Planning a Just Economic Recovery after the COVID-19 Crisis

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 1st June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin 3:00 pm, 1st June 2020

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the unprecedented impact the COVID-19 global pandemic is having on our society and economy; commends the invaluable contribution made by our front-line workers who have provided vital service, selflessly, throughout this pandemic; believes that a fair and just economic recovery strategy is required in the aftermath of this crisis; agrees that an economic recovery strategy must not only recognise but also demonstrate that we value our front-line workers and want to protect them, and the most vulnerable, through any impending recession; understands that workers' rights, and public services must be protected; and commits to existing economic challenges being tackled by a just transition to a more high-skilled, regionally balanced and sustainable economy that works for workers, their families, and businesses; and calls on the Executive to ensure that these principles underpin an economic and society-wide recovery.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have ten minutes to propose and a further 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

Over the past few weeks, many people have expressed sentiments about how we need to do things differently in future, about learning the lessons of the pandemic and about valuing the key workers who have stepped up in the most difficult circumstances and have done more than just their jobs to serve wider society. However, if we want things to be different, we have to take action to make them different. We cannot simply rebuild what was there and return to business as usual. We must, here and now, plan for the economic and societal recovery that we want to see and put a strategy in place to action it.

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on our society and economy. Our Budget was already under pressure prior to the unprecedented crisis and our public services were struggling after a decade of austerity. Those challenges remain and we must all, collectively, continue to make the argument for investment in our public services. The outworking of the crisis must not be further austerity measures from the British Government to pay for it, and we should all be making the argument for economic stimulus. Otherwise, the interventions to date will have been in vain and we will see escalating unemployment, economic stagnation and greater inequalities. Frankly, business as usual will not be good enough. It would be a return to an economy that is based on inequality where the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, with ingrained structural barriers across all facets of society. We must break down those barriers so that everyone has the opportunity to achieve and prosper in life.

The pandemic has changed things. For many, it has changed how we value and appreciate the small things that we may have taken for granted — seeing our families, going for a drink with friends or training with our teams. It has changed things on a bigger scale too, such as how we work, transport choices or supply chain decisions. There is, of course, much still to be worked out about how things will operate as we reopen our economy and society. Our strategy for recovery must not just be about making things better for the economy but for society as a whole and for our planet.

I previously said that our economic and societal recovery should be based on some core principles. Those principles, in my view, should be a just transition to a net zero carbon society, supporting workers and families and supporting businesses to create and sustain employment. We are all well aware at this stage of the need to rapidly decarbonise to limit global warming to less than 1·5° in order to prevent further climate breakdown. A green recovery has huge potential to create high-skilled, well-paid employment through green skills development and infrastructure investment. There have been increasing calls over recent weeks from across the world, as well as locally last week when 40 organisations wrote to the joint First Ministers to prioritise a green recovery. At the weekend, the director general of the WHO urged us to:

"combat climate change and environmental destruction with the same seriousness with which we are now fighting COVID-19".

I am, therefore, calling for the establishment of a just transition commission to bring together all the relevant partners to plan for how we achieve our climate targets and ambitions as a society. A green new deal was a commitment in New Decade, New Approach, which needs to be implemented as part of the recovery plan. A green new deal can stimulate economic activity by, among other things, rapidly switching to green energy, growing the green economy, building modern public transport infrastructure and retrofitting homes to conserve energy.

To support workers and families, we must address the longstanding issues in the local labour market, particularly the scourge of low pay and low productivity. Low pay causes in-work poverty and leaves families in danger of deprivation. Commitments in New Decade, New Approach provide a basis to tackle that. Powers to set minimum wage levels should be made a devolved matter, and we must strive to replace precarious work with high-skilled, secure, unionised employment. That will go some way to addressing longstanding low productivity levels. Strengthening collective bargaining through the recognition of unions in the workplace is also important in empowering workers.

Our communities have played a huge role throughout the crisis in supporting each other and the vulnerable. Other business models, such as social enterprises and cooperatives, bring important benefits, including investment, to communities. We should seek to build on the community solidarity that has been shown over recent weeks.

While we will always look outwards to achieve globally, we must also support our indigenous SMEs and microbusinesses to create and sustain employment. There is a need to review the remit of Invest NI to support the development and diversification of local and all-island supply chains, empower microbusinesses and entrepreneurs and realise the potential of the digital and green economies.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I have listened to the Member. A recurring question has come to me during all that she has said: who is going to pay for all of this? She talks about an "economic stimulus". Those are great words. The party opposite cannot even support the North/South interconnector, which has benefits — and it is strange that I, from a unionist perspective, have support for that. When it comes to a beneficial connection between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland however, the party opposite cannot support it. Words are fine, but who is going to pay for the wish list that the Member is setting before us this afternoon?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. To be fair to him, that is an issue that Governments across the world are grappling with at this time. We all have to look at how we are going to do it in the future. Collectively, there is a need to address that.

A strategy of supporting our indigenous businesses should develop high-skilled employment in sectors that will help us to achieve our economic potential, fulfil our climate obligations and shield the economy against further COVID-type shocks. Crucially, we must also invest in apprenticeships and further and higher education to ensure that people have accessible opportunities to reskill and seize emerging opportunities.

Despite efforts to limit economic damage through such interventions as the job retention scheme and business support grants, there is a recognition that unemployment figures will likely soar in the weeks and months ahead. We must have a collaborative approach to responding to that, with the involvement of government, industry, education and the community and voluntary sector. The engagement forum, which was established by the Executive in response to the COVID-19 crisis, is the model of engagement and partnership that must be encouraged to continue. The involvement of wider civic society as not only stakeholders but partners will enable policy to be shaped to best respond to the needs of society.

The Executive will need tools to aid the type of economic recovery to which we aspire. My party colleague the Finance Minister has spoken about establishing a commission to evaluate the devolution of fiscal powers. That should be taken forward as part of the recovery planning, and we must look at what type of borrowing powers we can deploy. Economic and societal recovery post-COVID-19 must seek to address the fundamental underlying problems of the Northern economy. We must address the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, confront the severe economic threat of climate breakdown and prepare for the significant challenges posed by Brexit. In doing so, we must seek to advance the objectives of social and economic equality, sustainable economic development, regional balance and the protection of workers' rights and incomes.

I quote the director general of the WHO, again. He said:

"Decisions made in the coming months and implemented ... can lock in economic development patterns that will do permanent and escalating damage. Or, if wisely taken, can promote a healthier, fairer, and greener world."

I urge Members to support the motion. We will support the amendment put forward by the Alliance Party.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance 3:15 pm, 1st June 2020

I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after "fair" and insert: “, just and green economic recovery strategy is required in the aftermath of this crisis; agrees that an economic recovery strategy must not only recognise but also demonstrate that we value our front-line workers and want to protect them, and the most vulnerable, through any impending recession; understands that workers' rights and public services must be protected; commits to existing economic challenges being tackled by a just and green transition to a more high-skilled, regionally balanced and sustainable economy that works for workers, their families, and businesses; and calls on the Executive to ensure that these principles underpin an economic and society-wide recovery guided by a social partnership approach involving government, trade unions, businesses and the third sector.”

