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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 19 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 4

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Covid-19 Pandemic

Catherine Connolly

Question:

6. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment further to Parliamentary Question No. 191 of 26 April 2022, the status of his engagement at EU and WTO levels with regard to the waiving of intellectual property rights in respect of Covid-19 vaccines; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25369/22]

Paul Murphy

Question:

33. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment his views that an Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS' waiver should be agreed at the WTO in order to ensure access to Covid vaccines and therapeutics. [25228/22]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

37. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will detail his engagements in relation to the introduction of a TRIPS waiver on Covid-19 vaccines and technology; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25339/22]

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

52. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will provide an update on the prospect of a TRIPS waiver for Covid-19 vaccines and technologies; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24866/22]

Louise O'Reilly

Question:

58. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will use his position on the Council of Ministers of Trade to encourage the introduction of a TRIPS waiver on Covid-19 vaccines and technology. [25349/22]

Gary Gannon

Question:

59. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will support the Covid-19 TRIPS waiver; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22977/22]

My question relates specifically to the waiving of intellectual property rights in respect of Covid-19 vaccines given their uneven distribution. I ask for an update on the waiving of the rights and the Minister of State's engagement at EU and WTO levels.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 33, 37, 52, 58 and 59 together. I thank Deputy Connolly and her colleagues for tabling them.

As we have outlined previously to both Houses, universal and equitable access to safe, effective and affordable vaccines, diagnostics and treatments is crucial in the global fight against Covid-19. This is at the heart of the Irish Government's international response to the pandemic, and governments in the developed world must do more to ensure this happens. As a member of the EU, we have been fully engaged in the overall EU response concerning the TRIPS waiver. The EU believes that there is no single solution, that a multipronged approach is needed and that discussions should concentrate on how the intellectual property system can contribute towards increasing the manufacturing capacity and equitable access to vaccines around the world.

Since last autumn, the EU has participated in the informal discussions on the intellectual property element of the WTO response to the Covid-19 pandemic with representatives of South Africa, India, and the US, known as the Quad group. These discussions have been detailed and protracted, and a potential compromise proposal has now emerged that offers the most promising path toward achieving a meaningful outcome.

The EU believes that the compromise proposal addresses the concerns of South Africa and developing countries regarding the possibility of authorising the manufacturers to produce Covid-19 vaccines without the consent of patent owners. It also streamlines procedures to facilitate faster production of vaccines, while at the same time maintaining a functioning intellectual property framework necessary for the development of new vaccines and medicines.

Since we last engaged on this matter, the proposal has been presented to the full WTO membership for consideration, and agreement will require the consensus of all WTO members. Ireland will continue to engage constructively with the European Commission and other EU member states on the EU position on the compromise proposal in order to reach an agreement as soon as possible.

Global production of Covid-19 vaccines has substantially increased, with production expected to reach 18 billion to 19 billion by mid-2022. This means that, by the middle of this year, we will have a sufficient number of vaccines for everybody in the world, including for booster campaigns. Vaccine supply currently exceeds demand.

As vaccine production is no longer the main issue of concern, the international community is now focused on the need to rapidly build capacity in low-income countries for health care workers, cold-chain logistics and information sharing so that demand for vaccines will increase in line with supply and vaccines can be safely administered on the scale needed to meet the WHO's vaccination target of 70%.

The EU is committed to the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, with a focus on supporting Africa, where vaccination rates are lower than in other parts of the world. The EU has led the way in global solidarity as the world's largest exporter of Covid-19 vaccines, with over 2.1 billion finished doses exported to 166 countries by March 2022 and over €4 billion committed in financial support to COVAX from all the EU members. The Government has to date committed to the donation of €13.5 million and 5 million vaccines to the COVAX facility. Vaccines have already been delivered to countries including Uganda, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ghana and Burkina Faso, with further deliveries expected to follow shortly.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The clearest sentence of his written response is the first, which states he believes in universal and equitable access to safe, effective and affordable vaccines.

I agree with the Minister of State completely, but that is not happening. Europe has led the way with a market approach to the production and distribution of vaccines, meaning we are left with the companies making a huge profit and a totally inequitable system. Vaccine inequity persists, according to Oxfam. Some 13% of people in low-income industries have received two doses, compared with 75% of those in high-income industries. Less than 1% of people in low-income countries are boosted, compared with more than 60% in Ireland. The figures speak for themselves, as do the figures for public funding. Up to 97% has gone into AstraZeneca for research and development. We are unclear what public funds went into the other companies to help them have massive profits. The sentence in the beginning has not been followed through.

We had a hearing on this in the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment last week. What we heard from the representatives of Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam and the pharmaceutical industry was shocking. Médecins Sans Frontières said literally millions of people have died as a consequence of the failure to give a TRIPS waiver. We heard about the almost $100 billion in public funding given to the pharmaceutical industry to develop these vaccines and about the significant profits, which were not contested by the pharmaceutical industry. Three of the biggest companies are making $1,000 per minute in profits from the vaccines. There is massive profiteering.

