Seanad debates

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Credit Guarantee (Amendment) Bill 2022: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:00 pm

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the House for facilitating the Bill this week, which I am pleased to bring forward. It was something that we discussed quite a lot here individually with Senators as well, who were asking for a scheme such as this in response to what happening with Ukraine and the pressure it is putting on businesses here as well. The scheme has worked quite well through the past couple of years in other forms as well.

The Bill will facilitate the creation of the Ukraine credit guarantee scheme. The scheme will make low-cost lending available to small businesses, fishers and farmers without collateral or personal guarantees. Lending will be at reduced interest rates and allow for those businesses to spread the current rate increase in their costs over the medium term.

The purpose of the Bill is to make certain amendments to the Credit Guarantee Act 2012, as amended, to help businesses access essential liquidity through their banks and other financial institutions. Businesses often need loans to cover cash flows and this need has been deepened by the spike in cost increases since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

The Bill also includes a short technical amendment to the Loan Guarantee Schemes Agreements (Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland) Act 2021. This will enable the Ministers for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Agriculture, Food and the Marine to enter into further agreements with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, to facilitate access to finance for qualifying enterprises.

The first thing is to understand the need for this, and most Senators will. I will explain to then in general why the Bill is so necessary. The impact on the economy due to the invasion of Ukraine and the knock-on effects on costs, especially fuel, has resulted in a surge in operating costs for businesses and a drop in confidence across the board. With the increasing duration of elevated energy prices, the negative economic impacts are being felt by all sectors and will continue to be felt for a number of months ahead. The consumer price index of the Central Statistics Office, CSO, states that costs rose by 8.2% between September 2021 and September 2022.The highest level of inflation for 38 years was recorded in June 2022 at 9.1%, a level not seen since 1984. September marked the 12th straight month where the annual increase for the CPI has been at least 5%.

These increased costs will cause significant strains on the working capital position of SMEs. They will need to spread the costs of the next 12 to 24 months over a longer timeframe to avoid heavy cash flow losses. The increase in energy prices, as well as other raw materials, such as fertiliser and feed, are driving price inflation. This is affecting every sector from butchers to clothes shops and from food processors to cafes. We can already see the impacts of that on the high streets, with some businesses under extreme pressure and some businesses reducing their hours or, in some extreme cases, having been forced to close as well. This is in response to that, to enable them to have the working capital or access the finance they need to get through the next couple of years.

These developments may damage profitability and growth, thereby resulting in a reduction of economic activities, potential job losses and business closures. We must protect those hard-earned jobs. As I said in the other House last week, we have more than 2.5 million people at work and we cannot take that for granted. The number one response of any Government to protect the jobs one has as well as try to continue to grow more. I recognise that jobs come and go and one always must have more jobs coming into the system in the years ahead as well.

Businesses will need assistance to adapt their operations to a changing business environment, to restructure suppliers and their cost bases. Confidence is being negatively impacted by the ongoing uncertainty and an important part of the rationale for Government intervention is to rebuild confidence. A significant and ambitious credit guarantee scheme will assist lenders in providing liquidity to these companies and send a strong signal of support and confidence to both lenders and borrowers.

For context, as there are quite a number of champions for the SME community here, I reaffirm that there are approximately 270,000 SMEs in Ireland, based on CSO figures. Small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, account for 66.4% or two thirds of all persons employed in businesses in Ireland. Small and medium-sized enterprises generated 43.6% of total turnover in the business economy and 36.9% of gross value added was attributed to these enterprises.

They are the majority of businesses in every county in Ireland. They are the dairy farmer, the family-owned newsagent and the software start-up. They create jobs and generate wealth in locations where large businesses do not establish themselves. They are in every sector and the people who own and work there are from every background. Small and medium-sized enterprises are very much the fabric of Irish society. They are more than just numbers. That is why I, and my Department, are so keen to provide any support we can to keep these businesses afloat.

The Ukraine credit guarantee scheme should be viewed as one arm of the Government assistances being offered to businesses. It cannot and does not claim to be a panacea to every issue businesses are facing in the current environment but it is an important element of the Government’s offering. These measures will allow businesses to tackle and overcome the expected costs pressures of this year and next.

I would have said previously when we discussed other similar credit guarantee schemes that when it comes to crises such as this and businesses are trying to plot their way through it, generally the way through it is a combination of tapping into some of the Government grants and schemes that are there, access to low-cost finance at the right price that is de-risked by the State which is what this scheme does but also sadly having to dip into their own reserves as well. It needs all three and an effort by everyone to get through a tough time. There is no point in kidding ourselves by saying to businesses that they will get through this without borrowing. That is probably unlikely. That is why our duty is to make it as cheap as we possibly can and as easily accessible as we possibly can as well.

