Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Bernard Durkan


6. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he is satisfied that the budget of 2021 sufficiently addresses the unemployment issues arising from Covid-19; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30551/20]

This question was put down prior to the announcement of further Covid-related restrictions but in anticipation of such restrictions. It seeks to ascertain the level of preparedness in terms of supports.

I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this question and always having his finger on the pulse of where events might lead us. Naturally, we are trying to manage the economy, job creation and sustainability around business and jobs through all levels of this plan. The Tánaiste has been very clear that it is about getting the balance right. That is why, at this time, most of the country is operating under level 3. We will be able to judge in the weeks ahead how that is impacting.

My Government colleagues and I are focused on preventing any risk of long-term unemployment. Together we are committed to leveraging the July stimulus and budget 2021 to get people back to work and keep them at work as long as possible and to give companies and businesses a chance to grow. With many of the business supports announced in the budget this week, we are looking to growth. It is not just about sustaining what we have, but building on that and making plans for the future as we try to make sure this is a jobs-led recovery over the next two years.

As the House is aware, unemployment reached an all-time peak of 30.4% in May. Ireland came through the initial shock with unparalleled levels of State intervention aimed at stabilising the economy and supporting business and incomes. Taxpayers' money was used wisely to subvent and support the efforts to deal with Covid. As of September 2020, more than €24.5 billion has been made available in support measures, including the July stimulus package, which in total comes to nearly €7 billion. The total budget 2021 package of more than €17.75 billion is unprecedented in size and scale in the history of the State, further demonstrating the Government's commitment to leading the country through the Covid crisis and preparing for Brexit. The extension of the wage subsidy until well into 2021 marks a historic intervention by Government to protect employment and business affected by this pandemic and to keep people as close as possible to work.

That is essential as we work through this, certainly when it comes to youth unemployment. It ensures that the link between the employer and the employee is maintained and assists business to continue to trade in the spirit of reduced demand. We are also promoting the take-up of available employment by allowing self-employed recipients of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to take up intermittent or occasional work opportunities without losing their PUP entitlement. That would apply to a taxi driver who can get some work but not enough to provide for his or her family. We recognise that a blended approach will work in the months ahead.

I submitted the question prior to the recent budgetary announcements in anticipation of some of the measures contained therein, given the number of informative leaks we had.

To what extent has attention been focused on possible gaps in the system whereby people qualify for assistance to a certain point, or do not qualify because of intermittent employment or because insufficient evidence is provided to be able to identify the true value of their previous employment? Such people may find themselves having a very low payment or no payment at all.

The Deputy's question is targeting an area that is important for us all, probably because of his time as Minister of State with responsibility for social welfare. It is important that, in providing supports through the Departments of Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and Business, Enterprise and Innovation, we ensure that nobody falls between the cracks. The Deputy will have seen in the July stimulus plan that some of the conditions around access to those supports were relaxed so people could avail of supports much quicker to eliminate some of those gaps to which the Deputy referred. In addition, the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science, Deputy Harris, will this week announce an extra 10,000 place on various courses, including skills conversion courses through Springboard and apprenticeships. All the criteria to get onto those types of courses have been slightly tweaked and changed.

It is important that our public sector system responds when Deputies bring forward clear examples of failures or gaps. We must respond and address them quickly. We have seen some reaction to that. For example, the criteria for eligibility for the Christmas bonus this year have been changed to include people who have been receiving social welfare payments for four months, down from 15 months. That recognises that we are in a changing environment. The system can respond and it is important that we address issues when they are highlighted. I would ask the Deputy to bring forward examples if he comes across them and the Tánaiste, our colleagues and I will be happy to address them as well as we can.

I suggest a greater use of exceptional needs payments in cases where emergencies arise, which is what that particular payment was meant to address. The payment is for circumstances in which it is deemed necessary to support the family or individual in question, and I would ask if that might be borne in mind in these particular circumstances.

The Deputy is touching on something close to my heart. As a young fellow, I spent many days in the car with my father who was a community welfare officer back in the days when such officers could call to a house, get an understanding of what was happening and spend time with a family. Over the years, the volume of activity increased in an effort to reach people with supports through social protection or essential needs payments and it has become harder to have a connection with families. That is particularly true during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I would stress and ask that the system respond. The system did not respond in an important way to people who had emergency needs during the financial crisis of ten years ago. The essential needs payment is one of the best ways to close that gap in the short term as someone works through the red tape and forms that are required. I agree with the Deputy. Our staff at the front line in Intreo and social welfare offices absolutely try to make those judgment calls. Sometimes the system prevents those people from making the right call and we need to work with them on that. The essential needs payment is ideal to cover the cracks in the short term while people address their issues. We will work with the Deputy on that.

