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12.37 p.m.

Lord Lyell: My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I speak very briefly in what we call "the gap". I begin by thanking my noble friend the Minister. I shall also follow up the comments made by the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Meston. Should any expert on Northern Ireland be absent, very much in the words of the Bible, "Cast out one devil for Beelzebub"--I do not necessarily believe that anyone speaking on Northern Ireland is of that persuasion--and one gets some more. In other words, I shall speak in the gap and I notice that there are other noble Lords who might follow me.

On pages 3 and 8 of the order there is some very encouraging news which has been briefly referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Meston and Lord Prys-Davies. It is to be found in Vote 2 for the Department of Agriculture, both in Part I, which is on page 3 and Part II, which is page 8. Clearly, the wording has been very carefully followed for expenditure by the department on the development of agriculture and agricultural products industries.

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I believe that these two aspects unify the tremendous talents of my noble friend the Minister. The agricultural industry is the No. 1 industry in Northern Ireland and my noble friend has made enormous efforts to make sure that everyone who participates in that industry, as well as all the incredibly hard-working officials in the Department of Agriculture, contribute to a seamless web of success in Northern Ireland. It was successful all the time I had the honour to serve the Province and during the short time my noble friend Lord Elton was there.

The success of the Northern Ireland agricultural industry has certainly spanned the past 20 years. It has been the stewardship, if I may call it that, of my noble friend which has brought this industry to new peaks of success. The Province is benefiting from her experience in small businesses and industry, coupled with the enormous hard work of what I might call the "men in overalls" as opposed to the "men in suits", about whom we have been hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and my noble friend Lady Park, in relation to the political aspects.

I hope that none of your Lordships will forget the enormous amount of work that is carried out by my noble friend and, above all, by the Department of Agriculture. I would go so far as to call those working in agriculture in Northern Ireland the "unsung heroes". On television and in the media we hear a lot about the peace dividend and about all the opportunities for inward investment in Northern Ireland, but I believe that the Department of Agriculture and the agriculture industry are incredible examples of the hard work and success of an indigenous industry which is competing against the agricultural industries in England and Wales, in Europe and in my own country of Scotland. Everything that I have seen and heard has shown me that what is provided in the order is continuing to push the success of Northern Ireland's No. 1 industry.

I hope that, if not today then at a later stage, my noble friend will be able to confirm that new initiatives and new ideas are emerging all the time in terms of marketing as well as producing the unique output of Northern Ireland's agricultural industry.

12.41 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I start by thanking all noble Lords who have participated in the debate. It may have a dull title, but it is a very important debate in terms of life in Northern Ireland. In particular, I express my gratitude to the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Meston. When the regular teams are absent--not, I know, from choice--they must be relieved to know what great substitute Benches they have. I am sure that the noble Lords will not be offended if I say that it is not an elevation from the under-21 team.

We have covered a great range of topics and although I shall try to answer all the points that have been raised, I commit myself to reading Hansard carefully and writing to noble Lords on any point that I may forget to mention now. I am also grateful for the advance notice which so many noble Lords have given me of their points of concern.

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I start by giving one figure which I believe will please your Lordships. Around 90 per cent. of the total decrease in unemployment over the year is due to a fall in the number of long-term unemployed. They are now returning to employment. Long-term unemployment is down by 9.9 per cent. on January 1995. Your Lordships are right to draw attention to that issue. The rate of short-term unemployment in Northern Ireland is now closely related to that in the rest of the United Kingdom, but we have a hard core of long-term unemployed and our efforts must be directed to them. I assure your Lordships of my commitment in that area. Furthermore, I have a personal target which is to get Northern Ireland off the bottom of the unemployment league. I should like us to move up that league. We have all the talents and skills that will enable us to do so.

I turn now to the issue which concerned so many of your Lordships--the reduction in the ACE programme. I am well aware of the concerns that that has created in the community. It may be helpful if I explain why that decision was made. It was not because of any lack of commitment to the long-term unemployed. There is still £46 million in the programme, almost £40 million of which is in the ACE programme. However, we have a new situation. There is growth in what might be described as "real" jobs, which undoubtedly usually pay better than any ACE scheme while allowing people to have aspirations and to look forward to building their own futures. For the first time we have a record number of registered vacancies. There are now 7,000 registered vacancies in Northern Ireland. To fill all those vacancies would make a significant impact on the unemployment figures. It seemed to us that it was important to give our people the skills to take on those vacancies. We have slanted the programme towards working to ensure that the people who fill those vacancies are the people of Northern Ireland.

We are working with the Jobskills programme. I should like to reassure both the noble Lord, Lord Meston, and my noble friend Lady Park that the Government's pledge to provide training places to unemployed school leavers is being successfully delivered through the Jobskills programme. The programme has already been able to put 60 per cent. of the people on it back into employment. We have yet to achieve 50 per cent. on the ACE programme.

