get punts; they are getting them in rather than giving them out, but there would be dollars and all the rest coming in because of the so-called peace dividend.

Who will enjoy this so-called new prosperity? I have already said that I understand the fears and frustrations of the hon. Member for South Down, but, in some ways, he has to thank his own party leader, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), for the current position. When the hon. Gentleman goes to America, although he leads a particular party, he is very good at mentioning a certain part of Foyle, but he is not so helpful or good at assisting his colleagues when it comes to investment. We have listened to plenty of media coverage about how many jobs are coming from America to the Province, especially through the efforts of the hon. Member for Foyle. Perhaps the hon. Member for South Down should tap his hon. Friend on the shoulder and tell him not be so selfish.

Mr. McGrady: I should like to endorse the hon. Gentleman's magnificent tribute to the leader of my party for his great endeavours in raising funds in America and spearheading the Trojan fund in Europe. He should take


Column 414

on board the point that these funds are paid through Government Departments and the International Fund for Ireland and are not at the personal disposal of any individual Member of Parliament.

Rev. William McCrea: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Perhaps he should wait for the rest of the comments before he starts thanking and congratulating his hon. Friend. After all these trips to America, we are still told by the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), representing Her Majesty's Opposition, about the vast and terrible unemployment of what he called the Derry area; it is actually Londonderry. Perhaps the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman needs some extra education about the part of the country he is in. The hon. Member for Foyle has been promising plenty, but it is all promises. In actual fact, there has been little substance. Earlier in the debate, we discussed the difference between substance and the rest, but here we are told that the hon. Member for Foyle has brought in a certain number of jobs. Strabane is in the same constituency. The Bogside area of Londonderry would have a chance of getting some benefit, but Strabane has little of the prosperity from America or anywhere else, never mind places as far down the country as South Down, where there are problems that the hon. Member for South Down needs to talk over with his hon. Friend the Member for Foyle. In the debate in July 1994 on economic development, I raised a matter concerning Omagh. I received a letter from the Minister after the debate pointing out that IBB had recently acquired a 26-acre site at Doogary. When will a factory be completed on the site, and when is it hoped that its occupant will commence operations, thus giving gainful employment to local people?

What steps is the Department of Economic Development taking to enhance employment in the Cookstown area? I attended a meeting with the divisional planning officer and one of my constituents just over a week ago, requesting the development of land near Killymoon. Surely the Government must show an active interest in getting industrial development into the area. How many major firms have shown an interest in moving into that region of high unemployment? Education standards in the Cookstown area are among the highest in the Province. Young people are able, ready and willing to rise to the challenge, but the town desperately needs hope because of its high unemployment. The Castlederg area, for instance, continues to worry me. Previous Ministers spoke in glowing terms about new possibilities for the area; a special report was commissioned, and civil servants were deputed to examine the area's needs. My constituents, however, want not promises but action.

What has happened since we last discussed these matters? What industrial developments have taken place in Omagh, Cookstown and Castlederg? The Government must bear some responsibility for the sense of hopelessness felt by a number of people. Instead of adding to employment, the Government have caused the closure of Omagh's maternity unit, thus removing jobs from the area. They have not given the signal that they are backing industrial investment and development in the area and ensuring that essential services are in place. The maternity


Column 415

unit was excellent, but the Government have closed it. They have also run down in-patient mental health institutional treatment by cutting staff numbers.

Since our last debate, the Department has decided to remove Cookstown's rates office. Rather than assisting employment in the area, it has moved civil servants away from an unemployment black spot. Councillor William Larmour and I had a meeting with the senior officer, Mr. Gallagher, who expressed grave concern; but this appears to be Government policy.

