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COVID-19: Update on the Financial Position

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 19th May 2020.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 12:00 pm, 19th May 2020

Members, please take your seats again. We have also received notice from the Minister of Finance that he wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am happy to take the first question from Ms Sugden, if the discretion of the Chair allows it.

I wish to provide an update on the Executive's financial response to the coronavirus crisis. On 9 April, I advised that the Executive had received Barnett consequentials of some £1 billion, and we agreed allocations to Departments of £733 million. In addition, the following funding was held centrally: £150 million for personal protective equipment (PPE), £40 million for business support and £10 million for vulnerable people. A further £101 million was set aside for consideration at a later date. Since then, the Executive have received additional Barnett consequentials of £213 million, bringing the total to some £1·2 billion. The Executive have also agreed that £30 million of resource DEL that has been freed up by the reinstatement of confidence-and-supply funding will be used for COVID-19 response. This response is continuously evolving, and the Executive have been reacting at speed.

Further allocations were set out in the 2020-21 Budget document that was laid before the Assembly on 30 April. Those included setting aside some £95 million for support to the transport sector, £22 million for support for charities and £49 million for support for NHS workforce costs. The hardship fund for microbusinesses has used the £40 million held centrally for business support. Using funding from the £22 million that was set aside for charities, £6·75 million of support has gone to hospices, and £15·5 million has been allocated to the Department for Communities for a scheme targeted at charities.

Using the £95 million set aside for transport, a support package has been agreed in conjunction with Treasury and the Department for Transport in London to help airports and ferry operators maintain connectivity and key supply routes. The Executive's contribution is currently estimated at £3·3 million and £2·2 million respectively. The Department for Infrastructure has been allocated £30 million towards funding pressures relating to loss of income, in particular those faced by Translink. That builds on an extra £20 million that was allocated to Translink in the 2020-21 Budget. There remains some £59·5 million available for transport, which will be allocated at a future date.

The £10 million held centrally for support for vulnerable people has been allocated to the Department for Communities for the Supporting People programme. The total estimated cost of this support is some £14 million, and the Communities Minister is to be commended for the measures that she has taken to fund almost £4 million of this. This is an important programme that supports approximately 19,000 vulnerable individuals living independently.

Of the £150 million held for PPE, £61·3 million has been allocated to the Department of Health and £4·9 million to the Department of Justice to ensure that our front-line staff have the equipment that they need. There remains almost £84 million for future requirements. The £49 million consequential received in respect of NHS workforce costs has been allocated to the Department of Health in full.

A number of additional allocations were agreed by the Executive yesterday. These include £25 million to support farmers and the horticulture industry. Further detail on that scheme will be announced by the Minister of Agriculture in due course. A further £3·8 million has been provided to DAERA for waste management, treatment and disposal. I am also pleased that we have been able to provide £20·3 million to the Department for Communities to support local councils, which have delivered vital services during the COVID-19 crisis.

Members may also be aware of the difficult situation facing substitute teachers who are unable to be furloughed and face considerable loss of income. The Minister of Education and I wrote to the Treasury asking for substitute teachers here to be furloughed, as happened with our counterparts in England. That request was rejected, so the Executive have stepped up, and, to his credit, the Minister of Education has found £8 million from his own budget, and I am pleased to provide an additional £4 million, bringing the total fund for substitute teachers to £12 million. The Executive also agreed to provide £1·4 million to the Department for the Economy to support students who are facing hardship. It is hoped that the Department for the Economy will be able to consider topping that up from its own budget.

We are very grateful for the exceptional dedication shown by health workers during the pandemic, and that is why the deputy First Minister gave a commitment that health staff would not suffer a financial loss as a result of the strike action that they took earlier this year. I am pleased to make £1·6 million available to the Department of Health to honour that commitment.

Taking all of that into account, the Executive have £119·9 million available for allocation. It has been agreed that that sum will be used to extend the support currently provided to businesses through the business rates system. In March, I announced a £99 million scheme involving a three-month rates holiday for all businesses. Had we adopted the English model, 60% of business premises would be paying rates today. I said at the time that that time would be used to develop a new scheme to be targeted at the hardest-hit business sectors. Ulster University's economic policy centre was commissioned to assist my Department in developing that scheme. I would like to thank Gareth Hetherington, who produced such a helpful report in a very short space of time.

With the Executive only now emerging from lockdown, the economy is still in the early stage of recovery. Business and trade unions are still in the process of ensuring that the economy can operate in a way that is safe for workers and the general public. I have therefore decided to extend the rates holiday for all businesses for another month, until 31 July. The rates holiday will then move into its targeted phase, supporting sectors hardest hit by the pandemic for the rest of the financial year. That includes the hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors. All pubs, hotels, eating-out venues, guesthouses, campsites, sports facilities, tourist venues, cinemas and entertainment venues will pay no rates this financial year. Retail businesses, small local shops, large department stores, high-street and out-of-town retail will pay no rates this financial year. The exceptions are medium to large food stores and off-licences, which have continued to trade, albeit with higher costs. Those food retailers have really stepped up during this period by opening their stores and making adjustments to ensure safety for customers and staff. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. I also want to thank the workers in those food stores for continuing to provide a vital service during this difficult time.

