I am determined to build on the progress this Government have made in delivering peace and prosperity to Northern Ireland. We have already taken significant steps to back businesses across the UK, including reducing corporation tax and bringing the Exporting is GREAT campaign to Northern Ireland in May.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and I join in the remarks made about his predecessor. Will he continue the Government’s work to ensure that the private sector continues to grow? In his discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive, will he emphasise the need to improve private sector investment, so that more jobs are created in Northern Ireland and more people can gain from prosperity?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the creation of jobs and prosperity. I am sure that he welcomes today’s figures, which show further falls in unemployment and the claimant count in Northern Ireland, and increased employment, underlining the important aspects that he highlights. Yes, I will certainly be discussing with the Executive the role that I have to play with regard to investment and how we promote further jobs, growth and opportunity.
Will the Secretary of State reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the devolution of corporation tax powers as set out in the Stormont House agreement? Does he agree that a vital part of that is that the Executive demonstrate that their finances are on a stable and long-term footing?
We do want the UK to stand out as a low-tax destination for business. We have already cut the rate of corporation tax from 28% to 20%, and we will cut it further. My hon. Friend makes the point about the devolution of corporation tax powers. They are subject to conditions around fiscal discipline and financial stability. We look forward to working with the Executive to achieve that and to see that that further devolution takes place.
May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State and to his ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), on their new positions? I look forward to working constructively with the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office in the coming days. May I also pay tribute to the outgoing Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who played an enormously positive and constructive role in Northern Ireland, and was instrumental in bringing about the “Fresh Start” and Stormont House agreements? We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to her.
I thank the Secretary of State for the discussions that he has already had with some of us and with the First Minister and the Executive Office. Can he spell out for the benefit of the House once again what he has already said publicly in Northern Ireland, which is why there is no question of a border poll in Northern Ireland?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome and indeed for the very warm comments that he made about my predecessor, which I wholly endorse. I have been quite straightforward about this issue of the border poll. The conditions are set out very clearly in relation to the Belfast agreement, and I have been very clear that those conditions have not been met.
The reason why they have not been met is that the overwhelming majority of people in both communities in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Does the Secretary of State recognise the irony and the illogicality of those who are talking so much doom and gloom about Northern Ireland and the UK post the Brexit referendum, when their main policy—their main raison d’être—is to drag us out of the United Kingdom, which would be the most financially catastrophic and politically demoralising thing that is possible to imagine?
Let me underline the comments made by the Prime Minister about the very special bond that binds the peoples and nations of the United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a very simple message. Now is the time to come together and to work together to secure that bright positive future for Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom outside the European Union.
On behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, may I welcome the new ministerial team and indeed the shadow Secretary of State to their positions? I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), who was the former Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and particularly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who really has carried out an enormous amount of work in Northern Ireland.
May I ask the Secretary of State about south-east England airport connectivity, which is very important to the economy of Northern Ireland? Could he have a word with his Cabinet colleagues and speed up the decision on airport capacity in the south-east of England?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome. Indeed, I very much look forward to working with the Select Committee. I note that he is tempting me into a broader area of policy in relation to airport capacity. He will know that the previous Transport Secretary made a clear statement on the timing of that, and, obviously, the matter requires further consideration.
May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State and to the Under-Secretary of State on their appointments? Has the Secretary of State and his officials, working with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, made any calculation of the economic damage to Northern Ireland as a result of the vote to leave the European Union when the people voted to remain?
I certainly recognise that there were differences of view on the EU referendum, as there were across the rest of the United Kingdom. Our focus now needs to be on what Northern Ireland can be, and on what we can achieve in terms of trade, jobs and new opportunities. It is precisely that positive agenda that I intend to take forward.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his position, and also commend the former Secretary of State for her hard work on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. Austerity has hit all of us hard, but Northern Ireland has special circumstances which make the impact even harder. Will the Government now consider reversing the austerity measures so that Northern Ireland’s economy can recover from the damage done?
I thank the hon. Lady for her warm words of welcome. Again, I underline the figures that we have seen today, showing further falls in unemployment. It is right that we have a strong, stable economy, and that we continue to look outwards. I point the hon. Lady to the fact that the total value of goods exported from Northern Ireland over the past year has increased by 9%—a figure which outperforms the rest of the UK.
I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State and his Minister to their posts, and assure him that we on the Labour Benches will do everything we can to carry on the bipartisan approach, doing the best we can for the people of Northern Ireland. I also thank my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). Everyone I have met in Northern Ireland asked me to thank him for his work.
For years the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy has been promoted by the Government, and intrinsic to this has been a push to reduce corporation tax, but in recent discussions that I have had with businesses in Northern Ireland, they have told me that it is much more important to address the huge skills gap in Northern Ireland, where far too many young people are leaving school unable to read and write properly. What will the Secretary of State do to help the people of Northern Ireland to bridge that gap?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. I certainly want to continue the bipartisan relationship. He highlights the issue of skills. I absolutely recognise that and will work with the Northern Ireland Executive on apprenticeships and on creating jobs and opportunities for young people, to give them the best possible advantages.
May I suggest to the Secretary of State that for his summer reading this month, he looks into a number of reports—the report recently produced by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the referendum, the report from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association on its economic plan, and crucially the report from the Economic and Social Research Institute that was produced for the Irish Government in November last year to show that the trade deficit between the north and the south following Brexit could fall by at least 20%? Will he come back to the House in the autumn and tell us why his predecessor and the Northern Ireland Office were so badly prepared for Brexit?
I am always grateful for recommendations for summer reading and I will add the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions to my list. It is important to recognise that exports from Northern Ireland to the United States increased by more than 80%, and also increased to Canada and Germany. We will certainly promote that positive outlook for Northern Ireland.