The first of the supports announced in the recent budget is the €1.25 billion temporary business energy support scheme, TBESS, providing qualifying businesses with up to 40% of the increase in electricity or gas bills up to €10,000 per month. It will help small businesses most, but also medium and larger businesses. It will be administered by the Revenue Commissioners, backdated to September, and will run until at least February 2023. Much information went up over the weekend about that. Hopefully, we will see businesses making the applications and drawing down funding this side of Christmas. They will be able to continue funding thereafter in the new year as well.

The second support that was announced in budget 2023 is a €200 million targeted Ukraine enterprise crisis scheme. This is designed to assist viable but vulnerable businesses in the manufacturing and internationally traded services sectors which are suffering the broader effects of the war in Ukraine, as well as increasing energy costs. One strand of the scheme will provide up to €2 million in grant aid for energy intensive companies impacted by the exceptionally severe increases in gas and electricity costs. It will be administered through Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta and eligible businesses must produce an energy efficiency plan which shows how they will get their energy costs down. That is open already for applications. There will be strong demand for that as well.

Operating in tandem with the Ukraine credit guarantee scheme will be the new growth and sustainability loan scheme. This will make up to €500 million in low-cost investment loans of up to ten years available to SMEs, including farmers and fishers and small mid-caps, with no collateral required for loans of up to €0.5 million. A minimum of 30% of the lending volume will be targeted towards environmental sustainability purposes.Amendments in the Bill to the Loan Guarantee Schemes Agreements (Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland) Act 2021 will facilitate the Department in establishing the growth and sustainability loan scheme.

Today we are debating the legislation that will make the amendments necessary to implement a specific Ukraine credit guarantee scheme. This will replicate many elements of the highly successful Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme. That scheme resulted in more than €700 million in lending to 9,850 businesses. This helped maintain 81,000 jobs in just 21 months of availability. Under the Ukraine credit guarantee scheme, the State will guarantee 80% of the loans included in the scheme. Lenders will retain 20% of the risk to ensure they have skin in the game. Viable businesses will be supported. The aim of this scheme is to make it much easier for that money to be made available to those businesses and to cut out some of the delays we often see. The scheme will include farmers, fishers and small mid-caps with under 500 employees. This is something we can do under flexibilities from the European Commission in its temporary crisis framework on state aid, introduced to respond to the aggression by Russia against Ukraine. It is similar to the framework that the Commission created for the Covid pandemic.

The Bill is aimed at putting in place State-backed guarantees so that businesses that employ up to 499 people can go to the banks and other participating financial institutions for lending across a range of financial products. If a business defaults in its repayment of those loans or overdrafts, the financial institution can then call in the guarantee from the State, which will cover 80% of the outstanding debt. The financial institutions will still have to carry 20% of that default themselves. The State is providing significant certainty to the banks with this guarantee as we propose to also remove the portfolio cap for the financial institutions. Due to these measures, it is a requirement that all financial institutions taking part demonstrate a reduction in the interest rate charged to enterprises for those loans and other financial products covered by the scheme. As part of state aid requirements, the businesses will pay a fee to the State for a guarantee related to their borrowing. I assure Senators that this fee will be far less than the interest rate reduction legally required from the finance provider.

I will now explain the key elements of the Bill. Section 1 provides that references to the Act of 2012 mean the Credit Guarantee Act 2012.

Section 2 amends section 2(1) of the Act of 2012 to provide for the inclusion of a new definition of "Ukraine credit guarantee scheme" in the Act of 2012, which is needed for other changes made elsewhere in this Bill.

Section 3 amends section 3 of the Act of 2012 to allow for the extension of classes of enterprises that can qualify for the Ukraine credit guarantee scheme to include small mid-caps. Primary producers, that is, farmers and fishers, also qualify.

Section 4 amends section 4 of the Act of 2012 to include the new Ukraine credit guarantee scheme within certain subsections of that section, thus giving the Minister the power to give guarantees. The section also disallows sections 4(3) and 4(4) of the Act of 2012 for the purposes of the Ukraine credit guarantee scheme, as different provisions are being made for those aspects through the new section 4B, which is being inserted by section 5. The existing scheme is subject to a portfolio cap of 13% under the 2012 Act, as amended, but there is no portfolio cap for the Ukraine scheme. The existing scheme has a maximum yearly credit amount that can be guaranteed of €150 million, whereas the Ukraine scheme has an overall maximum credit amount of €1.2 billion.