We made a suggestion at that time, because we had heard that housing benefit administration was being centralised. There is excellent office accommodation in Cookstown, which will now be left empty; that could have been used. Geographically, Cookstown is the centre of the Province, so such action could not have been described as isolationist. After I raised the matter, however, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss), wrote me a letter including the following statement:

"As for Housing Benefit, Mr. Gallagher assures me that Cookstown was, indeed, one of the locations considered for the proposed centralised office. However"--

the first part always cheers one up, but the next bit tramps one down into the ground--

"a detailed assessment of the pros and cons of siting in a provincial town, rather than Belfast, has concluded that Belfast offered more advantages, especially in terms of availability of staff with Housing Benefit experience, proximity to the main body of claimants in the greater Belfast area, communication and greater flexibility in the efficient management and use of staff." I am told on the highest authority that there is no reason why the housing benefit office could not be centralised in the accommodation in Cookstown, which has just been upgraded. It seems, however, that it must be in Belfast. When it suits the Government, they will remove civil servants from Belfast and send them to Londonderry; if they can move them as far from Belfast as that, why can they not move them to excellent accommodation in Cookstown, in the centre of the Province? The Government's action gives the wrong signal to incoming industrialists. If they are not interested in retaining services--and civil servants--in the area, what encouragement does that give to those who look for Government commitment? What have the Government kept in that area? Instead of showing commitment by introducing jobs, they are withdrawing them. That does not give the green light for prosperity; it gives the red light to industrialists, telling them to keep away.

That is a serious mistake by the Government. I appeal to the Minister of State to ask his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to look afresh at the centralisation of housing benefit arrangements: excellent accommodation is available for staff to walk into. The Government tell us how sad they are that the Cookstown area has the second highest unemployment rate in the Province, but they are taking jobs away and adding to its problems.

I have mentioned Castlederg. It was announced yesterday that Derg Valley hospital was to be closed. Again, rather than offering encouragement to an area with employment problems, the Government offer hopelessness. The hospital serves elderly people who provided the backbone in the creation of the health service, bringing prosperity to the Province: they paid


Column 416

their taxes and national insurance, and were told that the state would look after them in the later days of their lives. Now state provision in Castlederg has been withdrawn from elderly people, and is being handed over to the voluntary or the private sector. I have no objection to the voluntary sector, which should be encouraged to become vibrant; nor do I object to the private sector. I do not believe, however, that the Government have the right to withdraw from their responsibility to look after the old and the sick. Again, the Government commissioned special reports on Castlederg's needs; I wonder what they cost. In the end, rather than sending a message that they were backing the hospital and those who were willing to put their money where their mouth was, the Government withdrew the services that it provided.

Economic development and the Bann are connected issues. As has been said, we need an infrastructure programme. We need roads. I understand the feelings of the hon. Member for South Down, who sees motorways, dual carriageways and a mass of lit-up roundabouts in other parts of the Province. All that is wonderful; perhaps part of the rest of the Province can enjoy some of it, too. Perhaps we can ensure that the industries that come to Mid-Ulster can get their goods to the ports quickly.

Remember, Cookstown is a central part of the Province. There is a bottleneck in Cookstown because it needs a bypass. Magherafelt needs a bypass. Why is the money that is rolling in not used to remove the bottlenecks in Magherafelt, Cookstown and Omagh, allowing the industries that come out to the west of the Bann to get their goods to the ports as quickly as possible? The Omagh area badly needs stage 3 of the through- pass, yet I am told that it is not on the priority list.

I appreciate the progress that has been made in stages 1 and 2, but without stage 3 it is ineffective. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) used his influence in another place to have the road recognised as a trans-European highway. I mentioned that in the previous debate and I shall keep mentioning it. It is lovely to get the trans-European highway. It sounds good, but it must be able to carry the vehicles. It must be capable of encouraging industries to come into the area. Without stage 3 in Omagh, the commercial and agricultural life of the Tyrone county town will be strangled.

Another by-product of not having that through-pass is that land earmarked on the 2002 plan cannot be developed. It is landlocked. Without the development of the third stage of the through-pass, it will continue to be landlocked. House prices are unacceptably high in Omagh town. I urge the Minister to treat the matter with urgency and seriousness and to place stage 3 on the Department's priority list so that work can commence at the completion of stage 2. It is vital that Cookstown gets a bypass and that it follows on to the bypass in Magherafelt. A small area of the road network needs help to assist the industrial development of our area.

I must press one other matter, which is outside my particular area, but it does follow on. There is an excellent road from Londonderry to Castledawson roundabout and on to Toome. Unfortunately, there is a bottleneck at Toomebridge. A dual carriageway is needed from Toomebridge to the M2. I genuinely believe that that


Column 417

would be of great assistance. If all this money means anything, let it be put into something productive, which would help the industrial development of our community.

