Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, meeting on Thursday, 11 June 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
Mr Cathal Boylan
Mr Gerry Carroll
Mr Pat Catney
Mrs Diane Dodds
Mr Gordon Dunne
Mrs Sinéad Ennis
Mr Harry Harvey
Mr David Hilditch
Mr Chris Lyttle
Mr Declan McAleer
Mr Daniel McCrossan
Mr Colin McGrath
Mr Philip McGuigan
Ms Sinéad McLaughlin
Mr Justin McNulty
Mr Gary Middleton
Mr Andrew Muir
Mr Mike Nesbitt
Mr Matthew O'Toole
Mr John Stewart
Ms Claire Sugden
Miss Rachel Woods
Ministerial Statement: Economy
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): Welcome to this meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response. Item 1 on the agenda is the minutes of proceedings of the previous meeting, which was held on 21 May. Members are asked to note those minutes, which have been agreed. The minutes from that meeting have been published in the Official Report and are available on the Committee's web page.
Agenda item 2 is a statement from the Minister for the Economy. The Speaker received notification on 9 June that the Minister 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 in your pack.
I welcome the Minister for the Economy to this meeting of the Committee. Before the Minister makes her statement, I remind members that, following it, there will be an opportunity to ask questions, not to make speeches. Members who ask short, sharp, focused questions will be invited to ask a supplementary question if they wish. Members who engage in preambles, however, may find that they do not get to put a question or a supplementary. I ask members for their cooperation, and I will, of course, expect the Minister to also give succinct answers so that everyone will be afforded an opportunity to ask questions.
I invite the Minister to make her statement, which should be heard without interruption.
Mrs Dodds (The Minister for the Economy): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Thank you for the opportunity, once again, to address the Committee.
No one needs to be reminded of the devastation that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused to our economy. Only this morning we have had very regrettable news of 600 redundancies at Bombardier. My thoughts are with the people who are directly affected and their families. As members will appreciate, that was a commercial decision reflecting the global market conditions as a direct result of COVID-19. My Department's careers service is available to support those who are impacted by offering free professional and impartial careers information. That advice and guidance are tailored to individual needs and are designed to help people to explore future training and employment opportunities.
I and my officials in the Department and in Invest NI have been in constant contact over the past few months with firms such as Thompson Aero Seating and Bombardier. I have raised my concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on the aerospace sector with Minister Zahawi in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in London over the past number of weeks, and I expressed the urgent need for a national strategy to support the sector.
Locally, I have asked Invest NI to convene a group of parties involved in the wider aerospace sector to consider what additional support they require and what the Governments at national and devolved level can do to help them through this very turbulent period. I fear that this will not be the last day that we have bad news on the economy.
Thousands of businesses have temporarily shut their doors, our tourism industry was put into deep freeze and it is estimated that the jobs of over 200,000 people in Northern Ireland have been furloughed as a result of COVID-19. That represents nearly a quarter of workers here having been furloughed and almost three quarters of the self-employed having to avail themselves of the support scheme that is open to them.
From these most difficult of circumstances, Northern Ireland has responded and adapted. Essential businesses modified their premises and introduced strict hygiene practices to enable us to continue buying vital items like food and other supplies. Front-line workers played a very important role.
We have adopted social-distancing rules and limited our contact with others; college and university students have moved to online learning; and many people have been working from home. Everyone has sacrificed a lot and given a lot of themselves to enable us to live alongside the virus while it is here. I thank everyone for everything that they have done.
Government has also stepped up. So far, we have paid out £300 million in support grants to thousands of businesses. Those grants have protected jobs, prevented business closures and provided vital temporary support. A rates holiday was agreed, and extended, to help businesses survive into the future, and the UK Government’s job retention scheme took the unprecedented step of paying 80% of people’s salaries, up to £2,500 a month.
All of the hard work of the past few months means that we have reached the point at which we can focus on the recovery phase and rebuilding of the Northern Ireland economy. We need to take action to rebuild a more competitive, inclusive and greener economy. We will have the safety of people at the heart of everything that we do. The hard days are not over, but we are taking steps forward. It is time for the pace to accelerate.
At the end of May, I published ‘Charting a Course for the Economy — Our First Steps’ an outline for economic recovery. It is the first in a series of publications by my Department that look at how to move forward from the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Other important issues, including childcare, public transport and the management of the footfall on city centre streets, need to be considered alongside our work.
We are working to extend confidence in the construction and manufacturing sectors as they continue to move out of lockdown while staying safe and working safely. Many firms have adapted their working practices and protocols, or are preparing to do so, particularly in the wider manufacturing and food production sectors. All employers need to ensure that their workplaces are safe. That may include the increased cleaning of premises, the addition of Perspex walkways, the splitting of work patterns or having appropriate PPE.
The engagement forum has published workplace safety guidance for employers, employees and the self-employed. The tourism recovery steering group, which I chair, has been engaging with stakeholders to plan for a new future for tourism here. We received a boost, last week, when it was agreed that hotels, caravan sites, guest houses and B&Bs could reopen on 20 July. That is conditional on the transmission rate remaining low. Tourism will not be the same as before, but I am optimistic about what is to come.
I was pleased to be at Debenhams, this week, for the reopening of its store, and I was delighted that I was able to make an internet star of Shirley Roberts, who was caught moonwalking in the background of the interview. From tomorrow, all goods retailers can reopen, as long as they adhere to the necessary safety measures, and provided that there is no increase in the spread of the virus. It is hoped that further announcements can come soon on dates for the reopening of service providers and the hospitality sector.
I have written to the Health Minister to ask for a review of the physical-distancing advice to stay two metres from other people. That needs to be debated, and people need to recognise the positive impact that moving to the World Health Organization-recommended one metre would have on various sectors across our economy and education sectors. I stress that people who can work at home should continue to do so.
Unfortunately, government grants, homeworking and the reopening of some sectors cannot protect all businesses or all jobs. I have said many times that each month of shutdown has been akin to a large recession. We know that the impact of the virus will be long-lasting in homes across Northern Ireland. That will have a knock-on effect on people's mental health, physical health and family life.
The claimant count rose by almost 90% in April, and unemployment increased by over 26,000 to 56,200.
Six years of labour market progress was lost in a single month.
We need to look out for one another. Going forward, we must protect the vulnerable. Restarting the economy safely, as we are doing, allows people to get back to work. We also need to address the persistently high levels of economic inactivity in Northern Ireland. We want to give those who have lost their job the opportunity to seek new employment elsewhere.
Skills has been a priority area for me since I took up office, as I recognise that skills will play a key role in our economic recovery. I have supported thousands of learners across the system, from further education (FE) and higher education (HE) students to apprentices and trainees, as well as a great many others engaged in skills.
