Before we begin, I have to place on the record for Hansard that cross-community consent was achieved, because I saw and heard Ayes from all sides of the House.
In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit to the debate.
I am sure that Members will agree that, as an island economy, it is critically important that our ports are able to meet existing and future challenges. The importance of the ports' role in the supply of goods into and out of Northern Ireland has never been more clearly illustrated than during the COVID-19 crisis.
All of Northern Ireland's ports are governed by my Department's harbours legislation for the provision of grants and loans. Although the trust ports at Belfast harbour, Coleraine harbour, Foyle port and Warrenpoint port, and the privately owned port of Larne, fund their own capital investment and are expected to be commercially self-supporting, my Department can provide assistance for developments of a major nature. That assistance can be by way of a loan or a grant.
On the overall limit to loans and grants, the Harbours Act states that the aggregate amount of grants and loans together shall not exceed £35 million. The original £6 million limit has been adjusted on four previous occasions, gradually rising to the current £35 million level. The last rise was made in 1989. The total grants and loans made stands at £34·3 million. The Harbours (Grants and Loans Limit) Bill is straightforward. It is a short Bill with a single purpose: to raise the existing total loan and grant limit from £35 million to £90 million. The new limit was identified, in liaison with colleagues in the Department of Finance, as an appropriate uplift in line with inflation. That will enable the Department to continue to provide loans and grants to our ports. The existing limit has been almost reached, and the ports face major challenges at this time, particularly as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and the need to grow business post-Brexit.
For the costs to be incurred by ports in implementing the Ireland protocol, it is important to note that DAERA will take forward any necessary EU works at the ports. The British Government have also committed to funding that work. I have to be clear that I do not anticipate the legislation being used to enable construction of sanitary and phytosanitary-related (SPS) infrastructure, nor is that a matter for DFI.
The region's main commercial ports have all agreed with the need for the increase to the loan and grant limit. The Executive also support the increase and agree that the legislation can be done by accelerated passage. The grants and loans made under the Bill increase a charge on the Consolidated Fund, so Minister Murphy has confirmed to me that he is content to recommend the Bill, as required under section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
The Committee was notified of the proposal for the Harbours (Grants and Loans Limit) Bill at the start of September this year and discussed it during its strategic planning meeting on 9 September. The Committee asked the Minister to brief the Committee on the Bill, and, on 23 September, the Committee received that briefing.
During the briefing, the Minister and her officials explained to the Committee that Northern Ireland's ports are governed by the Harbours Act (Northern Ireland) 1970, which includes funding. Under that Act, the ports are expected to fund their own capital investment, while the Department is able to make loans and grants to assist with major developments. That assistance from the Department is, however, limited under the Act, which states that it should "not exceed £35 million". Given future uncertainties, the need to build additional infrastructure and the added financial difficulties resulting from the reduction in freight and shipping volumes through the ports as a result of the pandemic, the Committee is aware of the need to raise the existing total limit of £35 million that the Department can provide by means of loans and grants to a more substantial £90 million, as set out in the proposed legislation that is before us.
The Committee for Infrastructure had already met, on 1 July this year, representatives of the seaports, who are eager to grow and strengthen their business after EU exit. However, the Committee notes that the impacts of COVID have removed the financial certainty that they would like in order to invest in and develop their business. This is an issue not just for them, as the ports have taken on a more strategically important role for our economy in the post-Brexit era. The Committee is aware that it is vital that our ports are ready for the challenges and opportunities facing them. The uncertainty of COVID has come at the worst possible time, a time when the ports were meant to be pushing forward with expansion and plans to build on the new opportunities that are opening up to them. Instead, they are now battening down the hatches and weathering the storm. The Committee appreciates the need for the Department to provide adequate support in order that, for the benefit of our economy, the port can develop the infrastructure that is required.
