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7.26 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, I rise to support the noble Duke, the Duke of Abercorn, who has brought before your Lordships this important Unstarred Question. I had a difficult decision to make today; whether to take part in this debate or whether to be in Northern Ireland as a member of the all-party defence group visiting the Province this weekend. Both events run concurrently and I cannot be in two places at once. I regard this debate to be of the utmost importance and will listen to the Minister's reply with the closest attention, as I am sure will the 280,000 people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland whose lives are affected by his decision or his indecision.

We all owe a great debt to the noble Duke, especially those who live, work and have served in the Province. Perhaps I may give an example of what I mean. In August last year a bomb exploded in Omagh. I happened to be in Estonia at the time staying with a former staff sergeant of the Greenjackets who has dual citizenship, Staff Sergeant Krepka. He, like me, had spent a happy two years in Northern Ireland serving the people there. We were fortunate to be watching the memorial service on Sky television. When my host saw the important and unimportant people in front of the town hall, he asked me whether I knew any of them. He asked, "Who is the tall man wearing the Guards tie?". I said, "That is his Grace the Duke of Abercorn, who is attending the service as Lord Lieutenant". I was asked what he was doing there, and I said that he was representing the Sovereign. I was asked, "What else does he do?". I said, "He has done an enormous amount of good for the Province, not only County Tyrone but the whole Province. We thank him.".

I declare an interest. Twenty-six years ago last month I was serving as a soldier in Northern Ireland. I was in a civilian car bought locally. I was undertaking the kind of job where the number plates needed to be changed every two to three months. I was driving quite slowly, at about 40 miles per hour, from Omagh to Ballygawley. Suddenly, there was a bump. I lost control of the car. It slewed over to the right and a car coming in the opposite direction crashed into me. Fortunately, nobody was killed. Given the nature of my duties, it would have been ironic had I been wiped out by a car and not a terrorist.

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I was not prosecuted for careless or dangerous driving. It transpired that a similar accident had happened only a week before. It was the quality of the road which was at fault, so decided the police authorities.

Therefore, I have a question for the Minister. Will he tell the House how many people, over the past one year, five or 10 years, have died on that road? I cannot ask him, nor would I, the cost of that because death to families, relations, friends and the economy is incalculable. But perhaps the Minister can tell me how many much-valued police hours, especially in the Province, are spent dealing with accidents as a result of the poor quality of the A.5 Londonderry-Strabane-Ballygawley road. Has he received any representations from the various chief constables of the counties affected who have urged him either to supply funds from the Treasury to repair the road or exhorted him to go elsewhere, to the European Union, for funds?

I cannot regard the £10 million as a large sum of money in proportion to the Northern Ireland budget. I should like to know whether--if there is a correlation--the cost of accidents and police time, which is costed, is near the £10 million that upgrading would cost. I believe that we should be saving money if we improved that road.

Unlike the noble Duke, the Duke of Abercorn, I do not have all the statistics and facts. I was grateful for the document by Coopers & Lybrand from which the noble Duke quoted. I shall reinforce what he said without giving the quotations from that document.

However, I wonder whether the Minister has studied the report entitled Transportation Infrastructure Strategy. That report was commissioned by the Irish Central Border Network and the North West Region Cross Border Group. The objectives are most laudable. They are to improve cross-border co-operation in transportation infrastructure and to provide an analysis so that the European and central government funding authorities can be advised on the most appropriate approaches. That report, dated 1998, from four months ago, must have landed on the Minister's desk. Does he agree with the priorities? The priorities are, first, the Sligo-Enniskillen-Belfast road, secondly, the Londonderry-Belfast road, the A.6, and, thirdly and fourthly, the A.5. Are those the correct priorities?

If the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as reported, is giving £12 million, when will the repairs to that road start and how long will they take? Northern Ireland enjoys the prospect of relative stability and peace. One of the reasons or factors of the instability has been the lack of job opportunities. In part that has been caused by the lack of modern, upgraded transport infrastructure.

Through my mailbag came two brochures. One was entitled Shaping our Future which was produced by the North West Region Cross Border Group. The second was produced by the Irish Central Border Area Network. In the first there is a section in which we are informed that in 1977, the two central governments jointly funded a study on cross border communication. That was 21 years ago. It is of interest to me that a heading in the glossy brochure is

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entitled "Initiating momentum". Will the Minister assure us this evening that he will not only initiate momentum but will take action and generate action to ensure that the A.5 road, the major artery between the north and south of Ireland in the west, is upgraded so that it is able to be an asset rather than a handicap to the economic well-being of all the people of Ireland?

7.34 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, my noble friend the Duke of Abercorn has done a great deal over many years for the economic progress of the Province. Therefore, he speaks with a special authority on this matter and has raised this evening a most important subject. I support everything that he said about the importance of the A.5 road and the very strong case that there is for European Union investment assistance to upgrade it.

All of us who have spent any time in Northern Ireland know what an important link it is. We have all spent a good deal of time being driven backwards and forwards along it. As the noble Duke said, it is important not only to the west of Northern Ireland itself but also to Donegal. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us of the Government's support for assistance from the trans-European network programme.

