Northern Ireland Economy

– in Westminster Hall at 4:29 pm on 11 May 2016.

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Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:29, 11 May 2016

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Northern Ireland economy.

It is good to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr McCabe. This is a timely debate, with Northern Ireland having just had elections to the Assembly, and it would be remiss of me not to mention—or, as my hon. Friend Sammy Wilson said, to gloat about—the success our party has had. May I pass on my congratulations to Mrs Arlene Foster, our party leader? I hope by tomorrow she will be the new First Minister for the next five years in Northern Ireland. That is the last bit of party politics I will bring into the debate, in case you chastise me, Mr McCabe, or I get some dirty looks from the Social Democratic and Labour party.

This will be a pleasant, humorous and serious debate and none of us will mention Brexit and all such things. Arlene Foster has gained huge respect across the whole of Northern Ireland, with more than 200,000 people having voted for her leadership and for our party. We look forward to the next five years. Two weeks have been allowed for us to get a programme for government in place, but hopefully it will not take that long and we will get up for business and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to my many colleagues who did not stand for re-election but contributed to the Assembly for many years and worked for the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

The hon. Gentleman is very kind to allow me to intervene so early. As he has mentioned the programme for government and his party leader, may I urge all of those who will be designated as Ministers that they must give top priority to funding for our schools right across Northern Ireland? A number of constituents have raised with me what is something of a funding crisis in schools, so I would like him to assure us that that will be given priority.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I will give the hon. Lady the best assurances that I can. I am not a Member of the Assembly, but that message has been made clear and she has put that on the record, so it will be taken back. She is right that education is an important aspect for the future generations in Northern Ireland.

We are all well aware of the difficult times that Northern Ireland has faced. We are the smallest of the four regions and, as I have already alluded to, we are still suffering from the results of the troubles, which have been a debilitating factor in the economy’s growth. That has made inward investment slightly more difficult and for the local business sector—small, medium and large businesses—sustainability has continued to be an uphill struggle. My speech contains good news for Northern Ireland, but it will also be realistic about lessons we have to learn, what we can do better and how the Assembly can move forward in the future.

At the outset, I want to praise all the companies who provide employment in Northern Ireland. I recognise the determination and energy they put in every day, along with their workforces. Their resolve has sent unemployment rates in Northern Ireland to an all-time low. When the economic crisis hit the whole of the United Kingdom, in my constituency we were at 8.5% unemployment, but as of last week that figure has come down to 4.1%. Even at the best of times the figures never fell below that, so we are encouraged by that. I have no doubt that the selfless work and processes established by companies right across Northern Ireland will continue for many years to come.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main sources of employment in his constituency is manufacturing industry? Despite all the nonsense that has been spoken about the uncertainty for manufacturers because of the EU referendum, and the prospect of the people of the United Kingdom voting to leave the EU and break its shackles of dominance on our economy, manufacturing industry has actually forged ahead.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

A source very close to me, yes. My hon. Friend Sammy Wilson is right: despite all the nonsense that has been talked, the manufacturing sector certainly will continue if we leave the European Union.

According to reports this week, Northern Ireland’s growth is dependent on the retail and service sectors, as they

“continue to report the fastest rates of job creation.”

I have certainly witnessed that in each of the three towns in my constituency. Growth is slow, but small retail businesses—I am not referring to charity shops—are starting to move back on to the high street, which is a good thing.

We may be the smallest region in the UK, but we are powerful on the world stage. Some 30% of the famous London red buses are manufactured in Ballymena by a local firm, Wrightbus. That is of course a big contract in London.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

We will move on from Brexit a wee bit; we will come to it later.

Some 25% of all computer read-write heads are made by Seagate Technology in Londonderry, at the UK’s largest nanotechnology site, and 40% of the world’s mobile crushing equipment is made in Northern Ireland. We have some of the largest pharmaceutical companies, which employ thousands of people across the Province.

It is evident that the people of Northern Ireland remain committed to helping to grow its economy. However, despite all the good news, we cannot ignore the significant job losses that have been reported by companies—two of the most high profile are Michelin and JTI, and some others face making redundancies—because of problems in the global market and sometimes because of energy costs.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education)

I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned energy costs. Does he agree that the cost of energy is one of the biggest threats to manufacturing in Northern Ireland, as it has been in England, Scotland and Wales, and that that is in part due to the insane policy of trying to move towards renewable energy when we have cheap forms of energy in coal, gas and oil?