Yesterday at our private meeting we agreed unanimously, including Deputies from Government-supporting parties, to send a letter to the Tánaiste asking him to agree to a Government position in favour of a TRIPS waiver. The committee's position was clear. It will be interesting to see what the Government says in response.

The Minister of State said he was committed to universal access and that it is crucial. The rest of his response reflects how from this Government and at European level there has been fudge, kicking it down the road and the line in relation to there being no single solution. Previously, it was suggested that the answer was not a TRIPS waiver and compulsory licensing might be a better option. Delay, delay, delay. All that delay denies people access to vaccines.

The presentation at the Oireachtas committee from Professor Aisling McMahon pointed to the weakness of the QUAD proposal. It is weaker than the initial proposal that was being considered. It primarily applies to patents and not to other IP rights. She spelled out the weaknesses of the proposal and it is not acceptable.

At the recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, we heard from Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam and representatives of the pharmaceutical industry. We also had a significant number of written submissions on the TRIPS issue. We learned that only 13% of people are double vaccinated in low- and middle-income countries and 1% boosted. We face a significant global problem. If we believe the mantra that nobody is safe until everybody is safe, then we must act urgently. If we fail to act now, we will not be as prepared for the next pandemic or outbreak and low- and middle-income countries will be left behind again. The pharmaceutical companies which attended the meeting focused on the need to invest but representatives from Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam were clear that, given much of the investment has been through public funding, it is the global public who should be the beneficiaries. The HIV-AIDS epidemic showed us the way. There was no significant progress until medicines were made freely available. Millions of lives were saved by ending the lack of access.

I wrote to the Tánaiste yesterday in my capacity as chair of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment with the committee's full support to ask him to support a TRIPS waiver. Will he commit to doing that?

I was not at that committee but will be happy to read back over the submissions on that. I have not had a chance to get a sense of what is being put forward. Much of the debate on this, including the debates we had in these Houses, focused on supply. The EU always took the position that that would not necessarily be the issue and there were many other parts of it, including the capacity of those countries to administer the vaccine and the demand. It is clear now that supply is not the issue and the EU was right. The Deputies will all disagree but the facts are there. The supply of vaccine is up to the level required.

Compromise proposals are being put forward at the WTO. It is not just Europe. It is the WTO. Europe is one player and has led on this in relation to distribution and exportation. Others might have to question themselves on that outside the EU, but the EU has played its part. The compromise text will be beneficial and will help with that. It has been worked on since last autumn. The Government has supported it and it is now informally in those trade talks. I think a meeting is scheduled for the end of this month or early June to try to arrive at a formal decision, which I think will be positive.

We have to continue to support access to manufacture and production, as well as investment in the systems in these countries to be able to administer the vaccine. Healthcare workers, logistics, information-sharing and demand for vaccines are all part of it. I do not agree that the EU has held this back. The EU is part of the world trade talks.

The Government did not oppose the Seanad motion. There was agreement on everyone's intention but there is more than one way to achieve it. The discussion I heard always focused on supply being the issue, but it is not necessarily the supply.

I turn to the issue of the investment of public money. Much work at our level and European level is to recognise the importance of giving greater access to vaccines and to protect our IP regime now and for the future. We talk about public money invested in bringing forward the vaccines quickly, and I have always acknowledged the massive public investment all over the world, but that was combined with massive private investment for many years before that. The vaccines used have involved a combination of new research with investment and development over many years. We want to continue that investment.

I have had debates in this House over many years on investment in research and development. A few Members believe that should all be done by public money. That does not get the best results or lead to the best development of potential medical interventions, solutions, drugs and so on. We need the blend and combination of private and public money to achieve greater impact. That is not acknowledged by some contributors here, and I accept that. We differ and believe it is important to have a right model that encourages private investment as well as public to get the best products developed for people.

Two years after a pandemic was declared, we have an inequitable system in relation to vaccines. The European Commission has led a system that has facilitated profiteering by private companies with public money and a total indemnity against any possible cause of action against them in relation to trial vaccines. Then we blamed other countries and said they had not the capacity when that was illustrated to be totally false. Now we are going down the road of a supposed compromise, which the committee, after hearing the evidence recently, has pointed out is not the way to go. Professor Aisling McMahon has been mentioned and I do not have the time to go through what she highlighted. The Minister of State should read it. I do not accept this model of profiteering on public money for the benefit of companies when the approach should be what happened in relation to AIDS and the generic production of essential vaccines.

The Minister of State is closing his eyes to the truth and resting in a comfortable ideology that the free market is delivering. What happened was $100 billion of public money was employed because the public said we needed to develop vaccines and therapeutics as quickly as possible. That benefit was privatised. Earlier, I said they are making $1,000 profit per minute. I meant $1,000 per second. That is Pfizer, Moderna and BioNTech. These companies spend more on advertising than on research. That is true of Pfizer, for example.

