Northern Ireland

Labour Party to examine Northern Ireland economy through independent commission

Ivan Lewis will outline how the economic commission will work to delegates at the Labour Party conference on Monday
Image caption Ivan Lewis outlined how the economic commission will work to delegates at the Labour Party conference

The Labour Party is to set up an independent commission to examine the economy in Northern Ireland and investigate how those on benefits or on low pay can be assisted.

The plan was announced at the Labour conference on Monday by Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Ivan Lewis.

He outlined how the economic commission would work.

It will be chaired by Deirdre Heenan, University of Ulster pro-vice chancellor, and Colin Anderson.

Mr Anderson, who is an advertising executive based in Belfast, and Ms Heenan will be supported by a panel of experts and will produce a final report next February.

They have been asked by the Labour Party to come up with recommendations to help those who are on benefits or low pay and who feel excluded from society.

Labour said their recommendations would help form their policies should they win next year's general election.

"I am delighted to announce that we are estabnblishing an independent commission, with a remit to improve opportunities for those who currently have no stake in the economy and are at the margins of their communities," Mr Lewis said.

"It will consider how an incoming Labour government can most effectively make a difference working in partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive."

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Image caption The Northern Ireland economy was the main thrust of the speech by Mr Lewis

Mr Lewis also used his conference address to call on the government to consider appointing an independent talks chair to help the parties at Stormont solve the outstanding issues of flags, parades and the past.

'Most fragile'

He told the delegates: "Despite so much progress, the political situation in Northern Ireland is at its most fragile for many years.

"Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness have done an impressive job in promoting Northern Ireland globally and attracting significant inward investment.

"However, the executive has failed to make political progress on legacy issues, such as flags, parades and the past.

"The unionist parties withdrawal from talks, their threat of a graduated response to a disputed parades commission decision together with Sinn Féin and SDLP's unwillingness to move forward on welfare reform have fuelled mistrust and growing public dissatisfaction.

"Treasury penalties for the non-implementation of welfare reform will cost Northern Ireland £87m this year, rising to £114m next year, and with other financial pressures threaten deep cuts to frontline services.

"All of this has taken place against a background of the government's political disengagement from Northern Ireland."

Mr Lewis called on the Irish and British governments to provide a framework for talks that he said were needed to try and break the political logjam.

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, said the announcement of an independent commission to examine the economy was "the clearest admission yet he and the Labour Party have no serious plan of their own".

The spokesman said: "It's extraordinary that eight months before an election the best they can do is sub-contract their economic policy to an outside body. "

Regional pay rates

SDLP Foyle MP Mark Durkan said: "If the independent commission established by the Labour Party tries to address questions around the Welfare Reform Bill which is stuck in the assembly they would need to offer light on the darker implications of the welfare cap.

"I also hope that this commission which will look at benefits and low pay will definitively rule out two dangerous ideas which the Labour Party has offered in recent years.

"One is the idea of different regional pay rates which they were framing in government in the last parliament.

"The other is the idea of regionalising benefits rates which they proposed in this parliament when debating the Welfare Reform Bill."

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