Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Employment Support Services

Matt Carthy

Question:

31. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment his plans to secure alternative employment opportunities to the former workforce at a company (details supplied) which closed in 2020. [34994/20]

On 20 May, workers at BD Foods in Glaslough, County Monaghan, got the devastating news that their parent company, Henderson Group, had announced the merger of its recently acquired companies into its operational base in Mallusk with the loss of most of the jobs. Will the Tánaiste indicate whether the Department has been active in trying to save the jobs in the first place or, subsequently, secure alternative employment for the workers involved?

Covid–19 is having a severe effect on certain business sectors and the food distribution and supply sectors in particular. In the case of BD Foods, the Deputy will be aware that my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, was very actively engaged with the company in trying to preserve as many jobs as possible. I understand BD Foods will retain part of the company's sales force and as many as possible of the remaining staff will be redeployed to the logistics end of the business.

The company is currently looking at alternative logistics supply arrangements to facilitate this transition. In terms of the jobs that will ultimately be lost, the company has committed to working closely with State services to help those affected to find alternative employment.

The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is well aware of the situation and her Department is assisting the workers to transition and find new employment opportunities, which will be a challenge in the present circumstances. I also am aware that the local enterprise office has been in discussion with some of the employees to discuss alternative options.

The Department of Social Protection shared a prerecorded webinar in June 2020 with company management, which undertook to circulate to it to each employee. Content included information on the programmes and services that the Department provides. The Department will engage with the former employees to develop individual plans that will include details of alternative employment opportunities.

My Department has undertaken a range of initiatives to develop job opportunities in Monaghan.

The new IDA Ireland advanced facility in Monaghan is now under construction and we hope to find an occupant for it quite soon. The €5 million BioConnect Innovation Centre is progressing. A new digital hub for Monaghan was funded under the regional development enterprise fund earlier this year and my predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, launched the Border enterprise development fund in June as part of an economic stimulus for the Border counties to help SMEs deal with Brexit.

A lot of what the Tánaiste said is factually correct but will be of little comfort to the workers involved. On 18 August, I wrote to the Tánaiste asking him specific questions that the workers in BD Foods had asked but to which they had not received satisfactory responses from the other Minister, who the Tánaiste has managed to mention three times in his response. One question was in regard to the back to education grant. These workers are currently on the Covid payment and if they go back to education, that payment will be reduced. I asked whether the Minister would address that for companies such as this one. Other workers are investigating the possibility of establishing similar businesses to BD Foods and the information they got from the local enterprise office is that because it is a service -type industry, they can be offered no practical support. Furthermore, the workers have asked whether the Department has any evidence of engagement with the company prior to the announced closure. It happened incredibly quickly in the midst of the Covid pandemic and some of the workers believe this was actually a ruse by the company. I got no response to the email of 18 August and to a further email on 6 October. Perhaps the Tánaiste can answer the questions now.

I do not recall seeing that email or a letter. I usually get sight of any replies that issue to Deputies so I will definitely ask my staff to pull that down and we will send the Deputy a proper reply as soon as we can.

I do not know personally whether there was prior engagement, so I do not want to say to the Deputy now that there was or was not. However, I will check it out and let him know. With regard to the back to education allowance and the back to enterprise allowance, these are really good schemes that allow people to retain their social welfare payment while going back to education or setting up their own business. Obviously, the terms and conditions around that are a matter for the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

The Tánaiste referenced the number of engagements of his Department and the Department of Social Protection. The workers at BD Foods tell me the engagement they have had with the statutory bodies, including the two Departments, has boiled down to the webinar to which the Tánaiste referred, which was essentially informing workers how they could claim social protection payments. My questions to the Tánaiste relate to the fact that, in the beautiful small village of Glaslough in County Monaghan, this is a huge employer which has deep roots and, proportionately, it is as big as a major industry in a larger town or city. I hope the Tánaiste can provide me tonight with an assurance that his Department will work with the former employees of BD Foods to try to establish alternative employment in the place in which they lost it. I believe it is possible but they need the support and assistance of the Tánaiste. I hope he can assure us tonight that he will give it.

I will definitely follow up on that and if we can provide help and provide alternative employment in Glaslough, that is certainly what we will do, and that is part of the role of Government and its agencies. Generally, the kind of advice and support that we provide people who have lost their jobs are not just about letting them know their welfare entitlements, but that is important too. People are entitled to get redundancy and get their welfare payments, and entitled to know what options they have in terms of education and setting up their own business, but we also try to point people in the right direction in terms of alternative employment, training and all of that. That is not just done through the webinar but through the Intreo service too.

Brexit Supports

Niamh Smyth

Question:

32. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the status of Brexit preparations by his Department particularly for businesses in the Border region; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35153/20]

I ask the Minister of State to outline the plans in regard to Brexit preparations. As a Border region Deputy, this is of huge concern to me. Businesses on the ground feel the political agenda has been somewhat taken over by the pandemic, naturally enough, but it is a very worrying time for small and medium businesses, the agri-food sector and local authorities.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. While Covid might have focused the attention of many minds and businesses in recent months, as a Department and a Government, we have been very much focused on Brexit for the last number of years, certainly as we get closer to it. The Tánaiste and other colleagues have repeatedly tried to drive home the message over the last few months about the importance of focusing on Brexit and keeping an eye to business as well. We want to make sure businesses engage with us, not just those in the Border region that the Deputy represents, but also throughout the country, given Brexit will have an impact on business generally. We know that and we have been working with companies to prepare for that as well.

