I propose to take Questions Nos. 16 and 78 together. I am keen to introduce a new loan scheme for small business as soon as possible in order to build upon the success of the small business expansion loan scheme in 1994.
The new scheme, to be called the access to finance loan scheme is the major component in the draft Small Business Operational Programme which was Ireland's response to the European Union's SME Initiative under the Structural Funds.
The small business expansion loan scheme which was run by the ICC Bank last year was very well received and the excellent take up and results of this scheme have shown the need for a further scheme. I am particularly anxious to develop a strategic programme to address the funding gap that constrains small business and services companies from growing. I want to see speedy progress in bridging the gap. The new access to finance loan scheme represents a very significant pillar of the strategic approach that the Government is adopting in respect of the small business and services sector.
Based on the experience gained as a result of the pilot SBEL Scheme operated by the ICC Bank I envisage a number of important improvements to the new scheme. There will be a fund greater than £100 million, there will be broader eligibility for a wider range of small businesses and services and a lower minimum loan size to give access to the vibrant smaller end of the business spectrum.
I am awaiting the adoption of that programme by the European Commission. However, on the basis of firm assurances from the Commission services, I am now about to invite expressions of interest from financial institutions so as to initiate the scheme without delay. I expect to receive preliminary information from interested financial institutions late in the month. A number of interested financial institutions will be selected arising from this process and complete a formal tender for the scheme within weeks of the closure of this preliminary phase.