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Assembly Speech- Economic Downturn Motion 8/12/2008

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Mr Speaker / Deputy Speaker

I welcome this motion today because it gives us all the opportunity to put on record our recognition and concern for the business community in Northern Ireland during these difficult times.

Northern Ireland is very much a small business economy, therefore we should all be concerned for when they are being damaged by the economy downturn, it affects us all.

Some have predicted we will fair that little bit better because of our heavy reliance on the public sector. I am not convinced. Over 95% of our private sector is small businesses and it is a loss in confidence and the ability to trade by this sector which will have the most negative effects.

I have met many businesses in my constituency, and beyond. Manufacturers, service providers, new start ups and long established family firms. They all have one thing in common; the need for steady cash flow in order to continue trading.

At the heart of this is the need for a positive relationship with their bankers and I have heard less than encouraging reports from these people. This is very disappointing but I am sure the Executive will make a priority measures to ensure banks step up to the mark.

I have been told of banks refusing very good, solid businesses credit when they almost expected these same businesses to extend their credit during the good times not so long ago.

In short they have proved a poor partner to the small businessman when the going got tough.

I understand that many of the measures that will be of most help to small businesses have already been announced in the recent Pre-budget report, and will be implemented by the Treasury.

It is positive to note that the business community have largely welcomed the measures, although I am disappointed that our hauliers have been hit by a further rise in fuel duty. This will further damage our hauliers and go against all the supportive language used by government towards business at this time.

I especially welcome the £1billion finance fund aimed at small businesses and which I have received assurances businesses in Northern Ireland will be able to apply to.

The apparent intention at this stage is to distribute these loans through the high street banks.

I would be grateful if the Minister would also confirm that this is also the intention in Northern Ireland and reassure Members that he will be working with the banks to ensure that small businesses are sufficiently aware of the options open to them to avail of this source of funding.

Furthermore this funding must be made available as soon as possible. The Treasury are working to a target date of the end of January, I would suggest that this is not good enough and I ask the Minister and his Executive colleagues to do all in their power to ensure measures are in place before this timeframe, for the sake of many already desperate small businesses.

I have no doubt the Minister already fully recognises the potential for significant job losses.

All of us here today have many small businesses in our constituencies and hear regularly from our constituents of the difficulties they are experiencing.

The headlines of many larger businesses – such as Woolworths, MFI etc etc – merely compound the stories, that I hear on the ground, and in this context the ‘potential’ has already become a reality.

I would hesitate when it comes to ‘government action plans’. Many in the business community recoil when these words are being used.

They pay their rates. They pay their taxes. They invest in their businesses and their staff.

They want simple, practical measures which will support their businesses now the bad times are upon us.

Minister Dodds highlighted the measures that have already been implemented by his department with regards to rates. Each of these have already had a positive effect and I welcome his words that his department is examining the merits of introducing a targeted small business rates relief scheme.

This has been introduced in the rest of the UK, and has been especially successful in Wales and Scotland, where in fact it has been extended beyond its original remit.

I also welcome the positive already taken by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in meeting with the lead business organisations, who I understand, joined together and produced a series of practical measure which would be helpful at this time.

The Enterprise Minister has also recently announced measures through the innovation strategy to encourage small businesses to innovate and expand into new markets.

The recent example of Hawk Protection Ltd winning a contract to supply the Scottish Police Forces shows how there is still potential in the marketplace for companies with imagination and willingness to look at specialised market opportunities.

In my own East Belfast constituency, the Titanic Signature project will be a boost for local businesses, especially in the construction industry, with a trickle down effect benefiting those supplying these companies and their workers.

Ministers are demonstrating what they are doing to help small businesses through this downturn.

There are limits at devolved level with regards to fiscal measures but I urge the Executive to ensure that they bring maximum pressure on the Treasury to ensure Northern Ireland gets a fair deal.

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