It is important as economic progress is always important to every part of the United Kingdom but I believe it has an importance too to the political process. The unemployment and the economic difficulties of parts of the Province have undoubtedly been exacerbated by the troubles of the past 30 years. There is no doubt in my mind that the achievement of a peaceful Province and a peaceful future for Northern Ireland depends on economic progress and on bringing down unemployment as well as on the more obviously political events which we have spent some time discussing in the past few days.

It is important for political reasons and for reasons of the so-called peace process as well as the economy generally. But the trans-European network programme was brought into being in recognition of the difficulty of the most distant areas of the European Union in economic terms. It is no accident that any map showing the high unemployment regions of the European Union that has been drawn at any time in the past few decades shows that unemployment is higher around the edges of the European Union. That should not surprise us. However, it is an obvious fact. It can be seen that the south of Italy, parts of the Iberian peninsula as well as the west of France, Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as the north of our own country are all areas of the highest unemployment. That leads to the inevitable conclusion that roads and transport infrastructure are extremely important to economic prosperity. The debate this evening is one very sharp example of that fact in action in one part of our country.

The other aspect of this debate is that the timing is particularly well chosen. It is both the right year and also the right time of year. It is the right year because we have now the Belfast agreement and all that flows from it. That means that we can expect even more help

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from the Republic of Ireland in pressing the case for assistance in the European Union. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that the Government are working closely with the Republic in support of this project. I hope too, as the noble Duke said, that it receives every assistance from the Republic of Ireland in supporting the project within the European Union.

It is also the right time of year. The EU budget process is in full swing. The details of the budget will be settled by Christmas, so now is the time to push for this project to be included in the budget for 1999. That push can come not only at government level but also within the European Parliament. The European Parliament plays a big part in settling the details of the budget.

We need to count on the support of the three Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament to push this issue hard on their colleagues and particularly on the members of the Budget Committee. I am sure that our new colleague--the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson--who is not only a senior member of the European Parliament, but a senior member of the Budget Committee, will be seized of that point.

I hope also that, for example, Mr. John McCartin, Member of the European Parliament from Leitrim, will be able to help. He too is a member of the Budget Committee. Just as important is the Irish substitute member of that committee, Mr. Pat Gallagher, who is the MEP for Donegal. I am sure he is an ally in what we are trying to achieve tonight. He has the nickname "the Cope" and has long been known as "Pat, the Cope Gallagher". So I feel additional confidence in hoping for his support for this specific proposition.

The noble Duke drew our attention to an important matter in a timely way and I support everything he said.

7.41 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, I thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Abercorn, for giving us the opportunity to debate this matter. Before dealing with some of the specific points he made, I should like to set the debate in a slightly wider context.

I shall shortly be publishing a statement on transport policy in Northern Ireland. That will not contain any indication of extra money, but I hope it will indicate what the Government's thinking is as regards the development of transport in all its facets in Northern Ireland and that it will be seen as a development of a White Paper published by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions a few weeks ago.

In approaching the need for roads there are three criteria, most of which have been mentioned. They are, first, the need of the economy, the need to have a transport system that is efficient to help industry and business and to encourage inward investment and tourism; secondly, to help and protect the environment by providing bypasses around towns; and, thirdly, the important question of road safety to which the noble Earl referred from his own experience.

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I am also aware that there is a great deal of pressure throughout Northern Ireland for more expenditure on roads. It has always been thus and it is felt wherever I go in Northern Ireland. Every district council I visit asks for more money to be spent on roads. I am sensitive to the feeling in some parts of Northern Ireland that those who live in the western part urge that more resources should be devoted to their area as opposed to the eastern part, including Belfast. Most of those comments have been referred to this evening.

I fully appreciate the noble Duke's desire to have the A.5 upgraded to modern day standards and I can assure the House that the Government fully share that aspiration. The A.5 is a major strategic route. From a local perspective it is the major traffic artery in the west of Northern Ireland linking the area to Belfast; from an island of Ireland perspective it forms part of the link between Londonderry and Dublin; and from an even wider perspective it is included in the European Union's trans-European road network.

The Government recognise that some sections of the route fall below modern-day standards in terms of alignment and that some sections have few overtaking opportunities. I know that there are many who would like to see the entire route brought up to dual carriageway standard but, regrettably, current and indeed projected traffic flows indicate that the expenditure required to achieve this could simply not be justified.

In appreciation of the importance of the route, the previous government looked at more realistic ways of upgrading it and a number of years ago a strategy of phased improvement works was drawn up. This strategy included major schemes to bypass the towns along the route--Strabane, Omagh and Newtownstewart--and also the provision of a number of climbing lanes located along the entire route. Indeed, the previous government made a significant start with the construction of the first stage of the Strabane bypass, the first two stages of the Omagh through-pass and the construction of a climbing lane at Magheramason near Strabane. Other lesser schemes to improve sight lines and provide right-turning lanes at a number of busy junctions along the route were also carried out. In all, over £12 million was invested in the route in recent years and part funding from the European Union was secured for all of the major schemes.