Pharmaceutical Sector

Cathal Crowe


7. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the status of a site (details supplied). [25953/20]

As our country continues to deal with the ravages of Covid, I ask the Minister for an update on the status of the Roche Ireland site at Clarecastle, County Clare.

As Tánaiste and Minister with responsibility for enterprise, trade and employment, my focus is to lead our country through the economic crisis that has been caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. My Department and the enterprise agencies under my remit are doing everything possible to sustain businesses and get our people safely back to work in all parts of our country.

IDA Ireland has been working closely with Roche ever since its decision to close the Clarecastle facility in 2015. I recognise the interest that Deputies Cathal Crowe and Carey have taken in the site since then. IDA Ireland continues to market the site actively to prospective investors through its network of offices in Ireland and overseas.

Roche is now focusing on remediation and has commenced works to decommission the site. The company has also developed digital content of its plans which can be shared with potential investors who may wish to take over the site.

The Department and IDA Ireland will continue to work hard to drive new investment and job creation for County Clare and the broader mid-west. There are 67 IDA client companies in County Clare employing more than 7,000 people with in excess of 220 net new jobs added by foreign direct investment, FDI, firms in 2019.

More broadly, it is clear that FDI will have an important role to play in Clare, the mid-west and throughout Ireland as we seek to recover from the damage caused by Covid-19. Balanced regional development is a priority for this Government and will be an objective in the IDA's new strategy which I look forward to launching in the coming months.

Roche, originally trading as Syntex Ireland, opened its plant in Clarecastle in 1974, before either the Minister or I were born. In 1994, it began trading as a part of the Roche group, but in 2015, having sustained debts and losses of approximately €9 million per annum, it announced its closure. It was a massive blow to Clare and represented an annual loss of €20 million to the county's economy. While there have been extensive efforts to find a new buyer, that has not happened and the plant is now being decommissioned at a cost of approximately €4.5 million.

One Clarecastle resident recently told me that Roche made Clarecastle. Now, as an accelerated decommissioning of the plant gets under way, I ask the Government and other stakeholders to do everything possible to ensure that the next stages happen in as seamless a fashion as possible.

I thank the Deputy. In November 2015, Roche Holding announced it would close the facility in Clarecastle, following a review of its worldwide manufacturing network for small molecules. Since then, IDA Ireland has been actively promoting the site to existing clients and potential investors. As the Deputy knows, the IDA engages regularly with key stakeholders on the ground across County Clare, including local authorities, public bodies, the education sector and companies from its client base. The July stimulus package, the mid-west regional enterprise plan and the IDA's new strategy will be major policy responses to drive further investment and job creation in County Clare and the mid-west.

The decision to cease production in Clarecastle was a direct result of the underutilisation in Roche's worldwide manufacturing network for small molecules. The Clarecastle site was incompatible with that reality as it focused on large-volume production. It is a site that should be of interest to a new investor at some point. I was not far away from it when I visited the county with Deputy Carey not long ago. The Government is determined to find a new operator for the site and put it to good use again.

There is a state-of-the-art scientific laboratory in Roche and the site also has a high grade wastewater treatment plant. The repurposing of these facilities should be considered, even at this eleventh hour. I urge the Minister to ensure that no stone is left unturned in his attempts to attract new industry and employment to Clarecastle. There is an unprecedented global scramble to produce new pharmaceutical drugs. I hope IDA Ireland will consider Clare and the mid-west an ideal location for new pharmaceutical industry, given its strong track record, skill set, air connectivity from Shannon Airport and motorway network.

There is great potential in the mid-west for future investment by life science companies, medical technology companies and the pharmaceutical industry. I had the honour of being at Regeneron in Limerick with the Taoiseach only a few weeks ago. A considerable investment is happening there with the creation of nearly 1,000 jobs. I can see more investment like that happening in Limerick and Clare.

