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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 18 Oct 2018

Vol. 973 No. 7

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Enterprise Support Schemes

Jan O'Sullivan


6. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the extra support available to Irish businesses to trade online; her plans to ensure this support is available to small, as well as larger, retail businesses; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [42697/18]

We have had a number of debates about the huge increase in online shopping by Irish consumers. My question is about the extra supports available to Irish businesses to trade online. I would like some more detail on the announcement made and to make the case that there is a need for more support.

All businesses, regardless of size or sector, in today’s competitive environment must ensure they build their digital online capacity. That is very important. The agencies of the Department offer a range of supports to assist businesses to trade online. Take, for example, the local enterprise offices, LEOs, which are the first-stop-shop for anyone who wishes to start or expand a business in terms of advice, training, signposting to other support providers and, in certain circumstances, grant support.

We have spoken about the trading online voucher scheme, TOVs, which is supported by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and delivered through the LEOs. The offers matched financial assistance of up to €2,500 and were aimed at getting micro businesses, those employing ten people or fewer, to trade online. The voucher scheme is supported with training and advice. Since the start of the scheme in July 2014 to 30 June this year, over 4,100 micro enterprises had availed of TOVs. The LEOs also offer a wide range of short training programmes to support their clients in building their online presence to compete in the online marketplace. The programmes focus on different elements, including marketing which is so important, social media, e-commerce sales, strategy and search engine optimisation.

The Minister, as chairperson of the retail consultation forum, has prioritised supporting the retail sector to develop its online capability and enhance its competitiveness. In 2017 interesting data from the Central Statistics Office showed that 66% of Irish enterprises in the wholesale and retail sector had reported having a website or homepage. However, of these, only 28% are able to facilitate online ordering. To support the new project, a new pilot online retail scheme was recently launched, with a fund of €625,000. It will be administered by Enterprise Ireland. The fund was later doubled to €1.25 million as part of the Department’s 2019 budget. The scheme will support retail businesses with 20 employees or more that have already decided strategically to grow online in the areas of research, strategy development, implementation and training. I look forward to seeing the first call being opened later this month.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Enterprise Ireland works with 5,000 manufacturing and internationally traded services companies. Building an online presence is part of the range of supports offered to these clients. Enterprise Ireland has supported projects focused on developing innovative products on new product platforms for international markets. Working closely with the Irish Internet Association, Enterprise Ireland delivers a range of funded and advisory e-commerce supports for its clients to develop their online marketing capabilities. In addition, it regularly organises events which can connect clients with leading experts and inform them on best practice. An additional €1.8 million has been earmarked for the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland in the next three years. The proposed investment, again via Enterprise Ireland, is to assist the sector to develop and generate additional export sales and online revenue opportunities, increasing market diversification by client companies and underpinning sustainable growth.

There are about 282,000 people in Ireland working in the retail sector in all villages, towns and cities. It is a hugely important sector in the creation of employment. As the Minister of State said, only 28% of those who have a web page can actually sell online. The figures I have are that €850,000 is spent online by Irish consumers every hour, of which €600,000 is lost to businesses outside Ireland. That presents a huge challenge to Irish businesses. While I welcome the increase in support to which the Minister of State has referred - €1.25 million - it is only for businesses with more than 20 employees. Everybody in this Chamber knows of smaller businesses in his or her area that really need to compete online because Irish consumers have changed their ways. This is crucial to maintain the viability of Irish businesses.

I very much agree with the Deputy that smal retail businesses must trade online because of the transformation that is under way. She has rightly pointed to the figures for the numbers of people who trade online, particularly young people who use smartphones and other services to buy online many of their goods. It is important that we look after the indigenous sector. Let us look at a company such as McElhinneys in the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's county of Donegal. It now does 12% or 13% of its business online. I was there a few years ago. Many of the people who shop online with it still live locally, not in other counties. We need to be conscious of this. People are beginning to adapt to the technological changes. To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, she has prioritised her work at the retail consultation forum and launched the new online retail scheme. We regard it as being so important that we doubled the funding for the scheme to €1.25 million. Companies with more than 20 employees were mentioned. I hope the trading online voucher scheme will be of help to those enterprises with a smaller number of employees.