It is not true that there is no problem in terms of supply. It came out clearly at the committee that, particularly with mRNA vaccines, which are the best quality, there is a huge problem with supply. That is why only one in six people in Africa is fully vaccinated. The compromise is not good enough.

It covers vaccines but not therapeutics. It covers patents but not other intellectual property barriers such as trade secrets. It does not cover every country. It requires agreement on a case-by-case basis by each country, which makes it extremely cumbersome. All of it is designed to protect the profits of the corporations and that will result in more people dying.

Clearly, the position of the Ministry and the Government has been about holding the line. It has been holding the line at European level with an eye to interests there and pharmaceutical interests in Ireland. That is what it has been about. There has been fudge and the use of language to kick the ball down the road. If we wait long enough, supply will not be an issue. What we wanted from the Government was urgent action and intervention. We wanted it to show leadership and be brave in this regard. These are the brave decisions the Government claims it takes, while stating that the Opposition is not fit for the tough decisions. These are the tough decisions the Irish people want the Government to take on their behalf. The people of Ireland are generous in their spirit. They want Ireland to lead on the international stage but the Government has failed to do so. That is completely shameful.

I echo some of the remarks of my colleague. The committee met with several stakeholders. Yesterday, we agreed on a letter to be sent to the Tánaiste. Obviously, the committee comprises 15 members of all parties and none. In the letter, we ask the Tánaiste to support the TRIPS waiver. He probably has not received it yet, in fairness. I sent it to him yesterday. I ask him to read it carefully. If he so wishes, we can send him the submissions we received. Those submissions are stark. Millions of people have died as a result of the failure to implement the TRIPS waiver. It is not just about this pandemic; it is about considering future pandemics. There has been a massive investment of public moneys in research. It is not all private money that went in there. It is important that we get this right.

The Deputies have raised a few issues there. The debate has not changed much. They are very much focused on IP and the IP regime. The position of the EU has always been that that is not where the sole focus should be. The Deputies and I have differed on that for many months. I am not going to change their minds here. I am happy to consider the letter that was sent to us by the committee and to respond on it.

I have always said that a combination of public and private money is being invested in solutions in this regard. There has never been any dispute about that. The figures are there.

I am not aware of the advertising budgets of the companies mentioned by Deputy Paul Murphy. I seriously doubt that he is correct that they spend more on advertising than on research and development. If he is right, I will give way to that. I have not seen any evidence in that regard. It is something in which I would be interested.

Public and private collaboration has been contributing significantly to the development of treatments for and vaccines against Covid-19. The development of new therapeutics is based on years of research and clinical trials and, if successful, developing manufacturing capacity and distribution networks, which are not necessarily publicly funded. Intellectual property is a crucial incentive for the research and development of novel vaccines, medicines and treatments, as well as investment in production capacity. Experts agree - the Deputies have a different view, based on what they have heard from the experts to whom they have listened - that the current Covid vaccines were produced in record time as industry was able to piggy-back on years of investment in other vaccine productions which has been incentivised by, in part, a supportive intellectual property regime. That is something we want to protect not just for now, but for the future because we recognise that the best results in the development of the best products and medical solutions come from a combination of public and private money. That has to be recognised.

As regards dealing with what is happening now, to be clear in respect of our role in this with the EU, trade is an exclusive competence of the EU and, accordingly, the negotiations on TRIPS, as a trade matter, are led by the EU. We feed into that. Ireland engages with the European Commission and other EU member states on the EU position for the WTO discussions on the TRIPS waiver. The EU has not necessarily agreed with the TRIPS waiver on the grounds that intellectual property rights are not the primary obstacle to access to the supply of vaccines around the world. I am conscious that the Deputies are convinced that IP rights are the primary obstacle in that regard, based on what they have heard from the people to whom they have listened, and I accept their position, but it is not a position that is necessarily accepted by everybody else. Since last autumn, the EU has actively engaged in informal discussions with representatives of South Africa, India and the US with regard to the process.

I thank the Minister of State. We have spent a significant amount of time on this question.

In 2020, Pfizer, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline all spent more on sales and marketing than on research and development.

We have spent a large amount of time on questions on this issue this morning.

Foreign Direct Investment

Bernard Durkan

Question:

7. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the extent to which foreign direct investment continues to be a positive feature for job creation in County Kildare and throughout the country; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25396/22]

To what extent do County Kildare and the rest of the country continue to be attractive places for foreign direct investment? How is it working in light of the new regime on corporation profits tax?

Despite economic and social upheaval across the globe, Ireland has continued to attract foreign direct investment at record levels. Last year, the number of people directly employed in the multinational sector reached 275,000 - the highest level of employment from foreign direct investment ever and well over 10% of total employment in the State. In 2021, more than 29,000 new jobs were created by IDA Ireland client companies. The benefits of these new jobs, as well as the 249 new investments won, have a positive impact throughout Ireland, with employment growth recorded in every region of the country. Indeed, more than half of IDA Ireland investments occurred outside Dublin.