We have been working through real challenges, from protecting the skills infrastructure so that it will be there to play its place in our recovery to the very practical issues of supporting learners to adjust to a new way of learning. That work is particularly important to those participants who are the most vulnerable in society, as it will ensure that their studies are completed and their qualifications gained. We know already some of the future challenges that we may face. Studies suggest that 16- to 24-year-olds, such as those who are apprentices, are particularly vulnerable. That is why we are developing initiatives to help sustain apprenticeships and to support the apprenticeship pipeline for new apprentices.
In the longer term, we want to make sure that we have a system that promotes upskilling and reskilling, in order to allow individuals to move into areas in which there is greater demand. As Minister for the Economy, I want to support individuals on their journey and ensure that they are equipped to avail themselves of new opportunities. Just this week, I approved an investment of £1·7 million to support 2,000 online accredited courses. We will focus on sectors that can deliver high-paying jobs. Those jobs are likely to be in big data, health and life sciences, clean energy, advanced manufacturing, materials and engineering.
There are different phases involved. This is a long-term aspiration and requires a change in the skills base. There are currently disproportionate numbers with low or no skills in the labour market. Our initial objective is to stabilise the labour market and ensure that we retain as many jobs as possible. We will be developing our new 10-year plan for skills.
City deals and growth deals also have a significant part to play in supporting sustained subregional growth, with capital investment of nearly £1·5 billion from the public and private sectors. I remain committed to continuing the excellent collaboration and partnership work that there has been to date with local councils and their delivery partners to deliver the city and growth deal programme across Northern Ireland. The reconstituted Economic Advisory Group (EAG), chaired by Ellvena Graham, will help us to plan ahead. Next week, I will be unveiling the full membership of the group and the work that it will be engaged in.
People in Northern Ireland are resilient and innovative. I have no doubt that we will rebuild and redesign our economy, and we can all help in the recovery. I encourage everyone to consider a holiday at home this year, when the time is right. Please also support our local businesses, hotels and retailers as they reopen. Doing that will help us to rebuild from the inside and will put strength in our core. As we plan for the future, everyone must continue to work safe and stay safe.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): We will now have a period of about one hour for questions to the Minister. I remind members that they should be concise in their questioning. This is not an opportunity to make a speech. I encourage the Minister also to be concise in her answers to members' focused questions. In that way, members will be afforded supplementary questions, and every member will be allowed to ask one.
I invite the Chair of the Committee for the Economy, Caoimhe Archibald, to ask the first question. As is normal, the Chair will be given more latitude.
Dr Archibald (Committee Chair - Committee for the Economy): I thank the Minister for her statement, and I send my solidarity to the workers and their families at Bombardier, Thompson and elsewhere who have lost their jobs this week. It is a big blow to our local economy. I know from speaking to union reps this morning that they are emphasising that it is not just the loss of those jobs in those companies, it is the impact on our local supply chains.
In planning for the economic recovery, is the Minister looking at how to support strategically important sectors to our local economy as well as expanding others? Is she making the case to the British Government for an economic stimulus in respect of that? Of course, there would need to be some conditionality with any intervention that is going to companies in respect of meeting targets, for example on decarbonisation, and in respect of upholding workers' rights.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Chair for her question and for her continuing cooperation on these very, very important measures. We need to reopen our economy. We need to reopen for businesses. That, I think, will need two phases to what we do. The first phase will be trying to reopen and to work with the impacts that COVID-19 has had on our economy. We have seen that very dramatically with the job losses in the aerospace sector at Thompson and at Bombardier and the potential for the fragility of that supply chain into those very big companies to be impacted by it.
The next phase will be about rebuilding and reinventing, making sure that we have an economy for Northern Ireland that is fit for the next phase of its development and, indeed, for the next century of Northern Ireland. I am pretty positive that we will continue to support and work with those sectors — agri-food, tourism, manufacturing and the service sectors — that are the staples of our economy. Northern Ireland is a very large service economy, and those will all be the staples of our economy. I also want us to look at those areas where we can bring in new and additional benefit to our economy. We already have a reputation as being world-class in the cybersecurity area, and I want to build on that. I want to build on the green economy, and I want to work alongside our universities, where we can use their innovation, research and knowledge to try to help us to boost the economy and grow it so that we are not just getting jobs but are getting better jobs and are retaining our young people here in Northern Ireland and giving them prospects for the future.
Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for her response. Minister, it was reported in today's 'Irish News' that the hardship fund is undersubscribed and there may be an underspend from that. Will you be looking, therefore, to redirect that towards additional support for other businesses that have been missed out so far?
Mrs Dodds: The hardship fund will close tomorrow, and, using this public platform, I appeal to anybody who thinks that they may be eligible to check that criteria and get the application in. We will be looking at the applications and how that rolls out, and then we will be assessing whether there is an underspend in relation to that. Any underspend in relation to these funds is ring-fenced. It will go back into the centre, and it will then be for the Executive and the Finance Minister to say how much is being made available for further help to businesses. As soon as that process has concluded, I will be very happy to identify other areas of the economy to the Executive and the Finance Minister where help will be needed.
Mr Middleton: Minister, there have been discussions recently around social distancing and moving from 2 metres to 1 metre. The WHO points to 1 metre. How would that help the local economy in rebuilding?
Mrs Dodds: There has indeed been much discussion around this, and I thank the member for bringing this up. This is really key to the reopening and development of our economy. Before I go any further in all of this, in everything that we do, we must make sure that we are acting safely, in the best interests of protecting lives and in line with the scientific and medical advice.
However, if we are to open up our economy and our schools and create capacity, we will have to have an open and honest discussion with ourselves about the issue of 2 metres versus 1 metre. Many countries across Europe have already adopted 1 metre. It is the World Health Organization standard, so, in Scandinavian countries, in France and in other areas, 1 metre is now the standard accepted rule; in other countries, like here, the Republic of Ireland and, I think, the US — in some pictures from there, there is not a lot of social distancing — the desire has been to keep the 2-metre rule. Think about it in terms of businesses and schools. People who own restaurants tell me that, at 2 metres, they are running at about 30% of capacity but, at 1 metre, they will run at 75% or 80% capacity. That gives them a decent chance of survival.
This is something that we as an Assembly and the Executive will have to have that open and honest discussion about. I have thrown it out there. I have been honest, as Economy Minister, and said that this is what we need to do to get our economy up and running, but it must be in line with the transmission rate of the virus and where, the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser tell us, it is safe.
Mr Middleton: Some of the hospitality groups have suggested open-air or outdoor spaces to manage social distancing. Is that something that you would support?
