Northern Ireland Assembly
Arlene Foster (DUP)
The Executive have taken the important step of again making the economy the top priority in the Programme for Government. As I said at the outset, the economic strategy is a key building block in the delivery of that commitment and sets the direction of the Executive’s economic policy until 2030.
I thank Members for the points that they raised, many of which echoed what we heard during the public consultation exercise. As I said in my opening remarks, I have worked to ensure that the main points raised by stakeholders were addressed in the final version of the strategy.
To recap, we have increased the targets for the growth of manufacturing exports, the investment that is leveraged through Invest Northern Ireland’s support of foreign and locally owned companies and, of course, tourist numbers and revenues. The final version of the strategy also includes additional commitments for youth unemployment, exports to emerging economies, investment supported through the job fund, and economic inactivity. We have had very little discussion about economic inactivity today. That was slightly disappointing, but I will return to it later.
I welcome Members’ support for the economic strategy and, in particular, the priority that has been attached to the economy by the Executive in the Programme for Government and economic strategy. I also welcome the support for the strategic focus on export-led economic growth and, importantly for me — I am sure that it is also important for the rest of the Executive — the fact that the strategy was developed across the Executive and was led by the Executive’s subcommittee on the economy.
I want to return to some of the specific points that Members raised. As I said, I particularly welcome Members’ endorsement of the increased targets; that reflects the need to be more ambitious in our economic strategy, and we have tried to do that. The Chair of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment raised the issue of certain commitments that were included in the draft document but were not present in the final economic strategy. He specifically mentioned the removal of a commitment to support first-time exporters. However, that commitment is on page 63 of the strategy, which states that we will:
“Encourage first time exporters by promoting 60 start ups selling outside UK markets” ,
“Promote a further 440 new start ups selling to GB”.
The commitment is there. It may have moved from where it was in the draft strategy, but it is still present in the current document. I want to assure Members that we are fully committed to the delivery of all our commitments, whether they are in the strategy document or in the comprehensive action plan that was launched on the strategy’s website today.
The Chair also commented on the need to have outcome-based targets and to monitor the strategy. I would have thought that he was best placed to do that, given that he is Chair of the Committee. We have an action plan that is open and transparent, and the strategy is a living document, which, I am sure, will be looked at time and again.
He raised the issue of cross-departmental delays as a concern. I can understand why he would have that concern, and I am sure that other Members share it. However, I take comfort from the fact that the Programme for Government’s first priority is the economy, and, therefore, across government, the economic strategy should be a priority not only for my Department but for every Department.
There has been a lot of talk from the opposite Benches that we do not include the green new deal in the strategy. That is not correct. Indeed, throughout the economic strategy, we have made many mentions of the green economy and the need to develop a sustainable energy sector. If Members wish me to take them through that page by page, I am happy to do so.
Tom Buchanan, the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, endorsed the close working relationship between DETI and DEL in a number of areas. Indeed, just yesterday, I had a further meeting with the Minister for Employment and Learning to discuss matters of mutual interest. Mr McGlone made a point about ICT skills, and that is certainly one of the issues on which we are focused at present. As a Mid Ulster MLA, he will be interested to know that we are also focusing on skilled engineering because we feel that there is a gap at present in the number of skilled engineers who are available for many of the engineering companies, particularly in County Tyrone, which is the hub of our engineering focus. There is work to be done on that, which we will develop.
Pat Doherty, the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, said that the importance of the economic infrastructure in a global market is vital to the economic strategy, and I agree with him entirely. He mentioned, in particular, the importance of the abolition of air passenger duty on international long-haul flights. That was a huge success for us, which we should recognise. Economic infrastructure is vital, and one of the benefits of a cross-departmental approach is that we can include those sorts of things in the economic strategy.
Sandra Overend expressed concern that the consultation had finished only towards the end of February and yet here we are with our strategy. As I said in my opening comments, the framework for the document was consulted on a year ago. We had a three-month consultation period, which was over Christmas, but it lasted longer than Christmas. Perhaps some Members had longer Christmas holidays than others. It was suggested that I had little time to consider changes. I say to Mrs Overend and to the rest of the House that I do not wait until the end of a consultation period before I know where a document needs to be changed or looked at again. I had been considering what was being said very early on in the consultation and whether there was a continuing trend through those discussions. I had many meetings with the Business Alliance and the Federation of Small Businesses to keep alongside businesses and know what they thought was needed in the economic strategy so that we could make changes in a focused way at the end of the consultation. That is precisely what we were able to do.
I turn to the target for 25,000 jobs. I recall that when I launched the draft economic strategy, some Members felt that the target was much too ambitious. Some Members are now saying that it is not good enough. Mrs Overend said that Invest Northern Ireland had been a failure, despite the fact that — she should know this because she sits on the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment — between 2007-08 and 2009-2010, it had secured almost £2·6 billion in investment commitments and £487 million in annual salaries, promoted 15,565 new jobs, safeguarded 5,329 existing jobs and supported 8,267 new local business starts. It hit every single one of its targets. If that is the Member’s definition of failure, I would have thought that, coming from the Ulster Unionist Party, she would have had a better definition of failure. However, I certainly do not believe that that is the definition of failure.