High Street Scheme

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 2 November 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 4:45, 2 November 2021

I have received notice from the Minister for the Economy that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of the social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members who are present in the Chamber may do that by rising in their place or by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly.

I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. This is not an opportunity for debate per se, and long introductions should be avoided at all costs. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the period for questions afterwards.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I take the opportunity to update Members on the progress of the high street scheme. I know that there is much interest in that in the Chamber and across Northern Ireland.

I begin by putting the scheme in context. Throughout these challenging economic times, my Department has been at the forefront of the Executive's response to the economic impacts of the pandemic. We have delivered unprecedented financial support that has enabled thousands of businesses to keep their doors open, secured tens of thousands of jobs and provided hope for families and communities. We have provided around £500 million to over 32,000 businesses through a number of essential support schemes, all of which were delivered and developed in unprecedented turnaround times. Working with Invest Northern Ireland, we introduced new schemes to support businesses, and, alongside Tourism NI, we weighed in with support for that sector too. We also provided much-needed support for higher and further education students. I have no doubt that, had it not been for the interventions at a national UK and local level, we would find ourselves in a dark economic place today. Thankfully, the work of my Department and other Departments helped us through the darkest days of COVID and out the other side.

With the launch of the economic recovery action plan (ERAP) in February past, we clearly and deliberately shifted our focus from crisis response to economic recovery. The ERAP, which was supported by the Executive with funding of £286·8 million, is an ambitious suite of decisive actions designed to stimulate recovery. It has been widely endorsed by our business community and now leads the way for the Executive's recovery plan, delivering a multifaceted approach to recovery incorporating skills, trade, innovation and the green economy. That includes the development of a flexible skills fund; widening access to apprenticeships by removing the age cap; developing proposals to implement an artificial intelligence centre of excellence; accelerating the delivery of city and growth deals, which will inject over £1·5 billion into our economy; stimulating tourism through targeted marketing and capacity building investment; and developing a green innovation challenge fund.

The initiative that has received the most attention is the high street scheme. Our local retailers and our hospitality and service sector are among those that have borne the brunt of the economic downturn. Their ability to trade has been severely hampered by the stop-start restrictions that have been implemented over the past 18 months. Many also suffered the devastating impact of consumer drift to online shopping that lockdown incentivised. For the most part, the shops, cafes, restaurants, salons and pubs that make up the lifeblood of communities in all our constituencies survived the pandemic, but they needed our help to attract their customers back and to recover. We were there to provide it. We knew that, by providing every eligible adult in Northern Ireland with a prepaid Spend Local £100 card, we could stimulate economic recovery on our high streets and in our town centres and, at the same time, protect jobs. That would mean that 1·4 million people would receive and spend an extra £140 million in local businesses throughout Northern Ireland and shift consumer spending from online to physical locations.

We could see the multiplier effect it would have in bringing many more customers back through the doors of local retail, hospitality and other sectors and in leveraging spend over and above the £100 on the card by people who will use it as part of a payment for a larger purchase.

No one should underestimate the scale of the task in delivering the high street scheme. In a matter of months, we put in place a system to accept, verify and process applications from every eligible adult in Northern Ireland: over 1·4 million people. We implemented a process to manufacture, dispatch and deliver cards that were unique to every applicant. We worked with traders to ensure their understanding of the scheme and to incentivise sales into local businesses. This had never been done in our history. I can share with Members that other jurisdictions are watching with keen interest to see how we have managed to deliver this.

It was important to me that as many people as possible could access the scheme and that their journey through the process was as straightforward as possible. We launched an applications portal on 27 September. Then, on 11 October, we opened a telephone service to support applications from people who were unable to access or use the online portal. The later opening of the telephone service was implemented to encourage more people to apply online and avoid using the telephone line, leaving it available for those who needed it most. We introduced a system of trusted partners to enable asylum seekers and the homeless to apply.

The portal and phone line closed on 25 October, by which time we had received over 1·43 million applications, very much within the range of our predictions at the outset. It was and continues to be essential that we verify the identity of every single applicant, as we have been aware from the outset that a scheme of this nature is open to fraud. No Member would want that.

