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Ministerial Statement: Economic Strategy

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 17th November 2011.

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Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP 12:30 pm, 17th November 2011

This is an important day for the Executive and the Assembly as we launch the draft Programme for Government, draft investment strategy and draft economic strategy. It is also important for the people of Northern Ireland, as the Executive are issuing those documents today to set out what we are planning to do in the face of some very difficult challenges.

I am very pleased to present the economic strategy to this Assembly. Economic recovery is a central theme flowing through the three documents. A vibrant economy can transform our society and reduce the deprivation and poverty which blights many of our communities. We face a real challenge in growing the economy, not least as the effects of the recent and deep recession will be felt for some time, but I believe that we can meet the challenge, and the strategy sets out what the Executive plan to do over the short, medium and longer term.

We also place a concerted emphasis on implementation. To that end, we will shortly publish a comprehensive action plan, and I assure members today that performance will be tracked and regularly updated against our proposed performance indicators. As I said, we face a very difficult economic climate. Growth across much of the world remains slow and uncertain. Even major economies, such as the United States, face severe problems. The euro zone is also struggling, and we need to recognise the impact that that has on businesses in Northern Ireland. Our labour market continues to face the brunt of the economic downturn. Published yesterday, the most recent labour market statistics indicated that the unemployment rate for the period from July to September was 7·3% — unchanged over the quarter, but up 0·3% over the year.

However, as recognised in the draft economic strategy, our unemployment rate remains lower than that in the rest of the United Kingdom and the European Union average and is considerably lower than the Republic of Ireland’s. That doesn’t make me complacent. Unemployment is much more than a statistic, for it represents people who have lost a major source of their income. We also have a large number of young people who are unemployed or economically inactive, and that is a challenge for all us policymakers. Inflation is another problem. Rising costs, particularly in areas such as imported energy, are causing real problems for both individuals and companies.

In recognising the contemporary challenges we face, this draft strategy seeks to address some long-standing issues. They include the need to increase our living standards to levels enjoyed elsewhere in the UK and beyond; the need to rebalance our economy towards greater and more value-added private sector growth, particularly faced with the pressures on consumer and public expenditure; the need to provide support for company development in Northern Ireland in the context of revised EU guidelines, which might reduce levels of assistance; and the need to reduce the levels of poverty and joblessness in the economy.

Those are real and significant challenges, but the draft strategy outlines why we should have optimism and confidence for the future. For example, we have a younger population than the average in the UK and the European Union. We have many local companies which are entering export markets with new and innovative products. We have a skills system that is increasingly focused on the needs of industry, and we continue to outperform the rest of the UK on GCSE and A-level results. We also have many sectors, not least agrifood, which have proved resilient in the downturn. Those are only a few of our strengths, but I recognise the need to harness them and others in order to reach our stated vision for 2030, which is:

“To have an economy characterised by a sustainable and growing private sector, where a greater number of firms compete in global markets and there is growing employment and prosperity.”

The draft economic strategy sets out a road map to that destination, but, before I highlight some of the key issues, I want to say a few words about the process that I have put in place to get us to where we are today. In December 2008, I commissioned an independent review of economic policy. I asked the panel to advise me on what was needed to realign existing policies and devise new policies to help grow our economy. I received a report from the panel some nine months later, in September 2009. That report was comprehensive and provided a thorough analysis of our economy and economic policies.

The panel made a large number of recommendations, and I advised the House in January last year that I was minded to accept virtually all of them. A programme was put in place to ensure that those recommendations were implemented, and, earlier this year, I provided the Assembly with an update on progress. The panel recommended that we should set up a permanent subcommittee of the Executive, which I would chair, to prioritise action on the economy. We have done that.

The panel recommended increased autonomy for Invest NI and for the organisation to be more flexible and responsive to the entire business base in order to prioritise action in the key areas of innovation, research and development, and exports. We have done that. However, we will continue to work to ensure that businesses are given flexible solutions to meet their business needs. The panel recommended that the committee should agree an economic strategy, building on its report. We have also done that, and I am presenting that draft strategy to the Assembly today.

I have chaired a number of meetings of the economic subcommittee of the Executive, and together we have assessed the challenges we face and the actions we should take. Membership of the committee includes those Departments that have a key interest in economic development. However, in drawing up the strategy, all Departments have been involved. We have carried out extensive research into what works for other small open economies, and it was clear from that work that there is no silver bullet or magic formula to give us overnight success. However, what was highlighted was the twin emphasis on growing the private sector through sustained emphasis on innovation, and research and development. The importance, for some, of a policy lever such as corporation tax was very clear, and I will return to that point later in my statement.

We have used that work to produce a framework for economic growth. In January, I launched the first phase of the consultation on the strategy, built around the framework and the core priority to drive export-led growth. To do so, I proposed that we needed to rebuild and rebalance the local economy. I invited all stakeholders to consider the draft framework and our associated objectives. I was very encouraged by the degree of engagement and the positive response. That has enabled the Executive subcommittee to build on that initial consultation document and to produce the strategy that I am presenting to the Assembly today.

One of the other recommendations from the review of economic policy was that, as Minister for the economy, I should seek expert economic advice. I have set up a small group, known as the Economic Advisory Group (EAG), chaired by Kate Barker. Kate has brought a wealth of experience and knowledge, and I pay tribute to her and her group for the advice that they have provided. They have helped to shape the strategy and, during the summer, the EAG met the Executive subcommittee on the economy to discuss key issues.

The overarching aim of the strategy is to improve the economic competitiveness of our local economy, mainly through export-led economic growth. That reflects the reality that we are not large enough to rely solely on domestic markets and that we need to export if we are to grow and to create wealth and employment. However, an important message in the draft strategy is that we need to not just deepen our export base but diversify into countries and markets that are showing growth potential. That is why I welcome the PricewaterhouseCoopers report published this week. It stated:

“the best potential area for growing the economy was to raise the share of Northern Ireland exports focussed on developing economies”.

In the earlier consultation on the framework for growth, we proposed that the strategy should be built around the twin goals of rebalancing and rebuilding the economy. That received widespread support, and the draft strategy is, therefore, built on those themes. We need to rebalance the economy towards higher value added private sector activity. We also need a stronger private sector in line with our competitors, such as the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. In stating that, let me be clear that I am not diminishing the value of the public sector. Here in Northern Ireland, we need strong public services, not least because of our relatively high levels of poverty and deprivation. However, our public sector needs to be as efficient as possible. That is why the draft Programme for Government highlights some of the public sector reforms necessary to support overall growth in the economy.

