Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, meeting on Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Roy Beggs (Deputy Chairperson)
Dr Steve Aiken OBE
Mr Jim Allister KC
Dr Caoimhe Archibald
Ms Clare Bailey
Mrs Rosemary Barton
Mrs Pam Cameron
Mr Gerry Carroll
Mrs Diane Dodds
Mr Gordon Dunne
Mr Alex Easton
Mr Colm Gildernew
Mr Chris Lyttle
Mr Colin McGrath
Mr Maolíosa McHugh
Ms Sinéad McLaughlin
Mr Gary Middleton
Mr Andrew Muir
Mr John O'Dowd
Mr Matthew O'Toole
Mr Pat Sheehan
Mr John Stewart
Mr Mervyn Storey

MInisterial Statement: Economy

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): The Speaker received notification on 10 April that the Minister for the Economy wished to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee at today's meeting. A copy of the statement that the Minister intends to make is included in your tabled pack at page 3. I welcome the Minister to the meeting and invite her to make a statement, which should be heard without interruption. Following the statement, there will be an opportunity for members to ask questions.

Mrs Dodds (The Minister for the Economy): Thank you for the opportunity to bring members up to date on my Department’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The daily death toll from the virus is horrendous. My thoughts, first and foremost, are with grieving families across Northern Ireland, people in hospital or ill at home and the NHS staff who are working to save lives daily.

The biggest health emergency that Northern Ireland has ever faced has also created an unprecedented economic crisis. My role as Economy Minister right now is to try to mitigate the worst impacts on our economy by protecting as many livelihoods as possible. By doing that, I believe, we will safeguard the economic foundations on which recovery must be built. That is why we are working to distribute over £400 million in support packages to businesses across Northern Ireland and 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 for 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. My priority is to do everything in my power to try to protect jobs, safeguard supply chains and sustain businesses. However, let us be in no doubt about the scale of the task. COVID-19 has brought to a halt a significant portion of global economic activity. Exporting and importing have become more difficult, supply chains are significantly disrupted and international travel has all but ceased. A swathe of industries has had to close down to wait out the crisis. Others are dealing with dramatically reduced orders and sales. Our tourism industry collapsed overnight, and businesses are dealing with crippling uncertainty. We will be dealing with the economic aftershocks for a long time to come, and, make no mistake, all sectors of the economy will be affected. Economists in my Department and externally anticipate significant falls in GDP during quarter two of this year, while holding out some hope for a rebound later in the year.

A small number of companies remain open with strict social-distancing measures in place. Others, such as the retail and health sectors, have stepped forward and have even expanded to play a crucial role in supporting the effort to tackle COVID-19. In the darkest of times, I have seen the best of business. Companies have repurposed production lines; workers have volunteered to help whenever they can; staff facing lay-off have asked how they can use their skills to fill gaps created by sickness; and others have offered support in sourcing and importing vital resources. However, I am acutely aware of the hardship facing many business owners and workers. 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 to be made available to local businesses. The schemes, which, in normal circumstances, would take months to put in place, are being delivered in a fraction of that time. I want to go on record and state my appreciation of the work of the officials in my Department as well as 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 the £10,000 grants, totalling around £150 million. I know from speaking to owners that those payments help businesses to survive, pay their staff and plan for the future. The scheme has now been extended to include small industrial businesses that qualify for industrial derating. That expansion will cover around 2,500 additional businesses.

The Executive have also agreed the £25,000 grant scheme, which will open on 20 April. It will be 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 the hit from the crisis, will benefit. Businesses will be required to apply for the scheme, and I encourage those who consider themselves eligible to apply as soon as we open for applications. We aim to make the process as easy as possible, and, to achieve that, Department of Finance officials have advised that the portal will be fully operable by 20 April. I assure businesses that, as soon as applications have been verified, the grant will be paid. We will not wait until the end of the application process before making the payments.

The scheme will run over the next month and will deliver funds to ease the cash-flow problems of some of our hardest-hit businesses.

The Executive have committed to providing a three-month rates holiday to all businesses from April to June. It is my view that that is one of the most effective ways to support the sustainability of the wider economy and I believe that it should be extended further. For many companies, rates are a huge outlay and it would make a positive contribution if the Northern Ireland Executive were 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 a month. That applies to those with trading profits below £50,000. Those are critical measures, which are providing support to tens of thousands of businesses and workers across Northern Ireland. However, I am acutely aware that others across Northern Ireland are facing financial hardship but, as yet, have not been able to access any of the existing national or regional grant schemes. We are currently working out how best to assist them. At the Executive meeting on 10 April, we agreed the need for a further scheme. A budget has been identified and we are examining the ways in which that money can be delivered. We will look to fill the gaps for businesses that are not already receiving funding.

The increases to working tax credit and universal credit by £1,000 a year will help the most vulnerable. The coronavirus business interruption loans scheme is a further tool and should be a crucial step in getting cash flow to firms in this difficult period. Our national Government have undertaken a huge amount of public borrowing to support the economy in the short term. It is important that the support provided 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.

As the impact of the crisis bites deeper, assistance will need to be targeted to those who need it most. The shutdown of many industries in Northern Ireland, the collapse in footfall around our towns and cities and emerging survey evidence all indicate that the reality is that there has been widespread furloughing of workers by many firms. Invest NI client companies have notified it that over 30,000 jobs have been furloughed. Outside of Invest NI’s client base, many more will have been furloughed too. However, it is worth noting that we have seen many examples of large-scale furloughing of workers by firms, but what we are not seeing, as yet, are examples of large-scale redundancies.

