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Invest Northern Ireland

3. Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): What measures Invest Northern Ireland is taking to assist economic regeneration in areas where substantial job losses are likely to occur within the next three months. [48306]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith): Invest NI has helped client companies throughout Northern Ireland become more entrepreneurial, innovative and internationally oriented, offering £400 million of
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assistance towards £1.5 billion of total planned investment. Where clients encounter difficulties, Invest NI proactively tries to avert redundancies. Where they prove unavoidable, Invest NI and the Department for Employment and Learning work closely with the company to minimise their effects.

Mr. Campbell: The Minister will be aware that 380 of my constituents and their families face a bleak future after Farm Fed Chickens announced its possible closure within three months. Will she ensure that Invest NI increases the lamentable number of potential inward investors in my constituency over the past few years so as to replace those jobs with durable, high-quality employment opportunities?

Angela E. Smith: I assure the hon. Gentleman that Invest Northern Ireland is already working with Farm Fed Chickens to look at ways in which we can help to research alternative markets. The Department for Employment and Learning is also providing advice and support for workers who have been made redundant. Invest Northern Ireland is demand-led and supports investors who want to invest in Northern Ireland. The key to ensuring that Invest Northern Ireland can attract investors is the skills of workers in Northern Ireland. That is why the skills and science fund, launched by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, is so important. It will ensure that we have the skills that attract investors to invest and create jobs in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): In taking measures to tackle recent unemployment, could we begin to develop a strategy to tackle long-term unemployment? Does the Minister agree that the best opportunities for economic growth lie in high-wage, high-value added technology? We need a greater focus on the newer technologies, especially biotechnology, where we might not be as focused as we could be.

Angela E. Smith: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is where the focus is needed, and that is where the focus is. There is considerable investment in biotechnology to show that Northern Ireland can be a world leader in that area. The skills and science fund is the key to ensuring that we get those high-value technological jobs that will attract investors and create more sustainable long-term jobs in Northern Ireland.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the Minister accept that, as we go into yet another round of talks, they are once again about the constitutional issues and does she agree that we need to start focusing on the practical economic realities in Northern Ireland? In that context, will she agree to consider setting up an all-party forum to look in detail at the problems facing the Northern Ireland economy, accepting that such a format may be useful in the future for education and health issues?

Angela E. Smith: I guide the hon. Gentleman to the speech by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the Fabian Society, in which he made those very points about engaging everybody in looking at the future of Northern Ireland. We have several forums for debate and discussion on such issues and I am not sure that a
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further forum would add value. I can however give him a guarantee that the forums that we have will be used to ensure that we obtain investment and provide jobs, and we will ensure that the work force have the skills to take advantage of that investment. That is the key to attracting investment to provide long-term sustainable jobs.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): As we discussed in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee yesterday, there are several bright spots in the economy of Northern Ireland, but there are one or two problems. The Minister will be aware that many people in Northern Ireland are concerned that the Province is over-dependent on the public sector, which appears to be growing. What does she intend to do to redress that growing imbalance?

Invest NI has raised several concerns, such as the low spending on research and development by businesses, the low rate of business start-ups and the fact that Northern Ireland has the highest economic inactivity rates in the UK. Those are real problems and I wish the Minister well in tackling them. Can she tell us exactly what she will do to improve matters?

Angela E. Smith: The hon. Gentleman is quoting from my right hon. Friend's speech last week, in which he identified those very problems. The hon. Gentleman can be a little negative, as I pointed out to him yesterday, but employment levels are the highest ever, unemployment is the lowest average in the UK, manufacturing output is growing and is significantly higher than in the rest of the UK, and manufacturing exports are up. I take the point about the over-reliance on the public sector, which is why the review of public administration would reduce the number of councils from 26 to seven and reduce the number of public bodies. That is also why the work being done by Invest NI to grow the private sector is so important. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, but he should not underestimate the gains that are being made.

Hospital Waiting Times

4. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to reduce waiting times for hospital treatment in Northern Ireland. [48307]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): We are undertaking a dramatic reform programme in Northern Ireland. As regards in-patients, one year ago more than 4,000 patients were waiting more than 12 months on in-patient and day case waiting lists and nearly 1,000 waited more than 18 months. Within a few weeks, we will be on track to ensure that nobody in Northern Ireland will wait more than 12 months, and I will shortly announce further reductions in in-patient waiting lists.

Mr. Bailey: It is not altogether clear from my hon. Friend's reply whether that period includes the time from GP referral. Can he tell me what steps he is taking to ensure that the overall time delay is reduced?