Section 5 introduces a new section 4B into the Act of 2012, which gives power to the Minister to give guarantees in accordance with the Ukraine credit guarantee scheme. The scheme will be open for guarantees to be put in place until 31 December 2024. These guarantees will not extend beyond six years in duration. The maximum amount of credit to be covered by these guarantees will not exceed €1.2 billion and the Minister’s liability in respect of those guarantees will not exceed €960 million. Subsection 4 of the newly inserted 4B includes definitions relevant to this scheme.

Section 6 amends section 12 of the Credit Guarantee (Amendment) Act of 2016 to ensure that the maximum liability of the Minister in respect of the existing credit guarantee scheme shall remain at a level not exceeding €15.6 million, and that there will be a separate provision for a maximum liability relating to the Ukraine scheme of €960 million, included through the new section 4B(3), which I have mentioned.

Section 7 amends the Loan Guarantee Schemes Agreements (Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland) Act 2021, by increasing the aggregate liability limit to €180 million from a limit of €50 million in respect of contributions committed under all agreements between the Ministers for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the SBCI for the time being in force. Section 8 is the final section and contains technical matters about the Short Title, commencement arrangements and citation.

I again thank Members for their time and for facilitating this debate. Hopefully, we will have an opportunity to discuss the Bill today, and on Committee and Report Stages later in the week.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for being here. As he said, it is important we get this Bill passed. It is critically important to our businesses, economy and people. It is about the protection of jobs, ensuring our economy and businesses have access to credit and I welcome the Minister of State's speech and contribution. It is extraordinary in that little did we think we would be in the middle of an immoral and wrong war or a cost-of-living and energy crisis as we emerged from Covid and, I suppose, a staffing issue with regard to myriad areas in industry. Accessing finance has never been more critical. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy English, on his hands-on approach as he toured the country. I have seen him first hand engaging with, listening to and bringing back to his Department the views, concerns and ideas of SMEs. I thank him most sincerely for that. I know he was in Cork recently and those he met were very impressed by his candour, sincerity and ability to understand and pick up on the minutiae of what they were talking about.

It is important we do not make it difficult for industry and business. It is important we make it easy and cut back the bureaucratic red tape to make it more simple for businesses and assist and support their needs. Never before have we needed a hands-on approach to business. While I am on my feet, I will welcome a former colleague and friend, Tony Dodd, who has been a long-standing member of the Houses of the Oireachtas staff and his friends to the Gallery. It is good to see him again. Retirement suits him. It is a good ad for it.

Financial costs have increased because of this needless and immoral war on Ukraine. The weaponisation by Russia of the Ukranian winter, energy and water is appalling. I urge all Members of the House to impress upon every country and friend we have among the decision-making powers that be to impress upon Russia that what it is doing is so wrong and immoral. We all know the effects on Ukraine and its people. Senator Cassells gave a wonderful speech in Poland last week and, during the Order of Business today, Senators Boyhan spoke about it being easy for us to turn a light off for 60 seconds and shine the light on the roof or ceiling of a building but it is about the impact it is having on the gnáthdhuine, that is, the man, woman, child, old person or worker. Last weekend we saw the person on the news with Tony Connolly speak about how the ordinary person is trying to manage in a war situation without any power, heat or water. Just imagine.

Consumer confidence saw a little drop this month in our own country. Looking at the remarks of the economist, Austin Hughes, one would have to be heartened the budget measures have succeeded. The Bank of Ireland economic policy has warned of a mixed economic outlook. I received a briefing this morning from the president of the Cork branch of the Irish Hotels Federation, Joe Kennedy. The point it has been making to me with regard to Cork and hoteliers is that Cork tourism is facing stark headwinds. Hotel energy costs are now 10% to 12% of total revenue where they were 4% in 2019. A 70-bedroom hotel has an annual energy cost of €380,000. Hotels face challenges from business costs and reduced forward bookings.

The temporary business energy support scheme is welcome but I am told by the Irish Hotels Federation, IHF, the qualification criteria for hotels are restrictive. I look forward to teasing this out with the Minister for Finance with regard to the Finance Bill and maybe with the Minister of State given the loose connection to this Bill. I will give Members an example with regard to hotels. The cost of food supplies is up by 25%; beverages are up by 16%; and linen and laundry are up 30%. That is a stark rise before one adds in the issue of staffing and skills and the uncertainty around the 9% VAT rate. I know many of us, including Senator Crowe, are asking Government about the continuation of the 9% VAT rate and championing such a continuation.This is about the protection of jobs in many parts of our economy, a matter on which the Minister of State has been strong. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, has been addressing upskilling through apprenticeships. The Ukraine credit guarantee scheme will support a wide variety of communities and sectors. The Minister of State referenced farmers, fishers and small mid-caps with fewer than 500 employees.