Unlike Jersey, we do not hold a citizens database. Therefore, we have to use the databases that we can access to verify applicants while ensuring at all times that we are GDPR-compliant. We asked each applicant for information that we initially attempted to match against the data held on the electoral register. For those who did not match using the electoral register, we attempted to verify their details using driving licence data and Department for Communities benefits data. A total of 1·264 million applications — 88% of the total number of applications — were verified through those automated checks.

There were, unfortunately, around 160,000 people whose details we were unable to verify via the databases used. Let me repeat: none of those applicants has been rejected. Every one of them has been given an opportunity to submit evidence that they live in Northern Ireland and are over 18 years of age. The Assembly can be assured that we are applying maximum flexibility on the information that can be provided to confirm that they are eligible for a Spend Local card. That means that where there is a genuine attempt to provide information, a clear link between the application and the documents provided and a reasonable level of confidence that the person is eligible, they will be verified, provided the information returned is clear and legible. To date, 90,000 people have submitted that additional evidence. Despite negativity from the usual quarters, it looks likely that around 98% of those will have their application approved.

There is still a sizeable group that has not yet submitted evidence of eligibility. A reminder email has just been sent to everyone who has not responded, and we will continue to reach out to those people via social media and other channels to encourage them to respond to the email as soon as possible. The more quickly that we receive their information, the more quickly we can issue them with their card, and they can use it to support local businesses.

I want to address erroneous accusations that I, my Department or this scheme acted in any way to discriminate against any groups. Let me be absolutely clear once again: no one has been rejected for a Spend Local card. I find it particularly difficult to comprehend how anyone who, in their own words, does not know the ins and outs or the intricacies of how the policy has been implemented can go on to a public forum and say that there is a very strong case that sex discrimination has occurred. I would expect more from the chief commissioner of the Equality Commission. Had she contacted me, I would have informed her that there were a relatively small number of cases in which a birth certificate was not initially accepted as proof of date of birth as the maiden name did not match the name on the application form. However, I took decisive, early action to address that issue and can now assure Members that applicants will not face that problem.

Let me repeat: the purpose of the scheme is to get as much stimulus as possible into our local businesses. The best and only way to achieve that policy goal is to get the highest number of eligible people supporting their local businesses by using their Spend Local card, and my Department is demonstrating maximum flexibility in its consideration of the documents that we receive to ensure that we meet that objective. The process of verifying the identity of people who have not been matched against the automated checks is ongoing, and we continue to listen and make changes to the list of verification documents that are acceptable as proof of identity and age. That includes letters from trusted partners, including care homes, and those can be provided rather than documents of proof of address and date of birth. The Department is working as flexibly as possible and will continue to refine the process, if required. In instances where older people and people in care homes have difficulty in providing that information, I encourage family members, friends, care home staff and other organisations to support them through the process, if they have permission to do so. My Department is also working closely with the Commissioner for Older People and other trusted partners to ensure that we make the customer journey as simple as possible for older people.

To date, over one million cards have been dispatched. Over 580,000 of those have been activated, and over £26·5 million has now been injected into our local economy. Those are remarkable statistics, and, while it is still early days, it is fair to say that the process of recovery on our high streets is now under way. By the end of this week, cards will have been dispatched to at least 95% of applicants whom we have been able to match to information held on databases, and, by the middle of next week, cards will have been dispatched to all those who have been verified to date.

It remains the case that most people will have four weeks to spend their card, but I recognise that that will not be the case for everyone. Therefore, to offer those applicants a fair timescale in which to use their card, I can today announce that I am extending the deadline to use the Spend Local cards by two weeks — from 30 November to 14 December. Members on the Economy Committee requested that, and I am happy to agree to it. That will mean that the vast majority of people will have at least four weeks to use their card. That means spending their card in local shops, from Belfast to Enniskillen, Cookstown, Newtownards, Portadown, Bangor and everywhere in between. To maximise the benefit to our local businesses, including the retail, hospitality and service sectors, it is vital that everyone spends the full £100 on their Spend Local card, and the extra two-week period will also allow cardholders who have some balance left on their card, no matter how small, to spend it in local businesses. For anyone who has any balance left on their card, no matter how small, my message is this: please go out and spend it locally. Buy a coffee, a breakfast, a newspaper, a magazine or even a small present for someone this Christmas. Maximise the Spend Local card. Every penny spent will help.