Mr. Woodward: I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that question. Out-patient lists in Northern Ireland have been an especially huge problem and the number of
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people waiting for referrals has been considerable. Until recently, nearly one in nine people in Northern Ireland were on out-patient lists, and 10 per cent. of them were waiting for more than two years. For that reason, I have announced a dramatic reform programme for out-patient lists to ensure that by 2008 no patient will wait more than 13 weeks from time of consultation with a GP to seeing a consultant. We will bring an end to those lengthy lists by a programme of reform and investment.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): On behalf of all multiple sclerosis sufferers in Northern Ireland, I thank the Minister for his announcement yesterday of the release of an additional £2 million for MS sufferers who need access to beta interferon. In two years, I shall come back to check that no one is on the waiting list.

What targets has the Minister set to tackle child and adolescent psychiatry out-patient waiting times, which can extend to four years? What efforts will be made to enhance work force capacity in that speciality?

Mr. Woodward: I pay tribute to the hon. Lady's work with the Multiple Sclerosis Society on the campaign to help to bring about the announcement that I made yesterday. There are 163 people waiting for treatment and they will indeed come off the list within the next two years, so nobody will wait.

On waiting times for mental health patients, I shall shortly make an announcement about mental health in Northern Ireland that will cover a broad spectrum, including those in mental health dealing with younger people. I hope that I shall be able to please the hon. Lady with an announcement similar to yesterday's.

Northern Ireland Assembly

5. Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): When he expects to lift the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. [48308]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): The Prime Minister and I have made it clear that 2006 is decisive for the process. I want the institutions restored as soon as possible, and we held constructive discussions with all the parties at Hillsborough on Monday to discuss the way forward.

Daniel Kawczynski: The right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) confirmed to me yesterday that his party will not take part in Stormont unless it is confident that the IRA has given up its weapons. Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that the Government will not try to bludgeon that party into submission? Only when it is confident that the IRA has given up its weapons will it agree to participate in the new chamber.

Mr. Hain: Knowing the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) as well as I have been able to do over past months, I can tell the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) that nobody tries to bludgeon him—or at least they do so at their peril, so I am certainly not going down that road.

Things cannot continue as they are: 2006 is a make-or-break year. The clock is ticking. The Assembly is costing £9 million a year, with Assembly Members not
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doing their jobs but receiving salaries and expenses averaging £85,000 a year. That situation cannot continue for ever and everybody realises that there must be some energy and momentum in the political process, which we intend to achieve.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Does the Secretary of State accept that many people in Northern Ireland feel that he has been dipping into his optimism pills too much—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must be heard. This is an important issue.

Mr. Robinson: In his timetable, the Secretary of State hopes that legislation on constitutional issues will be put before the House by April. Does he accept that, if he cannot make that journey in one step, a phased approach must be more sensible, so will he consider starting the process with a lower level of devolution?

Mr. Hain: That is one of the very proposals that the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends have put to me in their "Facing Reality" document, and it is one that we intend to discuss in some detail at the next meeting on 20 February. In the meantime, however, there is a legislative opportunity in the business programme to introduce legislation to take forward some of the detailed, comprehensive proposals of December 2004, to which his party made a major contribution, and I want to consult the other parties on the detail to get agreement to make that legislative change in April, if I can.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Has the Secretary of State noticed, when he walks down any high street in Northern Ireland, that there are more offices of Members of the Stormont Assembly than chemist's shops? Is it not time that we capped such public expenditure? I can accept all that he said earlier, but to put additional moneys on top of that this afternoon is unacceptable to his taxpayers and to mine.

Mr. Hain: I am not going to anticipate the debate this afternoon, but I will say that there is an additional point behind the one that my hon. Friend makes: the people of Northern Ireland are fed up with the fact that their politicians are not doing their jobs. People elected to an assembly ought to be in an assembly, up and running, doing their jobs, which is what these discussions are all about achieving. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I ask for quietness in the Chamber—otherwise, it is unfair.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that anyone wishing to participate in the national Assembly should relinquish any link with criminal activity and that, if they re-establish those links, they should be removed from the new national Assembly?
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Mr. Hain: We want to see criminality stamped out of Northern Ireland and not infecting its politics, whether on the republican or loyalist side. Last week's report from the Independent Monitoring Commission showed very extensive progress by the IRA, but there is still too much localised criminality, and we will continue to bear down on that and it must stop.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): We very much hope that the talks in the political initiative that the Government have now set in train will succeed and result in the restoration of inclusive devolution to Northern Ireland, but the right hon. Gentleman mentioned last week's IMC report. Does he accept that it confirmed, contrary to the views earlier voiced by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), that leading members of the republican movement are still involved in serious organised crime and that it would be unreasonable to expect—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Hain: I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the political process. I know that he and his party wish that it succeeds and I think that it can succeed. The IMC report, of course, pointed to localised criminality, which must be stopped, but it also made it absolutely clear—I am happy to quote all the passages—that criminal operations, including robberies, have been closed down and that the leadership of the Provisional IRA has set its objectives clearly on the strategic focus of political and democratic methods. He ought to welcome that, and I know that he does.

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