I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Second Stage of the Budget Bill as a member of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee. Our economy must continue to be a central priority for us all as we move forward. Over the last 12 months, our economy has seen challenges and opportunities. It is important that Northern Ireland continues to be positive about being open for business and a place that is welcoming and supportive of new business. We recognise the need to support Invest NI, which will continue to target inward investment, promote domestic growth, provide trade support, support the private sector in investment in R&D and grow our export base.
The planned reduction in corporation tax from April 2018 provides us with a real opportunity to grow our economy. The Ulster University estimates that the 12·5% rate could create up to 32,000 additional jobs and help to grow our economy by an additional 10% over 15 years. However, we need to be prepared for the new rate. We need to ensure that Invest NI is given adequate resources and the budget required to ensure that we open the proper doors across the world, wherever they may be. The work needs to start now to maximise the potential for our economy and ensure that the skills needed are in place to support any new jobs. We need to invest now to ensure that we get it right on foreign direct investment to really grow our economy. It is crucial that the right skills budget is in place to align the work of DEL and DETI in attracting foreign direct investment as we go forward with the Department for the Economy, particularly the £5 million that is needed for the skills agenda.
Invest NI's mid-year performance for 2015-16 highlighted positive developments, and a £550 million investment in R&D reiterates the value of attracting jobs to Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that the 7·1% reduction in Invest NI's resource budget will present challenges. However, I believe that it is best equipped to deliver for Northern Ireland and, with the right support from the Executive, I have every confidence in Invest's ability to deliver.
Energy costs continue to be a challenge to growing our economy, no more so than in the manufacturing sector. We need to see real progress on the North/South interconnector to help reduce energy costs across the sector. That has been kicked around the Assembly for years. The extension of the gas network to other parts of Northern Ireland is also vital to keep energy costs competitive for all our customers.
As has been mentioned by a number of Members, tourism is another key aspect of our economy, and I believe that it is a sector that has not yet reached anywhere near its full potential. The overall visitor figures confirm that Northern Ireland is now a must-see destination, with overall visitor numbers increasing by 9% in the 12 months to June 2015 along with other encouraging signs in external and business visitor figures. Northern Ireland is fast becoming a real destination for top sporting events. Funding streams such as the tourism events programme are crucial in helping to run top-class events locally. The value of international events, such as the North West 200, the Circuit of Ireland and the Irish Open, should not be underestimated. They all attract many international competitors, spectators and their families, bringing people to these shores for the first time. They get a real sense of what this place is about and cannot wait to return.
The Budget presents real challenges as we seek to grow our economy. Last night, I welcomed the Finance Minister's commitment when he stated in the House that skills investment was vital to our economic development. I note that, in addition to the £5 million being made available to the new Department for the Economy as part of the 2016-17 Budget, £20 million will be made available for the area as part of the June monitoring round.
It is crucial, as we move forward into the new mandate with the new more streamlined Executive that came through the Fresh Start Agreement, that the economy remains our number one priority. There is an opportunity for the new Northern Ireland investment fund and the economic strategy to bring real benefit, as we seek to make Northern Ireland the number one place to do business.