The economy in Northern Ireland continues to grow. Since 2010, there are 54,000 more people in work and, over the year, the employment rate has increased and the claimant count has now fallen for the ninth consecutive month. The Government are committed to working with the Northern Ireland parties to bring about political stability. This is key to bringing further growth and investment to Northern Ireland.
Some 33.4% of all exports from Northern Ireland go south across the border and 54.7% go to the EU. Leaving the EU will affect Northern Ireland more than any other region in the UK. The previous answer was pretty vague, so what specific steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that those exports are protected in order to protect inward investment?
Does the Minister agree that news from Northern Ireland is seen, read and heard across the world? Is it not important, therefore, that the institutions get up and running again straight after the forthcoming elections to give confidence to potential investors right across the world that Northern Ireland is, indeed, a great place to invest?
My hon. Friend, who is very wise on Northern Ireland issues and makes a massive contribution, is right. We can do much from Westminster, but it is the parties in Northern Ireland that need to take responsibility, come together and guide the economic growth that is so needed in Northern Ireland.
As the Secretary of State noted, there is an Assembly election that will be followed by negotiations on ministerial responsibilities, all in uncertain times. Can the Minister offer any assurances that austerity will not be the rock upon which peace founders? Will the funding for legacy issues be guaranteed in the new Assembly, and will funding for other policy imperatives be eased? Will he ensure that the Assembly can function properly in financial terms?
The Government are committed to developing an economy that works for everybody in the United Kingdom. We are implementing an industrial strategy, which has a massive part to play in Northern Ireland. I welcome the consultation that has been launched, which includes Northern Ireland. The economy in Northern Ireland is strong. There is a desire between the UK Government and the Republic of Ireland to ensure that we have a constructive and positive relationship in the future.
The Government believe that reducing the rate of corporation tax to 12.5% in Northern Ireland could bring significant benefits for jobs, investment and growth. I hope that we can return to the wider progress we have proposed on this issue following the Assembly election and the formation of a new Executive.
Does the Minister accept that, with unemployment in Northern Ireland at its lowest level since 2008 and Northern Ireland posting the highest increase in exports of any region of the United Kingdom last year, the Executive were making substantial progress in improving the economy of Northern Ireland over the previous two years?
I recognise all those statistics. It is important that we constantly reiterate the positive position that Northern Ireland is in. Like me, Members of this House and the people of Northern Ireland want the Assembly to come back together and offer guidance and leadership to make sure that we grow the economy.
Those of us on the Democratic Unionist Benches certainly share that aspiration. We want to see devolution up and running, and we want to see jobs and investment. The Minister will understand our frustration and the frustration—and, indeed, anger—of the people of Northern Ireland that the good progress we were making has been put in peril, as have jobs and investment, as a result of Sinn Féin’s decision to collapse the Executive and cause an unnecessary election. Will he commit to work, over the coming weeks and months, with those of us who are in this House to improve the situation for people’s jobs and investment into Northern Ireland?
I am not going to get involved in the politics of Northern Ireland and why the Executive fell down. What is important is that the people of Northern Ireland want leadership from their politicians in Northern Ireland. What I can promise the right hon. Gentleman is that the Secretary of State and I will do everything to make sure that we have a strong Assembly that offers leadership in Northern Ireland.
May I start by asking the House to accept the Labour leader’s heartfelt apologies for his mistaken statement last week, when he said that a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland had been killed? I am sure the House will agree that we all want to see the officer make good progress. We wish him and his family well.
There is no doubt that political instability worries businesses, but a much bigger day-to-day threat is the burden placed on business by the crushing cost of energy in Northern Ireland. Electricity generators are charging customers 58% more than the EU average, while pulling in gross profits of €900 million a year. Will the Secretary of State meet the energy regulator urgently to impress on it the need to rein in these fat cat profiteers?