The trading online voucher scheme involves a small amount of money. I know that it involves a different Department, but would the Minister of State consider increasing the amount available for smaller companies? Would he also consider including smaller companies in the funding announced recently by the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys? It is a real challenge for them and there is a need for as much flexibility as possible to include as many of them as possible.

The local enterprise offices play an important role with micro-enterprises. I am conscious of what the Deputy said about increasing the amount of money available for the trading online voucher scheme. That is something the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, in conjunction with the LEOs, will monitor. It has to be acknowledged that over 4,100 micro-enterprises have availed of the scheme. We need to ensure people know that it is available. It is amazing - both the Minister and I travel around the country all of the time - to realise some people do not know about it. We, therefore, need to continue the awareness programme. There are 31 LEOs and their role is to ensure they administer the scheme through the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I am conscious that it costs much more than €2,500 to set up a good website. That is something the Department monitors all of the time. Within budgetary constraints, it is something at which we will look in the future.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.

Brexit Supports

Billy Kelleher


8. Deputy Billy Kelleher asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation if she is satisfied with the take-up rate for business Brexit supports provided by her Department and agencies to date; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [42563/18]

Is the Minister satisfied with the take-up rate of Brexit business supports provided by her Department and agencies to date? The Minister is very familiar with the Border area. There is no doubt that we need to be very proactive in addressing this matter. It is all very well making supports available but small and medium sized businesses, which are always under pressure in any case, must have the ability to access them. They must be given resources to enable them to make formal applications. We need to reduce the burden of red tape around access to supports.

I thank Deputy Kelleher for raising this matter. My Department and its agencies are providing extensive supports to ensure that businesses are prepared for Brexit. These supports aim to assist businesses in identifying key risk areas and the practical preparatory actions to be taken over the coming months.

For 2019, I am allocating an extra €8 million to the enterprise agencies and regulatory bodies under my Department, which work with firms to develop their supports for business. I have also allocated an additional €5 million to the local enterprise offices, LEOs, for 2019 to increase their Brexit supports to businesses in every county.

The level of uptake of these supports shows that businesses are aware of the assistance on offer and are engaging with various initiatives and schemes that have been made available. A September 2017 survey reported that 38% of Enterprise Ireland clients surveyed had taken Brexit actions. In May 2018, this figure increased to 85% of Enterprise Ireland client companies surveyed. The survey reported that Enterprise Ireland client companies are taking action in areas such as market diversification; developing strategic partnerships; improving operational competitiveness; improving financial management; and strengthening business in the UK. This is a positive indication that companies are preparing for Brexit.

The Enterprise Ireland Brexit small and medium enterprises, SME, scorecard is an interactive online platform which can be used by all Irish companies to self-assess their exposure to Brexit. To date, 2,962 Brexit scorecards have been completed. The Be Prepared grant, also available through Enterprise Ireland, offers SME clients a grant of up to €5,000 to assist them in preparing an action plan for economic shocks such as Brexit. The grant can be used to help cover consultancy, travel and travel expenses associated with researching the direction of their action plan. A total of 137 Be Prepared grants have so far been approved.

Enterprise Ireland has run eight Brexit advisory clinics throughout the country to date. Approximately 590 people have attended these events and three more clinics are due to take place before the end of the year in Dundalk, Waterford and Limerick.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The local enterprise offices have organised various events to enable companies to learn about the potential impacts and opportunities of Brexit, and 3,925 participants have taken part in these events. In addition, 263 LEO clients have received one-to-one mentoring solely focused on Brexit. The LEOs also engage in a number of other schemes to help companies prepare for Brexit. Technical assistance grants for micro export are offered as an incentive for LEO clients to explore and develop new market opportunities and 293 clients have been approved so far for this scheme.

The Brexit loan scheme, launched in March this year, makes a fund of up to €300 million available to eligible businesses to help them innovate, change or adapt to mitigate their Brexit challenge. So far, there have been 262 applications to the scheme, with 224 approved by the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland.