Mrs Dodds: Yes, of course I would. As we move to open up our hospitality sector, I have been doing an increasing amount of work with it in the last number of months. In March, it had to close down, and that was that. It was an enormous sacrifice that the hospitality sector made during this really extraordinary time. We need to work with it to make sure that it can get back on track. I cannot see that we will not have social distancing and the need for good hand hygiene in restaurants, shops etc. To help them to utilise their space, there is an argument for allowing people to use outdoor space as part of that. I have written to the Department for Communities and the Department for Infrastructure, because, as I was saying to the Executive when we were talking about the issue earlier, if you have been a councillor you will know how complicated and complex the whole area is. It seems simple, but it has impacts on licensing and planning, and, of course, there are impacts for people with disabilities if we go for something akin to the pavement café culture that we might look at. Yes, I think it will help with the viability of the hospitality sector and is something that we should absolutely look at, but we need a little work in-house with Infrastructure and Communities to make sure that we can do it successfully.
Ms McLaughlin: I am glad that you got through that statement today, Minister, without any interruptions either before you or behind you.
The UK has traditionally been particularly bad at dealing with insolvency. In the US, about 25% of businesses that are insolvent are rescued: we are way below 10%. Can the Minister give a commitment to help and support businesses, particularly SMEs, that face insolvency, so that they too are protected and rescued to the best of her Department's ability?
Mrs Dodds: This is an important area of work. We have, as she will know, recently passed a legislative consent motion giving consent to elements of the insolvency Bill that is currently before the House of Lords. That should help us and help firms to stay on track for a little longer as well as being fair to creditors and ensure that we have a fair process for insolvency.
It would be regrettable and very difficult to explain to firms suffering from cash-flow problems as a result of the COVID-19 crisis if the mitigation measures were not in place. I thank the House for its support for the legislative consent motion. Many of the measures were originally designed to be in place until June, but they can roll forward to make sure that we can deal with a crucial area of business.
Ms McLaughlin: A recurrent theme among the many industry and representative bodies that have spoken to the Committee is that the support of Invest NI goes particularly towards large businesses. In the current circumstances, Invest NI needs to concentrate on SMEs if we are to support the recovery and prevent insolvency in that sector.
Mrs Dodds: I will reply to that, because it is an important issue. Northern Ireland is a small-business economy, so it is very important that we take steps to support small business. That is why the access to finance scheme, the job furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme are vital in getting us through the current situation. I have been talking to businesses regularly, and they have indicated that, without those extraordinary interventions from government, they would not have stood a chance.
The best thing that we can do is to try to reopen our economy safely, sensibly and in a staged manner. I have been trying to do that. I am glad that we have dates for hotels. I will bring forward more papers next week on the tourism sector, focusing on how we can get an early recovery and maybe make something out of what is left of the home market and the summer season. The Executive today agreed that all retail across the board, including shopping centres, should reopen. Those are important steps, but we will also need to work with manufacturing and construction to ensure that we have a holistic approach.
Mr Stewart: I join the Minister in sending our best wishes and thoughts to the families of those who, potentially, have their lost their jobs at Bombardier. I fear that there could be a lot more, if we do not have a robust recovery strategy in place. Hopefully, the Government will do all that they can to intervene.
I thank the Minister for her intervention so far and for her work to get retail reopened. Hospitality looks as if it is coming back, and we await big announcements today on —
Mr Stewart: — that taking place. One of the sectors that have not had any support, guidance or clarity is the health and beauty sector. Our salons, hairdressers and barbers provide vital support to town centres. Can the Minister do anything to outline a pathway for them and give them guidance on what safety measures they can put in place ahead of reopening?
Mrs Dodds: Along with many others, I would give anything to have the hairdressers open again. It has been one of the trials of life.
The member makes an important point. We need not just to get not general retail open again — our food sector functioning well, our non-food retail open and functioning well — but to get the service bit of the economy working again.
As the member knows, in all the plans that we have had throughout the British Isles, that is the sector, because of the nature of the work that it does, that has been a little later in everyone's plan. It is certainly the next piece in the jigsaw to get our town centres revitalised and to get a sense of normality back for people who have found it very difficult.
Mr Stewart: Thank you for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Chairperson. The Chair raised the issue of the micro-hardship fund, as it looks as if a significant amount will be returned. Is there a shovel-ready package that could be released, should more money become available in the June monitoring round to help social enterprises and the sole traders who, to date, have missed out on everything?
Mrs Dodds: The issue of grants funding is slightly different to the June monitoring round in that it is ring-fenced, COVID-specific funding that will go back to the Executive for the Executive to make a further decision on how that will look. I will, of course, prepare an options paper that includes all the options that you have indicated.
Mr Lyttle: We are all reacting to the devastating news of significant job losses at flagship manufacturer Bombardier, which will affect hundreds of families in my constituency of East Belfast. What action is the Minister for the Economy taking to support the company to mitigate redundancies and provide retraining and re-employment opportunities for a highly skilled staff?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the member for his question. I understand very well the significant distress that today's announcement will cause for Bombardier and the shockwaves that it will cause within the wider manufacturing supply chain. In recent weeks, I have been to Bombardier to talk to its chief executive, as I have done with Thompson Aero Seating. The issue in aerospace is a global and national issue as well as something that will disproportionately impact on us in Northern Ireland. If we think that Boeing and Airbus have reduced their purchasing capacity by over 40%, we understand not just the short-term, but the long-term challenges for the aerospace industry.
I hold a weekly meeting with BEIS. In fact, last week Minister Zahawi, Michael Ryan and I had a specific meeting to discuss the challenges for not just Bombardier, but aerospace in general. If you look at the redundancies in Rolls-Royce and across the country in this sector, you will see just how difficult it is. Nationally, although BEIS tells me that this is red-flagged and a sector that it knows will need intervention, I think that the Government now need to accelerate that intervention plan. I will be doing everything that I can to make sure that that happens.
Locally, Invest Northern Ireland has obviously been talking to both Thompson and Bombardier. These are innovative, research-and-development-orientated and export-orientated client companies of Invest Northern Ireland, and we will continue to work with them to see what we can do to help them diversify. The most important thing that Bombardier needs to do is conclude the deal with Spirit and get everything back on track.
I, of course, will work with those among the workforce who have received this devastating news and those who will potentially be impacted on by it. I understand that the 90-day redundancy procedure will go into operation today. As this progresses, my Department will organise help in terms of other employment opportunities or retraining and upskilling for those who have been impacted.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for her detailed answer. As she says, Bombardier COO, Michael Ryan, has called COVID-19 an existential crisis for the aerospace industry. What specific support has the Minister secured from the UK Government for our aerospace sector? What actions has she taken to advance a regional aviation and aerospace recovery strategy for Northern Ireland?
Mrs Dodds: As I said in my previous answer, this needs to be taken forward at a national level. I am hopeful that Minister Zahawi will, indeed, conduct that. Of course, I will continue my conversations with him to ensure that it happens. I hope to meet the broader sector next week, because that sector itself needs to identify where the opportunities are and how we can sustain not just the larger aerospace companies, but the small manufacturing companies, some of whom I met earlier in the week, and the part that they play in the aerospace industry supply chain.
Mr Harvey: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. When caravan parks reopen soon, will it be only static caravans that are allowed to be occupied, or will touring vans be permitted if they are self-contained?
