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Volume 76: debated on Thursday 4 April 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans he has to reduce unemployment in the Province.

I refer the hon. Member to the reply I gave yesterday to his written question.

Is not the Government's record on unemployment in the Province absolutely disgraceful? When the Government took power in June 1979 there were 59,600 people unemployed in the Province. In February this year the number had risen to 122,157 — an increase from 10·3 to 21·2 per cent. Does the Minister agree that the additional 6p tax on cigarettes announced in the Budget will lead to further job losses in the tobacco industry in the Province?

The rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland was increasing before 1979, when the Labour Government were in power, and that applies also to Great Britain. However, no one here welcomes unemployment in Northern Ireland any more than does the hon. Gentleman. Between 1960 and 1983 unemployment rose by 84,000, but the actual drop in the number of people employed was only 6,000. Therefore, 78,000 were accounted for by increased personnel in the Province, a birth rate 50 per cent. higher than in Great Britain and women wishing to return to work—

The hon. Gentleman may say that, but if he speaks to the parents in the Province he will find that they notice when they have more children.

The actual increase in the rate of unemployment has decreased tremendously in recent years and we all look forward to the time when employment increases. In 1982 unemployment was increasing by 1,100 a month, in 1983 by 600 a month and last year by only 200 a month. However, between July and December last year there was an increase in employment in the Province of 4,100.

Does the Minister agree that it is important that new products should be found to create new job opportunities in Northern Ireland? Is he aware that Antrim Creameries in Ballynure has successfully produced a new product which it wishes to market as a cheese spread? However, under present food labelling regulations, because it has a fat content of less than 10 per cent., the product cannot be marketed as such. Will the Minister endeavour to have the food labelling regulations changed as quickly as possible so that new jobs can be created?

I agree that it is vital to find new products to replace those lost with the decline of the old industries. I shall investigate the matter of Antrim Creameries. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I know from a recent visit, the Milk Marketing Board is active in that area and products from the MMB and farms in Northern Ireland are being sold throughout the world.

Is my hon. Friend aware that I am the chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which recently had two opportunities to visit Northern Ireland to study industrial and commercial development? Is he further aware of how impressed we were with the efficiency and enterprise of all workers in the Province? Does he accept that while there may be a lot of nuts in Noraid trying to make the Province as dangerous a place as New York city, Ulster is certainly a good place in which to invest?

I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren). Twice he has been to the Province with the members of that Select Committee, and I have had the privilege of meeting him and his fellow members on each occasion. Undoubtedly, employers in Ulster, and employers from outside who have invested there, pay tribute to the conscientiousness and reliability of the members of both communities working in the factories of Northern Ireland. The more that that can be made known in Britain and throughout the world, the better. We must do our best to build up tourism in that beautiful Province. Great opportunities exist there. Hon. Members who take all possible steps to publicise the advantages of Northern Ireland, in relation to sport and in many other ways, do a great service to the Province.

The Minister will be aware of the parliamentary answer that he gave me last week containing the unemployment figures for each of the 17 constituencies in Northern Ireland. Has he noted that the two constituencies whose unemployment figures exceed all others are Foyle and Belfast, West? Does he draw any political conclusions from that, for example, about the relationship between the rate of unemployment and violence? Does he agree that special attention should be given to the unemployment problems of those constituencies? Why is his Department making cuts in the valuable work of the youth and community workshop in Derry?

The answer to the second part of that supplementary question is that we have cut back only where all the places have not been filled. The figures show that 77 vacancies exist in the Foyle area. It is highly expensive to have places in community and other centres involved in youth programmes that are not filled. We are relating demand to supply.

The answer to the first part is that I am aware of the high rates of unemployment in Belfast, West and in Foyle. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I have been concerned to assist with the continuance of employment, for example, at Molins and at other works. Clearly, a decline in violence would help to bring other employers in. I am making arrangements to meet people in May from West Belfast, including priests and the bishop of the area, to see what can be done by way of co-operation between the Government, trade unions, employers and the people of the area to improve employment prospects.

Is the Minister aware that a certain hypocrisy is shown by Opposition Members when we debate unemployment, in that the creation of jobs is not encouraged when leading members of the Labour party associate with members of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA, who are blasting jobs out of existence in the Province?

There is a degree of truth in that, although many Opposition Members would not agree. To invite members of Sinn Fein to this House and to speak to them here undermines the whole issue of confidence in the Province. Nor is it helpful to the Republic of Ireland.

Her Majesty's official Opposition will not be distracted by the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), and I assure him and the House that, as we have said on many occasions, the Opposition have no truck with and do not support violence in any form. It is hypocritical of the hon. Gentleman to seek to distract attention from the important issue of unemployment.

With the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren), I compliment the efficiency and enterprise of the workers of Ulster. I spent yesterday with trade unionists and industrialists there. Does the Minister share the widespread feeling that I found yesterday that Northern Ireland is a low-wage, unemployment economy? If so, does he acquiesce in it? If not, what steps does he propose to change that sentiment, which is abroad in the province?

I am sure that every hon. Member welcomes the hon. Gentleman's frank statement about Sinn Fein and violence in the Province. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren). The Government do not lay down the wages that are paid throughout the economy — that is done by agreement between employers and workers. It is difficult for employers and employees to have a high-wage economy in view of the fact that firms in Northern Ireland have to compete with firms in Southern Ireland, which are near the increasing markets of Europe and because of the costs of energy and transport. I share the hon. Gentleman's desire that we should develop full employment with good wages and good conditions in factories to encourage other people to come to the Province.