The objective of the high street scheme is to stimulate recovery in our local businesses by encouraging increased local spending rather than spending online, and by extending the deadline to use the Spend Local card, we can encourage more people to purchase Christmas presents, Christmas decorations and even food for Christmas dinner in their local area rather than doing so online. I have consistently encouraged all cardholders to use their Spend Local card to support businesses in their local area that have been impacted by the pandemic.

I have been hugely encouraged by the level of engagement, not only from the public but from our retail, hospitality and service sectors. Many local businesses across all parts of Northern Ireland have further incentivised spending in their premises by offering additional savings or rewards. By helping themselves in that way, they are also helping their staff, suppliers and neighbouring businesses. Spending a little has a big effect.

The journey to recovery for retail, hospitality and the service sector has just begun. As more and more people receive their Spend Local card through their letter box daily, I urge them to activate the card as soon as they can and to spend every last penny on it. Finally, I say this: please, please spend local.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin 5:00, 2 November 2021

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome the fact that he has today extended the scheme to enable people to spend their Spend Local card for an additional two weeks. That is important. It is also important that the Minister set out explicitly in his statement that the policy goal is for the greatest number of people who are eligible for the scheme to get a card. I put on record my thanks to his officials who have constructively engaged with the Committee to resolve issues over the past number of weeks.

A number of constituents have contacted me who had difficulties inputting their details to get their PIN code and some difficulties accessing support via phone and email. Will the Minister look at that to ensure that people can get that support? Finally, will there be any additional costs associated with the extension of the scheme?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

First, I thank the Chair of the Committee and, indeed, the whole Committee for the constructive way in which they have worked with the Department on the scheme. I appreciate the Chair's words about my officials. They have worked very hard, not only on this scheme but on others that have come before it. They have done a fantastic job of rolling out the high street scheme.

I am aware of some of the difficulties that people have had over recent days in activating their card. There have also been some issues with the phone line. The Chair will appreciate that it has been a particularly busy time. This is the week in which most cards were sent out. Last week, about 600,000 cards had been sent out, and over a million have now been sent out. This week has been a key point in the roll-out of the scheme, and I urge people to be patient. I also encourage people to use the text message function to activate their card.

I do not anticipate there being any further costs as a result of the extension of the scheme. The Chair will be aware, however, of the contingency funding that was set aside to deal with potentially more people applying for the scheme than we had expected. We are in and around where we thought we would be, at 1·4 million applications. We are a little bit over that, but we have built in contingency funding to deal with that.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. This is an incredible scheme, and I do not underestimate the challenges involved in rolling it out. People can sneer from the sidelines, but the scheme has been rolled out in a short time. To be fair, there have been a few small issues, but that is to be expected.

The Minister said that £26·5 million has been spent so far in the local economy. From the information that you have received and based on the amount that has been spent so far, is the scheme having the desired and expected impact?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Member for his words. As I walked around my constituency, my experience was incredibly positive. I have spoken to retailers, who have noticed a difference. They told me that people who would not otherwise have come in have come in solely to use their card. People have spent above and beyond what was on the card. People have used their card and said that they would come back again. People have spent their card in one shop and then gone into other shops because they saw what was on offer on the high street.

From what I have heard, the scheme is therefore ticking all the boxes, which is positive. In fact, I spoke to one retailer in my constituency who told me that sales last week were up 40% on the same time in October 2019, before the pandemic hit. The scheme is therefore benefiting retailers. Of course, the public also love to have the card.

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

I certainly very much support the Minister's spend local message, and I welcome the fact that everybody who is eligible for the card will have the opportunity to receive it. Regarding the initial purpose of the scheme, however, which was economic additionality, a multiplier effect and creating economic stimulus where none had existed before, will the Minister at least acknowledge that very few economists anywhere would suggest that the best time to create economic additionality in retail is the month of December?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

We want to have a short-term boost to the high street, yes, but we also want to see a longer-term benefit and return from the scheme as we try to pull people away from the online retailers and back to the high street. I hope that it will have a long-lasting impact. I spoke to retailers in Armagh and Portadown recently, and they said, "Actually, this has been the best time for us". They felt that the scheme was not only pulling some people into the high street for their Christmas shop but had, in fact, come at just the right time, because they had had a good time over the summer, which had then dipped coming into September and October.

