I thank Mr Hussey. The latest results from the Northern Ireland composite economic index, which measures economic activity, show that we experienced growth in three of the last four quarters, with an annual increase of 1·6%. Despite those positives, the figures for the latest quarter were negative. Those findings are disappointing. Most economists who are advising me are saying, "Don't get too fixated on just one single quarter's data." Northern Ireland is relatively small and quarterly statistics, as the evidence shows, can be inherently volatile. There have also been substantial improvements in the local labour market during this time, with unemployment continuing to fall and private sector jobs at their highest level ever. We cannot be complacent about that, but I think that everybody in the House would like to celebrate the fact that unemployment is falling and the private sector is growing and at its highest number ever.
I am always concerned when it appears that other parts are performing better. We can look at statistics in a range of ways. We have massive challenges in our manufacturing sector but it is posting 3% annual growth and added 4,000 jobs over the past year. While we look at experiencing a relatively modest recovery since the local downturn, our biggest sector, the services sector, has posted 1% annual growth, with jobs at an all-time high.
There is a big issue for me and many in the House from constituencies that depend on construction. Our construction sector was the most impacted during the downturn but, even there, we are seeing what appears to be very real signs of recovery. Output is up 14% on an annual basis and the sector added 870 jobs over the latest year of data.
If you look at the quarterly figures, I do see concerns. I take the advice to look not only at those but to note the volatility. Looking at the annual change, in services we are 1% up, in manufacturing output we are 2·9% up, and in construction output we are 13·7% up.
I thank the Minister for his answers. As Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, your job entails marketing Northern Ireland throughout the world, and I think that we all admit that you do that enthusiastically. What economic levers can you use as you travel to attract new business into Northern Ireland?
The big one that we have been taking forward in this last particular period is the game changer of corporation tax. That is when we asked the independent research to come to us on the rate of 12·5% that we will have from 1 April. The independent advice was that we should be looking at creating 30,000 additional jobs and that we should be growing our economy by almost 10% over 15 years. In the last short period, I have taken, I think, 13 companies across three cities in China. Two weeks ago, I was with 15 of our companies that have a particular focus on technology, and we went from San Francisco right through to New York.
I can tell you that there is major interest in Northern Ireland. I estimate that a huge percentage of what I do I cannot tell you until the ink is dry on the contracts because they are commercially sensitive. There is huge interest in Northern Ireland because we have three unique things. We have business costs that are about 84% or 85% of the rest of the United Kingdom. We have a talent pool and a very low attrition rate. In fact, 80% of all the businesses that have invested in Northern Ireland have subsequently reinvested, and, when I bring in new investors, I am grateful to those businesses for telling a success story. And then we have the attraction of corporation tax, giving us the most competitive corporation tax rate in western Europe.
Given the key role played by our manufacturing sector in economic growth in Northern Ireland, why is there no manufacturing strategy currently in place with long-term commitments and targets on key issues like rates, energy and infrastructure?
I think that the Member knows the answer to that question because his party was party to the economic strategy. His party agreed that we would put all of our strategy into one specific strategy, which was the economic strategy, which his party at Executive level agreed to. Manufacturing is a very important sector for Northern Ireland. I do not take away from anybody who has lost their job. Anybody who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Belfast, as I did, and who watched their family and other people lose their jobs knows how devastating that is. Equally, the manufacturing sector is telling me of the successes that it is having, and it has been performing well. Over the past year, it has added 4,000 additional jobs. The manufacturing output is up by nearly 3%, and that is more than the UK average.
We want to ensure that we continue with a strong recovery. That is why I have done specific things for manufacturing. Look at what I did to try to help Bombardier address its energy costs. We also had a proposal on the table with Michelin. We will never know what would have happened if it had taken that up. Last week, I spent time at Montupet with about 15 companies from the manufacturing sector that are all high energy users. We spent quite a bit of time looking at where the strengths, the weaknesses and the opportunities were coming from. Also, as the House knows, I have established the manufacturing energy task force. It is being chaired by a person who, as I understand it, is the fifth-largest energy user in Northern Ireland. I await the outcome of that, and I intend to give very due diligence to that to see how we can further support the sector.
The Minister describes the reduction that is pending in corporation tax as a game changer. Can he explain why it did not change the game in my constituency for either JTI or Michelin, which are leaving our shores, sadly, approximately at the time when the reduction in corporation tax will come? Clearly, it did not impress them as something causing them to make it worthwhile to stay, so is it really the game changer that the Minister proclaims it to be? Experience to date in my constituency does not suggest so.
I think that the Member raises some very important points about Michelin specifically. Not only have I spent several hours trying to ensure that we get that workforce all the qualifications so that the employees are in the best place to get new jobs, but I have spent quite a bit of time with the Michelin management. <BR/>I asked them whether there was anything more that the Government could have done, and they said no. When I asked them to list the reasons why Michelin left north Antrim, they explained that there was a glut of thousands in the truck tyre market — it made a very specific product there. They talked about fluctuations in the euro and Asian imports costing £130 against the vastly superior Michelin product that cost over £500.
I can tell the Member that there is huge interest in Northern Ireland. Companies like Allstate say to me, "Jonathan, we came for the costs; we stayed for your people". Other companies like Citi come to provide hundreds of jobs and now provide in the region of 2,000. The likes of Randox and Wrightbus, which is in your constituency, are tripling their profits and talking about what they can do into the future. If we present a collective message of low cost, low tax and an excellent workforce, we have a winning message for the economy in Northern Ireland.