In Omagh recently, Queen's university announced that it would operate a faculty unit in the technology centre. I urge the Minister earnestly to consider allowing the Department of Education to take over the former Tyrone and Fermanagh hospital. It has 3,000 sq m of excellent buildings, which have recently been refurbished to a high standard. It is an historic building. It is situated in a mature campus ground of more than 300 acres, with student accommodation, recreation halls, outdoor sports facilities and other excellent amenities. It is sitting there for the university to take up. Surely it should be considered as a campus site at a European level. That would be a great advancement educationally and economically for the western area.

My constituents face many problems. I believe that it is vital that the House gives due consideration to them. We must ensure that there is less rigid planning in the countryside. The farming community is not able to allow its sons and daughters to build in the countryside, and we need to consider that.

Pre-school nursery education has been mentioned. There is a tremendous lack of it within the community.

The hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) mentioned the extra funds that were allocated between the maintained and the controlled sector.

We were told that we had to put up Irish signs so that people could read in Irish as well as English. I read something very interesting in the paper today. I read that this person, Adams, the Sinn Fein president, went to the Arran Islands at the weekend. The article says:

"He opened his address to the crowded hall in Irish but then, admitting that his knowledge of the first tongue wasn't the best, switched to English."

And he has the audacity and the front, which the Government drank hook, line and sinker, to say that we should spend public money, at a time of great restriction, and put up Irish signs, which fewer than about 3 per cent. of the people can read. Even Adams himself, who is paraded all around America as the great hero, cannot read Irish. He started his speech in Irish and then had to apologise that he knew nothing about it. That is not the only thing that he knows nothing about.

There is a great need for expenditure in the Province. My constituency needs it, as do other hon. Members' constituencies. I am not saying that mine should get more than others, but I do believe that, in the past, my constituency has not had its fair share. I believe that we have a right to demand that it does.

8.46 pm

Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South): I hesitate to talk about the roads and new industry that I have in my constituency. Perhaps I should mention them briefly, as time is going on.

The policy on the sale of Housing Executive houses is good; people like to own their own homes. But it has created a difficulty, as the houses that are sold are beside Housing Executive houses that have not been sold. Unfortunately, the Housing Executive does not keep the area in a good condition. That, unfortunately, means that people who have bought their own homes live in a "through-other" area, as we say in Northern Ireland and


Column 418

cannot sell their homes. That is extremely unfair on those house owners. It is about time that the Housing Executive got its act together and did something about that.

The Housing Executive should also look at some of the objectionable neighbours that it puts into its houses. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by that. Unfortunately, we have in Northern Ireland what are known as "druggies" houses, where people dispense drugs. The people who live in them fortify their houses in such a way that, if they are suspected of having drugs and the police arrive, by the time the police get into the house the drugs have been burnt--in a fire that is always burning, both winter and summer.

It is also known that certain flats contain animals that are not supposed to be kept. We know of flats in which two large rottweilers are kept in the one flat, simply to keep out the law, if it happened to come along. It is time that the Housing Executive, the police and the Northern Ireland Office got together to see whether some way can be found to sort out that problem, because it is very serious in certain areas.

A more mundane but no less important matter is that the coal advisory service is changing, because of the privatisation of British Coal. How will the solid fuel boilers and flues and so on be looked after? I hope that that matter will be looked at quickly and seriously.

Northern Ireland still has giro drops, which do not seem to be understood in some circles, and they must be investigated. If legislation is required, it should be introduced. I would accept a letter from the Minister, as well as a few remarks in reply at the end of the debate. Perhaps he could have a look at why grants are processed so slowly. I think that it takes about 12 months to get a Housing Executive grant.

A Bill relating to pensions is currently in the House of Lords. Part of that Bill will not apply to Northern Ireland and I assume that the legislation will be brought in by order. Perhaps the Minister will let me know whether that is so. An important aspect of that Bill is how trustees are selected to represent pensioners. I should like the legislation changed so that pensioners can democratically elect their trustee rather than have one appointed. In the past I have had some knowledge of water privatisation, and I am rather concerned that it is still being visualised for Northern Ireland. Of course, there may be a change of Government and it may fall by the wayside. I am quite sure that, if the Opposition become the Government, they will not privatise. Northern Ireland has an excellent water system. Belfast water commissioners were renowned throughout the world and, usually, the operation was run by local councillors. That was an excellent idea and it would be a great pity if the system were changed. We, of course, oppose the privatisation of water in Northern Ireland.