The Member talks about December. I actually think that we will see the vast majority of the spend taking place in October and November. Most people have received their cards now. Spend is accelerating every day, and we are peaking again at weekends. We will see that trend continue. The scheme is providing a boost now, when retailers need it. We have to remember the tough time that so many retailers and those in hospitality, entertainment and leisure have had. Many got support from the UK Government, from the Executive and from my Department, but some still had to dip into their savings to keep their businesses going. They have said that this scheme has made a difference and has helped them after those previous difficult periods, so I think that it is ticking all the boxes. If the Member speaks to those who are benefiting from it, he will find that they are happy with the scheme's timing.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber with his statement. It reminds me, however, of the famous quote from Shakespeare's 'Hamlet': the man "doth protest too much".

Regarding the practicalities of the scheme, Minister, I was told that it would be over before people started spending for Christmas, but that is not the case. I was told that it would be additional to Christmas spend, but you are now encouraging it to be used for Christmas spend. You told me that nobody had told you that they would use it to buy a £100 Amazon voucher, but they are doing just that. The Committee was told that the overspend margin was £2 million to £3 million, yet you are holding £21 million in reserve. Why do you continue to argue that the scheme is well run and is delivering on its policy intents?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Because that is the feedback that I am getting from the people who are benefiting from the scheme. If the Member were to speak to owners of the businesses in his constituency that had to close for so long, and if he were to listen to them about the effect that they say that the card is having, he would see that it is having the effect that was intended. The scheme is fulfilling the policy intent: it is pulling people back to the high street.

The key objective at the start of the scheme, when we were at that low point in the year, was that it would provide a boost. I am more than content that that boost will continue. I am pleased that we are getting to the point where retailers are saying, "This is a good time to have it". They are pleased to have it, because it is pulling people into town centres ahead of Christmastime. Therefore, although it was our original intention for the scheme to be completed by the end of November, and I still believe that the vast majority of the money will be spent by then, I do not have a problem with allowing it to go on for another two weeks in order to make sure that the money is used up and that those who may have got their card a little bit later than everybody else will still have four weeks in which to spend it. It is a proportionate response to the issues that we have faced. That is what I have done with the scheme the whole way along: we have met a number of challenges along the way, and I have been flexible and have tried to do the right thing to address those challenges so that we could hit the scheme's policy intent.

The last issue that the Member raised was the contingency that was put in place. It was prudent for me to do that.

I have a wider economic recovery action plan. I held some of that back in case there were any overspends in the scheme, which is the last thing that I wanted to see. It looks like we will probably spend about £8 million of that £21 million. Any money that has not been used can be used for any of the other priorities in my economic recovery action plan.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Many of my constituents — and, indeed, the Minister's constituents — in East Antrim are using their cards to pay for gas, electricity and oil: essentials for household living today, unfortunately. Can you explain to the House how that spending fits with your scheme's objectives of supporting and stimulating local businesses through the Spend Local prepaid card?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I will first respond to the connected point that Mr Nesbitt made about the Amazon vouchers. I have certainly had no one saying that to me; it has been said in the media. I will encourage spending locally, where I can. I will encourage spending in businesses that have found the lockdown periods most difficult. Ultimately, it is not my job to tell people what to do, however, and I did not have the ability, through the coding system in the cards, to block some of the other issues that he raised. If people feel that they need to spend their cards in certain ways, that is up to them. Of course, anywhere that it is spent is a local business. All local businesses employ people and all local businesses have suppliers.

If the Member is fair, he will realise that I have done everything in my power — I have said it time and again, and I have visited retailers, hospitality, leisure and entertainment facilities right across Northern Ireland — to encourage people to spend that money where it will have the most impact and effect. The Member is shaking his head, but that is what I have done. I have encouraged that, and I think that an awful lot of businesses appreciate that. However, ultimately, it is up to people to decide where they spend their card.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Minister, in your statement, you took umbrage with the chief commissioner of the Equality Commission because of her comments about the strong possibility of sexual discrimination against married women. You said that you wish that the commissioner had contacted you. If the commissioner had contacted me, I would have told her that your Department is not carrying out its equality duties in line with best practice as published by the Equality Commission. Your Department carries out equality screening at the end of policy development, instead of carrying it out as part of the policy development. If your Department had done that, you may have identified the issue in relation to married women much earlier. Will you undertake to ensure that you contact the Equality Commission to ensure that your Department is carrying out its equality duties in line with best practice?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I believe that my Department has carried out its responsibilities in accordance with the law and that this scheme does not breach equality guidelines in any way.