In assessing all the available economic indicators and data, my Department’s economists fear that the number of workers in Northern Ireland that will be directly impacted by the shutdown could well go beyond 200,000, with widespread job losses too; potentially as many as 25,000 in the short term. Outside of the labour market, their analysis also suggests that house prices look set to be negatively impacted and trade and investment appear set to stall. However, while that analysis is based on assumptions and indicators which can, and do, change, we can say with certainty that the economic impact is set to be deep and far-reaching, and many across Northern Ireland will need ongoing support. The latest information on every support scheme that is currently available to businesses can be found at the nibusinessinfo website.

There has also been significant pressure on the aviation industry and on haulage and ferry companies, which has led to a dramatic reduction in our air and sea connectivity. That is a very important issue, which I continue to raise with Government Ministers in London. In respect of Northern Ireland’s vital air connectivity with Great Britain, my officials, alongside those in Finance and Infrastructure, are working with the UK Department for Transport to provide support to maintain Northern Ireland air connectivity during the COVID-19 crisis period. Indeed, Ministers Mallon, Murphy and I wrote yesterday to the UK Chancellor in support of the Department for Trade business case, seeking UK Government support to maintain strong air links between here and GB. I am hopeful that that intervention will realise a support package.

Aviation will also have an important role to play in the recovery of our tourism industry. I am conscious that the tourism and hospitality sector was one of the first sectors to experience the impact of COVID-19. I thank those who are on the front line and working in vital industries such as food, manufacturing, telecoms and retail. Our energy supply has remained constant throughout this crisis. Turning on the heat, flicking a light switch and cooking a meal are all made possible by the thousands of energy workers who are making sure that everyone has the energy they require.

I am planning to speak to Mr Kwarteng about how the energy system is coping across the UK, and my Department is maintaining solid communication at all levels with the system locally. Generators, network operators, suppliers and those representing consumer interests have all stepped forward in recent weeks to ensure that people's needs are met. I also take this opportunity to thank them.

The safety of workers must remain an absolute priority. If people can work at home, they should, but for those who cannot, the work environment should be safe and follow the public health guidance. In response to some concerns raised, the stakeholder engagement forum was convened, comprising unions and business groups. It has provided advice on priority business sectors and codes of practice, which I will bring to the Executive on Friday.

We already have examples of successful social distancing at work where production lines have been extended, break times staggered, canteen tables restricted to one per person, and increased cleaning and physical measures, such as Perspex panels to minimise contact, have been introduced. We will make sure that that good work continues, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that we have a safe workforce. Working with industry will save lives.

Our economy is changing very significantly, leading to a change in direction for many businesses. However, we know that improving the digital skills of our workforce will enhance our competitiveness and increase productivity in the long term. I also believe that investing in digital skills provides an opportunity to reinforce our competitive advantage in areas such as cybersecurity, data analytics and robotics. I want to provide individuals, particularly those who are furloughed, with the opportunity to improve their digital skills. To begin the process, we intend to provide a range of online digital courses via our careers portal. Those courses will be free for everyone and provide an opportunity for individuals to use their time at home to prepare for the future.

My Department is also helping people seeking alternative employment. Our careers advisers are supporting people in matching their skills and experiences to opportunities and demand, including full-time, part-time and temporary roles. There is high demand in sectors such as health, retail and agri-food.

Our universities and colleges have been forced to close their doors for face-to-face learning, but they remain active in the fight against COVID-19. Students and staff at our higher and further education institutions have been providing and creating personal protective equipment, joining the research for a vaccine and volunteering and joining the health service workforce.

I am acutely aware that the stopping of face-to-face teaching has had a particular impact on how vocational qualifications will be awarded. I have instructed my officials to work with CCEA and other regulators as a matter of urgency to identify the fairest way of issuing grades.

I am aware that the downturn in the hospitality sector will have had an impact on students who often work in that sector. With that in mind, I have requested an extension to increase student hardship funds as we move into the third semester. I hope that that can be doubled, and I will be discussing that with Executive colleagues. Those students have stepped up and I thank them for that.

In the severest of times when our resilience is being tested, I cannot promise that every job or every business 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 that support families and communities in 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.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): I thank the Minister for her statement. There will now be a period of around an hour for members to ask questions. It is my intention to allow all members to ask a question, but again I will need your cooperation, and those asking questions must be focused and succinct. Members may ask only one question, and it must be related to the statement. The Chair of the Committee for the Economy will be allowed some latitude and allowed to ask an additional question.

Dr Archibald (Committee Chair - Committee for the Economy): I thank the Minister for her statement. As she outlined, the economic impact and the impact on local businesses is severe and that is beginning to be shown through business surveys. In particular, cash flow is an issue. Minister, you addressed that somewhat in your statement, but the announcement over the weekend about the £25,000 grant and the potential for it to take three weeks to administer caused anxiety and distress to many in those sectors. I wrote to you about this over the weekend, I spoke to you about it this morning and you addressed it somewhat in your statement when you said:

"as soon as applications have been verified the grant will be paid."

Will you expand a little bit on how we can ensure that this money will get to businesses as quickly as possible? I very much welcome the news about the student hardship support. The Minister will know that that is something I have pushed for, and it is very welcome. I also ask that you look at how we support students who do not go to university in the North.