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Absolutely. I thought my hon. Friend was going to mention the EU again; he disappointed me greatly in not getting it slipped in. He is right: we need to look at other ways we can help. Some companies across Northern Ireland, certainly in my constituency, have availed themselves of gas lines, which have made a big difference to electricity costs, especially for bakeries. As the Executive move forward, I believe we have a big part to play in reshaping energy policy.

I meet companies regularly, as I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members here do. One of the major issues they raise continually is business rates—if it is not energy costs, it is business rates. In Northern Ireland, we have capped rates for manufacturing at 30%. I have to say that that is a success for my own party—other parties agreed to it, but it was brought forward by the Democratic Unionist party and we have achieved great things with it. Companies today are surviving because of it, and without it, those companies would not still be here.

My constituency of Upper Bann is the second largest manufacturing base in Northern Ireland outside Belfast. For every manufacturing job in the Province, 1.5 jobs are supported elsewhere in the economy, contributing £2 billion in wages to staff and a further £2.2 billion though jobs supported outside the sector. I fear future losses if we do not address the issue of energy costs, which I keep coming back to, because it is crippling a lot of our companies.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in pressing the new Executive to ensure that one of the first things they do is resolve the issue of providing a proper and appropriate superconductor between the Republic of Ireland and the north? It is widely believed, and stated to me by the energy companies, that Northern Ireland’s manufacturers and residents have higher energy costs than their neighbours in the Republic because of the lack of a modern, 21st-century superconductor process to allow electricity to move around the whole country and island.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for intervening. He is absolutely correct, but that project has been held back by environmentalists—I do not want to get on the hobby-horse of my hon. Friend Sammy Wilson—and, I have to say, by Sinn Féin, as far as planning permission is concerned. We need to address that. The Minister is quite right that that will make a big difference to energy costs. I think Northern Ireland has the second most expensive electricity after Japan, and addressing that would help the economy to grow even more.

Despite the difficult times we have had, 40,000 new jobs were created in the past five years. A lot of that, of course, was done through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Mrs Arlene Foster was the Minister in the Department at that stage, so she has a good track record, along with her colleagues in the Executive. We also welcomed £2.9 billion of investment in that time, which is almost three times the £1 billion target. We are well on the way.

We look forward to the reduction of corporation tax. Our party is focused on that and has promised its delivery. Is it a silver bullet? No, but it is certainly part of a large armoury that will be available to the Executive. It is estimated that 30,000 jobs could be created through the reduction in corporation tax, which would mean 10% growth in our economy. Our party and the First Minister will certainly be pushing for that. The Northern Ireland Assembly today is in a good position to maximise the potential of all those things, but we need the Government’s support behind us.

Tom Hall, the vice-president of international technology and operations at Allstate, has said:

“Our experience in Northern Ireland far exceeded our expectations. We came here originally for the cost savings. We find ourselves staying for the people and the talent that is available.”

That leads me on to a key factor relating to Northern Ireland’s economy—one that I am proud we are delivering. Northern Ireland is the top region in the UK for educational attainment. Lady Hermon raised the issue of education, which we need to make more progress on. We cannot rest on our laurels. However, the official figures show that in 2015, 83% of Northern Ireland students achieved the three top grades in A-level exams, compared with 77.3% across the rest of the UK. Students and young people play a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland economy. Their input is not given enough focus, and the skills and expertise they are achieving needs to be given the accreditation it deserves.

Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK that has increased salaries for new jobs in the past year. However, new salaries in Northern Ireland remain lower than the UK average of £33,815, so there is still some work to be done. We need to stop haemorrhaging our trained professional to other countries, which can offer better rates of pay. It is a vicious circle that we are in: while better pay is available in other countries, it encourages our young people to go to them and perhaps not return—if they are going for educational purposes or to learn skills or whatever and returning, that would be a different story. We need to improve our rates. The only way we can do that is to encourage the private sector to invest in Northern Ireland and to reduce the public sector. That is something that we are trying to achieve, and it has been achieved somewhat, but again there is still some way to go.

