Priority Questions.

FÁS Investigation.

I wish to point out that 30 minutes are allowed today for Priority Questions, with six minutes given to each question as follows: two minutes for the Minister's initial reply and four minutes overall for supplementary questions and replies. I am looking for the co-operation of all Members in this regard.

Leo Varadkar

Question:

1 Deputy Leo Varadkar asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she has requested that the investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General into FÁS be a comprehensive audit of the FÁS budget or that it be limited to the aspects raised in the internal audit reports; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41984/08]

The Acting Chairman is a very hard taskmaster.

The Comptroller and Auditor General in his report on non-commercial semi-State bodies, published in May 2008, reviewed the issues raised in one specific FÁS internal audit report.

Following discussions with the chairman and the director general of FÁS, I decided that there should be an external investigation into the effectiveness of the financial management and control systems that are generally in place in FÁS, rather than have it limited to aspects raised in the internal audit report which gave rise to the earlier special report. Accordingly, I requested the Comptroller and Auditor General to consider doing such a review and he acceded to that request. My intentions in requesting this review are to ensure that appropriate public procurement procedures exist to prevent or detect irregularities or wrongdoing, and also to examine and report on the activities of the FÁS corporate affairs area since 2000. This is in order to achieve reasonable assurance as to whether there were any occasions of potential fraud or irregularity in that area other than those already brought to light by the FÁS internal audit unit.

It is a matter for the Comptroller and Auditor General to determine the scope of his investigation. The Comptroller and Auditor General has indicated that in doing so he will take into account the deliberations of the Committee of Public Accounts hearings on the FÁS element of his special report on semi-State bodies.

As regards wider value-for-money issues relating to FÁS programmes, I point out that my Department has already commenced a review into the active market programmes, including those being delivered by FÁS. The objective of this review is to examine these programmes, including programmes provided by FÁS and Skillnets, in terms of efficiency and effectiveness and to draw conclusions about the adequacy and balance of resources in the context of current and future labour market policy challenges, including the national skills strategy.

I have three questions. The Tánaiste asked the Comptroller and Auditor General to start his inquiry straight away rather than wait for the report of the Committee of Public Accounts. Has she received a response from the Comptroller and Auditor General with regard to that specific request, and if so, what was it?

Second, the Tánaiste suggested on "Morning Ireland" that she felt the Committee of Public Accounts was following another agenda. Perhaps she will clarify exactly what she meant when she suggested that the all-party Committee of Public Accounts was following another agenda.

Third, and perhaps most important, what is the Tánaiste's agenda with regard to all these matters? When we first began to discuss this several months ago, she told the House that she was happy with FÁS. Subsequently, she told the House that she believed the matter had been dealt with by the Comptroller and Auditor General. When further revelations came forward, the Tánaiste said that her Secretary General would follow the matter up with the director general. Subsequently again, she asked the Comptroller and Auditor General to carry out a report. It now appears that she has chosen not to allow the Committee of Public Accounts to complete its inquiry and that she wants the Comptroller and Auditor General to do it.

Aside from my first two questions, I wish to know what the Tánaiste's agenda is with regard to this issue. Does she want there to be a comprehensive forensic audit of FÁS or does she merely want a quick limited investigation that she can brush away and move on — essentially a cover up?

What were the last words the Deputy used? Was it "cover up"? Is that the words he used?

Does the Tánaiste want a cover up?

Does the Tánaiste want a limited investigation that is done quickly behind closed doors, one that is limited to the corporate affairs situation? In my view, that would be a cover up.

We have approximately two minutes left on this question.

Unfortunately, a very serious accusation has been made on the floor of the House. My agenda is the following. I want to ensure that those people who have unfortunately lost their jobs as a consequence of the economic difficulties, those who wish to obtain training and those with disabilities will be afforded opportunities. That is the role of FÁS and I want it to remain centre-stage in the context of our economic difficulties.

