Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Prys-Davies: My Lords, first, I wish to thank the noble Baroness for the care with which she has explained so clearly to the House the important details of the expenditure which is authorised by this draft order. It is very much our hope, as it is clearly the hope of the whole House and the people of Northern Ireland, that the peace process in Northern Ireland will make it possible in the not too distant future to put an end to the Westminster machinery of an appropriation order. The prospect of achieving an enduring peace is far better than anyone would have dreamt of two years ago. I believe that is the time I last spoke to an appropriation order.

We have had the ceasefire for six months and the two governments have produced their agreed joint framework document. I believe it is fair to say from these Benches that the Government are entitled to their full share of the credit for the changed scene. But our hope must be that the ceasefire and the enormously improved prospects of achieving an enduring peace should make it possible to adjust the December 1993 estimated expenditure of £2.8 billion on the law and order programme for the period 1994-97, and to divert yet more resources to the task of regeneration in Northern Ireland.

However, I am conscious of the warning by Coopers & Lybrand, in its January review of the Northern Ireland economy, that the Treasury may take its own peace dividend. That warning has not gone unnoticed. I am sure that I need not remind the House, notwithstanding the Minister's comforting and sincere words, that unemployment still remains a considerable social problem, being very high at 12.1 per cent. compared to 8.4 per cent. in Britain. Over half the unemployed—90,000 or so—have been unemployed for more than a year. Therefore more money is badly and urgently needed to strengthen the economy.

As is the custom at this time of the year—and has been the custom for 10 years at least—the Minister has reviewed the performance of the Northern Ireland economy. The noble Baroness has done so in pretty optimistic terms. I trust that she has got it right.

As the Minister explained, the draft order falls into two main parts. First, it authorises additional expenditure for the financial year 1994-95, ending on 31st March. Secondly, it authorises the sum required on account for 1995-96 pending the main Estimates. That funding is very substantial indeed and this, of course, excludes the expenditure by the Northern Ireland Office on law and order.

8 Mar 1995 : Column 374

It is late in the evening and we have to turn our attention to two orders. Therefore in the short time available I wish briefly and inadequately to draw attention to two or three topics in which I happen to have an interest. If we look at the supplementary increases for the year 1994-95, I believe, if I have understood the columns correctly, that the biggest single item is in connection with the privatisation of the electricity industry. I am sure the Minister will know that the privatisation of the Northern Ireland electricity industry has been a most controversial issue, and the division was not only on political or party lines. I shall not weary the House with those arguments tonight. But I would like to ask the Minister to confirm whether the proposed expenditure in 1995-96, under Vote 2, on what is described in Vote 2 as "residual privatisation costs", will see the end of this item of expenditure.

I note that there is a small increase in one of the Votes of the Department of Agriculture on measures of agricultural and fisheries support for the year ending 31st March of this year. This gives me the opportunity to ask the Minister—I believe that she is in charge of the Department of Agriculture—how many fishing vessel owners from Northern Ireland have applied for the decommissioning grant under which they would scrap their vessel and surrender its licence. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether Northern Ireland's fishing industry receives equal treatment from the EC compared with the fishing industry in the Republic.

I have good news for the Minister. She will be pleased to learn that the community development programme of the Northern Ireland Rural Development Council has attracted a great deal of favourable comment by voluntary bodies which are primarily concerned with the well being of the Welsh countryside. Consequently they refer me to the development programme of the Northern Ireland Rural Development Council. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether the programme is achieving the objectives set out in paragraph 5.46 on page 44 of the Expenditure Plan and Priorities, 1994-1997.

The Minister touched upon the health Vote. On that I merely ask whether she can assure the House that the Department of Health in Northern Ireland is not pursuing an insensitive policy of closure of hospital beds. There is increasing concern about the hospital beds run-down programme in England and Wales and that sick people are suffering in the result. I hope that the Minister can be reassuring on that point.

I wish to spend a moment or two on my final point. It relates to a matter that is not in the order—or at least I have not seen it. I refer to a possibly hidden Vote, which I suspect is among the smallest of all the Votes. I refer to the expenditure on promoting community relations and fostering mutual understanding and respect among children and young people in schools and colleges in Northern Ireland. This programme has considerable potential, but also considerable implications for teacher training colleges, the education and library boards, head teachers, teachers and school governors.