The availability of childcare providers is severely impacted by the difficulty in maintaining social distancing. Therefore, they too will receive 100% rate relief until 31 March 2021. Our airports will continue to be adversely impacted for a considerable time to come, and it is vital that they be maintained through the crisis and can function after the pandemic passes. That is why Belfast City, Belfast International and the City of Derry airports will also receive 100% rate relief until 31 March 2021.

Together, that represents a £213 million rate support package for business. It brings the total support for businesses from rate relief and grants to more than £700 million, demonstrating the Executive's determination to protect livelihoods and jobs.

The cost for business rate support exceeds the funding currently available. There is a number of potential sources of additional funding, and I am confident that that overcommitment will be met. However, we can no longer wait; businesses need certainty now. For that reason, I am today announcing the rate relief for the rest of the financial year. I would like to thank my staff across the Department who have worked so hard on a number of fronts, including developing the support package. I appreciate that I have presented a lot of information for Assembly colleagues to consider. To assist with that, I have attached a table to the written version of this statement that summarises the agreed allocations. I trust that Members will find it to be helpful.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I now invite Members to ask concise questions to the Minister for a period of one hour. Some additional latitude will be given to the Chair of the Finance Committee.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for his statement and for the discussion that we had earlier today.

Speaking as Chair of the Finance Committee, I welcome the allocation of £1·2 billion over the past six weeks from our Government. It is great to see the real benefits of being part of our United Kingdom. I particularly thank the Department and the Minister for listening to the concerns of our Northern Ireland businesses, for the continued rate relief, and for its extension to key sectors, such as our vital hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors until the end of the financial year.

We also welcome the extension of rate relief to our airports until March 2021. I also note the £60 million that is available centrally for further support to our transport sector. It may indeed be needed to restore and maintain vital air and sea routes. Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am coming to my questions.

As we have already heard, additional support for our councils is also very welcome. However, as the year progresses, our councils will face additional increasing pressures. In particular, will the Minister commit, with other Departments, to provide clarity to all the businesses that are affected by the changes in rate relief, indicating clearly those that will benefit and those that will not?

Minister, if you have the opportunity, will you also comment on whether local newspapers are likely to get some additional support?

Finally, speaking as our party's finance spokesperson, we welcome the support for businesses, for the vulnerable and the continued support to our vital NHS and our transport sector. There is clearly a willingness to recognise that the crisis that we are in, but, last week, we heard from the First Minister that we would see an economic recovery plan —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 12:15 pm, 19th May 2020

Will the Member ask his question?

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

— and we have not seen that yet. Our party has asked repeatedly for a COVID-19 recovery plan to be the main Programme for Government focus. When are we likely to see a recovery plan that meets all those needs for the people of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I thank the Chairperson for his comments. Of course, there is such an enormous variety of businesses, and we are making a distinction in retail between the medium-to-large food sector and other retail. There is clarity for all businesses in that we are including all businesses up to 31 July, but I will ask the Department to be more definitive on which businesses are included beyond that date to the end of the financial year and which are not. It is impossible to go into the huge variety of businesses that we have here, and that includes newspapers. I know that local newspapers have been lobbying us all about the precarious position that they find themselves in, and I will make some enquiries in the Department on whether they become part of that ongoing package beyond 31 July. Of course, if they are paying rates, they are included and they will effectively have had a four-month holiday up to that point.

On the recovery plan, it is the responsibility of the Department for the Economy, and the Economy Minister has signalled to the Executive that she is moving towards being in a position to share some thoughts and some material with the Executive on a recovery plan. The study that we commissioned with Ulster University on the impact on businesses is available on the Department's website. I have recommended that study to Executive colleagues as well, because I think that that will inform any recovery plan that the Executive will develop.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I welcome the decision today. I have been calling for it for so long and I think that it is a no-brainer. It is the difference between businesses existing and not existing. One business in my constituency is due to make a loss of £200,000; its rate burden is £170,000, so this is the difference between existing and not.

The Minister has been pretty good at spending Barnett consequential money. The cost of the business rate support exceeds the funding that is available. Will the Minister tell us by how much it exceeds the funding and what work is being conducted to see what needs to be changed, or stopped, with regards to normal Budget functions. Households have made sacrifices on a daily basis, so when will they see the Executive make difficult decisions and make sacrifices themselves?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The Executive are making difficult decisions. The decision to overcommit is a difficult decision, but nonetheless, it is a vital decision to support businesses. People seem to think that the only difficult decisions that the Executive face are whether to charge households for additional services, and that if you do not make those decisions, somehow you are not stepping-up to the mark. Difficult decisions are to try to provide support to vulnerable people and communities at this time and to overcommit in relation to that. I am confident that the level of overcommitment is manageable. It is significant for the Executive and it is less than £100 million, but the business grants, which are due to close tomorrow, are forecast to cost less than the original estimate. That will go a considerable way to addressing that shortfall.

