I beg to move,
That the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 4 July, be approved.
The order will be made under paragraph 1 of schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974.
A number of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, in accordance with past practice on these occasions, have been kind enough to give me warning of the major topics that they wish to raise during the course of the ensuing debate. So that we, in turn, may be of the greatest assistance to the House, ministerial colleagues not required in Belfast have agreed to be present to deal with matters falling within their own areas of responsibility. If this meets with the convenience of the House, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary in charge of the Northern Ireland Department of Commerce will intervene at a convenient point to answer matters relating to the Harland and Wolff shipyard and to natural gas supply to the Province, which were the subject matters of written statements earlier today to coincide incidentally with this debate.
Since indication has also been given that the Housing Executive, with particular reference to the Rowland report, is a major item of concern, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary in charge of the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment will wind up the debate and will also deal with education questions, on which he is spokesman in the House.
Therefore, I propose to confine myself to introducing the order and I will do so as shortly as possible so as to give right hon. and hon. Members the maximum amount of time to present their arguments on those other matters, although I appreciate that as a result of the amendment that has been accepted by the Government they have until tomorrow at 1 p.m. to present their arguments.
The main purpose of the draft order now before the House is to authorise the issue and appropriation of the balance of the financial provision for Northern Ireland departmental services for 1979–80. Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that a proportion of the sums needed for 1979–80 has already been appropriated under the provisions of the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was approved by the House on 7 March. Money, as needed, will be paid from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. [Interruption.] I do not know whether hon. Members on the Opposition Benches wish to intervene. I must be mistaken. I thought that I heard a voice in the background.
The presentation of the supporting main Estimates volume—
It is suggested that the person who was, perhaps, trying to speak—he made an attempt earlier today and another attempt just before he rose to speak—might have been the Secretary of State for Trade. However, it is not him, so it might have been one of his hon. Friends who wanted to intervene.
I just wondered whether hon. Members on the Opposition Benches wished to intervene. If they do not, I shall continue to present the order to the House. I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).
The presentation of the supporting main Estimates volume has been altered from previous years. First, when preparing the 1979–80 Estimates Northern Ireland Departments have kept in line with Great Britain Departments by assimilating cash limits and main Estimates. Consequently, 35 of the 48 Votes are fully cash limited. The remaining 13 are completely exempt from cash limits control.
Secondly, Estimates were generally presented in the past on the basis of pay and price levels prevailing at the time they were prepared usually some months before the start of the financial year. However, the provision being sought for 1979–80 in the draft order now before the House includes an element to reflect estimated pay and price changes occurring during the year.
The total of the main Estimates provision being sought for 1979–80 includes the sum already approved by this House in March 1979 and is £1,642 million. This compares with a total Estimates provision, including supplementaries, of £1,522 million in 1978–79. The sum being asked for is in line with the public expenditure survey allocation for Northern Ireland departmental services, and £1,185 million, or 72 per cent., will be subject to cash limits control. The draft order and the supporting main Estimates volume take account of the reductions in public expenditure required as a result of the Budget Statement on 12 June.
The various services for which provision is now being sought are listed in the second part of the schedule to the order. More detailed information is given in the main Estimates volume, copies of which were placed in the Library on 4 July. I should now like to draw the attention of the House to the main increases and decreases in expenditure compared with 1978–79.
Class I, Vote 2, on agricultural support, shows a decrease to £9 million in the 1979–80 provision in comparison to the total allocation of £59 million for 1978–79. This is because the provision being sought for 1979–80 includes only expenditure relating to 1978–79 for the meat industry employment scheme, aid to the milk industry and feed price allowances for pig, poultry and egg production. It is a remanet payment. The intention is that Supplementary Estimates will be presented at a later date for the continuation of these schemes. However, £2 million has been included in this Estimate to improve agricultural output by bringing more land into effective use and to boost employment in rural areas.
In Class II, Vote 1, dealing with industrial support and regeneration, there is a net increase of £9 million over last year in the provision being sought. Over £7 million of the additional funds will be used for the provision of advance factories, purpose-built factories and extensions to existing factories. This is a reflection of the increasing interest shown by industrialists in the attractive range of investment incentives which Northern Ireland has to offer.
Class II, Vote 2 shows a reduction of £7·5 million through the termination of selective employment payments from 31 July 1979, and this brings Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain.
The amount being sought in Class II, Vote 3 for general support to industry is £133 million. That requirement would have been some £9 million higher had it not been for the recently announced delay of four months in the payment of capital investment grants. Additional help of £21 million is being provided for the aircraft and shipbuilding industries, while the provision for selective assistance to industry is down by £23 million. In connection with the latter, it is anticipated that there will be greater use of loans from the private sector, backed up where necessary by guarantees from the Department of Commerce.
The estimate for the functioning of the labour market in Class II, Vote 5 totals £64 million, compared with £41 million last year. Because of the difficulties in anticipating receipts from the European social fund, only token amounts are shown as appropriations-in-aid in main Estimates, and that accounts for about £16 million of the increase. The balance of about £6 million is needed for expenditure on the youth opportunities programme, industrial training and Enterprise Ulster".
In Class IV, Vote 1, covering the roads service, provision of £94 million is being sought—just under £11 million more than last year. About £7 million of the additional amount will be spent on the construction of new public roads and bridges in Northern Ireland. A further £2 million will be used on road improvement carried out by direct labour schemes which will support over 750 jobs during the year.
Housing services, Class V, Vote 1, show an increase of £19 million over last year, bringing the provision to £111 million. The housing grant to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which is based on the difference between the Executive's expenditure and its income, and the recoupment of its expenditure on grants for the renovation of private sector dwellings, is increased by £14 million. An additional £4 million is being made available to housing associations in 1979–80 because of the expected growth in their activities.
The water and sewerage services, Class VI, Vote 1, show a net increase of £6 million to £60 million for 1979–80. The major part of this additional money will be used in the construction and improvement of water and sewerage services throughout the Province.
The increase of £11 million over last year's figure of £123 million in Class VIII, Vote 1, schools, is mainly due to increased teacher salary costs. The provision being sought takes account of the full-year effect of the additional 225 posts that were approved in September 1978. The cost of one-year in-service training courses continues to be reflected in the Estimates.
In Class VIII, Vote 2, expenditure on higher and further education, the amount being sought is £56 million, an increase of £6 million over last year's figure. Recurrent grants to the Queen's university of Belfast, the New university of Ulster and the Ulster polytechnic account for over half of the increase.
Class VIII, Vote 4, for education and library boards, shows a requirement of £157 million this year compared with £143 million in 1978–79. Pay increases account for £4 million of the extra provision that is sought, with the balance mainly coming about as a result of price increases on current expenditure.
In Class IX, Vote 1, health and personal services, the provision sought in the Estimates is £287 million—a net increase of £30 million over the allocation for 1978–79. The additional money is needed to continue the improvement in health and personal social services and for pay and price increases.
Class X, Vote 1, which comprises the Consolidated Fund contribution to the National Insurance Fund, shows an increase of almost £7 million over the 1978–79 payment. The amount sought in Vote 2, non-contributory benefits, does not include any provision for the 1979 uprating. It is approximately £2·5 million lower than 1978–79 because only a token amount has been taken for lump sum payments to pensioners and, resulting from the higher rate of child benefit, there has been a reduction in the provision for supplementary benefits.
The amount sought in Class X, Vote 3, family benefits, is £37 million greater than in 1978–79. This results from the higher rates of child benefit payable from April 1979.
The present order also provides for the issue and appropriation of £10—slightly different from the order of figures that we have been considering so far. This arises out of an overspending in the financial year 1977–78. The reasons for the excess Vote, which occurred in Class II, Vote 7, administration and miscellaneous services, by the Department of Manpower Services, are set out in the statement of excess, which was placed in the Library some weeks ago. The Public Accounts Committee has considered the excess Vote and recommended that the necessary sum should be made available.
The Minister has just given the House a valuable analysis of the differences between the total sums for 1979–80 and the previous year. Will he confirm that those differences comprise three separate elements? One is a real increase in expenditure, the second is the difference in the value of money between the two years, and the third is the fact that in the present year, as opposed to the last, the Estimates take account of prospective increases in expenditure due to decline in the value of money and increase in prices. If that is correct, it puts into a correct perspective the appearance of huge increases in expenditure this year, as compared with last.
That is to a certain extent right. I mentioned in opening that last year's figures were based on expected increases, whereas this year they are based upon actual increases, with inflation taken into account.
That concludes the time I wish to take in drawing attention to the major effects of the order. I hope that I have drawn attention to its more significant features. I or my colleagues will try to answer any questions that right hon. and hon. Members may wish to raise in the debate. If for any reason we are unable to do so, we shall note the points made and write to the hon. Members concerned.
I wish first to make two procedural points. I acquit the Minister of being responsible for business, although I notice that, as to the manner born, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has taken up a position that he occupied for many years as the Conservatives' Chief Whip. The old Adam must be coming out in him again.
I must reiterate the complaint that I think is widely expressed on both sides of the House about the time at which this debate is taking place. It is not for reasons of personal convenience that we make that complaint. As the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) said in an intervention this afternoon, when he told the Leader of the House to do better next time, it is for the sake of Northern Ireland and the importance of the subject that the order should be debated at a time more convenient to all concerned.
I remember the hon. Gentleman's words even better than he does, which must be a mark of the impression that they made on other hon. Members. He said that he thought that the Leader of the House had come into office pledged to do better, and that he had not done better. Therefore, his invitation to the right hon. Gentleman was for him to do better. The hon. Gentleman is clearly pregnant with contribution and no doubt he will make it in due course.
If we, in the first Session of a Parliament that the Government hope will last five years, cannot do better than to put such an order before the House at 10 p.m., I wonder what will happen in the second and third years of the Parliament, if it lasts that long. I hope that Ministers will convey those feelings to the Leader of the House.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) answered the previous debate on the appropriation order he was pressed to provide further advance information in order to shape the debates and inform the hon. Members who took part in them. My hon. Friend undertook to investigate how we could help hon. Members, but the Government have not been able to provide any more information for this debate. I hope that the Northern Ireland Office will note that fact and that Ministers will be able to give us further information in future.
That request is given added strength by the Under-Secretary's statement on Harland and Wolff today. A complaint has been made about the way in which that statement was made. It contains expressions such as:
Consequently, the process of contraction at the yard may well have to continue further
Some further decline in the shipbuilding work force is inevitable".
At all stages, we are given general information. However, my information—and I understand from the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) that it is also the information of the Belfast Telegraph—is that a job loss of 2,000 is being mentioned. If that is an accurate assessment, the information should be provided during our debate.
It appears—I put it no higher, because I understand the difficulties of Ministers—that meetings took place in Northern Ireland to inform certain parties of the statement before it was made in the House and certainly before it was put on the board here. I hope that the advance information that I have asked for will be given in future so that we can avoid such a situation arising again.
I also wish to raise the details of the implications of the £35 million cut in public expenditure. I am grateful to Ministers for sending me a great deal of information—on some occasions as I plough through press statement after press statement the gratitude is attenuated—but on no occasion of which I know has the implication in manpower terms of the £35 million cut been spelt out in the House.
However, I have a letter dated 13 June which does spell out the effect on, for example, training schemes. It would be of great assistance to the House if the information available to Northern Irish bodies about the details of the cuts was also made available to hon. Members so that we could conduct our debates properly.
My speech will concentrate on the industrial and economic outlooks, the Votes of which are to be found in Class II of the Estimates. There is common ground, certainly among employers and trade unions in Northern Ireland, that the economic problems there are among the most intractable in the United Kingdom. There is also common agreement that the creation and maintenance of employment depends crucially upon Government investment and Government incentives.
Since we last debated Northern Ireland matters about three weeks ago, there have been three major developments, the intensification of an older development and a shadow cast over the future.
I will deal first of all with the three new developments. In one way or another they all emanate from the policy of the Secretary of State for Industry towards regional aid and the role of the National Enterprise Board in Britain, and from the statement about shipbuilding made by the Minister of State, Department of Industry today. We were heartened to learn that Northern Ireland was to be preserved from the Josephite rigours visited upon other areas, but in reply to the hon. Member for Antrim. South (Mr. Molyneaux) the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced some sort of departmental review into the question whether it was the most effective instrument and whether we were making the best use of resources. I do not wish to be unkind to the Government, but I must say that when Tory circles mention making the best use of money, or a more rigorous use of money, it usually means that they are looking to spend less money.
In order to remove uncertainty in Northern Ireland, I want to be given an idea how this investigation is to be carried out and what the time scale is for its report. I put it to the Government that if they find a more effective way of using the money, to target it upon the real economic problems of Northern Ireland, that will be used as an excuse to cut the total money available to the Province. The money should be used on the new formula to create new and extra jobs. It is only by spending at least the same amount of money on industrial incentives that we shall begin to tackle Northern Ireland's mountainous employment problem.
Secondly, I understand that the Northern Ireland Development Agency will continue as before. I should be grateful if the Minister of State would confirm that to be the case.
I come to the third point raised this afternoon. We would like further particulars of what is implied in the statement made about Harland and Wolff. Does it entail the cutting of the work force from about 7,500 to just over 5,000—or is it too early for the Government to estimate? If we are agreed that public expenditure is vital to the economic and employment well-being of Northern Ireland, we cannot but be dismayed by the Government's cut of £35 million in public expenditure for Northern Ireland.
The Government should now spell out in more detail how many people will lose their jobs as a result of these cuts and also how much loss in quality of the services there will be. Under the signature of the Minister of State, I know that as a direct result of this package about 600 adult and youth opportunity training places will be removed from Northern Ireland. That in itself will be a serious matter. But there is also the sinister threat that, in addition, the cash limits applied to departmental expenditure will necessitate a reduction in volume of activity in the employment transfer scheme and on training for young people and adults. That is nowhere spelt out, even in the letter sent to Northern Ireland organisations.
What will be the effect of cash limits, in addition to the cuts in public expenditure, on the retraining of youth and adults in Northern Ireland? An increase in public expenditure was supposed to offset decline in manufacturing industry and in the service industries. It is common ground between us that unemployment is already at 11·1 per cent. in Northern Ireland, and if we know where and by how many more that unemployment total is to be added to we may gauge exactly the problems that face the Northern Ireland economy.
I come now to the shadow of which I spoke earlier. The Ulster Commentary had a headline in its July-August edition—I acquit the Secretary of State of having sub-edited it—"Cushioned Impact of the Cuts", but the text below that marvellous headline did not quite live up to it. I think that the whole matter was designed to be reassuring about the effect of the public expenditure cuts on Northern Ireland. Those were the public expenditure cuts announced by the Chancellor in the Budget a month ago.
We know that today an emergency Cabinet meeting was held. It is widely reported that a further £1,000 million cut in public expenditure, on the part of spending Departments, is being called for. So wide and so unanimous is the reporting that one might conclude, if one were suspicious, that there had been a deliberate briefing on the background. If the report is correct, it is vital that we should know the impact on Northern Ireland. It is unlikely that we shall be cushioned to the extent that the Ulster Commentary pretends that we are cushioned from the present cuts. The Government must tell the House soon, in an oral statement, how people's lives and their employment will be affected. Both quality of life and prospects for employment impinge on the many tragic incidents in Northern Ireland that we have to debate all too frequently.
Class II mentions the selective employment premium which, as the Government have announced, has ended. This is not a happy augury. The Government are playing down the effect and claiming that the situation is being brought into line with the rest of Great Britain, but they have not challenged the estimate given by the previous Government that the selective employment premium had helped to preserve 10,000 jobs in Northern Ireland. I accept that the removal of the SEP will not eliminate all those jobs, but it will remove a number at the margins. We are entitled to know the Government's estimate of the loss of jobs, how many will disappear, and on what time scale.
Much though I applaud the visit of the Under-Secretary of State—the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw)—to the United States and hope that his initiative will succeeed in attracting new investment, I am sure that he will be aware that there is a sense of grievance among those employers indigenous to Northern Ireland that newcomers are being treated more favourably than established Northern Ireland employers. The removal of the selective employment premium will add to that sense of grievance.
There are places in Northern Ireland, as Ministers will know, that are blacker than black in relation to the overall unemployment picture—
We have considered carefully the selective employment premium and its effect on jobs. Our advice is that it will have no effect at all. The hon. Gentleman must look at the matter in its proper context. When the selective employment premium was first introduced in 1967–68, it represented £3·12p against an average industrial wage of £19 a week. It was a significant factor in influencing the question whether employers took on people and kept them. Today, it is £2 against an average industrial wage of between £89 and £90 a week. That pales into insignificance as an incentive, or lack of incentive, in the retention or creation of new jobs.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. It is the justification in the Budget for the removal of the selective employment premium. I believe that SEP has been a significant help at the margins, especially for small and medium-sized industry. The job loss, therefore, may be significant. I am merely asking the Government, if they have made the calculation, what job loss will occur and what is their calculation of the employment effect of removing this assistance.
I was dealing with the question of the blacker than black areas, such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), in which the rate of unemployment is over 20 per cent. I plead with the Government, in future dealings, to show more patience, when talking about the viability of firms, than was shown towards Antrim Crystal recently.
I was in Northern Ireland when the chairman of Antrim Crystal made his broadcast. He said that because of the time needed to train glass blowers—which I understand is seven years, and this assistance was being chopped off after three years—the time for viability had not even been reached, so there was no sensible prospect of its coming towards viability. If that is so, the Government have been hasty. What is even worse, they have ignored the social and economic costs and the costs on public expenditure of creating unemployment in an area with an already very high level.
The Secretary of State for Industry said that his chief aim in the amendments to regional aid that he was making was to target the available aid upon the worst of the areas. If he is right and he can do that—I do not believe that he can—I plead with Northern Ireland Ministers to target their assistance upon the blackest spots, which have unemployment levels of 20 per cent. and 25 per cent., so that we can tackle the problems where they arise. Northern Ireland Ministers will know, as I do, the relative immobility of labour in Northern Ireland. People do not travel very far to work, for many understandable reasons.
It is in this context that the cut of more than 600 in the number to be industrially retrained is to be viewed. If Northern Ireland is to widen its economic base, it must have a wider capacity to offer new skills and opportunities. The public expenditure cuts that have been announced, together with the cash limits, at whose extent we can only guess, will lessen the chances of Northern Ireland being able to provide for the future a range of skills amongst its work force which are attractive to employers.
I deal next with the existing problem, which is intensifying, has intensified and will intensify daily. I refer, of course, to the oil crisis. This has had a very serious effect on Northern Ireland, because the price of oil dictates the cost of electricity generation. That is to be seen in the appropriations and the reference to the short-term aid given to the electricity industry. For all that I know, the Government may be contemplating further short-term aid of that kind.
The high and increasing cost of oil increases the cost of industrial manufacture, and that is why short-term aid is being given by the Government to try to redress the manufacturing disadvantage to Northern Ireland industry resulting from the high cost of power. Nevertheless, I believe that Northern Ireland industry must be decreasingly competitive compared with other parts of the country.
What is often overlooked, and ought not to be, is that in addition to the cost of manufacture of products the high cost of power makes the cost of living greater in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the country. It makes it an expensive place in which to live. Although family incomes are well below the United Kingdom average, in Northern Ireland family expenditure is more than 2 per cent. higher.
Since everyone agrees that the oil crisis is neither a short-term nor a minor one, we have to take a long-term view. Two major solutions have been put forward. The first is the connection of Northern Ireland to the gas grid. In my discussions with employers and trade union representatives in Northern Ireland, however, I was not convinced that that would be of very great benefit to manufacturing capacity, because manufacturing industry in Northern Ireland is geared heavily to the use of electricity.
Nor do I believe that the introduction of another form of energy would help to make electricity any cheaper. I notice from a long answer, together with an explanatory document, which is in the Library, that the Government have rejected the solution, not only because it would involve those disadvantages, or lack of advantages, but because it would cost £100 million. Although the Government have a better opportunity than I to judge, I would not dissent from their judgment.
Both unions and industrialists have urged the connection of Northern Ireland to the British electricity grid, where they see the possibility of cheaper and more efficient use of electricity, but no one should be in any doubt that that would have employment implications for Northern Ireland. The electricity service currently employs 6,500 men in Northern Ireland, many of them on the generating side.
When the grid has surplus power, the habit of the CEGB is to knock out first those stations with the highest cost of generation. My conversations lead me to believe that Northern Ireland has the highest costs of generation, so Northern Ireland would be knocked out first, and perhaps closed down if there were a permanent surplus.
There is not a shortage of generating capacity in Northern Ireland. When Kilroot comes on stream in the late summer of 1980 there will be a surplus of energy generated within Northern Ireland, which in happier times could be transferred to the South—which would be very helpful.
But the vital thing, and what we must identify, is not the method of generating but the fuel that has been used to fire the power stations that generate the electricity. The choice of oil, which, after Kilroot, will form 90 per cent. of the firing for electricity generation, has left Northern Ireland extremely exposed and dependent not only upon an expensive and increasingly expensive method but on a fuel in which we shall continue to have to economise.
Coal was regarded for a long time as old-fashioned and uncompetitive. In its conventional wisdom, the CEGB has for long waged what can only be called a vendetta against coal, but the conventional wisdom of the electricity industry and its preference for coal and coal alone has been shown to be mistaken. The rising price of oil and the need to conserve supplies dictate to the electricity industry in Northern Ireland and to the Northern Ireland Office—I know that Ministers are considering this—the conversion of some oil-fired stations to dual-firing capacity with oil and coal, so that we may enjoy the advantages of coal. Certainly in future it will have the advantages of greater viability and will not leave Northern Ireland a hostage to the oil crises of the future.
I am sure that the coal industry can and will assist in this work. We should aim for dual-fired stations accounting for about 50 per cent. of total capacity instead of the present 10 per cent. That may be costly, but it is no more costly than the price that we would have to pay by leaving Northern Ireland exposed to one fuel, the world price of which is increasing.
By spending cuts—both those which have been announced and those which are lurking for the autumn—the Government have thrown a shadow over the Northern Ireland economy. The cuts have weakened economic life and jeopardised employment. The Government hope that reductions in employment caused by public expenditure will be countered by the stimulus to the private sector.
The job loss created by public expenditure cuts is here and now. What is the Government's calculation of the take-up by private industry of the stimulus in the Budget? I do not believe that that will ever completely make up for the cuts in public expenditure. If that is so, not only will Northern Ireland workers be on the dole for a long time but the jobs may disappear, never to return.
If private industry is not enthused by the Budget, and the rush to buy shares and invest in Northern Ireland does not materialise, I hope that the Government will be brave enough to jettison the dogma that has resulted in public expenditure cuts and increase public expenditure for Northern Ireland.
I have already protested about the way in which this business is being taken at a late hour and how we have to debate important Northern Ireland matters throughout the night. It is a disgrace that Northern Ireland should be treated like this. It is time that such procedures were ended.
I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) about the cuts in public expenditure. It is ominous for jobs, homes and the standard of living in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Government will make it clear that as much money as was spent last year will be spent this year—taking inflation into account—to ensure that Northern Ireland people will not suffer in terms of jobs or in any other way.
In the last 10 years Northern Ireland has suffered agonisingly from the IRA campaign of terror. It needs all the financial and moral support that it can get if it is to be carried through these dark days.
In the debate about four weeks ago when I referred to Northern Ireland I said that if there had to be expenditure cuts the Government should consider abolishing Enterprise Ulster. That would save money and enable wasted money to be used in other ways. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has shown that it is not capable of providing the homes that are so desperately needed in the Province.
I hope that the Government will give an assurance tonight that the people of Northern Ireland will no longer have to put up with substandard housing or, indeed, no homes at all, and that homes will be made available for them. I have emphasised many times in the past that in my constituency there are young people desperately waiting for a home, living in appalling conditions, and these are not conditions in which people should be expected to live.
Therefore, may we have an assurance from the Government that every possible effort will be made to get rid of the long waiting lists for homes, especially in North Down, which seems to attract people from Belfast, so that homes are there for local people in North Down and homes are also built for people in Belfast and elsewhere? Certainly, a great deal needs to be done in Belfast to bring the people back into the city and to revive it again.
In a normal democratic society, the responsibility for public authority housing would be safely in the hands of elected councillors. But not so in Northern Ireland, where we have a kind of corporate State tailor-made for the bureaucracy, with every important facet of life, whether public or private, controlled, regulated and dominated by statutory boards.
I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument, trying to reconcile it with the views that he has expressed over a number of years in support of those who now form the Conservative Government. I am talking about the sale of 54,000 council houses in Northern Ireland. How does the hon. Gentleman reconcile what he is now saying with that? It seems a complete contradiction to support the ready sale of council houses and then bemoan the fact that there are thousands of people who can never afford to buy a house at any price and have to rely on the rented sector but who cannot get a house. It just does not add up.
I shall not get involved in those arguments between the Socialists, on the one hand, and the Tories, on the other. I have spoken clearly on this matter year after year ever since I was first elected in 1964, no matter which Government were in power. I do not mind whether houses are sold so long as there are houses for people in Northern Ireland to rent or to buy. They need homes. If they can buy them, that is probably the best way for people to begin their married life but otherwise let them have homes to rent.
Northern Ireland has been treated appallingly by previous Governments, including the Government which the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) supported. The Socialists speak a great deal about democracy and the rights of the individual, but in Northern Ireland they trampled on those rights. What we have today is a system of statutory boards which seem to control every aspect of life in the Province.
