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Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of Comprehensive Spending Review – in the House of Lords at 11:07 pm on 1st November 2010.

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Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench 11:07 pm, 1st November 2010

My Lords, we have heard much about the seriousness of the position in which the United Kingdom finds itself and the hard decisions that have to be made. Equally, there is no doubt that savings can be made, although often with some pain. It is important that the pain be managed.

First, I associate myself with the compelling and robust remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, on the proposed removal of the disability allowance for those in care. She is right.

There are three further issues to which I want to refer. The first is the situation in Northern Ireland. At this juncture I refer to the effect of the Troubles on the people of Northern Ireland. In 2009, living standards were around 80 per cent of the UK average, while 22 per cent of those of working age have no qualifications, compared with 12 per cent in the rest of the UK. The Troubles had the greatest effect in disadvantaged areas. According to the latest figures, the largest inequality gaps between disadvantaged areas and the Northern Ireland average were evident in alcohol and drug-related deaths, which were 121 per cent higher, in admissions for self-harm, which were 94 per cent higher, in teenage births, which were 80 per cent higher, and in suicide, which was 73 per cent higher. This comes as no surprise, for the suffering of these areas was and continues to be extreme. It is in that context and in the context of the employment situation, as in so many other contexts, such as the ongoing and increasing dissident republican violence, that Northern Ireland will face the proposed cuts.

The current situation is that some 28.5 per cent of our population is economically inactive for a variety of reasons, as opposed to the UK average of 23.2 per cent. Some 32.3 per cent of all employees are in public sector employment-a figure that is significantly higher than the 21.1 per cent in public sector employment in the rest of the United Kingdom. That situation, as noble Lords know, has arisen in part from the Troubles and the understandable reluctance of private sector investors to invest in territory in which there was a risk of Troubles-related violence, such as bombings, shootings, kidnapping and extortion. The consequence is that we have a significantly larger reliance on public sector employment than the rest of the United Kingdom. PwC, in research commissioned for the Northern Ireland Assembly, predicts a reduction in public sector employment of 41,200. The local private sector has continued to be slow to grow. Growth, such as we have had, has been largely in low-value jobs, such as in call centres. PwC estimates that Northern Ireland, with its existing high unemployment levels, could be facing potential job losses in the private sector of 5 per cent. There has been discussion of the possibility of a reduction in corporation tax, which would significantly improve the situation.

However, the consequence of the current situation associated with the 40 per cent reduction in capital spend over the next four years is that Northern Ireland will be particularly vulnerable by comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom. Given the vulnerability of so many people and given that the decisions as to how the cuts will be applied will rest with the devolved Government, it will none the less be profoundly important that the Government adhere to their commitment to fairness in relation to the reduction in spending on welfare. The impact of some of the proposed cuts on those who suffer from higher levels of physical and mental illness and disability and who are so much more likely to commit suicide will be very hard. It seems that across the United Kingdom there is an element that from those who have so little, much is to be taken.

Over the years of the Troubles, during direct rule, there was a consistent underspend on infrastructure in Northern Ireland. Our water and sewerage system was neglected for years and now requires massive investment to maintain levels of health and safety consistent with the first world. Our roads and transport system are significantly underdeveloped. Parts of our schools and hospital estate are in very poor condition. The cuts in capital spending will impact massively on the ability to sustain the infrastructure that is critical to society. I ask the Government to review the effects and extent of the proposed massive cuts in capital spending, with a view to alleviating some of the hardship imposed, consequential on the combined effects of the revenue and capital cuts on a part of the United Kingdom that has suffered so much.

There is one final issue to which I wish to refer and I crave noble Lords' indulgence. It involves relatively little cost, but it is profoundly important. Today, digging is beginning on a beach in Waterfoot in County Antrim as the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains seeks the body of 21 year-old Peter Wilson, who disappeared from his home in Belfast in 1973. The commission was established by Acts of Parliament here and in Ireland and is highly respected by the community and the families of the disappeared. It has achieved some remarkable results in profoundly difficult circumstances. On Friday night, in pouring rain and high winds, Peter Wilson's family and friends and a group of local people gathered to pray for the return of his body for Christian burial.

Of the 16 missing people, seven have been recovered and buried. One more body was found two weeks ago and is thought to be that of 24 year-old Gerard Evans, who disappeared while hitchhiking in 1979. Eight bodies are still missing. Two bodies have been found this year, but there are concerns that funding will cease this year as a consequence of the cuts. This is historic business relating to the time when Northern Ireland was governed in its entirety from Westminster. I ask the Government to ensure that, despite all the current fiscal difficulties, if further information is received about the location of the remains of any more of the disappeared, funding will be made available to enable the necessary searches. In UK terms, it will not involve huge spending, but the expenditure will further enhance confidence in the commitment of the United Kingdom to the often forgotten victims of the Troubles.