The Department and its agencies have put in place a wide range of Brexit enterprise measures covering potential Brexit impacts. The Brexit readiness checklist highlights some of the key actions businesses can take to prepare for the changes Brexit will bring from 1 January 2021. The Border enterprise development fund, administered by Enterprise Ireland, provides for collaborative enterprise capability-building projects advancing entrepreneurship, productivity and innovation in the Border region. The fund is part of a €28 million economic stimulus package announced for the six Border counties of Louth, Monaghan, Cavan, Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal earlier this year, with some success in both Cavan and Monaghan, which the Deputy represents.

Enterprise Ireland’s “ready for customs” scheme helps businesses prepare for the challenges of trading with and through the UK. Its online customs insights course and Brexit readiness checker are also available. These stand alongside grants, mentoring and training to enable businesses to examine their exposure and capability to meet the challenges and opportunities that Brexit presents.

The local enterprise offices offer “prepare your business for customs” workshops. They also provide grants to businesses responding to Brexit challenges, including the technical assistance for micro exporters grant of €2,500, and LEAN for micro grants to assist productivity improvements.

InterTradeIreland’s Brexit advisory service offers a focal point for businesses working to navigate changes in cross-Border trading relationships as a result of Brexit. It has run a series of awareness-raising events to help improve knowledge of customs processes and procedures. These events also identify actions that businesses can take in areas like logistics and supply chain management. Its Brexit planning voucher enables eligible businesses to seek professional advice on how best to plan and prepare for Brexit. This helps businesses get advice on specific areas such as tariffs, currency management and regulatory and customs issues.

Also announced was a new €2 billion credit guarantee scheme and further funding to Microfinance Ireland. The future growth loan scheme was expanded at the beginning of the summer to enable long-term investment, including for a post-Brexit, post-Covid-19 environment.

I thank the Minister of State. I accept his point that very strong measures have been put in place in terms of Brexit readiness. There was always hopefulness in the businesses’ viewpoint as to where Brexit might leave them. We are on the eve of Brexit and we will certainly be doing business very differently than in the past.

Despite the fact the Border region has received significant EU funding since the 1990s, it continues to lag behind national and regional averages in areas such as productivity and household incomes. There are some 87,000 businesses in the Border region, 40% of which are in the agri-sector. I always use Lakeland Dairies as a good example of a business that employs a large number of people, does its business on both sides of the Border and is very reliant on a seamless Border. It needs to be able to continue to do business in a way that is sustainable and that allows it to continue to employ in the way it does and to maintain productivity.

I welcome the Minister of State's comments that there will be a positive bias towards the Border region, which is very important. The Border region is at the coalface of Brexit and has a very particular set of certain of circumstances that is not seen nationally.

The Deputy is correct. I am from the north-east region and I know there will be a greater impact in the Border region. We recognise that, which is why we have the Northern Ireland protocol and the specific committee to oversee the implementation of the agreement in the years ahead. We are very strong in support of that and of working with our colleagues across Europe and in the UK to implement those protocols and arrangements.

Naturally, as a Department supporting jobs, we are very much focused on trying to distribute the jobs to the regions, which includes the Border region. That is why, when we analyse any of the drawdown of the supports, we can see there is a significant drawdown of supports from the regions. The Deputy mentioned there are over 87,000 companies in the region. In the last couple of weeks, the Tánaiste has written to all of those companies that we can account for in order to ask them to engage with our Department and its agencies, whether that is the local employment offices, Enterprise Ireland or the other agencies that are mentioned, including InterTradeIreland.

We want to help these businesses to survive and thrive, not just through Covid but also as we deal with Brexit and the fallout from that. We have acknowledged from the start that trading will be more difficult because of Brexit and that is why we want to support those companies but we ask them to engage with us. We can see, as the Deputy knows, that a number of companies have yet to engage.

The Minister of State is over time.

It is an important message. We ask those businesses to use the remaining 50 days or so to engage with us so we can have them in a strong position to deal with Brexit.

I thank the Minister of State and ask for co-operation so we can get as many Deputies in as possible.

I concur with the Minister of State on the local authorities. Both Cavan and Monaghan county councils have done tremendous work in bringing businesses to the table in facing up to the realities of Brexit, along with our LEOs, which have organised round-table conversations, encouraging and enabling them to access the supports the Government is making available.

I ask the Minister of State to continue that work. We are on the cusp of Brexit. It will have a significant impact, with a very particular set of circumstances for the Border region. We want to not only sustain the businesses we have in those areas but to enable them to grow and to strengthen their capacity for further employment. Covid has added an extra layer of negativity on businesses in the Border area. For that reason, I ask that positive bias be shown towards Border counties such as Cavan and Monaghan.

