Northern Ireland

'There is no crisis' interim Invest NI boss tells MLAs

Invest NI's headquarters on Belfast's Bedford Street. Picture by Mal McCann.
Invest NI's headquarters on Belfast's Bedford Street. Picture by Mal McCann. Invest NI's headquarters on Belfast's Bedford Street. Picture by Mal McCann.

BREXIT and the resulting loss of millions of pounds of funding; the resignation of key staff; the suspension of financial support to businesses; and an independent review does not add up to a crisis, the interim boss of Invest NI told MLAs.

One day before hosting a major Invest NI conference in Belfast, Mel Chittock faced Stormont’s economy committee to answer questions on the status of the organisation’s budget after it was forced to freeze new letters of offer to businesses in December.

That suspension will be lifted after the agency was this week given an indicative budget for the 2022/23 financial year. But Mr Chittock told the committee: “This will not mean it is business as usual.”

He said Invest NI’s reduced budget, significantly impacted by the loss of around £22 million per year from the European Regional Development Fund, will mean the agency will not be able to continue with all its previous work.

“There will be some projects I suspect will not proceed as we start to make choices,” he said.

“We have some difficult decisions to make, based on the allocations of budgets. The biggest challenge we have over the next couple of years is the loss of EU funding."

Mr Chittock also addressed last week’s report in The Irish News on the diversion of hundreds of Invest NI staff to process 160,000 Spend Local cards last year. He admitted while around 300 staff were redeployed for around a week, equivalent to around half Invest NI’s workforce, he said “there was a very limited impact on Invest NI’s core duties”.

While most activity occurred over the first eight days, a freedom of information request confirmed staff processed the applications for 26 days in total, with dozens still involved into the second and third weeks.

The Invest NI boss also faced questions over The Irish News report of resignations of key members of the foreign direct investment (FDI) team in London and the USA, including five of the six-person London-based investment team, who have not been replaced. They are among nine current and former staff who have now launched legal proceedings against the organisation.

Mr Chittock told MLAs: “There has been no knock-on impact to our work to secure investment from GB, Europe or the US. It has not led to a significant impact on our business and in fact it has not been felt at all.”

Invest NI’s North American operation has also lost around 14 staff in the past 23 months, including seven who resigned in the past year. The agency said most have been replaced, but vacancies remain.

Addressing the recent media coverage, Mr Chittock said: “Let me be very clear, there is no crisis.”

Listing off the list of issues facing the organisation, including the recent resignation of his predecessor Kevin Holland and the ongoing independent review of the arms-length body, Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd told Mr Chittock: “It looks like a crisis to me.”

The interim boss replied: “I think it is just coincidence these things are happening at the same time.

“If I felt there was a crisis, I would say so now. In fact, I would have difficulty staying in the organisation if I felt it was in crisis mode.”