Finally, my second question is about those not covered by the current schemes. For example, our very innovative and vibrant social enterprise sector, where we have a number of businesses doing really important work, and also the charitable sector and sole traders. Will you outline what is being planned to support people working in those sectors?

Mrs Dodds: I thank you as Chair of the Committee for the continuous cooperation and work that we do together on the very important issues that impact on all of our lives.

The £25,000 grants are now going to be available to those in retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure; that is an important expansion of where the grant is now going from what was originally intended. Quite a bit of work has been done to try to get additional companies included from those sectors.

As you are aware, there are £10,000 grants for small businesses that qualify for small business rates relief. There is already a process for small manufacturing companies who qualify for the grant already and they are easily identifiable in the system. We have been able to work very well with Finance to make sure that those companies are identified quite quickly. We have been able to pay out those grants very quickly.

The £25,000 grant is slightly different in that we had to create a process, and it took some time to look at all of the databases. I had originally hoped that this grant would be live today, but that has been delayed for just a few days until 20 April because the Department of Finance need to make sure that the web portal is fully functioning and will provide those applying for the grant with a fairly seamless application process. Therefore, at the request of the Department of Finance, we have delayed its introduction just for a few days.

However, I talked to the Department and the Minister today, and we agreed that, if we can bring it forward, even by a day, we will do that, in order to get it out as quickly as possible. It is not in anyone's interests to delay it, in any shape or form.

There will be an online application process. It is a very simple process, but it gives comfort and financial comfort around the process. As soon as we are able to verify the application, we will pay it in exactly the same way that we paid the smaller £10K grants; so, as quickly as possible.

I acknowledge the work put in by my officials and Department of Finance officials in creating a scheme and a payment system in a very short time.

I say, for the benefit of members, that, every week, the Chair of the Committee and I have a bit of a catch-up on all the issues that rumble around the Committee. I undertook to look at students who do not go to university in Northern Ireland but are subject to universities, maybe in England, Scotland or Wales, that are continuing to ask them to pay for accommodation in the third term when they are not there. I will undertake to look at that. I suspect that it is up to each university and the particular hardship schemes that it introduced, but I will look at that.

For our part in Northern Ireland, we will continue, for students, to pay grants or loans into the third term. In order to try to address the issue of hardship, we have also asked the Executive for support to increase the amount of money that is available to each university in its student hardship fund. Each university has a separate student hardship fund, which is directed at those who are in financial difficulties, particularly those with disabilities, lone parents and those who find it more difficult within the system. I would really like to get the Executive's support to double that, so that we would have a substantial amount in that fund, in each university. I do not want to create a new process. I have tried to stick with the process that is there and not to reinvent the wheel in a difficult situation.

We are looking at how we can offer help to businesses that have not yet been identified, including those in the social enterprise sector. I hope to be in a position to make a further announcement on grants reasonably soon.

For those in the charitable sector, the Finance Minister updated us today that, as a Barnett consequential of the money that was announced for the charities sector, additional money will come to Northern Ireland for Northern Ireland charities and, as far as I am aware — not to steal anyone's thunder — for charities like the hospice and so on, which really are valuable and have seen a huge decline in the money that people are able to raise for those good causes.

All of those are in the system and will be working their way through.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, on Friday, I took part in a q-and-a MLA session via video link with the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce and a number of its members. One of the key issues that came out of that was around the essential and non-essential workers, and I appreciate the fact that an engagement forum has been set up to look at that. Can the Minister give clarity as to when that would be available? Given the fact that there is now an extension of three weeks to the current restrictions measures, it is important that we have that clarity for businesses.

Mrs Dodds: Yes, thank you. I think that that is essential and clear, and I am glad that you are conducting all your business online too. It seems quite strange that we are conducting conversations with Ministers, across the United Kingdom, with Zoom at every opportunity.

First, I will take the opportunity in the House to congratulate those who have spent their time in the engagement forum; the trade unions and the businesses that have come together to do important work. A paper will go to the Executive on Friday, and that will update them and ask them to make decisions on the work of the engagement forum. I can tell the Committee that the engagement forum has produced two pieces of work. One is a code of practice agreed between unions and businesses around safe working practices, and this is really a very valuable tool for us going forward. One of the things that I talk about often in Executive meetings and with officials is the path back to recovery and the gentle steps that we will have to take to ease ourselves back into recovery and into full work mode. I believe that social distancing will be with us for a considerable period of time, and that continuing engagement of the forum, along with the Health and Safety Executive, the Public Health Agency and so on, on that piece of work will be a very valuable contribution to that.

The forum has also produced a further piece of work around essential and non-essential workers. I will present that to the Executive and take their view on it, and I am sure that that will be published reasonably soon thereafter.

Ms McLaughlin: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. It is very welcome. All the schemes that you have outlined have been welcomed by the business community. I suppose that the biggest complaint that we are getting is to get that cash as quickly as possible into business accounts, and that is where the difficulty lies. Scotland is already administering the £25,000 scheme, and we have not got to that part yet. Cash is key for those businesses. A lot of businesses felt that they have been vilified —

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): Can we have a question?

Ms McLaughlin: — because they were operating and working, and I think that it is great to hear the Minister welcoming those businesses that have repurposed. It is important to say that.

I would like a bit more clarity on the self-employment support coming forward. Can that be speeded up? We have a lot of small entrepreneurs who are not going to get any cash until maybe later on in June. Can she give us a bit more detail on that scheme?