The draft economic strategy is about ensuring that we have a stronger private sector: a private sector that creates wealth and employment. That will not be achieved overnight, which is why we are setting out the draft strategy with a 2030 vision. However, let me be clear: unlike previous strategies, we will not allow this one to simply gather dust. We will keep it under review, and an updated version, including a detailed list of actions and targets for the post 2014-15 period, will be produced when the outcome of the UK Government’s next spending review is known.

We have also prioritised the areas where we believe the greatest potential for competiveness and exports exist. I am grateful for the work of MATRIX, which has identified those areas in the manufacturing sector that have the greatest potential for growth. As part of keeping this strategy under review, we will target our resources where the best opportunities arise across the globe.

I have spoken about the economic challenges that we and, indeed, many other western countries face. I now want to return to the actions and steps that we are taking to build confidence into the local economy. In support of the twin objectives of rebalancing and rebuilding, we have set out a number of strategic themes. On rebalancing, we have five such themes, the first of which is to stimulate innovation, research and development, and creativity.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Wrightbus with the Mayor of London to see the roll-out of a new bus for London. That is an example of innovation. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said that the bus:

“showcases the very best of British manufacturing and design”.

He also said:

“This is a world-class piece of technology built here in Ballymena. It’s the most amazing futuristic design, but it’s also the cleanest, greenest bus”.

[Interruption.] Green in the right way. [Laughter.] I look forward to the new bus being not just on the streets of London but in capital cities throughout the world.

As I visit many companies, I am very conscious of the new ideas that are springing up, especially from young people. I have visited the Northern Ireland Science Park, which has had great success in developing high-technology companies. It continues to expand, and I hope that its planned venture in Londonderry is successful. We need to foster and encourage that sort of activity, and we are proposing to invest significantly in that area to build the knowledge economy necessary to support wealth and employment.

Our second theme is based on skills. Above all, our most important asset is our people. As I mentioned earlier in my statement, we are very fortunate that we have a very young population here. We need to provide them with relevant skills, and we need to give companies that are considering investing here the confidence that they will find a skilled, motivated and energetic workforce. We also need to provide people who find themselves out of work with the necessary opportunities to retrain and get new skills.

The strategy is built around economic growth. However, the economy will grow only if firms grow, and the third theme is about encouraging business growth. We have many good firms in Northern Ireland but most are small and medium-sized, and we want to help them to expand. Unfortunately, there is sometimes reluctance, especially in family-owned businesses, to grasp the opportunities that might be open, and we want to help. In saying that, I recognise that there is a major difficulty in the current climate of getting bank finance. I wish that I could solve that, but we have to be realistic. We are looking at areas where we can offer further help, and we have proposed some initiatives in the draft strategy to help with that.

The fourth theme is competing in a global economy. We want to encourage local companies to expand their horizons. If they have not already exported, we want to help and encourage them to do so, and we want to encourage those who have exported to enter new and growing markets. The draft strategy and, indeed, our review of global best practice have confirmed that there is a very close link between exports and attracting foreign direct investment. Therefore, in launching an export-led economic growth strategy, we need to attract further and better foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland and to ensure that those companies become embedded in the local economy through supply chain and other linkages. That is why we, as an Executive, have called for the powers to vary the rate of corporation tax to support our work in attracting foreign direct investment. I will touch on that specific point shortly.

The final rebalancing theme is developing economic infrastructure. We have invested heavily in infrastructure in recent years, and that can be seen in the many new schools, roads and hospitals that have been built. However, it is not only about physical infrastructure. We need to further improve our telecoms, energy and wider infrastructure as well, and the investment strategy that has been published today shows what we are planning to do with the resources available to us.

Those are the five key strategic themes that, built on our research, we consider will help us to rebalance the economy.

The draft strategy contains various actions and investments that the Executive will resolutely deliver. Those actions are not only for my Department, because the strategy has been developed by the Executive subcommittee on behalf of, and has been endorsed by, the full Executive. However, if we are to be successful, all Departments will have to contribute and work in partnership with the private sector, the voluntary and community sectors and other economic stakeholders. We all have a part to play.

Over the past year, there has been much discussion about the desirability of using corporation tax as a policy lever. We are clear on the benefits that it could deliver, and the Executive have asked for those powers to be devolved to the Assembly and the Executive in a timely and affordable manner. We have been encouraged by the steps that the United Kingdom Government have taken already, particularly on air passenger duty. However, following the recent HM Treasury consultation on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy, we believe that the time is now right for corporation tax powers to be devolved. The draft Programme for Government contains a commitment to press for those powers so that we can reduce the level in Northern Ireland.

The draft economic strategy also anticipates a successful outcome to the ongoing negotiations with the UK Government. That is because we recognise that it would have the most transformative impact on the economy and would help to strengthen our economic competitiveness. Equally, we recognise that it would not, by itself, be sufficient to stimulate the wealth and employment that we need. In parallel, we must work to grow the private sector, and I believe that the actions outlined in the draft strategy will help to strengthen our economic competitiveness, irrespective of the outcome on corporation tax.

In the strategy, we have set ourselves some challenging targets on increasing exports and attracting investment. Investment in research and development is vital to a sustainable recovery, and we aim to support £300 million of investment by businesses in R&D and to support 500 businesses to undertake R&D for the first time. I mentioned the importance of skills and employability, so we will increase to 70% the proportion of young people leaving school having achieved at least 5 GCSEs at A* to C, including English and maths. To encourage our local businesses to grow, we will enable 300 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to access funding through Invest Northern Ireland’s access-to-capital strategy, including a £50 million loan fund for small and medium-sized enterprises. We will also support £330 million of investment in local businesses and support 160 social economy start-ups.

In line with our focus on export-led growth, we will increase manufacturing exports by 15% by 2015. We will also secure investment of £300 million by establishing and growing externally owned companies. At the same time, we will encourage first-time exporters by promoting 60 start-ups selling to markets outside the United Kingdom and 440 new start-ups selling to GB. In particular, we want to support the promotion of 25,000 jobs over the lifetime of the new Programme for Government. That will make a very real impact. Those actions will help us to rebalance the economy.