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

You will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and a further five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. Unfortunately, I will not be able to call everyone who has indicated that they wish to speak, given the limitation on our time.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I welcome the opportunity to thank our front-line workers and to speak on how specifically we can build a more inclusive, just and prosperous future out of the crisis that we currently face. To that end, I think that our proposed amendment enhances the motion, and I hope that Members will agree to support it today. I thank Dr Archibald for the support given.

I think that 2020 will be one of those iconic years etched into our memories as well as the history books. It is the end of one era and the beginning of a new one, which is perhaps why January feels such a long time ago. Economic orthodoxy has been turned on its head, and the necessity of protecting our people, health service and economy has required all of us to make sacrifices unknown in peacetime. Our front-line workers have helped keep our society running, from the doctors and nurses in our hospitals to carers in the community and supermarket workers keeping the shelves stacked. It falls to everyone to ensure that they are valued and cared for.

Sadly, I think that most will agree that a recession, perhaps a severe one, is impending. Although it may be somewhat inevitable, its full impact is not. People are facing uncertain times, and we must ensure that we protect the most vulnerable. We cannot allow the weight of the economic troubles to fall upon them. The cost of this must be shared out fairly through progressive taxation, ensuring that nobody is able to avoid their obligations by sending profits overseas. Right now, we are at a pivot point in history, and we should be looking to our future aspirations for both our economy and society. In doing so, we must ensure that development is both green and sustainable, as well as structurally inclusive and fair, which our amendment seeks to do.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, understandably, been at the forefront of our minds in the past few months. We must not forget the ongoing global and existential crisis of climate change and environmental pollution. The monumental increases in air quality and falls in CO2 emissions that we have seen as a result of lockdown have only drawn greater attention to the remarkable health impacts of pollution. Indeed, it is estimated that, across Europe, around 11,000 lives have been saved by the reductions in nitrogen dioxide in the air. We have also seen a boom in active travel. I have never seen so many people in my life out on bicycles and walking and doing all sorts of things over the past number of months. That, again, not only represents environmental gains, because private cars are no longer clogging our streets, but serious health benefits. More than ever, people are recognising that a green economy is not only necessary to meet the demands of the future, but that it means a better quality of life.

However, change will not happen on its own. It requires us to act. The time has come for a green new deal to invest in skills, green energy and infrastructure as well as our telecoms network and support a just transition to the industries of tomorrow. I do welcome the announcement today that almost 200 companies are calling for the Prime Minister to launch a green recovery. It is businesses leading in these calls.

The risk of scarring life opportunities during economic change is serious, as we have seen in the late 2000s, particularly amongst young people. Signs so far suggest that young people are much more likely to be impacted by the shutdown and tend to be employed in seriously restricted sectors such as hospitality, tourism and retail. We must ensure that our young people have the skills required for the jobs of the future. Therefore, the Executive need to urgently consider targeted support to assist young people into training or to secure employment. The youth employment scheme, introduced by the former Employment and Learning Minister and my Alliance colleague, Dr Stephen Farry MP, is a good example of this. So, inclusiveness and engagement must be central in pursuing a just economic recovery.

That brings me to the concept of a social partnership introduced by our proposed amendment. The social partnership approach has been the norm in many European countries for decades. It brings together government, businesses, workers, unions and the third sector to provide input and make decisions on key economic and social issues. In regard to the model, the International Labour Organization has noted that:

"Engaging in dialogue, the social partners also fortify democratic governance, building vigorous and resilient labour market institutions that contribute to long-term social and economic stability and peace."

However, in the UK, industrial relations between workers, businesses and government have been more adversarial in tone than in the rest of Europe and decision-making has been more centralised. People have been continually told that work is the route out of poverty, yet wage growth in recent times has failed to keep up with increases to the cost of living. That has left many feeling powerless and forgotten in our economic system.

In recent times, Wales, which has historically been scarred by industrial strife and economic decline, has taken steps towards introducing a statutory basis for social partnership. That includes placing a duty on public bodies to work in social partnership and to promote fair work, as well as make fair work central in public procurement. This could provide a good model for change. Therefore, I hope that the Executive will seriously consider such a structural approach to rebuilding a fair and inclusive economy, safeguarding workers' rights and, indeed, restoring trust in government. I commend the Minister and her officials for the work done so far in relation to the Northern Ireland engagement forum on COVID-19. That has provided a good template for progress, and I hope that we can continue with that.

Before closing, I want to note another huge structural issue facing the future of our economy on which there has been a worrying lack of local input. It is the eternal elephant in the room: Brexit. With the additional damage of COVID-19 and the need to respond to the health crisis, an extension to the Brexit transition period is clearly required. It is difficult to see how the capacity exists to prepare to implement the protocol in the time period given and also respond to COVID-19. The last thing we need, as we try to chart a recovery, is more barriers and disruption.

In closing, I thank the relevant Members for bringing the debate today. This crisis has helped us see more clearly than ever the economic and social issues that face our society, and it provides a juncture for a rethink. Going forward, given our limited resources in Northern Ireland, we also press for a UK-wide commitment to rebuilding a comprehensive welfare system and to maintaining good public services, not threadbare ones. This means, for example, a health service that has money and staffing to see routine patients in weeks, not years, and it also means a social care system that values individuals and their rights, as well as providing care workers with a fair living wage and fair conditions.

Just as there was a post-war consensus, I hope that we can build a post-COVID consensus to properly engage people, businesses and others in the social and economic decisions that affect them; invest in our public services and in social security; and build a fairer, greener economy. I am happy to support the motion, but I encourage Members to support the amendment, which we believe puts a more specific focus on building an inclusive, just and green recovery.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I rise to speak on behalf of the Committee for the Economy. This is a timely motion, as the Committee received a briefing on this issue from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) at last week's meeting.

While the Committee has not had an opportunity to agree a view on the motion and, therefore, I will not be able to support the motion on the Committee's behalf, nonetheless, members are on record expressing the Committee's thanks and admiration for the contribution made by our front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. It would be remiss of me not to use this opportunity to put on record again the Committee's deep gratitude for the Herculean efforts that those heroes have made to benefit us all. I am sure that all Members will echo that sentiment.

As I indicated at the outset, the Committee was briefed by ICTU and the Nevin Economic Research Institute last Wednesday about their vision for our economic recovery from the crisis. They, too, used the word "just". Like the Committee and all the other groups represented on it, the ICTU warmly welcomed the Economy Minister's establishment of the Labour Relations Agency engagement forum. That forum represents a unique approach to bringing together the public, private and trade union sectors to advise the Executive on their handling of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as offering suggestions for the recovery and rebuilding phase that we are now entering into and to which the motion refers. It brings together groups to advise the Executive.

Like the ICTU, the Committee believes that the forum has a role to play after the crisis as an advisory body to inform the Executive on the recovery and rebuilding of the economy. Indeed, the ICTU suggested that the forum could perform a useful function by advising the Executive on the Programme for Government, for example, and provide a place for social dialogue to consider solutions to problems facing the Executive and wider society. The ICTU suggested that its focus should be on the future of work, innovation, skills and productivity and on a revision of our investment in the economic development model.

The Committee has discussed the recovery and rebuilding phase that we now entering into, and members agreed that this tragedy offers us an opportunity to build in a way that recognises the mistakes of the past and does not repeat them, as well as an opportunity to horizon-scan for the skills and industries that will allow us to create greater prosperity for our people.

