More worries raised about the High Street coronavirus voucher in Northern Ireland – this time about excluding teenage shoppers

MLAs have raised concerns about 16 and 17-year-olds being excluded from a new high street voucher scheme intended to boost retail devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wednesday, 25th August 2021, 2:41 pm
Updated Wednesday, 25th August 2021, 2:46 pm
A mock-up of the voucher card

Every adult in Northern Ireland will eligible for a £100 pre-paid card.

To apply, people will have to be 18 before applications close on October 11 and the card has to be spent by November 30.

The scheme was devised to help struggling local businesses by giving punters cash to treat themselves to something they wouldn’t have otherwise bought.

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But the News Letter has previously pointed out a gaping loophole in the plan: the only requirement is that the money to be spent in some kind of shop, not online – meaning it could just as easily end up subsidising a perfectly healthy multinational as a struggling native business.

Stormont’s Economy Committee was given an update on the £145m scheme.

Department for the Economy official Tommy O’Reilly told the committee that the scheme would launch in September.

Committee chairwoman Caoimhe Archibald asked: “We have previously discussed making the card available to 16 and 17-year-olds. Is that something which is still under consideration?

“Obviously there are a lot of young people who may live independently, who may work and who would have National Insurance numbers.”

Mr O’Reilly said: “The policy is that we are only making the scheme available to those who are 18-plus. There are clear reasons why we shouldn’t be opening it up to those who are under the age of 18 and we have to draw some boundaries around that.

“That is where the policy sits at the moment in terms of trying to ensure the scheme can be delivered as efficiently as possible and within the timeframes and within the overall budget.

“If we are going to give £100 to every adult eligible in Northern Ireland, our most recent estimates from Nisra is that the numbers will be estimated at 1.5 million. We have only got about £140m so there is a very thin margin.”

Ms Archibald responded: “I would just make the point that 16-year-olds would be considered working age for Nisra. In terms of the intent of the scheme in bringing people back into the shops, that younger cohort has been one of the age groups whose behaviour has most changed because of Covid.

“In terms of bringing a different cohort into businesses, it would benefit to include that age group.”

Mr O’Reilly said the department had ultimately had to make a decision around the overall policy, adding: “Sixteen and 17-year-olds are not considered as adults. If you go below that, why not 15s? Why not 14s? We need to draw this boundary somewhere to ensure that we can deliver the economic benefits.”

“The policy has not finally been nailed down because we are giving our minister some further legal advice around this issue, but that is where the policy stands at this moment.”

MLA Claire Sugden said: “Sixteen and 17-year-olds can work, they have a National Insurance number, they can spend. I would be fully supportive of extending it to 16 and 17-year-olds.

“If this is about encouraging people to shop in the high street, who better than that age cohort who you would expect to shop online? I don’t understand the department’s rationale for not extending it, any of the reasons given at this point don’t make sense to me.”

MLA Stewart Dickson added: “Around the lower age limit, is it likely that a further legal intervention, for example an equality or other claim would delay the scheme?”

Mr O’Reilly said he could not answer because he is not legally qualified, but said the department was taking legal advice.

The committee agreed to write to Economy Minister Gordon Lyons to say they support the principle of 16 to 17-year-olds being included, but did not want the current scheme to be delayed.

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