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Lord Hylton: My Lords, I rise reluctantly to explain some of the deplorable consequences of the current change from ACE (Action for Community Employment) to "New Deal", being the somewhat Rooseveltian term borrowed by this Government for their latest proposals. As some of your Lordships may

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know, I have the honour to be president of NIACRO. This voluntary organisation, together with Exturn, has for many years been providing training workshops for ex-offenders and others at risk of falling into crime. These workshops have often produced wooden play equipment, which is used by play groups and infant classes throughout Northern Ireland.

Over the years, most of our clients have been referred by the Probation Board. The work and instruction in the workshops have been specially designed for people who have not done well at school and who do not have high level manual skills. Dedicated teams of managers and instructors have been built up, willing to work with difficult people, some of whom need a period of sheltered employment if they are to lead crime free lives.

There has already been a year's notice of the change from one system to another. Both the organisations that I mentioned, with strong support from the Probation Board, have been moving heaven and earth to adapt the new system to the needs of our clients. The matter has been discussed with the Training and Education Authority and taken to the highest levels of the Civil Service.

I regret to say that all this negotiation has been to no avail. Sixty or so training workshop places have already been lost, staff have been made redundant and the remaining few places are likely to close by the end of July. A community asset is being lost which will be extremely hard to replace. We understand that in this respect Northern Ireland is being treated worse than England where better transitional finance is available.

It is therefore with regret that I have to ask why was no special provision made for criminal justice trainees in Northern Ireland? How will the rehabilitation through work of ex-offenders be protected in future? Are Her Majesty's Government still committed--as has been claimed in the past--to crime prevention? If so, what is their approach to people who are often virtually unemployable? If Ministers are not concerned about adults, will they at least devote resources to young people, particularly those suspended, or excluded or dropping out from school? Will the Minister try to convince his colleagues of the urgency of these issues? It goes without saying that such issues involve a considerable number of different departments. I trust that they will therefore be considered in the round.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Blease: My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend the Minister for the thoughtful and detailed way in which he has introduced this appropriation order. We can well understand some of his feelings as, had circumstances been different, this discussion might have been more eventful. Along with others I regret that the order has been enacted in this way.

For some 18 years I sat on the Opposition Benches. I see some noble Lords on the other side of the House who were Ministers at that time. During that time we looked forward to these appropriation orders and the debates on them which gave us an opportunity to discuss

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the affairs of Northern Ireland in some detail. That gave us the opportunity to have an input in those discussions. I feel sure that the new Northern Ireland Assembly will constitute a welcome change in that it will make the elected representatives accountable to the Assembly and to the people of Northern Ireland. God speed that day and may it bring peace and tranquillity with it!

I have received two letters from the Minister on the matters of the draft appropriation order and the main estimates for Northern Ireland departments. Those matters are closely interlinked in many ways. The Northern Ireland estimates 1999/2000 are relevant to our discussion tonight. I have some three points to put to the Minister. The estimates are much more detailed than the order itself. As I say, the estimates apply to the years 1999/2000. The estimates comprise a well produced document which is worthy of close study by all who are interested in the development of the Northern Ireland economy and in the social well-being of the people of the Province.

Section 5 on page 19 of the estimates explains the details of parliamentary accountability and the order of estimates. These estimates apply to this House, the other place and any of the other new devolved parliamentary bodies in the United Kingdom. The document states,

    "The accounting and audit arrangements for grants in aid for certain subscriptions and international organisations are indicated by a common set of symbols which are illustrated on page 24. The normal accounting and audit arrangements will not apply in certain other cases". I think that is a strange statement. If certain areas do not meet the standard requirements of accounting and audit arrangements, they should still be subject to parliamentary democratic procedures. The Minister has already mentioned the sums that are allocated to various departments. Section 2 on page 83 of the document refers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It states,

    "The provision sought for 1999/2000 is 5.8 per cent lower than the final net provision for 1998/99 of £328,000 and 23.6 per cent higher than the forecast outturn for that year of £250,000". I believe this matter should be discussed tonight. An overspend has been mentioned in the document. As is the case with other parliamentary bodies throughout the United Kingdom, the Northern Ireland Assembly must be accountable to Parliament and must not overspend its budget. That applies to present and to future circumstances.

