Finance: 2020-21 November COVID-19 Funding

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:00 pm on 23rd November 2020.

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Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 1:00 pm, 23rd November 2020

I wish to provide Members with an update on the further allocations of COVID-19 support funding for the financial year 2020-21. I offer an apology for the statement being slightly late going into Members' pigeonholes, but, as Members will know, the Executive met this morning and ran on beyond 12.00 noon.

The COVID crisis has created a highly uncertain financial context. We have not known what course the virus would take or what the health experts would recommend in response to the virus, and we have not known how much money we would receive from the Treasury. That uncertainty has made financial planning difficult. The background to the allocations that I am announcing reflects that financial reality. Just over two weeks ago, Treasury provided a further £400 million to the Executive to support our response to COVID-19. I requested urgent proposals from Executive colleagues to use the funding to support businesses, public services and vulnerable people.

Some Members have asked why that funding was not disbursed immediately. Had we, as an Executive, allocated it immediately, we would not have been able to take into account the new restrictions agreed by the Executive last week. It was my view that it was right to have a plan in place to take us to the new year before making the allocations.

It has been argued that the financial package that I am announcing today should have been made at the same time as the new restrictions were agreed last Thursday. The first indication that I had of the restrictions being proposed was that Thursday morning. The proposed restrictions were discussed by the Executive throughout the day and agreed on Thursday night. It was only at that point that a financial package could be finalised, and my officials and officials in other Departments worked over the weekend to put it in place.

COVID is, first and foremost, a global health crisis. However, it has created a global economic crisis, and extensive support to businesses and workers has been provided to protect people's livelihoods. The extension of the current restrictions means that there is a requirement to extend the current support measures. An additional £55 million is being allocated to extend the localised restrictions support scheme operated by my Department. That will be expanded to include the non-essential retail, leisure and entertainment businesses that are required to close for two weeks. The Department for the Economy’s COVID restrictions business support schemes will also be extended.

I understand the frustrations of businesses at the speed at which payments are being made. It is important to understand that schemes that would usually be designed and implemented over many months are being turned around in days. Many Departments have repurposed themselves to provide grant support. Land and Property Services (LPS), for example, which is in my Department, is a rates collection agency. It has transformed itself into a grant-making agency and taken on new powers to do so. Similarly, the Department for Communities has stepped up to deliver a scheme for social enterprise and charities. The Department for Infrastructure has done likewise for taxi drivers. Designating a Department, devising a scheme, checking applications and issuing payments takes time, and we have a duty to minimise fraud and error. The grants are taking longer to issue than I had hoped, but officials are working as fast as they can to process payments.

Today, the Executive have agreed to provide a further £213 million of business support. The Executive provided a full year's rates holiday to the sectors worst affected by the pandemic: retail, hospitality, tourism, leisure, childcare and airports. I appreciate that those sectors will continue to suffer stress into the next financial year. I fully understand this, and my Department is considering options for how best to deliver further rates relief. Therefore, today, I am setting aside £150 million for that purpose while the work is completed as a matter of urgency.

A £95 million high street voucher scheme will give people a prepaid card for use on the high street, which has been devastated by COVID. The Department for the Economy is finalising the details of the scheme. Twenty million pounds has been provided for company directors, a group excluded from previous support. Twenty million pounds has been allocated to extend this financial year’s 12-month rates holiday to manufacturing businesses. That will bring the sector into line with what has already been offered to hospitality, tourism, leisure and retail. An allocation of £10·6 million has been made to what are known as "wet pubs". That will support approximately 1,000 licensed premises that are experiencing additional financial hardship as a result of the heath protection regulations. Five million pounds will top up the tourism and hospitality scheme, reflecting the extraordinary costs for some businesses that have been forced to close. There is £4·1 million for bed and breakfasts, which is aimed at approximately 953 certified accommodation businesses that were excluded from previous support because they paid domestic rates rather than business rates. There is £3 million for the extension of digital selling capability grants to help local businesses to grow their online sales. The allocations are in addition to the £60 million previously provided by the Department for the Economy-led COVID restrictions business support scheme.