Not one of the members of those boards is elected. All are nominated by the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers. The last local body which had any pretension to a democratic basis was the Belfast harbour commissioners, who were elected on a limited franchise, but the Labour Government dealt very smartly with that and, instead of making it more democratic, they snuffed democracy out by making that also a nominated body. That is certainly no contribution to restoring normal life in the Province.
The hon. Gentleman says that Northern Ireland has been treated in an appalling way. Am I right or wrong in thinking that public expenditure per head in Northern Ireland is substantially higher than it is in England, in Wales or in Scotland, which is smaller and better treated than is England? Am I not right in thinking that public expenditure per head is significantly greater in Northern Ireland than it is in any other part of the United Kingdom?
There is no contradiction in what I have said. I find it difficult to follow the hon. Gentleman. I do not intend to be confused by him and the Ulster people will not be confused by him.
In Northern Ireland we have a form of colonial Government from Westminster. We have statutory boards that are composed of those nominated by the Secretary of State or by Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office.
The Conservative Party manifesto stressed that the growth of quasi autonomous non-governmental organisations is detrimental to our way of life. The Conservative Party—properly, in my view—deplored the trend of an increasing number of quangos. What action do the Government intend to take in Northern Ireland, which administratively is one large quango? It is a mass of complex, competing and conflicting quangos.
The Labour Government, for example, allocated £2 million to the Belfast area of need programme. Most of the money went on salaries for extra staff in the Belfast education and library board and the Belfast corporation. Most of the rest of the money was absorbed in stationery and typewriters to service the extra staff and the committees. Less than £700,000 was spent on refurbishing schools, community centres, parks and playing fields. That demonstrates the desperate need to take care of the expenditure of public money.
The project was vital to Belfast and to those who live in the run-down, dilapidated areas which are a disgrace to the community. Much needs to be done to restore morale to those in Belfast and in other areas who suffer in that way. The whole affair was hopelessly botched by the bureaucrats, by the usual bureacratic muddle and mess. The result is that £1·3 million has been lost irretrievably.
No doubt the bureaucrats are working a great deal of overtime to disguise the realities. No doubt they are busy putting a gloss on the accounts of the Belfast education and library board, on the accounts of the corporation and of the various grant-aided organisations. No doubt they will make a good job of it at the end of the day. No doubt when the summaries of accounts are published they will not reveal any nugatory expenditure. However, if the £2 million had been handed over to the democratically elected Belfast corporation it would have spent the money effectively and to the full benefit of Belfast citizens. Of course, it was not so handed over. Most of it was given to the nominated boards and was lost.
Will the Ulster people be consulted about the future of the quangos? Apart from the 26 district councils that are largely responsible for refuse collection and recreation, the boards are nominated by Ministers. Will the Government now declare that they will abolish the quangos, or will they amalgamate them into a larger and worse quango? I sincerely hope that the Government will not take the latter course and call the result a third tier of local government. Of course, that is what the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and his Official Unionist Group would like to see established in the Province instead of a Stormont Parliament. That would not fool the long-suffering Ulster people.
A third tier of local government would merely be a talking shop with no power to legislate, to raise revenue or to determine large policy questions. Such a third tier of local government would do great political damage to Ulster and its people. It would hinder real political advance. After 10 years of Irish Republican terrorism and disastrous Whitehall interference in Ulster's daily affairs, I should have thought that we had come to the end of centuries of slavish dependence on the so-called wisdom of Westminster.
Turning to the question of transfer procedures, before the abolition of the 11-plus examination I received very few complaints from disappointed parents about transfers to grammar schools. Generally the results of the 11-plus examination were accepted by parents. They regarded it as a fair and reasonable test for their children, in the circumstances. Not so the temporary arrangements that have succeeded it. Originally the temporary arrangements were to last for two years only, but it looks as though they will remain with us to harass parents and confuse children for another few years yet.
Last year I sent a number of cases to the Parliamentary Ombudsman for Administration. It appeared to me that the system had been shown to be manifestly unfair to many children in Bangor and Newtownards and other areas in my constituency and, for all I know, in other constituencies throughout the Province. Had those children been resident in Belfast, they would have obtained their first-choice schools without difficulty.
I am sorry. I am glad to hear that. I am used to hearing disagreement from the hon. Gentleman. I apologise to him for having misunderstood his remarks. I am glad that he agrees with me.
Parents have written to me with a variety of examples that show the great nonsense that is taking place at present. One parent told me that his daughter, with a grade Q, was refused admission to a grammar school, while another grammar school accepted pupils with grade R. Another must send his daughter to a secondary school three miles away, yet he lives only 500 yards from another secondary school. There is yet another example of confusion. A parent tells me that all pupils with grade R at his daughter's school, with the exception of his own daughter, have been given grammar school places. I realise that no system will please everyone, but for two years now we have had variations on a method of selection which have pleased nobody. I only hope that this system, which has caused dismay and concern to Ulster parents for too long, will now be changed by the Government.
I turn to the subject of roads, sewerage and water. If the Secretary of State is genuinely looking at Ulster, its dilapidated adminstration and the deadening bureacracy, I hope that he will examine the waste that is inseparable from the present system of roads, water, sewerage and housing. The four areas are interlocking and closely related to planning. Two of them—water supply and sewerage—are in the general area of public health.
District councils have an approving role in planning and an executive function in certain aspects of public health. If the Minister transferred to the district councils in Northern Ireland responsibility for water and sewerage and the cleaning and maintenance of minor roads, he would have gone some way to restoring meaning and purpose to local government and local involvement and pride in our villages and towns.
What has been damaged most in Ulster, by 10 years of Irish Republican aggression and sectarian attack, is the growing trust between the two communities that was evidenced before 1968. The political decisions that have been taken by Westminster since then have wrought their own mischief and produced their own frustrations and discontents throughout the Province. Apathy has replaced interest and concern, and one meets with frustrations and bureaucratic sluggishness on every side.
I trust that the Government will immediately show that they want to put an end to bureaucracy and to restore democracy to the people in Northern Ireland, and not only to end the terrorism that has destroyed and is destroying so many lives but to give pride back to the people, and the ability to govern their own country.
It would be quite impossible for me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, like the two speakers who have preceded me, not to refer, however briefly, to the circumstances in which the debate is taking place.
The necessity for this and the other two appropriation orders in the course of a year arises from the strict separation between the financial administration of the Province and that of the rest of the United Kingdom. I dare say that the experience of tonight will sharpen the mind of the Government and, indeed, of the House in general on the question whether these arrangements, which are, in part, of historical origin, are proper to be continued indefinitely. But the fact is that as long as they continue, these debates are essential and indispensable for the representation of the electorate of Northern Ireland.
They are for Northern Ireland the equivalent of the Consolidated Fund debates, which only to a minor extent relate to the Province, and of the Supply debates for the rest of the kingdom which take place throughout the year. They are the opportunity we have to follow up the investigation of financial administration, which is performed in the first place by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee, and also to ventilate major subjects of concern in a context in which those subjects can be reasonably debated on the Floor of the House and replied to from the Government Front Bench.
Our difficulty in doing this tonight, commencing at 10 p.m., has been compounded by two events which I was going to say were unforeseen at the time when the announcement was made last Thursday. It may be that they were not entirely unforeseen by the Government; but they have certainly intensified the difficulties of the House and of those who intend to participate in the debate.
The first was the announcement this afternoon on British Shipbuilders and the almost accidental disclosure that there had been parallel announcement, by way of answer to a written question, on the future of Harland and Wolff. It is no fault of my hon. Friends and myself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the future of Harland and Wolff is not considered—as we always argued it ought to be considered—in the context of the shipbuilding industry of the United Kingdom as a whole. We would have been more than content if a statement had been made this afternoon on the Floor of the House—we could have participated in the questioning which followed it—covering the whole industry. But it was intolerable—and that the Government eventually recognised—that the application of the policy to Northern Ireland, where that industry is even more central than it is in England or Scotland, should be relegated to a written answer without opportunity of debate. So in the debate tonight we are to have a kind of opportunity, a kind of reference which can be made to the subject.
The other event was that there coincided with all this the long-awaited announcement of the Government's conclusions on the supply of energy in Northern Ireland, so that when that announcement has finally come we on the Ulster Unionist Bench, who not for months but for years have pressed for a statement and a conclusion, find ourselves obliged to comment briefly and with the shortest possible notice, upon pain of having had no other opportunity for several months, upon a statement of profound importance for the energy economy of the Province.
My hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker), when he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be referring to those conclusions and putting forward the views of my hon. Friends. We recognise that on this occasion the Government have attempted to make some amends by providing for an intervention by a Minister who will be able to deal with that subject. I think that that can be taken as a recognition on their part that this was no way to deal with this central debate affecting Northern Ireland.
These debates perform two functions. One is of continuing and continuous financial scrutiny, carried forward from one appropriation debate to another. The second is of isolating specific subjects. My hon. Friends and I have given the Government notice that we consider the whole topic of housing—the administration of the Housing Executive and the experience of its stewardship in Northern Ireland—to be more than ripe for discussion, and that we intend to make it, for our part, one of the principal subjects in the debate.
I am grateful to the Government for the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is here to hear what is said on that topic and to sum up at the end of the debate. The subject is a wide one and I shall concentrate only on one sector, leaving others to be covered in due course by my hon. Friends. The sector to which I propose to refer contains four compartments. They are all closely interrelated and all cohere, namely, the maintenance of the Housing Executive's stock of houses; second, heating conversion; third, the improvement of the Housing Executive's stock of houses; and, fourth, the system of grants for repair and improvement of houses other than those owned by the Housing Executive.
I begin with maintenance. The Comptroller and Auditor General and the local government auditor had some sharp remarks to make on the administration of housing maintenance by the Housing Executive when the accounts for the year ending 1977 were presented in February and the accounts for the year ending 1978 were presented in July. That was a rather curious telescoping or correption of financial control.
I shall trouble the House with one or two sentences from the first of those reports, which the then Under-Secretary of State responsible admitted in a written answer on 16 February naturally made him "concerned". The comments were as follows:
The audit of maintenance accounts … has … given cause for concern. Among many weaknesses in the controls exercised I "—
that is, the local government auditor—
would draw attention to the inadequate check of contractors' accounts by maintenance staff which, in many instances, occurs through a lack of knowledge of the terms and conditions of the employment of contractors, the non-observance of Standing Orders … and the failure which often occurs to complete the various forms necessary to maintain the system of control … I feel"—
that the standard of efficiency in this Division would have been improved if, in response to previous audit criticisms, immediate action had been taken by the staff responsible.
We were glad to learn from the following report for the year ended March 1979 that some belated action was being taken upon this. But to read those words came as no surprise to hon. Members who are concerned, as constituency Members—I might say daily—with the work of maintenance in the Housing Executive. For amongst the volume of complaints which, in the absence of any local representation, it falls to us to handle, the condition of Housing Executive premises is one of the foremost.
My hon. Friends will bear me out when I say that the results of our inquiries and complaints follow a recognisable pattern. We communicate with the district manager, who, all attentiveness, indicates that he intends to get in touch with the maintenance manager. The maintenance manager then gets in touch with the contractor to find out what is going on. Back comes the alleged information from the contractor, through the maintenance manager, through the housing manager to the Member of Parliament. But we find that it does not tally with either our own observation or the information which is immediately relayed to us by the complainant when we pass on the supposed news. What has happened has been that the maintenance division has been out of touch with the work of the contractor; and the contractor, more often than not, has failed to carry out satisfactorily or in time the work which had been allocated to him.
My conclusion from all this—I think that my hon. Friends and others who have practical experience in Northern Ireland will concur—is that two changes of a fairly drastic character are necessary. First, the responsibility for maintenance must not be divided. The maintenance of accommodation is a function of the ownership and management of housing. It is wrong that there should be a division of responsibility between those who manage and those who maintain the houses. It is not fair to the housing managers or to the tenants. It results only in wasted effort, delay, repairs long overdue, irritation, frustration and ill will on the part of the tenants.
The second reflection that I have to offer may not ideologically commend itself to hon. Members on the Government side, but I do not mind if they conclude that what I am about to suggest is related mainly or exclusively to conditions in Northern Ireland. I suggest that the use of contractors for much of the maintenance work that is required—at any rate, in the conditions that prevail in the Province—is inefficient and unsatisfactory and that the Housing Executive must take a closer grip and exercise greater control over the work of maintaining its own housing stock.
Certainly; if that is the name of it, so be it. We cannot regard the system in Northern Ireland as satisfactory. We put the Government and, through the Government, the Housing Executive on warning that something dramatic needs to be done to satisfy not unreasonable complaints but the reasonable expectation of what would be done by any owner of rented houses who had the opportunity in any part of the country.
I pass from maintenance to heating conversion. Ironically, heating conversion is going on in two opposite directions. On the one hand, there is a scheme in progress for converting all-electric heating—particularly of pensioners' houses—to solid fuel heating. On the other hand, there is a scheme going on for replacing unsatisfactory solid fuel heating with systems which will be less unsatisfactory and more economic for the tenants. I shall attempt to explain briefly how this Scylla and Charybdis movement came about in the administration of the Housing Executive. I hope that the House will forgive me if I quote individual cases; but only individual cases bring into focus the nature of the mess into which the Housing Executive has got itself.
There was a period some years ago when all-electric heating was the fashion and was introduced into new dwellings, especially blocks, rows and closes of new dwellings intended for pensioners living on small incomes. I am glad that the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) is present, because he and I were together, so to speak, in the experience which led to the conversion scheme. There was a whole development at a place called Drumcloon Walk at Downpatrick, in my constituency, where pensioners found themselves, with the best will in the world, faced with fantastic bills or with having no heating at all, because an all-electric system, which was way beyond their means, however well controlled, had been installed in those houses.
In the end, thanks to the right hon. Gentleman, those pensioners were paid rebates for the excessive bills that they had incurred originally; but the upshot was that a decision of policy was taken that in housing of that kind there should be a scheme of gradual reconversion from all-electric heating to solid fuel heating, or at any rate to systems of heating which were within the means, and within the power to control, of the elderly people of limited means who were concerned.
That scheme has run into difficulties. Perhaps I can illustrate them by referring to an estate in my constituency which I happened to visit, appropriately enough, in dead mid-winter 1976–77, as a result of which visit I pressed upon the Housing Executive the desirability of that estate—at any rate, the pensioners' houses—being included in the scheme. I was not displeased when in the end I heard from the area manager in September last year as follows:
The first phase is now complete, i.e. we have identified the specific locations of the dwellings involved. The second phase is about to commence and will consist of the conversion of a small number of dwellings in each District Council area.
In the near future
—I stress "in the near future"—
I am optimistic that the full programme will be established and thus we will be in a position to advise tenants when work will be carried out.'
That is exactly as it ought to be. The scope of the problem was defined and a programme was set up to enable those who would have to wait to know at any rate how long they would have to wait for the conversion to which they were looking forward.
I am afraid that that is not how things worked out. There has been a complete stoppage in this scheme of conversion of all-electric houses. It is a part of the stoppage which has occurred in all these programmes in the Housing Executive, or between the Executive and the Department, in the past six or eight months. The existing position is that my hon. Friends and I, in good faith, upon the good faith of the managers of the Executive, have told tenants in various parts of our constituencies "It is all right. Your problem is understood. It will be dealt with. This estate has been put in the programme and we expect soon to be telling you when the work will start." Now we have to go back and explain to them "We are sorry. We were all deceived. The manager was deceived; we were deceived. There is no programme. The whole thing has gone back into the melting pot."
I am afraid that is a pattern which will be found to be repeated in the other aspects of housing upon which I now have to touch; for I come from conversion from all-electric heating to the catastrophe—I do not think that is too exaggerated a word—which was incurred by the installation in recent years of solid-fuel appliances in new or improved houses which proved entirely unsatisfactory.
Both the installation and, in many cases, the appliances were unsatisfactory. Here a son has written to me about the house in my constituency in which his mother lives:
on a recent visit to her house work had been carried out of fitting a new fire place. The work is carried out to such a very low standard and I even found that there are other friends who live in the same street who have had equally bad work done.
Where some of these fireplaces are thus ill fitted, the main living room is often unlivable for the tenants concerned.
That, however, is only the matter of fitting. There is also the question of the appliances themselves. These are primarily, if not exclusively, the Redfyre and the Rayburn. It is a Province-wide problem.
From Warrenpoint, constituents write:
Our complaint is the installation of highly inefficient fires in the houses. … We have checked with the Local Heating Engineer, and he has told us that Open Fire Heating, or the Gravity Feed Solid Fuel Boiler are much cheaper forms of heating than the present Redfyre system".
We move to another area—Rathdune Terrace, Downpatrick, where the installation was carried out two years ago. I am told by the housing manager that the heater is
efficient in producing hot water to the extent that in certain instances excess hot water has to be run off. It does not, however, provide sufficient hot water to heat radiators. On this basis I feel there may be some justifiable complaint from tenants.
There are indeed justifiable complaints coming from tenants all over the Province who have these installations. Here I have another from Kilkeel, from a new estate near the harbour—exactly the same complaints are made by tenants there.
The origin of these difficulties, or, at any rate, their persistence, appears to be as follows. The Housing Executive uses as its agent in the matter of the choice and installation of solid fuel heating appliances the Coal Advisory Service. Contrary to what the name may suggest, the Executive does not merely take advice from the Service: the Service is the agent for doing the work. But the Service, in turn, has the work done by contractors. So when the sort of catastrophe that I have been indicating to the House occurs, the Housing Executive comes upon the Coal Advisory Service, and the Service says "Oh dear, dear. We will have a look into it" and comes upon the contractor.
But of course the contractor has no interest in admitting or remedying the deficiencies of installation. Instead of the Housing Executive being in direct control of the matter and in the legal position to enforce the specifications that it thought it was getting and the standards of installation to which it is entitled, it is all the time attempting to get at contractors through the cushion or pillow of the Coal Advisory Service.
This will not do. The Housing Executive has to find some means of accepting direct responsibility. After all, it is the landlord, and these are the Housing Executive's tenants. The only way in which to proceed is a rapid survey to establish factually the whole extent of the mischief and then the setting up of an agreed scheme or timetable by which the appliances that have to be replaced or mended will be remedied. Only then will hon. Members be able to assure their constituents that, perhaps not immediately and perhaps not before next winter, but in a period of time which the hon. Members feel justified in accepting, constittuents can look forward to relief. So once again the same pattern is established.
Now I turn to the improvement of Housing Executive houses. Once upon a time it seemed that there was a rolling programme, going forward majestically perhaps but still recognisably going forward, for the modernisation of the older houses belonging to the Housing Executive. This applies particularly to the houses known as labourers' cottages, which are a striking feature of the landscape in Northern Ireland and, as a matter of fact, date in their origin from the immense effort in the improvement of rural housing made by the Conservative Administration in Ireland in the first years of this century. As one travels through Northern Ireland, one gets used to recognising, often deeply hidden in an improved and substantial dwelling, the original labourer's cottage with its standard pattern, probably 50, 60, 70 or 80 years old.
Clearly, these cottages have to be brought up to modern standards and provided with the basic amenities. A scheme for that purpose—a programme which enabled Members of Parliament to draw the attention of the Housing Executive to particular houses and obtain some indication when those might be dealt with—was going forward until nine months or so ago. Then everything went wrong. It turned out that the whole matter had gone back into the melting pot and was being considered de novo at headquarters.
I quote one paragraph from a letter that I have received on the subject.
As you are no doubt aware",
said the area administrative manager at Newry,
the hold up on improvements to dwellings has been a review of policy by the Department of the Environment. This review entails a survey of each individual dwelling on social and economical grounds, and each dwelling will be considered on its merits.
Now, what has happened in fact—and I think that the Under-Secretary of State will wish to know this if he does not know it already—is that, in effect, the rolling programme has been brought to a standstill. Promises which have been made, dates which have been given to tenants by hon. Members on the good faith of the managers of the Housing Executive, are sliding further and further into the past, and even when they have been replaced by later dates, those, too, have been disappointed.
In fact, the whole thing has been brought to a standstill. Of course, it has been brought to a standstill on money, on costs; but that really does not excuse the hold-up to which I have drawn attention here and in other respects. It is the business of an administration, within the available finance, to ensure that there is a logical and intelligible programme which can be understood and can be justified.
Naturally, one recognises that the full modernisation scheme has become increasingly expensive in real terms. So the big debate—and one understands that it is still going on—between the Housing Executive and the Department is: should there not be a standard B, as it were, a standard of improvement, which gives to these houses at any rate the basic minimum amenities, since otherwise many of the older tenants who live in them will live in them as they are until the end of their days?
I have in my mind as I speak a row of houses in a rather isolated position along a main road in my constituency—six pairs of semi-detached houses. A few months ago I was told by the tenant, when I happened to call at one of these houses, "There is one stand-pipe which is the sole supply of water to all those 12 houses". I must admit that I did not believe it; but it was true. That was the only water supply whatsoever for all those 12 houses—one outside stand-pipe.
So I wrote to the Housing Executive, not unnaturally, and said" I am sure this is in a scheme. I am sure that there is a programme which covers this. This obviously must have high priority among the Executive's houses. Can you indicate to me, so that I can pass it on, and, indeed, so that I can bring pressure if necessary for it to be brought forward, whereabouts in the programme these houses stand?" In reply I was told that there is no programme which includes them. Indeed, for practical purposes there is no longer any programme, nor can there be until decisions have been taken at the top level as to what standards shall be worked to and what are the annual limits of finance available. Only then can the Executive proceed to fit these and other houses all over the Province into a timed programme.
Once again I say the Government have to see to it that, within whatever are the resources, the thing moves. It must move. It must move in a manner which is rational, predictable and capable of being explained to those who are concerned. People are not unreasonable unless they are treated unreasonably. Then they become unreasonable. I can well understand that many of my constituents, after a series of broken promises, are becoming very unreasonable indeed.
I add another cause which is at work in these delays. I give an example from a case at Donacloney, in my constituency. It concerns the modernisation of eight cottages. I read from the area manager's letter to me:
It had been the Executive's intention to improve these houses and the scheme was put into our improvement programme and a consultant architect was appointed. However, a major obstacle to progressing these proposals has arisen because of estimated costs by the Department of the Environment, Water Service, of providing sewerage facilities.
So now there is no progress whatsoever on that scheme.
Time after time I have discovered that the Housing Executive has gone ahead, building up a programme, while the water and sewerage facilities which are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment were in no way co-ordinated, and that promises and dates were being given to me dependent upon assumptions as to the completion of water and sewerage works which the Department of the Environment already knew had proved to be impractical and would have to be replaced by different plans.
I am overcome by curiosity. The right hon. Gentleman did say at the beginning of his speech that he thought that these matters ought to be discussed in the prime time of the House of Commons, from 4 o'clock onwards. Does he really think that the sewerage at Donacloney should be a matter for discussion at 4 o'clock in the House of Commons?
Yes, I do, because it is only in the light of these individual cases—and they take no longer to display through being named and labelled—that what is going wrong can be demonstrated to the Government and that they have the opportunity to see where things need to be put right. However, I shall put the hon. Member either out of his curiosity or his misery before long. I still have to deal, briefly, with the question of grants for repair and maintenance of houses not in the ownership of the Housing Executive.
Here again, everyone understands that there must be a financial limit, and a financial limit in annual terms. What one does not understand is why, in the processing of applications which flow in to the Housing Executive, there is apparently a total inability to explain to the applicant, at any rate unless the applicant's Member of Parliament intervenes, exactly in what respect, whether it be tiny and technical or large and conclusive, his scheme differs from what the Executive is prepared to authorise. The result of this is that the proportion of dissatisfied, frustrated and disgruntled applicants is unduly large in relation to the considerable amount of assisted repair and improvement work that is going on.
The Housing Executive—and that really means the Department of the Environment, because the Department controls all the essentials—has to be enabled to behave like a good, prudent and efficient landlord. Indeed, we have to cut our coat according to the cloth. But what we need is to see that it is a coat that is being cut, and to have the dimensions, the pattern and the style of that coat displayed to us, so that we in turn can perform our necessary function as intermediaries, as it were, between the Government and the subject and convince them—we must first convince ourselves—that what is so much amiss in the administration of housing and the Housing Executive will be put right, and that what is unreasonable will be replaced by a system that is rational.
This debate on the draft Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order is the first of its kind during my time in Parliament, and therefore it is my intention to avail myself of the opportunity that this debate presents to concentrate on problems affecting my constituency. Rt. hon. and hon. Members will agree that when money is being spent it is right that there should be an evaluation of the projects for which it has been or is being used. My hon. Friends and I have given notice that we intend to raise matters concerning housing, the gas and electricity undertakings, the shipbuilding industry and also matters related to agriculture. As far as possible, my comments will be broadly based on the topics of housing and shipbuilding.
Before dealing with those matters I join those who, in an orderly manner, have made their protest at the time at which this debate is taking place. However, having said that, it is worth placing on record the encouragement that we have received to see many hon. Members from other constituencies throughout the kingdom present on this occasion. We take that as evidence of the undeniable and long-prevailing fact that Northern Ireland is not only an integral but an important part of the United Kingdom.
I wish first, under Class II, to deal with employment in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to the Belfast shipyard. It is important to ascertain, as well as the expenditure of the Department of Commerce, the effect on the lives of our constituents of Government policy on these matters, particularly in the case of a new Administration.