Mrs Dodds: Thank you very much for that question. I can understand why that is of particular interest to you, coming from the Strangford constituency. We have already identified 20 July as the date for reopening. However, I am hopeful that we would be able to bring that date forward, recognising that static caravans and touring caravans are self-contained units, as are other elements of self-catering holiday accommodation in Northern Ireland. Therefore, for those that are self-catering and self-contained, I would hope that we would be able to bring forward a proposal. I certainly intend to bring a paper to the Executive next week on that specific issue.
I am keen to allow people to return to their caravans, whether they be touring vans or static vans. However, I see that there is an issue for caravan park owners with regard to how common areas and shared facilities, such as showers, toilet blocks etc are treated. I suspect that the return to caravan parks will be for those who own static caravans, because they are self-contained, and those who can plug their touring caravan into the amenities on their pitch. Medical advice shows us that it is pretty difficult to manage the sharing of services without really deep cleaning in between. That is what I see for that sphere. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement on that fairly soon.
Mr Harvey: You mentioned 20 July as the opening date. Are you hopeful that it would be sooner than that? You mentioned that it was possible that it could happen sooner.
Mrs Dodds: The member is persistent in his question for his constituents. Executive colleagues recognise that self-contained units are different to hotels, restaurants etc. I am keen to see the wider tourism and hospitality sector open. It has had an exceedingly difficult time. It closed down in March off the back of the very long autumn and winter period, when it is much more difficult to successfully operate financially. Now, it has been closed for three months. I would really like to see it get some of the summer back. I know that communities in Northern Ireland will support it in doing that. Therefore, I am hopeful. However, it is, of course, for Executive colleagues to decide and to do so, of course, on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Officer.
Mr McAleer: In these difficult economic times, many employers are struggling to hold on to their apprentices. Has the Minister any ideas or has she given any consideration to how she can support employers and training providers to hold on to their apprentices at this time?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the member for that question. It is very timely. I have just looked at the reprioritisation of funding in the Department for the Economy. The skills agenda, retaining skills and upskilling young people are really important to me.
In the last downturn, we know, 16- to 24-year-olds were impacted disproportionately to any other part of the economy. At one stage, we had unemployment in that sector running well above 25 to 27%. I do not want to see that happen again. I have just taken measures in my Department — we will make announcements on them fairly soon — to specifically target apprentices, retaining apprenticeships and supporting employers to retain those young people as they try to continue with their career path.
Mr McAleer: I believe that the Minister has also answered my supplementary. I was going to ask about the possibility of introducing an interim apprenticeship programme. Minister, is that what you were talking about in your answer?
Mrs Dodds: Yes. I am very concerned. I do not want a lost generation of young people who go through similar trials and tribulations. Of course, I am also really supportive of apprenticeships at all levels, right through to those higher-level apprenticeships. I have had many conversations with the education sector and with the Minister, stating that those higher-level apprenticeships are a really important pathway for young people and that schools need to highlight them as alternatives to the traditional A level and university route. The answer is yes. We are working on this as a proposal, we have set aside some money for it and we will see how it works out.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for coming here today. We all understand the massive impact on tourism that COVID-19 has had and on Northern Ireland. However, there are opportunities, and I am sure that the Minister will take the opportunity to highlight those with regard to holidaying at home, staycations and promotion of our local tourist attractions.
Mr Dunne: We need to fill the empty bed-spaces in our hotels and B & Bs.
Mrs Dodds: Yes, this is important. As I have said, the opportunity for our sector to make something of what is left of this summer season — of course, being Northern Ireland, we do not get a long summer season — is that home market. I have been talking to Tourism NI around some marketing and publicity on this specific issue. Obviously, we want to get the issues out of the way of opening and all of the challenges around that. We want to get that sorted out and have a marketing campaign aimed not just at the island of Ireland but at the wider British Isles, so that we are looking to Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland and to target and market what tourists can do, see and enjoy in Northern Ireland.
Mr Dunne: Air connectivity is a huge issue as we try to attract tourists. What conversations has the Minister had and what work has she done around getting our three airports up and running and getting the planes back in the air?
Mrs Dodds: That is an essential part of where we need to go. For business, family life and the wider tourism sector, air connectivity is absolutely essential. We need to connect to our biggest market. GB is that market, and we need to do that. We also need to connect to that market in a way that takes us to the regions within that market. Air connectivity to all parts of the United Kingdom is extremely important. You will know that we worked hard, between Finance, Infrastructure and Economy, to make sure that there was a package in place for our airports during the worst of the pandemic. With regard to connectivity to London, I am glad to say that Aer Lingus has increased the number of flights very significantly. My information is that BA will soon start its flights again. Last week, I spent some time talking to the chief executive of Belfast City Airport and asked him what further support was needed and how they were working to fill the routes that were lost with the demise of Flybe. The good news is that they are pretty confident that they will be able to fill those routes once again and that we will get back to a much more stable place in our connectivity with the rest of the United Kingdom.
It is a work in progress. We will need to, perhaps, ensure that there is further support for those airports and we are engaging with the Department for Transport, as it is a national issue, to see if they can do that. We never fail to point out that connecting the regions of the United Kingdom is supposed to be a priority for the Conservative Government.
Ms Ennis: Following on from Declan McAleer's question about the apprenticeship recovery initiative, industry providers have suggested that the Department for the Economy should help pay apprenticeship wages in the short term. Will the Minister ensure that the apprenticeship recovery strategy includes those proposals?
Mrs Dodds: As I said, we are working on the proposals. We will bring them forward shortly. We have identified funding for them, and I see it as a huge priority. By the way, we are not only working on apprenticeships proposals but want to make sure that we retain and stabilise the wider training sector, so it is really important for all of our young people, whether they are doing an apprenticeship or are part of Training for Success, that they have a pathway for their career. To try to stabilise that sector, we have continued to pay those training providers even while young people have not been operating in them. We have continued to pay young people all of their training allowances so that we retain young people and give them purpose, direction, pathways, choices and opportunities in life.
Ms Ennis: Again, I piggyback on another member's question. You said in your statement that tourism would not be the same as before, and I am glad to hear that. I wonder if the Minister or the tourism steering group has considered the possibility of extending Ireland's Ancient East to the two north-easterly counties of Ireland — Down and Armagh— with the great economic benefits that that would bring to our tourism product.
Mrs Dodds: We are, of course, always open to looking at how we can extend the tourism product in Northern Ireland. To be specific to my constituency, I have been exploring how we can do further work on the 'Game of Thrones' proposal that there is for that area. The work of the tourism steering group so far has been on trying to get the tourism and hospitality industry up, running and open again. That has been our focus. We will then turn to the long-term challenges that we have not just about what we have in product terms but about the marketing of that product.