As I said earlier, our manufacturing sector was certainly one of the worst hit, but the 30% cap on manufacturing rates has made a big difference. The latest figures show that companies may now be prepared to pay for new recruits and to invest in new staff. That may go some way to encouraging young people to embark upon apprenticeships, especially plumbers, electricians, bricklayers and other such areas in the construction sector. There remains a concerning lack of skilled tradesmen throughout Northern Ireland. Last year it was reported that the construction industry was paying grossly over the odds, as they had to bring recruits in from other countries to ensure that they met their completion dates.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education)

Does my hon. Friend agree that that is one of the reasons why it is important that Northern Ireland, like other regions of the United Kingdom, gets its fair share of the money raised through the apprenticeship levy? That is an issue that needs to be addressed by the Treasury and also the Northern Ireland Executive.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend is correct. We need to get our fair share of that in order to push this forward. I recently visited my local training centre in the Craigavon area. I have visited it many times, and in recent times it hosted a regional skills competition. I spoke to one of the instructors there, who told me of one young man who came to him—I think it was three years ago—as a trainee plumber. The instructor knew when he saw the young man working that he had something special. That young fellow lives in a village called Katesbridge outside Banbridge.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

He is in his early 20s, and is a constituent of the hon. Lady, and he is the world champion plumber. He went through all the heats, he went to Brazil, he won the heats in Brazil, and he is now the world champion plumber. That is some achievement for a young lad from Katesbridge in—I emphasise this again—the hon. Lady’s constituency. For a young man like that who has come in and developed a skill, the world is his oyster. He can do whatever he likes and demand his price. That is what we want to see: more young people getting into those skills, including the basic skills. It has to be realised that, while parents want all their children to be Einsteins, brain surgeons, dentists, GPs and so on, that is not going to happen, but there is still a lot of money to be earned with those skills, which we lost during the economic crisis.

Lastly, I want to focus on the agri-food sector. I have come from the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs just now, and we had a very interesting debate. This sector plays a significant role in the Northern Ireland economy. It contributes £1 billion of added value per annum and has demonstrated a strong track record of export growth, employing over 100,000 people, but the outlook for our farming community remains grim. Dairy farmers have witnessed their incomes fall by over a third in the past year. The realisation is that they are producing milk well below the cost of production. Something more needs to be done to help them. They cannot continue on this ongoing basis of haemorrhaging money and cash flow.

My party wants the industry to bring forward supply contracts that minimise price fluctuations and seize a greater share of their profits along the entire food chain. Six years ago in Northern Ireland, we were doing approximately £60 million of food exports. This year, the figure will be £95.5 million. That is a clear testimony to the quality of our food and drink, which is an essential part of our tourism industry. Our industry target is £1 billion by 2020 and we are already well on our way to achieving that.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that the executive of the Ulster Farmers Union is in favour of remaining in the EU?

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is my understanding that that is the opinion of the Ulster Farmers Union, but everybody has their problems. I think that the National Farmers Union may have come out in support, but I am not sure; it could still be sitting on the fence. We do not know which way it will go. However, the Ulster Farmers Union has come out with that silly statement.

The year 2016 is the Northern Ireland year of food, and fantastic work is underway through Food NI. Ms Ritchie and I hosted an event on St Patrick’s day in this House. It was the second time that an event had been held in this House to promote Northern Ireland food, and it was a fantastic success. This week, the fancy London outlet, Fortnum & Mason, is promoting Northern Ireland produce to help local retailers. Today, a lot of VIPs and other invited guests have been there to sample some of that food.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that a large proportion of Northern Ireland’s agri-food industry is dependent on exports? In that respect, it is important that we achieve a direct export capacity to China, Taiwan and north America.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I absolutely agree—I think the hon. Lady raised the point in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee previous to this debate—and that needs to be achieved quickly.

It is humbling to hear all the success stories—sometimes, there are stories of not so much success—especially coming from a wee country that was deep in conflict for many years. To me, that shows a strong work ethic from the Northern Ireland community and the business community to keep trying. Our economy is settling into a reasonable state of stability, but we must acknowledge the unease of local businesses, farmers and investors as the referendum looms.

I am appalled by some of the scare tactics that have been put forward by those in the remain campaign. Membership of the EU costs £350 million a week. Combined with red tape, bureaucracy and many EU laws taking precedence over UK law, we have reached a point at which the costs have outgrown the falling benefits.

Nine years ago, devolution was restored to Northern Ireland. In that time, we all faced many local, national and international challenges. We faced up to them and overcame them. However, we cannot take our foot off the gas. The incoming First Minister’s five-point plan prioritised spending on the health service, creating more jobs and increased incomes, protecting family budgets, raising education standards for everyone and investing in infrastructure. That is what we are about and what we need to do to deliver for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Order. I plan to start calling the Front-Bench speakers at about 10 past 5. I think that three hon. Members are standing. If you can take about five minutes each, we will be able to accommodate you.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down 4:55, 11 May 2016

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I again congratulate David Simpson on securing the debate. Like him, I congratulate everyone who was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly on Friday and Saturday of last week. There is a major job of work to do, and I am sure they will get down to that as part of their preliminary work tomorrow.

