Debate [suspended on 11 September 2006] resumed on motion:
That the Assembly approves the first report from the Committee on the Preparation for Government on the economic challenges facing Northern Ireland; agrees that it should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, pending restoration of the Institutions, calls on the Secretary of State, the Committee on the Preparation for Government and others to take action to implement the recommendations in the report. — [Chairpersons, Committee on the Preparation for Government.]
Fortunately, my speech is entirely positive, and therefore I do not have to redraft it following your ruling. [Laughter.]
I believe passionately that there is a direct correlation between economic prosperity and a sound educational process that enables people to think for themselves. I go further and say that the greatest weapon against injustice in any society is the ability to read and write at a level that maximises the individual’s potential. For Members who have read it, volume 2 of the report records that representatives of the Department for Employment and Learning have given a strong commitment to stepping up the Department’s input to basic skills. That must be welcomed. That Department is charged with putting 18,500 people through the essential-skills qualification by March 2007 and will then progress those people to level 2 qualifications, which, I am pleased to say, includes improving their literacy and numeracy skills. In its submission, the Department agreed that recent research indicates that the positive outcome of those programmes goes far beyond acquiring basic reading and writing skills. The added value — if I can put it that way — that those skills bring to individuals is an acknowledgement that self-esteem is increased, that health improves, and so on. I should like to develop the “and so on” part of that sentence, because it is relevant to the wider issues that confront us in Northern Ireland.
Without discussing the education system further — that is a debate for another day — it is an undisputed fact that many young people fall through the safety net that the education system provides. The people who fall through that net are the ones who have no basic skills, low standards of literacy and numeracy and low levels of self-esteem.
If history is to teach us anything, it is that people who have low levels of literacy and numeracy are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In the past, the brigadiers and those who gave themselves lofty military titles gave those young people a false self-esteem by roping them into terrorism, drug dealing and many other forms of criminality.
By developing education and training programmes, we are equipping our young people with the tools that allow them to think for themselves and enable them to make positive decisions. That process is helped by enriched levels of self-esteem, pride and respect for the rights and views of others. In other words, we will develop a more caring society in which real equality and real democracy are nurtured because everyone is rising on the spring tide of new hope and new prosperity.
I acknowledge the role that the colleges of further and higher education played during the darkest days of the past. People often felt that there was little hope for the future, no prospect of reconciliation and no possibility of finding a new route to economic recovery. In the most difficult of times, the lecturers and students of those colleges made a huge contribution towards economic activity, often with the most meagre resources and poorly equipped buildings. During the previous Assembly, many of those colleges rightly received huge investment. Today they are in a strong position to take a lead in the kinds of plans and ideals that are contained in the report. Their contribution must not be undervalued or sacrificed in any way.
Surely it would be much better for children who enter further education to have skills in English and mathematics at level 4 or above. I acknowledge that vast improvements have been made, and I hope that the safety net has fewer holes now than it had in the past. However, being realistic, for the foreseeable future colleges of further education will have critical roles in picking up the pieces where others have failed. After all, some 250,000 people between the ages of 16 and 64 lack the most basic numeracy and literacy skills. In other words, they have not reached the first rung of the ladder at which skills can be measured.
The report refers to welfare reforms. The Welfare to Work programme is addressing the problem of benefits competing with the search for employment. Unfortunately, major changes, which will take the form of a new kind of income support designed to test the very nature of that important question, will not be introduced until 2008.
In the meantime, the Pathways to Work programme has already been rolled out in six of the 10 areas that it will cover in Northern Ireland. That programme considers the needs of the individual, whether they are lone parents, aged over 50 or on incapacity benefit. I hope that the claim that that programme will genuinely address people’s needs is an indication that the revolving-door syndrome is finally coming to an end and that people will be treated as individuals, rather than simply being placed on training programmes that leave them back where they started. After all, did the Good Friday Agreement not promise equality in all its forms, not simply some kind of equilibrium between Protestants and Catholics?
When the subgroup was taking evidence, reference was made, time and time again, to the successful models developed in the Republic. In fact, there are exemplary models in both parts of the island. The greatest possible degree of student mobility is essential. During the summer, it emerged that students coming from the Republic to colleges of further education in the North, and particularly in the north-west, were experiencing serious problems. Those problems have been only temporarily addressed, for one year. That is no good and does nothing for students on both sides of the border who want to choose courses that address their needs and the needs of the local economy, but are not available locally.
By September 2007, the number of further education colleges will be reduced to six. Any new Assembly must ensure that the rationalisation programme does not swamp the identity of the existing colleges or the work in which they have been involved in serving their local communities. If that happens, the baby will have been thrown out with the bathwater.
I note that the term “vocational” is to be dropped from the vocabulary because it suggests a route that is for the less able and those who cause problems. I am not sure of the rationale behind that assumption, and I would guard against such a move. The technical or vocational colleges that were established at the beginning of the last century have served this island well over the years and produced some of the most talented people ever to contribute to the economy. I see nothing wrong with the term “vocational” and suggest that were people recognised for their vocations, there would be higher self-esteem, greater job enrichment and a rediscovery of the values that workers hold in their respective fields of employment. Perhaps then there would not be so many people without basic skills or hope.
A new Assembly must continue the work that has been started by the subgroup of the Preparation for Government Committee. Of course, it is the responsibility of every Member of this Assembly to ensure that there is a platform to discuss the issues and to reconfirm their commitment to creating a new economy based on maximising everyone’s talents according to their individual ability — 24 November is not far away.
After almost four hours of exciting debate yesterday, there is not much left to say on the subject. However, I will give my tuppence-ha’penny’s worth anyway — although, having listened to the Stephen Nolan radio show on the way to work this morning, I wonder whether a tuppence-ha’penny’s worth in the Chamber is of any value.
No, it did not.
Like my colleagues who spoke yesterday, I want to thank those who prepared the report, those who chaired the subgroup’s meetings on a cross-party basis — which was exciting in itself — and those who contributed to the report’s contents. The Alliance Party participated enthusiastically in the meetings on the economic future of Northern Ireland. Its prosperity and economic growth has too often taken second place or has been given even less priority. Northern Ireland’s economic affairs should have been given priority long ago.
Northern Ireland has, for many years, borne the significant detrimental consequences of being a divided society. It has experienced lower-than-expected economic growth because of the troubles. Consider this fact: as little as half a per cent less of gross domestic product (GDP) each year has a large cumulative effect over decades. How much have we lost because tourists and foreign businesses did not want to come here? In the background, the paramilitaries sustained their black economy with intimidation, extortion, arson and outright destruction. Thus, they denied the hard-working people of Northern Ireland a better economic future.
Partly as a response to that violence, private businesses either kept their heads down or never got started. Workers stayed in their own areas even after the worst abuses of discrimination were removed. The public sector, however, continued to grow. The report rightly recognises that the public sector is crowding private-sector development out. The public sector cannot be blamed for attracting talented individuals. However, Northern Ireland plc must provide worthwhile opportunities if it is to attract the best people, and, more importantly, retain them.
The Alliance Party wholeheartedly endorses the report’s recommendations on additional resources for R&D activity. That has repeatedly been a key pledge in my party’s election manifestos. Success in R&D will come about through collaboration between local businesses, universities and multinationals. Often, smaller enterprises are the most willing to venture here. We must recognise the vital role that the small and medium-sized business sector plays in Northern Ireland and provide the incentives that will encourage those businesses to grow. That requires proper investment in the infrastructure — more money must be spent on public rather than private transport. We must also support back-to-work programmes, and vast sums of money must not be wasted on segregated and duplicated public services.
The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister policy, ‘A Shared Future’, will investigate that. The Alliance Party has identified around £1 billion of public expenditure in Northern Ireland that is wasted in dealing with the direct and indirect costs of managing a divided society. Direct costs arise from the policing of riots, civil disturbances, marches, parades and walks, and also through the distortions to normal policing that are caused by the security threat, and a wide range of agencies face costs for the repair of damaged buildings, facilities and so on. Indirect costs arise from the necessity to provide duplicate goods, facilities and services for separate sections of the community. Those include schools, GPs’ surgeries, job centres, community centres, leisure centres and even bus stops. These costs are borne by both the public and private sectors.
The divisions and segregation in Northern Ireland have also proved to be a major deterrent to inward investment and tourism, as has the cost of attracting those investments. Millions of pounds could be freed by addressing that, and that money could be better spent on frontline services.
Beyond saving money and implementing the worthwhile recommendations of the report, Northern Ireland’s economic future is intertwined with its social future. We can no longer afford the luxury of living and working apart and not creating our own wealth and prosperity. There is a need for optimism and an “Ulster can do it” spirit that recognises what is required to ensure success. I am optimistic, and I am encouraged that people want to come to Northern Ireland to work. If the depth of segregation and the lack of diversity marked a declining economy in Northern Ireland, greater integration and diversity will bring success.
Northern Ireland’s greatest assets are: its good, clean, green environment; the beautiful countryside; the built heritage; and the wonderful coastline and beaches. Tourism in Northern Ireland should be a major economic earner. Substantial advances have been made, but we must do more. The last thing that we need is a reduction and blighting of our coastline by unsightly apartments, but, unfortunately, that threat does exist. A cartoon recently published in the press shows a map of Northern Ireland with buildings along the coastline from south Down, up round the Ards Peninsula and on to the Foyle estuary. A sign reads: “Private Coastline Development Co”, and a group of tourists who have just arrived in Northern Ireland are being greeted by a mayor who is saying: “The council is at the advanced planning stage of an imaginative coastline development facility!” The visitors cannot even see the coastline for apartments and houses.
Unfortunately, the coastline is under threat, and to its shame, Ards Borough Council — of which I am a member — is proposing to sell off coastal land in Cloghey, Portavogie and Donaghadee to the highest bidder. I am sure that Members know where those places are and have visited them. However, the council is supposed to be supporting tourism throughout the Ards borough and Northern Ireland.
We should be providing more picnic areas, coastal parking areas and play areas for children and tourists to visit and enjoy. Comments are being made about more hotels; we should have more hotels. I read in this morning’s press that a major new hotel is going to be built on the site of the Crumlin Road courthouse. Hotels should be built there rather than blighting our coastline. I therefore appeal to Ards councillors and to any other councillors in the Building: scrap the idea of selling coastal land; give a lead to promoting tourism throughout Northern Ireland; and help bring increased prosperity to all our areas.
A good, vibrant economy where everyone is gainfully employed is the aim of this report, and we all should support its contents and do what is necessary to fulfil its many recommendations.
I join with other Members in commending the staff who were involved in the Preparation for Government Committee over the summer, and particularly those who were involved in the report that is before the House.
I also commend all the democrats, right across the political divide, who were involved in the preparation of the report.
Much has already been said by other Members about the report. A big weaknesses of the previous Assembly, setting aside the political difficulties and problems that should be all too obvious to most of us, was that it could not ensure that the economy of Northern Ireland received the necessary financial boost, which made it difficult for people to recognise the tangible benefits of devolution.
That weakness — that shortfall — is why quite a few individuals and parties have upped the ante in anticipation of the restoration of devolution, whether that is in the near or not-so-near future. Yesterday, Mr McNarry, who is not with us at the moment, referred to those of us who had put forward propositions to help in that regard. It was unfortunate that his comments were negative, particularly as he did not feel the need to put forward a proposition himself. That was doubly negative and doubly unfortunate.
It will be difficult to convince the Treasury to agree to a differential in corporation tax rates. As other Members have said, if we do not convince the Treasury, be it the present incumbent — I am not allowed to name that person — or someone different in the near future, we should be saying that if we cannot get the 10% corporation tax rate, we should be getting something that equates to a similar figure. That would mean that we could compete with the Irish Republic.
Members have quoted past representatives of the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) and others who have said that their corporation tax rate is the big issue for them and that it makes them attractive and makes their inward investment programme much easier to conduct. That is unarguable. If that is the case, and if Northern Ireland is the Irish Republic’s nearest competitor, it is equally unarguable that we must have something to compete with that. If we all concentrate our minds on trying to agree what that alternative should be, we can give the economy the turbo-boost that it undoubtedly needs, improving as it has been in recent years.
Mr Dallat referred in some detail to the benefits of the further and higher education system in Northern Ireland. We should all agree and concur with that. He mentioned an issue that has been concentrating the minds of our Minister and her counterpart in the Irish Republic in recent months. The further and higher education colleges are at risk of losing hundreds of full-time students who come from the Irish Republic to receive their education in towns such as Enniskillen, Londonderry, Limavady and Newry. I have been pressing the Minister to resolve that issue, as have some of my colleagues.
I have made my views clear to the Minister. The DUP will support whatever can be done to retain the colleges’ ability to educate those students. However, in doing so, I have also drawn attention to the utterly deplorable fact that, up to now, the cost of that education has been more than £3·5 million a year. I received that information in reply to a parliamentary question. UK taxpayers have been paying to educate students from the Irish Republic in Northern Ireland. I would have no difficulty with that if there were an arrangement whereby we could see a return on that money — if students from Northern Ireland were to receive equivalent treatment in the Irish Republic — but, as I understand it, that is not the case.
Does the Member acknowledge that university tuition fees were abolished in Southern universities some years ago, and that that abolition applies as much to students from Northern Ireland as it does to students from the South?
I acknowledge that, but I am talking about hundreds of students from the Irish Republic, who are resident in the Irish Republic but receive full-time education in the further and higher education system in Northern Ireland. The hon Member for North Antrim and I, and the other 1·7 million people in Northern Ireland, pay for that, and it is unacceptable.
I understand that the Departments in both jurisdictions have negotiated and agreed a package for next year, and I welcome that and want to see the details. However, in the long term, there must be some quid pro quo. Whatever that might be, let us see a satisfactory conclusion to that, as it would be beneficial for our further and higher education system.
Mr McCarthy referred to tourism. Tourism plays a significant role in Northern Ireland’s economy, but it could be much more significant. A few months ago, my colleagues and I visited the United States of America. We found out about the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which will take place in Washington in July 2007. It is a huge festival in which Northern Ireland will be showcased on Capitol Hill for a week. That opportunity must be maximised, and we must ensure that Northern Ireland is promoted from coast to coast in the USA. We must ensure that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and Tourism Ireland sell the Northern Ireland product to the 250 million people in the United States of America. We will probably be unable to replicate such a showcase in the next two or three years; we should take full advantage of it and press the Minister who has responsibility for tourism —
I hope that that will be the case, and we will press for that to be the case.
The issue of Northern Ireland’s economy being so dependent on the public sector has been raised and will continue to be raised. We must ensure that public sector employees do not see greater private sector involvement as a threat; it is not, and it ought not to be. What we are talking about is complementarity. The greater level of growth must be in the private sector, with high-quality, well-paid jobs offering a positive way forward for the well-educated workforce of Northern Ireland. We need to ensure that public sector workers do not see that as a threat.
The final issue that I wish to address is political stability, which is fundamental to developing an economy. In the past 36 years, it has been difficult to have a stable economic outlook in the absence of political stability. We must ensure that we work towards achieving that. As an integral part of political stability, terror and criminality must be given no legitimacy, no recognition and no place in the Government that provides that political stability.
In fact, it is something of an oxymoron to pretend that political stability could occur while allowing the corruptive and corrosive influence of criminality and terror into the Government. Therefore I think — and I hope — that people will understand our determination to resist that influence, regardless of what happens on 24 November this year or in subsequent years. We must keep working for political security.
Yesterday, Sir Reg Empey, a Member for East Belfast, referred to North/South structures. He stated that Dermot Ahern — or perhaps I should say the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Irish Republic — made comments at the weekend about North/South structures having a greater influence. I wonder how people can say that all North/South co-operation is not political and is not to be considered by unionists as worrisome or cumbersome in any way, and that that community should see that practical co-operation exists. Of course, we have no difficulty with practical co-operation, but it seems to be incongruous for people such as the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Irish Republic to use something that is supposed to be non-political as a political big stick with which to beat us. I do not know how such people can reconcile those ideas. Therefore we should analyse whether the North/South structures that are being anticipated for 25 November and beyond are of practical benefit. If not, they will receive the response that the unionist community has given them in previous years.
