Northern Ireland jobs agency spends more than £500,000 wining and dining
Northern Ireland's jobs agency spent more than £500,000 wining and dining potential clients over one year, new figures have shown.
Questions have been raised after the Invest NI hospitality bill for the 2011/12 financial year came in at £511,699.
Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster has confirmed that the total includes cash spent on attending three key golf tournaments – the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, last year's US Open in San Francisco and the Ryder Cup in Chicago – in a bid to attract new jobs.
Invest NI, the job-creation quango, defended the spending saying it had managed to "promote" 6,556 jobs overall,
But Jim Allister, who obtained the figures, slammed them as "lavish" and "excessive" and is demanding a deeper examination of the expenditure.
The North Antrim MLA also said it was disappointing that the hospitality spend has not gone down given the "public disquiet" over the figures last year.
The Traditional Unionist Voice leader said: "There is a place for hospitality but in a time of austerity – in which we are told we are 'all in it together' – it is vital that hard-pressed taxpayers are confident that their money is not being squandered. The lavish use of public funds on wining and dining by Invest NI has been a matter which has concerned me for some time."
Just over a year ago figures given to Mr Allister revealed that Invest NI spent more than £2m on hospitality in a period which included the beginning of the 2011/12 year.
It came after the Belfast Telegraph revealed the body forked out more than £4,000 on a single event for 14 representatives – a five-course meal, which included a Champagne reception, and which was followed by an intimate Van Morrison concert.
"I am disappointed that the public disquiet which this generated last year has not resulted in a fall in the expenditure on hospitality by Invest NI," Mr Allister added.
"Doubtless they will claim that it was all spent in a prudent fashion, but over half-a-million in a single year seems excessive, to say the least".
The North Antrim MLA said he now intends to table a further series of Assembly questions asking for a breakdown of the £511,699.
In a written response to Mr Allister, Mrs Foster said: "The spend... included enhanced expenditure on three major golf tournaments, the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, the US Open and the Ryder Cup, following specific requests from ministers and other elected representatives."
The aim, she said, was to capitalise on the surge of interest in Northern Ireland following the soaring success of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke "to build and develop relationships with potential investors".
Invest NI boss Alastair Hamilton, who spent one day at the Ryder Cup promotion in the States, added: "Not to have been there would have been a missed opportunity. The USA remains our most important international market from which to source new inward investment."
The agency said the cost of the corporate hospitality at the Ryder Cup was $55,000 (£36,373) and at the US Open $40,000 (£26,453) – each spread across six days.
Mr Hamilton was in the US for a series of meetings, including meetings with the Caterpillar corporation, resulting in the recent announcement of 200 new jobs.
In a statement last night, Invest NI said: "In the very challenging global market in which we operate, and where we are competing against over 150 other economic development agencies to bring new jobs to Northern Ireland, hospitality is only one of the tools at our disposal throughout the entire sales development process.
"(It) has played an important role in Belfast having become over a 10-year period from a zero start, the number one city in the world for financial services technology investments, ahead of Dublin, Toronto, Warsaw and Bangalore, with global names such as Citi, CME, NYSE Technologies investing in the region."
Analysis: Cash well spent as visits could bring us rich returns
By Alastair Hamilton
As any sales professional will tell you, you only have two minutes to make a first impression and, at best, 30 minutes to make your initial pitch.
Invest NI sells Northern Ireland. We are competing with more than 150 other economic development agencies to bring new, high-quality jobs to Northern Ireland. We have stretching targets to meet, set by the Executive as part of the Programme for Government. We need to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that we continue to deliver the quantity and quality of results of recent years.
Much of our sales process is spent setting out the Northern Ireland offering, developing personal and corporate relationships and instilling confidence in potential investors to the point where they commit to projects. Meeting and engaging with key decision-makers is a crucial part of this process.
Having a presence at large-scale events gives us the opportunity to build relationships in a more relaxed atmosphere, and over a longer period of time than we would be offered in a business meeting. It is also an effective use of our time, too, as we get to meet with more people in a day than we would through one-to-one meetings.
Questions have been asked about the validity of our presence at the US Open and Ryder Cup, but to not have been there would have been a missed opportunity – opportunities we have been encouraged to make use of by the NI Executive.
The USA remains our most important international market from which to source new inward investment and, within that, Chicago is a key hub from which Northern Ireland has enjoyed disproportionate success, with key investors such as Allstate, Caterpillar and CME being headquartered there. In recent years each of these has made substantial investments and brought significant new high-quality jobs to Northern Ireland.
We believe there is further, as yet untapped, potential to secure further US investment.
In corporate international boardrooms, and in the US in particular, the interest in golf is phenomenal and it is an area where we're enjoying unprecedented global exposure following our three recent Major winners and the benefit of having two of the top golf courses in the world.
So, if even one of these engagements results in a project being secured, that alone will undoubtedly generate a return many times more than our initial investment.