HC Deb 07 December 1995 vol 268 cc481-3
5. Mr. Spring

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is his assessment of the prospects for employment in Northern Ireland. [3034]

Mr. Ancram

The outlook is very encouraging. Employment is at record levels. Output and trade are increasing and tourism is booming. Business confidence is very high and there have been substantial inward investment successes recently. With continuing peace, we can look forward to this excellent progress being maintained.

Mr. Spring

Is my hon. Friend aware that over the past two-and-a-half years unemployment has fallen by 18.5 per cent. in Northern Ireland and that unemployment at the long-term end fell by fully 17 per cent.? Does he agree that the increasing employment opportunities flowing from the improved economic condition bodes well for long-term stability in the Province?

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who rightly talks about the significant progress that has been made to reduce unemployment. It is interesting to note that employment is at a record level of 566,550. Even more encouraging is inward investment. Since the ceasefire 14 projects worth £288 million, with the potential to create 4,000 jobs, have been announced. Even more significantly, in the month of November five projects worth £153 million and over 2,000 jobs were announced. That indicates the strength of the Northern Ireland economy and the hope that we all have in it for the future.

Mr. Beggs

Does the Minister agree that there is a sound foundation on which to build better future prospects for employment in Northern Ireland, and that we can expect with permanent peace more inward investment to take advantage of our excellent national and international air and sea links and our good road and rail links to efficiently managed harbours at Larne, Belfast, Warrenpoint and Londonderry? Most important of all, there is the opportunity for those investing in Northern Ireland to harness the skills, talents and high education qualifications of an industrious work force, which is awaiting opportunity. Will the Minister assure us that there will be continued financial support available to encourage further inward investment?

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. We certainly will continue to encourage inward investment. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State visited Larne the other day with the hon. Gentleman and was most impressed by what he saw.

It is important, too, to recognise that peace is an important ingredient for inward investment. It underlines the importance of reaching an agreed settlement to underpin that peace. At the end of the day, that will give a greater boost to inward investment than anything else.

It is worth recording that it is the responsibility of us all to ensure that we sell all the good aspects of Northern Ireland, as the hon. Gentleman has just done, rather than talking, as we sometimes tend to do, about the bad aspects. Last week, when President Clinton was there, the eyes of the world through the television media had a wonderful picture of the opportunities that exist within Northern Ireland.

Mr. Atkins

Although the peace process has played a significant and welcome part in creating new jobs in Northern Ireland, should not the agencies, such as the Irish Development Board and the tourist board, be recognised for the enormous amount of effort that they have put into making the Province more attractive in many respects? In relation to tourism, does my hon. Friend agree that even greater efforts could be put into ensuring that people, not only in that part of the United Kingdom but in the rest of Europe, are aware of the wonderful opportunities and attractions of that most beautiful part of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ancram

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who not only has great experience of the work that is being done in Northern Ireland but contributed to it very substantially during his time as a Minister in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to him for that. He is right to point to the work that is being done by those agencies, both of which are fully aware of the opportunities that the ceasefires have brought to Northern Ireland, and are taking Northern Ireland out across the world and selling it. I know that both are making substantial efforts to do so.

Miss Hoey

The Minister will agree that inward investment depends very much on good transport links. Does he share my concern and that of many people in Northern Ireland that Belfast international airport is seeking to take over Belfast city airport, and that that would be to the detriment of the tourist industry, the business community and, indeed, all people travelling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ancram

As the hon. Lady knows, those areas do not fall within my responsibility, but I am sure that my colleagues who are responsible for them will have heard what she has to say. It is important that we give every encouragement to movements within the economic sector in Northern Ireland that increase competitiveness and therefore give a chance to the people of Northern Ireland to prosper within their economy.

Mr. Illsley

Although I welcome the inward investment into Northern Ireland, which is creating jobs and impacting on long-term unemployment, would not the prospects for employment be improved if job losses that have occurred through privatisation, the creation of agencies and the contracting-out of services—particularly strategic services, where in-house bids are prohibited—were prevented? Would it not be better to stop that process to preserve jobs within the Province?

Mr. Ancram

If the hon. Gentleman were to talk to those involved in, for instance, the five projects that were announced last month, in terms of inward investment, he would find that many of them are interested in investing in Northern Ireland because of the flexible employment practices that exist there. My understanding—if I do understand Labour party policy, which is never as clear as it might be—is that if the Labour party had its way, those flexible practices would be discontinued.