I shall conclude by discussing the need to get not only political stability but an agreement in Northern Ireland that commands the consent of both sections of our community. That is where the Belfast Agreement failed. I listened intently yesterday as Margaret Ritchie, an SDLP spokesperson, repeated a mantra. It seems that if one repeats something often enough, it will become reality. No matter how many times one says that something is unacceptable, it remains unacceptable. We must find something that is acceptable to the nationalist community as well as to the unionist community. The Belfast Agreement did not provide that, and terror and criminality in our Government will not provide that for unionists and will never do so. So we have to work our way through the matter. No mafia-type organised and structured crime should be connected to our Government. It destabilises the Government and does not provide the stability that the economic development of our country so sorely needs.
I congratulate my Assembly colleagues of all parties who have collaborated on this mammoth undertaking. Their work rate and diligence in preparing the report within such a short time deserves wider recognition than the media — with some notable exceptions — have been so far inclined to afford it.
I also thank those individuals, organisations, institutions and Departments that brought important features, that are often buried in weighty reports, into clear focus. It would be remiss of me not to mention the tenacity of the Committee staff, who not only sought out several key contributors at short notice but pulled the discussions and submissions together in a meaningful manner to enable this debate to proceed.
To set the issue in a meaningful context, it would be helpful to place the findings in that well-worn framework — the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis. If we approach the challenges in that analytical manner rather than jump into the deep pessimism of the half-empty-glass syndrome, or the equally unhelpful gung-ho, glass-half-full stance, we may be able to build a coherent and cohesive approach to them. If we arrive at that consensus, we will be in the position that the American writer Frank Tyger described when he said:
“When it comes to winning, you need the skill and the will.”
Clearly, the emergence of the report indicates that the Assembly and the parties that are represented today have the will. Let us see whether they have the skill to put the package together for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland plc.
Education, in its widest sense, is crucial to maintaining and expanding our economy. We must invest our limited resources wisely. It is, therefore, my contention that we must immediately address the problems faced by primary schools in the most marginalised areas. Yesterday, my colleague Mr Robert McCartney mentioned the importance of the primary sector. How can we continue to produce excellent teachers and allow them to become unemployed or face a limbo in which they spend an occasional day covering for an absence or an in-service training demand? Why not use them as a task force of eager, enthusiastic role models for those children who so desperately need to be enthused? In doing that, they would also develop their professionalism at the chalk face. The permanent staff would also benefit by being saved from the present high levels of burnout that are features in many areas.
This initiative, together with smaller class sizes, would have a lasting impact on the low levels of educational attainment that have a lasting and damaging impact on pupils as they move up through the system, culminating in poor basic skills of literacy, numeracy and communication that so bedevil attempts to raise the skills of our potential workforce. In economic terms, early intervention is more cost-effective than remedial measures that have to be introduced at a later stage.
Our secondary sector has a higher percentage of pupils achieving two or more A levels than does England. However, we have about 20 schools that produce the almost 20% of our pupils who do not even achieve level 2. In numeracy and literacy we perform well at the upper end, as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) benchmark studies have proved, but we also have a significant tail of underachievement and a noticeable difference in attainments by gender.
The Department of Education said, as noted in volume 3, page 90, paragraph 7 of this report:
“Since more young people with high qualifications leave Northern Ireland there is an impact on the overall qualifications levels of the workforce.”
The current approach of its sister Department, the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) towards this ongoing brain drain is, therefore, somewhat puzzling. If Northern Ireland is to have a world-class economy, surely it cannot afford to lose this latent potential workforce every year. It is worth investigating the role played by some second-level institutions in so many students moving across the water for their third-level education, a factor that seems, for whatever reason, to affect Protestants in particular.
It also remains to be seen if the ongoing, much-publicised and as yet uncosted changes in second-level education will improve or impede the economy. Currently, 30% of pupils are not qualified to level 2, and 22·4% have no qualifications. Only 41% of our workforce is qualified to level 3, which is craft level. The role of the further and higher education sector in delivering the skills required to stabilise and extend the economy is critical. Earlier intervention at primary school level would free further education colleges from the task of providing the amount of basic literacy and numeracy intervention that is currently required. That would give added status and focus to the skills agenda and to the likes of the modern apprenticeship programmes.
Training for Success is a welcome initiative. However, some of the problems that surrounded former schemes are still embedded in the framework. Public perception of vocational routes can still be clouded by their association over the years with low achievers. Modern apprenticeships must be valued and be seen to have real currency in the eyes of the participants, employers and society if they are to become credible.
We must also be realistic about the problems that spring from the preponderance of small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland. Few employers can absorb the number of apprentices that the economy may require them to. Mundane issues such as supervision and insurance are burdens that the small-business sector cannot easily cope with. Those issues need further clarification. Apprenticeships could then be more strategically focused on sectors identified by the business community. That would also enable the further education sector to address its increasing role as a player in economic development. This sector, which is currently undergoing major restructuring, is having enhanced responsibilities placed on it. Although this may be a recognition of its ability to deliver quality education and to enhance our skills base, there are limitations inherent in the sector.
First, the physical estate must be the most modern available, not only as regards bricks and mortar but in respect of the quality and quantity of technical equipment provided. Secondly, I am concerned that, after the demise of the Government training centres during previous restructuring phases, the expertise of staff with actual experience of the workplace may be diminishing rapidly. That internal training need must be addressed to ensure that colleges have high-quality staff with qualifications and industrial experience. Theory must be matched with practice if we are to produce a highly skilled workforce that has been exposed to the realities of working in a business setting.
Thirdly, further education colleges must be given adequate resources to enable them to deliver the Department’s agenda and the business sector’s expectations. They must also be given a degree of flexibility that enables them to respond to the regional demands outlined in many submissions and short-notice requirements at local demand level.
The expertise and enthusiasm displayed by individual colleges — and I have visited several during the past year — allied to the vision for the sector expounded by the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges (ANIC) augurs well for the future. However, a closer degree of co-operation will be required between representatives of the Department, employers, unions and those who forecast the changing needs of our economy, if they are to be nimble enough to keep up with the pace of change.
In the higher education sector, we have been well served over the years by our universities. However, rapid change is also in the air in that sector. Queen’s University and the University of Ulster have responded positively, seeking globally to widen their pool of lecturing expertise. They have developed links with other parts of the world and expanded their activities in a manner that will enable them to realise fully the potential of the intellectual property that they have generated.
However, there is a need to link venture capital and other streams of Government moneys in order to pump-prime those initiatives and help to bring ideas more quickly to market. Imposing top-up fees will not generate the level of finance that universities need. Indeed, such fees may even preclude a sector of society that could bring a new perspective to university life and subsequently transfer those benefits back into currently marginalised areas.
We are not persuaded by part of DEL’s position paper ‘Consideration of the Optimum Number of Full Time Undergraduate Places in Northern Ireland Higher Education’, which refers to lifting the maximum aggregate student number (MASN) cap. Furthermore, we feel that the Department’s laissez-faire approach is in stark contrast to positive activity in other UK regions.
The loss of 20% of potential graduates each year is a brain drain that we cannot continue to afford if we are to create a critical mass of undergraduates and expand postgraduate potential. It is crucial that the close relationship between the further and higher education sectors is maintained and strengthened. They are not competitors; they are, and must continue to be, a coherent and cohesive component in Northern Ireland plc’s drive towards achieving a high-value economy serviced by a highly educated and properly skilled workforce.
The location of business clusters based on the commercial outcome of university research and development (R&D) projects is a vital area for future growth. Although those zones need not be adjacent to a campus, there is scope for them to be adequately housed within a reasonable distance. I encourage the Planning Service and Invest Northern Ireland to engage with the universities so that the present embarrassing void in my locality, known as Global Point, is seriously considered as a potential site within an enterprise zone. It could easily be linked with the excellent work carried out by enterprise agencies and spin-out companies generated by third-level research projects.
Global Point is unique to Northern Ireland in that the infrastructure is already in place: it is adjacent to a rail link; a motorway, the A8 (M); a trans-European network route in the A8 road to the ports of Larne and Belfast; an international airport; a university campus; and a good mix of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) and larger employers.
However, all that potential growth is stymied by the bureaucracy that several contributors have firmly castigated. In the interim, our competitors in the Republic of Ireland — and I stress the words “competitors in the Republic of Ireland” — rezone land, expand the motorway system and rail links and plan multi-modal transport hubs that will threaten our growth potential in Northern Ireland. Their can-do approach is in stark contrast to our “let’s have another strategy and some more consultation” inertia-bound model.
The Northern Ireland Manufacturing Focus Group’s (NIMFG) key points document refers to industrial derating and illustrates clearly the inability of our Government to grasp the way in which any competitive advantages left to us are being undermined through their inept approach to our economy.
In conclusion, it is clear that if Northern Ireland is to achieve economic success on the required scale, a cocktail of measures is needed — perhaps we shall all need a cocktail after this mammoth session. That cocktail of measures must be based on up-to-date and reliable labour market research data, which should indicate those areas where there are, or are likely to be, skills shortages. Further and higher education colleges must be in a position to respond to needs in a flexible manner, so that the long-term and short-term requirements of business can be met at regional and local levels.
The critical role of R&D must be realised and supported by tax incentives that are broad and simple enough to encourage more businesses, especially in the SME sector, which is Northern Ireland’s largest sector, to become involved. That might be achieved through clustering and the introduction of R&D champions, as suggested by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), or by encouraging those in the SME sector to become partners with larger businesses or universities. Northern Ireland can no longer languish at a private business level of 0·5% investment in R&D, while its neighbours continue to invest up to two or three times that amount. If the chronic shortfall is to be addressed, such an approach is needed.
I am also drawn to the knowledge bank idea, especially with its commercial manager’s acting as a single point of contact for companies with high-growth potential. Members will have experience of having to wrestle with half a dozen agencies before a simple decision can be made. UUTech Ltd’s suggestion for special economic zones, with economic potential for companies engaged in collaborative R&D, is worthy of note. DEL’s collaboration fund for further and higher education has potential, and, although it is time limited at the moment, following evaluation, it would be worth pursuing. Also worth pursuing is the SMILE project, which stands for small medium innovative learning enterprises, in which the further education colleges target SMEs under the banner of ANIC.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Jim Wells] in the Chair)
It is clear that all sections of Northern Ireland society stand willing to play their parts in this vital enterprise. Although the issues are being discussed here in somewhat of a vacuum, my party stands ready to play its part in bringing rural prosperity to all parts of society. I support the motion.
The motion serves two critical and highly significant objectives. First, the subgroup’s report is based on the full support of all the parties that have met over the past weeks. It is also based on the significant input of representatives from a wide range of interest groups, and that alone should commend it not only to Members but to Departments and to the community and business sectors. Secondly, the report provides parties with a key opportunity to demonstrate their seriousness to restore the political institutions by 24 November.
Before I address the report’s economy-related content, I will focus on its second purpose. As one of those Members who participated regularly in the deliberations of the Preparation for Government Committee and during the early stages of the economic challenges subgroup, I must confess that it was not always a positive experience. Difficult things were said, and accusations of ill will — and even worse — were not uncommon. Comments were misinterpreted, and offence was often taken. However, alongside that, Members who participated will acknowledge that, as those keen anoraks who study Hansard will have discovered, there was some good humour. The staff were wonderful and, in that remark, I include those who chaired the meetings.
Without overstating what has been achieved, I can say that some significant advances have been made, among them the report upon which today’s motion is based. To date, the report is the high point of the Committee’s work.
If we are to build on what we are too slowly addressing, we must take every opportunity to build confidence that all of us will deliver on our commitments and so enable restoration to happen in ways that are more, rather than less, likely to sustain our institutions. I regret and fail to understand why a party that so stridently claims that its ultimate objective is to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter is not present to contribute to building that confidence.
What, I have to ask, has Sinn Féin to be afraid of in putting its views on this report and on the economy generally before the Members of the Assembly and, through it, to the public at large? Sinn Féin is prepared to contribute to the work of the Preparation for Government Committee and to compiling a report that states:
“that the report will form a basis for a constructive and informed Assembly debate in September 2006”.
Why is it not making its constructive contribution here today? Instead, true to its name, “ourselves alone”, Sinn Féin is huddling in its corner of the political field, clutching its ball to its chest, hoping that if it appeals to the two Governments they will oblige its future partners in the Executive to join it. It is a shameful position. The sooner Sinn Féin abandons it and fully joins the rest of us, the better it will be for the people who have sent us here.
If we are to make this debate meaningful, and if the report before us today is not to rest on a shelf already littered with similar reports from earlier Assemblies and elsewhere, we need to know that all will play their part in making restoration a reality. The DUP, which still will not commit to restoration by 24 November, also fails the challenge set by itself and the other parties who authored the report, all of whom agreed that:
“All the parties on the subgroup accepted that failure to have all-party agreement on the political institutions and policing will hinder and act as an impediment to business investment in Northern Ireland”.
Their prevarication contributes to the failure to reach that agreement. If these words mean what they say, no party can find refuge any longer in prevarication, obfuscation and delay. No party can avoid committing itself to a wholehearted embrace of the principles of partnership, equality and human rights. No party can take it upon itself to be the sole arbiter of when and whether conditions set for assessing the state of paramilitarism and related criminality are being met.
We have the basic framework and the institutions set out in the Good Friday Agreement to guide us. That framework and those institutions should give us all confidence to engage with one another in the full knowledge that our constitutional rights, human rights and civil rights are fully protected, and that, like any living document of its kind, the agreement’s implementation can be developed and amended in the light of experience. That should be our guarantee and our protection.
As to the details of the report, I wish to make a few points. Most of what it contains has been said many times over recent years: the need to move to a more wealth-generating economy; the need for business to become more export-oriented; the need to strengthen and fully develop our all-Ireland and wider business links; the need to modernise the infrastructure; the need to develop R&D capacity and to ensure that education and training programmes are better aligned with economic and social needs; the need to ensure that the best incentive package is available to encourage and sustain investment; and, above all, the need to ensure that the economy develops in ways that will contribute to community harmony and reconciliation.
Yesterday, I was struck by what I regard as very strong and — in part, at least — ill-informed criticism of our education service. Evidence from the most sophisticated international assessment of literacy, numeracy and scientific knowledge, conducted under the auspices of the OECD, shows that in those three skill areas the mean scores of 15-year-olds in Northern Ireland are higher than those of their peers in many other OECD countries, including the Republic of Ireland — by several ranking places — Denmark, Germany, France and Sweden, all of which would be regarded as having much more successful economies than we have. In respect of scientific knowledge, the mean scores of 15-year-olds are ranked sixth behind Japan, Finland, Korea, Australia and the Netherlands. None of our immediate competitors is ranked higher than we are. That does not mean that we do not have problems with those whose scores are much lower than the mean.
Those results, however, tell me that our education system serves us very well. Furthermore, they tell me that, although we have the skills, we are not able to provide the best outlets for those who possess those skills. Therefore, we need more high-value jobs, such as have been provided in the South and in other successful economies.
I particularly endorse recommendation 11, on economic opportunities. It would be madness not to engage in strengthening clustering and collaboration with the South, and some instances of that are already taking place. Over the past decade, output in the South has almost doubled, and the rate of growth is three times greater than it is here. At present we can only match the South’s standard of living by making even heavier demands on the Exchequer. Most, if not all, Members will acknowledge that evidence from consistent British ministerial pronouncements indicates that assistance from the Exchequer will not be easily forthcoming, if at all.
The financial services sector, among others, offers special opportunities for collaboration. Starting from zero in 1987, the international financial services sector in the South has created over 11,000 high-income jobs, has attracted over 450 international financial institutions and is host to half of the world’s top 50 banks and half of its top 20 insurance companies. We must do more than learn from that experience; we need to piggyback on it.