The other goal in the strategy is rebuilding, and we have set out two further themes on that. The first theme is about promoting accessible employment opportunities across all areas and communities in Northern Ireland, and the second is about providing training and reskilling to those who are unemployed or inactive because of the downturn. We want to address the wider barriers to employment so that people do not become detached from the labour market. Again, the draft strategy contains various actions to help rebuild the economy in the aftermath of the recession. In working to rebuild the economy, we will move 114,000 working age benefit clients into employment by March 2015. We will help the construction industry by upgrading our roads and by delivering approximately 8,000 social and affordable homes over the next four years, and we will stimulate 1,150 new employment opportunities in rural areas by 2015 under the rural development fund.

Developing the draft strategy, which I am launching today, has not been just an academic exercise. It is a document that contains extensive actions and commitments. However, we are already working hard to rebuild and rebalance our economy. We do not have to wait another 20 years, although it may be that length of time before we achieve all our goals.

Earlier this month, I also launched Invest Northern Ireland’s Boosting Business initiative. That is a package of new and revamped measures aimed at boosting support to Invest Northern Ireland’s existing clients and, importantly, the broader business base. As part of that, the jobs fund, which was launched in the last Budget, has a budget of £19 million to help businesses to create immediate job opportunities. I am pleased that already we have seen companies make use of that initiative, and I am very encouraged by the level of interest being shown.

At the end of October, Invest Northern Ireland had 30 offers of support for selective financial assistance under the jobs fund. Recently, I announced a project by Capita Life and Pensions that will result in 336 jobs. That is an inward investment project, the largest to date under the jobs fund. Equally, local companies are using the fund. Recent examples include Creative Composites in Lisburn and Fresh Food Kitchen and One Stop Data in Londonderry.

With my Executive colleagues, I want to do all that I can now to aid local businesses, especially as they face the current economic difficulties. As I mentioned, the agrifood industry has continued to be successful, with increases in output, exports and employment. We continue to work with that important sector and are putting in place a food strategy board so that we can engage with it better.

Last month, I visited Kurdistan with Invest Northern Ireland and 20 local firms. I was greatly encouraged by the positive response, and the clear message is that there are opportunities in Kurdistan for companies that want to do business there. We have identified areas for potential co-operation, which we intend to develop over the months ahead. That is just one country. There are many others.

Just last week, I announced the highest ever expenditure by businesses on research and development. Despite the current economic difficulties, local firms recognise that continuing to invest in new products and processes will give them greater competitive advantage in markets where there are still opportunities for growth.

The tourism sector is also very important for us and offers many opportunities over the next few years. I am delighted by the success of the recent MTV Europe Music Awards and am pleased with the way in which Belfast City Council and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board were able to work with a wide range of stakeholders in the public and private sectors to make that event such a stunning success. It showcased Belfast and Northern Ireland in a very positive manner to a huge audience across the world. I congratulate everyone who was involved.

That is just the start of what will be a very exciting couple of years. We recently launched NI 2012: Our Time, Our Place. That is an exciting programme of events, celebrations and commemorations commencing with the Titanic festival next April. That will continue throughout next year, leading to the UK City of Culture celebrations in 2013. We want to see a significant increase in tourist numbers and expenditure, which offers an immediate positive impact on the economy.

Today, I am also launching a tourist development scheme through a targeted call process. It will offer assistance to capital projects and is focused on the themes of culture and heritage, food, music and gardens, large-scale conferences, and events infrastructure. Those will be supported in nine key tourism destination areas across Northern Ireland.

As I indicated, I was pleased that recently we were able to reach agreement with Her Majesty’s Treasury about reducing the rate of air passenger duty on long-haul flights. Access is vital to us, not just for tourism but for business. I hope that all that we are doing will bring more tourists here and so create more jobs.

I assure the House that we are very active on a wide range of fronts in addressing the economic challenges that we face. The launch of this draft economic strategy is an important milestone. However, I look forward to engaging in an extensive programme of consultation over the coming weeks to ensure that we have the right mix of actions and initiatives to deliver growth, prosperity and employment.

I have already emphasised the importance of implementation and the need to keep the strategy under regular review. I am confident that if we all work in partnership — within the Executive and across the various economic stakeholders — we will be able to make the necessary changes to strengthen our economic competitiveness.

I am pleased to bring the draft strategy to the House today. It has taken time to prepare, but we wanted to ensure that it was based on research and would address the issues that we face. We also wanted to take on board the many helpful comments that we received from the previous consultation. We need to rebalance and rebuild the economy, and the strategy sets out a framework and actions that will enable us to do so.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:00 pm, 17th November 2011

I thank the Minister for her very detailed statement. On behalf of the Committee, I welcome the economic strategy. The Committee needs time to examine the strategy in detail and to comment on it in detail. However, in September 2009, the Committee welcomed the Barnett report from which the strategy arises. The Committee will continue to be supportive where it is important to support the development of the economy.

I will make some observations. Although the Minister referred to greening Ballymena in her statement, which I support, and which, I am sure, Mr Frew supports, there is very little reference to the green economy. That needs to be addressed by the Minister and I hope that she will do so in answer to my question.

The target of creating 25,000 jobs over the next four years is ambitious. I do not doubt that the strategy should be properly ambitious but there has to be realism in it. I would like the Minister to identify how she thinks that could be achieved. The Minister also said that more than 114,000 benefit clients could move into employment by March 2015. That is an extraordinary target and I ask the Minister to comment on it. Finally, the Minister also referred to an action plan. I wish the Minister well in developing that action plan after the process of consultation but will it be clearly targeted and focused so that we are not engaged in process but in measuring outputs?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Chair for his welcome of the strategy. He is right to point out that it is an outcome of the independent review of economic policy that started in 2008. It is important that we thank Richard Barnett and his team for starting the process and for bringing us to where we are today.

I do not think that I said that I was in the business of greening Ballymena; I said that I was very proud that the bus was one of the greenest available. If the Member looks at page 12 of the strategy, he will see the prioritisation given to the various areas. We have been informed by the MATRIX panel, which is the industry science panel that has been helping us to develop our priorities. The Member will see the number of priorities but if he looks at paragraph 1.16, he will see that it also states:

“In addition, MATRIX is currently conducting further analysis into the market opportunities presented by the sustainable energy sector. We will also support local businesses to fully exploit the wider potential created through the emerging green economy.”