We certainly are in a position to do that because the Department has secured additional resources to work with industry and support it in the area of job creation, as well as sustaining jobs through the period of Brexit and Covid. I stress again, and the Deputy is in a good position to get this message out there, that we need the companies that will be impacted by Brexit to come forward now. Many have but we know from all the research that a number of companies in every category are not fully prepared for Brexit. There is still time to get fully prepared and we urge them to come forward and avail of the supports we and other Departments can give. We are in a strong financial position to work with and help them. The Deputy is correct that it is not just to sustain the jobs that are there today, but to create extra jobs. We need those companies. They are the employers and the ones we want to work with, to reach out to and to help create more employment. They are well capable of that and we look forward to working with them in the months ahead.

Brexit Preparations

Cormac Devlin

Question:

33. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the status of his Department’s Brexit preparations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35044/20]

I thank the Minister of State for taking this question. On Brexit and the preparedness of small businesses, is he familiar with the research done by the customs clearance service, Declaron, a new partnership between the accountancy firm, BDO, and the fintech company, Fexco. According to their research, 37% of Irish businesses that trade with the UK have yet to start planning for Brexit. Businesses list their primary reason for not preparing as the fact that no trade agreement is in place yet. It is just 50 days until 2021 and such findings seem to me extremely worrying. Is the Minister of State surprised or alarmed by these findings?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. On the basis of research such as that and research we have been undertaking through our own agencies and in conjunction with the representative bodies we have worked with on a weekly basis on Brexit over the past number of years, we are concerned that a number of companies have yet to engage with the system to deal with Brexit and with our Department and agencies. That is why we have gone to great lengths in the past couple of months to reinforce the message and encourage that engagement and ask companies to get prepared for Brexit. The State is in a position to assist companies through Brexit and through Covid. We have the additional resources in place to do that but we need companies to engage with us, put up their hand, ask for that help and ask us to see how we can engage with them to put them in a stronger position.

Our Department and agencies under our remit have intensified Brexit-readiness preparations over the past couple of weeks. The Tánaiste has written to more than 200,000 companies to ask them to check their system, supply chain and trading conditions, to engage with our agencies, to draw down some of the grants that are available towards more personnel and supports and to avail of the additional financial products to help companies through the early months of Brexit.

I thank the Minister of State. I note what he said about the 225,000 businesses that have been corresponded with, which is welcome, but the Declaron research also found that 54% of businesses that trade with the UK do not understand the new custom clearance procedures that are guaranteed to come into effect on 1 January 2021, which is worrying. Does the Minister of State agree with Carol Lynch, one of those who participated in that research, that many businesses seem to be sleepwalking into the trade agreement trap? Is he confident that businesses know that, even if the trade agreement is reached, there will still be a requirement for import and export declarations? Is there anything that can be done about this?

Last month, a new online Enterprise Ireland Brexit readiness checker was launched to help businesses, which is welcome. What was the response to that? If the Minister of State does not have the answer this evening, perhaps he will furnish me with it because I would like to know how many businesses have logged on.

We have been saying clearly for the past couple of months that, regardless of how the talks finish up in the weeks ahead, there will be major changes for business, including in the customs area. That will be new to many businesses that have operated in Ireland over the past 30 or 40 years. It is a new challenge for them. We recognise that and that is why the Tánaiste and the Government made money available for customs support and we announced a specific €20 million fund for the ready for customs support scheme. In that, we encourage businesses to come forward and draw down a fund of up to €9,000 towards an employee or people to enable them to prepare for the customs challenge.

It will be difficult and the Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy and I have been engaging with companies and representative bodies. We have been down at the ports and engaging with Revenue and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the processes and complications involved. We recognise that life will be complicated. Brexit will put barriers on trade and will make it more difficult. That is why those companies need to use the remaining 50 days plus to prepare themselves to engage the skills they need to trade through this when the customs are in place.

The €20 million fund the Minister of State referred to is welcome. However, my fear relates to those businesses that may not be aware of the full impact of Brexit or that, because of Covid, have not paid enough attention to it and have had other issues such as keeping the doors open on their minds. It is important that the Department and the Ministers responsible double down on making sure those businesses are aware. Some of these businesses have never dealt with customs issues if they have traded purely within the European Union. We need to get ahead of the issue. The Minister of State spoke about the €9,000 support for employees to be trained, which is welcome, but it is essential, with just 50 days left, that we prioritise this issue in order that businesses are well prepared in advance of a bad deal, which unfortunately seems likely in respect of Brexit.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this because it helps us bring the focus onto this. We totally agree with him. From a departmental point of view, we want companies to engage and recognise how serious this is. We acknowledge that, since February, companies have had a great deal thrown at them in regard to Covid and they are trying to manage their way through that. However, Brexit is looming and is coming in approximately 50 days. In fairness to companies, there have been many deadlines in the past couple of years in respect of Brexit and they have kept moving, so they might be a bit relaxed as we get closer. However, we have seen a greater engagement over the past few weeks in preparing for Brexit. The supports are there to help companies with the customs ends of this and the personnel required for that. Quite a number have engaged and drawn down the grant but we want more to do that.

I know from chairing the retail consultation forum that many in the retail sector are well prepared but there are concerns out there that a number of companies who are either importing or exporting from the UK are not prepared. We are in a position to work with them and, even at this late stage, to help them prepare as best they can but they have to engage. We are trying to locate them but we need them to come forward and if any Members can help, we would be delighted to support that.

