Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to update members on the progress of the High Street Scheme. I know there is much interest in the chamber and, indeed, across Northern Ireland.
I would like to begin by putting the scheme in context.
Throughout these challenging economic times, my Department has been at the forefront of the Executive’s response to the economic impacts of the pandemic.
We have delivered unprecedented financial support enabling thousands of businesses to keep their doors open, securing tens of thousands of jobs and providing hope for families and communities. We provided around a half a billion pounds to over 32,000 businesses through a number of essential support schemes, all of which were developed and delivered in unprecedented turnaround times.
Working with Invest Northern Ireland, we introduced new schemes to support business, and alongside Tourism NI we weighed in with support for that sector too. We also provided much needed support for Higher and Further Education students.
I have no doubt that had it not been for the various interventions at both a national, UK and local level, we would find ourselves in a very dark economic place today.
Thankfully, the work of my, and other Departments, helped us through the darkest days of COVID and out the other side. With the launch of the Economic Recovery Action Plan in February past, we clearly and deliberately shifted our focus from crisis response to economic recovery.
The ERAP - which was supported by the Executive with funding of £286.8m - is an ambitious suite of decisive actions designed to stimulate recovery. It has been widely endorsed by our business community and now, it is leading the way for the Executive’s recovery plan.
It is delivering a multi-faceted approach to recovery, incorporating skills, trade, innovation and the green economy.
This includes the development of a flexible skills fund; widening access to apprenticeships by removing the age cap; developing proposals to implement an artificial intelligence centre of excellence; accelerating delivery of City and Growth Deals which will inject over £1.5bn into our economy; stimulating tourism through targeted marketing and capacity building investment; and developing a green innovation challenge fund.
The initiative that has received the most attention however, Mr Speaker, is the High Street Scheme.
Our local retailers, hospitality and service sector are among those that have borne the brunt of the economic downturn. Their ability to trade has been severely hampered by the stop-start restrictions that have been implemented over the past 18 months. Many also suffered the devastating impact of consumer drift to online shopping that lockdown incentivised.
For the most part, the shops, cafes, restaurants, salons and pubs that make up the lifeblood of communities in all our constituencies survived the pandemic but they needed our help to attract their customers back, and to recover. And we were there to provide it.
We knew that by providing every eligible adult in Northern Ireland with a pre-paid Spend Local £100 card, we could stimulate economic recovery on our local high streets and town centres and at the same time protect local jobs. This would mean that 1.4 million people would receive and spend an extra £140m in local businesses throughout Northern Ireland and shift consumer spending from online to physical locations. We could see the multiplier effect it would have, both in bringing many more customers back through the doors of local retail, hospitality and other sectors, and in leveraging spend over and above the £100 on the card by people who will use it as part payment for a larger purchase.
However, no one should underestimate the scale of the task in delivering the High Street Scheme.
In a matter of months we put in place a system to accept, verify and process applications from every eligible adult in Northern Ireland – that is over 1.4 million people. We implemented a process to manufacturer, dispatch and deliver cards which were unique to every applicant. And we worked with traders to ensure their understanding of the scheme and to incentivise sales into local businesses.
This had never been done before in our history, and I can share with members that other jurisdictions are watching on with keen interest in how we have managed to deliver this.
It was important to me that as many people as possible could access the scheme, and that their journey through the process was as straightforward as possible.
We launched an applications portal on 27 September. Then, on 11 October, we opened a telephone service to support applications from people not able to access or use the online portal. The later opening of the telephone service was implemented to encourage more people to apply online and avoid using the phone line, leaving it available for those who needed it most. We also introduced a system of trusted partners to enable asylum seekers and the homeless to apply.
Mr Speaker, the portal and phone line closed on 25 October by which point we had received over 1.43m applications – very much within the range of our predictions at the outset.
It was - and continues to be - essential that we verify the identity of every single applicant as we have been aware from the outset that a scheme of this nature is open to potential fraud. No Member would want that.
Unlike Jersey, we do not hold a citizen’s database and therefore we have had to use what databases we can access to verify applicants while ensuring at all times we are GDPR compliant.
We asked each applicant for information which we initially attempted to match against the data held on the electoral register. For those who are not matched using the electoral register, we then attempted to verify their details using driving licence data and Department for Communities’ benefits data. Over 1.264 million applications, which is 88% of total applications, have been verified through these automated checks.
There were unfortunately around 160k people whose details we were unable to verify via the databases used.
None of these applicants – let me repeat – none of these applicants have been rejected and every one of them have been given an opportunity to submit evidence that they live in Northern Ireland and are over 18 years old.