In saying that, I indicated that I was not happy with issues that arose from the Comptroller and Auditor General's initial special report. I thought it best, given his independence and his reputation, that the Comptroller and Auditor General would afford us greater guidance. I asked him, through my Secretary General, to facilitate a further investigation. He indicated to me that his preferred option was to listen to the Committee of Public Accounts and to use its findings as an opportunity to make his final determination on how he would proceed.

It is the case that the Committee of Public Accounts of this House has an agenda. It does not specifically relate to FÁS, but is a much wider agenda. It has progressed over the past number of years in the implementation of that agenda. In no way have I ever indicated that I do not agree with the methodologies of the Committee of Public Accounts, on which my party has members, as do all parties. It has a different agenda, namely, to examine and give outcomes. However, it is not specific to FÁS. On this occasion, my agenda is to make sure that FÁS and issues relating to that organisation are raised and addressed.

The broad sweeping statements made by the Deputy have no impact in terms of where I want FÁS to be in the next number of years. As a consequence of these statements, an organisation that is made up of many people will feel vilified, which is not appropriate. I know every Member of this House would agree that there are excellent people working in this organisation. We all interact with them, almost on a daily basis, perhaps even more so now. I do not want to see a situation whereby people would feel vilified by broad sweeping statements made in this House.

Without a shadow of doubt, I have concerns and issues. I wish to have this matter investigated fully by the Comptroller and Auditor General so he can advise me of his independent views when his investigation is completed. I will take those on board and address the issues he may or may not raise. I wish to obtain clarity on the matter.

Under no circumstances will I, or any of my team, or my Department, ever condone a situation whereby information is withheld from the board or from Ministers with responsibilities. The Comptroller and Auditor General has an exemplary reputation in this country. I await his report to me prior to making any further decisions that may be necessary arising from this report.

We are well over time.

There is usually a second opportunity.

There is when Deputies stay within the limits. I pointed out at the beginning that Priority Questions take six minutes. We are now one and a half minutes over time.

I did not take six minutes.

The Chair is obliged to follow the orders of the day. If the Deputy wishes to make a brief comment——

I believe I took about one minute. Surely the time should be shared equally.

If the Deputy mentions Tallaght, he will get in.

I mentioned it six times.

The Chair will be impartial. I will order each six minutes but my difficulty is that we are now almost two minutes over the time and the Deputy's colleagues will not get a chance to raise their questions. If he wishes to make a brief comment——

I note that the Minister did not answer whether the Comptroller and Auditor General had responded to her most recent request to expedite the issue.

I agree with her that excellent work is done in FÁS and that there are some excellent people there. Does she agree that the best way to restore confidence in FÁS, if it can be restored, is to have a comprehensive investigation of the organisation rather than limit it to the corporate affairs department? That seems to be her agenda.

It is not my intention to have an overall investigation of FÁS, as I indicated in my reply. We are looking at labour market policy challenges and it is in that context that a review of the workings of FÁS is taking place.

The Comptroller and Auditor General is still anxious to have a conclusion to the deliberations of the Committee of Public Accounts. I am sure that Deputy Varadkar, as the Opposition spokesperson in this regard, wishes equally for this to happen for the betterment of FÁS, which is in the interests of all of us.

Live Register.

Willie Penrose

Question:

2 Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment her views, in view of the fact that the numbers on the live register have increased by more than 100,000 in a little more than 12 months, on whether Ireland is facing an emergency in terms of job losses; the steps she is taking to stem the number of job losses; if she will provide new training opportunities for persons who have lost their jobs; if she will encourage the creation of new employment opportunities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41990/08]

The total number of people recorded on the live register for October 2008 is 251,951, showing an increase of about 94,500 in the 12 month period. It should be noted that the live register is not designed to measure unemployment and includes part-time, seasonal and casual workers entitled to unemployment benefit.

