HC Deb 26 November 1992 vol 214 cc972-5
3. Mr. Barnes

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will give the latest available figures for (a) registered vacancies and (b) unemployment in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

5. Mr. Cryer

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the current level of unemployment in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Atkins

I apologise, Madam Speaker, for being the dominating force at the Dispatch Box this afternoon.

At 2 October 1992, there were 5,374 unfilled vacancies registered at local offices of the Training and Employment Agency. The number of unemployed in Northern Ireland on 8 October was 106,436, a fall of almost 4,000 over the previous month.

Mr. Barnes

I hope that the answer does not show complacency and that there will be some dominating action in Northern Ireland. The Minister will be aware that unemployment in Northern Ireland, despite the latest figures, is still the highest of any region in the United Kingdom. Unemployment helps to breed resentment and discrimination in Northern Ireland, and it leads to paramilitary activity. Tackling unemployment is probably the highest priority. Will the Government or the Northern Ireland Office be in touch with the newly elected Irish Government, who are expected to take office very soon, to try to work out an economic package for the island of Ireland which will start to tackle unemployment in the area?

Is not it a pity that Ulster Unionist Members do not understand that the Northern Irish people, including the Protestants, express considerable interest in ensuring that the coal industry in this country is not closed down? They therefore resent the vote here the other night.

Mr. Skinner

The question has got the lot in.

Mr. Atkins

As the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) says, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) got the lot in. I cannot answer all the points without delaying the House unduly. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a continuing interest in these matters, so I will address the point about the importance of cross-border trade, which is part and parcel of trying to develop companies, to expand companies and to create new jobs for those who need them. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to say that Northern Ireland suffers from the worst unemployment of any region, although the slight fall in the past two months is a good sign and should be welcomed. My task and that of my ministerial colleagues is to ensure that we attract companies, that we expand existing companies, that we create new jobs and that, above all, we encourage extra trade between the north and the south.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Irish Government. I have had conversations with my erstwhile counterpart, Mrs.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Come on!"] I have forgotten her name. She may change her job as a result of the election, but I shall continue to have contacts with her successor, whoever he or she may be.

Mr. Cryer

Is not the complacency of the Minister's reply reflected in the elections in Ireland where the people are voting heavily for a Labour Government of some sort who will revive the Irish economy? Is not the position north of the border the same? People are looking for a Government who will revive manufacturing industry and who will not build an economy on the fragile basis of extended credit. We have a Chancellor of the Exchequer who cannot keep his own financial house in order, although he is supposed to keep the finances of the nation in order. Is not he a reflection of the Government's total failure to provide jobs in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Atkins

That sounds like another typical Yorkshire rant. We already have a great deal of co-operation with the south. Mrs. O'Rourke, the lady whose name temporarily escaped me, and her successor, whoever she or he may be, will continue to devote a lot of time to developing cross-border trade and to ensuring that questions such as the hon. Gentleman's do not have any foundation in fact.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

May I turn my hon. Friend back to the question of unemployment? It is a serious issue and not a matter for laughter among Labour Members sitting below the Gangway. The last time that unemployment in Northern Ireland was at the level of unemployment in the rest of the United Kingdom was in 1968.

One of the best things to do in building a new consensus on getting more jobs into Northern Ireland is to work not only with the south, as suggested by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), but with the new President of the United States so that the United Stales realises that the way in which to help Northern Ireland is to visit it and to buy goods from it and to understand that violence harms employment.

Mr. Atkins

I entirely agree. That is why, like many hon. Members, and like the people of Northern Ireland, I am delighted to welcome visits such as that made by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) and his colleague from Belfast, who recently went to the United States with a view to developing trade and finding new jobs for Northern Ireland. It is part of the Government's task to do as much as we can to encourage that process—not just in the United States and the south of Ireland but, with the completion of the single market at the beginning of next year, in parts of Europe. We need to attract companies and make them realise that Northern Ireland is a prime place in which to invest, to develop and to create jobs for people, from whatever part of Ireland, who want them.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe

What consideration has the Minister given to creating more employment by providing more finance for roads, in keeping with the policy in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Atkins

Every Ulster Unionist Member—or his council—has spoken to me about the need for more roads. I have considerable sympathy on this matter. The announcement of the public expenditure allocation for the block is not yet ready, but I know that roads are a subject which is dear to many people's hearts and I shall do what I can to alleviate their concern.

Mr. Barry Field

Given my hon. Friend's concern about unemployment and his answer to the question about peripherality in Northern Ireland, will the Northern Ireland Office be making representations to the Foreign Office on Monday—along with the Isle of Wight, Shetland and Orkney and the Western Isles—asking it to put on the agenda for the Edinburgh summit the agenda of the peripheral maritime regions conference for areas of the EC that are disadvantaged by their dislocation from a mainland country?

Mr. Atkins

As always, my hon. Friend speaks glowingly for his constituency, the Isle of Wight. I did not have it in mind to address that point to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, but if my hon. Friend thinks that the Isle of Wight and other parts of the United Kingdom should be included, perhaps that ought to be considered.

Mr. A. Cecil Walker

Would the Minister care to visit Harland and Wolff with a view to examining employment prospects in its ship repairing section?

Mr. Atkins

The hon. Gentleman extends an invitation which I should be more than happy to accept—again, as I have already paid a couple of visits to Harland and Wolff and recently attended the launch of the Knockadoon, which will be most important to Harland and Wolff's future. The hon. Gentleman has a particular concern and interest, and I should be happy to go with him, at a mutually convenient time, to visit the section of Harland and Wolff about which he feels so strongly.