We have also commissioned a reprioritisation exercise across all Departments and that will allow the Executive to target money where it is needed most. It will be a combination of some of the money that we allocated to Departments that is unlikely to be spent. Departments have additional costs in responding to COVID-19, but there are other areas in which they will not spend money. We need to ensure that the Executive's priorities — supporting business and ensuring that business gets through the pandemic and out the other side is a significant priority — are met by the collective effort of all the Executive's Ministers.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement, which will be very welcome across many sectors. In particular, the childcare sector, which is struggling very much at this time, will greatly welcome the rate holiday. Sub teachers will also be very relieved today. They have waited for a long time, with bills piling up. I, therefore, welcome the Minister's intervention to provide funds to ensure that those teachers will receive financial assistance. Does he have any idea when those teachers are likely to receive the payments?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am very much aware of the hardship that sub teachers were facing. The Education Minister and I wrote jointly to the Treasury on 29 April to request access to the coronavirus job retention scheme. The Member will probably know that sub teachers in England are provided, in the main, through agencies, which meant that they were able to access the furloughing scheme through the coronavirus job retention scheme. Sub teachers here operate on a more ad hoc basis. They are basically on a list and are contacted in a less structured way and are not part of agencies. As a consequence, they were unable to access that scheme. So we pressed Treasury for a number of weeks to try and get some degree of support for sub teachers. The Education Minister and I have been pushing that case with Treasury. We only really got final word in the latter part of last week that Treasury was refusing to support our sub teachers in that fashion. That presented an inequality in how sub teachers were dealt with in Britain.

Nonetheless, we decided that if that effort was not successful, we would attempt to fund the scheme that the Department of Education had identified through our own resources. In fairness, the Department of Education came up with £8 million of that from its budget, and the Executive agreed on my proposition to add a further £4 million to that budget. That means that there is £12 million to support sub teachers until the end of June. The speed with which that money can be allocated is now a matter for the Department of Education because, as I said, it is a mixture of the funding that it has provided and the funding that we have provided. The scheme has been approved by the Executive, so it will be up to the Department of Education to get that out to the sub teachers as quickly as it can.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome all the allocations that have been made today, particularly money that has gone to Translink. I am sure that my colleague to my right will welcome the announcement on substitute teachers. In relation to the overcommitment made on business rates, while business rates are completely critical, the reason why they are critical is that they are the only politically acceptable revenue-raising tool that the Executive have. Will the Minister agree with me that we need a proper, joined-up, fiscal and economic response to this crisis? We need it from his Department and the Department for the Economy. It needs to be joined up and it needs to avoid hare-brained schemes like the one that is seeing his Department return £2 million this year thanks to a decision made by Sammy Wilson nearly a decade ago to subsidise —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Can we have a question?

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

— non-existent flights to North America. Will he come up with a joined-up fiscal and economic response to this crisis?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am happy to do that and will make every effort to do that. A joined-up response is the responsibility of the Executive as a whole, although I have a responsibility for making propositions. I know that he has raised the issue of air passenger duty (APD). That money is removed from the block grant. It is not something that we pay out. That is there to ensure that, if it is possible — every effort will be made to attract long-haul flights back — it is an incentive to offer for long-haul flights. If it is not there, there is no incentive to offer them. Previous Executives concluded that it was worth maintaining that particular arrangement in the hope that long-haul flights could be returned.

There is much greater traffic through Dublin now for most people on the island. The Executive could decide to change their approach to that or, perhaps, the Department for Infrastructure could have an influence there, but that was the purpose for which APD was held. In overall Executive spend, it is not the biggest amount of money, although, by anybody's reckoning, over £2 million is significant.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Minister for his statement. It is vital that this place and the Executive do all that they can to support people and businesses to get through the current crisis and the impending recession. The rates actions are to be welcomed. Obviously, there are concerns about the overcommitment around that, and I think that further reassurances will need to be given on how we will manage that.

My question touches on some of the other issues that have been raised. There is a need not just for rates actions but for that to be coupled with actions by the Department for the Economy to support businesses to get through this. Does the Minister have any idea of the scale of the financial commitment that will be required? Will we be able to assist businesses through further grant schemes to get through this because rates actions will not be the only thing that will be required to assist businesses to survive a recession?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Today's announcement, coupled with the grants scheme of, I think, over £300 million from the Department for the Economy, and the £40 million that we set aside for business hardship schemes, all come to in excess of £700 million worth of support that the Executive have provided for business. It is a significant injection in trying to keep our businesses. At the same time, the primary responsibility of the Executive is to keep the public safe and alive, so we have invested very heavily in the Health response to coronavirus. We have responded in three broad areas in our COVID spend: Health; supporting business; and supporting the most vulnerable in society. We have tried to spread the money across those areas to try and ensure that that would be effective.

