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House of Commons

Wednesday 14 March 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Social Housing

1. Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): What plans the Government have to provide further social housing in Northern Ireland. [126335]

2. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to encourage the provision of more affordable housing in Northern Ireland. [126336]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I have established an independent review into affordable housing under the leadership of Sir John Semple to look at the barriers affecting those seeking affordable housing across all tenures—social, private and private rented. Social housing start targets of approximately 1,500 houses per annum have been achieved in the past three years, and I hope to build on that success in future.

Dr. McCrea: Bearing in mind the fact that getting on the housing ladder is the major difficulty facing our young people, as well as the crisis in social housing, will the Minister tell the House what is the total waiting list for housing in Northern Ireland? How many of those cases are deemed a priority, and how many houses are planned in the next two years to meet that need and tackle the crisis in social housing? That is of the utmost urgency, and the planned 1,500 houses are quite inadequate to meet that need.

Mr. Hanson: In total, about 695,000 properties in Northern Ireland are available for social housing. The current projected build is 1,500 houses per annum, and I hope that we will be able at least to maintain that figure in the next three years and, indeed, with a devolved Administration, increase it. Housing waiting lists are relatively stable. I do not have the figures to hand, but I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman receives them. My purpose in establishing the review under Sir John Semple is to look at the great challenges that we face in Northern Ireland resulting from increased homelessness, which itself is caused by a
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range of factors such as employment opportunities; high house prices; family break-up; and cultural changes. We need to address those issues. The Semple review will do so, and I hope that we can publish the final results shortly.

Mr. Bailey: Given that average incomes in Northern Ireland are still relatively low while the increase in house prices has accelerated in the past few years, what specific measures has my right hon. Friend taken to assist first-time, aspirational home owners in Northern Ireland so that they can get on the housing ladder?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We have tried to do several things. We have established and increased the co-ownership scheme to ensure that we provide shared ownership potential in housing. I recently amended the threshold for co-ownership so that it can increase with house price inflation, particularly in hot spots such as Belfast and the north-west of the Province. We have also increased the property threshold for stamp duty to £125,000, so that first-time buyers do not need to make a major up-front financial contribution and can instead put that money towards their capital costs and mortgage payments. It is an important issue, and there is more that we can do. When the report is published shortly, I am hopeful that it will include positive suggestions for action.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I know that the Minister will accept that Northern Ireland house prices have gone up more than house prices anywhere else in Europe—they have increased by up to 40 per cent. in the past year. Does he accept that part of the problem is the high price of land in Northern Ireland for new build? Up to 50 per cent. of the cost of a house is the cost of the site, so the release of land is a critical issue. Because of the slow zoning of the planning service, will the Minister follow John Semple’s suggestion that the Department should give up surplus land and make it available for affordable housing?

Mr. Hanson: I share the hon. Gentleman’s aspirations, and I hope that an incoming Administration—a devolved Administration—can deal with those issues in detail. I have made it clear that I want the provision of Government-owned land for housing purposes to be maximised so that we can provide affordable housing through private sector development and, indeed, social housing. I have undertaken a trawl of Government Departments with surplus land, and, through the Semple report, we will try to ensure that we examine that potential in detail so that we maximise the benefits of reducing the cost of new build by using any surplus Government-owned land as, indeed, is done by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and his Department and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and her Department.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): The Minister will be aware that a recent report indicated that house prices have increased by 52.9 per cent. in the past 12 months, for which the Government must bear some responsibility. Awaiting the Semple report is one thing, but we well know that three issues must be addressed. First, planning regulations must be changed
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to ensure that private development includes mixed tenure; secondly, the ill-fated planning policy statement 14, which forbids any building in rural Northern Ireland, must be immediately withdrawn; and, thirdly, public and brownfield sites should be released for mixed-tenure building. Will the Minister implement those three things immediately without waiting for the results of another investigation?

Mr. Hanson: I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. He will know that the Semple report, which will shortly be published in full, addresses many of those issues in its draft form. I hope that the matters that my hon. Friend raises will form part of the challenges facing the incoming Administration on 26 March, because there is much that can be done in relation to planning matters, land use, social housing build and improving co-ownership. I have an agenda for that, but it is the responsibility of the new Administration to take it forward and to respond positively to Sir John Semple’s recommendations. I hope my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party will play a significant role in taking forward that agenda.

Tourism

3. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): How many tourists visited Northern Ireland in the last year for which figures are available. [126337]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): The most recent figures available from 2005 showed that almost 2 million visitors stayed in Northern Ireland during that year.