InterTradeIreland's Brexit advisory service was established in May 2017 to provide a focal point for SMEs working to navigate the changes in cross-Border trading relationships brought about by Brexit negotiations. To date, the Brexit advisory service has engaged directly with more than 2,350 SMEs in Ireland through the various elements of the service. I have allocated an additional €1 million to InterTradeIreland for 2019 to increase the impact of its Brexit support for businesses. I am encouraged by the fact that businesses are engaging in high numbers with these supports. It shows that many businesses are taking the required steps of gathering information and preparing Brexit contingency plans.

We are still unsure as to where we are going with Brexit and what the final outcome will be. The UK will depart the European Union but how it departs is an issue being debated elsewhere at the moment. While Brexit will have a profound impact on businesses in the Republic of Ireland, it will have massive implications for businesses along the Border and their efficiencies.

Enterprise Ireland's Be Prepared grant scheme is being awarded at the rate of six firms per month. InterTradeIreland's Start to Plan vouchers are also being awarded at a rate of six firms per month. This is a poor uptake. If, as the Minister said, the schemes are being rolled out but not being taken up by companies, there is a problem somewhere. Are the schemes too complex? Are companies unaware of them? Is enough effort being made to promote them among organisations? This issue must be addressed. We need to be prepared and réidh.

We are providing an array of different supports to businesses across Departments and agencies. Ultimately, businesses have to decide themselves if they want to avail of those supports. I am not getting any indication from the businesses I meet that the schemes are too complicated or that we need to simplify them to make them more accessible. I am not hearing that. I consistently ask businesses to take the short time needed to assess what their risks are with regard to Brexit. They can do that simply using the Brexit scorecard, which is available online. There are a range of supports available. I am from the Border region and I am very conscious of the impact Brexit would have on the Border areas and on businesses on both sides of the Border. Businesses cross over and trade over the Border every day and they are concerned about Brexit. I have increased the budget for the cross-Border body, InterTradeIreland, by 18% or €1 million. This will allow the agency to further increase its supports to businesses. The local enterprise offices have received another €5 million, which will allow them to reach out to more businesses and help them to become Brexit prepared.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge that she is keenly aware of this issue given the area in which she resides and which she represents. We have to ensure, however, that there are no obstacles or impediments placed in front of business during this very difficult time for companies throughout the country, but predominantly in the Border region. One of the reasons there may not be a big uptake of the supports by businesses is that there is considerable uncertainty about where Brexit will lead us and what will be the final outcome. The negotiations to date are uncertain and have not provided timelines. This places businesses in a difficult position in terms of how they plan. Many small businesses are under pressure and find it difficult to plan for the long term when they are struggling with cashflow difficulties on a daily or weekly basis as they try to win orders just to keep the business going. Long-term planning can be very difficult for those businesses. Whatever has to be done must be done. I hope the organisations and agencies available to the Minister through the State, such as Enterprise Ireland and InterTradeIreland, will understand and support businesses.

When I meet businesses I am asked what we are preparing for. I tell them to consider the worst-case scenario and identify and mitigate the risks. The Government is negotiating for the best possible outcome but we need businesses to prepare by considering the worst-case scenario. The working capital Brexit loan scheme is to help businesses with cashflow difficulties. Under a cross-Government awareness campaign, Getting Ireland Brexit Ready, events have already been held in Cork and Galway. One event is planned for Monaghan tomorrow and a further event is planned for Dublin. These roadshows have attracted significant interest. All of the agencies are represented at the workshops to help people and to give them information on the Brexit supports that are available. These important roadshows are being held throughout the State and people should attend them. I understand the events in Cork and Galway were extremely well attended, and considerable interest has already been shown for the event planned for Dublin. We are doing everything we can to make businesses aware and to encourage them to put in place plans to prepare for Brexit.