The Department of the Environment vote 1 deals with roads. I support the aim of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) to complete the dual carriageway to Larne. I was rather afraid to mention that, because colleagues have different views on roads in Northern Ireland. I should certainly like to see the dual carriageway finished. Perhaps I could make a local plea for the A26 between Antrim and Ballymena.

I was interested in a letter from the Minister with responsibility for the environment in Northern Ireland to my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr.


Column 419

Ross). It referred to EC funding for unadopted roads. I have several times mentioned such roads in the House and I hope that they are being looked at, because the issue needs to be sorted out. I hesitate to get into mundane matters such as those involving travellers and gipsies camping on lay-bys. However, in a year in which the resource element to councils has been cut, it is not right to have 40 or 50 caravans parking on a DoE lay-by and then leaving. I estimate that the cost of clearing up and putting right the damage to the site would probably be about £600, and that does not include farmers' fencing and so on that was badly damaged and burned. It is time that that was examined and perhaps an effort made to make sure that only those with a legitimate reason for parking for a short time are looked after.

I spoke about councils. Ratepayers are complaining because, no matter what percentage the councils put on the rate, the regional portion is always much greater. For instance, if the council adds 3 per cent., the regional rate is generally about 9 per cent. and is portrayed as 6 per cent. Councillors have to carry the can for that 6 per cent. when they put on only 3 per cent. That is most unfair to councillors, most of whom do a good job with what they have. I am pleased at the number of new industries that have come to my area. I congratulate the Industrial Development Board on its good work along those lines. I hope that difficulties that have been mentioned in the newspapers about other projects are overcome and that new industries will come to the Province as quickly as possible.

I am a bit concerned about vote 2 of the Department of Economic Development, because the tourist grants, to which we are now paying much attention, seem to be causing difficulty. I had a couple of cases in which the grants seemed to take a long time to come through. There seems to be an inclination to give grants for hotels and other projects coming into Northern Ireland rather than to the entrepreneurs in the Province who are trying to start up their own hotels and the like.

In the context of the privatisation of Belfast international airport, we are opposed to the privatisation of air traffic control. There was a suggestion to that effect, although I think that the idea has been deferred. We support those in the rest of the United Kingdom who are totally opposed to the privatisation of the air traffic control system. It is essential to have confidence in those systems, and they should remain as they are.

I have a criticism related to tourism which involves an airport outside Northern Ireland. I hope that I am not ruled out of order for mentioning it. We have an excellent new airline which started last week and uses Stansted airport. I had the unfortunate experience of sitting for hours in a plane on an apron at Stansted because it appeared that the proper de- icing equipment, or enough of it, was not available. There certainly did not seem to be enough snow clearing equipment and there was only 1 in of snow on the runway. Perhaps the Minister would speak to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about that.

Sir John Wheeler: I may be responsible for what happens to every blade of grass in Northern Ireland, but I


Column 420

am not responsible for Stansted airport. However, I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend is made aware of the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

Mr. Forsythe: I thank the Minister for that. The spirit of co- operation would be helped if we had more tourists coming through Stansted to Northern Ireland.

I had intended to make a few comments about the Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland, but I shall restrict them. One of them is about family credit, which does not seem to be taken up because of the large amount of paperwork involved. People who send in pay slips, as they are supposed to do, find that they either get lost, are out of date or are the wrong ones. They do the same thing again. I know people who, even though they need the money, stop trying to get it. If the benefit is there, it is only right that people who deserve to receive it should do so. The fact that it may be difficult for some people should be considered.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) wants to discuss health matters. It has been reported to me that, in certain parts of Northern Ireland, people over 75 years of age are being directed to geriatric-type hospitals instead of to normal hospitals. Apparently, those people do not have much going for them. I am sure that the Minister will draw attention to that.

The National Playing Fields Association is issuing information on a multi- game wall where one plays all sorts of games. If one has a small area, one can put up such a wall and kick a ball against it, or play basketball and cricket. That is a good idea. If there is no room for a proper sports ground, erecting such a wall should be considered. I remember as a boy kicking a ball against a wall. It did me no harm. I recommend that to the Minister.

