COVID-19 Guidance and Financial Support to Industry Sectors

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 7th July 2020.

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Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP 12:00 pm, 7th July 2020

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the taxi, haulage, driving instruction and private hire bus and coach sectors; acknowledges that these industries have not been prioritised in terms of guidance and support packages; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to bring forward proposals for the formulation of guidance and financial support for these sectors as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Business Committee has allowed one and a half hours for the debate. Miss McIlveen will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

As we are all acutely aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an adverse impact on almost all aspects of our lives. Over recent months, the Committee for Infrastructure has had a role in examining that impact on the individuals and organisations that fall within the remit of the Department for Infrastructure. The Committee has discussed and scrutinised the mitigations put in place for sectors hardest hit by the pandemic and has wholeheartedly supported the proposals brought forward to assist those sectors. However, the Committee is aware of industries that feel that they have been let down at this time. Those industries, in desperation and hope, have voiced their concerns to the Department for Infrastructure. However, adequate support has not been forthcoming or satisfactory. In the motion, the Committee wishes to add its voice to the frustrations of some of the sectors that have been so badly impacted by the pandemic and asks for Members support in calling on the Minister for Infrastructure to bring forward financial support and guidance to assist the individuals involved in the sectors outlined in the motion. I intend to outline my Committee's engagement with those sectors, the issues raised during that engagement and the insufficient response received from the Minister to date.

The Committee has considered correspondence from these sectors since the beginning of the lockdown. For example, in correspondence of 9 April 2020, representatives of taxi drivers asked the Committee for help. While appreciating that these are unprecedented times and understanding the pressures facing Departments, they voiced their concern that the taxi industry, both public and private, has received little or no guidance and support while providing an essential service to some of our most vulnerable citizens. They told the Committee that they had raised their issues with government but still had questions about the availability of government grants to help the taxi industry. The Committee sought answers from the Minister, who responded advising that her Department's responsibility extended only to taxi industry regulation. The Minister acknowledged that the financial package announced by the Government in Westminster fell short of what was needed. The Minister advised that she was engaging with the Economy Minister and that she understood that the Department for the Economy was responsible and would issue guidance.

With the Minister's view that it is the responsibility of other Departments, the taxi industry continued to ask for the Committee's help and wrote to the Committee again on 17 and 29 June. They highlighted the serious impact that COVID-19 had been having and outlined how their industry had been decimated, with a majority having to stop work due to a lack of demand as a result of lockdown. They called again for urgent financial help and support. The taxi industry asked the Minister to issues grants to help taxi drivers under the Taxis Act (Northern Ireland) 2008. However, the Minister for Infrastructure, responding to the Committee, reiterated that her Department's responsibility was solely the regulation of the taxi industry, not financial assistance. In her opinion, the Taxis Act does not extend to providing general financial support grants to the taxi industry in times of hardship. However, the Economy Minister advised the Committee that, regarding a specific support package for the taxi industry, schedules 1 and 3 to the Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2020 allocates funding to the Department for Infrastructure for:

" transport licensing, enforcement and regulation;" as well as:

"support for transport services including grants in respect of rail and road passenger services including fare concessions".

The Economy Minister pointed out her belief that taxis are clearly regarded as transport services. Writing to the Committee on 29 June, the taxi industry once again outlined their concerns and called on the Minister for Infrastructure to put a specific proposal to the Finance Minister or refer the matter to the Executive so that the taxi industry could be supported by government through a hardship fund.

Many drivers have installed screens in their vehicles at their own expense but are concerned about whether their vehicles will pass the PSV test with the addition of the new equipment. It should be noted that a number of councils in England and Scotland have supplied funding for or provided personal protective equipment (PPE) kits to taxi drivers. On 28 May, the Committee for Infrastructure wrote three letters to the Finance Minister seeking financial support for the road haulage industry, the taxi industry and the transport sector in general. In his response, the Finance Minister advised that he had engaged with his Executive colleagues on those matters as well as with the Department for Transport, the Treasury and industry representatives. The Finance Minister noted that the British Government had taken the view that, given the range of measures already put in place, including the support package to maintain ferry routes, a road haulage-specific intervention was not needed at this time. The Finance Minister also noted that the Department for Infrastructure had not made any bids to his Department for support for the taxi industry and encouraged it to do so.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

Not at this time, thank you.

