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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:47 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Emma Little Pengelly Emma Little Pengelly Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Trade) 11:47 pm, 28th October 2019

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. In my own constituency, we have a number of fantastic schools on the frontline, including Fleming Fulton, Glenveagh and Harberton. They are three fantastic schools in my constituency which do a huge amount of work. Other schools are also dealing with complex needs. I have reached out and spoken to them, and I understand the pressures they are under.

Moving on to health, in one respect we have been fortunate in Northern Ireland in that before Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly, the Bengoa report, which talked about transformation, was agreed to, so we have a policy framework. However, let me absolutely clear: these types of issues and pressures are not being articulated because there is no forum for this in Northern Ireland. Health-related matters do not fall to councils. There is no Northern Ireland Executive and this is a fully devolved matter, so it is rarely spoken about in detail in this forum, but we need health transformation in Northern Ireland.

We recognise that the current system is not fit for purpose. The Democratic Unionist party is absolutely committed to that transformation in a way that protects frontline services. We want to, and will, stand up for healthcare workers to ensure that they get proper remuneration for their hard work. Nurses, doctors, cleaners and the other staff in hospitals, including the administrative staff and consultants, are all working under huge pressure, and I pay tribute to them and the incredible work that they do in a system that is no longer fit for purpose, puts huge pressure on them and prevents them from getting the remuneration that they really deserve and that people really want to give.

We recognise that as the transformation is undertaken, we also need the additional resources to sort out things such as waiting lists. All Democratic Unionist party Members know how many constituents come in to see us who are sitting on waiting lists that are growing and growing, week by week, month by month. We want to get that investment in parallel with the much-needed transformation, so that the money does not just go on transformation when people on the frontline are suffering. We need to reduce GP waiting times and get more GPs into the practices to help them to support our constituents.

I want to touch briefly on the business community. Businesses are rightly concerned about the proposal in relation to Brexit, but I do not want to talk about Brexit in any great detail today, because there will be plenty of other opportunities—and there have been opportunities—to do that. However, many of the issues for the business community in Northern Ireland are the same as those that businesses face across the United Kingdom. I have absolutely fantastic commercial areas in my constituency—everything from the Lisburn Road to Stranmillis Road, to Ormeau Road, to Finaghy Road, and there are many others across my constituency. They are fantastic areas with many small businesses where the business owners and staff are working incredibly hard under difficult circumstances. Our business rates are too high. Our businesses are struggling and they very much need this reform. I welcome the fact that there is a consultation out, but the Democratic Unionist party wants to do something fundamental to support the very many small businesses that are trying to make our economy work and make Northern Ireland thrive.

Our high streets are suffering. There was an announcement on the high streets fund across England and Wales, but we do not have that in Northern Ireland. I wrote to the head of the civil service asking him to use that money because Northern Ireland got a Barnett consequential. It got money from that announcement. Is it going to our high streets? No, but the Democratic Unionist party would absolutely prioritise supporting our high streets and those businesses and trying to make the very hearts of our communities, towns, villages and cities work.

I briefly want to mention the environment. I will not go into a huge amount of detail, but many people in Northern Ireland are really interested in this issue. I am not sure whether the Secretary of State is aware of this, but Northern Ireland has one of the lowest levels of woodland cover of any region in the United Kingdom. We have on average 6% or 7% woodland cover. The average across the United Kingdom is 13%, and across the European Union, it is 38%, so Northern Ireland has the lowest percentage of woodland cover by far across the British Isles, the Republic of Ireland and the European Union.

I will conclude with a plea, because I genuinely feel that this needs to be addressed. I have put a proposal on the table: to mark the 100 years of Northern Ireland, I am proposing the creation of a project to increase significantly the amount of woodland cover. One way that we could do this is by planting a tree for every person alive across Northern Ireland and the border counties—approximately 2 million trees. That would bring our woodland cover up from about 7% to about 12% or 13%, which would be the UK average. That project could happen and has happened elsewhere. There are other big initiatives across the United Kingdom, and I ask the Secretary of State to give serious consideration to supporting that proposal.