Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland (Appropriation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th December 1976.

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Photo of Mr Harold McCusker Mr Harold McCusker , County Armagh 12:00 am, 9th December 1976

I want to comment on a number of items under a range of headings in the Appropriation Order and, to begin with, I turn to Class II.

I congratulate the Under-Secretary and, through him, his hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr Carter) who is responsible for the Department of Commerce and who, with his officials, has succeeded in attracting for the first time for seven years an American industry to establish itself in Northern Ireland, and in my constituency. I was scathing in my criticism of officials of the Department earlier this year when, following an announcement that the authorities in the Republic had managed to attract a number of American industries, we appeared signally to have failed.

I hope that those officials will now realise that, having overcome what may have been a mental barrier, there is no reason why they cannot get more industry to come. I notice that the Under-Secretary is smiling at that comment. I might perhaps remind him that all the reasons in the world can be advanced for not attracting industry to Northern Ireland and that, once they are, the only certainty is that there will be no success. The Department has had some success now. Let its officials go out and follow it up. But it is good that they have attracted an industry which slots rather nicely into a growing carpet manufacturing sector of our economy. We wish it every success.

I add one or two words of caution. Many companies have come to Northern Ireland and suffered for years before getting on to a viable basis because they have not understood some of the problems. I worked in North Armagh with a very large American company—perhaps the last one to come before this—and I suggest that the hon. Member for Northfield be advised to tell the management of the new company to go and talk to the management of the other one, if that has not already happened. There are lessons to be learned from any organisation which has undergone the trauma of establishing a new factory in Northern Ireland, and I believe that many of the mistakes which were made by previous newcomers can be avoided. Certainly I shall do all that I can to help. I hope that the Minister will see to it that some action is taken on my suggestion.

It is notable that one of the reasons for concern was the availability of advance factories. While, no doubt, there is value in having an advance factory programme, there are also disadvantages, because it can be very soul destroying to pass rows of empty factories. One must decide where to draw the line. I hope that the Minister will look at the advance factory programme. It appears that there has been some reduction in the programme, and I hope that that means there is adequate provision and a likelihood of them all being filled. I believe that the money invested in advance factories might be better invested elsewhere during this period of economic restraint.

There is a need to consider local indigenous industries. Many of them feel that new industry coming into the Province gets preferential treatment over established industry. I am not saying that is true, but many industries do feel that. Many industries which turn to the Local Enterprise Development Unit for assistance say that they cannot establish a working relationship with that organisation. If this feeling exists in the Province it should be taken into account, and something should be done to improve that relationship.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) mentioned the drastic unemployment situation in Northern Ireland. I am interested in the projection for unemployment this winter. There is at least one hon. Member on these Benches who has suggested that unemployment could reach 80,000. God forbid that it does. But if that figure is being mooted by Northern Ireland Members, we want to have it confirmed or denied by the Minister. I hope that he will deny it tonight.

Part 4 of Class II expenditure of the Department of Commerce relates to compensation for price restraint. I believe that part of this will go to the various gas undertakings. Reference already has been made to our energy problem. While the gas undertakings will welcome compensation for pegging their prices, it should be remembered that they are pegging them at a rate which is 300 per cent. higher than the going rate in Britain. I hope that allowance has been made in the Estimates for an amount of money which will enable the gas concerns to sell their product at roughly the same price as that operating in Britain. If it is not the intention to offer some assistance to these concerns, some of them will not be in existence for very long.

I speak with some authority on this matter. I have three gas manufacturing concerns in my constituency, two of which are private companies. The third is owned and administered by the local district council, and is on the verge of bankruptcy at the moment. It has told me that unless something is done, it will go out of business, and the consequences of that are too horrible to contemplate. I hope that allowances will be made to help gas manufacturers reduce their prices so that they will be competitive with other fuels.

I turn to a rather parochial constituency matter which is covered by Class VI—the expenditure by the Department of the Environment. Has any allowance been made for the Armaghbrague water scheme in South Armagh, which was mooted some years ago, when Newry and Armagh agreed to introduce the scheme. It was shelved in the local government reorganisation and the Department of the Environment was left with the problem. However, when the Department applied its yardstick, it said that the scheme would be too expensive on a cost basis because the scheme would apply to only 70 consumers. But those 70 people are all hill farmers. They are highly efficient and they are making a major contribution to the economic life of Northern Ireland. They tell me that they have always paid their rents and their rates, and they have tried to make the country viable. They are not prepared to go without water, and they are at present forced to carry it several miles to water their cattle, cool their milk, and so on.

What does one need to do in Northern Ireland to get a fair share of the cake? There may be a yardstick to guide the Department of the Environment, but in extreme circumstances there must be some discretion. I hope that every opportunity has been taken to study the grants available from the EEC and elsewhere which might be used to supplement the money already available so that these people may have their scheme.