Retail Sector

Jan O'Sullivan


9. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation if her attention has been drawn to reports from retail businesses that banks, which would previously have extended their overdraft facilities at times of the year when such businesses need extra credit owing to cashflow patterns, are now insisting that they take out loans; if she will engage with the banking sector to represent the interests of businesses rather than the interests of banks; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [42700/18]

I am a member of the cross-party retail support group, which has members from all of the parties present in the Chamber. At our last meeting, we were told by some businesses that whereas previously they would have secured an extension to their overdraft at times of pressure on their cashflow, such as in the lead-up to Christmas, banks are now telling them to take out a loan instead of offering an overdraft facility. I want to make the Minister aware of this issue and find out if there is a way in which she, as a champion of business in the State, can put pressure on the banks to put the interests of businesses ahead of their own interests. Unfortunately, the banks have not learned their lesson from the bank bailout.

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for raising this issue. As chair of the retail consultation forum I understand the importance of the retail sector and its crucial role in supporting jobs in every city, town and village in the State. Recent figures from the Central Statistics Office show that more than 300,000 people are employed in the wholesale and retail sector. The retail consultation forum provides a platform for engagement between retail representative bodies, retailers and the public sector on key development issues for the retail sector. To date, the issue that the Deputy has raised, has not been brought to me directly via the forum members or the retail representative bodies.

As Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, I am committed to ensuring an attractive and competitive environment for business, including access to finance for growth.

That is why I have prioritised ongoing structured dialogue with key stakeholders to ensure the needs of business are considered in the execution of national policy and in the development of relevant and appropriate supports. In this context, just two weeks ago, I met the CEOs of the three main banks and I emphasised to them the importance of sustaining the progress being made on improving access to finance and on the need to support businesses strongly at this challenging time.

Recognising that finance is critical to the success of business, regardless of size or sector, providing appropriate and accessible finance to business is one of Government’s top priorities. We have put in place several supports and initiatives to improve access to finance for SMEs, including the Brexit working capital loan scheme, the credit guarantee scheme and supporting Microfinance Ireland. Retail businesses are benefiting from these schemes and initiatives. I am pleased that a number of retail and wholesale businesses have been approved under the new Brexit working capital loan scheme, equating to 20% of approved SMEs by the end of September.

I and my Department will continue to engage with the retail consultation forum to understand the challenges they face.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I will certainly take back the information she has given me and suggest that those businesses should give some information to members of the retail consultation forum. They have presented it as a cashflow issue, so they might not necessarily need a loan, just a facility to carry them over until their cash comes back in after the Christmas period and other times of the year.

Many of us had the opportunity to meet representatives of the credit union movement this morning. Indeed every year they come to talk to us and to various committees. While they want to lend for social housing, which I support fully and which the Central Bank has indicated it would be mindful should happen, a vehicle is needed and the Government must provide it. I understand that if such a vehicle were to be set up to invest in social housing, it would also be a model for investing in small businesses through the credit union movement. Would the Minister be supportive of the credit union movement assisting small businesses?

As a former employee of the credit union movement, I certainly support any efforts, arrangements, or vehicles whereby the credit union movement is allowed to support businesses. I firmly believe that it can play a very important role in that. To that extent I met one of the members of the Credit Union Managers Association, CUMA, organisation and I have asked the association to put forward its proposals. I will look at them to see how credit unions can support small businesses. They have the expertise, local knowledge and the capital that they can lend, which is very important.

As the Deputy is aware, credit unions are regulated by the Central Bank, but it would be very important to find a vehicle or mechanism for credit unions to support businesses. They form a wonderful organisation and I am satisfied that they have the necessary skill sets to assess and look at providing finance to small businesses, particularly microbusinesses. We have a range of other supports available through the local enterprise office and other agencies.

It is important for the banks to realise that there is competition and that they cannot do whatever they like in their own interests rather than those of their customers, including their business customers. I would be very worried if they are showing signs again of being more arrogant than they should be in how they do business with people.

I met representatives of the four pillar banks, in particular Ms Francesca McDonagh, CEO of Bank of Ireland, Mr. Bernard Byrne, group CEO of AIB, and Ms Jane Howard, chief executive of Ulster Bank, and we discussed the following topics: the importance of the banks in supporting enterprise resilience in the context of Brexit, access to finance, the relatively high cost of credit in Ireland vis-à-vis other EU countries, and the banks' participation in and promotion of the range of Government schemes to support improved access to finance, such as the Brexit loan working capital loan scheme. We had a very good discussion and it is important that we keep those lines of communication open and that I have the opportunity to bring to the attention of the banks the issues that businesses are telling me about. I will keep that in mind.