He outlined that £59·5 million of the funding set aside by the Executive for the transport sector had not yet been allocated. In response to a letter to DOF and DFE on the need for financial support for taxi drivers, the Finance Minister provided a list of COVID support schemes to which those in the taxi industry could apply. However, there was also an acknowledgement that many drivers had not been able to access the available schemes.

As for a financial support package for the road haulage and logistics sector, it was a similar story, with the Infrastructure Minister taking the view that her Department was responsible only for the regulation of the industry and, through that role, she had introduced regulatory measures to aid the transport and logistics sector.

The Minister also identified that the Department for Transport has been liaising with the Road Haulage Association (RHA) and Freight Transport Association (FTA) to ensure that the key objectives of maintaining critical supply routes and supporting economic recovery are achieved. Regarding a Northern Ireland package of support, the Minister advised that any request for financial support for the road freight sector should be made by the Department for the Economy.

The RHA and FTA provided oral and written briefings to the Committee on the amendments to legal requirements that they have sought to enable them to continue to provide their vital role in keeping supply chains operating. Those changes include extending drivers' daily driving and delivery hours, vehicle MOTs, driving licences and medical examinations to ensure the continuation of vital supplies required by all in Northern Ireland.

In response to the Committee's concerns, the Department advised that the Department for Transport has been liaising with RHA and FTA to understand the up-to-date picture for road hauliers at a local and UK-wide level. The FTA weekly survey of the first week of April 2020 reported that businesses were experiencing the following: 82% general downturn in business, with work orders cancelled; 34% had gone out of business; 20% of HGV drivers and warehouse staff were not able to work due to the virus; and 32% were experiencing moderate to severe difficulties in finding fitters, mechanics and technicians.

The RHA and FTA detailed how some elements of the sector are surviving. However, there are operators in other sectors. For example, one operator has a mixed fleet of vehicles worth £6 million parked up. They are relatively new vehicles, and the depreciation on the vehicles alone is in the region of £100,000 a month. With the vehicles parked up for over three months, that is a loss of over £300,000 in value, and that does not take into consideration the lost income.

The Committee has also heard, as I am sure that many Members have, from driving instructors who are feeling forgotten and invisible during the pandemic. Some have tried to work out their own safety measures, with little to no guidance.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

Sorry, let me continue, please.

They have no idea of when they should return to work, and they are in dire jeopardy of failing, with many job losses. In response, once again, the Minister and her Department have advised the Committee that it should look elsewhere for answers and that the Department has no remit for driving instructors and when they might return to work. That adds to the confusion that driving instruction was not specifically covered in the COVID-19 recovery plan, nor were driving instructors specifically listed in any of the schedules to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 or in subsequent amendments. There is still no indication of when driving tests can resume; without testing, instruction is pointless. That needs to be addressed immediately.

In response to Committee questions about the coach and bus hire sector, the Minister offered little support other than continuing to take action in relation to its regulatory responsibilities and directing this sector to the general pandemic business support measures.

Other Committee members will give more specifics on the detail of the challenges, but I hope that I have given Members a sense of the abandonment felt by these sectors, which are so integral to the work and responsibilities of the Department for Infrastructure. Unfortunately, by attempting to pass her departmental responsibilities to others, the Minister has failed to be the champion the transport sector has needed during the pandemic.

I am disappointed that an amendment is proposed. Throughout the discussions in Committee, there was a unity of purpose in attempting to seek a solution to the various challenges facing these industries. These employers, breadwinners and vital cogs in our transport infrastructure feel genuine fear of debt and job loss. They are not interested in the politicking in the Chamber. They are looking for someone to lead. I hope that the House can support the motion to call on the Minister for Infrastructure to genuinely listen to the concerns and to be that person.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out from "these industries" to "Minister for Infrastructure" and insert: "the powers of the Minister for Infrastructure are limited to regulation of the transport and transit sectors; welcomes the work undertaken by sectoral bodies and the Minister for Infrastructure to ease burdensome regulation during the emergency period; further recognises that these industries have not been included in specific Executive support packages for private businesses; and calls on the Executive".

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member has 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister's attendance for the debate. The Minister has led from the front. Regretfully, it is very clear to see that some people are politicising Statutory Committees. The fact that there is a proposed amendment to a Committee motion speaks to that. We have cross-party support on that basis. There is deliberate misdirection and confusion. For a start, in relation to all the sectors, every Member feels, I am sure, a great debt of gratitude to those who continue to work throughout the health pandemic. We all know that many people are worried about their health, their jobs and their livelihoods, and as we face into, potentially, the worst economic recession that we have ever known, many people's fears continue unabated.