Beef Industry

Denis Naughten

Question:

34. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the requests he has received in the past 12 months from his ministerial colleagues to carry out a market study under section 10(4) of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35118/20]

In September 2019, Dáil Éireann unanimously supported a motion on the beef sector that called on the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation under section 10(4) of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 to request the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, to carry out a market study and analysis on the nature and scale of consumer and beef farmer issues in the beef market and make recommendations. This has yet to be implemented.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 enables the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to request the CCPC to carry out a study or analysis of any issue relating to consumer protection and welfare, any practice or method of competition affecting the supply and distribution of goods or the provision of services, or any other matter relating to competition and to submit a report to him or her.

No requests have been made by the Minister to the CCPC to carry out a market study or analysis in the past 12 months, nor has any other Minister requested to use those powers to request the CCPC to carry out a study for them.

In August 2019, the then Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, made a request to the CCPC to carry out a study of the public liability insurance market in Ireland. This study was requested as the issue of increases in public liability premiums for businesses was raised with her as a potential systemic threat to the existence of many businesses. Concerns were also expressed about the roles of insurance firms and intermediaries in the increased levels of public liability insurance premiums.

The study will compile a detailed assessment of the functioning of the market and make evidence-based recommendations as to how the Government may address the current issues around the cost and supply of public liability insurance. The CCPC commenced a wide range of activities to complete this study, including meetings with representative groups, public bodies, industry representatives and customers; conducting customer focused market research among a representative sample of businesses, community groups and sports organisations; issuing a public consultation paper to obtain the views of key stakeholders; analysing data that are available on the market; and undertaking desk-based research. We expect the chairperson of the CCPC to provide the report in the coming weeks.

Fourteen months ago, the Minister of State and everyone else in this House supported the proposition that an inquiry into the beef sector take place in this country. At the moment, we are telling beef farmers to come forward with the evidence and present it to the CCPC. I made a submission to the commission but the reality is that unless a whistle-blower comes forward to provide documentary evidence, it cannot instigate an investigation into the beef sector. Does the Minister of State believe that there are anti-competitive practices in operation within the beef sector? I believe that there are. The Government has a mechanism by which it can ask the CCPC, at the stroke of a pen, to go in, look at the industry as a whole and carry out a report. Let us see once and for all what is going on.

I am aware that during a debate on the challenges facing the beef sector in the Dáil on 18 September 2019, the Deputy tabled an amendment to a motion, agreed to on 26 September, proposing that the CCPC carry out a market study and analysis on the nature and scale of beef farming issues in the beef market and make recommendations. A request for the CCPC to undertake a market study or analysis under section 10(4) of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 is not a substitute for the commission undertaking its statutory functions by investigating an alleged breach of competition laws that are used by the commission in different situations.

In 2019, the CCPC received a significant number of complaints about the beef sector and, as a result, commenced a detailed, extensive examination. The majority of the complaints related to five core issues: the similarity in the base price per kg offered by processors to beef farmers across all beef processing plants, dissatisfaction with the qualitative criteria for the payment of in-spec bonuses applied by beef processors to the importing of foreign beef, the operation of feedlots, distortion of competition and the impact of a reported monopoly in offal processing.

I will come back to my core point. There are two ways that a thorough investigation can be carried out. One is if documentary evidence comes forward, and that can only happen if we have a whistle-blower within the industry. The other option is for the Government, through the offices of the Minister and the Department, to direct the CCPC to carry out a market study and inquire into the sector. Is the Minister of State honestly telling me that he does not have concerns regarding the operation of the offal sector in this country? Every farmer, man and woman, in this country believes that a monopoly is operating in the offal sector. That has a controlling influence on the kill in this country. It is imperative that we have a separate independent inquiry and it should not be dependent on farmers finding evidence.

I can relay to the Deputy what has been relayed to me by the CCPC. It has reviewed the beef sector and following an extensive review and assessment of all the information it gathered, the CCPC announced in June 2020 that there was insufficient evidence of a breach of competition law to warrant taking any further action at that time. It stated that it would not launch an investigation into the reported practice in the beef sector.

One of the first bodies I met on being appointed Minister of State in this Department was the CCPC. One of the first questions I asked its representatives was about their attitudes to, and concerns about, the beef sector. They forwarded me a report, which I have read and am happy to forward to the Deputy. I am happy to go back to them again, based on the question that the Deputy has asked. If he has specific information that can help the CCPC, I am also happy to relay that to them.

Departmental Communications

Brian Stanley

Question:

35. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if his Department will actively promote shopping locally to retain money in local economies and sustain them during this very difficult period. [34935/20]

My question is about the promotion of shopping locally and the retention of money in local economies. I have put the question forward in a constructive way because we are in a difficult situation at the moment. These matters are important at any time, as I am sure the Tánaiste will agree, but that is particularly true at the moment because of the difficulties of retaining money in local economies, getting money spent and, very importantly, keeping people in jobs and getting people back into jobs.

My Department is working with the LEOs on a local media campaign to support the "Shop Local" initiatives that are already active across the country. The purpose of this campaign will be to encourage communities to support businesses in their area by shopping locally and safely.