Part of what was announced in the July stimulus package was a new state aid funding package for life science investments. The state aid rules of the European Commission were relaxed in response to the Covid-19 crisis and that allows us to grant aid to companies that invest in Ireland and develop new plants for the production of medicines and medical devices. We have a fund of tens of millions of euro available which we can use to grant aid to companies to do exactly what we would like them to do in Clarecastle. We just need to find a company willing to do it. We can then put the money on the table.

Grant Payments

Christopher O'Sullivan


8. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if the deadline for the restart grant plus can be extended past the end of September 2020; and if the extended deadline of October 2020 for bed and breakfast establishments is open to businesses which are not registered with Fáilte Ireland. [25955/20]

Will the Tánaiste or the Minister of State, Deputy English, be taking my question? I want to know where to look.

The Tánaiste will respond.

The question is slightly outdated, probably because there was a change in the rota.

It is still relevant. What is the future of the restart grant plus after 31 October? I still have no clarity on whether bed and breakfasts that are not registered with Fáilte Ireland can apply for the restart grant plus. Some businesses which are not registered are not able to get certainty on that.

To answer the Deputy's questions, the restart grant has, in many ways, now been superseded by the budget announcement on Tuesday of the Covid restrictions subsidy scheme, CRSS, which will provide a weekly grant to businesses that are closed as a result of Government orders relating to the pandemic, with the proviso that they may operate at a very reduced turnover, that is, they are down 80% on where they were last year.

The restart grant plus is a critically important tool to support micro and small businesses to reopen their doors and get back on their feet. The closure date for receipt of applications has been extended to 31 October. It is designed to contribute to the cost of reopening or keeping a business operational or reconnecting with employees and customers. The grant could also be used to defray ongoing fixed costs during closure, such as, for example, utilities, insurance or refurbishment, or for measures to ensure employee and customer safety. It is one of a package of financial and other supports available to businesses. As of 9 October, the original restart grant had 45,000 applications with €155 million approved. The restart grant plus had just under 55,000 applicants with €273 million approved.

The restart grant scheme for bed and breakfasts is being run through Fáilte Ireland in consultation with my Department and the Department of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. The grant allocation will assist bed and breakfast owners with the costs of reopening and operating their businesses. Applications for bed and breakfasts under the National Quality Assurance Framework, NQAF, through direct approval by Fáilte Ireland, opened on 14 September and applications will close on 28 October. Fáilte Ireland will shortly announce details of the application process for bed and breakfasts which are not approved under the NQAF.

That leaves a further question in terms of the Fáilte Ireland element of the scheme. The Taoiseach said it would announce details shortly, but that is short notice if the deadline date remains 28 October or the end of the month. If there is a new tranche of bed and breakfasts included in the restart grant plus through Fáilte Ireland, is there merit in extending that deadline further for businesses that fit into that category?

While we are on Fáilte Ireland, there are businesses which have tried to get the same clarification I am now trying to get and are having difficulty in getting through to Fáilte Ireland by phone or email to get clarity and communication. I now make a plea for further resources for Fáilte Ireland so it can cope and deal with the communications that are being sought.

I thank the Deputy. I know this is of significant interest to him, in particular given his constituency of Cork South-West which is, was and should again be a great tourism constituency with many hotels and bed and breakfasts which are now really struggling.

The restart grant plus is funded through my Department, but we decided when it comes to bed and breakfasts the most sensible thing would be to administer the scheme through Fáilte Ireland, as that is the Government body that knows bed and breakfasts best. The detailed administration falls to an agency that is not under my remit. The reason we set up the grant was to put cash into the hands of the owners of bed and breakfasts so that they can survive to open another day next summer. I would not have any difficulty in recommending to the Minister, Deputy Martin, that the deadline be extended for unregistered bed and breakfasts. There is little point in advertising a grant and not giving people enough time to apply for it.

I appreciate that. My last question concerns CRSS. I thank the Minister for naming it after me. It is a great name for a scheme. I welcome the scheme. It will be fantastic. It is one of a range of brilliant measures in the budget to support businesses. I must commend the Minister and the rest of the Cabinet on that.

I hope there was an error in a couple of printed press articles that stated that the turnover cap for businesses that apply for the scheme was €2 million. Given that the restart grant figure is €25 million, I presume that was a printing error because it would not make sense for many businesses and would take a lot of businesses out of the scheme. I would like clarity on that if possible.

