High Street Stimulus Scheme

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 7th June 2021.

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Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green 2:15 pm, 7th June 2021

4. Ms Bailey asked the Minister for the Economy to outline the terms and conditions of the high street stimulus scheme. (AQO 2151/17-22)

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I thank the Member for her question. The high street stimulus scheme is a cornerstone of my economic recovery action plan and one of the largest and most innovative responses to tackling the consequences of the pandemic for local businesses. It is a £140 million injection that will support towns and city centres. Local business leaders have welcomed the scheme, and they see it as a practical support for helping businesses recover from the pandemic.

We want to encourage people to play their part and become heroes by spending their £100 to support local businesses that were forced to close or severely impacted on by the pandemic. That financial stimulus will help boost demand and protect local jobs. I want every person who is resident in Northern Ireland and aged 18 and over to register for a pre-paid card. The scheme should launch towards the end of the summer. The card will be used to purchase goods and services in local businesses but not for online purchases, gambling or financial or legal services.

The multiplier effect of the scheme from people spending more than the value of the card and the ripple effects from purchases will deliver greater economic benefits and make a significant step towards kick-starting recovery. An advertising and public messaging campaign will include engagement with organisations representing hard-to-reach and vulnerable groups including elderly people, persons with a disability and the wider community and voluntary sector.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I thank the Minister for her answer. She alluded to the many businesses across Northern Ireland that have really struggled throughout the COVID crisis. I am sure that I am not alone in listening to many people who have concerns about the scheme and the reimbursement of it. Will she guarantee that independent traders and small businesses in particular will not be forced to go through heavy admin and that they will receive the money in a timely fashion?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

The money will be received by individuals in Northern Ireland, who will choose where they spend it. The parameters and restrictions on that are, as I said, that it is not allowed to be used online, for gambling or for financial and legal services, etc. We are out to procurement — that process has almost finished — for a provider for the card. We will then launch it and work with local chambers of commerce in order to make sure that we get across a "Buy local" message. The stimulus scheme is an investment in local businesses, local high streets and local families, who have had such an incredibly difficult time during the pandemic. As I said in my introduction, it is the largest stimulus scheme across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I welcome in particular the point that the Minister made about "Buy local". Will there be some kind of incentive to buy local? I certainly want to see the vouchers used in my constituency of Mid Ulster, where we have a large number of independent retailers who have worked hard to keep their businesses going and also, I would say, some of the best restaurants on this island. I would really love to see people from Mid Ulster using their vouchers in Mid Ulster.

Will you confirm that the scheme will be rolled out to the 16- and 17-year-old age group? How much is it likely to cost? I would also welcome that because those people work in our communities and pay taxes and National Insurance.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

In the Department, the rationale for the scheme was to provide funding for everybody over 18. If we were to roll that out to our younger age group, we would need to look at how it would impact on the amount of money that is available and whether there is additional funding available, etc. Officials are looking at the equality impacts of the scheme across the board, and we will produce that. It is on our radar, although it has not been priced into the scheme as we currently have it.

I am absolutely adamant that I would like to see the scheme used by local people in support of local businesses, which have come through the toughest of times over the last year. Businesses need that support. We will work with the local chambers. We will, perhaps, encourage chambers to have their own incentive schemes to draw people into their area as we launch the card across Northern Ireland. Businesses will perhaps be able to give their own incentive for that money to be spent in their area.

This is about keeping up the stimulus and demand for retail, which has suffered so horribly over the last year.

Over the summer, we will work with local businesses and, indeed, business organisations to make sure that the messaging is absolutely right.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call Sinead McLaughlin to ask a very brief supplementary question, please.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30 pm, 7th June 2021

Minister, you indicated that there will be a multiplier effect. Have you done an economic impact assessment on what that multiplier effect will be, particularly for job retention and business sustainability?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

We are looking at the issue of the multiplier effect and how we can do it. In Jersey and Malta, where the scheme has been rolled out, there was a significant multiplier effect. Of course, that is not just about increased trade on the high street; it is about greater sustainability and stability for businesses and jobs in local areas. We will produce an equality impact assessment and a business case.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Members, that ends the period for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. Before I call Seán Lynch, I advise Members that question 3 from Philip McGuigan has been withdrawn.