Thursday, 17 December 2020
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
94. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the number of businesses in County Clare that have received support under the restart grant and the restart grant plus; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43793/20]
There are exactly 14 days remaining of this year. It has been a very tough year for businesses. How many businesses in County Clare benefited this year from the restart grant and restart grant plus schemes administered by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment?
The restart grant and restart grant plus schemes were designed to help small and medium-sized businesses through the exceptionally difficult time since the Covid crisis hit the country last spring. The restart grant scheme was launched on 15 May with a budget of €250 million originally. The restart grant plus scheme was launched on 10 August, with an additional budget of €300 million from the Government's July jobs stimulus, as a result of the increase in demand for the original scheme.
The purpose of the schemes was to help with the cost of reopening or adapting business premises in order that normal business could resume and to facilitate dealing with some of the businesses' fixed costs during times of closure. Grant payments were administered by the local authorities via the commercial rates system as this was considered the most effective means of getting urgent financial assistance to small businesses impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. The restart grant scheme closed to new applications on 31 October and the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, operated by the Revenue Commissioners, has been in place since that date.
In response to the Deputy's specific question, as of 11 December 2020, Clare County Council has awarded 1,045 restart grants and 1,735 grants under the restart grant plus scheme. In total, more than 118,600 applications have been managed under both restart schemes throughout the country. I compliment the local authorities on their approach to the schemes, working with the relevant Department and with my Department to administer these funds and get them out as quickly as they possibly could. My understanding is that there has been quite a high success rate in terms of applications and processing times. The schemes have been very successful and I am glad Clare County Council embraced them.
I thank the Minister of State for providing those details. I understand there were a number of problems early on with the restart scheme. The software linking the Department to local authorities did not function or was not up to scratch immediately, which delayed roll-out to some extent.
There are still a number of outlier businesses throughout the country. Eamonn Andrews, a constituent of mine, is one of them. He is a photographer who goes around to schools photographing children who have made their communion or confirmation, school graduations and so on. He does not have a physical premises and works out of the boot of his car, where he keeps his tripod and camera. He takes beautiful photographs and sends them back out to schools. He is not benefiting from the schemes currently in place because he does not have a premises. Another example is Sean Kilkenny, who runs a jarvey business out of Dromoland Castle, taking people out in horse-drawn carriages. He has more than 40 horses to feed over the winter and he has not benefited from the schemes thus far. The Department needs to look at the schemes it has in place in the new year, including the CRSS, with a view to amending the terms in order that people who do not have a physical premises can start to benefit from them.
I thank the Deputy for highlighting those two cases. While I do not have details of individual cases, we certainly value every job that is out there and every business that creates those jobs. During the Covid period and as we enter into the post-Brexit situation, we recognise how important it is that we, as a State, support businesses and jobs. That is what we use taxpayers' money for and it is why we have seen a serious amount of money allocated over the past 12 months to supporting jobs across a number of schemes, including the restart grant, CRSS, the wage subsidy scheme, the rates rebates, and all the various vouchers available through the local enterprise offices, LEOs, and local authorities. We are here to support businesses.
However, the Deputy is right that there are a couple of areas in which people are still finding it difficult to access all the supports. They can all avail of the wage subsidy scheme and many of the vouchers, but some of the schemes are directly linked to premises because there are costs, including fixed costs, to having those premises open. The Tánaiste mentioned that our Department is engaging with the Department of Finance and other Departments to focus on each individual sector and area to identify where people cannot avail of enough supports to keep their businesses open. I will certainly take on board the two cases the Deputy has represented and feed them into the system. We are looking at this issue in the next couple of weeks and into January. An amount of money was allocated in the budget for recovery and for a new scheme that may be announced next year. We will try to work with the Deputy on these issues as best we can.
I am most concerned about the outliers, as I said. I ask that the Department look at putting in place a mechanism to assist them in the new year. Sean Kilkenny and Eamonn Andrews are two examples. There are also the bookkeepers who only have a racecourse presence. They do not have a bookkeeping office but appear with their leather bag at the racecourse. They are another group who are missing out.
Bed and breakfast owners are another group where people felt they lost out early on when the Covid supports were kicking in. There are supports in place for them now but bed and breakfast owners in County Clare are very worried to hear that many of them are going to be approached by the Valuation Office in early 2021 and that they will be judged as being commercial entities. In some places, like Killarney, for example, there are large 14-bedroom bed and breakfast businesses that could be considered to be almost mini-hotels. However, that model of bed and breakfast accommodation is not on offer in County Clare and the operators there are worried that, at a time when they are struggling to keep their businesses going, they will be subjected to rates. I ask the Minister of State to defer whatever plan he has in this regard and to work with other Ministers to look at broadening the scope of the range of business supports in order that more businesses can benefit from them in early 2021.
We review all our schemes regularly anyway. Since the Covid pandemic hit, we have constantly reviewed the support schemes and adapted them where it made sense to do so and where there was evidence to back it up. That happened in regard to bed and breakfast businesses. We are constantly reviewing all of our schemes. As I said, we are doing so again to see whether there are particular sectors and jobs we have not been able to reach and support. We feel very strongly, with the use of taxpayers' money through all the various schemes, that we should be reaching the majority of businesses with strong supports. The wage subsidy is available to everybody. However, it is fair to say that there are some sectors in which business owners do not have a premises and might feel they need additional supports. That is what we are looking at. The Deputy gave some very good examples in that regard today and we will use them.
The revaluation process has been ongoing for a number of years. In the majority of cases, it has resulted in a reduction in the rates businesses have to pay. Businesses in some sectors have had to pay an increased amount, but the majority have had a reduction in rates. It is important that we revaluate at regular intervals how the rates are administered and charged. That process is well under way and is being rolled out throughout the country. We certainly are prepared to look at all the various schemes to see whether we can strengthen and adapt them and, if needs be, whether we need to introduce new schemes. We are here to support job creation and make sure most businesses have a chance to recover next year and into 2022.