A couple of weeks ago, I conducted a conversation by Zoom — the great thing that we are now all connecting with — with some tourism operators in North America. They said that, while they had cancelled many of their tours, many of those had been rebooked for 2021. Therefore, while I recognise the real challenges, difficulties and distress that some of the people in that sector have at this minute in time, we will recover, and we will come back. We need to make sure that we have everything with the building blocks in place for it. Some of them were also talking about our golf offering, because a lot of the Americans who come here want to play at Royal Portrush Golf Club, Royal County Down Golf Club and all of the other courses that are so amazing. Of course, we will try to identify further opportunities to enhance that golf offering and promote it across the world.
Mr O'Toole: 'Game of Thrones' tourism does not happen without an ecosystem of creative professionals and artists who are make-up artists, costume designers, camera technicians, grips and video designers, but our creative industries in Northern Ireland feel left behind, I am afraid. Will the Minister urgently work with the Communities Minister to develop a long-term strategy to revitalise and protect our arts and cultural sectors in Northern Ireland, which are not just economically important but socially and culturally critical to our whole island?
Mrs Dodds: Sometimes people try to figure out how quickly we will mention the creative industries in Northern Ireland, even 'Game of Thrones', in a debate like this, but that is because it is really important. It is really important to individuals and to the success of Northern Ireland. Some of the wonderful things that have been happening with the creative industries have showcased this part of the world right across the world. That is why we have tourists coming from the Far East etc. So, I absolutely recognise the importance of the creative industries to Northern Ireland. That is why I have been working with Northern Ireland Screen around how we support those industries going forward and how we open up those film projects again and get them back on track so that we can continue not just for the creative industries' sake but for the wider economy to get those elements of our economy back on track.
The member will know that, at Belfast harbour a few months ago, there was a project to double the amount of space and investment in the creative industries there. Those things are important for the economy but they are also important for us as a people.
The Minister for Communities has more responsibility for the individual arts projects than I do. My element of it is tourism and how it impacts on the economy, and I see a great future ahead.
Mr O'Toole: Thank you, Minister. You mentioned some of the big ticket creative industries and the big productions that are happening. Those are great and we want those to continue, but it is really important to say that this is about joining that up and protecting our small-scale arts and cultural sectors. It would be good if you could commit to that.
Very briefly, will the Minister join me in asking the BBC to clarify its position on the £77 million investment that it is supposed to be making in my constituency in inner South Belfast? It is supposed to be investing £77 million in a new digital hub and refurbishing Broadcasting House. I have written today to the director general. This is vital investment. Will she join me in urging the BBC to make sure that that proceeds?
Mrs Dodds: I am always looking for opportunities for investment in Northern Ireland. I will ask my officials to come back to you and talk to you about that particular project and see how we can help in ensuring that that type of investment goes forward.
Mr Nesbitt: In the past 55 minutes, there has been one very brief mention of the social economy. Will the Minister agree that that does not do justice to that sector and that, coming out of COVID, the social economy will be even more important than ever?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the member for his question. The social economy is incredibly important. It is a diverse range of businesses within our economy, but, most importantly, some training providers who are part of that social economy, which my Department funds and has continued to fund, are able to bring people into the labour market who previously would have been very distant from that market, and I know that the member will know many examples of that. It is an incredibly important part of our economy. They have been able to access the furloughing scheme. As I said, my Department has continued to pay training providers those training allowances. They are able to be part of the microbusiness scheme, and should there be any other opportunities to support the sector, we will, of course, look to that.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for those words. With regard to the micro scheme — the micro fund available to social enterprises with nine or fewer employees — is she aware that the criterion that you had to be a social enterprise without charitable status has knocked out a huge number of those organisations? Will she rectify that situation?
Mrs Dodds: Of course, there are many social enterprises that do not use charitable status, and they are willing to apply and have applied to any or all of the schemes. The Minister for Communities is about to bring forward a scheme for the wider charity sector, and, of course, that will be open to the social enterprise sector.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): Members, we are just about halfway down the list. I look for your continued assistance in asking concise questions and for concise answers from the Minister, so that everyone will be afforded an opportunity.
Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for attendance today. She has answered quite a few questions that I would have looked to ask. We all join in her concerns about the situation in the aerospace industry and the bad news at Thompson's and Bombardier. There are a few thousand jobs throughout the wider aerospace sector in Northern Ireland and quite a few companies, and, unfortunately, everybody is looking nervously at that sector today. Has there been any wider engagement, Minister, at this stage?
Mrs Dodds: As I have said in previous answers, I am not concerned just about the larger aerospace companies. Of course, we are very concerned about them. Some of them are our flagship companies for Northern Ireland, and are recognisable across the world for the product, skill and the craftsmanship of what they have produced, but I am equally concerned for the smaller manufacturers who are part of the supply chain into the wider aerospace industry. I recognise that many of them are small businesses that rely on the supply chain into the wider and larger sector. Yes, I am engaging, and they will be part of our discussions on how to maintain the supply chain or diversify it, going forward.
Mr Hilditch: Childcare is another sector that has been raised recently, particularly with the First Minister yesterday, maybe not directly with you. Will the Minister work with Executive colleagues to provide support for further initiatives in childcare as we move forward, because that is equally important to the economy?
Mrs Dodds: We spent a long time on that issue at the Executive meeting this morning. We need to get back to some semblance of normality on the childcare issue. Issues such as social distancing impact on the provision of childcare and on people getting back to work. We cannot get our economy back up and running if we are not providing people with adequate and appropriate opportunities to have their children looked after safely and appropriately as we go forward. That is a hugely important area that we look at.
As we travel forward in reopening the economy, we will need to balance all those competing needs, so that we have some semblance of a road map that helps everything to converge at the right time. Childcare is one of those, and opening up education and allowing our young people to get back to school is another that we will have to look at carefully.
Mr Boylan: I welcome the Minister's statement. I am glad to hear the Minister mention the issue of working from home and online. She is well aware that Project Stratum will be a major project. Will she give a wee update on it, and will the project prioritise the notspot areas and the areas with the poor broadband that people have experienced over this COVID period when trying to work from home and everything else?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. That is a very important area. I spoke to representatives from one of our flagship tech companies yesterday and they are planning to have most of their staff working from home for the rest of the year. They see that as the most efficient approach for what they do and in keeping their staff safe from the virus. Of course, things will change as the economy opens up — if we can stay safe and control the transmission of the virus — but working from home will be part of the future programme for work in Northern Ireland and, indeed, throughout the world. We will probably not do things in the same way as we have done heretofore. Therefore, it is really important that we focus on how to connect people through good broadband.
Project Stratum is at the procurement stage. I hope that the assessment of the bids that have come in will be made and that we will be able to announce how to take it forward by September. That will give us £165 million to invest in connectivity throughout Northern Ireland. Around 80,000 properties in Northern Ireland have broadband speeds that would need the intervention of Project Stratum, and 97% of those are in rural areas or areas with fewer than 1,000 houses. I see it not just as an important connectivity project but as really important in levelling up economic opportunity across Northern Ireland.