However, the real issue about the ACE programme is the bonus that it has provided. The primary purpose of the ACE programme is to assist the long-term unemployed. In doing that, the programme has delivered great benefits to the community. I brought forward the transitional fund and I do not want to be negative this morning, but I am afraid that it is £2 million, not £2.5 million or £3 million. It seeks to ensure that there is not an immediate gap in the lives of the vulnerable, the needy and those to whom we owe a great debt. We are working on that--doing so will ensure that many core workers are retained.

I should also like to correct the impression about the 25 per cent. cut. That 25 per cent. relates to the average occupancy of the scheme. Where the scheme has not been occupied fully, the statistics appear to suggest more. We are working on that. Officials who are tasked

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to do this are in discussions to ensure that that point is fully understood. I believe that the future looks brighter. This year we shall be undertaking a full review of the long-term unemployed, looking at their needs. We shall work exceedingly hard on that.

In closing on that issue, I should like to praise the voluntary sector which has made it possible for so many people to have training. I am delighted that future programmes will move away from the one-year programme of ACE where for six months you spend time getting used to going to work and for the last six months you worry about what to do next. We are looking at three-year programmes for skilling and qualifying. I should like to place on the record the fact that that was not forced on us by the Secretary of State in the public expenditure round. The communication difficulty arose because it was a PES statement, but the judgments were made by those working in the area.

On the subject of work, your Lordships have correctly drawn attention to the importance of Shorts in the community of the Province. Shorts is our largest employer. It is also a brilliant role model and is globally competitive. Wherever you travel in the world there is praise for Shorts. Shorts has been instrumental in bringing other work to Northern Ireland because of the excellence of its skills, particularly in engineering. I stress that the company is not at any risk, whatever the Fokker decision. Shorts has worked some fair miracles in past years and there is no question of Fokker decisions putting the company at risk. I believe that there is no question of there being a loss of 1,500 jobs. Protected redundancy notices are out, but I have seen the efforts that Shorts has made in terms of planning for redeployment. I believe that the number will be much less than 1,500 and that we shall certainly be able to look at a three-figure number rather than a four-figure number.

I raised at a meeting with representatives of the Dutch Government the importance of the company to Northern Ireland. I understand that, following discussions with potential investors, an announcement will be made today about plans for Fokker's future. The impact on Shorts will be considered carefully following that announcement. Should the aerospace division continue in Fokker, there is no more competitive place than Northern Ireland in which parts for those planes can be built. It is unequalled on quality and cost. Should the aerospace division continue, we shall see more work. Noble Lords should be reassured by a remark made to me by the chairman of Rolls-Royce. He said that Shorts used to be his worst supplier but is now his best supplier.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked, rightly, what would be the cost to the community of the breakdown in the ceasefire were it to continue. He shared the depression that many of us feel at this morning's comments from Sinn Fein/IRA. We shall look forward to the future, and we shall work for the future. However, there can be no getting away from the fact that if there is a return to heavy violence, the savings that have been made from areas such as the security forces' overtime will have to be reconsidered.

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I have made a commitment that the current community work programme will continue. We celebrated the fact that it arose from the peace dividend. If we lose the dividend, which must be earned like any other dividend, we shall be at risk. Instead of waiting for resources in the future to be available for education and employment, they will once again have to go to other public services. We must hope and pray that that does not happen.

We may rest assured that we have a good friend in Europe--the Regional Policy Commissioner, Monika Wulf-Mathies. She has said that she is pleased with the progress made on the programme for peace and reconciliation, and does not see it walking away from us. She recognises the efforts that we need to make to sustain it so that those funds keep flowing.

We shall see a slowdown in private sector funding, however good our economic package. At the moment people are in a wait-and-see mode. We have not lost inward investment, although we shall never know when the telephone was not picked up. We are finding it harder to obtain the bottom line signature. We are working on that. We are working to reassure the pension funds and City funds such as Mr. Hevisi's New York fund, which the noble Lord mentioned. There is much to do. However, I stress that the economic package that we have sold throughout the 17 months is not one of charity or emotion but one of shareholder value. We have got that message out to so many people during this period that I believe we can look forward to seeing continuing investment.

The infrastructure we have built, the extra air routes and the increased capacity on the ferry services will continue to exist. I am delighted to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, that we are not behind Scotland. I did not expect that we would be, but I am pleased to say that the equivalent of the Scottish Rural Diversification Programme Regulations are in place in Northern Ireland under the Sub-Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development Regulations 1994. They allow payment for grant towards farmers who wish to diversify from mainstream agriculture. Given the creative nature of the Irish, we can be certain that their diversification will be innovative.