I like the idea of flexibility from the European Commission. I hope that Europe will consider applying flexibility to many of our sectors, including SMEs, which are the heart of our communities. As we approach Christmas, I ask people to please support local wherever they are. On the Order of Business, Senator McGahon spoke about Dundalk being the pioneer in supporting small local enterprises. It is critical that we do so. We must support the people who give employment and create incomes that are spent locally. I appeal to the Minister of State and the Government to continue the supports. The Government was not found wanting during Covid and we have not been found wanting in this context so far. Flexibility will be needed. I look forward to supporting the Bill and having it enacted as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Ollie CroweOllie Crowe (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his continued work.

Like many Senators, I welcome this legislation. As all Senators appreciate, and as the Minister of State alluded to, our SMEs are the backbone of the economy. There are 270,000 SMEs, accounting for 66.5% of all people employed in businesses. SMEs generate 44% of the total turnover in the business economy and 37% of gross value added is attributed to them. They are the majority of businesses in every county. They are our neighbours, family members and friends who run businesses in cities, towns and villages across the country. They are farmers, local publicans, restaurant owners and so on. Our economy is reliant on SMEs. Naturally, our society is also reliant on them.

Many SMEs have had a challenging period. They have endured trying to keep afloat during a global pandemic, operating during restrictions in most cases. Now, they are facing an energy crisis. Their sustainability is under threat, not through anything they have done, but due to external factors outside their control. I know this from speaking to business owners across Galway. This period is challenging for them and causing considerable concern and anxiety.

I concur with Senator Buttimer's remarks on energy costs. I will cite the example of a hotel in my city of Galway. It has 123 bedrooms and its energy costs for the six months of last year's winter season amounted to €124,000. The energy costs for this year's six-month winter season, which started on 1 October and will continue until March, will increase to €375,000. Long term, we need to co-ordinate a one-stop shop for hotels, restaurants, bars and the wider hospitality sector so that they can continue to operate. We also need long-term supports to help them make the necessary improvements to their energy systems. It is essential that the Government make every effort to support SMEs, as we have been doing in this context. I welcome this legislation, which will assist in that effort.

As Senator Buttimer and the Minister of State outlined, the Bill will make the necessary amendments to implement a specific Ukraine credit guarantee scheme. This will replicate many elements of the highly successful Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme, which saw more than €700 million in lending to nearly 10,000 businesses and helped to maintain more than 80,000 jobs in the 21 months it was available. The new scheme has the same potential to support thousands of jobs. With no sectoral or regional limitations, its widespread availability should see a similar uptake as the excellent Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme, under which 72% of loans were drawn down by businesses outside the capital. The State will guarantee 80% of the loans provided under the Ukraine credit guarantee scheme, with lenders retaining 20% of the risk to ensure they have skin in the game. Viable businesses will be supported. The Ukraine credit guarantee scheme will include primary producers such as farmers, fisheries and small mid-caps with under 500 employees.

Furthermore, I understand that progress has been made with the operator of the scheme, the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, on lenders to prepare for a rapid deployment of the scheme. That is very welcome. It is essential that supports are rolled out, hopefully as quickly as possible following today's debate.

It is in every Member's interest to ensure every measure possible is taken to support SMEs. This initiative is one part of that and it should be welcomed and supported across the House.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Minister of State is very welcome. I think he will be here again later tonight, so I hope he had his Weetabix this morning.

I welcome the Bill on behalf of my party. The Bill will make amendments to the Credit Guarantee Act 2012 with the aim of supporting the needs of businesses during this time of rising inflation and costs caused by Russian's invasion of Ukraine. The development of this scheme is very much needed at this time as we see that the cost of doing business has already pushed many small businesses to the brink. It will not be a shock to anyone if we see very many more small businesses close their doors in January.

We have heard the stories of the massive gas and electricity bills that small and medium-sized businesses are facing. They are just trying to keep their head above water. Also, there is the rising cost of supplies, deliveries and wages. Access to credit and loans will be vital to keep some of those businesses going. SMEs are the backbone of our community and local economies and the Government must continue to look at more measures to support them at this difficult time.