Mary Creagh: I congratulate the Minister on that fantastic figure. When I visited the country and visited the glories of the north Antrim coast, the Giant’s Causeway, Portstewart strand and the wonderful hills of Fermanagh, I noticed the difference from 20 years ago, when there were tanks on the streets of Belfast. What is my hon. Friend doing, particularly for the coastal areas? I noticed that there was nobody on the beaches, although admittedly, it was October. What can we do to diversify tourism in order not only to attract Americans seeking to trace their rich family history and heritage, but to get people to go to the wonderful mile-long white sandy deserted beaches?

Maria Eagle: May I say that 2005 was the first year since the troubles began that more people visited Northern Ireland than live there. That is a landmark. When the new Executive and Assembly are up and running in a couple of weeks, they can build on that. There is nothing like political stability to attract more visitors to that fantastic landscape. I am sure that achieving a proper political settlement in Northern Ireland will boost visitor numbers enormously. My hon. Friend is right. In a recent poll the Antrim coast road was named the fifth most spectacular view in the world. It came higher in the poll than the Grand Canyon—a reflection of the glories of Northern Ireland. A poll in The Guardian placed it second among the best road trips in the world. There is no doubt that there are glories in Northern Ireland that more visitors
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need to see, and the best way of ensuring that visitor numbers increase is through a stable political situation and devolved government.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): I am delighted that the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) agrees that Northern Ireland is a worthwhile place to visit. I believe that Strangford in my constituency is one of the most beautiful areas of Northern Ireland, but like others, I believe that the Ards peninsula and Killyleagh in particular are not properly marketed for their tourism potential. Does the Minister agree that the draconian planning policy guidelines for the rural areas, which include the coastal areas, are inhibiting the hospitality sector from building hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation?

Maria Eagle: It is interesting to hear the hon. Lady’s views about that. She may be a Minister in the new devolved Government in not too many weeks, and she will have an opportunity then to focus on making the most of the tourism potential in her constituency. I agree that marketing is important, and that it is important to take note of the detailed implications of visitor numbers as they come through and to adjust marketing to make the best of the tourism potential. There is no doubt that that potential exists. There are already 52,980 jobs in the tourism industry and it is clear that that number could increase significantly with proper marketing. If proper services are available, the tourism potential to exploit in Northern Ireland is enormous. I hope the hon. Lady and her right hon. and hon. Friends will shortly have a hands-on opportunity to make that potential a reality.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The next time a Northern Ireland Minister is in Dublin, will he or she visit the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in Nassau street, opposite Trinity? It is unattractive, unappealing and lacking in marketing skills for the beautiful Northern Ireland that hon. Members have described. It is important that such a visit be made in order that we can attract people interlining to the island of Ireland through Dublin to come to the North, and more importantly, to attract citizens of Dublin and elsewhere in the Republic to come to the North. I have seen more appealing funeral homes than that office in Nassau street.

Maria Eagle: I have visited that office in Dublin, and I cannot say that I recognise my hon. Friend’s description. I accept that it has its limitations, but it certainly did not strike me as looking anything like a funeral home.

Dairy Industry

4. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will make a statement on prospects for the dairy industry in Northern Ireland. [126338]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): The Northern Ireland dairy industry is well placed to face the competitive challenges that lie ahead.


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Ann Winterton: Recently, dairy farming has been in dire straits, particularly because of the low price of wholesale milk. One of the issues that will affect prospects for the future is the high incidence of bovine TB in Northern Ireland compared with the Republic, where a selective cull has been exceptionally successful. Will the Northern Ireland Office consider that matter and take action to assist dairy farmers in Northern Ireland?

David Cairns: I assure the hon. Lady that animal health issues are a significant priority for my Department. We work very closely with our counterparts in the Republic, and I discussed this issue with Mary Coughlan, the Republic’s Minister for Agriculture and Food, when I met her last year. On a small island such as Ireland, it is important that we have an all-Ireland animal health strategy. If the hon. Lady is particularly referring to the selective cull of badgers, we have a group considering that. As with all such emotive issues, it is best to proceed on the basis of fact and evidence, and we are looking at the lessons that we can learn from the Republic. However, she is absolutely right that big challenges face the dairy sector in Northern Ireland. That is why it requires a full-time Agriculture Minister, who is accountable to local people in Northern Ireland, and I very much hope that one will be in place the week after next.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): There are only two ways in which the Northern Ireland dairy industry can remain competitive. One is to produce bulk milk cheaper than alternative suppliers—that option is not open because of limited scale—and the other is to target high-value markets, perhaps through ethical dairy production with integrated supply chains. Does the Minister believe that the dairy industry in Northern Ireland is investing in those areas and not making the same mistakes as the dairy industry here in Great Britain?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is correct. The industry is over-reliant on exporting powderised milk. The changes to the common agricultural policy in relation to export guarantees, which we entirely support, will mean that that is not an attractive option in future. There must be diversification into higher-value products such as cheese, yoghurt and premium ice cream—for example, the excellent Tickety-Moo ice cream. The Government have a role to play in this, and we can help by making grants available, but essentially it has to be a market-led process. I recently opened a new line at the Dunmanbridge cheese factory, which has risen to the challenge. My hon. Friend is right that such diversification has to be the way ahead.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Given that the average market price across the globe for whole milk powder has risen to some $900, does the Minister agree that it should be a realistic expectation for farmers in Northern Ireland that prices for milk should increase, and increase now?

