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Focus on young people and NI Protocol at House of Commons committee meeting

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Ms Watt cited a survey carried out by her organisation which revealed that, while students are attracted to a different life experience away from home, community relations and a belief that the Executive does not represent them is a significant factor in choosing to leave. (stock photo)

Ms Watt cited a survey carried out by her organisation which revealed that, while students are attracted to a different life experience away from home, community relations and a belief that the Executive does not represent them is a significant factor in choosing to leave. (stock photo)

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Ms Watt cited a survey carried out by her organisation which revealed that, while students are attracted to a different life experience away from home, community relations and a belief that the Executive does not represent them is a significant factor in choosing to leave. (stock photo)

The Brexit Protocol has given Northern Ireland a business edge, but the benefits must be shared across the community, crucially with investment and support for the most disadvantaged, MPs have been told.

A plan also should be drawn up to reach out to the thousands of students that leave every year, but never return, the House of Commons’ NI Affairs Committee heard.

An estimated 17,000 leave the region every year to study elsewhere and 64% do not return, Ann Watt, director of the Pivotal Public Policy Forum think tank and former head of the Electoral Commission, told committee members, including Ian Paisley, Claire Hanna and Gregory Campbell.

“It is often said talented young people are our biggest export,” Ms Watt said. “We need to be retaining more young people and attracting them back.”

Ms Watt cited a survey carried out by her organisation which revealed that, while students are attracted to a different life experience away from home, community relations and a belief that the Executive does not represent them is a significant factor in choosing to leave.

“They continue to see Northern Ireland as a divided society,” Ms Watt said, adding the findings were “quite stark” and “sobering”.

“There is no policy in place about returning talent,” she said, adding that one area that could be looked at is the cap on numbers able to attend Queen’s and Ulster University. There are many more applicants from here for places at the institutions, Ms Watt said.

The committee, in its first meeting of the new year, was taking testimony on investment in the region and its future.

Ms Watt said the two key issues were the skills deficit and infrastructure as she challenged the government here over whether there is enough ambition and long-term thinking.

Stability in government is crucial to draw investors, but she criticised the Executive for not looking at the longer term, that its members “need much more ambition”.

She took issue with one committee member praising the high standard of education here, acknowledging that there were many schools on a par with private institutions in England but noting significant inequality in the system.

Students on low incomes, particularly those described as being from Protestant communities, are far more likely to leave school early with none or few GSCEs or opportunities, she said, arguing that investing and supporting those young people will be hugely important going forward

Gareth Hagan, deputy chief executive at OCO Global, the investor consultancy firm, told the committee that he sees the NI Protocol, and the unique open access to both GB and the EU, as an advantage.

Market access is fundamental to business and any region would regard it as a “very competitive advantage”, Mr Hagan said.

Companies know this and it already has a name among some in business circles, the "Almac Advantage", after the Craigavon-based biotechnology firm that is investing heavily following Brexit and the introduction of the protocol, Mr Hagan said.

Mr Hagan said investors are not necessarily detracted by sporadic violence but do appreciate political stability. But the bigger issue is that many are simply have no awareness of the region at all, including where it is, he said, adding this can be advantage as they have no knowledge of its history.


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