We are now in the winter months. It is cold and dark and, like households, businesses are worried. In Limerick, a number of businesses have closed or announced they will close soon. Next month, we will lose Miss Marples Tea Rooms in Limerick city after 11 years. La Fromagerie Cheese Shop closed last week. Bakehouse 22, which closed last month after 72 years in business, was a particular favourite of mine and of my colleague, Deputy Maurice Quinlivan. The situation is sad. I wish all of the owners of those businesses well. I know every one of them had a very heavy heart having to make the decision to close their doors.

Sinn Féin is acutely aware of the challenges that SMEs face right now, particularly the impact of rising energy costs. My party colleagues have met officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on these matters. We have proposed solutions such as the business energy support scheme and called for the creation of a new SBCI-led and State-backed credit guarantee loan scheme in our alternative budget to help energy intensive sectors, especially SMEs, micro-businesses and family businesses that are facing the brunt of these increased costs.

Last April, Deputy Pearse Doherty brought amendments to financial motions to reduce the cost of home heating oil, petrol and diesel in response to the cost-of-living crisis. We have also been consistent in our efforts to see insurance premiums reduced for businesses. There is a cost-of-doing business crisis, not just a cost-of-energy crisis. The Government must stay alert and ready to respond to all aspects of these crises.

The Credit Guarantee (Amendment) Bill is welcome. It is focused on providing low-cost working capital to SMEs, primary producers and small mid-caps of up to €1 million on a six-year term with no collateral requirements for loans of up to €250,000. That is welcome.

The 80:20 guarantee rate split between the State and the lending financial institution is fine. However, I know my colleague, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, had concerns and asked that the matter be kept under review. I suggest that if there is an unwillingness on the part of financial institutions to lend moneys as a result of the guarantee rate split, the Minister of State might be in a position to revisit this aspect.

Sinn Féin tabled an amendment in the Dáil to look at making the moneys loaned under the Ukraine credit guarantee scheme interest free, with zero repayments for the first 12 months of the loan, and to cap the interest rate at 2.5%. The Covid-19 scheme was capped at 2.5% and we believe this is a better way to go. We also believe there would be better uptake of the scheme if the first year was interest free with zero repayments. I ask the Minister of State to look at this aspect again on Committee Stage in the Seanad. I also ask him to examine what caused the low level of uptake of the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme to see if the causes can be addressed to ensure the same barriers do not exist under this scheme.

More than €750 million was borrowed for the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme. Unfortunately, that amount only represents 35% of a €2 billion scheme. It turns out that 9,848 micro-SMEs and mid-caps received loans under the scheme.However, according to Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures, there are 248,344 SMEs in the State. The take-up number is concerning.

It is important to mention that pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill was waived. Although it is not best practice to do so and I would oppose it in most cases, as a member of the enterprise, trade and employment committee, I agreed to it in this instance, along with my colleagues, because we appreciate, given the existing crisis, that it was necessary to have available supports introduced as quickly as possible. In light of that, I hope the legislation will move swiftly through the House and that the Minister of State gets these financial supports in place without delay. There are many small business owners who may not avail of the scheme because they do not want to get into too much debt. There must be more urgency in getting the temporary business energy support scheme working to help those businesses. We welcome and support the Bill but I hope the Minister of State will keep an eye on the performance reports from the SBCI and will review particular aspects of the legislation if and when it is needed. Most importantly, the scheme must be up and running as soon as possible.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Members for their support for the Bill. We tried to have this debate last week. I get a sense from the majority of Senators that they want to support businesses through this scheme. I recognise the support and co-operation I have had in bringing the Bill through quickly and without pre-legislative scrutiny. That was important, as I mentioned in the other House.

The Bill seeks to assist businesses, in conjunction with other schemes, at a difficult time. The temporary business energy support scheme probably is the most important element and it will be up and running in the next couple of weeks. Once the Finance Bill goes through this House, the scheme can formally be processed and people should have payments before Christmas. Likewise, we hope some of the banks will be in a position to make loans available under the credit guarantee scheme before Christmas and, if not, very early in the new year. It probably will begin with an initial offering through the traditional lenders, after which it will be open to all lenders to bid for the quota in the new year. We saw quite a large uptake of previous schemes by lending institutes, including credit unions, to make money available, through the SBCI, to businesses. I hope that will be repeated. I agree with Senator Gavan that it is a demand-led scheme. We offer it as a support to businesses but we cannot make them avail of it. Close to 10,000 came forward to avail of the scheme during the Covid period, which was quite a healthy response. If more come forward on this occasion, we have set money set aside to cater for that.