9 pm

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen): I am conscious of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) on Northern Irish colleagues' time allocation in this debate, so I shall be brief.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) concentrated on agriculture for a large part of his speech. The Minister mentioned that the Government are seeking to spend only £1,000 extra in the agriculture sector.

Within the past couple of months, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has taken evidence in public from the Ulster Farmers Union and the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland. One point emerged: the importance of agricultural employment in Northern Ireland.

As the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster said, that has been a backbone of Northern Ireland's economy. There has been a drop in employment in that sector. Although that drop is mirrored throughout Europe, it is considerable. For instance, in the early 1970s, 10 per cent. of civil employment was due to agriculture; now it is 6.4 per cent. Agriculture is still a considerable source of employment, but the position could still be better. When we were taking evidence in public from the Department of Agriculture in Northern ireland, one of the points I asked about was the capacity for developing the principle of co-operation in farming.


Column 421

There are a large number of one-person or two-person farms in Northern Ireland, so surely the capacity is there to bring the farming communities back together in co-operative ventures. They may have all sorts of names and undertake all sorts of activities in various aspects of farming, but the potential is to develop that principle of co-operation. At one point, it was mentioned that the Northern Ireland farming community seemed to be apprehensive about co-operative ventures, but other organisations in the farming community did not accept that.

I also asked whether co-operation was valued as a principle by DANI. It is a hard world. Commitment to a particular principle is a measure of how much of DANI's allocation for its activities has been devoted to developing the principle of co-operation in the farming community.

The answer I received was that £300,000 per year was allocated for the development of co-operative ventures in the farming community. That is not a lot. I should like the Minister to take on board the view that, if co- operation can improve efficiency--that is what the modern world is all about--I for one would like greater priority given to encouraging co- operative ventures in Northern Ireland. I have picked up some concerns in relation to the Department of Economic Development. Some of them might just be perceptions, as is often the case in Northern Ireland, but perceptions must be dealt with.

We are all in favour of inward investment. We have to listen only to our colleagues from Northern Ireland to see how much that is needed, but a feeling exists that, in the drive and enthusiasm to encourage such investment, somehow the indigenous companies are being left out on a limb and ignored. That is not being done in a deliberate or culpable way, but those companies are being left to wither on the vine.

All hon. Members should agree that, if an indigenous company is operating and a competitor comes in that is supported by the public purse, that surely gives the competitor an unfair advantage over the indigenous company. We all should be in favour of, and should encourage, inward investment, but we should be careful to ensure that we do not endanger the secure basis of the indigenous companies in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster and my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) mentioned Kilkeel fishing village. In an intervention on my hon. Friend, I mentioned that the Kilkeel fleet was tied up because of the harbour entrance, and that more than £200, 000 would be lost to the local economy. I am not sure whether I said £200,000 a year, but the briefing is clear that the loss would be £200,000 a week. Kilkeel loses a massive amount of money per week because of that.

It was extremely generous of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster to support my hon. Friend the Member for South Down in mentioning it. Generous gestures can sometimes be thin on the ground in Northern Ireland, because, obviously, rivalry exists between constituency Members of Parliament. It is to the hon. Gentleman's credit that he mentioned that.

The position at Kilkeel impressed me greatly. Here were successful people and who were willing to work, to get on with it and, through their own efforts, to get on in the world and to contribute to the Province, yet the harbour at Kilkeel left a lot to be desired.


Column 422

I have another document on port spending by the Department of the Environment. I am not complaining about any expenditure, because clearly more expenditure is required. I saw what was happening at Kilkeel and then saw the spending of the port section of the Department of the Environment on the royal harbour at Donaghadee and on Newry harbour, and the assistance to Moyle district council for ports at Rathlin and Ballycastle harbours and elsewhere.

Although Kilkeel is certainly pressing its own case, and rightly so, I have still not received a satisfactory answer as to why it has been left. In view of the all-party support for Kilkeel, I should like to hear from the Minister at some point how Kilkeel harbour is regarded by the Government.

I am conscious of the lack of time available to Northern Irish colleagues on the Floor of the House, so I conclude my remarks at this point.