In the mid-east region, which includes Kildare, almost 19,000 people are employed in enterprises that are headquartered overseas. This number has steadily increased by 8% through the past five years. In 2021, there were 32 IDA client companies in Kildare, employing almost 10,000 people. Intel, Hewlett Packard and Procter & Gamble all have significant sites in the county. Last month alone, investments were announced from Nikon Europe and MGS Manufacturing that amount to 140 new jobs for Kildare. Those jobs will be based in Leixlip.

County Kildare and neighbouring counties in the mid-east region have a significant ecosystem of well-established companies in a variety of sectors, including technology, life sciences, international financial services and engineering and industrial technologies. In recent years, the area has also benefited from significant investment in the food and film industries.

As the Deputy is aware, in March, the Minister of State, Deputy English, launched the mid-east regional enterprise plan. Its objectives focus on the region's areas of strength, including agrifood, screen content creation, the equine sector, the region's acceleration to low-carbon, and ensuring the enterprise ecosystem in the region is strong. I recently received Government approval to develop a new White Paper on enterprise policy. This is about ensuring we do not take our economic strength for granted and that we ensure job creation and investment continues, including in counties such as Kildare.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. To what extent, if any, does discourse continue at international level in respect of corporation profits tax? How might that affect Ireland? Are there likely to be further changes in that area?

I thank the Deputy. I know he will acknowledge that our offering or attractiveness to foreign direct investment has always been about more than our low and stable corporation profit tax rate. It is about our talent pool, the availability of qualified staff, our track record in terms of political and economic stability, our infrastructure and our position in the eurozone. We have always been able to offer an attractive package of reasons, if one likes, to invest in Ireland. Our low and stable corporation profit tax rate is only one aspect of that. Certainly in my engagement with large companies in the US a few weeks ago, they were happy that there is now an international agreement on corporation profit tax. The main issue for them is that it should be low, but also stable rather than going up and down with economic cycles or changes of Government. They are reassured by it. The big test now is whether it will get done. It has to get through the European Union and the US Congress and that is less certain at the moment than it was previously. I remain confident it can happen, however.

To what extent is foreign direct investment being encouraged towards the regions in order to ensure a balance in the population and the workforce? That has obvious economic benefits for the working population and investment generally in the economy.

I am not sure I picked up exactly what the Deputy said there but he can be assured that we will continue to promote Kildare as a place to invest. It has enormous potential, given the assets and infrastructure there and its proximity to Dublin and Dublin Airport. We will continue to press for more investment and jobs in the county.

Questions Nos. 8 and 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Job Creation

Denis Naughten

Question:

10. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps that he is taking to support job creation in regional towns; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23489/22]

Denis Naughten

Question:

30. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps that he is taking to support job creation in locations outside cities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23490/22]

Some eight in ten businesses are now struggling to fill vacancies.

We need a suite of new and novel solutions to address this. The highest level of demand is across the banking, finance and insurance sectors. These are jobs that can be done in any part of this country. To achieve this, we need to make our regions far more attractive not just for employers, but for employees as well.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 30 together.

I believe we can achieve a record number of 2.5 million people at work in Ireland by 2024. That means full employment and a job for everyone who wants one. It also means ensuring job opportunities in all parts of Ireland in order to achieve balanced regional development.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and its agencies have a strong role to play in this agenda through direct assistance to businesses, as well as promotion and enhancement of regional locations as places for businesses to invest and create jobs. Enterprise Ireland is targeting 45,000 jobs over the next three years, while Industrial Development Authority, IDA, Ireland has made progress in boosting investment in regional locations. In 2021, of the 249 investments secured by the IDA, over half were for locations outside Dublin.

The local enterprise offices, LEOs, are at the very heart of business development and entrepreneurship in towns and communities across all regions. The LEOs have just come out of an eighth consecutive year of growth with 7,400 new jobs created by LEO clients in 2021. We will also make sure that town centre first policy, a policy that focuses on regeneration of rural towns and villages, aligns with our plans as a Department. The new regional enterprise plans to 2024 reinforce and build on the core activities of the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, the LEOs and other State bodies involved in enterprise development.

Up to €180 million is being made available over the next few years to develop and implement collaborative and innovative enterprise projects that will not just sustain, but add to employment at county, regional and national level. To create a strong pipeline of projects for future funding calls, Enterprise Ireland has also announced a new competitive priming and feasibility scheme of up to €5 million. This scheme has just closed for applications.

We want the main regional centres to develop as viable alternatives for investment, with significant funding being channelled through the Project Ireland 2040. The national broadband plan and the potential of remote working also opens up new opportunities for enterprise in rural locations.

As the Deputy is aware, in 2020, Harmac Medical Products announced a major investment in its facility at Castlerea to accelerate the manufacturing of surgical masks and non-invasive ventilation products, creating 60 new roles. I understand that all of these roles have now been filled. In 2021, an Enterprise Ireland client company, namely, Chanelle Pharma, announced plans for 60 jobs in Ballinasloe and a €5 million investment in the old Aptar facility.

