Action for Community Employment

Oral Answers to Questions — Northern Ireland – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25 January 1996.

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Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow 12:00, 25 January 1996

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent representations he has received concerning the funding of action for community employment. [9626]

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Many representations have been received from the voluntary sector and others concerning the reduction in next year's ACE budget. Unemployment, while still a problem, is no longer the major problem that it was when ACE was introduced and the need to fund temporary jobs has diminished with the improving economic situation. During the 12 months to September 1995, almost 11,000 new jobs have been created in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

The Northern Ireland Office has a policy of targeting social need, but the decision to cut ACE so savagely flies in the face of that principle. How does the Minister justify that decision? More importantly, will he now reverse it? That would be welcomed in both communities and by all political parties. There must be money somewhere in the Northern Ireland Office budget which would allow him to take such a principled step.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am sure that he would agree that it is necessary to reflect changing circumstances when deciding how to allocate resources to maximum benefit. There have been many substantial changes in economic circumstances since the early 1980s when the programme was introduced. That was at a time of very high and rising unemployment, which has now fallen to its lowest level in 14 years. Long-term unemployment has fallen by more than 5,000 and there are 7,500 job vacancies, which is a record level. That suggests that it is right that resources should now be allocated to promote the growth which exists within the Northern Ireland economy and which can provide real long-term and lasting jobs.

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs , East Antrim

I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) on his question and draw the attention of the House to early-day motion 273, which I am pleased to say had the support of all the Northern Ireland political parties and many other parties in the House. The suddenness of the proposed cuts will have a devastating effect on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society, who often live in areas where there is high unemployment and social deprivation. We are concerned that some of the charities that are dependent on ACE workers may be forced to close. Again, the disabled in particular could be further disadvantaged. I appeal to the Minister to undertake to review the damage that is being done. The fact that those who have given commitments are demoralized—

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I regret to have to call the hon. Gentleman to order, but he is making a statement. I have not yet heard him put a question to the Minister.

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs , East Antrim

May I ask and appeal to the Minister to review the funding to ACE with a view to increasing resources?

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I cannot give that undertaking—nor, I suspect would the hon. Gentleman expect me to. However, it has been made clear to ACE providers that they are best placed to decide how to manage the reduction and they have flexibility to ensure that key posts of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred are not left unfilled. Real jobs are what all of us involved in Northern Ireland should be looking for, particularly in growth areas such as tourism. Substantial additional resources have been allocated to the growing tourist industry, especially for training. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the emphasis being put on training people within the growth areas in the Northern Ireland economy to take on real and long-lasting jobs. That must be our joint objective.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

May I thank my hon. Friend for his first answer and welcome the improvement in the economic situation, which is partly the result of the peace process and partly due to the fact that this country has not signed the social chapter and is not committed to a national minimum wage which would destroy jobs in Northern Ireland as it would elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, which will be accepted by all those who work in the Northern Ireland economy. His point is valid. Peace and the lack of a social chapter have indeed helped to promote economic prospects in Northern Ireland. We are trying to make sure that those prospects are even more enhanced by ensuring that resources are spent in the right areas.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady , South Down

From the replies so far, the Minister appears not to understand the problem being created by the 25 per cent. immediate cut in the budget of the Training and Employment Agency. That 25 per cent. has been translated into cuts of 30 per cent. in the south-east and 15 per cent. elsewhere. When that decision was made, was the Minister aware that it would impact on the elderly, the aged and the sick, and on training in areas where there is no employment, such as the training given by ACE? That will have serious social consequences. If the Minister is not prepared to review that decision, will he provide further finance through the Department of Health and Social Services to replace those services?

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

If the hon. Gentleman will write to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who is responsible for health and social services, I am sure that my hon. Friend will respond. Indeed, my hon. Friend will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has just said. The reduction is not an abandonment of the programme. It was made because it was felt that at this point in the economic circumstances of Northern Ireland resources could be better applied in ways that would create real and lasting jobs. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other Northern Ireland Members would criticise the Government if we did not seek to promote the growth that now exists in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley , Barnsley Central

I accept that unemployment has fallen, but in Northern Ireland it is still more than 11 per cent. The key figure is that 55 per cent. have been out of work for more than a year. With the fragility—

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I must instruct the House that this is Question Time and not the time to make statements. We must have questions to Ministers. We have been going for nearly 10 minutes and we have not yet finished question No. 1. I want questions to Ministers and brief answers to them.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley , Barnsley Central

In view of the fragility of the Northern Ireland economy, as evidenced by the problems at Shorts, does the Minister consider that the decision to cut ACE funding is at least premature? Should he not redirect—or restore—that finance to the long-term unemployed?

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I shall be as brief as I can, Madam Speaker. That is exactly what the Government seek to do in promoting growth in the Northern Ireland economy. I re-emphasise that unfilled job vacancies are running at record levels—a situation on which I would hope that the hon. Gentleman would congratulate the Government.