I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on the motion. This is a key time for our maritime sector as it aspires to thrive and strengthen. Unfortunately, the sector, like others, has faced financial challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Members will agree how important it is, at this time, that our key gateway seaports have sufficient capacity to facilitate future economic growth, adapt how they do business to respond to current challenges, and are connected to key destinations and markets. Accelerated passage is not to be sought routinely; nor is it something that I do lightly. My preference, when taking forward legislation, is to have a full Committee procedure, enabling clause-by-clause scrutiny and the resolution of any issues, there and then, to the satisfaction of the Committee.
I will now explain to the Assembly, as required under Standing Order 42(4), why I am seeking accelerated passage, the consequences of its not being granted, and how I will minimise the future use of that mechanism.
I believe that there are compelling grounds for the use of the accelerated passage procedure in the case of this proposed legislation, which is a short and concise Bill to increase the total amount of grants and loans that my Department can provide to ports. The existing total limit of £35 million was set in 1989, and, working with colleagues in the Department of Finance, a new grants and loans limit of £90 million has been agreed. That will enable my Department to react appropriately to the current and future challenges faced by the ports. The total amount of loans and grants made by my Department to the ports over the years counts against the total limit indefinitely. It does not decrease in line with depreciation nor with loan repayments, and the total currently stands at £34·3 million. If all the potential future loans, identified by the ports to date, were to materialise over the next five years, it will require a further £27 million, making the total £61·3 million. <BR/>These figures do not take into account any additional grants or loans that may need to be provided to the ports because of the additional financial pressures being placed on them as a result of COVID-19 or to facilitate future developments in a post-Brexit world.
I turn now to the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted. As the North's ports continue to develop their port operations and to diversify their business, they will continue to make loan applications to my Department over the next few years. If accelerated passage is not granted, my proposed legislation will not be in place in time to be able to continue to provide financial assistance to the ports, particularly in the short term. That could have dire consequences for the ports and for the local economy. It would be a poor reflection on the functioning of the Executive and the Assembly if we did not move quickly to address a potential risk to our crucial gateways for trade. The North's main commercial ports have all agreed that there is a need for the increased loan and grant limit.
With regard to minimising the use of the accelerated passage procedure in the future, I have already mentioned my full commitment to clause-by-clause scrutiny at Committee Stage under normal circumstances, but we are not in normal times. I will continue to take any necessary steps to ensure that the accelerated passage procedure is not unnecessarily sought by my Department. In accordance with Standing Order 42(3) of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I appeared before the Committee for Infrastructure on 23 September to explain the need for accelerated passage for the Bill and to outline the consequences of its not being granted. I thank the Chair and members of the Committee for their recognition of the need to expedite the Bill and for their support in seeking Assembly approval for accelerated passage.
Members will have an opportunity to raise issues on the detail of the Bill during its Second Stage debate. In the interim, I seek the support of the House for use of the accelerated passage procedure and look forward to hearing Members' comments.