Even while under level 5 Covid-19 restrictions where people cannot physically enter certain stores, they can continue to buy from them through remote ordering. Orders can be placed for products, including non-essential items, either online or by phone, and fulfilled through home delivery or collection. The growth in demand for shopping online is driving the retail sector to also develop its online trading capability to enhance its competitiveness. This is an important route for retail businesses in the current crisis and will be an important element in their recovery over the longer term.

The €2,500 trading online vouchers are available to help small and microenterprises with very limited or no e-commerce presence to get online, boost their sales and reach new markets, particularly during this difficult period when so many businesses are closed to the public. Businesses can also apply for a second voucher where they have successfully utilised their first one, which brings the overall total voucher amount available up to €5,000.  As of 6 November, 13,789 applications have been received, of which 10,721 have been approved so far, to a value of just over €25 million.

The Covid-19 online retail scheme has been introduced to support Irish-owned retail businesses to rapidly adapt and enhance their online business capability as they work within the Covid-19 public health measures. It helps to position retail businesses for recovery in the future, once the public health emergency and related measures have passed. Grants ranging from €10,000 to €40,000 are payable to successful applicants under the scheme. An additional €5 million has been provided as part of budget 2021. As of 6 November, 373 applications had been received, of which 185 retailers have been approved so far, to a value of €6.58 million.

I thank retailers and their customers for their efforts at this difficult time. By each of us following the spirit of these new rules and working together, we can hopefully return to a lower level of the living with Covid-19 framework.

I thank the Tánaiste for his very comprehensive answer. There are many things beyond our control but a number of things are within our control. One of these is controlling the pandemic. Deputies on this side of the House are also active in telling people to obey the rules to try to push back the virus and reopen employment. We also encourage people to spend money locally in towns and villages to keep people in work. This is not about protectionism or isolationism. It is very important.

I welcome the Tánaiste's comment that businesses will have access for a second time to the online voucher scheme. That is very good. The reason I raise the scheme is that more work is needed to promote it. I am aware of it and I tell people about it and encourage them to take it up. Some have done so and some have not done so. There is still reticence among older traders to do this. It is important that we continue to promote the scheme.

The Deputy is correct. We are trying to ensure that people are aware of these schemes. A local radio campaign will start in the week beginning 19 November for an initial period of two weeks. The campaign will also be activated through the local enterprise offices and local authorities with the support of Enterprise Ireland and local business groups. We particularly want to encourage people to support local businesses, place orders online or over the phone, and to also consider the possibility of home delivery or collection.

That campaign will be very welcome. We also need to get the message across to people that this is needed not just in the run-in to Christmas but beyond Christmas because we are probably facing a difficult 2021. It will be a difficult year. I hope that, as jobs start opening up and money starts circulating again, the position will improve.

One issue that needs to be addressed is the rates charged by local authorities. Unfortunately, many local authorities are going through their budgets this week and they will have a shortfall. They cannot do anything about that and those with which I am familiar have been very creative in trying to keep the books balanced and local services functioning. Local authorities do not yet have certainty. It is important that they have certainty because this is directly related to local retail trade. Retailers, particularly those that have been closed down for a sustained period such as hairdressers and other services, will not be in a position to get up and running and to start paying rates again next year. Certainty is needed on this issue at this point in time.

I appreciate how difficult it must be for retailers, hairdressers, barbers and any business that has been closed during this period for a second time this year. It is extremely difficult for the people who work in and own these businesses. From the Government’s point of view, we would like to be in a position to give people as much certainty as soon as possible. The problem with this virus and the nature of this pandemic is that it is uncertain. We would love to be able to say with certainty to people that they can open their business on a particular date but we are just not at that point yet. We are only into the third week of a six-week period of restrictions. We will need to see more data for the next couple of weeks before we can let people know when and what can be reopened. We will give people as much advance notice as possible so that the they can let their staff know to be available, buy in stock and make all the preparations they need to make.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Pa Daly

Question:

36. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the position regarding the sale of seasonal goods such as seasonal or religious decorations for Christmas; if it will be ensured such items shall be deemed as essential services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34976/20]

Christmas is approaching and every town in the country has a local producer of Christmas trees, advent wreaths and wreaths for graves. It is a time of year which is close to people’s hearts and they remember the dead. I ask the Tánaiste to ensure these producers are deemed an essential service and give some clarity to the people involved in the business?

I thank Deputy Daly for asking this question. Under level 5 of the plan for living with Covid-19, only essential retail outlets will remain open. The regulations clearly set out the temporary restrictions and it is important to reinforce the point that they are temporary. The regulations list the essential services and retail outlets under level 5 that can open.

Level 5 does not restrict people from purchasing any product, including Christmas trees and wreaths to which the Deputy referred. All products are available and can still be purchased depending on their seasonal nature. It does, however, restrict people from physically entering non-essential stores. We try to discourage people from unnecessary shopping journeys for their own safety and to stop the spread of the virus. We recognise, as the Tánaiste said, the pressure that this has put the retail sector under and that this is a very difficult for retail businesses, whether local producers or otherwise. It is difficult, which is the reason we are working with the sector to support it and help it through this very difficult time. Businesses are also encouraged to follow the regulations and laws in the spirit of protecting customers, staff and the community.