Mrs Dodds: Thank you to the member for the question and for the comments around the businesses. I am acutely aware of the need for cash flow, and I am acutely aware that many businesses face dire circumstances. People who have spent their lifetime building a business are in significant difficulty through absolutely no fault of their own. That is important, and we will endeavour to get the £25,000 scheme as quickly as is possible out into the community and into the business community.

On cash flow, one of the things that we have been able to do with our Government in London is to keep a constant flow of contact through various groups. I dial in every week, and tomorrow I will be dialling in to the economic response group, which is chaired by the Chancellor. So, we have a very good and open channel of communication to bring these issues forward. Of course, both the job retention scheme and the scheme for the self-employed are matters for national government and for Her Majesty's Treasury. I will, again, bring some of these issues forward, and I have written to the Chancellor about these.

There are two things that I think are absolutely massive and pertinent to your question. The first is the issue of getting money from the job retention scheme for furloughed workers to companies as quickly as possible. We were told by the Chancellor on our last call that this scheme and this web portal would open on 20 April, with payment to be made thereafter. Almost without exception, many of the people on the call made the point that money needed to flow fairly quickly for those furloughed workers because that is what businesses were depending on to run their April payroll. That point has already been made.

Two things come up, over and over again, from those who are self-employed. One is the length of time that it is taking for the implementation of the scheme. To that, the Chancellor, invariably, will reply that we are doing huge schemes on an unimaginable scale in a very, very short time — and I am quoting him, not advocating for him. That does not help the self-employed people who have lost their business outlets, again, through no fault of their own. The timescale is, therefore, important.

The other issue that comes up over and over again relates to those people who became self-employed in the previous tax year. It is worth noting that I have made representation for those people, because they have not had time to file a tax return; they cannot fill the qualifying of the three-year averaging that the scheme asks for. We have made representation on behalf of those people. I think of some of the people who have written to me. There are heartbreaking stories. People have signed up for the leasing of equipment, and so on, and invested their life savings in a new self-employed venture and been met with this. Their help, at the moment, is universal credit. That is deeply damaging to the economy, to entrepreneurs and to what we want to encourage for all our businesses.

Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for her statement. As usual, it raises more questions than answers. Sadly, I am allowed only one question today. As the Minister will probably know, I have asked a number of questions in recent weeks by letter. I would appreciate it if you came back to me on those issues, Minister.

As you said, the Government interventions, to date, have been substantial, to say the least, but 50% of companies in Northern Ireland are entitled to nothing, and, of those companies that are entitled to a grant, less than half has already got it. It is important that we get that out there as quickly as possible. Cash is king, and there are businesses that I am talking to every day that have only days or weeks to go. We need to do more. We need to get more money to those companies. Will you give an undertaking to look at a bespoke version of the Welsh economic resilience model, which they launched at the end of March? Some £500 million has been put into that fund, and companies can access grants of up to £100,000. We are staring into an economic abyss, Minister. It is a health crisis now, but it is going to become the biggest economic crisis in history, and we need to do whatever we can.

Mrs Dodds: I thank the member for his question. It is a very important issue — one on which I have been working. We have been concentrating on getting the grant packages out, helping companies with some of the difficulties they are having via the loan scheme, which, again, can be considerable, and in addressing issues relating to the self-employed and job retention scheme. However, we will be turning our minds to the recovery. The Welsh resilience fund provides one model of how we can do that. Invest NI has been asked to look at the schemes and measures that we will need to help the Northern Ireland economy in its recovery. I will be going to the Northern Ireland Executive and asking for considerable investment in Northern Ireland businesses and the Northern Ireland economy in order to help them to recover, not just to mitigate where we are now. I will be asking for investment in packages that will be important around the recovery of the economy. We are doing work on that. Significant work is being done in the Department with our economists and some health economists. I am acutely aware that we will need to maintain some of the practices that we have currently in the workplace, but I am also aware that economic recession has its own health impacts and we want to address those in a holistic manner. We will be looking for a package for the Northern Ireland economy. We will be looking at something along the lines of the Welsh resilience fund, for instance, but we will not be looking at just its mitigation measures; we will be looking at something to take us a step further.

Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for her statement and for all the work that is being done to date by officials, not only in her Department, but also in the Department of Finance. It is greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, my clear view is that the speed of delivery of the grants is not acceptable. Significant numbers have still not received the £10K grant; a significant survey about that came out from the local chambers today. People are having to resort to the benefits system to survive because of those.

The delays around the £25K grants are just not acceptable. The timescales that were announced on Friday night left business owners in tears. What is the Minister planning to do to ensure that the timescales for the delivery of assistance is accelerated? Scotland announced a similar scheme of around £25K on exactly the same day that the Minister did — the money was paid out on 6 April. Why is Northern Ireland again behind the curve in relation to assisting businesses?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the member for his questions. Let me first address the £10K grant scheme. You indicated that many thousands of businesses have still not been paid those grants. At the start of this scheme we indicated that there were a number of businesses that we could pay directly because Land and Property Services (LPS) already held bank account details for them, and those businesses have been paid. We opened the web portal for the remaining businesses, and those that applied via it have been paid. We have around 17,000 applications for grants, over 15,000 of which have already been paid. Some others are awaiting verification, some had an incorrect ratepayer ID number, some just had mistakes in the application process, and we are working through those.