Photo of Stephen Dunne Stephen Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for his welcome statement on the extension. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge his enthusiasm in delivering the scheme. The retailers in my constituency are delighted with the scheme and have already seen a positive difference. That is certainly the feedback that I have received. In my experience, the vast majority of people have bought into the "spend local" messaging. Is the Minister confident that everyone who is eligible for a card has applied? To resolve any outstanding issues, can the Minister also touch on the issue of the phone-line service?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Member for his enthusiasm for the scheme and for what he has done to promote it locally. We have done everything in our power to ensure that everybody who is eligible has applied for the card. We ran an extensive media campaign. I have been out and about all over Northern Ireland to try to encourage people to sign up. We had a four-week window in which to do that. There was a telephone option during that time. There was also the ability to apply online and to apply for other people online. I have tried to make it as easy as possible to apply over as long a period as possible. I am confident that everybody who wanted to apply had the opportunity to apply. Our estimates and the estimates of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) suggest that, of around 1·4 million to 1·5 million eligible people in Northern Ireland, 1·43 million have applied, so I think that we are there.

The Member also asked about the telephone line. I put on record my thanks to the people who are being very patient.

I know that many people are trying to get through to the telephone line. Some are wanting issues to be resolved, and some are wanting their card to be verified. PFS, as the card supplier, is dealing with all queries to do with the card. There has been a period of high demand, especially over this past week, as I said to the Chair of the Economy Committee, because this was the week when most applications have come in. I hope that it reassures people that, if they are having issues or difficulties with the card, we have this extra time. We ask for a little bit more patience through what is a very busy period.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin 5:15, 2 November 2021

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis. I thank the Minister for his statement. The Children's Law Centre has advised that denying under-18s access to the high street voucher scheme is in breach of the Department's equality scheme. Will the Minister take that on board now and extend the scheme to 16- and 17-year-olds?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I know the concerns that have been expressed about the scheme being available only to adults in Northern Ireland. I think that I have set out previously the reasons why it has not been possible for us to extend it to children. One of the reasons is the difficulty in verifying those under the age of 18. We have seen how some people have struggled because of the lack of identification that they have, and I think that that would be even more of a challenge for those under the age of 18. There are some GDPR issues, as well, in there. To answer the Member's question: it will not be possible to extend the scheme at this time. That would require an incredible amount of new infrastructure to be put in place, and it would require a completely new way of dealing with it to verify those applications and to get those cards out in time. As an Executive, we made the decision to allow this to be a scheme for adults, and that is how it is progressing.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Minister for his answers thus far, and I thank the Department for its roll-out of the scheme. I have no doubt that it will be an economic stimulus to many of the businesses that have been impacted so hard by COVID-19. Will the Minister agree that it was disgraceful for the chief commissioner at the Equality Commission to come on the radio and make ill-informed and outrageous comments about the scheme, serving only to sow seeds of confusion and doubt? Will the Minister further clarify and give assurances to the House that no legitimate applicant has been rejected or will be rejected from this scheme?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Member for his question. When we are trying to encourage people to provide the right evidence, when we are making it as easy as possible for people to apply and when we have already changed the criteria to ensure that an issue that was coming up has been dealt with, it is very frustrating and very disheartening to have people go on the radio and accuse me and my Department of sex discrimination and perhaps even put doubt in people's minds that they are not going to get their card. It caused an awful lot of panic as well, because some married women thought that they were not going to get their card. It is incumbent on all of us to be really careful about the words that we use. As I hope that Members around the House can testify that, where there have been issues, I have been willing to speak to them directly. I have been willing to answer their queries. It is in my interests that MLAs and the rest of the public are informed about this scheme and have the up-to-date information. Picking up the phone would have been a useful first step.