9.8 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) and think that the Minister will confirm that I, too, feel strongly that the promotion of home -based industry is best. Home-based industries are tied to the place, and do not pick up their belongings and leave when the going gets difficult. In that context, I support what the hon. Gentleman said. Some might offer reasons why Portavogie and Kilkeel, as fishing ports, have not been properly looked after.

Roads have been mentioned, and I could spend some time talking about a generous letter I received from the Minister responsible since I raised the matter of traffic flow in Belfast. In his letter, he tells me that the inner Belfast box is now scheduled to open in 1999, providing funds are available. It has been going on since the early 1970s and is not yet completed. We are talking about the capital of Northern Ireland, with the emphasis in the Great Victoria street area on attracting people with an outstanding hotel complex at the Europa, while, a little way down the road, there is land that has been vacant for years.

Vote 2 deals with the Department of Education, and I shall refer to a particular constituency issue. It has been brought to my attention that the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, which is headquartered in my constituency, is to be reorganised. Will the Minister tell me now, or later in writing, what will be the duties of the four sub-committees and the duty of the main committee?

It seems that someone has been charged with reorganising the Sports Council on the grounds that it was in a mess, although I had not heard that description of it hitherto. The suggestion that it has to work in a particular way or there would be no funding especially concerns me, because it was made in the context of the Special Olympics. Those who know the work that people such as Evelyn Greer have done with Mencap over the years will understand my concern. Will the Minister assure us that young people will be encouraged to take part in the Special Olympics, and perhaps explain why there has been a breakdown in communications? It seems that people with disabilities in Northern Ireland prefer to take part in the wider United Kingdom games.


Column 423

I refer now to the Department of Health and Social Services, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) said, is my more familiar subject of interest.

I have several concerns about vote 1. I understand, for example, that money from the national lottery intended for community purposes is to be held and distributed by NICVA, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Authorities. What safeguards are in place to ensure that small charities will get their fair share, and that members of NICVA do not favour their pet projects? I ask that deliberately because I know that there have been difficulties in the past. If funds are now being channelled through NICVA, I want a clear understanding that distribution will be equitable.

In the past year, and indeed before, there has been much discussion in the House about changes in the health service and the increase in the number of GP fundholders. It was argued that they would become strong players in the purchasing of services, but I wonder how far the concept has spread in Northern Ireland. Is there any significant evidence that it is spreading?

A few weeks ago, I was invited to visit a practice in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker). It was an inner- city practice, where the doctors were completely sold on the concept of fundholding.

They made bold to claim that in their practice, they had no real waiting lists. They said that they had been able to break the stranglehold that some consultants had on the choice of patients. On occasions, they had made choices not simply on clinical grounds, but on other grounds.

I was fascinated to discover this, because one of the arguments propounded in the House is that fundholding does not work in inner cities. The doctors in this practice, in an inner-city area of deprivation which crosses the community, asked me to put on record their experience of fundholding.

From the answers to my parliamentary question of 2 March, I see that trauma and orthopaedic operations in the Musgrave Park hospital showed a marked decrease of 300 cases between 1992 and 1993. However, between 1993 and 1994, there was a dramatic increase of more than 400 cases.

Is there a reason for the fluctuations? Is it the heralded power of the GP fundholders, or does the increase reflect the hospital's ability to attract patients from elsewhere in Northern Ireland--and even, because of the skills of the staff there, from other parts of the United Kingdom? Is the hospital dealing with matter efficiently enough to bring down the waiting list in orthopaedics?

Still on vote 1, can the Minister say whether the Causeway hospital at Coleraine will be affected by the finances set aside for capital expenditure? There is some concern that the demands of Belfast trust hospitals will have an adverse impact on the Causeway development. A laboratory site has been provided. I would not like to think that there would be no further development for some years while capital funding was diverted to Belfast because the Causeway hospital was in the queue much earlier.

I have two concerns about vote 4. The first is a mobility allowance for under-fives. I appreciate that this is an aspect of the social security system in Great Britain. It is


Column 424

fascinating that, when I send a letter on social security policy to the Social Security Department here--I normally send a copy to the Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland--I get a note from the Great Britain Department to the effect that this is a matter for the Northern Ireland Department. The Department passes the shuttlecock over. I therefore have no hesitation in raising the matter in a Northern Ireland appropriation debate.