From the outset, the Minister has led from the front, within the purview of her ministerial responsibilities. She has amended the regulations. She has listened to the haulage sector, to driving instructors and to the taxi industry. We talk about the "taxi industry", but who, exactly, are we speaking about? I have checked with all my colleagues across Northern Ireland, and, as I understand it, the majority of the taxi industry folk who have a problem with what the Minister has done are centred around north and west Belfast. My office in Lurgan is beside a taxi company, yet I have not received a single complaint.

The fact is that all those self-employed sectors have been able to avail themselves of the financial support offered by the Minister for the Economy. We were told, in answer to a ministerial question, that, to date, over 30 taxi firms have availed themselves of the financial support package. Others have availed themselves of the furlough schemes, across all the sectors mentioned. Indeed, others have and will continue to avail themselves of the rates holiday and the break in tax payment that has been announced.

There are sectors that have had specific financial packages made available to them. However, they have been made available by the Executive, by the Economy Minister, and, sometimes, by the Finance Minister working with one of his colleagues. On more than one occasion, the Committee was told that the Minister for Infrastructure had no vires to make financial supports available. None. Therefore, what the motion seeks, and what people fail to hear, is that the Minister for Infrastructure has no power to give financial support grants. The Committee has had sight of lengthy correspondence trails in which the Minister for Infrastructure wrote to her Executive colleagues asking for specific help.

If I can deal with the issue of guidance for driving instructors —.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

Will the Member take an intervention?

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I will not.

[Laughter.]

You will have plenty to say later.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I will not.

At the Committee, I specifically asked the head of the DVA to tell me who has responsibility for driving instructors. They are self-employed. I have been approached by driving instructors. I have corresponded with them and given them the best advice available to me. However, I am very clear: driving instructors are self-employed, and their guidance was on the website of the Department for the Economy. The Minister for Infrastructure has responsibility for driving examiners, an entirely different kettle of fish, especially if you are the one doing the test.

In relation to the furlough scheme and the haulage sectors, you can see that the Infrastructure Minister has, alongside the Finance Minister, corresponded with the Department for Transport and put in place whatever measures and opportunities she could to protect ferry routes. Unfortunately, however, the ferry companies decided to keep the financial package for themselves and did not pass on a reduction to the haulage sector. That is regrettable. It is something, I am sure, that the Department for Transport and, individually, Ministers here have raised with the ferry companies. However, that is the fact of the matter.

I looked up the guidance for taxi drivers myself, as I had heard what driving instructors were saying. I wanted to find out what the guidance was so that I could pass it on to driving instructors. Lo and behold, where was the guidance? It was on the Department for the Economy's website, because that is where the guidance comes from, as taxi drivers are a self-employed sector.

We have great difficulties with the motion because it leads to confusion and misdirects. It is not serving the people, whom they said they seek to serve and get the best for. If we are honest and truthful with all those sectors, we will give them the right information, at the right time and send them to the right Ministers to get the help that they need. We would not send them up the garden path for us to make our own political point-scoring available to them.

In the SDLP amendment, we want to recognise the fact that this matter is not simply for DFI, where there is very clear regulatory responsibility. I will give the House some indication of some of the decisions that the Minister took within her area of responsibility.

The Minister wrote to Ministers Murphy and Dodds, seeking information and advice as to whether there was specific support and financial assistance that the taxi industry could access. Again and again, Minister Mallon wrote to the Executive, stressing that there was a need to ascertain what financial support could be made available to the industry. She also wrote to the Minister for Communities, asking whether taxis could be redeployed to help support the fightback against COVID-19. In the responses from the Sinn Féin Ministers, Minister Mallon was assured that there was support for taxi drivers. She was assured that a Sinn Féin Minister was exploring options for redeployment. People should ask what happened: what redeployment opportunities were presented by that Sinn Féin Minister? Minister Dodds not only wrote to Minister Mallon but, in answers to MLAs, she clearly pointed out that she was providing guidance for the taxi industry. The taxi industry has availed itself of support.

