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Northern Ireland Economy and Innovation: Government Support

Part of Endometriosis Workplace Support – in Westminster Hall at 4:27 pm on 29th October 2019.

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Photo of Emma Little Pengelly Emma Little Pengelly Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Trade) 4:27 pm, 29th October 2019

I absolutely agree. Statistics released in recent days indicate that although we have had growth in the average wage, it has now slowed down, and there has been a slowdown at the high-value end of jobs. In Northern Ireland we have comparatively low unemployment, but those statistics do not necessarily show the whole story. My constituency of Belfast South has one of the lowest unemployment rates not just in Northern Ireland, but across the United Kingdom—but too many of those jobs are at the lower end. We need high-value jobs that pay people better, because there is significant in-work poverty. The best way to get out of poverty is with a well-paid job. People need jobs with stability to help them to support themselves and their family.

We also have persistently high levels of economic inactivity. Although people point to that inactivity, the reality is that right now we cannot just match it with jobs growth. We need good programmes to support people, regardless of why they are economically inactive. In Northern Ireland, we have a higher than average percentage of students, who are currently defined as economically inactive, but those are not necessarily the people we are worried about; we are worried about those who have been economically inactive for some considerable time. Even more worrying are people in families who suffer from transgenerational unemployment. They need the right support and skills programmes, at the right level.

This is not just about getting people entry-level jobs; we want them to skill up and make progress. I have heard House of Commons statistics about how many people go into an entry-level job and stay at that level for their entire career. Social mobility and support for people throughout their career, so that they can increase their wages and their family income, are essential to the shared prosperity to which we are committed.

Let me touch on a few particular aspects. I have already mentioned foreign direct investment. Northern Ireland’s economy is still very much one of small to medium-sized, largely family-owned businesses, as my hon. Friend David Simpson said. The Democratic Unionist party absolutely wants to support those businesses, but many of them are understandably reluctant to take risks in order to grow—people are content with the strong business that they have built not just for themselves, but for their children and family. We want to encourage those businesses because we need them to grow, but they should be able to take those risks in an environment in which they feel confident and positive. I will say a little more about family and small businesses in a moment.

I know that the Minister will have had meetings with Invest NI and received briefings. I pay tribute to the incredible work of Alastair Hamilton, who I worked with many years ago. He has done a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances, particularly in the past few years, to keep increasing foreign direct investment and high-value jobs. Since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly more than 1,000 days ago, one of the small glimmers of light has been the fact that Invest NI has been able to continue to make jobs announcements, including in my constituency, and to create the opportunities that we really need. Under the framework set by the Northern Ireland Assembly, Alistair Hamilton and his Invest NI colleagues were able to continue going into the global marketplace, winning contracts and attracting companies to Northern Ireland. We want to build on his incredible work; as he moves on from the job, we are all thankful for the amazingly competent work that he has put in.

We are keen to continue to play a full role in attracting foreign direct investment. We can do so much through our regional organisations, such as Invest NI, but as the Democratic Unionist party has pointed out to the Government on a number of occasions, our sell in Northern Ireland must be fully integrated into what the United Kingdom does on a global scale. We want to be fully included in what is being offered, including trade fairs, engagement with countries, and trade missions. Some progress has been made, but we want more. I am sure that Members of Parliament from Scotland, Wales, the north of England and other regions also feel that historically, their region has not been fully included and integrated in the sell of the UK Government. I have raised that issue on many occasions with the Secretary of State for International Trade, and with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Progress has been made, but we want to build on it, and we want more of our companies to take part.

We know that innovation is the way forward. Northern Ireland will never be a low-cost manufacturer, but we have been, can be and will be high-quality, innovative and creative in our manufacture, industry and services, and in the skills that we bring to them. Investment in innovation is therefore very welcome. Some investment in research and development has been affected by constraints around state aid and other aspects of the European Union. As we move forward from that, we want a continuation of the investment in innovation, research and skills that we have had before.

The Government have spoken on this issue on a number of occasions, and I certainly welcome the very warm words that they have used. However, we would like concrete proposals on how Northern Ireland will get its fair share from any central programme to support innovation, research and development, and on how Northern Ireland can be more successful in bidding for central funds, to try to get the help and support that our businesses need to grow.

I have mentioned a number of universities, but as the Member of Parliament for Belfast South, I will of course mention once again Queen’s University, which does fantastic work in innovation; in fact, it is leading the way in a number of areas.

I am very conscious that we need to identify the potential growth areas. In what areas can Northern Ireland show unique creativity and innovation? What can the UK as a whole do to be particularly attractive to foreign direct investment and growing businesses? We have done huge amounts in areas such as cyber-security and finance.