I would say to businesses that it is important to have conversations about their future. When I meet business owners most days of the week through all the various forums, I tell them it is an important time to look ahead at their finances for the next couple of years and to avail of these schemes. We have had EU frameworks in place in recent years in response to the Covid crisis, Brexit and so on. Now, in response to the war in Ukraine, we have a framework that allows us to offer these schemes. They will not always be there but it is a good time for people to look at the finances of their business and to plan ahead to get through the next couple of months and also the next five or six years. This is six-year money and we cannot go beyond that with this scheme under the EU framework. The future growth loan scheme, which will be up to ten years, will give people an opportunity to invest in their business in the long term. These schemes make sense in conjunction with the other supports the Government has made available.

Sinn Féin Members have asked that the rate be set at 2.5%. That is not an option for us because it would exclude a lot of the lenders we want to bring into business lending. That rate will not work for them. Obviously, I want to ensure the money is available as cheaply as possible but setting the rate too low is not an option because it would mean the scheme does not work the way we expect it to work. We will engage with all individual lenders on their rates to make sure they are passing on a significant cut on the interest rates they would usually charge, as they must do under the framework. That will be captured and we will ensure fees are kept to a minimum as well. I believe we will be able to achieve that.

The fee structure that must come with the guarantee means there is not the option to have a facility for non-repayment for 12 months. We cannot provide that under the scheme but we will work closely with businesses to make the terms and conditions easy for them. Microfinance Ireland is providing loans up to €25,000 for businesses and, in some cases, it provides a 12-month non-repayment option as well as lower interest rates if people work through the local enterprise offices, LEOs.

As referenced by Senator Buttimer, we all recognise that the LEOs are doing great work throughout the country. I am delighted to say I have got them all up and running in the past year. On behalf of the Houses, I compliment the work they have been doing through a very difficult few years. They have reached out to many more business customers than they normally would in that period. We hope to be able to continue and extend the work they are doing with businesses and in reaching more sectors. We saw that this week in the announcement of a new framework to allow Enterprise Ireland and the LEOs to work with companies with more than ten employees. That is really positive.This is reflective of the work done by the local enterprise offices. I hope we can do this also. Senator Crowe made his point very clearly and it is important. These businesses are under pressure and not by their own fault. There are external factors. This is why it is only right that the Government, using taxpayers' money in a clever way, is able to support businesses as best as we possibly can. I hope we will be able to do so in a timely manner.

I believe I have covered most of the questions that were raised. If I have missed anything I will certainly pick it up on Committee and Report Stages. I thank all of the Members for their support. Senator Buttimer and others raised the issue of hotels. He met the federation in Cork. We understand that certain sectors are under a lot of pressure. We will engage with them and we are working with them through the hospitality forum on which the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, are engaging with businesses directly. Many of them are also involved in the enterprise forum which at this stage probably engages weekly on trying to target the supports. We recognise coming into the new year that while these schemes are open to all businesses we will have to go sector by sector to keep an eye on and work with each sector to make sure the right supports are in place. It is important for us that the initial funding that was set aside to deal with the energy issue is dished out in the coming months to give businesses a chance. Then we can work with them on the other initiatives.

Access to labour and talent is key. The work being done by the Minister, Deputy Harris, and other Departments was rightly referenced. A whole-of-government approach is being taken to addressing the skills shortage. Having 2.5 million people at work is a good place to be but almost every business we speak to does not have enough people and needs more people. The first priority is to keep the businesses open to survive these couple of months. They will have a very positive future if we can attract more talent. Quite a high number of people have left the workforce for various reasons. We need to find more ways to attract them back. This is why it is important to have the right tax regime and the right terms and conditions, good quality pay, sick pay, auto enrolment of pensions and the living wage. We are heading towards these. These will improve the offer of a job and should help us to deal with some of the labour shortages.

There are also the right supports when it comes to training. The education and training boards offer courses and Skillnet also offers great supports. Again this is using taxpayers' money in a clever way to support training, education, apprenticeships and higher education. We need this combination. The business community must be part of this conversation and it is. It has expressed its desire to get involved in the formulation of courses and developing new apprenticeships. This is something we want to build on. The budget set aside an increased amount of money to achieve this. I hope that if we can get through this temporary difficult time for businesses, we will have a very positive journey through the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move that the House suspend until 4.30 p.m.

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.53 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 4.34 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 3.53 p.m. and resumed at 4.34 p.m.