One of the things that I plan to do over the next week or so is to try to have some further public announcements about the £10K grants scheme. At the start, we saw an initial rush of businesses applying to the scheme, but that has seen a tailing off over the last number of days. We want to remind businesses that, if they are eligible, if they receive small business rates relief or if they receive industrial derating, they can apply for the £10K grants scheme, but they need to do so through the portal. We have paid everyone for whom we hold details. We need to harness your energies, help and support in advising businesses in your local area that if they have not applied to the £10K grants scheme they should please do so if they fall into one of the particular categories. There are not tens of thousands of applications outstanding. There is potential for many more to come in, but we need businesses to actually apply and give us their details: we will respond to that.

On the £25K scheme, I have already explained that it is a new scheme. We prioritised the £10K scheme because it obviously reaches many, many more businesses. The £25K scheme is now there. It is unfortunate that the portal is just not at a stage that it can go live at the moment but, as I said, I spoke today to the Finance Minister at the Executive and we agreed that we would look at that again and see if there was a way that we could do it. The application system is not long or complicated but it does require verification, as you would expect, and as soon as we can verify applications, those businesses will be paid.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): Members and Ministers, we have been averaging five minutes for a question and answer, and if that continues only 12 of the 21 members who wish to ask a question will be afforded that opportunity. I ask everyone to be much more focused and succinct in their questions and answers.

Mr Dunne: I, too, thank the Minister for her statement. We all recognise the effort that she and her staff in the Department for the Economy have put in, alongside the work of the Finance Department. It is important that we, as elected representatives, continue to lobby and work to ensure that we do all that we can to support our local businesses at this very important time.

Again, I urge prompt action on the £25K grant.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): Can we have a question?

Mr Dunne: Yes, indeed, Deputy Speaker; I will get there. I emphasise the need for prompt action. Perhaps the Minister could comment on the point, as we have noticed, that leisure is now included. I assume that that would include golf clubs and, perhaps, football clubs. Can we have some clarification on the point that was made earlier that a number of businesses have fallen through the cracks and are not in any particular scheme? I have had an example of that in my constituency today of a small manufacturing business, which was delighted to hear about the change in industrial derating but, because it is over £15K NAV, it is not eligible. We need to look at trying to broaden out the whole scheme to include vital businesses such as that one.

Mrs Dodds: I thank the member for his question. We will be looking at those businesses that have not been identified by any of the schemes that are so far available. In his paper last Friday, the Finance Minister indicated that a further £40 million has been set aside to look at more schemes for those businesses. We fully intend to use that money to support businesses through a very difficult period.

It was decided that we would include leisure in the £25K grant scheme because it is a mirror of the scheme that operates in the rest of the United Kingdom, of which leisure is a part. It will be open to any leisure business that can show that it has suffered hardship because of the COVID-19 emergency that we are experiencing.

Mr Sheehan: I thank the Minister for her statement. I am sure that she, like many other MLAs, has been contacted by companies that service gas boilers and who are concerned about having to carry out their work in the context of the social distancing guidance. Difficulties have been highlighted around accessing premises where individuals are ill or are social isolating. There are some people who are reluctant to allow engineers to come into their premises. That is a particular issue in the rented and social housing sectors, where the landlord has a statutory obligation to carry out annual servicing. I know that the Health and Safety Executive guidance states that —

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): Can we have a question?

Mr Sheehan: — those services can continue. Will the Minister consider a temporary, short-term suspension of the annual checks and a relaxation of the obligation on landlords that would alleviate some of those problems?

Mrs Dodds: I thank the member for his question. I have taken specific advice on that issue from the Health and Safety Executive, which has advised that gas boilers need regular servicing and that there is an obligation to ensure that those boilers are serviced. I understand the issues around social distancing and people's reticence to allow others into their home. However, I am absolutely clear that we must put the safety of people first, whether they are in the private or public rented sector. Indeed, I advise private individuals that if they have a gas boiler, then the servicing of that boiler is an absolute must. Personally, I could not live with myself if something happened to somebody because of an accident from a gas boiler that had not been serviced. We have given contractors some latitude around the timing issue.

Mr Storey: The Minister has expanded various grant schemes and I thank her for that. Unlike some other members, we appreciate all that has and is being done by her staff. However, will one- or two-person businesses — I am thinking, for example, of a coach company in my constituency that has fallen below the £25,000 and the £10,000 grant limit — be eligible for the expansion that she has referred to?

Mrs Dodds: Thank you for the question. I cannot give a guarantee on a specific example, but the intention is to look at businesses that have, at this minute in time, no route to specific help. I have been contacted by coach operators; maybe someone who has a couple of coaches who operates those for the tourism industry who has leasing requirements on those vehicles and overheads to pay, yet tourism has all but stopped. I understand the issue, and I hope to address some of those issues in the new scheme that we will bring forward.

I am also thinking of small businesses that perhaps are in an enterprise park where the park pays the rates and the small businesses are not easily identifiable in that park. Those are businesses that are operating and we would like to see help extended to them as well, and the same with the social economy sector. We will be doing some work with Finance to try to help with that sector. So, there are still a number of issues that have to be addressed, and we are committed to doing that in a future scheme.

Mr Gildernew: I thank the Minister for her statement and answers to questions here today. You will be aware that, under the job retention scheme, furloughed workers will be adversely affected when seeking maternity entitlements. In the first 39 weeks of maternity leave, mothers are entitled to statutory maternity payments, which equate to 90% of their average gross weekly earnings. However, instead of being entitled to 90% of their usual earnings, furloughed workers will instead be entitled to 90% of their furloughed earnings, which are only 80% of their regular wage. That discrepancy will skew the calculations of the average gross weekly earnings and place them at a financial disadvantage. Will the Minister seek to address that issue with the British Treasury?

