Minister’s statement to the Assembly Ad Hoc Committee

As Economy Minister, my role right now is to try and mitigate the worst impacts on our economy by protecting as many livelihoods as possible. By doing this, I believe, we will safeguard the economic foundations on which our recovery must be built.

This is the reason why we are working hard to distribute over £400m in support packages to businesses right across Northern Ireland.

This is why I am in near-daily contact with Ministers in Westminster, working on behalf of businesses large and small, on behalf of sectors including manufacturing, tourism, construction, aviation and haulage, and on behalf of workers and the self-employed.

The need to prepare the local economy to a return to normality at some point is the driving force behind the work we do to help furloughed or redundant workers retrain or find work in the sectors where they are needed most.

It is my priority to do everything in my power to try and protect jobs, safeguard supply chains and sustain businesses.

We are rolling out grants to some of our most severely affected businesses. As far as I am aware, this is the largest financial package ever made to local businesses.  These schemes which in normal circumstances would take months to put in place, are being delivered in a fraction of that time.

And I do want to go on record to state my appreciation for the hard work of the officials in my Department, as well as in the Department of Finance, in getting to this stage.

The first payments under the Small Business Grant Scheme were made nine days after the original announcement. Since then nearly 15,000 businesses have received £10,000 grants totalling almost £150m.

I know from speaking to owners that these payments are helping businesses to survive, to pay their staff and to plan for the future.

This scheme has now been extended to include small industrial businesses that qualify for industrial de-rating. This expansion will cover around 2,500 additional businesses.

The Executive has agreed a £25,000 grant scheme, which opens on 20th April. It is crucial to our hospitality, tourism, leisure and retail sectors which have been hit particularly badly. Over 4,000 businesses, many of which were among the first to take a hit from this crisis, will benefit.

Businesses will be required to apply for this scheme and I would encourage those who consider themselves eligible to apply as soon as the scheme opens for applications. We aim to make the process as easy as possible and in order to achieve this, Department of Finance officials have advised that the portal will be fully operable by 20th April.

I can assure businesses that as soon as applications have been verified, then the grant will be paid – we will not be waiting until the end of the application process before starting to process payments.  The scheme will run over the next month and will deliver much need funds to ease cash flow problems of some of our hardest hit businesses.

The Executive has committed to providing a three month rates holiday to all businesses from April to June. It is my view that this is the one of the most effective ways to support the sustainability of the wider economy and I believe should be extended further. For many companies, rates are a huge outlay and it would make a positive contribution if the NI Executive was able to match other parts of the United Kingdom in this respect.

The UK-wide job retention scheme - which I lobbied long and hard for - allows businesses to keep people on their payroll by providing up to £2,500 a month for furloughed employees.

Self-employed workers can also receive 80% of their taxable profit over the last three years capped at £2,500 per month. This applies to those with trading profits below £50,000 per year.

These are critical measures which are providing support to tens of thousands of businesses and workers across Northern Ireland.

Our National Government has undertaken a huge amount of public borrowing to support the economy in the short term.

It is important that the support provided both nationally and by the Executive is deployed to limit job losses so that come the recovery, workers can come off furlough and back into the workplace.

In this severest of times when our resilience is being tested, I cannot promise that every business or every job will be saved because this crisis will leave no one unscathed. But I will do all I can to counteract the severest impacts and protect the livelihoods which support families and communities across Northern Ireland.

We will get through this. And when we do, I believe the measures we have put in place will form the foundations on which our businesses can build our economic recovery.

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