Therefore it is in the economic strategy and will be developed over the coming years. We are delighted to see the movements that have been made, particularly in relation to DONG down in Belfast harbour. I think that that will act as a catalyst for others looking to Northern Ireland.

The Member is right: creating 25,000 jobs is a very challenging target. Our Department is the victim, as the First Minister would say, of hitting our targets the last time round and the need to stretch ourselves on this occasion. It is absolutely incredible that Invest Northern Ireland was able to hit all those targets, given the difficult times that we were in. Therefore, it was felt that there was a need to try to stretch the target the next time round. The target is 25,000 jobs, which has been broken down into various areas, including foreign direct investment, new job starts and the jobs fund, which will work alongside the other measures during the period of this Programme for Government.

The Chairperson of the Committee commented on the 114,000 jobs target. He will understand that that target reflects the work of the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) and that it sits with that Department. That is why the action plan will be so critical moving forward. The action plan will allot all those different targets to their particular Departments and charge them with taking them forward. Obviously, those are not new jobs but they will be programmes brought forward by DEL to deal with the impending welfare reform.

I hope that I have addressed all the issues that the Chairperson raised.

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement and welcome the publication of the economic strategy. Given my background, the Minister will not be surprised that I welcome the fact that the document is quite private sector friendly. I want to ask her specifically about the Boosting Business initiative. Will she elaborate on that and, perhaps, comment on how successful the jobs fund has been thus far and how she sees that benefiting the plan to boost business?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his comments about private sector growth. That is in the context of everything happening in the economy at present. In response to ongoing challenges facing businesses across Northern Ireland, Invest Northern Ireland has reviewed all its existing products and services to determine whether they can be made available to, or indeed, more easily accessed by the wider business base. We recognise that small and medium-sized businesses do not have the time for all the complicated form-filling that is sometimes required. Therefore, we are trying to make things easier and a lot more flexible for the wider business base.

All those actions have been brought together under the Boosting Business initiative, which comprises five themes: jobs, exports, research and development, technology and skills. Support from Invest Northern Ireland will be available through a combination of advice and guidance, regional seminars and workshops and, of course, financial support. I will write to all Members in the next few days to alert them to the initiative’s website and free-phone number. If Members are speaking proactively to members of their local business communities or have constituents who raise issues with them, they can advise those people to go online to see the range of advice that is available. Importantly, the new free-phone number will be answered by Invest Northern Ireland staff who are aware of all the different programmes available.

The jobs fund was launched on 1 April 2011, and since then, there has been a high level of engagement with businesses and key stakeholders. To date, we have announced 400 new jobs, and there are projects intended to create a further 1,300 new jobs. Those have been approved through Invest Northern Ireland and will be announced in due course in conjunction with the various firms. I have been pleased and encouraged to note the geographical spread of those jobs, which is critical at this time, because we know that jobs have been lost across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I, too, welcome the launch of the economic strategy. It contains many very important initiatives and commitments. The Minister will not be surprised that I will briefly address the issue of rural businesses, which are at a major economic competitive disadvantage because of poor broadband provision. I ask the Minister to detail the strategy of her Department and the Executive for sorting that out.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP 1:15 pm, 17th November 2011

I will certainly respond to the Member’s question. I am smiling because he asked me to outline what the Executive are doing and it is not so long ago that we were in the House and I did exactly that. It has not changed, Barry; we are still being very proactive in the whole area of broadband, whether it is fibre to the cabinet or through Avanti Communications or North West Electronics. We are trying to find solutions to very difficult problems in rural areas.

The Member knows that telecommunications is a reserved matter. We can enter the field only when there is market failure. We have certainly been doing that; we have spent a very large amount of government resources on broadband. Indeed, as he will know from the debate in the House earlier this week, we are moving into the area of mobile phone coverage, which is becoming more and more of an issue. There are Programme for Government targets for mobile phone coverage so that we ensure that people get coverage when they download from mobile handsets. He is aware of that; it is like asking the question if you know the answer. Barry knows the answer, but I am happy enough to give it again.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I welcome the publication of the draft strategy and I wish the Minister well in trying to achieve the targets that are contained therein. Is the employment target breakdown 5,900 for FDI, 6,500 for new start-ups, 6,300 for new jobs in locally owned companies and 6,300 from the jobs fund? If that is the case, given that those are concentric circles rather than mutually exclusive groups, what steps will she take to ensure that there is no double counting? Furthermore, will she expand on the move to bring 114,000 working-age benefit clients into employment and on whether employment also means employment schemes, such as internships and Steps to Work?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Forgive me if I repeat his targets but I did not catch them all. The 25,000 jobs target is 6,300 promoted jobs in locally owned companies, with 50% paying salaries above the private sector median; 6,500 new jobs in the new start-up business scheme, supported by Invest Northern Ireland; 5,900 jobs promoted from inward investors, with 75% paying salaries above the private sector median; and 6,300 promoted from the jobs fund, 4,000 of which are to be created by March 2015. I am not sure whether those are exactly the same targets as his but they are the targets that we and Invest Northern Ireland will work to.

There will be no double counting, but I am very hopeful that there will be other jobs that are not accounted for in those targets, including in the tourism sector. They have not been counted in those targets. There will be a ripple effect, and we will see more jobs being created, particularly in that sector.

As for bringing the 114,000 working-age benefit clients into employment by March 2015, as I said, that is not 114,000 jobs being created. Rather, it reflects the work of DEL and its employment service in ensuring that people have the skills that are necessary to take up job opportunities. I am sure that the schemes that he mentioned will very much be part of that.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I welcome the document, its optimistic tone and the Minister’s statement. My question is on the same theme as Members who spoke previously. Is the Minister satisfied that the short- to medium-term rebuilding measures that are listed are sufficiently focused on permanent full-time jobs as opposed to part-time employment opportunities or training schemes? In particular, is she satisfied that there is enough emphasis on help for the construction industry? It is well known that with the multiplier effect, every pound that is invested produces £2·84 of benefit. Is the Minister satisfied on both those counts?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

In relation to the first point — increasing the number of jobs and the 114,000 jobs — the strength of the strategy is the fact that it is not just mine but sits right across government. Therefore, there are targets in it that belong to the Department for Employment and Learning and others that belong to the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department for Regional Development. That is why the action plan will become critical for this document. We believe very much that the Boosting Business initiative by Invest Northern Ireland is about creating real and sustainable jobs. I must say to the Member that any job is worth having at this time. He will reflect that as well.

