COVID-19 Guidance and Financial Support to Industry Sectors

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:45 pm on 7th July 2020.

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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.