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?