Belfast Telegraph

Access to Finance Implementation Panel will probe businesses' access to bank loans

BY DAVID ELLIOTT

As Northern Ireland's banks start to put the worst of the credit crunch behind them, the Executive has announced it has commissioned an independent panel to find out if access to finance really is a problem for businesses.

The Access to Finance Implementation Panel (AFIP) was launched yesterday by Finance Minister Simon Hamilton and Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster, although it has already met.

It has been tasked with finding out if claims by business that finance is extremely difficult to access stand up against claims from the banks that few businesses are coming forward to ask for lending.

"For some time now we have been faced with a situation where banks have been saying that they have money to lend but that there is no demand, and where many businesses are saying they cannot get the money they need to invest and grow," Mr Hamilton said.

And because Northern Ireland has a unique mix of banks listed in both the Republic and the UK, the effectiveness of the various efforts to get lending flowing again will also come under the spotlight.

"It all adds up to a situation where constrained business lending is impeding our economic recovery," Mr Hamilton said.

"This panel will bring independent eyes to this. We have asked it to tell it to us exactly as they see it.

"It will work with us, the banks and the business bodies to progress the issues associated with access to finance that we have identified."

Three people will sit on the panel:

* Professor Russel Griggs, Independent Reviewer of the UK Banking Appeals Process, and chair of the panel

* John Trethowan, head of the Credit Review Office in the Republic of Ireland and non-executive director of Progressive Building Society

* Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce (NICC).

Arlene Foster said the mix of experience on the panel will serve it well.

"The members of this Panel bring with them a wealth of knowledge and expertise on banking issues both in GB and Northern Ireland, as well as in the Republic of Ireland. Ann McGregor also ensures there is a detailed understanding of the current challenges facing local businesses, and in particular SMEs, in accessing finance."

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