With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 3 and 12 together.
As of 30 January 2012, Invest NI, through its newly established enquiry handling team, has received a total of 3,214 new enquiries, via the 0800 number, online and text response, since the launch of the Boosting Business campaign on 14 November 2011. That is against an overall campaign target of 2,500 enquiries.
A large number of those businesses and individuals have been supported with a range of advice, guidance or Invest NI programme support, while others have been referred to Departments and agencies — for example, DEL, DARD, HMRC, and local councils — or to business information websites such as the Northern Ireland business information website, nibusinessinfo.co.uk, as appropriate.
An example of the positive impact of the Boosting Business campaign includes the Focus on Finance events organised at various locations across Northern Ireland. Demand for the six initial events was such that three additional events were run in January — two in Belfast and one in Newry. In total, 527 delegates across the wider business base attended those events, with 276 businesses subsequently signing up for up to five days’ free consultancy to address specific financial issues.
Invest Northern Ireland has also organised three ABC of Selling seminars, aimed at helping delegates improve their selling skills and getting practical tips on how to increase sales, close a deal, manage a sales force and develop an effective sales strategy.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive answer. The figures that she cited are impressive, but, at the end of the day, we want to see the creation of jobs. Can the Minister give any indication of how many jobs have been created as a result of all the figures on enquiries etc that she has given? We want to see jobs on the ground. Thank you.
The Member will know that jobs is just one part of the Boosting Business initiative. There are five parts to Boosting Business: jobs; exports; research and development; new technologies; and skills. To date, across the various job fund measures, a total of 1,796 jobs have been promoted, of which, before the question is asked, 378 have been created.
Exporting is one of the five themes of the Boosting Business initiative. We have been quite successful in that area, but, as we are coming from quite a low base, there is much more to do. Last week, figures were released by the Department that showed a 9·5% increase in exports, which was very pleasing. I have also been trying to encourage firms to export to the BRIC countries, and exports to those countries were up by 29·7%. I think that that is telling and demonstrates that firms are looking to export to different places. They have discovered that the world is a small place and that there are many opportunities in Brazil, Russia, India and China that people need to look at and take up. We want to do more with those companies to encourage them. In particular, we want to strengthen their supply bases in Northern Ireland, so that the companies and their supply chains are able to make gains.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister referred to the importance of research and development. How is the Boosting Business campaign helping to deliver a much needed increase in research and development amongst our local businesses? Has the Department seen an increase in the number of partnerships being forged between businesses and our colleges and universities?
We hope that the new Northern Ireland Advanced Composites and Engineering Centre will help with the research and development that is being taken up by small companies. That centre is available to big companies and to many smaller companies that do not have access to the sort of expertise and materials that are in that centre. We hope that companies that make up the supply chains of Bombardier, FG Wilson, Wrightbus and all the other big firms will take advantage of the facilities there.
We have also found that the innovation voucher scheme, through which small companies can buy in innovation expertise from the universities, has been hugely successful. That has worked well with both universities, the further education colleges and the agricolleges. There is a lot going on, but there is always more to do. We need to continue with research and development and innovation and trying to be innovative ourselves.
Does the Minister accept that, for many small businesses that are starting off, some sort of start-up help is important? What consideration has she or her Department given to returning to some sort of start-up grant? How much is being invested in the Boosting Business campaign?
I know that the Member is probably looking back to the days when companies that completed the Go For It programme were given a grant of £400. We currently give assistance in the region of £1,500 to those who are not in education, employment or training and decide to set up a new business. We also assist those who want to set up a business in a neighbourhood renewal area with slightly less than that — I think it is £1,000. Money is available in those two areas. When an evaluation was done on the £400 that was given to Go For It programme applicants, it was found that it did not make the difference that was needed for some. However, I accept that we are now in different economic times, and that it may need to be looked at again. I will do that.
I do not have the entirety of the figures on how much we are spending on Boosting Business. However, I am happy to write to the Member with those figures.
When the Programme for Government was put forward, there was talk of 25,000 jobs being created. I asked the Minister whether she would use think tanks or other ways of discussion with business that would lead to the creation of jobs, and she recommended the Boosting Business campaign. However, when I looked at it, I must admit that I could not see how it would do that. Today, we heard —
The Member will know that I meet various business forums almost every week, and I work with them. My most recent encounter with the business community was a discussion about whether it felt that the economic strategy was going in the right direction and what other things needed to be included in it. As the Member knows, the strategy is out for consultation at the moment. If there are issues that the business community wants to raise with me, I will, of course, listen to it. I have done so and will do so in the future.