Employment and unemployment are measured by the quarterly national household survey and published by the Central Statistics Office. In the second quarter of 2008, the most recent quarter for which data are available, employment increased by 6,900 over 12 months to a current total of 2,108,500. Unemployment increased by 15,200 to 115,500 in the same period. I understand the Central Statistics Office will release quarterly national household survey results for the third quarter tomorrow.

The rise in unemployment, while regrettable, must be viewed in light of unprecedented growth in the economy and employment in recent years. Overall employment growth was driven by significant growth in employment in the construction sector. Such levels of growth could not last indefinitely and the resultant rise in unemployment has been compounded by the international credit crisis in the economy and a general slowdown in employment in all sectors. Ireland is not alone in finding itself in this position, as many countries throughout Europe and around the world are experiencing similar difficulties in their labour markets. For example, it was announced recently that the euro zone has slipped into recession. Moreover, Britain, Japan and the United States are experiencing economic difficulties while China has announced it will pump €500 billion into infrastructural development to stimulate its economy. Clearly, we are not alone in facing grave challenges.

FÁS and the Department of Social and Family Affairs are working together in order that they can respond quickly to the increase in unemployment. For example, as regards employment and job search services, FÁS, with the local employment services provided by area based partnerships, has geared up its employment services further to provide increased capacity for expected increased referrals from the live register and put in place a series of actions to facilitate redundant apprentices in completing their studies.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

These include redundant apprentices being allowed to progress to their next off-the-job phase of training without having to do the next on-the-job phase. I have also provided FÁS with €4 million to subsidise the employment of redundant apprentices in 2009. FÁS has specific mechanisms in place to deal with redundancies and-or company closures. It offers a tailored approach as early as possible to the workers affected with a view to assisting them to access alternative employment.

As regards training for those who become unemployed, I have given FÁS an additional €5 million for training the unemployed and the organisation will increase total training places in 2009. It will also provide a range of certified, short, flexible, modular programmes in construction sector activities which are expected to remain buoyant despite the slowdown in construction. It has established a training fund to enable a speedy response to identified retraining needs for low skilled and redundant craft workers and in 2009 it will open evening classes to people who are unemployed without payment of a fee.

As regards promoting enterprise development to create new jobs, the enterprise development agencies of my Department, including IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, are working to ensure we continue to expand the economy and increase jobs, even in the current more challenging environment. The pipeline of new business for which IDA Ireland is competing is as strong as at any time in recent years. To facilitate this process we need to ensure our competitiveness is sustained into the future.

The loss of jobs in the economy exercises every member of the Labour Party, which has prepared a comprehensive document entitled, Labour's New Deal: Key Proposals for Economic Recovery. The proposals constitute a stimulus package to try to reflate the economy and address some of the issues arising, particularly in the employment area, while recognising the deep human and social cost of rising unemployment.

Next year, the number of people out of work is likely to reach 300,000, a figure that has not been reached since the 1980s. Surely this sounds a wake-up call for the Government. One would need to have one's head in the sand not to be aware that the number of redundancies has increased by 50% in the past year, 700 people are losing their jobs every week and 40,000 jobs will be lost in the building sector next year. People are moving to the Middle East and Australia to seek employment. Will we give people the one-way ticket many of my relatives had to take in the 1950s? Will that be the Government's badge of honour?

I am concerned about small and medium size enterprises, about which I have spoken in the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This is the area on which we should focus. I am grateful that foreign direct investment will continue and a number of projects are in the pipeline and I acknowledge the hard work being done by Mr. Frank Ryan and his colleagues.

Surely credit is the oxygen of small businesses. Unfortunately, however, the small business sector believes the Government is standing idly by while it is being choked to death.

As the time remaining for the question is limited, I ask the Deputy to put a question to the Minister of State.

I will ask about Tallaght first. Is the Minister of State concerned about the crisis facing many small and medium size enterprises arising from the credit famine, which is contributing significantly to the massive increase in unemployment levels? A large factory shedding 300 jobs will make headlines but I suggest that the hidden cost of a factory closure will be another 300 jobs lost down the line.