I hope now that we can get to a place where everyone who is eligible will be able to provide sufficient information, and we will be using as much discretion as we can to ensure that those who are eligible will get their card. I want to send a very clear message to the public that I am not trying to stop anybody from getting their card. I want to do everything in my power to make sure that everyone who is a legitimate applicant can get verified. I hope that that provides some peace of mind. I am certainly willing to work and to do all that I can in the Department to make sure that that is the case.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for making the statement to the House. There is no denying that this is an extremely popular scheme. It is popular with members of the public and popular with businesses. I cannot say that I am overly excited about the fact that my in tray is filled with problems as a result of it. There are a number of problems that I could raise, for instance the fact that people's National Insurance numbers have been used, giving them difficulty in applying.

However, I will focus on the elderly and vulnerable people who turned up after the closing date for applications to say that they did not have the means to apply online and did not get on the phone line. What do we say to those people? Exactly how many have not applied?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question. I do not know how many people did not apply. We think that the vast majority of adults in Northern Ireland who were eligible have applied. We have done everything in our power to make people aware of the scheme, its opening date, its closing date, the different ways in which they could apply and that other people could apply on their behalf. We worked very closely with the Commissioner for Older People and other representative organisations to ensure that we got that message out as much as possible.

I commiserate with the Member on his inbox issues. I can tell him that it is not just him; it is the case for all MLAs. There have been queries, and people have contacted us. Unfortunately, my constituency staff have been at the receiving end of that and have had some outrageous abuse from people. It has been a very difficult time for them. Some people just need to be a bit more patient. There may be an issue or two, but it is never right to take it out on our staff. I want to put that on record.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I echo what he said. I was out in East Antrim at the weekend, and the card is being well-received by traders and those who have received it and been able to use it. However, I echo the calls to extend the helpline. Perhaps I went a bit overboard last week when I said that it was useless, but I feel that it is no better than a glorified automated service. It cannot give updates on actual applications. People have turned up in shops and not been able to use the card because it has been turned down, and, when people are told that the seven-day deadline has passed for verification, they start to get worried, so they come to us for answers. As we are now seeing smaller numbers and more difficult cases, can I ask that a dedicated helpline is set up so that people who are really struggling can get advice on the phone?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I understand the concerns around that. Other Members have expressed such concerns. A lot of people have tried to get in contact by email in particular, and we have not been able to give instantaneous responses to those queries. It has taken a bit of time. We have cleared 25,000 emails in the past few days, and we are still getting through those. That has been a difficulty.

The issue around the helpline has also caused concern, and I believe that that has now peaked. We are starting to see a lot of those calls being dealt with, but I understand the issue that the Member raised regarding the phone line because it cannot deal with the live status of an application. It can just advise about the next steps or what people need to do.

I want to provide clarity about the seven-day deadline. We are encouraging people to get back to us as soon as possible, but that will not be an absolute cliff edge, so maybe people can be reassured that, if it goes beyond the seven days, we will not automatically shut that application off. We are just trying to progress it as quickly as possible.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. As an MLA for Mid Ulster, which has an outstanding independent retail sector, I am glad for anything that encourages people to spend local. I always spend local, and, after this scheme ends, I encourage people to continue to do that. However, there have been challenges and difficulties. The communication strategy here is the issue. You just talked about the seven days not being a cliff edge, but, if people do not know that, it is a cliff edge to them. It is important that the communication strategy be improved. It is not just about encouraging people to spend local. People need information on how to do that and how to access their card.

I have one more question, which is about out-of-date passports. A number of constituents have contacted me and said that their passport was not acceptable because it was out of date. This is the time when people are not renewing their passports because they cannot travel and also because they cannot afford to renew their passports. Will you confirm that out-of-date passports will be accepted, as they are by the Electoral Office?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I am aware of all that Mid Ulster has to offer because Keith Buchanan invited me there, and I feel as if I was in every single shop in Mid Ulster with him. We were in Maghera, Cookstown, Magherafelt and all over the place, so I agree with the Member about what is on offer.

With regard to the communication strategy, we have certainly been putting that information out through the media. We have frequently asked questions on our website. We have been trying to pump that information out. If there is anything that I can do to make that easier, I will certainly do it. Hopefully, today's statement will have provided additional information to Members.