The Department has a responsibility for creating employment in the Province and gives incentives to attract industry and encourage the expansion of existing firms. It is a difficult task given the attempts, often successful, of the Provisional IRA and others to subvert it in its task, but the Minister has a strong selling point when promoting the Province to industrialists, in that we have a ready and willing work force in Northern Ireland. Yet the employment rate in Northern Ireland is tragically high and the scourge of unemployment, having the effect that it does on the lives of all our constituents, regardless of political alignment, is an evil that must be tackled sympathetically and decisively.
Those hon. Members who operate constituency surgeries on a regular basis will be aware, particularly at this time of the year, of the vast number of school leavers who have no, or at least little, chance of finding employment. For them, it is the prospect of supplementary benefit rather than a pay packet. I believe that hon. Members will agree that it is a great loss to our community that so many young people should be left in this situation.
It was with no small amount of nervous caution that Northern Ireland Members, aware of the Government's intention to cut back in Northern Ireland, as in other parts of the United Kingdom, awaited information on the extent and the possible effect of those cuts. Workers in the Belfast shipyard of Harland and Wolff have been speculating for some time on the future of the yard. In an area of East Belfast that falls under the shadow of a large crane called Goliath, the longer shadow of the Minister's axe has loomed. It has caused much concern and anxiety.
Several previous attempts to obtain information from the Minister have received the usual and traditional Civil Service reply, which gives away little information. Hon. Members will be aware, however, of the written reply from the Minister to my question today. While the reply is longer and more verbose, it is no less vague. I join with the Opposition spokesman in asking the Minister to give more information and to provide more enlightenment on the future and prosperity of the Belfast shipyard. In this evening's Belfast Telegraph it is stated that the Harland and Wolff work force will be slimmed down from its current total of 8,200. The correspondent adds that he understands that the Government believe that the work force should fall to about 5,500.
I would be the last person to produce the Belfast Telegraph as an authoritative source, but I would like to hear the Minister's views. The House is aware of the increasing crisis in world shipbuild- ing and the keenness of international competition, but the House should equally be aware of the importance of shipbuilding in Northern Ireland. It employs about 5 per cent of the people engaged in manufacturing. Shipbuilding also probably creates about another 1,500 manufacturing jobs directly and many thousands of jobs indirectly.
When one considers that Harland and Wolff itself employs about 8,000 people, mostly from my constituency, and that even in the good years of the 1960s the Department of Commerce succeeded only in bringing about 7,000 new jobs to Northern Ireland, one sees the importance of maintaining jobs in the shipyard. Against the background of the high unemployment level in Northern Ireland as a whole, it becomes an absolute necessity.
I ask again that the Minister should expand on the written reply that I received today and give his views on the long-term future of the shipyard. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will also say what he believes is the success, or otherwise, of the diversification within Harland and Wolff, and whether it has eased the problem. Like him, I firmly believe that, given the encouragement and support of the new Administration, Harland and Wolff and its work force can weather the shipbuilding storm. I only hope that it is given the opportunity.
Under Class V, dealing with the expenditure of the Department of the Environment on housing services, I wish to raise some matters of great concern to my constituents. Hon. Members from Northern Ireland are probably kept in touch with housing circumstances in their constituencies better than most hon. Members throughout the United Kingdom. This has come about as a result of the loss of our devolved Parliament and the sorry state of local government in our Province.
Recently, I heard a right hon. Member from outside Northern Ireland explain or perhaps boast to a television interviewer that he had dealt with about 1,100 complaints from his constituents in the past year entailing about 5,000 letters per annum being written. In the few months that I have been in this House, I have dealt with a good deal more than the right hon. Member's annual amount. I am sure that other hon. Members from Northern Ireland, who have much the same work load, will agree that probably the largest percentage of their constituency work—possibly 80 per cent. or 90 per cent.—concerns housing and the disgraceful repair and maintenance record of the Housing Executive.
In Northern Ireland, the depth of knowledge that we have about the day-to-day running of the Housing Executive is born out of first-hand experience, and often it is a very sad experience. To say that the repair and maintenance system of the Executive is deplorable is perhaps too simplistic. It understates the case. However, the brief time available to us this evening does not permit me to deal with this subject as fully as I should like.
The system has failed. Even the Executive's staff complain that when they ask for an increase in staff for maintenance purposes it is often, if not always, rejected, whereas if they ask for a stall increase for administration purposes their request meets with ready assent. But that only increases the bungling bureaucracy that the Housing Executive has become.
The Housing Executive staff are mainly from Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the people who are responsible for guiding the Housing Executive come from outside the Province. But it is not primarily the subject of maintenance that I wish to deal with, because that is a subject—
Hon. Members from other parts of the United Kingdom are entitled to ask questions. Against whom is the complaint? Is it against the staff, or the people who guide the Housing Executive?
Other hon. Members have made it clear already that the complaint is against the system at present operating, under which the staff have to carry out their orders. It is the system that is wrong, and certainly not the Northern Ireland work force.
No doubt the subject of housing maintenance will be raised on another occasion, but I hope that the Minister will attempt to make time available so that the in-depth inquiry into the Housing Executive that this House and the people of Northern Ireland require urgently may take place.
In the time aavilable to me, I shall deal with some specified topics on the housing front. The first of these concerns a project in my constituency known as RDA24. It is the lower Newtownards Road area of East Belfast. Following a public inquiry, it was decided that over 400 houses would be built and that the scheme would include a shopping complex. The development was originally to be carried out in six phases, but this was changed to four. However, the phases have been taken out of sequence, so that what is now the fourth phase, primarily for family housing, has not yet taken place.
There is concern within the area that it may not take place at all because of the Government's cuts. If it did not, not only would much-needed houses not be provided; the community would be out of balance. The family houses would bring in the young people who would complete the cycle. Can the Minister tell me that my constituents' fears are unfounded? The work has come to a standstill, so there is at least circumstantial evidence for their opinion.
The second project is also a redevelopment area, known as RDA23, in the Memel Street area of Belfast, a small housing area which straddles the River Lagan. The Department of the Environment gave local residents a written undertaking that it would build about 100 dwellings in the area, but there are only 40 in the phase just completed. The Department has now said that, depending on demand, a small final phase of eight dwellings may be constructed. There is no doubt about the demand for homes in the area. I have had enough inquiries myself to fill another 60 dwellings. I ask the Minister to consider this matter seriously and restore the faith of these people in his Department.
The third project is the Tower Street area between Short Strand and Temple-more Avenue. This consists largely of blocked-up houses, which are rapidly going into decline. The more blocked-up houses there are, the more people are forced to move out, and the more houses have to be blocked up. The housing action area report for the area has been considered by the Housing Executive and the residents are still awaiting the result, carry out Government policy. It would
The preliminary phase of rehabilitation was promised after the former Minister accepted my invitation to tour the area in the summer of 1978. We were then promised that that phase would start in November of last year. When the Executive failed to meet that undertaking, I wrote to its regional works manager, who said that it was then hoped to start the work in April. The work has yet to start.
Behind the cold facts of those three projects lies much anguish and hardship.
According to the Department's records and its discussion document, one-third of the houses in the inner East Belfast area are unfit for habitation. I hope that the new Administration will pick up the gauntlet thrown down by years of neglect and tackle the problem in a meaningful and realistic way.
It would be a tragedy if cutbacks were made when so much misery is being caused. Savings can be made within the housing service. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said that a close scrutiny of the Housing Executive could result in savings.
The Rowland report, which cost £250,000 to produce, is an indictment of any Department or quango. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) wishes to deal with that report, so I shall not go into detail. However, I am sure that the previous Government could have found a cheaper whitewashing product than the Rowland report to cover up the disasters in the Housing Executive.
Is the hon. Member saying that the Rowland report was deliberately manufactured to cover up and not to give a fair and accurate report of the evidence that was given, or is that another misunderstanding?
Before the Rowland report was written, we made it clear that if a proper report was to be produced it would be necessary for evidence to be sworn, papers produced and Ministers called. That did not occur, and the result was as expected—a cover-up.
I hope that the Minister will refer to the sale of public housing stock. There has been much talk in the Province about the ability of the Housing Executive to be useful for the Minister to explain the time scale involved in Government policy being carried out.
I have evidence that contracts for Northern Ireland Government architectural work is being carried out in Dublin under the cover of addresses of firms in Northern Ireland. The Minister will agree that in view of the unemployment level in Northern Ireland it is important that Government work be carried out, where possible—and in this case it is possible—by firms in Northern Ireland. What stipulation is made to firms carrying out Government work particularly for Government Departments such as the Housing Executive? What safeguards are built into the system?
Class VI(2) deals with expenditure by the Department of the Environment on planning services. Will the Minister speed up the publication of an inquiry held early last December on the application of the Northern Ireland Police Authority to develop land at Upper Galwally as a sub-divisional police headquarters? That application involves implications for the surrounding area. The delay is causing concern to the local council and residents in my constituency and in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford).
The manner in which the officials of the Department acted during the public inquiry has caused severe strain in relations between the Minister's planning department and the Castlereagh borough council. His officials acted in an adversarial role, asking questions and giving advice as to security matters instead of confining themselves to being of assistance to the inquiry on planning considerations. I believe that that episode can best be forgotten after the findings of the inquiry have been published. In a written answer at the beginning of June, the Minister told me that an early decision on the application was expected. I ask him now whether he can help me on this matter.
Local government in Northern Ireland has accepted that cuts will be made in its expenditure, and particularly, it is felt, in relation to grants from the Department of Education for new recreation and community services projects. When cuts are being made, will the Minister pay special regard to those district councils which have been less demanding in the past and allow the criterion of need rather than greed to apply?
It appears to me and, I am sure, to many hon. Members that there are areas where the need is less yet the provision is greater. Local government areas such as that which I, in another capacity, represent seem in some respects to be lagging behind.
In speaking in this debate, I have obviously fallen victim to the desire, shared, I am sure, by all new Members, to raise as many general issues as possible and have them recorded, especially in so far as they concern my constituency. I hope that during similar debates in the future I shall be able to follow up the matters which I have outlined, and perhaps in that way they can best be developed.
In his closing remarks the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) seemed to apologise for raising certain matters in the House tonight. I assure him that it is not necessary to apologise, because under the present political arrangements between this part of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland this is the only forum that we have. Although some people may not like the fact that we discuss places with strange names in various parts of Northern Ireland, or refer to places such as Turf Lodge, the Divis tower, or Springmartin, in the city of Belfast, these are all areas where there are deep problems affecting the everyday lives of the people living there. It is certainly with no apology that I raise these matters tonight on the Floor of the House.
Is it not the case also that when there are debates on English housing or Scottish housing, hon. Members raise local matters and detailed schemes affecting their constituents? I was surprised, therefore, that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) should be astonished at some of the subjects being raised and which we should prefer to raise at a more convenient time. There is nothing different in this debate, I believe, from debates pertaining to similar matters in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I agree with with what the hon. Gentleman says. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) raised the question of Donacloney in any malicious way.
Earlier today we made representations, which unfortunately were not accepted, that the debate on our appropriation order should take place at a time when most hon. Members could be available if they desired. The hon. Member for Belfast, East said that he was pleased at the number of hon. Members present during this debate. There are about 25 hon. Members in the Chamber but there are 630 hon. Members in this place. That is a reflection of the degree of interest in Northern Ireland matters. There seems to be a feeling that Northern Ireland is a troublesome spot within the United Kingdom, that there are all sorts of things happening there that should not be taking place, and that the less that is seen or heard of it the better.
It is only two months since we had a general election. A number of new faces were elected to the House. Many of them have no knowledge of what has been taking place in Northern Ireland, what is taking place and what will take place. I hoped that they would avail themselves of the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the problems of Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland has been a problem since the moment of its inception in 1920. It has been an especial problem since 1968, the beginning of the civil rights movement. Even more particularly, it has been a problem since the Government of the day assumed direct responsibility for the administration of the Six Counties in 1972.
Anyone who has listened to the debate will be driven to the conclusion that Northern Ireland is a unique place with unique representatives. Anyone who listened to the radio and television over the weekend will have been driven to that conclusion. We have heard the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), who has consistently sat on the Tory side of the House and consistently voted with Tory Governments. On most occasions, if not all, he has been supported by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), whom we have also heard. They have voted against public expenditure. In Division after Division in the previous Paraliament, that was the attitude taken by the hon. Member for Down, North.
It is interesting that today the hon. Gentleman is criticising the cuts that have been made by the newly elected Conservative Government. He knew very well what he was voting for in the previous Parliament. He knows very well where he is sitting now. I do not want to cast myself in the role of public defender of the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker), who voted for the retention of the Labour Government in the vote of confidence on 28 March, but he was condemned by the hon. Gentleman for supporting the then Government, as was the then Member for Belfast, North, Mr. Carson. The hon. Members for Armagh and Belfast, North reasoned that they had more faith in a Socialist Administration doing more for Ulster, especially in terms of energy, than in a Conservative Government.
Yesterday afternoon the right hon. Member for Down, South said that since the timing and the procedures for the debate were announced on Thursday by the Leader of the House two significant events have taken place. The right hon. Gentleman referred to two written answers that appeared today, one on the future of the Belfast shipyard and the other on the prospects of a gas pipeline to Northern Ireland.
I found the answers sinister. I know that the Belfast shipyard has always been controversial in political and industrial terms. There are many who say that for many years it has not been a viable economic project. There are others who say that only certain people get jobs in the yard because of their political or religious persuasions. There are those in the area that I represent who have said to me throughout many years "Why do you speak in support of the Belfast shipyard when not too many of your constituents work there?" That has been said with a great deal of feeling and sincerity.
Employment in Northern Ireland is all-important, no matter what the religious qualifications or the religious or political outlook of anyone employed in its industries. That was one reason why I supported the previous Labour Government in putting the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act on the statute book. That ensured that people would not be discriminated against on the ground of religion when seeking employment.
Before the conclusion of this debate the Minister of State must be more honest about his intentions for the Belfast shipyard. Page 2 of the written question says:
I feel confident that it should be possible, given an all-out effort by all concerned, to achieve improved efficiency and enable the yard to remain in operation.
Those words lead one to suspect that the yard is in danger of closing. If events have come to such a pass in Northern Ireland that there must be a substantial reduction in the labour force in the Belfast shipyard—we have heard the figures of 2,000 to 3,000—those workers should be told, so that they may then find work in some other industry, whether in Belfast or further afield.
The hon. Gentleman quoted part of the written answer given to him today. In all fairness, should he not also quote the earlier part of that answer, in which my hon. Friend pointed out that new orders could not be won unless delivery dates could be met? He was concerned to learn that the production targets of Harland and Wolff had recently been missed and that for a variety of reasons productivity generally had been slipping. Does that not have a good deal to do with the future of the yard? Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that it is British taxpayers' money that must sustain this operation?
Yes. I accept what the hon. Gentleman said. Indeed I had every intention of referring to what happened, in the industrial relations sense, in the yard. I refer to a further paragraph of the answer:
Some further decline in the shipbuilding work force is inevitable.
What is meant by the words "some further decline"? Do they mean 3,000, 2,000, or 1,000?
In the city of Belfast, especially in East Belfast, the shipyard is more than an industrial concern. It is the linchpin on which every other facet of life depends. If it were to close, it would be calamitous for the morale of the workers in that industry and for that of the whole city of Belfast. A shipyard that has had such a proud history in peacetime and in wartime should be given every assistance to remain in operation.
In the lifetime of the previous Labour Government I had many discussions with the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon). I led many deputations to him about industries that seemed to be in danger of collapsing overnight. The Minister went out of his way to go into every facet of the representations that we made. He took decisions that I am sure were contrary to the advice given to him by civil servants on industries in my area, West Belfast, which had been shaved off by the Government.
It was not the last Labour Government that finally closed down Peter Pan bakery; that decision was taken by the present Minister of State. Given all the circumstances pertaining to that bakery, I recognise that it may have been inevitable that my right hon. Friend had to take that decision, but I know that in the dying weeks of the last Government he went out of his way to give that bakery £50,000 in selective employment premiums to keep it in operation. Had there been the re-election of a Labour Government, I am quite certain that the same hard-nosed decision would have been taken in relation to that industry.
Would it not be better if we put the record absolutely straight on this? To what extent does my hon. Friend think that it was the Conservative Minister who was responsible for the closure of the bakery and to what extent was it the bakery employers carving up the market among themselves and getting rid of what they could?
I freely accept that much of the movement behind the scenes was not made public. The other major bakeries in the city of Belfast had offered money—and, indeed, paid money—to Peter Pan bakery to go out of existence. This is the free enterprise Tory approach—the survival of the fittest, the survival of the big combines, the survival of those big bakeries that were able to keep their price at such a level, in the full knowledge that this long-established industry in Belfast would not be allowed to stay in operation. I quite accept it.
Indeed, at the moment there are people in the bakery industry in Northern Ireland who believe that the present Government have welshed on a promise of financial assistance that was given by my right hon. Friend, and that when the Conservative Administration took over they said that whatever commitment was given by the previous Government had no binding effect on the new Administration.
The Minister involved in those negotiations and discussions should, before the conclusion of the debate, tell us what were the facts of the closure of the bakery. The closure involved the loss of over 300 jobs. In an area such as West Belfast, where there are over 20 per cent. unemployed, the loss of over 300 jobs can be more devastating than if it takes place in an area where the percentage figure of unemployment is not so high.
There has been mention of Antrim Crystal, with the loss of 120 or 160 jobs. The Tories' doctrinaire approach, since the election of the Government, has been that they were elected on a manifesto. People voted for this, for that and for the other thing. They voted for a reduction in income tax and for cuts in public expenditure; therefore they were supporting the Tory manifesto. I have absolutely no doubt that there was not one vote cast in Northern Ireland—whether it be from a Loyalist, a Unionist, a Republican or a Nationalist—to elect a Tory Government that would be so vicious in its implementation of policy.
I do not believe that the Government can apply to Northern Ireland the standards that they apply to the other parts of the United Kingdom. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian will say that I am asking for preferential treatment. I quite accept that I am asking for preferential treatment, and I make no apology for it. I have been doing it since 1966, and those before me in this House were doing exactly the same.
It is quite right that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian should demonstrate the attitude he has. It is right that the people of Northern Ireland should know that they cannot depend for ever and a day on the generosity of other parts of the United Kingdom. I know that, but I want to see it on the record. Certain people in Northern Ireland believe that whatever Government are in power in the United Kingdom, they will never let us down and will always treat us more favourably than the other parts of the United Kingdom. That is one of the reasons for the lack of political progress in Northern Ireland.
I do not want to go into the political implications of all this in Northern Ireland. We shall have an opportunity later to debate that. But, on the economics of the situation, Northern Ireland is unique. Unemployment in my constituency is higher than in any other part of the United Kingdom. That did not happen last week, last month or last year. It has been so for the past 20 years. Why is there no industry in West Belfast? One might say that there are political reasons. Successive Governments have not been terribly concerned about attracting industry to West Belfast. Industry has certainly been attracted to other parts of the Six Counties, but again some people would say that we cannot force industrialists to set up in any given constituency.
It is right, however, that a constituency representative should put forward the case for his constituency. In the past I have not been able to see any light at the end of the tunnel—even under a Labour Government—in terms of reducing the level of unemployment in my constituency. Looking into a crystal ball under the present Government I can see no hope of any improvement.
The hon. Member for Down, North spoke of the absence of local government in Northern Ireland. He seemed to be condemning the Government on that score. I part company with him on that. It is not the fault of the Conservatives now, or Labour when they were in power, that local government is in its present state in Northern Ireland today. It is in that state because of what happened before 1968, because of the malpractices which took place at local authority level. Local government lost its powers in 1972 and 1973. I would not advocate the return of any important functions to local authorities as they are at present constituted.
However, in the absence of local government in Northern Ireland we have only this House to which to bring our troubles. Last year this House passed a Private Member's Bill which bore my name and which was entitled the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act. It extended to Northern Ireland the 1970 Great Britain Act of the same name as it applied to other parts of the United Kingdom. That Act was designed to improve the lot of disabled people in Northern Ireland, to enable local authorities and the Housing Executive to install improvements in the homes of disabled people who were unable to get around. When that measure went on to the statute book, hundreds, if not thousands, of people approached me and I began to enter into correspondence with the Northern Ireland Office and the Housing Executive about the installation of lifts and other improvements.
On 30 January this year I rang the Department of the Environment and told the private secretary that I had been approached by a Mr. Robinson, an invalid, who asked whether it would be possible to have a miniature lift installed in his home, and I was told that the matter would be looked into.
On 9 July—last week—I received a letter from the private office saying:
Dear Mr. Fitt,
You telephoned Stormont Castle on 30 January 1979 about a delay in providing a lift for a Mr. W. Robinson, 36 Duncairn Parade, Belfast 15. I am very sorry it has taken so long to let you have a full reply, but our inquiries are now almost complete.
That has taken six months. It should not take six months to find the answer to such a question. That is one of the reasons for the criticisms of direct rule as we know it in Northern Ireland. The Minister should take note of the delays in replying to representations made by elected representatives.
I understand that Official Ulster Unionist Members have agreed with the Government to have a debate on the Housing Executive tonight. I should like to supplement any criticisms they have made or may make. At the outset, I should say that I was partly responsible, through representations that I made, for the setting up of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I made sincere and honest representations to the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, that housing functions should be taken out of the hands of local authorities in Northern Ireland because of the way that those functions had been abused. That was a political decision taken by my right hon. Friend. But the Housing Executive in the city of Belfast—the only place of which I can speak with any great knowledge—has not fulfilled or lived up to the expectations that we had at that time.
The Housing Executive has been criticised by hon. Members representing Unionist and Democratic Unionist viewpoints. They have criticised it because they believe that it came into being for political reasons. It did. But I suggest that not one of the 26 district councils in Northern Ireland would again want to assume responsibility for housing functions.
My criticisms of the Housing Executive find complete unanimity among all Northern Ireland representatives. Its maintenance programme has been absolutely disastrous. It seems to have many staff, but no one knows what they do. When one tries to ring them—I try every morning when I am in Belfast—one finds that the lines are engaged, that the person one wants is on a day's leave, has gone to a seminar or is at a meeting at headquarters. That goes on and on.
The last Government introduced a public relations liaison officer, and we have been instructed to write to him with any cases that we have. We write to him about the repair of a house. He writes to the district manager, and the district manager writes to the contractor. It takes a month before one receives a reply. In the meantime, some of our frustrated constituents are blaming us for the frustrations brought about by the Housing Executive.
If I knew, I should have no hesitation in saying on the Floor of the House. Nobody knows. Nobody in the Housing Executive knows. I have met officials employed by the Executive, formerly employed by the Belfast corpora- tion, who say "We do not know why all this is happening". The Executive has got so big, with so many offices, so many telephones and so many people, that one office does not know what the other office is doing.
All I know is that in the city of Belfast, and in particular in my constituency, there are the most poorly housed people in Europe, including Eastern Europe. We have had inquiry after inquiry. There are people living in bad conditions in blocks of flats at Turf Lodge and Ballymurphy. Such names may seem very strange when they are mentioned on the Floor of this august House. Hon. Members may not be terribly concerned about where Ballymurphy, Spring Martin, Ballysillan or Divis tower is. But there are hundreds of thousands of people living there in appalling conditions. They expect me, as their representative, to make their frustrations known on the Floor of the House.
How does my hon. Friend reply to some of us who think that the English, the Scots and the Welsh are not very good at dealing with these problems, that they must be settled by the people in Northern Ireland themselves, and that no one else can do it?
I am delighted by my hon. Friend's interventions. They highlight the sense of frustration which has been felt by other United Kingdom Members at what would seem to be the continual litany of complaints that emanate from Northern Ireland.
I find myself with a strange bedfellow. The right hon. Member for Down, South asked for the setting up of a direct labour organisation within the Housing Executive, so that it could do its own repairs without having to have recourse to private contractors. That would be contrary to the whole doctrinaire Tory philosophy that he formerly held. Perhaps it is because of his years of experience in Northern Ireland that the right hon. Gentleman is now prepared to concede that English solutions are not good for Irish problems.
Will not the hon. Gentleman come clean with his hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) and tell him that the real answer is what was said earlier, that the Housing Executive was not set up to administer housing properly or to build or maintain houses, but was set up for doctrinaire, political reasons? The structure has failed, and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) is scared to accept that it has failed. Housing in Northern Ireland will work only when it is once again the responsibility of elected representatives who must face people regularly to be elected.
That intervention will show the passions that run riot in Northern Ireland over the Housing Executive. I freely admit that it was set up to take on the functions that formerly belonged to the local authorities, because of the way in which the Unionist Party—the party to which the hon. Gentleman belongs—maladministered housing. I am not venturing into the argument about the political reasons. I say that as a housing organisation in the city of Belfast the Executive has not carried out its functions.
Two or three months ago I received a telephone call from the political correspondent of the BBC in Belfast asking for my reaction to the Housing Executive's decision to sell 54,000 of its houses. I said that I did not know anything about it. I talked to other elected representatives and discovered that they also knew nothing about it. That is not the right way to treat public representatives.
This is the first opportunity since then that we have had to debate these matters on the Floor of the House. I am sure that the Minister responsible for administering the Housing Executive will recognise that the Conservatives' promise to sell council houses won few votes in Northern Ireland. It may have caused some electors to vote for the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland but the numbers must have been few, as is shown by the UPNI's lost deposits.