Will the Minister of State condemn the refusal of banks to make available the normal credit streams which are the life blood of small companies? Why is the Government not prepared to provide alternative sources of credit? Members of the Government have spent recent months clapping themselves on the back for introducing the Credit Institutions (Financial Support) Bill. Despite the Government stepping in to rescue the banks, chief executives and others continue to pay themselves top dollar. Why has the Government not brought representatives of the banks into the Departments of the Taoiseach and of Finance to tell them their job is to lend money and that, having been helped out by the public, it is their turn to show patriotism and help out small businesses? If we fail to get our act together, these businesses will die on their feet and rural areas will be decimated and left without jobs.

The Government is acutely aware of the challenges facing small and medium sized enterprises. The Minister has met representatives of the sector, while the Minister for Finance has held discussions with the banks. However, Deputies had an opportunity to show solidarity with small and medium sized enterprises and the broader economy when legislation came before the House to give comfort to the banking institutions.

The Minister of State should look at what the banks did. They proved the Labour Party right. The Government did not give a penny to small businesses but helped those who were already successful. The Labour Party's approach was to protect the small people.

The Labour Party failed to step up to the mark and took a populist approach.

The Labour Party is proud of its actions. The banks did exactly what we said they would do.

We now see crocodile tears. The Labour Party had an opportunity to act but sat on its hands.

I will not listen to claptrap from the Minister of State about what my party did.

The Labour Party did nothing. It sat on its hands and failed to support the country at a time when it was facing a serious challenge.

Order, please.

We have been proven right. The banks have done nothing for the people. The Government was worried about the land developers and speculators.

I have heard that before. The Deputy is being populist.

I am not being populist.

The Deputy has made his point. If he does not allow the Minister of State to conclude, I will reluctantly suspend proceedings.

As I pointed out, the Government is acutely aware of the challenges facing small and medium sized enterprises, which are the powerhouse of the economy. Banks must open credit lines to small businesses. Without the support provided by the Government and main Opposition party, we would be in a much more challenging position. The Labour Party did not step up to the mark and took a populist approach.

Unfortunately, we have been proven correct.

Economic Competitiveness.

Leo Varadkar

Question:

3 Deputy Leo Varadkar asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the reason there has been no improvement in Ireland’s economic competitiveness, according to the World Economic Forum report; the measures she will take to restore Ireland’s economic competitiveness; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41985/08]

The World Economic Forum, WEF, Global Competitiveness Report 2008-2009, ranks Ireland 22nd overall, the same score recorded for 2007-08 and 2006-07. Ireland was ranked 30th in 2003 and 2004. Achieving 22nd place out of 134 global economies is not a negative scoring for a small economy such as Ireland.

The World Economic Forum ranks countries according to 110 indicators. Within this set of rankings we score well in a number of important areas. For example, Ireland scores first place for the business impact of rules on foreign direct investment, seventh place for the number of procedures required to start a business and our financial markets, at seventh place, continue to be assessed as among the most sophisticated in the world. University-industry research collaboration has increased two points from 18th place last year to 16th place this year. We also score well on quality of primary education — seventh place — foreign direct investment and technology transfer — second place — and availability of scientists and engineers — 14th place. Our WEF competitiveness ranking has not declined for the past three years, while some other European Union countries have not managed to maintain their positions over the same period.

Many international reports and organisations measure our competitiveness and Ireland is ranked differently depending on which one chooses. For example, we are ranked second in the world as the best place to do business in 2008 according to a survey by Forbes magazine in June. Ireland is the second most competitive economy in Europe according to the Lisbon Council’s European jobs and growth monitor published last March. We were ranked 12th in the world in terms of overall competitiveness in 2008 according to the IMD world competitiveness centre and the World Bank ranks Ireland eighth out of 178 countries for ease of doing business.

