26/09/2002

Weaknesses in economy must be addressed says Sir Reg

Following on from this week's budget announcement, Economy Minister, Sir Reg Empey has told a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference that "historical weaknesses" in the economy must be addressed.

Speaking at the CBI’s annual lunch, Sir Reg said: "The Northern Ireland economy is relatively buoyant, but we have to dig deeper to recognise that the statistics can disguise recognised historical and structural weaknesses which need to be addressed."

The draft budget itself was more flexible in its treatment of the DETI and allows the department elbow room to address demands as they occur over the next three years, rather than introducing the traditional balance sheet handcuffs. As it stands, the draft budget proposes a lower limit of £239 million and an upper limit of £279 million for DETI in the coming financial year, with a £5 million increase in the band for each of the two subsequent years.

“The normal approach of making a fixed allocation either ties up resources unduly at the planning stage, often necessitating significant in-year adjustments, or runs the risk of providing insufficient resources to allow DETI and its businesses to pursue meaningful investment opportunities,” Sir Reg said.

The Minister added: "I am determined that Northern Ireland will be a serious economic competitor in the age of the innovation-led, knowledge-driven and globally focussed regional economy. The challenge for us all is to establish a new mindset for business in Northern Ireland based on proactive, collective responsibility and the commitment of industry, government, academia and the financial sector.”

Elsewhere, the draft budget has come in for criticism from academics at Queen's and the University of Ulster, who contend that economic competitiveness will be undermined if the Executive does not rethink its spending plans for higher education.

In a joint statement, Vice-Chancellors Sir George Bain and Professor Gerry McKenna said they were "shocked" that nothing had been allocated to research in the draft budget announced yesterday.

The Vice-Chancellors said: "The continuing failure to fund world-class research at comparative levels to competitors will do lasting harm to our economic competitiveness and our future as a healthy, stable community."

They added: "Northern Ireland remains the poor relation of all the UK regions in terms of investment in university research and development. The draft budget does nothing to address our fears that Northern Ireland and its people could be consigned to the fringes of the new knowledge economy and the global marketplace with its exciting opportunities."

They have asked Employment and Learning Minister Carmel Hanna for an urgent meeting to discuss the situation.

(GMcG)

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