The noble Lord asked also about IDB's job creation targets for the current financial year. It is difficult to attract inward investment from countries which are themselves undergoing recession. In particular, we have noticed a slowing down in Japanese overseas investment in recent years. However, I am delighted to say that there are over 2,300 inward investment jobs in place and there is much in the pipeline. The response to Wednesday's communique will make all the difference to how soon we can bring those jobs to the people who need them.

One of the good things which will not go away is the building of targeted social need into IDB's programme. I hope that the message will go through that it is doubly important that we attract new jobs because they are going to the areas of greatest deprivation. The Tourist Board's TV advertising campaign will be reinstated. There is no problem with that. It was sensible. Having

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seen Canary Wharf and the London bus, people hesitated and wondered what was going on. Sometimes those of us at the heart of the matter wonder what is going on. Although we saw tourist inquiries drop, they were still above pre-ceasefire levels. We are optimistic about a good summer. Last year's was brilliant. I only worry about whether people expect every summer in Northern Ireland to be hot and sunny. I just hope that I am not subject to a trade descriptions summons.

The noble Lord, Lord Meston, asked about education. It is crucial. It is crucial to any economic programme. Education spending plans provide for an increase of £47 million next year--an increase of 3.5 per cent.--which includes an increase of £37 million for schools, which is in line with the equivalent settlement in England. The quality of education in Northern Ireland is well recognised. People often make the decision to return to Northern Ireland when their youngsters are about three or four years old.

The Government remain committed to supporting viable proposals for integrated schools. I know the interest in integrated education on the noble Lord's Benches. I am pleased that recently four further integrated schools have been approved--two new secondary schools and two existing primary schools have been transformed into integrated status. There continues to be progress. Of course that progress is at the request and instigation of parents, which is as it should be.

Wearing my agriculture hat, I am delighted to confirm that the underlying expenditure in the agriculture programme has not been falling. The decline between 1994-95 and 1995-96 was due to exceptional additional spending on the agricultural development operational programme which amounted to £26 million in the earlier year. That figure is engraved on my heart because I had to do very special pleading with the finance people to obtain the extra money, but we obtained it and it has gone to farmers.

It is worth noting that for the fifth year in succession total farming income in Northern Ireland increased in real terms. It makes my life somewhat easier. It also makes the life of the retail motor trade in Northern Ireland somewhat easier.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, as usual brought to the debate his considerable knowledge of Northern Ireland. I hope that I have given him some reassurance that the ACE decision was not casual but part of the economic strategy for the future. I listened with interest to his proposal that it was worth looking at postponing the marches during the coming 12 months. I shall ensure that my colleagues take note of that suggestion. I hope that in the long term we can work to a position where the marches are a celebration of culture and not a statement of position, as, regrettably, they are now. I shall take that message to my colleagues, as I shall what he has said about prisoners and their great needs on release.

We continue to look carefully at ways of reintegrating prisoners into society in the light of the changing circumstances. The noble Lord rightly drew attention to

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the fear that we all have of the drug problem increasing in Northern Ireland. We work to try to retain, perhaps not easily, our record of Northern Ireland being the safest place in the UK, although at a high price in security costs. I am sure that everyone appreciates the work of the noble Lord in the reintegration of prisoners and will recognise the close understanding that he has of this subject.

I sympathise with my noble friend Lady Park. It is difficult for any of us to estimate how quickly lawyers will debate a previous item on the Order Paper. I am delighted to be able to reassure her that my opening speech was not deeply interesting. I was grateful for her input into the debate. Of course, we need to extend the research and technological development in Northern Ireland. We must be globally competitive and I am pleased to say that we capture a large number of the DTI Smart awards.

My noble friend Lady Park drew attention to the fact that even during the ceasefire period there were horrendous punishment shootings and beatings. They were barbaric and were rejected by every civilised member of the community. There is no place in society for vigilantes. The RUC continues to have the Government's full support for its vigorous operations to deter and detect those responsible. My noble friend also drew attention to the important role which the Americans can play in bringing about a peace process and getting the message across to those who appear to have difficulty in understanding democratic processes.

There can be no end to a peace process in a democracy. Violence never has and never can lead to solutions. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach announced a programme to allow all who believe in the democratic process to come to the table. They reaffirmed something which we all know well; their absolute commitment to exploring every avenue to bring about peace. I am sure that the whole House will share my admiration for their tireless efforts.

Perhaps I may say that 99.9 per cent., and possibly more, of the people in Northern Ireland want peace, have earned peace and deserve peace. While my colleagues wrestle with the difficult political discussions, I shall continue to work for the best cement for peace, which is jobs. I do so with great comfort from the encouragement of your Lordships' House. I wish to express my gratitude and the gratitude of perhaps all people in Northern Ireland for the support that we receive in this House. I commend the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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