We are fully committed to strengthening the competitiveness and productive capacity of the economy.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Our priority remains the creation of high quality, sustainable employment, driven by companies with higher profitability which are technologically advanced and prove a better fit with the competitive characteristics of our economy. We have a strong support system for developing the capabilities of Irish companies to compete on international markets with innovative products and services.

In terms of enhancing productivity growth, which is the cornerstone of our competitiveness, my Department has a capital allocation of €495 million for 2009, which will be spent on productivity enhancing investments by departmental agencies, namely, Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the Industrial Development Agency and county enterprise boards. In addition, the Government remains committed to investing in key national infrastructure projects through the national development plan.

To underpin long-term competitiveness my objective is to ensure we build the productive capacity of the economy through investing in people. I am doing this directly through the science, technology and innovation strategy and our skills strategy. I am confident that the areas on which we have chosen to focus are paying dividends and working well in terms of attracting and maintaining investment and growing jobs.

I do not need to remind the House that Ireland is in the depths of a recession which will probably be deeper and longer than many of us anticipated. One cannot tax, borrow or cut one's way out of a recession. We will have to trade our way out of this recession and that will require restoring competitiveness. As the Minister of State indicated, Ireland has been stuck in 22nd place in global competitiveness rankings for some time. During the Celtic tiger period, we were ranked 30th.

When Deputy Richard Bruton and Deputy Mary Harney held this Ministry we were in fourth place in the world. We need to get back to that type of position to restore growth levels. The Minister of State gave examples of some other measures in terms of ease of doing business, which is different to competitive measures. Does he accept the findings of the report which particularly identify what I term the "three I's", inflation, infrastructure — where we fell from 55th place to 64th, just behind Barbados — and inefficient Government bureaucracy, to the effect that these are the now the major drags on competitiveness?

More importantly, since it is his Department's responsibility to drive competitiveness and push associated policy, is he satisfied with the progress made by the former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, in recent years and the Government with regard to the fact that there has been no improvement in three years?

I remind the Deputy that is one survey but there are many others some of which have ranked Ireland at a much higher position, including the IMD. There is an argument to the effect that the World Economic Forum survey is very much based on perceptions, whereas the IMD survey is based more on factual information. There are other surveys, such as that of Forbes magazine, which ranks our country second in the world.

Inflation is falling. The National Competitiveness Council is to bring forward proposals in the near future to deal with that whole area.

Credit Availability.

Damien English

Question:

4 Deputy Damien English asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment her views, following a recent publication by Irish Small and Medium Enterprise which stated that some 54% of its members surveyed were refused extensions to overdrafts, term loans and stocking loans in recent weeks, on credit availability to businesses here; if she has had communications with the banking sector regarding the ease of flow of credit to specifically, the small and medium enterprise sector; the proposals in place or being prepared to ensure that SMEs are able to access credit in order to continue trading; if principles have been agreed to, within the banking sector on the issue of lending to SMEs; if she is satisfied that sufficient action has been taken by her to assist SMEs accessing credit; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41986/08]

The proper functioning of the banking system is key to our ability to address the current economic crisis and to our capacity to respond to recovery in the future. The continuing availability of credit to enterprises, especially SMEs, is a central responsibility of the banking system. Ministerial responsibility for the banking system rests with my colleague, the Minister for Finance.

The Government's bank guarantee provided the Irish banks with the support they required to maintain their normal liquidity position in interbank lending and debt markets. This move was essential to allow banks to continue their normal ordinary business of providing credit in this country and contributing to the normal functioning of the economy. The availability of finance is a critical element of overall competitiveness and a key part of our national economic and financial infrastructure. Given that the Government has provided the guarantee, covered institutions in Ireland have access to the liquidity and funding necessary for this purpose.