8 Mar 1995 : Column 375

I have always been a supporter of integrated schools since the first was opened in 1981. There are by now about 23 such schools with enrolments of about 4,000. My support for integrated schools, and certainly party support for such schools, in a divided society is undiminished. But in the short-term there is also great potential in the cross-community programmes for bringing about changes in attitudes and improving relations between the young people of the two communities.

Arising out of what is not stated explicitly in the appropriation order, I wish to ask the Minister two questions and to make one comment about the cross-community programme. First, the planned expenditure for 1994-95 was, to quote page 122 of the December 1993 Estimates, "almost £2.5 million". What is the outturn, or estimated outturn, for the year ending 31st March? Secondly, what is the planned expenditure for the year 1995-96?

My comment is this: I have searched in vain through the order—I believe that there are about 3,000 words in the draft appropriation order—for a single reference (even a five worded reference) to expenditure on promoting community relations and mutual understanding during the coming year, and have failed to trace it. I assume that it is included under the heading "miscellaneous services". If that is so, it is discouraging for those working in that difficult area. I ask the Minister whether she will ensure that the programme receives the priority that it rightly deserves. That is the single most important message that I want to deliver to the Minister arising out of the appropriation order.

I have touched inadequately upon a few topics covered by the order. Some will say that undoubtedly the heart of this order lies in the industry Vote. For others it lies in the countryside Vote. For others it undoubtedly lies in the health Vote. But for my part, it lies in a Vote which does not deserve a specific mention, if I have got it right. I believe it is true to say that the heart of all the people in Northern Ireland lies now in fostering mutual understanding and tolerance which could lead to enduring peace in the not-too-distant future.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her extremely clear and helpful introduction of the order. Perhaps I may also say what a pleasure it is to see the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, back in the select club of those who deal with Northern Ireland orders late at night, as is our wont.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, said that for some people the economic and industrial section of the appropriation order was at its heart. I may be one of those, although I shall wish to come back a little later in my remarks to the point on community relations which he made. It would be right to preface what I am about to say by briefly trying to give an overview of the state of the Northern Ireland economy.

The noble Lord referred to the extraordinarily high level of unemployment. Despite the best endeavours of local companies, local employers and the Government, as well as the Northern Ireland Office, we still have a painfully high level of unemployment. As the noble

8 Mar 1995 : Column 376

Lord said, about half of those are long-term unemployed. The economy of Northern Ireland is such that only 20 firms employ more than 1,000 people. It is an economy still more dependent on agriculture than other parts of the United Kingdom. However, it is also particularly dependent on government expenditure. It is worth reminding ourselves—though not in any grudging sense—that the total subsidy paid by the mainland GB taxpayer to developing the society and economy of Northern Ireland amounts to some £200 per household per year, £4 per household per week. So we all have a great interest in ensuring that that money is spent to good effect, to develop what successive governments have thought of as the twin track in Northern Ireland: trying to achieve a stronger economy and society at the same time as we achieve a political settlement. We all know that those go together.

There is a point on which I wish to press the noble Baroness. In a way it is unfair because she is particularly active in industrial matters and I know that she is greatly respected in Northern Ireland for that reason. But I wish to press the Government and ask at this juncture, when matters are so hopeful, how we can all make Northern Ireland less of a dependency economy, less dependent on the continuing flow of funds and less of an economy where nearly half the people are ultimately employed in one way or another by the Government. How can we make it more of a self-sustaining and growing economy? There is a unique opportunity to attract inward investment, not merely from the United States, where sometimes the promise seems to be greater than the reality, but also from the European Community and from private firms throughout the world. It is a wonderful opportunity and I know that the Government are active in that respect.

There is the matter of skills and the way in which education relates to industry and the economy. I was very impressed two weeks ago to see the way in which the Magee campus in Derry—or, to be politically correct, Londonderry, or shall I say "Derry" again; whichever it is—is now closely intertwined with the local economy and producing the sort of skills that will make for economic growth.