The Department for Communities has been allocated £71·5 million, £44·3 million of which will enable a one-off heating payment of £200 to disabled people on higher rate allowances and older people in receipt of pension credit. That recognises the additional cost imposed on those vulnerable groups by the COVID-19 pandemic. It also includes a further £10 million each in support for councils and sport, £2·25 million for social enterprise support, which will allow the oversubscription to the social enterprise fund to be funded, and £5 million in respect of charitable grants, which will ensure that no charities are left unsupported for the remainder of this financial year.

The Department of Education has been allocated £20·6 million for COVID response measures and £5·8 million for COVID Education Restart measures. That includes vital funding to ensure that the families of young people who are entitled to free school meals will receive food grants during school holidays.

From the £10 million set aside for support for airports, the Department for Infrastructure has been allocated £1·2 million to provide further support to the City of Derry Airport. The Department has also been allocated £26·3 million in relation to lost income across it and its arm’s-length bodies.

Today’s allocations total £338·1 million. An additional £150 million has been set aside for the consideration of longer-term rate support, and a further £26·6 million is being held in reserve. Previously centrally held allocations, including £6 million for taxis, buses and coaches, £8·8 million for airports and £60 million for Department for the Economy-led schemes, remain pending. I will continue to keep the Assembly informed of funding for further measures as they are agreed.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 1:15 pm, 23rd November 2020

I call Paul Frew. Sorry, I call the Chairperson, Steve Aiken.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I rise as the Chairperson of the Finance Committee —.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

For now

[Laughter.]

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

You are not going to get it that easy. It is not going to happen.

I thank the Minister for meeting me earlier today and briefing me on the content of his statement before he came to the House. Minister, I thank you for your statement, and we welcome the much-needed funding as a means of supporting businesses. However, those businesses need the payments to be made without unnecessary delays. A number of businesses are still awaiting payments from previous announcements. Therefore, it would be helpful if you could outline what is being done to prioritise the payments for those still waiting and advise whether the applicable Departments have sufficient capacity to ensure that payments are progressed quickly. We note your comments about LPS and how quickly it has managed to repurpose itself. We also ask what commitments you can give to assure those who are eligible for support that payments will not be subject to undue delay.

Further to the announcement of the expected £95 million for the household voucher scheme, whilst it will provide a much-needed boost to local business, it would be helpful if you could outline the rationale for applying the scheme to every household, particularly as many of the households will probably not need it; whether a targeted scheme, offering a higher amount, would have been a more sensible approach to support those most in need; whether any households will be excluded; whether there will be an expiry date for vouchers; and what will happen to money from unspent vouchers. I am looking at the Department for Communities website, and there are 487,000 households in Northern Ireland. If it was approximately £100 each, it would equate to £48 million. Is it to be £200 rather than £100?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I thank the Chair for his comments and questions. Of course, the balance has always been between getting payment on the ground as quickly as possible and ensuring that — it is not two or three weeks since we had a debate in the Assembly about payments that had gone awry and the consequence of that. It was a very small proportion of the £10,000 and £25,000 grants, but it draws particular attention and reminds us of the necessity to ensure that public money goes to where it is designed to go to and gets to those most in need. It is a balance of getting payments out quickly. Also, the more focused or selective, if you like, the payment is, the more data is required to isolate it from other, broader groups to make sure that it gets to the right person. That data is not just the LPS data; other data can be required to verify that people are in certain businesses that are entitled to receive support. More focused restrictions from the Department of Health add complexities to the paying out of the schemes. We do not know what the Department of Health restrictions are until they arrive with us and the Executive agree to them. That said, we want to see the schemes get out as quickly as possible. They have been slower than I would have liked or the Executive or, I am sure, all MLAs would have liked. We will continue to encourage that. Certainly, the support scheme that LPS is rolling out has gathered pace and has started to pay out. LPS was well through those payments last Friday when I got the last figures. Obviously, we have been working on this over the weekend, but I will get up-to-date figures before Question Time tomorrow so I can advise Members where that is.