The Government wants to see the banks meeting the legitimate financial needs of consumers and business. The onus is now on the boards and senior executives of the banks to ensure they are properly positioned to meet this expectation. The banks have confirmed that notwithstanding the challenging economic and financial environment, good projects will continue to be supported by them.

The banks' principal area of focus is on their existing customers or new business customers with good commercially sound projects. They are very conscious of what is expected of them under the guarantee in so far as business lending is concerned. I am in regular contact with my colleague, the Minister for Finance, on the issue and officials of my Department are in ongoing discussions with their counterparts in the Department of Finance concerning the impact of the lending practices of the banking sector on small businesses.

Within my area of responsibility, my Department's continuous support for indigenous companies arises through maintaining a positive business environment and through particular interventions from the State development agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, the city and county enterprise boards, CEBs, and FÁS. I have ensured that these agencies continue to be sufficiently resourced through the Estimates process and that key areas such as the science and technology allocation and micro enterprise support, through the CEBs, received additional funding for 2009.

The agencies are focused on helping Irish businesses through the current economic difficulties to develop and grow their exports, by continuing to prioritise investment in science, technology and innovation and by providing financial and non-financial supports to small businesses. The existing range of training supports will continue and appropriate re-training and support services will be available for those who have recently lost their jobs.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Access to capital is also available to firms through BES and seed capital schemes, and through the venture capital initiatives promoted through Enterprise Ireland, including the Government's investment of €175 million through Enterprise Ireland. Some seven new venture funds have raised over €500 million which is available for investment in the Irish SME sector. The importance of the small business sector is clear, as is the extent of the Governments ongoing commitment to the sector.

The Minister for Finance has already acted positively to support the banking system through the introduction of the State's bank guarantee scheme. Deputies will be aware that the Taoiseach has in the last number of days signalled in this House that the Government is actively considering a range of proposals in this area and is ready to take appropriate action.

I take it from that answer that the Minister has no plan to help businesses get cash. What will she do to ensure cash is available to businesses? They need overdrafts and small term loans, which are the tools of small business and no longer exist. Does the Minister realise that, and realise how serious this is, because she has not answered my question? What specifically is she proposing to do? Has she met the banks and warned them as regards the situation? Is she willing to engage in some type of State-guaranteed bank loan situation as has been mentioned by the Small Firms Association — and is being done in England — or is she prepared to do anything? We do not seem to have any action plan. I have read through the Finance Bill but it is not being addressed. The only concession there is that new businesses may defer tax, nothing else.

Small businesses have very serious problems. Will the Minister not even encourage her own State agencies to pay them more quickly? Is there not money in the European Investment Bank that may be accessed? Will the Minister not seek it because people are under serious pressure and in January there will be many unpalatable announcements unless we wake up and do something constructive in the next couple of weeks?

The inferences are wrong from across the House. I have——

Tell me why they are wrong.

I have been in constant discussions and negotiation. I have met and spoken to the chief executives of the major banks, as has the Minister for Finance on my behalf. On the issue of access to the EIB, four banks from Ireland have been in discussions with it regarding access to funding specifically for enterprises.

On the issue of the proposals by the Small Firms Association, which I met last night, we have agreed that the small businesses want a forum between themselves and the banks, which is being set up.

On the issue of funding, it would be best for the banks to provide a facility in order for that to happen. That view has been expressed to the banks on my behalf by the Minister for Finance, and I, too, have advanced it to them.

I have indicated I will examine the issue of prompt payment, which is part of an answer to a question to be addressed later. My colleagues in the UK have decided to introduce a ten-day turnaround period. However, I would urge people to pay within the existing timeframe, although improvements in the feasibility of this are being examined.

There is no point in putting down an unreasonable marker that cannot be achieved. That would be foolish and retrograde. We are working towards what is feasible and what may be done to ensure that prompt payments progress as quickly as possible.

