Economic Recovery Action Plan

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 12th October 2021.

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Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP 2:15 pm, 12th October 2021

4. Mrs Cameron asked the Minister for the Economy for an update on the holiday at home voucher scheme. (AQO 2568/17-22)

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

13. Mr Storey asked the Minister for the Economy for an update on the delivery of the economic recovery action plan. (AQO 2577/17-22)

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I wish to group questions 4 and 13 together for answer and avail myself of the extra minute to answer.

It has been eight months since the launch of the economic recovery action plan and six months since the Executive agreed to provide an additional £287 million to help to deliver the actions that are set out in the plan. During that time, we have continued to listen to feedback and work collaboratively with our delivery partners. Thanks to that strong collaborative effort, 40 of the 58 actions that we had planned to do at the time of the launch are now in progress or have been completed.

The holiday at home voucher scheme is one of the remaining 18 actions that are yet to be implemented. The proposal was focused on stimulating demand from residents to holiday at home in support of the local tourism industry. The economic recovery action plan recognised at the outset the need to adapt to changing economic conditions. The suitability of the intervention is being considered in the context of the levels of consumer demand that were experienced over the summer and the impact of the high street scheme.

The high street scheme is another key, Spend Local component of the plan. It is aimed at reorientating people towards our local retailers and hospitality and leisure sectors. The scheme opened to applicants on 27 September. I am delighted with the unprecedented number of people who have already applied. I am also delighted that the first cards have issued in the past week. That is great news for all our local businesses that will benefit from the roll-out of the scheme.

I hope that Members will agree that significant progress has been made against the actions that were set out in the economic recovery action plan. It also important that the plan continues to evolve. We have been able to scale up our offering of support where the demand and benefit has been high. We have also been able to add new actions to aid the economic recovery journey.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. The tourism sector has been one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. What steps is the Minister taking to help the sector to move forward?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

The proposed holiday at home voucher is just one of a number of steps that we have taken to support the tourism sector and help it to recover from the effects of the pandemic. Those steps were set out in the tourism recovery action plan, which was launched by my predecessor, Diane Dodds. Additional funding has been provided to support Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland for heavyweight marketing campaigns throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland to stimulate demand for short breaks and areas of high-value tourism, such as business events, golf and cruises.

I have also supported significant funding programmes for a number of sectors across the industry, and for product and industry development. In addition, we are supporting the tourism and hospitality sector through a range of skills programmes and interventions, including masterclasses, leadership and management training, skills-focused offerings for managers in those important sectors, and a new skills intervention programme. All those training and development actions have been designed in partnership with local hospitality and tourism representatives and business leaders.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Minister for his answers thus far and for the work that he has done to ensure that the issues of concern to us all in our constituencies, particularly in terms of economic recovery, are addressed.

In an earlier comment, he mentioned the changing environment. Obviously, we are subject to the current crisis in fuel prices and so on, as we have heard about. What flexibility is there in the schemes to ensure that the Department can respond in a way that is meaningful to the economy?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

The first thing to highlight is that we worked on the economic recovery action plan with those in the industry in order to make sure that we were responsive to their needs. I have just noticed that my predecessor is behind me. She will know about the work that went into the plan. The furlough scheme was hugely important in keeping people in employment, but we know that it has now passed. We are continuing to work to make sure that people are supported as much as possible. A number of things have been put into action to support jobs and improve skills so that people can be not only reskilled but upskilled. The skills focus programme, for example, is offering fully funded upskilling for employees, including those who were furloughed. We also provide opportunities to help people reskill, change careers and move into new and better job opportunities. That is why the plan is so important and why we are working in collaboration with industry and business leaders and representatives to make sure that it is agile and responsive to their needs.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

In your answers, Minister, you discussed the holiday at home voucher scheme, and you said that you would consider it again. When it was first announced, concerns were raised about its delivery on a first come, first served basis, as that may discriminate against low-income families and those with poor internet connectivity. Have you addressed those concerns?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

It is certainly the case that we will not be able to give or offer the holiday at home voucher to everybody in Northern Ireland as we have done with the Spend Local card. It is difficult to find a way to give out these vouchers other than on a first come, first served basis. I do not think that — I certainly hope that this is not the case — someone's background or whether they are in an area of advantage or disadvantage would prohibit them being able to apply.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

When does the scheme go live? What are the exact qualifying criteria?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

We are still working with industry to try to find the optimal time for its release. We have the Spend Local card in place, and we do not think that it would be appropriate to bring this one in at the same time. We will be working with industry to work out when the scheme can come in to bring the maximum benefit. Where eligibility is concerned, we are proposing that the vouchers will be able to be used at accommodation, attractions and experiences that are registered with the We're Good to Go scheme.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

One of the business sectors that has often been in contact with me is travel agents. They have been badly affected by the pandemic. What does the Minister's Department propose to do to assist them in the months ahead?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

A number of representatives of that industry have been in contact with me. The Executive put through a really useful scheme for that industry that was administered earlier this year. It would be appropriate to extend that scheme. The First Minister and deputy First Minister have the details of the scheme, having previously administered it, and I would certainly be supportive of any proposal that would help the sector at this time. Tourism was among the first sectors to be impacted and the last to be able to recover. That is even more the case for travel agents here in Northern Ireland. It is, therefore, appropriate that we consider how that extra support can be given to them.