HC Deb 20 July 1989 vol 157 cc507-10
4. Mr. Ashdown

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what provisions the Government are making for the impact of 1992 on the economy of Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Viggers)

The Government have promoted and supported a wide range of measures intended to inform Northern Ireland business of the challenges and the opportunities which arise from the creation of the single European market.

Mr. Ashdown

As the Secretary of State's ebullience at the Dispatch Box appears to be a feature of questions, may I say that if he were not to be at Northern Ireland questions in the future, I and many hon. Members would want to express our admiration for the way that he has done his job over the years?

Does the Minister agree that there is widespread anxiety in Northern Ireland, and in Ireland as a whole, that closer integration following 1992 may cause problems for the Irish economies, as they are positioned on the peripheries of the European Community? That may be exacerbated by the Channel tunnel if there is no infrastructure to back it—[Interruption.] Would it be worth while—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question."]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is coming to his question.

Mr. Ashdown

As the constitutional parties appear reluctant to discuss political matters, but keen to discuss economic matters, could the Government facilitate a round table discussion on how Northern Ireland might face the challenges and opportunities of Europe in 1992?

Mr. Viggers

I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's gloom. Northern Ireland has many attributes, including the availability of a young, well-educated work force, the quality of its infrastructure and telecommunications and the quality of its environment, all of which have been recognised by a number of prospective inward investors. We have persuaded inward investors from inside and outside Europe to invest in Northern Ireland, and I think especially of Montupet of France and Daewoo from South Korea.

We had useful discussions with the Republic of Ireland at a round table meeting during the Louvain conference in Belgium in September 1988. I was thinking of suggesting a further conference along those lines.

Mr. Kilfedder

Although business progress and prosperity are important in Northern Ireland, is the Minister aware that the cost of living is higher there than in the rest of the United Kingdom, as exemplified by Northern Ireland's high cost of transport, food, bread and electricity? That makes life difficult for many people in Northern Ireland—particularly poor, old age pensioners. What improvements will be made before 1992?

Mr. Viggers

The hon. Gentleman would want the record to be complete. Some items are much cheaper in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I am thinking particularly of housing. The hon. Gentleman's point about bread is well taken. Recently, there was an in-depth study of that issue, and I believe that the hon. Gentleman has a question about it on the Order Paper, albeit to another Minister. I share his view that the high price of bread in Northern Ireland should cause us concern. We encourage the availability of competitive bakery products, to ensure that the consumer has the best choice.

Mr. Hume

Does the Minister agree that the major economic impact of 1992 on Northern Ireland will be the five-year strategic plan funded by the EEC, which is already the subject of detailed discussions between the Government and the authorities in Brussels? When do the Government intend to let the Northern Ireland public and local interests know about the specific projects contained in that plan, so that there can be proper and thorough public discussion and consultation?

Mr. Viggers

The Northern Ireland regional development plan was submitted in March to the European community and—bearing in mind that Northern Ireland is an objective I region in Europe, and therefore will be given a degree of priority—we have made further proposals. One area of priority is support for port, airport, rail and road facilities, to ensure that Northern Ireland does not miss out in 1992.

Mr. Nicholas Baker

What substantial extra provision for hospitals, industry, schools and so on, will the Government need to make for the impact of 1992 on Northern Ireland's economy if Northern Ireland accepts its share of the 3.25 million Hong Kong Chinese that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) wants the United Kingdom to admit under his misguided proposals?

Mr. Viggers

If my answer were to go into great detail, I suspect that I would be out of order. A notable contribution to Northern Ireland's economy has been made by the immigrant community, particularly the Indians and Chinese. We make no secret of the fact that we welcome inward investment in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe

What action is the Minister taking to improve the marketing of Northern Ireland products in the EEC?

Mr. Viggers

There has been a considerable switch of emphasis away from standard capital grants and the availability of standard grants to selective financial assistance, which takes the form not only of the aptly named selective financial aid within the Industrial Development Board but a range of marketing schemes—particularly the 40/30 and the 40/60 schemes available from the IDB and the Local Enterprise Development Unit. Northern Ireland's best companies are excellent at marketing, but others must be encouraged to sink more effort into marketing outside Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hayes

Is my hon. Friend greatly encouraged that unemployment in the Province continues to fall? Will he continue to convey loud and clear the message to potential investors that, despite the troubles, the Province is still the most law-abiding part of the United Kingdom, that it is a great place in which to invest, and that it will offer great opportunities to all in 1992?

Mr. Viggers

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I endorse them all. We are delighted that unemployment has fallen so much. At 104,000, it is still far too high, but it is way below the headline figure of 134,998 in October 1986. We have persuaded inward investors that Northern Ireland is a good place to do business, and those already there like it very much.

Mr. Jim Marshall

Does the Minister agree that there are obvious attractions in treating the island of Ireland as a single economic entity? When will he make a statement on the Government's discussions with the Republic on co-operation in the sphere of tourism? Does he expect that the Government will encourage further co-operation between the Province and the Republic in agriculture?

Mr. Viggers

I made a statement on tourism some two weeks ago in which I explained that there is indeed co-operation between the Government, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Bord Failté. It would be foolish of us not to co-operate, bearing in mind that only one in 15 of visitors to the Republic go up to Northern Ireland and it would be easy to encourage more to do so.

I have no further announcement to make on tourism co-operation, nor am I in a position to comment on agriculture, which is outside the remit of this question.