In the context of the Pathfinder programme which I introduced last year I set up six task forces to identify strengths and weaknesses in the Northern Ireland economy and to promote constructive change. This has been enthusiastically received. Regional conferences have been held throughout the Province, leading to keen discussion. This takes place against a background of falling unemployment.
Can the Minister explain an aspect of Government policy that puzzles a lot of us? It is that in Northern Ireland public investment is considered to be a sensible way of boosting the economy and creating jobs, but in the rest of the United Kingdom it is regarded as Keynsian nonsense and a waste of money.
No. I gather that the hon. Gentleman was recently in the Province and I hope that he enjoyed his visit. I must put him right on the tone of his question. The Industrial Development Board and the Local Enterprise Development Unit will strengthen enterprise in Northern Ireland and will promote investment by the private sector. I am delighted to say that, for the last four years, the Industrial Development Board alone has promoted investment by the private sector of £1 billion in industry and commerce.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best boosts to jobs and the economy of Northern Ireland would be the removal of the iniquities of the protection racket, particularly in the construction industry? Will he bring forward at an early stage fiscal measures to remove those iniquities?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to boost employment in the Province would be to make some progress on the political front? Do he and his right hon. Friend agree that the time has now come to implement the parliamentary tier proposals contained in the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Given the events of the past few days, that would at least provide an opportunity for those of differing and sometimes opposing views to come face to face to discuss their differences and to make some positive moves forward.
The Government have always taken the view that political progress on security and progress on the economy are interlinked. In matters regarding the economy, for which I am responsible, the rate at which unemployment is diminishing now appears to be accelerating. A 1,000 a month reduction in the level of unemployment in the past six months has now accelerated to a rate of 1,400 per month in the past three months. We find this very promising.