I will focus my contribution on the role that tourism and the visitor economy can play in bringing prosperity to Northern Ireland, but first I want to echo the comments of Lady Hermon about education. Clearly, education, skills and training are directly linked to the economy. However, on 23 March, schools received a letter from the Minister saying that their budget would be at a certain level. It a major cut, which will have an impact on the delivery of the curriculum to many pupils throughout the schools sector. That will have an impact on our economy in the long term, which needs to be addressed as a priority.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that two other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate, but I give way to him.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education)

Will the hon. Lady accept that, given how the block grant works, the only way more money can be found for education is through reform of the education system in Northern Ireland? I am talking about holding less money at the centre for Department-inspired initiatives and instead giving it to principals, and about showing less favouritism to certain growing sectors of education at the expense of other sectors, some of which are already working under capacity.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I agree that there needs to be investment in schools and education. That is the priority, because investment in well-developed children’s education will lead to better outcomes for training and our economy.

Northern Ireland is undoubtedly a beautiful place, and our appeal has been strengthened by our growing position as a world-leading location for films and television. In that respect, tourism is an important revenue generator. In the year from October 2014 to September 2015, it brought total expenditure of more than £700 million to our economy. That helps to support jobs and gives communities new livelihoods.

As a co-chair of the all-party group for the visitor economy, I am anxious, as are many members of the group, for the Government to bring forward proposals to reduce VAT on tourism on a UK basis. That fiscal incentive would have a deep and generous impact on the Northern Ireland economy. We need only look at the south of Ireland, where VAT on tourism has been levied at 9% over the last number of years. As a consequence of that measure, about 9,000 jobs were created in the two years after it was introduced. We are part of the UK, which is one of only two of the 27 countries in the European Union that do not have a lower rate of VAT on tourism, so that immediately places us at a disadvantage.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann also raised the issue of Brexit. Obviously, I take a very different view from him and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party. I and my colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party believe that we should remain in the European Union and I give a little warning based on evidence direct from Danske Bank. This week, it said in the quarterly sectoral review for 2016 that the economic growth forecast for Northern Ireland had been revised down to 1.6% from 1.8%. Angela McGowan of Danske Bank was reported in the business press yesterday as having indicated that that was due to the threat of Brexit, austerity and slower global growth, which takes us back the global commodity markets. She said:

“The message remains that Northern Ireland’s economy continues to expand, but the pace of growth is slowing. While the continued reduction in the public sector jobs will weigh down overall growth in the short to medium term, by far the biggest risk to growth this year is Brexit which has lowered investment and growth in the first half of this year…but there is no reason the private side of the economy should not bounce back” after the referendum, which I hope will produce a remain vote.

Those on the leave side have not produced any evidence on which to base their arguments, and they do not know what the far side of a leave vote would look like. However, I know that there will be a severe impact on our local economy. I firmly believe that there is a future for the Northern Ireland economy and for our young people, but that depends on several factors. One is staying in the European Union, otherwise we will close easy access to the 500 million potential tourists in the EU and block off one of our biggest areas of growth.

I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann on securing this important debate. I hope that the Northern Ireland Executive will get down to work and ensure that new areas of growth can be tapped into and that new areas for visitors can be created. That can happen only in a context in which we are totally open for business and totally open to new markets. That means remaining in the European Union.

Further to that, I want our agri-food sector to grow—

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

Yes; I will conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Upper Bann for securing the debate, but I remind hon. Members that we are better inside the European Union than outside, and I ask the Minister to comment on the need to lower VAT on tourism.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I thank the hon. Lady for her co-operation.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality) 5:03, 11 May 2016

I understand that the Minister, the shadow Minister and the Scottish National party’s spokesperson must start to speak at 5.10 pm, but I wondered whether it would be possible to have a couple of extra minutes, Mr McCabe—there are two other Members left to speak.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

Okay. I congratulate my hon. Friend David Simpson on his clear presentation of the case. May I say for the record, and for Lady Hermon, that I am a member of the Ulster Farmers Union and have been for more than 30 years? I hear what the farmers in my area are saying—they want out. The individual opinion of the president of the Ulster Farmers Union is one thing, but the membership is very different.

The Northern Ireland economy is a far cry from what it once was, but there is still a lot of work to be done to rebalance the economy. Growth is faster than the UK average across almost all sectors of our economy, which is testimony to the continued hard work, confidence and stability of the Northern Ireland Executive. We must be clear where that growth is coming from. We have record levels of job creation and more jobs than ever before in our Province. We have record levels of inward investment and more multinational companies and private sector jobs than ever before. The economy in Northern Ireland is going well at the moment.

