In accordance with the requirements of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement on the 22nd summit meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC), which took place at St Peter Port, Guernsey on 13 June 2014.
The deputy First Minister and I attended the summit on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive, and we were accompanied by Danny Kennedy MLA, the Minister for Regional Development. The Government of Guernsey hosted the summit, and the heads of delegations were welcomed by the Chief Minister, Deputy Jonathan Le Tocq. The United Kingdom Government were led by the Deputy Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP. The Irish Government were led by the Taoiseach, Mr Enda Kenny TD. The Scottish Government were led by the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Ms Fiona Hyslop MSP. The Welsh Government were led by the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, Ms Edwina Hart AM. The Government of Jersey were led by the Chief Minister, Senator Ian Gorst, and the Isle of Man Government delegation was led by the Chief Minister, the honourable Allan Bell MHK.
The summit provided another opportunity for the British-Irish Council to play its unique and important role in furthering, promoting and developing links between its member Administrations through positive, practical relationships and in providing a forum for consultation and exchange of information on matters of mutual interest.
As is now customary at each summit, the Council discussed the current economic situation. Each member Administration outlined their latest economic indicators and the strategies that they are putting in place, and we were pleased to be able to report the latest positive economic news from Northern Ireland.
The Council noted that the previous summit hosted by Guernsey had taken place four years ago in a very difficult and challenging economic environment, and it was encouraged by the positive signs of improvement now being reported by each Administration. The general tenor of the discussion suggested that there were grounds for cautious optimism about future economic prospects, but all Administrations also acknowledged the need to sustain their efforts in the areas of productivity, innovation, inward investment, exports, skills and reducing unemployment.
The Council also discussed the economic importance of transport links. The discussion reflected the island nature of all the Administrations and recognised our interdependence in ensuring and promoting the flow of people, goods and services among each other and further afield. The Council acknowledged that the promotion of effective transport links between member Administrations can be beneficial to their economic development and to the strengthening of positive and practical relationships amongst the people of these islands.
In that context, we and the other devolved administrations once more drew the attention of the United Kingdom Government to the negative effects of air passenger duty on the economic and social development of our regions. The Council also discussed how the member Administrations' strategic development initiatives should best interrelate in order to promote efficient and effective travel and trade between the jurisdictions.
The Council also received an update on the work that had taken place across each of the twelve British-Irish Council work sectors since the previous summit in November 2013. In particular, the Council welcomed the paper introduced by the Minister for Regional Development on the collaborative spatial planning work sector, setting out the various positions of the member Administrations. It noted the challenges and opportunities set out in the paper and requested officials to continue to work collaboratively via the group to identify opportunities to work more closely with other BIC work sectors.
The Council received the secretariat’s end-of-year progress report against its business plan. It also received a copy of the 2013 annual report and welcomed its publication. The Council also noted that the branding for BIC had been refreshed and was being used at the summit for the first time.
Finally, the Council noted that the next BIC summit would be hosted by the Isle of Man Government in November 2014.
I thank the First Minister for his update. I note that there is no explicit reference in the statement to youth unemployment, which, I think, has been a previous focus of the Council. Will the First Minister provide the House with an update on any successful initiatives that have been undertaken by the Council in that area?
The Member is right: we have had two meetings of BIC at which youth unemployment was the key issue. It was referenced only to the extent that there had been a marginal decline in youth unemployment in the various member Administrations. Indeed, bad though youth unemployment is here, Northern Ireland has a lower level than many of the other Administrations present at the BIC summit.
Youth unemployment is being addressed here by a number of initiatives. If it has the opportunity at some stage, DEL will, no doubt, give details of its training initiatives. It is undertaking one initiative, the United Youth project, arising out of T:BUC, on behalf of the deputy First Minister and myself. Through that project, DEL envisages taking 10,000 young people and putting them on a scheme that will train them up in three separate areas for a one-year period. The three areas are steps into work, good citizenship and the cross-community element. We are playing our role in dealing with those figures, but a range of training initiatives is being undertaken by DEL as well.