Clearly, in relation to rates, the projection of the cost of that is based on the full intake of those rates. It is not money that we are spending; it is money that we are not collecting. I think that we can safely assume that not all businesses will be in a position to pay rates during the rest of this financial year. The estimate is based on all businesses continuing to pay rates. Clearly, businesses will struggle to come out of this, even those where restrictions are lifted, and that is why we targeted the support. Whilst we have given all businesses a four months' rates holiday, we targeted this support on those businesses that, on the analysis provided to us, have suffered and may well continue to suffer beyond the end of the financial year, particularly the hospitality sector. We are not going to see packed pubs, packed restaurants and filled hotels for some time to come, I would imagine. I do not doubt that those sectors will need continued support, but we can only do what we can with what we have at this time, and we also want to give businesses some certainty on what they are facing.

I think that the announcement today of a rates relief extension to the end of the financial year will be welcomed by those businesses, but we are absolutely certain, as he is, that this is not people being out of the woods yet, by any stretch, even with this support.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

A further 13 Members wish to ask a question. I ask for everyone's cooperation so that they may ask their question and receive an answer.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the funding measures that he has put in place.

Going forward, like many Members, we are concerned about the recovery phase and ensuring that we can get our job creation and our economy back to where they were they were. What conversations have you had, Minister, with the Chancellor to discuss an economic stimulus package?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

We are continuing to engage with the Treasury. Later today, along with the Finance Ministers from Scotland and Wales, I will have a conversation with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. As part of those conversations, we talk about some of the packages that the Treasury has offered to date, such as the job retention scheme and the self-employed scheme, and about some of the questions and anomalies that arise, including identification issues with the self-employed scheme. We have been pressing on that matter with HMRC, as well. We continue to raise issues with some of the schemes and some of the challenges that they present, but we also discuss how we attempt to get the economy back on a stable footing on the other side of that. Nobody is underestimating the challenge that that is going to be for all of us. We will continue to discuss that, and I hope that there will be further support, but we have had no indications, as yet, of what that might amount to.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

As Chair of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, and as a representative of a mainly rural constituency, I welcome the £25 million in the Minister's announcement for farmers and the horticulture industry. Does the Minister agree that that funding should be directed towards primary producers who are most in need, particularly those whose annual incomes are so low that they will not be able to gain any benefit from the self-employed income support scheme and the other schemes that have been announced?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am very much aware, as a rural representative, of the impact that this has had on the farming community, with restricted access to markets and a drop in market price that could result in many in the industry going out of business as the market value drops below the production costs.

That is very much a feature across sectors. There are, of course, particular issues for those in the horticultural sector at this time of year, given that this is when they normally make most of their income. The £25 million that we have given to DAERA is to try to deal with that situation across sectors. We look forward to seeing the details of the announcement of the Minister's scheme. As Chair of the Committee, you and the Committee will, I am sure, analyse the scheme and interrogate officials and the Minister on how it will roll out. There is no doubt that the farming community is suffering, as are all businesses that have been unable to access the other support measures available. Hopefully, this money will go some way to address that, but I have no doubt that businesses will continue to struggle in the time ahead.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 12:30 pm, 19th May 2020

I broadly welcome the statement, particularly the funding allocated to key businesses through the extension of rate relief. That is vital and an essential lifeline for those businesses. On the back of what has been said about farming, I am delighted that farmers, the backbone of our community, have received a financial package of £25 million, which is to be welcomed. Has there been any detailed discussion on whether a further financial package is needed for farmers at this time? Also, have any specific sectors been mentioned in conversation with the Minister of Agriculture?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

There has not been a discussion on a further package. We will get this one on the ground first to see what impact it has. Coming from a farming background, I have no doubt that farmers will never say no to any further support that might be available to them.

There have been conversations about the horticultural and dairy sectors, but the Minister of Agriculture has, on a number of occasions, advised the Executive about the challenges facing all farming sectors and the need for support measures. He has been in touch with my Department and engaged on the type of scheme that he wants to be brought forward. We have provided the funding for it; he will, in the near future, I think, announce the details of where he wants that to go and who is eligible to apply.

The defining factor in many of the measures that we have introduced as part of what we call "COVID spend" is to try to get people through the near to medium term. This is not about the long haul. We do not have the resources to act for businesses in the long term. The further extension is until the end of the financial year, and that is for only some businesses. For others, we have given out support in the form of £10,000 or £25,000 grants. All of that is to try to get people through the immediate phase. Similarly, this scheme for farmers is, I am sure, predicated on trying to get them through the immediate challenges that they face, in the hope that the economy and activity will pick up in the near term, when we will be able to determine what ongoing support is needed.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. I very much welcome the £1·4 million towards the student hardship fund. He will know that I have been highlighting that issue for many weeks. I hope that the Economy Minister will top that up.