The voucher scheme is being operated by the Department for the Economy, which will, I am sure, expand on the detail as time goes on. It is not meant to support households; it is meant to stimulate the high street. The primary focus of it is to stimulate spending and growth on the high street and to give certainty to businesses. I am told that it is likely to roll out in the new year, because it takes about six weeks for such a scheme to be put in place. I believe that you are correct that it is about £200 per household, and it is intended to be sent out in the months when the high street is at its leanest — in January and February. It is really a stimulus to high-street spend rather than support to the household.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Minister, what use is the statement to the House when it is completely devoid of any realism and completely disconnected from the real world? What use is the statement to the single mother of three who runs a hairdressing salon and has not received one penny of support from you?

How much money did the Department for the Economy bid for, and what percentage of that bid has it received?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The scheme is designed to pay out to the sorts of people whom you reflect: those who own a hairdressing salon. If they have not already received money, they should be getting it in the very near future from Land and Property Services (LPS). Perhaps the Member can take the matter up with LPS rather than grandstand here in the Chamber. Most other MLAs are taking up individual cases and pressing them for people. The Member is saying that an allocation of almost half a billion pounds, when you add in the intent that I have for rates holidays to continue into the new financial year, is not to be living in the real world, but it is largely all of the money that the Executive have at their disposal to provide support. That is what we are doing. I understand the battles that are going on in your party. Those battles are affecting not only your party but the entire running of the Executive, because of the dysfunctionality that they cause.

[Interruption.]

We are trying to manage as best we can to get all those schemes done —

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

— to get support on the ground where it is needed and to get Executive decisions taken, and not only taken but supported by Ministers. All of that is a challenge, but we will meet it, regardless of what goes on in your party.

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire fosta as a ráiteas. Unlike the Member who spoke previously, I welcome the support measures that you have announced, and many other Members will welcome them. I appreciate the time constraints that you will have been subject to when drawing up the proposals and so on. Apart from the extension of rate relief and the £5 million that will be allocated to tourism and hospitality schemes, should travel agents in particular expect any further funding in the future?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

It is perhaps not a case of providing further funding but a case of getting some support to them. I know that travel agents have been particularly badly hit. Not only have they lost business but deposits that they were paid have had to be paid back to some customers. I had a meeting just a few short weeks ago along with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, at which we met representatives of their group. It was agreed that they would provide further information on their specific request for support that they want to see from the Executive. My officials have been engaging with them to collate that information and provide me with some guidance. Once that has been put together, it will be provided to the responsible Department to make sure that we can include travel agents in the support given. I am very keen to give them support if we can.

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

I thank the Minister for his statement. Many of the measures are welcome. Critical for many of the people who are in extreme distress financially and, in many ways, emotionally as we head into Christmas, such as small business owners and people whom they employ, is getting the money out the door. I appreciate that that is the job of the Economy Department, which has, I am afraid, not been very fast at getting the support out. What assurances has the Minister had from the Economy Department that the support that is particularly aimed at some of those businesses will go out before Christmas so that people can spend it on some kind of Christmas for their family? That is absolutely essential.

People will want to understand more about the allocation of £95 million for high street vouchers. Is there is any prioritisation of small independent retail over some of the large multinationals? They have online operations, over to which some of their business has transferred. I ask for clarity on those two things: when money will go out the door and whether the £95 million makes any differentiation between independent and large-scale retail.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

We, of course, want to get the money out the door as quickly as possible. I have encouraged other Departments' Ministers to make allocations to do that, not just the Department for the Economy's. There is a balance to be struck between trying to verify information to support a funding application and trying to ensure that the money goes out quickly. I encourage people who are applying to try to make sure that the details that they give are correct, that they are what is required and that they check in case there are return requests for details. Quite often, people miss emails that ask them to provide additional information. People need to keep a watch on that to assist in our getting the money out quickly, which we want to see happening as quickly as possible.

Some of the detail of how the voucher scheme is intended to operate will have to be expanded on by the Department for the Economy.

