This month marks the one-year anniversary of the G8 summit held at Lough Erne. It was a fantastic event that showcased just how much Northern Ireland has changed, as well as telling the world about the investment opportunities Northern Ireland can offer to business. And it kick-started a series of events which has already led to new jobs announced at Convergys in Londonderry, EY in Belfast, and I hope more to come.
This month also includes the anniversary of the publication of the Economic Pact: Building a Prosperous and United Community. In that pact, the Prime Minister, First Minister and deputy First Ministers and I together agreed a series of measures to build a stronger economy and a shared future.
Twelve months on from signing the pact, we have an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made and consider some of the further challenges that lie ahead.
The UK Government has cut corporation tax rates, reduced regulation, and introduced a new allowance for employer national insurance, helping every small business in Northern Ireland. Our deficit reduction plan has kept interest rates at near-historic lows, keeping costs down for businesses and households.
The economy in Northern Ireland and across the UK as a whole is significantly healthier than it was a year ago. The Government’s long-term economic plan is working.
I continue to work closely with the Executive on economic policy, for example through the ministerial task force on banking and access to finance. Within weeks of signing the Economic Pact, we had extended our highly successful start-up loans scheme to entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland.
The Economic Pact also contained a commitment to create an enterprise zone and this is now under way near Coleraine. The enhanced capital allowances which come with an enterprise zone and which reward business investment mean that 5NINES have already announced plans for a £20 million investment for Coleraine.
These steps will help to create the environment required for business to invest and grow. But too often hard working people find themselves tied up in red tape. We are determined to be the first Government to have fewer regulations at the end of the Parliament than at the beginning. Our Red Tape Challenge has helped identify over 3,000 regulations which we expect to have improved or scrapped altogether by the end of the Parliament.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has her own project under way to look at the costs of regulation. This was another important part of the Economic Pact and I hope it can help deliver significant savings to businesses here as soon as possible.
We also need continued progress on planning reform. A number of businessmen and women have told me of the difficulty they have in trying to get new premises built, with planning applications bogged down with lengthy challenges and litigation. Environmental concerns need to be taken seriously and given proper protection but it should be possible to do that without dragging out the planning process for years on end.
I know that the devolution of corporation tax powers is seen by many as the key to future prosperity. Reducing the rate to the same level of the Republic of Ireland has the potential to have a big impact and the Prime Minister will consider this carefully when he makes a decision on this in the autumn.
But on its own, corporation tax devolution is not a panacea. It would only deliver the maximum boost to prosperity in Northern Ireland if it goes hand-in-hand with the wider economic reform on issues such as business red tape, the planning system and the public sector.
The only effective way to rebalance the economy and boost the private sector is to ensure Northern Ireland provides the right conditions for enterprise to flourish. An important part of delivering that is by encouraging women to go into business. That is one of the reasons why I accepted an invitation from Roseanne Kelly and Kate Marshall to attend the highly successful conference event hosted by Women in Business NI at the Titanic Centre in Belfast.
The conference had a strong focus on nurturing the entrepreneurial talent of women in Northern Ireland. A key goal of the Government’s long-term economic plan is improved opportunities for women and we have made some real progress.
There are now more women in work than ever before, and more women than ever are running their own businesses. In Northern Ireland, there are now over 25,000 more female employees than men.
Since 2010, the gender pay gap has narrowed significantly and is almost non-existent for full time workers under 40. Forty per cent of successful applications for the Government’s start-up loans for entrepreneurs have come from women.
We are also helping many women with the cost of living. For example, we are introducing tax-free childcare from 2015, which will save working families up to £1,200 per child per year. 168,000 women across the UK will be taken out of income tax altogether by the Government’s changes to the tax threshold.
I commend the work of Women in Business NI. I was pleased to be able to support their conference for a second year in a row. I am confident that this year’s event will help all of those attending develop the confidence and skills they need to create or expand their businesses. That will give them the chance to play a real part in returning Northern Ireland to prosperity and I wish all of them every success.