HC Deb 27 February 1992 vol 204 cc1103-4
5. Mr. Bellingham

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent representations he has received from the Northern Ireland business community in connection with small firms.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Richard Needham)

Since the beginning of the year, I have continued both to meet and to correspond with a wide cross-section of the Northern Ireland business community. Among the issues that we have addressed have been a number of particular concern to small firms.

Mr. Bellingham

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), I pay tribute to the Minister's work in supporting industry and business in the Province. Does he agree that one of the best ways of breaking down violence and lessening the sectarian divide is to encourage enterprise and initiative? Am I right in saying that Northern Ireland has weathered the recession better than any other part of the United Kingdom? If so, is not that due partly to the Government's support for small firms?

Mr. Needham

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. The fact that Northern Ireland has weathered the recession better than any other region in the United Kingdom is due, to an extent, to the Government's policies; but it is due not least to the resourcefulness, intelligence and dedication of business people in Northern Ireland.

I was interested to learn this week that, whereas National Westminster bank—the parent of Ulster bank —had to make provision for £1.9 billion of bad debts, the figure for Northern Ireland was £6 million and that half the bank's profits came from Ulster bank. That shows beyond peradventure the current strength of the Northern Ireland economy. I am sure that, once the recession is over, it will continue to expand, and expand fast.

Mr. A. Cecil Walker

Is the Minister aware that the Department of the Environment has undertaken a surreptitious exercise in an attempt to destroy the private sector taxi service in Belfast? If so, can he tell us how much money has been allocated to that exercise?

Mr. Needham

I know of no surreptitious exercise being carried out by my Department in regard to private taxi firms in Belfast. The hon. Gentleman and I have engaged in lengthy discussions about the problems faced by Belfast taxi drivers and I fully appreciate their fears and concerns. I shall continue to discuss, with the hon. Gentleman and with the taxi drivers, whatever measures need to be taken to ensure their safety and continue their employment.

Mr. McGrady

In 1990–91, only 44 jobs were created in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister reconsider the wisdom of the policy change introduced a couple of years ago by the Local Enterprise Development Unit to endorse and support market research and development, rather than providing direct grant aid for job creation? That contradicted the philosophy, which proved correct, that small jobs—one or two-person start-ups—were the way in which to tackle, at least in part, the problem caused by the lack of inward investment.

Will the Minister address himself to LEDU's policy, and consider the reintroduction of direct aid for people starting up in business? I know that LEDU does a good job through its local enterprise development programmes, but will the hon. Gentleman consider returning to the previous policy?

Mr. Needham

I really do not know where the hon. Gentleman found the "44" figure. Perhaps he is referring to some figures that were leaked a couple of weeks ago from the Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland—a reference to 44 inward investment jobs. That figure turned out to be wrong: at least another 350 jobs have already been announced, involving no financial assistance. I hope that, within the next few weeks, several hundred more jobs will be announced by the board.

That has nothing to do with LEDU. The key to the success of a small business lies in the skills and professionalism of its management, technicians and staff. LEDU is trying to ensure that small businesses have the marketing experience, the exporting know-how and the managerial capacity that they need in order to get going. The Government are not about to hand out dollops of money so that inexperienced people can buy complicated equipment that they then do not know how to use.

Rev. William McCrea

I am sure that the Minister realises that small business is the backbone of industry in my constituency of Mid-Ulster. Will he tell the House and my constituents what further incentives he can provide to ensure that small businesses are created and the economic blight is removed from my constituency?

Mr. Needham

The hon. Gentleman pays rightful tribute to small business, describing it as the economic backbone of his constituency. I assure him that the Government's support for LEDU, and the money with which they provide it, continue year on year to match the needs of small business. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that that will continue. I hope to be able to discuss it further with him in the not-too-distant future.

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