The issue of passports is one that I had identified last week. I instructed my officials to change that so that out-of-date passports are allowed. It goes back to what I said earlier about maximum flexibility. I want to ensure that we do everything that we can to ensure that, if somebody is who they say they are, we can accept them. In my view, a passport's being out of date is not a reason for us not to verify someone. I can confirm that I have now instructed officials to change that.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement to the House. I also want to thank him and his staff for an extremely innovative scheme. There is no doubt that there have been many challenges with it. However, it is delivering on the ground. The Minister came to my constituency, and we walked around with retailers. I have visited those retailers again, and others. All confirm that they are, indeed, benefiting from the scheme.

The scheme has made a contribution. We need to maximise its potential and ensure that we — to use the Minister's words — spend every last penny. How can we encourage people to avoid having a balance on their card at the end of its life?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Absolutely. I thank the Member for his kind words about the scheme. I cannot take credit for its genesis. I place on record my thanks to Diane Dodds for the work that she did in the early stages of the scheme and for securing Executive approval for it.

Spending every last penny is really important. We are giving people the opportunity to help local businesses here. If people have a pound or a couple of pounds left on their card, they may wonder what they can do with it. Plenty of places will be more than willing to take it. One can see that, if 1·4 million people were to leave that amount unspent on their cards, it would be a missed economic opportunity for businesses right across Northern Ireland. I certainly want to get that message across today: go out and ensure that all that is on those cards is spent.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I start by thanking the Minister. I know that he might not get that too often. I contacted him by email, he phoned me back, and my constituents' issues have been resolved. I thank him very much for that. I also wrote to him to ask for an extension, and he has done that, so there are two things.

However, as a married woman, what I will say is that we need to learn from this. I am not sniping from the sidelines, but gender needs to be considered. I have had this problem quite often in life because the name on my birth certificate is not my married name, and people do not realise that. I ask that we learn from this and carry through some gender consideration when developing proposals.

I will follow on from what Mr Newton said, we hope that every single person will spend absolutely every penny that is on those cards. However, if they do not, will there be a wash-up period before the end of the financial year to spend those last few pounds in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Member for her thanks. I re-emphasise the point that my door is always open. If MLAs have queries, I want to be able to address them. I understand that some Members took up my offer of a briefing on that. They will be aware of the dedicated MLA email address for specific queries and concerns. I can resend that to Members, if that would be useful, so that those concerns can be addressed.

I also take into account what she said. The issue of maiden names was identified. We responded to that quickly and ensured that it was not an issue any more.

The end date of the cards has now been extended for a couple more weeks. That gives extra time for that wash-up and to ensure that people can get rid of any balance. That said, my experience of talking to people who have their cards and representatives of businesses where the cards are being spent is that people do not need encouragement to spend it. Many of them have £100 on their card one minute and nothing on it the next, which is what we like to see.

Moneys remaining at that stage will go back into my economic recovery action plan. There are many initiatives that they can go towards, some of which are reruns of previous initiatives. I encourage people to spend before the deadline.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin 5:30, 2 November 2021

I thank the Minister for the update. We welcome the extension. Other MLAs have mentioned reports that the high street voucher is being used to purchase Amazon and other cards for online spending, which obviously goes against the principle of the card and the boost that it should give to the high street and local economy. Has the Department any way of recording how many online cards have been purchased using the high street voucher scheme?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I have heard it talked about in the media, but I have not heard about it actually happening. One way in which people are dissuaded from doing it is through the incentivisation schemes that have been offered by many businesses; you get that little bit of extra money. Additionally, people genuinely want to help local businesses, and they see the policy intent of that. We will have some data to show us where the cards have been spent. I will need to clarify the level to which we can get that down. We will certainly have information on the types of shops, stores or businesses where the cards were spent, but I will need to find out whether we can track it down to the level of how cards are spent.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I record my appreciation of your team, because it has dealt very efficiently with some of the problems that have come through my constituency office.

The scheme is welcomed by retailers and citizens alike. I, too, encourage people: please spend local. The scheme is live, and I want people to spend local, particularly with businesses that were closed during the pandemic. That was the original purpose of the scheme. Maximising the value of it depends on the behaviours of people who are spending.