Is the Minister aware that our counterparts in the UK have put a condition on the banks regarding recapitalisation, specifying that money must be made available, particularly for small businesses? Will she assure the House that if the Government decides to invest money in the banks she will insist the Minister of Finance ensures this condition also applies here? This is very serious and I want to get that through to the Minister.

A useful initiative in the UK is in the whole area of credit advice being made available to small businesses. More professionalism is being provided to give them good advice with regard to invoicing, credit management and so on. That is real action and it is needed. I realise we have mentors, enterprise bodies, training boards etc., but we need to send specific professional help into businesses to give them the advice and coaching they need to get through these tough times. That alone might encourage the banks to lend them some money.

I will support any initiative that will help the SMEs and I have met many of them on the specific issues they want addressed.

I did not say that.

We did not nationalise our banking system, it must be emphasised. I reflect on the time when we did have State-owned banks and there were reasons why we decided they should not continue, on the basis that Governments did not run the banks.

I did not ask about that at all.

The Deputy is on the mantra of the Fine Gael spokesman on this issue and making an assumption.

I specifically asked what the Minister will do. I only asked if the Government intends to capitalise the banks.

I cannot answer that because I do not engage in speculation of that kind. We have impressed the position on the banks in the context of the bank guarantee. We have not capitalised the banks. The view is that at this time that is not necessarily where we need to be and that other initiatives are available. We are working with the banks and, as the Deputy knows, the Minister for Finance is working on these issues on a day-to-day basis, as a matter of urgency. To say that——

With respect, the question I asked——

I am sorry, but the time for this question has concluded. If I allow the Deputy, there will not be time for his next question. I have to do my job.

It does not matter about my next question. The Minister has not answered my question, so I must ask it again.

Very quickly.

Is the Minister aware that the UK Government, as a condition of putting money into the banks, specifically insisted that money should be made available to business? I am only asking whether the Minister agrees with that concept. If the Minister for Finance ultimately decides that money has to be put into the banks, will the Minister urge him to have this condition inserted? I am asking her for her views in this regard.

One cannot have views on this issue. The situation is that we have not capitalised the banks. Therefore that question does not arise.

That is not an answer to the question.

That was the question, and there is the Deputy's answer. The matter does not arise, as we have not capitalised the banks.

The Deputy will get his chance again. I must follow the order of theday.

It proves my point that they do not have any answers.

I do not know what I am supposed to do in these circumstances. The Chair is not allowed to sing.

Small and Medium Enterprises.

Damien English

Question:

5 Deputy Damien English asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the number of people employed in the small and medium enterprise sector; her forecast for 12 months time; her plans to make available a new scheme to enable SMEs to maintain their current employment level; her further plans to make available a new scheme or schemes to enable SMEs expand their current employment levels, vis-à-vis training and upskilling opportunities, PRSI holidays, VAT reduction and so on; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41987/08]

Small and medium sized businesses account for more than 97% of companies in Ireland and the sector employs in excess of 800,000 people. In my reply to the previous priority question from the Deputy I fully acknowledged the importance of the sector and my ongoing commitment to support it.

My Department and its agencies will play an important role in working through the current economic circumstances and in making sure that we are well positioned to reap the benefits that will undoubtedly arise when the situation improves. We will do this by continuing to work to attract foreign direct investment, helping Irish businesses to develop and grow their exports, by continuing to prioritise investment in science, technology and innovation and by providing supports to small businesses. We will also ensure that adequate retraining and support services are available for those who have recently lost their jobs.

The fundamental objective is to sustain and grow employment by driving investment and promoting export growth in a challenging global environment. Success in overseas markets will generate wealth that will sustain prosperity and employment throughout all parts of the country. The allocations in my Department's Estimates for 2009, particularly to the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, will ensure that we continue to build on this strategy for the future.

My Department's continuous support for indigenous companies arises through maintaining a positive business environment and through particular interventions from the State development agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, FÁS and the city and county enterprise boards. In particular, Enterprise Ireland is the agency with responsibility for supporting the development of Irish companies with ambitions to grow in world markets. Many of its client companies are small to medium in size. Enterprise Ireland recognises the varied challenges facing such companies in the context of the changing economic environment.

