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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs Robinson) on securing this Adjournment debate. At the outset, I join her in condemning the arson attack in her constituency and the killing that took place in Newtownards yesterday.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments and for raising her concerns about the current economic situation in her constituency, and it is important that I respond to a number of those points. Although I accept that there have been a number of regrettable job losses in her constituency over the past few yearsshe mentioned some of themI would not want her or anyone else in Northern Ireland to think for a moment that the Government do not care about them, and I reject entirely her view that the playing field is uneven. Invest Northern Ireland is active in her constituency, and, in the time available, I should like to explain some of the positive things that the Government are doing to help her constituents.
The hon. Lady mentions last month's announcement that TK-ECC is to close its Dundonald operation with the loss of 550 jobs. That is regrettable, and I share the hon. Lady's concerns about the effects on those who are losing their jobs and the impact on their families and the wider community. The difficulties facing the company had been evident for some time, and Invest Northern Ireland had worked closely with management to try to find a way to resolve those issues. However, despite that approach and the hard work done by the local management team and the work force to make TK-ECC more competitive, all those considerable efforts were not enough to prevent the German parent company deciding to close its Dundonald subsidiary and transfer production to Romania.
The hon. Lady mentioned a number of specific issues, and she will know that a meeting has taken place. Officials in my Department are well aware of the pensions situation, and are in discussions with the trustees and the company, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.
On the disposal of the land, the hon. Lady knows that a decision was taken back in 1995 to sell the land. It was Government policy at that time to sell fully developed sites, whichI have checked the recordswas done at fair market value. I have various criticisms of the previous Conservative Government, but they cannot be criticised for selling that property on the cheap.
Although that closure announcement and other closure announcements are a major blow, much positive progress has been made in the hon. Lady's constituency in recent years. In February 2004, unemployment in her constituency stood at 2.6 per cent. That is lower than the 3.2 per cent. average for Northern Ireland, and it ranks Strangford as the constituency with the joint-6th lowest claimant count rate out of Northern Ireland's 18 parliamentary constituencies.
Invest Northern Ireland is building on the growth that has taken place in the hon. Lady's constituency. The agency is very active, with around 110 client companies employing more than 5,000 people. Since it was set up in 2002, it has offered more than £3 million of assistance to companies in Strangford, which have brought forward projects with a total investment of more than £12 million. To date, it has assisted around 270 business start-ups in the areaan encouraging indication of the scope for supporting and developing a more entrepreneurial culture.
We have limited time in this debate, and it is not possible to refer to all the successful companies in Strangford, but let me single out one example to help to demonstrate the innovative and entrepreneurial culture that exists in the constituency. That company is Bridgedale Outdoor, which employs around 70 people in Newtownards. Bridgedale's innovative high-added-value technical socks for extreme sports have made the company a leading player in the outdoor clothing sector. Its products are sold across the world through a distribution network taking in more than 44 countries, from Australia to the Americas. The company is an excellent example of how a forward-thinking company can survive and thrive in the challenging textiles and clothing sector. Invest Northern Ireland has helped Bridgedale to become a key player in its field. The support that it offers to many companies in Strangford covers a broad range of measures aimed at helping businesses to increase their capability and to develop their international competitiveness.
As a Government, we are directly enabling the provision of land for industrial development. Invest Northern Ireland's main holding is 4.6 acres at Newtownards, and around a further 24 acres are zoned for development at Comber. I assure the hon. Lady that the Government continue to be committed to the continuing economic development of the Strangford constituency, just as we are committed to the economic development and future prosperity of Northern Ireland as a region.
The hon. Lady raised several planning issues and mentioned roads in Comber. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), will have heard her comments on planning matters, for which she has direct ministerial responsibility.
The hon. Lady mentioned high electricity prices in Northern Ireland. I have been extremely concerned about that issue during my time as a Northern Ireland Minister. Last year, I announced a proposal whereby electricity prices for non-domestic users will fall by 10 per cent. I am optimistic that we will be able to make progress on implementing that proposal. Northern Ireland Electricity recently announced a freeze in non-domestic prices. That is the first instalment of the Government's action.
The hon. Lady mentioned the fishing industry. I am aware of the problems that the industry has faced in Portavogie, Kilkeel and Ardglass in her constituency. Those areas have come under significant pressure, which involves not just the fishing community but the wider community at the southern end of the Ards peninsula. As she will recall, I established a taskforce in January 2003 to address the socio-economic effects of some of the changes taking place in the fishing industry. The hon. Lady mentioned the integrated development fund and she might, perhaps, have forgotten that that fund also applies to the fishing villages taskforce. I have already indicated that money from the fundup to £5 millionwill be made available for a package of measures to support the fishing communities of County Down, including Portavogie.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the proposed tie-up scheme, which I am confident will be launched shortly. Our proposals are with the European Commission, from which we are awaiting final approval. The scheme is designed to provide some compensation to fishermen denied the opportunity to catch cod and other white fish in the Irish sea during the closure period, and it will inject up to £1.5 million into the Northern Ireland fishing industry. I know that several of the hon. Lady's constituents will be among those able to take advantage of the scheme, and we will implement it as quickly as possible once we have approval. That scheme is in addition to the most recent fishing vessels
The hon. Lady will also be aware of the Cabinet Office strategy unit report on the fishing industry published today, which I welcome. I want to discuss its findings with the industry, and I need some time to study it, but it is a positive development, which shows the Government's commitment to a sustainable fishing industry for the long term.
The Government are committed to working in close partnership with local councils and other key stakeholders to promote the sustained economic development of the Strangford constituency. I welcome the hon. Lady's close interest in what the Government are doing to support jobs in her constituency, and I want to close by reassuring her that we will continue to work to promote economic prosperity in Strangford and