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Economic Development

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2016

Last week, the Secretary of State and I met the Executive parties to review the implementation of the Stormont House and fresh start agreements, and the economic pact. Commitments include devolving corporation tax and rate-setting powers, if sustainable Executive finances are secured. This has the potential to have a truly transformational impact on the local economy.

I congratulate the ministerial team and the Department on their success in the creation of the economic pact, which has such a direct impact on Northern Ireland. What further steps can be taken to ensure that the Executive remain focused on how they can deliver those objectives?

The best thing we can do is to celebrate the fact that, under the recent spending review, the Chancellor put in place measures to see a 12% rise in real-terms funding for capital projects by 2021. That will mean over £600 million more will be available than if we had frozen funding at 2015-16 levels. That is good news for Northern Ireland infrastructure. Hopefully, it will mean the A5 and the A6 will start to progress and we can open up Northern Ireland for more foreign investment.

9. Does the Minister agree with the CBI and the trade union movement that the UK’s exit from the European Union would be damaging to economic development in Northern Ireland? Will he encourage his colleague the Secretary of State to argue for a yes vote? (903083)

There is a temptation in front of me. What I would say is that to date membership of the European Union has been good for Northern Ireland. I support the Prime Minister’s efforts to achieve reform. A reformed EU is where the United Kingdom wants to be: an EU that works for the benefit of everyone in the United Kingdom. If we can achieve that, we can take advantage of being neighbours of Ireland, one of Northern Ireland’s biggest economic partners, to make sure that the economy goes from strength to strength.

Later this week I will have the pleasure of visiting Royal Portrush golf course in Northern Ireland, which has been awarded the 2019 Open golf championship for the first time since 1951. Does the Minister agree that this is a tremendous achievement and opportunity for Northern Ireland? Will he work closely with the Executive and the golf club to ensure that it is a success similar to that in Scotland last year, which brought £140 million into the economy?

I am struck by how much effort Northern Ireland has made in trying to secure becoming the new home of golf. The marketing and promotion of golf courses in Northern Ireland is a real strength. [Interruption.] I know Scottish nationalists are so insecure about everything that they may take issue with that, but what is good for Northern Ireland and golf is also good for golf in Scotland. It will go from strength to strength. Major sporting events, whether horse-racing or golf, bring in real money in today’s economy.

I am sure we all look forward to visiting the Open in 2019.

Further to the Minister’s answer on infrastructure, will he undertake to speak to the National Infrastructure Commission and Treasury colleagues about transport links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? This is an important issue. Infrastructure spending is vital for the development of Northern Ireland’s economy. This would be a very good way to ensure that more investment came to Northern Ireland.

I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are determined to maintain air links. For example, when British Airways purchased Aer Lingus, we both had conversations with it over the past few months to ensure there was no degrading of the service provided to people at both main airports in Northern Ireland. We will work very hard, in partnership with the Executive, to maintain it. We should also point out that today’s economic figures for Northern Ireland are tremendously successful. It is the eighth successive month of growth, according to the Ulster bank purchase managers’ index. Over the year, the claimant count is down by 11,000 in Northern Ireland, a fall of 22.1%, outstripping the rest of the United Kingdom.

I join the Minister in welcoming that news, and I certainly pay tribute to colleagues on the Northern Ireland Executive for their excellent work on the economy and the new First Minister’s commitment to making economic growth her first priority.

At the last Northern Ireland questions, the Secretary of State undertook to speak to the Chancellor about linking Northern Ireland to the northern powerhouse. This is a very important initiative, and I would welcome any news of progress on that front. Will the Minister update the House?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has spoken to the Chancellor, who I think is considering the matter as we speak. I fully support the initiative. As a Lancashire MP, I certainly know the importance of our links with the west, including the Isle of Man and Belfast, via the ferry at Heysham, for example. I think we can both work to our mutual advantage on the northern powerhouse.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) about EU membership, would the Minister care to comment on a study by an Irish think-tank last year that said:

“Estimates…suggest that a Brexit could reduce bilateral trade flows between Ireland and the UK by 20 per cent.”

and that

“the expected impact of Brexit is likely to be more significant for Northern Irish exporters to Ireland”?

The Minister will know that there is very real concern in Northern Ireland about the impact of withdrawal from the EU on trade, investment and funding for various projects, as other Members have already mentioned. An Economic and Social Research Institute report at the end of 2015 said that a Brexit would have “very serious consequences” for the Northern Ireland economy. Has he discussed this matter with the Northern Ireland Executive?

Obviously I have regular discussions with Ministers in the Executive and the south of Ireland. Of course, an economic free zone in the EU, which we are part of, is important to our trade, not only for England but in Northern Ireland. The ability of the 34,000 businesses in Northern Ireland to trade without barriers across the border to the south is very important to its economy. That is why the Prime Minister wants Britain to remain in a reformed EU. The first thing we can do is wait to see what those reforms are.

Notwithstanding that, the Minister will know there are very serious concerns in Northern Ireland about a possible Brexit, particularly because it is the only part of the UK with a land border with another EU country. Will he reassure the Executive and the people of Northern Ireland on this matter, in view of the mixed messages on Brexit emanating from the ministerial team? In particular, I am talking about his views, as opposed to the Secretary of State’s.

There is no mixed message. Both I and my right hon. Friend are keen for the EU to produce some reforms, as is the Prime Minister in his strategy. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows—perhaps he has a special hotline—what reforms the EU will agree. When those reforms are presented to the House, we will be able to make a decision. For my part, I believe that in the past membership of the EU has been good for Northern Ireland.