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Business Exports And Finance Motion 2/10/2012

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In supporting the motion, I pay tribute to the Minister for her recognition of the problem, particularly in SMEs, and for her initiatives and willingness to look beyond the current banking structures and examine ways in which small businesses might access non-bank sources to stimulate their activity and market.

If I am critical of the motion in any way, it is because it fails to recognise that the problem has already been identified and some initiatives undertaken.

In the general thrust of things, we, within the structures of the Assembly and Departments, need to match the innovation being shown by many SMEs, which are exporting in new and imaginative ways. We need to look at ways in which we can support them, including through finance. As well as what are regarded as the traditional methods, there are other opportunities to be explored. I pay tribute to Invest Northern Ireland for its willingness to explore those opportunities, which include crowd funding and expanding our base of angel investors.

We live in a generally conservative business environment in Northern Ireland. In many ways, companies have traditionally been reluctant to give up some control through the purchase of, or investment in, equity. However, in today's modern economy, that is perhaps one of the most effective ways of securing finance. It also has the added benefit of bringing professional expertise to bear in businesses. I meet many businesspeople, as, I am sure, do all MLAs, and I appeal to them to take advantage of the many support and information programmes that are available through the Department and Invest Northern Ireland to assist local SMEs.

Having spoken to those regarded as expert in the field, I believe that our range of support for SMEs is amongst the most comprehensive. Of course, there are particular things that we would like to see and things that we would like to see done better or more extensively. However, as the domestic market shows no signs of any significant growth, at least not in the immediate future, our focus must continue to be on assisting and supporting local companies and helping them to get their products overseas.

I firmly believe that, although we need to ensure that businesses are aware of all the possible sources of finance, we must also ensure that they are not borrowing for the sake of it. Instead, we must ensure that their plans for growth are matched against their borrowing and development so that they utilise that finance properly. I believe that all the support mechanisms are in place to ensure that that is the case.

I welcome many of the recent bank interventions, although there is still a long way to go. In today's market, businesses are right to be cautious in their planning. TV coverage of the Prime Minister's visit to Brazil only last week highlighted the attempts by Brazil and the UK to build trade agreements. That is a welcome step, as is the fact that our Minister is taking similar steps. I am encouraged by the steps that the Minister is taking and by her efforts to support our SMEs on a global basis.

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