In relation to the construction industry, the Member will see in the short- to medium-term rebuilding measures on page 13 that we put help for the construction industry in that box because we know how much the industry is hurting. The figure from the Department for Social Development in relation to 8,000 social and affordable homes will be a real and meaningful target for the construction industry. There are also key roads projects. There will be maintenance of schools, and the development, through the Department for Social Development, of the plan for double-glazing all Housing Executive homes will be a very welcome project for the construction industry as well.

We have tried to reflect on all the different sectors that we serve and how we can help and assist them to move forward. The fact that we have taken a cross-governmental approach to that means that we can do it in a more meaningful way.

Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP

Like others, I welcome this strategy. Relative to the UK average, we have a higher proportion of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which, due to their size, tend to be more reliant on bank lending as a source of finance. Will the Minister indicate what is in the strategy to help businesses to access finance more easily in these challenging times?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question. It is a theme that we return to time and again. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency statistics that came out recently pointed to the fact that in 2007, SMEs got 95% of their funding from banks, whereas by 2010, that figure had gone down to 65%. That is a very significant fall back. It is around the UK average but it is slightly more marked in Northern Ireland and will not come as a surprise to many in the Chamber.

Many have suffered market failure, particularly in the micro-financing, debt finance, venture capital, technology transfer and business angel funding markets. The figure of 95% of SMEs getting their money from a bank points to a very conservative approach to looking for finance in Northern Ireland. As a result, we have suffered disproportionately because Northern Ireland does not have a well-developed venture capital market. As such, Invest NI has had to intervene in the markets.

We will try to address the market failure and increase access to finance through a number of programmes, a few of which already exist. The newest programme, to be launched in the near future, is the growth loan fund, which seeks to help small and medium-sized businesses that want to grow but are having difficulty finding finance. Invest Northern Ireland and I will make an announcement on that matter in the near future.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. On behalf of the Health Committee, I welcome the economic strategy. We all know that levels of deprivation are closely linked to poor health outcomes for our people. Therefore, I ask the Minister what discussions she has had with the Minister of Health in formulating the strategy so that efforts are put into job creation in areas where there are high rates of ill health, so that we can begin to tackle the health inequalities that exist in society?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for her question. She is right to point out the circular relationship that exists, particularly between mental health and unemployment and all the issues that surround that. I have had conversations with the Health Minister, as you would expect me to, on those issues.

Part of the Boosting Business campaign and the jobs fund is targeting neighbourhood renewal areas so that people who live in those areas can be better assisted and incentivised to start their own business. If you live in a neighbourhood renewal area but do not necessarily want to start your business in a neighbourhood renewal area, you will be incentivised to the tune of £1,000 and we will try and assist through all the other mechanisms that Invest Northern Ireland has available.

Obviously, young people are the other group that we feel needs to be incentivised through the jobs fund to start up their own businesses. Again, there is an incentive of £1,500 in the Boosting Business scheme to try to encourage young people to start their own businesses, with all the advice and guidance that we have for them.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I join others in welcoming the statement by the Minister and thank her for it. Like others, I agree that there was a very optimistic tone in the statement.

The Minister recognises the importance of research and development and I note her comments in the report. How will the strategy that she is outlining today help us to take research and development to a stronger level in the various companies in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question on research and development. I know that he has a particular interest in that field. I thank him and the rest of the Enterprise Committee for the work that they are doing in that area.

Research and development is hugely important for us in the economic circumstances that we find ourselves because the firms that have invested in research and development are the firms that are moving forward, are growing and are able to export their products in a meaningful way. It is critical for an export-led growth strategy to have that research and development behind it.

In recent years, we have experienced an increase in expenditure, particularly business expenditure, on research and development, so much so that last year, we had £344 million spent on research and development, which was the highest figure on record. We come from a lower base than the rest of the UK, but I was very pleased, given the economic circumstances that we found ourselves in, that research and development has been placed high on the agenda of so many of our companies.

There is so much more that we can do to assist, which is why one of the five themes in the Boosting Business initiative is research and development. How can we encourage smaller companies in particular? We know that the smaller companies find it more difficult to engage in research and development — it is a very new concept for them — and, often, in order to access the finance available for research and development, there is a lot of bureaucracy that they have to go through. So, we need to be proactive with those firms and that is what we intend to do through the Boosting Business initiative.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

Like colleagues, I thank the Minister for her statement. I appreciate the amount of work that has gone into it. The Minister has quite rightly highlighted the importance of corporation tax, and like the Programme for Government, she refers to the commitment to press for the devolution of corporation tax and to reduce its level. Given that there are no milestones or outputs outlined for the year 2014-15, when does the Minister expect that to be achieved and how much does she want the tax to be reduced to?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question. In response to his last point, I would like the rate to be as low as we could make it to make us even more economically competitive than our next-door neighbour. I would like it to be as low as 10%. However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be carried out on the corporation tax issue.

As I said in my speech, we believe the time is now right to devolve the powers for corporation tax. We remain very much committed to utilising those powers to the best advantage of our economy. We continue to work with the NIO and Whitehall Ministers to address the issues connected with devolving corporation tax-setting powers to Northern Ireland. The first meeting of the new joint ministerial working group is planned to take place on 15 December, and you can be assured that all the Ministers from Northern Ireland will be giving their best attention to that issue.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Chief Whip, Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party 1:30 pm, 17th November 2011

I welcome the statement and thank the Minister for her efforts, not just on this document but in her Department. It is very important that we keep up our efforts. I reassure her that the SDLP, too, is keen to rebuild and rebalance the economy.

The Minister mentioned R&D on a number of occasions, and my colleague raised it as well. It seems to me that many of our companies are R&D-averse. They are intimidated by the implications or the work involved. The Minister did not mention the vast potential for funding that exists in the European context through framework programmes 7 and 8. Our participation in and drawdown of those programmes is very poor. Does the Minister have any ideas as to what we might do over the next couple of years to get some participation in that?

I will quickly mention the key roads projects, transport corridors and travel times being reduced: can the Minister tell us whether that includes the A5?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

That is very mischievous of you. I had hoped that Members would implicitly infer that I was referring to Europe in relation to the bureaucracy around research and development. The Member is aware that that issue was the main focus of discussion when we met Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. She recognises that there are hurdles in front of small businesses that try to access research and development money from Europe.