There is more work to be done on some of the report’s recommendations. We must be more precise as to our needs with regard to incentive packages. Far too often we talk glibly about peace dividends and financial packages, as if some extra financial support is all that is required to make the necessary step change in our economy. Figures are plucked from the air. If one party says that the figure should be £100 billion, another party is bound to say that it should be £200 billion. Somebody else will probably up that figure. That is a nonsensical auction game in which to get involved.
Given our circumstances, I support the call for special assistance. It should be in the form of special measures, incentives, and extra capital where that can be shown to be justified. A lower tax rate would help the competitive situation of local firms and add to our ability to attract greater inward investment. The benefits of low tax only kick in, as other Members have said, when businesses make a profit, and it is a much better way to stimulate entrepreneurial activity than grants and subsidies. A 12·5% rate will require approval from the European Commission, and we should not underestimate how difficult that will be to obtain. Only a devolved Administration will have the focus and the drive to lobby and achieve that.
The additional work that the economic subgroup is being asked to undertake on the issues identified should give confidence on how we structure and develop a strong social partnership, which is required in order to move forward. The basis for that has already been established in the engagement that took place with representatives from the business community and the voluntary sector in the course of preparing this report. We should build on that. We have seen the success that that has achieved in helping to stabilise the basis for economic development in the South.
Finally, last week I attended a seminar at which a representative of the greater Newry area spoke. Ten or 15 years ago that area was seen as a basket case in terms of economic and social development. Co-operation, determination, drive and imagination have transformed our new city into one of the North of Ireland’s leading cities with regard to economic and social development. We can learn from the way in which that has been achieved in Newry and extend the same spirit of determination and imagination to our work on economic development.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. It is always interesting to follow the Member for North Antrim. I must deal with some of Dr Farren’s comments about the Democratic Unionist Party before I come to the substance of the issue under debate. It is, of course, a tradition that when SDLP members criticise Sinn Féin they must balance that with an attack on the DUP. Any SDLP statement that is aimed primarily at Sinn Féin must include the obligatory paragraph that has a go at this party.
Let me make it clear to the Member — and he ought to know this — that the DUP stands ready to play its part in a partnership Government in Northern Ireland. It is the SDLP that has refused to sit in partnership with the DUP, despite the fact that we have offered on numerous occasions to go into a coalition Government, today, with it and other democratic parties. However, that does not appear to be acceptable to the SDLP. The fact that we do not have a devolved Government, as Dr Farren knows, is down to the failure of one party — a party that is absent from the Chamber today, a party that has still not met the democratic standards required of any party that wants to be in a democratic Government.
Dr Farren mentioned the importance of agreement on policing as part of the way forward. Of course that is important. However, I remind the Member that for years his party was unhappy with the policing arrangements in Northern Ireland and refused to take its seats on the Police Authority for Northern Ireland. Indeed, it was common parlance that, in unionist terms, SDLP stood for “Still don’t like the police”. That was its position for years.
Indeed I am, Mr Deputy Speaker. Given that the Member who spoke before me spent a considerable portion of his speech dealing with these issues, it is only right that I have the opportunity to respond in the context of creating a Northern Ireland that has the political stability to ensure a thriving economy in the future.
In concluding my comments on policing, I say to the Member who spoke before me that agreement is important. However, just as the SDLP took its time — two or three decades — to reach the point where it felt able to sign up to the policing institutions in 1998, it is equally important that we get the devolution of policing and justice right this time. If that takes a little longer, we ought to take that extra time to ensure that we get it absolutely right.
The DUP is not procrastinating; we stand ready to engage in the discussions that will take place in the coming weeks. My party is ready to do what it can to play its part in reaching agreement. However, let us be absolutely clear: partnership in a democracy is important, but it must be based on democratic principles. One party has not yet reached the standard required, and its absence from the Chamber today speaks louder than anything that I could say.
I welcome the subgroup’s report on economic challenges; its recommendations are well thought through. In particular, I highlight recommendation 5, on vocational training, skills and research and development. That is an important element in driving forward our economy. We must look to the future and consider the type of industry that we want to attract to Northern Ireland. We must examine where future employment potential lies. That will enhance the types of vocational training that are provided for our young people. A real emphasis must be put on skills and vocational education.
I agree with the Member for East Londonderry, Mr Dallat, about the need for investment in the further education sector and its colleges and institutes. Like so many public-sector organisations, further education colleges and institutes are currently going through major changes.
I thank my colleague for giving way. Is he aware that young people who are trying to develop vocational skills in plumbing and electrical work through further education colleges are greatly concerned that firms are not offering apprenticeships, thereby denying young people the opportunity to go to further education colleges?
I thank the hon Member for Strangford for that intervention. I agree with her entirely that there is a need to look at what skills are required and to focus the courses available in further education colleges and institutes on those needs.
Lisburn has an excellent further education institute. In the institute’s main building, a hall is dedicated to the late Harry Ferguson, one of the great innovators produced by the Northern Ireland education system. We need more Harry Fergusons today, and, dare I say it, a few Sarah Fergusons — if Sarah, Duchess of York will forgive me. We need men and women with vision and innovation.
We need men and women who are capable of providing the leadership required in industry and the vision to create new opportunities and employment. That is very important. In getting that right through focusing on vocational education and skills, we must help young people throughout the education system to see the value of pursuing careers in industry and of going into business.
Even today, our education system does not place enough emphasis on that very important aspect of our life. Indeed, as the hon Member for Strangford said, it is almost frowned upon for a young person to think about becoming a joiner, a bricklayer or a plumber. That should not be the case. Some people whom I went to school with have done very well for themselves and have generated much wealth through building, joinery and plumbing businesses. We need to re-establish the value of those trades within the Northern Ireland economy.
This summer, I had the privilege of visiting China for the first time. I was amazed at the developments that are taking place in that country, especially in its economy. China is making huge investments in its infrastructure. However, during my visit, I was disappointed to discover that Invest Northern Ireland has not sent a trade delegation to China for years, despite the fact that it has probably the fastest-growing economy in the world. Our representative in China is based in Malaysia and occasionally visits Shanghai. However, the major area of growth in China is in the south and, indeed, increasingly in the north. We must do more through Invest Northern Ireland to examine emerging economies such as that of China and identify trade opportunities for Northern Ireland companies. The sooner we send a trade delegation to China, the better.
Having mentioned Invest Northern Ireland, I make a plea for small businesses in Northern Ireland. Too often, people come to us who are trying to establish a new business or are trying to grow their existing business. I am sure that other Members experience that. The small businesses of Northern Ireland are at the heart of the economy. They make up the majority of our employment provision and help the economy to grow. However, too often they are frustrated when they go to Invest Northern Ireland for help, only to discover that they do not fit into the criteria or the categories that are laid down by that agency. The Local Enterprise Development Unit (LEDU) and the Industrial Development Board (IDB) were amalgamated a number of years ago, and I wonder whether that has hindered our small business sector to some extent. I welcome the report’s recommendation that we look again at the role, structure and functions of Invest Northern Ireland, especially in relation to the small business sector.
I also wish to mention the manufacturing sector. There is all-party support on the issue of industrial derating. I have no doubt that the imposition of industrial rates is damaging our manufacturing sector. Just last week in my constituency, Montupet in Dunmurry announced the loss of up to 90 jobs. A couple of weeks before that, Daewoo in Antrim made a similar announcement. Others will follow. I know of manufacturing companies that are considering taking their investment elsewhere. They are considering expansion but do not believe that Northern Ireland provides the most competitive environment in which to continue. I am referring to indigenous companies that are looking to relocate in eastern Europe and the Far East. That will mean a loss of jobs and a diminution of our manufacturing base.
There is all-party agreement that industrial rates should be capped at 25%. The Secretary of State, who shall not be named, has agreed to establish a committee to look at this again. However, time is of the essence. The DTZ Pieda report that was prepared in conjunction with the discussion on industrial rates stated that companies would end up paying only 2·5% of their profits in rates. Today, some companies are paying more than 50% of their profits in rates. That is squeezing those companies and damaging their capacity to invest and expand. They are looking at Northern Ireland and asking: “What is the point?”
In my constituency, we have had recent examples of companies that were seeking to expand and took their expansion plans south of the border. That means a loss of jobs and a loss of investment in our economy. I urge the Secretary of State to get on with implementing the all-party agreement that has been reached and cap industrial rates at 25%. That would give our manufacturing sector a key competitive edge, which it has lost in the very competitive world of the global economy.
I shall also mention another factor that I consider a disincentive to investment, namely our planning process. I welcome the recommendation of the report that the planning process needs to be reviewed, adequately resourced and effectively managed. All too often when it comes to large investment in Northern Ireland, we get bogged down in the planning process, and, again, we lose our competitive edge. Companies that are seeking to invest here do not wish to get bogged down in the planning process for two, three, four or five years. They will simply decide not to bother and will move elsewhere.
We must also consider how we can make more use of planning gain for major infrastructural improvements. We have been doing just that in Lisburn, which is in my constituency. The two major multi-million-pound roads projects that have been undertaken in the Lisburn area in the past five years have been privately financed. The project at Sprucefield and the work on the north Lisburn feeder road are both making a major contribution to improving the traffic situation. A third project, the Knockmore link — which will link the M1 to the north feeder road — has been proposed and will also be privately financed. In developing our infrastructure in Northern Ireland, more emphasis must be placed on planning gain, which can be used to benefit the whole community.
My hon Friend the Member for East Londonderry, Mr Campbell, touched on tourism. For years, we have engaged in the visitor-centre approach to tourism, but we must adopt a big-picture vision. We have something very valuable to offer. Our greatest tourist asset and selling point is the beauty of our country. Are we exploiting that to its full potential? I am not sure that we are.
I recently attended the launch in Parliament Buildings of a study that explores the possible benefits of reopening the Ulster Canal. The reopening of the Northern Ireland canal network could greatly contribute to opening up the entire Province to tourism and could act as a driver for regeneration. The Ulster Canal, which links into the Erne-Shannon waterway system, flows into Lough Neagh. We are also working with Belfast City Council, Castlereagh Borough Council and Craigavon Borough Council to explore the potential of opening the Lagan Canal. A visitor to Northern Ireland could get on a boat at Belfast and go all the way up the Lagan — preferably not in a bubble — to Lough Neagh, into the Ulster Canal system, down into the Erne-Shannon waterway system to Limerick, or north on the lower River Bann to Coleraine. That would open up this country to tourism, and it would be an attractive offering. Such a project would cost a lot of money and require vision, but that is the kind of project on which we must now focus if we are to promote tourism development in Northern Ireland. It is big-picture stuff, but that is what Northern Ireland needs.
As many other Members have done, I pay tribute to those who participated in the work of the subgroup. I also pay tribute to the many contributions from the business community. The Ulster Farmers’ Union contribution was particularly relevant to me, and those from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and from Mr Eric Reid of Moy Park are also worth mentioning.
The farming community faces two immediate problems: first, the difficulties that it currently experiences; and secondly, the future. The farming community has had a very difficult time in the past decade. It has suffered the BSE crisis, foot-and-mouth disease, the high exchange rate of sterling and decreasing produce prices. Twenty years ago, in 1986, milk prices averaged over 16p a litre. Some 10 or 11 years ago, they reached between 26p and 30p a litre. Today, farmers receive around 15p per litre, which is a reduction of 50% in the past decade. That is quite unsustainable.
Again, in 1995 and 1996 — some 10 or 11 years ago — the price of finished beef was about £2·65 a kilogram; now we are lucky to make £2 a kilogram, or less. The number of farms in Northern Ireland has decreased by one third in the past 20 years, from some 42,000 to just 28,000. I am not saying that rationalisation is bad for the economy, but it is bad for the traditional family unit. Farmers must realise the business sense of the agriculture industry.
Even the grain trade has suffered. Twenty years ago, wheat and barley were making £114 and £103 a ton respectively; now it is in the region of £83 and £88 a ton — again, a major decrease. Mr Eric Reid from Moy Park Ltd highlighted the problems in the poultry sector. Twenty years ago, broilers were making 53·7p a kilo, and now they are making just 50p a kilo.
Fifty years ago, farmers received 50p for every pound that was spent on the food industry; now it is just 7·5p. Look at the difference between what the farmer receives for his produce and what the housewife pays in the supermarket. For example, a farmer might receive £500 for a beef animal at the abattoir. The retail cost of beef from that animal at the supermarket or the butcher’s shop is about £1,500, leaving a profit of £1,000 somewhere in between in the food chain. While many farmers are going out of business, meat plants and supermarkets are amassing fortunes. I am not saying that they should not do that: the farming and business communities are just asking for a fair deal.
What does the future hold for the agriculture industry? The resilience of the farming community and of the producers in Northern Ireland has been immense, even though problems continue to mount. Every farming family knows the effects of the basic lack of profitability. Investment in agriculture is low, and farmers are working longer hours than they used to, having to cope with more administration, departmental bureaucracy and red tape for less return.
There is little reinvestment in the industry. However, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s (DARD) farm nutrient management scheme is one of the more positive issues. I hope that that will amount to an investment of around £200 million for the farming sector. It is crucial: DARD must recognise that the scheme is essential and accept its responsibility to help farmers to meet their needs.
Recently, I was part of an Ulster Unionist Party delegation that met representatives from United Dairy Farmers to discuss the mounting concern over current and future milk prices. Although milk prices are pathetically low at the minute, United Dairy Farmers predict that they will probably get lower. We are campaigning for the restoration of the export refunds from Brussels, and we have called on the Government to offer support packages to milk and beef processors to modify production plants and diversify into better value-added products. However, there is a caveat: any resulting financial advantage should be returned to the farmer and not be allowed to get stuck with the processors or the supermarkets. Unless such matters are progressed, the farming industry and the traditional family-run farm will be unsustainable in the longer term.
The milk and beef industries rely on exports, and that is why milk powder cuts and cuts in export refunds have had a devastating effect. The milk industry has lost more than £80 million this year alone because of the significant cuts in Europe. The export refunds were slashed in expectation of a World Trade Organization (WTO) deal, and therefore it seems reasonable — now that the WTO talks are in flux — that the European Commissioner for Agriculture should move to restore the balance for farmers in the short term, and then it can be looked at in the longer term.
Most people say that farmers are always complaining. Perhaps we are, but on this occasion, we have good and just reason. The Republic is investing over €3 million in an investment plan for the dairy sector over the next three years. Mr Donaldson mentioned competition between the Republic and Northern Ireland. If Northern Ireland is to compete, it must put a similar investment into the economy.
Support is a vital lifeline for smallholders in the farming community. When farmers make simple mistakes, they are penalised. When the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development makes a mistake, no penalties are applied. All I ask is for flexibility and leeway within the system and for some common sense.
There is a clear indication that farmers in Northern Ireland are more likely to be penalised for a breach of regulations or small misdemeanours than in any other European country. The Department’s own figures reveal that £2·8 million has been withheld from single farm payments to Northern Ireland farmers. In the Republic of Ireland, the corresponding sum is just £229,000. I suggest that when DARD staff make mistakes, they should be penalised, and compensation should be paid to farmers. Farmers only want a level playing field.
I certainly will. However, these are valid economic issues for farmers and for the economy of Northern Ireland, and they were referred to in the presentation by the Ulster Farmers’ Union to the subgroup. Furthermore, Mr Donaldson mentioned planning issues.
I will move on to tourism, which suffers greatly from a lack of proper planning and administration in Northern Ireland. So much of Northern Ireland’s potential tourism is lost to Scotland and to the Republic. Despite that, there is a growing tourism industry in Northern Ireland. Visitor spend in the Province has risen from £250 million in 1995 to £357 million in 2005 — an increase of over 40%.
The number of visitors to the Province has increased; between 2004 and 2005, there was an increase of 32% in the number of visitors from Europe, 19% in the number from North America and 12% in the number from Australia and New Zealand. That happened in spite of the fierce competition to which I have referred from Scotland, England, mainland Europe and the Republic of Ireland. Cheap flights throughout Europe have caused deeper problems for the Northern Ireland domestic market. However, I am pleased to say that we appear to be overcoming those problems.