The Committee agrees with the view that the current job retention scheme, or furloughing, should taper off in a way that allows employers to bring back workers on a phased or part-time basis initially. The Committee believes that the recovery period is a time in which we could look to ensure that workers, particularly young people emerging into the workforce for the first time, are properly skilled. They need skills that will give them opportunities to engage with the jobs that will be created and the sectors that will be established in the months and years to come. Our young people in particular must leave school, training and further education with skills that are relevant to future jobs and industries. That requires a partnership among employers, schools, further education colleges and higher education institutions, as well as other training providers and, of course, the Executive as a whole. Such industries will include those involved in decarbonisation and in the development of a green new deal sector and jobs in it.

The Committee heard from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) last week. Members agreed with their analysis that, to have economic prosperity going forward, we must prioritise the revival of our village, town and city centres. As we build skills for the future, we must ensure that we begin to get our economy moving again and to fund the issues raised in the motion. The Executive need to provide for our centres to reopen while abiding by social distancing and other guidance. Such a revival needs to be supported by greater animation of those centres, as well by as marketing and promotion around shopping locally and using local services. That stimulation of localised growth is essential for a balanced regional recovery and, in the Committee's view, makes sense as part of a collaborative regional rebuilding plan.

Small businesses and microbusinesses, along with social enterprises and start-ups, have been the hardest hit by the lockdown. They are the backbone of our local economy and therefore need direct financial support from the Executive. Businesses in those sectors are generally not Invest NI client companies. They must be prioritised, however.

The Committee agreed with SOLACE and NILGA that we need to provide incentives for people to acquire digital skills. Key to the working of that in future crises are reskilling and upskilling, through which we are more likely to develop a more sustainable —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I ask the Deputy Chair to draw her remarks to a close.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

— and reactive skills base.

Councils have suggested to the Committee that that effort should be supported by skills academies and the creation of innovative hubs. Those will require a partnership with further and higher education and training providers and better and clearer —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Deputy Chair's time is up.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

As we look to the recovery, it is fair and right that, first and foremost, we think of all those who have lost their lives during this crisis. It is not easy to look towards the recovery stage when we are still trying to deal with keeping people safe. Nonetheless, we need to work to try to get our economy back up and running. To fit in with the message of the Northern Ireland Executive about staying home and saving lives, people need to work safely and save lives.

The number of deaths is now over 500, which is tragic. We thank our NHS staff and our other front-line workers for the work that they have done to keep that number down. The motion talks about our essential and key workers. Some of those workers never before would have felt that they were key: our shop workers; our delivery drivers; our cleaners; our postmen and postwomen; our bin collectors; our lorry, bus and train drivers; and our pharmacy workers. There are many more of them out there, and we need to reflect on how we better value their work. There would be no greater honour for them than if we were to review how we support them in order to ensure that they are very much part of the recovery phase as well.

Our community and voluntary sector workers and providers have also worked tirelessly to ensure that our most vulnerable are protected. Again, they very much need to be part of the recovery phase. I would not like to think that they will be seen as an easy target when savings need to be made. We need to look at the best way to utilise them, going forward, to ensure that we can get our economy back on track.

The context of this discussion is, indeed, very worrying. In Northern Ireland, we know that our unemployment figures rose by almost 90% in April. Indeed, figures released today by Ulster University about the economic impact are very startling. Ulster University refers to the economic impact, with 250,000 furloughed and laid-off employees in Northern Ireland, which is a significant number. Within my constituency, it talks about almost 16,000. Those are staggering figures, and we know that the Minister is doing all that she can to try and address the situation. However, she will need support, not only within her own Department, where people are doing a fantastic job, but from every Department. We need to put politics aside and ensure that we get our economy back up and running.

We very much welcome all of the assistance. We know that the grants of £280 million have ensured that businesses have been able to oversee this difficult period. The furloughing scheme has been a vital support. As we move into August, the part-time furlough scheme will be essential to ensuring that our hotels and industries have the support to meet their overheads as they start to reopen.

The Committee has taken evidence from NILGA and SOLACE in recent weeks, and we need to ensure that we work with them and our council chief executives. Again, they are on the front line and are vital to our economic recovery. In recent years, our councils have felt that they are merely consultees. We now need to see our councils as partners. Some of the fantastic initiatives announced by the Executive, such as our city deals, are going to be more important than ever to get our economy back up and running.

I want to put on record our thanks to the Minister and the Department for all their work. It has not been easy. There has not been a blueprint or a manual to try and get our economy back up and running. However, I am confident that if we all work together on this, we can get to a point where our economy thrives again.

In closing, I welcome the Minister's commitment to further indicative timings for our hotels. As a party, we have been at the forefront of fighting for businesses. We want to give clarity, but we must always be mindful of the fact that we are not yet out of this crisis. We need to listen to the medical advice and trust that the decisions will be taken as soon as possible and practical.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP 3:30 pm, 1st June 2020

I thank the Chair of the Committee for the Economy for tabling the motion. Naturally, all of us will agree with its sentiments. It is the socio-economic equivalent of the moon on a stick, which is perfection for everyone — our workers, families and businesses — with everyone getting what they want. Sadly, sometimes, that is not always possible. However, it is what we should always desire to achieve.

For many of the businesses listening to the debate, if they are listening, they will hear that much of it is in the medium to long term and is about aspirations on how we change things and how things will look in the future. If I am the owner of a small business and I cannot afford to feed my family or pay my staff, I am worried about yesterday, today and tomorrow. Sadly, while it is desirable, I do not see it as essential, but we can get to that.

On the motion, I want to place on record the Ulster Unionist Party's heartfelt thanks to the front-line workers who have continued to keep our health service going and functioning over the last two and a half fairly horrendous months. Also, I thank the farmers, hauliers, food retailers, care workers, council employees and the many other service providers who have not stopped for a single minute throughout the pandemic.

It is, as has often been said, the biggest health crisis of our lives and, certainly, it is for the NHS. It is the biggest worldwide pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918. Much of the global economy has been put into cold storage and is waiting to come back out of that. There is little doubt that despite the unprecedented interventions by the British Government since March, in particular the Chancellor of the Exchequer's job intervention scheme and the self-employment scheme, there have been widespread redundancies. The big Government interventions and mechanisms such as the furlough scheme will end later in the summer.

Those on the Economy Committee know that I have spoken at length, both there and in the Ad Hoc Committee, to say that the economic recovery plan should have begun immediately. While it was a health crisis, it was quickly becoming the biggest economic crisis that we have ever faced. It is disappointing that we are now nine or 10 weeks on, and we are still, just about, bringing this to the Chamber. We are only looking into the medium and long term. It would have been much better to have been discussing it from the beginning. However, we are where we are. Whatever strategy the Executive bring forward, it needs to be radically redrawn from where it was.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree with me that the Executive could learn a lot by looking at the Welsh model?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree absolutely. Those who have heard me speak before on this know that I have highlighted that from the start. Back at the end of March, the Welsh Government intervened with over £100 million, to give support to businesses that, perhaps, were not reached by the support that we have given.

I accept the point Mr Middleton made about the interventions that have been made already by the Executive, but out of 100,000-plus businesses in Northern Ireland, the overwhelming majority have still received very little support, aside from the furloughing scheme, which has been hugely beneficial. There are grants in there of up to £100,000, which would be massive for some of our companies. To a single business owner, £10,000 can be quite a lot but, if you are employing 15 staff, it is a week's wages. There are things that we could do in the here and now.