Housing conditions in West Belfast are appalling. It is a sectarian ghetto. In 1968 and 1969 thousands of Catholics were intimidated out of other parts of Belfast and they went to West Belfast for safety. That aggravated the housing problem. Many families are living with relatives in my constituency. They all need rehousing and they are frightened to go to other parts of Belfast. They want to be rehoused within the safe boundaries of West Belfast.
If the Government continue their policy of selling Housing Executive houses, those on the waiting list in my constituency will never get rehoused in West Belfast. The Government must have looked at the facts of housing in Belfast, but they said on taking office that not just 54,000 but the whole Housing Executive stock of 196,000 houses would be up for grabs for those who could afford to buy. Surely Ministers realise that they cannot do that in Northern Ireland—and certainly not in Belfast.
My constituency is bulging at the seams. There has been strenuous opposition from Unionist and the Democratic Unionist representatives to the previous Government's proposal to build a new estate at Poleglass—another strange name, which the Hansard reporters will ask me to spell for them. All branches of Loyalism oppose the building of that estate. The leaders of the Official Unionists and the Democratic Unionists are against it.
That estate must be built, otherwise there will be no movement out of West Belfast. I advise the Minister in charge of housing not to go further along the road of offering houses for sale.
Architects have reported to the Housing Executive that the flats at Turf Lodge should never have been built. The sewerage and the structures were wrong and it is no good trying to repair them. The architects say that they should be pulled down. The people living in those flats know what was in the report. Will the Under-Secretary of State accept its findings? Will he agree to pull down those flats in Turf Lodge and the other blocks of derelict flats in Northern Ireland?
I have the recollection that, in the company of the late Jack Mendelson, I was taken round the constituency of Mr. John Carson, then the Member for Belfast, North, and shown the housing conditions of some of his Protestant constituents the like of which Mr. Mendelson had not seen in Sheffield and I had not seen in central Scotland, so it is both sides of the coin.
I certainly do not want to make a religious issue out of this matter, but whatever conditions my hon. Friend saw in North Belfast are far exceeded by the conditions in West Belfast. I am only sorry that I was not with my hon. Friend and Jack Mendelson at that time so that I could have availed myself of the opportunity of taking them around the districts of West Belfast that I have mentioned.
If any Ministers have seen those flats for themselves, or have read about the conditions, I am certain that they will agree with what I have said. But, certainly for people who are not of my religious conviction or political persuasion, homes are more readily available in Belfast—although, perhaps, not in West Belfast. I know many estates in North Belfast. For example, there is the estate at the ton of Cliftonville Road. In 1968, 1969 and 1970, there was a 50–50 population there on those small council housing estates. Then the intimidation began: machine guns were fired through the windows, petrol bombs were thrown into the homes, and no Catholics are living there now. They all left and went to West Belfast.
What is the criterion for selling council homes? It is where the need has been met. The need has been met in North Belfast for one section—people who are of a Loyalist political frame of mind. It has not been met for people of a non-Loyalist frame of mind. How does the Minister contend with that situation? The criticisms that I have made of the Housing Executive are genuine.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that all the areas of bad housing he has mentioned are post-war estates? If all that post-war housing is defective, as he claims, what chance is there of meeting the housing need in his area?
It is post-war housing, as the hon. Gentleman said. But one must ask not the year in which the places were built but who built them, what was the cost, whether they were jerry-built, and whether they were thrown up overnight. Certainly there are such estates, because there was a serious housing shortage. I am not certain how the contractors got the contracts or the reason for it. I am referring specifically to blocks of flats, not to houses in particular. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the report that I have referred to.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) about the story in Ulster Commentary that Northern Ireland was cushioned against the public expenditure cuts. It was not. Not too many people read that paper; they have better papers to read than the parcel of lies sometimes contained in Ulster Commentary, and that story was the biggest lie I have ever read in it.
The Minister tried to tell us that the cutting off of the selective employment premium had not had any effect. It has that effect. We have been told that 10,000 jobs depended upon the payment of selective employment premium. I am certain that at least 2,000 to 3,000 have been affected. It would have been better to keep the premium in operation because once these people lose their jobs they become redundant and then have recourse to the social services. The Government are not making any big savings by their doctrinaire approach to the problems of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Down, North referred to the problems which arise in education. I have always thought it unsatisfactory that the education portfolio should be held by someone in another place. Education is of extreme importance in Northern Ireland. The selection procedure there has caused untold hardship and distress to parents. It is known in Northern Ireland as the FORS system. It has reached the stage where civil servants in the Department of Education in Northern Ireland are telling principals in schools that they have marked certain pupils too highly and that the civil servants do not think that the pupils should have such marks. That has happened time and again. One wonders what qualifications such civil servants have for telling principals this when the principals are in daily contact with the pupil involved.
It seems that because there are only so many grammar school places in Northern Ireland, if the number of pupils who qualify exceed the number of places the excess is told that it is stupid.
What rank of civil servant actually told a headmaster that he should give more or less marks to a pupil? The hon. Gentleman has to be more specific. If he makes allegations like this, I hope that he can support them.
If my hon. Friend will let his blood pressure cool down, I shall be happy to tell him. I have sent details of at least 50 cases to Lord Elton, with notes from the headmasters telling Lord Elton that he does not know what he is talking about. I have letters from the Department of Education saying "Yes, the principal of the school said that, but we do not accept his findings." I am in the process of taking those cases to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Two of the cases come from the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford). Hundreds of people in this PQRS dilemma have been told that, no matter what the schoolmaster says, the Department of Education does not accept it.
I had a case of twins who were given the same marks. They wanted to go to the same grammar school but the Department said that they should go to different, and distant, grammar schools. How ridiculous. After I made representations to the Department, it said that it had re-examined the case and the twins could go to the same school. There should not have to be such representations.
I recall the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act that went through the House last year. That measure had the support of everyone in Northern Ireland. We all expected great things from it. We expected that many telephones would be installed to assist disabled persons. We thought that the local authorities, and the Housing Executive in particular, armed with this measure, would show some enthusiasm to try to meet the needs of disabled people in Northern Ireland. We all felt very good when that measure went on to the statute book, but it has not had the effect that we intended.
I recognise that we are running into the early hours of the morning, but there are many more things that one could say.
Class II deals with grants to the tourist industry to attract tourists to Northern Ireland. We have all recognised, over many years, how important the tourist industry is to Northern Ireland, particularly at a time of economic stress, and the savage cuts imposed by the Conservative Government make it all the more important that we rely upon this industry.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) is now putting out his own exclusion orders on certain persons who say that they would like to visit Northern Ireland. One wonders whether the hon. Gentleman is speaking for himself or whether he has had consultations with the Government. We have present tonight Ministers who are directly involved with Northern Ireland, and I believe that this question should be answered. Have any representations been made by the hon. Member for Antrim, North to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on what we have heard during the last couple of days and today on television, namely, that the hon. Gentleman is to take the law into his own hands and prevent the Pope from visiting Northern Ireland if he so desires?
I do not believe that the hon. Member for Antrim, North is speaking with the full-hearted consent of a significant section of the British people, particularly when one recalls that Her Majesty the Queen and other members of the Royal Family have been to Rome to meet the Pope. I do not believe that in this year of 1979 the hon. Gentleman should be allowed to dictate to the Government who should and who should not be allowed into what people refer to as that part of the United Kingdom.
I hope that whichever Minister replies to the debate—I trust that it will be the Secretary of State—he will say that the opinions of the hon. Member for Antrim, North about this visit are his own and are not supported by the Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman remember when he tried to pass an exclusion order on Her Majesty the Queen and said that she should not visit Northern Ireland? Does he remember that? Does he not know that if the Pope wants to come to any part of the United Kingdom he should follow protocol and apply to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to do so, and that the Pope cannot he smuggled over the border by Cardinal O'Fiaich or Jack Lynch?
I leave it to the House to judge the intemperate remarks of the hon. Gentleman. I never said anything about the Queen. I did not meet the Queen when she visited Belfast, and there is no guarantee that I shall meet the Pope. When the hon. Gentleman went on what he called a pastoral visit to County Monaghan, and indeed to Dublin, he did so in the company of the armed security guards of the Irish Government.
He went to the Republic of Ireland and was escorted throughout the South by the Special Branch of the Irish Government.
The hon. Gentleman said something about the smuggling of the Pope over the border. I do not think that anyone has that intention. I do not believe that the megalomania of the hon. Member for Antrim, North will have any effect on those drawing up the itinerary of His Holiness on his visit to Ireland. I have raised this matter deliberately to enable the Government to say that they do not support the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Antrim, North.
I should find difficulty in following the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). I hope that he will also understand if I do not choose to become involved in discussion about the places to which His Holiness may, or may not, go in Ireland. I listened to his remarks with great care, as is my custom during Northern Ireland debates. I have also listened to the speeches of other hon. Members.
As the hon. Member for Belfast, West said, many of the issues that have to be discussed in the House—the only forum that elected representatives of Northern Ireland possess—belong much more to some form of regional council or upper tier of local government in Northern Ireland. I have heard Secretaries of State say that it is almost impossible to get leaders of the parties in Northern Ireland to agree some common ground on which they can stand. Surely this debate has shown that there is common ground and that such common ground is desired by all those from Northern Ireland who want to discuss important local matters in a forum other than the House of Commons. But there is clearly some time to go before new proposals for a devolved Administration can be brought forward. In the meantime, we must continue with this style of debate, which, to quote the words of Dervla Murphy's book, "set this place apart" when we debate Northern Ireland.
I want to concentrate on the amount of money being spent by the Department of Commerce and to refer particularly to the written answer given today to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) about Harland and Wolff. I hope that my hon. Friends the Ministers with responsibility for Northern Ireland will not take it amiss when I say that I do not believe that this sort of written answer approach is anything like as good as a statement on the Floor of the House. I go further. If my hon. Friends choose to read some remarks that I made only a few months ago when we were discussing Harland and Wolff and Short Brothers and Harland, they will see that I thought it was incredible that these two nationalised industries are apparently not accountable in any way to the House of Commons and that there is no way by which Back Benchers can question those who have responsibility for them.
When I read in my right hon. Friend's statement that he is concerned about falling productivity and missed delivery dates, I ask what he intends to do about the situation. Is he simply going to tell the House in a written answer that these are his concerns and not allow the House to discuss two important shortcomings that, according to the statement, are some of the major reasons why Harland and Wolff is in its present parlous state?
I go further and ask my hon. Friend why the statement should start by saying that plans for Harland and Wolff have been formulated in parallel with those for British Shipbuilders. He will know, as I do, that they are separate entities. They are both nationalised, but they are separate entities, and we have been told many times that they are separate entities because the arrangement gives Harland and Wolff a certain flexibility. If that is the case, why are the plans formulated together? If that is the case, why does the written answer have to come on this day of the appropriation order debate when it is remarkably difficult for hon. Members to discover what may or may not have been said about Harland and Wolff? When I came into the Chamber to listen to the statement by the Minister of State and he referred to a separate statement being made about the Northern Ireland shipyard, I wondered where I should discover that statement, and only by lucky chance did I discover the written answer.
I make a plea that next time we have a major statement about Harland and Wolff or Short Brothers and Harland or any other of the nationalised industries in Northern Ireland, we have it in such a way that we can question the Minister and try to draw from him what are the real problems besetting these various industries, especially the one called Harland and Wolff.
Before I leave the subject of Harland and Wolff, may I ask my hon. Friend three questions? Can he say more about the proposals to the EEC Commission for an intervention fund for subsidies on new orders over the next two years? Is that request being made peculiarly for Harland and Wolff or in the context of the British shipbuilding industry overall? Can he say something about diversification? Is there any possibility of some of the oil rig work, especially for the North Sea, being carried out at Harland and Wolff? What about the repairing of ships—a matter that has been raised in the past? Lastly, his statement says nothing about engine manufacture, which has been a rather successful part of Harland and Wolff's output. I should be grateful if he would say more about that. Finally, will he consider the proposal made by the Minister of State in the last Government that there should be what he described as progress reports on how the company was doing? Such reports given either in the course of a statement in a debate such as this or in a statement on the Floor of the House would be a valuable way of producing the sort of monitoring about which I have spoken.
The other factor which dominates this debate is the £35 million reduction in public expenditure in the Province. Naturally, at a time when so many Departments of State are having to face public expenditure cuts and the nation overall is wondering where those cuts will fall, most of those who take an interest in Northern Ireland will consider that the Province has come off comparatively lightly in all the circumstances. Yet a cut of £35 million will impose strains and difficulties. Therefore, if I turn the remainder of my remarks to one specific project which will not only swallow up a vast amount of public money but is totally immune from the effects of those cuts, I hope that the House will bear with me.
The project that I am talking about is the De Lorean car project, which I have discussed before in this Chamber. I discussed it on 11 December last year, so rather more than six months have elapsed since the subject was debated, and I return to it partly because of a programme which the BBC put out on 15 July and partly because of various newspaper reports and other comments which I have heard on the project and which continue to keep me in a state of unease about whether adequate monitoring is going on of the £52·8 million of public money which has been committed to it.
When I raised the subject in December last year I had some success in the reply I received from the then Minister, and I did even better in a letter which the Minister of State sent me on 22 January this year. If I did reasonably well then, I have even higher hopes tonight, particularly as my hon. Friends now have the responsibility for this project and I am sure they are as concerned as I am that proper monitoring procedures should be introduced to ensure that this vast, costly and, by anybody's reckoning, high-risk project is considered with all the scrutiny possible, bearing in mind the extraordinary negotiation and deal which was done by the last Government and Mr. John De Lorean.
It is fair to say that Mr. De Lorean has the ability to charm birds out of the trees. It seems that in this negotiation he has succeeded in gaining control of an operation currently valued at £65 million with an investment of only £3 million to £4 million of his own money.
I am interested in the figure of £3 million to £4 million which my hon. Friend has just given. As I understand it, the figure which Mr. De Lorean himself has consistently quoted is £2 million, which he said was all he could afford.
I will not argue with my hon. Friend. Possibly he is more accurate than I am, but since in this programme the figure of £3 million to £4 million was bandied about and Mr. De Lorean did not choose to deny it, I was giving him the benefit of the doubt. Some say that in view of the American tax position his risk may not even be £2 million. But let us assume for the sake of my speech that his risk is £4 million for that sum he has acquired the effective control of this operation. For that investment, he will own 70 per cent. of the manufacturing company and 60 per cent. of the sales company.
Mr. De Lorean, when asked if this was the case, did not deny it. Indeed, he argued that the last British Government wanted it that way because of the expertise he possessed in cars and in the American automobile market. But if that is how the deal is set up, it is more breathtaking than I imagined when I first started probing it last year. If that is the deal, can the Minister say what monitoring system has been devised or is being devised by the Government to ensure that the £53 million of taxpayers' money will be spent as wisely as possible and that there will not he extravagant expenditure by Mr. De Lorean and his associates over which the Government have no control? In a nutshell, is any sort of audit being taken?
Indeed, the matter is causing great worry, because, as an investment adviser who took part in the BBC programme asked, what will happen to this product—the DMC 12 car—if it does not meet the standards of the authorities in the United States? What happens if something breaks down and there are great warranty claims on the company? Where will the finance come from to repair those vehicles, to cover insurance liability and rectify the design for future use?
The project has already run into difficulty. The process called elastic reservoir moulding, by which the car bodies were to be made, has been shelved. The arrival of the project in Europe has meant a considerable amount of re-engineering to take European components.
Is there adequate finance in the £53 million to meet such eventualities? I remind the Minister that Mr. De Lorean once said that they would make some mistakes. If this mistakes are made, where will the money come from to put them right and to give the project a reasonable chance of entering the market and selling?
I am worried that neither the previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland nor Mr. Ronald Henderson of the Northern Ireland Development Agency, both of whom played a major part in negotiating the contract, chose to take part or comment. That gives me misgivings. It makes me fear that they were aware of the project's high risk. They prefer now not to commit themselves to statements in public about the viability of the project.
The cost of the car is important if it is to sell as well as Mr De Lorean predicts. The former Minister of State told me, in a letter of 22 January 1979, that the car was to sell at $11,000, at 1977 prices. I am told now that the car is to be offered at $15,000. That is a 36 per cent. increase in price. Is that increase simply the result of inflation or is the vehicle more costly to produce than anticipated?
The rise in the value of sterling is bound to have an effect on the vehicle's price in the United States. Added to that will be an element of inflation. That must make the vehicle less competitive than originally intended. Can the Minister say what the current market price is? Does market information from the United States still confirm the reality of Mr. De Lorcan's projected sale of 30,000 vehicles a year, upon which the project's future hangs?
Has Mr. De Lorean put his plans for a stainless steel saloon car and a coupé before the Government to lift his firm out of the single product category in which it will he if the DMC12 is the only vehicle that it produces? If he has put those proposals before the Government, has he put a cost on producing the two further vehicles? What reply, if any, has been given to Mr. De Lorean?
Did Mr. De Lorean approach the Minister before approaching Alfa Romeo in Italy about the agency for that car in America? The attempt by Mr. De Lorean to get that agency is extremely worrying. I understand that the Alfa Romeo family of cars, to some extent at least, will be direct competitors of the DMC12. If that is so, it does not suggest much confidence by Mr. De Lorean for the DMC12 into which so much taxpayers' money has been invested.
Of course, it may be said by some that it makes commercial sense to have one's eggs in more than one basket, but since the DMC12 is Mr. De Lorean's dream car, as he never ceases to tell those who ask him, and that is where his heart lies, I greatly hope that that is what it proves to be, for the cost of jobs in the De Lorean project, it has recently been pointed out, is running at about £25,000 each whereas for most small businesses in Northern Ireland the figure is about £4,200.
If the project is the success that Mr. De Lorean has stated it will be, and plainly persuaded the last Secretary of State that it could be, it will be of immeasurable benefit to Dunmurray and the west end of Belfast, and when one hears the hon. Member for Belfast, West speak of the unemployment in his constituency, one well realises that high hopes are pinned on the project.
I recognise that my comments tonight may put me in danger of being accused of casting doubts upon the success of this project, so let me say straight away that no one wishes more than I do that the car shall be the great success that Mr. De Lorean claims that it can be. However, the risk is high, the amount of taxpayers' money is considerable, and the hope given to the unemployed people of Belfast who see at long last the prospect of a job—something which they dreamed about and wondered whether they would ever see—must be high indeed.
It therefore behoves Mr. De Lorean to deliver the goods and the Government to ensure that the public money subscribed to him, money immune from any sort of cut which may be made in other sectors, is well spent to ensure that the car finds its way to the American market as soon as possible, is the best seller that Mr. De Lorean promises it will be, and produces a return to our people which, albeit that 30 years must elapse, will repay our nation the £53 million which we have lent to him.
The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) reminded us that the level of public expenditure in Northern Ireland per head of population is much higher than it is in England, Scotland and Wales, and an hon. Member on the Government Benches, in a sedentary interjection, spoke of Northern Ireland as being a very expensive region of the United Kingdom and made other references to taxpayers' money being used in Northern Ireland.
I do not think that anyone is more conscious of always appearing to beg than are Members from Northern Ireland when we discuss these matters, but there are a few other statistics that should be remembered. It was no surprise to learn that public expenditure in Northern Ireland was greater, as the hon. Member for West Lothian reminded us, but it is a remarkable fact that at the start of this decade that was not so. In 1970 public expenditure in Scotland per head of population was greater than public expenditure per head in Northern Ireland. It is a commentary on how this House has managed Northern Ireland affairs that expenditure has risen as high as it has and gone out of control to the extent that it has. If the Tory Party had not removed the mechanism for control of public expenditure in the form of the Government of Northern Ireland, perhaps one would not have to listen to the gibes that one hears in debates such as this.
There are some other statistics worth thinking about. Unemployment is twice as high, and family income supplement and supplementary benefits are taken up to a far greater extent in Northern Ireland than they are anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Household income and personal income is only three-quarters of what it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, when the price of petrol is put up by lop a gallon, the effect is much greater on someone with a take-home pay of £75 than it is on someone with a take-home pay of £100 a week. If VAT is doubled, that affects people in Northern Ireland much more than it does people on the mainland.
We have to think about those things, too. Perhaps some hon. Members will say "So what? If that is the way things are, that is the way you have to live." That attitude is echoed in the energy report that was published yesterday, in which the observation is made that Northern Ireland has no indigenous fuel resources of its own and that it cannot be isolated from the consequences of that. It suggests that it is too bad that we do not have any gas, coal or oil and that we shall have to accept the consequences.
There are other regions in the United Kingdom that are perhaps as far from the sources of energy as Northern Ireland and which have no indigenous fuel resources of their own. We in Northern Ireland are conscious that that fact is not referred to when we are considering the energy policy that will determine the standard of living of those areas.
I think that it is well known that I am the chairman of the Northern Ireland Gas Employers' Board. That is a rather meaningless title, as I happen to chair the body that co-ordinates the activities of the 13 gas undertakings in the Province. That is done on a voluntary basis, so I have no financial interest. My interests are the interests of my consumers and those of other gas consumers in the Province.
The board is deeply disappointed that the Government have refused to give Northern Ireland access to natural gas and in so doing have killed the gas industry in the Province. The Conservative Party, which claims to be the party of choice, has removed one element of choice from the Northern Ireland people.
All the old bogeys that we argued against in Committee over the past two or three years are raised again in the report on energy policy for Northern Ireland. We are told that
many people in Northern Ireland believe North Sea gas is a United Kingdom resource.
It seems that it is not a United Kingdom resource. It seems that it is not a resource from which Northern Ireland is entitled to benefit. What good news that will be for the Scottish nationalists. It will give them an even stronger claim for saying that it is a Scottish resource. It seems that it is not a United Kingdom resource because only 85 people out of 100 in Great Britain benefit from it. It is argued on that basis that no one in Northern Ireland should benefit from it. That is one of the old bogeys that we had to argue against time and time again in Committee.
I still believe that natural gas—North Sea gas—is a United Kingdom resource. I still believe that consumers in Northern Ireland should get the benefit of it.
It is probably a little more than the money that is being poured into the De Lorean project. There are already 1,400 secure jobs in the gas industry that could be built upon. For little more than that which is being invested in a speculative gamble, we could build upon those jobs and add tremendously to the economic structure of Northern Ireland. The sum involved would be about £80 million. I accept that that is a colossal figure, but the gas employers' board demonstrated that a return could be obtained on that money if the project were handled properly and undertaken properly.
We have been denied that opportunity. Northern Ireland is now committed to an energy policy based on oil-generated electricity. Over the past few months we have seen Great Britain, Europe, the U.S.A. and the whole international civilised world turn its back on a dependency on oil. At a time when that is happening, the Government set Northern Ireland, a small province with no natural resources of its own, in a direction diametrically opposed to that taken by the rest of the world.
The Government are inflicting a high-cost fuel on a community that is not capable of paying for it. Northern Ireland's industry and commerce will suffer greatly. When the Miniser replies, I hope that he will be able to justify better to the people of Northern Ireland his reasons for refusing the Province the benefits to be derived from North Sea gas than has been done in the 10 or 12 pages of the report that he published yesterday.
I must confess that I am not altogether untempted by the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) that we might swap De Lorean for a gas connection. I would swap De Lorean for almost anything. I want to concentrate on this subject, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I have never before ventured to intervene in a Northern Ireland debate. However, I was a little alarmed this evening to gather so much confirmation, as a result of comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, of my impression that Northern Ireland is the one part of the United Kingdom where money is still thought to grow on trees.
I share the anxieties expressed by hon. Members on both sides about the fact that we should be discussing such very large sums at this hour of night. I am, in general, deeply concerned about the short-comings in the accountability of the Northern Ireland Office, and especially the Northern Ireland Development Agency, to this House for the taxpayers' money that it spends.
My hon. Friend the Member for New- bury raised the matter of De Lorean not only tonight but on a previous occasion last December. He—and he alone in the House—succeeded in extracting information from the previous Government about this monstrous commitment of public funds.
If this had happened on the other side of the St. George's Channel, I belive that it would have been taken for granted that the commitment of £52 million of taxpayers' money to a project on the wilder fringes of speculation should have been a subject of debate and discussion in the House at a much earlier stage. My hon. Friend, both on this occasion and the previous occasion when he raised the subject, was measured in his comments. In this instance I find it hard to measure. The facts, as they unroll themselves before us become, to my mind, more and more incredible with every week that passes.
When my hon. Friend raised this matter in the House last December, he was told by the then Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Ray Carter,
Before the agreement to provide this assistance
—for the De Lorean project—
was made, very careful evaluation of the project was carried out by officials of the Department of Commerce and the Northern Ireland Development Agency, who had available to them a very full analysis of the entire project which had been carried out by two highly reputable firms of business consultants and a comprehensive market survey carried out by specialist marketing consultants. A further report was also directly commissioned by the
Department of Commerce."—[Official Report. 11 December 1978; Vol. 960, c. 182.]
It sounds impressive, does it not, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Now we are told that the whole operation took just 45 days. As a former managing director of the Northern Ireland Development Agency said on the programme to which my hon. Friend referred, that can hardly be regarded as an adequate time to appraise a project of this magnitude and, it may be said also, of this speculative nature.