The longest sustained period of devolved Government in Northern Ireland since before our troubles has delivered for the people of Northern Ireland, and will continue to deliver with the mandate we achieved last week. After all we have been through, Ulster is no longer at a crossroads. We are on a clear path on the motorway to a better future. Last month, Ulster’s private sector added its 12th consecutive month of growth to Northern Ireland’s economic engine. The rates of growth in new orders, business activity and employment among indigenous Northern Ireland firms have bucked the trend and exceeded the UK average. The new Northern Ireland is literally working at the moment. By contrast, last month the UK private sector as a whole expanded at its weakest rate in three years, with both services and construction posting subdued rates of activity. The economic engine may be roaring in Northern Ireland, but a continued UK economic slowdown could prove an obstacle on our clear path to a better future.

The pace of job creation continues to accelerate in the Province, with all sectors increasing their staffing levels. Manufacturing’s seven consecutive months of job losses have come to a welcome end, and the Province’s manufacturing sector is defying UK norms. Export orders expanded at their fastest rate for 21 months, with Northern Ireland’s exports to non-EU countries now at a record high, showing that Northern Ireland can compete and thrive independently on the global stage just like the rest of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland has seen unemployment drop from almost 59,000 in 2011 to just over 39,000 in 2016. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann referred to the creation of some 40,000 jobs. The target was 25,000 jobs but we achieved 40,000, so it is good news again. He also referred to investment. We have had £585 million of research and development investment, almost double the target of £300 million, and 72% of new jobs are supported under the “Rebuilding our Economy” programme. Let us be clear about what is happening—there is almost an economic miracle in Northern Ireland at the present time.

The Northern Ireland Executive, led by the DUP and in partnership with industry, has delivered real advances. The ending of air passenger duty on long-haul flights was a DUP initiative, and we have had over 1 million more visitors in the past three years, with some £752 million spent by them in 2014. Cruise ships docking in Northern Ireland brought 145,000 guests in 2016. Again, those are great things.

The DUP has also continued the policy of industrial derating, which has protected jobs and encouraged investment. We have protected the small business rates relief scheme, which has benefited small businesses across Northern Ireland by approximately £18 million a year. We have delivered a Northern Ireland-wide rating revaluation, resulting in reduced bills for businesses, and 525 new business have benefited from the introduction of the empty premises rate relief.

We had a meeting today on broadband, which is an issue in my constituency and those of other Members. Broadband is not the Minister’s responsibility, but let us put a marker down right now—we need help and investment to make it happen so that we can move forward.

As I said, Ulster is no longer at the crossroads. We are on a path to a better future, with a clear mandate to go forth and continue to deliver and with First Minister Arlene Foster providing the turbo to reach the even better days ahead.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle 5:07, 11 May 2016

I pay tribute to David Simpson for securing the debate and for acknowledging the role of the real job creators—people who start businesses and take them forward, sometimes through difficult challenges. They create new products or find new applications for products; they find new markets and new customers. That is what creates new jobs, before all of us in politics claim the credit for that. What we have to do is make sure that we give these people the best possible environment in which to do that.

The hon. Gentleman quoted Tom Hall of Allstate. I recall signing up Allstate for investment in Northern Ireland along with Mo Mowlam and Mr Donaldson as far back as 1998. We told Allstate that it would be impressed by the people, the talent and the skills in Northern Ireland, and that it would invest further. I asked it to promise that it would not keep the second wave of investment in Belfast but would come to the north-west instead, and so it did.

Listening to the hon. Members for Upper Bann and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), it would have been easy to be lulled into a culture of contentment with all this talk of economic miracles and the economy going well, or, as the Deputy First Minister put it a few weeks ago, the economy being in a “happy place”. The reality is that in my constituency the jobseeker’s allowance claimant count is 10.3%, whereas the Northern Ireland average is 4.6% and the UK average is 2.5%. The 18 to 24-year-old JSA claimant count is 12% in my constituency in the north-west, whereas the Northern Ireland average is 5.8% and the UK average is 2.9%. The disparities are similar in the child poverty rate.

Although the emphasis in the previous programme for government, and from the UK Government, has been on the need to rebalance our economy—the move on corporation tax is one part of that—we also need to rebalance our region. We need greater investment in the west and elsewhere. We cannot just have policies and benefits that concentrate on Belfast.