The cross-border dimension is very important and the need for a co-ordinated approach towards the future upgrading of the route has become more apparent in recent times. This need was first identified in February 1995 when the Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference agreed that a joint cross-border study should be undertaken to determine a future programme for the improvement of the main Londonderry to Dublin Road. This study, which involved officials from the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland working together with representatives from the National Road Authority in the Republic of Ireland and Louth and Monaghan county councils, endorsed the previous government's strategy to upgrade the route through the

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provision of bypasses of the towns and improved overtaking opportunities which were to be carried out at a pace dictated by the availability of finance.

However, the situation changed in 1996 when, under the previous government, funding for major road schemes was substantially reduced because of other spending priorities in Northern Ireland. At that time two of the proposed improvement schemes were postponed. This situation had a considerable impact on the proposed improvement strategy and the position was further exacerbated the following year when two further schemes were postponed.

At that stage the future prospects for the upgrading of the route looked bleak with just one scheme at Magheramason proposed for the five-year period between 1997 and 2002. However, on 12th May this year the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, visited Northern Ireland to unveil his economic strategy for Northern Ireland which included a package of measures to upgrade the strategic road network. Those measures provided for £12 million to be allocated towards the upgrading of the A.5. The Government decided that those funds should be directed to the construction of a bypass of Newtownstewart, the completion of stage 3 of the Omagh through-pass, stage 2 of the Strabane bypass and the provision of a section of road realignment and widening at Leckpatrick.

This programme of work represents the most important development in the roads infrastructure for many years in this part of Northern Ireland and will bring about significant benefits for all those who travel on the route. The intention is to complete all the work within the timescale of the present Parliament and, while this is a very challenging deadline, officials are confident that it can be achieved. Preparatory work is well under way and it is hoped that construction work on the first scheme at Leckpatrick will commence next spring. I believe and hope that the remainder of the schemes I outlined will be completed by the end of 2002.

Looking further ahead with regard to the European Union funding aspect, negotiations are currently under way regarding the post-1999 structural funds package; that is to say, the future of objective one status which at present benefits Northern Ireland. The detailed requirements for the next round of the structural funds are still fairly uncertain as the regulations are not yet finalised. As the overall structural funds budget has not yet been agreed, it is too early to make an accurate assessment of the amount of funding which Northern Ireland might receive. However, work on the Northern Ireland structural funds plan needs to start so that it can be finalised and submitted before too long.

Negotiations are currently taking place in Brussels regarding the position for structural funds after 1999. It is therefore too early to be definite, but the Government are well aware of the important part that objective one status has played for Northern Ireland and clearly we are looking to the future to see what arrangements can be made with Brussels which will go on being helpful. However, the negotiations will not be easy because Northern Ireland now has above the percentage of GDP which qualifies for Objective 1 status on present plans. As I said, that is still the subject of negotiations in Brussels.

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Against that background, the views of a wide variety of organisations have been sought. They include local authorities and statutory bodies. They have been asked to state in broad terms the priorities that should be addressed in the new plan and the types of activity that should be funded. I shall ensure that the Department of the Environment is aware of the concerns about the A.5 that have been expressed tonight and that those concerns are taken fully into account as part of the consultation exercise.

Perhaps I may deal with a few deal of the specific questions that have been asked. The noble Duke, the Duke of Abercorn, mentioned the Coopers & Lybrand report. I understand that that report has not yet been received by the department.

The noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, asked me about the number of accidents. Between 1994 and 1997, there were seven fatal accidents on that stretch of road. I am not aware that any representations have been made by the chief constable, although it may be that such representations have been made but have not been drawn to my attention. I advise the noble Earl that every district council that I have visited in the western part of Northern Ireland has made representations to me about the need to improve the A.5. I am afraid that no figures are available either in respect of the costs of policing of road accidents or in terms of the other costs associated with road accidents. The noble Earl will appreciate that that is quite a difficult exercise and would be based on certain assumptions. Regrettably, road accidents can be caused by factors other than the quality of the road.

Noble Lords will be aware that the road accident rate in Northern Ireland is higher than in other parts of the United Kingdom in relation to the size of the population. That continues to concern me. Other causes of accidents include people not always wearing seatbelts, excessive speed, and alcohol consumption. However, I accept that from the point of view of road safety, some roads are not as well designed or aligned as they should be. That is bound to be a contributory factor. If such figures can subsequently be made available, I shall pass them on to the noble Earl.

I assure the House that we are certainly not going to hold back in our discussions in Brussels. I have indicated the basis of our co-operation with the government in Dublin on road schemes and many other matters. I have also indicated the measures to improve the road that are already in the pipeline. However, I am well aware that noble Lords would like more money to be spent on it. We can spend only the money that is available, and, although noble Lords may well want more money to be spent than I have indicated is possible, I believe that what the Government are proposing will make a significant difference and will improve the A.5.

I reassure the noble Duke that we shall do everything possible to ensure that the A.5 between Londonderry and Ballygawley is upgraded to modern standards within a reasonable and achievable timescale. I have indicated the steps that will be taken within the next two or three years.

        House adjourned at six minutes before eight o'clock.

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