The Boosting Business initiative has already implemented an enhanced R&D open call for small businesses — those with fewer than 50 employees — and we are also having a market-driven research and development open call for small and medium-sized businesses. Those two elements are scheduled to be announced in the near future. That does not take away from the huge amount of money available to us from Europe.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister met both President Barroso and Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn on the issue. It is about the cross-cutting nature of this issue and trying to get everyone to underline the message when they speak to Europe that, in order for us to encourage small and medium-sized businesses, there needs to be a change in the bureaucracy around the issue. We also need to proactively help companies that want to pursue research and development.

As regards travel times, this has come to me from the Department for Regional Development. I think the Programme for Government or our document — it is this document; I am getting confused between the Programme for Government and the economic strategy — makes reference to the A5 and the A8 as future examples of road projects that will help the construction industry. It is right that we look across government for opportunities to assist that sector at this time.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I am minded to ask a question about Wrightbus of Ballymena, which is right in the heart of north Antrim. It is great to see Members for North Belfast looking up to north Antrim for best business practice, but I will resist at this point.

Instead I will ask about the important sector of agrifoods. That sector has performed remarkably well in the current economic climate but has obvious opportunities to do even better in the context of food production and the risk to food security. Will the Minister assure the House that, in its worthy pursuit of foreign direct investment, her Department will work aggressively and positively to help businesses, including SMEs, in the agrifood sector in a constructive and positive way to grow and expand in the future?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question and assure him that, through my involvement with that sector over the past four years, I recognise its importance to Northern Ireland. Page 25 of the economic strategy lists one of our strengths as:

“A resilient indigenous agri-food sector which has continued to perform strongly throughout the recession”.

Not only is it a strength of our economy at present, but the last external opportunity mentioned in the strategy is strengthening the global demand for agrifood. The agrifood sector presents us with great global opportunities for export in coming years.

The Member will know, because of his position as Chair of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and I hope to appoint a chairman to the food strategy board soon so that we can take forward this important work. We continue to support the agrifood sector. I assure him that I, as the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, will personally support the agrifood sector. I have said many times that it is a bright shining light for the economy, and I will continue to support it.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. She highlighted the MTV awards and ‘Our Time, Our Place — Northern Ireland 2012’. Will she outline how the economic strategy will further assist Northern Ireland in capitalising on cultural tourism?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for her question. Culture and heritage are, of course, very much part of the reason why a lot of visitors come to Northern Ireland at various times of the year. They come here to enjoy themselves and take part in our local culture and heritage.

Tourism has been quite resilient despite the global downturn. It has been sustainable in times of recession. During the last economic downturn, the construction industry shrank by 16·6%, and manufacturing fell by 8%. However, tourism was relatively insulated, with a restriction of just 1·7%. Over the next 10 years, the total economic contribution of the visitor economy is set to expand faster than retail, transport and manufacturing. At the moment, it provides 5% of the economy and employs 40,000 people, which is 5·6% of our workforce.

Importantly, if 2012 is the success that, I believe, it can and should be, it will bring not only great global recognition and promotion of Northern Ireland as a good place for people to visit but jobs to Northern Ireland. Those will be sustainable jobs, because the tourism industry will continue to grow when this place is as peaceful and sustainable as it is.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

I, too, welcome the Minister’s economic strategy. She mentioned the green economy, which has huge potential for growth in Northern Ireland given our natural resources of wind and waves. Has the Minister set a target for job creation in the green economy? How will she help the renewable energy industry to achieve that job creation?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

As I said to the Chair of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, work on the renewable sector continues. MATRIX is further considering analysis of the market opportunities for us in that sector. The Member will know that the strategic energy framework has been set. It sets us challenging targets for the level of renewable energy over the coming years. Therefore, we need to be very proactive in that sector. It is against that background that I take her comments about job creation.

I do not have a specific target, because I am waiting for MATRIX’s analysis of the sector. In any event, although the jobs that will, undoubtedly, be created on the renewable energy side will be welcome, the more important thing from the point of view of the strategic energy framework is that we strive to realise the targets set for us.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Minister for her statement and the launch of her strategy, in which she refers to the need for economic growth, increased exports and improved transport infrastructure.

Does the Minister agree that it is vital that we prioritise any transport investment so that it removes bottlenecks, particularly on our strategic routes, and the associated costs to industry that result from that; that we ensure that any European funds that we can acquire for our Trans-European Network will be added to our investment; and that any public sector investment occurs in a timely fashion so that the risk of money being returned to the Chancellor is minimised?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I am not sure whether that is a question for me; it is probably a question for the Member’s colleague, the Minister for Regional Development. Nevertheless, economic infrastructure is critical for Northern Ireland, and it means that we need better road and rail infrastructure.

In answer to Mr McElduff, who is no longer with us [Laughter] — he has left the Chamber — I say that, in relation to telecommunications, broadband and all those issues, we need to have the right and proper infrastructure in place. We do not want to have to return money to the Treasury. We want to be able to spend all the capital money in Northern Ireland to make a difference to the construction sector, which we have spent a lot of time speaking about this morning.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I, too, welcome the strategy. It includes ambitious targets for attracting inward investment and rightly identifies the timely and affordable devolution of corporation tax powers to Northern Ireland as a way of attracting inward investment. Through the Minister’s experience, does she believe that, if and when we get that power, it could help us not only to achieve those targets but potentially exceed them?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Absolutely. All the economic advice that has been given to me by Oxford Economics and by Kate Barker and the Economic Advisory Group indicates the step change that would occur in the Northern Ireland economy if we could lower the rate of corporation tax here. Figures that go way into the future are sometimes hard to take on board, but we are talking about 4,000 to 5,000 extra new jobs if we had that power. That would make a huge difference, and the First Minister has already accepted that if we are successful in obtaining corporation tax powers for Northern Ireland — I believe that we will be successful — we will have to relook at our targets and strategy because it will make a real difference.

