Mitchel McLaughlin was keen to press Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, on the concern over the outsourcing of civil service jobs in the Pension Service at Waterside House in Derry/Londonderry during today’s topical questions. Mr Hamilton countered that trade union staff have been consulted fully throughout the process and that pension reform in Westminster “is necessitating that we streamline what we do”. He believes that he is “duty-bound to provide the best service that I possibly can for everybody in Northern Ireland and to do so in a value-for-money way”. Furthermore, the Pension Service may lose staff as a result but those affected will not be made redundant but rather moved around the system in accordance with the general practice of the Civil Service.

Alban Maginness then expressed his concern about Royal Bank of Scotland’s (RBS) proposed review of Ulster Bank, speculating that these kinds of reviews typically result in branch closures and job losses. While the Minister shared the Member’s concerns about the potential loss of jobs and the timescale of three years given for the sale of assets (given the current state of Northern Ireland’s property market), he mirrored the Enterprise Minister’s delight (expressed in her previous Question Time) that the Treasury has taken the decision to keep Ulster Bank as a part of the RBS group and not cut it loose (despite previous difficulties). He concluded that we need Ulster Bank to be functioning properly and lending money to allow our businesses to prosper in the current climate of economic recovery.

The scheduled oral questions were dominated by the issue of rates and specifically how they affect our small businesses. When discussing what considerations will be given to businesses in town centres when conducting the non-domestic rating review, the Minister said that “businesses in town centres are treated in exactly the same way as businesses elsewhere”. He went on to praise the successful initiatives that have helped our businesses such as the Small Business Rates Relief Scheme which has proven to have been “of great assistance to businesses right across Northern Ireland” and has resulted in over half of the businesses in the country saving at least 20% on their rates bill. DFP has also continually frozen the non-domestic regional rate. The Empty Premises Relief also sees new businesses receive 50% rates relief in the first year of business – a concerted effort to get premises back in use and more companies back in business. The Minister did however warn that there is a requirement that businesses are sound and viable otherwise no amount of rate relief will be able to help them succeed in the long term.

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