This Government are committed to building an economy that is fit for the future right across the United Kingdom. That is clear from our industrial strategy and from the benefits for Northern Ireland in the Chancellor’s Budget. Ultimately, though, the key requirement for stronger growth is political stability, and I return to the theme that we should see devolution restored.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the recent labour figures for Northern Ireland showing 3.9% unemployment, which is down from over 7% in 2010? Does she agree that yesterday’s CBI study, which exemplifies the fact that this country is ready to grow and provide jobs, is a testament to Northern Ireland businesses growing a strong economy?
I join my hon. Friend in remarking on the important figures. The unemployment rate in Northern Ireland is now down to 3.9% from over 7% in early 2010. Indeed, it is lower than the rate for the UK as a whole. That is, indeed, thanks to many businesses in Northern Ireland creating jobs, but it is also down to a Government who take a balanced approach to public spending, unlike the Labour party, and we wish to see more of that.
A strong economy requires stable politics. Does the Minister agree with this week’s editorial in the News Letter—Britain’s oldest running newspaper—which states categorically that Her Majesty’s Government need to “slap down” Mr Coveney, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, because the comments he is making are destabilising the economy of Northern Ireland?
The simplest thing to say is that we stand fully behind the Belfast agreement. We do have a strong relationship with the Irish Government that we wish to continue. My hon. Friend is right that political stability is required for a strong economy. As I said to my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, the Government are committed to building an economy that works for everyone. We would like to see a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland who are able to do the same.
I call Stephen Pound—get in there, man.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker.
Well, this is all very well, but the Secretary of State referred to yesterday’s statement by the Northern Ireland civil service that is casting a dark pall over Northern Ireland. Will the Minister take this opportunity to say that, when the Government suggest ways of balancing the books by February, they will rule out scrapping the free bus pass, scrapping education maintenance allowance or even—heaven forfend—reintroducing prescription charges?
There are indeed important challenges to be faced in order to secure sustainable finances in Northern Ireland for the long term. Tackling those challenges requires political decisions, which is why we should all wish to see a restored Administration in Stormont.