Recent Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) initiatives, such as the five signature projects, should help to combat the successful campaigns of our neighbouring competitors. However, some areas of Northern Ireland have been neglected by those projects; I would highlight the fact that County Fermanagh, one of the best tourism areas in Northern Ireland, was not included. That has been offset by the NITB’s acceptance of the Destination Fermanagh project, which was recently launched in the county. There are many other initiatives to be proud of in Northern Ireland.
Significant international horse trials are held at Necarne, a world rally event will be staged in the Province and the innovative bluegrass festival, which takes place at the Ulster American Folk Park, is the largest event of its kind in Europe.
For the moment, tourism funding has dried up. There may be a further natural resource rural tourism initiative or further INTERREG grants, but that is not certain. Both programmes provided financial assistance to many people. However, as is usually the case with European funding, they are highly complex and often overly bureaucratic. The unrealistic deadlines set for applications put applicants under enormous pressure and undoubtedly acted as deterrents to those involved in many worthwhile projects.
Compared to many nearby areas, Northern Ireland lags behind with infrastructure investment. The Member for Lagan Valley highlighted the canal structure in Northern Ireland. However, I first want to see more central Government investment in the roads system. Areas throughout the Province, not only County Fermanagh, are crying out for that.
Finally, a recent announcement stated that £600 million is lost to taxpayers through racketeering and money laundering throughout Northern Ireland. That is a serious issue for the economy. Unless we get on top of that, the illegal economic base that drains some £2 million a day from the economy will become one of the largest economic bases in Northern Ireland.
I assume that that means that I can speak until 12.30 pm.
After yesterday’s ruling, I was wondering about the validity of a report that regularly mentions the Ulster Unionist Party Assembly Group (UUPAG). I understand that the UUPAG still exists, that David Ervine is still a member and that the ruling has made no difference. That is understandable, given that the reason for establishing the UUPAG was to wean loyalist paramilitaries off violence. The Ulster Unionist Party can decide whether it wishes to break that link with Mr Ervine later. The report, therefore, is accurate, and my concerns have been allayed.
I want to concentrate on a couple of issues in the report that may be of interest to some Members who have already spoken. The report contains a recommendation that the planning process be:
“ streamlined by setting end dates for consultation and focusing priority on approving area plans.”
The report also recommends creating an “enabling culture” within planning.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I, and I suspect other Members, are having difficulty hearing Mr Poots because of the acoustics. I want everyone to hear his precious words. Is the secretariat aware of a problem that is affecting the acoustics? This has also happened with other Members?
Mr Kennedy is correct. We are having difficulty with the acoustics. The staff have been informed and are working to resolve the problem. I am aware that the problem may affect Members throughout the Chamber. Only the UUP seems to be having difficulty hearing what is being said. We shall persist, but if the acoustics do not improve, we may have to adjourn early.
I could always offer to lend Mr Kennedy my ears; then he would have no problem hearing. [Laughter.]
The Planning Service is in chronic crisis. There has been little significant development in Northern Ireland in recent years. In the retail sector, for example, there has been development at Victoria Square, and we have an outlet village at Banbridge and a minor extension to Junction One. However, there are huge opportunities for further development in the retail sector.
Coca Cola is the only currently significant industrial development in Northern Ireland. Invest Northern Ireland struggles to encourage inward investors to put money into Northern Ireland. Simultaneously, £5 billion of investment leaves Northern Ireland each year. People want to put their pounds elsewhere. Our laborious planning system is a major deterrent to investors. Many years ago, an investor decided that he wanted to invest £100 million in Northern Ireland and £100 million in eastern Europe. Within just two years, he started to get a return on the money that he spent in eastern Europe. However, he had to wait eight years before he got a return on the money that he had spent here because of the planning system. The Planning Service must remember that it is supposed to be a service, not an obstacle. It should not hinder job creation, wealth creation or business development.
Housing costs have risen significantly during the past number of years. Some house prices in the area in which I live have risen by around 50% in the past year alone. That has a critical effect on workers who are unable to afford to own homes. Because house prices have risen, workers make more demands of their employers and, therefore, drive general employment costs up.
We must deal with that because the many people who have come here from eastern Europe and other parts of the world have added to the need for housing. They supply industry with essential skills, particularly in agriculture and the food and drinks sector. The food and drinks sector could not survive without foreign workers. Farmers would not be able to deliver the necessary level of food production if it were not for foreign workers. The housing sector must provide properties that people who come here can rent at a reasonable cost. It must also ensure that there are enough houses for those who want to buy a home in Northern Ireland.
Huge damage to rural development, tourism and agricultural diversification will be caused by Draft Planning Policy Statement 14. Unless that policy is reformed, economic development and job creation, particularly in rural communities, will be stymied. The inability of such communities to establish small businesses will lead to further losses in their areas.
We must examine the opportunities for job creation that are afforded by enterprise zones and technology zones. Low taxation in those zones would encourage investors to create high-quality jobs in Northern Ireland. Significant benefits would be felt throughout the community by the creation of such jobs, and they would filter down and create other opportunities for people who were unable to do such jobs themselves. The Titanic Quarter, the Maze, the north-west and the south of the Province have tremendous potential as areas where zones could be established and high-quality jobs created as a result of foreign direct investment.
(Madam Speaker in the Chair)
We must examine how culture can contribute to economic development. In particular, tremendous opportunities to create substantial tourism revenue are presented by the Titanic Quarter and the centenary of the sinking of the world-famous ship, which will take place in 2012. Another world-famous event that could affect Northern Ireland in 2012 is the Olympic Games. It is important that we move ahead as quickly as possible to ensure that we are able to facilitate elements of the Olympic Games and bring some events to Northern Ireland. We can deliver on that, and we can deliver the multi-sports stadium at the Maze that would contribute to bringing elements of the Olympic Games to Northern Ireland.
I am not only concerned with the benefit that that would bring to the people who live in the Lagan Valley area — I am not one of those parochial individuals who talks exclusively about his constituency — but with the 80% of Northern Ireland’s population who live within one hour’s drive of the Maze and would also benefit from facilities being developed there.
Many people are paying huge amounts of money for tickets for the Ryder Cup and then travelling two and a half hours to get there, so travelling one hour to the Maze will be easy for people who will benefit from the wonderful facilities that will be available there. There is a lack of quality exhibition facilities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and there is a huge opportunity to develop them at the Maze.
If the case for the national stadium at the Maze is as overwhelming as the Member is arguing, does he agree that the Department of Finance and Personnel should, as a matter of service to the public, publish the full business case and economic appraisal so that everyone can see the arguments?
The public should be made fully aware of everything that can be made public, but commercially sensitive matters cannot be revealed now. The stadium will only be developed if the business case stacks up, and I believe that it will stack up when everything is brought together.
I recently visited an exhibition facility in Valencia. It has an income of €70 million per annum, but the income to the wider Valencian economy is €700 million. Every euro that is spent in the exhibition facility is boosted by €10 spent outside it. That shows that there can be advantages for the wider Northern Ireland population as well as for those at the facility venue.
The Federation of Small Businesses mentioned business crime during its evidence session to the subgroup. Members are aware of the loss to Northern Ireland’s economy of £600 million by the sale of illicit fuel, smuggled tobacco, alcohol and counterfeit CDs, DVDs, clothing and perfume on the black market. That significantly undermines the legitimate economy. Loyalist and republican paramilitary groups are the main organisations involved in that activity. The Secretary of State regularly complains about the cost of this place, which is not legislating and which is not doing what it was established to do. Nonetheless, Members, in most cases, are busy in their constituencies and are doing a substantial part of the work that they are required to do. The same Secretary of State who moans, gurns and whinges about this place appears to be turning a blind eye to what is taking place, particularly around the border areas, and to the £600 million that is being lost to our economy and going into the coffers of paramilitary organisations.
It is about time that the Secretary of State took the mote out of his eye and got on with it. If he is not prepared to deal with the amount of crime that is taking place in Northern Ireland, and if he is not prepared to acknowledge that the people who are engaging in those crimes are also closely associated to political parties, he can forget about his 24 November deadline and his attempts to create deals in hothouse environments. There is no prevarication there. If people continue to engage in those activities, there is no place for them in the Government of Northern Ireland.
HM Revenue and Customs believes that there are 200 illegal fuel-laundering plants in Northern Ireland. Current resources allow them to take out only 16 plants per annum. Therefore, it will take about 13 years to wipe out that activity — as long as no new illegal plants are established. HM Revenue and Customs and the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) do not have the resources; meanwhile, Sinn Féin/IRA, in particular, are not being pressured to deliver on removing those plants from Northern Ireland.
The Member mentions the issue of resources to combat serious crime. He will be aware, and would agree, that every effort should be made to try to combat that. I shall give Members an example. Queen’s University recently put forward the idea of developing a “DNA mark” on all fuel so that it could be traced from where it was made to its purchaser. There has been some resistance to that idea on the part of the Government. I am sure that the Member will join me in pressing the Secretary of State to ensure that the DNA marking of fuel is developed and made available so that fuel can be traced from its genesis to its point of use.
I thank the Member for that useful intervention. There are several ways to resolve these matters, and that is certainly one of them. Another way would be a reduction in excise duty on fuel in Northern Ireland. I understand that excise duty is being raised in the Irish Republic. If there were to be a closer convergence of fuel prices, there would be fewer opportunities for smuggling. However, it would not prevent the continued production of illicit fuel, whether it be red diesel — which has had the dye removed with acid — or kerosene. Ultimately, that would be a positive move.
HM Revenue and Customs and the ARA must be given the resources to do their jobs. The Secretary of State must make it absolutely clear that there will be no Government in Northern Ireland while those criminal activities continue and that he will support those democrats in Northern Ireland who are saying that there must be an end to organised criminality and that there must be support for the police and for organisations such as HM Revenue and Customs. Those organisations must be able to carry out their duties properly if we are to move forward to a situation in which we can have an Executive that delivers for the people of Northern Ireland.
Members will know that the Business Committee has arranged to meet at lunch time today. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend this sitting until 2.00 pm. I hope that in the meantime the acoustics will be cleared up. There is something wrong with my microphone, as well as those in the Chamber.
The sitting was suspended at 12.28 pm.
On resuming (Madam Speaker in the Chair) —
I sincerely hope that we will be able to hear each other this afternoon, but I do not think that we will have any problem at the minute, as so few Members are present.
I commend the elected Members and staff who worked together to compile the report. The plight of West Tyrone and, in particular, the isolation of my home town of Strabane are historical facts. Thankfully, the lookout towers and the permanent army checkpoints have gone, but the infrastructure is lacking.
I welcome the report. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), which gave evidence to the subgroup, raised many issues that have an impact on the land border between the North and the South. European funding has not had the impact that it should in the west, and any Assembly must exploit the opportunities for developing infrastructure and rebuilding the regions that partition devastated. The Derry/Dublin railway still exists. A north-west motorway linking Dublin through Tyrone to north Donegal could become a linchpin of a North/South infrastructural upgrade.
Since the SDLP launched its North/South strategy and called for dedicated all-Ireland funds for infrastructural development, public support has grown on both sides of the border for a motorway that links Derry, Donegal, Tyrone and Fermanagh with the core of the Southern economy. People realise that the means are now available if the political will is there. Last year in Derry, the Southern Finance Minister told us that up to €100 billion will be spent on infrastructure on this island over the next 10 years. It is almost impossible to imagine spending of that sort not addressing the needs of what is possibly the most infrastructurally neglected corner of the island.
Ireland’s eastern seaboard is in danger of being overdeveloped. Balanced regional development is in everyone’s interest if the Southern economy is to continue to grow and if we in the North are to share in the benefits of the Celtic tiger economy. I welcome support from across the political spectrum for the north-west motorway; we will need cross-party action to get the British Government to play their part. I am sure that the cross-party goodwill exists in the South to make that motorway work.
Roaming charges may seem to be unimportant, but they are critical for the small and medium-sized businesses that make their living on cross-border trade. Corporation tax and industrial rating are the kiss of death for many firms that work at the margins of profitability. Those firms are crucial to the survival and economic recovery of Northern Ireland, particularly the west.
As the FSB points out, there are issues relating to banking and how the big four banks rip off small businesses that need to trade in both sterling and euro. Banks must be taken apart for their rip-off practices, and only a restored Assembly can do that. I do not intend to expand further; rather, I intend to acknowledge that there are many innovative recommendations in the report that would benefit the people of this small island, North and South.
During the summer, we all worked together to compile the report. We can work together in the Committee but, unfortunately, we cannot get together in the Assembly. The deadline of 24 November is approaching fast. Let us hope that common sense will prevail for the future of everyone on our small island.
Finally, I emphasise the need for a massive injection of capital funding in the west to address many years of neglect. The Government cannot continue to treat the people of Strabane and West Tyrone as second-class citizens. We deserve infrastructure and facilities on a par with those in other parts of the North. Western development needs to be top of the Government’s agenda, and links between Tyrone, Derry, Donegal and the rest of the region must be developed for people on both sides of the border. I support the motion.
Members will agree that the Northern Ireland of 2006 is a far better place than that of 1996. Fortunately, we have relative peace and a growing tourism industry. We can also agree that we have one heck of an international football team — except perhaps those of us who have a Spanish background. However, our economy is struggling. There are many reasons for that, most notably the mishandling of the Northern Ireland economy by direct-rule Ministers and the fact that our entrepreneurial private sector is much smaller than in other UK regions.
I commend the subgroup for compiling this extensive report. It highlights many important points and is a platform on which a future Northern Ireland Executive can work. Fundamentally, our economy will only receive the attention that it deserves when a stable, accountable and fully functioning Assembly is operating here at Stormont. As a unionist, I watch with great unease as the British and Irish Governments prepare Plan B in case the 24 November deadline should pass without a deal being done. No one in the Chamber knows exactly what is in store for the Province should that happen. However, we can surmise how the Northern Ireland economy will be managed. We got an indication from the Secretary of State almost a year ago, when he told a New York newspaper that the Northern Ireland economy was:
“not sustainable in the long term” and that:
“the island of Ireland should be marketed as a single entity.”
That was a disgraceful statement from a Minister of the Crown. What kind of message does it send to potential investors in Northern Ireland? It was neither reassuring nor positive. How can we market this country when our Secretary of State runs down our economy? That is the threat to Northern Ireland plc should devolution not be restored. The Plan B model of greater co-operation between Dublin and London will only inject confusion, uncertainty and instability into the Northern Ireland economy. With the Labour Government in turmoil and the Irish Republic preparing for a general election, does anyone in the Chamber really believe that our economy will be anywhere on London or Dublin’s priority list? The answer is an unequivocal “no”.
Of course, the economy must be our priority. If we want to build a strong, prosperous and peaceful Northern Ireland for our children and grandchildren, we must build a strong and prosperous economy. To do that we need this place to work. We know that there are difficulties and obstacles, but it is imperative that we resolve them as soon as possible. If we can get this place up and running, we can give the economy the attention that it merits.
Just think what a local Assembly could do almost immediately if power were restored. We could address the obvious structural weaknesses of the Northern Ireland economy, which have been correctly identified as the four drivers in DETI’s ‘Economic Vision for Northern Ireland’ — something that is also stressed in the subgroup’s report. We could also address the crucial issue of increasing rates and energy costs for our manufacturing sector. The direct-rule Administration’s treatment of Northern Ireland manufacturing is costing our economy massive job opportunities.
Furthermore, a devolved Administration could address the rates burden on small businesses in Northern Ireland — something that my colleague David McNarry raised in the subgroup. I wholeheartedly agreed with his assessment that, although most taxation issues are reserved matters, a fully functioning Assembly could act on aspects of the tax burden for potential and existing SMEs.
The Member raises some important issues for small businesses, but if, as he suggests, the rates burden were moved away from SMEs, to whom would it be moved?
That is something for a future decision in the Assembly. The matter must be considered extensively. The rates burden cannot be shifted to those who cannot afford to pay. Therefore, resolving the issue will require active thinking on the part of the future Minister and Committee with responsibility for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
I will conclude by emphasising the need for the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. The economy is suffering. It will endure worse suffering if the 24 November deadline passes without a deal and Plan B is called into operation. Members on the Benches adjacent to me, and those who would normally sit on the Benches opposite me, realise that that is the case.
