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I beg to move,
That the draft Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, which was laid before this House on 26 November, be approved.
The order is one of a series generally required at intervals of about two years, and it fixes the upper financial limits within which issues may be made from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund for particular services. It does not prescribe the amounts allocated or appropriated for those services. That is done in the financial year by appropriation orders such as the one that w e have just debated.
I turn to the purposes of the various articles in the order. Articles 6 and 7 provide for the remuneration of a whole-time president of industrial tribunals and the remuneration and pension of a whole-time chairman of such tribunals. The provision for these payments is similar to that already existing in Great Britain.
Article 8 makes provision for pensions to be paid to persons serving as part-time members of the Northern Ireland electricity service and is similar in content to existing provision in Great Britain for the electricity industry.
Right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate that this order covers a number of detailed subjects. If, as a result, points are raised to which I am not in a position to give an immediate answer, I shall reply by letter. I commend the order to the House.
I shall not detain the House for long as it wishes to discuss the next order as soon as possible. Perhaps it would be better to ask the question that I have in mind by means of a letter. Is the Minister or the Department any nearer to achieving the rationalisation schemes involved in articles 6, 7 and 8?
I had the onerous duty of trying to rationalise payments and jobs in Northern Ireland. I had to try to get them into certain categories so that we should not be faced by the problem of trying to sort out salaries and benefits afterwards. I have often had to discuss the wages, salaries and conditions of the people running the various organisations. I do not wish to know how much is involved but I require an explanation of why the remuneration of a president or chairman of an industrial tribunal is backdated to 1979 and the pensions to 1 October 1980.
I wish to raise a matter relating to the limits on grants and loans for capital works on harbours. I represent a constituency which contains the only large island off Northern Ireland, which is inhabited by about 100 people—Rathlin island.
They are not all Catholics. A few Protestants are still alive in Rathlin. I know the way that they, and some of the Roman Catholics, vote.
Rathlin island has had a serious problem for some time. At the turn of the century 1,000 people lived on the inland. The 100 people who now live there depend for their livelihoods on fishing. The harbour has been allowed to deteriorate. Great difficulty has been accorded to the fishermen through that deterioration. In times of storm, their boats have been smashed and great hardship and financial inconvenience have come to them.
For many a long day I have heard representations about Rathlin island. Ministers have visited the island with me and on their own. They know the need for work to be done on the inner harbour of Rathlin island.
On 4 November the Minister told me that aid had been sought from the European regional development fund for the proposed inner harbour development at Rathlin. Is this covered by the order? When is the work likely to commence? A complementary scheme is essential to Rathlin. I refer to the Ballycastle harbour, which is the nearest harbour on the mainland. In the same reply, the Minister told me:
The Government have no plans at present to develop Ballycastle harbour."—[Official Report, 4 November 1980; Vol. 991, c.530.]
I was amazed at that reply. Is the Minister aware of the serious inconvenience which is being caused? The other month there could have been a loss of life. When waiting for the ferry at Ballycastle, people were swept away off the harbour wall.
I could talk of the development of other harbours which are necessary for tourism in my constituency, as could other hon. Members representing coastal areas. The Government cannot shelve the problem. What progress is being made?
Thanks to the Northern Ireland Act 1974, the order combines in its various articles provisions most of which in respect of Great Britain would require a separate Bill. One or two of those Bills would be the basis of a substantial debate upon policy.
I have in mind in particular article 5, which increases the financial limit for the Northern Ireland Development Agency. Despite the long debate which has just taken place on the appropriation order, there has not been, apart from this order, an opportunity in the past 18 months to review the functions of the agency in the context of the other Government agencies or methods for providing the assistance of public finance to industrial development in Northern Ireland.
It so happens that last week, after a very long gestation, which has held up the agency's work and decisions, the guidelines for the agency were, I understand, finally approved and issued. There should therefore, strictly, be at this point a consideration or reconsideration of the Government's new policy in regard to the agency and of its working in relation to the powers of the Department of Commerce and the Local Enterprise Development Unit.
I do not propose to invite the House, even in the remaining hour and a quarter that is available on the order, to engage in that task, though it is one necessary to be performed. But, having studied the new guidelines which embody the policy of the 18-month-old Government, and having read them in conjunction with the agency's report and accounts for 1979–80, which have just been published, I should like to put on the record at any rate one reflection.
The guidelines are very insistent throughout in their determination that the agency's operations shall be essentially commercial. I read one or two specimen injunctions:
15. The Agency will invest only in companies which have a prospect of profitability.
18. In providing guarantees the Agency shall fix the terms and conditions so that it should expect to sustain no net aggregate loss on them in the long term.
20. Any investment made by the Agency … in companies in which it has …a controlling interest will be subject to the Agency satisfying itself … that there is the prospect of a rate of return appropriate to the investment in the light of the Agency's statutory purposes.
