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Northern Ireland Economy and Innovation: Government Support

Part of Endometriosis Workplace Support – in Westminster Hall at 5:05 pm on 29th October 2019.

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Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 5:05 pm, 29th October 2019

Do you know, I have no argument with that. Thales employs nearly 1,000 people in Northern Ireland, and it is there for a reason. It took over Shorts Missile Systems, and it is there because of the highly skilled, highly motivated, highly trained and highly capable workforce. What can we, as Government, do to help? In my days in the Navy, the number of marine engineers who came from Northern Ireland was extraordinary, yet somehow we are unable to see that great tradition of engineering innovation and expertise flourish in Northern Ireland.

I could make many suggestions; I will make just a small one. The backbone of Northern Ireland industry is small and medium-sized enterprises. They have a problem with apprenticeships—I am not talking about the Apprentice Boys, but apprenticeships. A small company finds it very difficult to employ apprentices, simply because of the absence of economies of scale. In GB we used to have a thing called the MSC—the Manpower Services Commission—whereby the Government would underwrite apprenticeships or temporary employment periods. Would it not be marvellous if the Minister, a man of great decency and honesty, and who is extremely committed to the expansion of industry in Northern Ireland, could persuade some of his colleagues to loosen the purse strings and look at the Government supporting apprenticeships?

At the moment, most SMEs simply cannot afford to employ apprentices. The foreign direct investment is there. Northern Ireland has a great reputation, not just within the rest of Europe but in America. However, we need small companies to have the capability and elasticity to attract and work up those schemes. Apprentices would make a huge difference. Let us see whether we can do that, because when we see the amazing extent of innovation, intelligence, hard work and commitment in Northern Ireland, we think, “Why isn’t this place the powerhouse of Europe?” I think it could be again.