I appreciate what he says about the online presence favouring much bigger business. That is why there is a £3 million fund in this as well to assist local businesses to get more of an online presence so they can avail of that and that it is not just left to the big multinational companies. However, in terms of the target, and how much more can be spent, that is something that the Department for the Economy will have to respond to.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance 1:30 pm, 23rd November 2020

I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the actions taken to help some who are considered to be excluded, such as company directors and B&Bs. Will the Minister confirm that the £26·2 million held in reserve will be considered for those who are still excluded, such as the newly self-employed? Will the Minister consider allocating additional staff resources to ensure that the grant payments are made on time? We need resources to ensure that those payments are paid out to businesses.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The £20 million scheme is in addition to the £10 million for the self-employed scheme, which the Department for the Economy has already announced, so those things should be addressed. We are trying to provide additional resources. In my Department, Land and Property Services has a very specialised role; you cannot just put people into rate collection from other sections of the Department. However, we are trying to give them assistance with communication, answering questions and getting advice out to people. I hope that in other Departments, where speed is of the essence in getting support out on the ground, they provide additional resources to the teams that are working on it.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Before I call the next Member, I remind Members that they should not ask multiple questions because they eat up valuable time. Other Members want to ask questions of the Minister. I call Christopher Stalford.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

This has become a pattern, Mr Speaker. The last time the House was warned about that, I was called.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Show leadership.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I have seen the annexe with the figure given for the Department for the Economy's allocation of £137·7 million. My colleague from North Antrim Mr Frew asked a question that was not answered. I ask the Minister: what was the total amount requested for the Department for the Economy?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The total request was in the region of £390 million, although I stand to be corrected. On top of the figure that you mentioned, there is an additional £60 million, which the Department for the Economy is holding.

Bear in mind that the Department of Finance is also paying out to businesses: there is an additional £55 million, which totals £90 million, which the Department of Finance is paying directly to businesses. It is not just the Department for the Economy that is paying out to businesses. The Department of Finance is paying £90 million, in the business support schemes that we are running, plus the £150 million that we have set aside. We were working closely with the Treasury over the weekend and hope to conclude negotiations very quickly. We hope to provide a rates holiday into the next financial year. That is also business support. It is not simply one Department that has responsibility for business support. A sizeable proportion of that business support function comes from the Department of Finance as well.

Of course, not all the bids can be met. We need to ensure, so that we can cope with bids, that they can be spent in this financial year. When Departments come forward with options, we have to be certain that they can be spent, as the last thing that we want to do is hand money back at the end of the financial year. That was the balance, and the Executive agreed to it.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. Some very welcome measures are being announced. How does the Minister intend to use the £150 million set aside for rates relief in the next financial year?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As I said in response to a previous question, this is one of the key issues that businesses have been pressing us on. We have had lots of engagement with business over the last weeks and months. Those that availed of the year-long rates holiday for this financial year have said how beneficial it was in ensuring that those bills were not an additional cost at a very challenging time. It offered some certainty in the new financial year and gave some early indication of that certainty. We have been trying to work on that, and I intend to use the £150 million for a further six-month rates holiday for those businesses that availed of the full-year rates holiday in this financial year. We are working with the Treasury on that, and I hope to be able to confirm it soon.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I particularly welcome the efficiencies brought forward by the Economy Minister, particularly the £95 million high street voucher scheme. That will be a great boost to our high streets. In saying that, the Minister will be aware that it falls significantly short of what was requested. When the details are confirmed for this scheme, will the Minister consider fully funding the request that was brought forward to ensure that we can recover as we come out of the pandemic?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As I said, it is a question of getting the right balance of packages. We are supporting businesses that have been closed down. The Department of Finance actually picks up the lion's share of the support because we are providing the scheme for the premises. The Department for the Economy's part is much smaller. It is the rate support scheme that will go on into the new financial year, the high street stimulus scheme and the voucher scheme that the Member has referred to. Of course, if we had more money, and if we do get more money, we can consider additional allocations to any of these schemes. However, it is a matter of trying to get that balance across a whole range of packages.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I very much welcome the Minister's statement today. We now need to see every Department getting its finger out to ensure that payments get out to the people who are still waiting for the support that was promised to them.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

It is Finance. Speak to your Minister.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Minister, B&Bs that pay domestic rates are now part of what has been termed the excluded group. Why was that group excluded, and what support can they expect in the package that you have put forward today?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As you have correctly said, B&Bs that have six bedrooms or fewer are classified as domestic properties and, therefore, were not able to avail themselves of the previous £10,000 and £25,000 support scheme grants. When we spoke to B&B owners, as part of the group that was excluded on a range of issues, they said that they could be identified through community information held by the Tourist Board, their certifying body. We were able to get that data and include B&Bs in the current scheme. So they will be paid during the current restrictions. We also recognise that B&Bs had previously missed out, and £4·6 million has been put into the scheme to assist them with the previously missed payment.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you for the statement, Minister. It was very detailed. I believe that it will go some way to taking some of the stress and heat from our business community.