Mrs Dodds: Thank you for the question. Your colleague has already written to me about that particular issue, and I have already taken it forward. I recognise that there is that kind of anomaly; when a scheme is brought forward in haste, there will always be people that it does not quite fit with. So, yes, is the answer.

Mr O'Toole: I thank the Minister for coming and giving us an update. Like other members, I thank her officials and those in the Department of Finance, who, I know, as a former civil servant, are working very hard on this stuff. It is difficult. This stuff takes time.

She referred to the devastating scale of the economic shock that Northern Ireland and, indeed, the entire world faces. New survey data out today from the various chambers — Belfast, Derry and Newry chambers — indicates that nearly half of businesses are not trading at all at the minute. In light of that, and in light of the depth of the economic shock, does she agree with me that the UK Government's current position that they will not seek an extension to the Brexit transition — and I hate to even mention Brexit in the current circumstances — is absurd, if it was not immoral, given how much they risk vital supply chains of food and medicine at the end of this year?

At the end of last week, I wrote to the Executive asking the First Minister and deputy First Ministers to make representations on behalf of all the Northern Ireland institutions, which are the only devolved institutions specifically mentioned in the withdrawal treaty, which she will well know, given her past as an MEP. Will she agree with me that it is squalid and immoral that the UK Government will not ask for an extension in the current circumstances? Will she agree with me that the last thing that Northern Ireland business needs is the jeopardisation of supply chains by —

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): The member has asked the question.

Mr O'Toole: — the UK leaving without a trade deal at the end of this year. Will she agree with me —

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): The member has asked the question.

Mr O'Toole: — that the Northern Ireland Executive should write to the UK Government and make those representations urgently?

Mrs Dodds: It is always nice to get back to the subjects that we know. Back to Brexit. [Inaudible.]

Mrs Dodds: Thank you for the question. I will address it in two parts. You are right that there is a huge shock to the economy, not just the economy here in Northern Ireland, but the world economy and the UK economy.

I read a report this morning that indicated that, across the United Kingdom, up to two million people could find themselves unemployed following this. Those are very sobering and difficult statistics, and remember: for every one of those people there is a family, and that is a person. Those are very difficult issues. There are huge issues to be dealt with in the economy about how we actually proceed gently out of the phase we are in, bearing in mind that we need to keep people safe and keep lives safe. Yes, I agree with you on that.

On Brexit, it will, of course, be up to the United Kingdom Government to decide whether to seek an extension. There are a number of views about seeking an extension. Some people believe that to seek an extension would merely be to prolong the agony and that we could get this done within the required time. Others believe that to seek an extension would mean that we simply further prop up the European Union, which will be under significant stress because of the downturn in the world economy. Those are issues that we will, of course, discuss with the Government in due course, but, for now, our focus pretty much at every meeting that we are involved with is on the immediate impact of COVID and the economic situation we are in.

Dr Aiken: Thank you, Minister, for your remarks. I was particularly struck by one of the things you said when you were making your statement. When you were talking about rates, you said that an extension of the rates holiday:

"would make a positive contribution if the NI Executive was able to match other parts of the United Kingdom".

Are the Northern Ireland Executive exploring extending the rates holiday from three months to six months and beyond? That is particularly important to critical areas of our economy.

Mrs Dodds: It is critical, and we currently have grant schemes that help businesses with rateable values under £15,000. We have grant schemes that help businesses in certain sectors with rateable values up to £51,000, but, actually, for many of our businesses, the most significant help that we can give them is additional help with their rates bill. Businesses have written to me about that, and I believe that it would be a very significant contribution to businesses, going forward. I believe that we should extend the rate scheme to match other parts of the United Kingdom. As you are well aware, it differs in some parts of the United Kingdom, but we should try to stretch ourselves to extend that because that is where we will give real help particularly in our tourism and hotel sector and to some of our retailers who have been very badly hit by the situation that we are in. Therefore, I am in full agreement with you. I have brought the issue up at the Executive and will continue to push it.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for her statement. On the back of the previous question, we understand, fully appreciate and completely support social-distancing measures, but can the Minister comment on the harm to the economy from the current social-distancing rules? I think in particular about very personal roles such as hairdressers, beauty therapists and even dentists, and I declare an interest as someone who is rapidly growing much long grey hair. [Laughter.]

On a serious point, Minister, these are peoples' livelihoods, and they are desperately affected by the rules. Do you have a comment to make on that?

Mrs Dodds: I, too, declare an interest: COVID hairstyles are not the best that we have had.

I absolutely agree with you. Those sectors of our economy have simply had to close, and some of them will find it very difficult to open again. We really need to work with them into the future to try to ensure that they have the support they need. I am aware that some of our local businesses will be able to avail themselves of the furlough scheme and so on, but it is important that we recognise their contribution to the economy. Helping them further via rates is one of the issues that will be most significant to them, because rates are such a huge part of the bills and are ongoing. Those are the standing bills that they have to pay and that they have to meet all the time. I have made those points to the Executive.

Mr O'Dowd: Minister, thank you for your statement. My advice is to go grey gracefully. [Laughter.]

I welcome the fact that the Executive have set aside £40 million for businesses that fall between the stools. On my way here, I was notified about a business that employs 11 workers in a rural community that may fall between the stools. There is hope there yet.

