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Economy Minister Dodds defends economic advisory panel after parties claim its unrepresentative

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Response: Diane Dodds

Response: Diane Dodds

PA

Response: Diane Dodds

The Economy Minister has defended the make-up of a new economic advisory group, insisting its members are international leaders in their fields amid complaints the panel does not have wider representation.

Diane Dodds was responding to criticism from MLAs and lobby groups that the body, which comprises a number of chief executives and business experts, does not include trade union figures, academics or representatives from the social enterprise sector or green economy.

Appearing yesterday at her Assembly scrutiny committee, Mrs Dodds said: "The Economic Advisory Group is made up of people who are leaders in their field and they are there to identify global market opportunities as well as opportunities across Northern Ireland."

She said her department would always focus on industries that are already well established in the region, such as tourism and agri-food.

The minister said the group would seek to identify emerging global opportunities and trends that Northern Ireland could tap into as the world economy rebuilds after lockdown.

The group will be chaired by Ellvena Graham, former head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland.

"This is an exciting opportunity to work together with the business community as our partners, as we develop an economic strategy for the long-term future of Northern Ireland," Mrs Dodds told the committee.

The minister unveiled the membership of the group earlier on Wednesday as she published her Rebuilding A Stronger Economy plan, which said Northern Ireland will face a "deep and prolonged economic downturn" as a result of the pandemic.

The economic challenges, including an expected increase in unemployment and a drop in consumer spending, are likely to be "further compounded" by the lack of clarity around Brexit, the report added. Mrs Dodds said the numbers added to the unemployment register in April were more than the jobs created in the previous six years.

The group's strategy focuses on delivering higher paying jobs, developing a highly skilled workforce and a more regionally balanced economy.

However, economy committee chairwoman Caoimhe Archibald was among those calling for the group's membership to be expanded.

"The group must be representative of the cross-section of our economy," said the Sinn Fein MLA.

"Amongst the current membership are no representatives of workers, climate science or the green economy.

"To be effective, and to seriously deal with long-standing problems of the past, the crisis of the present, and the threat of climate breakdown, the minister must now widen out the membership of the Economic Advisory Group."

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said he is "deeply disappointed" no trade unionists had been appointed to the group. "Those appointed to the group are experts and will no doubt help rebuild the Northern Ireland economy after this crisis," the East Antrim MLA said.

"However, if we are to truly recover from this pandemic and get back to as close as normal as we can, there needs to be participation from everyone involved. Workers will obviously be a key part, so trade unions should have a voice in this group to advocate for workers' rights."

The SDLP's Sinead McLaughlin described it as a missed opportunity, while the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the National Trust called for environmental representation on the group.

RSPB NI director Joanne Sherwood said it was "striking that none of the 11 members of the new Economic Advisory Group have a track record in natural capital or green economic growth".

However, the DUP's Gary Middleton told the committee said Northern Ireland was lucky to have such an array of experts on the group.

"This group is about bringing together world leaders," he said. "It should be actually commended that we have some of these people to go on to this group given ... their schedules and their expertise - these are global players."

Belfast Telegraph