HL Deb 16 July 1997 vol 581 cc998-1000


Lord Skelmersdale

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What support is given to firms intending to invest in Northern Ireland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs)

My Lords, the Department of Economic Development, through the Industrial Development Board, provides selective financial assistance towards manufacturing and internationally tradeable service projects which offer new employment opportunities and are likely to enhance economic development. Additional support available includes training grants and R&D assistance.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that, on further reflection, an inhibition to inward investment in Northern Ireland as in other parts of the United Kingdom is a fair and efficient planning service? Would the noble Lord describe the Northern Ireland planning service in those terms when, in a recent answer to me, the chief executive said that in 1996 it had taken 1,716 days to reach a conclusion on one particular matter?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I agree that industrial investment is helped by an efficient planning system. I am not aware of the particular planning application to which the noble Lord refers. However, some of the delays have been due to the complexity of the decision, the need for full consultation and an appeal. Some of the delays have also resulted from further information being required from the applicant for the planning permission. Nevertheless, I agree that long delays are unacceptable and it is one of the matters that I am looking into.

The Earl of Erne

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House how much investment has been lost to Northern Ireland because of the troubles?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, looking back over the many years of the troubles, it is very difficult to answer the question. However, all the evidence that we have suggests that difficulties over the past year or so have not held back an enormous surge in inward investment. For example, for the year ending March 1997, which was the most successful period in terms of winning overseas investment, inward investment of £490 million covering 35 projects from American, Asian and European companies was achieved. When those investments are completed they will lead to the creation of 4,600 new jobs. I am confident that this surge of investment in Northern Ireland will continue provided that the incident at Drumcree the weekend before last is viewed as an isolated matter.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, is it possible for the Minister to ask his colleagues in the DTI whether they, in turn, could ask companies which invest in Great Britain whether they have the same or different problems when investing in Northern Ireland? The suspicion is abroad that it is much more difficult for companies to obtain planning permission in Northern Ireland than on the mainland. It would help investment in both places if that could be put to rest once and for all.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I shall look into whether obtaining planning permission for industrial projects is harder or takes longer in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK. Whether I shall be tempted to do that through the DTI or whether it is better that I investigate for myself, I shall decide when I see what comes back from my own department.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, given the Government's welcome emphasis on the need to improve long-term unemployment and to create jobs, what positive direction is given to potential investors in Northern Ireland to move into areas of high unemployment? What is being done to make training facilities and promotional opportunities available and accessible to both communities?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, of course we want to encourage investment to the benefit of all communities in Northern Ireland. For example, a couple of years or longer ago few companies considered investing in West Belfast, an area which has suffered more than most from the difficulties in recent years. However, since then we have encouraged a number of American, Korean and Japanese investors to set up plants there. Those companies include Fujitsu, and Emerson Caterpillar. They will provide hundreds of jobs in the area. We want inward investment to help all people in Northern Ireland and not just a section of the community.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, will the Minister read out a list of the policies which have led to that enormous and most successful surge of investment in the UK to which he referred earlier? Will he say whether it is proposed to change any of them?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I have a list of the elements of the investment package offered in Northern Ireland, which is one of the most attractive in Europe. Every assistance package is tailored to meet the needs of specific projects. The level of the grant will vary according to the location of the project, and will contain one of a number of elements. I shall he brief, but the noble Lord did ask for a list. There are capital grants, revenue grants—for example, employment grants relating to the number of newly created jobs—interest relief grants, rent grants, research and development grants, depreciation allowances on tax, 100 per cent. derating for industrial buildings, help with loans, and so forth. I could expand the list, but I am sure that the noble Lord has had enough.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, perhaps I may modestly claim some ownership of the "we" the Minister mentioned in attracting Fujitsu, Emerson and other investors to West Belfast? We must be grateful to all those who continue to invest in Northern Ireland despite the men of violence. Retailers are some of the most valuable investors. They bring jobs and training to those with a minimum of qualifications, competition for the consumer, and attractions for tourists. Is not the Minister therefore surprised that road services should take 15 months to pronounce on road improvements which would allow a major retailer to expand, to offer more jobs, and to offer more markets for goods produced in Northern Ireland? Is it not important that there should be not just one department focused on inward investment but that every part of government should be focused on bringing more investment to Northern Ireland.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, when I said "we", I meant "we" in the sense of this Government and the previous government. In case there was any doubt about that, let me make it clear that the attractive investment incentives were those for which the noble Baroness had responsibility when she was the Minister in Northern Ireland. Clearly her efforts were successful. We shall want to continue to ensure that inward investment goes on being attractive. With regard to planning delays, a couple of minutes before I came into the Chamber, the noble Baroness mentioned to me that she wanted to ask a question about them. If I am right in interpreting her question as relating to a particular development, my quick answer is that further information is being awaited from the applicant for the planning permission. It is such a large planning application that there will almost certainly have to be a planning inquiry to deal with it. I assure the noble Baroness that I shall look into it further and let her have a full answer by letter.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I shall be quick.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am reluctant to interrupt the noble Lord, but 17 minutes have passed and we are only on the second Question. I think that we should move on.