Mixed retailers have been asked to separate their stock and only sell the items that are essential.  While seasonal or religious decorations for Christmas should not be purchased physically in stores, customers can continue to purchase them via online or phone ordering for collection and delivery. I emphasise that there is the option to pick up the phone and make an order. Many local suppliers are offering this service and have adapted their business in recent months to prepare for Covid and Christmas. All those products are available either online, through click and collect, click and delivery or phone order. Naturally, we are trying to encourage much more delivery, where possible, but the option to collect is also available. All the goods the Deputy mentioned can be sourced in the weeks and months ahead.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I ask him to take into consideration that many of the types of seasonal retailers that I am speaking about operate in an outdoor or semi-outdoor environment. Many of these providers who do this work every year but perhaps only for a short window of time have invested throughout the year and this is the only time they can make a living. The evidence is increasing that indoor, poorly-ventilated spaces pose the largest risk. I ask that the Government consider making an exception for businesses selling Christmas trees, taking into account that it is essentially an outdoor activity.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. Naturally, all areas for controlling the virus and its spread are being observed and dealt with by the Department of Health and all other Departments, in conjunction with NPHET. All of the evidence is being considered and it all indicates that the best way of stopping the virus is to limit and reduce our contacts, be that in a social, shopping or working context. We are trying, through these restrictions, to reduce the movements of and connections made by people. It goes against the grain for all of us living in Ireland because we like connecting, meeting people, doing our shopping, going to work and all of that. The advice we have received is to limit these activities under these restrictions. That is why we are asking that non-essential retail is conducted in other ways that do not involve encouraging people to leave their homes to make a purchase. We will work with all sectors to ensure that all of those products are available and can be sourced. Many of the companies involved in the growing of Christmas trees or producing wreaths or other items over the last year have put their plans in place. They will be in a position to trade and reach their customers. This will be facilitated and will happen in the weeks ahead.

I thank the Minister of State for his detailed response but in the next few weeks, it will be important to take a nuanced approach to every single item covered by levels 3, 4 and 5 and to have particular regard to making exceptions.

We should analyse the risk of every activity to make sure that as many people as possible can earn a few quid in the run-up to Christmas.

That is our focus as a Department, working with the retail sector, the business community and all those enterprises that are involved in providing products and services, some of which will be in greater demand around the month of December and for the Christmas season. We are working and will work with all those sectors through the various Departments on a range of supports and initiatives. The Tánaiste referred to some earlier around communication plans, marketing plans, how we manage the public realm and make sure that the products can be sourced. That is what we are involved in. In the past seven or eight months, many of the companies the Deputy referred to have availed of the numerous grants available, including the trading online voucher scheme and the online retail voucher scheme being offered through Enterprise Ireland. I believe seven or eight companies from the Deputy's own county of Kerry availed of that scheme and I announced others yesterday.

Companies are adapting. They are finding ways to reach their customers in a safer way as we are living with Covid-19. That is exactly what we are involved in but to be absolutely clear to everybody, it will be possible to purchase all the products people want during the month of December. All the companies involved in the growing and the production of all those products will be able to find a way to trade. That is what we are about and it is what we have been doing with the sector over the past couple of months. Every area, including business organisations, retail and sporting, will be able to trade. That is what we will try to work on also.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

37. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he has had discussions with business representative groups since the move to level 5 in the living with Covid-19 framework; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35037/20]

The Tánaiste and the Ministers of State will be aware that the move to level 5 restrictions has had a significant impact on the economy, particularly on the domestic economy. Businesses have closed and unemployment has gone up. I am aware the Tánaiste cannot answer today as to the extent to which those restrictions will be lifted but what has been the extent of his engagement with the business representative organisations as I believe such engagement would be very beneficial?

I have regular and ongoing engagement with business representative groups and all relevant stakeholders, particularly in the context of the evolving effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the lives and livelihoods of our people.

I have met a full range of business representative groups since the Government decision on the move to level 5. Specifically, on the evening of 19 October, following the Government announcement of the move to level 5, I convened a meeting with some 14 business representative bodies including Chambers Ireland, ISME, IBEC, the Small Firms Association, SFA, and the Irish Exporters Association. My Department and I are in ongoing engagement with these groups and their sectors.

In addition, in advance of level 5 coming into effect on 21 October, I convened a meeting of the Department's retail forum, which is chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy English, although I was present. The membership of the forum comprises the key retail representative bodies including RGDATA, CSNA, Retail Ireland, Retail Excellence and pharmacy and hardware associations.

Retail is the largest private sector employer in the country and supports jobs in every city, town and village. I am acutely aware that the sector has suffered a significant shock due to the impact of Covid-19 and the period of closure of non-essential retail. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, is continuing to engage with the retail sector, with two further meetings of the forum at the end of October and last week. These meetings are an opportunity to listen to stakeholder concerns and to ensure they understand and continue to abide by the requirements of the restrictions.

