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Volume 886: debated on Thursday 13 February 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what are the latest unemployment figures for Northern Ireland expressed as a percentage; and how they break down for the areas to the east and west of the Bann.

The latest unemployment figures for Northern Ireland are for 13th January 1975. Total unemployment on that date was 6·7 per cent. (males 8·1 per cent.). Unemployment is measured by employment office areas, some of which straddle the River Bann. The best estimates which can be made are that the area east of the Bann has total unemployment of 4·5 per cent. (males 5·5 per cent.) and the area west of the Bann has a total of 11·9 per cent. (males 14·6 per cent.).

Does not my right hon. Friend think that those disturbingly high figures, especially the shocking disparity between the eastern and western areas of Northern Ireland, will, unless remedied, constitute an ever-present threat to my right hon. and hon. Friends' hard-won peace? Will he take urgent steps to redress this neglect in past years of the area west of the Bann and preferably employ measures of public enterprise?

I thank my hon. Friend. I agree with him that this situation is completely unsatisfactory. In fact, it has existed in North Northern Ireland for a considerable period. I can tell my hon. Friend that, for example, 1,500 training places west of the Bann represent half of the total for the Province in an area containing 30 per cent. of the working population. Enterprise Ulster has helped to create 860 jobs, and the Government are putting a great deal of time, effort, intervention and money into Northern Ireland. I hope that we may have the support of all right hon. and hon Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies for this policy.

I welcome and support the right hon. Gentleman's comments about assistance to the area west of the Bann. However, he has now been responsible for the former Ministry of Commerce for nine months. In that period, has he uncovered any evidence of a policy in the past to direct employment to certain areas of Northern Ireland on the ground of political expediency?

The difficulty of my job in Northern Ireland, especially as regards the employment situation there, has directed my mind to the present and the future and not to an analysis of what happened in the past. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have grappled not only with problems west of the Bann but also with those affecting the shipyards, of IEL, of Coleraine and of many other parts of Northern Ireland. I am concerned about unemployment in Northern Ireland wherever it appears. We want to eradicate it.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's intervention in industry in Northern Ireland is to be welcomed and that in his help to IEL, to Hughes Bakery, to Ben Sherman and not least to Harland and Wolff he is pursuing positive Socialist intervention policies? The support they are getting in Northern Ireland makes rather ironical the letters sent by the titular Leader of the Unionist Party in Northern Ireland to the newly-elected Leader of the Conservative Party. If they accept Socialist policies, ought they not to consider on which side their bread is buttered?

I should not like to intervene in the events which have been taking place among members of the Conservative Party or to comment on what the Leader of the Unionst Party has raised with the new Leader of the Conservative Party. To deal with these problems, the Leader of the Unionist Party and his colleagues have come consistently to the Government to seek Government aid. The Northern Ireland Finance Corporation, which we hope to tailor into a development corporation, is the forerunner to the new proposals for industry of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry. We welcome that.

May we take it, then, that the congratulations of the Prime Minister to the new Leader of the Conservative Party imply wholehearted acceptance by the right hon. Gentleman of the capitalist principle? Does the Minister of State consider that the employment statistics for Northern Ireland, especially west of the Bann, are in any way comparable with or on the same basis as statistics for Great Britain, or is the comparison vitiated by the entirely different conditions prevailing in the Province?

I do not accept that last comment. The Department of Manpower Services is altering the assessment and creating a travel-to-work area record of the situation, which then will bring the compiling of statistics into line with those of the remainder of the United Kingdom. The fact remains, however, that unemployment in Northern Ireland is higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

As for the Prime Minister's congratulations yesterday to the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), that was yesterday and we will wait for what my right hon. Friend has to say in the future.

Let me direct this question to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). [HON. MEMBERS: "This is Question Time."] I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not want me to ask him this, but I pose the question to the House. Does the right hon. Gentleman, together with his Unionist colleagues, support the Government's intervention policy to save employment in Northern Ireland?

I want a little help from the House. We have devoted 10 minutes to only two Questions.