I would not describe it as a gang up, but, certainly, the three devolved Administrations argued the same case on air passenger duty. As Members will be aware, the Northern Ireland Administration was the only part of the United Kingdom to be successful in having the power to decide its own level of air passenger duty for long-haul flights. We, as an Executive, moved that to zero to support the travel industry's long-haul flights. However, we are a peripheral part of the United Kingdom, so if people want to get to the capital of the United Kingdom, they have to travel by air or sea. That means that we are at a disadvantage to many other parts of the United Kingdom in cost terms. Of course, the same can be said of Scotland, particularly. We are pressing on the issue.
Changes to air passenger duty were announced by the Chancellor, but they were simply to consolidate three of the bands of air passenger duty relating to long-haul flights into one. They do not affect Northern Ireland, because we are already exempt from that. However, we continue to press on the basis of our economic pact with the Government; it is one of the issues being considered. However, I warn the Assembly that if we were to be successful, the European Union would require us to have a reduction in our block grant to take account of that, and that is likely to be somewhere in the region of £60 million to £90 million.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I note that the First Minister referred to the high level of economic discussion that was had, and that is important in the current challenging environment. However, was any focus given to the rising cost of living and what we can do to tackle and alleviate hardships on families and young people?
It was not discussed specifically, although, in general terms, it is always an issue that has to be taken into account. We welcomed the fact that unemployment levels across the Administrations were reducing. Not all Administrations, of course, have suffered an economic downturn; the Isle of Man has had consistent growth and, I think, has about two people unemployed.
In some areas, it is a greater problem than in others.
Members will have seen the latest labour force survey figures, which show that, for the seventeenth consecutive month, we have had a reduction in the claimant count in Northern Ireland. That is a good signal. The best way to get people out of poverty and deprivation is for them to get into employment. That is an important factor. It is a matter that the Executive continue to keep under consideration, and we do whatever we can, given the limited budget we have available to us, to help in that regard.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chéad Aire as ucht a ráitis. Chím ins an ráiteas go bhfuil tagairt do na ranna oibre ach níl mórán mionsonraí ins an ráiteas faoin méid atá gnóthaithe acu agus ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Chéad Aire. An bhfuil sé sásta go bhfuil obair chruthaitheach á déanamh ag na ranna oibre?
I thank the First Minister for his statement. There is a reference to the 12 work sectors, but there is not much detail about what has been achieved by them. Is the First Minister satisfied that there is a tangible outcome from the work of the 12 sectors?
There was not much detail because they are not discussed; you simply take possession of the reports from each of them. Of course, several of those are led by our Ministers. I am not sure which particular work stream the Member has an interest in, but I am sure that the Minister with responsibility for that area will be very happy to give him further details. None of the Ministers we have on any of the work streams has indicated any impatience about slow progress being made, so I must assume that things are going swimmingly.
I thank the First Minister for his statement. He referred to the economic importance of transport links among each other and further afield, so I hope that I am not stretching the limit slightly by asking whether there has been any discussion around links with the important European capitals. It is easy enough to get to Majorca from here, but you cannot get to Dusseldorf, Paris or Brussels. Has there been any discussion around that?
Part of the discussion is about identifying where there may be new routes and where there is a demand. One of the aspects of the work being carried out by our Regional Development Minister, who is leading the work stream on that area, is getting reliable data as to the movements of people and goods. Those are the kinds of factors. There is then a decision to be taken as to whether there is a sufficient clientele to open up an air route or sea passage, and, if that is the case, whether — remember that most of those are commercially driven — there is any role for intervention on the part of government.
The deputy First Minister and I were very pleased to join the Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, for the announcement. It must have taken people quite by surprise when we announced it yesterday, given some of the trailers that had been run for the occasion. It is a significant development. I remind people that it is putting Royal Portrush on the rota, which means that we are not necessarily talking about a one-off event; we are talking about the potential for it being part of an ongoing rota of locations throughout the United Kingdom that are used for the Open.
It indicates that we have facilities that can match those you will find anywhere else in the nation. It also indicates the high regard for golf that there is in Northern Ireland. When the European Tour came to Royal Portrush, it had its largest ever attendance, which indicates that we have a population that is keen to visit golf tournaments. That was one of the factors that convinced the R&A that it should look to Royal Portrush as a potential venue.