I welcome the work of the economic subgroup in producing its thought-provoking report. I hope sincerely that, in the not too distant future, a Northern Ireland Executive will act upon it. I support the motion.
Northern Ireland’s economy has been forced to exist in extreme and torturous times. One example among many that I could cite is that of the traditional manufacturing jobs that have disappeared to low-wage economies in the Far East and eastern Europe.
Furthermore, no true debate could be conducted on the Northern Ireland economy and the need to take the right action now if Members were to fail to point out that, for several long decades, the business community in Northern Ireland, comprising local businesses run by local people and employing local people, was targeted by the republican movement. I pay tribute to those businesses, companies and workers who, despite what the leader of IRA/Sinn Féin described as a “morally justifiable campaign”, continued to provide our people with jobs and some sense of normality amid the economic wasteland created by terrorists.
The economy was placed under severe strain, not because of a lack of inventiveness on the part of Northern Ireland’s citizens or lack of ambition on the part of the business community, but because it was directly and systematically targeted by terrorists. Those terrorists calculated that by planting bombs, murdering the workforce, threatening businessmen and extorting money, they could not only terrorise the community, but destabilise the economy and make Northern Ireland appear less attractive to potential investors, thereby crippling the entire society.
Of Sinn Féin’s economic policy and its Marxist worldview, a senior politician from another House, whom, given the Speaker’s ruling this morning, I am unable to name, said that:
He went on to say that Sinn Féin’s record in Northern Ireland:
“shows that they have little or no interest in its well-being.”
Republicans, in their economic strategy, believed that they could advance their sectarian campaign by destroying Northern Ireland’s economic infrastructure. Therefore, they reasoned that their sectarian cause would be well served by crippling Northern Ireland’s manufacturing base, burning its economy to the ground, and condemning its people to lives on the dole. That they should now seek to block progress should surprise nobody. That they should seek to stitch up their own team, who agreed the subgroup’s report, is only in keeping with their character.
That they should run away and not have the guts to defend their desertion of the business sector, and not have the stomach to come and debate their abandonment of the labour market, is only further evidence of the deep-seated cowardice that compelled them to slink under cover of night when they were carrying out murderous activities.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he not agree that it is a much more pleasant environment when the Benches opposite are empty, rather than full? [Laughter.]
Of course I concur with my hon Friend.
Sinn Féin is very good at trying to bring its conscience and concerns to the public domain. Obviously, in real terms it is devoid of anything to say. I refer Members to the submission made by IRA/Sinn Féin. The party complained that:
“Neither did we have adequate time to resolve all of our differences in analysis”.
The party was looking for more time so that it could prevaricate and give a minimalist approach to the economic realities of the Province. Also, the submission includes the comment that:
“There is significant scope for moving security expenditure into a major strategy that can underpin the transformation of our society”.
That is the party’s attitude to law and order and to the forces of the Crown. It has nothing to offer and nothing to contribute, and its absence today seems to mean that it has nothing worthwhile to say.
Undoubtedly, inward investment and business growth was hindered during the years of the intense terrorist campaign. Northern Ireland is a small regional economy within the overall economy of the UK; similar to, but smaller than, for example, Wales or the north-east or north-west of England.
Despite all of the turmoil, violence and death visited upon the Province by terrorist organisations, the people displayed resilience, inventiveness, and dogged, iron determination to overcome adversity. Given fair opportunity, business in Northern Ireland can prove as good as, if not better than, anywhere in the British Isles. I have only to look to Wrightbus in my own constituency for an example. The company is a world leader; it gave a submission to the subgroup in that capacity. Recently, I visited a city in England and marvelled at the number of Wrightbus buses I saw, a result of the determination of the company to seize the market and produce a world-class product.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that has a land border with another European Union state. That brings with it significant challenges. Not only are we neighbours to another European country but we are neighbours to a country that realised long ago that, whatever the dogmas of Irish nationalism, it is in fact a competitor to Northern Ireland. The number of international businesses with European headquarters in the Republic of Ireland is testament to that. We must set ourselves to competing fiercely and to winning that competition, but that will not happen unless the Northern Ireland business sector has the opportunity to prosper. It must not be harnessed into some political pipedream or straitjacket of political aspiration.
We should remind ourselves of the terms of reference of the subgroup. It was given the task of identifying the major impediments to the development of the economy in Northern Ireland. Rather than pleasing Irish nationalism with a cosy political strategy on an all-Ireland economy, we should view our neighbours in the Irish Republic as competitors and go all out to ensure that Northern Ireland has the best possible advantage in those markets that it seeks to secure.
Other Members have spoken of the actions that are necessary to do that, and those will be dealt with at length later in the debate. I shall therefore refer only to some of the steps that are necessary to ensure a vibrant economy in Northern Ireland.
We must tackle the skills crisis to ensure that our workforce is sufficiently trained and capable of meeting the requirements of the job. Investment in research and development must be addressed, and, as the hon Member for Lagan Valley said earlier, we must have a Planning Service that is fit to deliver the best to our Province. On 24 April 2003, the Water Service applied under Crown Estate to have major infrastructural works carried out. The Planning Service did not approve that application until June 2006. That delay is absolutely unacceptable, and radical change is necessary.
We must continue to modernise our infrastructure to its full potential so that we can build a vibrant economy. As politicians, we must not let up in our campaign to reduce corporation tax to below that in the Irish Republic. We must recruit the business community in a co-ordinated approach so that pressure on Government in that regard is maintained.
I pay tribute to my hon Friend David Simpson, who is our party’s Westminster spokesman on trade and industry. Not only do we finally have a working MP in Upper Bann, but I welcome the commitment that he has shown in taking those matters to the House of Commons. Today he will address the conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) on those issues. I am sure that he will be better received than the Prime Minister — and I have no doubt that, without my mentioning his name, Members will know to whom I refer.
I hope that democracy and the rule of law will soon be fully embraced by those who have not yet done so. I hope that the changes that are required to obtain unionist — and nationalist — support for the institutions will be made and that a fully functioning, properly accountable Assembly will be in a position to assist in the task.
It is grossly negligent for the Government to withhold the necessary action in an attempt to bludgeon democrats into an Executive with mafia godfathers. Those are ham-fisted attempts to play the school bully. Instead of playing political games with our prosperity — and in the process endangering our future — it is the solemn duty of Government to discharge fully and properly their responsibilities. Members must demand such action today.
Northern Ireland has the potential to transform itself into an economy in which there is greater balance between the public and the private sectors. Yet the Government’s policies on industrial derating and corporation tax and their refusal to act in order to blackmail local politicians could cause the greatest damage to Northern Ireland’s manufacturing industry in a generation. Shame on them for that.
I also remind Members that one word that occurs frequently in the report — and Sir George Quigley highlighted it — is “stability”. We require, and the business community in Northern Ireland requires, stability. The question that needs to be answered in regard to that is: have the absent Members of Sinn Féin/IRA the capacity to create the conditions for stability? For 40 years they built their political future on creating instability, making Northern Ireland ungovernable. Therefore, the challenge is not to the democrats in this House who have proved through the years that they can create and work towards stable government; the challenge is to those whom the Secretary of State is so keen that we put in power to prove, over time, that they are committed to stable governance in Northern Ireland, not to a rolling process whereby they are brought closer to their political objectives. They must show that they are committed to a Northern Ireland that is at peace with itself and to a Northern Ireland that has a strong economy that promotes the country.
Madam Speaker, I thank you for that introduction and for the warning to my colleague Mr Sammy Wilson. Undoubtedly, that is what he would have done today.
I support the motion. The report is certainly wide-ranging in its recommendations, in the evidence that has been gathered and in the large number of interest groups that provided that evidence. However, the report also emphasises and demonstrates the large amount of work that still needs to be done if we are to bring coherence to the vision for the economy and some cohesion and structure to the implementation. The real value of this report will be if it acts as a spearhead for further work and as a catalyst for the Government to act on its recommendations.
Much has been said over the past two days about the economy, but today I want to focus on tourism, which is the fastest-growing sector of the world economy. It is incredibly important, and it must be taken into account if we are to develop a vision that will take us further in this new century.
Tourism contributes £500 million to Northern Ireland’s economy and has created 51,000 jobs, which is about 8% of all those in employment. Indeed, tourism is so important that, looking forward to the autumn, my colleagues on the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee at Westminster are to engage in a little tourism and go on tour around the Province to look at the problems with the tourist industry. [Interruption.]
The visit highlights for me the importance of tourism, and I look forward to the Select Committee’s report. Last year, Belfast hosted 6·4 million visitors, creating expenditure of £289 million. That accounts for almost half the tourist activity in Northern Ireland. This year in Belfast, despite the negative spin in the press and the whingeing and moaning of nationalist politicians, we had the busiest July on record — we had the most visitors to the city ever.
Although that is all good news for Northern Ireland, the real size of the true problem becomes apparent if we consider the tourist industry of our two closest neighbours, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. In Scotland, the tourist industry adds £4 billion to the economy each year and accounts for 200,000 jobs.
In the Republic of Ireland, Dublin is the third most-visited city in Europe, behind Edinburgh, which is the most visited city in Europe. The tourist industry is clearly booming in the Republic of Ireland, particularly golf tourism. That will be evident shortly when those who are interested will, no doubt, be fascinated by the Ryder Cup.
The report and its recommendations mention a number of important aspirations common to all sectors of the economy. I shall highlight three aspirations that are of great importance to the tourist industry: strategic direction; investment in visitor servicing and product; and the lifeblood of any tourist industry — a marketing strategy.
The Belfast Agreement provides for co-operation with the Republic of Ireland on tourism. Tourism Ireland has the remit for marketing the island of Ireland in Great Britain and overseas. It is an all-Ireland body accountable to the North/South Ministerial Council, not the Assembly. During 2005-06, Tourism Ireland will cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer £12·2 million. For the same period, the funding allocated to the NITB is £11·7 million. In other words, more money is allocated to Tourism Ireland to market the island of Ireland than is invested in visitor servicing and product development in Northern Ireland. The question must be asked: is that value for money?
In his evidence to the subgroup on 10 August, the chairman of the NITB said:
“Sometimes NITB feels that generic marketing of the island of Ireland may not help the Northern Ireland tourism market.”
On hearing that, the Sinn Féin member of the subgroup began to get a little anxious; perhaps his dark green glasses started to cloud over a little. He asked whether any positives had accrued from marketing the island of Ireland as one entity. An intrepid NITB official replied that there had been positive outcomes. She said that the Tourist Board had been very successful in getting travel writers and journalists into Northern Ireland through Tourism Ireland, which paid the travel fares, with NITB picking up all the other bills for entertainment and touring round Northern Ireland. The hope was that the Tourist Board would get a glowing report in the local media.
I wish to give one further example to illustrate the glaring inadequacy of that marketing strategy. Last year, the screen adaptation of C S Lewis’s book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, was a major Hollywood production that was shown all over the world. The film should have been a huge opportunity to showcase Northern Ireland and the city of Belfast; it was premiered in Belfast to celebrate C S Lewis’s connections with the city.
Belfast City Council promotes and develops a C S Lewis festival each year in the city. Quite rightly, it was decided to seize the opportunity for promotional work with the tourist industry, so Tourism Ireland was called in. Short advertisements were commissioned, which were to be shown in cinemas before screenings of the film so that people would associate the film, and C S Lewis, with Belfast and with Northern Ireland. Indeed, I took my daughter to see the film ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, during a few days’ break in London following the lull after Christmas. That is where I first saw the advertisement, because they were not shown in Belfast cinemas.
I raised my concerns about the advertisement with a deputy secretary from DETI. His reply stated that the advertisement was screened in 600 cinemas across Britain and reached an estimated audience of 6·5 million viewers. However, his letter went on to add that the advertisement never once used the term “Northern Ireland”. However, it mentioned Belfast once, and all the scenes in the advert were filmed in Northern Ireland. I ask Members how any marketing strategy can be successful when we fail to mention what we are marketing.
How could anyone in Sunderland, Newcastle or Leeds be expected to know that the pub that was featured in the advertisement was the Crown bar in Belfast? If that was a failure of marketing in Great Britain, how many more times was that failure multiplied when one considers the global market? If someone in Sunderland could not recognise the pub as the Crown bar in Belfast, what are the chances for someone in Sydney, Los Angeles or Hicksville, USA? That failure is the direct legacy of the Belfast Agreement, and this folly must stop.
Marketing is essential to the future growth and development of the tourism industry. Indeed, it is the lifeblood of that industry. That marketing strategy takes no account of political reality and refuses to mention the term “Northern Ireland”. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board tells me that if one wants a campaign that is specific to Northern Ireland and mentions the term “Northern Ireland”, one must pay over and above the £12·2 million that one has already paid. That strategy is failing, and we must examine the unaccountable cross-border bodies that have proved to be costly to our economy — and none more so than Tourism Ireland, which refuses to recognise the political reality of Northern Ireland as an entity. It is time for an open and honest debate on this issue with those on the Benches opposite, so that we consider the future direction of the marketing of Northern Ireland as a tourism destination.
I wish to touch briefly on strategic direction and investment in the tourism industry. The lack of strategic direction is glaring and is sadly but a mirror of the lack of strategic direction in other sectors of the economy. I am told that seven out of 10 Departments allocate a budget for tourism. That is done without any reference to one another and without any strategic guidance or cohesion on the vision of what will be achieved in the end.
Quite rightly, we have seen a surge in tourism activity in our economy. However, we can be a discovery destination for only so long. We must develop a long-term infrastructure for projects that will sustain the tourism industry in the next number of years. The NITB identified five such projects and has since been struggling to identify revenue streams for every one of them. Londonderry fell on fortunate times with the city walls project because it benefited from the integrated development fund.
In Belfast, we have the biggest and probably the best known of the projects, namely the Titanic signature project. At the moment, just a matter of years from the centenary of that fateful ship, no Government funding has been earmarked for that project, and we are depending on a National Lottery application, which may or may not yield results.
There is clearly a need for direct Government investment in those projects. No new money could be found for tourism in the last spending review. The latest spending review, and any future financial package, must target those projects because of their infrastructural nature and the benefits that they will bring to the economy. No other country in the world can rightly own the brand of the Titanic like Northern Ireland and the city of Belfast. It would be a disaster if we allowed Orlando in Florida, Southampton or the impostors in Liverpool to get ahead of us.
I wish to mention another issue, which impacts on many other sectors. If we are to benefit truly from a boom in tourism numbers in this country, we must have a skilled workforce that is able to avail of the opportunities that such a boom would bring. So far, we have not invested in a strategy that allows us to do that.
Finally, Members may have noticed the welcome announcement in the news today of the investment in the Crumlin Road courthouse, which is in my constituency and in the Shankill ward, the most deprived ward in Northern Ireland. I particularly welcome that development, which will benefit local people. However, it will only be of benefit if the proper training systems are in place so that local people can gain the skills and knowledge to enable them to get a job, have a stake in society and end the generations of unemployment that that area has long experienced.
I support the motion.
I add my appreciation of the work that the subgroup and the staff did this summer on the economic challenges facing Northern Ireland, and I was pleased to play a small part in that.
At this stage of the debate, the contents of the report have been fairly well aired, and many Members have spoken about their pet subjects. I will resist the temptation to rehearse some of the arguments and will deal instead with an area that has not been so well covered.
Although many issues have been covered at length, the report makes little reference to the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland (ISNI). We must ensure the success of that strategy, and I wish to highlight several important points. The strategy does not appear to be linked to the Programme for Government. It must display more vision for the next 10 years and we must be assured that it will deliver, unlike ‘Strategy 2010’, which has disappeared completely. ISNI is a new strategy, and there are still questions to be answered about methodology and how it is designed to fit into the wider economic, social and environmental processes. ISNI needs to address, in a more meaningful way, social and environmental benefits. I would prefer that the strategy be developed into a plan, with the commitment that that would entail to encourage all stakeholders. There are also revenue implications, and the likely outcomes of the infrastructure strategy should be dealt with more visibly. Delivery is crucial, and the strategy must be seen to deliver from the outset.
