HC Deb 26 October 1995 vol 264 cc1128-30
2. Dr. Goodson-Wickes

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what assessment he has made of investment inquiries and tourist statistics since the ceasefire. [36900]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram)

The statistics are most encouraging. They show a threefold increase in the number of United States investors visiting Northern Ireland since the ceasefires. Tourism figures are even better now than we estimated at the end of June: the first eight months of 1995 saw a 68 per cent. increase in holiday visitors compared with the same period in 1994.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes

I am delighted to welcome those agreeable trends, which are clearly the direct result of the brave initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. Relative tranquillity has now been restored, a tranquillity that those of us who served in Northern Ireland in the early part of the 1970s, the bad old days, doubted would ever come about. Although the House will recognise that it is a sensitive issue, does my hon. Friend agree that any significant dilution of the pre-conditions for the next stage of peace talks could put these marvellous achievements at risk?

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments and very much take his points, given his experience in Northern Ireland. I certainly agree that prosperity, and increases in prosperity, both in terms of inward investment and tourism, will greatly depend on stability in the Province. At the end of the day, that stability can be underpinned only by confidence. Of course we will take seriously any areas where confidence has to be created or could be diminished by other actions.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe

The Minister is aware that all visitors to Northern Ireland are given a warm welcome. Does he agree that it would be a good idea for the Department of Economic Development, the tourist board and others, including the planning service, to co-operate with one another to provide more accommodation? Will he investigate allegations that Department of the Environment plants are discharging pollution into rivers, which is certainly discouraging fishermen from visiting Northern Ireland as tourists?

Mr. Ancram

On the last point, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary responsible for the Department of the Environment is sitting on the Front Bench and I am sure that he will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. Talking about the need to look at providing further accommodation in Northern Ireland is indeed a problem of success. It is also indicative that the tourist board estimates a doubling of holiday visits by 1997, possibly creating as many as 8,000 additional jobs by 1997–98. Some 30 projects to do with accommodation are currently being assisted by the Northern Ireland tourist board and another 24 are in an advanced state of negotiation, totalling £62 million of investment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that, while the problems of success are hard, they are meetable.

Mr. Tim Smith

Does my hon. Friend support the ambitious targets set by the Northern Ireland Growth Challenge of achieving a 10 per cent. growth in exports, a 5 per cent. growth in gross domestic product and 60,000 new jobs in Northern Ireland by 2000? If so, will the Government work with the private sector to achieve those objectives?

Mr. Ancram

Certainly, the Government will work closely with the private sector to try to achieve not only those objectives but the best objectives possible. It is interesting to note that the Coopers and Lybrand review published on Tuesday showed that the Northern Ireland economy had out-performed most other regions in the United Kingdom, and predicted that if the ceasefires hold, the potential for Northern Ireland's economy will be higher than it has been for three decades.

Mr. McGrady

We all share the Minister's delight at the tourist boom with the first summer season of the ceasefire. He is possibly well aware that a gross under-provision of beds and accommodation requires urgent attention. What specific action do the Minister and the Department intend to take to eradicate the enormous amount of red tape and raise the low level of bed and breakfast provision? Will he provide some additional resources—human and financial—to the Northern Ireland tourist board in order to expedite the other projects that he has mentioned, which very often in my experience are bogged down in negotiation? Could he in some way streamline the process? Next summer we hope to have twice as many visitors, and where will they sleep?

Mr. Ancram

As the hon. Gentleman has heard, we are very much aware of the nature of the problem, which is caused by success. One of the problems that has arisen as a result of growth in Northern Ireland is pressure of applications on Departments and agencies, which has increased commensurately. Obviously, steps are being taken to try to ensure that applications are dealt with as speedily as possible. Wherever possible, the Northern Ireland tourist board is trying to help facilitate such developments.

Mr. Viggers

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the increased investment intention of Montupet, which intends to expand its factory in west Belfast? Does he agree that that is a justification of a brave decision and that in the calmer climate in Northern Ireland, there are now excellent investment opportunities throughout the Province?

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and would certainly give the same words of encouragement. Indeed, in March the Secretary of State visited Montupet in France. Montupet and others, such as Daewoo Seagate, Dae Ryung industries, from Korea, and Fruit of the Loom have between them created an enormous amount of inward investment over the past nine years, totalling more than £1,678 million in Northern Ireland alone. I certainly support and encourage such investment—the more the better.

Mr. Dowd

I, too, welcome the improvements suggested by the figures that the Minister has given. It is common ground that economic development is a parallel strand of the peace process and is critical if we are to ensure that any settlement will endure. As the role of the Government is vital in sustaining and promoting that development, will the Minister assure the House that he and his colleagues will do all that they can to protect their departmental budgets from the Chancellor of the Exchequer's frantic attempts to find spending cuts, in the vain hope of bribing people with their own money in advance of the next election, and that Northern Ireland Ministers will continue to support that essential investment in peace?

Mr. Ancram

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Front Bench, and welcome him on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. We look forward to many more such appearances. On behalf of both myself and my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office, I can assure him that we are always anxious to ensure not only that we secure adequate resources but that we use them in the best practical way for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.