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Editorial: Lessons must be learned from Spend Local card scheme

Compared to many government initiatives, the thinking behind the Spend Local scheme was clear and easily understood.

Every eligible adult in Northern Ireland was to be given £100 to help local businesses recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

People had to apply for the money, which was provided in the form of a prepaid card, and it had to be spent within a specific time frame.

While some may question if this initiative was the best way to use £145 million, there is no doubt it was popular with the public as well as those in retail and hospitality, sectors which had been particularly been badly hit by Covid restrictions.

Data published by the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium suggested the cards made an immediate and tangible difference on footfall levels.

However, it is important that the scheme is fully assessed and evaluated to determine if this public money was used effectively, especially in the crucial area of generating additional expenditure.

The scheme was declared open by DUP economy minister Gordon Lyons on September 27 last year, with a November 30 deadline for the money to be used.

But within a short time, problems were being reported.

Issues with the processing of cards led to an extension of the November 30 deadline to December 14.

This deadline was further extended and the scheme reopened over Christmas for several thousand people who either received their card late or who experienced technical problems.

One key issue, which came to light in late October, was a difficulty in verifying the details of more than 100,000 people.

It has now emerged that during this time, hundreds of staff at Invest NI were taken away from their daily duties in order to process tens of thousands of card applications.

Figures obtained by this paper under the Freedom of Information Act show an average of 237 staff per day were diverted over an initial five day period and while numbers subsequently dropped, dozens of employees were still involved into the third week of processing.

One staff member has claimed normal work had to be suspended while highly paid public servants were deployed to help administer the scheme.

This raises obvious questions not just about the impact on Invest NI but also the overall management of the High Street voucher scheme.

It is right that lessons are learned from the implementation of what should have been a fairly straightforward stimulus scheme that turned out to be rather more complicated.

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