NI Assembly’s Ad-Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response
Statement from the Economy Minister
15 April 2020
Economy Minister Diane Dodds MLA made a statement to the Assembly’s Ad-Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response on Wednesday. Some of the key points are below as well as questions from MLAs:
- The Minister said she expects “significant falls” in GDP in Q2 of this year.
- 15,000 businesses have received the £10k grant (totalling around £150m). As of last Friday, the scheme is now extended to support small industrial businesses that qualify for industrial derating, covering around 2500 additional businesses.
- The £25k grant scheme opens on Monday 20 April – over 4,000 businesses will benefit, mainly those in the hospitality, tourism, leisure and retail sectors. Businesses will be required to apply for the scheme with the portal fully operable from 20 April, with payments released as soon as applications are varied.
- The Minister said she has asked the Department of Finance if the three months rates holiday from April to June can be extended.
- At an Executive meeting on 10 April, the NI Executive agreed money for a further scheme and her Department is currently examining how this can be delivered and gaps filled. She hopes to be able to make an announcement on grants soon.
- The Minister and her Executive colleagues are in talks with UK Government about maintaining air links and connectivity to NI and a potential support package.
- Free courses on digital skills, including on cybersecurity, data analytics and robotics, will be made available to furloughed workers to allow them to use this ‘free’ time to upskill through the Department’s careers portal.
- In response to the Minister’s statement, Economy Committee Chairperson Caoimhe Archibald (Sinn Féin, East Londonderry) highlighted the Chambers’ survey released this week and issues concerning cash flow. She raised concerns over the three weeks it will take for the £25k grants to be administered and asked what the Minister can do to expedite these payments. The Minister said the £25k grants have been longer to process because the Department of Finance needed to ensure the web portal is fully functioning. Simple online application process.
- Referencing his participation in a Zoom call with the Londonderry Chamber and its members on Friday, Gary Middleton (DUP, Foyle) asked the Minister when clarity will be available on essential workers and businesses. She said advice from the Stakeholder Engagement Forum is summarised in a paper to be brought to the NI Executive this Friday 17 April and she expects it will be published “reasonably soon thereafter”. However, First Minister Arlene Foster told BBC Good Morning Ulster on Thursday that she is “not sure why people would be waiting” on the publication of the list.
- Sinead McLaughlin (SDLP, Foyle) asked for further clarity on self-employment support. The Minister said she is in constant engagement with the Chancellor and the Treasury about swift payments for both the Job Retention scheme and the self-employed workers. However, she said there were more difficulties with those who have become self-employed within the last year.
- John Stewart (UUP, East Antrim) pressed for quicker release of cash to businesses and asked if the Minister would look into replicating Wales’s £500m Economic Resilience Fund which provides grants to business of up to £100k. She said that Invest NI has been tasked with looking at schemes to help the local economy recover and said she would be “going to the NI Executive and asking for a considerable investment in Northern Ireland businesses and the Northern Ireland economy to help us recover”.
- Andrew Muir (Alliance, North Down) criticised the Department for the Economy for being “behind the curve” and behind the rest of the UK in terms of getting funds quickly to businesses, in particular on the £10k grants. The Minister said that her department have paid those businesses that they had bank details for but said those businesses whose details they do not have need to apply. She said it is a matter of encouraging and reminding businesses to apply and said there are not tens of thousands of applications outstanding.
- Mervyn Storey (DUP, North Antrim) raised the issue of coach operators impacted by the hit to the tourism industry. The Minister said she is aware of the issues but said she “can’t give a specific guarantee on a specific example”.
- Matthew O’Toole (SDLP, South Belfast) referenced the data from the Chambers’ survey which suggests that nearly half of all businesses are not trading and asked if the Minister agreed that it is “absurd” that the UK Government does not intend to seek an extension to the Brexit transition. The Minister said her focus was on the COVID-19 crisis.
- Steve Aiken (UUP, South Antrim) asked whether the Minister is seeking to extend the current rates holiday from 3 months to 6 months and beyond. The Minister said this would be a very significant contribution and said we should extend the rates scheme to match those in the rest of the UK.
- Rosemary Barton (UUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone) raised the issue of multiple premises owners. The Minister said the Executive decided that the £10k and the £25k grants would be available on a one-grant-per-business basis but said she is aware of significant issues.