I thank the Deputy. I will have to double check the figure. Quite a few details will need to be ironed out in respect of this particular scheme. Some 98% of businesses in Ireland have a turnover of less than €1 million. This scheme is very much aimed at the SME sector. As I understand it, it involves 10% of the first €1 million and 5% of the second €1 million up to a maximum grant of €5,000 per week. It applies to companies that have turnovers of €4 million, €5 million or €6 million, but they can only claim for the first €3 million. I am almost sure of that, but I will double check the figures and confirm with the Deputy later.

Disability Services Provision

Michael Moynihan


9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the role his Department plays in promoting disability inclusion; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30595/20]

I ask the Minister to outline the role his Department is playing in promoting disability inclusion and if he would make a statement on the matter.

I thank Deputy Moynihan for his question and ongoing interest in matters relating to people with disabilities. My Department is committed to inclusion with equality of opportunity for all, regardless of disability, gender, civil or family status, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, race or membership of the Traveller community.

In particular, my Department leads the Government’s corporate social responsibility agenda and works with businesses through our national corporate social responsibility action plan. This was developed through collaboration with major business stakeholders. The plan seeks to, among other things, encourage business to develop strategies for the employment of people with disabilities.

While responsibility for policy on disability inclusion lies with the new Department with responsibility for children, disability, equality and integration, this is an area of vital importance to the work of all Departments. The new Department leads on two whole-of-government national strategies, the first being the national disability inclusion strategy and the second the comprehensive employment strategy for people with a disability.

My Department is represented on the implementation groups for both of these strategies and has committed to a number of actions to promote the inclusion of people with a disability in the workforce. For example, Enterprise Ireland is in the process of creating a strategy which will promote and support entrepreneurship and self-employment for people with a disability. IDA Ireland is developing a pilot initiative in co-operation with other Government bodies and stakeholders aimed at enhancing the ability of job candidates with disabilities to avail of employment opportunities in foreign-owned companies based in Ireland.

My Department has also established a disability consultative committee to provide a focus for disability inclusion in respect of our policy work, schemes and initiatives. Members of the committee include nominated representatives of disability groups, along with Department officials and colleagues from our offices and agencies.

Our Department has two access officers. They are specially assigned staff members responsible for co-ordinating assistance and guidance for people with disabilities, helping them to access, to the widest possible extent, the full range of services that we provide, including how best to access our buildings as well as the range of publications in alternate formats that we have available.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He mentioned his Department's ongoing engagement with Enterprise Ireland and entrepreneurs who have disabilities and hope to set up businesses or who have an idea they can develop into a business and career for themselves. What is the status of that in the Department? What work has been done in the Department and Enterprise Ireland to bring forward a meaningful scheme?

It is vitally important that in the process of bringing forward that scheme there is engagement, insofar as is humanly possible, from people who have experienced significant frustration in getting grant aid or people to listen to their ideas and encourage them. In terms of developing a scheme, the Department should encourage entrepreneurs to reach out to people who have had engagement with the Department and Enterprise Ireland and find out where the stumbling blocks are.

I thank the Deputy. Enterprise Ireland and the National Disability Authority, NDA, are currently creating a strategy that promotes and supports entrepreneurship and self-employment for people with a disability. The steps being undertaken are the introduction of a broad-based programme offering basic information and training to a large audience of people with disabilities, the development of an awareness campaign which utilises success stories of self-employed and entrepreneurial models with a variety of disabilities and an assessment of the uptake of the programme.

Certainly, if the Deputy has any particular suggestions, ideas or wisdom he would like to share with us, I will be happy to speak to him offline or connect him with the people in Enterprise Ireland who are working on this.

I thank the Tánaiste for that offer and I will certainly do that. It is of great importance as we go forward to realise that there are various strategies within all Government Departments on inclusion. This has to be developed to its full extent. It is also very important that those who have been struggling to get beyond the red tape, for want of a better word, and those who are frustrated by the system are listened to and engaged with. I will bring the details of all of the correspondence and discussions I have had with people to the table. I would very much like to engage with the Tánaiste on this issue and to bring forward, insofar as possible, a meaningful scheme that can fully engage people with disabilities who may have an idea that they want to develop into a career and something worthwhile that can benefit them and their communities. I look forward to working with the Tánaiste on that.

I thank the Deputy. I will be happy to follow up on that. My people will be in touch with his people. The pandemic potentially creates an opportunity for people with disabilities, particularly those with a physical disability. The fact that remote working and homeworking have now become normal creates new opportunities for people with disabilities to be involved in the workplace and to run businesses from home, or from accessible remote hubs, and we should seize that chance now.

