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Covid-19: Northern Ireland Economy

Volume 808: debated on Monday 30 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the number of jobs saved in Northern Ireland as a result of the measures they have introduced to deal with the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

My Lords, the UK Government’s unprecedented employment support package has protected an estimated 327,000 jobs—that is, one in four. Government-backed loans worth more than £1.3 billion have been given to more than 35,000 firms since the outbreak. Under the winter economic plan, Northern Ireland businesses will continue to receive the help that they need, including an extension to government schemes—including the furlough scheme and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme—and an extension of VAT reductions for hospitality.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Do these figures not underline, yet again, the strength and security that Northern Ireland gains from being an integral part of the United Kingdom—benefits that could not be matched under any other constitutional arrangement? Do they not also underline the fact that all four parts of the United Kingdom are better together? Does my noble friend agree that the Government need to be proactive in selling the economic and other benefits of the union in all parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland?

My noble friend is correct in what he says—we strongly believe in upholding the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, as he has also said. Our four nations are safer, stronger and more prosperous together. On that note, Northern Ireland benefits from being part of the world’s sixth largest economy, which allows it to benefit from the highest public spending per head: £11,987, which is 21% higher than the UK spends per head.

My Lords, there is no doubt that the government measures have been vital for Northern Ireland, but I am sure that the Minister recognises its vulnerabilities with regard to very high and long-term unemployment rates and the lack of certainty for business over the protocol arrangement. Are the Government really satisfied that the extra £920 million given to Northern Ireland will be sufficient to cope with the twin challenges of Brexit and Covid?

The noble Lord raises an important point, and I reassure him that, in relation to the measures that we have given to Northern Ireland, they are more than supportive. He will know that there are several major companies in Northern Ireland, including some supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda, which we continue to support as well as all the others.

My Lords, the additional support provided by the Government to the Northern Ireland Executive throughout this pandemic has made real-life differences to many communities and businesses in Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Caine, has said, it shows the real benefits of the union, economically, socially and politically.

The pandemic has dealt a huge blow to the aviation industry, nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland. The Government promised a recovery plan for the aviation industry back in March. Has this plan been published and has there been any discussion about it with the devolved institutions? This sector needs a UK-wide approach if it is to succeed.

The noble Lord makes an important point about connectivity, and the Government are committed to maintaining connectivity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during these unprecedented times. In relation to aviation, that is why we have worked with the Executive to provide a £5.7 million financial support package to the City of Derry Airport and Belfast City Airport to ensure that services to and from London continue at the height of the pandemic.

My Lords, I have never seen “Game of Thrones”—I am saving that up for my retirement—but I do know that it was filmed in Northern Ireland, which is one of the great centres in the United Kingdom for the success of our creative industries in film, television and other areas. Will my noble friend do all he can to ensure that these industries are protected during the pandemic, particularly with a view to the centenary coming next year, when they will, no doubt, play an important role?

I visited the site of “Game of Thrones” a few months ago—it was very interesting. Obviously, this is a devolved area, and the Government have provided the Northern Ireland Executive with additional finance of £2.8 billion for 2021-22 to address the challenges. The Northern Ireland Executive’s Artists Emergency Programme has provided awards of up to £5,000 to support those in the arts sector, creating work and making a vital contribution to the well-being of communities.

My Lords, key to protecting the economy and safeguarding jobs in Northern Ireland during the Covid crisis is childcare provision. A recent survey by Employers For Childcare showed that three-quarters of Northern Ireland parents had no access to childcare during some or all of the pandemic. This is particularly true for the least well off and those working reduced hours. Can the Minister say what additional support the Government will provide, including financial support through tax credits, for the childcare sector?

The extra £2.8 billion has been directed towards Northern Ireland to help it with such matters, but I should say that each devolved nation has its own unique circumstances, so these are matters for the Executive to take forward. However, that support from the United Kingdom should provide enormous help, at least.

My Lords, does not this Question underline the need for the Northern Ireland Office to stop giving the impression that it is neutral on the union and start making clear what it is doing, in conjunction with the devolved Assembly, to help shape a modernised, inclusive Northern Ireland with a flourishing economy assisted by the job-preserving measures that we are discussing? In Northern Ireland, as in Scotland, is there not a danger that this Government will be seen as paying mere lip service to the unionism that they ought to be expounding with commitment and vigour?

This follows on, perhaps, from my noble friend Lord Caine’s Question. The UK Government have a responsibility to people, businesses and communities across the whole of the UK. The Northern Ireland Office has been at the forefront of this and will continue to work closely with the other UK departments and devolved Administrations to ensure that the same approach is taken as we recover from the economic aftermath of the pandemic, driving growth and technology across the UK. My noble friend makes a good point about the importance of promoting the union.

My Lords, long-term unemployment in Northern Ireland was higher than the rest of the UK before the pandemic struck. Now, with redundancies rising, especially in the manufacturing, retail and transport sectors, the situation is very likely to get worse. Does the Minister agree that the country deserves more help with funding to get it back on its feet after the pandemic?

The noble Lord makes a good point about the support that is needed for Northern Ireland, and I reiterate that the £2.8 billion will go a very long way to supporting its economy. I am particularly aware of small businesses and the major businesses, such as Moy Park and Bombardier, all of which need our support. We are working in tandem with the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Executive to do this.

My Lords, the extra money across the whole of the United Kingdom shows the value of the union, but does the Minister agree that money alone is not what strengthens the union and that, actually, Her Majesty’s Government must do more to speak out for the union, as they do in relation to Scotland? Does he accept that, sometimes, it is better that the Government make their views known very clearly and do not just assume that they always have to be on the neutral side of what is happening in Northern Ireland?

The noble Baroness is correct, and I reiterate that the unit in No. 10 is looking to see what more can be done—and there is more that needs to be done—to promote the value of the union. Of course, the noble Baroness will be aware that, in 2021, we mark the 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland, which paved the way for the formation of the United Kingdom as we know it today, so it is a golden opportunity to step up our progress on this front.

My Lords, my noble friend referred to supermarkets. Is he aware that the managing director of Sainsbury’s and directors of Marks & Spencer indicated last week that up to 15% of food product lines may not be available in Northern Ireland after 1 January? How is that consistent with the wretched protocol that is supposed to be helping us? It is a serious threat to the economy of Northern Ireland. Would he agree that that announcement from those supermarkets is a matter of grave concern?

We do not agree that Northern Ireland businesses will be disadvantaged as the United Kingdom diverges from EU rules. The system provides the underlying framework for the whole UK internal market, including Northern Ireland, while respecting the UK’s obligations under the protocol. I understand the nature of the noble Lord’s question, but reassurances have been given. Perhaps we need to give him further reassurances.