I have limited time, but will the Minister tell us about some of the opportunities for the next Assembly to work with the UK Government on city deals and enterprise zones? Those opportunities were available to us throughout the whole of the last Parliament, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he would give Northern Ireland enterprise zones and city deals if he got proposals from the Executive, but proposals came not until one finally came in 2014 for an enterprise zone in Coleraine. We still have no proposals for the areas that are most mired in high unemployment.

Will any prospective city deal include support for further university expansion? Why could there not be a cross-border dimension? We have made a move on corporation tax, but if we are to learn lessons from the south, we must see that it is not just corporation tax that has underpinned its economic performance. It is also key investment in higher education and skills and in infrastructure. Those two things are missing in the north. In fact, the Northern Ireland Executive have been going the wrong way on higher education, which is no criticism of the outgoing Minister for Employment and Learning, Stephen Farry, who has done a key job on skills and apprenticeships. I take fully on board the point that Sammy Wilson made about the apprenticeship levy.

I do not expect an answer today, but will the Minister talk to colleagues here in Whitehall about whether, when we next sit down to serious negotiations about taking Northern Ireland forward economically, some of the money that the Irish Government are having to repay to the UK Government to cover the loan could be earmarked to support north-south funding mechanisms? It could also support British-Irish measures through the British-Irish Council, and it could be used to encourage much more co-operation between the devolved regions, the London Government and the south. Such an identifiable pool of money could be earmarked for some constructive and imaginative investments that would release all our energies and capacities, not only in Northern Ireland but throughout these islands.

Photo of Roger Mullin Roger Mullin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 5:12, 11 May 2016

I will try to be uncharacteristically brief to assist those still to speak. I congratulate David Simpson on securing this important debate at this strategically important time, as we face, in the not too distant future, the European referendum. I hope that Members from all parties in Northern Ireland will know and recognise that I am a keen friend of Northern Ireland, having worked there for 30 or 40 years in different guises. I was pleased recently to ask a question at Northern Ireland questions, and I am delighted to see the Minister here because, on the back of my question, a couple of days ago he went out to visit a major community project in Belfast that is doing remarkable, energetic and imaginative work to bring communities together to try to harness the talents of young people and to help their development, which is important for the future.

I do not want to hide from the fact that, despite all the good things we can recognise, the Northern Ireland economy faces major challenges. What concerns me most amidst the myriad statistics we have heard is the issue of productivity. Northern Ireland is consistently measured as having among the lowest labour productivity in the United Kingdom, which will be a major constraint on future development unless the powers of the new devolved Executive are fully utilised, perhaps by thinking in a more joined-up way about how issues of productivity can be addressed. It is fine to talk about the challenges of higher education, it is fine to talk about the opportunities of new markets—including in the European Union—and it is fine to talk about infrastructure development, but if those and other matters are addressed in silos, and not through the strategic motive of trying to address productivity, the Northern Ireland economy will always be running to catch up with the UK. I appeal to those in government to think about how that major challenge is addressed in future.

I have, of course, a prejudice in favour of the European Union. That is not surprising as Scotland considers itself to be an ancient European nation and our natural place to be part of Europe. The EU provides us with great long-term opportunities, if we are willing to grasp them. Although it is understandable that different positions will be held, I think that everyone, regardless of the view they take, will wish the people of Northern Ireland well for the future. Let us all hope that we can address some of the major economic challenges of our time.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 5:15, 11 May 2016

Like everyone present today, I congratulate David Simpson on securing this timely and significant debate. It is entirely appropriate for the Labour party to associate itself with congratulations to Arlene Foster, who is soon to be First Minister, and the DUP for what I was going to call its crushing victory, but then I remembered that the hon. Gentleman referred to Northern Ireland as the centre of crushing equipment, and I did not want to make any read-across there.

I particularly thank the hon. Gentleman for educating the House, and not for the first time. In a long and not particularly distinguished parliamentary career, I have never, ever heard of the international world plumbing championships in Brazil. They were news to me. I am delighted that Katesbridge’s finest is now the world plumbing champion. I am not sure whether that links up to the Olympics and we will see relay rodding or synchronised soldering, or anything of that nature, but there is remarkable potential there and we should know more about it. That links to what Ms Ritchie said about tourism: I think “Northern Ireland—home of the world plumbing champion” has a ring to it.

The comment about Fortnum & Mason resonated slightly with me, but perhaps in a different direction. I happen to think that Quails of Banbridge is vastly superior to Fortnum & Mason. In my opinion, Fortnum & Mason is merely the Quails of London—not the other way round. When I next find myself in the company of the hon. Member for Upper Bann, I trust he will introduce me to his friends in Quails and that the appropriate discount will be made available.