The Member is right — he has left now — to ask how we pay for this. That is so important. We need a complete reprioritisation of our Budget and what we spend. That will require difficult decisions from Ministers and Departments to end pet projects and schemes that were desirable three months ago. They are no longer desirable — yes, they are — but they are not essential. Business survival is essential. Families having jobs, putting bread on the table: these are essential. That means a complete reprioritisation about what we do and the money we spend, funnelling that money into companies, giving them the opportunity to expand, grow and create the jobs that we need to make our economy grow.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that the economic crisis that has been brought about by the COVID-19 will be surpassed if we do not address the climate crisis that is creeping up on us as well? The economic upheaval, and the change to our systems, lifestyles and businesses, will be even more drastic than those we are currently experiencing due to COVID?

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I thank the Member for her intervention. I absolutely agree. We all spoke in the Chamber — it feels like months ago now — when we discussed the climate emergency and the need to reprioritise our economy. Northern Ireland can lead the way in the drive towards zero emissions, without a doubt. That has to inform any part of our medium- to long-term economic strategy. However, it goes back to my original point: families and companies are about to go under. While, yes, that should be taken into consideration, those companies and families need impetus and support now. It is a combination of short-term interventions and looking at a medium- to long-term strategy.

While this is a health crisis, the economy is everything. Without taxation, a buoyant stable economy and creating the money to pump into our vital NHS and other public services, we have absolutely nothing. Governments do not create jobs, businesses do. We might create the conditions whereby these companies can create the jobs but, ultimately, it is down to businesses to create these jobs and further them. Workers want better wages and conditions, but Northern Ireland companies, en masse, look after their employees and workers a lot better than I see in other countries. We should be proud of the companies that we have here.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

We should do absolutely everything we can.

There is so much to say about this but, ultimately, I would like to see a Northern Ireland-first approach to public-sector procurement, channelling as much money as possible from our public-sector procurement scheme into giving a lifeline to companies that are here now.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone across Northern Ireland. These few months have undoubtedly been very challenging and difficult for the economy. It is important to recognise and pay tribute to all the key front-line workers, alongside the National Health Service heroes. They have continued to work through the pandemic, taking personal risks and sacrifices, providing essential services. They include people within the food supply chain, transport workers, pharmacists, carers, farmers, fishermen, essential retail staff, waste collection operators, emergency service personnel, postmen and postwomen, teachers and funeral directors, amongst many others. They all deserve fair play and fair pay.

The Economy Minister has recognised the significant challenges that are faced by local businesses, employers and employees, and has helped to deliver various support measures that have been a real lifeline, with over £280 million being allocated through the £10,000 and £25,000 grant schemes in recent weeks. With those measures, alongside the various income support and furlough schemes from the UK Government, we have benefited from one of the best economic rescue packages in the world. For many people, being part of the United Kingdom has been crucial to short-term survival.

With the challenges that have been faced, now is the time for action to rebuild the economy. I very much welcome the Economy Minister's commitment to restarting and rebuilding the economy, as announced on Friday with the publication of 'Charting a Course for the Economy — Our First Steps'. The Chancellor's announcement on Friday of tailored adjustments to the UK Government's support measures also backed the reopening and kick-starting of our economy. While we must continue to be guided by medical and scientific advice, there is a desire for clarity on the various phases of recovery. I welcome the latest announcements on the reopening of non-food retail and believe that there are further opportunities for other businesses to reopen in a safe and controlled way, including those on high streets, which will need support as they reopen their doors on a phased basis. Estate agents are an example. That sector is keen to get going as interest builds in the housing market. That includes interest in the handover of new homes where construction work has progressed, especially among first-time buyers who are keen to get their new homes.

Buying from and supporting local businesses will be crucial for recovery and for the economy to rebuild and gain confidence again in towns, cities and villages. As has already been mentioned, councils must also step up and work in partnership with businesses and central government. The hospitality, retail, leisure and tourism sectors will also need continued support on the road to recovery. There are real opportunities for those sectors, including for the local tourism product as it rebuilds and taps into the desire for domestic holidays at home, which are trendily named "staycations". Today's announcement by the Minister to reopen hotels, guesthouses and caravan parks from 20 July is a welcome step forward. The focus on a regionally balanced economy in the motion is constructive, but we also have a responsibility to grow Northern Ireland's national and global competitiveness. We must build on its reputation for world-class and advanced technologies, skills and manufacturing. We have seen recent investment in cybersecurity. I believe that there are further exciting opportunities to grow those sectors in partnership with our universities and regional colleges through innovation and development of new skills.

Real opportunities are ahead. We must all play our part in supporting the recovery as Northern Ireland reopens.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin

I speak in favour of the motion and commend its sentiments. However, just to pass a motion in the Assembly is not sufficient; we must convert its sentiments into practical strategy and implement that strategy in full. Therefore, I call on the Minister for the Economy to instruct her officials to begin immediately the process of planning for a just recovery from both the health crisis that we are experiencing now and the economic challenges that we face at the other side of the pandemic.

It is not sufficient to join in the weekly Thursday night clap for NHS workers if we do not commit to ensuring that their pay and conditions equal the care and diligence that we demand of the health service. No more should we feel that we can refer to certain grades of workers as "low-skilled"; low-paid, yes, certainly, but low-skilled, no. Those workers, be they home-care workers, delivery drivers, shelf stackers, counter assistants or any of the multitude of workers who have earned the description "essential" over the past number of months, must never be left behind again.

They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, which must include the receipt of a living wage and proper, protected working conditions. We must also strive to support and promote our small and medium-sized enterprise and hospitality sectors, which, in many cases, have taken a major hit to their viability. They are the backbone of our local economies, and we must devise imaginative ways to ensure that they not only survive but thrive.

Finally, I believe that we all accept that the pandemic has changed the manner in which we will conduct almost every aspect of our lives. It would be remiss of me, as Deputy Chair of the Education Committee, not to recognise the challenges ahead for our educators. Therefore, I call on the Minister of Education to re-evaluate the education model now in practice and to devise and prepare new, sensitive ways of progressing our children through the different stages of primary and secondary education. The old way of doing education will not be compatible with the new conditions and requirements that will be expected from educators or students. We need to get this right. Remember the old saying: fail to prepare, prepare to fail. We cannot afford to fail our future generation of essential workers, leaders and educators.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 3:45 pm, 1st June 2020

In moving his amendment, Mr Muir referred to economic orthodoxy being turned on its head. I think that it was Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven who said that pennies did not fall from heaven; they have to be earned here on Earth. It is important, in the debate, that we are cognisant of that fact. As my colleague from East Antrim said, the economy is everything. It pays for our public services. It pays for our education, speaking of which I put on record my thanks to Miss Bannister, Mr Hay and Mr Jennings, the three schoolteachers who have a role in the education of my children. They make a valiant contribution, along with all public workers and key front-line staff.

Nearly nine weeks into this situation, we have to be aware of the massive damage that our economy is sustaining. The scale of the interventions that have been made is unheard of in peacetime. The fact that such interventions can be made at all is proof of how much better off we are as part of the United Kingdom. We have a Government who can make such interventions and spend such money protecting businesses and the economy. However, we also need to be honest. I mentioned my children. My children will spend a significant portion of their working life paying off the debt that these measures accrue. The longer the economy continues in lockdown, the more of their working life all our children will spend paying this money back. Pennies do not fall from heaven; they have to be earned. That is why I welcome the actions that the Economy Minister has been engaging in during the crisis. She has behaved responsibly and in a statesmanlike manner. She has balanced the need to protect public health, insofar as is possible, with the need to ensure that the economy can function again when the present restrictive measures are lifted.