David Cairns: There is of course a very competitive free market in milk and milk products, and it is not the role of the Government to interfere in that. However, the hon. Gentleman highlights the fact that given that the price of whole milk powder fluctuates wildly, it is folly to stake one’s entire economic development strategy
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for the dairy industry on what is essentially a global commodity. He is right that prices go up and down. However, I return to the point that I made earlier: the future for Northern Ireland’s dairy industry—which is tremendously important, as dairy products represent 30 per cent. of the value of its agriculture industry—is to diversify into cheese, yoghurt and other high-value products.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I agree with my hon. Friend about diversification, but what is he going to do? We cannot just allow the market to run things for farmers—we need some intervention by Government. Can he tell me what his Department is doing to help them?

David Cairns: Yes, I can. My hon. Friend is correct to say that we need to support the industry in this period of transition, and processing and marketing grants are available from national funds. The extra dairy premium on the single farm payment has also helped the dairy industry to diversify. The factory at Dunmanbridge has benefited to the tune of £500,000 from Government assistance for developing its product line. We stand ready to support the industry as it makes this important transition, but ultimately this must be an issue that the market determines, with Government support.

Political Situation

5. Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): What assessment he has made of the political situation in Northern Ireland following the Assembly elections; and if he will make a statement. [126339]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): First, I want to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and to congratulate all those who signed the roll in the Assembly yesterday. The results of the election issue the clear message that voters want devolution on 26 March. An historic opportunity lies before the Northern Ireland political parties.

Mr. Dodds: I thank the Secretary of State for his good wishes to Members on the Democratic Unionist party Benches. Central to the stunning and tremendous victory of the DUP in the elections was our requirement for delivery by republicans and the Government on a range of outstanding issues, if devolution is to happen. We require delivery by republicans on unambiguous and clear support for policing, the courts and the rule of law. We require the ending of criminality, paramilitarism and all the rest of it. We also require delivery by the Government, not least on a financial package. At the moment, what we are hearing from them falls well short of what will be necessary. Will the Secretary of State assure us and the people of Northern Ireland that an adequate financial package will be on offer to ensure that devolution can be bedded in and that a success can be made of any future Administration?

Mr. Hain: I agree with the hon. Gentleman; his party did indeed have a stunning victory—he also had one in his own constituency—and I congratulate it on that. It is the case that Sinn Fein needs to deliver—as it is
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doing, and as its president did on Monday in calling for information about two brutal murders in Belfast to be brought to the police. I want to quote the Belfast Telegraph on this. Interestingly, it says:

I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) that an incoming Executive will have to have a good financial package. The Chancellor is very aware of that, and he will not want to stand in the way of successful devolution on 26 March.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State agree that, as we hope that the institutions will shudder to a start on 26 March, financial lubrication would certainly help the process, but that we also need fiscal additives to ensure longer-term better economic performance? Does he also agree that, in making this case to the Treasury, the Northern Ireland parties need to present it by way of long-term plans, not short-term demands? People in Northern Ireland want to see long-term planning that will lead to sustainable institutions delivering differently and better. That is the message that all the parties received, no matter what their manifestos said.

Mr. Hain: I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, it was notable that, instead of the old issues dominating the election, water charges, the rating system and academic selection were the key issues on the doorstep and at the ballot box. The message from the people is that they want locally elected politicians to take those decisions, and the Government will assist in providing an environment for that to occur. It is important that the will of the people be respected, and that the Assembly be up and functioning on 26 March.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The Secretary of State will be aware that there were two major election issues on the doorstep: the important constitutional issues, and water charges. The people of Northern Ireland feel great anger and resentment that the Government, who are telling us today what a wonderful future we have, did not give us that wonderful future when they were in office. Why did they not do all these wonderful things that they tell us we should be doing? They missed out very badly.

I say to the Government today that it is no use putting a beautiful engine on the road, saying, “Here is devolution. Here is a wonderful form of government”, if there is not the money to pay for the fuel to run that engine. The Government have a responsibility not only to put the engine on the rails but to supply the people of Northern Ireland with the money. Instead of doing that, they are saying—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps the Secretary of State could be briefer.


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