HC Deb 14 November 1996 vol 285 cc479-80
11. Mr. Mackinlay

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what measures he proposes to increase employment in Northern Ireland over the next 12 months. [2521]

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

The Government's strategy is to create an economic environment in which business can prosper, to help local firms become more competitive in world markets, to promote enterprise, and to attract tourists and high-quality international investment projects. This approach has delivered record levels of employment in Northern Ireland; we shall continue with it.

Mr. Mackinlay

That is all very interesting, but it is not good enough. Does the Minister not reflect that the one thing that unites Protestant unemployed and Catholic unemployed is the fact that they are unemployed? Will he explain to us why the Government are acquiescing in a situation where there are twice as many long-term unemployed people in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom? What is to be done about that?

Did the Minister note that the prospective Tory candidate for Tunbridge Wells expects Labour to win the next general election? Is he aware that the unemployed of Northern Ireland hope that he is correct, so that my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) can intervene on behalf of the unemployed in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to dream as much as he likes, but he should read what is going on in Northern Ireland. Had he done so yesterday, he might have been more cautious in what he has just said. The unemployment figures announced yesterday show a headline reduction of more than 8,000 and a seasonally adjusted reduction of 3,300, and constitute the lowest level for 15 years. In addition, there are 573,090 people in employment—the highest June figure on record. The hon. Gentleman really does not know what he is talking about.

Mr. William Ross

Is the Minister aware that we are interested not only in creating new employment, but in preserving existing employment? Is he further aware that a delegation from Gallaher is visiting the House today to point out the severe effect that the high level of taxation on tobacco has had on the production of cigarettes and tobacco in Northern Ireland? Although I do not smoke myself, I am concerned about employment in that industry. Given that so much of the product is immediately smuggled back for resale—with a consequent loss to the Exchequer—will the Chancellor of the Exchequer also take note of my question?

Mr. Ancram

I had some difficulty in hearing all of the hon. Gentleman's question, but if I heard him correctly, his concerns are shared by others. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is in his place, and I am sure that he listened to the hon. Gentleman.