Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Covid-19 (Business, Enterprise and Innovation): Statements

 

7:00 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to update Members on the initiatives the Government has taken to support businesses in meeting the challenges presented by Covid-19. Covid-19 has impacted upon our society and our economy in a manner we could not have imagined. Unemployment is at a rate we have never seen and our business community is under extraordinary and unprecedented pressure. Covid-19 came at us with unprecedented speed and the Government moved quickly to bring forward a series of measures to support those impacted by the pandemic. These include emergency income support such as the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme, the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment and a range of business supports on which I will provide further updates.

As of this morning, almost 54,000 employers had registered with Revenue for the wage subsidy scheme, with more than 462,000 receiving a payment under the scheme. The cumulative value of payments made to employers under the scheme is €936 million. Last week, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection reported that it had issued payments valued at €209.3 million to 598,000 people in respect of their application for the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment.

The Government's roadmap for reopening society and economy sets out a five-stage plan to ease the Covid-19 restrictions. As the Taoiseach has said, our objective is to help our country get through this emergency, rebuild our economy, get people back to work and keep them safe while doing so. A key tool in achieving this objective is the return to work safely protocol I announced last Saturday. This protocol clearly and comprehensively sets out the steps and processes employers and workers must take to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace. The protocol was developed and agreed in consultation with the members of the Labour Employer Economic Forum, the forum for high-level dialogue between the Government and union and employer representatives on labour market issues. Participants in this process included IBEC, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Chambers Ireland and the Construction Industry Federation.

It is the result of a collaborative effort led by my Department and the Department of the Taoiseach involving the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, the Department of Health and the HSE. Collaboration between employers and workers will be central to the success of our safe return to work. That is why we have specified in the protocol that every employer should appoint at least one worker representative whose role is to work collaboratively with employers to assist in the measures to prevent Covid-19 and monitor their adherence in the workplace.

The protocol applies to all workplaces across the economy. Specific sectors may need to introduce additional safeguards, but this document sets the standard set of measures required in every workplace. The HSA will take a collaborative approach in the first instance as it oversees implementation of the protocol. Inspectors will provide advice and support to employers and employees on how they are implementing the Covid-19 measures in the workplace. If necessary, they will also be able to visit the workplace and advise on any shortcomings through a report of inspection, which is left with the employer at the end of the visit and can include timelines and follow-ups needed. They also have the power to serve an improvement notice, a legal directive from an inspector requiring that certain improvements be carried out in a specific timeframe, or a prohibition notice, a legal instruction directing that a specified work activity be stopped.

Ultimately, if a business does not co-operate and comply with the public health guidelines after being asked to make improvements, the HSA will be able to order it to shut down the workplace. I am confident that employers want their businesses to remain open and want to do the right things to protect and support their workers. This document provides them with the know-how to ensure that they have a safe working environment for all.

I am aware that many sectors have already developed detailed Covid-19 return-to-work plans that capture most, if not all, of the measures in the protocol, and I acknowledge and thank them for their work. I acknowledge that many critical and essential businesses have continued to operate during the pandemic with the appropriate safeguards in place.

The Government has announced a range of supports to assist businesses impacted by Covid-19. I updated the House on 30 April with regard to the €1 billion package of liquidity measures I announced in early April. On 2 May, along with the Minister for Finance, I announced a number of additional measures to aid the economy as the Covid-19 restrictions start to be lifted. These are part of an economic plan worth up to €6.5 billion to help businesses impacted by Covid-19 and minimise the extent of the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

These measures are a €250 million fund to provide for the following: restart grants of up to €10,000 for micro and small businesses; a three-month commercial rates waiver for impacted businesses; a €2 billion pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund within the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, which will make capital available to medium and large enterprises on commercial terms; a €2 billion Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme to support lending to SMEs for terms ranging from three months to six years, which will be below market interest rates; and the warehousing of tax liabilities for a period of 12 months after recommencement of trading during which time there will be no debt enforcement action taken by Revenue and no interest charge accruing in respect of the warehoused debt.

On 7 May, as part of the €180 million sustaining enterprise fund, I announced that Enterprise Ireland will administer a specific sustaining enterprise fund for small businesses. This fund will provide a €25,000 to €50,000 short-term funding injection to eligible smaller companies to strengthen their ability to return to growth. Eligible companies will have suffered, or be projected to suffer, a 15% or more reduction in actual or projected turnover or profit as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. As I have said, all of these measures are in addition to those supports for business that I put in place at the start of this crisis.

We now have a comprehensive suite of supports for firms of all sizes, which includes grants, low-cost loans, write-off of commercial rates, wage subsidies and deferred tax liabilities, all of which will help to improve cash flow among SMEs. To date, the totality of the supports package the Government has put in place to help businesses and workers through Covid-19 amounts to €12 billion. These supports are designed to build confidence, further assist businesses in terms of the management of their companies and allow them to begin looking to the future and to start charting a path forward for the weeks and months ahead.

I believe the new €250 million restart fund will be a particular help to small businesses. Following Government approval of funding for this scheme on 2 May, my officials have worked urgently with officials in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to develop the operational details of the scheme. My priority is to ensure that it is a simple and straightforward application process so that small business can access the funding easily. Grants up to a maximum of €10,000 will be available under the scheme to assist small businesses with restocking, fixed costs and adhering to safety requirements. I will be bringing a memo to the Government tomorrow seeking approval for the scheme and I will announce full details afterwards.

I should also explain that, in addition to this, the full range of Enterprise Ireland, IDA, local enterprise office, LEO, and Údarás na Gaeltachta grant and advisory supports continue to be available to companies. We will continue to seek the best ways of supporting people and wider society, and rebuilding the economy so that we can get people back to work safely. We will do this by being cognisant of public health advice and doing what is in the best interests of all people. Throughout this crisis, we have seen just how quickly businesses can change and adapt, whether that is restaurants switching to drive-through restaurants and using contactless payments for deliveries or Irish companies producing PPE to help with the global crisis. We must always remember that the fundamentals of our economy were sound going into this crisis, so businesses can adjust and adapt to the new norm and, as Minister, I want to support them in doing that.

Following the publication of the roadmap, many retailers have asked if they can open earlier than their scheduled phase, if they can meet the public health guidelines. While I appreciate that they wish to get back to business as quickly as they can, all decisions on the timing of the modification or lifting of restrictions will be underpinned by public health advice. As the Taoiseach said when announcing the roadmap, the Government continues to consider the broad range of public health, societal and economic impacts and options for the lifting of the current restrictions. The roadmap is being kept under review and may be accelerated if the spread of Covid-19 is halted earlier than expected.

I am aware some Deputies have had queries from businesses about when they can reopen. Some people have even asked if an official licence is required before a business can reopen. It is up to each individual business to review the roadmap and the Return to Work Safely Protocol carefully, carry out a detailed assessment of their activities with regard to the continuing public health advice, and decide which phase applies to them and, most importantly, if they will be in a position to reopen safely. It is not necessary for businesses to seek official authorisation to reopen.

I assure workers and employers that the Government is committed to ensuring that as the economy reopens, we will do everything we reasonably can to save those businesses that are viable. As we unwind restrictions, we must do so in a way that supports our longer-term economic prospects. Sectoral issues are being worked on at official level across relevant Departments. We must also be mindful of the need to focus on economic recovery, an issue that I expect to be to the fore of any new Government's agenda. The Irish people have made a real difference in the fight against Covid-19.

7:15 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with Deputies Butler, Flaherty and McAuliffe. I will take six minutes and they will each take three. We are acutely aware of the economic effects of Covid-19. While public health is obviously the number one concern, if the right policy decisions are not made and the right supports are not put in place, we will not have an economy to ensure a sound public health system. We know who is advising with regard to health. Has a similar task force been established to advise on rebooting our economy?

I will focus on a few issues. Yesterday Lemon and Duke, a well-known pub here in the capital city, had to take a legal challenge in respect of a legitimate claim under its business interruption cover. We wish its owners luck. While they are fortunate enough to be in a position to take that challenge, what of the hundreds of SMEs that have legitimate business interruption cover but that cannot afford to take such a challenge? When will the Government meet the CEOs of the insurance companies and tell them to adhere to the guidelines issued by the Central Bank, which recommend coming down on the side of the consumer wherever there is any doubt whatsoever? The Minister might come back to me on that.

I have raised the issue of trade credit with the Minister on a number of occasions. It is critical to rebooting trading post-lockdown and is needed to restore market confidence. Without Government intervention, it will be difficult for many of our SMEs to access credit. Will the Minister provide an update as to where her Department is in this regard?

She mentioned the restart fund in her contribution. I welcome that, finally, two weeks after being announced we will know the details tomorrow but I am very worried about this fund. I do not believe it will be adequate. The circular issued to local authorities by the Minister's Department, or perhaps it was the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, suggested that the fund will be based on rates paid in 2019 up to a maximum of 10%. In the Westmeath County Council area, the median rate paid in 2019 was €1,900. Under the Minister's scheme, 50% of businesses in Westmeath will be lucky enough to get €1,900. That is no laughing matter. Across the Border and across the sea, the minimum grants are £10,000. How in the name of God can a small business restart with €1,900? It is not practical and it needs to be reassessed.

I have engaged with many industries and sectors over recent weeks. Yesterday I spoke to the Hairdressing Council of Ireland. Despite the return-to-work protocol, it still does not know what requirements will be placed on its members with regard to screens, PPE and so on. They need time for a lead-in and to make modifications to their premises so that they can be ready when they are enabled to open. There is no guidance in this respect. They have been on to the HSA and the HSE but have received no guidance. It is not good enough.

The position is similar for the hospitality sector, including pubs and restaurants. These businesses are still waiting for guidance on what they need to do and what modifications they need to make to ensure they comply with the restrictions being introduced. I suggest that a task force or forum be established for the hospitality sector. This would include representatives from the pub industry, the hotel industry, the restaurant industry and cafés and would work under the leadership of the Minister's Department to bring forward clear protocols and guidelines as to how these businesses can operate safely.

Restrictions will undoubtedly make businesses that normally would have been profitable less so or even not profitable at all. The measures that have been announced to date only offer businesses that are struggling further debt. These businesses are struggling to repay some of their existing debt and we are offering them debt at interest rates of 4%, 4.5% and even 5%.