Mr Boylan: I welcome the Minister's comments. Minister, I have been contacted, and I know that many other members will have been contacted, about ongoing engineering work by BT and other contractors. People are watching others being connected 100 metres down the road and are frustrated that they do not have broadband. In the interim, will the Minister commit to engaging with providers so that, where possible when they are on the ground, they will look at whether they can facilitate those people and provide better broadband?
Mrs Dodds: A range of initiatives are available, including community initiatives and different types of initiatives, to help upgrade broadband for individuals and, indeed, small community areas. I know of some small rural areas that have taken advantage of those initiatives. I will ask my officials to write to you after the meeting and give you a list of the types of initiatives so that you might pass them onto your constituents.
Mr Muir: I raised the following question with the Health Minister on Tuesday. He batted me over to you, Minister, so I am going to have a go at it now. It is about allied health professionals' businesses and independent practices. They provide a very valuable role in supporting people and will continue to do so in the future. What financial assistance will you be able to give them in the form of grant support, as many of them have missed out on that? There is also the issue of their ongoing operating costs, because they will be unable to operate using the model that they have used in the past.
Mrs Dodds: I recognise the issue. I hate to tell the Health Minister, but I will be writing to him again because I think that he needs to plot a course for the reopening of allied health professionals. For those who go to physiotherapy or wherever else to have those things sorted out, we need to pursue a strategy that allows those people to get back to opening up safely and in line with the advice of their professional bodies. I am in the process of writing to the Health Minister about that issue because it is the most important thing that we can do.
Physiotherapists are not just for hospitals. Many of them operate in our communities and pick up services that hospitals, because of long waiting lists etc, simply cannot get to. We need to work with them and their professional bodies to make sure that they can open again safely. Many of those people have been able to avail themselves of the £10,000 grant, and if they employ people, they can avail themselves of the microbusiness grant. They all tend to fall into that category.
The greatest help that we can now give them is direction, guidance and help to open safely.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for her response. I urge you to come together to get a solution to that, particularly the ongoing operating costs. I go regularly to a physio because of my running injuries, so it is self-inflicted.
Just one other thing, the 10K and 25K schemes closed a while ago. Was there any underspend in those? If so, could that be used to help those who were excluded from assistance, such as bed and breakfasts that are paying domestic rates or businesses that have multiple properties but got only one grant?
Mrs Dodds: As I have said before, the funding for those schemes is held centrally, as part of the COVID funds. We will submit a paper to the Executive, giving the detailed figures on how much the schemes have spent and where there are underspends, and the Executive will then take a decision as to what to do with that further funding.
Mr McGuigan: I thank the Minister for her statement. She mentioned a few times so far the tourism recovery steering group that she chairs and the engagement that it is having to plan for recovery. Given that I represent North Antrim, a constituency heavily reliant on the tourism sector, will the Minister give me a few more details about the type of issues that the recovery group is considering and when it will report?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the member for his question. Last Friday, I had a Zoom call with many tourism businesses, including hotels in his constituency. Of course, the work of the tourism recovery group has been focused on how to get tourism up and running again. The first product, if you like, or report of that group will be the guidance offered to hotels and the wider tourism and hospitality sector on reopening. I hope that the group will report with that next week, and we will publish it as soon as we can thereafter.
Mr McGuigan: Thank you for your answer, Minister. Obviously, there will be short-term challenges in the tourism sector as it plans its recovery. You mentioned marketing earlier. Do you agree that Tourism Ireland is key as we try to recover from the pandemic? You talked about engagement with American tourists. When people travel to this island, they do not recognise borders or separate jurisdictions; they recognise a single island and travel from one part to the next, and Tourism Ireland is key in marketing that.
Mrs Dodds: Of course, I have no desire to make tourism into any political agenda, and I think the member should reflect on that. I regularly speak to the chief executive of Tourism Ireland because he is charged and payed by the Executive to market Northern Ireland, for example, in Great Britain. Just the other day, I was talking to him about a marketing campaign that Tourism Ireland should be carrying out for the benefit of Northern Ireland in Great Britain. I did not design the structures, and I would have designed them differently had I been allowed to do so, but we are where we are, and that is where his responsibility lies. The responsibility for marketing Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland is, of course, a matter for Tourism Northern Ireland, and I have been talking to it about marketing campaigns that we can use for the immediate future.
In the wider range of issues around tourism, I think that we should also reflect on the fact that many of our international tourist visitors feel unprepared and unsafe, and people are really unwilling to travel. That is why I was engaging, through Tourism Ireland, with the North American tour operators, many of which bring tours into Northern Ireland, whether those are around worship and churches, golf, history or many other things. I will continue to do that because I think that we can see growth in the North American market on many sectors; not least, in Ulster Scots heritage, which is also very important in Northern Ireland.
Mr McNulty: Following on from my colleague's statement on tourism, I note the Minister's work on reopening the tourism industry and the date of 20 July for the reopening of hotels, caravan sites, guest houses and B&Bs. Given the Taoiseach's announcement that the same sectors will open in the South on 29 June, and given the Minister's comments about people's unwillingness to travel for international tourism, should we try to avoid an even greater exodus than is normal in July and invite some people from the South to the North to avail themselves of our tourism offerings?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the member for his question. We need to do what is right for Northern Ireland, which is what the Executive have been focused on doing, as have I, as Minister for tourism. Part of that will bring us into line with what is happening in the wider British Isles. The member is quite right in what he says: I was very busily engaged with sector and the Executive in trying to get a date for the opening of hotels, which was around 20 July. I am preparing another, separate paper for the Executive through which I hope that they will reconsider that date, not just for hotels but for the wider tourism and hospitality sector, and, indeed, set a separate date for the self-catering and caravan sector. Those are all really important issues.
I do not want our industry to be uncompetitive or at a competitive disadvantage compared with other parts of the British Isles, and I will do whatever I can to make sure that that is understood and that we are able to operate safely and to open as soon as is practicable.
Mr McNulty: Thank you, Minister. You mentioned that the Executive met today. Did you make a recommendation on the reopening of shopping centres such as the Buttercrane or The Quays in Newry or The Mall in Armagh?
Mrs Dodds: The member will be really pleased to know that that was one of the items that the Executive agreed today. All of retail will be open.
Dr Aiken: Thank you very much indeed, Minister, for your statement. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I express the party's concerns about the aerospace industry and the loss of jobs.
I welcome your forming of an economic advisory group. Ellvena Graham has done much very positive work for Northern Ireland. However, my question is this: how can an economic advisory group work effectively if we do not have a fiscal council, or fiscal commission, which has been much promised but much delayed?
