We work closely with Executive Ministers in the joint ministerial working group on rebalancing the economy. I regularly meet the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister and her colleagues in support of the Executive’s efforts to create more jobs in the private sector.
I was delighted to see a recent CBI survey that said that 39% of firms in Northern Ireland expect to take on more staff this year, but does my right hon. Friend believe that the Northern Irish economy would do even better if it adopted the Work programme, which has been rolled out in the rest of the UK?
Yes, I do. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Work programme provides tailored support for claimants who need more help to find jobs. I hope very much that Northern Ireland Ministers will adopt it as part of their welfare reforms. It provides a greater opportunity than did the future jobs fund.
An Aviva survey released this week showed that a quarter of small business owners are thinking of jacking in running their own business and instead trying to get a job because their situation is so difficult. Are Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive as frustrated as the rest of the country at the lack of growth that this Government are delivering?
We have many things to celebrate in Northern Ireland that are occasionally eclipsed by other news stories. Today, Muldoon Transport Systems in Dungannon has secured a £1 million contract to supply 19 trailers to one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest businesses. Nearly a third of London buses are manufactured in Ballymena by Wrightbus. I look forward to joining the hon. Gentleman for an early summer holiday on one of Boris’s Ballymena buses after Boris wins the mayoral elections.
It is worth pointing out that Northern Ireland has won 7% of foreign direct investment to the UK with only 2.8% of the population, and that Belfast attracts more foreign direct investment than any UK city outside London. Those are good news stories in Northern Ireland on which we intend to build.
My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, has raised that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who in turn raised it with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is discussing it with the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is in his place, and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. They will report shortly.
Will the Minister provide us with a progress report on the resolution of the problem of the capital budget for Northern Ireland for the next 10 years, which the Northern Ireland Office has promised us? If that is satisfactorily resolved, it will help to stimulate the local economy—both public and private sector—and to sustain existing jobs.
Before Christmas, I had the privilege of meeting the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses, and I was extremely impressed with its efforts and the work it is doing. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland FSB on its work and its determination to get through the economic challenges of the next 18 months?
I find the Minister of State’s selective comments to be quite extraordinary. The Queen of Hearts suggested that one should believe six impossible things every day before breakfast, but does the Minister seriously expect us to believe that a shrinking private sector can somehow compensate for the highest public sector job losses of any UK region? That sounds like “Alice in Wonderland” to me.
Let us look in the real glass, rather than the looking glass, and give the hon. Gentleman three quick facts. The unemployment rate for Northern Ireland was down 0.7% over the quarter and 1% over the year. The number of unemployed people in Northern Ireland was estimated at 59,000, down 7,000 over both the quarter and the year. Northern Ireland unemployment for 18 to 24-year-olds for the three months to October 2011 was estimated at 18.2%, compared with a UK average of 20.5%. No one is saying that this will continue. We hope it will, but we are trying to deal with unprecedented economic circumstances, both globally and in trying to right the appalling legacy of the Labour Government.