Job Losses

Maureen O'Sullivan


10. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation if her attention has been drawn to the potential loss of employment and redundancies in a company, details supplied; if her Department will engage with those involved; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [42674/18]

My question is on a situation involving Eir and HCL Technologies, the potential loss of employment, the number of redundancies because of what has been happening with them recently, and if the Minister's Department has been involved.

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for raising this important issue. The Minister and I are aware of the situation in HCL Technologies that has arisen following the decision by Eir last month to bring a contract that had been outsourced by the company back in-house again. I understand that 950 people are employed at HCL Technologies in the operation of this contract. Of this number, I have been informed that 300 staff based in Limerick and Cork can transfer to Eir under their existing terms and conditions. It is also our understanding that the remaining Dublin-based staff will be given an option to transfer to a regional location. Staff who do not wish to transfer will be offered a redundancy package. Negotiations concerning these redundancies and transfer arrangements are continuing between the company and the trade union representing the workers of HCL Technologies.

There is no doubt that the uncertainty created by these developments is clearly disappointing for the affected employees and their families, and our thoughts are with them. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection is aware of the situation, and I understand arrangements have been made by Intreo staff to be on site to assist these workers who find themselves in this situation. For any employees who will effectively become redundant on account of this contract transfer, the Government will be doing its utmost to help them in transition and find new employment opportunities. The IDA will also continue to engage with HCL Technologies to explore the potential for alternative investment and job growth.

While the situation in respect of HCL Technologies and Eir is regrettable, the overall pattern of job creation in Ireland continues to move in a very positive direction. The year 2017, for example, was another record year for the State in terms of foreign direct investment and employment, with continued strong employment growth expected for 2018. The labour market as a whole is also performing very well, with more people in employment in the State than ever before. While I appreciate fully that these trends may offer little consolation to the affected workers in HCL Technologies, they do at least reflect our buoyant economy and suggest that new employment opportunities will continue to be generated throughout the country, including Dublin.

As the Minister of State said, the buoyant economy is not going to be of much sólás to the people in Dublin who are losing their jobs. I understand that HCL Technologies and Eir had commented initially that they would endeavour to minimise disruption through detailed planning and co-operation. It is all very well and great that the jobs in Cork and Limerick will be retained, but the issue is that the jobs are located in Dublin 1, and a significant of number of the employees come from the local area; I do not need to tell the Minister of State about the issues in this area. It has been very difficult for the employees and I am very struck by the fact that very little attention seems to have been given to this matter.

A smooth takeover does not really include offering people whose jobs are based in, who live in and who have their families in Dublin the option of moving to Cork and Limerick to keep their jobs. I understand that there are some whom it may suit to transfer, but there is still that significant number whom it does not. Regardless of a buoyant economy, they are now going to be out of work. I hope that the Department can be more proactively involved on this matter. I understand from Eir that its costs in Dublin are such that it wants to move out of Dublin. Can the Department do anything in this respect?

Both the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and I are very conscious of the situation with HCL Technologies and those affected employees. I can understand exactly the Deputy's position given that many of these jobs are in her constituency in Dublin 1. Our thoughts are certainly with those affected.

It is not easy when one loses one's job, particularly when the economy is buoyant and there may not be any other opportunities. It will suit some employees to transfer to Cork or Limerick but it will not suit others, for family or other reasons. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, has sent in a team from Intreo to deal with the matter. The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and I have spoken to IDA Ireland to look at other job opportunities and any need to upskill. We hope IDA Ireland will continue to engage with HCL to look at potential alternatives for investment and growth for these people who, unfortunately, find themselves in this position.

