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Coronavirus: More than 1m people in Northern Ireland to get £100 shop voucher

Scheme will see pre-paid cards sent to every household in attempt to boost NI's economy

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Economy Minister Diane Dodds

Economy Minister Diane Dodds

PA

Economy Minister Diane Dodds

A pre-paid money card of up to £100 in value is to be sent to over a million people here in a move to stimulate the economy early next year.

People all over Northern Ireland will be sent the money for spending in bricks and mortar shops rather than online, in a scheme costing £95m.

And the cards would be valid for just a limited period, for example, if they are sent out in January, then they would have to be spent by the end of March.

The Executive wants to help retailers recover from having to close during lockdowns this year - with non-essential retail having to shut for another two weeks from Friday.

It is adopting a scheme which was used in Jersey earlier this year.

But the Department for the Economy, which is administering the scheme, admitted the planning is in its early stages with even the amount which will be put onto the pre-paid card not yet confirmed.

It's understood the department hopes the card could contain £75 to £100. But for £100 to be sent out, the funds in the scheme would need to be augmented.

And there will also be costs which have to be paid to the provider of the cards, such as Mastercard, which provided the cards and system used in Jersey.

Its early research has identified that 1.1m people out of the total population of 1.8m would be eligible as it's expected that some children would be exempt. However, no lower age limit has yet been set.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds said the policy was "exciting, a bit new, innovative and creative". She said it was designed to act as an economic stimulus to help the high streets.

"If we're going to look at restrictions on retail in the run up to Christmas, the economic impact of that is ever-greater and really, really significant."

She said that one retailer had told her that the run up to Christmas is their "harvest-time", and that the four-week closure was "cutting harvest time in half".

But she said use of the card would have a "multiplier effect" as people were tipped to spend more money than they had been allocated in the card. "If you buy a washing machine you will pay someone to install it."

She said the department will be talking to Chambers of Commerce and retail organisations over the next few weeks to develop the scheme.

And she said that while concerns had been raised over encouraging crowding in town centres - such as was seen outside Belfast city centre's Primark at the weekend - the same crowds would not be there early next year.

"That's been because Christmas is round the corner but that imperative is not there when you get to January, February and March because those are traditionally much quieter times on the high street.

"The idea is to try and stimulate the high street, give back something to businesses and enable those businesses to get a bit of kickstart to their new year.

"It also in the hope that a more normal pattern of life will return early next year with greater testing and a vaccine roll-out."

And while the department had said on Monday that the scheme would "encourage people to shop local and visit local retailers," spending under the scheme will not be limited to locally-owned businesses.

Instead, cardholders will be free to spend in big UK multiples like Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Next.

And while the scheme has been referred to as a "high street stimulus," the card can be used in all kinds of retail spots, such as out of town retail parks and shopping centres.

However, the card cannot be used for spending online and will not be capable of use for gambling.

Ulster Bank economist Richard Ramsey said that while the scheme sounded "wacky" it was a more effective way of getting money out into the economy than providing more grants. He said firms were free to pocket grants without opening up or bringing staff back off furlough.

But he said that the use of vouchers stimulated activity.

"Vouchers on the other hand, when used, demand activity actually occurs. A supply chain is stimulated, cash flow keeps moving and staff are kept on.

"Significantly, the hope is that the voucher would trigger additional spending and activity beyond the voucher transaction (e.g. such as a meal out). There will be a multiplier effect."

Belfast Telegraph


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