In its discussion with the Minister and her officials, the Committee sought assurances about the narrow scope of the Bill, that the sole purpose of the Bill is to raise the loan and grant limit and that there would be no other consequences. The Minister gave the Committee those assurances, noting that it is a very short and concise Bill. As Members will note, there are only three clauses: the commencement; the title; and a single line to increase the port funding limit. The Committee also asked for information about the consultation that had taken place with the Executive and the sector. The Minister advised the Committee that one issue was raised by the Executive, which was her proposal to include in the Bill the ability for the Department to increase the loan and grant limit at a future date through secondary legislation. She pointed out that, after objection from the Department of Finance about a lack of scrutiny, that was taken out. She confirmed that there were no objections to the purpose of the Bill.
The Minister was content that she had consulted with the ports and that they were in support of this proposed legislation. The Minister was asked about some of the financial challenges facing the ports, and she advised that those include the likes of urgent quayside repairs, which would be aided by the grant mechanism that is proposed by the Bill. Clarity was also sought on whether checks and balances were in place, what the loan can be used for and the need for that to be addressed in the Bill. The Minister gave an assurance that the Bill was purely for grants and loans and to increase the limit from £35 million. Given that assurance, I understand that the Committee is satisfied. While my preference was to have a Committee Stage, I am content to support the Bill at Second Stage.
Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an Bhille seo. I will speak in favour of the Bill. I am content that we can speak at its Second Stage. Before I make my remarks, while it is in my head, I ask the Minister to indicate when the harbours and ports will be able to access the funding. I ask that that happen at the earliest stage because we are leading into Brexit and everything else, and I am sure that there is a piece of work to be done by the ports.
Our seaports are an essential part of the economy. Moving forward, they need to be able to grow and continue to play their vital role in trade, connectivity and employment. This year, our ports have faced considerable challenges. When they were trying to prepare for Brexit as best they could with the limited information that they had, the coronavirus pandemic introduced another unwanted burden to the sector.
The ports all fund their capital investment; however, the Department can make loans and grants to them under the Harbours Act. The original limit was set at £6 million, but that was changed on multiple occasions in the past and gradually rose to the current limit of £35 million in 1989. Since then, it has not increased. It is also worth noting that, as stated by the Minister, the total amount of any loans granted by the Department does not decrease in line with depreciation or loan repayments. The total amount of grants and loans made to the ports stands at £34·3 million: you do not need a calculator to tell you that that is very near the current limit.
Furthermore, the Department has informed us that if all the future loans that have been identified by the ports were to materialise over the next five years, it would require a further £22·5 million. I think that the Minister might have said £27 million; perhaps she will clarify that point. That does not take account of any additional grants that may be provided to the ports in response to COVID-19. Although DAERA is leading on Brexit preparations at the ports, the Department has stated that the legislation could be used to make grants to the ports for other Brexit preparation measures.
Considering those factors, it has been proposed to raise the current limit of £35 million to £90 million. That figure is based on inflation. Applying the retail price index provided a new limit of around £88 million, which has been rounded up to £90 million. The new limit will help to ensure that the Department can assist the ports during the COVID-19 crisis and enable the consideration of any additional funding needed as a result of Brexit.
The Department stated that ports would be at a disadvantage if the proposed amendments were not made, as they would lose out on the opportunity to access additional funding. In the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department informed us that it is aware of at least one port facing financial challenges in maintaining and operating its services.
A new loan limit of £90 million has been proposed. Although the Bill is to go through accelerated passage — we had the previous debate — I think that Members will understand the necessity of using such a procedure. I support the Second Stage of the Bill.
On behalf of the SDLP, I support the Bill. I thank the Chair of the Committee for setting out clearly the Committee's consideration of the Bill and the rationale behind our decisions to support it and its accelerated passage.
On Mr Allister's earlier comments, I declare an interest as a member of the Business Committee. It has requested the Executive's legislative timetable for several weeks, and I want to assure him, although I see that he has left the Chamber, that there has been no slackness on our behalf.