We need to review that again. We need to review the wage subsidy scheme. Can normally profitable businesses go back into operation and continue to pay this at a tapered rate? As restrictions lift and as turnover increases and profitability rises, we can withdraw the wage subsidy. It is crucial to look at that.

According to the ESRI or the CSO, 400,000 people are better off receiving the weekly €350 payment. Some part-time workers, seasonal workers and reduced-hour workers are actually earning more now, which is proving a disincentive to certain people, making it difficult for certain industries to recruit staff. How much longer will that category of people be in receipt of this payment?

7:20 pm

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I will speak for a minute and a half to allow the Minister to respond. The economic impact from the Covid outbreak has already been unprecedented. Many businesses throughout the country have had to close their doors to adhere to public health advice to combat the spread of the virus. Many supports, as the Minister has outlined, have been put in place with 590,000 receiving the pandemic unemployment payment and 452,000 employees receiving income support under the wage-subsidy scheme. Everyone realises this is not sustainable and the objective now, adhering to health and safety guidelines, is to get our economy back to work.

I was disappointed that the roadmap did not include any clear timeframe for manufacturing that is not deemed essential. Many businesses, closed now for seven to eight weeks, may not be deemed essential during a pandemic. However, they are deemed essential in the economy and to the region in which they are based. Many businesses are concerned that if they have to wait for the various phases, they may not be able to reopen.

Waterford is the county with the lowest number of people who contracted the virus per head of population. We currently have one case being treated in University Hospital Waterford. I thank everyone for their great work. On a case-by-case basis, maybe a regional or a county basis depending on all the guidelines being adhered to, might some manufacturing businesses be allowed to open sooner than recommended in the roadmap in order to be viable and to secure the future of their business as they really feel it necessary to open to compete with other competitors worldwide that are operational?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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It is up to businesses to review the roadmap carefully and carry out a detailed assessment of their activities with regard to the continuing public health measures. It is not necessary for businesses to seek official authorisation to open. Businesses should review the national return-to-work guidelines, which set out the steps businesses need to take.

We are only at the very early stages of returning to work and we must be cautious. We will keep the roadmap under review. Deputy Butler raised particular issues with me offline and I hope to be able to resolve some of these issues next week,

Joe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Obviously, I welcome the suite of measures that have come on stream to support businesses emerging from the Covid crisis. The measures are generic and broadly speaking do not address the fundamental threat which will be to rural Ireland, which undoubtedly faces the greatest threat in a post-Covid era. A report from the three regional assemblies has highlighted that among the eight counties with the greatest potential impact from Covid are both Longford and Westmeath with 2,700 jobs potentially at risk.

The Covid crisis comes fresh on the heels of Brexit and that is a fear that has not gone away. The counties now grappling with the commercial reality of a post-Covid era are the same ones that were staring into the abyss at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

Covid has hastened the pressure on many businesses. Although corner shops and village filling stations have enjoyed something of a purple patch, there has been a massive shift to online shopping. There is no doubt that a general reluctance to hurry back into retail and hospitality settings will make it very difficult for many rural businesses to return. For big bars in Dublin, it might be an issue of whether they will get away with restricting numbers to a few hundred when they reopen, but the reality for many rural bars is whether it will be worth their while opening their doors.

Small businesses need the start-up scheme, grants, wage subsidies and a break on rates. Most of all, they need the money to come on stream quickly. In that regard, I welcome the announcement today by the Minister that a memorandum to be released tomorrow will set out the detail of the business restart scheme. I hope it will come in time for businesses that hope to reopen on Monday morning but are still unsure how they will make all the bills add up.

There is a belt of rural counties, including my own county of Longford as well as counties Leitrim, Westmeath, Roscommon and Cavan, which need the greatest support of all. I am conscious that we are in the throes of Government formation talks and much is made of balanced regional development and investment. How this House targets supports for businesses and communities in a Covid recovery era will truly define the sincerity of the House and all parties herein with regard to rural Ireland.

7:25 pm

Paul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to acknowledge the work that has been done to support employment. I look forward to the announcement to be made tomorrow. We need to start looking at how to reopen our economy such that we can continue to protect employment. Many older people have told me that when they came back into the world after weeks of cocooning they felt less confident and less safe. Employers, employees and consumers will have a similar feeling and it will impact on our economic recovery. If we fail to give leadership, support and reassurance, our recovery will be stilted. I acknowledge that the advice from NPHET has ensured a slow and steady approach to opening. We also need to give confidence to people. When public health advice allows permitted activities, consumers need to be encouraged to support those employers. People's mindsets have been locked down and it will take Government action and intervention in order to unlock those mindsets.

We need to provide additional supports. The wage subsidy scheme put ground under the feet of many small businesses. However, as they reach the end of that scheme with limited working capital, they face the dilemma of whether they will be forced to let go the staff who they were able to retain. Employers, particularly small businesses, need an off-ramp to the wage subsidy scheme. The key lies in working capital. Employers may have retained employment but they have depleted their working capital. The owners of most small businesses such as corner shops, cafés and independent restaurants typically have very limited working capital. They cannot scale their business beyond the four walls they rent and, as such, a pool of cash is rarely available. In its latest policy document report responding to Covid-19, Dublin Chamber outlined that one third of businesses in Dublin city have less than three months of cash reserves. These small businesses often struggle to secure working capital. It can be almost impossible to do so without providing personal guarantees which often include the family home. I look forward to announcements in that area to support these small businesses.

Employers need to be able to avail of a phasing-out of the wage subsidy scheme that is relevant to their sector. They do not want a handout, but the Government needs to look at a flexible approach to this scheme, other cash supports and the collection of taxes, particularly VAT. This needs to be done over the whole financial year.

Although it does not fall immediately under the Minister's brief, many of those availing of the back to work enterprise allowance scheme of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection have spent months or years working towards self-employment and feel like they are back at square one after Covid-19. They are too small to access meaningfully many of the supports which have been outlined.

A small restart grant would ensure that we have their back. I ask the Minister to have the backs of all these businesses in the post-Covid-19 phase.

7:30 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Two weeks ago I raised with the Minister my concerns about the SME loan schemes offered by the Government. I was hopeful at the time that she would take on board the suggestions put forward by me and other Deputies. Looking at the new schemes announced on 2 May, however, it is clear that our suggestions fell on deaf ears. The new loan schemes serve the interests of private finance and corporate landlords rather than SMEs, which are the lifeblood of this State's economy and indeed our communities. We are seeing more repackaging of, and fiddling with, existing funds and schemes and that is just not going to cut it. There are five loan schemes now, three currently in operation and two more requiring legislation to get them off the ground. I discussed the three existing schemes the last time I spoke and will not repeat myself. What is clear, however, is that these schemes are not fit for purpose and what is needed are interest-free loans that are easily accessible to SMEs now. Both of the new loan schemes announced on 2 May will require legislation and will not be available any time soon, which is of little use to businesses facing this crisis now. The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, through the pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund, will provide €2 billion of ISIF funding for enterprises that employ more than 250 people, that have a turnover in excess of €50 million and have been impacted by the pandemic. The criteria require that all investments must yield a commercial and economic impact return in line with ISIF's statutory requirements and the enterprise must present viable business models in the medium to long term. It is hard to see how this scheme relates to the Covid-19 crisis. I have no idea what it brings to the table to help the tens of thousands of businesses suffering hardships due to the restrictions.

There is also the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme. Two weeks ago, I called on the Minister to amend the scheme to reflect the needs of SMEs, which means a 100% State guarantee and zero interest. That has not happened, meaning that thousands of enterprises will not be able to avail of these loans and the Minister is aware of that, given the low take-up. In terms of grants there was finally an announcement of a restart fund for micro and small businesses. Does the Minister have a date for when those grants will be available and could she inform us of that? Some businesses are opening next week, some a few weeks later. They need clarity. There is very little detail available at present regarding the re-start grants other than the fact that the Minister has linked them to the rates from last year which have no bearing whatsoever on restarting up costs. It also clear that the numbers do not stack up. The fund offers grants of up to €10,000, or at least that is what the Minister said when she launched her business proposals. The total fund is €250 million. If every business that applied needed the full €10,000, and bearing in mind that Chambers Ireland estimated that the average restart cost per firm would be between €26,000 and €32,000, only 25,000 firms would be able to get that grant from Government. The Central Bank had estimated that there are almost 96,000 firms in highly affected sectors and more than 128,000 firms in moderately affected sectors making a total of businesses potentially needing restart grants of almost 250,000. That is almost ten times the number of businesses provided for by the Government's scheme. The Minister needs to show leadership on this as thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of workers are relying on her. Their very livelihoods are in the balance and they are depending on the Minister to bring forth the solutions that will help them. Thus far, the solutions she has brought forth are neither fit for purpose nor good enough.

Last week the Minister launched the Return to Work Safety Protocol. I agree that all those changes are necessary but we need specific legal protections relating to Covid-19.

Protocols are just protocols. We cannot have things the way they were before, when businesses could pick and choose whether they recognised trade unions. The protocol says that each workplace will appoint at least one lead worker representative to ensure that Covid-19 measures are strictly adhered to in their place of work. The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 needs to be amended accordingly. It also needs to be updated to allow trade union representatives to meet their members in the workplace to discuss health and safety issues. It cannot be left to one person alone on the shop floor to take on a reckless employer. As the Minister with responsibility for business, the Minister should know that.

It is no good telling us that the Health and Safety Authority will do inspections. In 2018, it managed to inspect only 914 retail and wholesale premises and only 195 food and accommodation workplaces. There are more than 280,000 businesses in this State, all of which must be subject to Covid-19 regulations in law, not just in a protocol.