The hon. Gentleman rightly introduced the debate by saying that although there is some good news, there must be realism. That is absolutely the point. We had bad news with Bombardier, and then some good news with Bombardier in connection with the CS100 jets. We have had some bad news in certain aspects but we have the continued triumph of Wrightbus and, in the field of skilled, high-quality engineering—ejector seats and various other areas—there is good news.

That good news has not, though, exactly reached the Assembly’s own research and information service, which described Northern Ireland as being

“viewed as having a low growth, low productivity, and low wage economy,” with the additional problem of high levels of economic inactivity. There appears to be a disconnect between the optimism of Jim Shannon—an optimism that I share—and many people’s perception. There is good news: we constantly refer to the proportion of public sector employment in Northern Ireland, and it is now down to around 27%. That has dropped considerably in the past few years. I do not lay that entirely at the feet of the Minister, but I am sure he will claim some responsibility.

The overarching point I want to make, which we heard made many times, is that made by Mark Durkan: we cannot fool ourselves into a culture of contentment. All is not rosy. I have great admiration for the hon. Member for Strangford and I would love to have him speaking on behalf of my party. We would employ him in party election broadcasts every single day because his optimism, sunny spirits and marvellous skills at converting people are greatly prized—I have seen him in action in Ards—but it is not all good news.

The shadow that hangs over everything is, I am afraid, Brexit. I appreciate that today has been yet another skirmish in the battle of Brexit—we have inevitably moved in that direction—but we have to accept the fact that Northern Ireland’s economic performance is underpinned by EU funding. We have perhaps had too many stats in this debate, but between 2007 and 2013, EU money accounted for around 8.4% of Northern Ireland’s annual GDP. If we look at the Assembly Executive’s economic objectives, they have factored in £2 billion of EU funding since 2014 in the 2014-20 economic forecasts. If that money disappears, there is no guarantee whatever—I look to the Minister, but with little optimism in this particular case—that Westminster will plug that funding gap.

I pray in aid Dr Leslie Budd. I think some Members here were present when he gave evidence to the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. He identified some major problems for the Northern Ireland economy in the case of what I personally consider would be a foolish gesture—namely, if we turned our backs on our European friends, trading partners and those with which we have so much in common. Those problems would include reduced cross-border trade, an impact on foreign direct investment and the loss of EU funding for development programmes.

The danger is that the slightly faltering but ultimately strengthening Northern Ireland economy could suffer a terrible blow in the event of Brexit. All of us who know and love Northern Ireland respect its incredible quality of invention and innovation. The number of patents that have come from Northern Ireland over the past 100 to 150 years is staggering. I am sure Roger Mullin could come up with a similar list from Scotland, but I challenge him to meet the degree of entrepreneurial spirit and achievement that we have seen in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is a great country with immense potential. Let us not threaten it by thinking that turning our backs on Europe and taking a leap into the dark represents a step forward. It does not; it represents a step back. The hon. Member for Upper Bann has, as ever, done the House an excellent service. He has a distinguished reputation in business, being one of the few people who have come to this House with a background in creating business and paying wages, and he speaks with authority. On this occasion, I respect him but I disagree with him, and that is the position of my party.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 5:22, 11 May 2016

May I thank David Simpson for securing this debate? It is great that we are having a debate about Northern Ireland’s economy. I am delighted that his speech was much shorter than the Upper Bann count on Saturday night. I was waiting and waiting for the final results of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, and, for some reason, Upper Bann managed to spin it out until almost the last possible moment.

I heard what the hon. Gentleman said. It is true that we have to do all we can to continue supporting very important parts of the Northern Ireland economy. I am delighted that it is moving in the right direction, with manufacturing at its heart. I am a north-west MP, and I see a lot of strong similarities between his part of the world and mine. While Bombardier has had some bad news, I am delighted by the order of more than 70 C series planes, which is a big order for any aeroplane manufacturer. There are 6,000 BAE Systems workers on my patch, and I know how that can secure their future for a long time. This Government are working to support Bombardier when called upon, to achieve more orders across the world for that very successful plane, and I hope we can do that.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of energy costs. It is true that UK energy firms can face, and have sometimes faced, higher energy costs compared with their competitors, but I would not lay it all at the door of environmental issues or, indeed, the European Union. Germany may, as it says, have lower business energy costs, but it has much higher wage and social costs. For example, there is little variation in steel prices across Europe because each country has different costs for its businesses.