I look forward to the development of the ports. Hopefully, the additional resource will give some surety to them in what, as others have said, are very uncertain times.
Essentially, this is a very straightforward Bill. There is one significant clause, which gives the power to increase the amount of loans or grants that can be passed to ports that are included in the Harbours Act (Northern Ireland) 1970. The amount of the increase is £65 million, from £35 million to £90 million, which, as the Minister indicated, is in line with inflation and is not an exorbitant amount.
The Minister also indicated that she is aware that there are pressures on the ports. I am also aware of considerable pressures on our ports as a result of COVID-19. Manufacturing has reduced during the pandemic. Hopefully, it will pick up considerably; nevertheless, it will not be at the same level as before.
Another aspect of fundraising for our ports, and an important business for them, is the tourist trade. The "holiday at home" mantra that tourists in Northern Ireland have largely been practising — and, indeed, tourists in the rest of the United Kingdom — has obviously reduced the amount of traffic and income to airports. We want that to pick up again, and we want our ports to be able to service that industry again whenever we get through the current pandemic. Therefore, it is important that our ports are still able to operate and still have the commitment there of ships and infrastructure to service that.
It is important that we maintain support for our ports so that tourists are able to come here. It is also so that we are able to ship our products, suppliers can quickly bring goods into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and the perishable goods that we export can quickly get to market. Therefore, it is important that we have the ability to once more ramp up the services and to provide frequency, such as is provided from the port of Larne in my constituency, which is where we have the shortest, fastest journey to Cairnryan. I had to get that plug in. However, that is equally so for the ports of Belfast and Warrenpoint with their ro-ro facilities. It is important, in particular, for speed in the modern facilities that ro-ro traffic, which has been particularly affected by the pandemic, has the ability to ramp up again. On that basis, as I have said, I am content to support this increase, which is in line with inflation.
It is regrettable that this is also occurring at a time when a regulatory border is being created down the Irish Sea, as that will be a major impediment to our businesses and our region. It is something that I, and my party, warned others about the risks of doing. It is regrettable that, one month off, there is still not full clarity of the full implications. I have heard the Minister say that she is not planning to use this fund to support the ports with regard to the end of that transition arrangement. It would be helpful if the Minister could advise whether there would be the flexibility here for her to assist our ports in the case that some sort of emergency arose and others did not step in.
Secondly, with regard to this additional money, the Bill does not speak of how that will be determined or how it will be carved up going forward. It would be helpful if the Minister could say a little about that. In particular, there is concern that Belfast City Airport and City of Derry Airport received airport funds, but our principal airport, which is also trading at a loss, has not received support from that —.
Will the Member acknowledge the fact that the Finance Minister gave a rates holiday of over £1 million to the airport in question, and that, from my understanding, it has been in discussions with the Finance and Economy Ministers, who have responsibility with regard to the funding for the airports? At least acknowledge where the responsibility lies.
The Member has rightly highlighted that there has been support for all three airports through other mechanisms, but I am conscious that only two of the three received support from Infrastructure. There needs to be clarity around how this is used going forward. I hope that they will all be appropriately supported.
The other aspect and question that I have about the Bill which I find quite strange — perhaps it is because it is having to be taken forward by the accelerated passage route; it would be helpful if the Minister could explain — is that we are essentially increasing the amount of funding in line with inflation. That is a very minor change to our legislation. It is something that, for instance, with regard to benefits, happens each year with a statutory rule. Why is this change not occurring with a statutory rule? The next time we adjust it, are we also going to require primary legislation, as happened here, to repeal this legislation — assuming it goes through — and to introduce the new figures as we go forward? Why is it not being adjusted using a statutory rule? As others have indicated, had there been proper scrutiny and time allowed for Committee discussion, that could have been pointed out, and an amendment could have been tabled to enable such a change to be made much more easily and efficiently. It would be helpful if the Minister would explain why primary legislation was required.
That having been said, it is important that the Bill passes Second Stage. The Ulster Unionist Party will support it.
