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27 Nov 2002 : Column 301continued
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): The loss of 207 jobs and some £11 million to the local economy has obviously had a devastating effect on employees and their families. I have asked Invest Northern Ireland to work with the liquidator to try to identify an investor for the Belfast factory, and the Department for Employment and Learning is advising the work force on employment and training opportunities and on social security matters.
Dr. Cable : Is the Minister aware of the problem arising from the fact that the workers have lost not just their jobs, but 60 per cent. of their pensions because the ownersthe Irish Government and ICIchronically underfunded the pension scheme? Will he and his colleagues approach the Irish Government on behalf of the workers who have lobbied us in London and appeal to them to honour their moral obligations to the work force?
Mr. Pearson: I met trade union representatives from the company and the local management last month. I have been in contact with both shareholders, the Irish Government and ICI, and I am seeing the chief executive of ICI tomorrow. I take a close interest in the issue. It strikes me that four pension funds are involved and the position remains unclear. I am committed to doing all that I can to ensure that the work force get their full entitlement.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): I welcome what the Minister is doing to deal with the problem. The workers have been treated in a shabby and despicable way by a blue-chip British company and the Irish Government, with whom there is supposed to be a special relationship. May I urge him to do everything in his power to ensure that pension rights and other rights of workers, and the rights of creditors, are protected?
Mr. Pearson: The Irish Government and ICI have put together a funding package of some Euro24.5 million for severance payments, and they have agreed to subordinate loans to ensure that creditors are paid. The important thing is that if jobs can be saved and a new investor can be found, we should be doing that. We must also make sure that the work force receive their full entitlement through pension arrangements and that the money owing to them in redundancy is paid out.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): The consultation on the Burns proposals indicated an emerging consensus for the ending of the transfer tests, which the hon. Gentleman and I would
Sir Teddy Taylor: Does not the Minister seek to abandon the shameful and destructive policy, initiated by Martin McGuinness, of abolishing the selection test? Does she agree that the absence of a clear judgment in these matters will undermine a facility that provides opportunities for able children from working-class homes to break through class barriers and ensures that Northern Ireland has better A-level results than England, Scotland or Wales?
Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman is right in that the education system does well for certain very able pupils in Northern Ireland. I assure him that no decisions have been taken about academic selection or new post-primary arrangements. In the consultation, various suggestions were made for future arrangements, including options involving academic selection. My officials have been discussing those proposals with the education partners and parents' representatives, and they will continue to do so over the coming weeks.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Will the Minister give us a commitment that she will continue to support our grammar schools in Northern Ireland, just as her Government support the remaining grammar schools here in Great Britain? Will she acknowledge that it is now being acknowledged here that the comprehensive system has been failing pupils for far too long?
Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman makes a forceful point, but he will know that the consultation on the Burns report indicated an emerging consensus, which, I hope he will accept, included political parties, on an end to the transfer test. I am confident that by working with our education partners and by keeping our focus on the interests of the child, we can develop a modern, fair education system that enables all children to fulfil their potential.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): The Northern Ireland economy has witnessed significant improvements in recent years. Employment growth has been sustained with some 656,000 employees now in employment, the highest figure on record. Unemployment has also fallen considerably, now standing at 6.3 per cent., well below the European Union average. Forecasts for the local economy remain optimistic for the coming year.
Mr. Chapman : Does my hon. Friend agree that in manufacturing, traditionally a weak area of the Northern Ireland economy, dramatic improvements in productivity have taken place, making Northern Ireland an ever more attractive market for inward investment? Does he agree also that that could not have been achieved without the stability and confidence provided by the Good Friday agreement, and that further progress in that direction may be hindered without its full implementation?
Mr. Pearson: I totally agree. Manufacturing throughout the UK and Europe has been having a tough time in recent years, but in Northern Ireland it has been holding up very well. Over the last four years, manufacturing output went up by over 10 per cent., compared with a 5 per cent. decline in the UK. Business research and development increased by 40 per cent. last year, and productivity, which was 10 per cent. lower than in the UK, is now reaching UK levels. Those are all promising signs, and we must ensure that we continue to move forward and sustain, and improve on, that impressive track record.
David Burnside (South Antrim): The Minister must agree that economic progress depends on stability in the institutions of government, whether across the United Kingdom or in the regions. What are he and his colleagues doing to ensure that we have stable devolved government that is not under the constant veto of a paramilitary terrorist organisation, Sinn Fein, and that we are rewarded with accountable government at Stormont to help in the economic promotion of the Province?
Mr. Pearson: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and others are doing all they can to make sure that we get the Assembly and the Executive back up and running as soon as possible. In the meantime, while we are asked to perform the job of Ministers, we will do so to the best of our ability to ensure that we have a stable economic climate in Northern Ireland, which is crucial to future business prosperity and success.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Will the Minister discuss with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the possibility of introducing legislation to prevent the market distortion affecting the Northern Ireland economy whereby offers of retail products, life insurance and car insurance are restricted to the United Kingdom, excluding Northern Ireland? It is neither fair nor appropriate to a market economy that such discrimination is allowed to endure.
Mr. Pearson: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. On a number of issues, the interests of Northern Ireland's economy are different and diverge from those of the United Kingdom. He mentions one of those issues; others include cross-border smuggling. They are all matters on which one would expect representations to be made to the UK Government, and they are.
Mr. Pearson: I dispute that. The simple fact is that the Northern Ireland economy is not in a fragile state. Manufacturing businesses are doing well, and we have a young, well-educated and highly committed work force. Northern Ireland is a great place for inward investment and we are holding our market share in that respect. There is every reason to believe that the prospects for Northern Ireland's economy are good and will remain good in future.