I also appeal to the Minister regarding the announcement of 176 job losses announced at National Pen in Dundalk on 8 May, a decision that workers had no prior knowledge of whatever. On 10 May, workers alerted my colleague, Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú, and me to the fact that the company had advertised 100 European language jobs on their Tunisian website in the week prior to the Dundalk announcement. Teachta Ó Murchú and I have written to National Pen seeking clarity on why the company claims that a major downturn in its market due to the coronavirus is the cause of the job losses, yet it appears to be recruiting in a lower wage economy in north Africa. It is sickening that a company that has received €1.5 million in grant aid in the past five years from IDA Ireland can move jobs from Irish towns and cities to cheaper locations with impunity, in this case using the coronavirus as an excuse. National Pen does not recognise unions - surprise, surprise - leaving staff in a vulnerable negotiating position when dealing with management. The Minister has a responsibility to intervene and explore all available avenues to try to rescue these jobs.

I know the Minister will not have time to answer my questions, certainly in the detail that I seek, so I ask that she respond to me in writing in the next few days.

7:35 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I am happy to do so. I will respond in the House today. We responded at length last week and-----

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister has not yet heard my questions.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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If I get the opportunity, I will respond now.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I ask the Minister to wait. I am conscious of my colleague's time. Does the Minister intend to increase the funding available under the restart grant scheme? Will she change the qualifying criteria to ensure that micro-enterprises that do not pay rates can be included in the scheme? Will she amend the credit guarantee scheme and other loan schemes to ensure that loans are available to SMEs in crisis at an interest rate of 0%? These are the questions to which I am interested in getting answers from the Minister. Does she intend to amend the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to include Covid-19 regulations? Will she support legislation to allow trade unions to fully represent their members and to access the workplace to ensure their members are safe? Will she intervene and explore all available avenues to rescue 176 jobs at National Pen in Dundalk?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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May I answer now?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Yes, if the Minister can.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I am conscious of my colleague's time. I do not want to eat into it.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy either wants the answers or she does not want them.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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No, I asked the Minister to put the answers in writing.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I will not put them in writing. I have come to the House to answer questions-----

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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There is an onus on the Minister to put the replies in writing.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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-----but I am not being given the chance to do so.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Can we hear the Minister now, please? The Deputy has asked the questions and we will hear the answers.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I will answer the questions.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Does the Minister intend to increase funding?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I will answer the questions. The Department spent an extensive amount of time on this. On the last day I was in the House I answered the questions comprehensively. I do not have the resources to put together all the answers. I will answer the Deputy's questions now.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I asked the Minister to put the responses in writing.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I will answer the questions now.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Does the Minister intend to increase funding?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Please.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Can I answer the question?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We are using up time.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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My first question whether the Minister plans to increase the funding available under the restart grant scheme? The answer is "Yes" or "No"?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I announced the restart grant scheme two weeks ago. It has been allocated €250 million and further details of the scheme are to be agreed. I am bringing a memorandum to Cabinet tomorrow and I will announce the details following that meeting.

There are a number of grants available. There is the business continuity grant, the trading online grant, the new restart grant we have just discussed-----

7:45 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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My question was specific. Will the Minister change the qualifying criteria to ensure that microenterprises that do not pay rates can be included in that restart grant?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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As I said to the Deputy, the restart grant is being brought in a memorandum to the Cabinet tomorrow. I will not be making any announcements on that grant until I get agreement of the Government.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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On the credit guarantee scheme, will the Minister make sure that the loans are available to SMEs at an interest rate of 0%?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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In terms of the microfinance loan, that is available, with up to €50,000 interest free for the first six months and repayment free.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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The credit guarantee scheme-----

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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The credit guarantee scheme is a new scheme. We have not set the interest rate on that yet. That is subject to further negotiations with the bank.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I will send the other questions for answers in writing.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I am happy to answer them now.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I am not happy to use up my colleagues' speaking time so I would rather do that.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy cannot have it both ways.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister wants to answer the questions. The time is available for her to answer the questions.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Will my colleagues still be allowed their speaking time?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I cannot instruct the Minister not to answer. She wishes to answer.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Yes.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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A Cheann-Comhairle, will my colleagues' speaking time be affected if the Minister answers the questions?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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It will, of course, because there is only 15 minutes allocated.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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In that case I want to save my colleagues' time but I will certainly furnish those questions in writing to the Minister.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Quinlivan.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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I want to raise two specific issues with the Minister but obviously time is running out and Deputy Cullinane wants to share time with me. My first question is about the role of the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, in policing workforces for compliance with public health guidelines in regard to Covid-19. As she knows, everyone is deeply concerned that the HSA will not be sufficiently resourced to handle the massive task it will be asked to do. I welcome the comments made earlier this afternoon by An Taoiseach when he acknowledged that the HSA will need additional staff and resources. Will the Minister provide the House with information on the extra funding she will be providing to the HSA? How many additional inspectors would be employed under her plans? Is she satisfied that the HSA has the powers required to achieve those objectives?

The second issue is about the Minister's plan in the joint document between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil about the introduction of a living wage. Although it is a welcome departure from the Minister's previous conservative position, I am concerned about the lack of detail and commitment to the proposals. This week, we have seen the Small Firms Association and IBEC call for a freeze on any increase in the national minimum wage for the next few years and oppose the introduction of a living wage. Those organisations deal with the Minister's Department all the time. That is the reason I am asking her about the Government's position. The approach from those two organisations is disgraceful as the past few months have shown just how vital workers who earn the minimum wage are to our society. To clap for front-line workers one day and turn around the next and say they do not deserve a wage that will let them afford the basic day-to-day necessities is the worst type of hypocrisy. Business can recover while paying their staff a decent wage. It is not a case of one or the other. Sinn Féin completely rejects this approach from the Small Firms Association and IBEC. What is the Government's position? Have the Small Firms Association and IBEC raised this with the Minister and what has she told them? I am aware they have been meeting the Minister.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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If we go to the Minister for an answer now we will not be able to let in Deputy Cullinane.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising those issues. It is recognised that the HSA will need additional resources to oversee compliance with the Covid-19 Return to Work Safely Protocol. It is also recognised that relevant officers of other Departments and agencies, together with the Health and Safety Authority, will need to oversee compliance. The necessary resources will certainly be made available to the HSA. I want to compliment the HSA on the work it has done in putting together the Return to Work Protocol. It has worked very closely with the HSE and all the employer representatives, including IBEC, ICTU, the CIF and also with Chambers Ireland. It has done a lot of work in that regard. There are very clear processes around when the HSA get a complaint. I have no doubt that it will get all the resources it needs to carry out this very important work.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Does Deputy Cullinane have a question?

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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I can ask one question anyway. I want to know the number of inspectors in the HSA. I refer to enforcement of the new regulations that have been put in place, and I commend everybody who was involved, including the trade union movement, in putting them in place.

Those regulations are ineffective if we do not have enough inspectors, so I would like to know how many inspectors the HSA has, or if resources will be given to recruit additional inspectors to enable it to do the job.

7:55 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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The HSA has a number of inspectors.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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How many?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I do not have the exact number to hand but it will have the necessary resources to carry out inspections and it has the necessary powers. The protocol that has been developed is very much about employers and employees working together in order that the right safety measures are put in place to give both staff and employers the confidence to go back to work. In fairness to a lot of employers right across this country, they closed down quickly to protect their staff and have been working very closely with the HSA. I am satisfied that the majority of employers will do the right thing but if the HSA needs to take action regarding some employers that may not adhere to the guidelines, it has the necessary powers to do so.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I will only take a couple of minutes. First, I congratulate and thank the Minister and her colleagues for the measures already taken in containing the virus, particularly in preparing for the restart of our economy, which is the next most important phase. We need to keep a number of things in mind. First, we tend to refer to the businesses that might not open their doors again. We should refrain from using that phrasing as much as possible because plenty of people, including the lending institutions, will seize upon that opportunity to say that because those people's businesses are no longer viable they do not count. We need to be careful because that will have an ongoing negative impact on our economy at a time when we cannot afford it.

I will briefly mention one of the queries I have received regarding the restart of business and the reopening of pubs, clubs, hotels etc. The one thing that has been brought to my attention is that they need to be given a fair chance to open simultaneously, in order that nobody gets a head start on their neighbour and puts them at a disadvantage. That is a natural thing in business but when the reopening starts it should be done in a way that is fair and equal to all.

The other issue that came to my attention this morning was that of a haulier who has been in business for many years. He is over 70, has his own pension to which he contributed himself, and is a sole trader. He received communication from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to the effect that he could no longer operate. That was a ridiculous decision because he was operating quite well and doing his business the same as he always did, with no impediment to the delivery of his business at all. I ask the Minister to be alert to that kind of thing, which causes unnecessary stress and strain. That businessman has trucks, insurance, tax and his vehicles are now idle just because someone made that decision.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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First, I welcome the plan issued by the Minister and the Government to reopen our economy in a sustainable manner, as well as the supports the Minister recently issued on foot of the Cabinet meeting. The warehousing of tax liabilities and the supports through the local enterprise offices are very welcome, as they are important for the smaller businesses which make up a large proportion of our economy. In her opening statement, the Minister mentioned that it was not necessary for businesses to receive official authorisation to reopen. It is important that we clarify that. Hoteliers, for example, are concerned about family events and weddings. Is it the case that if they can satisfactorily implement social distancing requirements and put those safeguards in place, they can base their capacity on that? I would also be grateful for more clarity on hair salons and barbers, though the plan is very detailed. The credit scheme and other supports are welcome as it is important that we support businesses. The next Government will have a huge task in avoiding a two-speed recovery and ensuring our regional areas get key supports and interventions. I have received many queries regarding women on maternity leave who have missed the wage subsidy scheme but I appreciate that may require primary legislation and a new Government may be needed to implement some of those changes. To provide support for 1 million people in our Statevis-à-visthe Covid payment and the wage subsidy scheme in such a short timeframe is a massive achievement by the Government.

8:05 pm

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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The Minister made reference to the restart fund. She is bringing a memo to Cabinet tomorrow. When does she expect the scheme to be announced, when does she anticipate people being able to apply for the scheme and how quickly will rebates be made because businesses, certainly in Limerick and north Tipperary, are asking specifically about how the scheme will operate in practice?

The Minister said people can judge based on the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business as to when they can reopen. There is a need for a one-stop-shop that businesses can ring with queries in this area in terms of clarification as distinct from decisions being made. Where are we with regard to that one-stop-shop being established?