There is, for instance, the Northern Ireland Growth Challenge that the CBI has undertaken. It has identified, I believe, 13 sectors and is trying to develop sectoral priorities. And there is, of course, the potential of EC structural funds.

All those lead me—perhaps erroneously, but I shall be glad to have the noble Baroness's opinion—to two conclusions. The first is that we really do need for Northern Ireland an industrial strategy. I know that those are difficult words for the noble Baroness's party. However, in Wales, under the leadership of her right honourable friend Mr. Peter Walker, the Government had a very successful industrial strategy. Is it not now time to do that in Northern Ireland: to pull together the best hopes of industry and of the University of Ulster and Queen's; to pull together the Government's own efforts and incoming money, whether governmental or private, and try to get the whole economy pulling itself

8 Mar 1995 : Column 377

up by its own bootstraps with its friends? So many people round the world wish it well. That is a little more than the IDB is doing.

The other conclusion I draw is that of the fundamental importance of doing more things on an all-island basis. I am not talking for the moment about the new body in the framework document. I do not want to get off into the wilder shores of politics. I am talking about practical co-operation on tourism, infrastructure and telecom. In all these areas there is so much scope. Again, it needs slightly more than the "invisible hand" approach which characterises the Government's policies on the mainland. It needs an active industrial strategy. I do not hesitate to say that to the noble Baroness because of her own robust reputation in this respect.

Perhaps I may turn to one or two specific questions on the order. The first is on the matter of education. I should like to ask the Minister two questions that fall within the educational budget. First, can she tell me a little about the funds that will be made available for integrated education? I voiced my fears in this House on a previous occasion that, as the two communities begin—we hope that they will move faster—towards some sort of accommodation with each other, the danger is that integrated education may be squeezed out. It is part of a plural society, and does not necessarily fit with the prejudices of the leadership of either main community. It is vitally important that the percentage of students who benefit from integrated education rises from the present 4 per cent. to a higher level. The Northern Ireland Office is proposing some fairly rigorous tests on how many students you have to have in order to open one of these schools. I should like to be reassured about the budgetary provisions that are available for those parents and communities who can get integrated education projects up and going.

The other question is a rather specific one. I am very excited by the imaginative project for a peace line campus in West Belfast, the so-called Springvale site. This project is imaginative if—and it is a big "if"—it can be fully integrated into the community of West Belfast. Are the Government planning (this would clearly be cross-departmental) on a forward basis for the very large-scale investment that will be needed? I understand that the noble Baroness's right honourable friend Mr. Ancram is considering this matter. Can she tell us a little more about the potential and the plans?

I turn to the matter of community relations which was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. If I read the order aright, there is a very slight fall from just above £2 million to just below £2 million this year for community relations. Do the Government not believe that community relations are now even more important than they were before? And in particular I should like to ask the Minister about the balance between inter-community relations and intra-community relations.

I was very impressed when I visited the Corrymeela community recently to see the work being done with groups of young sixth-formers from the two main places coming together there, working on projects and undertaking adventures together. I believe with the

8 Mar 1995 : Column 378

noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, that that kind of practical getting-together and working together of young people offers one of the best hopes for at least a higher level of mutual understanding on which a better future can be built.

The final point that I should like to raise has, I suspect, been mentioned already. If there is success with the political dimension of the settlement and there is to be a devolved Northern Ireland assembly, this could be the last time that we discuss an order of this kind in the House. Is there now any clear assessment of the financial scale of the so-called peace dividend? Can we have an assurance from the Government that their priority for any peace dividend will be to reinvest it where it is needed in building a better economy and society in Northern Ireland rather than allowing it to be clawed back by the Treasury.

That is a danger of which all spending Ministers are well aware in all situations. But in this instance it is particularly important that the Treasury should not be allowed to lead the debate. It is essential that the debate is led by the need for political and economic progress in Northern Ireland. I am glad to say that the Government have already answered the question about additionality on any extra European funds and that they will not be, as is true of regions of Great Britain, taken back by the Government.

I should like to widen the question beyond that and ask the noble Baroness whether in her response she can say that the Government and the Northern Ireland Office are successfully resisting the fell embrace of the Treasury. It is very important that they should do so.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page