These workers are at the mercy of two multinational companies. One is HCL Technologies and the other is Eir, in which a consortium led by a French billionaire has attempted to buy a majority stake. The low-paid workers are caught by all the negotiating that is taking place. It is all very well getting redundancy but that does not compensate for a regular weekly income. We are not talking about well-paid jobs but the jobs in question are a lifeline for the people who have them. The Minister mentioned alternatives. What activity is the Department engaged in to find alternative jobs? The results of a ballot will be announced today but I understand it included the workers in Cork and Limerick, who are happy with what is happening. Their votes may outnumber the votes of the workers in Dublin who are most affected.

As the Deputy will understand, companies make decisions for strategic reasons and it is not for us to tell them what to do, or even to advise them. We are aware of the difficulties in which people find themselves but negotiations are continuing between the trade union and HCL on redundancy and transfer arrangements. IDA Ireland has performed very strongly over the past 12 months and I hope there will be opportunities in other companies or areas for the workers affected, or that HCL can deal with the matter in other ways. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and I will work very closely with IDA Ireland on this.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan represents her constituency and is very aware of what happens locally. Nobody wants a community to be affected by unemployment. We will work with IDA Ireland and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to find a satisfactory solution. HCL has made a strategic decision and it is important that it continues to have a presence in the country.

International Bodies Membership

James Lawless


11. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation if a timeline for Ireland becoming a member of CERN will be committed to; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [36141/18]

My question is about CERN, the laboratory for particle physics and international collaboration in a variety of technologies, which is headquartered in Geneva. Ireland has made great strides in research and development and science but it is a blot on our copybook that we are yet to apply for membership of CERN. We are a member of most other such bodies but we stand alone with Moldova and Lithuania as the only European countries which have not yet joined CERN. I hope the Minister will tell us that we will join imminently.

I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, who is unable to join us this morning. Innovation 2020, the national strategy for research and innovation, recognises that in order for Ireland to become a global innovation leader, our research and innovation system must be open with strong international collaboration links. Membership of leading international research organisations is an important mechanism for facilitating this engagement. For this reason, the Government gave a specific commitment in Innovation 2020 to initiate discussions with a number of international research organisations. Four organisations in particular, namely, CERN, the European Southern Observatory, ELIXIR and LOFAR, were identified and I am pleased to confirm that membership of three of these organisations has been completed.

Ireland continues its consideration of CERN membership. In July 2018, the Minister of State with responsibility for skills, training, innovation, research and development, Deputy Halligan, and officials from the Department met the head of associate member and non-member state relations of CERN to further discuss Ireland’s potential membership of CERN, and in particular the different options of membership and accompanying costs and benefits. The information gathered during this and previous engagements has provided departmental officials with a comprehensive understanding of the potential benefits of membership of CERN. While these benefits are recognised as significant, the cost is also significant and must be assessed in the context of other departmental and national investment priorities.

The Department continues to keep the position in relation to CERN membership, and its cost, under review and maintains contact with officials in CERN regarding Ireland's potential membership.

Professor Emmanuel Tsesmelis visited Ireland in July 2018, at my invitation. I travelled to CERN, on my own steam, in March this year to meet him with an Irish delegation that included Professor Ronan McNulty from UCD. I was very impressed with the facilities and the capacity at the institute but the lack of Irish involvement was striking. We are, in fact, precluded from further involvement until we join. The Minister met Professor Tsesmelis. I know the Minister is keen to progress it and we have discussed it on a number of occasions.

Multiple benefits would flow to the Irish science and research community, beyond particle physics and the accelerator. They include semiconductors, electronics, big data and computer science among many others, but we have to be in to avail of them. There is a multiplier effect, as there is with most of these agencies. For every €1 we put in we would get back between €3 and €7 in the form of contracts for Irish companies, research opportunities, scholarships, funding and staff positions for Irish nationals so there is a very strong case for joining. This week the Joint Committee on Business, Enterprise and Innovation met a number of experts in the area, who gave a very strong presentation and made a strong pitch for joining and there was strong cross-party support for the presentations.

The Government is committed to joining CERN but there are challenges relating to costs. Under Innovation 2020 we have joined three out of the four research organisations to which I referred, namely, the European Southern Observatory, ELIXIR and LOFAR. We are committed to joining CERN but the funding was not there in this year's budget, though we tried very hard to secure it. Even if we get a supplementary budget at the end of this year, a lengthy process is involved in joining CERN.