I believe there is a need for particular recovery action plans at local authority level. I put a ten-point action recovery plan to Limerick City and County Council where the council would deal with specifics, set up its own one-stop-shop and look at what it can do with remote working, how businesses will open and what it will do with streets so we can deal with social distancing. Would the Minister support such an idea in terms of getting down? It has the added advantage of enhancing balanced regional development.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I will give the Minister time to answer questions but I welcome the supports she has provided and the work she has done with all the various stakeholders. One area on which I wish to focus is the rural economy, particularly farming. It is great to see that the marts will open up in June. There are many issues regarding rates, insurance and the costs the marts will have to bear. What dialogue has taken place with the marts' managers and the marts' representative bodies to achieve this?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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The restart fund will be open next week. I know businesses that are anxious to open will want to access that fund as quickly as possible. It must get approval from the Government but I am satisfied that businesses will welcome this fund because I understand that they have overhanging costs from the shutdown. It will give them that leg up and the encouragement some of them might need to get started again.

I would encourage all sectors to prepare for reopening, examine the protocol and determine what it means for each sector. The roadmap is clear on the timelines so each business needs to look at where it fits on that roadmap. If all goes well, they could move ahead. However, there is also the risk of a setback and we must always be very conscious so we must do this on a phased basis.

Regarding the one-stop-shop, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has a helpline that is available to anybody who wants to contact it. Deputy Kieran O'Donnell mentioned each region doing something. I would suggest that they do it through the regional enterprise plans. I think this is the best structure that is there at the minute. It is working well. I know the one in Limerick is particularly successful. The Deputy's idea is a good one but businesses should use the structure of the regional enterprise forum to do that.

Marts are reopening and are in phase 2. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is very engaged with the sector. I know they are currently online so they are keen to get back to the marts.

Fáilte Ireland has set up a Covid-19 industry advisory group that meets weekly. The purpose of this group is to provide support to the tourism industry, which we all know has been badly affected.

This forum facilitates the sharing of information and insight to help to improve the sector's understanding and the response to the crisis. There is also a business support hub that was set up by Fáilte Ireland which offers a suite of targeted supports for businesses in the tourism sector to enable them to respond to the challenges. Of course, the hospitality sector can access all of the supports that are available through my Department.

8:10 pm

Malcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Mr. Paddy Shaffrey's 1975 book The Irish Town: An Approach to Survivalwas decades ahead of its time. It was only in recent years that policymakers began to look seriously at the challenges facing Irish market towns and to consider the potential they have as economic engines and drivers of rural hinterlands. What is also evident from Paddy's visionary publication is how much we have lost of our built heritage, the vernacular and unique character of the Irish towns, and how we deliberately and maliciously hollowed them out to exploit car-centred development on the peripheries. Now, thanks to the great work of organisations such as The Heritage Council, we are beginning to look anew at our towns and how they could provide us with solutions to the challenges we are facing.

Yesterday, my colleague, Deputy Joe O'Brien, asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to issue guidance to local authorities to allocate road space and budgets towards active travel, cycling and walking. It is time to get our towns ready for a grand revival. In adding to the discussion which took place yesterday, I wish to raise with the Minister the enterprise and job creation role of our unique market towns and how they can again become just that. If the alarming and unsustainable retail vacancy rates in our regional towns pre-Covid-19 were not sufficient to exercise the collective minds of policymakers and planners, surely what is about to follow when restrictions are lifted should. In our view, there would appear to be no clarity of thought as to the future of our urban centres and no vision as to the use of civic spaces. Local authorities need to be adequately resourced and equipped with the right set of policy tools to unlock their potential.

Our small towns could well be key to realising the potential of tens of thousands of SMEs, our craft and creative sector, sustainable living, food innovation, culture and the arts, co-operative living spaces and digital enterprise. The establishment of a town centre regeneration unit to drive the heritage-led regeneration of our town centres must be a priority for the next Government. Every town should embark on a collaborative town centre health check to build capacity, share knowledge and best practice, and learn from mistakes. It should be the default means of pooling resources to get the best out of the people who have an interest in the future of our towns. We can no longer turn our backs on our unique Irish towns. Indeed, combining technology and traditional building skills could provide thousands of creative and meaningful jobs for young people.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. Can we unlock the potential of derelict public buildings in our town centres that could be in the ownership of State agencies such as An Post and repurpose them as innovation hubs or centres for crafts at low or minimal rents? We see this as a means of bringing life back into our town centres.

In my own home town of Kilkenny, Cartoon Saloon started off as a group of young people with drawing pads and an abundance of creativity. Now, animation provides more than 400 jobs in our town centre. The saloon has been nominated four times for Academy Awards and is keeping our town centre vibrant with an influx of animators from all over the world.

Animation production companies, such as Cartoon Saloon and Lighthouse Studios in Kilkenny, have largely maintained 100% full employment during the Covid-19 crisis and have not had access to the employment supports introduced by the Government. In light of this, would the Government look at enhancing some of the supports currently in place for animation companies, particularly those in the regions? In the Finance Act 2018, the Government made provision for a short-term, tapered, regional film development uplift. The assistance took a long time to put in place and a very small number of projects have been approved for uplift. Anecdotally, I have heard that, for many production companies, it is time consuming and heavy on administration to make applications. The feedback from producers is that the rules are vague and unusual in their interpretation and do not seem to be applied as was intended, or in the spirit of the legislation, or indeed as being marketed internationally by national agencies.

On top of the time lost in the introduction of uplift, which could be nearly six months, producers could lose another year with this pandemic and with costs only increasing from changes in work practices as a result of Covid-19. Will the Minister consider maintaining the regional uplift indefinitely as part of the supports under section 481 of the Taxes Consolidation Act and consider not tapering off the reliefs after 2020 but maintaining the uplift at 5% on a permanent basis? Will the Minister confirm how many applications for regional uplift have been received and how many have been approved to date?

Will she outline any other supports that are planned or intended for the animation sector, which is maintaining crucial jobs in a time of great uncertainty in both large urban centres and the regions? I do not expect a detailed response to these questions today.

Finally, is the Minister aware of businesses being unable to access the temporary wage subsidy scheme due to issues with filing amendments? Can Revenue be given some leniencies in this regard to deal with businesses on a case-by-case basis? Has the Minister any plans in place specifically to assist cottage industries? We have received correspondence from owners of these generally family-run businesses who are particularly impacted by the Covid-19 crisis and have small or no cash reserves.

8:20 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising all of those issues. In terms of town planning, I certainly would encourage a partnership approach to town development. I agree with much of what the Deputy said regarding the need to create more activity in our town centres. The face of shopping is changing and, after the Covid-19 crisis has passed, I think we will find that more and more people are shopping online, which will have a direct, knock-on effect on the retail sector, including town-centre shops. We have been providing online vouchers for businesses right across the country. They can get a grant of €2,500 from the local enterprise office to set up online, and a second grant is also available for this purpose. Retailers should be using all of the supports that are currently available because they can help them to establish a strong online presence while still being able to maintain a presence in the centre of town, which is important.

I have been working through the regional enterprise plans to encourage centre-of-town co-working spaces. There may be opportunities in that regard for old buildings to be renovated and turned into digital hubs. There is no reason that we cannot do these sorts of things. The Department has a guide for town development, combining the retail, business and craft sectors. The chambers of commerce have been very effective in putting together plans around town development. As I said, under the regional enterprise development fund, a number of different grants have been paid out to various areas to set up hubs and co-working spaces. Those initiatives will be even more important as we look at the potential of remote working. It is good to be at home to work for some part of the day, if it suits a person, but I think it is healthier to have co-working spaces. I have been advocating remote working in these areas for some time but, all of a sudden, what was a foreign concept has become a reality. Remote working offers a much better quality of life and is useful in terms of reducing carbon emissions and ensuring people do not have to sit in long commutes. They may be able to walk or cycle to work. We must have a plan in place and really look at how we can improve quality of life for people by bringing the jobs closer to where they live. Remote working will be a game changer in that regard.

Regarding the animation sector in Ireland, having formerly been Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, I am very proud of that extremely successful sector. I led a trade mission last year to the west coast of the United States, which promoted the Irish animation industry. Enterprise Ireland works closely with the sector and Screen Ireland is also involved. The animation industry is a priority under the Creative Ireland programme and the section 481 provisions have been very successful. The regional uplift aspect has been particularly successful, as seen with Troy Studios in Limerick and a number of others. The Deputy mentioned Cartoon Saloon, which is a wonderful company. I was delighted to facilitate some of the meetings which led to the company signing contracts during a trade mission to China. As the Deputy noted, the company is located in the centre of Kilkenny and employs a significant number of people. Thankfully, it has not been impacted by the Covid-19 situation.

Again, we want to see more of those companies and we will do everything we can to support them because they have high-quality jobs, which is what we all want. I thank the Deputy for all of his questions.

8:25 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. Some weeks ago, that well-known left-wing firebrand, the deputy governor of the Central Bank, stated that we should be wary of socialising the costs of the private sector, whether it is big business, banks or landlords, while profits continue to be privatised. Yet the Covid-19 business package announced by the Minister a number of weeks ago, and updated just two weeks ago, has a noticeable lack of any social or environmental conditionality attached to those mechanisms. In many ways, the Minister has done very little, through the leverage she has, to advance the idea that a post-Covid Ireland would be any better than what has gone before. This goes against the EU grain. Countries right across Europe have attached conditionality to very substantial taxpayer and citizen supports to businesses at risk.

The case of National Pen in Dundalk illustrates and provides an example of this. It has dishonestly deployed the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic to essentially gut jobs from its facility in Dundalk and transfer them to low-wage economies elsewhere. This company, as the Minister knows, received up to €1.5 million in grants from the IDA between 2015 and 2019. As the Minister might be aware, this week I wrote to her directly and I understand the workers of National Pen in Dundalk, some of whom she represents because they are resident in the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, require some answers to the questions I put to her.

I will reprise some of those questions. When, under the statutory obligation for the company to notify the Minister of collective redundancies, did it alert her to its intention to introduce collective redundancies at the facility? Will the Minister call on National Pen in Dundalk to suspend the consultation process which started in earnest today, in the context of the Covid-19 restrictions? Will she instruct the company to do what the Labour Court has asked it to do, namely, allow SIPTU to represent professionally the interests of the staff during the statutory consultation period?