Mr Speaker, the Assembly can be assured that we are applying maximum flexibility on the information that can be provided to confirm they are eligible for a Spend Local card. That means where there is a genuine attempt to provide information, where there is a clear link between the application and the documents provided and a reasonable level of confidence that the person is eligible they will be verified, providing that the information returned is clear and legible.
To date, over 90k people have submitted this additional evidence and despite some negativity from the usual quarters, it looks likely that around 98% of these will get their application approved.
There is still a sizable group that have not yet submitted evidence of eligibility a reminder e-mail has just been sent to everyone who has not responded and we will continue to reach out to these people via social media and other channels to encourage them to respond to the e-mail as soon as possible. The quicker we can receive their information the quicker we can issue them with their card and they can use it to support their local businesses.
I would like to specifically address erroneous accusations that have been made that I, my Department or this scheme have acted in any way to discriminate against any groups. Let me be absolutely clear once again, no one has been rejected for a Spend Local card.
And I find it particularly difficult to comprehend how anyone who, in their own words “doesn’t know the ins-and outs” and “doesn’t know the intricacies of how the policy has been implemented” can go on to a public forum and say there is a very strong case that sexual discrimination has occurred. I would expect more from the Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission.
Had she have contacted me, I would have informed her that there has been a relatively small number of cases where a birth certificate has not been initially accepted as proof of date of birth as a maiden name does not match the name on the application form. I have taken early and decisive action to address this issue, and can now assure members that applicants will not be facing this issue.
Mr Speaker, let me repeat again, the purpose of the scheme is to get as much stimulus into our local businesses as possible. The best and only way to achieve that policy goal is to get the most number of eligible people supporting their local businesses with their Spend Local card. My Department is demonstrating maximum flexibility in its consideration of the documents we receive to ensure we meet this objective.
The process of verifying peoples’ identity who have not matched against the automated checks is ongoing. We continue to listen and make changes to the list of verification documents that are acceptable as proof of identity and age. This includes letters from trusted partners including care homes that can be provided rather than documents of proof of address and date of birth. The Department is working as flexibily as possible and will continue to refine this process if required.
In instances were older people and people in care homes may have difficulty in providing this information I would encourage family members, friends, care homes staff and other organisation to support them through this process if they have permission to do so.
My Department is also working closely with the Commissioner for Older People and other trusted partners to ensure we make the customer journey as simple as possible for older people.
To date, over 1.024 million cards have been dispatched, over 580,000 of these have been activated. Over £26.5m has now been injected into our local economy. These are quite remarkable statistics and, while it is still early days, I think it is fair to say the process of recovery on our high streets is now under way.
By the end of this week, cards will have been dispatched to at least 95% of applicants that we have been able to match on the information held on the databases. And by the middle of next week, cards will have been dispatched to all those verified to date.
It remains the case that most people WILL have 4 weeks to spend their card, but I recognise that this will not be the case for everyone.
Therefore in order to offer these applicants a fair timescale to use their card, I can today announce that I am extending the deadline to use the Spend Local cards by two weeks - from 30 November to 14 December.
I know this is something that members on the Economy Committee had requested and I am happy to agree. This will mean that the vast majority of people will have at least four weeks to use their card.
That means spending their card in local shops from Belfast to Enniskillen, Coleraine to Newry and everywhere in between, right across Northern Ireland
In order to maximise the benefit to our local businesses including retail, hospitality and service sectors, it is vitally important that everyone spends the full £100 on their Spend Local card. The extra two-week period will also allow card holders who have some balance left on their card, no matter how small, to spend it in local businesses.
For anyone who has any balance left on their card, no matter how small, my message is: please go out and spend it locally. Buy a coffee, a breakfast, a newspaper or magazine, or even a small present for someone this Christmas. Maximise the Spend Local card. Every penny spent will help.
Mr Speaker, the objective of the High Street Scheme is to stimulate recovery in our local businesses by encouraging increased spending rather than online. By extending the deadline to use the Spend Local card, we can encourage more people to purchase Christmas presents, Christmas decorations and even food for Christmas dinner in their local area rather than online.
I have consistently encouraged all card holders to use their Spend Local cards to support businesses in their local area that have been impacted by the pandemic. I have been hugely encouraged by the level of engagement not only from the public, but also from our retail, hospitality and service sectors. Many local businesses – across all parts of Northern Ireland - have further incentivised spend in their premises by offering additional savings or rewards.
By helping themselves in this way, they are also helping their staff, their suppliers and their neighbouring businesses. Spending a little, does have a big effect.
Mr Speaker, the journey to recovery for retail, hospitality and service sector has just begun and, as more and more people receive their Spend Local cards through their letterboxes daily, I would urge them to activate it as soon as they get it and then spend every single last penny on it.
And finally, remember: please, please Spend Local.