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5.43 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, it would be wrong to stand at the Dispatch Box this evening and fail to express disappointment that the efforts of the Government and those of good will came to nothing over the past weekend and to express sympathy with the police and security forces; husbands and wives and, fathers and mothers who would have been at home had violence not been threatened. One saw how little that counted with the callous murder of two of their number in Lurgan. I believe that the greatest sympathy must go to the Secretary of State who yesterday, following tremendous efforts to find a compromise—which unfortunately is still all too often a dirty word in Northern Ireland—found herself facing the problems of a leak.

I hear the criticisms of my noble friend Lord Prior of the media in using this leak. However, I believe that that was only what could be expected. From where did this leak come? I am sure that that also concerns the Minister. This comes as no surprise to me. I was leaked against, to quote one of the radio journalists, "by the world and its mother". Officials then failed to follow the code of conditions of service in subsequent inquiries. They now choose to leak against Dr. Mowlam. I hope that this time any inquiry will follow the rules.

But whither now following the weekend and with difficult days ahead? The cost of this is appalling, not just in pounds but in its effect on tourism and inward investment. I had the pleasure of fronting a "make it back home" campaign to attract those who had left the Province to return with their skills and their children. Grandparents were saying that their grandchildren could return to Northern Ireland safely. Who will say that now? How many of the very bright children undergoing education will stay? If we lose that talent, will we also lose the companies that that talent attracted?

I take this opportunity to praise the group of 7, composed of businessmen and trade unionists, who have been brave enough to put their heads above the parapet to point out to people the cost of this terrible violence. This phenomenon has arisen in recent years and it is sad that even their voices are not heard. I praise the IDB. It was good to hear the Minister review our success over the past years. I am glad to hear that it continues but it is a difficult uphill task. Against all odds, tourism has continued its curve, which, with the exception of the ceasefire year, has moved in the right direction. But what now?

What follows the events of the past weekend is in the hands of the people. Anger, like forgiveness, runs to personal timetables not government ones. But I suggest that the Government should not allow politics to overtake normal life in Northern Ireland. On a good day it cannot be bettered. I believe that the Government have a duty to facilitate economic growth as smoothly as possible. There are tough economic times ahead. Other noble Lords have referred to the problem of BSE. One matter about which we can be certain is that the ban on entry to European markets will not disappear overnight. The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, referred to the problems of
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the strong pound, particularly in Northern Ireland where business has been built locally on exports. With a population of 1.5 million there can be no other way.

Inward investment has been attracted to Northern Ireland as a gateway to Europe. One hears inward investors say how difficult it is to be based in the UK to service the European market. I hope that that is something that the noble Lord and his colleagues will also hear. I believe that there will be continuing hard competition from the south, where people living in a peaceful environment express views on the current situation that are not helpful. Ultimately, there will be an end to the peace and reconciliation moneys that the European Commission has so generously provided. I hope that when they do come to an end we will be able to say that this is what has been achieved with the £230 million.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred to the announcements of the Chancellor on health, education and welfare to work and their relationship to Northern Ireland. One makes the assumption, which one hopes is not misplaced, that that will extend totally to Northern Ireland. However, one wonders what the extension of the welfare to work programme implies for the ACE schemes and Enterprise Ulster. It is right that the Government should carry out a spending review. Obviously, they must know the facts on which to base future policy.

However, in relation to health matters, why is it necessary to review in great depth the decision on the rationalisation of the Belfast hospitals? Review the political decision maybe, but I do not believe that the thorough work that has been done for three years by the people involved in the hospitals and the experts from other fields justifies a review. I warn the Minister that in Northern Ireland there is a habit of putting reports in drawers, which brings no benefit.

I should also like to know whether the Budget covers future childcare policies of the Government. This is essential, as women play such an important part in the economy. I also hope that education changes will include opportunities for women returners, for which there is a great need.