The rate relief extension will be very welcome news for businesses. Over £700million, including grants, has now been directed at supporting businesses. That is hugely important.

The criteria for the hardship fund were published at the weekend.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member come to her question?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

There was an expectation that social enterprises and sole traders would be included. They are facing real financial difficulties and are despondent at not being included. Does the Minister agree that that should be addressed and that those businesses should also get support?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

There is a real issue with social enterprises, some of which are charities and others are not. There has been some exchange between the Economy Department and the Department for Communities on where that responsibility lies. I would like clarity for those in the social enterprise sector on where they can access support. Not only are they legitimate and genuine businesses in their own right but they perform a very important social function of assisting people who might not otherwise gain employment or receive some of the services that they provide. They are a shining example of what can be done by not-for-profit businesses interacting with the community. I sincerely hope that the two Departments will reach a point of clarity on where this sector fits. We will continue to engage with those in the sector to try to make sure that they do not feel excluded from any of these packages.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister's statement and thank him for bringing it to the House. Minister, there is much in the statement that will be welcomed by many. In particular, we have led a strong campaign on the plight of sub-teachers over the last eight or nine weeks. Uncertain whether they could pay bills or put food on the table, it has been a very stressful time. I am just wondering, Minister, what conversations you have had with the Minister of Education as to how the scheme will be rolled out. Were criteria discussed in reaching the overall figure of £12 million, and how quickly will it be allocated to these people who are suffering at this time?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I think we were all very much aware of the plight of sub teachers; I am sure there is not a Member here, myself included, who was not lobbied in relation to that. In the first instance, our responsibility is to try and ensure fairness in how they are treated. If sub teachers could be furloughed in England, then quite clearly the first approach — and I appreciate that the length of time it took us to get a proper response from Treasury added to the stress faced by sub teachers — was to seek an opportunity to get equality of treatment through the Treasury. Both the Education Minister and I pursued that. Once we were quite clear, at the end of last week, that that was not going to happen, we quickly moved to agree between us the amount of money that was required. The detail of that scheme — how it is worked out and how quickly it will be paid — is a matter for the Education Department and the Education Minister. I am pleased, as I am sure he is, that we have the funding available, and we want to ensure that there is no more uncertainty or stress for those who are in that category and that we quickly get the support to them.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker — Mr Deputy Speaker, sorry. I elevated you there. I thank the Minister for his statement, and there is much to be grateful for — in particular, the sub teacher payments. However, there does seem to be an omission, Minister. You may be aware that it is Mental Health Awareness Week, and in 'New Decade, New Approach' there was a commitment by the Executive and the Assembly to deliver a mental health action plan by the end of April. Can the Minister detail any amounts of money that he has allocated to the Department of Health to action this, and, if not, can he make a commitment today? I think the money that is needed is in and around £2·5 million.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I would probably need to go back to the Budget statement to try and figure that out. This is COVID response money. Quite clearly, a lot of issues that the Executive had intended to be dealing with and set themselves time frames for dealing with, including mental health, the recommendations of the RHI inquiry and Brexit — remember that? — have been interrupted by the need to quickly respond to a very serious threat to life and society in the form of this pandemic, so some of that has gone on the back foot.

I realise that one of the consequences of dealing with the pandemic has probably been an increase in mental health stress. I will probably have to defer to your own colleague and my Executive colleague the Minister of Health to advise us. I know that there is a commitment across the Executive; that is why we agreed to have a cross-party team of Ministers to look at this. It was not just confined to the Department of Health. I do not know for certain about the allocation to it — it was not part of this series of allocations — but I am happy to get the Member some figures. Clearly, one of the big consequences of society's experience of this pandemic will be an increase in stress and mental ill-health, and we want to make sure that we can meet that as best we can.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

Childcare and education will play a vital role in the new society that we must build further to COVID-19, so I welcome the 100% rate relief for childcare providers up to March 2021 and, indeed, the long overdue payment for sub teachers announced today. Will the Minister tell us what explanation the UK Government gave for refusing the furlough of Northern Ireland's sub teachers, how much the sub teachers will receive and when they will receive it?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I appreciate that Treasury has a lot on its plate at the moment. The difference in approach is that they have been very reluctant to furlough public-sector workers unless there is a very clear demonstration of a loss of income to whatever sector they work in and they are not able to be redeployed in other areas. The sub teachers in England come through an agency, so in effect they have a private employer which was able to access furlough money on their behalf. Sub teachers here, as the Member will know, come on a much more ad hoc basis whereby schools essentially have lists of people that they can call up as and when required.

