High street cash card scheme put on hold
A SCHEME to put a cash card in the pocket of every adult in the north will not happen in the current financial year, a senior Department for the Economy official has said.
The £95 million High Street Stimulus Scheme was announced in November, after the Executive signed off on a bid by Economy Minister Diane Dodds to replicate programmes in Jersey and Malta.
But amid the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions and with time running out, the Department for the Economy (DfE) confirmed it will send the £93m back to the Executive and in turn seek approval to spend it elsewhere.
The department’s finance director, Sharon Hetherington, told the Economy Committee yesterday: “Given where we are with the health restrictions and the likely impact that releasing these cards may have, the decision was taken that it would not be the right thing to do.”
It was heard that accounting rules would not allow the cards to be pre-loaded with cash and spent after April.
The senior civil servant said DfE has now tabled £93m in “covid-related” bids including a request for £42m “to facilitate the extension of European funding into 2021-22 and beyond”.
Economy Minister Diane Dodds told the same committee last month that her department faces a £70m shortfall in the next financial year due to the loss of European money.
The issue appeared to stall progress of Stormont’s draft budget at the Executive, with the DUP understood to have asked for an additional £45m from other budgets to plug DfE’s EU-funding gap from April.
The draft budget is now expected to be approved at today’s meeting of the Executive.
The Economy Minister is not giving up on the high street vouchers. Ms Hetherington revealed yesterday that DfE will seek to develop a larger £140m scheme after April 2021, which would put £100 in the pocket of Northern Ireland’s 1.4 million adult population.
It will now be down to the Executive to approve new funding for the delayed scheme.
Finance Minister Conor Murphy told Stormont’s Finance Committee that he had only been made aware of the decision to pull the vouchers yesterday.
He said Stormont will have around £500m for covid support in 2021/22, but said most of that would go to health and education.
Stormont has been allocated £3 billion from the Treasury in covid support since April 2020.
Mr Murphy said he is preparing a letter with his counterparts in Wales and Scotland to press for more flexibility from the UK Treasury in carrying over any unspent covid funding into the next financial year to help ease some of the pressures he said departments “will undoubtedly face next year”.