HC Deb 30 January 1992 vol 202 cc1059-61
4. Mr. Trimble

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the future prospects for the Northern Ireland economy.

Mr. Needham

Although Northern Ireland's economic prospects are closely linked to those of the rest of the United Kingdom, the Northern Ireland economy has fared better than that of almost any other United Kingdom region in recent years. As the national economy moves out of recession, Northern Ireland is therefore well placed to take advantage of the economic upturn.

Mr. Trimble

As the Minister says, the Northern Ireland economy is closely linked to that of the rest of the United Kingdom. Experience has tended to show that its pattern moves somewhat behind that of the United Kingdom in terms of time. The rest of the United Kingdom now seems to be beginning to move out of recession; is it not true that Northern Ireland is about to move deeper into it? Would the Minister care to comment on a recent report by Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte—a firm of consultants on which the Government normally rely—which states that industrial output is likely to decline by between 2 and 4 per cent. this year, and that unemployment may increase by some 10,000 as a result?

Mr. Needham

That may have been true until the current recession, but the hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong about the present circumstances. Whereas in the past Northern Ireland was always the furthest point on the beach that the tide reached, and therefore the first point that it left, on this occasion we entered the recession later and weathered it better. The unemployment figures demonstrate that Northern Ireland was the only part of the United Kingdom that experienced no increase in unemployment; the Cambridge econometric forecast shows that last year it was the only region that experienced any growth, and that this year it is likely to be one of four regions that will experience growth.

Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte is probably the worst of a lot of very bad forecasters. For example, it forecast an increase in unemployment of 3,000 for 1986–87; in fact unemployment fell by 6,800. It forecast a decrease of 5,000 for 1987–88; in fact, the decrease was 7,800. It forecast a fall of 3,000 for 1988–89; the actual decrease was 9,500. Perhaps economic forecasters and consultants should consider the beam in their own eye before criticising the Government's figures.

Rev. William McCrea

My constituency has the second highest unemployment in the United Kingdom. Does not the Minister realise that the unemployment figures in the Province are deplorable? Young people face lengthening dole queues. Will the Minister tell the House and the people of the Province what measure he intends to take to assist people over 45 whose age condemns them to humiliating interviews and, indeed, rejection? Many of them have done excellent work in the past.

Mr. Needham

The Government's job training programme includes a series of measures to assist those over the age of 25, and to ensure that they can receive an element of training. The same applies to the young unemployed. I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said about the unacceptable level of unemployment in Northern Ireland. I do not wish to convey a sense of complacency; I am merely saying that the Northern Ireland economy has done very much better in the latest recession—and would have done better still had it not been for the appalling IRA atrocities that make inward investment so difficult.

Mr. Jim Marshall

This was the first time that I have heard the Minister quote figures with any satisfaction. I clearly understood why when I heard how they confirmed his view of the economy in Northern Ireland. He is an isolated figure in the Government because he is the first Minister whom I have heard speak highly of the work of the Cambridge school. Perhaps he should get in step with the rest of the Government.

Does the Minister agree that if those projects that are partly funded by the European Community fund do not proceed this year, there is a danger that there will he some damage to the economy of Northern Ireland? Does he further accept that this arises from the Government's refusal to accept European Community rules on additionality? If he accepts both those propositions, what pressure is the Northern Ireland Office putting on the Government to conform to those European Community rules?

Mr. Needham

The Government have always abided by, and agreed with, the additionality rules as far as they apply to Northern Ireland. It is unacceptable to us that there should be any withholding of funds due to Northern Ireland. As the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, those funds are of importance to us in the provision of our capital infrastructure, although they are not totally significant.

I can quote a final figure to the hon. Gentleman, as he enjoys my quoting figures. It is that, according to the Department of Employment figures, if the Labour party's economic proposals for a minimum wage were put into effect it would cost some 2 million jobs, of which 50,000 would be in Northern Ireland, where we have a large number of women workers in the clothing, textile and garment industries. The hon. Gentleman's advancement to the ministerial Dispatch Box would be a disaster for employment in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

Will my hon. Friend further underline that the greatest; threat to the economic prosperity of both the Province and the Republic of Ireland is terrorism? Will he emphasise again and again that the victims of terrorism are not just those who are maimed, injured and killed but the many people who are put on the dole because terrorism deters investment from elsewhere in Europe?

Mr. Needham

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All of us who have been involved in trying to increase employment in Northern Ireland know the damage that terrorism does to our chances of achieving that aim. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) has, much more eloquently than I could, told us of the damage that it does and the effect that it has on the young people of Northern Ireland because it gives them a future of either migration or unemployment. That is the hideous hypocrisy of the IRA's campaign.