The £280 million worth of grants and the furlough scheme were mentioned. I hope that Mr Muir will not think that I am picking on him, but he also mentioned the post-war consensus that obtained between 1945 and 1979. I remind him gently that Keynesian economics made the UK an economic basket case. Not for nothing were we referred to as the "sick man of Europe" during that period. However, I leave that for historians to argue.

We cannot keep the productive element of our economy, which pays for everything around us, in lockdown for a second longer than it needs to be. I therefore welcome the recent announcements that the Minister has made, particularly about retail.

I think that other Members are right — I said this at the most recent meeting of the Economy Committee — that one of the things that have changed as a consequence of the crisis is that our perception of what is and is not important work has changed. My wife works in B&M on the Cregagh Road, and I dare say that, for the last nine weeks, people have thought that she is more important that I am. Of course, I always think that

[Laughter.]

That is why I am putting it in Hansard for her to read later. People's perception of what is and is not priority employment has changed, and that can only be welcomed as a good thing.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister in more detail the plans that the Executive have to lead us out of lockdown and to get the engine of our economy ticking again.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member used a risky set of words that he may have to pay for later

[Laughter.]

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I take the opportunity to pay tribute, in my role as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs, to all our farmers as front-line workers for producing our food throughout the pandemic. We have around 25,000 farms in the North, and they support the employment of 48,000 people across the food and drink industry. It is a huge contributor to our economy, with a £4·5 billion turnover last year. As well as having a huge impact on the economy, farming is a way of life, and those of us who represent rural constituencies know that it is a way of life for many people and supports many others. It is a key employer here.

Agriculture is under pressure. There are poor profit margins, the cost of production exceeds farm-gate prices and there are rising input costs every year. When we were gathering evidence on the Agriculture Bill recently, researchers from Queen's University told us that, without the direct payments, 30% of farms would immediately collapse. No doubt, since the COVID pandemic started, that figure will probably increase. The single farm payment accounts for over 80% of income for farmers, and farmers' incomes, even before the COVID pandemic, was decreasing year-on-year. Last year, we saw a 26% decrease in their incomes. That is very stark in some sectors. If we take the farmers in the areas of natural constraint (ANC) scheme, which covers the beef and sheep farmers, we see that their predicted income for this year is £10,000, and that is if they are lucky. I understand that, according to NISRA, the weekly wage here is £535. The beef and sheep farmers in the North get less than the average weekly wage. It is very stark, and they are the producers of our food.

The other point I want to make about moving into an economic recovery is that it is so vital that the farming sector is protected. It also needs to be looked at across the island. Any future economic recovery has to look at agriculture and food production across the island. For example, we export about half a million sheep to the South, and they export about half a million pigs to the North. About 75% of our beef is exported across the water to Britain. Unfettered access north, south, east and west is very important to us.

Brexit, of course, has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works, because the British market is so crucial to here. We export 87% of our agri-food to it. The British market is so crucial, but the failure of the British Government to incorporate minimum food standards in their Bill has opened the door to Britain importing cheap, low-standard food, which will more than likely destroy the market for farmers here. We need to look throughout the rest of Ireland and beyond to the EU and other places to find new markets. he future of agriculture and a future recovery require us to look at our indigenous food security, and we can see the importance of that with COVID and the volatility of the world stage. Things can change on a global basis, which underlines the importance of having our own secure food supply here.

Before I conclude, I want to say that isolation is an absolutely huge issue in rural communities. On a regional basis — I am surrounded by a couple of north-west MLAs — the likes of the A5 and rural broadband are hugely important in connecting and reconnecting isolated communities at this time. On the funding stuff and what we want to see in the future coming out of this, we want to see our Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation (TRPSI) budget given legal protection in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and, of course, we want to see the lost funding from the rural development programme. We are losing £80 million from priority 6 of the rural development programme as a result of Brexit. We need to see the UK shared prosperity fund matching or replacing that lost EU funding, because those projects are so crucial for community hubs, community support and village renewal. We have seen how important that network has been in the response to the crisis.

In conclusion, I commend the motion. I tabled it, so I obviously support it. Looking into the future, unfettered access east-west and North/South —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

— and replacement of our lost EU funding.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I can readily join in saluting our front-line workers, who have been magnificent throughout this matter across our Province, but I have to say that, when it comes to the motion as a road map to get us back on the path to economic prosperity, I despair. It is like any other socialist manifesto that I have read. It is all about promises and hope but has no answers. Look at the motion. When it comes to restarting our economy, what does it say? Nothing. When it comes to support for business, what does it say? Nothing. When it comes to recognising that wealth creation is key to job creation, what does it say? Nothing. When it comes to talking about economic prosperity, what does it say? Nothing. When it comes to speaking about global competitiveness, nothing. When it comes to saying that we must move our economy from its superdependence on the public sector, nothing. When it comes to the issue of competitiveness, nothing to say. And, of course, when it comes to who will pay, nothing to say. It is a motion that, frankly, might be verbose in proclaiming virtuous things but provides nothing in terms of taking us forward. It is not much help that the only amendment to it that has been permitted is one that simply adds a green flavour. There was another amendment that did, at least, talk about the urgent need to restart economic activity, but it did not merit attention on the Order Paper. We are left with this wish list of a socialist nature, which does not really take us very far.

I want to say this to the Minister: if she wants to do something green that is based not in sentiment but in manufacturing reality, I direct her attention to supporting Wrightbus. Wrightbus in Ballymena is moving forward as a world leader in hydrogen-driven buses and vehicles. If she really wants to create a hub in Northern Ireland for green, clean, safe energy and its use across our transportation sector, as opposed to those who pontificate about the sentiment of the green economy, there is a reality of the green economy that could and should be tapped into.

Nothing would please me better than to see my constituency become a hydrogen hub built around Wrightbus, so that we could see the progression and so that Translink could be supplied with hydrogen buses and all those things could be advanced.

A little economic forethought and a little economic reality would be a lot preferable to the sentiment that floats around in the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call Matthew O'Toole, who will have the remaining four minutes of the debate, with or without interventions.

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

I will be concise. I support the motion and the amendment, although, at the risk of sounding like I agree too much with the previous speaker, which would not do at all —.

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

Well, it is difficult to find much to disagree with in the motion or the amendment. Nevertheless, I and my party support them. The urgent thing is that we move on from the sentiment in a motion such as this to hard, practical policy.

The COVID crisis has illustrated to us an enormous number of things that were probably known before but have become starkly obvious in the last three months. Lots of people have talked about the importance of key workers. That is absolutely true — Mr Stalford put it very well when he talked about his wife's job — but the absolute harsh reality is that, in the next few months, the COVID crisis will underline long-term structural weaknesses that have afflicted this economy not just for months but for years and generations. I am afraid that it is no good parties from different parts of the House who have presided over the repetition of the same polices, lamenting the continuation of those structural challenges. We need hard action and practical policy to change them. The year 1848, which, I am sure, historians among us will know as the year of multiple revolutions in Europe, was described famously as the turning point in history when history failed to turn. Let is hope that 2020 is not the turning point when history fails to turn, at least in Northern Ireland.

