HC Deb 30 January 1997 vol 289 cc492-4
3. Mr. Beggs

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the present level of unemployment and on future employment opportunities in Northern Ireland. [11969]

Mr. Ancram

Unemployment is falling rapidly in Northern Ireland. During 1996, it fell by 12,000, and the figure is now the lowest in over 16 years. Employment also is at record levels—currently 573,160—and I am confident that the growing economy will continue to offer increasing job opportunities in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Beggs

The good news every month of falling unemployment is very welcome. We pay tribute to Baroness Denton and to the staff of the Industrial Development Board and the local enterprise development unit on their success in job promotion. We also recognise that responsible trade unionism in Northern Ireland has provided stability in workplaces and given encouragement and confidence to employers and to investors. Does the Minister agree, however, that the best news that Northern Ireland could receive would be an announcement by Sinn Fein-IRA that there will be an end to terrorism and that there will be an unqualified and unconditional ceasefire and permanent peace—which would again bring a boost in investment and tourism?

Mr. Ancram

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tribute to those agencies and persons, not least to my noble Friend Lady Denton. I will ensure that she is aware of the tribute. I also appreciate his comment on trades unions' conduct, which has certainly played a major part in achieving the stability that has made the figures possible.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments on the effects of terrorism on job prospects. It would certainly be good for the Province and for its economy if the IRA were to cease violence. We must never forget the damage that is done to the economy and to job prospects by increasing levels of violence. Terrorism destroys the hopes of communities and families of being able to achieve a prosperous future. Nowhere was that fact more clearly demonstrated than two nights ago, when the IRA fired a weapon that missed its intended target but hit the Springvale training centre, which produces job skill training to try to get people into jobs.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Will the Minister join me in welcoming Shorts' announcement of 500 new jobs, to work on the new Bombardier regional jet? However, are Ministers not concerned that the beneficial effect that those jobs might have on employment figures will be undone by the revaluation of non-domestic properties—which, in some cases, will triple the rates paid by small shops and other small businesses—and that hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs could consequently be lost? Will the Government consider a transitional relief scheme so that people can move gradually to the higher rates, rather than having to endure the entire increase in one year?

Mr. Ancram

I certainly welcome the job announcements mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is on the Treasury Bench, is considering the type of transitional scheme that he mentioned, and we will make announcements in due course.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the Minister think that the quite ferocious cuts in funds for the ACE—action for community employment—schemes, which are directed specifically at the long-term unemployed, are likely to assist that group of unemployed people in Northern Ireland? Does he not think that the matter ought to be reviewed and that those very valuable schemes should be supported instead of weakened?

Mr. Ancram

I hear what the hon. and learned Gentleman has to say. He knows that this year there has been a particularly difficult public expenditure round in which priorities have had to be examined carefully, not least because of the need to find £120 million to meet the increased costs that have arisen as a result of renewed violence and terrorism. In that context, a number of serious questions had to be asked about the allocation of resources. In the light of falling unemployment figures and the changed situation since the introduction of ACE, it was reckoned that these cuts had to be made, although it was a difficult choice.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Does my right hon. Friend recall that the part of Northern Ireland that experienced the greatest drop in the number of people out of work since the beginning of the temporary ceasefire was west Belfast? Will he confirm that, when the IRA goes back to killing—the way it killed Gerry McCabe, the Irish policeman, Frank Kerr, the postal worker in Newry, and many others—it is killing the job prospects of many of those who most need work, such as young Catholics in west Belfast?

Mr. Ancram

I agree with my hon. Friend. There is absolutely no doubt that terrorism and violence affect the prospects, not only of those against whom they are aimed but of the communities of the perpetrators. It is an insult to the futures of their children that the IRA continue with terror in the way it does—I roundly condemn it.

Mr. Illsley

We, too, welcome the dramatic fall in unemployment in Northern Ireland, but has not part of that dramatic fall been the result of the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance, which has forced a number of claimants off the job register because of the very strict conditions of the jobseeker's contract? Should not the Government reconsider the cuts to the action for community employment schemes, which have a proven record in providing employment for the long-term unemployed, especially at a time when the job skills programme is in a state of confusion?

Mr. Ancram

The introduction of the jobseeker's allowance may have had some impact but it was designed to ensure that those who claimed to be unemployed were genuinely unemployed. The way in which we can best serve the unemployed in Northern Ireland is to create more jobs and to have a growing economy. Instead of talking down the Northern Ireland economy, we should be talking it up.

Manufacturing output in Northern Ireland has increased by 1.7 per cent. in quarter two to three compared with 0.6 per cent. for the United Kingdom as a whole. Manufacturing exports in 1994–95 rose by 21 per cent. over the previous year—twice the UK rate. They are the signs of a growing economy that can produce jobs, and that is what we should be concentrating on.

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