Maybe we could consider associate membership for a start. The Deputy has outlined the great benefits of joining CERN, particularly in driving research excellence in education and in providing training opportunities. Membership also enables companies based in Ireland to compete for contracts.

I agree, as the committee did, that associate membership would be the way forward. In recent discussions, the price tag has been raised and €13 million does seem very high. We could, however, be associate members for €1.3 million. A total of €500 million is being made available for the emerging technologies fund so we could take €1 million from that and leave €499 million for emerging technologies. There is nothing that more defines emerging technologies than what goes on at CERN. The worldwide web came out of CERN, accidentally, with Tim Berners-Lee, and the touchscreens we have on our phones came from CERN. Medical imaging came out of CERN.

Associate membership would make a lot of sense. It would allow us to try before we buy and scale up our commitment gradually.

I ask that the Minister explore whether there is an opportunity in the supplementary budget, given the strong cross-party consensus that emerged in the committee yesterday, the very strong case which was made, and the circumstances in which Irish scientists find themselves. They are not members but they have a halfway house and are in on a wing and a prayer, on borrowed time, and they are building up friendships to try to get access to facilities. It is embarrassing for those in that position. It should be dealt with in the supplementary budget or at least a commitment should be given that it will be advanced in next year's budget. We can do it for as little as €1.3 million.

I will certainly take the Deputy's views on board. Even if we joined on associate membership, it would be 2020 because it is a lengthy process. There is no doubt but that it is costly to have full membership of CERN. It is not only the €13.6 million that we must pay annually but also the special contribution of full membership which is in the region of €17 million. Therefore, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, it would be €30 million. The Department, the Minister, the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, and I must take into consideration the current priorities for where Department funding should go, particularly in the context of the challenges of Brexit, as the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, outlined.

As the Deputy noted, there are great benefits and I agree with him on this, especially in procurement opportunities and other opportunities for companies based in Ireland. It is something that is in the back of our mind. We encourage innovation and think it is really important. We want companies to be innovative. It is part of our plan. We have joined three of the four agencies and we want to join the fourth but budgetary constraints are an issue. It is something that we will examine and, if money is available at the end of the year, we will consider associate membership, which would be a start. I cannot give the Deputy a commitment now but it is certainly a priority for us.

National Development Plan Funding

Billy Kelleher


12. Deputy Billy Kelleher asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the decision-making process for applications for funding under the new disruptive technologies innovation fund under the new National Development Plan 2018-2027. [42560/18]

Clearly, disruptive technologies are both challenges and opportunities, but my question relates to the fund itself and how it will be assessed and awarded. Will the Minister elaborate on that?

My Department launched the first call of the disruptive technologies innovation fund, DTIF, on 29 June 2018 and expressions of interest were sought by the deadline of 3 p.m. on Friday, 17 August 2018. Information on the fund and how to apply was provided by my Department with the support of Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland. Expressions of interest were sought for funding commencing in 2019. Subsequent calls will be announced in due course.

We received more than 300 expressions of interest for this first call for funding. All represented collaborations of two or more partners with at least one SME in each partnership. The DTIF is a competitive offer and all applications for funding under this first call are subject to the same assessment and selection criteria.

In line with what was agreed by Government in May 2018 for all Departments involved in running national development plan, NDP, funds, we appointed an advisory board with civil servants and relevant experts from the sector as members. Accordingly, an advisory board chaired by my Department and comprised of nominated members of Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland, along with nominated members of other Departments and public sector organisations, was appointed to oversee the assessment and selection process of the DTIF. A panel of independent national and international experts comprised of both technical and commercialisation experts was also formed to assess applications.

Under call 1, all the expression of interest, EOI, forms were screened for eligibility. Only eligible applications were put forward for assessment by the advisory board and the panel of experts. Assessment of applications of these eligible applications was based on the selection criteria set out in the guidelines for this fund. Briefly, they are: the strength of the disruptive technology dimension, economic and market impact of the proposal, the quality and efficiency of the collaboration, and the overall excellence of the proposed approach.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Decisions on expressions of interest were made in September 2018 and were communicated to the lead partner of all collaborations. Only those applicants that met all of the eligibility criteria and met the minimum threshold of the selection criteria were invited to submit a full application. Projects that are deemed ineligible for this first call under the DTIF may still be able to apply in subsequent calls. Applicants were offered feedback on the outcome of the expressions of interest stage and many have availed of this. Applicants that met the minimum threshold of the selection criteria were invited to submit a full application which will then be assessed by relevant experts.