I talked about the long-term structural challenges that our economy faces. Well, what are they? We have been for a long time the most unproductive part of these islands. We have the most unproductive economy. I respect unionist Members talking about the role that the UK Exchequer has played in helping businesses and do not deny that. My God, who could? Businesses that have been in receipt of Treasury funding are, of course, grateful for not having gone out of business. I would say, however, that, as a long-term economic strategy, sheer supplication and saying that all we can do is rely on money from the UK Exchequer is not sensible. That is why I agree with Caoimhe Archibald and why I have been urging her colleague the Finance Minister to progress ideas for a long-term fiscal commission to look at how we raise revenue here to pay for public services. I say that as some who is proudly a member of a social democratic, centre-left party. We need to raise revenue in Northern Ireland, and we need to direct that revenue towards the urgent priorities that we all can agree on. We can all agree that we have long-term underinvestment in our infrastructure. We can all agree that we need to transition to a greener, lower-carbon economy. It would be much better for us if we were able to raise the revenue and decide on those priorities ourselves here, but we have yet to have, I am afraid, a short- or long-term economic recovery strategy for the Executive and an agreed, updated set of Programme for Government targets.

What do we need? We need a serious set of long-term, joined-up economic and fiscal policies. We do not need, with respect, pop-up policies, such as the announcement around hotels being able to open but without a date for taking bookings. I do not mean to pick on one issue, but it highlights a problem that has been endemic to governance in this place for the last number of years: unrelated, pop-up policy and things that do not make a lost of sense as part of a joined-up picture but kind of work because a particular lobby group has asked for them.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I rapidly approach the end of my four minutes. I could go on and on. The motion and the amendment are drawn widely, and it is hard to agree or disagree with them. While I will support them, by far the most important thing to say is that we move urgently and rapidly to agree priorities that allow us to deliver the just economic recovery and lower-carbon economy that we clearly all want.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call the Minister for the Economy, Mrs Diane Dodds, to respond to the debate. You will have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. To you and the proposer of the motion I apologise for being a couple of minutes late at the start.

Events moved a lot quicker in the Chamber today than I had anticipated, so my apologies.

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on our economy and society, and I listened with interest to Members' contributions today. I reassure the Member for East Antrim that, although this is the first time that we have had the opportunity to debate this in the Chamber, my Department has been working on this from the start.

Of course, today, our thoughts are with the families and communities of those who have suffered pain and loss, and it is right that we recognise those who have been on the front line during this time. This cuts across the public and private sectors. As well as the heroic work of those in the NHS, we would not have been able to cope without the work of hauliers, retail workers and other key, front-line staff. This crisis has shown how essential their work is.

The motion calls on us to protect the vulnerable through any impending recession. I want to be clear. Economists will define what is or is not a recession, but those who have already lost their job will not need an economist to tell them about the state of the economy.

Some six years of progress on jobs was lost when the Northern Ireland claimant count increased by 26,500 people in a single month. Unfortunately, we can expect unemployment to increase again. The Bank of England has forecast a UK-wide increase in the unemployment rate of around five percentage points for the second quarter of 2020 when compared to the unemployment rate just before the outbreak. For Northern Ireland, that could mean an increase of around 50,000 — around double the rise seen in the latest claimant count figures.

Supporting the vulnerable, those on low incomes and those who have already lost their job is not future work; it is for the here and now. The first step in protecting the most vulnerable is in safely reopening our economy so that those who have lost jobs can seek new employment and we limit the number who become unemployed. Construction, manufacturing and retail are opening. Today's approach to hotels, bed and breakfasts, caravans and self-catering accommodation is a further step, but we must move safely, in line with the medical and scientific advice. I have been impressed by those sectors and how they have adapted. Significant changes have been made to make sure that workers are safe at work.

We must also move beyond the reopening of our economy to planning for the future of our economy. A strong economy benefits everyone in society. I value economic growth because I am aware of the alternative. We have lived through recessions, have seen how unemployment affects physical and mental health and have seen closed shops and factories in local towns. No one wants to return to that.

There are significant challenges in building a stronger economy. The world has changed rapidly. We cannot say with any authority what it will look like in a year's time. As an economy, we rely on consumer spending. If people have limited opportunities to spend money in their local shops and restaurants, that will limit the ability of retail and hospitality here to continue to operate.

The tourism sector has been, perhaps, the hardest hit by the present crisis and by the long-term impact on travel. While many businesses in that sector have adapted, it is likely that growth will be difficult to achieve, even in the medium term.

The motion calls for a just transition to an economy centred on more people working in higher-paying jobs. To achieve that, we will need to focus on sectors that can deliver higher-paying jobs. Looking to the future, I think that there is likely to be potential for growth in life and health sciences. Similarly, the digital sector is likely to continue to grow. As my colleague from north Down indicated, the recent good news on cybersecurity jobs in Belfast shows that not only is Northern Ireland out in front in training and education in those sectors, but it is competitive on a global scale. Our advanced manufacturing sector also has strong potential, and tourism has been one of our success stories over recent years, and one that I am determined to support as it gets back on its feet.

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

I thank the Minister for giving way. I know that she is working on a tourism recovery plan. Can she say more about the short-term for the tourism sector? It would appear very unlikely that this year, and possibly next, that we will be anywhere close to the kinds of markets that we had access to. Which markets for this summer, and, indeed, the rest of the year, is Tourism NI prioritising?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. We are working, with our steering group, with all aspects of that sector. It is clear to us that in the immediate future the domestic market within the British Isles will provide us with much of our tourism activity. I spoke to North American tour operators last week who indicated that there is still a strong desire to visit Northern Ireland. Many of the groups that they had booked for this year have rebooked for the next season. I think that we will have to rely on the market at home, but we are, and will continue to be, attractive to other markets, particularly the North American market.

We live in a society where inequality and poverty are persistent problems. This crisis has so far impacted most on those on low incomes and young people. The opportunities that are likely to come in the years ahead will be disproportionately in sectors where specific skills are required, so we must ensure that those who lose jobs in other sectors are given the support that they need to upskill in areas where there is demand.

I have been struck over the past number of months by the changes in our environment: fewer people driving to work, more people out cycling or walking. Those are positive changes and many people have reflected on how this could reshape how we appreciate our environment and protect against climate change.

The proposer of the motion advocates a new deal, but economic recovery, I stress, must be sustainable and provide growth opportunities for the private sector. In Northern Ireland, we have already been meeting some of our energy targets. We have led the way in developing renewable electricity to meet the Executive's 40% target. That success has helped to develop a low-carbon and renewable energy economy of 3,500 businesses, 5,500 jobs and £269 million worth of exports. We need to further develop that part of the economy.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. For some Members, the idea of a command economy might be appealing. The truth of the matter is that only through having a free economy that is generating wealth can any of the aims in this motion, lofty as they are, be achieved. Would the Minister agree?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

We need our economy to function in order to provide for our public services and to help us to protect the most vulnerable, so I am absolutely behind businesses that seek to create wealth and opportunity for people. That is an appropriate way for this House to go.

I reassure the Member for North Antrim that I have already been speaking to Wrightbus. This week, I will convene a meeting between Wrightbus, my Department's officials and Invest Northern Ireland to investigate how Northern Ireland can benefit from greater job opportunities using the technology and research that is available in the north Antrim area to promote the hydrogen project. I hope that we will be able to make progress on that.