In addition to Enterprise Ireland, the 35 county and city enterprise boards provide support to small businesses or micro-enterprises with ten employees or fewer. CEB funding will increase next year by almost €3 million, or 9%, to €34.8 million and this represents a further indication of the Government's commitment to supporting this sector of business.

The county and city enterprise boards have developed a structure capable of generating and tapping into enterprise at local level. They have been particularly effective in their ability to respond to the needs of micro-enterprise. The 2009 allocation for the CEBs recognises the need for access to practical business information and supports for small companies, and the importance of continuing to promote entrepreneurship at this time.

FÁS, through its One Step Up programme, is encouraging employees to increase their competency levels and promoting an ethos of lifelong learning in the workplace. Its key intervention in this regard is the competency development programme which offers workers different types of training programmes directed at various skill levels across major economic sectors. These training programmes are available to employees of SMEs. FÁS also has a number of other training programmes aimed at upskilling SMEs namely through Skillnets and the strategic alliance programme. Priority is given to programmes aimed at the upskilling of low-skilled workers, these programmes, in the main, will be at or below level 5 equivalent on the national framework of qualifications.

The Government has already made very considerable progress on the implementation of the Small Business Forum's report recommendations. This progress is reflected through a substantial package of financial measures and schemes introduced to assist the sector over the last two years, including fiscal measures in the Finance Acts 2007 and 2008.

I am satisfied that the range of measures and supports provided will continue to help small to medium enterprises adapt to the current economic climate. Of course, these measures will be kept under review to ensure that they remain appropriate to the current circumstances.

I have adapted to the needs of Deputy English so he received the whole answer.

I did not get an answer. I specifically asked about "further plans to make available a new scheme or schemes to enable SMEs expand their current employment levels" and included PRSI holidays. There was no comment on that. If the answer is that there are no such plans I should be told that. I asked for the predictions for 12 months time. I am glad to see the figures but I have had them for a long time. I want to know the predictions.

I do not want to become angry but I want to know the new schemes the Minister will try in the coming months to sustain and increase jobs. I welcome the extra money for the enterprise boards, which will make up for the money they did not have during recent months, because they need it. I asked earlier if the professional advice would be made available to small businesses on credit management and invoicing. It has been done in the UK, it is a good idea and the Minister might look into it. We have mentioned programmes with the enterprise boards which do good work, which I compliment, but we need to add to these.

Can the Minister give me a commitment to look at making professional advice on credit available to businesses? It could be very helpful. I attended a meeting last week held by a bank where an action coach, similar to a mentor from an enterprise board, spoke to 50 businesses about credit management and how to get through the tough times. It was clear that most of the businesses learned a lot from that person who armed them with information. We need to see more of that. It is something the Government in the UK has acknowledged and implemented. If the Minister cannot give an answer today, she should commit to examining the matter and if it works we should introduce it here.

I need to outline the programmes available.

I want to hear about the new programmes.

These include a mentor network, the Enterprise Ireland export orientation programme, Leadership for Growth, the innovation voucher initiative and the Enterprise Start programme. There are programmes within the seventh EU framework on research and development. There is a finance and investment programme on venture capital, for which I announced an additional €500 million last week.

Other programmes include research and development technology transfer, the commercialisation fund, bench to boardroom commercialisation, Irish Research, the applied research enhancement programme and all of the city and county enterprise boards enhancement programmes, of which the Deputy is acutely aware and to which I have provided additional funding. The competence development programme, the FÁS strategic alliance programme, the Skillnets programme and the Management Development Council are also in place.

On the small business forum——

(Interruptions).

Allow the Minister to continue.

We are, within the European Union, introducing a small business Act but due to the antics of the Opposition I was unable to attend a meeting on that which was a retrograde step.