It is an Education Department scheme. My understanding of it is that it was intended to have a record of, I suppose, the average days — some people might only work once a week; others might be working three or four days a week — to make some sort of assessment based on the frequency of employment that they have over a period of time and to try to make an allocation based on what their likely income would have been, from March right through to June. That is my basic understanding of the scheme. I am sure that the Education Minister will be able to assist you with more detail.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Thank you, Minister. This is a good statement, which will please many, including sub teachers, who have been fighting for it. The announcement of support for students facing hardship is important, as is the extension until the end of the financial year of the rates holiday for targeted businesses. The Minister listed a number of those targeted businesses, included guest houses and childcare providers. I ask the Minister to confirm whether those who operate from a property subject to domestic rates will be included. Will they be able to avail themselves of a domestic rates holiday? For example, a guest house tends to be its owner's home, so guest houses tend to pay the domestic rate, not the non-domestic rate. Will he extend the rates holiday to include all businesses? That is not quite clear from the Minister's statement.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

If guest house owners were able to access the £10,000 or £25,000 scheme, they would have been considered commercial properties, or a commercial section of a residential property. If they were not able to, there would be a difficulty there, because they are not commercially rated and are therefore unable to avail themselves of a commercial rates holiday.

I know that there are business hardship funds. We have set aside £40 million for the Department for the Economy to provide business hardship funding for businesses that have not been able to avail themselves of any of the other relief or grants that have been available. I therefore advise people to find out quickly whether they do not qualify. I am told that the eligibility criteria was made available at the weekend, but I think that the scheme will formally open this week at some stage. It is for the Minister for the Economy and her Department to state when that is likely to happen. I think that people not paying commercial rates would find it difficult to access a commercial rate relief. I suggest that those businesses consider looking to the business hardship fund, because that is for people who have missed out on the various other schemes.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Thank you, Minister, for the statement. I commend you on it.

I welcome the £30 million announcement for Translink, which is on top of the £20 million that was allocated to it in the recent Budget. As that money rolls out, I look forward to working with you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the rest of the Committee for Infrastructure on scrutinising it.

My question relates to furloughed workers. Can the Minister update us on how public bodies have utilised the furlough scheme, and has it been done in consultation with the unions?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

My Department's responsibility is really to seek a clearer understanding with Treasury. Initially, as I said, it was very reluctant to furlough public-sector workers. Treasury set a number of criteria to be met, with one being this: if there was a loss of income to whatever organisation employed them from public bodies not being engaged in the work that they are meant to be engaged in and there was no ability to redeploy staff elsewhere. Public bodies were therefore set criteria to be met.

Our role and responsibility was to provide advice to the various Departments and say, "If you feel that there is a section of workers in your Department or arm's-length body that may be able to avail itself of furloughing, and you are losing money as a consequence of paying out salaries that you may be able to acquire from elsewhere, by all means investigate the opportunity and, if needs be, come back to us for advice". It is therefore up to the Departments themselves, and I know that some have done that. The Department for Communities has done so with museum staff. I know that councils, as, if you like, arm's-length bodies of the Department for Communities, have furloughed a number of workers, and that has saved on their wage bill and their ongoing loss of revenue. As I said, it is really a matter for Departments themselves to assess whether they have staff who fall into the category and then to undertake the necessary consultation with those staff and their union representatives.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement and for his answers so far. It was good to see you out getting your daily exercise at the lake end at the weekend, Minister, socially distancing and keeping healthy.

Minister, I welcome the support for local authorities, many of which have seen a drop in income of up to £1 million a month. Local residents face a reduction in services and potentially face rates hikes. It is positive news that councils can now access the furlough scheme. Can the Minister update the House on plans to support local councils beyond what has been announced today? Will he be providing security for councils to ensure that no further jobs will be lost in local authorities as a consequence of COVID-19?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 12:45 pm, 19th May 2020

I recognised the Member whizzing by as I was out exercising at the lake end, which will be unfamiliar to most of the rest of you. He had more hair at that stage, but I recognised him nonetheless


Yes, I am clear that I have conversations with councils. The Department for Communities has responsibility for local government. They put a proposition and a package to us, and we managed to give £20 million to that. The Department for Communities will have to bring forward the details of that scheme, including how it is spread among the 11 councils and on what basis and what it intends to do. Councils are clearly in stress and have been losing a lot of revenue. The ability to furlough some of their staff, particularly leisure staff and staff like that, has been a big assistance and has taken a significant chunk off the monthly loss that the councils were experiencing. Nonetheless, they continue to lose money. Of course, like Departments, councils will not be spending on things that they would otherwise have spent on. For instance, they will now not be investing in community festivals that would have taken place over the summer because they will not happen, so they will be able to make some savings. The council area that we both live in has been engaging with the community side to see what projects will and will not go ahead, and it will then see if it can save some money.

It will be a very difficult balancing exercise for councils. They already have their rates set. The purpose of a lot of the COVID allocations is to try to get people through the immediate period and into a more stable financial situation and reassess the situation then. I hope that this will give the councils some stability, going forward. It has been announced that furloughing will go on until October, so I hope that that gives them some relief and that they can also make savings on schemes that they would otherwise have spent money on in the first half of this year.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

There is some fantastic, positive news in the Minister's statement. That is very welcome, and my question should in no way be construed as a criticism of the response thus far.