I am mindful that I have to address the issue around the coach and private hire sectors. It is my understanding that the Minister for the Economy will be making that provision because the industry is part of the wider hospitality task force that has been asked to look at the options that might be available for them. I hope that good news will come to that particular sector, because we all know that, the drop-off in tourism, especially from outside Northern Ireland, has had an adverse impact on that sector.

It is most regrettable. In all my years, Committees have spoken with one voice. We have not generally created divisions, and it is very clear to see where the party political point-scoring is coming from. Some Members are looking for a greater focus on some industries and not on others. You have to ask why they seek to support some specific industries.

The message is that, if there are opportunities for the Executive to help in any way, in any particular loophole or gap that needs to be filled, I ask Members to support our amendment, so that we can act and speak with one voice.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I do not want to get involved in the ping-pong as to which Executive party is to blame, although I have my view about that. Surely, it is a collective failure of the Executive, because these may well be cross-cutting issues. The haulage sector, about which I am particularly concerned, has been hung out to dry by the failure of the Executive parties to apply for a pot of money, which is sitting in Finance — at present, it is £29 million — and there has been no collective decision to make an application for it. Is it not, therefore, an Executive failure, never mind individual Departments?

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I want to be fair to all the Ministers around the table. This is a global pandemic, the like of which we have never seen before, and Ministers have had to step up very quickly, not only to their brief but to the challenges presented by the health emergency. By and large, many of them have worked well, but there is a lack of transparency in how some sectors get supported more quickly than others. I urge the Executive to fill the gaps in the haulage, coach and private hire and taxi sectors. Whatever the sector, we feel all workers deserve to be supported in these most challenging and trying of times.

I commend the amendment to the House.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Ba mhaith liom labhairt ar son an rúin seo. I am in favour of and welcome the motion.

This is like everything else: the Member will take an intervention from Members from other parties but will not take one from mine.

The Member said that people should step up in a pandemic, and that is exactly what this is about. A lot of other Ministers across the board did not have the vires to do things but stepped up and came up with plans and ideas. The Member is engaging in a rearguard action to protect her Minister. This was discussed in Committee. A lot of Members who, funnily enough, will maybe support your amendment were content in the Committee system to speak out and were happy with some of the responses that we got. Still and all, today, when they get up to speak, they go against what they said in Committee. Mr Beggs supported Mr Murphy in Committee when he talked on this Floor about bringing forward proposals to the Executive — he mentioned the Committee — and other Members said other things, and they were content for that to happen.

The whole point of it was this: we were saying to the Minister, "Bring forward proposals, and we, as a Committee, will support you". We are not the ones who were ding-donging across Ministers. The Minister sits there with a database of taxi licences and all the licences across the board, but all that we were saying at the time was, "Put that on a bit of paper. Bring it to the Executive, and then we shall discuss it". The industry out there looks to the Infrastructure Minister; they do not look to the Economy or Finance Ministers or to the Executive. I appreciate what Mr Allister says about a certain package of money, but, if you talk to taxi drivers or bus operators, you will find that they look towards the Minister for Infrastructure as their Minister. All the Committee was saying to the Minister was this: "Bring forward a proposal. We will support you in working with other Ministers on a package".

I agree with Mrs Kelly that there are some people who have been —.

[Interruption.]

I apologise, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I agree that some sectors of the industry were facilitated in some of the schemes, but I asked the Finance Minister about this, and he said that proposals were not brought forward and that, if they were, the Executive would discuss them and make a decision. I asked the Infrastructure Minister to work with the Economy Minister to bring forward proposals, but they were ding-donging between them about whose responsibility it was. I have received two letters from the Economy Minister saying that the remit lies in DFI. That is not what the motion is about. The motion says that the majority on the Committee would support proposals being brought to the Executive, and that is still our position on it.

I had a whole speech prepared, but Members have already brought up a number of the issues. Mrs Kelly said that only certain sectors of the taxi industry got it hard, but I know people in my constituency got and are getting it very hard and applied for some scheme but did not get anything. The real discussion point in all this is that we are in a pandemic, and all that we are saying is that, if people are really going to step up, let them step up. I want to bring one thing to the Minister's attention, because Mrs Kelly was praising her glories. The Minister found the time for the airports — I need to find it in my notes — and to work on them. In her own words:

"While my powers are limited on airports, working with colleagues and the Department for Transport, I have been able to secure this unique payment to support the airports at this difficult time. It is this type of collaborative working that will get us through this crisis and our recovery from it."

