Erroneous payments in North will be recouped, Diane Dodds says

Minister vows to put in place recovery process for ineligible Covid-19 business grants

Failure to quickly repay Covid-19 grants paid in error led to the resignation of Sinn Féin senator Elisha McCallion. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Failure to quickly repay Covid-19 grants paid in error led to the resignation of Sinn Féin senator Elisha McCallion. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

 

All money paid out to ineligible firms through an emergency Covid-19 business grant scheme in Northern Ireland will be recovered, the Minister in charge has pledged.

Failure to quickly repay grants paid in error led to the resignation of Sinn Féin senator Elisha McCallion, Assembly member Catherine Kelly, and two party officials in recent days.

Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds told the North’s Assembly on Monday that out of a total of 24,700 grants, 452 – worth £4.5 million – had been paid in error, and so far 74 had been recouped.

She said her department would “put in place a full process to recover ineligible payments” and undertake an evaluation of the scheme, which closed on October 20th.

Under the March 2020 scheme, grants of £10,000 (€11,068) were paid automatically to those already in receipt of small business rates relief to support firms affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Clear failure’

Constituency offices belonging to MPs and MLAs were ineligible, but it emerged that payments had been made to three Sinn Féin offices – in West Tyrone and in Lurgan, Co Armagh, as well as that of the then senator, Ms McCallion, in respect of her former office as MP for Foyle.

They were only repaid after the issue was raised by BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show last week.

The Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald apologised for the “clear failure to immediately reimburse public money”, and said the party’s examination of the matter was now “complete”.

It also emerged that a landlord who rents an office to DUP MP Paul Girvan received a grant in error. The money was repaid on Friday.

In the Assembly on Monday, the Alliance Party MLA Andrew Muir said the revelations around the scheme had caused “great anger and concern” in Northern Ireland, and he called on the Minister to “commit to commission a swift, independent investigation into this matter so we all quickly know what happened, who knew, how the money is going to be recovered and why we only found out about this scandal last week”.

Balancing of risk

Defending the scheme, Ms Dodds said there were many businesses “here today that would not be here had they not had that type of relief”.

She said Ministers had taken a decision “supported by every party in the Executive that there would be a number of automatic payments because this would get money out more quickly to those businesses”.

She had, she said, written to ministerial colleagues in March to outline the risk to the scheme, but that risk, “balanced against the need to get money out very, very quickly in a difficult situation in order to save jobs and businesses . . . was a risk they thought was appropriate”.

Following a complaint by the DUP, the PSNI is “considering the matter as to whether a criminal investigation is required” into the three payments to Sinn Féin.

The Assembly’s standards commissioner has also been asked to investigate.

The North’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, told the BBC on Monday her party colleague had been right to report the matter to the police.

“It’s up to the police, of course, whether they decide to instigate criminal investigation but I absolutely support my party colleague in the complaint he has made,” she said.