Small and Medium Enterprises

Verona Murphy


10. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will report on the SME growth task force and explain the long-term vision for supports for SMEs here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30111/20]

There is never been a more uncertain and worrying time for SMEs. Ensuring that the conditions are set out for the sector to thrive is vital to the economy and its recovery. When the Tánaiste chaired a meeting of the SME growth task force on 25 September last, he said we need to set out a long-term strategic vision for SMEs. With that in mind, and particularly with Brexit preparations in mind, can he provide an outline of what the SME growth task force has done so far and explain the long-term vision for supports for SMEs?

The programme for Government commits to the formation of an SME growth task force to design a national SME growth plan that will map out an ambitious long-term strategic blueprint beyond Covid-19 and Brexit. The task force will draw up detailed plans to help SMEs to start up, scale up and access foreign markets. This includes any potential improvements to the scope of firms covered by the existing enterprise agencies, and recommendations as to how these can be broadened. It will also look at ways to make SMEs more productive and ready for the transition to a digital and green economy.

We held the first meeting of the SME growth task force on 25 September. I chaired the meeting, which was attended by the Ministers of State, Deputies English and Troy. The task force is composed of over 20 entrepreneurs and business leaders, contributing expertise from a broad range of sectors. It is served by four focused subgroups with the capacity and expertise to develop actions in thematic areas arising from the OECD's recommendations. The subgroups are focused on entrepreneurship; productivity, digitalisation and competitiveness; internationalisation; and clustering and networks. These are the areas in which we hope to develop policies and proposals. The task force will develop an SME growth plan, which will be brought to Government for approval as part of the national economic plan in November. A comprehensive OECD review, SME and Entrepreneurship Policy in Ireland, which was finalised in October 2019, provides a hugely informative, objective and deeply researched evidence base for this work. The task force will continue its work over the coming weeks, and I look forward to its proposals.

I thank the Tánaiste. I hope the blueprint will include transport for the SMEs and businesses that will require it. The Tánaiste will have seen yesterday that in preparation for Brexit, the UK Government has invested just under €80 million in four European ferry companies to safeguard their trade in products being imported and exported post Brexit. Particular mention was made of medical products and medicinal appliances. All medicines may be in short supply due to our inability to prepare a daily direct ferry service. I have heard from the Tánaiste and the Minister of State on many occasions that our main task in respect of Brexit and Covid-19 is to prevent mass unemployment. I ask the Tánaiste to set out what preparations are being made for an alternative to the UK land bridge. Such an alternative should involve having a daily direct ferry service in place post Brexit.

I thank the Deputy. This has come up in my various conversations with business groups. Responsibility for transport and logistics falls to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. However, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation is across this issue because it is essential for business and employment that we have supply chains. The Department of Transport has advised me that we have a great amount of direct capacity in respect of ro-ro ferries from Ireland directly to France, Spain and even Portugal, as well as to the Netherlands and Belgium. It has also informed us that there is approximately 40% unused capacity on those shipping lines which can be used as an alternative to the land bridge if there are significant delays in Kent. This is something that we will have to keep under review in case we need to do more.

If we take seriously a report that was produced by the Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO, in 2018, and if we add up the figures of the current land bridge traffic having to travel direct post Brexit, we will see that we currently have six daily ferries. According to the IMDO figures, post Brexit we will need 15 services to replace the land bridge traffic. Some 40% available capacity now does not add up to 15 services a week. We need to go back. This matter has been under review for a long time. We have grown since the report was prepared in 2018. I am very concerned that the dots are not being joined. I appreciate the Tánaiste's clarification that this is a matter for the Department of Transport, but his Department is responsible for trade and for business of imports and exports that safeguards jobs. We definitely need to look at this and prepare, not post Brexit but now.

The IMDO report is from 2018. The figure of 40% capacity comes from a more up-to-date report the Department of Transport has done since then. It is not our thinking that everyone will stop using the land bridge. Some hauliers will divert from the British land bridge to direct services. For others, it will still be quicker to go through the UK even if they are stuck there for a few hours. That is the nature of the business, depending on where one is going in continental Europe. That is a decision that will have to be made. We are doing everything we can to work with authorities in continental Europe, such as the French, Belgian and Dutch ports, and with the British authorities to ensure any delays are minimised.