I could not agree more, Minister. Sorry, I should speak through you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. All that we say is that the Minister should bring proposals and use the data on the database. It may be the case that working with data across Departments is needed — I cannot say that it is not a cross-cutting measure — and I do not disagree with that. The Minister should bring proposals. We in the Committee will support her, and it will be an Executive decision. That is what the motion is about. Mrs Kelly to say that past motions from Committees have been unanimously agreed, but the majority of people agreed this motion. Unfortunately, Mrs Kelly was not there for the discussions on it. I will support the motion and go against the amendment.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 12:30 pm, 7th July 2020

I support the amendment. I also support the main motion, but I am indicating a preference for the amendment. I will explain myself during the discussion.

Undoubtedly, those who have been involved in a variety of industries, such as coach tour operators, ordinary coach operators, taxi drivers, heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers and driving instructors have been severely adversely affected over the past months. Some have been affected to varying degrees, and I will come back to that.

As has been indicated, there are support schemes that are available to the self-employed. Putting together any scheme to provide additional support will need to be carefully worked out to avoid duplication. We do not want to double-fund someone and then not give funding to someone else. It is clear in my mind that there will need to be close cooperation with the Economy Minister, who has brought forward the vast majority of schemes that have been assisting those who have been working in Northern Ireland, particularly the self-employed. They have been in that central position, and, because of that, I believe that they have a role going forward. In addition, I understand that detailed work is going on on how we can assist the tourism industry to recover from the epidemic, and I understand that a separate work stream is looking at tour coach operators. It is important that we do not create a double funding and a double support mechanism. That is why I have a preference for the Executive working together and the two Departments working together and bringing forward an Executive-led scheme. With the money on offer, there is no point in somebody bringing forward a scheme that will not be funded. Discussions with the Department of Finance are needed as well, to assist those in need.

There has been huge variation in how drivers have been affected. Those giving driving lessons have had no work; it was impossible to work. In the HGV industry, if you were working in the construction sector, you had virtually no work because many construction sites closed down. However —.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. I am sure that he, like me, will acknowledge that the reason that that close working was prohibited was the nature of the virus.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I fully accept that, but I am just trying to demonstrate that some had no work. Others, for example hauliers involved in the food retailing industry — I understand that food retailing went up 30% — were probably busier than ever. There is a variety of workload with a range of results for those serving the economy in transport. Taxi drivers' work virtually dried up completely. Thankfully, some work is emerging again, and direction has been given to try and assist them to assist key workers and the general public.

I recognise that the Department for Infrastructure can play a significant role. It has access to tachographs and, if a scheme that showed the level of business that each operator had during the period was wanted, that would seem to be the obvious route. That is why the Department for Infrastructure has a significant role to play. I would prefer an Executive-led scheme, involving all relevant Departments and ensuring that we avoid duplication and get best value from public funds to help those at the coalface who need support.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

The motion tabled by the Infrastructure Committee rightly refers to business sectors in need of support that have struggled to obtain grant assistance, in many instances, from the three schemes established to date by the Department for the Economy, namely the £10k, the £25k and the hardship fund coronavirus grant business support schemes, delivered, I note, under the Industrial Development (Northern Ireland) Order 1982. I have engaged with many businesses and people in those sectors over recent weeks and months. Many are desperate for support. They are crying out for assistance and looking to Stormont for help.

While some hauliers have managed to get through the pandemic without major financial stress, those without contracts with, for example, major supermarkets are teetering on collapse. Business virtually collapsed during the pandemic and is now only a fraction of what it was prior to March. With leases still to pay, furloughing being phased out from next month, loan payments due and utilities bills still arriving, the future is stark. News that a much-hoped-for joint package of support would not be forthcoming from the Department for Transport in London and the Executive in Northern Ireland felt like a kick in the teeth, especially for those who were waiting for the money to arrive and thought that the funding was already set aside. Just because DfT and HM Treasury do not want to proceed does not mean that we cannot act in Northern Ireland. We can and should deliver a tailored package of support for those hardest hit.

Most taxi drivers, like driving instructors, could not access the grant schemes set up by the Department for the Economy because of the relationship with the non-domestic rates system and the exclusion of sole traders from the hardship fund criteria, leaving them with recourse only to the self-employed income support scheme, if eligible, and no support for the overheads and bills that keep arriving. Guidance and support have been slow and lacking and must be addressed if we are to build back our economy, recognising the valuable role that both play in helping to get us about.

