COVID-19: Centrally Held Funding

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 10th November 2020.

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Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP 2:00 pm, 10th November 2020

2. Mr Easton asked the Minister of Finance for an update on the COVID-19-related funding being held centrally. (AQO 1054/17-22)

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

11. Mr Blair asked the Minister of Finance what financial reserves are available to fund future economic interventions needed as a result of changes to the public health regulations. (AQO 1063/17-22)

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Following the October monitoring round, the Executive held £100·6 million in reserve. Last Thursday, 5 November, the Executive were informed by Treasury that we would receive an additional £400 million.

COVID-19 continues to present many challenges, and the Executive will consider how to best use that £500 million for targeted support in the coming weeks and months.

In addition, the following funding is also held centrally: £0·4 million is being held for transfer to the Department for Transport in England for the ferry operator scheme; £6 million is being held pending the finalisation of the bus, coach and taxi support scheme; £22·9 million is being held for further sectoral support and for any unforeseen PPE requirements; and £60 million is being held pending the Department for the Economy's development of COVID restrictions business support measures.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that all funding is not held centrally and that it gets out to the Departments, especially Health and Finance, so that we can tackle the COVID-19 pandemic? Can the Minister also tell us what he is doing to ensure that none of that money gets handed back to the Treasury?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Some £600 million was ring-fenced for Health and held for a time — probably since the end of the summer and into early autumn — and Health was assessing how much of that it could spend. It has come back to the Executive in the last number of weeks to say that it will spend, roughly, £524 million of that. That left an additional amount of money, then, to go into a central pot for the Executive. All of that money was allocated in the last week or two, with £100 million being held in reserve in case further interventions were necessary; the Executive considered that prudent, and it was my recommendation to them. We learned only last Thursday that we have an additional £400 million. I am partly drifting into today's debate on the Budget Bill, but we have been getting a drip feed of allocations, which we are trying to respond to. If we had had a full sense of the entire £2·8 billion at the start of the year, it would have allowed us to plan much better, but we have been on a drip feed.

The greatest sin of all is not spending some of the money. Of course, there will be a challenge ahead. We learned only last Thursday that we have an additional amount of money. We were holding some back. Along with some of the other areas that I have outlined, that amounts to roughly £0·5 billion that we need to spend in the time ahead. I want to see schemes brought forward, money on the ground as quickly as we can possibly get it there, and that money being directed where it is needed. Of course, as I said, Health has already taken a share of the money, which it has said that it needs for the rest of the financial year.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answer. Can the Minister provide an update on whether there is likely to be increased borrowing powers for the Northern Ireland Executive to try to tackle COVID-19 and to assist in recovery measures?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I think that the first priority will be to spend the money that we have. As I said, we were operating, until last Thursday morning, on the basis that we had set aside an additional £100 million to look at unforeseen circumstances in the rest of the financial year and that has now been bumped up to almost £0·5 billion. The priority will be to spend that. We have, along with Scotland and Wales, been pressing the Treasury for, in principle, flexibilities around borrowing, carry over, the conversion of capital to resource — all those issues. We have not yet had confirmation of any agreement on all that. However, I think that the Executive's priority will be to spend the money that we have and to look for, in principle, flexibilities around a range of other matters.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

To know that there is £0·5 billion at the centre is discomforting in one sense for many businesses that are on their uppers and have not been able to access money. However, more specifically, the businesses that were closed down three weeks ago, and which were expecting to open again this week, were promised money. I am sure that I am not the only MLA to be in receipt of multiple representations from such businesses, which ask the simple question, "Where is it?". So, on their behalf, I ask, "Where is it?".

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

My Department is responsible for rolling out the Land and Property Services (LPS) scheme. The issue over the last number of weeks has been the fact that, in earlier schemes, the entirety of businesses were getting support, which is when we were operating off the LPS database. When it is restricted to hospitality that means that a differentiation has to be provided, and that requires additional data from other sources, such as council environmental health sources, to differentiate between what is a shop as in retail and what is a shop as in a hairdresser, beauty salon or various cafes and other aspects of that. That is how they are characterised by LPS, and that has added another layer of difficulty. As of this morning, £7·84 million has been allocated from the scheme to over 2,290 businesses. The money is being rolled out. That is not happening as fast as I want it to happen, but it is going out. I am told that there have been over 11,300 applications and that those are being worked through as quickly as possible.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Can the Minister provide an update on how centrally held COVID-related funding will be utilised to specifically increase support for the hospitality sector in the run up to the Christmas period?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

A number of schemes have been put forward. As I said, my Department received £35 million for the scheme that I just talked about, and that is to get money on the ground for hospitality and people in close-contact services who have business premises, because it is based on the property model. Sixty million pounds is being held centrally for Economy to roll out schemes for other people in close-contact services and other hospitality support. I look forward to seeing the details of that and early applications for it. Of course, given the discussions that we are currently having and the possibility of an extension to the restrictions, the Executive will consider and act very quickly to get further support to anyone who has been affected by the restrictions.