Health and Safety Authority

Paul Murphy


11. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he is satisfied with the level of funding allocated to his Department for its responsibilities regarding the welfare of workers, for example through the Health and Safety Authority, HSA; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30563/20]

Last year, the HSA had a budget of just €20 million, which is less than the budget for Deputies' secretaries. The Government allocated an extra €4 million for the HSA in this week's budget, but that is a drop in the ocean in the context of what is needed, as we have seen over the course of the last year. Is the Minister of State satisfied with this? Given the current pandemic, and in light of what we have seen in meat plants, in particular, but also in other workplaces, does he agree that we need serious investment in workplace inspections?

I will deal with the issue in the question and bring a focus to the resources from the budget. The HSA has a broad remit with responsibility for the enforcement of workplace health and safety legislation as well as chemicals safety, market surveillance of certain products and the national accreditation body. It is vital to prioritise the safety and health of all workers in a way that promotes and facilitates business growth and sustainability, aids competitiveness and protects workers, which is the key part of the Deputy's question. This is fundamental to a functioning economy and to reducing long-term costs to the State.

The overall 2021 budget allocation includes an additional €4 million for the HSA. This will enable it to continue to assist businesses to comply with workplace health and safety obligations as well as dealing with the ongoing challenges of Covid-19. It will assist businesses to plan for a changed regulatory landscape post Brexit especially in relation to chemical change, product safety, market surveillance and accreditation.

Covid-19 created unprecedented difficulties for employers and employees across all sectors of the economy and brought public health risks and dangers into workplaces that most of us could never have envisaged. The majority of employers and employees rose to the challenges and adapted to the new realities. It is clear that these challenges will remain for some time to come. The additional €4 million will enable the HSA to set up an occupational health division.

The establishment of this occupational health division will ensure that the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, is in a stronger position to meet the demands being placed on it to provide supports to businesses, employers and employees to equip them to deal with the occupational and public health issues arising in workplaces, not just as a result of COVID-19 but as a longer-term investment in the safety, health and well-being of our workforce. It is accepted that much of the work in the months ahead will be around Covid and, as the lead agency, it is happy to lead in that and in co-ordinating other agencies also.

My Department will continue to work closely with the Health and Safety Authority to ensure that it is adequately resourced to fulfil its demanding and important remit. It is very committed to working across Departments to lead that charge.

Last year, there were fewer workplace inspectors than there were dog wardens in the country. There are roughly the same number of workplace inspectors as there are special advisers for the Government. The HSA is the body tasked with inspecting workplaces. It was the agency appointed in the pandemic to ensure that workers' lives and health were not being put at risk by penny-pinching bosses but all the indications are that the Government turned a blind eye to the meat factories and to workplaces generally. That is reflected in the guidelines issued yesterday. It is issuing a guideline in terms of households but it is not doing anything about workplaces, which is the main place the virus is spreading. How many new HSA workplace inspectors will be hired? Will there now be regular, unannounced inspections at the meat plants? Will there be inspections at offices and other workplaces to ensure that companies that can have their workers working from home are allowing their workers to work from home instead of forcing them to come in? What sanctions will there be for bosses who break the rules?

The HSA has an ongoing skills development programme. Its inspectors are very highly skilled across a range of functions and it has invested in that ongoing programme and not just for this year. The extra resources it is allocated builds on extra money, and extra places, that would have been allocated in terms of staff sanctioned during 2020. It strengthens our team to be able to deal with issues like Covid-19 and Brexit, which is also a major part of the work. It will be in a very strong position to do that and it is well supported by our Department. As a Department, we are responsive to needs and we responded to the extra needs the authority had in 2020. If the same needs arise down the line, we will be in a position to do that again.

The authority does engage in inspections, many of which are unannounced, in the sectors the Deputy identified and many others. In most cases, it is finding 92% compliance in workplaces, including in the meat sector. The Deputy might not agree with that but those are the facts in terms of what they would assess. It also engages with the sector. The total number of inspections co-ordinated by the HSA, in conjunction with inspectors from other Departments, is close on 17,000 with regard to compliance with the protocol for this year. That is a fair number.

