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Northern Ireland Investment Summit

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 23 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the success of the Northern Ireland Investment Summit held in Belfast in September.

The summit was a success. It was a truly global occasion, attended by 181 international investors from 24 countries, representing 130 companies and organisations. The Department for Business and Trade has had hugely positive feedback from the delegates. The summit sent a clear message about the opportunities and ambition of Northern Ireland. I am very grateful to Invest Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Office for their collaboration and partnership. Some 1,000 jobs were announced at the summit and more investments are expected as a result.

My Lords, I hope the Minister understands just how important his contribution was to the success of that conference. His hard work and enthusiasm went down very well and I have to say that he is more popular now in Northern Ireland than the Secretary of State. Could he have a gentle word with the Secretary of State and advise him not to go ahead with the suggested removal of industrial derating used for the purposes of manufacturing, because this would have a detrimental effect on businesses that are working so hard in that sector? Does the Minister agree that the decision not to award Northern Ireland levelling-up money from the latest round, because there is no Executive, is very strange given that, in the past, when there was no Executive, it having been brought down by Sinn Féin, the funding was given? Are there double standards operating?

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her compliments. The effort around the Northern Ireland Investment Summit was huge, and everyone played their part. I am pleased to say all parties also played their part, including Joe Kennedy III in his leadership as President Biden’s envoy to Northern Ireland. I will certainly review the concept with the Northern Ireland Office around the matter the noble Baroness mentioned, but I believe that our Secretary of State is a phenomenal advocate for Northern Ireland and a significant ambassador in encouraging investment, as is my noble friend Lord Caine, who spends much of his time travelling around the world getting more money into Northern Ireland, so that everyone can prosper.

My Lords, one of the messages that came out of the Northern Ireland Investment Summit was the need for political stability to encourage much needed investment, with Joe Biden even saying that US firms would be willing to pump billions of dollars into the Northern Ireland economy if there was more political stability. Recently, the Northern Ireland Secretary said talks to restore a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland were in their final phase. Will the Government provide an update on these negotiations?

I am not sure whether the Government provide an ongoing commentary for such sensitive, but very important, negotiations. However, for me it is cause for great optimism that, a few weeks ago, Joe Kennedy III led a delegation, as a follow-up to the Northern Ireland Investment Summit, where a number of United States companies announced specific investments. Some 70 companies and business leaders accompanied him, so the appetite is there regardless. We totally push for a resolution to the formation of the Executive because we know that there is more to come.

My Lords, I had the privilege of being in Northern Ireland in October and seeing at first hand the vibrant business scene that is operating there. Is there perhaps more we can do across government, particularly from the departments which are involved in foreign travel and foreign engagement, to more coherently showcase what many of these small and medium-sized enterprises—not only in Northern Ireland but across the United Kingdom—are achieving?

I am grateful to my noble friend for asking that question, although I am sorry not to see her sitting alongside me on the Front Bench. She is quite right; there is always more to do, and my noble friend Lord Offord announced recently a further package to encourage exports, not only from Northern Ireland but from the rest of the United Kingdom. We continue to work very hard in the Department for Business and Trade to ensure that our message is spread throughout the world. The Harrington review, which has been very favourably received by the Government and commented on in the Autumn Statement yesterday, goes further in talking about ensuring that we have the resources and the right technologies and systems to encourage further investment in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, Northern Ireland scores highly on any indices of a place to live and work and to invest, so I welcome the success of the summit. However, these summits are only so good if they are repeated. What plans does my noble friend have to repeat an investment summit in Northern Ireland? In the event that there is going to be one—and I hope it will become a regular event—what plans can he suggest to involve more people from this House, who might be able to contribute some expertise and ideas towards it?

I am grateful to my noble friend for that prompt. The Northern Ireland Investment Summit was itself ultimately funded by an initiative led by our current Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am determined to ensure that we follow up, which is why, this week, we hosted a round table at No. 10 with venture capitalists, to encourage investment in Northern Ireland. We supported Joe Kennedy’s mission and we have many more projects and plans to come. However, I note my noble friend’s recommendation for a further summit. It is something I would certainly celebrate, but we have to ensure that we can pay for it and that it would deliver strong value for money for the taxpayer.

My Lords, there appears to be rare harmony between the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the Minister and myself. This was clearly a very successful event. Does the Minister put a strong measure of that success down to the fact that Northern Ireland has a unique opportunity, with access to both the EU and the UK markets? Is the Minister pushing that key selling point?

I must say that I am delighted that my friend the noble Lord, Lord Fox, from the Liberal Democrat Benches is rejoicing and celebrating the benefits of Brexit, because that is exactly what the Windsor Framework delivers. It puts Northern Ireland in a unique place to benefit precisely from the regulatory environments and frameworks that we have in this nation, while at the same accessing the goods and markets in the European Union.

My Lords, coming from Northern Ireland, I am well aware of the success of the investment conference and the large number of investors who came from the United States, along with the economic envoy, Joe Kennedy III. However, would the Minister agree that it would be much better if there was a restoration of the political institutions to underpin our local economy in Northern Ireland and provide that necessary confidence to potential investors? Will the Minister, along with Invest NI, investigate the need for a more equal distribution of those potential investors looking at sites in Northern Ireland with a view to further investments and job opportunities to avail themselves of the Windsor Framework and access to both markets?

I completely agree with the noble Baroness on the need to come to a conclusion over forming a stable political environment for businesses to invest in Northern Ireland. I reassure her that the United States is not the only market that invests heavily in Northern Ireland. Across the world, particularly in Asian countries such as Japan, there is enormous interest in taking advantage of the skills in Northern Ireland. It is not simply the opportunities presented by the Windsor Framework; it is the opportunities presented by the people of Northern Ireland and their brains and brilliance.

I declare my interest as a former Minister of Commerce in Northern Ireland. Having travelled around the world raising interest in investment in Northern Ireland, I confirm what my noble friend has just said. There was immense attention to the sheer quality of the training and skills in Northern Ireland, particularly then in the aeronautical sector, in Harland & Wolff, and in a number of other high-tech electronic industries—Japan was especially interested. This was some decades ago, but now that we have a renewed and strong interest in links of every kind with Japan, is that aspect to be emphasised in Northern Ireland?

I thank my noble friend for that point and I agree with him. We have a renewed staff level in Belfast to encourage this type of investment, and I hope that they will continue their excellent work.

My Lords, like everyone else in your Lordships’ House, I too welcome the recent summit and hope that there will be an increase in good news following it. Can the Minister tell me to what degree does the rate of corporation tax impact our economy and the attraction of foreign investment, bearing in mind that the rate today is 25% while in the Republic of Ireland it is 12.5%?

I am grateful for that question and the opportunity to discuss matters of tax. Yesterday, the Chancellor announced in his Autumn Statement a raft of incredibly powerful measures to ensure that businesses are competitive, that we invest and that we can create the jobs for our modern future economy. It is crucial to remember—and the point is often made in this House—that fiscal responsibility is the central component of good government finances. That is what my investor base looks forward to—predictability, certainty and decent long-term returns—and that is what we are providing.