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Economic Development

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2012

2. What recent discussions she has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development. (123802)

My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and a number of their colleagues, and we have renewed the Government’s commitment to supporting their efforts to promote economic development and help rebuild and rebalance the economy.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Financial Times recently described Belfast as the top destination globally for investing in financial services technology. Does she agree that when it comes to attracting and encouraging foreign direct investment, Northern Ireland has a great deal to offer potential investors?

It has indeed, and I had the honour of discussing these matters in a meeting in the city only recently. Northern Ireland has seen some striking success stories, such as the investment by Citigroup and the New York Stock Exchange. I praise the role of the universities in Northern Ireland, which have engaged with business, particularly in the financial services technology sector. That is an incredibly important industry for the UK as a whole, and it is a matter of real credit to Northern Ireland that it has successfully obtained so many inward investment jobs in the financial sector.

I welcome the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleague to their positions.

I understand that in the negotiations on corporation tax, the point at issue is not one of principle but one of cost, with one side estimating the cost to the Northern Ireland block at £300 million and the other estimating it as being in the region of £420 million. What is the Secretary of State’s understanding of that? If the latter is the case, how does she intend to suggest that the gap be met in discussions with the Treasury, and what will her advice to the Prime Minister be?

Real progress has been made on the issue. The working group on corporation tax concluded on Thursday, and we are now proceeding to write up our findings and will report them to the Prime Minister in due course. We have an idea of how devolved corporation tax might work in a way that would not impose unnecessary administrative burdens on business. The hon. Lady is right that there are still important practical issues to resolve and alternatives to consider, and we will continue to work on those matters.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleague to their new positions.

When it comes to economic development, the Secretary of State will know that about 70% of employment in Northern Ireland is in the public sector. What will she do to grow the private sector? I hope she will work closely with bodies such as the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses.

I am very happy to work with all business bodies in Northern Ireland, and they do a great job in representing Northern Ireland. Much has already been done to enhance the competitiveness of Northern Ireland—in particular with the boost for superfast broadband—and Belfast is due to become one of the UK’s first 10 super-connected cities. The United Kingdom Government took the decision to devolve long-haul air passenger duty to conserve vital transatlantic flights, and we are working hard to attract inward investment. It is important to use the UK’s network of embassies around the world to promote the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, as a great place in which to do business.

What support will the Secretary of State give to Northern Ireland when it comes to negotiations with the EU on regional aid?

I had the privilege of meeting Arlene Foster to discuss that matter last week. We decided that we would work together to make representations to Brussels on assisted-area status in Northern Ireland, and together we will make the case for Northern Ireland.