There has been reference to businesses that have fallen through the holes in just about every safety net that has been put out there, and the Minister mentioned the hardship fund in his answer to Ms Sugden. However, that funding has criteria that are quite prohibitive. I can think of a couple of examples in my constituency of successful —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Can you come to a question?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

— businesses that are significant employers and important service providers but have been unable to avail themselves of any assistance. I know of someone who had been renting premises off a charity — it was not readjusted for rates — whose employee numbers disqualify them from the hardship fund. Can the Minister give a commitment to work with the Department for the Economy to establish some type of mop-up fund or final safety net for such businesses to ensure that none of them go to the wall completely?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I absolutely assure the Member that I will continue to work with the Department for the Economy, as we did on the £10,000 scheme and the £25,000 scheme. We held £40 million in reserve, and the intent was that it would be for a mop-up scheme to get all the others.

I recognise what he said about some of the criteria for applications and how they seem to have made it difficult for certain sectors to access schemes. You only really get a sense of the sheer variety of circumstances in businesses when you create a scheme to support people. You find all these people who fall outside it for a variety of reasons. It is almost impossible, given the timescales that we are trying to do this in, to devise something to catch everyone. Nonetheless, I had hoped that the £40 million hardship scheme would be the one to capture all those who have fallen through the cracks, but it seems that some people have still been missed. I am willing to work with the Department for the Economy to ensure that we give support where we can. The Department for the Economy has policy responsibility for that. All we can do is give advice and assistance in relation to that, but we do not want a situation in which, because of the criteria, people involved in businesses that genuinely provide a service to the community do not get any assistance.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I am looking at the figures in the statement and those given by the Communities Minister previously and hoping that I have got my sums wrong. There is a £99 million scheme to cover a three-month rates holiday for all businesses, which means that it costs about £33 million per month. As we extend that by another month, I assume that that will cost an average of £33 million again. The extension of a rate-free financial year to some businesses is a measure to try to save those businesses, and that, of course, is very welcome. However, I go back to the stress on councils. Given that this is largely an income loss for the councils, which collect the rates, and the fact that the Communities Minister announced a package of only £20·3 million for councils for the next few months, it does not add up. The Minister mentioned that councils could make savings, for example, by not funding community festivals that are not happening, but what is being done to prevent councils going out of business? Is any preparatory work happening in the Executive to plan for the loss of those local institutions?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I assure the Member that this is a loss of income rather than an award of money. It is a loss of income over the year. Hopefully, some of the businesses that benefit from this will be able to stay open. Clearly, were no initiative taken in relation to rates, there may well have been a loss of rates income to us anyway. We will absorb the cost of this. The Executive are absorbing the cost of the rate relief to the end of the year. The burden will not be placed on the councils.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I want the Minister to expand on the measures in place and those needed to protect and support workers at this time, particularly those who have not been furloughed and have to visit food banks. I have mentioned the pattern across the world where the ratio of businesses to workers being helped is 4:1, and it seems to be the case here, with the Minister announcing £700 million support for businesses through rates and grants but, from his Department, only £4 million for sub teachers. I note that there is no rate relief for workers. Support for the business community is clearly necessary at this time, but some feel that the measures with no strings attached do not address the situation, with some businesses being able to receive government assistance at the same time as laying off staff. The Minister will know that workers are central to the economy, so can he comment on the lack of action to support workers and say what measures are in place to ensure that employers support workers at this time?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The employee retention scheme is based on people holding on to their staff, and they apply for it on that basis. It sounds almost as if business is a separate section and it is all fat cats who are getting the money in their back pocket: the vast bulk of the £700 million to business is going out to small and medium enterprises, which are the backbone of the economy here. They earn a wage from their business and, in turn, employ huge numbers of local people. Any support to business is not simply about somebody's profit margin; it is about keeping business alive, keeping the economy alive and keeping workers in jobs. Rate relief and things like that for the commercial sector are about keeping the doors open and keeping employees in place. That is the primary intention of all this. It is not about gifts to individual business owners but about keeping the doors open. As I said, the intention of the furlough scheme is to keep employees in place, and that is the basis on which people apply. That is important in the time ahead.

We recognise that the economy will suffer as a consequence of this. Of course, workers in public-sector employment are getting their wages. We recognise that the economy will suffer as a consequence and more interventions will be required. As it stands, we have a limited ability to make those interventions. If further interventions come from London, we will try to use them as wisely as we can to sustain the economy here and to have the maximum effect from that. When we focus on business, it is about keeping businesses and workers in place and keeping people in jobs. That is the primary effort.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

There is only one more Member to ask a question on this occasion. I invite other Members who wish to ask a further question to rise in their place for a short period, if they have a burning question. I hope, with your cooperation, to finish this side of the lunch break at 1.00 pm.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I very much welcome the relief that has been secured for the substitute teachers. That was an inequity long needing to be addressed, and that is good. I was hoping, though it is not the Minister's responsibility, that, in liaison with the Department for the Economy, there might have been some good news for the haulage sector. What I really wanted to ask the Minister was this: I want to better understand the Treasury rules and the departmental approach to furloughing in the public sector. He has already said that the Treasury frowns on it, to put it at its mildest. Yet, we have councils who have had authority to furlough. Will he explain how that works and what are the rules about that?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

First, I know that there was significant work or discussions between the Department for Infrastructure, the Department for the Economy and, I think, the Department for Transport in London about the haulage sector and it was concluded that an intervention was not necessary at this time. I do not have the detail as to why, but I know that part of the transportation money that we had been holding back was in anticipation of a request in that area. That did not emerge, and we went ahead, then, with the allocation to Translink.

