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Northern Ireland (Mineral Exploration)

Volume 975: debated on Tuesday 11 December 1979

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11.51 pm

I beg to move,

That the draft Mineral Exploration (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 November, be approved.
Considerable interest has been shown in Northern Ireland in mineral prospects by commercial operators over the past decade. With the passing of the Mineral Development Act in 1969, which vested all mineral rights in the Department, with a few minor exceptions, prospecting has been greatly facilitated and the complications which can be caused by the necessity to investigate the title to mineral rights in Great Britain have been avoided. A total of 53 prospecting licences have been granted since 1969. Seven are current at present and four applications are being investigated.

This order will enable the Northern Ireland Department of Commerce to pay grants to persons carrying out mineral exploration activities in Northern Ireland. Under the terms of the Mineral Development Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, the Department of Commerce has powers to issue licences for both exploration and development. The seven prospecting licences in existence, and to which I have referred, cover an area of 725 square miles. The companies concerned are searching for a wide range of minerals, including coal, copper and uranium.

Until March 1977, companies engaged in prospecting operations were eligible for grants under a capital grants scheme operated by the Department of Commerce. At that time the scope of this scheme was restricted to exclude non-manufacturing industries, in line with the decision taken on the corresponding investment grant scheme in Great Britain, and prospecting activities were no longer able to attract grant. The result of this change was that companies in Northern Ireland were placed at a disadvantage in relation to those in Great Britain, where grants have been payable for certain prospecting operations since 1972 under the Mineral Exploration and Investment Grants Act 1972.

The Government regard the encouragement of mineral exploration in Northern Ireland as potentially important to the development of the economy and consider that it is undesirable that persons carrying out exploration activities in Northern Ireland should be placed in a less advantageous position than those operating in Great Britain. At present salt is the only mineral which is exploited commercially in Northern Ireland, but I hope that the financial incentive which this order will provide will encourage further exploration and eventually lead to commercial development of other minerals.

The order is short and the kernel of it is contained in article 3. Article 3(1) gives the Departments power to pay grants to any person prospecting for minerals in Northern Ireland. Article 3(2) requires that grant will be paid only if the Department is satisfied that any necessary planning permission has been obtained. It is recognised that, while there are economic benefits in mineral development, there may also be environmental and amenity factors which have to be taken into account. Licences issued by the Department are in any case approved only after consultation with other Government Departments—including those dealing with agriculture and planning—and local authorities.

Prospecting operations rarely involve any form of disturbance and may often be limited to the collection of samples. Any consequential commercial development requires a further licence from the Department, which will be issued only after more detailed consultation.

Article 3(3) sets out a limit of grant of 35 per cent. and allows the Department to make conditions on any grant payable. To be eligible for this grant, a company must hold a prospecting licence from the Department of Commerce. The maximum rate of grant is the same as that laid down in the Great Britain Act and it is intended that the operative rate of grant will follow that applying in Great Britain and currently standing at 35 per cent. The paragraph also makes provision, as in the Great Britain legislation, for the repayment of grant. This is intended to cover a situation where commercial development results from the exploration activities. There will normally be no question of a person having to repay grant after an unsuccessful exploration programme.

Articles 3(4) and 3(5) authorise expenditure up to £1 million on the scheme initially and make provision for the Department to prepare an annual report on the operation of the order.

Perhaps I should comment on the definition of minerals in article 2. Only minerals as defined under the Mineral Development Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 for the purposes of prospecting licences will be eligible. These include such minerals as copper, aluminium, tin, zinc, lead, uranium, iron ore and coal. Those minerals which are "scheduled" in the 1969 Act, such as sand and gravel, which are in ample supply, are excluded. This definition corresponds broadly to that in the parallel Great Britain legislation. As in Great Britain, natural gas and oil are not included, as these are the subject of separate legislation.

Can the Minister give an assurance that the Irish Republic has no right to any part of the continental shelf around Northern Ireland and that this Government will resist any such claim?