Details on allocations will be submitted to me, as Minister, for final approval. I expect that successful projects will be confirmed in late 2018.

I am asking in a roundabout way whether the Minister is satisfied that there is a robust independent assessment process, but I will ask more directly to get a more direct answer. We have experts and State agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, and Science Foundation Ireland, but it seems that when one goes through the whole process, ultimately the Minister is the one who decides whether a funding application is successful. From that perspective, will the Minister override the opinions of the experts, including those from Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland, in the assessment process or is there a clear guideline of what can be presented to the Minister and his or her officials to make a decision? That is clearly the issue. There must be absolute integrity as these can also have commercial implications.

I reassure the Deputy that it is a very independent panel of experts which will assess these applications. The applications are very technical; they are about disruptive technologies and what will happen in the future. It is about protecting the jobs of the future because we want to help companies come forward with new technology. We all know the change the phone made in our lives. We are looking to the future. These are all experts on the panel, not only from Ireland but also international experts. The panel will assess them and come to me for final approval but, as the Deputy and I know, these are experts and I will not second-guess the work of any expert. They will come to me and I, like any Minister, will give final approval. It is a very robust system and I am satisfied that it will be a very thorough process. I want to see good applications coming forward and that we support industry by looking at the new technology and the new way of doing business into the future.

It is an important fund. It is important that there is integrity in the process. Will the Minister assure me that having a lunch or dining with an applicant is something that is also outside the remit?

I can assure the Deputy that the process is robust and transparent. Experts will send their recommendations to the Minister who will sign off final approval, which is normal. It is a very independent and robust system and I am very satisfied that all of what ultimately comes to my desk will have been thoroughly evaluated. I want to see projects come through which get the best value for taxpayers’ money, that will make the difference and change the way that businesses look to the future and develop and embrace new technology. I am particularly keen on it being about universities and businesses working together collaboratively. That is why every assessment proposal application will have an SME. There must be SME involvement in it, which is very important because this is specifically targeted at businesses. There has been great interest in it.

National Development Plan Funding

Jan O'Sullivan


13. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the way in which the disruptive technologies innovation fund can be applied for; when grants will be awarded under the fund; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [42699/18]

Mine is pretty much the same question as that asked by Deputy Kelleher. This is my third question in today's lottery. I have done so well that I must buy a national lottery ticket tonight.

The Minister clearly answered Deputy Kelleher's questions about the expert panel and so on. I primarily wanted to ask about funding. If the Minister has a different answer, she might give it. If she has exactly the same answer, I can ask a supplementary.

I will refer to the types of projects that will be funded. They must include the use of disruptive technologies that will significantly alter the way we work and live. It will involve collaboration, innovation and-or be disruptive in its impact on one of the sectors in the research priority areas. That includes ICT, health and well-being, food, energy, climate action and sustainability, manufacturing and materials, business services and processes. Within each of these six themes, we identified specific priority areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, advances and smart manufacturing and smart and sustainable food production and processing. When we launched the call, we published a reference document that clearly set out the eligibility and selection criteria for selecting suitable projects.

These criteria were designed to ensure that we are funding truly disruptive technologies and that we are not funding projects that we can do through other programmes. To ensure that we fund projects of scale and impact we are asking for funding applications for amounts of €1 million or more. There has been a major response to the fund, so much so that the qualifying projects have now been whittled down by the experts. They were expressions of interest initially and they have now been asked to put forward full applications. To be helpful to those businesses that put considerable effort into submitting applications or expressions of interest I have asked my Department to give them all feedback and to see whether there are any other opportunities, including, for example, whether these businesses could get funding through initiatives funded by Enterprise Ireland and whether there are other ways we could help them.