There is no question about the skill or the dedication of the inspectors but the bottom line is that there simply is not enough of them. That was demonstrated towards the start of last year when the virus was running rampant through meat factories with no inspections for well over a month, after which the point was flagged. That should have been an extreme warning bell for the Government that there was a problem but we have allocated an extra €4 million. How many inspectors will that hire? We know now that there are countless companies bending and breaking the rules. They are forcing workers to come to work in unsafe conditions or in circumstances where the workers could be working from home. For the vast majority of workplaces it is statistically the case that there has been and will be no inspections by the HSA. If the Government is not willing to fund inspections itself, will it at least allow the trade union movement the right to carry out workplace inspections as exists in other countries? Ultimately, it is only by having a strong and fighting trade union movement that we can ensure workers' rights are protected.

I am glad the Deputy recognised the skills of the staff involved. He might also recognise their judgment, their work and their reporting to us. In most cases, they are coming across very high compliance rates with the Covid-19 protocol and other issues of their work also. In most cases, 92% are in line with Covid-19 measures. The Deputy might accept that that is the feedback we are getting from them and that includes quite good compliance in the meat sector also. There is general information coming back from the highly-skilled staff, which the Deputy has recognised. Much of the work the HSA does is not just in compliance checks. It is working with industry across all the sectors, and certainly vulnerable sectors, to make sure that there is compliance and recognition of the culture of health and safety. It is also driving clear guidelines around occupational health. The authority will have a strengthened team as a result of the budget, and rightly so, but it works with other sectors and other Departments. There is a high number of inspections and inspectors and any visit by any arm of the State, even when it comes to farm practices and so on, is an opportunity to reinforce the message around health and safety in general, occupational health but, importantly in these times, Covid-19.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Éamon Ó Cuív


12. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps he intends taking to support trade, enterprise and employment during the current pandemic, particularly in those sectors worst hit by Covid-19; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30261/20]

The Minister might outline in detail the new scheme introduced this week to support those sectors worst hit by Covid-19, and particularly those that have been closed down under the levels 3 and 4 restrictions. We have the broad outline of the scheme but we do not have the detail.

Is this the new Covid restrictions subsidy scheme?

We will have more details next week. It will be operated by the Revenue. We intend that it will be open to applications next week. The first payments will be made to companies in November and it will be done on a weekly basis. It will be a payment to help cover their fixed costs when they are closed. It is largely focused at small and medium enterprises, SMEs, and the amount one can claim is based on one's turnover in 2019. It is 10% of the first €1 million and 5% of the second €1 million. The maximum grant that any company can claim is €5,000 a month. It is for companies that are closed as a consequence of Government restrictions so it is not for any company that may be closed for any reason. It is for companies that are closed directly as a consequence of Government public health restrictions, but the company does not have to be 100% closed. In recognising the fact that, say, restaurants or cafés are now only operating on a takeaway basis or 15 patrons outside basis, they can still make the claim and get the full amount if they are operating at a turnover that is down 80% from where it would have been in 2019, again on a weekly basis.

What the Minister is saying is that if a company's turnover falls by 80% or more it can get the full amount. If, for example, it falls by 50% to 80%, can it get anything?

It has to have fallen 80% or more. The Minister might also explain to me the position regarding a restart grant and a restart grant plus. My understanding was that one could get both of those grants. However, without warning, the restart grant stopped three weeks before the originally announced date. Is any consideration being given to making the restart grant available to those who would have been eligible if they had applied within that three-week period, which ended suddenly? As I said, some people got two grants while others only got one.

There were two restart grants, as the Deputy knows. There was the original restart grant, which was set up by the previous Government, and then the restart grant plus, which was set up by the new Government as part of the July stimulus. The terms and conditions were different but some businesses were eligible to get both the restart grant and the restart grant plus. There is a small but substantial enough cohort of businesses that did not apply in time for the first restart grant but did get the restart grant plus. What we are asking them to do is put in an appeal to their local authorities and we will pay it. It varies from local authority to local authority. The original deadline for the restart grant was to be 31 August and when the restart grant plus came in and superseded it, there was a group of companies that did not apply in time for the restart grant but had they applied earlier they would have been entitled to it. We want to give them the grant and we have the money to do that. They should appeal to their local authority. If the local authority refuses the appeal the Deputy should let me know because the intention was that they should get both grants if they were eligible for both.

I guarantee the Minister that I will cut and paste what he has just said and make sure that they bring that to the attention of the local authority. I suspect that if the Department had persisted in playing this jiggery-pokery of pulling it back without notice three weeks before the originally announced date the Ombudsman would have ruled in favour of those who could have applied by the date set by the Department that was changed suddenly, but I welcome the Minister saving everybody the bother of going round the mountain to vindicate their rights.