Like that for driving instructors and taxi drivers, trade for private bus and coach operators has also largely dried up in recent months. At this point, I should declare that I was previously an employee of Translink.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. He may be aware that there is a meeting today in Belfast of the coach operators. Obviously, I have had some discussion with some of the coach operators in my constituency. The issue of regulation falls within the remit of the Department for Infrastructure, and the plea that comes from the motion and from the House is for the Minister to recognise that there needs to be, as the proposer of the motion stated, leadership on the issue to make a recommendation so that, in particular, the coach operators get financial assistance.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member has an additional minute

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I will refer to the point that the Member has just raised later in my speech.

As they often rely on tourism business in the spring, summer and autumn seasons, 2020 is viewed by many in the private bus and coach business as a complete write-off. With furloughing being phased out and payments still due for fleets locked up in yards across Northern Ireland, a financial bridge to 2021 is essential. Without it, I fear, rebuilding our tourism offer will be extra, extra hard next year.

The case for action in support for the sectors is, therefore, clear. That is not in dispute, but let me be crystal clear: taxi, haulage, driving instruction and private bus and coach sectors and many more have been excluded from the grant assistance necessary to get through the pandemic. That is wrong and must be addressed, but, by passing the motion as it is worded today, I fear that all that we would be doing is raising false hopes that the wrongs will be righted.

As, I suspect, the Minister will detail in her response, the Department for Infrastructure does not feel that it has the vires to distribute the grant assistance needed.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Besides the vires issue, which I agree with the Member on, is he saying that the Minister has not the capacity to bring forward proposals or any suggestions to address the issue?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I think the vires issue is quite an important one. It is a legal issue about whether you can give out the money. I have asked the questions and have got the responses, and I have no reason to believe that I am being misled.

By passing the motion today unamended, you would, in essence, be asking a fish to climb a tree. I am reluctant to do that. To those who state that the Department in charge of regulation and to whom you pay your fees —.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

No. To those who state that the Department in charge of regulation and to whom you pay your fees and taxes should give the support, I say that I think that your logic is flawed. If followed through, you should abolish the Department for the Economy and use the Department of Finance to give out all of the grant support.

I urge Members to support the amendment as a real and practical way of getting the assistance to the sectors that need it. Saying that the Executive cannot come together and sort out the issue shows a real lack of confidence that Ministers can come together, develop solutions and govern together. In 2020, that is what I and others expect: New Decade, New Approach. It ought to be the norm, to be honest, where each Minister governs to support each other as equals, rather than passing people from pillar to post. "Get around the table and sort out the issues" should be the message today, not to point and pin blame on one Minister and one Department.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP 12:45 pm, 7th July 2020

It is important to say that anyone who is listening from outside does not care about the politics. If they are driving a bus or a lorry, they want financial support, and they do not want to get into the politics of it. It is important to say that for anybody who is listening to the debate.

I support the motion, which seeks guidance and financial support for the industry. I will not support the amendment. The COVID-19 crisis has massively impacted a varied range of ground transportation businesses, including coach operators, taxi companies, driving instructors and hauliers, to such an extent that, for many, their income is more or less non-existent. Public transport has received support, but many within the coach, taxi, driving instruction and haulage industries are either self-employed or from small family-run businesses and have been left out.

Taxi drivers have been unable to obtain clear guidance about protective equipment. The taxi industry and its drivers have been left without adequate protection and guidance. Despite some having worked throughout the lockdown, many operators have reported a 70% to 80% downturn in business. Taxi drivers cannot do their job from home and their job makes it hard to socially distance. They are self-employed, so they need to work. While some drivers can claim the Government's self-employed income support scheme, which is worth 80% of their trading profits, many are not eligible. At the Committee for Infrastructure on 10 June, it was highlighted that the Minister of Finance was clear that his Department had not received any bids for support for the taxi industry. In response to this point, Mr McGrath from the Department for Infrastructure said:

"There simply is not enough money to cover the current pressures, and there may well be other pressures. Not every need can be met. My Minister has a view that she has no responsibility for the financing of the taxi industry."