On 21 October 2020, I convened a public consultation on the national economic plan with some 200 stakeholders from business representative groups, social partners, environment groups and non-governmental bodies. This was a virtual event to exchange ideas on the national economic plan, which will set out the Government’s guiding priorities and policy objectives for a sustainable recovery. The event was opened by the Taoiseach and was structured around three breakout sessions, each with a number of related issues to be considered. Further information, including a summary report of the discussions and footage from the event, can be found on my Department’s website.

I also met some of the business representative groups at a meeting of the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, on 28 October. That is a long, convoluted response but I engage with business organisations regularly whether it is through LEEF, the retail forum, the hospitality forum or one to one.

I thank the Tánaiste for his detailed reply. It is very beneficial that he, as Tánaiste, has met the representative organisations. The move to level 5 has had a very significant impact on the domestic economy. There are now 100,000 more people on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, as a result of the move to level 5 than was the case beforehand. Youth unemployment is a serious issue and we should be careful that we do not allow it to become the excepted norm that we can close down businesses and open them again.

I am conscious that the resolution of this depends on how we respond to and deal with the pandemic but I ask the Tánaiste to continue with his engagement with the business representative organisations. We have learned a lot from the lockdowns we have had to date in Ireland. We learned from the first lockdown that we can have schools open. We have learned from all lockdowns that we can have supermarkets open. I ask the Tánaiste to engage with those representative groups as I believe we will learn more about the type of non-essential retail outlets we can open in the future.

I thank the Deputy. We have learned a lot from the different lockdowns. Among the big differences between the first one and the second one is that we kept open the schools and childcare on this occasion and we also kept construction and manufacturing going. While we have seen 100,000 more people end up on the pandemic unemployment payment, which is terrible, as a consequence of level 5, it would have been very much higher had we closed construction and manufacturing as well. That would have had consequences also in terms of trade and housing supply. I am glad we took the decision to keep those sectors open and operating.

I do not know yet what will happen on 1 December, whether we will be able to move to level 3 or level 2 or some sort of combination of levels, but I will continue to keep in touch with the business organisations. In fact, I will make a point of engaging with them before that decision is made and also when it is made because the implications will be significant.

Obviously, we do not know where we will be at the end of this month but hopefully the trend in the numbers will continue as they are and the incidence of the disease in the country will continue to drop. One aspect the Tánaiste will have to be very careful about is that we are not overly or unnecessarily cautious when it comes to trying to lift the restrictions. People will tell him that if we lift the restrictions too much the numbers will go back up. Unfortunately, it is inevitably the case that numbers will go back up but we have to try to learn from what we have experienced over the previous lockdowns and restrictions.

It is very important to look at the supermarkets. They have been open all the time. They have not been any source of a major spread of the disease. If that type of essential retail outlet can continue to remain open without threat to the general population we need to look to see what other retail outlets, which we now regard as being non-essential, can also remain open. I ask the Tánaiste to look at that in a positive light and without too much caution.

Deputy O'Callaghan makes some very valid points but there is one thing we need to bear in mind. It is not so much the outlet that causes the virus to spread. It is not that shoe shops are higher risk than a newsagent or whatever outlet one wants to pick. The difficulty is that the more we allow to open, the more interactions there will be. It is not that the person may necessarily pick up the virus in the shoe shop from another customer or the sales assistant. It is that such people go into town, meet somebody at the bus stop, meet other people on the bus, may stop for a coffee, go in, buy shoes and then go home on the bus and do the same thing again. Cutting out certain activities and preventing people from mixing and mingling reduces the number of potential interactions. I am not sure if that makes any sense but in terms of closing that particular set of stores or that particular type of hospitality business, it is not just the interaction that happens in that business; it is the ten in the entire journey. The whole science, to the extent that it is a science although it is not an exact science, is to reduce the number of opportunities people have to mix, meet other people and thereby transmit the virus.

Small and Medium Enterprises

Brian Stanley

Question:

38. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if his Department will promote, through Enterprise Ireland and other State funded bodies, the need to strengthen the connections and interdependence between local businesses. [34936/20]

My question is to ask the Tánaiste's Department to promote, through Enterprise Ireland and other State bodies, the need to strengthen the connection and interdependence between local businesses. I am not advocating isolationism. There is a good deal of trade in and out of this country, and that is as it should be, but if we strengthen those links we can generate more jobs within the region. It is particularly important for regional development.

I was very pleased that the programme for Government committed to the delivery of a national SME growth plan that will map out an ambitious strategic blueprint for SMEs and entrepreneurs beyond the period of Covid-19. The SME growth task force, which was established last September, is reviewing policy across four sub-groups: entrepreneurship; productivity, digitalisation and competitiveness; internationalisation; and clustering and business networks. The latter sub-group is examining how to strengthen the connections and interdependence between local businesses and multinational companies.

Our regional enterprise plans are focused on region-specific enterprise development and opportunities, and provide a mechanism for joined-up responses at a regional level, including networking and clustering initiatives. In that regard, Enterprise Ireland's Powering the Regions programme provides for nine regional specific plans to grow and sustain jobs and to expand the reach of Enterprise Ireland's client base in every county and region. The programme also supports the scaling of companies into the regions and the attraction of foreign direct investment, FDI, into the food sector.

