My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet the First and Deputy First Ministers and their colleagues in support of the Executive’s efforts to develop the economy. We also work closely together on the joint ministerial working group on rebalancing the economy, which—I now say for the third time—will meet this afternoon.
It is good news that Northern Ireland sells £12.4 billion-worth of manufactured goods abroad, and has almost recovered to the pre-recession level in sales to Great Britain—indeed, sales to GB achieved a new record. Those are very positive trends, on which we seek to build.
Investment in research and development is crucial for economic development in Northern Ireland, just as it is in Macclesfield. Will my hon. Friend therefore join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland Executive on the 6% increase in research and development investment over the past year?
Yes, I will. Research and development is crucial to the development of the economy, and investment in it increased by 6% in Northern Ireland last year, to £334 million. The Northern Ireland Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is keen to continue with research and development, not least for small and medium-sized enterprises, which both she and I believe are vital.
Given the need to pump-prime the economy in Northern Ireland and given the fact that the Finance Ministers met on Monday, are the disputes about the £18 billion allocation to Northern Ireland as part of the devolution dividend near resolution, and if not, what are the areas of disagreement?
That was not raised officially at the meeting, but later on I had my own bilateral over a cup of coffee with the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is in his place. We discussed progress on this matter, and he informed me that it continues, but it is slow. The Chancellor is now in his place, too, and he may be interested to learn of what the hon. Lady has just said. This is still being discussed, and it will take some time.
Economic development in Northern Ireland is being held up by the reluctance of banks to lend to viable businesses and their withdrawing of capital from existing businesses. What discussions has the Minister had about whether banks in Northern Ireland are meeting their Merlin targets? Also, why is it that the Merlin target figures can be published for Scotland, but not for Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, which he also made in the Finance Ministers quadrilateral last week. We need to get more lending to companies in Northern Ireland, where we are fishing in a smaller pool because we do not have so many banks to lend. We want to see those figures and to work together to see how we can get more lending to smaller companies.