As the Tánaiste knows, we discussed the idea of the hub-and-spoke strategy as set out in Project Ireland 2040 around the Cabinet table. The Government took the decision the designate Athlone as the new potential city, helping to attract IDA jobs and investment into the region and ensuring that it is now fast becoming the silicon heartlands, with a bigger percentage of the workforce employed in software development than any other town in Ireland or the UK. Towns such as Roscommon have an abundance of ready-to-move-into office space. The objective behind this strategy of creating Athlone as a hub was to use it as a hook to bring investment into the surrounding towns of Tullamore, Mullingar, Longford, Roscommon and Ballinasloe. However, that is not being achieved at the moment. What are the Department and the Tánaiste doing to achieve that?

In Project Ireland 2040 and the national spatial strategy, we took the view that we needed to make sure that the major development centres were not just the five major cities. We identified Athlone, Letterkenny with Derry, Sligo and Drogheda-Dundalk as potential growth centres. It makes enormous sense that Athlone should be one of those, given its location in the middle of the country in the midlands. We have seen major investments in Athlone in recent years. It is becoming a hub for investment and industry. The pipeline is very good for Athlone and there will be more announcements coming in the next couple of months, which will be very positive.

On the hub-and-spoke model that the Deputy described, getting jobs in Longford, Mullingar and Roscommon town and so on is a little bit more complicated, but it is what we are trying to do. There are some good examples of companies that are willing to take spaces in other towns, but they will often have their own reasons around it. Certainly, the banking and finance area has huge sensitivities about data protection and do not like the idea of people working off-site. They were favourable to it in the pandemic because it was necessary but are reluctant about it now.

We have an ideal site in Carrick-on-Shannon for that. I want to focus on this pipeline coming to Athlone, which is very positive. However, as the Tánaiste knows, we have a challenge in Athlone on both the Roscommon and the Westmeath sides in terms of available development land. Yet, 15 minutes up the road we have 50 acres of development land with water, waste water, fibre optic cable, gas and the motorway on the IDA campus and adjoining lands at St. Brigid’s Hospital in Ballinasloe. I have asked the Tánaiste before and he has agreed to look at the potential for the IDA to purchase some of those lands at St. Brigid’s and develop a new industrial park there, just west of Athlone, to exploit that pipeline that is coming into Athlone at the moment. Can I get a commitment from the Tánaiste that the IDA will secure additional lands there and will market that campus in Ballinasloe?

On the general move to the regions, I would strongly support the concept. However, not only to the major towns, but to the smaller villages as well, in order to draw the intense population away from the major centres and bring them into the rural heartland, ensuring the future growth of a rural economy and rural stability.

I thank the Deputies for their remarks. We have some very good IDA lands and a very good IDA site in Ballinasloe. The priority there would be to get it developed and get jobs into it. I do not know whether we need to expand it or not to include the old St. Brigid’s Hospital lands but I will certainly speak to the IDA about that. Decisions on property transactions are not made by the Minister for very good reasons so I cannot make a commitment on it because that is beyond my powers. However, I will certainly speak to the CEO of the IDA about it. I have been to the land in Ballinasloe and I would be confident that we would be able to secure investment there at some point in the future. There is also quite a significant land bank in Athenry as well, which I think could be useful in the future too.

If we look at towns such as Roscommon that are-----

The Deputy has exhausted his interventions.

No. There are two questions grouped together. I have four interventions on two questions.

That is not as I understand it.

The Standing Orders are quite clear.

The Standing Orders are quite clear. Where there are two questions grouped together, there are four interventions. The questions are in my name, so I have four interventions.

I am prepared to give the Deputy another minute. The Deputy has four interventions, but will he console himself with one additional minute?

I will. If we look at towns such as Roscommon, they are reliant on indigenous employers. However, the supports for employers with more than ten staff are only focused on the export sector and the issue of import substitution is ignored. This strategy needs to change post-Covid, particularly when we have seen the threats we have had to supply chains. Will the Tánaiste review that?

Second, before the end of this decade, this country will have the most geographically extensive web of pure fibre telecommunications network in the world. This will be developed all around the major provincial towns within the next 18 months. We need a new national and international strategy to attract inward investment into those provincial towns which have a unique offering.

Under the new Enterprise Ireland strategy, the traditional ten employees or fewer rule has been relaxed. Increasingly, we are supporting companies financially with loans and grants that are in that space of having more than ten employees but are not IDA or Enterprise Ireland clients. Therefore, we have moved beyond that. However, EU state aid rules apply. EU state aid rules allow micro-companies to be treated differently and that is not something we can change.

Also, it does not make sense to give state aid to a company that will only take business from another company down the road. That is why we tend to focus on those that are exporters. The issue around import substitution is that it is potentially using state aid to take business from another European company. Many of these measures are limited by EU state aid rules for good reason but, increasingly, we are supporting companies with more than ten employees.

