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Northern Ireland Economy and Innovation: Government Support

Part of Endometriosis Workplace Support – in Westminster Hall at 5:19 pm on 29th October 2019.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Scotland Office) (jointly with the Northern Ireland Office) 5:19 pm, 29th October 2019

The hon. Gentleman makes his bid strongly, as I would expect. I will ensure that that is passed on to the Treasury and other relevant Government Departments. Indeed, we have heard a number of bids during the debate, not all of which I can necessarily answer. Obviously, however, there are a number of opportunities coming to deal with some of those things.

People in Northern Ireland also benefit from the changes that people throughout UK enjoy that have been delivered by the Government, including an increase in the national living wage that benefits about 75,000 workers, and a fuel duty freeze for the ninth successive year that saves the average driver a cumulative £1,000 compared with under the pre-2010 escalator. Following the terrible fire in Bank Buildings, owned by Primark, in August 2018, the UK Government provided £2 million to support the recovery and regeneration of Belfast city centre in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast South. I am pleased that much of the city centre has been rebuilt and has reopened after that fire.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, the UK Government announced a £675 million future high streets fund to support local areas in England to develop and fund plans to make high streets fit for the future. As high streets funding and business rates are devolved, the Barnett formula was applied to Northern Ireland in the usual way, as she noted. It is for the Department of Finance and Northern Ireland civil service permanent secretaries to determine how that money should be spent.

I join the hon. Lady in wishing that we had a restored Executive and in encouraging all the politicians in Northern Ireland to come together to bring the Assembly back, so that decisions can be taken on those issues and they can move forward. Hon. Members may be aware that the Government introduced the Northern Ireland Budget Bill today, which is required to place the Northern Ireland budget, presented in February 2018, on a legal footing. Delivering that legislation demonstrates the UK Government’s commitment to providing good governance for the people of Northern Ireland in the continued absence of the Northern Ireland Executive, but of course, we all want the Executive to be restored.

Businesses in Northern Ireland can benefit from UK Government initiatives, including the British business bank, which has supported more than 1,200 small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland with £80 million since November 2014. In the last year, more than 1,000 loans, valued at £7.3 million, have been granted to Northern Ireland businesses. Northern Ireland businesses also have access to UK Export Finance, which has provided nearly £33 million of support for exporters in Northern Ireland. I absolutely commend the collaborative efforts of Invest NI and the UK Department for International Trade to support Northern Ireland exporters to trade across the globe and to attract investment into Northern Ireland. I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the work of Alastair Hamilton and in wishing his successor every success in the years to come.

As the hon. Lady will recall, the UK Government’s Board of Trade met in her Belfast constituency earlier this year, which was the first time it had met in Northern Ireland in its 400-year history. The global success of Northern Ireland firms was celebrated, with several Northern Ireland companies receiving their well-deserved Board of Trade awards.

Our prosperity and ability to build a strong economy depends on how we encourage innovation, develop high-quality jobs and skills, and support businesses throughout the UK to thrive and grow. Innovative businesses across Northern Ireland are a huge part of its success, including Armstrong Medical, which I had the pleasure of visiting at a Causeway chamber of commerce business roundtable recently.

As we have heard, Northern Ireland has globally admired universities and research institutions, such as Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, because we have nurtured our intellectual powerhouses with public investment. The industrial strategy challenge fund supports innovation UK-wide and has allocated £12 million in Northern Ireland to date, including specific investments in Queen’s University Belfast.

Several hon. Members have touched on the controversies about EU exit. I do not have time to respond in detail to all those points, but I will say that we need to be absolutely clear that Northern Ireland leaves the EU with the UK, and we need to make sure that trade between us continues unfettered. The hon. Member for Belfast South made the point very well about the enormous importance of the UK internal market, which we absolutely want to protect. Northern Ireland continues to be a top destination for inward investment, and we will work with Invest NI to ensure that that continues.

I recognise the hon. Lady’s comment that shared prosperity is shared opportunity. She made the case extremely well on behalf of Northern Ireland business, and I commend her for her efforts.