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Construction Industry

Volume 22: debated on Thursday 29 April 1982

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the latest unemployment level in the construction industry.

At 15 April 1982 the number of people registered as unemployed in the construction industry was 23,321. While unemployment in this industry continues high, there has been some improvement, with the level now about 1,100 below last summer's peak. This improvement is expected to be sustained in coming months as a direct result of the Government's plans for increased expenditure on house building, supported by our factory building and other programmes.

Unemployment in the building industry in Northern Ireland is nearly 47 per cent., the highest in the United Kingdom. The Under-Secretary's reply on 25 March indicated that housing conditions were probably worse in Greater Belfast that anywhere in the United Kingdom. Is this not a terrible indictment of the Government's policies?

I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the slight improvement. Although housing is not my direct responsibility, I can advise that completions in 1980, which presumably were those started under the Labour Government, totalled about 2,507. As a result of policy decisions taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, the number of starts for new houses in the coming year will be 4,500. We have nearly doubled the number of starts compared with completions two years ago, and that reflects the amount of money that we are prepared to put behind solving this serious problem.

Does the Minister agree that something radical and urgent needs to be done in Strabane and Cookstown, which are two of the blackest spots for unemployment? Will he agree to visit Strabane in the near future and talk to the people who are so closely concerned with this appalling plight?

Strabane and Cookstown will benefit from the expenditure on capital works, whether on housing, factory building, or other projects, as will the rest of the Province. As regards visiting Strabane, the hon. Gentleman will know that I have met members of the council on at least two occasions. However, I hope to visit Strabane again in the near future.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Regional Policy Committee of the European Parliament only this week passed a measure that should enable another 7,000 houses to be built in the worst housing area of Belfast? Will he inform the Opposition that this is a great step forward in giving help to those who need it most?

My hon. Friend refers to very good news. There is sympathetic understanding in the Commission and the Council of Ministers of the problems of Belfast in particular and Northern Ireland as a whole. The figure given by my hon. Friend is evidence of that understanding put into reality.

If the housing figures for the past two years in Northern Ireland were expressed as a percentage either of housing in Northern Ireland or of the population in Northern Ireland and were compared with the United Kingdom as a whole, would they not show that Ulster is doing relatively well in the improvement of its housing conditions?

The right hon. Gentleman is probably correct in that assumption. If he would like the actual statistics, I suggest that he inquire of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

Will the hon. Gentleman assure us that the money voted in Europe this week will be in addition to any other amounts?

I understand that the money will be additional to any other amounts provided by either the Government or the Commission in one way or another.

In talking about improvements, will the Minister bear in mind the rehabilitation programme that was taking place under the Labour Government and the fact that unemployment has doubled? Does he appreciate that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry) said, this is the one area in which we could expand construction and soak up unemployment without sucking in imports?

The House may like to know that the total sum that it is possible to calculate as being available for construction work in one way or another in 1982–83 is about £580 million. A large element of that is estimated to be for maintenance work, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and for work generated by departmental grants. So we entirely subscribe to that approach.