The prospects for the economy in Northern Ireland are extremely good as a result of the peace process and stage 1 of the St Andrews agreement. I am sure that the completion of stage 2 will send a strong signal to attract further additional investment to Northern Ireland.
Sir David Varney's recently published review of tax policy in Northern Ireland highlighted the challenges facing local businesses. What discussions have the Government had with the relevant Northern Ireland Minister on assisting small business to grow and on sustaining that growth, thereby reducing dependency on the public sector for employment?
By and large, those are now matters for the devolved Assembly, the Executive and the Finance Minister and his colleagues in Northern Ireland. However, I say to the hon. Lady that if we look at the economy in Northern Ireland today, we see that unemployment has halved, the growth rate is the second highest in the UK, exports have increased and Belfast today attracts more inward investment than any city in the UK other than London. The Assembly and the Executive are taking enormous strides to attract inward investment, and the Government's policy is to do all that we can to assist them in future.
My right hon. Friend has outlined the record of the booming economy in Northern Ireland. What specific measures are being taken to ensure that the new-found prosperity in the north is reaching the poorest communities by removing barriers relating to transport and affordable child care, for example, and by upgrading skills?
Many of those issues are now matters for the Assembly and the devolved Departments, and they must make their own decisions about the allocation of money. I commend the budget and the work being done by the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland to ensure that the settlements that are being produced are fair for every Department and that they recognise the need for the prosperity in Northern Ireland to be shared by everyone in all communities and not just by the few.
I and my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive have put growing the economy at the centre of the programme for government, and we are putting investment into that objective. We acknowledge the role that the Secretary of State and his colleagues have played in regard to the forthcoming investment conference in May. In relation to fiscal and other tax changes and reforms, does he agree that the Treasury and others could do more to help Northern Ireland, given its unique position in sharing a land border with the Irish Republic, our strongest competitor for foreign direct investment? Does he accept that more could be done to put Northern Ireland on a level playing field in that regard?
I am sure that there is always more that could be done by any of us, in any field of public life. In relation to investment in Northern Ireland, the hon. Gentleman has spearheaded the preparations for the investment conference that is to be held in May, in which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and the Government in America, continue to take a close interest. I believe that it will be a very successful conference, and that will be in no small part due to the work of the hon. Gentleman.
In regard to what more we can do, we stand ready to help in every way that we can, but we must recognise that the public sector in Northern Ireland represents more than 70 per cent. of the economy, and bringing those areas into the private sector—as well as the relevant areas remaining in the public sector—will present enormous potential for economic growth.