The Minister will recall that a similar case was made by Mandate Trade Union in terms of the suspension of the liquidation and statutory consultation process around collective redundancies in Debenhams. It is practically impossible to have a meaningful consultation process between workers, trade unions and employers given the current restrictions. One cannot have a meaningful consultation about the future of one's job via Microsoft Teams.

On conditionality, we have to ask ourselves whether the taxpayer should now foot the bill for private companies, some of which have been knocking on the Minister's door to look for grant and loan assistance, have evaded tax, are exploiting workers' rights and have, thus far, eluded the obligation to recognise trade unions. Some have, in fact, made an art form of giving the two fingers to the industrial relations mechanisms of the State. For example, we now have a plethora of hospitality sector actors who have a path worn to the door of the Minister and to everybody else looking for a 0% VAT rate, when they are the very same people who actively campaigned to ensure this Government continued to allow them to have a veto over the operation of the joint labour committee system that would deliver decent pay, terms and conditions to their workers. There should not be corporate welfare without respect for the welfare of the citizen, through collective bargaining rights for workers.

We know that our domestic economic sector requires support, and I support that, but the Minister and her Government colleagues need to use the leverage they now have to make sure we do not go back to the status quo. Will the Minister commit to ensuring employers in receipt of public support will be obliged to recognise the Labour Court and the WRC, implement their recommendations and recognise workers' rights to collective bargaining?

Many of the Covid-19 business supports have been inadequate in terms of their scale.

I have some concerns, and I have said this before in the media and this House, about the speed and bureaucratic stringency around the allocation of funds to businesses that need those resources now. I am glad the Minister addressed the situation regarding the maximum €10,000 grant. That can present an important lifeline to our high streets and I look forward to reading the detail. The Minister knows, however, that it is confidence that businesses need. People preparing to open their doors need confidence that the State is there to support them and provide them with the resources and cash flow required. I am looking forward to an update on that tomorrow.

I turn now to the question of insurance. I think the Minister will accept that insurance indemnity will be crucial to assist in the reopening of our economy and individual businesses. We have already seen the childcare scheme for front-line workers killed off just last night because of an inability of providers to acquire cover. This sets a very dangerous precedent and illustrates what we already know. A dangerous situation is now facing us. There is a real risk to the success of the Minister's, and our, plans to reopen this economy and that threat is posed by the behaviour of the insurance companies. I would like to hear the Minister's plans to resolve this insurance indemnity issue with her Cabinet colleagues. I accept the Minister does not have full direct responsibility for the insurance sector, but it is important she consider the Labour Party's proposal to use the State Claims Agency, SCA, in respect of indemnities for businesses.

My last point concerns the welcome production of protocols regarding the reopening of the economy and the return of citizens to work. We will need a strong and robust inspection and compliance regime from the HSA. Those found to be breaking the rules must face the full force of the law. Any issues with compliance should be treated in the same way as a company responsible for a chemical spill. It should be closed. The owners of such companies cannot be allowed to put the health of their workers, the general public and themselves at risk. As Patricia King of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, has said, these rules are mandatory. There is not a menu of options that businesses can select from, these rules are mandatory and there needs to be compliance with them.

From figures released in recent days, I know some 200 complaints about breaches of the Covid-19 guidelines had been received by the HSA. Worryingly, none has resulted in inspections. We need to see an improvement on that and we need to see a new momentum behind this approach on foot of the protocols published just a few days ago. I have been pointing out this lacuna in regulation for some time now and I am glad some efforts are being made to address this issue. We look forward to seeing how this develops. Workers need to have full confidence that when they make complaints to the HSA those complaints will be followed up. Can the Minister guarantee the House that workers making complaints about the conduct of their employers, and issues concerning their workplaces, will be free from victimisation? Will those workers be protected from victimisation in the same way as the law protects those workers engaging with their trade unions for collective bargaining, as well as those workers who use the protection of whistleblowers' legislation to advance their rights?

I understand that the HSA only has about 100 inspectors available. That is a major deficiency. Some 100 inspectors alone will not be sufficient to police this protocol and ensure its implementation. Is the Minister planning to move public servants from other agencies? Will the Minister, if she has the opportunity, elaborate on what training will be provided to those public servants and when they will be in the field?

8:30 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Minister has one minute to respond.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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There were a good few questions there.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Minister can do the best she can.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I extend my sympathies to the workers in National Pen who have lost their jobs. I appreciate fully how difficult the situation is for those involved and their families. Please be assured that Government supports are in place to help them through this time. I am especially aware also that at a time when mobility is restricted, employees do not have the same easy access to their support networks and representatives. I wanted to just say that.

The IDA is working very closely with the company.

Obviously, there is a process here but the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will be there to provide all the supports it can to those workers. The Deputy asked about the alert. The alert is made now directly to the Department of Employment and Social Protection. Then it was advised to my Department. I got notification from IDA Ireland as well about the matter because it is doing everything it can to assist.

The Deputy mentioned the HSA. The HSA protocols have been drawn up in collaboration with the employers' groups and the unions. I thank ICTU, IBEC, Chambers Ireland and the Construction Industry Federation, all of which came together to make sure that all of the issues that had been brought to their attention were included in this protocol. The protocol is about how we can given confidence to the employees that it is safe to go back and to the employers that they are putting the right processes in place to protect their workers. The Deputy will accept that there were many employers that closed down early. They did not have to close down but they were concerned about their workers. We must acknowledge, too, that there will be many employers and employees who will work together and find the right solution. At the end of the day most people want to get back to work and want to get back to normality.

I can also confirm to the Deputy that the HSA will have the necessary powers to take action in cases where it must take action. Initially, they want to work with the employers because there are new processes here that they have not had to comply with previously. I would say, "Work together first," but if there are issues where there is non-compliance, the HSA has the full powers to apply to Covid-19 situations as it has to any other situation.

The Deputy asked me about staff. The HSA will get more resources. If the authority needs more funding or staff, there are staff in other Departments and other agencies that can be moved over to work with the HSA. It is about working together on this matter.

8:35 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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For the Social Democrats, I call Deputy Catherine Murphy.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I raised with the Taoiseach this morning exactly that same issue of the specific resources that would be available. It is intended that phase 1 will happen on Monday and provisions must be in place for Monday. I was told by the Taoiseach that I would be better to address it to Deputy Humphreys because she is the line Minister. I refer to the specific information on the number of staff who will be enforcing this. I accept there are many good employers with which there will not be an issue and with which this will work well but, equally, there will be others. If we do not spend the time and effort and the money on this, we will spend it on the front line in the hospitals. We must get this right. If phase 1 does not roll out properly, phases 2, 3, 4 and 5 will not roll out properly because it is spaced for that reason. The Minister needs to give us specific information on the number of staff and the kind of resources that will be available.

The other point I want to make in relation to the construction sector is there are elements of the construction sector that are not under the remit of the Construction Industry Federation, CIF. They would have self-employed people because that is the kind of work available to many in the construction sector. There will be elements of the construction sector that will not be linked in in that same way and that needs to be considered.

I will move on to a few other points. The Minister has told us that businesses need to be working on preparing to open. Some of them are still guessing what that means. I accept there is a roadmap and there are guidance documents but, as I have raised with the Minister previously, some of those need to be bespoke as opposed to general. For example, some of them will probably have to open on a phased basis. That needs to be taken into consideration, for example, building up clientele because not everybody works out of a physical building. For those who work out of a physical building, what support grants are available, for example, for such items as Perspex and personal protection equipment, PPE, which allow for reopening?

For many businesses such as hairdressers and cafés, the flow of people through the door may be greatly reduced because of the number that can be accommodated. That will have an impact on turnover but the overheads will not decrease. Will a specific approach be taken to consider that side of things?

I wish to ask the Minister about upward-only rent reviews, which we are still seeing in the city centre and in other locations. I take the point concerning a plan for each town. We have to reimagine things differently. The last thing we want is to lose the vibrancy from our city and town centres. Because of upward-only rent reviews we could lose the artisan shops and independent coffee shops, the kind of things that create vibrancy.

I refer to planning and the hospitality sector. Are people planning for a 2 m distance or a 1 m distance? People might want to spend their time working on things, but they have to know what they are working on if things are to work out. The Minister might give us some idea of the distance reduction so there can be a little more certainty in that regard.

The Covid-19 payment is a very good initiative and keeps people attached to their employment. I remember going on about this ten years ago. This is how Germany responds to a downturn in order to get people back to work very quickly. The idea is very good, but several people have told me that they are worried about it. I really am all in favour of transparency but I note that employers do not really want to be on Revenue's list for anything. They are concerned about being on a Revenue list for having received Covid-19 payments for their staff. Is that likely to happen? It has been raised with me a few times. I do not think they mind being listed, but to be on a Revenue list would be a concern. Will the Minister address those queries?

8:40 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising those issues. The protocol we launched on Saturday is a very good one. It provides a lot of information on how businesses can prepare to get back to work. They need to look at the things they have to do. For example, each workplace will appoint one lead worker representative. These representatives will be able to work with employers to ensure Covid-19 measures are in place. There is a lot of very simple stuff in it about washing hands, good coughing and sneezing etiquette and staying apart. Deputy Murphy mentioned distance. The protocol provides that "In settings where 2 metre worker separation cannot be ensured by organisational means, alternative protective measures should be put in place". For example, businesses may have to "Install physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards between workers"; "Maintain at least a distance of 1 metre or as much distance as is reasonably practicable"; and "Minimise any direct worker contact and provide hand washing facilities, and other hand hygiene aids, such as hand sanitisers, wipes etc. that are readily accessible".

There are a lot of provisions in the protocol. I am telling businesses to get the protocol and read it. Managers should look at it to find out they need to do in their own specific businesses. They will get a lot of information there. If they have any doubts, they can ring the HSA, officials from which will be happy to talk to them and provide guidance. I am hearing a lot about implementation, the need to enforce the law and so on. A lot of employers out there want to do the right thing and make sure they have the right procedures in place to protect their workers.