The hon. Gentleman, with a degree of clarity, has put a fundamental question. I think that I would be correct in saying that I should take advice before giving him the equally clear answer that he demands. I shall take that advice and give the hon. Gentleman an answer. My initial reaction is that in no way could that be done. But, with the alterations that go on in negotiations about which portion of the continental shelf shall be ascribed to which sovereign State, I must answer more correctly when I wind up this debate.

This order will bring the Province into line with the rest of the United Kingdom with respect to the encouragement of mineral development activity by means of grants. It will also provide the framework for what I hope could be a significant contribution to the development of the Northern Ireland economy. I commend it to the House.

11.59 pm

This is an enabling order, which I believe the previous Government also prepared in draft, and I welcome it.

There are one or two points that I should like to put to the Minister. First, will he make sure that the grants are used with a proper sense of priority, and as a contribution to the economic future of Northern Ireland, rather than speculatively? Secondly, as I understand it, under the 1969 Act the lessee of property is able to pay a diminishing rent if the Department of Commerce, with the consent of the Department of Finance, recognises the value of the work that that person has done for the economy of Northern Ireland. I presume that, as grants have to be repaid for successful operations, that provision is unaffected by this order.

12 midnight.

I should like to put two points to the Minister.

The hon. Gentleman explained that natural gas and oil do not come within the scope of the order because they are covered by other legislation. I wonder whether, when he is indicating what that other legislation is, he would deal with what may be a case which falls between the two stools. I understand that some exploration, which no doubt involves some of the same technical methods, is being directed towards ascertaining sources of terrestrial heat which can be tapped and used. It does not appear that that is in itself a mineral, though clearly that exploration involves all the techniques and so on of the search for minerals. Perhaps the Minister could explain whether and, if so, how that is covered. There seems to be a possibility—I have seen the possibility of it referred to in connection with the Mournes in my constituency—that that might in future be of economic importance to the Province.

My second point is a financial and, in a sense, a constitutional one, and it relates to article 3(4). In that article the order prescribes the £1 million maximum. It then goes on to say that that ceiling can be raised by the Department by order.

On the face of it, that appears to be an ability to alter, by order, a financial limitation fixed by substantive legislation. One notes, however, that it is an order made subject to "affirmative resolution". If those words were true, which they are not, there would be no objection at all. We are familiar with cases where the principal Act fixes a limit of capital expenditure, but that limit can from time to time be raised by an order which, however, must come before the House, because it is the House which controls expenditure and places limits upon capital expenditure.

I said just now that the statement in article 3(4) is not true, and the Minister will be aware that it is not true. I am not being unparliamentary in the proposition that I am putting to him. It is, of course, part of the mumbo-jumbo whereby we continue to legislate as if the Assembly, to which we were referring in connection with the appropriation order which the House has just passed, were in existence. Of course, if the Assembly were in existence—and we have the assurance of the Secretary of State that that Assembly, at any rate so far as he is concerned, will never again be in existence—there would be an affirmative resolution which would have to come before that Assembly.

But now we are in the position that in the House we are breaching—it may be in a minor matter, but it is still a breach—the constitutional principle of control of finance by specifying in the order, which is substantive legislation for Northern Ireland, a £1 million limit, knowing that that limit can be raised without the Government having to come back to the House.

I do not expect the Minister to be able to solve the conundrum in which we have landed ourselves by our insistence on a series of superimposed constitutional pretences. But I am sure that he would agree that it would be wrong for the House to be unaware of what it is doing: first, that there is no safeguard in reality, as there appears to be on the face of article 3(4), and, secondly, that we are, at any rate in present circumstances, fixing a financial limit which can then be departmentally altered without further intervention of the House.

If, having posed the problem, the Under-Secretary of State should challenge me to say how I think it should be dealt with, I offer him my answer. The order will place Northern Ireland, in respect of mineral exploration, on all fours with the rest of the kingdom under an existing Act of Parliament. My answer is that if we legislate for Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom, which is what it is, by Act of Parliament, as we should, we should not find ourselves in the unconstitutional and contradictory position which is illustrated by article 3(4) of the order.

12.5 am

I wish to put a couple of questions to the Minister about this order. One is in keeping with the question put to him by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) in regard to boring for minerals when something else is discovered. I wonder whether the Minister can give a full statement about what actually happened in Ahogill when boring took place and intense heat occurred. The matter was hastily covered over. I probed the Labour Government but did not receive much satisfaction. As the hon. Member representing that area, I should like to know the truth.

