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As a member of the International Trade Committee, I am very aware of the opportunities, challenges and barriers that full participation in international trade entails. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members to learn that I will mention the ‘B’ word—Brexit—later in my speech, and specifically the dreadful proposal for the Northern Ireland economy. My hon. Friend’s points are valid; that constitutes a real and present risk to our economy.
Northern Ireland, just 3% of the United Kingdom, relies hugely on trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. Great Britain is the biggest market by far for Northern Ireland—bigger than the Republic of Ireland, the European Union and the rest of the world combined. Over the past 10 to 20 years, and certainly since the restoration of the Assembly in 2007, huge effort has been put into increasing our exports, and the market for our exports in other countries in the European Union and across the world, but Great Britain remains our biggest market, which we rely on hugely. Any barriers to trade with it would have significant impacts. I will touch on that later.
A factor that is discussed less often in this debate is consumer choice. Consumers in Northern Ireland rely hugely on the Great British market for goods, from the supermarket goods that we see in common high-street shops, to bespoke and craft products in smaller, family-owned shops. Many of those goods come from Great Britain, and there are real concerns about how people will access them. Many people today access goods through online marketplaces, such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy; that, too, gives rise to concerns about consumer choice and access. Many of the companies in those marketplaces are based in Great Britain, and many are very small producers; barriers might prevent them from posting their products to shops and consumers in Northern Ireland.
As a small region of the United Kingdom, we rely heavily on its economy, but Northern Ireland has a really strong case to make. As we have gone round the world trying to attract new businesses and, particularly, foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland, we have been able to showcase the fact that we have the highest skills in the United Kingdom. We have three excellent universities: Ulster University, Queen’s University in the heart of my Belfast South constituency, and the Open University, which does a huge amount of work. We also have high skills and a good education system. That is not to say that we do not have challenges—I have spoken about the challenges of trying to support every child to succeed in getting skills—but we are one of the highest-skilled regions in the United Kingdom.
We have relatively low staff turnover, which is very attractive to businesses moving to Northern Ireland, because they know that if they take those staff on, train them and invest in them, they will show loyalty. Indeed, I think we have the lowest staff turnover in the United Kingdom, which is comparatively unique. A company looking to come to the United Kingdom will also find relatively low set-up costs in Northern Ireland, as well as people who can support it through the process, and comparatively low recurring running costs.
We have a strong case to make, but of course there have been challenges. Over the past 15 years, the Republic of Ireland has cut its corporation tax time and again to make it even more competitive, knowing that our corporation tax rate is tied to that of the rest of the United Kingdom, and is therefore significantly higher. The Republic of Ireland has created tax incentive packages that I would describe as innovative, particularly to attract big US companies such as Facebook and Apple. We want to be able to attract those companies, too. Since 2007, working closely with Invest NI, Northern Ireland has had a very strong record; in fact, for some years, it attracted more FDI than any region of the United Kingdom outside London and south-east England. For a small region with the challenges that we had, that is a really strong story to tell. It is a story that we should be proud of—but we want more. We want to do better, and we need to do better, because we still have challenges and we still do not have the types of jobs that we want for our young people: high-value, stable jobs that young people with the right skills can move into, creating happy, healthy lives for themselves and their families with the prosperity that we want to bring.