Job Losses: BT

Questions for Urgent Oral Answer — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:45 pm on 12 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 5:45, 12 February 2024

Mrs Deborah Erskine has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister for the Economy. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

Mrs Erskine asked the Minister for the Economy to urgently engage with BT regarding potential job losses at its Enniskillen site.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

BT has announced that, as part of a global review of its estates provision and operations, it intends to undertake a review of the future of its customer services site in Enniskillen. I appreciate that the announcement of the review of the Enniskillen site will have caused great anxiety and concern for many of the 300 staff who work there. BT, however, has stressed that no decision has yet been taken on the future of the site. That decision is pending the outcome of the review. My officials in Invest NI were in contact with BT last week and are meeting BT senior management tomorrow. Invest NI will work closely with the company over the coming weeks and explore all opportunities to influence a positive outcome for the staff who may be impacted on by any decision taken.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

I thank the Economy Minister for coming to the Chamber this evening, and I take the opportunity to congratulate him on his new role. Potentially losing 300 jobs from Enniskillen is hugely significant to my constituency, given the large proportion of workers employed by BT Group in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I regret that the Minister has not said anything publicly about that until this evening. He can correct me if I am wrong. Will he commit to doing everything possible to stop those job losses? For example, if BT needs smaller premises as part of its consolidation, will he continue to work with Invest NI and other bodies to find such premises and make sure that BT Group remains part of the local economy in Enniskillen?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her question. I am at a slight disadvantage, in that, if I were responding to an announcement about those jobs, I might have more to say, but I am responding to a statement that announces a review, the outcome of which we do not know, although I agree with her that it raises a very significant concern. The rural west is an area that has largely lacked investment, both in its economy and in its infrastructure, which leads to economic investment. As a rural dweller and a border dweller, I get the urgency around the matter. As I have said, officials have already spoken to BT and will engage with its senior management tomorrow. This is part of an estates review, so I am not aware that it is a search for a different type of premises. Rather, it is a global exercise that BT has undertaken concerning its operations and its estate. We will, of course, endeavour to do all that we can to ensure that jobs are kept in Enniskillen and that those people who may, at some future date, become subject to a decision taken here get all the support that they can. In the first instance, however, the priority is to ensure that jobs are kept where they are needed.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I welcome the Minister to his place as Minister for the Economy. I wish him well. The BT announcement stated that it had invested with "brilliant new and refurbished buildings". Has the Minister any idea where those brilliant refurbished buildings are? Are they only in Belfast or are they in other rural areas? Why did BT not invest in Enniskillen? I know that it is difficult for the Minister to answer at this stage. I just wonder whether he has any idea, or whether he will pose the question to BT.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Again, I find myself hamstrung by the fact that I am responding to an announcement of a review rather than to an announcement of a decision, but the question for urgent oral answer was taken, and here we are. I am not aware of what estate BT is looking at currently, other than that it is part of a global review of its operations and estate. My officials in Invest NI are dealing with BT and will be meeting representatives from it tomorrow. If there is any further update, I will be able to inform the Member.

Photo of Áine Murphy Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

I place on record my serious concerns at the recent news of possible job losses at BT in Enniskillen, which, of course, would have a detrimental impact on families and on the local economy in County Fermanagh. Will your departmental officials consult with BT to protect workers at this deeply concerning time?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Yes, they have been doing that and will continue to do so. As I said to the Member who asked the original question, I appreciate that potential job losses anywhere are to be regretted, but, in areas that do not have a good level of investment, such as the rural west, it is a matter of particular concern for entire communities. Of course, we will engage with BT as to what the possible outcome of its review might be and try to offer all the support that we can to the people of Enniskillen.

Photo of Sorcha Eastwood Sorcha Eastwood Alliance

I thank the Member for tabling her question for urgent oral answer, and I thank the Minister for his statement. What role do the Department and Invest NI have in strategic investment in business infrastructure across the North and in ensuring that jobs remain in a way that addresses the issue of regional imbalance?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As I said, regional balance will be a particular focus of mine. I have made no secret of that, and I intend to give a statement to the House next week in relation to the broad approach to the policy across the Department for the Economy. Invest and the Department have a role to support business, to try to ensure that we sustain the jobs that we have and to attract and create more jobs, and to try to ensure, as I will into the future, that there is a regional balance approach to all that.

Some of the decisions are taken by commercial companies in their own business interests. They are global companies, and they take global decisions outside the direct influence of the Executive or, indeed, the Department for the Economy. However, we will do all in our power to ensure that we sustain and maintain as many jobs as we can and that we get the proper spread of those jobs when we are creating them right across the entirety of the jurisdiction.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his responses so far, and I congratulate him on his appointment to the role of Minister for the Economy. I look forward to working with him in the near future.

Regional balance is very much at the heart of what I want to see for my region. Certainly, however, the potential for the loss of 300 jobs in Fermanagh would have devastating consequences right across the county and the west. I look forward to the Minister's proposals in and around regional balance in the coming weeks. It is the duty and responsibility of the Government to make sure that we have the policies in place in order to attract investors.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Can we have a question, please?

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

We cannot just put it on the long finger. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about legislating for regional balance.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As I said, I will be making a statement to the Assembly, I think, next week in relation to all these matters, and I will expand on that further. Of course, we take that responsibility very seriously, and I have made no secret of the fact that I do not believe that there has been regional balance, particularly in areas like the west, the north-west and even the south, and where I come from in south Armagh, which have suffered from a lack of investment. That goes for Newry and other areas in south Down as well. We want to see that corrected in the time ahead, and we will work to see it corrected.

In relation to this particular question, I appreciate that, in an area that has seen underinvestment, such a substantial potential loss of jobs would be very devastating. However, we are in a situation where we have to focus on skills and on getting people to a place where they can be available for jobs. We have a situation where we have more people seeking employees than we have available. It is a situation where, if a global company such as BT takes a decision that is detrimental to an area, we will put all our focus on ensuring that there are other opportunities for people in that area and in the areas that have been underinvested in to date.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That concludes this item of business.

Adjourned at 5.58 pm.