It is only sensible at this time.

Disruptive technology companies are finding it difficult to get money in the markets now because private equity funds are very wary of investing. Is there any thought being given to allowing Enterprise Ireland to release some funds to the disruptive technology companies for which funding has been approved so they can get on with their business and, when things settle down, get the private equity to meet the requirements of Enterprise Ireland?

We are aware of that being an issue. Enterprise Ireland is working on a solution that will help to provide loans to those companies given what is happening in the markets. I will send the Deputy more detail in writing. We are aware of the issue, and Enterprise Ireland is working on a solution to it.

The Deputy, whose ministerial experience is showing, is quite right that I have no interest whatsoever in having a maladministration finding made against us by the Ombudsman. If one was entitled to both grants, one should get both grants.

We are now in an unusual position in that there is nobody in the Chamber to ask the next questions. We have time for one more question. Since Deputy Lahart is present, we can take Question No. 19.

Questions Nos. 13 to 18, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

John Lahart


19. Deputy John Lahart asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps being taken to address urgently the crisis facing businesses and traders in Dublin city as a consequence of significantly reduced customer footfall, an absence of tourists and the operation of a remote working regime; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25954/20]

This is an unexpected opportunity. I raised this matter at a meeting of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight but obviously circumstances have changed. Provisions have been made to support businesses, particularly in the three counties forced to lock down. There are serious issues arising regarding retail footfall in Dublin city. In the Convention Centre, I gave the example of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was next door. It used to have 1,500 desks but only 100 are now in operation. The guidance is now to work from home where possible. That is the context of the question.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I appreciate that the context has changed but it will change again. One of the features of the pandemic we might not have anticipated months ago is the enormous impact it is having on our city centres and some town centres. The suburbs of Dublin are quite busy but footfall in the city centre is really low. Businesses with a high-cost model, often involving the payment of high rents, covered their costs through high turnover but they no longer have a high turnover and are really struggling. Calling into sandwich shops and small businesses around the city centre, I am really struck by how much their turnover is down. It is down phenomenally and I am very worried about it. Addressing this involves providing the assistance we are giving the businesses through the various packages with which the Deputies will be familiar. We will need to have a workable plan for our city centres to get people back to offices in a safe and blended way when we can, to reclaim the streets for a bit more outdoor dining, to have some more space for people to sit outside businesses, and to facilitate cyclists and pedestrians. The various city councils are wise to this and are working on it.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge he is aware of the issue and I welcome his response. He will be aware that, at the start of the pandemic, remote working was embraced as a new, ground-breaking concept that would change the world. It is now recognised that employees probably need a blend of remote working and participation in the workplace. Is there work ongoing in this regard? Are there any studies or research on how we could safely blend the two approaches? It is good for people's mental health to socialise and physically meet their colleagues.

I warmly welcome what the Minister is saying about the city. I generally come into the city every Sunday. It is good, a long ramble. Businesses will provide outdoor opportunities when they are encouraged to do so. We must be fair to the city council in this regard. It is a lot safer to dine or have a cup of coffee outdoors. We could do more in this regard in the cities, including on the side streets.

Remote working has had an impact on the newsagents, coffee shops and sandwich bars. We welcomed remote working with open arms at the start. Will the Minister give the House some idea as to what is going on in the background in regard to remote working in the medium term?

On remote working, there have been some interesting surveys of people who are working remotely. Roughly speaking, approximately 10% to 15% are dying to get back to the office full time. About 10% to 15% want to work from home permanently. There is a large majority in the middle, amounting to about 70%, who would like blended working. I believe that is going to be the future. It involves people going to headquarters for necessary meetings or training one or two days per week and working from home or a remote hub on the other days. We need to facilitate that, including through the national broadband plan, investing in remote hubs in rural towns and villages, in particular, and a new legal framework. We have engaged in public consultation on this. I have not fully made up my mind on it yet but a framework is probably required on a right to request remote working or home working and a right to switch off so we do not end up at work always when we are at home. It feels a bit like that already in our line of work but that is not the way it should be. It is also a matter of ensuring how people can have some of their home and remote working costs covered. This was partly covered in the budget in that people working from home can defray any vouched expenses, including the cost of broadband.

I am happy with that reply. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for facilitating the question.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.