On the economic front, I join with other noble Lords in arguing that, if the Government could be persuaded to go to the European Commission so that Northern Ireland farmers could take their product back to the market, that would be economically sound. It would take the pressure off other markets in Great Britain and we would all see the benefit. The important thing is to get the boat afloat, not that everyone should be in it to start with. I hope that the Minister will be able to persuade his colleagues that it is important for the fishermen of Northern Ireland that the problem of quota hoppers be resolved.

One of the problems which has not yet stopped inward investment into Northern Ireland but could at any time is the cost of energy. Will the Minister update us on the Scottish interconnector which would make a difference to the cost of energy? Will he explain why it has taken 18 months to review the £45 million which the Government hold and which should be returned to the public?
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I always seem to disagree with at least one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. One issue is expenditure on the infrastructure for the water industry. I wonder how the noble Lord thinks that the money, especially after this weekend, can be made available from government funds. Would it not be wiser to privatise the industry so that the capital will flow in to make the improvements that the infrastructure needs?

What is the position with regard to the funding necessary to keep open the Omagh Veterinary Centre? Last year's budget left no space for it. It was agreed to keep it open on the basis that farmers would pay fees for the services that they receive, as they have for many years in the rest of Great Britain.

The investment scene has been good. It has been greatly praised by those attracted to it. The Minister talked about the current situation which offers over 4,000 jobs. I wonder whether he can tell the House how many of those jobs are in place and whether they could disappear. There are, as we read, many companies in difficulties. What will the cost of them be to the budget? There are enormous difficulties in that area as a result of the current images being sent around the world.

Perhaps the Minister will agree to look at the Arthur Andersen case. The only thing that may overtake the acceleration of DeLorean are the costs of the American lawyers' fees in the Government's case against Arthur Andersen. That problem may well need time spent on it.

Is it possible to examine why Northern Ireland needs to put every directive separately into legislation? Agriculture visibly suffers through not having a voice at Brussels. We have none of the benefits of being able to negotiate separately but we have the cost of legislating separately for every directive. I wonder what those costs are. Could they not be saved?

One of the problems brought home this weekend is that the Targeting Social Need programme has obviously not got through to the people, who believe they are not getting their fair rights and support. If noble Lords were aware of the amount of inward investment into West Belfast, they would wonder how people could so easily set light to vehicles in front of the factories. If there is no inward investment, how can social need be targeted?

It will not surprise the Minister that I join with other noble Lords who say that there is considerable criticism of the planning process. I look at it from a commercial point of view. It is estimated that there is some £100 million of potential investment waiting to go to Northern Ireland which is held up by the planning process. It is important to speed it up. Although it may cause this Government some difficulty, they should look at the speed at which development corporations dealt with planning matters. They should be copied.

The infrastructure is important. It has been looked at in isolation in the past. There is a great need for departments to work more closely together. If, as is hoped, the economy continues to grow, it will be difficult to get any goods out of Belfast harbour because it will be difficult to get them there. The PFI is needed in Northern Ireland almost more than anywhere else.
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I have a colleague who used to describe the appropriation debate as a "bogweed" debate. I disagree because it gives noble Lords the opportunity to consider how Northern Ireland is run, who runs it and to whom they answer. We hear that health trust meetings in Great Britain are to be opened up. Will that happen in Northern Ireland? Will quango board meetings be open except when they are discussing commercially confidential matters? Will the Government's policy of sharing the operation of the economy with the electorate be spread to Northern Ireland? Will the recruitment changes planned for Great Britain be the same for Northern Ireland? Why does Northern Ireland have different arrangements with Peach on appointments for each department?

Northern Ireland is not the size of Greater Manchester, but each department has its own IT department and some of the budget was required for these. Will the Government continue to have a separate IT department for each area? Would it not be worth considering having just one department? One of the things I suffered was the fact that all the departments could not talk to one another through IT. At the moment the political ones can but the economic ones do not.

That highlights an important point which comes from the debate—political solutions in Northern Ireland will take a long time. The economic scene is and can continue to be one of growth. It is important that that continues.