There is evidence of tardiness in Government systems and a complete absence of a risk-taking culture. That must be corrected, and the Government’s reinvestment and reform initiative must tackle those issues.
Planning has been addressed in the report, but it is essential that our planning regime is not allowed to constrain project implementation. Many examples have been given, but there is none better than the draft Belfast metropolitan area plan. That began when I was still in school, was published in 2004, and, as we have recently been informed, the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) will hear objections to it in April 2007. That is hardly good enough. ISNI does not address the major problem of implementation. We need a fast-track system similar to that employed in the USA and other progressive countries to ensure that approvals are not seriously delayed, as they are at present.
More clarity is also needed on the role of the Departments and of the Strategic Investment Board. Accounting officer responsibilities must be reconciled with Strategic Investment Board and ISNI requirements. Without a resolution of that issue, and without a real joined-up approach by Government to infrastructure provision, ISNI will not be a real strategy. If it is, indeed, a strategy, who controls it, and who will shoulder the top levels of responsibility and accountability?
After the failure of Departments to implement fully their budgets last year, one must query whether the Government have the capacity to deliver the £16 million strategy. However, I accept that ISNI is a new and bold process with the potential to create a step change in infrastructure provision. The strategy must be a main driver in developing our economy, and it is essential that it be allowed to succeed. I hope that Members share my views on the report.
I thank everyone who was involved in the preparation of the report over the summer.
Every Member recognises the fact that the present fiscal situation is unsustainable. We also recognise that, in order to transform our society and economy, to reduce dependency and to maximise our greatest assets — the talents and abilities of our people — we must find a new, sustainable model for financing public expenditure. All Members realise that an essential element of an enterprise economy is an attractive taxation regime for business and an attractive economic environment. However, it is also important that home owners are not forced to bear an unsustainable burden. The taxation burden must be distributed fairly among all sectors of society.
Many enterprising people have created employment for themselves and others in my constituency of South Belfast. However, they face not only the prospect of industrial rating and exorbitant business rates in areas such as the Lisburn Road and the Ormeau Road, but a twofold or threefold increase in domestic rates.
I shall focus on the effects of the rating revaluation on thousands of home owners, particularly in South Belfast, where domestic rate increases have hit hardest. In 2010, the hike in rates will have a much wider impact. The direct rule Minister with responsibility for finance, David Hanson MP, has handled the rates revaluation in a perverse and misleading manner. Here are some of the sound bites that the Minister provided to the media: the rates bills of more than half of all homes will be reduced; the remaining 40% will face an increase of less than £450; and a mere 3% will have an increase in excess of £350. The reality for my constituents in South Belfast has given the lie to each and every one of those glib sound bites.
The South Belfast constituency comprises 19 wards, 13 in the Belfast City Council area and six in the Castlereagh Borough Council area. The effect of the rates valuation is that household rates have increased in 17 of the 19 wards in South Belfast — nearly 90%. The overall increase in rates bills across the constituency is 28%.
To consider the extent of those increases, I shall give some examples. In the Malone ward, the average house value is £351,000. Last year, the average rates bill was £1,086. That has risen to £2,021 — an increase of 86%. In the Stranmillis ward, rates have increased by 65%; in Windsor, by 63%; in Botanic, by 52%; in Rosetta, by 34%; and in Ballynafeigh, by 53%. I could list many more examples. Increases for the vast majority of those South Belfast wards are grossly disproportionate for Belfast and for Northern Ireland as a whole. The Valuation and Lands Agency’s website shows that the increase for Belfast as a whole is 56%; for South Belfast wards it is, in fact, 74%.
Mr Hanson gave an interview last weekend, when he added insult to injury. He said that he would not impose a cap on rates, as he was opposed to capping on principle. What a strange statement for a Minister of the Crown to make, considering that the Labour Government implement rates capping on principle. Capping may not be the best solution because it lets the wealthiest people off the hook; however, we need a fair system based on the ability to pay. The Minister may regret that statement because he may have left himself open to a challenge under human rights legislation.
At the weekend, the Secretary of State told us that the union was evolving. It certainly is. The richest person in England will pay a rates bill of no more than £3,000. Mr David Beckham, the footballer, who is a very rich man — and good luck to him — pays no more than £3,000 on Beckingham Palace. A constituent of mine in South Belfast, admittedly rich but hardly in the Beckham league, faces a rates bill of £14,000, five times what Mr Beckham pays. Such an unfair system can be challenged on grounds of equity.
South Belfast is the most integrated, vibrant constituency in Northern Ireland; the vast majority of people live there side by side in harmony. People want to live there, and, as a consequence, house prices rise. ‘A Shared Future’ describes a society that many in South Belfast are working towards. However, this new form of property tax is a penalty on integration. People from different backgrounds are forced to pay for wanting to live together.
The Member referred to the double standards applied by the Labour Government to rating policy in Northern Ireland. In Britain, there is a cap on rates or local government tax. I bring it to the attention of the House that the Labour Government postponed the revaluation of properties before the last general election so that the electorate was not offended. So much for double standards.
That reinforces my point: offending people in Northern Ireland does not matter.
I am a social democrat whose primary concern is for those on fixed incomes, those who live alone and those who were prudent and bought houses when they were cheap but who now see valuations rising all around them. Not only do they now face massive rates bills but, next year, they may face a double whammy when water rates are introduced. After their deaths, their families will face a triple whammy as inheritance tax is added. None of us is under any illusion that this new form of rating is anything other than a property tax. However, if it is a property tax, it is unfair on those who live in a pricey house that was bought a lifetime ago or on those who live on their own, while a family next door may have four or five separate incomes.
The justification for capping is that services themselves are capped. A widow living on her own will use only a fraction of the council services that a household of six or seven will use. The rating system must be fair, equitable and based on the ability to pay. The SDLP will oppose the Hanson “dog’s dinner” tooth and nail. My colleague Dr McDonnell, who is also the MP for Belfast South, will make the case forcefully for his constituency when the draft Order is laid before Parliament.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon Lady. I noted with interest the intervention about what the Labour Party had done in England on revaluation. The Lady and her colleagues are members of the Labour Party’s sister party, so I expect them to have a great deal more influence over those matters than the rest of us. It will be interesting to see what they manage to get out of the Labour Party.
I heard that, but that is not the case. However, I am deeply sorry that, owing to other commitments, I was unable to hear the maiden speech of my wife, a Member for West Belfast. It is significant that her contribution was the first from a unionist Member for West Belfast in some 30 years. The people of West Belfast who are represented by the DUP now know that they are in good hands and will continue to be well represented.
It is appropriate that my wife made her maiden speech during a debate on economic matters, because both the unionist and nationalist sides of West Belfast have suffered greatly over the years from economic and social deprivation. The hon Lady for West Belfast will make a massive contribution, as she already has on the ground, in helping to improve conditions in that constituency. I think that I have done enough now, Madam Speaker, to earn my dinner tonight. [Laughter.]
I also congratulate those who worked on the report over the summer and the staff involved. The report is useful, because it gave people in the Province with a vested interest, from a wide range of organisations and backgrounds, an opportunity to come and put their views directly to elected representatives. That was one of the things that people most valued about devolution. It was not so much that people always got what they wanted or that their arguments prevailed, but that they felt that their elected representatives were listening. Ministers heard the arguments and responded — not always in a way that people entirely liked — but at least they responded. So, if only from that point of view, the report is a valuable piece of work. I have already come across people from the business community and trade unions who have made that point about it.
The report is entitled ‘First Report on the Economic Challenges Facing Northern Ireland’, and there are many such challenges. Before dealing with some of the major issues, I want to refer to matters that several Members have already mentioned. Sinn Féin Members continue to boycott Assembly debates. That bizarre situation deserves reiteration: Sinn Féin MLAs attended meetings of the economic challenges subgroup, they attended when witnesses gave evidence and they were present when the report was finalised, but they refuse to take their seats in the Assembly and contribute to the debate.
Anyone may wonder why there has been no progress and why there are difficulties in trying to restore devolution. The Secretary of State would be well advised to look at the record of this debate over the last couple of days and ask who is making an effort, and who is making a contribution to debating the issues. People are sick, sore and tired of hearing the one-way diatribe of excuses and arguments that suggests that it is all the fault of unionists. That is far from the case.
Today and yesterday, much was said about how essential it is to restore devolution and get the institutions up and running in order to make progress and ensure political stability. The report accepts, as do many of us, that it is essential to get the political stability that will be the bedrock of progress on several fronts, not least on the economic front. However, having listened to contributions from several parties, the DUP is conscious of the difficulties, problems and challenges that lie ahead in getting the form of devolution that the Government favour restored — namely, some kind of mandatory coalition. The DUP is concerned that that might not be achievable in the short or medium term because of IRA/Sinn Féin’s inability to sign up to policing and to act on criminality, illegality, racketeering and all the rest of it before the 24 November date set by Government. The DUP does not know when those conditions will be met, but Sinn Féin looks unlikely to do so by then.
It was precisely because we recognised that that was not likely to happen that my party suggested, at the start of last year, that a form of devolution be set up that would at least allow elected representatives to have some say in matters as we try to make progress towards a time when IRA/Sinn Féin meets the conditions for full inclusive Government.
Of course, some parties in this House rejected that proposal. The SDLP, in particular, said that it would not accept that kind of shadow Assembly. Now that party says that we shall be left in a situation in which there will not be devolution, and in which we will not have any type of Government. My party offered a way forward that would have bridged the gap between the current situation and a situation in which Sinn Féin/IRA meets the conditions required of it. Unfortunately, that was rejected, and issues such as rates and water taxes — which the Assembly could have had some power over in an elected, devolved capacity, even if Sinn Féin did not meet the conditions to enter Government — are not our responsibility. Therefore, we cannot help the people of Northern Ireland in the present circumstances. We must bear that in mind.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Jim Wells] in the Chair)
When the Secretary of State tells us that he and others in Government were inclined to move forward with that approach, but did not do so because of the strong and united opposition of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Dublin Government, we must be clear as to where the responsibility lies for the current situation. Madam Speaker, it is important to put that on the record because it goes to the heart of the debate. Political responsibility and stability are big issues for discussions on economic conditions. If movement had been made in that area, real progress would have been made.
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker; I did not notice you earlier. [Laughter.]
I am sure that you will forgive me. This may not be the first time that I have sought your indulgence.
The report presents several big challenges. The public sector in Northern Ireland is large compared with that of other parts of the United Kingdom; it equates to 61% of gross domestic product, compared with 42% across the United Kingdom as a whole. A total of 89% of companies in Northern Ireland employ fewer than 10 people. Those figures illustrate the dominance of the public sector vis-à-vis the private sector. We must try to remedy that situation. It cannot be done, however, by a short, sharp measure that will cause great disruption to the economy. It must be managed properly and effectively. Simply to slash public expenditure and say that the private sector will have to take up the slack will not work.
Measures must be taken to develop those industries and sectors that have not been exploited to their full potential. Tourism is one such area. With the advent of cheaper travel, and as people’s horizons expand, the tourism and leisure industry will undoubtedly be the sector that will grow most rapidly in the next decade or two. Northern Ireland, with its tremendous natural advantages, must not lose out to competition in that area. Some tremendous opportunities lie ahead as we approach the one hundredth anniversary of the voyage of the Titanic. We must also ensure that Northern Ireland is in a position to exploit the opportunities that will arise from the London Olympics.
Eloquent contributions have been made on the importance of education and skills, so I will not go over that again. However, it is important to say that our education system equips our young people for the challenges of tomorrow. Northern Ireland has a first-rate education system, but there are improvements to be made. We heard yesterday about some of the changes that are being introduced, such as the enriched curriculum and the changes to post-primary education — a debate we know all about. However, we are in danger of not building on what is best, and the Labour Government are in danger of tinkering for ideological reasons and not for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.
We have to deal with paramilitarism, criminality and organised crime, and that is rightly highlighted at recommendation 15 on page 5 of the report. Those issues cannot be glossed over. Organised crime and the large amounts of money that are being taken out of the economy and put into the black economy are seriously impacting on businesses here. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons recently highlighted that for the second time. The enormous sums of money that are being gained by illegal means, particularly in border areas, are damaging the economy, and that must be addressed. The DUP is determined that that issue will be dealt with in a way that will ensure that those who are in the Government, administering the law and dealing with these matters, are not tainted by that type of organised crime, paramilitarism or criminality. In the past, the mistake has been to not take a rigorous and robust position on all of this, but that will not be a failing on our part this time around.
The fiscal environment in which we operate is also important. Northern Ireland has the second lowest rate of formation of new businesses of any region in the United Kingdom, and that is a problem. Reasons for it, such as our high level of corporation tax compared to our competitor south of the border, have been highlighted and must also be dealt with. There is a raft of other issues, but a proper fiscal environment in which indigenous companies will be encouraged to grow, and to which companies that presently go to our competitors in the south of Ireland will be encouraged to come, is essential.
According to press reports, there will be negotiations and discussions in the near future. The DUP has already made it clear that the economy will be at the top of its list of concerns. A report in the May/June edition of ‘Economic Outlook & Business Review’, published by First Trust Bank, contains this contribution by Michael Smyth:
“Meanwhile, as local politicians continue to agree to disagree, the somewhat parlous underlying condition of the economy barely merits a mention in their discussions. Perhaps by default it will fall to unelected (by the NI electorate) Direct Rule Ministers to administer the unpleasant medicine needed to rebalance the economy.”
That was written this summer. Any fair and reasonable commentator who looked at the events of the Assembly and listened to local politicians’ concerns over this summer would have to admit that that is not the case. Local politicians have been very exercised by the local economy, to the extent that this report has been produced. A lot of thought and consideration have been given to it, and the DUP is serious in its intention to make the report a major issue in negotiating a financial package for Northern Ireland as part of any discussions.
There are other matters that I could raise, but I will conclude by welcoming yesterday’s announcement of the plans to convert the Crumlin Road courthouse, which is in my area, into a major hotel. That is tremendously good news, and it accords with some of what I said about tourism and the leisure industry. Barry Gilligan and those behind this development are to be congratulated. The DUP has worked with Mr Gilligan and the local community on this, and those who live in the community are heartened by the announcement. I hope that we can work together to make it happen.
I am grateful to all the colleagues and staff who contributed to the making of the ‘First Report on the Economic Challenges Facing Northern Ireland’. The absence of a devolved Government is our biggest obstacle to successfully meeting the economic challenges facing Northern Ireland. Whatever our political differences, this report demonstrates that we can reach consensus when tackling crucial issues such as the future of Northern Ireland’s economy.
A strong economy is underpinned by a stable system of government. A stable, devolved Government is essential if Northern Ireland is to prosper in the years ahead. To achieve that goal, we must recognise that we have in our hands the means to deliver stability. Without political stability, where do we go? All the grants, rates reliefs and economic initiatives will go to waste if we do not have stability. We cannot continue to rely on the public sector to meet our employment needs. We recognise that public-sector jobs will be shed as the British Government toughens its demands for efficiencies from all Departments in the North.
The people who will suffer are real people with mortgages, car loans, and children to be educated. They are our constituents, and we must always remember that they elected us. Without a stable system of devolved Government there will be huge financial pressures from central Government with little or no interest in the economic future of the North. Direct-rule Ministers have their own constituencies and their own voters in England, Scotland and Wales. They do not want to be here. We must remember that ordinary people will be hit hardest by the failure to grasp opportunities.
People want jobs. They want to live in their homes in safe and good areas; they want to own cars and take a fortnight’s holiday. They want their children to be educated in good schools with the real possibility of getting jobs in their country. Without a stable system of Government, jobs will be lost. Young people will be pushed towards stronger economies with greater opportunities, and our economy will suffer a brain drain as the best educated seek employment elsewhere.