What we are talking about is a project to try to conquer the American sports car market. I understand that no new sports car has been introduced on the American market for 25 years, but Mr. De Lorean is to do it from the wrong end of the Falls Road in a matter of a couple of years. No new independent motor venture, I understand, has been successfully launched on the American market for 50 years, but Mr. De Lorean is to do it on the back of £2 million of his own cash and £52 million from the unfortunate British taxpayer.
As my hon. Friend reminded the House last December, such is the nature of this project that Mr. De Lorean felt obliged to state in the prospectus for his company, when he sought to have it trade on the over-the-counter market in New York, that no investor unprepared to lose the whole of the minimum $25,000 investment should apply for shares. The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), had 4,000 times that amount to offer from the British taxpayer on the strength of a 45-day appraisal.
This dream car had been touted round the punters of the world. The Puerto Ricans would not touch it. The Southern Irish—who are not exactly slouches in the distribution of their taxpayers' money—even said that they reckoned that the taxpayer was being asked to take too high a proportion of the risk. Now we are told—and I hope that my hon. Friend, when he replies to the debate, will deal with this remarkable point—that for his 4 per cent. stake Mr. De Lorean has been awarded 60 per cent. of the sales company and 70 per cent. of the marketing company.
The former managing director of the Northern Ireland Development Agency said that the project was not so much a commercial transaction; it was more like charity. I am not sure that "charity" is quite the right word for it. To get 60 per cent. of the sales company and 70 per cent. of the marketing company, for putting in just 4 per cent. of the stake money, sounds more like sweeping the pools—providing, of course, that the venture succeeds. Since it was originally conceived, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the value of the dollar has gone against sterling to the extent of 16 per cent., and we have had the energy crisis to push up substantially, even in the United States, the price of gasolene, which is a fairly important consideration for a car that Mr. De Lorean has said will contain a mixture of mystique, sex, prestige and class, and is to be suitably expensive to boot.
It has always seemed to me that in this instance the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Barnsley was not so much a soft touch as about the softest touch since someone tried to proposition Casanova, He rolled over and handed out the money.
What control and what redress do we have? It was said that we should be careful not to knock the prospects of the company, but we have an obligation to our constituents to stand guard over the sums which are committed in their name. I am bound to say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we have to ask whether at this stage it would not have been very much more economical for the taxpayers of the United Kingdom if this contract—so wilfully, so irresponsibly entered into by the previous Administration—were cancelled and the compensation which might arise therefrom paid.
I remind my hon. Friends that we were told time and time again that it would be too expensive to cancel the Concorde aircraft because of the compensation fees that might arise. My God, we should have made a good deal if we had at any stage. I cannot help thinking that that must also be the case with the famous De Lorean car project.
On 24 May I asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary what was his latest estimate of the cost to public funds of each permanent job to be created by the De Lorean car plant. His answer was:
On the assumption that 2,000 permanent jobs will be created, it is estimated that
Government grants and loans will total £17,593 per job."—[Official Report, 24 May 1979; Vol. 967, c. 177.]
I fail to understand the arithmetic of that figure. Mr. De Lorean has said that the project will cost the taxpayer £52 million. My hon. Friend the Minister of State tonight gave us reason to wonder whether it was going to cost us more still. If the figure were £52 million and 2,000 jobs were to be created, I should have thought that the sum per job was £26,000.
That is not just my supposition. When I wrote to my hon. Friend for further elucidation, he gave me figures which I understood definitely to confirm that £26,000 was the correct figure. We must get the correct figure on the record. Our constituents have some right to know the scale of the ride for which they are being taken. Let us hope that the project succeeds. It will be a brave man who puts his shirt on that. I suggest that in future when we give Ministers the right to indulge in speculative ventures of this kind we should somehow manage to insert in the legislation a provision obliging them to commit at least a small proportion of their own personal resources to backing the wondrous projects they take us into.
I do not know that I follow the hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) in suggesting that Ministers should commit some of their personal resources to these projects, but I support him in what he said about the De Lorean project. I represent the huge British Leyland truck and tractor division at Bathgate. That is not the car industry, but, like many other parts of the motor industry, it is extremely short of capital investment. Several of my constituents have asked how the Government can find this sum of money for a project in Northern Ireland when, Heaven knows, it is difficult enough to get capital investment for units of British Leyland that are in the black and have a very good export record.
They ask also, on a purely technical level, how British Leyland has to go to Honda for this kind of expertise, yet, lo and behold, for a fairly trifling sum in terms of the development of motor cars, Northern Ireland can apparently achieve something that no one else has been able to achieve.
May we have a report tonight on the likely viability of this project and what the Government have learnt from other members of the motor industry about the prospects of the success of this project? I am aware that there may be a question of commercially sensitive information, but I think that we are entitled to some kind of comment. However, I should not try to press the matter further if the Government took certain refuge behind the screen of the difficulties of commercial information.
I should like to concede something to the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) and Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). I concede that, in the absence of local government, it is indeed proper for hon. Members to raise questions on sewerage, drainage and housing heating here, because there is nowhere else to raise them. I think that some of us would in general terms feel that the sooner local government institutions are returned to Northern Ireland the better, regardless of other arguments.
I should like to answer a question that was generally put in my direction by the hon. Member for Belfast, West. He asked why the House should be so empty of those from other than Notrhern Ireland constituencies. Was it that we were just not interested?
I do not think that it was quite fair. It is not that we are not interested; it is that honourably, for a long time, we have not wanted to make matters worse by opening our mouths. Indeed, we were discouraged from taking an interest by successive Ministers who had responsibility. In 1969, when I first wanted to go to inform myself about the position in Northern Ireland, as a matter of courtesy I wrote to the then Minister of State, Home Office saying that I wanted to go. Within hours I found myself summoned by no less a person than the Home Secretary, who put the proper, but unanswerable, question, other than to a man of supreme arrogance: what could I do in Northern Ireland for the sake of Ulster that he could not as Home Secretary? There is no answer to that kind of question. It was for that kind of reason that many of us, who felt that we had an obligation to inform ourselves, were reluctant to go.
In the 1970s, at the time of the Ulster workers' strike, some of us went to Hawthornden Road and, a fortnight later, to the women's prison in Armagh and to the Maze, to be taken round by some of those on the other side of the argument. That caused us to incur the displeasure of our senior Ministers, for understandable reasons.
It is for that kind of reason that some of us are a bit late in the day in taking an interest in affairs in Northern Ireland. But I think that there is now an overwhelming obligation on us to take a serious interest. Whether it will be welcome is another matter.
In candour, hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies must understand that among our constituents there is now a growing degree of fedupness and impatience. As the economic situation gets worse, in the opinion of many of us, that impatience and fedupness will grow.
It is not necessarily my own view, but certainly there was a widely held feeling in Scotland when Northern Ireland was a subject of understandable discussion during the referendum campaign of "A plague on all your houses." That may be irritating and it may be unfair on people who have displayed, as many hon. Members present tonight have displayed, a great deal of personal courage, and who have had appalling difficulties that have not been faced by people in my position from this side of the water. I understand all that, but it must be said that there is a growing feeling, especially given the economic circumstances in which the country finds itself, of "A plague on all your houses", a lack of sympathy.
Five years ago, three years ago, even one year ago, there was a great deal of sympathy with people in the North of Ireland. I must say, without being pompous or lecturing or hectoring anyone, that a number of us detect that that sympathy, such as existed, is now waning and is giving way to a growing feeling—the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) shakes his head. It may be different in Newbury. I simply report the impression that some of us are getting. We may be contradicted, but that must be said.
All I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that my constituents admire the courage of the people of Northern Ireland and hope, as I do, that they will be relieved of the wretched terrorists who have ruined their lives for the past 10 years.
While we share the views of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), what we are really getting fed up with is the sort of stories that we are hearing of the misappropriation of public money—particularly in the case of the De Lorean car company and such matters as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Those are the matters the general public in this country will be becoming more and more concerned about in the months ahead.
I also accept that intervention in the spirit in which it was made.
The purpose of my speech is simply to ask a very precise question. The most important cost of affairs in Northern Ireland is, without question, the lives of individuals—the lives of the Army, the lives of people in Northern Ireland.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will say to which part of the order he is now addressing himself. I do not think that there is anything in the order about that.
I come directly to the question, the question which has been put by other hon. Members in various forms, as to precisely what the cost now is of public spending in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Down, North who made a very controversial speech and might have remained for the rest of the debate—
In that case, I naturally accept that the hon. Gentleman had to go. He made a considerable point about the question of costs and seemed to assume, as did some other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West, that somehow or other Northern Ireland took priority over the rest of us in present circumstances.
People who represent the shipbuilding industry, or any related industry, on this side of the water are entitled to ask what is the public spending per head for Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. Do the Government have these figures? It sticks in the gullet of some of us to hear the hon. Member for Down, North suggest that Northern Ireland has been badly treated. The question that I am asking is precisely how much money, and how much money per head, has gone from the United Kingdom Treasury to Northern Ireland.
My general view is one that some of us have held for some time. I interrupted the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) when, as Leader of the Opposition, he was speaking in the emergency legislation debate to point out that many of us feel, without any ill will, that the English, Scots and Welsh are simply no good when it comes to dealing with the problems of Northern Ireland.
Not since Lord Mountjoy has any British politician had much success in Ireland. Strafford failed, Cromwell failed, Gladstone failed. I vividly remember being taken round her library by my constituent the Countess of Rosebery, who explained at length how Lord Rosebery had come to great grief in Northern Ireland. Lloyd George certainly failed in Ireland. What makes the present Secretary of State think that he can succeed where a whole succession of Scots, Welsh and Englishmen have failed?
There is a perfectly respectable view that whatever the problems of the Six Counties there is little that can be done about them from this side of the water and that the final solution resides with the people of the north of Ireland.
It may be of advantage if I intervene at this stage in order to comment on those matters for which my Department—the Department of Commerce—is responsible. I am conscious that had I realised the number of matters that would be laid directly at the door of the Department I might not have been so bold as to offer to intervene and might have left my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to deal consummately with winding up the debate.
However, we felt it right that those of us able to be here for the debate should endeavour to deal with matters raised by hon. Members. I shall deal with one or two of the smaller issues before coming on to the major issues.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) asked what was being undertaken in the regional aid review and whether it was the thin end of a wedge leading to major cuts in regional investment. I assure him that by reviewing our regional and incentive aids for Northern Ireland we are endeavouring to make sure that they are as competitive and effective as those elsewhere. It is not part of a cost-cutting exercise, but if in the course of the review we discover that we are being inefficient I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be the first to agree that we should be more efficient and that if that reduces the money available, so be it. Our intention is to make certain that our regional aid incentives are effective and competitive.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd referred to the Northern Ireland Development Agency. We believe that NIDA should continue its effective job in seeking market opportunities and bringing projects into the Province. Its staff has been strengthened and we believe it right that it should be continued in its role.
I have to point out that three agencies are involved in investment in the Province—NIDA, the smaller development unit dealing with projects involving 50 jobs or fewer, and the Department of Commerce, which oversees both agencies and has major responsibility for inward investment. It is my view that we should look at how the three agencies inter-react to make sure that there is no duplication.
Hon. Members have referred to the Antrim Crystal Company. I regret that it was found necessary by the company to close its works. In the development of an art form such as crystal, perhaps insufficient time was set aside for the satisfactory development of products, but the House will understand that the firm is part of a wider organisation involving Tyrone Crystal of Dungannon, and the two parts were substantially interlocked.
It was our overall view that we should seek to save, if possible, the viability of crystal-making capacity, and that meant that the Antrim works had to be phased out in favour of maintaining the Tyrone works in Dungannon, which we hope will become viable over the rest of the year. We shall certainly not be slow to look, if we can, to find those who might be willing to become investors in this operation, because there is an important skill here which should be preserved.
The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) raised the question of the closure of the Peter Pan bakery which I know has been a matter of great concern to his constituents—another of the closures in the area of West Belfast, which he has so strongly represented in this House whenever we come to discuss matters of this kind.
This closure was part of a long-term rationalisation of the baking industry in which the Peter Pan company sought to be associated, and the matter had been under review for many months. Indeed, the Labour Government were well advanced in discussion as far back as last November. The fact remains that, in the ultimate stages of the closure, of the 400 or so workers employed, between 150 and 200 obtained other jobs, many of them within the industry, and there was great pressure for a decision on ultimate closure to be made. I regret the consequences of any closure to a community, but I emphasise that in this case the closure was not only inevitable but a very long time in coming. There was major pressure for the decision finally to be made, and it was made.
The three other major elements in the debate that fall within my lot to comment upon are the De Lorean issue, the Harland and Wolff issue and the energy report. My hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) laid much stress on the De Lorean issue.
It is outside my personal brief at the moment, but I will see that the hon. Gentleman gets the fullest possible answer.
Obviously, the De Lorean issue is a matter of very great concern to all of us. The Labour Government entered into an undertaking by which a great deal of public money has been put at risk—and I use the word advisedly. But it is incumbent upon the present Government, who have inherited the risk, to see to it that we make the operation work, and it is certainly our policy to see that it comes to a successful fruition if that is humanly possible to achieve.
There has been little mention by my hon. Friends of the enormous danger that success might establish a 2,000-man or woman unit on the outskirts of Belfast. That would be a fantastic achievement if it could be done. Many will say that it is impossible, and my hon. Friends suggested that there are grave doubts about it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury was anxious to know what degree of monitoring would be applied to the project. There are two executives representing the NIDA on the board of the project, and quarterly management audits are available to us in the Department of Commerce. Additional information will be available to us through the executives on the board about any matter at any time. So monitoring is being actively and safely undertaken.
Secondly, my hon. Friend raised the question of the speed with which this project had been launched and the comment by an investment analyst that it was indeed a very speedy operation. I cannot comment, because I was not involved, on the degree of veracity there is in that comment, but I must point out that there are many differing views as to the quality of comment made by that investment analyst on the project. He was, after all, at one time managing director of the Northern Ireland Finance Corporation.
If I mentioned to this House the Strathearn Audio operation, which has closed, and which was a major disaster in the Belfast area, I would have to add that I do not regard that as a particularly fine example of an attractive investment analysis. It may be that there are other views about how successful or otherwise the De Lorean project will be from other analyses.
I can say, on the pricing, that the price of the product will now be nearer the $14,000 to $15,000 mark rather than the $11,000 originally committed. Further, 300 dealers have signed up for about the first two years' production of the car. They have each made a substantial investment in the project. Private capital is now of the order of £13 million within that project. There are signs that there are many others prepared to take the risk, although I concede to my hon. Friends that Mr. De Lorean's personal stake is, I understand, $4 million, as it was originally.
My hon. Friends will also be aware that under the present arrangements the equity capital provided by the Northern Ireland Development Agency—£17 million—can be bought back by Mr. De Lorean should he wish to exercise his option to do so.
Could my hon. Friend clear up one point? He said that there were two representatives of the Northern Ireland Development Agency on the board of the De Lorean Company in Ireland. Are those the two who were primarily responsible, under the previous Secretary of State, for organising the arrival of the project in the first place? If they arc, it might be felt that they would hardly be the most forthcoming or the quickest to sound the alarm bells about the company's future progress.
My hon. Friend has raised a pertinent question and one, moreover, that I cannot answer. I shall write to him on the matter. I do not know whether both board members, or either, were involved in the initial assessment.
The point I want to make is that there has been a fairly significant amount of evidence on the other side. Let us be under no illusion. Both my hon. Friends are right to say that this is a high-risk project. We live in a Province where the risks on anything are high. It seems that we have to move carefully before deciding to throw out this prospect which could bring such enormous improvement to the job situation in Belfast and an engineering technology whose spin-off in other forms of engineering establishments could be important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury raised a number of points on Harland and Wolff, to which I now turn. I first apologise, if apology is necessary, for the fact that the relevant statement was made today in answer to a written question. It was, I know, felt by some that there should be an oral statement, with the opporunity for questions. The Government took the view that, with this debate available, the opportunity for discussion would be a greater advantage than question and answer after a statement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury asked, first, why it was that, as Harland and Wolff and Shorts were nationalised undertakings, they were not available for examination in this House. That is a fair point. We do not have as much opportunity for examining the undertakings of these great enterprises as our colleagues representing seats in other parts of the country have for examining the undertakings of the nationalised industries. We should look at this and find an opportunity for raising these issues more often.
The question of missed delivery dates was raised. My hon. Friend asked what I intended to do about it. I have met the unions concerned today. I went through with them, very carefully, the list of six ships on order, on the stocks and already behind schedule. I have made it clear to them that any further falling behind on the delivery schedules of the orders they already have must seriously undermine the reputation of the yard and, therefore, make it more difficult for them to obtain orders in future.
My hon. Friend asked why the statement referred to planning in conjunction with British Shipbuilders. The answer, primarily, is that under the EEC regulations for shipbuilding the United Kingdom has to supply a shipbuilding proposition for the yards as a whole, in which Harland and Wolff is included. It was for that purpose that they were put in together in a submission which we hope will result in agreement for the use of Harland and Wolff as part of the beneficiaries from the intervention fund. That is why the proposals were made in the context of the British Shipbuilders proposals.
My hon. Friend then referred to diversification. This is proceeding well. The arrangement made with the MAN company of Augsburg for the production of marine and land engines has proceeded well, and I am encouraging the company to look for other diversification projects that might help to spread the load of the work force at Harland and Wolff.
That brings me to the major questions that were raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and others in connection with the long-term future of Harland and Wolff, and in particular why there was no specific reference to a figure of reduced labour supply in relation to the prospects for Harland and Wolff.
In making the statement today on Harland and Wolff, we have made it clear that the Government are continuing to provide funds for the ensuing year. The hon. Member for Belfast, West is in his seat. He asked why we do not spend more. I remind him that £35 million was spent on the major re-equipment of the yards; that £65 million was spent under the previous Administration, which expired in March of this year; and that the present Government have laid a further £22 million on the table for the current year. That means that a total of £117 million has been or is being spent on this yard.
I am aware just how significant Harland and Wolff is to the people of Belfast and to those who work within it, but I am bound to say, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand, that with that continuous high level of public investment there comes a time when we have to say "If you are not building ships to time, if you are falling back on your committed order and delivery dates, how can we possibly continue to subvent public funds for this purpose?", and we have reached that point today.
In our discussions with the unions today, and in our discussions with management previously, we recognised—and I believe that everybody in Northern Ireland recognises—that they just cannot go on like this, the more so when we have to remind ourselves that Harland and Wolff has an order book for eight ships which lasts until 1981—a significantly better order book than nearly every yard within the United Kingdom—and that we have the finest yard and the finest equipment available in Europe. We have to remember also that we have had very high levels of productivity in previous years, when the losses were down as low as £4 million in one year. They rose to £7 million the year after, and in the year just closed they reached the alarming figure of £21·4 million.
It is for those reasons that in making the statement today we deliberately did not say that there would be x thousand jobs at risk unless this matter was concluded, and we did not project a figure for the job loss. The job loss will almost certainly come about if the orders that are presently being worked on run out without any further replacements. The job loss will almost certainly come about if the productivity levels in the yard continue to give concern and therefore make the yard less competitive.
I cannot place a figure on what that would mean, and I am determined, by diversification, to help to spread the risk, but one thing of which I am certain, and one thing of which every Member in this House from Northern Ireland should be certain, is that the Government have reached a point where they must say, once and for all, that the future of Harland and Wolff rests with the management and work force of the company, and that in 12 months' time there will have to be a final and agonising reappraisal of the position.
I regret that I cannot answer that question, but I shall write to my hon. Friend about it. I was not aware of any new development that had come my way in recent weeks. If it was an imminent event, it is not a piece of information that has come my way. I shall write to my hon. Friend on that matter.
I now turn to the matter that has perhaps the greatest long-term consequences. I refer to the paper that we have placed in the Library, on energy. The Government recognise that what we have set down for the House is an energy paper of a wide-ranging kind. It is not simply a matter of a decision upon a gas pipeline. We felt that it was right to make the energy review as wide as possible. One of the reasons why we felt it was necessary to lay the paper before the House prior to the recess is the increasing anxiety expressed to us about the existing 13 gas undertakings. The hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. Mc- Cusker) knows, more than anyone else, the parlous state of these undertakings and their desperate need for a decision either way.
It would not be the wish of the House, I believe, that I should go through the paper. It sets out at length the main parameters within which we felt we should take a decision. First, there are major electric generating installations in Northern Ireland and a new one comes on stream in Kilroot next year. Secondly, gas is at the lowest end of energy consumption, for the obvious reason that it remains a domestic and scattered usage rather than a major industrial usage. Thirdly, we believe that there must be real anxiety about energy prices within the Province. I know that this has been at the back of the minds of many hon. Members in their strong and vigorous argument for the connection with the gas pipe. On the other hand, we have come to the conclusion that on the figures projected by the consultancy run by the British Gas Corporation, compared with those figures offered by the other consultancy, prepared by the gas employers, the general charges offered by the Gas Corporation were correct and the long-term viability of the gas pipe would produce a continuing drain on public funds.
We furthermore took the view that the most crucial matter at present was security of supply. That has already been mentioned in so far as we are relying to a considerable degree, perhaps 90 per cent. of generation, on the availability of oil. The paper therefore contains a commitment that we should be able to retain stocks for the oil generation at Kilroot which would be sufficient for that purpose and that those stocks, from the point of view of energy policy, would be a security against developments in the world oil market.
I fully recognise that in arriving at this decision we have turned our backs, in many people's view, on what people in the Province sought from this Government, namely, a commitment for a connection into a cheaper supply of energy than they possess. The facts, however, suggest to us that it would not be cheaper to pipe into the natural gas supply of the United Kingdom and that we could well continue to provide competitive energy pricing based on our oil installations in Kilroot provided that we were able to optimise the generation from that plant. It is in that regard that interconnection plays such an important part.
Would the Minister indicate the Government's attitude if, in the foreseeable future, it was shown that there was possibly oil or gas in the Rathlin basin or the Foyle basin? If gas were found, would the Government run a pipe around Northern Ireland and connect it to the system in Great Britain, or would we have a share?
We will certainly meet that question if it comes to light. The hon. Gentleman can hardly expect me to give a hypothetical answer. We have set out in the energy paper proposals for the energy scene in Northern Ireland that we can reasonably foresee. I take the point that a time could come when connection to Great Britain, either for gas or for electricity, might be a viable undertaking. As we now stand, bearing in mind the need to take a decision in the light of the parlous state of the gas undertakings, we feel that the decision arrived at is the most sensible, given the circumstances that we have had to take into account.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) will know that the Southern Irish Government not only are short of electricity but are extremely interested to try to find any source of piped gas supply. I am led to believe that their indigenous sources of gas are largely round the area of Cork and may not be sufficient for the Southern Irish consumption as a whole.
I make it clear that we have set down in this paper our view that if there is to be any future interconnection it should be between the North of Ireland and Great Britain and that gas—or electricity, if that be the correct fuel to bring across to Ireland—should be routed in that way. Our job in the Province must be to try to sustain an energy policy which will enable the population in Northern Ireland to enjoy energy at a reasonable price. We undertake to keep the price under review, because I recognise that in concentrating upon electricity, although coal will continue to be competitive, as will some forms of bottled gas, we are creating to a greater degree a monopoly, and with monopoly comes the danger of anticompetitive pricing.
I asked the hon. Gentleman about public expenditure per head. I seem to sec a note being passed to the Treasury Bench from those who may be able to provide the information. When does the hon. Gentleman hope to be able to answer my question?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) to provide the answer to his question when he winds up the debate a little later on.
On the subject of a gas link between the rest of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, can the Minister say how many letters have passed between the Government and the appropriate department in the EEC about aid for such a project? Can the correspondence be made available to those of us who are interested in the subject?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to look into that and see whether the correspondence exists and whether it is worth publishing to the hon. Gentleman. He will recognise that any EEC correspondence is more likely to be between differing parts of the Community rather than between two parts of one member State.
Without incurring your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I respond to a few of the questions raised in the debate? They are constitutional points, although they impinge on the wider economic questions which have been under consideration in the debate.
The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) tended to half-apologise for his involvement in the debate, and he related his experience of having been discouraged in the past by a previous Home Secretary from becoming involved in the Northern Ireland question. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the advice which he was offered on that occasion comes to us as no surprise, because that Home Secretary had a great propensity for asking all the wrong questions, because he based his analysis of the Northern Ireland situation on totally wrong premises. The involvement of the hon. Member for West Lothian is very welcome, and we enjoy his contributions to these debates.
As for the hon. Gentleman's feeling of futility, we who represent Northern Ireland constituencies are not at all surprised. On Thursday evening of last week, we had an example of the most depressing and disturbing analysis that we have had the misfortune to hear in this House about Northern Ireland. It was clear, without his saying it, that the former Secretary of State somehow believed that the only future for Northern Ireland was disengagement by this House at some future date and for Northern Ireland to be left to its own resources. The emotional commitment which the right hon. Gentleman has always had to that inherent nonsense is partly based on his difficulty in distinguishing between the political problem and the so-called religious problem.
The Northern Ireland problem has never been inherently religious; it has always been political. But because the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) refuses to recognise that fact, or simply cannot recognise it, he encourages those who would economically damage the Province and so compounds the desire of those who say that it costs so much that there is no alternative but to withdraw.