Minister, you have allocated £10·6 million to wet pubs, and that is very welcome. I hope and trust that that will be rolled out as quickly as possible. I am sure that the Minister is also aware that there are public houses that have a rateable valuation of £50,000 and above. Is there a specific package to help those businesses?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As I say, the scheme for wet pubs is very welcome. I had pressed for a scheme for some time. In my own village, some pubs did not open again. Some pubs were only open for a number of weeks before they were closed again. They have been effectively closed down since March, so that scheme is very welcome. There should be a very clear list of those wet pubs and how to get funding to them. I hope that the scheme can be delivered to them very quickly.

The £10·6 million tourism initiative is aimed at properties and businesses with an NAV over £51,000 that missed out on the £25,000 grants. Of course, how that is allocated will be a matter for the Department for the Economy. However, that is intended to meet the needs of those premises.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I will be grateful for the Minister's assessment of what more might be done for businesses that are falling through the cracks. I was contacted by a business owner this morning who had missed out on the small business support scheme because they did not have a rates ID. However, they did not have a rates ID because it was a new business, and they did not get an assessment of rates in time. Will the Minister consider some sort of committee that might act as an appeals body to look at specific and exceptional circumstances like that?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I know that LPS has been trying to meet the process date to get the payments out very quickly and to deal with businesses that have submitted incorrect information or have a question over them. LPS has been trying to be flexible. On the £10,000 schemes, LPS is trying to be very flexible with businesses that had been in the process of getting valuations and assessments done and to allow space for that to happen. If the Member sends me the details, I will write to the Department and try to ensure that there is a follow-up. I know that they do come back to all those who missed out on the LPS schemes and try to work with them to see if they can be put on a scheme.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. We all share the pain of those businesses, small or large, that are feeling the impact of COVID at this time. A set of bids was submitted by the Minister for the Economy, and they are detailed in your statement. It is very welcome that £20 million has been allocated to the manufacturing sector, and I understand that the money will be on top of any business relief. Will that funding run through until the new financial year that begins in April 2021?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The short answer is yes. It is to make up. That is another grant that comes out of the Department of Finance, as we manage the rates system, even though it is a support for the broad economy, not from the Department for the Economy. Yes, it is intended to allow the same rates holiday that other businesses have to the end of the financial year.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

Minister, thank you for your statement. I think that the point that you made to Mr Muir about the allocation of resources is an important one. There has been some lag time between the allocation of funds from you, as Finance Minister, and schemes being opened and delivered by, for example, the Economy Minister. It is important that resources are put in place to ensure that that happens as quickly as possible.

Is the £20 million that has been allocated for company directors in addition to previous announcements of allocations to the Department for the Economy, for example, for the newly self-employed?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Yes, it is. It is in addition to the £10 million that was previously given for the newly self-employed.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Thank you very much, Minister, for your statement. Minister, the devil is in the detail, and there is a lot of information in your statement. I am particularly interested in the allocation to the Department for Communities, where the statement talks about a one-off heating payment of £200 to disabled people on higher rate allowances and older people in receipt of pension credit. I am sure that the detail will come, but do you know, at this stage, whether that is a payment per person or per household? We have many elderly carers who have not received an additional payment of carer's allowance throughout the pandemic. It will be interesting to see whether this, at long last, will be two payments in one household as opposed to just one.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I do not have that level of detail on whether it is a household or a person. Particularly with the pandemic, people will be spending much more time at home during the winter and, obviously, running up heating costs. The Communities Minister brought forward a proposal to help that group with its heating bills, and, obviously, I was very happy to support that, as were the Executive. I understand that the payment will be made in January, when the support is needed most, and I assume that the details on who will be eligible will be brought forward before then.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

