Thursday, 4 February 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to bring this matter to the attention of the Dáil and the Government.
Wilker Auto Conversions, based in Clara, County Offaly, last night informed 80 members of a workforce of approximately 100 of its intention to temporarily close its facility owing to components from the UK that it needs to complete work on its line being delayed at customs and ports. The company produces excellent products, which are primarily used in the ambulance sector. It services the HSE, among other public services in Ireland and the UK. It is the largest company engaged in this type of auto conversion in Ireland and the UK. The company's decision was shocking for staff, their families and their communities and our immediate concern is for them. An assurance was immediately sought from management that it would meet trade unions and assure the workforce, via the unions, of its commitment to the welfare and rights of its workforce and to finding options that may pertain to their income over the intervening period. That assurance was forthcoming.
The issue at hand is of great concern. It is one of the first cases of temporary job losses, with the potential further losses, arising from the implications of Brexit. It is not as if this company was ill-prepared. It had employed outside expertise to assist in ensuring it was in a position to meet demands placed on it as a result of Brexit. It would appear that that is not necessarily the same for UK companies that trade with Irish firms. This is a very worrying trend that needs to be addressed.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and acknowledge the absence of the Minister for Finance, who could not be here today.
There are obligations on Government in a cross-departmental capacity in this area, whether it be the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Transport, or Foreign Affairs, and in respect of Revenue and Customs and Excise. The issues and difficulties that have arisen because of the unfortunate error on the part of the EU last weekend, when it sought to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, opened the door for many people north of the Border to raise issues in regard to the east-west trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. That has led to conciliation talks in an effort to resolve the issues, involving officials from the relevant Departments and officials from the EU and the UK. I hope and expect that the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, can bring to bear on those who are representing this country in those talks and negotiations to investigate also the issues that have arisen as a result of the case I have raised and many other similar ones that are brewing, if they have not already brewed.
My immediate ask is that the relevant Departments converse with the company in question, identify the issues at hand and work with other Departments to ensure that an effort is made to smooth the pathway to resolving those issues. We all feared the implications of Brexit. It was never going to be easy and the ramifications were always going to be there. This is one such ramification and it is of grave concern to me and my constituents. I want to be able to assure them that every effort is being made by our officials to ensure that this process is eased.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. Like him, our thoughts are with the families in his constituency who are facing an uncertain time at the moment. The Deputy will be aware that the tax and customs affairs of any business are confidential and there is a duty of confidentially imposed on Revenue in this regard by virtue of section 851A of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. Accordingly, Revenue cannot comment on, and cannot provide me with details in regard to, the particular case that is the subject of the Deputy's concern.
However, Revenue has provided some general information that should be helpful to the Deputy in understanding the general situation as regards customs formalities and how they might apply in the case he has raised. Normally, import duties, including customs duty and VAT, are payable at the point of entry of goods into the EU from a third country. In such a situation of a direct import into Ireland from a non-EU country, the import duties would be payable at the point of importation unless alternative procedures have been put in place as agreed with Revenue.
As regards alternative procedures and as a way of supporting and encouraging trade and business, there are a number of customs procedures and authorisations which may be availed of whereby the payment of import duties can be suspended. An example would be where goods are imported and subject to certain modifications or alterations before they are either re-exported from the EU or released into free circulation on the European market. The suspension of the requirement to pay import duties is an important support for business, especially in the type of scenario I outlined, where there is a time lag between importation of the goods and their eventual circulation on the market after any alteration or modification.
To avail of any customs simplification process and to be able to defer the payment of duties, a business must apply to, and be approved by, Revenue for such a simplification. I am advised by Revenue that engagement with businesses on such a basis is a regular part of its engagement with trade and business. I am also aware that Revenue would have encouraged businesses to consider the relevance of such simplification to their business in the lead-up to 1 January 2021, as part of an approach to mitigate the impacts of the UK leaving the EU.