Faced with water rates and hikes in the cost of living, disposable incomes will fall. Spending will fall, and the victims will be the local businesses. If we fail to move ahead positively, a range of economic negatives will come into play. The North will become a stagnant backwater economy with no attraction for the inward investor or encouragement for local businesses to grow. Our hopes lie with the growth of the small business sector and the strengthening of organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses. However, it is essential that the right conditions exist — conditions that allow local entrepreneurs to have confidence to move ahead.
We need to create new opportunities and build on existing strengths. In my constituency of South Antrim, and across the North, the economic potential of the tourism industry has been underdeveloped for too long. There are huge untapped opportunities. How many small businesses could be created and sustained in that sector? I say that the opportunities are countless.
A strong, stable economy needs a strong, stable, devolved Government. We cannot shy away from our responsibility to overcome the challenges and deliver economic and political stability. The report on the economic challenges facing Northern Ireland is to be welcomed. It lays out the theory behind those challenges, and helps us to plan for a more prosperous future. However, action is urgently needed on the practicalities of making that a reality. I appeal to my colleagues and to the Government, who have ultimate responsibility, to ensure that the education system is radically restructured. The education system must prepare young people for the job opportunities and economic challenges that are out there.
During the debate, it became obvious that we must address issues in a more intelligent, efficient and cost-effective manner. That can only be achieved through a good-quality, applied R&D strategy. I appeal to the Government to ensure that small businesses have access to R&D support and that those who avail of it receive generous tax credits. That is necessary now more than ever, with the Northern Ireland economy facing its biggest challenge ever through the introduction of industrial rating. Manufacturing industry is facing huge obstacles. Northern Ireland has higher energy costs than the rest of the UK and a higher corporation tax rate than our Southern neighbours. The Government plan to quadruple the level of industrial rates in the short term. That is a disastrous policy for manufacturing industry and for the Northern Ireland economy. I support the considered and reasoned approach of the Northern Ireland Manufacturing Focus Group in working to bring about a cap of 25% on rates.
It is scandalous that, in a modern Northern Ireland, almost 25% of school-leavers enter the job market with poor literacy and numeracy skills. We are building an economy on a hollow foundation. If we remove the bottlenecks of educational underachievement and low investment in R&D, the economy will surge forward with great opportunities for everyone. A stable system of devolved Government is essential if Northern Ireland is to prosper in the years ahead.
I congratulate the Member for South Antrim on making his maiden speech. It is always a daunting experience. Members were well behaved this time, but they may not be as well behaved next time, so he had better watch out.
It has been an interesting debate, and I have enjoyed observing the various styles that Members have used. When we debate an issue where the contributions are similar, Members have to make their mark by using different styles. However, the Member for North Belfast Mr Dodds made the most enjoyable speech. He has confirmed to everyone that “sorry” is the hardest word to say. It took him two and a half minutes to apologise for not being present during the maiden speech by the Member for West Belfast Mrs Dodds, but he got round to saying it eventually. That is significant: it took him one minute to demolish the SDLP’s arguments against, and criticisms of, the DUP’s approach to devolution, but two and a half minutes to get round his wife. I am not sure whether he has done that yet, because, at the end of his speech, he began a territorial dispute, undoing all his good work. The debate in the Dodds household tonight, and, perhaps, in many households across Northern Ireland, will be the question of where the courthouse is on the Crumlin Road. Is it in North Belfast or is it in West Belfast? Perhaps the Assembly can debate it at another time.
I enjoyed also, because it reminded me of my days at Queen’s, the speech that the Member for South Belfast Dr Birnie gave in the style of a measured economic lecture. He raised many important questions about one of the report’s recommendations.
Mr McNarry, a colleague of Dr Birnie’s from Strangford, lived up to his reputation as a kind of political thug. He is the only Member I know who can take a report that has achieved total consensus from all the parties and treat his speech as a means to give everyone a verbal kicking. I am not criticising him. In fact, I admire someone who can highlight so many differences in a report that has achieved such a degree of consensus.
I want to take issue with some of the points that have been made. Yesterday, the Member for South Down Ms Ritchie made an impassioned — if not misguided — speech in which she claimed that without devolution, Northern Ireland would be ruined and its economy would fall into total disarray. Her comments were made against the background of a Northern Ireland that, after many years of direct rule, is experiencing its lowest-ever rate of unemployment. It is even lower than it was during the previous Assembly. Perhaps Ms Ritchie over-egged the argument a little.
Although Members on these Benches want devolution and will work towards it, we will do so, as the Member for North Belfast Mr Dodds said, only when the conditions are right and when there can be confidence in the institutions’ being sustainable. Nevertheless, pro-devolutionists undermine their argument if they imply that devolution is a panacea by which all the economy’s ills can be wished away. Even with devolution, Members would be required to make some difficult decisions. Those decisions would be just as difficult for a direct-rule Minister to make, and they would be just as unpopular with the electorate. To present devolution as an easy panacea that would wipe away those difficult issues would not do us, as politicians, any good and would only make the electorate more cynical.
Some of my colleagues have commented on Sinn Féin’s absence today. On the one hand, I would have welcomed Sinn Féin’s being here: it is always good to have someone at whom you can direct your anger. Sometimes it can add to the sharpness of a debate. On the other hand, it is good that the opposite Benches are not filled with Members talking about the economy of Northern Ireland and what they want to do with it when, in the past, they have bombed and flattened businesses, and they still support an organisation that bleeds businesses dry and which the Organised Crime Task Force (OCTF) recently said costs the economy probably £700 million a year.
Rather than repeat a lot of what has been said, I want to consider certain issues. Although there has been consensus on the report and the measures that are required, Members should be aware that some of those would be difficult to implement. Consensus on implementation will not be achieved. In fact, in some cases, the report glosses over some of the difficulties that will be faced.
A big issue that has arisen is the question of the public sector versus the private sector and the need to put more emphasis on the private sector and less on the public sector. Members cannot argue that structural change is not needed. Northern Ireland cannot continue to have certain areas of the economy up to 70% reliant on the public sector. However, paragraph 30(ii) on page 13 of the report notes that the economy is “unbalanced”. There appears to be the hope that, somehow, Northern Ireland can move painlessly to a more involved private sector by cutting back the public sector without experiencing the pain that that structural change will cause.
If we get to the point at which we as an Assembly have to start implementing that change, we will find that there will be short-term pain for many, as the public sector will have to contract first to allow the private sector to expand. That adjustment has not happened easily anywhere else. If the private sector is to expand, that will crowd out skills, investment and money unless the public sector contracts. That will mean job losses in all of our constituencies and trade unions knocking at the doors. If the Committees are working, we will get adverse representations from the spokespersons for those affected. We ought to be aware that the policy that everyone has espoused during this debate will bring pain.
Next, we must tackle economic inactivity. While the current Government have got the macroeconomic approach right, and unemployment now stands at 4·2%, a microanalysis shows huge swathes of people who should be contributing to the economy and enjoying a better standard of living — but who are not, because they are economically inactive. Many people who are currently getting incapacity benefit will be transferred into work. Members can imagine the numbers that will come through the doors of constituency advice centres complaining that they have been put off benefit. Of course, we will all try to pretend that it is not our fault, but that is one of the policies that we are agreeing to get the economically inactive back into work. Dr Birnie used the phrase “tough love” yesterday. Most people will recognise the “tough” part and not the “love” part of this policy. As public representatives, if we put our names to a document like this, we must recognise that there will be some pain for us too.
It is significant that when the Labour Party put through measures such as this with welfare reform in the House of Commons recently, none of the SDLP MPs voted with it. I stand to be corrected, but I do not think that they voted at all. I do not know whether that was because they were not there, or because they recognised that there would be pain in that policy of moving people who are currently economically inactive into work. That will be an unpleasant move and a shaking of the nest for some.
I challenge the Member for East Londonderry who spoke on the question of industrial derating. That is also in the policy. The Member for South Belfast, Mrs Hanna, also made reference to changing the way in which the rates burden falls when she talked of capping the domestic rate. There is pain involved in that too, because if we do not take rates revenue from some people, we must take it from someone else. I am not so sure that we have thought through where the burden should fall; the response we heard from both Members who raised it is a fair indication that we probably have not. I imagine that there will be lots of different opinions when we debate that.
Do we take the burden from manufacturers and load it onto shopkeepers? Do we take it from large manufacturers and load it onto small businesses? What do we do? Many businesses say that they are as much — perhaps more — in competition with firms from outside Northern Ireland, even though they are not classed as manufacturers.
I thank the Member for his intervention, but I am not sure that that is totally true. One of the arguments is not so much that businesses feel that the money has been wasted, but that they are at a competitive disadvantage compared to other firms because of the rates burden. We must ensure that the money collected is spent efficiently and that people know that it is put to a useful purpose. However, there will always be a resistance to the overall tax burden.
Another point — and I pick it out at random — is diversification in the rural economy. We have to move the emphasis of employment away from farming. However, when manufacturing or other businesses attempt to locate in the rural economy they come up against local opposition, and the same applies to tourist facilities. When it comes to planning consideration, the Assembly must make sure that it is prepared to withstand the criticism that such a change in emphasis will create.
That said, there are many pluses in our economic situation. The necessary changes will be carried out against a background of almost full employment and in a buoyant world economy that boosts everyone’s confidence. Many of the players recognise that change is required; therefore there is probably a degree of goodwill.
Even though we have agreed a document, there are still some very difficult choices to be made and some divisive debates to be held before we reach our goal of a changed economy in Northern Ireland.
The report highlights in detail the economic challenges facing Northern Ireland, and Members have dealt with different aspects of the report during the debate. It is therefore difficult not to repeat what has already been said; nevertheless, I have some points to make.
Recommendation 15 of the report deals with the need to tackle organised crime, especially where it affects economic growth and stability. Organised crime has a much broader impact on the economy than a crime committed against a particular business or sector. It affects the perception of businesses and influences their willingness to invest in a region. Perhaps that is the reason for Sinn Féin’s absence from the debate. That party pretends to talk the talk, but fails to walk the walk of democracy.
It is vital that everyone involved in improving the economic situation of Northern Ireland fully supports all efforts to tackle organised crime, which is a serious problem that affects the competitiveness of Northern Ireland’s businesses. The most recent report of the Organised Crime Task Force (OCTF) highlighted the fact that more than £10 million worth of counterfeit goods and £30 million worth of illegal assets have been retained, confiscated or seized by OCTF, HM Revenue and Customs and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) between 2005 and 2006.
No one here needs to be reminded of the scale of crimes involving fuel smuggling and laundering, and the sale of illegal cigarettes. However, when you add in the effects of robbery, money laundering and protection rackets, it becomes obvious just how sizeable the effect on the Northern Ireland economy is, no more so than in west Tyrone, where it borders the South of Ireland.
No business should have to face competition from paramilitary groups selling illegal goods at cut-price. No business should have to factor into its start-up or running costs the price of paying protection money to a paramilitary criminal gang, and the public purse should not be robbed of income through the non-payment of taxes and duty.
We as public representatives are told continually that Northern Ireland must pay its way and that we have to ensure that more and more revenue is raised, yet at the same time, millions of pounds that should be going into financing public services are going into the pockets of criminal gangs. Progress has been made in targeting those criminals and in freezing their assets. I hope that this work continues and will be stepped up so that we can defeat those groups that are intent on continuing their illegal activities.
Although it could be argued that progress towards tackling organised crime is not within the power of Government to control, most of the proposals contained in the report are directly within the power of Government to implement. One of the simplest of those is recommendation 8, which states:
“That any savings that may be made from government efficiencies should be retained and used in Northern Ireland.”
That was the basis of this party’s proposal that, as progress towards a peaceful settlement moves forward, any savings made should be ploughed back into Northern Ireland in the form of an infrastructure package.
(Madam Speaker in the Chair)
There are also savings that can and should be delivered through the Secretary of State’s commitment to examining a reduction in the number of Departments in Northern Ireland. As many Members mentioned, the Government should not do the job of business, but they do have a clear responsibility to ensure that the best possible conditions are in place for businesses to grow and prosper. For that reason, the Government must take the lead and show the same level of commitment to Northern Ireland that we expect from businesses that invest in this country. Significant savings can be made over the next few years, and those can be invested in the development of Northern Ireland at no new cost to the Government.
The circumstances in Northern Ireland must be borne in mind: it is not simply another region of the UK that is seeking to improve its economy. Spending was required to maintain security here. As a result, infrastructure and other areas suffered. Communities and businesses also suffered through 30 years of terrorism. The Government must recognise that and provide help to rebuild the Northern Ireland economy.
This report provides a very well-structured and detailed analysis of the situation. However, as it points out, it is not a finished work; the development of the economy will never be finished. We will always seek to improve and keep ahead of our competitors, wherever in the world they might be. Therefore in commending the report, I urge the implementation of the recommendations as soon as possible for the betterment of the economy throughout Northern Ireland.
Thank you, Madam Speaker.
No one can deny that this is a most detailed and constructive report, and credit is due to everyone who was involved in its preparation. The detail of the report shows that the significance of the issue to Northern Ireland, as a vibrant economy is absolutely vital for our communities.
It is unfortunate that not all the parties represented on the subgroup are present for the debate. However, that should not deter us from carrying on with our work. The one party absent for the debate, namely Sinn Féin, is the party whose military wing has done so much to destabilise our economy over the past 30-odd years.
The importance of education in developing a successful economy has already been mentioned. Northern Ireland is capable of producing a highly qualified workforce. That has already been shown, with many employers citing their highly qualified workforces as a major strength to their businesses. However, we must protect the best aspects of our high-class education system to maintain that, while at the same time improving those aspects that require attention in order to provide the best possible workforce.
Northern Ireland does not require only university graduates, important though highly skilled graduates are to any economy; it requires people with different educational backgrounds who can provide the variety of skills required by the economy. For that reason, a one-size-fits-all comprehensive education system will not deliver the high-class economy that we need. An education system tailored to the needs of different students is the best option for both students and the economy, as it will produce people with different skills that the economy requires at all levels.
After secondary education, there is real potential for the increased use of knowledge transfer partnerships, which link businesses, and small firms in particular, with educational establishments to help businesses source expertise, without which they cannot expand and grow. In addition to the benefits to businesses, knowledge transfer partnerships provide universities and further education colleges with a link to businesses, which helps students to engage with the private sector and get experience and help with their future careers.
Education can help lay some of the foundations for a successful economy; another key factor is infrastructure development. The subgroup correctly highlighted that as a crucial area in which a financial package for Northern Ireland should be focused.
Businesses must be able to realise that they can operate in Northern Ireland as easily — or more easily — than in the rest of the UK, the Republic of Ireland or from wherever in the world our competition originates. Over 40 years ago, Northern Ireland was ahead of the curve in respect of roads infrastructure. The situation is somewhat different today, but it is vital that the required improvements are started so that that competitive edge can be regained. Businesses must be able to transport goods, no matter in what sector they operate. There will always be a need for good transport links.
The state of our infrastructure contributes to the general impression of Northern Ireland to potential investors. We must show businesses the benefits of establishing a base in Northern Ireland. We have many of the required natural resources, but infrastructure and services must be brought up to the necessary standards in order to compete with areas that can offer much lower labour costs and other financial benefits, which Northern Ireland will be unlikely to match. In such circumstances, other aspects must be promoted to ensure that Northern Ireland is seen as a desirable area in which to do business.
No single measure will solve the problems facing our economy. However, I commend the report and pay tribute to everyone involved in its preparation. It highlights problems but, more importantly, offers many solutions. The report contains many of the building blocks that can put the Northern Ireland economy in a very strong position. I support the motion.
I wish to congratulate my hon Friend on an excellent maiden speech; it is a pleasure to follow him. I also wish to congratulate my hon Friend, the Member for South Antrim Mr Burns, who made a very competent maiden speech. I trust that we will have the opportunity to hear again the Members who have made maiden speeches, and others, during other debates in the Chamber.