As far as I understand it — the Member will forgive me if repeat the information incorrectly; I will get the advice that we have from Treasury to him — the Treasury was initially very reluctant to furlough public sector workers on the grounds, I suppose, that it would end up paying for them twice. However, it conceded with regard to cases where workers could not be redeployed elsewhere and there was a loss of income to that public sector area associated with them not doing their jobs. There was a third rule that escapes me at the moment, but they had to satisfy those criteria.

Our responsibility in relation to that is to provide advice to other Departments and to say, "This is the broad view of Treasury. If you have a sector or an arm's-length body in your Department and you think you might be able to avail yourselves of this, it will save you in terms of ongoing losses". Councils are a particular example of that, and museums might be another sector that has furloughed workers. I am sure that I can get information to the Member on what sectors have been furloughed to date. Councils came forward, particularly in relation to leisure centre workers who could not be redeployed elsewhere and where the council was losing revenue as a consequence of those people not being able to work. They were not able to work because of the restrictions as a consequence the pandemic. There are guidelines and rules and regulations in relation to that. We gave advice to the various Departments and said, "This is what Treasury tells us. If you think that you have a sector or an arm's-length body in your Department that might fit that approach, come back to us or go directly to the Treasury to make your application". Obviously, in some cases, some councils have met the criteria and have been able to furlough workers and save a cost to the council as a consequence. In a number of areas, Departments have been able to do the same. I am happy to provide that detail to the Member and the rules that the Treasury have given us in relation to that.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Thanks for letting me in again. I appreciate what the Minister has put out today in his statement. I know that a lot of the schemes cover a lot of groups, but I am still being lobbied from the infrastructure side in relation to the taxis industry, which feels that it has been left short. What discussions have there been at Executive level and which Ministers have made an approach for support for the taxis industry?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

No specific proposition has been put to me in relation to taxi drivers. I am not aware of any being put forward in an Executive context. I know that there was some suggestion that taxi drivers might meet the criteria for some of the self-employed schemes, but I am not certain how that has played out because that sector does not fall under my departmental remit. I occasionally hear remarks from people in relation to taxi drivers, but no specific scheme has been put to me to seek support for them. Perhaps, they have been able to avail themselves of the self-employed scheme.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

In response to my previous question, the Minister mentioned some of the convoluted situations that had arisen and had prevented businesses from getting assistance. Some of the rates-based assistance has been very welcome, but a number of people still have not been able to access it. The deadline is looming — it is imminent, in fact — and there seems to have been an issue with a lot of those people's payment details, with Land and Property Services (LPS) denying having their account details —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

And the question?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

— when, in fact, they have been given to them, in some cases, four or five times. Will the Minister look at extending the deadline for people in that situation?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

My belief is that, once the application is in the system, it has met the deadline. The deadline does not mean that, if you have not received your money by this week, you are not getting it. There have been all sorts of anomalies in relation to it. I have had people come to me directly, as, I am sure, you have had. I pass them on to LPS to get a response. LPS has been proactive in responding. I have heard that outside the Department: people have been praising LPS for the quickness of response on some of these matters. Some of them are complex and difficult to resolve. If information is missing, it is, sometimes, hard to get it. If there are particular instances, contact LPS directly as an elected representative, and you will get a response.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance 1:00 pm, 19th May 2020

I am concerned about the response in relation to the logistics package, because a lot of local hauliers were holding out for that support. Is that money still being held as match funding to go with the Department for Transport, or has that hope evaporated? If that is the case, a lot of businesses will be worried about their future, because it will mean potential closure.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I can report only what was reported to me. With the agreement of the Executive, I was holding £95 million for transportation issues. We allocated some of that to the airports and the ports. The Infrastructure Minister had a bid in for Translink, and I understand that there were discussions between Infrastructure, Economy and the Department for Transport in London in relation to the requirement for that sector. I have been told that no case was being put forward in relation to that. I do not have the detail as to why that was the case. However, I assure the Member that, if that arises, as I said in my statement, £60 million is still being held in relation to transportation.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

That is the end of questions to the Minister of Finance on his statement.

The Business Committee has arranged to meet after 1.00 pm today. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020.

The sitting was suspended at 1.02 pm.

On resuming —