I specifically want to ask about the insurance business. I know that it is not a devolved matter, but I think that the Minister can have some influence. Insurance companies are refusing to pay out on the pandemic issue, even though businesses have paid huge premiums over many years in good faith. Will the Minister engage with the Treasury and others and the financial regulators for the insurance industry to ensure that the insurance industry pays out to businesses that have been paying their premium?

Mrs Dodds: "Yes" is the short answer to that. I, too, know of businesses in my area, in Upper Bann and further across Northern Ireland that have paid for cover for these exact reasons and, because COVID-19 is not named in the policy, have been told that they cannot claim in the current pandemic. A bit of a mixed message has come from the Government in the past — "They will pay out, because I say that they will pay out" — but, of course, the insurance industry does not operate like that. I will, of course, continue to make representation on behalf of those businesses. That cover is significant. It is quite an outlay for businesses to have it, and some of them thought that, in covering themselves in that way, life would be a little easier and are very disappointed to find that they are not included.

Mr Lyttle: In response to a previous question about the extreme cash flow problems facing businesses that are ineligible for existing grant schemes, the Minister advised that Invest NI was scoping a recovery package. This is not an issue of recovery; it is an issue of survival. Given that cash flow is such a serious problem for such businesses, when will the Minister follow the lead of Scotland and Wales and deliver the hardship cash funding to ensure that businesses survive?

Mrs Dodds: There are two elements to the work that we would have to do. One is the mitigation elements, and we have outlined the work that has been done so far. Those are really important. They are really important for the survival of businesses and how they will be able to pick up again. There is also the issue for us that we would be doing wrong if we were not looking at and planning for recovery and the future. That is also an important part of our work. We discussed it at the Executive today, and I will discuss with them again on Monday some of the actions that need to be taken and some of the issues that will need to be dealt with. It is always good to have those people to advise and support policy decisions of government going forward.

Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for her statement. As the Minister is aware, the impact on our air connectivity has been substantial. Does she have plans to help with that for the foreseeable future, when we maybe get back into the way of things?

Mrs Dodds: That is a really valuable and important piece of the work that we have been doing over the last number of weeks. Our air connectivity in Northern Ireland is at an absolutely critical stage. There are no flights, bar freight flights, out of Belfast International Airport. City of Derry Airport is down to one flight a day, which is the public-supported flight. Just last week, BA announced that it was discontinuing the London Heathrow route temporarily and that the only flight would be one return flight a day via Aer Lingus. Northern Ireland's air connectivity to the rest of the United Kingdom is absolutely at a critical stage, and we all, as Members of the House, need to be aware and cognisant of that.

I have been working with the Department for Transport in London, as have Nichola Mallon and, in Finance, Conor Murphy, trying to bring forward help and support for those airports, particularly for the routes that keep us connected to the rest of the United Kingdom. We want to ensure that, when we are able to pick up with the economy, when air travel resumes, we have airports that are in a position to service that demand in the economy and that we have the routes there to do so. I speak on a regular basis, probably weekly, with every one of the airports, and my officials are in constant contact on the issue. I hope and think that it will have positive results, but it will be for both the Department for Transport and the local Executive to ensure that our air connectivity to our biggest market is maintained and that our airports are resilient going into the future.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): I call Maolíosa McHugh.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. You got it right this time.

Minister, thank you for your statement. The grant schemes that have been announced so far are welcome, but they have been directed towards businesses with premises. A self-employed scheme for those who are eligible will not be available until June, so what supports are being looked at for sole traders or businesses without premises in the interim?

Mrs Dodds: I hope that that support will be resolved through the additional scheme that will be announced shortly.

Mr McGrath: Thank you, Minister, for your statement today. I echo the remarks made earlier about golf clubs. A number have contacted me, and they feel that they fall between a number of the stools. Maybe the inclusion of leisure could help them, because they also see themselves very much as tourist providers. The ones in my constituency such as Ardglass Golf Club and Royal County Down, are certainly visited by many people from outside Ireland. There are tourism businesses that do not hold rateable value, such as the Saint Patrick Centre, and there are others. Could they be considered in your deliberations about some of the businesses that might have fallen between the cracks?

Mrs Dodds: "Yes" is, again, the short answer to that one. There is such a myriad of business models and ways in which those business present themselves and interact with government and agencies in the ability to identify them. Hopefully, a scheme that is not too prescriptive but allows different businesses to apply will help in identifying businesses that, so far, have not been easily identifiable through the existing channels that we have.

Mrs Barton: Minister, thank you for your statement. My question is in regard to the small business grant. Can you confirm whether a business that pays rates on a number of properties will be entitled to an equal number of grants? I think of a business that is run under one title but has properties, perhaps, in Enniskillen, Omagh, Banbridge etc.

Mrs Dodds: The issue is brought up to me regularly. The Executive decided that the small business grant scheme and the £25,000 grant scheme would be one grant per business, irrespective of the number of outlets that that business had.

That is where it is at the moment. However, I recognise the difficulties that that presents. When we see how the scheme works out, I would like to try some sort of mop-up exercise for some of the more difficult issues within the scheme and see how they can be addressed. At the moment, the guidance is clear: it is one grant per business, irrespective of the outlets that those businesses have.

Ms Bailey: I thank the Minister for her statement, and for her reminder that this is the biggest health emergency ever faced. She is absolutely right that the daily death toll from the virus is horrendous. The numbers will continue to rise for some time.