The wage subsidy scheme is particularly good. As workers return to the workplace, the employer will get that subsidy. The Deputy is right that it is great that we have it now for this crisis. It will be paid until 16 June. If one is an early mover and gets back fairly early, one will get the benefit of having up to 85% of one's wages paid to the employer. That in itself is a cash injection. I know the Deputy is anxious to get in.

8:45 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I asked the Minister specifically about the numbers relating to the Health and Safety Authority. The Taoiseach suggested that I ask Deputy Humphreys directly because she is the line Minister. Do we have any knowledge of the additional resources or additional numbers of people that will be available to the Health and Safety Authority?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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The Health and Safety Authority is an independent agency under my Department. This is at an early stage. I reassure the Deputy that when we get the request, if the HSA needs extra resources, it can have them. It also has access to HSE staff and the Workplace Relations Commission who can be transferred over. Health and safety officers from other Departments can go and work with the Health and Safety Authority.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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When the lockdown first happened, we were all getting phone calls about whether some employment was on the essential list.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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That is not the job of the Health and Safety Authority.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I understand that. I am making a point. We will get phone calls on Monday, telling us that such and such a company in the construction sector is not complying with the protocol. Will there be enough people to go out and inspect if that is the case?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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There will be enough people to take the calls. Not every call requires an inspection but that is a matter for the HSA. The HSA will deal with every complaint it receives. It will decide whether an inspection is necessary; it will not be up to the Deputy or to me. The HSA is very good at this and has a good track record. I have made it clear and cannot make it any clearer that if it needs more resources, it will get them.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Some 200 cases have not been dealt with.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I am sharing my time with Deputy Mick Barry. If I ask questions, I am happy to have them answered in writing if I run out of time. I cannot believe the answer that Deputy Humphreys has just given to Deputy Catherine Murphy. It is outrageous. The Minister patronised her for a good section of the time by telling her that this document I am holding tells a person how to sneeze, how to distance, how to mask up and use PPE. We have been listening to that for eight weeks, and in the course of those eight weeks, many Deputies in this House have been inundated with complaints from workers about the lack of protocol and safety on their sites.

I asked the Minister at the beginning of this month for a list of the number of complaints to the Health and Safety Authority and the Minister told me there were 122. The Minister wrote to Deputy Paul Murphy yesterday and told him there were 200. In her answer, the Minister states that it has not been necessary for the Health and Safety Authority to carry out any physical inspections. How did it know if it did not perform inspections? Did it pick up the phone and ask the employer how it is getting on, and whether it knows about sneezing, masking, PPE and distancing? If the Minister asks me, that is what this document states.

We have all waited with bated breath for this, having asked the Minister what she is going to do about the lack of protocol at work. We got that document and it is what the Minister just said, and it is full of caveats. There are two parallel universes here. There is the world that workers live in and there is the world that the Minister, the Construction Industry Federation and IBEC live in-----

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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ICTU is in it too.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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-----and they are very different. I want to tell the Minister why they are different. She should read the article in today's edition of The Guardianabout workers in the meat factories. I hope it pulls the strings of the Minister's heart, because it pulls mine when one listens to those workers talking about the experience they have been through. At least one worker has died and hundreds have been infected. According to the article in The Guardian:

“One hundred per cent, I know I got it in the factory,” [one worker said] “If the disease was in the animals, they’d have closed the place. But for workers, the factories can do what they want.”

These workers feel intimidated. They are vulnerable and they are not being treated with dignity and respect. There is no checking of temperature, no masks, no 2 m distancing and when they asked for masks they were told, "No". Many of them are migrants and because of the low pay, they live in communal housing and the risk of the disease spreading among them is very great indeed.

Today, I got a response from the HSE, which tells me it set up an outbreak control team in the meat industry this day one week ago and it has met once. I am disturbed by the lack of urgency from the Department on workers' rights. The Minister can talk all she likes about the need for industry and businesses to resume. I agree that they do need to resume. I know tens of thousands of workers are anxious to get back to work, but, for God's sake, let us bring them back to work in safe conditions. Workers need to know there is legislation that covers them. It is section 27(e) of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. If a person feels unsafe at work, under the legislation, he or she can walk away from the workplace without fear of intimidation or dismissal because the workplace is not protected. If the Minister was protecting those workplaces, she would not have given us a document full of caveats. It is like a sieve because it states many times that employers, in as far as practicable, should provide masks if they can and that facilities should be provided if they are reasonably practicable.

The Minister repeatedly told many Deputies here today that the HSA would inspect workplaces. It has not inspected one out of 200 complaints at the height of the Covid pandemic in this country. By her own admission, she stated the HSA had not gone to one workplace. She refused to answer the question of Deputy Paul Murphy and other Deputies on how many additional inspectors would be provided. I do not believe the Minister has the interests of employees at heart. Her document and her interest is all about the employer. I have just come from a radio interview with Tom Parlon. Not once did he mention the employer or the responsibility of his members. He consistently mentioned the personal responsibility of workers to mask up, to use PPE and to socially distance. If two construction workers are walking across a 4 ft wide plank, how can they keep a 2 m distance between them? They cannot do it. Let us make no mistake about it, when the construction industry resumes, the pressure will be on to get a structure built, to get the cement in and to get it done. There will be breaches; even travelling to work will be a breach. We have rushed to get the leaving certificate cancelled but we have no problem sending more than 100,000 workers from all parts of the country back into very unsafe conditions without any proper redress. I do not believe this document has either teeth or power to do what is required. It is the Minister's responsibility. I do not need the answers now.

8:55 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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When Clerys closed without paying a penny to long-standing workers, the Dáil said that would never again be allowed to happen. It is happening again. It is happening on the Minister's watch. It is happening at Debenhams and more than four times as many workers are involved in this case.

Debenhams closed in early April. Liquidators were appointed by the High Court, namely, KPMG. I met the liquidators earlier. The 30-day consultation period is very nearly up and KPMG has informed the unions that it does not intend to extend the consultation period and that it intends to issue redundancy notices at the start of next week, the week beginning Monday, 18 May. The Mandate trade union has asked that they extend the period. The union is balloting for industrial action over the company's failure to negotiate a redundancy package. The result of the ballot will be known at the start of next week.

There are 1,400 workers directly employed in the company and a further 600 work in the concession stands in the stores. The cost to the State of paying the two-week statutory minimum redundancy, one week's wages in lieu, the unpaid holiday time and, let us say, nine months' jobseeker's benefit to each of those workers would be more than €25 million, and that is not even counting the lost tax revenue.

Let us take into account some facts. The Debenhams workers in Henry Street in Dublin have contacted in writing the landlord of the Henry Street premises, who is also the landlord of the Debenhams premises in Patrick Street in Cork and asked if he would be prepared to negotiate a rent reduction.

He has not given a commitment that there would be a rent reduction but has said that he is open to discussions about the possibility of one. It makes business sense from his point of view. It is better to have an open premises from which one receives at least some rent than a closed premises from which one receives none.

Of the 11 shops in this State, three made a profit last year. Online business from Ireland is profitable. If four of the 11 stores made losses last year, these losses were very much at the lower end of things. The KPMG affidavit to the High Court valued the stock at £12 million for 1.239 million items. I asked whether this was cost price or retail price. It was cost price. What would the retail price be? At €20 per item of stock, which is a very conservative estimate, it would yield €25 million. It could, in fact, yield significantly more as I believe the average price would be more than €20. This is money that could, and should, be used to save jobs. At the very least, this money could be used to fund a decent redundancy package for those workers.

I asked the liquidator whether he had received a request to discuss these issues from the Minister or her Department. He said he had received no such request and that no meeting had taken place. It seems that the Minister is standing idly by while 1,400 direct jobs, or 2,000 jobs if one includes both direct and indirect jobs, go down the Swanee. Is the Minister prepared to urgently contact the liquidator tomorrow to seek an extension to the consultation period in order to allow time to explore these issues? Is she prepared to request a meeting with the liquidator to explore these issues?

9:05 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I sympathise with the workers in Debenhams. This is not an easy time for them. We will do everything we can to make sure that all the supports of the State are available to them. It may be at least some comfort that they are getting the full €350 unemployment payment but that is only temporary. Regarding the interventions-----

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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Will the Minister meet the liquidator?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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-----the procedures for liquidations are set out in Part 11 of the Companies Act 2014. As Minister, I have no statutory power to interfere.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The Minister may ask to meet the liquidator. Will she do so?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Unfortunately, I cannot do that because I do not have the statutory power.

I want to go back to the role of the HSA regarding complaints and procedure. The HSA has power, teeth and resources and it will have more resources if they are needed. Some of the complaints came in before lockdown was introduced. Some of the complaints about which the Deputy is talking-----

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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No, they did not. They were made within the period of lockdown.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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-----came into the HSA before the lockdown was put in place. When the HSA contacted the employers to follow up, the places of work were closed. One cannot inspect a place of work that is closed.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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This is not so.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Some of the complaints are coming in from people outside the workplace. People who do not even work there are putting in complaints. The Deputy should keep that in mind.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Some are coming from Deputies like me.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Some of the complaints coming in are also about closed businesses and the prospect of places opening up. These cannot be inspected because they are closed. I just wished to point that out to the Deputy.

Photo of Michael LowryMichael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
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This House's main priority is saving lives and jobs. We have heard details of a number of schemes to ease the path to business recovery. Most businesses can avail of a range of schemes. Although these schemes are, as of yet, untested, they have been put in place in a timely manner under the guidance of the Minister and will lessen the burden for many businesses.

There is, however, one sector which seems to have fallen through the cracks. For whatever reason, the self-employed, micro-companies, small businesses and social enterprises do not appear to be adequately catered for. They seem to have been left on the fringes to sink or swim. The self-employed represent 15% of the workforce in Ireland, a significant figure. These are people who have chosen to work and to provide for themselves. They work alone or may employ one, two or three people. Perhaps they train a young apprentice.

They own and run their own businesses and are responsible for every aspect of it.

These sole traders and microbusinesses are located in every city, town and village across Tipperary and the country. They do not have the means to advertise, so they depend on word-of-mouth referrals, on being convenient to consumers and on providing a local service. Every week is a gamble. Every opportunity is grasped with both hands.