Dealing with Class V of the order, I should like first to speak about the reshuffling of the Housing Executive, which is presented as a restructuring. A number of documents such as this have been circulated to all Northern Ireland Members and perhaps to others; they purport to illustrate how the Executive is being updated to meet some of the criticisms made in the House since its inception.
When the Housing Executive was created in 1971, it was done on the false premise that a section of the Northern Ireland community was deliberately disadvantaged in housing opportunity because housing was within the control of local government. It is no surprise to those of us who made observations outside the House at the time—certainly not to those who made precisely the same observations in the House—that any concept based on such nonsense would in time itself become nonsense. A house built on sand will not last. That pro- phecy has been proved correct. So this tottering building has been restructured.
But, alas, it is not a proper restructuring; it is merely a reshuffling. It is not a demolition job followed by a construction on a firm foundation; it is a mere shifting of a few bricks. The reshuffling that is being sold as restructuring will prove as futile and costly as the present edifice.
For example, I understand that the 30 positions within the headquarters of the Executive will cost about £250,000 in salaries per year. If we were to get an immensely improved service for slightly more money, one would not quibble. But we do not think that that will happen. If we are to accept reshuffling at a cost of £250,000 for each 30 jobs, we must be given reason to believe that those 30 people will produce better results.
There is no great difference between the work being done now and that which was done in the past, althought it is named differently. We now have directors, regional controllers and offshoots of those posts. However, the burden of day-to-day work will fall on the district offices. The district managers will be asked to exercise more responsibility, to face more irate tenants, and to grapple with more insoluble problems while the regional controllers and directors—that top-heavy bureaucracy, functioning at a cost of £250,000 per 30 jobs—do not earn their corn.
That is not a restructuring job; it is a reshuffle. It is incumbent on the Minister to examine what is offered and to reject the proposals because they are top-heavy. He must acknowledge that the district managers are assuming responsibility for many of the functions which the documents recommend should be undertaken by regional controllers. I refer to maintenance, directly employed labour, clerical support, recruiting personnel, administrative support, statistics and information.
All that work is being done by district managers. Advice from the area and regional managers is a rehash of advice from the district managers. We are being offered a top-heavy bureaucracy at an increased cost, which will not improve the performance of the Executive one iota.
I urge the Minister to consider the proposals and to examine carefully the need of the regional controllers. I hope that he will accept that we require more incentive to produce the type of district manager which the Executive needs, and that we must give him a realistic wage which will encourage him to import further responsibility.
The director of housing management may require assistance to liaise with the district manager, but he does not need six regional controllers and thousands of pounds a year. A method should be devised so that the director of housing can liaise directly with the district managers who assume immediate and full responsibility for the day-to-day matters with which they deal already.
I turn to the Rowland report. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) said that his constituents were becoming more concerned at the misappropriation of money in Northern Ireland. The truth is that in many cases the misappropriation of money comes about not because of the folly of Ulstermen but because of the folly of Englishmen. I shall give examples to show what I mean.
We have the dreadful concept still persisting in the minds of some members of the former Government that somehow or other one can buy the allegiance of those whose commitment has been given to another sovereign State. In 1974 the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds, South, faced a most traumatic situation. Violence was increasing beyond anyone's fears or expectations, and suddenly the right hon. Gentleman felt a possible way forward was not to pursue the gunmen, not to remove them from society, but somehow to buy their allegiance by providing jobs for ex-detainees, for members of the IRA, for people who were known to be involved in terrorism.
The right hon. Gentleman was aided and abetted in that course by the Feacle clerics and their associates. Incidentally, one of their associates was a failed Englishman who had to come to Northern Ireland to make his mark in education. So I say that it has been not the folly of Ulstermen but the folly of Englishmen who believe that allegiance and loyalty can be bought.
Thus, we had the dreadful state of affairs of building companies brought into
being with the direct knowledge of Her Majesty's Government, financed by Her Majesty's Government, and these people draining the taxpayer's purse without any restraints whatever. Indeed, when fears were expressed after several months, an official of the Department of the Environment said on the telephone—I take this from the Rowland report:
I advised Mr. X"—
the gentleman at the Executive responsible for the contracts with these three companies—
that while the Department did not wish to interfere with the internal arrangements of the Executive, we had to consider:
(a) the possible capital which could be made locally about this"—
by "this" was meant possible redundancies, and the cutting off of the contracts—
and its implications in a ceasefire situation;
(b) the Minister's position on paying off labour for a few weeks and re-engaging;
(c) all this against a background of massive underspending by the Executive this year",
Why was there underspending? It was because the Executive was not building houses. The very body brought into being to build houses for all sections of the community in Northern Ireland could not do it, yet the bodies which were castigated for failing in that task had undertaken it magnificently up to 1972, namely, the local authorities.
Can the hon. Gentleman understand that what he says about my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) is very riling to a person like me? Whether or not one agrees with my right hon. Friend's policies, those of us who were here at the time know that he sweated his proverbial guts out and that no man could have tried harder or given more of himself to try to do the right thing.
Does not the hon. Gentleman begin to understand that when he makes that sort of critcism of my right hon. Friend—I do not say "attack"—referring to the folly of Englishmen, there are some of us who react by saying "All right. If that is the sort of attack that is to be made from all sides, should we not do better to do as the biblical Levite did and pass by on the other side of the road?" What can we do here that is right?
We must base our policy on what is best for the United Kingdom and for the subjects of the United Kingdom, not on expediency and on what might keep the aspirants of another foreign State happy for a short while. The hon. Gentleman said that there were no periods when Englishmen could grapple with Northern Ireland. That is not true. I contend that Cromwell grappled with it rather well. In the eighteenth century the Tories grappled with it rather well. If we take the best ingredients of both, we may look for a Tory militarist. I suspect that we would, without much hope, draw aside to witness that great sight nowadays.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, South made a deliberate decision. His decision was to release from the Maze prison a detainee called Mr. McQuire, knowing that within prison he had devised a scheme whereby a building company would come into being and would operate as a monopoly, thereby being able to demand its own price and terms for work. As Mr. McQuire and other members of the building company were committed to the IRA concept, including that of violence, the moneys channelled to that company were inevitably to be used for violence. The right hon. Gentleman would have been naive in the extreme—I call him many things, but not naive—if he had not realised that that was a possibility. The very fact that his own Department stated that the ceasefire issue was at stake is germane to the argument.
I appreciate that the hon. Member for West Lothian will seek to come to the defence of his right hon. Friend, but I ask him to ponder on all the documents in my possession, which I shall gladly let him have, before making his own assessment and judgment.
The Rowland report is a dreadful indictment of both the Department of the Environment and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Some action must be taken to ensure that such a dreadful debacle does not happen again. Evidence was presented to the Rowland committee that did not receive the emphasis that it deserved. It highlighted the involvement of the Northern Ireland Office and some departmental officials with known members of the IRA, placing a great financial burden and much pressure on the British taxpayer in Northern Ireland and in this part of the kingdom.
That is bad enough in itself, but it is my information that the Housing Executive had a deficit of £21 million wiped out by Her Majesty's Government. A not inconsequential sum was involved in the West Belfast problem. An example of that great misappropriation is the Moyard rehabilitation scheme. At the beginning of the scheme the budgeted cost per unit was £3,000. Just after the work began it was clear that each unit would cost £4,800. At the end of the scheme it was admitted by the former Minister for Housing in Northern Ireland that the average amount spent on each unit was about £15,996, which meant that some of those units cost far more, some rather less. Units that were budgeted at £3,000 were paid for at the rate of £15,996 on average.
How many lives has that money indirectly taken? How many widows and orphans have been created? The reason is the lack of accountability of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The nonsense brought into being in 1971 has become the Frankenstein's monster that we thought and warned that it would become. It has taken away not only the wealth but also the lives of the nation. I hope that all those in the Department of the Environment who tried to excuse this misappropriation are proud of themselves. I hope that those in the Housing Executive who knew what was going on are proud of themselves.
I am only sorry that the Commission and the report do not have more teeth and power, because those who were identified as responsible for this debacle might have been pursuable, even legally.
We come to the present moment. Still the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Department of the Environment have not learnt their lesson. In certain areas of the city there is still an attempt to buy allegiance, acquiescence or peace, whatever we may call it. In the Essex Street area, in my constituency, a rehabilitation scheme that was supposed to cost £9,500 per unit is now being completed at an estimated cost of about £17,000 at present, in real money terms. But what is happening in the constituency of Belfast, North and in my constituency? The only increase allowed on the fixed price of the 1976 contracts is 11½ per cent., which means that the work expected and outlined in 1976 cannot be done at today's prices. Those involved are told "Do not do the new work; do a patch-up job." That was being offered in certain areas of North and South Belfast.
If the patience of the people of Great Britain is running out, the patience of the Ulster people is at the end of its tether, because of this ongoing nonsense. That impatience exists because we have no control over our local affairs.
I come finally to the question of maintenance, which was fully dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). I want to deal with three issues that have not been fully dealt with.
There is, first, the whole question of the insulation policy adopted in respect of Housing Executive properties. During the last winter, which was particularly relentless, the Executive placed insulation on the ceilings or in the attics of some dwellings. It did not touch the pipes or the tanks—just the attics, the ceilings, or the roofs. That had the effect of keeping the heat out where previously it penetrated into the attic and kept the pipes free. Yet the Housing Executive stated that its policy was to lag pipes as well as the roof spaces. Many a constituent sustained considerable damage to furniture and property because only part of the insulation policy was pursued, but there will be no compensation and no redress for these constituents.
Is the charge that the Housing Executive is technically incompetent and does not know its job, or that it is politically malicious, or both? For most of us—the laity outside Northern Ireland—it is rather baffling.
The answer, I think, is that the Housing Executive is incompetent because of its size. The Department and the Housing Executive to a lesser extent have in the past been the tools of their masters; therefore there has been an element of connivance. It is a simple fact of life in Northern Ireland. Distasteful it may be, but it is a fact of life.
As for conserving energy, we have illustrations of certain heating apparatus being installed in homes—apparatus from which radiators could be taken which would heat all sections of the house— but this has been refused on the basis that the policy decision was drawn up by the Department, £x has been allocated by the Department, and there will be no change in that heating policy for any given area. Yet folk are having to run off gallons and gallons of hot water because the apparatus installed is capable of producing a radiator system, but none is to be provided. In these cases no consultation took place between the Executive and the tenants. They were not asked if they would like radiators. They were not advised that radiators would be a help and a benefit.
In one case I have managed to have the Executive change its mind and the Department to come up with the small amount of money required, but many other areas have not enjoyed the same kind of treatment.
Finally, I want to touch on the issue of a rehabilitation scheme which has been proposed by the Hartington Street and Salisbury Street housing association. This association is not yet recognised, in spite of the fact that it has produced many detailed projections and plans and has had many meetings with the Department and the Housing Executive. One of the reasons given is that the cost per unit for the dwellings that this association hopes to rehabilitate would be more than £11,000. I return to the Essex Street development, which was sold to us on the basis that the expenditure would be £9,000-plus. Now each of these homes will cost in excess of £17,000.
Then we are told that it is quite likely that the RUC will require a larger station in this area. When we argued the case that there was a more suitable site for an RUC station on the Dublin Road, at the corner of Marcus Ward Street, where it would have access to two major arteries, it was argued that the Department of the Environment might want that for a car parking space. How one rejuvenates the inner city by building multi-storey or underground car parks is beyond me.
We have waited months for a decision on whether the police station is to be moved to Marcus Ward Street, thereby allowing the housing association to produce badly needed units in the Donegall Pass area, and whether the car park is to be moved just across the road or into Bankmore Street. No one will take that decision. When someone eventually does take it—in 1980 or 1990—we shall be told that even though the police station can go into Marcus Ward Street the cost of rehabilitating the units that the association wishes to adopt in Salisbury Street and Hartington Street will be £20,000 of £30,000, and of course that will he out of reach.
I accuse the Department of the Environment of deliberately manipulating housing in the city of Belfast so as to disadvantage the Protestant and Loyalist community. The Government must redress that shameful situation. A new Administration is now in control—one in which our people are inclined to believe and trust. But the Government must produce the housing. We have waited for years and existed on nothing but promises.
In the debate I have heard a lot of talk from other hon. Members about housing. I speak on the subject from experience. I live in a house without hot water, without a bath, and with an outside toilet. My constituency has been left a wasteland by the promise of more housing. We have nothing, and we now ask that the building of new housing should be halted and that, instead of knocking the old houses down, the authorities rehabilitate them by installing baths and hot water systems. That will cost a lot less than it is costing to put up houses that, in less than a year, need repairing.
One hon. Member said that it had taken six months for his constituent to get a repair carried out. I was dealing a week ago with a case where a repair still had not been carried out after two years. When I took the matter to the Housing Executive I had to ask my constituent to leave because the language of the person behind the desk was not fit to be listened to. The managers sitting in the back room do not have to face these problems.
I ask the House to look into the housing problems of Belfast, North, a constituency which the bulldozers have left a wasteland. All the streets from Clifton Park Avenue—what were known as the river streets, the Old Park Road—are a wasteland. There is no sign of building being carried out. In Glencairn is an estate built by the Housing Executive, but the flats there are boarded up. When people come there for accommodation those flats have to be reopened. Vandalism is rife in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). I am glad that the hon. Member is present, because in his constituency there are the Townsend flats, with no one living in them. To whom do people in that area go? They go not to the hon. Member for Belfast, West but to Johnny McQuade, who held no office either as councillor or Member of Parliament. There is the hon. Member for Belfast, West. Let him state now the conditions in which his constituents are living. But they went not to the hon. Member for Belfast, West but to McQuade. Now he has one block of flats in his area with no one living in them, and those flats have been vandalised. That is what we have in Belfast, West, but people there go to the hon. Member for Belfast, North when they want anything.
The hon. Member for Belfast, West mentioned Ballymurphy and Catholics. That was wrong of the hon. Gentleman. He should say straight out "Roman Catholics" and "I am a Catholic" Ballymurphy was 100 per cent. Roman Catholic at one time. New Barnsley, which I represented in the Stormont Parliament, was 100 per cent. Protestant, but the hon. Member for Belfast, West has control of that whole area now. How did he get control of it? The IRA.
At the start of the troubles, reports appeared in many papers to the effect that the hon. Member for Belfast, West took the credit for certain of the trouble in Belfast to take the weight off the people of Londonderry. There is the man who in this House talks about all this trouble. Yet he admitted starting it in Belfast to take the weight off the people of Derry. Let us get things straight. Let us admit that they are false as well as taking credit for what we have had to get the help of other people to do.
Generally I speak early, but I did not expect to speak as early as this, in the morning, and I propose to sit down. On the far side of the Chamber is my colleague, Mr. McNamara—I do not know his constituency—who was in my house with the former Home Secretary the right hon. Merlyn Rees.
Order. This is not the first time that the hon. Gentleman has spoken in this Chamber. I hesitate to interrupt a new Member, but I have pointed out that the hon. Gentleman must refer to hon. Members not by name but by constituencies.
I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is speaking without a script for the first time in the House, but he must try to put his constituents' case to us. What is he trying to tell us? Is he trying to say that his constituents are worse off than those of any other constituency in Northern Ireland, or is he trying to imply violence, or the support of violence, by any other hon. Member?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman says that. It was a mistake when I said it.
The hon. Gentleman is the man who decided to start the trouble in Belfast to take the weight off the people of Londonderry. Those were his words, not mine.
I live as the people of North Belfast live. I shall never say that because I got a salary at Westminster I left them. I am living in a home that is the same as the homes of most of my people in North Belfast, with no bath, no hot water, no inside toilet. [Interruption.] I remember marching up the Antrim Road when the hon. Member for Belfast, West stood on the verandah of a council flat, waving his colours.
We have had enough of our conditions in North Belfast. I see the honest, loyal, hardworking people and want to give them something of what they are entitled to.
Class V in the order concerns housing. I intend to follow many other hon. Members into that subject.
The problem with talking about housing and the Housing Executive is that one is never sure where to begin or whether there is a beginning to the subject. We do not seem to be getting close enough to an end of the Executive to suit me.
The Government said in their memorandum issued with the Rowland report that the report made disturbing reading. When we listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford), I thought that we would all realise that that was one of the understatements of the decade. If what has been said not only in the report but about it and the criticisms that have been levelled at it are anywhere near accurate, the situation is far worse than the House yet understands.
One of the things to come out of all the criticism and talk about the report and the Executive is that the Executive has now been clearly exposed as a dinosaur in a china shop. It is a dinosaur that has been urged on by those who created it, those who are still acting as its guardians, who had little idea of what they were creating and what it has done and is still doing. I have no doubt that, like those ancient reptiles, the Executive will, in the fullness of time, pass away.
I believe that there are a series of preliminary movements in that direction. These are more fully seen in the new structure, which my hon. Friend accurately described as a reshuffle rather than a restructure, and in the sale of Executive dwellings, which are two fundamental changes. Efforts are being made to break up the Housing Executive into smaller units to make it more controllable, but the difficulty is that even that limited movement towards a more reasonable structure has been halted by the freeze on recruitment to the Civil Service and public bodies.
I wonder whether the Government fully appreciate the effects of that policy. If an employee, even a fairly junior employee, of the Housing Executive leaves his job, it is not possible to replace him or to move employees horizontally within the structure. Everything has been stopped at the present stage and yet we expect the monster to operate. The Executive does not work very well anyway, but if we stop its operations in that way it will not work at all. I hope that Ministers will look seriously at that problem.
I understand that each new public dwelling in England and Wales costs about £14,500. I do not suppose that the average cost is less in Northern Ireland, and we have heard that many of the rehabilitation schemes have cost a great deal more than that.
The average cost of building the Housing Executive houses in Northern Ireland is certainly a good deal less than £14,500, though the market value is probably near that figure. I believe that a person should be able to own the roof over his own head, and therefore I always favour any move to give people that opportunity. I welcome the sale of council and Housing Executive houses.
Is not any policy to encourage the sale of Housing Executive properties incomplete without more home loan funds being provided to enable a take-up of the opportunity?
My hon. Friend has made a point which I intended to raise later. He has saved me the trouble of doing so.
I wish to draw attention to some difficulties that seem to have arisen over the sale of council and Housing Executive houses. We were told in February by the former Minister in charge of housing that the district valuer would decide the price at which houses were to be sold.
Like any other sensible person, I assumed that that would be the market value, but the mass of documentation that has appeared on the subject makes clear that not only the cost of construc- tion but the cost of any improvements that have taken place must be taken into account and that a house cannot be sold for less than that total sum.
I hope that the Minister will tell us what will be the selling price of houses. Will it be the market value? In some cases that will be less than the cost of construction and improvement. If we include the cost of general improvements in the selling price, why stop there? Why not include the cost of maintenance over the years? It is just as reasonable to include that cost as it is to include the cost of improvements.
I understand that there is a ceiling of two-thirds of the cost of a new house on the cost of improving an old house. There again, there seems to be a clash of opinion about what is the stated policy of the Housing Executive, as I understand the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South. Perhaps the Minister will relate those figures so that we can give our constituents answers to the questions they bring to us.
Hon. Members have referred to the quality and standard of the work that has been carried out by or on behalf of the Housing Executive. My right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) drew attention to the difficulties of completing the rural cottage improvement scheme. What he did not mention is that all the easy houses were done first—those that were close to sewerage, to water suppy, to electricity supply. They could be done quickly, easily and cheaply. They were in the first two or three years of the programme.
We are now getting to the houses that are difficult, isolated and far from the basic amenities and possibly can never be connected to them. It is no wonder that they are now exceeding the cost limits. Have the Government taken that factor on board when putting limitations on the improvement programme of the Housing Executive, especially in rural areas? If we are now left with the more costly and difficult work to do on such houses, surely there should be some latitude in the expenditure allowed. There does not seem to be any willingness to put some elasticity into the rules that would bring these houses within the criteria of the programme.
Is the money available for loans for housing? I know that £3 million or £4 million is supposed to be made available by the building societies this year. Is that money to be available? Will there be enough money in the kitty of the Housing Executive? Can the Housing Executive process quickly enough the requests for loans not only to buy houses but to carry out private improvements? There seems to be a big backlog in all the financial considerations which meet an owner or a tenant or a prospective buyer when he questions the Housing Executive.
There are two categories of house about which I have had some misgiving in this context. They are the house specially built or converted for the disabled, and those which are old persons' dwellings. I believe that houses for the disabled can safely be sold because that problem will sort itself out in time. It will sort itself out because of the grants and the help that come from personal social services to those who need special facilities because of severe physical disablement or to families who have severely handicapped children. As these grants are available, I think that over a period those who are disabled or are members of a family with a disabled person can safely buy their own homes. Even if these houses are lost to the general public housing stock, I do not believe that there will be any great loss to the community. In any case, it is one that the community should be prepared to shoulder.
The other case, which is rather different, is that of the pensioner's house. This is a totally different problem from the social problem that is created by bad housing. The Government should be careful before they start selling off these houses.
There are a number of different types of houses serving as old people's dwellings which form part of the general stock of housing. Some of this housing takes the form of warden-controlled accommodation, some is attached to an old people's complex, such as we have in my constituency, in Limavady. These are purpose-built houses. Because people live longer, the problem of the old in our society will be of increasing importance. If we live long enough we shall all be old—[Interruption.] If the Government had been more helpful we could have gone home at half-past 10. It is not our fault, and we do not particularly wish to be here at 3.20 a.m. discussing Northern Ireland.
To return to my point, pensioners' houses should be retained. There is a case to be made for the old in our society being looked after in this way. My experience of dealing with old people in my constituency is that they all want to live in a village if they cannot live with their friends and relatives in the countryside. They want to be in a group where there are people of their own age, and they want to be close to shops and amenities. Life is difficult for those who are aged 70, 80 or 90. Such people need help. I am prepared to accept the burden which housing for such people might place upon society while I am not prepared to accept that society has a duty to help provide a home for the working person.
The trouble about our housing is that it is not a complete package. Sometimes people tell me that there are never enough houses, and when I look at the waiting lists and listen to my constituents at surgeries I am inclined to agree with them. One thing is certain. We can sell the existing publicly owned housing stock only once. If there is a continuing need for new houses, what will happen to those who want new houses in five or 10 years' time?
Do we intend providing houses out of public funds or are we to move to the situation in which housing is provided by a subsidised private sector? I cannot see how else it can be done. Either there will be a subsidised private sector or a subsidised rented sector, or the circumstances of the individual will have to alter to the extent that it is possible for every man to buy or build his house at market price. That is a costly business. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the Government's long-term policy, if it has been worked out.
I turn to the problems of conversion to solid fuel—a topical subject in the light of today's statement. In all constituencies there are complaints about the cost of gas, electricity and coal. A study was recently carried out under the auspices of the new University of Ulster in Coleraine into the sums spent on heating Housing Executive houses in Coleraine. A number of houses there are heated by all three fuels—town gas, electricity, even at Northern Ireland's inflated prices, and coal.
To the intense surprise of everyone, I think, the researchers found that the people who had bought coal had spent more money on heating their house than had those who were paying for gas or electricity. They found also that there were many more complaints from those whose houses were heated by gas or electricity than from those who used coal. The only conclusion to which I can come is that gas and electricity are not very popular for heating houses. In other words, there is something about them that the average man or woman in the street just does not like.
It could be that because those who use gas or electricity have continually to put money into a meter rather than give a tenner to the coal man, it annoys them more and they feel it more. It could be that because they are not spending quite the same sums they are not feeling as warm, that their houses are colder, or perhaps that they are not as well constructed. I do not know, but one thing of which I am certain is that the question of what people want in houses is clear. They want an open coal fire, and I do not know who on earth came up with the idea of building houses without an open fire. I understand that that policy has been reversed, and I hope that it stays that way, because it just does not work to be without an open fire and people do not want to know.
The other problem that has not as yet been mentioned is that of district heating, which, so far as I know, is always oil-fired. There have been instances in my constituency of some small part of that heating system breaking down, usually in January, and for two or three weeks every house on the estate freezes. Can the Minister give us a guarantee that in the coming winter, and in the winter after that, there will be a sufficiency of oil for district heating?
This is not a question of a single household, where there is usually an open coal fire and oil is being used for background heating; this is a question of houses that have no other means of heating. Can that guarantee be given, and what hope can the Minister hold out that people will have warm houses this year if they are depending upon a centralised system? Something must be done, and done very quickly, if the Minister cannot give such a guarantee.
I should like to quote one set of figures relating to gas and gas heating. They appeared in a publication issued by the Central Gas Council and showed that in Britain in 1978–79 it took 7½ per cent. of a single retirement pensioner's annual pension to buy 330 therms of gas. In the same year in Belfast it took 17 per cent.; in Londonderry, 16½ per cent.; and in Coleraine, 15½ per cent., and all those figures for Northern Ireland are going up, and going up substantially.
The Minister has already said that the gas industry in Northern Ireland will disappear. I know that he has not used those words, but that is what it means. If the industry is to disappear, what will it do in the intervening period? How quickly does the Minister intend to let the gas industry die? When can we expect the first pay-offs? When can we expect the Londonderry Gas Company to shut up shop, because I understand that it will be the first to go? What will be done to try to ease the changeover for those who will be affected, and there are many of them? What will be done by the Department to help the Housing Executive, which has, I think, 12,000 houses which it was probably pressed by the Department to heat by gas?