When I first mooted the idea two years ago the cost was about £120,000. When it was priced recently this figure had doubled. It is obvious that if a decision is not made soon the water will never be provided for these people. I hope that is understood by the officials responsible. It is easy to underestimate the value of having running water when one has four or five taps around the house. It is easy also to say that we cannot afford to provide it for these people. But they have never had running water, and they need it. I hope that their case will be given full consideration.

I turn now to Class VIII and education expenditure. I welcome the measures announced by the Minister who is responsible for Northern Ireland education. We have been concerned at the suggestion that there are 700 unemployed teachers in Northern Ireland when we need to reduce our pupil-teacher ratio and when our schools should be making a major contribution to overcoming some of our social problems. I am glad that the Minister has taken action to alleviate the situation. I hope that those teachers who claim that they are unemployed will rush in to take advantage of what is being offered. It is a sad commentary that the Province, which prided itself on its high standard in mathematics, should find itself with insufficient specialist mathematics teachers. I hope that sufficient volunteers will come forward for the courses being provided to change that situation.

There is another problem arising from the excess of teachers. It concerns those people who sough to carry out their training in Great Britain, as distinct from Northern Ireland. The problem takes two forms. First, thereis the person who has finished at grammar school and wants to train as a teacher in a college in Great Britain. When public expenditure must be cut, it is right that students in Northern Ireland should be told that only a certain number of grants is available and that when that number is exhausted no one else will get assistance.

There is also the category, however, of the person already in Great Britain from Northern Ireland to do a specialist course. It might be in music or some other subject which is not catered for in Northern Ireland. That person will want to get a teacher-training qualification before going home. I know of a case in which a young man has come to London to train in music. He has trained at one of the finest colleges here and has undertaken specialist coaching from a top-class organist. He is finishing his course and wants to complete teacher training in London before going home. That would hold many advantages. He could continue with his specialist music course while continuing with his teacher training.

But this man has been told to return in a few months. The authorities will not let him know what the situation is. Is that justified? People in this position must be reassured that they will get the necessary grant to complete their training in Great Britain. I hope that the Minister will deal with this point tonight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Dunlop) referred to the crisis in the Health Service. The crisis is undoubtedly growing in rural areas outside Belfast. My hon. Friend highlighted the problem of dentistry in Mid-Ulster. The situation in County Armagh is comparable with that in hospitals in Mid-Ulster.

The Southern Area Health Board rates third in the United Kingdom in terms of the worst provision of dental service. Within that area there are places facing catastrophe. For example, in the city of Armagh there are four dentists serving a community of over 40,000 people—one dentist to 10,000 people. One of those dentists is getting on in years and may soon retire. That will leave the area with three dentists to cater for the dental requirements of 40,000 people.

In Craigavon there are 11 dentists for over 68,000 people. Recently some of my constituents have informed me that they have sought appointments with dentists and have been offered dates 12 months hence. That is all very well for a person whose teeth are in first-class condition, because he or she can afford to wait that length of time, but for somebody in agony such an appointment is of no help at all. If in the same breath the dentist says "If you are prepared to pay me, I will see you tomorrow", one begins to ask a few questions. I understand that a dentist is within his rights in doing that under his contract. Indeed, he can refuse to see a patient if he wishes.

I am concerned not only with the present situation but with the future and whether we are failing to attract sufficient people into dentistry. I hope that, within the moneys mentioned in the order, some thought has been given to this problem. It is extremely serious. The thought of four dentists trying to serve the needs of 40,000 people appals me. The city of Armagh faces catastrophe in this respect unless help is forthcoming..

Finally, I turn to Class XI. I want to touch on public service training and expenditure by the Department of the Civil Service on central management of the civil service. This document, published in 1975 by the Public Service Training Committee, outlines the problem and future of training in Northern Ireland. I have a particular interest because I was in training. I cannot help but think that the budget allowed for public service training of £50,000 is a paltry sum. My budget in one industrial concern was in excess of that amount.

There are vast administrative empires in the public sector in Northern Ireland. What is required in those empires is not professional expertise, but management expertise. If we are to make our public sector more efficient and to reduce the number of personnel employed therein, we must improve management skills and techniques. Despite the severe unemployment situation in Northern Ireland, every newspaper, whether national or local, contains lists of advertisements for all kinds of staff in the public sector. I hope that serious consideration will be given to spending more money than is currently envisaged on public service training.

According to my information, only four people are involved in coping with the training needs of over 130,000 people. In 1975 it was estimated that 132,700 people were employed in the public service. I know that there are people involved in training in some of the individual parts which comprise this figure, but the Public Service Training Committee has a manpower of only four. That is not sufficient. If we are to improve our management skills, we must make a proper investment. I hope that the Minister will comment on that matter in winding up the debate.