When I look at the allocations to the Communities, Economy, Education and Finance Departments, I see that they are all from requests to give money out to support people. However, the Department for Infrastructure has an allocation to shore up a failing Department, run by the SDLP. That party needs to focus, Finance Minister, on delivering for taxi drivers and getting people tested. Instead, it pontificates about and lectures others —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Order, Members.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

— on their failings to run a Department. On the need to move forward and get this money out —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Order, Members.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

— the Minister's colleague rebuked him about the need for the Department of Finance to pull its finger out and get the money. Will he ensure that his Department gets Land and Property Services to ensure that it gets this money out? How many applications are waiting to be processed? Will he give two thirds of the allocation to the Economy Minister, who is fighting for businesses?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Order, Members.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am not sure where you get that. The Executive collectively have allocated about half a billion pounds, the lion's share of which is to support businesses across a range of Departments. To suggest that only the Economy Minister is fighting for businesses is a nonsense, and you should understand that. I know that you are making political points. The Department for Infrastructure bids were met in full. I encourage the Infrastructure Minister to get out the door the schemes that she is paying out as quickly as she possibly can, and I encourage the Economy Minister and other Ministers to do that too. Of course, the additional payments that we have offered up today are very welcome, and, when the payments are hitting the ground and the people out there who are suffering as a consequence of the pandemic are feeling the benefit, we will all find that we are in a much happier place. To be quite honest, I am not interested in the sideswipes and the arguments. I am interested in getting these schemes effectively out on the ground.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin

I also thank the Minister for his statement. I particularly welcome the free school meals payment that will apply across all the school holidays, and I commend all those who have worked and lobbied on the issue for many years. Minister, can you confirm for us the period that the free school meals payment will cover?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The money that we are allocating is COVID money, so it has to be spent in this financial year. The contribution that I have made for free school meals takes it up to the end of the financial year. Last Thursday, the Education Minister brought a paper to the Executive on the continuation of free schools until the end of the mandate, for which he got Executive support. That is very welcome. We are now working out the budgets for Departments and will have to work with Education to meet that budget, as the Executive have agreed, and we want to do it until the end of the mandate.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:45 pm, 23rd November 2020

Thank you, Minister, for your statement and for coming to the House today. I appreciate your acknowledgement of the delays in getting payments out, but those delays have very serious consequences. This morning, I got an email from a constituent. She wrote:

"I have applied for two grants. The first for our premises in the city centre and another one for the outskirts of the city".

She has received emails to say that payments would be on their way, but she has received absolutely nothing. That has gone on for seven weeks, not just a few days. Those payments have not been honoured for weeks. She wrote:

"Our landlords are putting us under immense pressure to get a payment to them or action will be started. This is quite worrying. We have maintenance to be carried out and the money simply is not there to facilitate it".

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Will the Member get to a question, please?

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

She continued:

"We have been in business for 15 years and I am considering closing my salons in January in the city centre".

Minister, what are you doing to ensure that your Department speeds up this process and gets money into this constituent's bank account as soon as possible?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

We are encouraging LPS to act as quickly as possible. The data that it needs to assess close contact services was not possessed by it alone. A lot was possessed on the councils' environmental health side, so it had to get data transfer and match-ups. That is what caused the delay in the initial phase.

As I said — I am not suggesting that it is the case here — but, in general, if anyone comes back and says that they have not received payment, we need to make sure that the information is correct, it is in and people have responded to requests for further information. That can sometimes hold up a payment. Of course we recognise that people are suffering on the ground and want payments to happen as quickly as possible. We want to see that as well.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, I asked you about the number of payments made to applicants over the first four weeks of the restrictions. As of 13 November, 3,418 payments were made out of 11,589 applicants. That is less than 30%. Given that so many of the payments have not been made in the first tranche — the first four weeks of the restrictions — what confidence can you give to businesses that payments will be made this week? Businesses cannot wait. A Christmas tree has been erected in this Building, but I am not finding much cheer, and people —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

A question, Mr McNulty. Thank you.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

— in business in my constituency of Newry and Armagh are not finding much cheer.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I do not have today's up-to-date figures because I was too busy over the weekend trying to distribute half a billion pounds right across economic and community support. I will get the up-to-date figures for tomorrow's Question Time, but the last up-to-date figures that I had at the weekend show a significant increase on the figure that the Member quotes, which is from over a week ago.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Minister for his statement. While he will be aware of businesses that have not received support payments weeks after they were promised them, he will also be aware that some have fallen through the gaps and have been unable to trade since March. Those people have received no financial help from the Executive. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for the Economy to make sure that there are no gaps and that the people who run those businesses get the financial support that they need? Do the new allocations fill those gaps?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I have said repeatedly at Executive meetings over the last while that there is a particular urgency in ensuring that the people to whom the Member referred who have received no support get support.