Many people believe that there could be coal, oil and perhaps gas off the coast of North Antrim. Will the Minister say whether any application to bore for coal off the coast has come before his Department? The hon. Gentleman has mentioned legislation concerning oil and gas. Are these applications inter-related? When will the exploration take place? As the Minister knows, there is great concern about the rundown of the gas industry. It would be terrible if natural gas was discovered off the coast but our gas industry had been destroyed.

The Minister should come clean and explain to the House whether investigation has taken place off the North Antrim coast where it is felt that discoveries to our advantage might be made.

The EEC announced a review of new energy sources for the whole of the Nine. It is carrying out a survey. Has the Department been approached about this matter and the grants that are available?

12.7 am

The Minister read out a list of minerals. I would like to add cobalt to that list. This is of great importance to British industry.

I put down a question on 3 December to the Secretary of State for Industry about the study he was making of the practicalities of mining cobalt in current economic circumstances in the Lake District and Scotland. I understand from Lord Energlyn, who is a geologist, that Northern Ireland may also be involved.

The Under-Secretary of State replied:
"The Department of Industry funds a comprehensive programme of minerals investigation designed to promote the economic development of our indigenous resources. This includes mapping and reconnaissance programmes carried out by the Institute of Geological Sciences—IGS—which aim to provide information on which minerals exploration by companies can be based; and the Mineral Exploration and Investment Grants Act 1972,"
the Act to which the Minister referred
"under which the Department is empowered to pay contributions of not more than 35 per cent towards expenditure incurred on searching for or discovering and testing certain mineral deposits—including cobalt—in Great Britain and on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf."—[Official Report 3 December 1979; Vol. 975 c. 4–5.]
I therefore ask the Minister whether any work is being done in relation to cobalt. I do not necessarily want an answer tonight, but perhaps the Minister, at his convenience, if he does not know the answer—there is no reason why he should know it—will send me a letter. It is a matter of some interest.

I have a second general question. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) and I, as Scots Members, know well the difficulty over the question of uranium mining in Orkney and possibly elsewhere in Scotland. What is the philosophy of the Northern Ireland Office towards uranium prospecting? There is every chance that uranium will be found in Northern Ireland. One would hope for a programme of education and warning to local communities to avoid the instant panic situation that has been so damaging, certainly in Orkney, and which has aroused opposition before the facts are known. We could possibly learn from the Northern Ireland Office in this respect.

12.9 am

This brief debate has certainly raised some questions of considerable substance, ranging from cobalt to the constitutional issue. I shall do my level best to deal with the matters raised.

First, I am not able to tell the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) whether cobalt is one of those minerals for which there is active investigation in Northern Ireland, but I shall write to him on the matter.

With regard to uranium—and perhaps I may include in the answer on this point a general observation—I think that it would be unwise of us if, in discussing this order, we felt that there was a fairly substantial likelihood of large quantities of precious minerals being found in commercially developable quantities near the surface of the Province's earth. A fairly substantial geological survey has been undertaken, as many hon. Members will know much better than I, and the geological map of Northern Ireland is well set out and well planned. As hon. Members will also know, in relation to much of it the basalt layer which covers the Province is of such depth and so widely spread that one has to go to considerable depths before one can reach the layers of interesting minerals beneath.

Having said that, I wish to make it clear that we regard the possibility as being of sufficient importance to ensure that there is nothing in the way of those who seek commercially to prospect for minerals. That is why we wished to bring this order before the House tonight, to bring matters into line with what is the policy in Great Britain.