There is a deafening silence in parts of the Chamber, which should come as no surprise to anyone. Sinn Féin/IRA has decided to stay away from this debate. That is nothing new; Sinn Féin/IRA’s boycotting an economic debate is quite typical, bearing in mind that its members offer nothing to society and, over the years, have been associated with those who have blown our economy to bits. Therefore, there is nothing unusual in its boycotting this debate. Debating is one area in which Sinn Féin has always been very weak. That party has used other ways and means to exercise its power in the past, but certainly not the power of persuasion in debate.
Those who are here will certainly endeavour to debate the issues, which are very important to all our constituents. We are considering the ‘First Report on the Economic Challenges Facing Northern Ireland’, and I commend those who actively engaged during the summer to bring the report before us; their work is greatly appreciated.
It is interesting to note that Sinn Féin members of the subgroup agreed the report. When the report came before the PFG Committee, Sinn Féin tried to scupper it, kick it into touch and stop it from coming before the House. Finally, Sinn Féin caved in and agreed the report. After agreeing it, Sinn Féin went to the Business Committee to try again to stop it getting on the agenda for debate in the Chamber.
We are debating an important issue that impacts on all our constituents. The Member for East Antrim Sammy Wilson provided a good dose of reality, because it is very easy for politicians to blame everyone else. Some would try to deceive the electorate into thinking that somehow we are totally innocent of everything. For example, let us remember that the rates review came out of the womb of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Therefore, responsibility for that review falls at the doorstep of the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and the Belfast Agreement. The Secretary of State is now carrying that policy forward, but it originated in the Assembly.
Industrial rating was conceived in the very same womb. Let us not deceive people; let us be honest and admit where those policies started.
No. I have a lot to say, and the hon Member has had an opportunity to speak. I assure the hon Member that there is much more that he needs to listen to. [Interruption.]
The Ulster Unionist Party needs a good dose of reality. The Member for Strangford Mr McNarry talked about magic wands and magic dust. Let us have reality, rather than getting on a magic roundabout.
Let us deal with some of the issues that must be faced. The Member for South Antrim Mr Burns made a valuable contribution in his maiden speech, and he said something very significant. He made it abundantly clear that the only way that we can really have an impact on our economy is by having a strong, stable devolved Government. He said that over and over again. That is important, and we must heed what he said. We need a strong, stable devolved Government, not something cobbled together — not something out of the womb of the Belfast Agreement, which the general public has rejected, but something that will bring stability to Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Féin, which have supported the Belfast Agreement, had better realise that it is dead.
The people in our community want something that will bring stability instead of something that has the stench of death on it. They want life, a vibrant economy and a society that can move forward with a vision of hope for the future. Although we must face realities in any debate on the economy, we must also be careful to remind ourselves of the many good aspects of our economy. We need to talk up Northern Ireland.
I have heard certain Members remind the House of what is happening in the Irish Republic’s economy. They tell us that what we really need is an all-Ireland economy. Let us get a wee dose of reality — the Republic of Ireland is our competitor. To use a good country expression, those Members would like to be on the hind tit of the cow instead of standing at the front and being the cow. Let us have confidence in ourselves instead of trying to tie ourselves to the tail end of a place that constantly relies on handouts from Europe.
On the one hand, the Irish Republic boasts of its Celtic tiger economy, while, on the other hand, it goes to Europe with a begging bowl every other day to ask for more money and handouts. I could solve many of the problems in my constituency if I were to get all the handouts from Europe that the Dublin Government receive. They plead poverty, but then they tell us that the Irish Republic is a vibrant economy and that everybody should try to emulate the success of the Celtic tiger. However, it relies on its begging bowl and on handouts from others. It is fine if the Irish Republic wants to behave in that way. All that I am saying is —
Dr McCrea, I take it that you are addressing your remarks through the Chair and not directly to Members. I do not mind where some remarks go, but other remarks should be made through the Chair.
Madam Speaker, I would not want to bypass you in any shape or form. However, I want to emphasise the attitude of the Members on the Benches opposite; it would be discourteous of me not to direct my remarks to them or to plead with them to get out of the muck and the mire. They must stop relying on others and have the dignity to stand on their own two feet and present their own case. Northern Ireland has much to present to the world. We should not be a tag-on in a Dublin tourist brochure. We have something to offer in our own right.
The Member for West Belfast Mrs Dodds gave one of today’s most excellent and eloquent speeches. She pointed out that tourism is a vital ingredient that should be allowed to evolve in the interests of Northern Ireland and that our tourism industry should not be a tag-on but a vibrant industry in its own right.
We must recognise the hardship that our economy and industries have endured over the past 35 years of terrorism. We must give them credit and praise them for sticking in there and for standing up against all the terrorism that has been thrown at them. We must say, “Well done” to our workers and to those who have invested money in our Province.
Much more remains to be done, however. We acknowledge that there is a skills deficit. I have a genuine concern about our education system. For one reason or another, the Government believe that a young person who does not have a university degree is somehow a second-class citizen. With the greatest respect, that is wrong. Some of the best contributors to our economy, past and present, have no university degree, but they have an entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and vision. They are able to capture the moment and take themselves, their families and the community forward. A balance must be struck. Some young people have university degrees, but it is not relevant to life. When they are asked what they will do with their degree when they finish university, they do not know. Sad to say, some of them have to honestly say that they do not know, and I give them credit for that. We must build up the skills base in Northern Ireland. We need the university graduate and the academic, but we also need a good skills base, as many skills in our society are being neglected.
The transport system in Northern Ireland creates problems for industrialists who want to come here. I appreciate the fact that my hon Friends in the Department for Regional Development had a strategy to take matters forward. They not only planned for the moment but for the future as well, and if something fell by the way, they had another scheme ready to take over. That was done by my hon Friend for East Belfast and my hon Friend for East Londonderry and not by direct rule Ministers, and it was deeply appreciated.
However, we need more investment in our infrastructure. For example, there is a vibrant economy in the mid-Ulster area, and that is not due to the multinationals but to the entrepreneurial spirit of the people. They have lifted themselves.
News came to the Magherafelt area one day that 528 jobs were to go like the crack of a finger, which was a total disaster for that area. Did the people lie down and bury their heads in the sand and rely on others to do everything for them? No: they decided to act, and now they have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the whole country — a result of what was done by the community for the community — and I appreciate that.
However, Magherafelt is being held back because the town does not have a bypass. The townspeople need to get to Cookstown, and the area must be opened up so that the industrialists can get to the seaports and airports, but they are being hindered in the good that they want to do for the community. Many good things are happening that deserve praise, but the deficiencies must be identified and moved forward.
The report is a first step. Members should note that it is a first report, or a foundation report, which means that the subgroup has the desire to build on it, and the Administration in power must take it forward.
There is a lack of interdepartmental co-operation. It would appear that one hand does not know what the other hand is doing, so there must be more co-operation. There is plenty of talk about that, but there is little action. The Planning Service must come up to standard. Unfortunately, in many cases it is an impediment to moving forward. The Member for East Antrim Ken Robinson identified Global Point in south Antrim for industrial development, but it is sitting vacant. A former Minister with responsibility for the economy announced that it was the jewel in the crown, but the jewel in the crown is sitting in dust. In fact, the jewel cannot be seen for dust. Instead of being the jewel in the crown and being full of industrialists, it is covered with nettles and thistles. Global Point is vacant because of planning problems.
Joined-up government must move the economy forward. We have a great country and the best workers that anyone could ask for, and we want to improve their skills so that they can take industry forward, but we must give them the best tool, which is stability. We need a stable society. The hon Member for South Antrim spoke in a considered and passionate way when he said that we need a strong, stable, devolved Government, and that is what Ulster is crying out for. A devolved Government is needed, but we cannot have it while we have terrorism, criminality, and a political party inextricability linked with a terrorist organisation with all the minutiae of that organisation ready to break forth as it desires and wills. That will not bring stability.
We need to have integrity within our system, which must be based on the foundations of democracy. That is what the DUP stands for. My party is not seeking short-term fixes but strong, stable devolved government. If that is not on offer by 24 November, the Secretary of State had better realise that Ulster will not settle for second best. We have been living with second best for too long. We want the best for our future, and that is what our people deserve.
This has been a very worthwhile debate. There may have been those who thought that, 26 hours after the debate opened, we would have been tiring, but after the contribution from my hon Friend the Member for South Antrim, they now know otherwise. They now know that we have the stamina to see any job through to the end.
As others have, I congratulate those who made maiden speeches today. We had three powerful speeches, including one from the Member for South Antrim Mr Burns, who indicated clearly the contribution that he will make to the Assembly, given the opportunity. He made a salient point about the need for stability, and I will return to that. I congratulate my colleague and uncle George Robinson, the Member for East Londonderry. [Laughter.]
I have heard George speak on many previous occasions. He is a first-class constituency worker, and he will make a real contribution in this Assembly.
What can I say of the Member for West Belfast? I can probably say quite a bit about her speech because, unlike her husband, I was here to listen to it.
Mrs Dodds talked about the courthouse in her constituency of West Belfast. She became a bit territorial, because she started talking about the Titanic Quarter in East Belfast, which concerned me. Perhaps her geography is imperfect. I have no wish to fuel any domestic difficulties, but I was here for my wife’s maiden speech. I think it will probably take a contribution to the economy by the Member for North Belfast, perhaps in the shape of jewellery, to sort out that difficulty. [Laughter.]
I speak now of the missing Members, a topic that has been mentioned by a number of others. It was my understanding, and I believe it was the understanding of the Secretary of State, and certainly of my colleagues, that a distinct process was to be followed. First, there was a need to scope the issues. The Secretary of State lectured us all about the need to get the PFG Committee working. It had to identify the obstacles so that we would see clearly where future difficulties might lie. Secondly, there would be debates in the Assembly, which would enable Members to see more closely the nuances of one another’s position. Thirdly, we would go into negotiations and try to resolve those difficulties. That was the progression that was laid out.
As I understood the position of Sinn Féin/IRA, it indicated that it would contribute in the Assembly Chamber only when that was essential to preparation for Government, or to contribute to the setting up of a devolved Government. That was the justification it gave not simply for going through the doors of this Assembly, but for going into Committees. Therefore I am confused, because Sinn Féin felt justified in going into the subgroup that dealt with the economic report. Sinn Féin Members not only went into the subgroup, but contributed to its work and, along with all the others, reached a consensus, and we had an agreed report, which, as two Members have already stated, says in its executive summary that it is important that matters are dealt with fully in debate in the Assembly.
Sinn Féin’s position was that it would be involved only with a report that was essential to the preparation for Government. Members of Sinn Féin were involved in the subgroup and were part of the Preparation for Government Committee when it considered the subgroup’s report. Eventually, after a little hiccup, they were able to endorse that report. Why are they not here? If Sinn Féin had already recognised that the report was important to the preparation for Government and that its presence was required at the subgroup and the PFG Committee meetings, what possible excuse can it have for not being here today?
Sinn Féin has missed an important opportunity, and perhaps its absence exposes a lack of interest in the Northern Ireland economy. In his maiden speech, my hon Friend from East Londonderry George Robinson clearly outlined the role that Sinn Féin has played in undermining, destroying and setting back the economy through the terrorist campaign that it supported and in which it was involved.
The one message that came through clearly to anyone who stayed in the Chamber for any length of time was that every Department has a role to play in addressing the challenges that face the economy. Members rightly spoke about planning. Several Members mentioned the restraints placed on the establishment of businesses in Northern Ireland by the Planning Service’s inability to fast-track applications with important job content.
When I visited Australia as a Minister of this House, I was asked to meet representatives from a major Australian company. They told me that their company wanted to invest here but that Northern Ireland had the slowest planning system in the entire world. That was the view of an international company that invests billions of pounds. Even then, the Planning Service’s actions resulted in companies not investing here. Companies want a quick return on their investment: they do not want to wait. Indeed, the example was given of a certain business taking eight years to go through the introductory stages of the planning process.
Members also spoke about agriculture and the agri-foods industry, which is a vital and important part of the economy. I say that as a Belfast representative. Some Members referred to tourism, and even the film industry got a mention. Transport, energy, education and skills were also mentioned. Every Department has a role to play in the challenge to revive Northern Ireland’s economy and make it less dependent on the public sector.
I will talk briefly about transportation, as I have a particular interest in it. The infrastructure of any area is vital to its economy. When goods are being brought in and taken out, it is essential that a good road infrastructure exists and that airports and seaports operate effectively and efficiently. As I have no time to go into detail, I will simply put on record that I have concerns about the consultation on some of the proposals about the future of Belfast port that would undermine its ability to continue stimulating the economy.
Belfast is an essential part of Northern Ireland’s economy. I am delighted that the Titanic Quarter development will bring real life to the city: I can think of nowhere else in the civilised world where an area that is so close to the capital and of such significance as the hundreds of acres of the Titanic Quarter is available for development. The development of that area can bring job opportunities to people in Northern Ireland.
In its heyday, Harland and Wolff built ships day after day and employed 20,000 to 25,000 people. That same area of ground is capable of bringing that level of employment not only to east Belfast or greater Belfast, but to the whole of Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly, the type of industry will change — and that point is pertinent to the discussion about corporation tax or other incentives.
We should take into account the fact that the types of businesses that will be stimulated by reducing corporation tax may be different to those that might be stimulated if other incentives are put forward. Therefore, we must be careful with people who approach us, because they will have a genuine vested interest in one incentive rather than another, and it will depend on their business viewpoint.
I do not have the same difficulty as the Members for North Down and South Down who suggested in discussion yesterday that to ask for a differential tax rate might be considered anti-unionist. The Union is diverse in many ways. If we argue that we do not want special privileges, should we then have the same amount per capita in Northern Ireland as in every other part of the United Kingdom? Being in a family means that the part in greatest need gets the greatest help.
I am not in the least bit embarrassed about asking for a differential tax rate for a Northern Ireland that, I hope, has come out of decades of destructive terrorism and has a neighbour to its south with a more competitive corporation-tax level. It will be difficult to secure a new rate of corporation tax and it is likely that some other incentive will be offered. I do not accept the argument that that is in any way anti-unionist. Indeed, the Union is based on the principle that we are a family — each with our own peculiar and diverse background, interests and advantages — and are able to help one another.
The Member for South Antrim referred to stability. Ultimately, any hard-nosed businessman seeking to invest anywhere in the world will want to be certain about that investment. He will not invest in a country with a stop-start Government. If there are suspensions from one month to the next; people coming in and out of the Assembly; violence and criminality continuing; and people associated with violence and criminality in Government, there will not be the background of stability that will encourage investment.
It is essential, therefore, that we hold out for real stability and that a level of certainty is reached, because that is what the business community will seek before it will invest. We must invest in our futures if they are to invest in our businesses. Both require a level of stability that can only come about when those who are in Government are committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
This is the first report. Further reports must deal with infrastructure, a financial package, and whether a devolved Government can deal with issues such as the rates. People are being massively hurt by rates increases. However, as my colleague Mr Wilson said, what you give to one area you take away from another. If rates are to be capped, we must consider whether there should be a minimum level for the services being provided. Ultimately, however, people will have to pay.
Finally, some important contributions have been made in the debate and good work has been done in the preparation of the report. However, that will only be of any advantage if the report’s recommendations are acted upon. Some recommendations could be taken forward by a devolved Government, but many concern reserved matters and can, therefore, only be taken forward by the Exchequer and the Government. The Secretary of State must consider the debate.
As was said, the Secretary of State must not put this report on the shelf; he must deal with the issues in it. The Assembly can pursue other matters in a further report; we can push forward other issues if, hopefully, the right conditions are achieved and devolution is restored. However, the Secretary of State has the prime responsibility for resolving the issues placed before him and answering the people of Northern Ireland. The elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland have spoken. What is the answer from the Secretary of State?
Question put and agreed to.
That the Assembly approves the first report from the Committee on the Preparation for Government on the economic challenges facing Northern Ireland; agrees that it should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, pending restoration of the Institutions, calls on the Secretary of State, the Committee on the Preparation for Government and others to take action to implement the recommendations in the report.
Adjourned at 4.16 pm.