§ 5. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)
If he will make a statement on the Northern Ireland economy. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson)
The Northern Ireland economy has witnessed significant improvements in recent years. Employment growth has been sustained with some 656,000 employees now in employment, the highest figure on record. Unemployment has also fallen considerably, now standing at 6.3 per cent., well below the European Union average. Forecasts for the local economy remain optimistic for the coming year.
§ Mr. Chapman
Does my hon. Friend agree that in manufacturing, traditionally a weak area of the Northern Ireland economy, dramatic improvements in productivity have taken place, making Northern Ireland an ever more attractive market for inward investment? Does he agree also that that could not have been achieved without the stability and confidence provided by the Good Friday agreement, and that further progress in that direction may be hindered without its full implementation?
§ Mr. Pearson
I totally agree. Manufacturing throughout the UK and Europe has been having a tough time in recent years, but in Northern Ireland it has been holding up very well. Over the last four years, manufacturing output went up by over 10 per cent., compared with a 5 per cent. decline in the UK. Business research and development increased by 40 per cent. last year, and productivity, which was 10 per cent. lower than in the UK, is now reaching UK levels. Those are all promising signs, and we must ensure that we continue to move forward and sustain, and improve on, that impressive track record.
§ David Burnside (South Antrim)
The Minister must agree that economic progress depends on stability in the institutions of government, whether across the United Kingdom or in the regions. What are he and his colleagues doing to ensure that we have stable devolved government that is not under the constant veto of a paramilitary terrorist organisation, Sinn Fein, and that we are rewarded with accountable government at Stormont to help in the economic promotion of the Province?
§ Mr. Pearson
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and others are doing all they can to make sure that we get the Assembly and the Executive back up and running as soon as possible. In the meantime, while we are asked to perform the job of Ministers, we will do so to the best of our ability to ensure that we have a stable economic climate in Northern Ireland, which is crucial to future business prosperity and success.
§ Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
Will the Minister discuss with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the possibility of introducing legislation to prevent the market distortion affecting the Northern Ireland economy whereby offers of retail products, life insurance and car insurance are restricted to the United Kingdom, excluding Northern Ireland? It is neither fair nor appropriate to a market economy that such discrimination is allowed to endure.
§ Mr. Pearson
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. On a number of issues, the interests of Northern Ireland's economy are different and diverge from those of the United Kingdom. He mentions one of those issues; others include cross-border smuggling. They are all matters on which one would expect representations to be made to the UK Government, and they are.
§ Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
We now learn that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has had to borrow £10 billion in the past six months and that corporation 305 tax has fallen by 14 per cent. Does the Minister agree that the worst thing that could happen to the fragile Northern Ireland economy would be a rise in taxes on corporations?
§ Mr. Pearson
I dispute that. The simple fact is that the Northern Ireland economy is not in a fragile state. Manufacturing businesses are doing well, and we have a young, well-educated and highly committed work force. Northern Ireland is a great place for inward investment and we are holding our market share in that respect. There is every reason to believe that the prospects for Northern Ireland's economy are good and will remain good in future.