The Minister said that a small number of companies remained open, with strict social distancing measures in place, and that she will do everything in her power to ensure that we have a safe workplace and workforce. What can the Minister do for the numerous workers, particularly from retail and the postal sector, who are given no option but to continue working? They are contacting me, in serious distress, and telling me stories about what is going on behind the scenes — in the warehouses and freezers — where we do not see on the shop floor. They are being told to share uniforms, jackets and gloves. Some postal workers are saying that they are busier than they are at Christmas. Their distribution centres are taking the overflow from Amazon, which is on a bumper bonanza, dealing with the consumerism that is going on. One postal worker asked me, "Why am I delivering new clothes to people who have got nowhere to go to wear them?"

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): The member has asked her question.

Ms Bailey: They still feel that social distancing and adequate sanitation for handwashing etc are not in place. What does the Minister have within her power to help reassure those people and make sure that they have safety?

Mrs Dodds: The member is quite right. I have said over and over again — I make no apology for saying it — that the workplace should be safe. In previous weeks, I have worked with a number of firms to resolve some of their well-known issues, as have the Health and Safety Executive and the Public Health Agency. In fairness to firms and many of our food firms, they have stepped up to the plate and spent significant amounts of money on trying to ensure that they have appropriate and safe working conditions for the people who work there. That includes looking at choke points such as the clock-in areas, the canteens, the changing areas etc.

Many firms are doing good things, particularly some of the agri-food firms that I have worked with over the past number of weeks in helping them achieve the standards that they have now, and they should be commended for that. However, we are not complacent. The message still is that you must provide a safe workplace. If you are not providing a safe workplace, the people within that workplace should take up their complaint with the Health and Safety Executive, which will investigate but also work with the workplace and business to try to ensure that the workplace is safe. They will work together to make sure that there are proper and appropriate measures in place.

I do not know the complaints — they have not come to me — but I suspect that no one should be asking people to share uniforms in this day. That should not be happening. If there are complaints, I encourage you to contact the Health and Safety Executive and make sure that those complaints are investigated. The message from me as Minister is clear: the workplace must be safe.

Mr Allister: A few weeks ago, when the Executive were publicly rowing about whether businesses should be open or closed, your response, Minister, was to announce a stakeholders' forum, which was going to bring forward the answer. Three weeks later, we still have not got the answer. Is there yet an agreed Executive position on whether a business, which can practice safe distancing, can and should be open? I ask that because, at the end of all this, we still have to have an economy. Can we, please, have direction that allows such businesses to open, conscience-free, instead of some Ministers pretending that they are inhibiting public health?

Mrs Dodds: I have already addressed the member's question but perhaps he was not in the Chamber at the time. I asked the forum to come together. It is a forum of unions and significant business representative bodies. They have worked very well on the issue and have produced guidance on workplace practices, which I will take to the Executive on Friday. They have also produced a list of essential workers. It will be for the Executive to decide how they take that forward, but we will have that discussion on Friday. I do not want to pre-empt that, but the member knows very, very clearly that I want this economy to thrive and to do well, but I want people to be safe and for their health to be looked after as well. We have to find the balance between the two, and those are the difficult choices and decisions that have to be made at the moment. Yes, there is a substantial piece of work from the forum. I thank them for that and that will be considered by the Executive on Friday.

Mr Carroll: The Minister stated that 25,000 jobs could be lost in the short term. One estimate says that there could be 100,000 job losses here in total. Does the Minister accept that the current economic strategy of over-reliance on the market, has not always worked, with getting PPE and testing being the two main issues? Does she believe that, on the other side of this crisis, we need to have a different economic approach that is not focused solely on the interests of the market or maximising private profits but on meeting human needs for food, housing and other issues. Finally, what role, if any, has her Department played to coordinate, direct and, if necessary, implore industry and businesses to do all that they can to tackle this crisis?

Mrs Dodds: I will take the last part first. I am very proud of the businesses in Northern Ireland. Many of them, such as O'Neill's, faced closure, but they repurposed and they are producing scrubs for the NHS. They are doing work that is crucial and vital to the fight against COVID-19. There are other businesses, and I think of a blinds company in Northern Ireland that is producing visors for people who work with COVID-positive patients. Companies in Northern Ireland have been doing an enormous amount of innovative work, repurposing and thinking how they can help in a very difficult crisis for them. I pay tribute to each and every one of them, including food companies and supermarkets, whose workers go out day after day to meet the public and do their job. It is very important that members make that tribute to them.

On whether I believe that there has been an over-reliance on the market, I suspect very strongly that the member and I will not agree on economic strategy, but I congratulate him on getting that into his question on this occasion. I think that the impact on jobs will be very severe and very great. That is why I am keen to try to get measures in place that will help us with economic recovery. It is why I am keen to talk to businesses about their needs and to work with Executive colleagues to have a package that will help us to recover and keep our businesses resilient in the face of a very grave crisis.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): That concludes questions on the Minister's statement. Item 4 on the agenda is the time, date and place of our next meeting. We have received confirmation from the Infrastructure Minister that she wishes to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee at a meeting to be held tomorrow afternoon, Thursday 16 April. We have also received confirmation from the Education Minister that he wishes to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee at the meeting to be held tomorrow afternoon. Formal notification has been sent by the Speaker's Office to members. That concludes this meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee. The meeting is adjourned, and I invite members to leave by the nearest door.

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