Diane Dodds urged to move on scheme for businesses excluded from Covid-19 support

Pressure is mounting on Economy Minister Diane Dodds to start the ball rolling on unspent funds to support businesses hit by the coronavirus. Picture nu Kelvin Boyes
Ryan McAleer

ECONOMY Minister Diane Dodds has been urged to bring forward proposals to the Executive to provide urgent grant support to thousands of business people left out of previous schemes.

The Department for the Economy (DfE) has to date paid out £335.9m via three business grant schemes from a ring-fenced budget of £410m.

Some £53 million of the remaining £74m has already been returned to the Executive unspent.

The money remains ring-fenced for Covid-19 business support.

Sinn Féin and the Excluded NI campaign have called on Ms Dodds to introduce new schemes for businesses left out, including grants for the newly self-employed and sole traders.

While the Executive will have final say on how the funding is allocated, individual ministers must first start the ball rolling by tabling a bid for funding.

READ MORE: #EXCLUDEDNI: ‘Everything has been robbed from me’

It’s understood that while the Economy Minister has brought a discussion paper to the Executive, outlining various areas in need of funding, Stormont sources have said no official bid has been forthcoming regarding any new grant scheme.

Sources have also suggested that Ms Dodds and her department have gone cold on the prospect of another grant scheme. Instead the DUP minister is thought to be preparing proposals geared at the economic recovery.

When asked on Monday, a spokesperson for Ms Dodds department said: “The options being consider reflects inputs from all of the Executive. It will be for the Executive to determine areas for support and it would not be appropriate to go into further detail at this time.”

The Sinn Féin chair of economy committee at Stormont, Caoimhe Archibald, has made no bones about where she thinks the money should go.

“The Economy Minister should make a bid to the Executive for funding to support these groups without further delay,” said the MLA.

"It is Sinn Féin's position that underspend should be re-allocated to support those who to date have been excluded from other schemes, including social enterprises, sole traders and the newly self-employed, taxi drivers and coach operators, and small manufacturers.”

Chef Brian Donaldson has emerged as a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland end of the UK-wide Excluded campaign.

 Brian Donaldson.

The group has repeatedly lobbied Ms Dodds and DfE to reallocate the unspent Covid-19 funds on schemes for those who have missed out to date.

Despite gaining momentum in recent weeks, the group has been left frustrated by the mechanics of Stormont and the unwillingness of the Economy Minister to hear their concerns in person.

On Thursday, a letter from Ms Dodds’ department said she was unable to accept an invitation to meet the Excluded NI group "at this time".

“It’s getting too easy for them to close their doors,” said Mr Donaldson.

He said the reports that DfE is favouring a skills-based approach to the recovery, may be short-sighted.

“We’re talking about training and putting skills into people, but there are businesses about to collapse.

“All we need is a couple of thousand pounds to pay a few debts off, give them a fresh start so they can get a decent run at it next year.

“It saves that end of the economy and you have that money coming back into the economy through the tax take.”

Alongside the unspent business support funds, Stormont has received £162m in Barnett consequentials for Covid-19 support from UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s summer economic update.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy is understood to be weighing up bids from various departments.

Last night Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín announced £10.8m in Covid-19 related support for the voluntary and community sector.

It’s unclear whether the Communities Minister can divert funds to social enterprises, another group lobbying for fresh grant support.

In terms of funding for a new grant scheme for excluded businesses, a spokesperson for the Department of Finance said: “The Finance Minister can only allocate funding with Executive approval, and for schemes that a Department is prepared to deliver.

“An announcement will be made in due course.”

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