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Volume 587: debated on Wednesday 29 October 2014

The Government’s long-term economic plan is working for Northern Ireland. Unemployment is falling and economic activity is increasing. We continue to work with the Executive on our shared objective to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy.

The Northern Ireland science park recently published figures showing that the knowledge economy in Northern Ireland grew by 33% over the past five years, which is better than pretty much every other region in the UK. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that science and technology play a massive role in the future of the Northern Ireland economy?

The economic pact signed between the Government and the Executive contained an important programme to support aerospace research with Bombardier and to promote Northern Ireland’s economic activity in the aerospace and space sector. That work is going well and will continue.

News that the economy in Northern Ireland is growing is extremely welcome, especially with the increase in employment, but one potential drag on it might be the shortage of HGV drivers. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to encourage young people to take up training opportunities to become such drivers?

These are matters for the Northern Ireland Executive, but the UK Government recognise the crucial importance of the haulage industry, which is one of the reasons why we have frozen fuel duty, which is saving the haulage industry millions of pounds every year.

The Government cite city deals as a way to support the economy in the cities and regions on this island. If the Executive put forward a proposition for a city deal for Derry, would the Secretary of State work with the Treasury and other colleagues to support and deliver that deal as a way of implementing a lot of the key targets of the One Plan?

The economic pact between the Executive and the Government was modelled on some of the approaches we take with city deals, but I would be delighted to talk to the hon. Gentleman about any proposals he might have to replicate the city deal model for Derry/Londonderry.

The Secretary of State will agree that the current political paralysis has a corrosive impact on business confidence and therefore the Northern Ireland economy. Can she clarify whether the all-party talks she is chairing are dealing with all issues simultaneously that are causing the stalemate or focusing exclusively on the budget crisis?

The talks are dealing with a long list of issues. We have taken them day by day—we did the budget, then we moved on to the legacy issues of flags, parades and the past. We will be looking at institutional questions today, and there are also proposals to look at unfinished businesses from the Belfast agreement. All these issues are important, but most crucial is that the budget is agreed, so that it is no longer causing instability in the Northern Ireland institutions.

Economic inactivity and worklessness are major underlying causes of instability and insecurity in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State therefore undertake to ensure that the Northern Ireland Office gives its full support to the Heenan-Anderson commission, which we have established with a brief to come up with proposals for how the UK Government and Northern Ireland Executive can tackle the problems of worklessness in a more effective way?

I am certainly prepared to look at whatever findings that body comes up with. I was slightly surprised to see that Deirdre Heenan had tweeted that Labour did not have any policies, which I thought was quite an unusual start to the commission’s work. It is important to recognise that in this country we have had the largest annual fall in unemployment since records began. In Northern Ireland, the claimant count has fallen for 21 consecutive months. That is providing more peace of mind and security for thousands of people in Northern Ireland and it is the result of the Government’s long-term economic plan.