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Cost of Living

Volume 578: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2014

2. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s economic policies on the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (903394)

6. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s economic policies on the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (903398)

I am answering these questions together as, spookily enough, they are identical in every word. The Government continue to take actions to support hard-working households. Following the Budget, 685,000 people in Northern Ireland will have benefited from the personal allowance changes since 2010. Furthermore, drivers, as well as Northern Ireland households using fuel oils for home energy, will benefit from the cancelling of the fuel duty rise planned for September.

Great minds obviously think alike. In North Antrim and South Down 40% of workers are paid less than the living wage, and across the Province the levels of part-time workers, particularly women, on poverty pay are shocking. In fair pay fortnight, can the Minister tell the House whether he will offer incentives for firms to pay the living wage, so that we can tackle one of the major causes of this Government’s cost of living crisis in Northern Ireland?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the greatest reason for the economic crisis in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom is the appalling economic legacy left us by the previous Government. I am surprised that he does not welcome, for instance, the recently published Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy spring outlook predicting that the local economy will grow by 2.8% in 2014 and that over 13,000 new jobs will be created this year in Northern Ireland. That is a fantastic thing to welcome. It is through decent employment that people are lifted out of poverty.

Given that getting a job is the most important element in alleviating cost of living problems, will my right hon. Friend elucidate the measures that the Northern Ireland Office has taken to promote private sector investment so that new firms come into Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend will know that last June an economic pact was signed by the Northern Ireland Executive and others that looked forward to a rebalanced economy with more private sector jobs. In the last year some 10,000 jobs have been created in the private sector. As I have said, we are expecting another 13,000 this year, and 23,000 new jobs over the next year.[Official Report, 28 April 2014, Vol. 579, c. 10MC.]

The Minister will be aware that 42% of the households in Northern Ireland suffer from fuel poverty. The most vulnerable are the elderly and cancer patients. Surely more can be done to help those vulnerable in our society?

I have great sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am aware that some 68% of households in Northern Ireland heat their homes with fuel oil, which has gone up dramatically in price in the last few years. Our stop on the fuel escalator will have a decent impact on all those who heat their houses with fuel oil. Of course, we wish to see people doing better and those in poverty helped out of poverty, and that is why we are focusing on economic recovery, as is the hon. Gentleman’s party in the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Minister will know that the Government’s welfare reform proposals, including the caps, will hit hardest of all in Northern Ireland and will cause a severe cost of living crisis for those already struggling most. It is my contention that the universal credit project is unworkable and is falling apart. Does the Minister agree, and should not the project now be abandoned?

If I might say gently to the hon. Lady, no, I do not agree, and nor do the majority of people in the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, agree that we should go on with the hugely increasing burden of benefits on taxpayers. We look forward to the Northern Ireland Assembly making progress on the Welfare Reform Bill in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Lady might say to her colleagues in the Assembly that we should have some progress, the economy and the people of Northern Ireland would look forward to greater prosperity.

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in terms of both output and pay, Northern Ireland has been the region hardest hit by the recession. One in six workers is on low pay, and the average household has seen a 9% drop in income. What are the Government going to do about the cost of living crisis facing the people of Northern Ireland?

I have already responded on this issue. The hon. Gentleman is rather kind to raise it, given that he was a member of the last Government, who led to the economic crisis that we inherited in 2010. We have done an enormous amount—I have mentioned the economic pact—and the investment conference that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hosted in Northern Ireland in October has led to a great deal of further foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive is working hard on this issue, and I congratulate them on the work they have done.

The idea that our Government caused the global banking crisis is complete nonsense, given that the Conservatives were calling for deregulation year after year after year.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to answer a serious question about Northern Ireland? Political stalemate on welfare reform within Northern Ireland and between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Treasury now poses a real threat to Northern Ireland’s recovery. Is it not time for the Government to take a more active role in seeking an end to this unacceptable stalemate?

I do not think that I blamed the last Government for the international banking crisis; I blamed them for the dire state of the UK economy that we inherited in 2010—quite reasonably, if I might say so.

We are working very hard with the Executive to bring about a better economic situation in Northern Ireland. We want to see the Welfare Reform Bill passed in the Assembly, as indeed do many parties in the Executive. Unfortunately, it is currently bogged down in the Assembly because two parties are unwilling to support it.