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The deadline to use the £100 high street voucher scheme card is to be extended until the middle of December, Economy Minister Gordon Lyons has announced.
Under the stimulus scheme all those aged over 18 in Northern Ireland are eligible for a £100 pre-paid card to spend with the aim of supporting local businesses, which have been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It had originally been intended that the card would be valid until November 30.
But announcing the extension, Mr Lyons told the Assembly: “It remains the case that most people have four weeks to spend their card, but I recognise that this will not be the case for everyone.
“Therefore, in order to offer these applicants a fair timescale to use their card, I can today announce that I am extending the deadline to use the Spend Local cards by two weeks – from November 30 to December 14.”
Mr Lyons told MLAs that there were 160,000 people who had applied for the scheme whose personal details could not be verified by databases.
He said: “None of these applicants have been rejected and every one of them has been given an opportunity to submit evidence that they live in Northern Ireland and are over 18 years old.
“The Assembly can be assured that we are applying maximum flexibility on the information that can be provided to confirm they are eligible for a Spend Local card.”
He said that it looked as if around 98% of the people whose details could not be verified would get their application approved.
He also rejected accusations that there was any sexual discrimination within the scheme against women whose maiden name on their birth certificate was different from their married name.
He said: “I have taken early and decisive action to address this issue, and can now assure members that applicants will not be facing this issue.”
The minister added: “To date, over 1.024 million cards have been dispatched, over 580,000 of these have been activated.
“Over £26.5m has now been injected into our local economy.
“These are quite remarkable statistics and, while it is still early days, I think it is fair to say the process of recovery on our high streets is now under way.
“By the end of this week, cards will have been dispatched to at least 95% of applicants that we have been able to match on the information held on the databases.
“And by the middle of next week, cards will have been dispatched to all those verified to date.
The minister said that in order to maximise the benefit to local businesses including retail, hospitality and service sectors, everyone should spend the full £100 on their card.
He said: “For anyone who has any balance left on their card, no matter how small, my message is: please go out and spend it locally. Buy a coffee, a breakfast, a newspaper or magazine, or even a small present for someone this Christmas.
“The objective of the high street scheme is to stimulate recovery in our local businesses by encouraging increased spending (locally) rather than online.
“By extending the deadline to use the Spend Local card, we can encourage more people to purchase Christmas presents, Christmas decorations and even food for Christmas dinner in their local area rather than online.”