As the Minister for the Economy since the crisis first struck, I have been aware that, while it was primarily a health crisis, it was always going to become a grave economic crisis. Throughout, I have ensured that my Department and its arm's-length bodies are working to support business in any way that we can. As some colleagues have referenced, that has included a social partnership with the engagement forum, which was asked to do two specific tasks: to look at the essential worker's list and to give safety advice.

To the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy, I should say that, in the Programme for Government, it is the responsibility of the First and deputy First Minister not just to reference something like the engagement forum, but to consult far and wide on this particular and very important piece of programming.

The Department also moved to bring unprecedented levels of support to businesses across Northern Ireland. The business grant schemes were designed to protect jobs, prevent business closures and to promote economic recovery. I welcome the uptake of those schemes. To date, we have issued over 22,000 payments through the £10,000 grant scheme, which represents over £220 million in support. There have been 2,600 payments made through the £25,000 grant scheme, which represents £65 million of support to businesses in retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure.

The extension of the rates relief to those sectors for the year, and to everyone for the first four months of the rates year, is of enormous value to businesses as they try to plot a way forward.

A Member:

Will the Minister give way?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

No, I am not going to give way because I am rapidly running out of time and there are other things that I need to get through.

Along with those supports, there have been those at a national level: the job retention scheme, the self-employment scheme and the access to finance schemes. Those have been vital in keeping businesses going.

On tourism, I have established the tourism recovery steering group, which brings together the private and public sectors to plan for recovery. That group, which is supported by Tourism NI, will play a key role as government and industry work together to help our tourism and hospitality sector find its way back to full potential.

There has been some discussion about the need to invest in infrastructure to rebuild our economy. The past few months have shown us that broadband infrastructure is a vital part of our economy. We will not be able to build a regionally balanced economy without investment in broadband. Project Stratum seeks to use the £165 million of funding that is available from the confidence and supply deal to increase and improve broadband services, and that is primarily across rural areas of Northern Ireland. The target intervention area consists of 79,000 premises, 97% of which are rural. The contract award is expected in September 2020, with a full deployment in March. That is the type of long-term infrastructure project that we will need to ensure that businesses can prosper anywhere in Northern Ireland.

I have introduced legislation to ensure that workers who are prevented from taking their annual leave because of the pandemic can carry over some of that leave into the next two years. In conjunction with the Minister for Communities, I have introduced legislation to ensure that furloughed workers who are entitled to statutory family-related payments will not lose out. That goes together with my wider plans for ensuring that our employment legislation gives people the support that they need. For example, I recently announced my intention to consult on proposals to put in place provisions for parental bereavement leave and pay.

This has been an unprecedented few months. We have responded —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I ask the Minister to draw her remarks to a close.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

— as quickly as possible and have delivered things that would have been thought of as impossible in normal times, but there is more to do. I look forward to setting out a long-term economic strategy and working with the House to ensure that families and jobs in Northern Ireland are our highest and utmost priority.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call John Blair to make a winding-up speech on the amendment. The Member will have up to five minutes.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for her statement and thank the proposers of the original motion for accepting our amendment. I thought originally that I was coming to respond to the amendment only, but I should be able to make some comments in response to remarks made. Before I do so, I will make some comments of my own.

I will start by adding to the thanks paid to our front-line workers. I am hopeful that the debate today and the sentiments expressed will offer them some reassurance that we are looking to safeguard the services that those people provide for the future as we begin to look for recovery and the necessary societal change.

There will be many lessons learned, and some have been referenced already today, from the COVID period. We will, I am sure, reflect for some time on the human loss, the changes in our methods of governance and, of course, the time when our interaction with others was seemingly stopped completely. However, there are positives, even in these darkest of times, to be taken from what we have learned thus far. I want to mention in particular the collaborative working that is taking place in government and in Departments. Hopefully, the Minister will take back to her officials, as I have said here with regard to other issues, our sincere thanks for the work done in an ever-changing environment.

It would be remiss of me not to mention also the most outstanding community reaction that there has been to assist those most in need. We have seen that in every locality. I want to draw down two examples that relate to how we can better facilitate a just and economic recovery, which is the focus of the motion. First, the collaborative approach, which I mentioned and which has been beneficial at this time of crisis, should become the working model for the future. It is essential that government — regional, national and local — work together with communities to ensure mutual understanding of challenges and to shape solutions. That, in itself, might help to embrace the community spirit demonstrated so that those people who have made that huge effort in recent times can feed in to the near future, the medium future and the longer-term future.

Also, the green new deal, which has been spoken about today, is not merely aspirational; it is a commitment in a document called, 'New Decade, New Approach', which made it more attractive for some of us to be part of the Government. That is about making sure that we make and meet a commitment and nothing more than that. I will now turn to —.

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

Will the Member agree with me that the commitments outlined in the European Commission to building an EU-wide green new deal approach offer some opportunity for the Northern Ireland institutions to look at how we could be a part of that, specifically in relation to the protocol?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I agree totally. It is a matter that should be considered going forward by all of us but, specifically, by the Northern Ireland Executive. That green new deal would bring with it economic benefits to exploring and developing that circular economy. It will require new expertise. It will present opportunities for new learning experiences, and, in addition, it will bring opportunities to allow individuals to develop their own skills as well as new skills to help to provide this greener, cleaner future.

I will turn now to the comments made in the Chamber. I am very pleased that most of them, with one notable exception, were wholly supportive of the proposal and the amendment. Sinead McLaughlin mentioned the need for social dialogue, which I referenced a moment ago. Gary Middleton spoke very clearly about our need to protect the vulnerable. John Stewart referenced to some extent small businesses and the challenges that will exist around that going forward. Gordon Dunne mentioned the rescue packages that are already in place. Christopher Stalford paid tribute to government for the measures that are there and did not rule out that we have to look at exploring new measures as well. Declan McAleer, who is no longer in the Chamber, mentioned the agriculture sector challenge, and I will explore that with Declan and others through the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Matthew O'Toole, in his closing remarks, mentioned support for the motion, which is very welcome.

In reference to Mr Allister's comments, I really want to stress that I am not averse at all to exploring opportunities at Wrightbus or anywhere else because some of us are not afraid of referencing aspiration at the same time as trying to deal with desperation or deprivation. Those things are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly doable to work on all those matters at one time. All of that can be done —.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that we need to build back better and that the time is now for the Executive to bring forward a green new deal for Northern Ireland to decarbonise, reboot our economy, create jobs, improve our health, protect our environment and, ultimately, save our planet? Not in the future, but now.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I do agree. That would meet the commitment that I mentioned a moment ago that is in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. I think that 90% of his amendment is perfectly fine. Does he share my concern, and that of many trade unionists, that the social partnership approach, in the South of Ireland in particular, has led to increased inequality, particularly in relation to the wealth gap?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

That makes it all the more important that we examine that pathway at all levels of government — national, regional and local.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

All of the sentiments that have been expressed — certainly those in support of the motion and the amendment — can be done in the spirit of the motion; involving, providing for and protecting our people.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I want to start by touching on where we started this morning: a debate about the murder of George Floyd and the racism that was inherent in that. I also want to point out that it is not just racism that people who suffer disadvantage to that level are struggling with. It is often rooted in inequality: inequality of circumstance, inequality of opportunity and inequality of outcome right across the system. That inequality bleeds into economic systems across the world; it curtails them and stops them from building balanced economies, as we have heard today.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, those who in the past were referred to as "low-skilled" or "non-essential" workers are on the front line in our response. Caithfimid luach na n-oibrithe a aithint. Ní leor torann seanchaite; is gá cóir agus coinníollacha oibre a chosaint. Ní mór dó seo bheith mar chuid de aon phlean téarnaimh. In any economic strategy, their value must be recognised, not through platitudes but by paying them decent wages and protecting their working conditions.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member believe in an equal society and does he believe that we need a subregional balance in our economy as we emerge from lockdown? Derry and the north-west have the highest levels of unemployment of any region in the United Kingdom and we consistently attract the lowest number of jobs related to Invest NI. What are the Member's thoughts on that?

