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Economic Situation

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2011

Northern Ireland Executive Ministers and I agree that the economy in Northern Ireland needs to be rebalanced. The Northern Ireland economy is too dependent on the public sector, for all the reasons that the House will understand. The consultation paper that we are publishing tomorrow and our ongoing work with Executive and Treasury Ministers will play a significant part in boosting the private sector and attracting investment to Northern Ireland.

In the last quarter for which figures are available, almost 22% of 16 to 24-year-olds were not involved in education, employment or training, at a cost of more than £250 million. What measures can be taken to rectify that?

The detail of training and employment policy is now in the hands of devolved Ministers, but my hon. Friend has touched on a common theme. We all have an interest in reviving the private sector in Northern Ireland and seeing those young people put into worthwhile employment.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Northern Ireland benefits from being part of the United Kingdom economy, because it is this Government and this Chancellor who will get the budget deficit back under control and rebalance the economy in favour of sustainable economic growth, as highlighted recently in the OECD report?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to remind the House of that. We have a worse deficit than Ireland or Greece, yet our interest rates are considerably lower. That is thanks to the robust measures that the coalition Government have taken to enable us to recover from the wreckage left behind by the previous Government.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the very high price of petrol and diesel in Northern Ireland—the highest in the United Kingdom—is having a severe impact on the living standards of families and the viability of businesses? In his discussions with the Chancellor yesterday and today, has he raised support for a fuel duty stabiliser and other measures to tackle this crippling problem, specifically in relation to Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to raise the issue of fuel costs in Northern Ireland. He will have to be patient and wait to hear what the Chancellor has to say in a few minutes, but I can tell him that the issue has been raised at the highest level.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. An issue that he can respond on is his talk of an enterprise zone for Northern Ireland. Will he elaborate on that and tell the House what specific measures he has in mind to bring about real change and boost competitiveness for Northern Ireland businesses? Has he looked at the specific issue of air passenger duty, which is having a detrimental effect on Northern Ireland compared with the Irish Republic?

I have been using the expression “enterprise zone” for three and a half years as a cover for looking at ways of reviving the private sector in Northern Ireland. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am a convinced evangelist for the proposal to devolve corporation tax, to allow it to be lowered. The paper published tomorrow will also contain an amalgam of ideas from the Executive. On the issue of air passenger duty, he will also have to be a little more patient and wait for the Budget statement.

On the subject of robust policies, we have now had nine months since the emergency Budget, yet the 65% employment rate in Northern Ireland is the lowest in the UK and unemployment is rising to 8%. May I ask the evangelical Secretary of State how much further pain families in Northern Ireland must be expected to bear?

The hon. Gentleman should remember the Budgets that he voted for. I remind him that we are borrowing £280,000 a minute, and that we are spending £120 million a day on debt interest, compared with £95 million on education. That is where the money is going: we are paying off the deficit that he left behind.