They are a vital cog in the economic wheel. They drive the local economies. They help ensure that the local wheels keep turning. They purchase their supplies locally. They assist larger business by providing trade-specific services on demand. They live and raise their families in the places they work so they support other local enterprises. They may be microbusinesses, but they pack a macro punch in the local economy.

Sole traders and microbusiness owners are true entrepreneurs of our country. They stepped outside the box. They chose to become self-sufficient through their own hard work. They decided to take a risk - a risk they carry every day. These hard-working men and women work all the hours they can to sustain their business. They struggle to keep their books balanced and they toil to keep their debts paid. Profits, if any, are ploughed back into the business.

Every week they work endless hours to make their risk pay off, hoping and praying that nothing happens to unravel their efforts. Then along comes the pandemic and, in the blink of an eye, everything comes crashing down. This was not a risk anyone could have planned for, least of all the self-employed.

We all know people who have taken the gamble of becoming self-employed. They have ploughed everything they have into their venture. They have borrowed the minimum amount to set themselves up, keep themselves afloat and stay within their means. If things go wrong, they remain liable for these loans. The term "financial wriggle room" does not apply to them, unless it refers to an overdraft arrangement. Despite being the most vulnerable business sector, this cohort have been largely forgotten and ignored by comparison with the bigger businesses.

Microenterprise loans of up to €50,000 are available from Microfinance Ireland. However, to avail of these loans business owners must have received a refusal for finance from commercial providers. They must be able to prove that their business is viable. They will also be required to produce a tax clearance cert. Of course, they must know that they have the capacity to meet the challenge of repaying the loan.

Surely the Government can do more for these people who drive our local economies. While the weekly Covid payment is keeping food on their tables, adding a loan repayment to their financial struggles is not a feasible option in their current fragile state. Businesses will require grant aid and investment to remain viable. Without cash flow these small businesses will crumble adding to the social welfare queues rather than returning to self-sufficiency.

These people have taken personal risks to enhance our economy. They contribute in a small but very consistent way to our country’s progression. They are key people who symbolise enterprise in Ireland today. They are our stepping stones to recovery. They need a once-off payment to address cash flow, start-up costs and restocking. Owners know their business. They operate a simple model. A relatively small investment by the State will pay a rich dividend in terms of renewing small business, protecting jobs and enhancing community service.

I also ask the Minister to ensure that social enterprise is included in any new stimulus programme. These projects must be deemed eligible for new start-up grants. We have several of these social and community enterprises in Tipperary, for example The Cottage in Loughmore, and The Parish Shop &Tea Rooms in Annacarty. These projects are a regenerator of communities, a creator of jobs, a developer of people and social cohesion, and provide other social and economic benefits.

I also raise a separate matter. The Minister will be aware the pharmaceutical industry is the one sector that has increased manufacturing output during this pandemic. Ireland is the largest net exporter of pharmaceuticals in the EU and the third largest globally. The sector directly and indirectly employs 60,000 people. It accounts for €50 billion in exports, of which €21 billion is exported to the United States. All of the world’s top ten drug companies have operations in Ireland.

They are massive employers which support thousands of Irish jobs. We are fortunate to have Abbott Ireland, Boston Scientific and Merck Sharp and Dohme happily settled and manufacturing in Tipperary. President Trump recently stated his intention to bring these manufacturing bases back to America. This threat cannot be dismissed or taken lightly. The repatriation of even one company would cause economic devastation to our regions. Are the Department, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland satisfied that we have the ability and the appropriate terms and conditions in place to counteract any such potential move? Does the Minister accept there is a need for vigilance and constant liaison with the management of these American-owned drug companies which are so crucial to our national economy?

9:20 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising these issues. To answer his last question first, through many years Ireland has built up a very robust life sciences and biopharmaceutical industry, the quality and depth of which is recognised across the world. Our track record on skills availability, manufacturing quality, consistent pro-enterprise policies, high regulatory standards and access to the European Union attracts many companies to the country. Of course, biopharmaceuticals is a globalised industry with multinational companies seeking markets, skills, innovation and production expertise as well as mitigating concentration risk through diverse market presence. Companies based in Ireland such as those in the Deputy's own county, including Abbott Ireland, MSD and Boston Scientific in Clonmel, are at the cutting edge of developing and manufacturing complex and often life-saving drugs that are exported throughout the world. It is important to remember that Ireland is a key part of a sophisticated global supply chain within the biopharmaceutical industry and that has been built up over time.

The American Chamber of Commerce Ireland recently told me that Ireland's reputation had been enhanced by how we have responded to Covid-19. I assure the Deputy that Martin Shanahan, the CEO of IDA Ireland, and his team are in continual contact with all of these multinationals across the country because, as all Members are aware, they contribute significantly to very important high-quality jobs in the regions.

On grants and the self-employed, I agree with the Deputy that the self-employed people across the country who have two or three employees are vital. They play a very important role. During the previous crisis to hit this country, there was no support for the self-employed and that was wrong. We changed that in the last budget. The pandemic unemployment payment of €350 is available to every person who is unemployed as a result of Covid-19, including the self-employed. That is, obviously, of some help to those people. There are several grants available, including the business continuity grant which provides expertise in how to put applications together for planning and financial supports. The trading online grant of €5,000 is available to businesses which wish to go online. They can get a grant of €2,500 from their local enterprise office and apply for another €2,500. The local enterprise office is the first port of call. I wish to take this opportunity to thank all the staff in local enterprise offices in every county. They are doing tremendous work at the coalface.

After the Cabinet meeting tomorrow, I will be announcing details of the restart grant. It will comprise a fund of €250 million to address the exact issues highlighted by the Deputy, that is, to help businesses get started and to cover the costs that might have caused businesses to choose not to open up. It will help those businesses. Grants of up to €10,000 will be available. The grant will relate to the amount of rates paid by the company in 2019.

That will be a cash injection. The wage subsidy scheme is also available to these companies for their employees. This means that if the employees are back at work, the businesses can avail of the scheme which provides up to 80% of the employees' wages until 16 June. There are a number of supports there.

9:25 pm

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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Last week, a national plan to help the small business sector recover, and to ensure that employment is sustained, was published. The plan is backed by ISME, Retail Excellence Ireland and the Restaurants Association of Ireland, among others. It recognises that SMEs account for 99.8% of active enterprises and 65% of total employees in the State. It also recalled that 31% of our exports are SME related. This shows how important SMEs are to our economy. These facts clearly point to the significance of the sector for our communities, regions, families and the wider economy. One of the key points in the recovery plan was a request to ensure that improved liquidity schemes, up to €6 billion, are put in place, which better target small businesses. It recognises that most small businesses will require time to recover, and that many will need a minimum one-year payment holiday and a 0% interest rate. It also stressed that key to all loan schemes should be the capacity to make the funds easier to access, which means the Government channelling liquidity to a broader group of lending partners and increasing the level of guarantees on this capital. The fact that these suggestions are coming directly from the SME sector highlights the value in adopting this kind of approach, and I welcome it.

My own sense has been that since the start of the crisis, the Minister has taken a strong and very pragmatic lead and I commend her on that. She was quick to recognise the need to put in place immediate and ongoing stabilisation measures. These include a €10,000 restart grant for micro and small businesses based on a rates waiver or rebate from 2019 and a three-month commercial rates waiver for impacted businesses. As I understand it, however, the commercial rates waiver may be running into some difficulty due to the nature of the contractual obligations that many SMEs have in place. I would like the Minister to elaborate on that and make suggestions for how this could be overcome.

Many businesses in Offaly and Laois will want to know that as soon as possible in order to plan for the future. One business in Offaly that I was in contact with yesterday evening has serious concerns about access to finance. I emailed the Minister about that earlier today. It is very urgent and I ask the Minister to give any help she can because hundreds of jobs are on the line. The same business informed me that it is paying €11,000 every week in insurance costs, despite the fact that there is absolutely no business given the pandemic. Action needs to be taken on the insurance companies. They are the only sector in our economy not supporting or helping businesses in any way. In fact they are hindering business and threatening businesses' very survival. There was mention today in The Irish Timesof a case being taken against an insurance company by a business. Their approach and attitude are totally unacceptable and it is unhelpful at this time. Has the Minister or the Minister for Finance engaged with the insurance companies in respect of their ill treatment of businesses?

On a different point, some businesses will need loans at low or zero interest and others will require direct financial support and grants. Every business is different and we cannot employ a one-size-fits-all approach. Is it possible to give a 30% grant based on VAT already paid by businesses from the 2019 tax year? It would not benefit all businesses but certainly there are big ones which employ hundreds of people that could benefit from something like this.

The Minister has also emphasised that free mentoring and online training are also available for all SMEs, which I welcome. However, there are genuine concerns here with respect to the focus on online retail supports. I recently highlighted some of these difficulties with respect to the Covid-19 retail online scheme. In a reply to a parliamentary question I submitted, the Minister noted that the scheme will only be open to retailers employing in excess of ten people that had a pre-existing online presence, which is not possible for many businesses.

9:30 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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If the Minister does not have time to respond, I ask that she send a written reply.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy can submit a written question.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Of course we can and we do that all the time. It has already been said that small businesses are the backbone of rural Ireland, and indeed, all of Ireland. That includes clothes shops. I walked down Grafton Street this evening and saw big trading outlets open. Why are small shops, particularly in the clothes sector, told to close yet the big supermarkets can sell clothes? It is unfair competition. As my daughters tell me, the different seasons are running past and the stock which the shops hold are out of date and not wanted. That is totally unfair to small business. It is a case of big business wins again.

I have been in contact with Strength gym in Clonmel which is a wonderful spacious gym - I am not disrespecting other gyms but one size does not fit all in this area - and they can have one-to-one training. Gyms are in phase five on the roadmap. Is there any possibility that businesses could be examined individually where they have the space - this gym has 3,500 m2, it is massive - and other places that can accommodate distance?

On hairdressers, I thank the Minister for speaking to Willie Walsh in Clonmel, where he is a household name. He is a hairdresser who does tremendous work, along with his family who has operated the business for years. I could do with a visit to him myself, but I must depend on my family to give me a trim. He has made strident efforts to recover and made great effort to establish safe distance and hygiene and so on. They want to be able to trade or else they will go out of business. Will the Minister make available loans? These people never look for loans, or grants or handouts. They put their hands in their pockets and have sleepless nights. They put the investment in. The black market, in this area especially, is thriving. It is shameful. I have said it before and I will say again that people caught operating on the black market should be dealt with seriously. I said before, and some people took offence at me, that some of them are not Irish nationals and they should be deported if they are caught at this. They have been called to by the Gardaí and are blatantly ignoring it. It is not good enough.