I visited the Irish national electricity generation company down in Dublin a few months ago, and it is clear that the consumer in Northern Ireland, whether business or residential, could have lower energy prices if we just sorted out the superconductor crossing the border. It is in everyone’s interests—including all the parties in the Executive—to ensure that that happens and that we get on with it, because it is unfair to penalise Northern Ireland’s businesses for something that is within the Executive’s power to put right. I will do everything I can to help with that.

It is great that we have some real blue chip companies based in Northern Ireland. Thales is doing well, and I was delighted that 80 new jobs were announced this week in AXA over in Derry. That is all going in the right direction, but I understand that there are challenges. The agri-food industry is a big industry, and it is important that we recognise that it comprises not just the farm but the processor and the retailer. Some are doing very well out of it, some are not. On Monday night I met members of the farming community at Queen’s University Belfast, when Commissioner Hogan came over from the European Commission. It is true that we face some big challenges to ensure that our farmers have a profitable, stable and enduring future, and I think everyone has a role in that.

As for farming, it is absolutely clear that access to export markets, and growing exports for produce, is the No. 1 priority for the Government and for farmers. I will say this on Brexit: putting extra or new barriers in the way of growing export markets will not help farmers in the short or long term. Farmers in the north of Ireland need to sell their beef abroad, they need to sell their milk abroad and they need access to markets. If people say it is the EU that holds them back, they should look to the south, where the farmers in the Republic of Ireland have a better milk price than farmers in the north. That is mainly because the Republic of Ireland—little Ireland, on its own—has managed to open up bigger markets in China to sell its milk produce and remain within the EU. The challenge is not to put more barriers in front of our farmers if we want to see our agri-food sector increase; the challenge is to decrease the number of them. Wherever we see protectionism around the world, I believe the EU is better at trying to remove it than countries trying that alone.

The other point is stability—other hon. Members have mentioned it, so I will not dwell on it—and stability of governance in Northern Ireland. We saw that the last round of crisis, with Stormont effectively suspended, did not help with the message on the economy. All parties here know that the strongest message for business is stability, so it can plan and invest. The Northern Ireland Executive, which are back up and running, have a great opportunity to capitalise on that good message about potential. It is very important that, when business feels that the environment is not stable, people speak up for it and make sure that politicians hear that message. It is also true that stability is important here in Great Britain.

On education, it is tragic when we see the great, educated population of Northern Ireland not getting the jobs, or when the skills are not matched to them. That is something that we all have to work on across the UK and in Northern Ireland. That is why we were delighted, in the Stormont House agreement, to commit £500 million over 10 years towards shared and integrated education, to help funnel that and improve people’s educational chances across Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann talked about the family budget. It is true that we need to do more to make sure that everyone in Northern Ireland, those on lower and higher incomes, go along together with any growth. That is why I am proud that this Government have managed to raise the personal allowance to £11,500 this year. No one will pay tax if they earn below that. The national living wage came in last month, which will see a real increase in people’s pockets across Northern Ireland for those on lower incomes. Also, the upper rate of tax now starts at £43,000. If we are going to encourage people to stay and invest in Northern Ireland and aspire to do things, why should they not keep some of that money as a reward as well? We do not want to drive away our entrepreneurs and penalise them for doing well. That is very important.

As a north-west MP, I know that Mark Durkan is absolutely right to say it is very important to make sure that our economic development is balanced across a region or a country. It is the same in Scotland. I used to represent North East Scotland, and there was a similar debate between Aberdeenshire, Glasgow and Edinburgh. We have to make sure that we always rebalance, and that we do so fully conscious that it is not always about one big city. I am delighted about the Republic of Ireland’s commitment on the A5—after this election, we hope. The Northern Ireland Executive have already said that they are going to move ahead with the A6 and finish off the dualling. If we can get Derry and Londonderry much faster to get to, there is great hope. I hear the hon. Gentleman loud and clear on the city deals and enterprise zones. I have already spoken to Ms Ritchie about how we can help to lobby and put together a bid. We will happily go with her to see the Chancellor and lobby for that, whether it is for South Down or Londonderry.

With 30 seconds left, I finish by saying I come back to a Northern Ireland that is full of confidence and that is actually pretty united. In the Chamber today we heard nationalist and unionist parties agreeing how good a place Northern Ireland is, how attractive it is for investment and how the economy is going in the right direction. If the pride of the country can be mixed with stability—once the referendum is out of the way, we should all work for that—and with aspiration, I think Northern Ireland has the ingredients to make a cracking economy and to move forward.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).