On the opportunities that arise from the national broadband plan, Deputy Naughten is absolutely right. We are starting to see investments in towns that would not have traditionally seen investments, for example, in recent weeks, in Cashel and Mountmellick. It is encouraging to see 40, 50 or 100 jobs being created in relatively small towns. I want to see more of that. The provision of fibre in the national broadband plan will open that up in a way that would not have been the case without it.

Question No. 11 answered with Question No. 8.
Question No. 12 replied to with Written Answers.

Labour Market

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

13. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps taken by him to ensure that employers have access to an adequate pool of qualified potential employees to meet the requirements of the labour market; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25234/22]

We have an unusual problem in this country at present, and that is that there seems to be a significant labour and skills shortage. What is the Department doing to ensure that there will be an adequate pool of potential employees to meet the requirements of the labour market?

The period from early 2020 was a difficult one for many businesses. Some sectors were more severely affected by public health restrictions than others and for a more prolonged period. Throughout this time, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and its enterprise agencies engaged with businesses and put in place a range of financial assistance to help protect as many jobs and save as many businesses as possible.

The latest CSO figures for the final quarter of last year show that employment has recovered strongly. This coincided with the easing of public health restrictions and Ireland's vaccination programmes, highlighting the importance of the Government's efforts to assist workers and businesses, especially through those wage supports which helped businesses maintain a link to their staff.

I fully understand that many businesses are now struggling with additional costs, particularly the cost of energy and other inputs, linked to the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I convened a meeting of the enterprise forum to hear first-hand how the war in Ukraine is affecting businesses in Ireland and we are considering what further measures we can take to help companies.

We are very much aware of labour shortages in many sectors. We must respond through a combination of training and upskilling, education systems, further education and training, and the employment permits regime, which the Minister of State, Deputy English, spoke about earlier. However, employment permits are only part of the answer.

Some of these shortfalls in labour are due to pre-existing structural shifts, which have been accelerated by the impact of the pandemic. The digital and green transitions are altering the economy and leading to permanent changes in our labour market and business models. While not all jobs will return as we recover from the pandemic, embracing these transitions will open up substantial new employment opportunities, as well as potential skills mismatches, as these opportunities initially emerge.

The Government's economic recovery plan commits to supporting the transition of Ireland's economy and workforce to the new digital and green economies. This goal will be realised through ongoing support for people in securing and remaining in sustainable and quality employment, in areas of identified skills needs for business. This will be achieved, in particular, through the combination of 50,000 upskilling and reskilling opportunities and increased labour market activation interventions.

The first part of the reply avoided the question rather skilfully. Has the Department gone at this systematically? For example, what analysis has been done in relation to skills shortages in Ireland to quantify it and to identify what skills we are short in? In relation to those skills shortages, has an analysis been carried out as to how these might be filled by retraining and activation, by redirecting the focus of third level and apprenticeship programmes, and by having an attractive package to attract emigrants, who have fantastic skills, back to Ireland by dealing with issues such as the driver licence issue and relocation expenses? Has any analysis been carried out as to the parts of the EU where there is labour, people who might be willing to come to Ireland and might be attracted to come here, and on the number we would need to attract from countries outside of the EU to fill whatever gap is in the market because my understanding from many employers is that what making Ireland unattractive is the lack of a labour force?

A great deal of analysis has been carried out. We have an analysis unit in my Department on the labour market and future skills. There is also the future skills needs working group. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, does some work on this as well, as does the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council, which falls under my Department's remit.

As the Deputy rightly pointed out though, it is a comprehensive issue. It is not only an issue for my Department. It is an issue for the Departments of Social Protection, Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

Part of the solution is education and training. We will be up to 10,000 apprentices a year quite soon. There are approximately 8,000 this year. That is a lot. There were very few people going into apprenticeships. Only a few years ago, there were a couple of thousand. We will be up to 10,000 a year quite soon.

I mentioned the 50,000 upskilling and reskilling opportunities. On work permits and work visas, we are issuing more than ever before.

We need to do more to make work pay to make sure that it is attractive for people to go into employment and to work more hours. The Deputy will be aware what we are doing in relation to sick pay and the living wage. Deputy Naughten mentioned earlier the PRSI step effect, which we need to deal with in some budget, sooner or later.

There is also the issue of automation. It may not be possible to provide labour to do everything and we need to automate more tasks. That is already happening but it will have to accelerate.

Since I was a young lad I heard automation would do away with all the jobs, and I am not that young anymore. What it has actually done is change the jobs but not done away with them. We have more jobs in the economy than there were in the 1960s. Automation is great. It takes away many boring jobs, but it does not do away with jobs, which is good.

Is there any plan in the Department to publish a comprehensive cross-sectoral policy approach to this so that there would be a comprehensive, as the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment said, all-embracing and cross-departmental approach to labour shortages? As I said, in the final analysis, we will have to look beyond the European Union for skilled people who might be interested in coming here. Without a detailed and comprehensive plan, it seems it will not be possible to look at all of the ways of dealing with this interesting issue in the economy, but it is one that we need to deal with urgently.

