The Economy and Work

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 26th May 2016.

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Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down 3:31 pm, 26th May 2016

Over the past number of days, we have heard from Opposition Members that new ideas and new legislation in the Queen’s Speech have been thin on the ground. Unlike Graham Evans, I do not think the measures in the Queen’s Speech will address poverty or help those who have been hit hard by the pernicious welfare cuts that have caused deeper poverty in my constituency. That is not something I particularly like, because I want to see greater wealth creation and greater income creation.

It is clear that the forthcoming referendum has had an inhibiting effect on the Queen’s Speech and the Government’s ambitions for this year in Parliament. We can debate at length whether inhibiting the Government is a good or a bad thing, but I can only say that I am disappointed they have not done more to address the widening social, economic and infrastructural inequalities that are opening up across these islands and leaving too many people behind, particularly in the constituency I represent in Northern Ireland.

On rural broadband, the widening divide between winners and losers is well embodied by the ongoing failure to provide rural communities access to reliable high-speed broadband. New technology provides the potential for rural communities to be more closely connected to the wider world of commerce, culture and government, but despite that a report from the European Commission found that over half of rural areas still do not have access to high-speed connections. In fairness to the Government, I welcome the commitment in the Queen’s Speech to provide households with a right to high-speed connections. However, I am concerned about what that really means. Who will be responsible for delivering this right and who can rural communities turn to when they have been let down? I hope the Government are sincere in their intentions, but I must remain sceptical until further proposals are brought forward—hopefully in time to meet the Prime Minister’s own broadband targets.

There has been no attempt, despite a letter signed by the Northern Ireland MPs, to reduce VAT on tourism—a fiscal measure and fiscal flexibility that would aid tourism in an area where we have to compete with the south of Ireland. A report published today says that we have the lowest level of disposable income and the highest level of visitors. The issues of air passenger duty and VAT on tourism have to be addressed.

On our farming communities, the regional inequalities that exist for Northern Ireland farmers place them at a severe financial disadvantage to their counterparts in Britain. That may be a market issue, but it has to be addressed urgently.

Finally, on the upcoming EU referendum, there is no doubt that, for Northern Ireland, a vote to remain will be of the greatest benefit to the local economy. In that respect, I urge the Government to ensure that the issues of poverty and deprivation and broadband connections and the needs of our tourism industry are properly and equitably addressed.