Northern Ireland (Appropriation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:21 pm on 1st March 1984.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson , Belfast East 8:21 pm, 1st March 1984

I recall it very well. I was half a step away from bringing it to the House as a breach of privilege, because the Minister tried to pressurise me into taking it off the Order Paper. We do not have that situation today and I am glad to be singing the same song as the Minister who opened the debate.

I wonder also, in dealing with this class, whether the Minister, when replying, can give us any good news concerning the tender that was placed by Short Brothers for work in the United States. Over the past few months there have been many rumours of good news for the people of Northern Ireland. Can the Minister be more firm in his reply than the statements that we have seen in our newspapers?

It would be particularly pleasing to the people of Northern Ireland to know that the green, belligerent band of people in the United States who act as the voice in America of the provisional IRA and who have attempted to prevent jobs from staying in Belfast have been unsuccessful in their efforts to stop the United States placing the contract with a Northern Ireland firm.

I concur with the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West about any proposal for the privatisation of Short Brothers. I agree with the workers in that firm who feel that it would be disastrous for the aerospace industry in Northern Ireland. They know that the profitable part of the industry—probably the missile section—would be grasped for privatisation immediately and that many of the less profitable parts would be dropped and would probably cease to exist along with the jobs of the present work force. There is no good reason why the Government should upset a system that has proved to work very well.

On Class III (1), dealing with the Northern Ireland gas industry, I wish to place before the Minister the concern of many people in Northern Ireland about the Northern Ireland gas company and its present antics. I will leave to one side the argument about Kinsale gas as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) has sought to do much to remove the word "Kinsale" and have it replaced by "natural" as he believes that to call it "Kinsale gas" is not a selling point. There are others using more expensive methods to sell Kinsale gas. Even though it is years away, they are spending money as if the Treasury coffers are open to them and advertising it in a fashion that has left most people bemused as to what they are advertising when there is nothing to see yet. Surely the money could be far better spent on advertising the present gas industry rather than on trying to sell a product which will not be in use for at least another two years. Can the Minister confirm that the advertising agency that has received the contract is a very new one? How many hundreds, thousands or millions of pounds has it spent or does it intend to spend on behalf of the British taxpayer over the next few years before Northern Ireland has natural gas? I understand that it has been spending roughly £15,000 for every 45 seconds on television and a couple of thousand pounds for each page it takes in our local newspapers—all to little avail. Given the state of the Northern Ireland economy that money could be much better spent to the benefit of the Ulster people.

Public funds have also been wasted on consultancy fees for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. That matter is contained under Class V. The Committee of Public Accounts has considered that matter in relation to the Department of the Environment and has expressed concern, particularly about the bridge in Londonderry. It is causing considerable concern within the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Firms are receiving a rip-off of about 10 per cent. of the contract price for consultancy money that they have not earned. When consultancy work has been carried out in my constituency it is poorly supervised and many problems occur that require Housing Executive staff to step in as trouble-shooters to sort them out. There must be a mechanism to reduce considerably the money being paid to consultants, making it more commensurate with the work that is put in to the benefit of the contract.

The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West referred to homelessness. That matter has been pressed by Shelter in Northern Ireland. I have some sympathy with the views expressed. Will the Minister say what advantage there would be if Northern Ireland were to have legislation similar to that in Great Britain to deal with homelessness? How might that differ from the priority system on the selection scheme in Northern Ireland? Would legislation similar to that in Great Britain be of any advantage unless the Government step up the number of houses that they are building? There is no advantage in having the right to be housed if there is nothing to house people in.

As a general principle I have some sympathy with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point, but I shall go no further at this stage because I shall be chairing an inquiry in the Northern Ireland Assembly and I do not want to appear prejudiced or to have any predetermined view. The Minister will be coming before the Committee on another matter a week from today. I have no prejudiced view on that and I do not want him to think I have pre-empted the Committee's decision by expressing a view on this matter today.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman also raised the issue of the publication of the survey on housing conditions. He said that he would leave his comments on the unfitness of housing in Northern Ireland until the publication of that survey. When he does see that survey, will he treat it with some scepticism? The figures will indeed show that the unfitness rate has reduced considerably but I do not want the right hon. and learned Gentleman to think for one moment that that is because houses have been made fit to live in. Many houses have been demolished: that is how the Housing Executive has dealt with the unfitness problem, particularly in Belfast. It demolishes the houses to make the statistics look better. As a consequence, there is serious overcrowding in many dwellings and many people are forced on to the waiting list with little expectation of obtaining accommodation because of the 23,000 odd already on the waiting list. The Minister has already said that the Housing Executive has reduced the number of house starts in the forthcoming year.

There are 23,736 on the waiting list in Northern Ireland yet there are many empty houses. It has been revealed that 204 properties outside redevelopment areas in Belfast have lain idle for more than one year. In Northern Ireland as a whole 1.542 lay idle for more than one year. In Belfast 444 lay idle for just less than one year and in Northern Ireland as a whole 1,799 lay idle for just less than one year. We must ask why, when many people are in great need of accommodation, living in deplorable conditions, we have empty houses many of which are in perfect order. In some cases they have been purchased by the Housing Executive after improvement grants have been paid and work has been carried out. The houses are left idle after all that money has been spent until they can be knocked down as part of a redevelopment scheme in four or five years' time. That cannot be a good policy. Therefore, will the Minister persuade the Housing Executive that there should be a more flexible allocation system which would ensure that such properties are allocated more quickly?

The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) dealt with rationalisation and education. As hon. Members are well aware, the Department of Education is adhering rigidly to the view that a viable primary school needs at least 222 pupils. The education and library boards are inflexible when the financial screw is applied. As a result, many schools, particularly in the Belfast area, are being forced to close despite the fact that special local considerations should be taken into account, allowing such schools to remain outside the rationalisation project.

The Robert Bell primary school in my constituency was built for the Clarawood estate to accommodate about 180 children — below the criterion set down by the Department of Education. That school had 147 pupils when it was put on the Government's hit list. Because it was on that list of schools that are likely to be closed under rationalisation, parents did not want to send their children there only to have them uprooted in one or two years' time. Therefore, they sent their children to the Orangefield primary school, which is perhaps the closest to the estate. As a result, the Robert Bell school now has only 99 pupils. The Belfast education and library board has now brought the axe down on the Robert Bell school. The kernel of the community has been ripped out because of the Department's inflexible rationalisation policy. The Clarawood estate has no churches, few local shops and no recreational provision. On top of that, parents will have to send their children across open playing fields on dark winter mornings, which is less than desirable. There will be much inconvenience for parents and children.