I appreciate that I have asked the Minister a great many questions. I should be happy if he would write to me with the answers. This order covers homes, jobs, schools and hospitals—the concerns of everyone living in Northern Ireland. I ask that those matters are not considered to be secondary to the politics. For the people of Northern Ireland they are crucial.

5.58 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank all Members of the House for their helpful and positive contributions to the debate. I have been asked many questions. I shall do my best to answer them. If any noble Lord feels that his questions have not been answered, perhaps I may give the answers in writing.

I thank noble Lords for the many contributions expressing support for the Secretary of State in her recent endeavours to deal with the difficult situation of the marches. I shall ensure that those words of support are passed to her. I also thank Members of the House for the support expressed for other Ministers working in Northern Ireland. We are grateful for those expressions of support. There are difficult times ahead of us. If common sense prevails, those difficulties will be overcome. We can only hope that the Secretary of State's efforts, plus common sense, will prevail over the difficulties that lie ahead.

I shall deal now with the questions that were asked. The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, urged me to give support to agriculture. That is something I shall go on doing. He expressed concern about the future of tourism in the light of the recent images. That is a concern I share. If the difficulties through which Northern Ireland is going
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can be overcome quickly, their effect on tourism will, I hope, be a small one. I realise that the television coverage and the newspapers are not helpful in presenting a positive image of Northern Ireland. That is a very sad comment that I have to make.

As regards the suggestion that I should travel to various food fairs, no doubt my officials will advise me on whether I should make so many journeys. I thank the noble Lord for the suggestion in so far as I share his motive to do everything I can in support of agriculture, which is the most important industry in Northern Ireland. I shall do so in any way that is appropriate and open to me.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, raised a number of questions, most of which related to the weights of vehicles and whether the roads and bridges of Northern Ireland are sufficient to sustain them. The haulage industry, through the trade organisation, has been and will continue to be consulted by the Department of the Environment in order that we can be certain of the industry's views as regards the changes to which the noble Lord referred. The bridge strengthening programme, which is currently underway in Northern Ireland, is being carried out in preparation for the EC requirement to permit 40 tonne vehicles to operate generally with effect from 1st January 1999. In other words, we are anticipating the likely changes and we hope to have them in place before the operational date.

An application for EC structural funds has been made and that is presently being considered in Brussels. We can only hope that the outcome will be positive. The noble Lord asked whether in the meantime grants would be made available to carry out improvements. Responsibility for bridge strengthening programmes in Northern Ireland fall to the Road Services Agency, which has allocated additional funding to facilitate the acceleration of the programme. I hope that that extra money will show itself in improved bridges capable of taking the extra weight of vehicles.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and others referred to the planning process in Northern Ireland and some words of criticism were uttered about it. I am looking again at aspects of the process, but it might be helpful if noble Lords can provide me with specific examples of criticisms so that I can use them in assessing how the planning system operates or, perhaps in their view, does not operate as it should. Specific examples would be helpful as it is difficult to deal with planning in a general sense.

The noble Lord, Lord Prior, commented on the proper levels of expenditure in Northern Ireland and I share his sentiments. Notwithstanding the present financial difficulties, we shall continue to ensure that Northern Ireland receives the financial support that it needs in the present circumstances.

As regards the leaked letter to which the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, referred, I do not know how the leak occurred. It is being investigated, but we can hope only that the effect will not be as damaging as some of the newspapers have tried to suggest. I shall comment on the letter in a few moments.
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The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, referred to compensation payments as a result of the strong exchange rate, particularly with regard to the needs of farmers. I acknowledge that the Government have received from the UK farming unions and other producer organisations a case for EU co-funded compensation in respect of the effects of green pound revaluations. They have made that case and I recognise that farming organisations are seeking an early decision. I must advise that these submissions are being considered very carefully as there are obvious significant public expenditure implications. The Government will announce their decision as soon as they are able to do so. I do not thereby wish to suggest that that is inevitable; we are simply looking at the case. There are great difficulties in dealing with it because there have been times when the value of the green pound has risen and we have not sought to balance that out. When the green pound has risen and there has been a benefit we have not sought to reduce its impact, so a balancing factor must be taken into account.