We are now into our second and third rounds of support for some businesses. While that support is clearly vital, it is grossly unfair on those who have not received it. I have met people from different sectors that are not the responsibility of my Department to try to offer assistance and steer them to the right place to get support, and to offer officials to assist them to gather up the right information so that they can take it to the relevant Department to present it and get support. I am keen to get support out. I am acutely aware that, as we roll out further levels of support for business, some people have still to receive it. I encourage those people to contact the relevant Departments to make their case. If they need assistance, I have always offered to meet people in order to steer them in the right direction, to encourage them and to tell them the type of information that they need to present to make a case for themselves.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Can I seek some clarification from the Minister about whether all of the £338 million that was today is Barnett consequential money from the Treasury, or is it supplemented by any savings that the Executive have made in various Departments? More specifically, what about Belfast International Airport? It is our primary airport, and it is now closed for a number of days each week. I see £1·2 million, again, for the City of Derry Airport, which must be the most over subsidised airport that we have. What about Belfast International Airport? Where is the money for it?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

This is all Barnett consequential money. We used the October monitoring round savings to allocate to departmental pressures and to keep them separate from these allocations. Of course, I anticipate further surrenders of money in the January monitoring round, which will be used to meet some departmental pressures.

I intend to bring a paper to the Executive next week on airport funding. The Member may know that, when we made a previous payment to airports, the International Airport did not at that stage require any assistance from us. It is clear that it now does, and we are working through that with it. The payment that he refers to for City of Derry Airport is an outstanding payment; it is not new as part of this allocation. It is an outstanding payment that is coming from money that was held in reserves for the airports; it has been sitting in reserves for some time. Some £10 million was sitting in reserves for airports, and I hope by next week to be able to identify which Department is to pay that out — it will probably be Infrastructure — and work it through with Belfast International Airport, the City Airport and City of Derry Airport.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

The Minister stated:

"We have not known what course the virus would take or what the health experts would recommend in response to the virus".

I repeat:

"We have not known ... what the health experts would recommend in response to the virus".

Can the Minister seriously stand over that statement, knowing full well that, as an island, we saw the virus spread across other parts of the world and that his Executive were warned by health experts that reopening the economy too soon would risk a second surge? Is the Minister seriously saying, "Sure, we didn't know what would happen. It's not our fault. Nothing to see here. Move on"? Does the Minister think that that is acceptable?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I will give the Member the benefit of the doubt and say that he is misunderstanding what I said rather than deliberately misrepresenting it. Clearly, the criticisms that I was referring to and that he would have said had he gone on to quote further related to the people who were saying that we should have a financial package ready to go with the restriction announcements last Thursday. We did not know what the health experts were recommending with regard to non-essential retail until Thursday morning or 11.30 pm on Wednesday. For me, who goes to sleep at that time, it was Thursday morning. We were not aware of it, so we could not bring a financial package to the Executive on Thursday for agreement. As I said, I will give the Member the benefit of the doubt that he misunderstood that, but that is what I was referring to, not the global effect of the pandemic.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes questions on the statement.

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

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you advise whether it is in order for the Member for Lagan Valley to make pathetic and inaccurate statements about the Infrastructure Minister's handling of support schemes given that the Department reacted to the failure of the Economy Department to provide a support scheme for taxi drivers and the continued failure of that Department to provide support for a wide range of sectors? It is worth putting on record that the Infrastructure Minister got the legal powers and was able to get a scheme up and running within 10 days.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

You will be aware that a number of comments were exchanged across the Chamber; you were involved in them. I will leave that matter for now.

The next item of business on the Order Paper is Question Time. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 1.53 pm and resumed at 2.00 pm.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)