That is a problem that will land on the Minister's desk probably next week in the light of what has been said today, and he had better have an answer ready because many people will be worried and affected by this decision. It is no use brushing it under the carpet any more. Gas is finished in Northern Ireland. People realise that it is finished. They will try to get out of it, and they want to see what the Minister will do to make their way out of it quicker and easier.
The next problem is the whole question of repairs and maintenance. There is simply no system that works. I will not weary the House with tales of woe. The Minister and the House have already heard enough. But any hon. Member for Northern Ireland who has any contact with his constituents would be able to talk from now until daylight about the criminal ineptitude, which is the only way it can be described, of the maintenance section of the Housing Executive. Senior officials within the Housing Executive are able to relate the problem in accurate detail. But it appears beyond them to devise a system that works. They have not explained to anyone's satisfaction how the old councils were able to devise a system that worked well. It was a system in which the individual who made a mistake could be pinpointed and told to go and sort out the matter.
The Minister should start by sorting out the contractors employed by the Housing Executive, not only in maintenance but in renovations. There are more cowboy contractors in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The stories told by constituents who suffer at their hands are not believable. If they were not so tragic, they would make an excellent farce. One only believes what happens when one sees for oneself the evidence of the total incompetence of those concerned. Is it not long past time when the Housing Executive made a serious effort to draw up a list, something like the old King's Roll, of competent contractors who would be considered for contracts for repairs and maintenance?
The present system, when any fellow can call himself a contractor, slap in a price, take on a contract, rip the back out of a row of cottages and not appear for three months, is not good enough. I am not unaware of the difficulties. I am not, however, concerned with the difficulties this evening. I am looking for solutions. If the Housing Executive is not fit to do its job, someone else should be allowed to do it. The Executive has spent seven years trying to do the job. It has not done very well. It should buck up its ideas.
Another aspect of Housing Executive activities has been missed by hon. Members. I took some time to tumble to it. Under the Act setting it up, the Executive was barred from giving detailed information to public representatives whether they were councillors, Members of Parliament or members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The result is a lunatic system in which paid officials have no conception of the circumstances of applicants for houses. They can be told any story that a dishonest applicant likes to tell. Queue jumping is scandalous. Many constituents have told me that they were not good enough at telling lies, or that other people told more lies.
If the Housing Executive manager in every council area had to appear before a council meeting every month and lay before the council a report on repairs that had been carried out, the names of those who had been given the tenancy of a house, the number of points they possessed, those who were being considered, and the background of the list of applicants, I feel sure that 90 per cent. of the lies and nonsense would disappear overnight. Matters would be brought before people who know the situation on the ground, whereas the Housing Executive does not know the situation. It is not equipped to, it is not encouraged to, and its employees accept whatever is told them. Councillors will not, because, at the end of the day, they have to go back to the people who voted for them and ask "Have I done my job?" The Housing Executive does not, and it is overdue for something to be done. I hope that the Minister will see what can be done.
Above all, what worries me about the Executive is that it never seems to learn. Recently, it vested 28 acres of land at Strathfoyle, outside Londonderry, for a housing list of 19 people. No one has given me a satisfactory explanation yet. I do not really expect one from the Minister tonight. But I want him to write telling me why it was considered necessary to vest 28 acres of land for 19 new applicants. No one else seems to know. No one is able to tell the hon. Member for Londonderry, unless the Minister can He may say that there is a housing list for the city. So there is, but Strathfoyle is three miles outside, and not all that many people want to live there. My experience is that most people want to get out of it. It seems to be a crazy vesting order to make.
To back up my contention that the Executive never learns, I must tell the House of another situation that will land in all our laps in a few weeks. The Department of Finance rating division recently advised the Northern Ireland Housing Executive of a change in the rates payable in respect of dwellings for the year 1979–80. A copy of a letter which the Executive will be sending out in the next week or two has come into my possession. Since the Executive acts as the rate collecting agency, it will be looking for these rates which are now owing. A lot of people living in Housing Executive property will get a nasty shock one morning soon when a letter arrives saying "We are sorry about the delay in notifying you of the increase, which has been beyond our control, but, as a result, we need another fiver". I do not think that the Executive and the rating division will be very popular. Why should this have happened? Why was the change in the rates not decided in time for it to be applied from the beginning of April of this year?
The insurance of housing has been touched upon obliquely by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South, who talked about frost damage during the past winter. This is a far bigger subject than I am able to deal with in this debate. But it is clear that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has an insurance policy with the Eagle Star insurance company, that the Executive initiated a programme last year of insulating houses, that it employed all sorts of people to insulate the houses, that those people did not lag the pipes, that they threw the insulating material into attics, that as a result of the pipes not being lagged they froze, and that when the pipes burst very severe damage was done to many dwellings. Foolishly, many of the people concerned had not insured their property. Despite the fact that all this arose as a result of employees and contractors not doing their job properly—because if it had been done properly the pipes would not have burst—the Eagle Star group is now refusing to accept any responsibility.
I suppose that if I owned Eagle Star I would try to get out of my responsibilities, because they are bound to involve many millions of pounds. But what sort of damage is covered by that company with the Housing Executive, and what premium is paid? Is it a reasonable one? Does every individual who has suffered this damage—they are poor people—have to take the company to court to get satisfaction? I understand that one or two cases are pending, and that even if they succeed they cannot set a precedent. Every case will have to be fought individually on its own merits. That is abhorrent to me.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand that many insurance companies complain bitterly that because of the troubled events in Northern Ireland, premiums have risen considerably more than they might have done, affecting everyone, and that this causes resentment?
Since the hon. Gentleman will agree, I assume, that it is the responsibility of the House to keep peace and security in the United Kingdom, perhaps he will see that the blame lies here—not with the insurance companies, which naturally take a commercial view of the situation. Why has this House not restored law and order and peace in Northern Ireland? Why is the security situation such that insurance companies and other commercial undertakings find it impossible to operate at a profit? If the hon. Gentleman applies his mind to that matter, perhaps he will answer his own question.
Class V, Class VI(2)—recreation—and Class VIII—youth and community services—all touch on the problem of vandalism. I have here a report from the chief technical services officer of Londonderry council. He relates a horrifying catalogue of vandalism in the city, including the broken equipment in nearly every children's playground, and two exceptionally bad cases—the partial sawing through of the chains on a child's swing, and the hammering of nails into a slide. I do not know what sort of sick mind could think of doing that, but it happened. The total cost of vandalism in the city was £43,500—not counting damage to street furniture, litter baskets, the loss of various items of equipment, removal of broken glass from Play areas and damaged trees and shrubs. Most of it is on the west bank, as hon. Members from Northern Ireland will not be surprised to learn.
Is it impossible to find an answer to vandalism? Those who commit it generally are louts. The problem is great and increasing in Northern Ireland. I cannot speak for cities in England, Scotland or Wales, but it is causing increasing concern. It costs a great deal of effort and public money, and it negates the work of many dedicated people. I hope that the Government will consider this serious problem. If they do not solve the problem, they will throw money down the drain. I do not like the thought of that. We are allowing children to suffer deprivation. It does no good to shut our eyes.
As part of the United Kingdom we must accept reductions in expenditure. Cuts may be necessary for the national good but one must ask a few questions about the attitude of those who complain of the sums spent in Northern Ireland.
If hon. Members are asked about this money, they should remind their constituents that when the Battle of Britain was fought there was no argument about the cost of Spitfires. When we were bombing Germany there was no argument about the cost of the bombs or the bombers. When we landed in Normandy there was no query about the cost of tanks.
When there is a war, money has to be spent. If the House would win the war in Northern Ireland, it would save much public expenditure.
I endorse what has been said by many hon. Members about the hour at which we are called upon to discuss these important Northern Ireland matters. It seems that both ruling parties, when they come to office, decide that Northern Ireland business is better taken after midnight. When they become the Opposition they make their protests. Those of us who do not belong to the ruling parties—and never will—have to put up with the situation. It is ridiculous to ask hon. Members to discuss these important cises Members, he should set an example register my protest.
I can understand hon. Members from English, Welsh and Scottish constituencies deciding not to remain for the debate. If I were such a Member I should not be here at this hour. It ill becomes the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) to criticise Members and then to leave the Chamber for long periods. If he criticises Members, he should set an example and remain in the Chamber.
There has been a good attendance. I have attended such debates when only one Northern Ireland Member, one Minister and an Opposition spokesman have been present. Although it is nearly 4 a.m., the debate is well attended. We are grateful to Ministers for attending to hear the exchanges. We are also glad that two Shadow Northern Ireland spokesmen have been here to listen to the debate.
I wish to deal with the Housing Executive. Time and again tonight the question has been asked: why is the Executive in such a mess? I suggest that the answer is simple. We have never had at the head of the Executive a person with expertise in regard to housing. The last director-general of the Executive came from control of the Royal Victoria hospital. How could a man who was an expert in running a hospital suddenly become expert in running the total housing of Northern Ireland? I understand that the next man served his time in the police and has now been appointed to police the Executive. I believe that it needs to be policed, so perhaps he will have a job in hand and his expertise will be helpful.
Let the House consider carefully the Rowland report, with all its weaknesses. When one comes to grips with it, one easily discovers that there was an attempt by the then Secretary of State not to face the facts of what was happening in Northern Ireland. As is recorded in the Official Report, I raised this matter in the Northern Ireland Committee. I elaborated on the terrible cost of de-bricking houses on the Moyard estate. This was not for the rehabilitation of those houses; it was simply for taking the bricks out, and the price of the material afterwards was an extra charge. Some of those houses cost from £5,000 to £8,000 to debrick—just to take the bricks out of the window. It was a ridiculous state of affairs, yet the Secretary of State, when questioned about it, said that it would be all right, it would come up at the Public Accounts Committee and an audit would be done, but in fact another attempt was made to sweep it under the carpet.
Two days after I exposed the matter in the House, two chief superintendents of the RUC visited my home. They said "We understand that you have a document in your possession which you ought not to have. This is a criminal offence, and except that you hand it over we shall press charges against you." I laughed at them and said "When you get the Speaker of the House of Commons, where I read this document, to instruct me to hand it over to you, I shall be quite happy to do so", and there the matter ended. But the attempt was made to cover up the situation.
Eventually, there had to be an investigation. The tragedy was that it was not a public sworn inquiry. I pressed the House for a public sworn inquiry, as did my colleagues, but that was denied us. Consequently, papers could not be sent for, persons could not be sent for, Ministers could not be sent for, and hon. Members who had brought the matter to the House could not be sent for.
Then we had a series of fires. The office of one of the firms under scrutiny caught fire, and when documents were asked for they were all burnt and could not be produced. There was no evidence. We had a series of fires in the Housing Executive offices. They, too, caught fire. It seems strange that they all caught fire at the time when an investigation was under way.
When I pressed the director-general of the Executive to tell me whether he was still employing those building firms, he replied "Yes". I asked "Would the reason be that you cannot employ any other building firm in that area?", and he said that that would probably be the reason, because these firms controlled the area. They were controlled by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. There is no doubt about that. One of the leaders of the IRA was released from Long Kesh and two days afterwards he was in the Housing Executive playing his part in setting up the operation. These are the facts. The result is that there has been a costly inquiry. There the matter rests. That proves that the Executive and Ministers were not prepared to stamp out what was evidently a clever scheme on the part of the IRA to pocket large sums of public money.
The Executive stands indicted in the face of the people of Northern Ireland. I do not know of anyone who has any confidence in it. The hon. Member for Belfast, West said that some of us are opposed to the Executive for political motives while others are against it for practical motives. However, every public representative is against it because their credibility has been destroyed by it.
A constituent of mine had a slate come off his roof during the winter. The rain started to enter the property. He wrote to or telephoned the Executive to ask whether the repair could be carried out. The reply was "Certainly". A week passed and the job had not been done. He telephoned again to ask whether it could be done. Again, the reply was "Certainly". Another week passed, and nothing happened. My constituent wrote to me and I wrote to the director-general. I do not send letters to area managers, or anybody like that, because I have found that to be utter folly. I received a letter from the director-general assuring me that the job was done. I sent it to my constituent, who wrote to me stating "You are a liar and so is the Executive representative. Come down and see, my slate is still off." That type of incident has taken place over and over again.
In the most recent appropriation debate I referred to a young married woman who had had her first child. When the child was born the hot water system failed. She pleaded with the Executive to repair it. It did not do anything. As a result, I sought to assist. I was told that the system was repaired, or that it would be repaired. It was only after many weeks had elapsed—weeks that were inconvenient to my constituent and could have been harmful to the child—that the system was repaired. After raising the matter in the House, I received an amazing letter from the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), who was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office while the Labour Government were in office. The hon. Gentleman wrote:
You referred to a Housing Executive tenant in Larne who could not prevail upon the Executive to repair her hot water system. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has tried unsuccessfully to identify this case.
I had written I do not know how many times to the Executive and my agent in Larne had taken the woman to the Executive. The Executive had been telephoned on many occasions. After all that, it said that it could not identify the tenant.
That is the sort of muddle that one associates with the Executive. It can be multiplied time and time again. That is an example of the state of affairs that every hon. Member from Northern Ireland is suffering. The Executive tells me that it has done a job and when I send a letter to the constituent I receive a reply to tell me that the job has not been done. That corrodes public confidence in the public representative, in the Executive, and in the whole system of the Executive in Northern Ireland. That is happening repeatedly.
Vast sums are being squandered by the Housing Executive on maintenance and repairs. The work is not being properly done. The housing authority decided that it would do some repairs to an estate outside the town of Ballymoney. All the material was taken to the site. It lay there for six months. Then it was suddenly removed. Work was not started for many months afterwards. I do not know who organises these matters, but such instances happen continually. There is a dreadful waste of public money by the Executive on repairs and maintenance.
The houses were badly constructed. The majority in my area suffer from damp. The Executive is responsible for the repairs, but it never admits that there is any damp in the houses. It puts over the story that the damp is caused by condensation. It tells the tenants that if they keen their doors and windows open there will not be condensation. I have been into homes in my constituency where, inside a week, the clothes in the wardrobes were covered with blue mould as a result of the damp running down the walls. However, the Executive manager tells the women "Keep your windows open, as it is only condensation." It is time the Executive took this idea aboard and started to do a proper job.
Public relations is another serious matter. When tenants go to the Housing Executive office they should be treated as citizens. No bad or vile language should be used to them. They should not be told "If you see your Member of Parliament it will not do any good." That is what is continually said to people who complain. As an elected representative, I resent very much any officials in the Executive giving to a constituent, who has repeatedly complained and said "I shall see my MP", a string of oaths and blasphemy, saying "That will not do you any good." That happens in many areas. It happens in my area repeatedly. I have had to write and complain to individuals who do that. The general public should not be treated like that. On behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, I say that they should be treated as citizens should be treated. If they have a legitimate grievance, it should be dealt with properly. The Housing Executive is very much to blame in these matters.
The Executive's board decisions are not implemented. For instance, the former Minister responsible wrote to me about the question of the Doury Road estate in Ballymena, which I raised in the debate on the previous appropriation order. This estate has been allowed to run down. The Executive decided that it would have a general clean-up of the estate and spend £1 million on the 526 houses, which had been allowed to deteriorate terribly. To date nothing has been done. There has been no general cleanup. That estate is in a frightful mess—so much so that everybody on it is applying for a transfer and wants to get out. There is a blight upon it. Yet those are good houses and could be put into a good state of repair.
The Housing Executive board took a decision on the matter, which has not yet been implemented. Although that estate was built 20-odd years ago, I was amazed to find that the roads had never been adopted. They were never brought up to standard by the Executive, and, as they are not even adopted, when potholes appear in the road no one is responsible. The roads people say "It is not our responsibility", and the deterioration goes on.
Those are matters that the Minister responsible will have to take on board. He will have to see to it that when decisions are made by the Executive, those decisions are carried out, and are carried out promptly. He will have to see to it that the public relations between tenants and the Executive are put on a proper basis. I regret that the old system of a rent collector going round was dropped. When the rent collector went round and met the people and got the money, they could say "Here, sir, is a repair that needs to be done". When the rent collector went back the following month, he would be in great trouble if the work had not been done. Under that system action was taken, whereas today there seems to be no relationship between the area officers and the tenants of these houses.
There are many other matters that I could discuss tonight. One of them has already been touched on—the fact that the schemes affecting water, sewerage and the modernising of the houses seem to have come to a stop in many of the country areas. We had a push forward in North Antrim and the houses that were easy to service have now been done, but with the difficult houses there seems to be a hold-up. The tenants are promised that the work will start in October. October comes, the work does not start, and the tenants are told that it will start in the spring. Spring comes and they are then told that it will start in the summer. Soon they find that winter has begun, and the work is just postponed and postponed and postponed.
The Minister should get out all the plans that the Housing Executive has concerning the servicing of houses. There are still houses in the Executive's care which have no water, no light and no facilities. I know of some with only one door. They have no back door. Yet the strange thing is that the Housing Executive is always increasing the rents. The people ask "Why should we pay increased rent when we have no facilities whatever?" Some of them are even charged a water rate and they never have water in their houses. Those are the matters that cause deep contention among the tenants of the Executive.
I should like to turn now to some other matters. I regret that the information concerning the shipyard and the gas pipeline was put out in the way that it was. I am sorry that a statement was not made and that we did not have a fuller opportunity to question the Minister. I trust that in the future, when these important matters are brought before the House, they will be brought by means of a statement and not a written answer.
There should have been more time in which to consider the statement on energy put out today by the Government. What worries me about the statement is that it seems to me that the Government are intending to tie the whole of the energy supply in Northern Ireland to the electricity scheme. Electricity is to be the basic energy. As the Minister said, it is oil-generated energy, and we all know what is happening about oil throughout the world. There is an oil crisis. I wonder what plans the Minister has to adapt the generators in Northern Ireland to coal generation. As the EEC has emphasised that the whole of Europe is to move towards more and more coal, what are the Government's plans in this regard?
If oil is to become scarce and even more expensive, electricity in Northern Ireland will rise in price also. The Minister explained that we have excess power production capacity already. Once Kilroot is operational we shall never be able to use all the electricity that we generate, but the price will still be very high.
Are there any plans to restore the connection with the Republic in order to sell electricity to the South and recoup some of the money involved here?
If the hon. Member studies my statement at greater length, he will see three points, among others. First, there is a commitment to seek ways and means of opening the connection with the South. We agree entitrely that that is an important source of consumption for the power generated at Kilroot—it comes on stream next year. Secondly, we have given an undertaking about the security of oil supplies. North Sea oil, if refined in the correct way, could be suitable for Kilroot. It would then be a matter of using one of those special United Kingdom resources to which the hon. Member is deeply committed. We have undertaken to monitor the price closely in the years ahead.
I am grateful for that intervention, but I stress that we are tying ourselves to electricity. I want to enter a plea on behalf of gas. The poorer community in Northern Ireland has always used gas. It will suffer with this change. Will the Minister explain how the changeover will go? What financial compensation will there be if all the gas fittings, gas fires and gas cookers have to be removed? Has the Minister considered importing liquid gas, thus retaining the gas industry? I understand that quite a lot of liquid gas is imported into parts of England from Algeria. Is there any possibility of saving the Northern Ireland gas industry in that way? That industry provides about 1,500 jobs. If the gas industry goes because of the expense of building the oil pipeline, those jobs will go too.
What representations have the Department and the Government made to the EEC on this matter? The gas industry shop stewards' report states that they had a communication from the EEC Energy Committee saying that it would make a study of this matter. The European Investment Bank said that it would consider the case for a loan for a gas pipeline to Ulster if any approach were made. Has an approach been made? Surely, when we are paying money into the EEC and losing £1,000 million a year it would be a good thing to get some of the money back. One of the best ways of using the money when we got it back would be to build the pipeline to Ulster. Will the Minister tell us what is happening in that regard?
I should like to mention two other matters concerned with saving money. Money could be saved in various ways. I suggest that Enterprise Ulster could now come to an end. It is taking workpeople away from the Association of Landscape Contractors of Northern Ireland. Councils and other public bodies are using Enterprise Ulster as a means of getting something for nothing. The time has come for the Minister to close that organisation. There is work for all these people in their own trades with the Association of Landscape Contractors of Northern Ireland. There is no need for Enterprise Ulster to continue. A great deal of money could be saved if that organisation were brought to an end.
There is grave public concern about the Folk and Transport Museum, and especially about some of the vehicles that have been donated to the museum. They are rotting away in a field. Many people have expressed to me their concern about the museum. I trust that the Minister will look into that matter and will at some time make a statement on what is taking place in the museum.
Finally, I turn to education and the selection procedure. I have had much the same experience as the hon. Members for Belfast, West and Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford). Distracted parents have been to see me because of inconsistency in the system. It seems that there is no fairness. Justice is not done, and it is certainly not seen to be done.
We have made some progress with this Government, in that we have a Minister answerable to this House for hospitals, health and social services. Under the pre- vious Administration health, social services and education were the concern of a Member of the other House. At least we have half of those matters back in the Commons. I hope that eventually we shall have them all back. I believe that important portfolios such as education should be the responsibility of Ministers answerable to the House of Commons. I hope that these remarks will be conveyed to the noble Lord in charge of the Department, because of the concern that fair play does not seem to be taking place regarding the selection procedure.
I am not observing a ritual in placing on record our sense of frustration and irritation at what I can only term the bungling of the arrangements for this debate. I exonerate the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his ministerial team, because they derive no more pleasure than the rest of us from engaging in this kind of operation at this time of night.
Last Thursday afternoon the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and I pleaded with the Government to alter their plans and to drop the Competition Bill, which did not seem to have a hope of getting anywhere, but we were told that we must have the Government's intentions made clear to the waiting public before going into recess.
Then we came to the operation of yesterday, between the hours of 4.30 p.m. and 10 p.m. when the Government retreated from that position. Some time after 7 o'clock we drifted into a position in which the Secretary of State for Trade, moving the Second Reading of the Competition Bill, could not even be bothered to make an opening speech. It was then decided that it was not important enough to come to a conclusion on it.
It is a disgraceful contempt of the House, of the representatives of Northern Ireland and, more important, of the Members from Great Britain who take the trouble to take part in our debates. With a little flexibility and common sense we could quite easily, even when the Government saw that they had run into trouble, have gone straight on to Northern Ireland business at seven o'clock.
The Government business managers are not entirely to blame. I know that they tried hard to arrive at a more sensible solution. But they must stand up to those in high places who push them around. They must ensure that when we return after the recess we have no more of this nonsense.
Under Class IV, Sub-heading 2, I wish to raise a matter of which I have given the Minister relatively short notice. I refer to the recommendations of the Wright committee of inquiry into pay relativities for all the non-Home Department police forces, with particular reference to the pay of the Belfast airport authority police. It has been recommended that they should be placed on a pay relativity of 90 per cent. with the Home Department forces. The Ministry of Defence police will have 95 per cent. It is interesting to note that often their tasks are broadly similar to those performed by the authority police. Indeed, at Alder-grove they are operating on the same airfield, but on different sides.
The most startling contrast is to be seen in the recommendation that the British Transport Police should have a pay relativity of 100 per cent.—in other words, exactly the same pay scales as police forces throughout the United Kingdom. That does not make sense. I do not doubt that the British Transport Police are very efficient, but I doubt whether they are any more efficient than their counterparts at Aldergrove airport. They have that in common, but where they differ is in the degree of risk.
The security authorities in Northern Ireland, particularly those engaged in the administration of the airport, have succeeded in attracting the attention of the terrorists to the airport. In that they have been aided and abetted by the rather nervous and jittery British Airways aircrews in particular.
Yesterday morning there was a panic before I arrived at the airport. Someone had placed a real, imaginary or hoax bomb at the one entrance. The authorities have been warned about that time without a number. There was a delay of an hour and a half, which blocked not only access to the airport but the main road leading north and south, bypassing Antrim.
The inevitable confusion had to be cleared by the airport police, together with their Army colleagues. During that operation, had it been a real attack, they would have been at least as much at risk as the British Transport Police. I do not see how one can possibly justify their not being put on a par in the matter of pay, as they are exposed to danger.
I understand that at all other airports in the United Kingdom policing is carried out by the constabulary for the area. Therefore, there seems to be no justification for telling the Belfast airport police that they will receive only 90 per cent. of the pay given to those serving at all the other airports thoughout the United Kingdom.
I hope that the Secretary of State and his appropriate Minister will take a much more realistic view of the importance of the role of the Belfast airport police than the Wright committee did when it came over for a few hours to look at the position at Aldergrove. I hope that the Government, having looked at the report, will make up their mind to see that justice is done.
When we had reason to believe that our debate might take place at a more civilised hour, I had intended to look in detail at the activity, or lack of it, by the Housing Executive, but that will keep for a future occasion. Suffice it to say that we recognise the scale of the problems of arresting the decline in efficiency of the Executive and beginning the long haul back to make it an effective body to serve the needs of tenants
We must not overlook the need to improve the morale of the staff of the Executive. Many unkind things are said about them by all Northern Ireland Members and it cannot be much fun for the staff always to be on the receiving end of the brickbats—complaints which are not of their making. By the nature of the structure in which they, like public representatives, are caught up, they are not in a position to do the job that many of them are only too eager to do. We must somehow solve the puzzle of turning the Executive into an authority that will achieve a significant number of its original objectives.
The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) asked a penetrating question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South. To an outsider, it might have been misinterpreted as a criticism of my right hon. Friend for the wealth of detail that he had provided to illustrate his various points. Perhaps I may add to my right hon. Friend's adequate reply by saying that most of the exercise in which we are engaged tonight is the inevitable consequence of the removal of real local government from Northern Ireland.