I rise on behalf of the Alliance Party to support the Bill's passing Second Stage. Last week, I was here until 2.30 am debating the Consideration Stage of a Bill. Hopefully, we will not be here until that time again.
My party welcomes the legislation. The £35 million loan and grant limit in the Harbours Act (Northern Ireland) 1970 has not been amended since 1989. That was a long time ago. The current balance is only 2% short of the total limit. It is, therefore, right that the limit is updated to £90 million.
Ports are a vital part of Northern Ireland's infrastructure. They are important contributors to local growth. Warrenpoint harbour alone adds £9·6 million to the local economy. Ports bring in tourists and cruise ships — hopefully, they will be back some day soon — and allow people to make their journeys across the water to visit friends and family or to go to university. Perhaps, most importantly, they are the gateway for the vast majority of Northern Ireland's imports and exports. They allow our fantastic local businesses to bring in parts and to export their products across the world. They also keep the food on the shelves, which we take for granted.
At Committee, the Minister stated that the ports fund their own capital investment and are commercially self-supporting, but loans and grants can be provided by the Department for developments of a major nature. The distinction between "capital investment" and "developments of a major nature" seems vague. We would have liked to have teased that out in more detail at Committee Stage. I would like to better understand whether the ports are expected to exhaust their commercial borrowing options first before turning to public funding. Perhaps, the Minister can touch upon that in her remarks.
I am, however, satisfied that there is further clarity in the legislation with regard to public funds. There should be no risk of increasing the loan limit as long as the Department's credit processes remain sufficiently robust. Ports need to be able to invest so that they can continue to provide the service that their customers expect and to meet the challenges of today.
I wish to talk about the three main challenges. The first is carbonisation. It was the major strategic goal that was raised by the port authorities when they came to the Committee in July. Additional investment will help ports to turn away from coal and oil products to become a major player in the development of offshore renewable energy.
The second challenge is Brexit. There is not long left until the end of the transition period. While the impact of disruption at the ports is likely to be more keenly felt by consumers and haulage firms, port authorities still face major challenges in preparing for those new arrangements. In the short term, ports are working with DAERA and HMRC to build the new infrastructure that is necessary as a result of the hard Brexit that is being pursued by the current UK Government.
Finally, there is the challenge of COVID-19. Although the ports have experienced a significant drop in trade, particularly in the number of foot passengers travelling through Belfast and Larne, since the onset of the necessary travel restrictions as a result of the pandemic, the medium- to long-term impact of COVID-19 on their businesses remains unknown. However, it is clear that ports face major challenges in navigating the choppy waters ahead.
It is, therefore, critical that we are able to invest in ports' facilities to support long-term sustainability and growth. Public grants and loans can be used only for capital projects and not for resource expenditure to aid cash flow. The ports have estimated that they will require some £22·5 million in loans and grants over the next number of years, notwithstanding the additional financial pressures as a result of COVID. My party supports the Department in ensuring that the capacity exists to provide that funding. The Committee for Infrastructure will have a role in monitoring how that figure of £22·5 million compares with the reality of what is required in the environment in which we currently find ourselves.
I support the Bill because an increase in the loan limit is long overdue and ports need to be able to invest in the future for the sake of us all. I look forward to hearing other Members' contributions and the Minister's response.
I thank and pay tribute to all those who have continued to work in our ports throughout the pandemic. Their contribution has often gone unacknowledged in the crisis, but it is absolutely vital to the well-being of our society during the most challenging of times. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Second Stage of the Harbours (Grants and Loans Limit) Bill. Like other Members, I acknowledge that our ports play a huge role in our island economy. The importance of keeping our supply chain secure and open has been acutely highlighted during the pandemic. However, like other sectors, ports have faced many difficulties during this period. It has, for example, meant that a lot of the roll-on roll-off — ro-ro — facilities encountered difficulties at the start of the pandemic, which impacted port income. Freight volume took a hit, as, of course, did passenger levels on ferry operations.
