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Support scheme for transport sector ‘trapped in game of ping pong’

Economy Minister Diane Dodds insists Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon should have acted earlier, while the SDLP claim Ms Dodds failed to act.

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The Department of Infrastructure will now take control of the project (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Department of Infrastructure will now take control of the project (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Department of Infrastructure will now take control of the project (Liam McBurney/PA)

A support scheme for the transport sector has been held up for months amid a “game of ping pong” between Stormont departments, the Assembly has heard.

Both Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon (SDLP) and Economy Minister Diane Dodds (DUP) have been accused of “failing” to act to support the taxi, coach and haulage industries during the coronavirus pandemic.

Support schemes for the sector are set to be brought by Ms Mallon’s department, it emerged on Monday.

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Economy Minister Diane Dodds (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Economy Minister Diane Dodds (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

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Economy Minister Diane Dodds (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Ms Mallon said she could not give a date when these schemes will be delivered.

She told the BBC the money for the aid has not been released to her department but she will meet representatives of the industries.

The delay was the subject of heated discussion in the Assembly across the day.

Sinn Fein MLA Martina Anderson claimed the industries had been trapped in a “game of ping pong” between the Department for the Economy and the Department of Infrastructure.

Responding to Ms Anderson, First Minister Arlene Foster said she, along with deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, had intervened “to direct that the Minister of Infrastructure should take forward this scheme”.

“It’s disappointing that that scheme hasn’t been put in place up until now and I think it is wrong that that sector in particular hasn’t had the help and assistance that they had been looking for,” Ms Foster told the Assembly.

Earlier during questions for the Economy Minister, SDLP MLA Justin McNulty put to Ms Dodds: “Why did it take so long for you to admit that you weren’t willing or able to offer support to those industries?”

Ms Dodds hit back, accusing Ms Mallon of being late to act.

“I welcome that these schemes will now be brought forward. It is a pity that the Minister for Infrastructure was a little bit late in coming to the decision that we would be able to do those schemes unlike other ministers across the Executive,” she told the Assembly.

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan put to Ms Dodds that Ms Mallon stepped in when the Executive Office confirmed her powers to do so, “all because of the Economy Minister’s failure, or reluctance to use her own powers to help them”.

Ms Dodds said her department has provided over a third of a billion pounds in support for businesses, including some local taxi firms, via rates relief and hardship funds.

“However, it is also important that those departments that have regulatory responsibility step up and actually take on that responsibility and look at the areas where they can provide help,” she said.

Ms Dodds said in terms of the haulage industry, her department does not hold statistics or figures, needed to provide a support scheme.

“The Department of Infrastructure holds all of those figures, therefore it would seem sensible that the Department of Infrastructure steps up and gets going with a scheme that will actually help the industry, which at the height and depths of Covid kept food supplies running to Northern Ireland,” she added.

After many months of party political point scoring, it is now accepted that minister Mallon did not have and does not have the powers to act and therefore has been unable to provide financial supportSpokesperson for Nichola Mallon

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ms Mallon claimed there has been “many months of party political point scoring”.

“Minister Mallon has made it clear since March she will do all that she can to support these industries, however she does not have the powers (vires) to provide financial support to private businesses,” they said.

“After many months of party political point scoring, it is now accepted that Minister Mallon did not have and does not have the powers to act and therefore has been unable to provide financial support. However, in the absence of action from the Minister with the powers – she will step up and act as quickly as possible.”

PA