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Northern Ireland business leaders urge SoS Brandon Lewis to ensure government's Brexit trade barrier promise is kept

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Newly appointed Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Credit: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

Newly appointed Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Credit: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

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Newly appointed Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Credit: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

The new Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has been urged to ensure the government honours its promise to avoid barriers to trade to and from Great Britain following Brexit.

Business leaders said Mr Lewis was inheriting the post of Secretary of State at a critical time for Northern Ireland.

Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of Manufacturing NI, urged Mr Lewis to ensure the Assembly and Executive were sustainable by delivering on the financial commitments made by the UK government in the New Decade, New Approach deal.

He said the government needed to prevent barriers to trade and ensure that the apprenticeship levy scheme for NI was operated correctly.

While all employers with a pay bill of over £3m a year are obliged to pay the levy, Northern Ireland has still not been able to access the funding raised since the levy was introduced in 2017.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said Mr Lewis had “big shoes to fill” after succeeding Julian Smith.

“He needs to very quickly take up the mantle of presenting the concerns of Northern Ireland business to the Cabinet and No.10, especially on leaving the European Union. To do that he needs to engage with the NI business community on a regular basis and spend the time to understand us," he said.

“In a very short period of time he needs to garner a holistic view of our economy from industries to households and how they will be affected by decisions in Westminster and Europe.”

He added: “The NI Protocol presents severe problems for business and households and the new Secretary of State must have mitigations to this as a key priority.”

NI Chamber chief executive Ann McGregor said: “Mr Lewis takes up the position as Secretary of State at a critical time for business where industry will be looking for him to build on the positive work of his predecessor.

“Business leaders have a list of urgent priorities which the new Secretary of State must get to grips with quickly.

“Whilst the Brexit bill gives business some respite, it doesn’t deliver certainty, especially in terms of NI/GB trade and vice-versa.

“The next 10 months are critical and swift action is needed to provide certainty around trade conditions and access to markets, as well as the challenges of skills, infrastructure and connectivity.”

Kirsty McManus, national director of the Institute of Directors NI, welcomed Mr Lewis’s appointment.

“We look forward to engaging with him as we aim to continue the strong relationship forged with Julian Smith over the past six months," she said.

“We also pay tribute to the work carried out by Julian Smith during his relatively short time in post, not least of course contributing to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and helping to secure the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement.

“We will seek an early meeting with Mr Lewis as we work to ensure the ambitions set out in that agreement remain a priority and to convey the concerns of local business leaders on other key issues including skills and productivity.”

Colin Neill, chief executive Hospitality Ulster, said “The challenges facing the hospitality industry are well-known and we will be pushing the new Secretary of State to support us in pushing key issues which are holding the economy in Northern Ireland back.

“This includes working to address the outdated rating system, high levels of hospitality Vat and tackling the issue of air passenger duty.

“The recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee report earlier this year was a blow to the hospitality industry and we will be impressing upon the new Secretary of State the importance of the special circumstances which are required for Northern Ireland business.”

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