All this is very consistent and very admirable philosophically. Here is an agency which is to apply public money only where, upon its best view, it discerns the prospect of a commercial profit. Not only that, but it is to
receive no special favours other than those which are implicit in its capital being financed by such provisions as that which is before the House, for paragraph 22 runs:
Companies controlled or financed by the Agency are not to be given any unfair advantage, whether through the availability of public funds or other means.
So it is an unexceptionable free enterprise document, one might almost say, except, of course, that it is guidelines for the provision of public capital to a development agency which is a creature of statute.
That raises the philosophical problem of how there can be all these commercially profitable opportunities floating around in the air which can be released only by the insight of the agency or by the availability of capital which is being borrowed, I presume, as part of the public sector borrowing requirement and re-lent to the agency by the Government.
That observation leads on to the main point, the only substantial point that. I wish to throw out in that connection. As one reads the account of the operations of the Department of Commerce at the one end of the scale and the Local Enterprise Development Unit at the other, and that pure commercial enterprise that is now interpolated between the two in the shape of the Northern Ireland Development Agency, there is something that one misses. There is some function that might properly be the function of the State to which none of the three agencies appears satisfactorily to correspond. That is what I may not adequately describe as the preservation and improvement of the infrastructure of the whole Province as an economic unit.
Quite clearly, many schemes that would strengthen the communications of the Province are not likely to take a form that enables them to qualify under the guidelines for the development agency. Yet one does not gain the impression, when viewing the work of the Department of Commerce as a whole, that it is in a position to identify major infrastructure requirements and systematically to set about fulfilling them. Paradoxically, although Northern Ireland has three bodies which, if they do not overlap, are concurrent in being charged with the economic development of the Province with the assistance of public money, the most obvious, classic activity of the State in sustaining and promoting the economy is difficult to locate in that structure.
I have given the example of transportation. It is perhaps the easiest and most obvious. If one looked at transportation in the form of the air communications between the Province and the mainland, if one looked at the sea communications—the shipping routes and the exploitation of them—between the Province and the mainland, and if one looked at the internal communications, especially the rail communications, one would be immediately convinced that in all those three areas the weakness of the infrastructure is the limitation upon the possibilities of economic development in the Province. I do not believe that the Northern Ireland Development Agency will be able, within the guidelines that it now has, to address itself to the problem. The question then remains whether the Department of Commerce is able to do so, not so much by the nature of the finance that it commands or with which it is provided but by the attitude of mind and the functional character that it has within the Government.
Although we are not able to debate, as we should debate, the whole question of the promotion of the economic well-being of the Province or the new roles within it that the new guidelines give to the development agency, there is one major question that I have put for consideration by the Government and for public discussion in the context which this order provides.
I shall try briefly to reply to some of the issues that have been raised in this short debate.
The right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) asked me about the retrospective nature of articles 6, 7 and 8. Articles 6 and 7 are being made retrospective to date from the appointment of the current chairman of the industrial tribunal. That was recent, and it was felt only fair that his job should be kept in parity with the similar job in Great Britain. Article 8 is similarly designed to treat fairly the recently retired chairman of the electricity service—namely, to ensure that his pension, as from the commencement date, is on parity with the pension system in Great Britain. That is why we have been slightly retrospective in those regards.
I turn to the contribution of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). Article 4 increases to £15 million the sum that the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture may make available to harbour authorities for the execution of harbour works. There had been expenditure of £11 million by 31 March 1980. The object of the article is to make available another £4 million over and above that which has already been committed.
As I said in opening the debate, the article deals with upper financial limits and not with particular cases. Rathlin island is a matter for an appropriation order. I shall draw to the attention of my lion. Friend who is responsible for the Department of Commerce the remarks that have been made in the debate. I shall inform him that the issue of the harbour facilities at Rathlin island is causing anxiety. It is a matter for negotiation whether the project will be able to have a priority claim on the money that is available over other harbour authorities. I cannot help the ton. Gentleman any further on that matter tonight.
As always, the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) brought an interesting philosophic dimension to the debate. I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not fellow him into that discourse. He mentioned the guidelines laid down for the Northern Ireland Development Agency and commented upon their free enterprise commercially oriented aspect. The agency is concerned primarily not with infrastructure but with encouraging and assisting industry, new industry especially, to start in Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Gentleman and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies will recall that in the past assistance has been given and that regrettably the companies that have been assisted have, after a short time, proved to be unsuccessful. It could be that there was not a close enough examination into the viability of those enterprises before public money was put into them. The object of the guidlines is to try to ensure that a critical commercial examination is made before public risk capital is put into a venture, and to ensure that jobs are created that will last and will not be mirages that disappear after about 18 months.
As for infrastructure, the road surfaces that I have seen in Northern Ireland are about the best in Western Europe. Perhaps air communicators could be improved. That applies to sea communications, too. These matters are primarily not for the agency but for the Government through the appropriate Government Departments. That is where they are considered and that is where decisions are made.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising these matters. He is right to say that we have not had an opportunity to debate them in recent months. He will understand that his observations will be carefully noted and considered.