We are already punching above our weight in foreign direct investment. We have 2·4% of the United Kingdom’s population, but 7% of the foreign direct investment comes to Northern Ireland. That is a very telling statistic. Next to London, Belfast gets most foreign direct investment. We should be very proud of that, and we do not say it enough. In fact, if you were to listen to some of our media, you would not believe that that is the case. We are hugely successful, and that is why Invest Northern Ireland met all its targets last time. I pay tribute to the work of my teams across the world in looking for opportunities and bringing them home to Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I also welcome the economic strategy and thank the Minister for her answers thus far. Given the multitude of jobs that, it is hoped, are to be created in the tourism industry, what work will be done with the Department for Employment and Learning regarding the increased provision of tourism-specific courses and training, which will not only better enable people here to find employment but will enhance the tourism experience of visitors to the North?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question. As I said, the tourism industry could provide us with up to 10,000 jobs over time. We want to see the increase, particularly in his city, in and around the UK City of Culture bid. We have had discussions with DEL, and I know that the industry has been very focused on skills and on the need to upskill the hospitality industry. That is something that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Tourism Ireland and all the players will continue to work together on. There were many strengths of the MTV awards, particularly the partnership approach to tourism. I see that as one of its strengths, and I see DEL being very much part of that.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive statement on the Northern Ireland economic strategy. Can the Minister advise us how the euro crisis is affecting the economic state of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP 1:45 pm, 17th November 2011

As the First Minister said in his statement, we are obviously part of the global economy now and a very proud part of it, but, of course, with that comes the fact that we have to deal with all its difficulties. There are very many difficulties in the global economy. We recently heard Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, indicate that the euro zone was the biggest threat to the United Kingdom economy. That is very concerning. In many ways, there is not much that we in Northern Ireland can do about that, but we must be proactive in trying to deal with the issues that are before us, such as getting more people into work, encouraging more people to invest in research and development and ensuring that we have new and emerging export markets open to us. It is not just about deepening the exports that we have to all the countries that we do business with at present but about looking at new and emerging markets so that we can diversify for all our businesses in Northern Ireland. Things are difficult and challenging, but we need to sit back and make sure that we have the right policies in place to deal with what is coming down the road towards us.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

I welcome the statement. The recession and the banking crisis are having a huge impact on our construction industry, especially our small business sector, which lies close to my heart. We see now that the small business sector is paying a heavy price because it is unable to compete against the larger construction firms, which are eating up the work that the smaller businesses used to do. Can the Minister advise the House on how this strategy might help them?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I recognise all the issues that he has raised. When one looks at the construction sector and considers the strengths that it had and the strong place that it was in a couple of years ago, it is difficult to see how it has been dealt with over the past number of years and months. Through the three documents that are before the House — the Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the economic strategy — we are trying to identify opportunities for our small, medium and larger companies so that they have reason to look forward to the future and be sustainable.

The Member will see dotted throughout the document references to social and affordable houses, key roads and work on the health and education estates. We will assist in as many ways as we can across government. In my Department, we are hopeful that the jobs fund and the Boosting Business initiative will continue to help. We will be as proactive as we can. We need people to contact us using the free phone number, and we need to let them know that there are people out there who will help them and give advice and assistance. Do not leave things until the last minute, when the banks are about to foreclose: be proactive, come forward and look for assistance, and we will do all that we can.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

I thank the Minister and welcome today’s documents and statements. I particularly welcome the announcement that there are to be 6,500 jobs created in the small and medium business sector. When speaking to those sectors, I find that they are very concerned and that they feel that the Assembly does not necessarily know what they need on the ground. Will the Minister set up think tanks or similar mechanisms to listen and bounce off ideas, so that we can come up with a good action plan to enable us to have not only process but good, detailed action plans?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Part of the Boosting Business initiative is to get down to the small and medium-sized companies — the companies that do not have time to fill in forms or go to seminars and what have you. We will be as proactive as we can. I hope that Members will help us in that regard. I hope that, if constituents come to them to ask for assistance, they will direct them towards Invest Northern Ireland and the Boosting Business website, which is a micro website of our main website, and the free phone number, so that we can assist them. I also want to hear if Members and businessmen who have approached Invest Northern Ireland do not receive a positive response. Part of this is about us trying to be proactive and trying to help and assist. If Invest Northern Ireland cannot help, who else can? How can we signpost people towards help? I accept that, in the past, Invest Northern Ireland was perceived not to be an organisation for small and medium-sized businesses. I very much want to break that perception, and I want it to be a reality that we are helping the wider business base.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

I too welcome the Minister’s statement this afternoon. Recently, the Regional Development Committee visited two of our three airports to discuss the transport strategy, and one of the issues raised was air passenger duty. That is a problem for efforts to increase business on new routes. I appreciate the efforts of the Executive in reducing air passenger duty, but can the Minister give some more detail about how the issue can be moved forward and the important commitment brought forward as soon as possible?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, it was a great success to be able to negotiate with Her Majesty’s Treasury, and I thank all colleagues for the work that was carried out on that. The rate of air passenger duty that applied to the flight to New York was reduced from band B to band A by 1 November 2011. We want to see the power to set air passenger duty coming to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and there is a commitment in the Programme for Government to do away with band B completely to make us even more competitive, as the First Minister said in his speech, on long-haul flights.

I have been discussing the issue with Belfast International Airport, which is working on a number of very real flights. We are offering any assistance that we can, both through my Department and through Tourism Ireland, to make sure that we get those flights to come back to Northern Ireland. That access is critical for us for tourism, given what is happening next year and the year after, but also for investment and business. We want to see more air access here, and the work that we have done on air passenger duty, which the Northern Ireland Office Ministers assisted us with, will bear fruit in the coming years.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. My particular thanks go to the Minister, both for the development of the strategy and for her support locally in the constituency.

In the figures that have been outlined, we heard about the 114,000 people who are being taken out of the benefits trap — people who are currently claiming benefits — and put into employment. Will the Minister elaborate just a little more? There are 25,000 new jobs to be created under the strategy, and that leaves 89,000 people. From what I picked up earlier, am I right in saying that those people are to be put into training schemes? Perhaps the Minister can give us some indication. The number of people who are currently unemployed is around 62,000. That leaves approximately another 55,000 who are being removed from benefits and taken into this employment, whatever it is. Can the Minister give us some indication of what benefits those are likely to be?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question, but I think that he has misunderstood what I was saying about the 114,000 and the 25,000. The 25,000 jobs is Invest Northern Ireland’s minimum job target, and that represents the jobs that are directly assisted by Invest Northern Ireland through the jobs fund, select financial assistance and all the mechanisms that we have to try to create jobs. The 114,000 jobs that are referenced in the document as people coming into employment is the potential that there is for the labour supply. Those jobs will be supported by DEL through a lot of its schemes. If the Member looks at page 37 of the Programme for Government, he will see a key commitment to:

“Support people (with an emphasis on young people) in to employment by providing skills and training”.

There are targets set against that as to how much money DEL will spend on the issue.

In our document and in the Programme for Government, we recognise that welfare reform will have a huge impact on the economy of Northern Ireland, in so far as it will mean that more people will be available for work. However, there will also be a reduction in the number of benefits paid and, therefore, a reduction in the money available to the economy. We have a challenge to face and, with our colleagues in DSD and DEL, we will face it and work through it as best we can. Of course, the social protection fund that OFMDFM has provided will assist in that as well.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement and for her draft economic strategy. There has been coverage today of the major golf tournament that we hope to host in Northern Ireland. How will the tournament have a positive impact on the tourism industry in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, we very much want to take advantage of the brilliant 18 months that our golfing superstars have given us. They are almost getting too many to list, and I do not want to get into a position — like a presidential candidate — where I might forget the third or the fourth. Therefore, I will not go down that road. I will simply say that we want to take advantage of the spotlight that has been placed on Northern Ireland.

We have been working with a number of organisations and individuals, and we are active in meeting various bodies. We are determined to bring a European golf event to Northern Ireland in the near future. We also believe that there is a need to develop a holistic approach to golf tourism and its delivery. Therefore, we are proactively working with Coleraine Borough Council, and I pay tribute to the way in which it is working with us on the event as, indeed, is Royal Portrush. However, it is critical to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to gain economic benefit and legacy from whatever event we bring to Northern Ireland. I know and trust that it will be a tremendous event, and I look forward to attending it.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I agree with the Minister that tackling educational underachievement is fundamental to the social and economic growth of Northern Ireland. Will she detail any discussions that she has had with the Minister of Education on how the targeted increase of 70% of young people gaining at least five good GCSEs will be achieved?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

As the Member knows, the Education Minister sits on the subcommittee of Ministers who drew together the economic strategy. When the action plan is brought forward, that part of the economic strategy will sit firmly with the Education Minister, in conjunction with his colleagues. We felt that there was no point in looking at an economic strategy without looking at skills and without having the appropriate education results in place. Therefore, I very much welcome the fact that all my Executive colleagues have made input to the economic strategy and have made it the meaningful document that I believe it to be.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for her statement and the draft economic strategy. I welcome the talk of improving employability and the level, relevance and use of skills, as well as the proposal to introduce social clauses into contracts for public works to deliver opportunities for apprentices and the long-term unemployed. Are there proposals to develop and enhance co-operation between employers and the whole of the education sector to ensure that our young people are directed to further their study into skills areas where jobs will actually become available? There is a great number of small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency of Mid Ulster, and I would like to receive an assurance that that co-operation is not only with the largest companies in Northern Ireland and that those small and medium-sized enterprises are included as well. Will the Minister provide more detail?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP 2:00 pm, 17th November 2011

I thank the Member for her question. As I said in response to the previous question, it was vital that the strategy fitted across education, skills and, in particular, my Department.

As I understand it, in education, there is, and has been for some time, a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. In the past couple of weeks, I was due to speak to a group of potential engineering students interested in going to Queen’s University, but, unfortunately, I was unable to attend that meeting. However, the idea is that we should give leadership to those young people and show them that, should they decide to take part in degree courses, or in other skills training, those courses are economically relevant and that, at the end of the day, they will be in possession of a job. Recent work by the Northern Ireland Science Park on the knowledge economy of Northern Ireland showed that, statistically, people with relevant economic degrees are 50% more likely to have a job.

For parents advising children on job options, careers advice is critical. What we need to do, and what I hope will happen over the coming years and months, is to be able to show young people examples of what they could do if they decide to take a particular route in their education and skills training. It is important that we alert students to that potential in the coming days and years.

Social economy clauses existed in some of our bigger projects and were part of the contract for the Titanic signature project. Their use in such contracts has proved very successful, and that is why we have endorsed them.

It is up to all of us to ensure that, when working with small and medium-sized employers, they feel that they can approach us. That is the case whether that contact is at MLA level, ministerial level or through Invest Northern Ireland. Those employers should be able to access the help available to them.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Minister for getting through so many questions in a relatively short time. As someone who, in the Minister’s words is “green in the right way,” I believe that we should use the economic downturn as an opportunity to create a new economy; a green economy and a just economy, in which the 1% do not profit on the backs of the rest of us. Given that sociologist Professor Paddy Hillyard assessed the policies of the previous Executive as taking money away from the working classes to give to the middle classes, will the Minister confirm what specific measures are in place in the strategy to ensure that economic growth does not increase the income and health inequalities that come with it?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question, but, looking at the previous Programme for Government targets, I dispute what he said about how we dealt with people who did not have very much money and were living in poverty. Invest Northern Ireland hit every one of its targets in the previous Programme for Government for bringing jobs and investment into Northern Ireland.

I know that the Member has a particular interest in the renewables sector. I referenced that sector in my previous comments, and it is in the economic strategy, as it should be. However, it is not there at the expense of everything else. He needs to recognise that other sectors perform for Northern Ireland and that they do so to give the people of Northern Ireland a bright economic future. Those sectors are also identified and prioritised in the strategy, and we will take them forward.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Before we come to the Adjournment, I want to speak to the House. It is unfortunate that Mr Allister has left the Chamber. Members continue to raise points of order on the issue that he raised this morning. However, after Mr Allister raised that point of order, he felt, in whatever way, that it was not dealt with correctly and issued a public statement criticising the Speaker and the House. That says more about the Member who carries out that type of action than the work ongoing in the House. Members continue to raise the issue of why they do not get to ask a question on a ministerial statement, but it is quite clear that it is not possible for me to move Members up the list. I have 108 Members in the Chamber, and I must get the balance of the parties right.

It is not about the balance of opinions in the House; it is about the balance of parties. It is not possible to just move Members up a particular list of speakers, irrespective of what item of business is in the Order Paper. However, I have to say that I think that Members who go outside to criticise the Speaker and the workings of the House because they feel that their point of order has not been dealt with certainly need to be condemned.

Adjourned at 2.05 pm.