Call for Kantar details to be released in full
The Department for Economy has been called on to release all the information it has on a report carried out by market analysts Kantar on prices and the NI Protocol.
On Tuesday night’s BBC TV leaders’ debate, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson cited figures from the report, which had been commissioned by the Department for the Economy (DfE), headed by his own party's Gordon Lyons since last year.
Now the DfE is under pressure to explain how Sir Jeffrey had information from the report which he claimed reveals there is a link between higher food prices and the NI Protocol.
However, officials are remaining silent, not even acknowledging the receipt of questions amid calls for the report to be released.
Alliance economy spokesman Stewart Dickson said: “I think in order for people to understand what Mr Donaldson was saying, it's vitally important for the Department for the Economy to release all of that information so that it's in the public domain and people can make up their own minds as whether to believe him or whether they'd prefer to believe others who contradicted the so-called facts he gave."
The report was not handed to the Economy Committee prior to the end of the mandate, according to several sources.
The apparent leak of information from the unpublished report is a “clear breach” of Stormont rules, no matter how it happened, according to one party economic adviser.
Economist Paul Gosling, a policy adviser to the SDLP’s Sinead McLaughlin, who was deputy chair of the Economy Committee until late last year, said no report from Kantar came before the committee while she held that position.
“What is significant is that anything that goes before the committee is confidential unless the committee decides to make it public,” Mr Gosling said.
If the information was passed on by members of the committee, that would be a “clear breach” of Stormont rules.
“If it did not go to the committee it is even more of a breach. It is unacceptable if either a few civil servants or the Minister saw this report” and then it found its way to Sir Jeffrey, Mr Gosling said.
He added: "It is news to me and I am unaware of any politicians in the SDLP seeing it.”
Sir Jeffrey claimed increasing food costs in Northern Ireland are "direct results of the NI Protocol”.
During the BBC’s leaders’ debate, Sir Jeffrey said: “As a direct result of the increased cost in bringing food products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland due to the protocol, consumers in Northern Ireland are now paying on average 4% more per item than they are in Great Britain at the moment.
“When you look at dairy products, that rises to 8%, and when you look at chilled convenience goods, it rises to 19% more for those products.”
When asked if Kantar states the price rises are directly linked to the protocol, Mr Donaldson told the BBC: “Yes, it demonstrates that the additional costs are linked to the increase in extra customs checks, delays in transporting goods, additional paperwork and additional staff that have to be employed [as a result of the protocol].”
Economists have questioned the link made by Mr Donaldson, arguing some of the difference in food costs between NI and GB pre-dates Brexit and the NI Protocol.
The DfE was unable to say whether the economic report was publicly available and could be released to the Belfast Telegraph, or even confirm a study by Kantar that Sir Jeffrey referenced was commissioned by the department.
It was unable to answer whether the points made by Sir Jeffrey were correct, specifically that consumers in NI "were paying four percent more per item than in GB, eight percent more for dairy products and 19% more for chilled convenience goods".
The department did not answer when asked if the report was circulated among, and available to, all MLAs/MPs and election candidates.
The DUP did not immediately respond after being asked how Sir Jeffrey was able to obtain information contained in an unpublished report.
"While Kantar did do this research, it was commissioned by a specific client [in this case the government] and the data therefore belongs to them," the company told the Belfast Telegraph.
"It is not publicly available, and unfortunately we are not authorised to share it through the press office."