Many owners and operators within the coach industry said that without financial support to withstand the current crisis, their industry in Northern Ireland will face severe financial hardship, with jobs placed at risk. With the cancellation of coach holidays within Northern Ireland, the UK, Ireland and further afield, many private coach companies will struggle to remain in business. Many cannot access the support directed at the leisure sector despite being an integral part of the tourism industry. Their business is highly seasonal, with March to September being the peak, meaning that their peak season will be non-existent this year. As they travel from 2020 to 2021, they will be in a vulnerable position as the winter months are always less profitable. Many operators had bookings throughout the summer season and have been obliged to offer cash refunds to those who have requested them. Operators have invested heavily in their operations to maintain a good fleet, reduce breakdowns and encourage people to use coaches. Each vehicle has a huge standing cost. Purchasing, insurance and maintenance costs still need to be covered during the pandemic. As with many within the service industry and leisure and tourism businesses, the coach industry seeks to provide the best service possible, including the upkeep of their fleet. Many businesses have purchased new coaches with finance on them. As payments on the finance continue, depreciation on the vehicles is accelerating, with the second-hand coach market becoming flooded as operators' businesses collapse.

I have been contacted by numerous driving instructors who are incredibly frustrated with the lack of guidance that has been given to them by DVA. Unlike their counterparts on the mainland who were supported and advised throughout the lockdown period, rather than helping them, DVA caused more confusion with an email that was sent on Saturday 27 June that advised that they were not specifically mentioned in the list of businesses in the regulations that must close. To comply with social distancing, and the nature of the task, of course those businesses were going to close. Of course, they would look to DVA to advise how and when they could return to work. When I spoke to a number of them yesterday, I was told that they have around six to eight hours of instruction booked this week, but without a date for testing, which is in the gift of the Minister. Those businesses are not sustainable. It is not good enough, and those businesses need clarity.

The haulage industry is suffering because of the reduction in backloads from the mainland and lower levels of business, while still having to pay fixed-costs for the lorry fleet. Some of the aforementioned transport businesses have received payment holidays from the financial institutions, but that is only a stopgap and will not help the sector in the long term.

The Member to my right referred to a fish climbing a tree. Maybe if the fish was given some help or guidance, it could attempt to climb that tree. It is not impossible.

[Laughter.]

To conclude, I call on the Minister to look at the schemes to support the forgotten businesses within the sector.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Fish climbing trees.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

I had a prepared speech, but a lot of the points have been covered. I do not want to go over old ground when a majority of us are on the same page. It is important to clarify that — to follow on from Mr Muir's comments — we are not asking the Minister to hand out the money. With her responsibility for transport policy, we are asking her to lead on these issues, provide clear guidance and bring proposals to the right people.

I cannot go on without mentioning Mrs Kelly's comments. It is quite unfair to say that the only complaints from taxi drivers are from those in north and west Belfast. That is not the case in my constituency. I ask her to reflect on that later. Why would that be an issue, if it were the case? What was the implication there? I am under the impression that all taxi drivers are entitled to raise their concerns. Whether they are from north Belfast, west Belfast, Newry, Strabane or wherever, they are all entitled to raise their concerns.

Others have mentioned taxi drivers and private bus operators. I want to focus on the hauliers and pick up some of the points about driving instructors. I have engaged locally with hauliers in my constituency, some of whom have vehicles haemorrhaging money — haemorrhaging money. Hundreds of vehicles parked up every week, and no support in place. These are some of the key providers for our economy, and they have been left very much to fend for themselves. I totally appreciate that not all hauliers are in the same position, and they recognise that themselves. That is why we need to look at this and develop a bespoke response to dealing with the issue.

It is important to realise that the Economy Minister has made it very, very clear that it is not up to her to lead any intervention for the road transport industry, as this is considered under the Department for Infrastructure. That is why we are here today as a Committee: because we have responsibility for these sectors. It was important that we came together to raise the concerns because there has been toing and froing for far too long. People are just frustrated; they are fed up and they cannot see a way out of this. We are hitting Brexit right in the face now. We are less than six months away from the deadline, which is another major challenge coming down the road.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

No.

The last thing that I am going to raise is in relation to driving instructors. The issues that I have been hearing about, particularly since the announcement last week that they could go back to work, even though they had never been told that they could not work, are more around the confusion over how that can pan out in reality. They are seeking clear guidance from the Minister on that. That is the message that they have been giving. I have been contacted by people from Ballymena and Belfast as well as in my constituency, because it has not been clear. Although they have been signposted to guidance, they still feel very much that examiners are being told to do different things. What is the difference? Why are they being told that they can go back to work, but examiners cannot? What is the difference, when they are working in the exact same environment?