Enterprise Ireland's regional technology cluster fund provides a platform for engagement between enterprise and the institutes of technology and technological universities to drive productivity and competitiveness in and across the regions. The clustering activity will enable institutes of technology and the technology universities to connect and engage with SMEs and multinational corporations in a strategic way on common areas of interest.

My Department supports joint agency initiatives, such as the global sourcing initiative between Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland, which aims to create business opportunities for Irish-owned companies with multinationals based in Ireland and raises awareness of the innovative capabilities of Irish SMEs across a range of sectors.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Under the enterprise centres scheme, the regional enterprise development fund and the Border enterprise development fund, my Department has provided over €180 million in funding across every region. Affordable shared remote and co-working spaces for businesses across the country are supported under each of these funds. The SME growth plan, including these initiatives, will be part of our national economic plan, which is currently being developed by the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He covered many areas. Recently there has been a big move towards globalisation. That is the way the world is now, and we have to accept that. That is how it works but recent times have shown how vulnerable we are in this regard. Many supply lines have been cut off during the pandemic. I am aware of people in business who have had difficulty sourcing overseas goods and services that would normally flow freely into the country. This has shown up that there is a vulnerable side. Many goods and services can be sourced within the country, thus greatly benefiting local and regional development. Rather than shouting about rural Ireland while doing nothing about it, I am proposing a positive measure to keep money in the relevant areas and create more jobs. Many large companies are still very aloof.

My Department is working collectively to strengthen the connections and interdependence of businesses through engagement with our nine regional enterprise plans. Our focus is on region-specific enterprise development, including sectoral networking and clustering initiatives, such as the regional technical cluster initiative, and opportunities for Irish companies to connect with multinationals based in Ireland to raise awareness of the capabilities of the SMEs across a range of sectors. We must be cognisant of the fact that Ireland is an attractive destination for FDI. This offers our SMEs considerable opportunities to work with and feed into the operations of multinationals. I accept what the Deputy said about supporting SMEs and working with multinationals. There are plans afoot through Enterprise Ireland to do that.

I recognise that there is some good work being done; it is a matter of trying to develop it further. There are many large companies that are still aloof in that they lack a connection with local suppliers and other small local companies. Many of the services and goods needed by various companies can be sourced in the country. If not, there are small firms that can work to provide them.

It is important that we develop a policy of active engagement by IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, whose representatives I have met a number of times, and the local enterprise offices, which are doing a lot of good work.

The commercial semi-State bodies are very important to the economy. We need to determine how to connect them better with local economies because their expenditure is considerable and they have a big impact on local areas and regions, particularly the midlands.

I take on board what the Deputy has said. The SME task force was established in September of this year and is part of a commitment in the programme for Government. I was very supportive of this because I believe that over recent years, there was not a sufficiently significant focus on our SME sector. This task force has put a spotlight on our SMEs. We have brought together, under the stewardship of the Tánaiste, key businesspeople, including people who have created employment over the years and who have built up SMEs, to listen to them regarding what needs to be done from a policy perspective. One of the subgroups that has worked on the SME task force has done so in the area clustering and business networks. There is a plenary session later this week to work towards publishing our SME plan. I have no doubt that when that plan is published, we will see a very strong commitment regarding how we can ensure indigenous companies benefit from the significant presence of multinationals.

Local Authority Funding

Dara Calleary

Question:

39. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the recoupment schedule for local authorities to receive in full moneys paid out under the restart and restart plus grants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35039/20]

The restart grant and the restart grant plus have been important for businesses but we need to assure local authorities that they will receive refunds. What are our plans for the grants in the future?

I will abridge the response so I can fit it all in. There have been two grants, the restart grant and the restart grant plus. The first was worth about €250 million and the second about €300 million but we topped it up because there were top-ups along the way. About €100 million or so was transferred from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to my Department just the other day, and we are going to get that out to local authorities to cover the costs of the restart grant plus and some appeals that came in. There are those who did not get around to applying for the first grant but who were entitled to both. We are honouring that. There are no plans for any new restart grants, really because the scheme has been taken over by the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, which pertains to the weekly grant that is now given to any business that is closed as a result of the Covid restrictions. That is not to say they might not come back again in some form but there is no plan at present.

I welcome the fact that the money has been transferred. This is budget season for local authorities. They need certainty on cash flow.

The Minister mentioned CRSS. There are huge anomalies beginning to appear. For instance, event companies and food service companies will not be able to access the scheme. Are there plans to review the conditions under which CRSS is going to operate given that it excludes many small businesses?

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, is in charge of that scheme. He is working on it. The scheme is for businesses that are closed as a result of Covid restrictions or that have seen a 75% reduction in turnover, but the businesses have to have a premises. If we open it to all businesses that do not have a premises, it would be a very different scheme and a much more expensive one. Having said that, however, we are trying to work around issues associated with businesses that need financial support but that are getting nothing. Many are in the arts and tourism sectors and they are going to be helped out through a different fund and budget under the control of the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. If, however, we find businesses that fall between schemes and get no grant, we will try to come up with a solution for them. I hate the term "under constant review" but the scheme is one of those schemes we accept will need to be amended as we go along so businesses that have been closed can get a grant and survive.