It is important that our ports continue to grow and play their essential role in our economy. Warrenpoint port, no doubt, plays a big role in that regard. In 2019, Warrenpoint port handled 3·5 million tons of cargo, and Ulster University estimated that, during 2019, the port put some £9·6 million back into the immediate local economy of Warrenpoint, Newry and beyond.
The total number of loans and grants issued by the Department currently stands at £34·3 million. As other Members said, that is very close to the max of £35 million. Also, between £22 million and £27 million in future loans have already been identified by the ports. That is without consideration of any other additional investment that may be needed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those loans and grants are used to enable ports to commit to measures for future economic growth. In Warrenpoint harbour, for example, I understand that those grants were previously used to help to replace old infrastructure and to construct a deepwater quay.
While the Department and the Minister do not believe that the grants will be used for SPS checks, as that work is led by DAERA, they state that such grants and loans could be used for other measures related to Brexit preparations. Given the paramount importance of our ports, it is madness that checking facilities will not be ready in time for 31 December.
Although contingency measures have been put in place, the British Government and Minister Poots knew well ahead of time that they needed to upgrade the ports. Not only did they delay that needlessly but Minister Poots actively stepped in to obstruct preparations at a critical time and relented only when he was told to do so by the British EFRA Minister.
Meanwhile, ports have worked tirelessly in their preparation efforts for Brexit. It is unacceptable that they find themselves in the current position with just weeks to go until the end of the transition period.
Sinn Féin wants our economy to grow, which means allowing our ports to respond successfully to all the emerging challenges that stand before them. The increase in the limit to £90 million will go some way to assist in that. I support the motion.
The last time that I stood to speak, I think that I strayed into Second Stage, but, sure, it would not be like me. I will take this opportunity again to say how wonderful Foyle port is in Derry, as people would expect me to say. It is a fantastic port that employs over 1,000 people.
Ports are vital to our economy. The particular clause in the Bill is quite striking, and many Members referred to the impact that COVID has had on ports and, of course, Brexit.
As my colleague has just stated, the British Government and Minister Poots have been somewhat lethargic, to say the least, in their efforts to try to prepare the ports for what is coming down the road at us on 1 January. Perhaps we will know this week or perhaps we will not. Who can tell? We are waiting on the outcome of the negotiations. However, the resources to build the necessary infrastructure are vital to ensure that ports are in a competitive position in the medium to long term.
When we reflect on EU exit and the impact that it will have on the economy and on ports, I would like to recall, for instance, Project Kelvin in Derry, which is an EU multimillion-pound/euro cable that was built to provide the island of Ireland with the first undersea network cable for the fastest transatlantic route directly to Ireland.
How does that relate to this clause? When we are talking about Brexit, that was one of the many things that we secured from the EU on infrastructure projects. It enabled the establishment of a data centre at the Foyle port in Derry, the Atlantic Hub, which is attracting interest from EU countries. It is clear that the funding cap increase in the clause — the Minister talked about it, and it is vital for the ports — needs to be coupled with a renewed call for the British Government and Minister Poots to clarify urgently what buildings and IT systems will be in place. A clear plan and leadership are the best way of ensuring that the money is spent in the best way possible.
We urge both sides of the Joint Committees, as we head towards the end of the transition, having been kicked out of the EU against the democratically expressed wishes of the majority of the people in the North, who voted to remain —
Order. For the past four years, politics has been dominated by the argument about whether leaving the EU is a good thing. There will be occasions to discuss that, but this is not one of them. I ask Members to return to the content of the Bill.
I will stick to the content of the Bill, particularly what it says as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and Brexit. I cannot answer the last contribution because of your ruling, but I am sure that the Member knows where I stand, which is that people did not vote for it.
In the context of EU exit, as referred to in the Bill, we urge the Joint Committee to work quickly on any aspects of checks that are within the remit of the spirit of compromise. It is vital that our ports can deal with the challenges that lie ahead. Raising the cap on loans and grants, as referred to in clause 1, is to be welcomed.