My question is about strategy rather than the scheme as it stands. The scheme has been beset with problems from day one, and it has broken every one of its rules. On 25 August, we got a briefing in the Economy Committee from your officials about the timing of the scheme. They told us that businesses were concerned that the scheme might displace some of the Christmas spend. Your officials indicated that they did not anticipate that happening, because a large percentage of the spend —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Could the Member get to the question, please?

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

A large percentage — sorry; I am coming to it.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Could the Member get to the question, please?

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

You gave a lot of leeway to other people, Mr Speaker.

They anticipate a large percentage of the spend—

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

— in the Christmas period in November —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Ms McLaughlin, will you resume your seat, please?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Resume your seat, please. You will not be called again this afternoon.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. There have been delays with the scheme, and there has been considerable frustration for some in trying to overcome the administrative hurdles to applying. I think of my constituents who received an email saying that they had seven days to provide information. They provided information, and they received another email saying that they had three days to provide information, with links that did not work and no telephone number or email address. Thankfully, we were able to point them the right way.

I thank the civil servants who helped some of those people, but my question to the Minister is: will you assure me that no one will be disadvantaged because of any administrative failings and that not meeting the time periods that were given will not be held against constituents, as that was not because of the constituents' difficulty but because they were not provided with links that worked?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I want to do everything in my power to ensure that those who applied on time and are able to provide the evidence will get their card. I understand some of the frustrations that have been experienced, some of which the Member mentioned. The approach that I have taken at every stage when we have faced challenges like this has been to make it as easy as possible. Again, I go back to the policy intent of the scheme. I do not want to stop anybody getting their card if they are entitled to it. If the Member has concerns about individuals and he does not have success with them, I encourage him to contact the Department.

That being said, although there have been a number of people who have expressed concerns, we have to look at the facts. We have had over 1·4 million applications, and well over 1·3 million of those have now been verified. The vast majority were verified using automated checks, and manual checks have now taken place. We are going to get an exceptionally high verification rate, and, overall, this has been an exceptionally good scheme that is doing what it intended to do.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, in light of the circumstances, it is a very prudent move to extend the scheme. I have a query here — sorry, I have 17 queries currently with your office, but another query has come in today, and I would appreciate your advice on it. It is about two elderly ladies with learning disabilities, and they work via an appointee. The appointee made the application for them, but they have been asked for additional information. Due to their circumstances, neither of them have documentation with their names on it. They do not have driving licences or passports. I seek your advice because they will not be on their own in circumstances like this: they have been asked for something that they cannot provide, because those documents are in the name of the appointee.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I appreciate the Member's question. As I have said, I want to make it as easy as possible for people to be verified. If possible, we will be able to use supporting evidence from other partners, perhaps in the healthcare sector. If they are prepared to send something in to verify that they are over the age of 18 and resident in Northern Ireland, I will work with the Member to ensure that they get their cards. If they are eligible — and they clearly are — I want to make sure that they get the cards. I want the scheme to be open to everyone.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Minister for making this statement to the House, and I appreciate how much correspondence will be coming in both on the helpline and by email. Many constituents are at their wits' end because they cannot get through, get put on an automated line or have not had a reply to their email. Can the Minister tell me if there is a specific contact number for MLAs so that we can try to rectify issues on behalf of constituents? It is the more complex and urgent queries that are coming into our offices, and we have had some difficulty getting information on the MLA email.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Hopefully, today, we have reassured people in some way that we want to do everything in our power to make this as easy as possible. Again, I know I am repeating myself, but I want to be very clear that we want people to have these cards. I understand that there have been some difficulties, and I am sorry to hear about the MLA email address. Certainly, if the Member is not getting information back on individual cases, I am happy to chase those up.

Unfortunately, we have been impacted somewhat by people who have emailed to ask, "When is my card coming? I still have not got my card". We are triaging those emails to make sure that we get those who are most in need. However, the first thing the Member can do is reassure her constituents that the emails will be dealt with. It may take a little bit more time. As I said before, this is a week when we have lots of cards going out and lots of people trying to activate them etc. I am more than happy to work with the Member on individual cases, if that is necessary.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Members, that concludes questions on the statement. Please take your ease for a moment or two.

Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Speaker.]