On the wider front, this will obviously have a significant impact in the constituency represented by the Member. It may have a bit of disruption during the Open itself, but that is a small price to pay for the advertising that the local area will have across the world. About 90 million people will be watching over a long period and will see the scenery of the north Antrim coast. That is the kind of publicity and advertising that you just could not pay for. It is an excellent opportunity for people to see what they can come and see.
Having a championship course is no small thing in itself. The golf tourism industry is sizeable throughout the world, and golfers like to play championship courses. People can go round a championship course and pretend to themselves that they are taking part in the Open. Golf tourism is a very significant part of our tourism investment in Northern Ireland.
There are many reasons to be optimistic, if one represents that constituency, but it is also good for Northern Ireland. It indicates that we have moved on from the dark days of the past. This is the benefit of having a new era in Northern Ireland, where there is a level of peace and stability that we have not had for many generations.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I was tempted to ask the First Minister whether the issue of an Enniskillen bypass was discussed, given the importance of economic transport links between member Administrations and the fact that this is the first anniversary of the G8.
To be serious, may I ask the First Minister whether there was discussion of the issue of free travel between member states for tourists coming from selected countries far away, such as the Far East, given that people who come in through Belfast or Derry can travel around the rest of Ireland freely but those who come in through the South cannot come up North because of visa restrictions? Was that matter discussed, or can the First Minister give us any kind of update on it?
It was not discussed at the summit, but it has been discussed by the deputy First Minister and me in the context of the economic pact that we have with Her Majesty's Government. Indeed, the Prime Minister has had a meeting with the Taoiseach on the issue. I have spoken to the Taoiseach on the issue as well, and I have to say that the response was positive. It is on the agenda and is part of the economic pact. Over the next couple of days, the deputy First Minister and I are due to have conversations with the Prime Minister on the progress being made on the economic pact. I assure the Member that this is one of the issues that we will want to speak about.
I am glad to say that there seems to be a fairly even spread in the recovery process. The reason I am glad about that is that, on all occasions in the past, Northern Ireland has been last to come out of any economic downturn. It has often taken us a number of years to get back to previous levels while the rest of the United Kingdom has been getting on with life as if nothing had happened. This is a change in the patterns that have developed in the past.
As the labour force statistics show, our unemployment is now down to 6·9%. Given the number of job announcements that we have had and some that, we know, are in the pipeline, there is every indication that we will continue to reduce unemployment further. Indeed, in a survey, 58% of local employers indicated their intention of employing additional personnel during the next 12 months. Those are all indicators that things are moving in the right direction.
That is not an indication that we should in any way be complacent, however. A lot of work is required, and there are considerable pressures, particularly on our Budget, given that the United Kingdom Government have been holding down revenue streams and putting money more towards capital streams. That presents a considerable difficulty to our Administration in the programmes that we develop.
I note the reference in the statement to the discussion of the economic importance of transport links and the promotion of effective ones. In that context, has there been any discussion about essential improvements to the A75, which is such a key link for our freight industry into the rest of the United Kingdom? I ask because, when one looks at the BIC's 2013 report, the sorts of things that are mentioned when focusing on the transport sector are the coordination of smart card technology and the mutual recognition of blue badges. Those may be important in their own right, but perhaps more strategic issues, such as the A75, are really where better economic prosperity lies. Does the First Minister agree?
I agree that they are very important, but I do not agree that they have not been discussed. I simply do not know whether they have been discussed, because the work goes on within the work streams, and the Minister for Regional Development is our representative there.
I had a discussion in the margins: the A75, I think I am right in saying, is the Scottish road. I had a discussion with Fiona Hyslop during the break in the summit. She referred to our having discussions about the A75, so that must be ongoing. I will get the Minister responsible for the Department for Regional Development to write to the Member on the issue. Of course, it is a strategic route, not just for Northern Ireland but for many of the hauliers in the Republic of Ireland, so there are benefits for a number of the member Administrations in having it improved.