I hope to reach two further questions if Deputy Durkan promises to be brief.

I will not delay the Acting Chairman.

In support of Tánaiste, I would say I was a member of this House when it was a great struggle to achieve 1 million people at work in the workforce. The next goal is 3 million. Everybody is to be congratulated on that. The important capability is to be able to identify and take action on the issue, which is a shortage of employees at present, and take it quickly.

I thank the Deputies. This is an interesting debate, and one that we should give more time to.

I echo Deputy Durkan's comments. It is only 20 years - it is not that long ago - since there were 3.5 million in the country and 1 million people at work. We now have 5.1 million or 5.2 million people in the country - a 50% increase in population in 20 years or so - and 2.3 million or 2.4 million people at work, a more than doubling of the number of people at work in Ireland. That is extraordinary. With that there are other consequences, such as a shortage of housing and significant strains on the infrastructure, but it is good that as a country our population is rising, people want to come to live here, our birth rate is still healthy and there are more people at work than ever before.

Going back to the Luddites, there were people predicting that automation would eliminate employment. That is not my view at all. We are offering work permits to a great many people to come here to work on very low wages in jobs that can be automated and we need to think about that and the logic behind it.

I take the point Deputy Ó Cuív made. We have looked at all these issues around workforce needs and demands in sections and silos and maybe we need to do something more in the round. The point the Deputy made in that regard is a good one and I will take it into consideration.

I am hoping, as I indicated, to reach two more questions. If Members could be economical in their use of time, I would appreciate it.

Enterprise Support Services

Brendan Smith

Question:

14. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if specific additional financial supports will be introduced in 2022 to assist in the development of enterprise centres in view of their importance in providing workspace for start-up businesses and small enterprises; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25361/22]

The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment will recall that we discussed recently in this House the need to accelerate the provision of enterprise centres and the development of work space. Enterprise centres have been important in the development of the rural economy.

As the Minister of State, Deputy English, knows, in my own counties of Cavan and Monaghan there have been good development enterprise centres but we need further development. We must develop a new policy, particularly with a dedicated fund to establish such enterprise centres.

I thank Deputy Smith for his question. Enterprise centres provide space and training for entrepreneurs, allowing them to work remotely, access training and network with other business leaders, helping them to scale internationally and attract small-scale foreign direct investment. There is a wide range of funding mechanisms available for these centres.

To date my Department has provided funding of €250 million, administered by Enterprise Ireland, to assist the establishment of some 270 enterprise centres throughout Ireland. In 2022, an additional €5 million will be provided to community enterprise centres through the regional enterprise innovation and scoping scheme. This scheme builds on existing regional initiatives and aims to grant-aid projects to improve the resilience and international competitiveness of enterprise in all regions. Substantial funding will also be made up to 2027 for regional enterprise projects with funding from the European Regional Development Fund and the shared island fund.

Since 2017, Enterprise Ireland has administered departmental funding to 91 projects totalling over €16 million under both the regional enterprise development fund and the community enterprise centre schemes. A further €9 million in grants was administered through Enterprise Ireland for 95 enterprise centres, many of which have been negatively affected by Covid-19, to sustain their businesses, pivot and further develop their services, as well as continuing to assist the development of start-up companies and the provision of remote working spaces. A further €12 million in funding has been sanctioned to assist the completion of projects under the regional enterprise development fund and Border enterprise development fund for schemes that have been delayed or interrupted due to increased construction or construction-related costs. This fund is being administered through Enterprise Ireland.

Nationwide, there is a broad range of other hub-type facilities, both publicly and privately funded, including community enterprise centres, incubators and accelerators. These are included by the national hub network working group in its mapping of a national network of remote working facilities. The Department of Rural and Community Development, which leads this mapping initiative, has also invested significantly in remote working infrastructure through town and village renewal, the rural development fund and the LEADER programme, for example.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. I agree that substantial funding has been provided for more than 20 years with the development enterprise centres. Taking the case of my county, we have had a good track record of the local authority developing work spaces, enterprise centres and sites for providing services. They can draw down financial assistance of grant aid towards development but the local contribution is a very hefty demand on a local authority with a low rates base. There is a need for a better funding model to ensure the local authorities can continue to put in place such infrastructure.

I am thankful there are some international companies that started in my county, literally in the backyards of houses and in small enterprises. There is a demand for working space. We all know for a new start-up business, with an operation involving one or two people, the provision of working space is a huge demand in terms of cost. The provision of working space can ensure we continue to generate and create employment in our smaller towns and more rural areas.

I accept the Deputy's point that for some local authorities, particularly those on a low rates base, it can be difficult to find the co-funding that might be available. It is perhaps something we can examine under the regional enterprise development funds. We will have over €100 million over the next couple of years from that for regional enterprise development.