To avail of the type of simplified procedure I have outlined, a business must have the appropriate authorisation from Revenue. An application for such authorisation is made electronically and Revenue reviews the material supplied by the business to ensure that it meets the EU requirements and qualifies for the procedure. Depending on the level of complexity of the processing in Ireland, this can take some time and may require additional information from the business. In such instances, there may be ongoing engagement between Revenue and the business before the authorisation is awarded. In order to secure the authorisation, a financial security in the form of a comprehensive guarantee is also required.
I am further advised by Revenue that a retrospective authorisation may be issued in exceptional circumstances. Details of such circumstances should be submitted by the trader to Revenue, which will examine and make a decision on whether they meet the EU criteria for granting retrospection. The benefit of retrospection is that any customs duty or import VAT paid by the trader on goods imported under the inward-processing authorisation may be refunded.
In summary, authorisation for simplified customs procedures is very much a support and help that is available to business, but the facility to suspend the payment of import duties is a significant one. Revenue must ensure that the authorisation is appropriate and, once approved, covered by an appropriate level of financial guarantee. I am assured by Revenue that it actively engages with all applicants and is conscious of the importance of bringing such matters to finality as quickly as possible. Revenue has confirmed to me that it is actively engaged with the business identified by Deputy Cowen and its advisers on the current matter.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I particularly welcome his final sentence indicating that the Department is in direct contact with the company in question. I am reminded of a communication I received from the Taoiseach early in January, having raised issues around this matter when other companies highlighted to me the difficulties they had with the new regime, notwithstanding the efforts and the commitments they made on foot of Government advice in advance of Brexit. The Taoiseach indicated at that time that his office was engaging extensively with stakeholders and businesses across all Departments and agencies to support businesses to continue to trade and to resolve any issues that might arise as quickly as possible. He indicated that our feedback in this area was particularly helpful.
I acknowledge the commitment made by the Minister of State on this matter. I expect that the response and engagement will be in line with the thrust of what was contained in the correspondence that was given to me earlier this year, which acknowledged the impact of the new regime and the way in which different Departments can come together to assist companies to overcome difficulties. It was also stated in that correspondence that the Government very much welcomed the conclusion of the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement ensuring quota-free and tariff-free trade between the EU and the UK, which would mitigate the additional impact of a no-deal Brexit. The correspondence stated that this agreement, together with the withdrawal agreement and the protocol for Ireland and Northern Ireland, meant that Ireland's key Brexit objectives had now been agreed.
In a few short weeks, unfortunately, that has been brought into question by the error we are told was made by the Commission in regard to its communication last week, where it inadvertently sought to invoke Article 16 of the protocol. That in itself has caused difficulties. I again ask that in the context of the discussions that are taking place around the whole area of trade between our two countries vis-à-visthe agreement that has been reached, that every effort be made to accommodate the additional difficulties that have arisen. I welcome the commitment the Minister of State has given in this regard.
Deputy Cowen is right that there have been challenges since 1 January. There were always going to be challenges. We are moving to a new trading arrangement, with new requirements that many businesses have not had to deal with in generations. In that context, there have been interdepartmental meetings on a daily basis since the beginning of January. That has now gone down to every two or three days as some of the challenges have been addressed.
The Irish Road Haulage Association has raised issues in terms of the challenges its members are facing in getting product from the UK to Ireland. I understand it had a very productive meeting with senior officials in Revenue last week, who have given an undertaking to explore what further flexibilities can be enabled. I know that Revenue's systems have gone down on a number of occasions, particularly at peak times, because there has been so much traffic. That is very regrettable. I have spoken to senior Revenue officials today and they are trying to ensure it is addressed.
In acknowledgement of that, they announced yesterday further administrative easements to assist businesses challenged by this issue.
To return to the company in question, which Deputy Cowen highlighted, Enterprise Ireland supports to help businesses get Brexit ready are available to it. Enterprise Ireland and the Revenue Commissioners are engaging with the company. With regard to any company trading with the UK that is experiencing difficulty, not just the one in question,
the Revenue Commissioners have a 24-7 helpline in operation. They have staff at both Dublin and Rosslare ports 24-7. There is assistance available from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine at both ports. Enterprise Ireland has a number of supports that are still available to ensure businesses get every support they possibly can to overcome the challenges that have arisen owing to Brexit, which challenges were not of our doing but which we are left to deal with.