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I agree with the Member on that and will address that very issue in my remarks.

The economic strategy must include equality in infrastructure, particularly in the provision of broadband in rural communities, and I welcome the Minister's news on that. I have a slight concern because the figure of 79,000 homes or premises was. I have been involved in meetings and my understanding was that the figure would be 100,000 premises. I fear that some of the premises with the worst provision will still fall through the net. However, that is work for a future day with the Minister.

Project Stratum must proceed as soon possible so that students, farmers, businesses and entrepreneurs in the far reaches of Fermanagh, Tyrone and mid-Ulster have the same opportunities to grow and succeed. Their success is vital to us sustaining our rural communities in a balanced way. Tá fáilte le cur roimh na cinntí faoin scoil leighis i gColáiste Mhig Aoidh agus roimh na city deals leis an mhaoiniú i réigiún an iarthuaiscirt a chur ina cheart. Caithfidh an plean straitéiseach geilleagrach leanstan ar an dóigh seo le go mbeidh cothromaíocht thíreolaíoch agus réigiúnach i gcroílár cheapadh polasaí. The decisions on the medical school at Magee and the city deal are welcome first steps in redressing the historic underinvestment in the north-west region and west of the Bann generally. The economic strategy must continue along those lines, with geographical and regional balance at the core of all policy decisions.

I declare an interest in that for most of my life I have been very much involved in either running or owning a small business. Small businesses employ huge amounts of our population.

They are responsible for huge amounts of innovation and, in the mid-Ulster and Tyrone areas, in particular, engineering and food processing companies are the economic drivers of prosperity. Those businesses must be assisted with financial and other support if they are to survive in the expected economic downturn, and those were certainly worrying figures that the Minister shared with us today. For example, small and social enterprises must be supported in their efforts to access public contracts. We should also look at encouraging social value clauses in public procurement to support regional development and those smaller businesses. The 2019 report on rebalancing the economy revealed that only 4% of the North's social enterprises were located in Fermanagh and Tyrone. Given that the social economy has a track record of delivering social value and sustainable jobs, it is important that we see that sector delivering more of those benefits in Fermanagh, Tyrone and all areas west of the Bann.

We also need to look at some of the other inequalities in the North. We need to look at other areas, but particularly the North. In the North, Women make up 51% of the population, yet only 30% of them are self-employed. Women represent 82% of part-time workers, and 52% of women are unemployed. Women still face gender gaps in pay, higher levels of part-time work and a concentration of employment in lower-paying sectors such as caring, cleaning and hospitality. Rural women are even worse off due to the centralisation of services and opportunities, and, with only 3% of government funding for womens' group going to rural women, they are underserved and neglected.

To build a balanced and sustainable economy, we need to look at the issue of working carers. Strong economies have come to realise the value of supporting carers in their workforce. Germany recently brought in laws to promote the rights of workers to take time off for caring responsibilities and protect their career progression and promotion. We need to look at that sector of our economy.

As the Chair of the Health Committee, I understand the pressures that our health and social care sector faces. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded across our communities, we saw the consequences of 10 years of Tory austerity, with a lack of even the most basic protection equipment available for those front-line workers. Many Members who spoke in the debate referenced that and rightly so.

In the aftermath of the crisis, it is expected that areas of high deprivation across the North will have suffered disproportionately. According to the Office for National Statistics, patterns of death from COVID-19 correspond with patterns of deprivation, with deaths in more deprived communities more than double those in the least deprived. Members, that is a scandal. In the aftermath of the emergency and crisis, we will need to examine that to see how we can prevent that ever occurring again.

Health inequalities in the North need to be addressed. We must urgently address the inequality that causes the life expectancy of a child born in the North in 2017 to be 1·6 years lower than a child born in the South. We must try to understand why suicide rates are three and half times higher in areas of high deprivation and why drug-related and alcohol-specific mortality is four times higher in our more deprived communities. We need to begin to tackle those stark inequalities, not only because they are an injustice in themselves but to build a sustainable economy.

Austerity is not the way forward. It has caused enough unnecessary suffering to so many. Our economic recovery strategy must be one that invests in our public sector and all our communities and all our people.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP 4:30 pm, 1st June 2020

I thank the Member for giving way. I note and accept that he can give a valid opinion on austerity, but I do not accept that it is the sole reason why the health service is in crisis. Does he accept that a previous Minister of Health who sits on his Benches was warned at one point to stock up on personal protective equipment (PPE) and did not take that advice?

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Does the Member accept that, not long ago, in the Chamber, his Minister of Health stated that the health system had been underinvested in for 10 years, which corresponds almost exactly with Tory austerity? That is why we have seen a year-on-year reduction in real-terms spending in that sector. Those issues must be addressed going forward.

Caithfidh ár straitéis eacnamaíochta aghaidh a thabhairt ar an bhochtaineacht agus ar an neamhionannas, go háirithe ar an éagothroime sláinte. Caithfidh infheistíocht san oideachas agus scileanna, i dtithíocht agus i gcruthú fostaíochta bheith mar chuid den straitéis. Our economic recovery strategy must begin to earnestly tackle deprivation and inequality, particularly inequalities in health. The strategy must include investment in health, education and skills, housing and job creation. It is my belief that we need to recognise that many people out there are trying to play against a rigged deck. A few years ago, in a large housing estate in Dungannon, not one child passed the 11-plus. No one in the House can convince me that not a single child in a massive housing estate is intelligent enough. That is about structural oppression and disadvantage in the system, and we need to tackle that to ensure that we have a better way of going forward.

We have heard a lot of talk recently about returning to normality or about the new normal.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

We need to start to work together to see how we make and create a better normal. I support the motion and reiterate our support for the amendment.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises the unprecedented impact the COVID-19 global pandemic is having on our society and economy; commends the invaluable contribution made by our front-line workers who have provided vital service, selflessly, throughout this pandemic; believes that a fair, just and green economic recovery strategy is required in the aftermath of this crisis; agrees that an economic recovery strategy must not only recognise but also demonstrate that we value our front-line workers and want to protect them, and the most vulnerable, through any impending recession; understands that workers' rights and public services must be protected; commits to existing economic challenges being tackled by a just and green transition to a more high-skilled, regionally balanced and sustainable economy that works for workers, their families, and businesses; and calls on the Executive to ensure that these principles underpin an economic and society-wide recovery guided by a social partnership approach involving government, trade unions, businesses and the third sector.

Adjourned at 4.37 pm.