Mrs Dodds: The fiscal council is an NDNA commitment. In my role, as the Minister for the Economy, I am doing what I am responsible for and that is forming an economic advisory group. I hope to announce the names of the individuals who will form that group. We want to look at a future economic strategy for Northern Ireland. That future economic strategy should support the industries that are part of our core and our fabric: our agri-food industry, our tourism industry and the things that are absolutely core to Northern Ireland. It should also look for new opportunities to develop Northern Ireland, not just into new markets but into new sectors. I mentioned cybersecurity. There is also our tech sector. We will have an opportunity with some of the really innovative work that is happening in our clean, green energy sector to bring forward really good proposals.
It is a really good time to re-establish the economic advisory group, and I hope to connect it to the east coast advisory group that I re-formed when I was in the States in March. That group comprises individuals who come from Northern Ireland, have done really well in their careers and lives on the east coast of America, and want to give back to Northern Ireland. We want to harness and utilise their energy in trying not just to promote Northern Ireland but to bring foreign direct investment, jobs and better jobs to Northern Ireland.
If I may be permitted, this is something I am quite passionate about and on which I want to set the direction before this Assembly finishes its term. Members' cooperation, help and conversations about this are really important. We need to get our industry working really well alongside our universities because research and innovation is key to where we pitch our economy in the long-term.
I spoke to the chief executive of Cygilant, a Boston-based company that is bringing 65 cybersecurity jobs to Northern Ireland. Even in the midst of our pandemic, he was saying, "I am investing in Northern Ireland. I see great opportunities in Northern Ireland". He said that primarily because we have an MA in cybersecurity and because our industry and universities are working hand in hand. It is really important.
Dr Aiken: Thank you very much, Minister. I have met the east coast group many times and extolled the virtues of Northern Ireland; it is an excellent group.
At present, when there are so many different innovative ways to gather funding, will you ask the economic advisory group and the fiscal council — if we ever see it — to start looking at a national recovery fund? A fund that will enable Northern Ireland to pull itself out of COVID and prepare itself for next year and the rest of our second century. We have been successful, so far, during the first century, and we look forward to our second century, but let us do it with a strong economy.
Mrs Dodds: I absolutely concur with the member. I want Northern Ireland to be well placed for its second century, and that is hugely important. I will work with whoever to make sure that that is the case. For now, I am focusing on getting the economic advisory group up and running. My Department will service it with papers and the things that it needs to do, but we want it to be there for ideas and discussion, and to use and harness the skills of the people on the group, who are already very successful in their own right, to drive our economy forward. That will, of course, support local jobs and families, which is very important.
Mr McCrossan: Thank you, Minister, for being here today and answering the questions thus far. Minister, I am sure you will agree that the hospitality sector has been the sector most severely impacted by the consequences of the pandemic we have faced. Many restaurants, cafe and pub owners are very concerned about the uncertainty of the date for reopening. Can you provide some clarity about the discussions you have had about when the reopening of those premises will take place?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the member for his question. I can confirm, and most members will acknowledge, that I have had extensive discussions with the hospitality and tourism sectors. I hope to be able to bring forward a paper to the Executive at the start of the week, and, hopefully. We will be able to give the clarity that is needed.
Mr McCrossan: Thank you, Minister, for that answer. As you will be aware, the Irish Government have announced dates for the reopening of such premises at the end of this month and the beginning of July. For a town like Strabane, Omagh or the city of Derry this will come as a great concern. Pubs in the South, at a distance similar to that from this Chamber to the Senate, will be open while pubs in Strabane will be closed, and it will be the same for restaurants and cafes. Minister, will you reconsider the date in order to come into line with that announcement in the economic interests of all across this island, North and South. This is not a political point, it is a very clear point.
Mr McCrossan: If you are not going to do that, Minister, will you consider further intervention for the hospitality sector?
Mrs Dodds: Of course, it is not for me, alone, to make the decision about the dates. The Executive, on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, will take that decision. However, the member makes my argument for me. I agree.
Mr Catney: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker — Mr Principal Deputy Speaker — sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker [Laughter.] [Interruption.]
I am up and down here. I do not know what is happening. I have been waiting outside.
Mr Catney: Minister, if this question has already been asked, I apologise; I seem to have missed it. Has the Minister considered a support package for sole traders and single-person businesses that have not been able to access any of the current support programmes and have had no income for 12 weeks?
Mrs Dodds: I, of course, have already indicated that any funding that is available after the current grant schemes have finished and been finalised will be made available to the Executive, who will decide what further mitigations are necessary.
Mr Catney: As others have said, the hospitality sector and, especially, the public house sector find themselves locked into a situation in which there is unfair competition. Nothing will destroy their businesses like unfair competition. In my family, my sister has a debt of £85,000 on her business, debt that she has never had before. We need to get those businesses open. What is the Minister doing to level the playing field in Northern Ireland for small entrepreneurial publicans?
Mrs Dodds: Of course, I agree that we need to get businesses open. We need to get the wider economy open. We need to get business back doing business, as I said in response to questions in the House earlier in the week. It is important that we get our wider economy, as a whole, open. As I said, I have had extensive contact with the wider tourism and hospitality industry, and I will, of course, provide further information to the Executive next week.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for her statement. I particularly welcome the mention of the word "green" in relation to recovery. Let us hope that that is followed by suitable action by the Executive.
The Minister, in her statement and in the 'Charting a Course for the Economy' document, says that her Department will:
"provide 'Forward Guidance' to businesses and employees to reduce uncertainty and facilitate planning."
With more businesses due to reopen tomorrow, has specific guidance been published? When will it be provided to all businesses and sectors so that they can reopen safely in order to protect staff and customers?
Mrs Dodds: I am, of course, interested in a clean, green recovery. I recognise that technology, in improving and sustaining our climate, has been of benefit and has resulted in significant jobs for Northern Ireland. I am very confident that the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of Northern Ireland will lead us further in that direction.
Just this week, my Department provided updated guidance on the nibusinessinfo website. That guidance was the result of documents on working safely that came to us from our national Government in London. The guidance was looked at by the engagement forum, which is a compilation of business organisations and unions that have come together for the common good in these difficult circumstances, and was amended to make it more Northern Ireland-specific. It is now available on the nibusinessinfo website and provides further clarification for businesses as we go forward.
The tourism steering group has been looking at guidance for the tourism and hospitality sector, and we will publish that in due course as well. It will be in plenty of time for the reopening of the sector.
Miss Woods: Who is responsible for ensuring that public health measures are followed in places where relaxation has been allowed?
Mrs Dodds: If you mean the policing of those areas, there will be a combination of areas of responsibility. Of course, the Public Health Agency will give guidance and support, and the Health and Safety Executive will do the same where there is an issue of safety. Of course, on the wider front, some of our councils have statutory duties in relation to food safety etc. There will be a wide range of people who have responsibility in that area.
Mr Allister: I have heard many comforting platitudes about the haulage sector. Even though the Finance Minister told us that there was £59·5 million that came to us as a Barnett consequential at the centre for transportation, he tells us that there has not been a single application or bid from the Economy Minister or the Infrastructure Minister for the haulage sector. What is the point of platitudes, if there is no bid?
