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Business Community

Volume 655: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2019

The Secretary of State and I have frequent discussions and meetings with Northern Ireland businesses; in the last few weeks I have met Newry chamber of commerce and trade, Thales, and Willowbrook Foods, and tomorrow I will meet Bombardier. The Government have provided £3.5 million for Queen’s Belfast precision medicine centre, £700,000 for Randox diagnostics, and £1 million for Northern Ireland SME research and development. This afternoon, we will legislate to hold business rates at a 0% real-terms rise as well.

I very much welcome that work, but what specific steps has the Minister taken to promote Northern Ireland internationally as a successful business hub and first-class place to invest?

The numbers speak for themselves: over 900 international companies have already invested in Northern Ireland, supported by Government investments such as the ones I have mentioned in global sectors such as biomedicine and defence. Political stability has been a key foundation of this success, which is why restoring devolved government at Stormont is critical.

How is the Minister going to reassure the business community today, after the very serious warning by the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, that there will be grave consequences if we have a no-deal Brexit?

I think a number of people will have raised their eyebrows at such politically charged comments from a civil servant. The point I would make is simply this: we have a meaningful vote coming up in this place next week where the Attorney General and the Prime Minister will be able to come back and tell us the fruits of their discussions in Brussels. The simple answer to avoiding any of the scenarios that people may or may not agree with which were being painted by David Sterling is to find a deal that will work and which therefore means we will not be in no-deal territory. That will, I hope, solve the problem for everybody.

Is the Minister concerned about the possible impact on small businesses of the changes proposed to non-domestic renewable heat incentives in the legislation that we are about to consider, and is he particularly cautious about advice he may be receiving from the energy Department, because it was that that Department that got us into this fix in the first place?

Without wanting to prejudge this afternoon’s debate—as my hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Chairman has said, we will be going through this in a lot more detail—he is absolutely right that the renewable heat incentive scheme has been the subject of a great deal of concerned commentary, because it has dramatically broken its budgets and is not a sustainable solution. I think everybody is treating any proposals with a great degree of concern and scrutiny because of that history, and I am sure we will have a chance to go through it in more detail, and we will try to ensure that any proposals that are legislated on do not suffer from the faults that existed in the previous version.

I have been married to a lady from County Armagh for quite some time. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Through my marriage I have come to know the image of Northern Irish food products, such as Black Bush, Tayto crisps and Flanagan’s most excellent sausage from the city of Armagh. Do the Government agree that marketing Northern Ireland’s special food could be one way to boost business in Northern Ireland, not just within the UK but to a world market?

Something that Britain and the UK have cottoned on to later than many other parts of the world is the notion of local food and its marketability, along with our ability to forge a local brand not just for food but for tourism more broadly as well. In congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his marital status, and his success in that regard, I am sure he is on to something important as well.