I give my support — somewhat reluctantly, because we do not like accelerated passage — to the Bill.
As already stated, the Bill will increase the existing limit placed on the Department with regard to the financial assistance that can be given to local harbours. The change in the limit from £35 million to £90 million is welcome, and I am pleased to see the Minister bringing the Bill to the Assembly. I am hopeful that the Bill will enable the Department to be much more flexible in responding to the needs of our ports, particularly as we reach the end of the transition period and emerge from COVID-19.
Our harbours act as one of our main gateways to the world. They provide the economic and social links that we rely on both within the United Kingdom and to the furthest parts of the globe. We must ensure that they receive the necessary government support to operate and compete on the world stage. The operational capacity and soundness of our main shipping ports have a direct economic impact on the ability of local companies to export their goods and on our access to key markets and destinations. Should our ports not be fit for purpose, the knock-on effect on other sectors of the economy would be significant.
The Department consulted all our main harbours, including Belfast, Larne, Foyle and Warrenpoint. Such targeted consultation is vital to ensuring that the sector is fully involved in all these decisions. At present, communication with our ports and haulage industry is vital, and I urge the Minister to keep those lines of communication open over the next few months in particular and to react, where needed, to support our harbours and our ports.
I note that the limit has not been updated since 1989. A lot has changed for our commercial ports and harbours since 1989. In the light of that, I call on the Minister to take time to consider any other areas in which her Department has a role, to ensure that all other mechanisms in her portfolio are up to date and provide fit-for-purpose state support to meet 2020 needs.
While the Bill is long overdue, I have some concerns about accelerated passage, given the lack of time for wider consultation, which, I note, has not been feasible on this occasion. I appreciate, however, given the limited scope of the Bill, that all the ports that stand to be impacted on have been involved in the consultation process. I am therefore happy to support the Bill.
I thank all the Members who have commented on the Bill at Second Stage. Some general issues have been raised, as well as several specific points, and I will try to deal with them. If I miss anything significant, I will get back to Members in writing once we have examined the Official Report. I reiterate my appreciation to the Chair of the Committee and its members for their support for increasing the threshold. I acknowledge the concerns around the utilisation of accelerated passage, which I share.
The Chair of the Committee set out clearly the uncertainty of COVID, the challenges that it presents to our ports and the need for adequate support. She also set out the engagement that my Department has undertaken with the ports, the Finance Minister and other Executive colleagues. She set out the rationale for the Committee's support for the Bill and reiterated the its fervent support for our ports and the critical role that they play.
The Chair of the Committee also gave examples of how previous loans and grants had been used by the ports, and that is an important point. Loans and grants have been used for the Evermore renewable energy project at Foyle port; the expansion of the ro-ro facilities and the construction of a deepwater quay at Warrenpoint harbour; the purchase of new tugboats and cranes at Foyle port; and the replacement of old infrastructure and the construction of new bulk storage silos at Warrenpoint harbour. It is important that we take cognisance of the fact that that is how the grants and loans have been used and that we clearly understand that the next set of planned loans and grants will be expected to be used, as Members have said, to enhance the resilience of our ports and ensure that they have the financial capacity for future economic growth, including diversifying their business, land acquisition and building cruise ship infrastructure. Mr Muir and Mr Beggs talked about the importance of tourism. It is also anticipated that the money will be used for purchasing additional tugboats and replacement cranes and for quayside repairs.
Cathal Boylan sought clarity on a number of issues, and I am happy to provide it. He asked when the ports would be able to access the finance. The intention is that the operational date for the legislative amendment will be in January. He highlighted the fact that the current threshold has almost been reached and that real and pressing financial requirements face our ports: I agree, and that is why we tabled the legislation. He asked for confirmation of the value of future loans that have been identified by the ports over the next five years. I can confirm that the figure that I have been presented with is £27 million, as opposed to £22 million. Were those loans to materialise, that would bring the total up to £61·3 million.