That proposition has been confirmed, consciously or unconsciously, by every hon. Member who has taken part in the debate. Every hon. Member has been diven to conclude, willingly or unwillingly, that many of the issues that we have been discussing—which we would not be discussing on other United Kingdom orders—can be remedied only when the representatives responsible to the electors of Northern Ireland are given the responsibility to match their ability and the opportunity to make decisions in the interests of those to whom they are accountable. That is a sobering influence.
Hon. Members from other parts of the United Kingdom who have taken part in our debate need not apologise for intruding. We welcome their participation and the increasing interest that they have shown in many Northern Ireland debates in this Paliament.
I can understand the irritation of those hon. Members at speeches, such as that of the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), which sound as though all of us in Northern Ireland are always asking for more while never being prepared to take our share of responsibility.
That has never been the attitude of my party, which sets the maintenance of the Union above all else. While we ask for, and often receive, the same benefits as others, we have always been prepared to share the sacrifices demanded of our fellow British citizens. So it will remain.
—at this early hour. Certainly I do not accept the comment "again", muttered from a sedentary position by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), because he will be aware of the many points that his colleagues have raised about the Housing Executive, a matter upon which I barely touched—indeed, I doubt whether I mentioned it—earlier today when I illustrated the need to have extra time for this debate. We have now gone two hours beyond the time that the Government originally allotted for the debate, and that has enabled every hon. Member who wished to speak to do so. That is an important achievement of ours.
I believe also that it has demonstrated the reason why so many of us objected to the procedure that the Government proposed should be followed. We have had this, if not unique, at least unusual experience of having three Ministers speaking in the debate. That is something to be welcomed. We welcome the fact that they took the opportunity to deal with the various matters raised. particularly the industrial matters.
However, that in itself illustrates one difficulty of hon. Members. On an appropriation order covering a whole range of subjects that they might have wanted to raise, they were stymied on some of them because of an intervention by a Minister halfway through. That shows the need for separate times and separate opportunities to discuss, for example, the energy problem and the problem of the shipyard and industrial development generally. Nevertheless, the courtesy was there, and the whole House has appreciated it.
Having said that, I must say that I am concerned about the cuts that have taken place in the economy of the Six Counties and the cuts generally in public expenditure. I shall indicate one thing which I regret as being a very detrimental step. That is the decision of the Department of Education in the Six Counties to cut out the £2·1 million that had been allocated for the improvement of educational maintenance allowances for 16 to 18-year-olds, a scheme which many of us regarded as being perhaps one of the biggest steps forward to educational equality. Particularly in Northern Ireland, when one bears in mind the problems facing young people in the Six Counties, that was a particularly bad decision to make.
It was only in Northern Ireland that the whole scheme was to go ahead under the Labour Government. There were to be pilot schemes in the rest of the United Kingdom, but in the Six Counties it was to be done at once. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), the former Secretary of State, had announced it, and my noble Friend Lord Melchett, the former Minister of State, had made the necessary arrangements to introduce it. The Government's decision not to go ahead with the scheme is particularly regrettable. Therefore, if it is possible for me, even at this hour, to find someone to join me, I shall seek to divide the House on this matter.
I, too, do not intend to detain the House for long. I shall be as brief as possible, not least because I would like the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer) to address the House on the riveting subject of pigs and psueudo-rabies, which I am sure is something that affects his constituency very much. I am sure that the House will want to hear about it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) and I wished to raise a number of points which have, however, been raised already by other hon. Members, so it would be wrong of me at this hour to go over them again. It should be said that when in Opposition many of those now sitting on the Government Benches said many things about these appropriation orders and how they should be simplified. I was responsible for replying to only one debate on these orders when a Minister. I took that criticism on board. In Government we were looking at ways of simplifying the debates by giving fuller information before the debates. I contacted the Minister of State's office last week to make that point.
When we last debated the appropriation order, on 7 March, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) said:
Last year, we had four Northern Ireland Appropriation orders—one in March, two in July and one in December. This is the first such order this year, and I wish to make one suggestion about the future presentation of the orders. It would be for the convenience of the House and of the Minister if we had
a greater breakdown on some of the items of expenditure in very large blocks. We have examples of more than £100 million in one block."—[Official Report, 7 March 1979; Vol. 963, c. 1404–5.]
That was a reasonable point to take on board. I hope that Ministers will note it.
A number of hon. Members have referred to the events of today. I believe that the Under-Secretary was less than his gracious self when he said that he did not feel that he should apologise to the House. I think that he ought to apologise very fully for the way in which he handled his statement today dealing with Harland and Wolff. When he did make his statement he was clear and concise, and we thank him for that. The way in which he went about it leaves a lot to be desired. Turning to the second statement today, dealing with energy, I hope that we shall be able to return to the subject and have a full debate, whether in the Northern Ireland Committee or on the Floor of the House. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will join us in pressing for such a debate.
I know that the question of the communications gap developing between the Northern Ireland Office and this House has already been raised. Certainly this applies to the Opposition. The gap ought to be plugged quickly. On the Harland and Wolff point, the Minister of State said that the statement had gone to Northern Ireland Members and spokesmen on Northern Ireland affairs on the Opposition Benches. This information came in dribs and drabs during the afternoon. I received my statement at 6.50 pm, which, I am sure the Minister will appreciate, is not right.
I accept that apology.
The debate takes place against a gloomy social and economic background in Northern Ireland. The Budget, the announcements of the Secretary of State for Industry, and the leaks from the Cabinet cannot spell good news for Northern Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter. There are also the consequences of today's statement for Harland and Wolff. It is not surprising that there is a great deal of uncertainty in Northern Ireland. We have to analyse more fully what lies behind some of the Government's intentions.
The number unemployed is 63,000, or 12·9 per cent. of the male working population. The prospect of the restriction on cash limits and cuts in public sector expenditure will add greatly to that. We have already seen cuts in many areas of industry, but I should like to mention one aspect that has not been mentioned—the temporary employment subsidy.
Only this week I heard of the closure of a company which last year received £180,000 from the Government and employed 200 persons. That is one of many examples that I could give, and I therefore wish to take the opportunity of raising within the confines of the appropriation order some of the problems that exist. I have been in the hot seat that is now occupied by the Under-Secretary of State—the hon Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart)—and therefore I do not expect him to reply in detail to many of these points. We have given him notice of the general areas for discussion, but I hope that he will reply as fully as he can—I am sure that he will—to some of the specific points.
On Class II, I should like to raise what may appear to the Minister to be a trivial matter, but I assure him that it is not. Is the Work Study Advisory Service to be fully financed by the Government? This service has done a great deal to minimise the number of industrial disputes. Indeed, it has been helpful generally in industrial relations. I think that the Department of Manpower Services would accept that it is helpful not only to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions but to that Department. We hope that this valuable service to industry will be financed fully by the Department to a realistic figure, namely, £26,500. Perhaps the Minister will reply to that specific point, if not tonight, on another occasion.
Another question that has been raised during the debate relates to Enterprise Ulster. What of its future? Some hon. Members have been critical of this enter- prise, but we on the Labour Benches are not. We understood that a new board was about to be set up about two months ago, but as yet we have not heard whether it is to be set up. This is something that should be spelt out. When will we have this new board? What of its future? When will it be able to get down to doing some of the valuable training that it has done in the past, especially for young people, many of whom have been retrained in valuable employment following that training?
Before I deal with Class V, I should like to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) about the Rowland report. I believe that if he were to re-read the report he would find that there was no way in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) could be condemned in the way that he was by the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will re-read the report and that when he has done so he will write to my right hon. Friend and apologise in the usual way.
The report specifically states that whilst money may have found its way into the hands of illegal organisations, it was not the deliberate intention of anyone involved in the formulation of those contracts. I accept that, and I have said nothing more than that. What I went on to say was that the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) could not have been so naive as to ask for the release of one gentleman, who had already latched on to the idea of the corporation, without realising the risk involved. One has to choose between naivety and connivance.
I do not wish to enter into a dialogue, but the impression given was an unfortunate one. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will re-read it. I will re-read it and between us we can perhaps come to a satisfactory conclusion.
I agree with a great deal of what the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said about the working of the Housing Executive. I welcomed particularly his remarks about the need for a direct labour scheme. We need a bit of Socialism injected into the Executive. I am glad that such remarks came from that quarter of the House.
I would like to ask the Minister some specific questions. What are the Government's intentions on the sale of council houses? I hope that this issue will be spelt out much more clearly. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) said that he wanted to know, like us, what the criteria would be. We were criticised in Government for not selling council houses, but we always contended, I am sure rightly, that this was in line with our general policy in the United Kingdom and that we would not sell council houses where there was a demand for houses to rent. I was glad that the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) agreed with the stance that we have always taken, but we would like to know the Government's view on the matter.
We would also like to know the extent of the waiting lists. I am sure that we will be returning to this subject. We would like to know details of the lists, area by area. We would like the Government to know our clearly defined view on the issue.
Because the Labour Party has recently left office, we should not hide from the fact that we made some mistakes. Housing matters should be debated much more on the Floor of the House and Ministers should not appear to hide behind the Housing Executive. I use the word "appear" advisedly, but this is such an important issue that Ministers should be able to stand their corner in the House on specific housing issues.
I wonder whether it occurs to the hon. Gentleman, as it occurs to me, listening to the points made by hon. Members, that many of the criticisms of the Housing Executive could be made of local authorities up and down the United Kingdom. They are very common complaints.
That is right. The complaints are common to every hon. Member of this House.
Class VIII deals with education. I believe that Northern Ireland Ministers have been caught up in the doctrinal stance on comprehensive education adopted by many Conservative Members. I can be forgiven perhaps for taking a different stance as the Member for the largest constituency in the metropolitan district of Tameside. I do not want to enter into that issue. But Ministers might reflect on what were perhaps their hastier judgments when they came into office. Lord Melchett worked hard towards achieving a fairer system of education and took great pains to see parents, teachers and all concerned in education in Northern Ireland. The Government would be ill advised to upset the hard work that has already taken place.
Again, I wish to ask some specific questions. Before the Government made their statement on secondary education, did they consult the teachers' unions? I do not believe that they did, and I should like to hear from the Minister whether they did, because, if they did not, in my view they made a very big mistake.
Will the education and library boards have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they can implement a system of comprehensive education? This would be in line with the Education Bill that is going through the House at the moment, and I do not see why the people of Northern Ireland who wish to have comprehensive education should be denied it.
What is the position of the under-fives and the programme that was in the process of being administered? What is the programme now? Will the aim of this Government, like the last, be to double the number of nursery and playgroup places?
I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) about 16 to 19-year-olds. This was a very important measure, and it would have encouraged a great many youngsters to stay on at school. It is a retrograde step on the part of the Government to divert from that policy.
As for Class IX, what is the Government's position with regard to the programme for the physically handicapped? The hon. Member for Belfast, West stressed that Northern Ireland was far behind the rest of the United Kingdom in implementing the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. It is far behind in Northern Ireland in providing lifts, baths, ramps, and so on, for disabled people. Following a survey by Outset, the hopes of the disabled in the Province have been raised, and the Government must not dash those hopes as a result of any hasty decision.
As for home helps, also in Class IX, the appropriate Minister in the previous Administration was having meaningful talks following the Central Personal Social Services Action Committee's report with a view to implementing its main proposal, which was to ensure that the means test was dispensed with completely. For many reasons, it was very cost-effective, and I should have thought that that would appeal to Government supporters. It was felt—indeed, it was proved conclusively—that it was as costly for the Government to administer home helps by way of a means test as it was to do away with the means test. I do not know whether that has been thought through by the Government, but I hope that we shall have an answer soon, because it is very important to keep a number of people out of normal institutions by helping them in this way in their homes.
There are many questions to which we shall return as the weeks go by, especially on the effects of this Government's policy on the social and economic development of the Province. We shall be pressing the Government very hard in a number of areas. However, I think that it is sufficient for the time being to put the questions that I have to the Minister, knowing that he will do his best to reply to them.
We welcome the way in which this Government's Northern Ireland team has turned out for this debate. I join all those who have praised the respective Ministers. We started by being critical, but we have to admit that they have proved to be a good team tonight, and we hope that this is not just a one-off occasion.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry). I note his enthusiasm for simplification and assure him of my conversion to that cause.
Most speeches in the debate reflected the fact that in the 10 weeks since I came to the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland virtually every hon. Member has been in touch with me, directly or indirectly, about the management, maintenance, repair and provision of public authority housing in his constituency.
The Housing Executive plainly has few friends in the House. The fact that the debate, despite its late—in some ways deplorably late—start has gone on longer than any similar debate that I can remember shows the depth of feeling on the matter. But, to be fair, we must remember the problems of the Executive. The first is its inheritance, which the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) spelt out vigorously. In too many areas, this means the problem of multi-deprivation: the grim statistics reflect the grim conditions.
About 40 per cent. of the housing stock requires replacement, improvement or repair. One house in five is unfit or stands in an area of unfitness. One house in four—such as the home of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. McQuade)—lacks at least one basic amenity, while 17 per cent. of all houses are overcrowded. Few people have a kind word to say about the organisation of the Housing Executive, but since its formation in 1971 it has had to tackle these dreadful conditions while trying to weld together an efficient central organisation from no fewer than 65 predecessor authorities.
Then there is the problem of violence. Northern Ireland Members are only too well aware of the statistics of destruction, which have grown over the last 10 years, and they still have a savage impact. About 30,000 houses have been damaged by terrorist activity, 12,000 families have taken to squatting and 60,000 people have been forced to move.
The effects of violence have made many of the underlying housing problems much more difficult to solve. If, for example, it had been possible in Belfast to move overcrowded families in one part of the city into empty houses in other parts of the city, the housing problems would have been much more manageable. If the Executive's officers had not then to contend with the problems of squatting and rent strikes, time and effort would have been available to cope with other management problems.
If paramilitary influences had been absent, the Executive and the Northern Ireland building industry would have been able to make more rapid progress at lower cost. But the Executive has had to operate against the background of these harsh realities.
Where it has fallen short of acceptable standards, it is right that it should be criticised here since, as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr Powell) and many others have said, this House is the only political forum in which it can be brought to account. We can blame the Housing Executive for failures of contracting procedure or of inadequate supervision. We should not blame it for the terrible results of terrorist destruction.
It is unrealistic to ask for the cost of the destruction of 30,000 houses. However, few of those houses could be replaced for less than £14,000. To arrive at a replacement cost, one has only to multiply 30,000 by £14,000. It is a substantial cost.
This debate takes place in the shadow of the report of the Rowland Commission, which was appointed about 15 months ago
to enquire in the light of the allegations affecting the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, into the placing and management of contracts and the payments of grants by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and to report thereon".
Briefly these allegations, which were repeated today by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford), were that a considerable amount of public money went astray, that building firms controlled by the IRA were set up to carry out the work and charge exorbitant rates, that the Provisional IRA had organised fraud on a large scale to swindle the Housing Executive out of considerable sums of money, and that both the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Government were aware of the fraud but for reasons of political expediency took no action.
As hon. Members will be well aware, the Commission found that a considerable amount of public money did indeed go astray, but the Commission was unable postively to substantiate the allegation that building firms controlled by members of the IRA had been set up specifically to defraud the Government or the Executive. The Commission could find no truth in the allegation that the Housing Executive and the Government of the day were aware of the fraud but did nothing because of political expediency. In other words, the report found that there was muddle rather than conspiracy.
I shall come to that in a few moments.
The Commission finds that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive did not deliberately stuff money into the pockets of the Provisional IRA, but it did, in a manner of speaking, negligently scatter money on the pavement of Belfast and, to a lesser extent, of Londonderry, and Provisional IRA members undoubtedly were among those who scooped it up.
Some hon. Members, notably the Members for Belfast, East, for Belfast, South and for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), have suggested that the report is a whitewash and that there should be another committee with greater powers to inspect the evidence yet again. But Judge Rowland himself emphasised that lack of powers to compel witnesses to appear had not in fact interfered with the course of the inquiry. Frankly, I doubt that it really would do much good at this stage to hold another inquiry, and I have no conceivable interest in presiding over a cover-up of an event that took place when we were in Opposition.
I am prepared on occasion to believe in the existence of plots and the weakness of mankind, but when I read of the administrative shambles that existed in West Belfast, I do not detect the hand of Machiavellian cunning but I do detect manifestations of Murphy's law, which, as hon. Members will recall, says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Now we must consider the cost of yet a further investigation. The amount of money wasted or overspent in West Belfast and Londonderry cannot be measured with absolute precision, but an optimistic reading of the Rowland report suggests that the figure is just over £1 million, while a pessimistic interpretation of the same evidence produced in the report could put the cost much closer to £1½ million.
But the direct cost of the Rowland Commission itself was just under £¼ million, and the indirect cost in terms of time spent by officials and others concerned in preparing material evidence could add at least another £100,000 to this figure.
Then we have to remember that, apart from the Rowland Commission, there have also been at least three other investigations into the more important allegations that have been made. In other words, we have already spent £½ million looking into a waste of money that certainly does not exceed £1½million. A full judicial inquiry could easily double that cost, and I doubt that it would at this time, after all these months and years, produce mach of importance that was new.
In my view, a line must now be drawn under these unhappy events.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) for referring to the morale of members of the Executive staff. We are inclined to forget that they read the brickbats that are thrown at them. Most of the staff are only too anxious to serve the public to the best of their ability. A line must now be drawn under these unhappy events. We must learn our lessons, remedy weaknesses and identify responsibility. The Government are determined to do all that, but as for investigation enough is enough.
Since I first read the Rowland report I have taken three substantial steps. First, I have started a review of the controls which the Department of the Environment exercises over the Executive. This is a particularly difficult issue as I have to balance the need to ensure adequate control over the Executive's substantial expenditure of public funds against the fact that statutory responsibility for housing services rests clearly on the Executive. As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said, it may be necessary to redraw the boundary between the twin responsibilities of the Department and the Executive, especially as regards answerability in the House.
I do not want to waste scarce administrative and professional staff resources in checking the work of other staff. There is a balance to be achieved which should make the Executive clearly and publicly accountable for its own activities within a framework approved by Ministers.
The second step that I have taken is to start a study of the resources available to the local government auditor in examining the Executive's work. The right hon. Member for Down, South paid particular attention to that. The auditor's role is vital. Hon. Members will know that the auditor has often been effective in the past in identifying weaknesses in the Housing Executive's administration. It is essential that the auditor has adequate resources to enable him to oversee all major aspects of the work of the Executive.
The third step that I have taken is to discuss the Rowland report with the chairman and vice-chairman of the Executive. The Executive is ascertaining whether it can recover any of the money that has been overspent. It is reviewing the guidance that is given to staff in cases where there may be links between members of the Executive's staff and contractors. The Executive is examining the management of contracts, which is the major continuing weakness pinpointed by the Rowland Commission. We are considering proposals that have been put to me by the chairman and vice-chairman as a matter of urgency.
Finally, I note that virtually all those directly concerned with the events described by the Rowland Commission are no longer employed by the Executive. For all practical purposes, there is a new management team in control. A new chairman has been in office for only a few months.
A new chief executive has been appointed as full-time vice-chairman. As the hon. Member for Antrim, North reminded us, Mr. John Gorman had substantial relevant experience as chief of security of the British Overseas Airways Corporation. In that job he once stamped out a bullion-smuggling gang. I do not suppose that there are many bullion-smuggling gangs in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive at this moment, but it must be an advantage that the new chief executive should have had firsthand experience of security problems and procedures. Another important change is that the personnel management side is being strengthened under a new director of personnel.
Much of the Rowland report dealt with many of the problems arising from repair, maintenance and rehabilitation contracts. Tonight the problems arising from those contracts were touched upon by virtually all Members from Northern Ireland. In the past 10 weeks at the Department of the Environment I have become very conscious of the many criticisms about the Housing Executive's record in maintaining its houses. It is an issue which seems to unite all shades of political opinion and all parts of Belfast.
Yet we must place this problem in perspective. It is a perspective that is well known to all Members representing constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales. The Executive now owns some 200,000 houses of varying age and condition. It is fair to say that some of the former local housing authorities left the Executive with a legacy of badly designed and poorly maintained homes. The Executive has to deal with some 350,000 repair orders per year. Its annual budget for repair and maintenance is over £29 million. It is difficult in this area to get a precise, objective measure of efficiency, but available figures show that in Northern Ireland the cost of maintenance stands at £137 per house per year, which is not far out of line with the £133 per house per year which is spent, on average, by local authorities in England and Wales.
The right hon. Member for Down, South may be glad to know that a committee chaired by a member of the Executive's board has been considering in detail ways of dealing more effectively with all aspects of maintenance. I shall be reviewing with the Executive the staffing and financial implications of a greater effort in maintaining and repairing its own houses.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to direct labour in this field. In other local authority areas this has not been an unqualified success. I hope that there will be more success as a result of the reorganisation which is now under way and which I do not think will be the mere reshuffle which the hon. Member for Belfast, South described.
There is to be devolution of extensive powers to six regional controllers. The six regions have been defined, the six regional controllers have been appointed, and their staffs are being built up. When this reorganisation is complete, it should offer substantial benefits to the public. I believe that the reorganisation of the Executive's work will enable the Executive to respond more quickly and effectively to the repair requests of tenants.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East asked for an in-depth inquiry into this aspect of the Executive's work. I believe that the top priority should go to an attempt to get on as quickly as possible with the reorganisation recommended by earlier inquiries, rather than holding yet another inquiry into this aspect. I will write to the hon. Member on the four specific constituency points that he raised.
As several hon. Members have reminded us, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive faces a major challenge in upgrading its older estates and dwellings. This is costly work and, as the hon. Member for Belfast, North so forcefully pointed out, there can be absolutely no doubt that in many—indeed, in most—areas rehabilitation is more popular with local residents than clearing and rebuilding. I am not surprised that some of the most enthusiastic staff members I have met on the ground have been engaged in rehabilitation work.
The Housing Executive proposes to spend £17 million in 1979–80 on this work, and I note that full-scale rehabilitation can cost from £10,000 to £12,000 per dwelling. In Belfast the Housing Executive plans to start work on improving 1,500 homes for long-term use and 1,000 homes for short-term use.
Then there is the important question of the sale of Housing Executive houses, referred to by many hon. Members this evening. We have made it clear that the Government policy on the sale of council houses should apply in Northern Ireland in much the same way as it does everywhere else in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, I have discussed these matters with the chairman and other members of the Housing Executive, and I am exceedingly grateful for his cooperation in giving effect to the overall principles of Government policy as quickly as possible. I am considering the issue raised by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) as to what the sale price should be where the market value after discount falls below the cost of providing the house. I hope that we shall have an early answer on that. Discussions are in hand between the Housing Executive and the Department of the Environment regarding the detailed implementation of the policy.
Clearly such a substantial change will have to be implemented on a phased basis. But I am sure that an extension of home ownership will have major benefits. I am sure also that home ownership is a stabilising influence in our society and that we need stabilising influences in Northern Ireland. I believe also that our policy can help the Executive to concentrate more of its efforts on those in greatest need.
Some, particularly the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), would argue that our policy should not be applied to Northern Ireland because of the special circumstances prevailing. But I believe that these special circumstances underline the importance of applying the Government's policy to Northern Ireland. In the Province a much smaller proportion of people own their own homes than is the case in England and Wales or, for that matter, in the Republic of Ireland. At the same time, the reluctance of building societies to make loans in many areas of Northern Ireland because of the threat of violence has undoubtedly thwarted the desires of many potential home owners in the last decade.
I also know that in Northern Ireland, as in other parts of the United Kingdom, those people who move into good Executive houses very rarely move out of their own free will. Immobility already exists, so that our sales policy should not diminish the chances of people queueing up for alternative accommodation, although I concede that in Belfast, West and other areas some of the adverse conditions will deter people from attempting to purchase their own homes.
I want many of the vacant houses which the Executive owns to be offered for sale. Many of these houses are described as difficult to let and have been badly vandalised. I believe that some at least of these houses could be an attractive proposition for young couples who are prepared to use their own efforts to make their homes suitable to live in.
I shall be discussing with the Executive, therefore, the introduction of a homesteading scheme. Meanwhile I can assure hon. Members that I am as worried as they are about the rapidly escalating cost of heating in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Londonderry referred to district heating schemes. Certainly in recent years the service that these have provided has too often been expensive both to the tenants and to the taxpayer. The hon. Member spoke of the availability of oil in the winter. That, I can assure him, is not our most pressing concern. There should be ample supplies. Our major anxiety is the cost of those supplies.
I have some responsibility in the House for education. The hon. Members for Belfast, West, Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) and Antrim, North have referred to the problems of selection in education. The immediate priority is to settle arrangements for transfer in 1980–81, and my noble Friend is giving this matter urgent consideration. Consultations are taking place with all interested parties. I assure the House that my noble Friend is spending more time on this matter than on any other single problem in education. Let us hope that all the children of Northern Ireland, regardless of the secondary schools to which they are transferred, will grow up in a society more peaceful and prosperous than the one that we have at the moment.
Those figures are not available at the moment. I can give rough figures. With England as a base at 100, Wales is 110, Scotland 140 and Northern Ireland 150. I should not wish the House to regard those figures as being in any way precise.