On the specific questions raised, I take the point raised by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) about seeking an order of priority, but I suggest to him that, in the matter of mineral prospecting, almost by definition there is a speculative element. Frankly, I would very much regret having to pin down potential prospectors in Northern Ireland to a certain fixed set of minerals for which we gave licences, or, indeed, to fixed areas in which they should undertake exploration. I would far rather see as wide a franchise as possible being developed by those who seek to prospect—provided, of course, that they are correctly licensed. Here again, the order is directly relevant to that. I should like to feel that the hon. Member would not wish us to be restrictive in seeking to involve prospectors for minerals in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, in connection with the point made by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) concerning thermal heat, I am aware that there is a substantial amount of thermal heat under the surface. In portions beneath Lough Neagh I believe that it is about 64 degrees, or something of a fairly reasonable level. I believe that the most important discovery so far has been in the Lame area, where geothermal waters were found some 7,000 feet below the surface at a very considerable heat.

As I understand it, geothermal heat is a by-product of our search for coal, and we have not actually been looking to geothermal heat as yet as a possible energy source. But the right hon. Member for Down, South and the hon. Member for Antrim, North are quite right. Here is a possible resource the exploration and the assessment of which should be undertaken as a contribution to our reservoir of energy sources.

All that I can say is that in the two indications that we have had so far—one, I think, at Ahogill near Ballymena, and one near Larne—we are talking about depths of about 7,000 feet. This is really very complicated indeed. It is fairly difficult to believe that the gases extracted, albeit at 65 degrees centigrade, will be all that easy to turn to commercial purposes. But I take the point. We must encourage the development of thermal heat if it can possibly be found in commercial quantities.

The right hon. Member for Down, South raised a question which I suspect he is most adept at raising. As I suspect that I shall be the least able to answer him on the question of the constitutional issue raised, I must say to him that when I, as a newcomer to this scene, discover that the answer to the question "When is an affirmative order really a negative order?" is "In Northern Ireland", that seems to have a whole lot of logic attached to it. But the right hon. Gentleman knows full well the reasons for it. I can only say that I have a sympathetic and simple mind, and that it seems to me that this is a matter which should be tidied up, though I understand the reasons for it, as does the right hon. Gentleman. It is a residual problem in relation to the Assembly, to which so much of our legislation is geared. Perhaps he will make his contribution in that respect by helping to set up some other Assembly or constitutional development that might help to bring the legislation back into line. I am sure that he would not willingly wish to delay the development of legislation through the House when we might risk, for example, deferring the development of mineral deposits in South Down by having to make a protracted way through the legislative process.

I do not know whether the Minister took it in the first time, but I had already made my valid contribution to the problem by saying that we should legislate in the House for Northern Ireland as we legislate for the rest of the United Kingdom. There is no need to attend any conference to find that out.

The right hon. Gentleman has made his point in his inimitable way.

The question of explorations for gas was raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, North. To the best of my knowledge, the Department of Commerce has had no significant information about the likely availability of gas or oil deposits off the North Antrim coast. At least one test boring has been undertaken, but so far nothing has been discovered to lead me to give him any encouragement. I assure him that that area of exploration, which is of wider consequence than the order, is of considerable importance to the Province, to the Department of Energy, the United Kingdom, and to all Members. I trust that it will be pursued with vigour, but at present there has not been sufficient evidence to indicate that commercial quantities would be found.

Before we get down to drilling holes off the north coast of Antrim or Londonderry, we should bear in mind that there is a sedimentary base under Lough Foyle, and that the line between Northern Ireland and the Republic has not been clearly defined seaward of Lough Foyle. That matter ought to be cleared up now.

The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) is right. We must be in a position to be precise on the extent of the territorial limit in that Lough, as we must be precise about the question raised by the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) on the shelf around our coast. I regret that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman verbally the categorical statement that he wishes, but I am utterly seized of the importance of being in a position to do so. I shall write to him, and to the hon. Member for Londonderry, to make as clear as I can the delineation of the borders where mineral exploration or boring can be undertaken.

The matters to which I have referred cover most of the questions raised. I finish on EEC grants. Grants are available to prospecting companies from the EEC to find new sources of primary raw minerals, including uranium. I am given to understand that one company has already been awarded a grant. Where possible, exploration will be funded by EEC grants where the companies qualify

I appreciate the welcome that the House has given the order. Everybody understands that development of minerals is a vital part of our search for new sources of wealth and, we hope, for developing a brighter economic future for the Province. I hope that the House will pass the order.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Mineral Exploration (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 6 November, be approved.