Monday, 29 March 2021
Matters Arising from the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU: Statements
I welcome the Minister to the House. I again put on record my thanks to him for the considerable work he has done on all the details of the complex Brexit issue. I take the opportunity to thank the Chair of the Seanad Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Senator Chambers - although she covered my entire speech in her latest contribution - for the varied and detailed engagements on all matters related to Brexit, mainly the challenges and problems.Perhaps we could concentrate on the opportunities. There are opportunities and it is important to state that today. The Minister acknowledged in his opening remarks that there are opportunities arising from this major challenge for our country.
The Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU met and questioned representatives of Enterprise Ireland today. I was heartened to hear that its programme to diversify trade to our EU partners following Brexit saw a growth in exports from €4.1 billion to €5.6 billion in 2019. That is something Enterprise Ireland is continuing to develop. I am sure the Minister will agree it is important that Enterprise Ireland is supported in its growth as it identifies and supports companies that can export into non-EU markets and ensures that our country has a range of balanced export markets. That will be important.
It is also important that we ensure that the 31% of our country's total exports that go to our nearest and biggest market is maintained. Our conversations with the various trade and business representatives over the past number of months have continued to bring up a number of problems, many of which seem, unfortunately, to be home grown at this early stage, as has been stated. It was also encouraging to hear that in recent surveys by Enterprise Ireland, 83% of Irish companies identified growth potential and opportunities in the UK, showing the importance of our trade with our nearest neighbour and that it needs to be maintained, as I said before. That is positive.
Other Members have already mentioned the challenges and discussions we have had with Irish Small and Medium Employers, ISME, and the Irish Road Haulage Association at the Brexit committee. As others mentioned, there are issues surrounding the number of agencies currently involved in our export and import contracts, particularly at our ports. Those are causing problems. We have been told that the delay caused by the amount of paperwork is costing Irish business. We are asking for a quicker and more economical way to complete these transactions. There must be a better way for State agencies to interact with each other. I ask the Minister, as others have, to investigate this issue and ensure the additional paperwork that these businesses knew was coming runs in a smoother and more timely manner.
I will raise a matter I also raised in our most recent discussion on Brexit, that is, the cross-border health directive. Senator Chambers outlined the situation and I want to go through it again with the Minister. The most important thing is the need for a new permanent solution to be put in place for the many thousands of Irish people who avail of the health services in the North of Ireland each year. I am sure the Minister, as Minister for Defence, is aware of the PDFORRA medical assistance scheme, PMAS, which was described in a recent session the Brexit committee had with the Department of Health and the HSE as an "excellent scheme". PMAS was set up by PDFORRA in 2018 due to continued lack of investment and, indeed, withdrawal of medical services available to members of the Defence Forces. PDFORRA set up a separate company that will operate the scheme which previously used the cross-border health directive to provide medical treatment to members of PDFORRA for a subscription of €1 per week. To date, PDFORRA has invested €150,000 to establish the scheme and support injured members. Since 2018, the PDFORRA company has sent nearly 255 members to Kingsbridge Hospital, Belfast, for treatment. This has had a twofold benefit in that it has removed members of the Defence Forces in the scheme from public waiting lists and, most importantly, it has allowed serving members to return to work quicker, thereby, of course, assisting the Defence Forces in retention and allowing for overseas service and promotion. The impact of Covid-19 has now created a waiting list of a further 60 members who are awaiting referral.
I asked the Department on the day of our engagement what was the socioeconomic background of those availing of the previous directive and the interim one that is in place at the moment. The HSE stated that it does not collect that type of information simply because it does not have the right to do so. However, when HSE representatives talked to patients, their opinion was that the majority of them were from the middle and lower-class groups. They stated that, in the main, they do not have health insurance and almost all of them are borrowing the money from credit unions, banks or relatives, as has been said here this evening. The HSE stated that the two main providers of the money are relatives and credit unions. That is where the patients are getting the money for treatment. Officials gave examples of those availing of the scheme as being in their 70s or 80s, living in rural areas with no access to services and usually on a long waiting list. We were told by representatives of the HSE that a patient such as that would be waiting two, three or four years to access a cataract operation. As was said, such a period out of one's life at the age of 70 or 80 has a huge impact and would affect the quality of life. In fairness, patients also outlined that once their procedures were carried out, they were able to drive again, regained independence and could live their lives once again.It had a huge impact on them, they went on to say. The other patient, typically, is a person with Covid who tends to be a tradesperson, for example, a carpenter who has knee or hip pain, is off work because of Covid and is using the opportunity to access healthcare while it is not interfering with his or her ability to work. They are the two types of patients referred to in our conversation and they are not the higher socioeconomic group of patients.
The Northern Ireland planned healthcare scheme is an interim scheme to replace the EU cross-border directive. Given the importance of it to those I have outlined and the desire of PDFORRA to extend this scheme to the families of members of our excellent Defence Forces, I ask the Minister to commit this evening to support the extension of this scheme. I am informed the interim scheme is working well, thanks to the excellent staff operating and administering it, I am told, but there is still no word on an extension of the scheme by the end of this year. It is in this regard many would welcome the support of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and the Government.
I would like now to raise a number of other issues raised with me over recent months. I am hearing locally that, owing to the stockpiling of goods or logistics and paperwork, many local businesses are seeking replacement complementary products as they fear they may run out of product or may not have it on time. From the local dentist to the manufacturing plant there is concern that Brexit will have serious implications for their businesses and customers. In light of discussions we have had in committee and the fact that the UK is not due to implement its procedures for a number of months, I would appreciate it if the Minister would comment on those fears and outline what preparations Government is making for the procedures which the UK is due to implement in the coming months. This was a concern among the business organisations we spoke to over recent months. Is the Government preparing for the difficulties that will arise when these procedures are put in place by the UK?
During my recent engagement with the agencies they all commented on the opportunities that may arise from Brexit, particularly around foreign direct investment. Many commented they thought Northern Ireland would be in many cases a better area to locate such investment given the access to both markets that that part of Ireland enjoys. I would appreciate it if the Minister could outline what the Government proposes to put in place to examine this potential. Even if this investment is in the North, I am sure that with continued co-operation, it will benefit the Border counties. As much as Brexit is a threat, we must examine the opportunities that exist or may arise and Government must be ready.
I thank the Minister for his time and I wish him well in the work that is needed for all of the reasons outlined by Senators.