Foster delivers more help for small businesses

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster today set out plans to deliver more help to small businesses through Invest Northern Ireland.

Speaking to members of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) at its 2011 manifesto launch in Belfast, the Minister outlined a new approach which allows Invest NI to deliver an enhanced service to smaller businesses.

This plan will see Invest NI move from an exclusive client-centric approach to a partnership working with all businesses in Northern Ireland to achieve export-focused growth.

Invest NI will introduce a ‘market segmentation model’, allowing it to work across the whole private sector business base.

The Minister said: “I want Invest Northern Ireland to act as an enabler and catalyst to add value to the Northern Ireland economy. The segmentation model will be a dynamic, flexible approach, which should not be delivered solely by Invest NI but by a partnership approach with District Councils, other departments and potential providers to deliver an integrated approach without duplication.

“The key priority will be how we support more companies that have the greatest potential to deliver export-focused growth.”

The market segmentation approach envisages three key elements. Firstly, the provision of information and advice to all businesses through an information portal, advisory centre and network of locally based information points. Secondly, market development and capability support to help companies grow their business and move into new markets; these services will be offered through a mix of seminars, workshops and standardised solutions. Finally, tailored support to companies who are assessed as having the ability to make the greatest contribution to meeting future targets for productivity, innovation and export growth in Northern Ireland.

The Minister also provided an update to Assembly members today on the implementation of the recommendations stemming from the Independent Review of Economic Policy (IREP).

Many of the IREP recommendations have already been implemented and there is a clear action plan to implement others.

Arlene Foster said: “The IREP report stressed the importance of taking action to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy towards more value-added activities over the medium to long term, while recognising the need to provide short-term support for the economy in response to the global downturn.

“I have secured a £19million ring-fenced budget allocation for a range of measures under a Short-Term Employment Scheme (STES), to be administered by Invest Northern Ireland, which will promote 5,000 jobs during the budget cycle.

“The Scheme is a direct response by the Executive to the economic downturn and recognises the need to take action to alleviate the impact of the recession on the local labour market.”

The Minister continued “As we move to develop a new Economic Strategy and Programme for Government it is imperative that the economy remains the key focus of the Executive.

“In response to an IREP recommendation, an Executive subcommittee on the economy has been established which I chair. In January the sub-committee launched a consultation on a proposed economic framework for growth. An initial assessment of the consultation responses indicates widespread support for the proposed direction of the new strategy which will have a focus on export led economic growth.”

Commenting on the forthcoming UK Government consultation on Rebalancing the Northern Ireland Economy, the Minister stated: “We continue to press for policy levers that would help with the goals outlined in the economic framework. We have been working with HM Treasury and the NIO on a consultation paper on how we might rebalance the economy through the tax system. The paper is very close to being finalised and will be launched very soon, perhaps even later this week.”

IREP recommended that, in order to speed up response times, Invest NI should be given more freedom to operate and be given increased delegated authority in terms of project expenditure. As a result, a new framework for Delegated Authority Limits became operational from July 2010.

Arlene Foster said: “These changes mean that the Invest Northern Ireland Board has, for the first time, has the ability to approve expenditure up to £3million for projects supported by Selective Financial Assistance and £6million for all other projects without recourse to me as Minister. The Chief Executive also has a much greater level of decision making and accountability for major investments.”

Concluding, the Minister said the action taken by DETI and others to address the recommendations of the IREP panel had underlined the Executive’s commitment to making the economy its number one priority.