I appreciate the severe impact that the COVID-19 outbreak has had on childcare availability and the resulting challenges faced by parents who are working from home. NICS has worked hard to support staff to manage their workload against their parental caring responsibilities. Staff are supported with a blend of flexible working arrangements and the use of technology, including the provision of laptops and access to tools such as Webex videoconferencing. An additional 5,750 laptops, around 4,000 reconfigured desktops and 1,400 new mobile devices — tablets and smartphones — have been issued to allow staff to work from home.
Flexitime arrangements allow staff working from home to manage how they arrange their working hours to balance commitments. Staff can discuss and agree with their managers, who are in the best position to support them, how domestic arrangements, including childcare, can be managed during these challenging times. Staff may consider applying for special leave, take annual leave or wish to discuss with their manager a temporary change to working patterns or contracted working hours. Managers are very much encouraged to consider all such requests sympathetically.
I am pleased that the Minister was able to put on record the support that is being provided as a response to COVID-19 to enable Northern Ireland civil servants to work from home. As we emerge from the pandemic, I am being contacted by constituents who work for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who say that they are being asked to come back to work and that childcare arrangements are not being taken into account. Will the Minister provide the NICS COVID-related policy on working from home to the Assembly so that we can provide it to the constituents who are making those queries?
Yes. I appreciate the challenge for people coming back, and that is why we have included childcare in the additional rates relief and why we are looking at childcare as a specific sector for support. There are particular challenges in getting childcare in place, as, of course, if it is not in place, people cannot get back to work. It is a chicken-and-egg thing. It involves more than the Department of Finance, but we have responsibility for NICS.
Yes, I am sure that we can publish or make available the guidance to make sure that people are being properly looked after. The instruction to managers in the Civil Service is to be as flexible and as sympathetic as possible and to understand the challenges that people face. I hope that that is the case. If it is not, we are more than happy to hear from them.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I think that I owe you an apology for the last time that I was here. I have seen you personally, and I am now making my apology publicly as well. You have a difficult task.
I want to ask the Minister about single-person businesses and businesses with an NAV of less than £51,000. We need to give them as much help as possible, not only financially, although that is the greatest help. Can you, when you speak to the Treasury — this is not unlike what my colleague across the way said about VAT — look at deferring the big-ticket payments that businesses find themselves making at the end of the year? It would be a help and would give much comfort to businesses that are struggling to open.
I appreciate your flexibility, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Quite a lot of businesses and MLAs have come to us with the problems facing the business sector. I am particularly keen to hear — I put this out to all MLAs — from people who want us to make representations to the Treasury, as we are the Department that engages directly with it. I have a regular engagement with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and my departmental officials engage daily with the Treasury. We have been able to point out to the Treasury things that have not worked properly in relation to some of their early responses — the job retention scheme and some of the loans issues. We have been able to engage with them and say, "This isn't working here for a variety of reasons". We have secured some amendments and some more flexibility.
Business support is not simply one package; it will be ongoing support. It will be about finding ways of doing things better. An example is the discussions between Infrastructure and Communities about the use of street space and licensing. All those things are important in supporting the hospitality sector. It is not simply a matter of grants; it is a matter of engaging to ensure that things are made easier for business as well.
There is a range of measures. One is, as Claire Sugden identified, that childcare is a problem. We have to recognise, now that the childcare sector is not functioning as it was, that it is more difficult for people to access childcare and that that creates a difficulty. There has to be almost a personal engagement with each civil servant by their manager to see the issues that they face. The initial priority was to allow people to work from home, and there was a huge drive towards that through providing people with laptops, smartphones and other devices and through ensuring that people had the technology to contact and engage with the Department to continue meetings and to continue work from home. Of course, the question now is how we get back and how we get more people back in. That will involve a range of measures, including looking at individual circumstances and at childcare. It will also involve looking at where people work from. We had already begun looking at flexi-desks, people working from hubs or satellite arrangements around the country so that people are not spending time in their car or having to travel with other people to and from work if they can work remotely or work from hubs closer to their home. There is a range of measures that will assist people back to work.
I do not see us getting back to full offices any time soon. We will have to continue to be flexible and operate a variety of arrangements to get the best value out of our public services that we can. Those will be challenges for every Department. The Department of Finance is here to assist other Departments and their staff in whatever way we can.