Many in the House may not be aware of the Government's bizarre rule that disabled children under five are not entitled to the mobility allowance available to those over five years of age. The argument has been that children under five cannot get the allowance because, until they are over five, one cannot be sure whether they will walk. Parents with disabled children under five have enough problems to cope with, without being denied financial support, especially when it is denied because, according to the Government, it cannot be proved before that age whether a child will walk. I urge the Government and the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Social Services, if it is a matter for that Department, to take the lead and to cease discrimination on such petty grounds. The inability to walk is not set forth as the only ground for mobility allowance.

My second point was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe)--the time taken before people receive housing grants and social security payments. Often some time elapses before people come before a tribunal. They then go through the agonising period of wondering what will happen. There is also a tendency not to look ahead during the review process.

Recently, a constituent went to cash his cheque. He knew that his book was finished, but he then discovered that it could not be renewed, and that instead, he would be paid by giro until he went again before a medical assessment board. The man was fair-aged. The law of averages says that, far from improving over the age of 70, people are inclined to go downhill.

I could not understand why the administration had not booked him in earlier for that medical review, so I raised the issue with the Department. The review is not to take place until at least the end of March, yet the man has not received his cheques for January and February.

We all know that, after a tribunal or a medical review, it takes time to write up the notes and for those notes to get back to the administrative executive. Indeed, the internal postal system is even worse than the postal system from which at times we suffer in Westminster. Meanwhile, people are left high and dry without their proper benefits. It is not enough to say that they will be paid in due course, for people on low incomes have to pay their bills promptly. Only large businesses can afford not to pay bills on time. The ordinary person has to pay the bill, or there will be a row. Will attention be given to that matter?

Before I sum up, I have one concern over vote 5, which involves the costs of funerals. The Minister may be aware of the increasing costs of burial, not only in Northern Ireland but throughout Great Britain. I question whether the available grant covers the cost of a decent funeral. I hope that we shall not return to the pauper's burial.

Mr. McGrady: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the circumstances of burial in Northern Ireland are quite


Column 425

different from those in England and Wales, and that, potentially under the new rules, burials will be more expensive? Around 84 per cent. of funerals in Northern Ireland are interments, and only 14 per cent. are cremations. There are only two crematoria in Northern Ireland, so long distances have to be travelled and much expense incurred by many people. There is an additional problem in the north.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I welcome the hon. Member's intervention and thank him for it, as it was perhaps more helpful than my intervention in his speech. Although I am arguing about the Northern Ireland appropriation order, increasing costs of burial also affect people in the nation as a whole. I certainly concur, however, that there are added expenses in Northern Ireland.

On a more general note, I welcome the publication of the chief medical officer's report. In that document, she highlights areas of concern, and I shall comment on two of them.

It is alarming that 20 per cent. of patients fail to keep their hospital out-patient appointments, which incurs a subsequent loss in the Departments. Is there a communication problem? Are the patients not aware of their appointments? I know that patients are sometimes told of their appointments a long time in advance, but I wonder whether there is a chance that, just as for in-patients, people get their appointments at the last minute and that they are out on business on the day that they are supposed to report to hospital. Could it be, however, that many out-patients arrive on time for their appointments but get fed up and go home when the department is running an hour or more behind schedule? Despite improvements in the system, I have faced that scenario myself. Certainly, the inability to connect a patient with his or her clinic is a substantial waste of health service resources. What efforts have been made to find out why that is happening, and to sort the problem out?

Also in the chief medical officer's report, there is evidence that asthma is the main cause of ill health in children and young people. The Minister will be aware that air pollution is considered a major contributory factor in asthma, which is one of the fastest growing diseases in children. Will the Minister ensure that finance is set aside and research encouraged so that the causes of the increases are identified and eradicated? It is not good enough to say that the cause of asthma is unknown and that there are many exacerbating factors in the environment. We need more detailed research. 9.24 pm

Mr. Spellar: With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate, which has been wide-ranging and has covered many issues. As I said in my opening speech, one of the opportunities that the peace process has created has been a move towards the normalisation of political life and issues in Northern Ireland, allowing us to debate issues of common concern which relate in many ways to Members of Parliament from Scotland, Wales and England, too.

Many of the themes which have arisen in the debate have been familiar to Members from other areas of the country. As we have repeated several times, including in the debate earlier today, we support the Government's


Next Section

  Home Page