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I am very aware of the importance of exporting to our economy and of the need to encourage more local businesses to sell outside Northern Ireland. To help to maximise our export potential, I launched the trade accelerator plan, which is still being delivered by Invest Northern Ireland, in September 2016. The initiative builds on the wide range of support and advice already available to first-time and experienced exporters. It provides enhanced support and financial assistance to target and enter an export market. Enhanced support includes a Great Britain market introduction programme, initially for the construction sector, and a Great Britain and Republic of Ireland retail market development programme for the food and drink sector. The trade accelerator plan also provides for additional market visits, more inward buyer visits and enhanced support to companies from Invest NI's trade advisers based in international markets across the globe. First-time exporters can also avail themselves of support towards their travel and accommodation costs when targeting the Great Britain market, and companies seeking to enter the Republic of Ireland market can avail themselves of support towards accommodation costs.
In addition, through Invest NI's existing programmes, companies seeking to enter an export market for the first time can participate in its long-established export skills workshop series, as well as in tailored programmes such as Going Dutch and Czech It Out. They can receive assistance towards market research carried out in the market by experienced trade advisers. There is also assistance with language translation and legal costs. I encourage all existing and potential exporters to work with Invest NI to expand their export operations or to take that first important step into exporting.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the fact that Northern Ireland was the only UK region to increase its exports last year and the information that the Minister has given to us today about the help and assistance for companies to access new markets, does the Minister envisage that growth continuing? Obviously, he has launched the accelerator plan, but will he ensure that it is given the widest possible exposure to companies that could have an uptake of that particular programme?
I concur with the Member that it is very good to see that Northern Ireland increased its exports, the only region in the UK to do so. We increased by a substantial amount — 9·5% of an increase — in our manufacturing exports over the last year. It is worth putting on record that it is nothing that we, as an Executive, do. We provide support, but, obviously, it is up to the companies themselves with the high-quality products that they have. We will give them all the support and assistance and will open doors for them, and that is our job, but it is the standout performance of, particularly, the likes of our life and health sciences sector, which increased its export sales by over 50% in the last year.
I would be very brave and courageous if I were to say that this will absolutely continue, but there is already — I am sure that the Member will be aware of this from his constituency — anecdotal evidence amongst many exporters. Notwithstanding the issues that some importers will be facing, as a result of the current currency fluctuations, many exporting businesses are already reporting an increase, and that will have been recorded after the 9·5% increase figures were published.
The trade accelerator plan is also showing some early success. We have had seven companies participating in the GB market introduction programme, and they will meet potential customers at the end of October. All of those are new to the GB market, which is exactly what the intention of the plan was. There will also be nine new applications for our exhibition at trade shows support, which is called SOLEX, and four new applications for Great Britain market visits. That is something that we have started again, where companies that want to dip their toe into the water for exporting but are not sure about the market, can go and visit that market with some support from Invest NI. The signs are good. Obviously, it still requires a lot of effort from the companies, but I will ensure that that is supported at every opportunity by Invest NI.
I had a very good discussion in the summer with Liam Fox, and it is something that we have been following up with his new Department at official level. I hope to be able to meet Dr Fox again before the year is out. He has had a fresh and interesting approach to this whole subject. Almost immediately on the UK vote to exit the European Union, he was charged to go out and sell the UK, as a whole, to the world and open up new markets. Instead of focusing almost exclusively, as has been encouraged in the last number of years, on a European market that has been struggling, it about looking at some of the emerging markets around the world where there is much greater growth and, therefore, much greater potential for the UK and Northern Ireland.
The Member mentioned the aerospace sector. Notwithstanding the troubling and worrying news from Bombardier at the tail end of last week, it is a sector that the Executive have sought to support through a dedicated strategy. That strategy was published in 2014 with a target to increase revenues from that sector from £1 billion to £2 billion, and we are making good progress on that. The revenues are now up to about £1·3 billion annually. It is a sector that, obviously, we are focused on, with not just Bombardier but the 60-odd companies that are operating in the aerospace, defence, security and space sector. It is an area where there are opportunities; one that is recognised at a UK level as well. As the UKTI, or Department for International Trade, starts to look at trade missions and visits around the world, I am sure that you will see Northern Ireland companies availing themselves of those opportunities. It is something that I want to encourage as well: not just that Northern Ireland companies are going on Invest NI-led trade missions but that we are participating as fully as we possibly can on UK-wide trade missions.
The Regional Start initiative, which is the programme for start-ups and growing new businesses, has already been devolved to local government. It has been carried out collectively on its behalf by Invest Northern Ireland, and I think that that is due to change before this year is out. Councils have what they have been asking for for a number of years, which is some autonomy and flexibility to deliver programmes that are tailored to the particular needs of their area. Although there is a lot of uniformity across Northern Ireland, there are parts — I mentioned mid-Ulster earlier, an area that has a concentration of manufacturing and engineering businesses — for which the initiative will give flexibility and autonomy to councils and allow them to tailor additional programmes and support to the needs of their area. Of course, we will continue to work with businesses through Invest NI directly but also through councils. As councils develop their development plans for their areas — some are already out there, while some are still in the works — it is incredibly important that Invest NI be plugged into that and are working with councils not just to ensure that we maximise the number of start-ups but to ensure that established businesses are looking at export and external opportunities.