I refer to the grants and cash flow for small business, particularly in tourism. Staycations should be promoted this year. All those areas should be supported.

The Lazy Bean in Cahir is a wonderful outlet. It is a meeting place, a hub, in the square, where Karen O'Donovan and her team work so well. It will be very difficult for them to operate with social distance. There will be trial and error. I hear claims. Some of the hard left here have said that all employers must be visited. We must have support these traders at this hard time. Ní neart go cur le céile. Without the vibrant businesses in our towns and villages the economy will not recover. We must give a cash injection to people to be able to spend money, and encourage spending. There is too much of the gloom and locking up.

For hotels and every other business I mentioned, there is the matter of insurance, which Deputy Nolan also mentioned. I would also mention banks. The banks are withdrawing mortgages left, right and centre because people are on the Covid payment. They are blackguarding once again. It is nothing but blackguarding. As for insurance providers, they know that the Minister is a soft touch and that her Government has not tackled insurance fraud, robbery and rip-off for the past ten years and nor did the Governments before that. It is big business. We see all the things they sponsor: why can they not give a rebate and have some bit of respect for their customers who have to pay up and who always want to pay?

Hotel Minella in Clonmel is a fabulous business run by the Allen family for generations. They have been so good and kind in organising anything that was wanted by HSE staff or anyone else, and they are now organising with Louise Morrissey, Paddy Doheny and others to visit nursing homes. With this lovely weather we are having, they can play out in the garden for the residents to look out, and some of them could come outside and engage and I thank them for that. Businesses like this will have to be supported in relation to standing charges, including rates, and the sheer cost of utilities. They have piles of bookings and have stopped taking them.

Deputy Lowry mentioned the farming industry. South Tipperary is the hub of the farming industry. I refer to Pinewood Laboratories, across the border in Ballymacarbry, Clonmel Healthcare, and I have to mention ClonMedica, a pharma business in Clonmel, which has done a huge amount of voluntary work and whose staff put their hands in their pockets every time they are asked to support different events. I refer to David Adlam and his team.

We also need to do something about the driving test. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, came out of his cocooning to come into the Dáil yesterday. I was lucky I was not here because I would have blown a fuse. He said that he wants public transport to operate. He is astonished as to why public transport - the Luas and the buses - is not moving. He also said that people cannot get their driving test. People who want to work on the front line cannot get their driving test yet the NCT centres are not open. Surely they can operate with safe distancing. Is it all about Dublin to the Minister and getting the bus in from wherever he lives in the leafy suburbs of Dublin? They can operate as safely as anybody else. The motorbike testers drive behind the person taking the test. Young people want to get their licence. They have been waiting for years. Many of them have done the theory test and the lessons. They are ready to go. They cannot have an accompanying driver with them now so the gardaí should be lenient in terms of the new law that was passed - I refer to the Clancy amendment - whereby at all times learner drivers have to be accompanied in the car by a person with a full licence. They cannot sit in the car if that is the situation. We need to be real about that. I appeal to the Minister, who understands how the country ticks, to try to influence some of her Dublin-centric colleagues. Rural Ireland exists and will recover if we are allowed to recover and not stifled and hidden.

The Minister might reply by email or whatever. We move now to the independent Independent Group. I call Deputy Marian Harkin who is sharing time.

9:40 pm

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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So good they named it twice. According to an extensive IBEC survey, many businesses are running out of cash and yet the take-up of some of the liquidity measures announced by the Minister's Department is low. Why is that happening? One of the reasons is that many companies do not want to add to their increasing levels of debt. I have spoken about this previously in terms of their utility bills, rent and insurance. We also have to remember that an end to lockdown is not the start of normal trading. Many businesses will have turnovers of around 20% or, at best, 50%. They have no profit so they do not want to restart with an overhang of debt. Will the Minister give cash grants to businesses as has been done in the UK, Germany and Denmark to specifically cover ongoing costs when closed to ensure they are not restarting with a significant overhang of debt?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising that issue. We currently have a suite of supports. Some of them are loans and some of them are grants. We have the business continuity grant. One gets that from the local enterprise office so that gives one access to somebody who will give advice and help to put together a financial plan for one's company. We then have the grants for getting online. In fairness, many businesses have taken that up. Finally, we have the restart grant, which is a fund I announced last Saturday week of €250 million. Tomorrow, I will bring to Cabinet the details of how that grant will work. It will be a maximum of €10,000 and it will be connected to the rates businesses paid last year. That will be a direct cash grant into their business. That means they will be able to use that money if they need to buy some Perspex or whatever to put up personal protection equipment, PPE, in their businesses. They can use it for overhanging costs. They might have an ESB bill and a few other costs like that. It is there for them to use and I believe it will be very much welcomed.

There is also the wage subsidy scheme. People should remember that under this scheme, when an employer starts to bring back his or her workers, and hopefully all of them will be coming back over the next period of time, the State will pay up to 85% of the wages of the workers, with a maximum of €410 per worker. That will continue until 16 June. That, in itself, will be a cash injection also when employers have their businesses back up and running.

9:50 pm

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I am happy to hear that the restart grant can be used specifically to cover costs that have accrued while the business was closed. My second question relates to borrowing, and I have previously spoken about the issue of rates. The Government can borrow at less than 1%, yet we are charging between 4% and 5% over the lifetime of the loan. Why are we so out of kilter with our European partners? What is the reason for this? Is it to protect our banks and their profitability?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Interest rates under the Microfinance Ireland Covid-19 loan schemes have been reduced to between 4.5% and 5.5%. The first six months are interest and repayment-free, which means there is an effective annual interest rate of just over 3%. Under the SBCI Covid-19 working capital scheme, loans are offered at a maximum rate of 4% and this represents a significant saving compared to other similar lending products on the market. Under the future growth loan scheme, the maximum interest rate is 4.5% for loans of less than €250,000 and 3.5% for loans more than or equal to €250,000. We are exploring measures to further reduce interest rates and I continue to look at whatever opportunities there are for lower interest rates on loans. For example, I recently secured Government approval to amend the process by which Microfinance Ireland is funded, in order that it can access cheaper funding. Once the necessary legislation is in place, it will support further lending by Microfinance Ireland at heavily subsidised interest rates. Under the new €2 billion credit guarantee scheme, interest rates will be below market rates because the State is guaranteeing 80% of those loans.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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First, I have one specific question. The Minister said the Health and Safety Authority is an independent organisation, which it is. Has it made a request to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, or to the Minister herself, for extra staff in view of the extra burden it will face?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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It has not made a request, as far as I am aware, but I speak to the head of the Health and Safety Authority and-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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My question is whether it has asked specifically for extra staff.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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No, but it is important that I explain that there will be resources available from other agencies. For example, the HSE may have environmental health officers who can transfer over, and there are a number of other agencies that would be able to give it staff.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I have sat here through the whole debate and I appreciate the Minister's effort in explaining this. I have written it down. I had a specific question, which the Minister answered when she said the Health and Safety Authority has not yet made a specific request for extra staff.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Not yet.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I appreciate the range of help and supports available. That is not a problem, but those supports must be looked at in context of the Central Bank telling us that small to medium enterprises are going to need liquidity of up to €5.7 billion. We have the national small business recovery plan, and I see John Moran is the chairman of the organisation, which put that together. I hope he has the same passion for building public houses on public land as he shows for small businesses. I welcome his passion. He points out that such businesses are an integral part of our society. They are embedded in our society and we cannot do without them. I fully accept that. He talks about a figure of €15 billion. While I did not get a copy of the Minister's speech, I was listening to it in my office and I think she mentioned a figure of €15 billion in total as well. Is that right?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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We have supports of up to €12 billion.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Interestingly, Mr. Moran claims €15 billion is needed. My question is not on the specifics of the range of supports but on what impact analysis has been done on their take-up. For example, when I look at the figures, I see the credit guarantee scheme has been in place since 2012 and had very little uptake preceding Covid. In addition, only 156 loans have been approved under the working capital scheme. I do not wish to find fault. I am asking how we can see where this money is going and whether it is going to the people most affected. Like every other Deputy, I am in constant receipt of representations from businesses in Galway city, as well as small restaurants and hotels in Connemara. The Covid-19 regional economic analysis points out that the north and north west are the most exposed when it comes to business.

I will leave the Minister a minute to respond if I can. Responses must be targeted at those most affected and the Government must have a way of analysing this. In respect of the regional authority for Galway city, of all cities, it is the worst affected while Clifden is in the middle ground of those affected. Could the Minister take the minute to look at what forum is there for the analysis of how they are taken up and how one learns to improve it?

10:00 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I will take the Deputy's last question first. I meet the enterprise forum every two weeks. The enterprise forum consists of all the representative stakeholders such as IBEC, Chambers Ireland, ISME, the Small Firms Association and the exporters' organisation so I meet all of these bodies. I am on conference calls with them at least every two weeks. I get their feedback and they get feedback from their members. I know the Deputy mentioned the credit guarantee scheme. We have a much more enhanced scheme where the State is covering 80% of the risk. We have legislation to put through the Dáil before that scheme can become active. What is good about it is that it gives businesses certainty. I would say to businesses that the local enterprise offices are there for the business continuity voucher or grant under which businesses get €2,500 that they can use to bring in a planner and look at their financial requirements. In fairness, the banks have given six months of a payment break on the loans and have said they are giving flexibility on overdrafts. I accept that there is a reluctance on the part of businesses to borrow money and I understand that. This is why we have brought in the restart grant, which I will announce tomorrow evening. I think this will make a significant difference. Enterprise Ireland has a range of supports for manufacturing companies. There is a €180 million fund through Enterprise Ireland, which will work with businesses with ten employees upward. It will be able to give these businesses supports and grants through that scheme. The local enterprise office has another suite of supports.

Sitting suspended at 6.53 p.m. until 7.13 p.m.