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pre-paid card Free £100 high street voucher scheme to be launched in Northern Ireland next month

It will provide a pre-paid debit card worth £100 to an estimated 1.5 million over-18s here, to spend in bricks and mortar stores in Northern Ireland

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Economy Minister in North Gordon Lyons relaunching the high street voucher scheme last month with an emphasis on spending the money locally

Economy Minister in North Gordon Lyons relaunching the high street voucher scheme last month with an emphasis on spending the money locally

Economy Minister in North Gordon Lyons relaunching the high street voucher scheme last month with an emphasis on spending the money locally

Northern Ireland’s high street voucher scheme will open on a date after September 12 with an online portal being stress-tested to deal with applications from 50,000 people an hour, it has emerged.

It will provide a pre-paid debit card worth £100 to an estimated 1.5 million over-18s here, to spend in bricks and mortar stores in Northern Ireland.

But the money has to be used by November 30 as the department does not want to displace spending that would happen in the run-up to Christmas.

Civil servants from the North’s Department for the Economy have been briefing MLAs on its scrutiny committee today.

Giving evidence, Tommy O’Reilly of the economic strategy group described it as “the cornerstone of the Economy Minister’s economic recovery plan”.

“Some aspects may attract comment but this scheme has a finite budget and must be delivered in a way that is cost effective, administratively efficient and must be achieved within timescales.”

He said the department had already ruled out extending the scheme to 16 and 17-year-olds.

But he said the card could be given away for spending by someone else with the original cardholder’s permission.

And he said the minister and department had deliberately altered communication of the scheme towards a “spend local” concept instead of a high street emphasis which implied spending in cities and towns.

“While giving people as much freedom as possible (about where they spend the card), we want to see the benefits spread across Northern Ireland and not just focused on cities…

“It can be spent in a range of sectors, not just retail outlets… It’s about encouraging people to support local small businesses and independent businesses, helping them recover from the effects of the pandemic.”

He said that as well as in shops, it could be spent in “beauticians, hairdressers, dressmakers, any service provider which has bricks and mortar premises”.

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Mr O’Reilly said the portal was being tested to ensure it’s “robust, and can handle the expected rush to get the card”.

“We expect significant numbers to make an application in the first two weeks,” he said.

And he said a verification process was part of the online application which would use data sets including entries on the electoral register and Driver Vehicle and Licensing Agency (DVLA) records.

“We are working on it so that it will be able to do 600,000 applications in 12 hours, or about 50,000 an hour - that is what we’re stress-testing.

“So if you have 100,000 go on at once, they won’t all be able to use it.”

He added: “This is roughly a five-minute application process. You put in your email address, a limited amount of data, once that’s in, that’s it. You’re not having to upload photos or utility bills.”

But he added: “We have had challenges in putting in place a digital proxy - or telephone support service and we are undergoing a procurement exercise to find a partner to deliver this solution.”

However, he said the pre-paid card provider had “swung into action very quickly and helped us make good progress”.

The provider was “soon to start manufacture” of the cards, then data would be transferred onto them, he added.

The North’s Department for the Economy told the Belfast Telegraph that the exact timing of the opening was unconfirmed.

He said legislation is to be enacted which will allow the scheme to start on a date after September 12.

“The department is currently finalising the scheme and the Minister will announce further details - including a date for the opening of registrations – in the near future.”

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