Approximately €100 million has been invested in remote working hubs through the Department of Rural and Community Development, with just €9 million awarded last year through Connected Hubs. These are very good investments and I visit many of them getting around the country. I am keen to see them full and busy. They are not all full, by the way, but if they are busy we can invest in them some more.

I am thinking in particular of space for manufacturing businesses. I am thankful we have a good network hubs developed. We must think about and develop a policy on an all-Ireland basis. Last week I arranged for the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to meet representatives from Cavan and Monaghan county councils, with a presentation on the development of workspace enterprise centres and working with neighbouring local authorities north of the Border. I am thankful the development of the all-Ireland economy has been phenomenal since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 so we can drive forward the all-Ireland economy development with more collaboration between statutory agencies North and South.

An area like Cavan and Monaghan, in the central Border area, would be vulnerable in the face of economic turbulence because we are the least developed part of the Border region. We need that extra incentive. The people will get up and do the work and local entrepreneurs will create jobs but they need particular assistance to ensure the necessary infrastructure and working space is in place.

When it comes to property solutions, what has worked really well is IDA Ireland's regional property programme. It is involved with building advance factories and office blocks and we can then take investors to see them, getting investment and jobs in much more quickly. There is a programme of them across the country. The Deputy is familiar with them in Cavan and Monaghan, with advance building solutions being developed. For indigenous Irish companies we can do more in that space as well. Perhaps there could be funding under regional enterprise plans and it is the best way to go.

Broadband Infrastructure

I will be concluding the session at 10.30 a.m. but I will allow Deputy Naughten to put his question.

Denis Naughten

Question:

15. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will outline the work that his Department is undertaking to fully utilise broadband connectivity in increasing sustainable employment given that Ireland is set to become one of the most connected countries in Europe for fibre broadband; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23493/22]

By June 2020, 58% of Irish households could access broadband speeds of 1 Gbps and we will have 100% of such coverage in the coming years. There will be 146,000 km of fibre-optic cable, a web of such cable with a geographic spread like none other globally. We must exploit this investment and generate foreign direct investment jobs in every single village in Ireland.

Digital infrastructure is one of the four dimensions of the Government's national digital strategy, which I launched in February of this year. The new strategy sets out specific targets, including: 75% enterprise take-up of cloud, big data, and artificial intelligence, AI, by 2030; and 90% of small and medium enterprises at a basic level of digital intensity by 2030.

A robust broadband infrastructure will be vital in reaching these targets, enabling businesses to take advantage of digital technologies and to increase sustainable employment. The Deputy will also be aware of the national artificial intelligence strategy, which sets out how Ireland can be an international leader in using artificial intelligence, AI, to benefit our economy and society through a people-centred, ethical approach to its development, adoption and use. Last week, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, appointed Dr. Patricia Scanlon as Ireland's first AI ambassador. I know she wants to demystify artificial intelligence and promote the positive impacts it can have in areas such as health, agriculture, transport and education.

The adoption of digital technologies by all businesses, in particular SMEs, is vital to sustain Ireland’s attractiveness as a location for leading digital enterprises and maximise the benefits of the digital transition for the wider ecosystem across productivity, innovation and competitiveness. In addition to facilitating the uptake of digital technologies, broadband connectivity facilitates remote working for employees.

Our overall digital connectivity target, as outlined in the national digital strategy, is to ensure that all Irish households and businesses will be covered by a gigabit network service no later than 2028, with all populated areas covered by 5G by no later than 2030. This digital connectivity will in turn enable the Government's policy priority of regional enterprise development. We now have nine new regional enterprise plans in place, which will encourage collaboration among stakeholders to strengthen the regional offering for enterprise and therefore create an environment for successful economic development, sustainable employment and growth across the country.

We have a significant opportunity to attract foreign direct investment and staff into our provincial towns and rural areas. They are nice communities in which to live and work. That is thanks to investment through the urban and rural regeneration funds. We need to market and promote the whole package and not just a select few sites in a select few towns.

We need a unique marketing strategy for every one of our provincial towns, highlighting not just the industrial aspect but the opportunities to live, recreational opportunities and the connectivity that we have not just in our provincial towns but moving out to the rural communities. We need a very focused national and international strategy to bring in that investment.

I hear what the Deputy is saying and he has made some very valid points. I meet and engage with many multinational companies all the time. Believe you me, they know what they want and they are very clear about it. Generally it is to build their own campus. They want to be very near an international airport with major conductivity. They want to be near several universities. They want to have a workforce of 1 million or 2 million close to where they develop. It is not so much us telling them what they should want; it is them telling us what they want. We compete internationally for this investment.

It is the staff who will tell them in future and we need to attract the staff.

That is true and a very good example of this is Apple, which has a major facility on the north side of Cork but 20% of its staff work remotely from all parts of Ireland and Munster. It is a very good model. In the world we operate in, where we are competing internationally for investment, it is largely them telling us what they want. They will go elsewhere if we tell them what they should want.

Are we attracting the ones that will do that?

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