In the same vein, will the Minister tell us why a request that I made to her private office as an MLA on 27 May — over two weeks ago — for a Zoom or conference call —
Mr Allister: — with representatives of the industry has not even been acknowledged? Why is that?
Mrs Dodds: That is the first time that I have heard of that request for a conference call. I will, of course, take that back to the Department this afternoon and make sure that a response is issued.
In March and April, we had extensive discussions with the Department for Transport about help for the haulage industry. I have worked with many of our haulage companies to alleviate specific difficulties that they have had. The Department for Transport put forward proposals to Her Majesty's Treasury that were not then looked at. Since then, we have had a group looking, along with the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association, at the difficulties in the sector. We understand that about 80% of the sector is operating normally, but that leaves a significant 20% in significant difficulties. We continue to work at the issue, and I will, of course, revert to the member in due course about his request.
Mr Allister: The point, of course, Minister, was that there was a pot of money in Finance and no bid to use it. Having vented my frustration with the Department,
I will be more encouraging to the Minister on my next point. I welcome the fact that —.
Mr Allister: I will. Mr Deputy Speaker, I am not a second-class member of the House.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): Order. We are trying to ensure that all members have an opportunity for questions. I have been generous with many in their introductions, and, when I ask members to come to a question, I expect them to do so. I will afford you another opportunity, Mr Allister.
Mr Allister: In embracing the logic of moving from two metres to one metre, as has happened successfully in Denmark and France and in highly populated places such as Singapore and Hong Kong, I assume that the Minister has medical backing for that sensible proposal, so why is there feet-dragging in the Executive about it? Without it, as she said, we will never open the economy, and we will never open our schools.
Mrs Dodds: I appreciate the member's sentiments around the issue. It will not go away, and we will have to address it. The World Health Organization has indicated that one metre is a suitable and sensible distance. However, those are the very large balances that the Executive as a whole have to weigh up as we plot our way forward and open up the economy, which has to be balanced with the public health risks. I want to make it clear that I will take the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser, people who have worked hard to keep Northern Ireland safe in these very difficult circumstances.
So, while we can have that open and honest debate and I can say to you genuinely that, to open the economic successfully and get our schools back up and running, we will need to review that issue, we will have to balance that with the transmission rate of the virus and the safety and health of the people in Northern Ireland, which will always come first.
Ms Sugden: There is a particular problem for guest houses in that the vehicles that the Executive have used to provide financial support exclude those that do not pay non-domestic rates. People who own guest houses do not typically employ staff nor do they pay business rates, because it is their home and is, therefore, a domestic property. I appreciate the Minister's commitment to supporting tourism in Northern Ireland, but, in the north coast in particular, where we have a deficit of four-star, luxury accommodation —
Ms Sugden: — guest houses supplement that. When we move into the recovery phase, they will continue to have difficulties and will need ongoing financial support. Will the Minister put focus on trying to support guest houses?
Mrs Dodds: The member makes a really valid point. The tourism offering in Northern Ireland is not just about the five-star hotels, important as they are, or even the medium-sized hotels. Many people who visit the north coast, Fermanagh and places across Northern Ireland find themselves in really good accommodation in local guest houses and B & Bs. That is on my mind, and, as I have indicated, as we go forward, I will bring forward a paper on the options for further support.
Ms Sugden: I have received responses from the Finance Minister and the Economy Minister on accessing other supports, including the hardship fund. The difficulty for these guest houses is that they cannot access them, because, in order to do so, they must have employees, which, as I stated, typically they do not. The other difficulty is that the extension of the 12-month —
Ms Sugden: — business rate relief does not include those individuals either. Is there an opportunity to work with the Finance Minister to ensure that business that pay domestic rates could have access to rate relief for the remainder of the financial year?
Mrs Dodds: How that is set up is a matter for the Finance Minister, and I am sure that the Member has made representations to him on it. My officials can, of course, pass this on to him following this debate.
Mr Carroll: There has been much talk about the "new normal", and we were led to believe that lessons had been learned from previous crises. However, it seems that the bosses at Bombardier, who are cutting hundreds of jobs, and the management of Debenhams, who are looking to follow suit, have not got the memo.
In relation to the advisory group, is it time for a totally new economic strategy that puts workers first rather than one that leaves the destiny of so many in the hands of so few?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his concern for the workers at Bombardier. It is very important that we provide support and help, going forward. I am, of course, keen to develop a new economic strategy for Northern Ireland, one that puts workers at its heart but also ensures that workers have jobs and businesses can flourish and allows those who can provide and support communities to get on with that job. The entrepreneurs and businesses in our society support many families across Northern Ireland, and we need to support them too.
Mr Carroll: Would the Minister advise all the people who are starting back to work tomorrow and are not in a trade union, especially those in retail, to join one to protect themselves and their health and safety at work?
Mrs Dodds: That, of course, is a matter of individual choice.
Mr McGrath: Minister, in reference to the B & B scheme, there is a successful scheme in Scotland that might be worth looking at to provide support for that sector.
I want to ask you about outdoor markets. If they are clear-cut, because they are outside in town centres or in open spaces, they are grand, but what if you must go through a building to get to the outside space?
I have a social enterprise group in my constituency that helps to fund the work that they do. It is within a council building. Will you be advising councils that they should facilitate social enterprises for work that is permitted under other schemes, such as outdoor markets?
Mrs Dodds: I cannot comment on the specifics of it, but if you write to me, I will be very happy to do that or we can have a conversation about it at a later stage. I encourage all councils to work with businesses — social enterprises and the wider range of businesses — to ensure that we are opening up our economy safely in the days ahead in a way that boosts and creates jobs, supports families and keeps people safe.
Mr McCrossan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know that other members will feel the same frustrations that I do. I travel two hours to the Chamber to represent my constituents and to be interrupted mid-question is entirely inappropriate. Also, Mr Deputy Speaker, to sit like this here behind that podium is not appropriate.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): Order. If the member has any concerns, he should speak with the Speaker's Office. In my role as Deputy Speaker, I endeavour to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to ask their question and, indeed, questions. To enable me to do that, I have sought assistance from members to be concise in their introductions, and when I have felt that people have gone over that, I have drawn attention to that fact and sought their cooperation. If the member wishes to ensure that he gets two questions in the future, he, and all members, should remember that. It is also important not to challenge the Chair.
That concludes questions on the statement.
Agenda item 3 is the time, date and place of the next meeting. We have yet to receive confirmation from the Executive when Ministers will next make statements to the Committee. As soon as confirmation has been received, notification will be forwarded to members in the normal fashion.
I remind members that the next plenary sitting of the Assembly is scheduled to take place on Tuesday 16 June and that Ministers may continue to make oral statements to the Assembly on sitting days, perhaps with shorter notice.
That concludes the meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee.