I have regular meetings with the Northern Ireland Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment to discuss how best we can support the Northern Ireland Executive in attracting inward investment and promoting growth. We have jointly agreed to invite ambassadors from the Gulf states, for example, to visit in the autumn in order to explore how we can promote investment and increase export opportunities.
As with other parts of the UK, including my home city of York, Northern Ireland’s lower operational costs make it an attractive location for investment, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we must do more to promote such areas if we are truly going to rebalance our economies?
Indeed. My hon. Friend makes an ingenious connection between York and Northern Ireland—the only connection that attracted investment before was probably with the Vikings, who took an early interest in both areas.
There are clearly tremendous advantages in Northern Ireland: it is not in the euro; it is extremely good in terms of education; it is a great place to live; and it has low costs, good IT, good connections and good transport connections. Yes, we can do more, but let us just look very carefully at how well Northern Ireland has done to date in attracting inward investment.
If we can move on from the battle of Clontarf, I must say that the Secretary of State is getting the reputation of being something of a one-club golfer when it comes to the Northern Ireland economy. When even yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph referred to a putative corporation tax as “an economic disaster”, one has to ask: does the Secretary of State have another driver in his bag, and will he or his caddy whip it out and show it to us?
It is not a disaster; it is what we have been looking at very carefully.
There are other things that we need to do to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy, which both Governments over a successive number of years allowed to become far too dependent, for obvious reasons, and we will use any club available in our or anyone else’s bag to bring that about.
What is key, as I saw when I was with the hon. Gentleman, is planning, among other issues, which needs to be speeded up to facilitate inward investment and private sector investment, such as in the new supermarket in his constituency. Northern Ireland had automatic assisted area status, but that is not going to continue, and people in Northern Ireland mainly agree that other areas in the UK are now worse off than Northern Ireland.
I inform the Minister that that is not agreed in Northern Ireland; all political parties there unanimously want Northern Ireland to retain 100% regional aid status because of the special circumstances and the poverty, under-employment, under-achievement and poor prosperity. Can the Minister assure us that he will persuade his colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to support that programme?
I do not think that I said that regional aid was not important; I merely said that, as part of rebalancing the economy and encouraging inward investment, we need to make sure that the 2014 map covers the areas of Northern Ireland that do need assistance. We no longer believe that it is justifiable, however, for Northern Ireland as a whole to have 100% automatic coverage.
In evidence to the Northern Ireland Committee, we were told by one witness—I should point out that it was only one witness—that we had one airport too many and that, instead of having both Belfast International airport and Belfast City airport, we should have only one. If such a daft idea were implemented, what impact does the Minister think it would have on economic investment coming to Northern Ireland?
A very negative one. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Northern Ireland justifies two airports. They are both thriving concerns and we have had some good news on air passenger duty. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is saying that I should not forget Eglinton airport either, and possibly others. We should certainly have Aldergrove and George Best Belfast City airports, which should thrive. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister and I are very positive and optimistic; we are trying to attract more airlines to fly in and out of Northern Ireland to grow the economy. The hon. Lady is spot on.