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Assembly Speech- Small And Medium Sized Enterprises 24/2/2009

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Mr Speaker / Deputy Speaker

This is an important matter and in these difficult days it is right that economy is being discussed.

It is a serious matter, not to be toyed with and should not be placed on the agenda today as a political strategy or to become a political football.

The holistic economy is not the responsibility of one Minister. Other departments have parts to play in the economic well-being of trade and industry and their prospects for the future.

The owners of SMEs that I have spoken with come up with one clear message, “give us the tools and let us do the job.”

I have already said this motion and this debate is important.
But it is not possible to address the issues of the Northern Ireland small business owner by containing the debate to include only one government department and one Minister.

For instance it is not too difficult to understand how Minister Empey’s department has a major impact on the economy and the SMEs.
he need to address the skills shortfalls or upgrading of employee skills or bringing the solution to the FE lecturers dispute or the problems of apprentices within the construction and the sectors refusal to take part in the Minister’s “fostering programme” for apprentices who have been made redundant.

Each of these major problems has an impact on the well-being and the economic performance of the SMEs in the economy.

And it is obvious to all that unless Minister Empey addresses these problems, problems that crucial for the future employee and the individual business then it will be difficult to move the economy forward. The SMEs expect us to have in place best practice training programmes that can deliver the skills the economy demands.

In addition SMEs want the banks to be playing a positive role in their lending policy and Minister Foster and her Executive colleagues have been addressing this issue right up at Downing Street level. They want a road network that is fit-for-purpose and as we have debated in the chamber on previous occasions they want us to tackle the burden of red tape and bureaucracy.

All departments have a role to play and I urge we work with businesses and do not become an additional burden.

However, I stress we must not fall into the trap of mistaking activity for action.

Businesses perform best when they are given the freedom to trade.

They recoil at the mention of ‘government strategies’.

Practical assistance must be targeted, and measurable by results.

Already the Ministers are working closely with the various business organisations in delivering real results and I urge that this continues.

The Minister has already acknowledged the demands in attracting FDI at the current time, and I commend her for her frankness.

The current review of economic policy and business support will, I am confident, identify and iron out weaknesses in how we are interacting with business.

Businesses in Northern Ireland are made of strong stuff, they have weathered storms before and with this Assembly’s help will do so again. 

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