Paragraph 2 on page 85 of the estimates states, with regard to the new Northern Ireland Assembly,

    "The provision sought for 1999/2000 is £14,278,000 and reflects the initial cost of the new Ireland Assembly operating in the shadow form". Apparently the new Northern Ireland Assembly has incurred an overspend of £6,628,000.

With those Northern Ireland citizens who believe in parliamentary democracy and parliamentary accountability I look forward to welcoming elected representatives who listen to the needs of the people who have elected them.

Like others, I feel sure that the Minister looks forward. He has spent a long time in Northern Ireland; I am sure he has learned many lessons and seen many challenging matters arising. We long for the day when

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Northern Ireland Ministers will be accountable to the people of Northern Ireland themselves. At the same time we thank those who have filled the breach over the past number of years.

Lord Rathcavan : My Lords, in the short time available I should like to make a few points. First, can the Minister confirm that the Government have begun to implement the recommendations of the Economic Development Strategy Review, known as Strategy 2010, which was issued by his colleague, the Minister for the economy, Mr Adam Ingram? Many of the recommendations are exhortations to industry to broaden horizons, play to strengths and tackle weaknesses. An Economic Development Forum has already been established but there are some particular aspects where the Government can act and act now to help Northern Ireland to mirror the great success already being achieved by our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland.

I have raised before the serious problem of different rates of corporation tax across the land border--around 10 per cent in the Republic of Ireland against 30 per cent in Northern Ireland. I know the Minister will say, as usual, that that is the sacred turf of the Treasury, but the Chancellor made tax concessions for Northern Ireland a year ago on capital allowances. This has proved a valuable concession. The Minister referred to the successes of the Industrial Development Board. It has been valuable to those considering inward investment.

But more needs to be done. Strategy 2010 emphasises that we must have a level or equivalent tax regime to our land neighbours. Will the Minister acknowledge this situation and flag it up as an issue which makes Northern Ireland uncompetitive; and, I might add, from which the Treasury is losing tax revenue from Northern Ireland companies which acquire manufacturing facilities across the border in the Republic of Ireland in order to maximise their tax liabilities in a more favourable regime?

Another cross-border tax leakage, estimated as a loss to the Treasury of well over £100 million, is currently being caused by the difference in excise duty on petrol and diesel--more than 17 pence a litre on unleaded petrol and 15 pence on diesel--which has led to widespread smuggling of road fuel. In border areas it is estimated that 48 filling stations have closed, with the loss of 250 jobs. Similar though smaller excise duty differences exist in the European Union. For example, the Dutch Government have introduced a subsidy scheme for road fuel retailers in border areas. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what the Government, who are committed to further increases in these excise duties, will do about this real problem.

Another fiscal problem faces Northern Ireland with the proposal--or the "Marshall Plan" as it may be called--in the report by the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, on the business use of energy. He called for an energy consumption tax--to be introduced in next year's Finance Bill. The implications for energy-intensive companies such as Du Pont and Michelin and for textile processors, already suffering from Northern Ireland's

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high electricity prices, are significant. It is important that the Government urgently address this further erosion of Northern Ireland's competitiveness by these proposals.

Perhaps I may comment on the funding situation for environmental programmes in the agricultural sector. I know that the Minister referred to some increases in this area, but it is rumoured that there is insufficient funding available to support the existing environmentally sensitive area schemes. Now we have the countryside management scheme which was announced in recent weeks. Will the Minister confirm that there will be adequate funding to support this and that it will not be rationed?

Finally, the Northern Ireland Office has, it is said, done a good deal with the Treasury to keep funds from the privatisation of Belfast Harbour for reinvestment in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister assure us that the harbour commissioners will get more commercial freedom ahead of privatisation to develop their business and its value? Can he assure us that the huge and valuable city centre properties owned by the harbour commissioners will go to the public good and not into private pockets, as happened with the privatisation of Belfast international airport?

I apologise for raising so many points. As we are running short of time, I would be happy for the Minister to write to me and place a copy of his reply in the Library.

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