Belfast Telegraph

Minister Jonathan Bell is accused of 'falling asleep at the wheel' over manufacturing study

Bell under fire over lack of response to report on challenges facing industry

By John Mulgrew

Outgoing Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell has been accused of "falling asleep at the wheel" after failing to respond to a report his own department commissioned as his time in office draws to a close.

Mr Bell set up his manufacturing crisis group, following a spate of major job losses - including at tyre giant Michelin, JTI Gallagher and Bombardier - across Northern Ireland.

The report points the finger at huge energy costs which are facing industry here, which it says are "some of the highest in Europe".

It says large firms face costs 60% higher than the EU average.

It's understood Mr Bell's department has had the report into the challenges facing manufacturing since March 24.

The report was drafted by a group led by Dale Farm boss David Dobbin.

But despite Mr Bell's department's regular release of statements and job announcements, he has not responded or issued any comment on the major study.

The Minister set the challenging March 1 deadline for his Energy and Manufacturing Advisory Group.

The report was published on the department's website yesterday, following a query from this paper about its delay.

A spokeswoman for DETI said Mr Bell had not issued a response and was "taking time to consider" the "comprehensive" 10-page report rather than "hastily" issue a response.

"The recommendations of the Energy and Manufacturing Group report are wide-reaching and will greatly assist DETI and the Department of the Economy in due course," it said. "Given the report was received in late March, it was not possible to give the report the consideration it deserved before the pre-election period began."

Mr Bell and his department have been "asleep at the wheel," according to the former chairman of the enterprise committee, Patsy McGlone.

"I think this widely reflects that in the department under Jonathan Bell's charge, there has been a remarkable change in the efficiency of the department, which has declined remarkably under his watch," he said.

"He is away to wash his hands of it completely.

"We had calls from trade unions after JTI Gallagher and the Michelin issue.

"He doesn't seem to have attached much priority to drive it on, during the twilight period in his time as Minister."

Technically, Mr Bell remains Minister until the election.

His department said "Ministers are free to comment" but "arrangements during this period are normally provided through the political party and not the civil service".

In the two weeks before the dissolution of the Assembly, the department issued 16 separate press releases.

In the report, David Dobbin says it is "essential that Government creates a business friendly environment, with modern infrastructure and competitive operating costs".

It calls on the next Executive to ensure prices are at an EU average, and to clarify its position on subsidies for renewable power.

It also wants the Executive to "do everything it can" to ensure planning gets the go-ahead for the North-South inter-connector.

Belfast Telegraph