Mrs Kelly spoke in support of the Bill's Second Stage and highlighted the strategic importance of our ports and the role that they play.
Mr Beggs talked about the increase being in line with inflation. He emphasised the importance of tourism and of ensuring that our ports are equipped to facilitate and service the industry. I share his concerns about the lack of clarity on implementation of the protocol. I have close engagement with our ports, and it is hugely difficult and challenging for them to prepare when it is not clear at all how they are meant to do so or what is required of them. Mr Beggs talked about Brexit and SPS checks. He will understand that that is a matter for DAERA. There is a clear commitment from the British Government that they will fund the work that is required for the implementation of the protocol. That is a commitment that, I think, all of us in the House support and want to see materialised and realised.
Mr Beggs also spoke about the importance not only of ports but of airports. He mentioned the International Airport. It is important to clarify — I think that it was Mrs Kelly who stated this — that rate relief has been provided by the Finance Minister to all three airports. That equated to £1·7 million in support for Belfast International Airport. The Economy Minister has secured £2 million for tourism. My understanding is that she is engaging with Belfast International Airport on two of its airlines. The Finance Minister is also preparing a paper to bring forward to the Executive on the provision of safety and security grants to all three airports. That will be funded from the remaining money that is sitting in the centre for our airports. I reassure Mr Beggs and all Members that, given that the statutory responsibility for airports is shared across the Minister for the Economy, the Minister of Finance and me, I am committed to working with my ministerial colleagues to ensure that we support our airports during this challenging time.
Mr Beggs also asked why we were not addressing the increase of the threshold at a later stage through secondary legislation. I think that it was the Chair who pointed out that that was one of the issues that I originally raised but the Finance Minister had had concerns about it. Therefore, in recognising the pressing nature of the Bill in ensuring that we can get financial support to our ports, I proceeded without that principle and objective. It is something that I hope to return to with my ministerial colleagues.
Mr Muir reiterated his support for increasing the threshold. He raised the issue of commercial borrowing. Our ports can borrow commercially, but very specific circumstances are set by Treasury, so it is important that they are able to access grants and loans from government. Mr Muir paid tribute to the ports and all those who work in them and keep them going. I agree that we owe them a debt of gratitude.
Ms Ennis talked about the importance of our ports in keeping our supply chains open. We are very much reminded of that during COVID and of the fact that those who work in our ports, ships and haulage companies are critical key workers. She referenced Warrenpoint harbour in particular and the importance of that port to the local economy and the community that she represents. Very recently, I met again representatives of Warrenpoint harbour to understand better the challenges that they face and to reiterate my Department's support and commitment to continue to work with them.
Ms Ennis and Ms Anderson again raised concerns about the lack of clarity about Brexit and what that will mean for local businesses and communities and our ports in particular. They highlighted their concerns about the lack of clarity on SPS checks, the time that is left to prepare and all the challenges that come with that. Ms Anderson also spoke about Foyle port, which is a significant employer in her area. She referenced the many benefits to the north-west and to Northern Ireland of membership of the European Union.
Mr Harvey spoke about ports being the gateways to the world and to key markets and destinations. I agree with that. Importantly, he emphasised the need for ongoing communication with our ports. I reassure him that I will continue to engage and work closely with our ports to support them through this difficult time.
I hope that Members across the House support the Second Stage of the Bill, and I look forward to continued engagement with them as the Bill progresses through its stages.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That the Second Stage of the Harbours (Grants and Loans Limit) Bill [NIA Bill 12/17-22] be agreed.
That concludes the Second Stage of the Harbours (Grants and Loans Limit) Bill.
Given that it is 12.44 pm and that there is a very important debate to take place on COVID, I will, by leave of the House, suspend now, because the Business Committee is meeting at 1.00 pm. Do not forget to clean your surfaces before you leave the Chamber.
The sitting was suspended at 12.44 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —