Caoimhe Archibald: DfE must step up to deliver economic recovery
AS the name suggests, the Department for the Economy (DfE) is responsible for leading the economic response to Covid.
The furlough scheme set up by the British government subsidised workers’ wages, allowing DfE to focus on sustaining businesses themselves. Invest NI, the department’s business support agency, should have dedicated itself to engaging with companies and helping them survive the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the response of DfE has been lack lustre at best. It has been reluctant to help many sectors of the economy, only setting up schemes following sustained political pressure. Meanwhile some sectors, including sole traders, remain left behind.
It fell to Excluded NI to champion the cause of the many businesses left behind by DfE. Excluded NI struggled to even get a meeting with the economy minister, as is currently the case for students seeking a meeting with Diane Dodds.
Departments with no remit or experience in providing businesses support stepped up to fill the gaps as best they could. For example the communities minister and the infrastructure minister, to their credit, established schemes for social enterprises and taxi drivers respectively.
The main department to step in to the breach was the Department of Finance (DoF). At the onset of the pandemic,its rates collection agency Land & Property Services (LPS) repurposed in order to distribute £10,000 grants to almost 25,000 small businesses. Rates relief was provided to all business for four months. This was extended to a full year for the hardest hit sectors, including retail and hospitality.
Later in the year, LPS set up the LRSS scheme to support businesses legally required to close. LRSS paid out £241m last year - a remarkable accomplishment for an agency with no prior experience of administering business grants. DoF also took on new powers to allocate £10m to keep airports in operation, which DfE refused to do.
At the end of the financial year, finance minister Conor Murphy pleaded for bids to use unspent funding for sectors of the economy that were excluded from previous support schemes. With no DfE bids forthcoming despite clearly identified gaps in the supports being administered by that department, LPS once again stepped up to establish three new business grant schemes. This ensured the spare cash was put to good use, rather than being handed back to Treasury.
Given the unprecedented scale of the crisis it was to be expected that other departments would have to assist DfE. But the Covid business support administered by DoF is over three times that delivered by DfE.
The Department of Finance is now the main department for business support, but this is not sustainable in the long-term. The economy minister must do her job.
DfE’s Economic Recovery Action Plan has been fully funded. But the economy department has not led during the lockdown phase of the pandemic. It must now step up and lead the recovery.
:: Caoimhe Archibald is chair of the Stormont economy committee and Sinn Féin's economy spokesperson