The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, and others, asked about the Government's approach towards the difficulties as regards BSE. The latest position was announced in another place in answer to a parliamentary Question. The Secretary of State, Jack Cunningham, stated:

That is the present position. Obviously, the Government are pressing as hard as they can to get the whole ban on UK beef lifted in line with the proposal that I have described.

Questions were asked about energy and assistance to the gas and electricity industries. The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, asked why there should be further compensation as regards the privatisation of electricity some years ago. Some minor residual costs remain in respect of the privatisation of electricity, such as agents' fees. All costs are met from the proceeds of the sale of the electricity industry in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord asked further questions in respect of the gas and electricity industries in Department of Economic Development Vote 2. A major element of that is the application of the nuclear levy read across; £20 million in 1997-98 and £25 million in 1998-99. That is to be used for the benefit of electricity customers in Northern Ireland. It is currently subject to negotiations with Northern Ireland Electricity PLC and interested parties. In relation to gas, there is minor provision for consultancy costs in extending the natural gas pipelines to outside the Greater Belfast and Larne areas.

The noble Lord also asked about cuts in training grants and how quickly they could be restored. The Training and Employment Agency is spending in the
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current year some £127 million on training and employment programmes, providing some 25,600 places, mainly under programmes such as Jobskills, through Enterprise Ulster and various other training programmes. In addition, the welfare to work initiative announced by the Chancellor in his recent Budget Statement will provide further and significant resources to be targeted at the young unemployed and the long-term unemployed. This will provide a major and comprehensive training network for Northern Ireland which will more than redress the cuts made by the previous administration.

The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, also asked about savings that might be made in health service administration. Northern Ireland will play its part in the Government initiative to reduce bureaucracy costs in the health service. The savings made will be directed to patient care, particularly in the development of cancer services and the reductions in waiting lists in the Province. There was already a target in the current year of 1.5 per cent. cash savings for the HPSS in general. That included the commissioning costs of boards and the management costs of trusts, the target for which has now been raised to 2.5 per cent. and will apply to all HPSS bodies. The Government will be looking for further savings as we move to dismantle the Tory internal market and its wasteful bureaucracy.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, asked a number of questions. He asked me about the future of the water industry. I am not in a position yet to say very much about that because we are looking into it very carefully. It is clear to me that there has been under-investment for years in water and sewerage in Northern Ireland, particularly but not only in the Belfast area. I have asked my officials to look as quickly as they can at possible ways to ensure that we can improve the level of investment because there could well be a crisis in water and sewerage but particularly in the sewerage system in Belfast. We want to avoid that if we possibly can. Therefore, rather than dealing in detail with the questions asked by the noble Lord, I shall ask him to wait a little longer. I hope to be able to give him a more definite answer to the question that he put to me.

I welcome the words that he uttered about the recent decision on the landfill site near Larne, the Magheramorne Quarry development planning application. I thank him for that. We shall see what happens in the future as regards other aspects of the waste disposal industry which is being worked on at present.

The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, asked me a large number of questions and I shall do my best to do justice to as many of them as I can. She asked me about the leak in yesterday's newspapers. It may be appropriate to remind noble Lords of a very short Statement made by the Secretary of State yesterday about the document. She said:

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The Secretary of State went on to say:

The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, asked about welfare-to-work. The new deal will be implemented in Northern Ireland on the same policy basis as in Great Britain. Individual elements of the measure will reflect local economic circumstances and priorities and those existing Northern Ireland programmes and structures that can be developed to deliver specific measures.

In delivering the new deal, the Government intend to make the fullest use of existing programmes, services and structures so that we can make the most effective use of the new resources. Departments are currently considering how programmes can be developed and adapted to deliver the new measures. In addition, Northern Ireland has an extensive network of training providers, voluntary organisations and community-based groups which will be well placed to deliver the new measures.