Rather than going back over the same points, I just wanted to raise those key things. It is important that we recognise that the people are fed up. This is not politicking. This is ensuring that people get the right support and guidance that they deserve.

I support the motion.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I have listened to the debate. Although I am outside the Committee for Infrastructure, I am, nonetheless, very supportive of any Committee that identifies a problem and tries to deal with it in a very constructive way. If that means bringing a motion to the House, so be it. We all can debate it, and I am very thankful to the proposer and to the Committee for highlighting the issue in the Chamber.

What I know, as an MLA for North Antrim, is that haulage companies have been dramatically and drastically let down. If haulage companies had had the same attitude as some of our Ministers — a can't-do attitude — where would we all be with regard to supplies of food and medicine? Those haulage companies have had to work through thick and thin, looking after their own staff and their own lorry drivers and their health and safety, trying to get from A to B, with all these drastic barriers put in place, and they still fulfil their orders and their commitment to the people of Northern Ireland. Would it not be great if we could say that about the Executive and some of our Ministers, who have been slow to react? In the middle of this crisis, when so much good has been done, we still have Ministers who have a can't-do attitude. That is not good enough.

I think it was Mrs Kelly who made a comment about Committees being of one voice. You cannot have it both ways. You either want a scrutiny Committee or you do not. You either want to get into the hard detail or you do not. The one thing that the House needs to ensure is that the scrutiny Committees in this place work efficiently and effectively.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

No. There is an order and code in the House: when a Members does not give way to other Members, why, then, should she see fit for Members to give way to her? That is a very good principle that we should all remember in the House when giving way. I give way a lot in the House.

It is very bad when a party — any party — becomes a defence mechanism for its own Minister and a scrutiny Committee. That makes the Minister look bad. The Finance Minister has come to the House many times. When we have asked him about the £59 million that was sitting here — it is now down to £29 million — to support transport that cannot be unlocked to give support to the haulage companies, the Finance Minister says, "Where is the bid? I am waiting for a bid. That bid has not come". Why has that bid not come? The haulage companies see that money sitting there. It is not as if we have no money left or that the coffers are dry. The money is sitting there and it is so annoying.

Let us forget about "can't do" attitudes. I sit on the Finance Committee and I have chased the Finance Minister up and down the corridors. He has been hit by scandal after scandal but he is looking quite good now in relation to finance for the Minister for Infrastructure. He comes to the House to say that he would like to support those businesses but he is waiting for a bid. Mr Allister made a fundamental point about the way in which the Executive function and perform. That money is sitting here, dropped down from on high as a Barnett consequential, but we cannot even get together to unlock it. It is not as if we have to raise it or find some mechanism to raise taxes or rates. It is sitting there ready to be used and spent, which is what it is designed to do. Yet, there is a reluctance to support those industries.

Why is there a reluctance to do that? Those industries have kept going through thick and thin, providing food and medicines for us. They have looked after their staff, some of whom are very worried about going back to work or being in work because of the COVID-19 situation. Yet, we cannot find it in ourselves — the Executive and the Minister for Infrastructure — to bring forward a bid. Such a bid would not burden the Minister's current financial package — the money that she has at the moment — because that money is sitting here. It just needs to be moved from an unlocked position to her Department so that she can support those industries.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Yes, of course.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Unless, of course, there is another agenda, which is to keep that £29 million for something else. Translink has already had something of that order but needs more money. Does the Member think that there might be prioritisation going on in which the haulage sector is the loser?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

The Member raises a very valid question that we should all be posing to the Minister today. What is the priority? If it is not the haulage companies, after all that they have done for this country and for Northern Ireland plc over the last number of months, what is the priority? Why will the Minister not bring forward a bid for financial support for taxi services, haulage companies and all the other companies that have been let down during the pandemic? That is a question that we have to pose. It is the right of the Assembly and the scrutiny Committee to ask those hard questions of our Ministers. I am glad that the debate is taking place today.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. 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 Question Time. This item of business will continue after Question Time, when the next contribution will come from Ms Martina Anderson.

The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 12.59 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —