Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Threat of closure at DVA office is a licence to lobby

It has been an eye-opening first week for Robert Goodwill (below), the new junior transport minister. One of the issues he now has to deal with is the proposed closure of the Driver and Vehicle Agency in Coleraine, part of a rationalisation process in the DVLA that could see 1,200 jobs lost in 39 offices across the UK.

On Tuesday, he came face to face with what Jim Shannon cheerfully described as "a bevy of Northern Ireland MPs".

Never mind those other regional offices, he was told over and over again by the DUP, SDLP and Alliance. There are "unique circumstances that prevail in Northern Ireland".

It is likely the minister was already aware of that. He revealed that the First Minister raised the fate of the Coleraine office with David Cameron last Friday.

"The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland telephoned me on Sunday to discuss it personally," he said. "Talk about friends in high places."

After Tuesday's debate, Mr Goodwill may be wondering if the needs of his Scarborough constituents carry half as much weight at Westminster as those of people in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland's representatives in the Commons are masters at what has been termed "collective begging".

The new minister, having listened to an hour and 49 minutes of it, will be in no doubt that our MPs punch well above their weight – especially where jobs are concerned.

Gregory Campbell set the tone of the debate. "The Prime Minister came, last week, to try to bring jobs to Northern Ireland, so the last thing we want to see, as a result of the consultation that closed a few weeks ago, is his Government taking jobs from Northern Ireland.

"Two hundred and thirty people are involved in Coleraine and more than 100 are involved in the rest of Northern Ireland through the various sub-offices.

"The employment of 200 more people, on top of that, depends on the DVA in Northern Ireland. Should centralisation go ahead to Swansea, the total wage loss to the Northern Ireland economy would be in excess of £11m annually.

"That would lead to a total economic loss of about £20m to Northern Ireland."

Margaret Ritchie was more precise. "The removal of £22.2m from the Northern Ireland economy will have an impact on all its sectors, notably wholesale and retail trade, accommodation spaces, food services, entertainment and recreation, plus financial services, property, housing and the supply industries," she warned.

Every sector will be affected, every constituency will lose jobs. The Assembly has spoken with one voice – Northern Ireland must be protected.

Poor, mild-mannered Mr Goodwill listened patiently to this litany. What should he do? He is a politician, so he suggested a meeting would be the best way forward.

"I stress that no decisions will be made until after that meeting," he told MPs. "

No firm timetable has been set, but we expect a decision by the end of this year, or early next year."

Plenty of time, then, for Northern Ireland's special case to be pleaded again.

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