I turn to the question asked by the noble Baroness and other noble Lords on expenditure going to Northern Ireland, to which I have already made some reference. Northern Ireland will receive its fair share of the additional resources to existing plans announced by the Chancellor on 2nd July. Northern Ireland will receive an extra £27.623 million in 1998-99 for schools and £31.143 million for the health service. In addition, the new deal will provide Northern Ireland schools with a further £2.6 million this year and £7.8 million next year for refurbishment and repairs. Northern Ireland will receive £140 million from the windfall tax. That reflects Northern Ireland's share of the young and long-term unemployed who will benefit from the welfare-to-work measures and will enable Northern Ireland to implement measures reflecting those in the rest of the UK. There will also be some help for lone parents. Northern Ireland will also receive this year and next year a benefit from the share of the capital receipts initiative.

A question was asked about the decisions in relation to the Royal and City Maternity Hospitals. The Government are fully aware of the controversy that has arisen in the wake of the decision by my predecessor to centralise maternity and associated services in the Belfast City Hospital tower block. We shall honour the commitment to review the decision and we are presently considering that as a matter of some urgency. I hope to be in a position to say more about that in the near future.

A question was asked about the Veterinary Investigation Centre at Omagh and whether it will be kept open. The introduction of charges for veterinary diagnosis is currently being considered and will be subject to consultation with the industry and other interests in Northern Ireland before introduction. Any further decisions will stem from the result of that particular consultation process.
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I was asked also about expenditure on security in the light of the weekend situation. As I pointed out in my opening remarks, the Estimates that we are considering today do not cover expenditure by the Northern Ireland Office on law and order. However, as the noble Baroness will recall from her time in the Northern Ireland Office, expenditure on law and order, including the costs of the RUC and criminal damage and criminal injuries compensation are funded from within the Secretary of State's block allocation. As the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, made clear on many occasions during his time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, resources would have to be restored to the law and order programme if terrorist violence returned to our streets. In such circumstances, economic and social programmes would suffer. The costs of the Army in Northern Ireland are met by the Ministry of Defence.

I was asked about the electricity inter-connector. The planned inter-connector project is being promoted jointly by Northern Ireland Electricity plc and Scottish Power—two private companies. The Government are supportive of the principles of inter-connection which will provide access to competitive electricity markets in both the rest of the UK and the rest of Europe in line with EU policy. Progress with the project is subject to the granting of planning permission in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

A question was asked about quota hoppers. The Government believe that there has been a good outcome for the UK after tough talks in Brussels recently. What is good for the United Kingdom fishing industry is also good for the Northern Ireland fishing industry. There are close links between our fishing industry and the communities from which it operates. The Government believe that that deal gives us the opportunity to strengthen those links and ensure that processors have access to raw materials and that employment is sustained.

As regards Arthur Andersen and the DeLorean case, the Department of Economic Development is continuing its legal action for negligence, breach of contract, fraud and aiding and abetting fraud against the former DeLorean auditors, Arthur Andersen and Co. Government appointed joint receivers also continue to pursue recoveries from other parties involved in the DeLorean case.

As regards targeting social need, this Government will seek to develop the TSN initiative and so help to promote greater equality of opportunity. Through TSN, there is also the targeting of areas and people defined objectively as being in greatest need. An important effect of that should be to reduce community socio-economic differentials. TSN has been an important expenditure priority for several years and is an underlying principle which guides allocations across many departments.

A question was asked about agricultural directives and whether they have to be taken in separate legislation for Northern Ireland. Agriculture is a transfer matter which is traditionally handled through separate legislation. It is hoped that some day that will be done in a new Northern Ireland legislature.
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As regards the PFI, the Government welcome Sir Malcolm Bates' review of the PFI/PPP and Northern Ireland Ministers will continue to pursue PPPs wherever that offers value for money.

As I said at the outset, the questions are very detailed and I have done my best to answer as many as possible. However, I shall do my best also to ensure that noble Lords who have asked questions which I have not yet answered will receive an answer in writing. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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