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Absolutely. The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were in a really good place to listen to businesses about their needs, and the challenges that they found when trying to apply for those types of funds––the red tape and other difficulties. In future, particularly post-Brexit, we will need a Government who are responsive to the question of how we can support businesses to grow in a way that works for them and their owners, because those owners have enough to do running those businesses, and focusing on what they are good at. The Government need to support firms in a flexible way, and give them the right tools and encouragement to grow.
I will briefly refer to our small and family businesses, particularly retail businesses on our high streets. I mentioned this issue last night in a debate in the main Chamber. As is the case across the United Kingdom, our high streets are under a huge amount of pressure, but unfortunately, we have not been able to access the same amount of support as other areas. I welcomed the Government announcement of additional support for high streets through the future high streets fund, but of course Northern Ireland was not able to use that money, because it went into the Northern Ireland block grant as an unhypothecated Barnett consequential, which meant that it was not ring-fenced for that purpose. As there is no Northern Ireland Assembly at the moment, there is no accountability; there is no way that elected Members and the people of Northern Ireland can push civil servants to spend that money on high streets.
We all know that our retail sector in our towns, villages, and small urban areas in cities are crying out for help; that is common right across this United Kingdom. Those areas are suffering from high business rates; they feel crippled by the bills that they receive. The shopping habits of consumers are changing, so small businesses are struggling. Very often, they are family-owned, and the owner actually works in the business. They need this help, but I met the head of the civil service to urge him to put that money towards retail, and there is no indication that that has happened.
That brings me something that I have spoken about many times since I was elected as a Member of Parliament in 2017, namely that there is no Northern Ireland Assembly to listen to what the economy needs, and to do what it needs to do. That genuinely grieves me. The people of Northern Ireland, including our business people, are deeply frustrated. They want politicians to get back to work, to get back into the Northern Ireland Assembly and to start investing to grow our economy.
That is my challenge here today to Sinn Féin. There is no impediment to all the parties going back into that building tomorrow and sorting out our problems around the table, like adults, in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I speak for very many people across the community when I say, “Just get back to work and do what you need to do, because our economy needs to grow.”